This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Kenneth Tanner about the readings for the 3rd Sunday After Pentecost [C] (2 Kings 2.1-2, 6-14, Psalm 77.1-2, 11-20, Galatians 5.1, 13-25, Luke 9.51-62). Ken is the pastor of Holy Redeemer in Rochester, Michigan. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the location of the Lord, mantle-passing, lament, the divine reality, Herbert McCabe, freedom, the fruit of the Spirit, Gilmore Girls, hellfire, and the seriousness of the Gospel. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Freedom Of The Christian
Tag Archives: Freedom
What Are You Doing Here?
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli about the readings for the 2nd Sunday After Pentecost [C] (1 Kings 19.1-15a, Psalm 42 & Psalm 43, Galatians 3.23-29, Luke 8.26-39). Jason is the lead pastor of Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including proper introductions, For All Mankind, Gary Oldman, hipsterdom, Mt. Horeb, melancholia, Mockingbird, silence, journeys, perfect prayers, Martin Luther, the tonic of grace, living among the dead, and freedom. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: What Are You Doing Here?
Our Independence Day
Sing praises to the Lord, O you his faithful ones, and give thanks to his holy name.
I was 8 years old when the movie Independence Day was released in theaters. At the time it was all anyone could talk about – the special effects, the story-telling, Will Smith saving the world. And yet, the thing I remember most about seeing the movie back in 1996 was Bill Pullman’s rallying speech as the President and his now infamous line: “Today we celebrate our Independence Day!”
I know for a fact that I, along with every young person in the theater, lifted my fist into the air in patriotic solidarity.
In a few days, Americans across the country will bring out all the red, white, and blue that we can muster and we will fill the sky with fireworks. We will be celebrating our declared independence from the monarch of Britain which inevitably led to the Revolutionary War and the foundation of the United States of America.
The 4th of July is always a spectacle to behold because it encapsulates so much of what America stands for: freedom, fireworks, and food!
And behind all of the three-color-coded outfits, the backyard barbecues, and the displays of pyrotechnical achievements, the 4th is all about strength. It’s all about displaying and rejoicing in our strength in the realms of economy, military, and even freedom itself.
However, on the 4th of July, while many of us will be out in the community celebrating America’s independence, it is important for Christians to remember that our truest independence came long before George Washington and the Continental Congress and the Declaration of Independence.
Out truest freedom comes from Jesus.
Can we get all dressed up in red, white, and blue this week? Of course – though we should remember and recognize that there is a slippery slope between patriotism and nationalism that often results in xenophobia and violence.
Can we support our military? Or course – though we cannot forget or ignore how America is an imperial power that often uses violence indiscriminately and disproportionately through the world.
Can we kick back and enjoy the fireworks? Or course – though we cannot let them blind us to the injustices that our taking place within, and right on, our borders.
The 4th of July is not the independence day for Christians. It certainly marks the beginning of a new kind of freedom for a nationstate, but the real independence day for Christians took places 2,000 years ago on the cross.
The 4th of July, therefore, does not really belong to Christians. We can participate and enjoy the day as much as everyone else but we do so know that our hopes and dreams have been formed by the Lord, not by a document declaring our freedom from monarchy.
What we experience across the country as we mark a new year in the life of the nation is fun and full of power, but it will never ever compare to the grace of Jesus Christ made manifest in the bread and wine of communion and in the water of baptism.
Americans might bleed red, white, and blue, but Jesus bled for us so that we wouldn’t have to.
The 4th of July is not our independence day. In fact, if it is anything, it is our dependence day. It is our dependence day because it shows how much faith and hope we put in things made by human hands which, to use the psalmist words, can come and go like the wind.
We can absolutely enjoy the 4th of July and rejoice in our celebrations, but if what we do this week is more compelling and life-giving that the Word of God revealed in Jesus Christ then we have a problem.
In Jesus Christ we discover the end of all sacrifices, particularly those demanded by countries of their citizens.
In Jesus Christ we meet the one in whom we live and move such that we can rejoice in the presence of the other without hatred, fear, or even bitterness.
In Jesus Christ we find the incarnate Lord whose resurrection from the dead brought forth a light into this world that outshines all fireworks.
Freed For Slavery
For freedom Christ has set us free.
“No one in the church is going to tell me who I’m allowed to love.”
I heard the off-hand comment from a stranger in the convention center during the recent Virginia Annual Conference of the UMC. I only needed to take a look at his shirt, covered in rainbows, to get an idea of what he meant with his words. There were a lot of people like him this year, walking around making their thoughts/opinions/theologies known with clothing, words, and with particular votes.
A friend of mine described it as the “height of tribalism” in the UMC in which we are all constantly trying to make sure everyone else knows how we feel about everything.
Or, to put it another way, we want everyone to know whose side we are on.
It was also during the recent Annual Conference that I happened upon what appeared to be the end of a fight. Two women, of similar ages, were vehemently arguing with one another in the middle of a hallway with lots of finger pointing and eye-rolling. I started walking toward them preparing myself to separate them or, at the very least, try to mediate but then one of the women said to the other. “You’re free to have your opinion, but so am I, and you’re wrong.” And with that she promptly turned around and walked away.
“For freedom Christ has set us free,” says St. Paul. And we love our freedom. We love being able to say, do, and believe just about whatever we want without anyone interfering. We spend a lot of time talking about freedom whether its in the cultural ethos, Sunday worship, or in national holidays.
Freedom is who we are.
And yet, freedom implies that we have been freed from something and for something.
In the US we talk about being freed from tyranny, or being freed from oppressive rules about religious observance or non-observance. And all of that is true. But that’s not necessarily the same kind of freedom that’s at the heart of the gospel.
Paul says, “For freedom Christ has set us free.” And in the next verse he continues his thought in a way that most of us would rather ignore: “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.”
In the church today, we are so often obsessed with freedom that we forget that we’ve been freed from sin and death in order that we might become slaves to one another. And, at times, we are onboard with this theological project so long as we can be slaves to the people we like, or the people we agree with, and the people who look like us.
But what about the other people?
What about the people whose shirts, and bumper stickers, and votes go against our own?
Can we walk away from them or are we chained to them through the love of Christ?
The Not Top 10
Then God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven alone, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work – you, your son of your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it. Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
Lent is a season of repentance and introspection. However, that doesn’t mean the liturgical season encourages navel-gazing – in fact it compels us to look at our lives individually and corporately. Lent almost forces us to ask, “How have I failed, and how have we failed?”
It is not an easy season in the life of the church.
In preparing for this Lent I was struck by the theme of covenants – both biblical and otherwise, and what they have to do with our faithfulness. Almost everyone here is familiar with what a covenant is, we’ve borrowed money, or rented an apartment, or purchased a car, all under the auspices of a contract. They exist because of a fundamental distrust that we have for one another and institutions, we use them to protect ourselves should the other not hold up their end of the bargain.
Yet the truest and deepest relationships are those built on trust – when we lovingly yield ourselves to the other with vulnerability and fragility. And that is precisely what God has offered us in the covenant – the vulnerability required for true trust.
Confession time: I am prejudiced against Sunday School.
I can’t help it really – while growing up in the church, I had far more love for what we did in a room like this, than what happened in the Sunday School rooms. Participating in Sunday School required waking up earlier than usual, it forced us to rush through the typical morning rhythm, and then we’d be deposited in classrooms in which there were old smelly couches, fading biblical posters, and an assortment of discarded bibles.
Bless the teachers’ hearts: they tried to teach us about the bible… but it never really stuck. I can remember a lesson about David and Goliath, but all we talked about was how buff David looked in the pictures and we wondered aloud how long it would take us to look similarly.
I can remember learning about Abraham and the sacrifice of Isaac, and even though I now know that God provided a ram instead, at the time I was terrified of God and didn’t want to go back to church for a few weeks.
I can even remember learning about Jesus and Mary Magdalene, but the story fell a little flat when our teacher kept referring to her as a “lady of the night” which made Mary sound more like a vampire than whatever a lady of the night is.
Beyond the lack of theological depth, the thing that really drove me crazy about Sunday School was the fact that it felt way too much like regular school. We had a teacher, who took our attendance, assigned us particular seats, gave out homework, and even presided over pop-quizzes. And I understand that theological education is important, I went to seminary after all, but the way it was done for me resulted in my studying not to hear what God had to say, but for the promise of receiving a piece of candy if, for instance, I could find the book of Isaiah before anyone else in the room.
I could fill this entire sermon with Sunday School anecdotes, but the one event I remember most vividly was the day we were quizzed on the Ten Commandments. I knew they were a thing, I was pretty sure we had an embroidered version of them hung on the wall outside the sanctuary, but I had no idea what they were.
I sat there at the table with my blank piece of paper and I stared off into the distance for a long time. What does God command us to do? I probably wrote something about loving God, and loving neighbor. I might’ve even suggested that we’re supposed give our money to God. But when the time of our quiz came to an end I turned in my poor excuse of a quiz, and I failed.
There would be no piece of candy for tween-age Taylor that day.
Do you know all of the Ten Commandments, in order? If I gave each of you a piece of paper for a quiz, would you receive your piece of candy? How many of us have memorized God’s top 10?
When I was living in Durham, NC there was a period of time when people started placing the Ten Commandments on lawn-signs in their front yards for everyone else to see. I’d be riding my bike to class, and house after house, rather than wanting me to know who they would be voting for in the next election, wanted me to know that I’m not supposed to break the Sabbath, or worship any other god, or kill anyone.
It was around that same time, as it comes up again and again, that a sizable portion of the population began advocating for the appearance of the Ten Commandments in public buildings, like schoolhouses and local courthouses.
And I couldn’t help but think that God was using the surging publicity of the Ten Commandments to make up for my failure in Sunday School.
Somehow or another, God was going to drill these commandments into my brain!
But then I began wondering, was this God’s work, or was it ours?
Or, to put it another way: Were the commandments being used to provide freedom, or as a weapon?
Then God spoke all these words… Through a covenant, a promise to be our God, God delivers us, sustains us, heals us, and watches over us. God only asks that we follow ten simple rules. And we can’t do it.
Every single one of us in this room has broken a commandment (some of us more than others!) And yet, our failure to hold up our end of the agreement does not affect God’s commitment. It is in knowing that we fail, God loves us.
God is the one who establishes the covenant with us, not the other way around. No response, no bargaining on our part, was required. God binds God’s self to us knowing full and well how we will respond.
And the way we talk about the commandments, the way we quiz children, or place them in our yards, or desire them in our courthouses, makes a mockery of the gift that they are.
We make them more about us, than about God.
The Ten Commandments express the purposeful will of God for God’s people. In our limited imaginations we’ve made them out to be a list of what we can and cannot do. We’ve used them like a bludgeon against those who do not follow them.
But at the heart of the commandments, at the heart of God’s covenant with us, is the freedom to love God and one another.
Of course, there is a freedom to ignore the covenants, something we do all the time. All those signs in people’s yards, they were all facing away from those who lived in the houses. It was as if they wanted others to follow what they themselves had forgotten. Quizzing children on what the commandments say is a far stretch from helping them to be implemented. Displaying them in courthouses will not make people follow them any more than a speed limit sign will on a highway.
It’s incredibly ironic that many people want the Ten Commandments up in public in a country where divorce is over 50% (you shall not commit adultery), where we have more guns than human beings (you shall not kill), where capitalism is more important than community (honor the Sabbath), and where we spend more time worshipping celebrities than Almighty God (you shall have no other gods before me).
Public displays of religious affection in the form of the Ten Commandments will not change or transform this world.
But binding ourselves to them, holding each other accountable to these strange and life-giving realities, is the seed that results in a new garden of life. If we ignore them, we do so at our own peril, not because God is waiting with a whip to punish us, but because the teachings establish a way of being.
Living outside the commandments results in a life of isolation, individiualism, and apathy.
But living in the commandments, writing them on our hearts rather than our walls, is the beginning of a trust that transforms everything else.
We might say, “What’s the harm in a little coveting?” Our entire advertising economy is based on the principles of jealousy and envy after all. Or we might wonder about what’s so wrong with working extra hours on a Saturday morning… Our entire culture produces a narrative in which over production is an expectation.
It is in the prohibition of such things that God challenges our understanding of reality. We can give our lives over to our own commandments, but our lives will be a shallow shadow of what they could be. Living in the Ten Commandments sets us forth on a path that allows us to fully love God and one another. It is the way we become who God is calling us to be.
The Ten Commandments are God’s Top 10 rules for faithful living and, sadly, they have become a Not Top 10 list for us.
We regularly worship other gods, like the god of wealth or political power. We build up false idols in material objects. We do things in the name of the Lord that harm and destroy others. We break the commitment to rest. We reject and rebel against our parents. We live in a world fueled by war and violence. We are captivated by a highly sexualized culture that tempts us toward adultery. We steal from those without power. We lie constantly. And we believe the commercials that tell us life will be better if we just had what the person on the screen has.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can rediscover this Not Top 10 list for the freedom that it provides. We can bind ourselves to it, and in so doing the shackles of death will fall away. We can remember that its not a list to be memorized, or a weapon to be used, but a way of life that leads to life.
We can love God with our whole hearts, we can trust in our allegiance to the Lord, we can ask to be used by God rather than the other way around, we can find true rest, we can love our parents both biological and spiritual, we can see all people as having sacred worth, we can live into the promises we make in marriage, we can give to those in need, we can tell the truth in love, we can believe that we already have enough.
We can do all of this but God makes the impossible possible. God fills us and fuels us for lives bent not toward ourselves, but toward others. God sustains us when we are down in the valley, and uses the Spirit to push us back toward the mountaintop.
Displaying the Ten Commandments for other people to see will never bring us closer to God, but striving to live according to the them results in a profound freedom unlike anything else. Amen.
Devotional – 1 Peter 4.13
1 Peter 4.13
But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed.
“Who are you?” That is without a doubt one of my favorite questions to ask, because the way someone responds to that simple question says a lot about how the individual understands who he/she is. If I asked you the question right now, how would you respond? Recently, I’ve discovered that when I ask the question, the first response is almost always “I’m an American.”
This is, of course, true for many people in the context I serve, and it speaks volumes about priorities and identities. If someone’s immediate response was “I’m a mother” or “I’m a father” we could assume that they understand their parental role as their most important and therefore the identity they identify with most. Similarly, if someone’s response was “I’m a Republican” or “I’m a Democrat” we could assume their political identity is their most important identity.
And answering with “I’m an American” can be a good and right thing, but if that is our first thought or response, it often shapes our understanding of Christianity rather than the other way around.
Over the last few months I’ve heard a lot of people talk about their fears regarding change in the cultural ethos and most of it has to do with feeling safe. For instance, “We need to have that wall on the southern border to keep us safe” or, “We should’ve elected Clinton because she would’ve kept us safe.” But as Christians, being consumed by a desire to remain safe is strange and almost unintelligible; we worship a crucified God!
Peter calls the church to “rejoice insofar as you are sharing in Christ’s sufferings.” In America, as Americans, we fell so safe in our Christian identities that we assume being a Christian and being an American are synonymous. Therefore we are more captivated by a national narrative (Freedom, Capitalism, Democracy) than by the Christian narrative (Suffering, Patience, Penitence). But to call ourselves disciples implies an acknowledgement that, if we want to take up our crosses and follow Jesus, we might find ourselves on top of a hill with a criminal on our left and on our right.
Taking our faith seriously is a difficult thing to do when it appears normative in the surrounding culture. Instead we fall captive to the other narratives that we believe dictate our lives. But the truth is that God is the author of our salvation, that the Holy Spirit determines our lives far more than any country, and that Jesus is our Lord.
Everything Happens For A Reason
I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.
Since Thanksgiving, I have been at a lot of tables with a lot of people and talked about a lot of things. That’s what the holidays are often about, and frankly what we remember the most; we might forget the first present we opened, or who was the first person to arrive, but we can almost always recall those table side discussions.
A lot of things happened in 2016 that warranted conversation at those particular tables. The deaths of celebrities, cultural icons, and transformative leaders; the rise in popularity of strange things like Pokemon Go, the Netflix hit Stranger Things, and Bruno Mars’ 24K Magic; the never-ending saga of suffering in Syria, the increase in terrorist related events throughout the world, and the ever thinning ice like situation in the middle east; the incredible Rogue One, the magical Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, and vibrant color palette of Trolls.
But do you know what was talked about more than anything else?
Politics. Politics. Politics.
And then when you throw a pastor into the fray at the tables, you start mixing together the real forbidden topics of conversations.
So I have learned, over the years, to keep my mouth shut. Whether I agree with a political policy or not, I nod my head along with the speaker regardless of their position and then reign myself to sit in silence.
In the last few months I have been at tables where people bashed the political rhetoric of the Republican Party, I listened to people re-imagine a new Democratic platform with notes hastily written on cocktail napkins, I watched people force index fingers at others while berating the likes of Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin, I’ve heard people place bets over how long it will take Donald Trump to build a fence at the border with Mexico, and I’ve seen people cry with tears of pain, and people cry with tears of joy, while talking about the political future of the United States of America.
But I heard something the other day that I can’t get out of my head, one theologically politicized statement that has rattled through my brain ever since.
It went like this:
“Did you hear what Franklin Graham said?”
“You mean the son of Billy Graham?”
“No, what did he say?”
“He said that it wasn’t the Russians who intervened in the presidential election, it was God.”
Now, before we really get into this, I want to be clear. Donald Trump is going to be the president of the United States. That’s a fact. Even though we now live in the so-called time of “post-truth,” the truth is that Donald Trump will be president.
But how Donald Trump became the president elect is something we should talk about. Particularly when one of the leading Christian evangelists in this country can say something like “God made Donald Trump president.”
Everything happens for a reason. This is true, of course, in the sense that actions have consequences. If I step down from this pulpit and walk to the back and flip the switch in the breaker box, all of the lights in the sanctuary will turn off. If plants do not receive enough moisture and sunlight they will not grow. If I give my wife a mop for Christmas, I’m going to get in trouble.
In our scripture from Deuteronomy, Moses offers the Israelites a similar reflection: if you choose life and love the Lord you may live in the land the Lord promised. Actions have consequences. However, the problem with “everything happens for a reason” is that we almost always imply that God is the reason that everything happens.
So, to take the recent election as our example, if it was God who intervened to make sure that Donald Trump became president, why wasn’t the victory more lopsided? Or, does it mean that everyone who voted for Clinton is a sinner for doing so because they went against God’s will? Did God choose not to “show up” for the Obama elections in 2008 or 2012? If everything happens for a reason, then why did God choose to have Donald Trump elected as president while all sorts of other things (like the situation in Syria, Police shootings, etc.) are still happening?
And this logic can also be applied to a number of things: If everything happens for a reason, then why did one of my best friends die in a car accident when she was a teenager? What is the reason for men who beat their wives, or women who abuse their children, or children who assault their parents?
When we throw out a trite and cliché sentence like “everything happens for a reason” it removes all responsibility from us and puts it all on God. And yet, we do believe that God is in control, that God is the author of our salvation, and that God continues to move and act in this world of ours.
This is fundamentally at the heart of the strange mystery of what it means to be a disciple. On one side we affirm that God rules, and on the other side we affirm that God has given us perfect freedom to live and act in this place that God rules.
God has given us the freedom to make choices, for better or worse. From the Garden of Eden to the sanctuary of St. John’s on this first day of 2017 we are free. When we do something right or wrong, we can’t blame it on God. It is our freedom to choose who we are to be, that allows this world to be as strangely beautiful as it is, but it makes it strangely broken and flawed as well.
We are not marionettes being strung along by a divine puppeteer. God gives each of us, his creatures, a brain, a heart, a soul, to make choices and act in this world. We use things like prayer and the reading of scripture to help us determine how our choices can coincide with God’s will, but the choices are fundamentally ours to make.
All of us know that terrible things happen that cannot be explained. They are a part of life. But we also know that those terrible things do not have the final word. We know that God is working through us, helping us to see and to know who we are to be in order to transform this world into his kingdom. And we know that God is the one who has the final Word, thats what Jesus’s birth and resurrection changed. God came into the world in order to free us from the last vestige that had a hold on us, death. God broke the chains of death’s dark shadow in order to guide us into the light of resurrection. We know that even though terrible things happen, and will continue to happen, God’s love in Jesus Christ is the final Word.
Living in this tension of God’s perfect sovereignty and our perfect freedom is one of the things that makes being a Christian so challenging. For when we encounter those terrible things that happen in the world we often vacillate between “everything happens for a reason” or “life is meaningless.” Whereas Christians, people like us, are called to live somewhere in the middle.
In the early hours of April 15th 1912, more than a hundred years ago, the infamous ship named the Titanic sank in the Northern Atlantic Ocean. 1,500 people were lost at sea when the ship ran into an iceberg and it is still one of the worst maritime disasters to have ever happened.
Much like other events that grab the attention of the world, many pastors felt called to speak about the disaster the following Sunday in order to make sense of the tragedy. In a small sleepy Swiss village was a young pastor named Karl Barth who regularly bored his congregation with long theologically dense sermons, but the Sunday after the sinking of the Titanic called for something a little more meaningful.
He used the beginning part of the sermon to outline the power of the almighty from creating the cosmos to bringing life to all creatures. He referenced heavily from the book of Genesis and went on and on. But at the end he said something that grabbed their attention.
It went like this: God most certainly put the iceberg in the water, but God did not make the captain feel pressured to beat the record time across the Atlantic and thereby neglect to pass slowly and safely through a region filled with large icebergs.
Barth’s simple reflection is by no means perfect, but it points toward a better way of thinking about, “Everything happens for a reason.” Sometimes there are reasons things happen, people feel tempted to go faster than they should and it means they run through red lights, they neglect to check their blind spots, or they run into icebergs. Sometimes people feel disaffected and forgotten by their government and they come out in droves and subvert the majority of polls and elect a political outsider to the most powerful position in our earthly world.
But that doesn’t mean that God made a car accident happen, or that God willed the sinking of the Titanic, or that God had a reason for making Donald Trump the next president of the United States.
And sometimes things happen for no reason at all. Fathers in perfect health and in the prime of their lives die of sudden heart attacks. Natural disasters like tsunamis and hurricanes come out of nowhere and devastate entire communities. Marriages fall apart for no particular reason other than the build up of tiny disagreements that never get settled.
And still there is hope. There is hope because God can work through people like you and me to bring about the kingdom on earth. God still speaks through the ancient scriptures to remind us of the importance of ministering to the last, the least, and the lost. God places opportunities in our lives that we can choose to respond to, and in so doing, we can become the reason good things happen.
God has set before us life and death, blessings and curses. We have the choice to choose life so that our families and friends may live to love the Lord and obey what he has taught. If we choose the good we may all live in the peace that God promised to God’s people from Abraham, to Isaac, to Jacob, to David, to Isaiah, to Jesus, to Peter, to Paul.
So it is good and right for us to start this New Year in this place, where God makes all things new. At this table we receive the spiritual food necessary for the journey of life. We break bread knowing that strange things are afoot in this world, but that God moves in and through people like us to shine as a light in the darkness. We surround the cup together knowing that Jesus’ sacrifice opens up the glory of the resurrection and gives us the strength to do incredible things here and now.
Not everything happens for a reason. But sometimes God calls us to be the reason something good happens to someone else. Amen.
God, Stanley Hauerwas, and the Fourth of July
Today our nation celebrates the Fourth of July. Untold sums of people will adorn themselves in red, white, and blue to celebrate the freedoms we hold so dear. It is one of those rare days that entire communities, though regularly separated over things like race and socioeconomic status, will join together to remember how our country got started.
As a Christian, and particularly as a pastor, I often wonder about the celebration of the Fourth of July and what it says about the church. Stanley Hauerwas, the Christian ethicist, has wrestled with it as well. This is what he has to say about this holiday in his sermon titled, “God and the Fourth of July” from his book Disrupting Time: Sermons, Prayers, and Sundries.
“For Christians, the Fourth of July is not our day. It is not “not our day” because Christians must oppose nationalism, though we should. It is not “not our day” because America is an imperial power whose use of the military is increasingly indiscriminate and disproportionate, though as Christians committed to peace that is a development we must oppose. The fourth is not a problem for us because of what we are against; it is a problem because our desires have been formed by our Lord. We are simply so consumed by the consummation of Christ with his bride, the church, that we find celebrations like the Fourth of July distracting.
“But, the bands and the fireworks are so undeniably entertaining. I am not suggesting we should avoid such entertainment. No, I will not tell you that. However, I will point out that if such entertainment seems more compelling that the celebration of this meal we are about to share together then we have a problem. For in this Eucharist God gives to us the very body and blood of his Son so that our desires will become part of God’s desire of his world. This is the end of all sacrifice, particularly the sacrifices made in the name of nations, so that we can rest in the presence of one another without fear, envy, and violence. In this meal, the beauty of our Lord blazes across the sky, rendering pale all other celebrations. So, come and taste the goodness and the beauty of our God, and, in so consuming, may we be a people who may even be able to enjoy the Fourth without being consumed by it.” – Stanley Hauerwas
As Christians, what are we celebrating when we celebrate our freedom? Is it our freedom from the monarchic rule of England almost 250 years ago? Or are we be celebrating our freedom from the destructive powers of sin? Are we celebrating our freedom to drink beer, have a BBQ, and blow stuff up? Or are we celebrating our freedom from the shadow of death?
God’s Top 10 – Sermon on Exodus 20.1-17
Then God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or what is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six says shall you labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work – you, your son or your daughter, your male of female slave, your livestock, or the alien residents in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath and consecrated it. Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
As a kid, I always preferred worship to Sunday School. Sunday School meant we had to wake up earlier in order to make it on time, it rushed us as a family to get things ready, and the classrooms were filled with all of those strangely adult renditions of biblical stories. The lesson might’ve been on David fighting Goliath, but all I could ever remember was how buff and old David appeared in the pictures rather than the young and innocent version from the story. The lesson might have been focused on the importance of sacrifice, but the imagery of Abraham preparing to kill his son left most of us utterly terrified of God, rather than ready to give our lives to him. The lesson might have been about Jesus and Mary Magdalene, but the story fell a little flat when our teacher kept calling Mary a “lady of the night” which made her sound more like a vampire than a prostitute.
On the other side, worship was awesome. I loved sitting near the front and watching all sorts of different people come together for this one thing. It amazed me that old men and women would take the time to talk to me and ask me questions about my life. Oh the joy that I remember experiencing when I was invited to the front for the children’s message; we were the special ones, all the adults had to sit in their pews but we, the kids, got to go all the way to the front and get closer to God.
My adolescent faith and love for church was like a roller-coaster. I looked forward to the hymns, the bread and cup, the communal act of praying together, but I dreaded the Sunday School classroom, the 25 year old cut-out flannel-graphs, and the seemingly endless amount of Old Testament arts and crafts.
But, if I’m honest, the thing that really drove me crazy about Sunday School was the fact that it felt way too much like regular school. We had a teacher who took attendance, put us in assigned seats, gave out homework, and even proctored pop-quizzes. Now, don’t get me wrong, there is an importance to the education that comes in Sunday School, but the way that it was done for me resulted in my desire to read the bible not for its knowledge, but for the promise of receiving a piece of candy if, for instance, I was the first person who could turn to the book of Isaiah.
I could go on and on about the things I experienced in those Sunday School classrooms, but the one that stands out the most was the day we were quizzed on the 10 Commandments. At the time I knew they were a thing, but I certainly had no idea what they were. Up to that point in my life I could not remember ever hearing them preached about in church, I had no idea where they were in the bible, but I knew you could find them in framed cross-stitch patterns at older people’s homes.
My sheet of paper remained blank for a long time. However, the teacher took pity on me and tried to help encourage some answers: “What are the ten things God wants us to do?” My mind raced through different sermons and scriptures; I tried to remember what the pastor always said about God… I think God wants us to love Him, I’m pretty sure we are supposed to do unto others as we would have them do unto us… What else? God calls us to lift up our crosses. Oh, and God wants us to give Him our money!
I don’t remember what I eventually wrote down for the quiz, but I do remember that I failed, and I did not receive a piece of candy.
Can you recite the Ten Commandments from memory? What do you imagine when you hear about the Ten Commandments? Do you think about how the law was established to protect and bind us together? Or do you just picture Charlton Heston from the movie version of the Ten Commandments?
Sadly, in our modern world we are more likely to hear about the Ten Commandments as they relate to controversies surrounding public displays than how they were written to help shape, guide, and mold our lives. Even as a child I was implicitly taught that it was more important to memorize God’s Top 10, than it was to understand them, and live accordingly.
The beginning of the commandments sets up an individual address, but the concern is not just about our private lives and welfare. The focus and thrust of the list is on protecting the health of the community in which the individual plays a pivotal role.
God graciously provided these guidelines as a way to open up our lives rather than limit them. It might not appear that way at first, but upon closer inspection they describe the outer limits of conduct rather than focusing on countless specific behaviors for every situation. At the foundation of the Ten Commandments is God’s desire for us to be protected from behaviors that have the potential to destroy.
In addition, the Ten Commandments are not a once-and-for-all declaration about the limitations of the Law. Throughout the history of Israel and the New Testament, faithful people struggled with these guidelines and amended them to be as fruitful as possible. This gives the people of God, in every age, the right and warrant to expand upon the laws.
If we can begin to see and imagine the commands as opportunities for fruitful living and malleable for our time, then they will no longer remain the stagnant list from our Sunday School memories.
I am the Lord your God, and you shall have other gods before me. You shall not create idols, nor shall your worship them
In our lives there are countless other gods fighting for our allegiances. From political parties to celebrities to businesses, it is next to impossible to be in the world without outside influences calling for us to worship them. When we find ourselves bowing to the powers in life, we neglect to honor the first two commandments. Honoring them encourages us to keep perspective about who is really in charge and the kinds of things that should be important in our lives. If we continue to worship what the media tells us, we will forget our call to love our enemies. If we spend more time catching up on all our favorite television programs, we will no longer catch up on what God is doing in our lives.
You shall not take the Lord’s name in vain
This is less about using curse words than it is about not claiming that we are doing something in the “name of the Lord” when we are really doing it in the name of ourselves. Perhaps some of us give time to serve the poor and homeless in Staunton, but if we do it to feel good about ourselves than we are taking the Lord’s name in vain. This command pushes us to commend and praise God for all the blessing of our lives, particularly when we can bless others.
Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy
Honoring the sabbath allows us to be our fullest. God rested on the sabbath, and we need rest in our lives. If we spend our days rushing through the familiar patterns of life, if we work without rest, then we will no longer be living. Or, as Ferris Bueller puts it, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” Enjoying life and resting was not some external thing handed down for us to abide by, but a way in which we can be the truest form that God hopes for.
Honor your mother and father
Having parents is a gift. More and more children grow up without the vitally important guidance of parents and have to learn to live according to the tests and trials that are thrown at them. Our parents, whether biological or situational, made the choice to love us in spite of us. They gave and provided when we could not do so for ourselves. Loving our parents encourages us to be people of gratitude, instead of imagining that we are the source of all good things in our lives.
You shall not murder
Instead we should protect the innocence of life. We are called to value every single life whether belonging to someone famous, or someone nearly invisible in Staunton living on the streets. Every life has value, and God wants us to cherish the beauty in all people.
You shall not commit adultery
Instead we should love and embrace our commitments. When we covenant to be in relationship with those whom we love, we are asking for God (and others) to hold us accountable to that promise. Fighting against the temptations of adultery results in us valuing the needs and wants of the other, more than ourselves.
You shall not steal
No one should have to steal to live in our world. Instead of stealing we are called to give with glad and generous hearts. Whether through the offering in church, or to any charitable organizations, when we give we help to prevent the need for people to steal to survive. God will provide, it just might not be the way we are anticipating.
You shall not bear false witness
Instead we should speak well of our brothers and sisters. Gossip and deception only serve to destroy our community. Just imagine how we might start loving and treating and trusting each other if we believed that no one would speak falsely about anyone else. Think about how beautiful a town and a church such as ours could be if people took this commandment seriously and worked hard for it to become manifest. When we begin to speak well of others at all times, we start seeing the world through God’s perspective and not just our own.
You shall not covet
Instead we should be grateful. It is too easy to look around at all the sources of blessings in other people’s lives and begin desiring to take them for ourselves. How quickly do we begin to resent our coworkers when they are given a raise, how quickly do we begin to ignore our classmates when they receive a better grade, how quickly do we avoid our fellow church folk when everything starts going well in their lives as ours fall apart? God has given all of us gifts, large and small, seen and unseen, they are there we only need a change in perspective to realize them in our midst. God will provide in ways that are miraculous and beautiful. We need not covet what our neighbors have when we remember that God has chosen to be with all of us.
The Ten Commandments are a gift, they open up life for us rather than restrict, they call us to do more rather than simply obey, and they help to build and foster our community rather than destroy it. God’s Top 10 are part of the basics of faith, from them we learn how to grow as disciples and serve others. If we can move them from a memorized list to a practiced way of life, everything will begin to change for the better.
C.O.G. – Sermon on Galatians 4.4-7
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.
The sermon title this morning is C.O.G. which, if you are unfamiliar with the acronym, stands for Child of God. Made popular by the evangelical movement, COG is an identification with those who are part of a Christian community. For me, the use of child of God, happens whenever I baptize an infant or an adult. After going through the entire liturgy, blessing the water, and baptizing in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit I always announce that they are a child of God. There is just something incredible about receiving a new identity and a family through baptism that orients one’s priorities toward the divine and the new family that is the church.
Other than baptisms, I use Child of God when referring to our little preschoolers that gather here during the week. It has been strange recently, since they are on Christmas break, the hallways and building have been significantly quieter, and I have gotten a lot more work done! Nevertheless the COGs in our Preschool are one of the most important elements of our church and I believe in sanctioning my time in such a way that I can be with them and communicate the gospel in as many ways as possible.
This has taken place from being present at the basement doors every morning to welcome the children and families, to inviting them for regular church functions. But the way that the gospel is best communicated is during our weekly chapel time here in the sanctuary. While many of you are at work or home, studying in school or day-dreaming about the future, all of our COGs make their way to the choir loft and they sit in eager anticipation of a new story. We began in Genesis and have made our way to the time of David, we have made Chicken Noodle Soup, and gone through obstacle courses, we have drawn our own technicolor dream coats, and we have pretended to be our favorite animals on Noah’s Ark.
The most profound Chapel Time experience, for me, took place when we prepared to wrestle with God. The kids lined up in the center aisle and did push ups and sit-ups in order to gain some strength, and then one by one I wrestled each of them by the altar in the same way that Jacob wrestled with an angel on the banks of the Jabbok river. Each of them came forward, we would go back in forth, I would let them think they would beat me, and then I would pick them up over my head and spin them around as they giggled and screamed. When our last four year old, Jack, made his way forward I began to bring the lesson home…
I got down on my knees and we grabbed hold of one another and I said to the kids: “This is what God is like. We can wrestle with the things that happen in the world, we can question and be angry and upset, and no matter how confused or frustrated we become God will never let us go. That’s how much God loves us. He can put up with all of our tantrums and yelling, He is patient with us when we no longer have patience. God loves us no matter what.”
The kids were silent and listening attentively. I don’t remember anything else I said, even though I went on for awhile, because I was distracted by something else. While I was holding Jack in my arms, I could feel his heartbeat through my hand. This precious and vulnerable little child, who I was wrestling with, was gripping me so tightly that I could feel his little heart beat. In an instant the lesson I was trying to communicate took a different form for me as I realized how fragile this child was in my arms and the kind of ways that we strive to take care of other children. In a fraction of a second I felt afraid of letting him go, out of fear of what could happen to him. Though not even a father, I felt responsible for him, and was terrified of what might happen if I let him go.
When the fullness of time came, God sent his Son in order to redeem us so that we might receive adoption as children. The world was a strange place when Jesus was born in Bethlehem; indeed the fullness of time had come. Between the Old and New Testaments a lot had taken place and changed. For a while the Jewish people flourished as their culture continued to grow and spread until Antiochus Epiphanes brought about a horrific wave of persecution. The Jews were hated and tortured for their faith and were driven to armed rebellion.
People, for the first time, were traveling beyond the cities and towns of their birth to see greater parts of the world.
During the time of Christ’s birth, the world was full of change and excitement. Add to that the Roman network of international highways over which the first Christian missionaries traveled, and the Greek language that united many different people under one tongue.
For Paul, writing the letter to the Galatians, the timing of Jesus’ birth was remarkably important. We too celebrate this event in such a way as to date everything that happened BC (Before Christ) or after his birth AD (Anno Domini) “in the year of our Lord.” (Now known as BCE “Before Common Era” and CE “Common Era”)
This was the specific and the right time for God’s new intervention in the world. Long anticipated through the Old Testament, the time of the Lord’s favor had begun.
Born into the rude stable that so many of us display on our coffee tables and mantles, God’s Word became incarnate in a baby born to a virgin. By becoming like us, by taking on our flesh to be just like us, God adopted us into his heavenly family so that we might become heirs and children of God.
Paul is then writing and pleading for the very thing that makes Christianity unique; the change that Christ can make in someone’s life so that they can possess and exercise total freedom.
Being Christian is all about freedom. God came into the world to free us from sin, and to free us for a new life.
However, this incredible gift cannot be brought about by unquestioning adherence to a book of rules. Otherwise we choose to break the rules, or we let the rules break us.
Too many of my friends have left the church, and left the faith, because it was made into a rule-system by which they were required to follow. Like the child I held in my arms during chapel time, the church refused to let them go and experience the freedom to question, doubt, and explore. Perhaps when they were younger the church had been life-giving and exciting, but as they grew older it felt suffocating and demanding. They heard about the “freedom” that Paul wrote about, but they certainly didn’t feel it in their own lives. They were taught to so fervently keep the faith whenever they doubted, even just a little, that when they had a crisis of faith their entire discipleship fell apart and they left the church.
Paul’s thoughts to the Galatians opens up a new vision of what it means to be a Child of God, and how we can, in turn, nurture other COGs around us.
I held on to Jack and I felt his little heart beat in my hand. I began to play in my head all the terrible things that could happen to him once he was released from my protective bubble. I thought about what I had shared with the children: God loves you so much that he will never let you go. But that’s not exactly true.
God loves us to such a degree that He will not abandon us, but at the same time God gives us the freedom to question, to raise our clenched fists in the sky in frustration, and to wonder about what all of this faith stuff actually means.
In that profound moment kneeling on the floor of our chancel I recognized that, like God, I had to let him go. That God’s love was so great and incredible that no matter what happens to him, God will never abandon him. That we have to give our children freedom to make mistakes and explore the world, because that’s the only way that they will come to know our God as “father.” They cannot experience God’s divine loves through a book and moral expectations alone. They will discover God’s majesty in those moments when they begin to doubt, and recognize that God’s love remains with them anyway.
Only a bible like ours would contain the psalms, a tremendous source of writing that has almost every single human emotion, most of them directed at God.
Only a faith like ours would gather in grieving people for funerals and triumphantly declare that death has been defeated in Jesus Christ even when the loss of a loved one feels so horrifically overpowering.
Only a God like ours would let us wrestle and walk away and still see us as his children.
Years ago I was lamenting with one of my friends about the ways certain Christians give others Christians such a bad name. It felt like every time I turned on the TV there was a report of some pastor abusing power from the pulpit, some church spouting off with heretical theology, or some Christian organization bashing anything and anyone that did not look or sound just like them.
I remember feeling beaten by these rogue Christians. How could we ever make the church appealing again if people like that are getting all of the attention from the media? Why don’t we share information about all the good the church is doing in the world? Why don’t we ever hear about the food pantries and clothing drives that are saving communities?
My friend listened patiently as I went on and on listing my complaints. She smiled politely whenever I went off on another tangent and waited for me to finish.
She said: “They’ll figure it out someday Taylor. When? No one knows, but at some point they will see how far they have moved away from God’s commands.”
“What makes you so sure?” I demanded.
“They’re children of God, just like you and me.”
Part of what makes our faith so beautiful is that we have been brought into God’s great family as children. We have been adopted into a new identity because God came to be Emmanuel by our sides. As God’s children we have been given the freedom to love God with our hearts, minds, and souls, and we have been given the freedom to question and wonder.
The future of our faith will largely depend on how we continue to nurture the spiritual questions of people young in the faith. We might want to grip those around us with structured rules of how to live and behave, but remember that God came to be with us to adopt us as children; our heavenly Father has given us the freedom that brings about true faith.
The world was a strange place and full of new and exciting things when Jesus was born in Bethlehem. The world is still a strange place and full of new and exciting things. It will take a tremendous amount of courage to see others as Children of God just like you and me; to give them freedom to doubt, to be patient with their foolish ways, and to not abandon them. But if God is willing to do it, shouldn’t we?