Freed For Slavery

Devotional:

Galatians 5.1a

For freedom Christ has set us free.

Weekly Devotional Image

“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.

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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?

God Is God And We Are Not – Sermon on Psalm 24

Psalm 24

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it; for he has founded it on the seas, and established it on the rivers. Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully. They will receive blessing from the Lord, and vindication from the God of their salvation. Such is the company of those who seek him, who seek the face of the God of Jacob. Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in. Who is the King of glory? The Lord, strong and mighty, the Lord, mighty in battle. Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in. Who is this King of glory? The Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory.

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Be careful.” That’s what they kept saying when they found out I was invited to preach at a church in the heart of Detroit. I had been living in Birmingham, Michigan (a rather wealthy suburb north of Detroit) helping serve a church for the summer when I received the opportunity to fill in at another church one Sunday. And as soon as I was asked, all the warnings started coming in: “Be careful” “Park as close as possible to the church” “Keep your wallet in your front pocket.

I remember thinking these people were crippled by fear, how bad could it really be? We were talking about driving into Detroit on a Sunday morning to preach at a church…

When the morning arrived I was filled with excitement. I picked out the perfect bow tie to go with my blazer, hoping to assert my authority regardless of my young age, I had a prepared a theologically profound manuscript sermon, hoping that it would get people to shout “amen!” from the pews, and I spent the long drive down Woodward Avenue in silence, hoping to boost my holiness before the service began.

The closer I got to the church, the stranger I began to feel. I hadn’t noticed it at first, but the longer I drove, the less people I saw on the streets. The buildings went from inviting homes and businesses to abandoned shells of carpentry. The streets went from well maintained to pot holes that required a car to drive up on the sidewalk in order to avoid.

In a matter of minutes I had gone from “Pleasantville” to a post-apocalyptic movie set, and my excitement was quickly replaced by fear.

By the time I pulled in the parking lot, I realized that I hadn’t seen another human being for at least ten minutes. The streets had been largely deserted leading up to Cass UMC, and it was strangely silent when I stepped out of my car.

So here I was, standing in the heart of Detroit, in a bowtie and blazer, with a bible and sermon tucked under my arm, completely alone on a Sunday morning.

My footsteps across the concrete reverberated in echoes through the abandoned buildings flanking the church and even though it was a bright sunny day, I felt like I was walking down a dark alley in the middle of the night. The building itself was an architectural masterpiece having been built in 1883 with Tiffany’s stained glass windows, though I could tell from the street that bullet holes had cut through the once remarkable windows.

When I reached out my hand to open the doors, the height of my new fears were realized: It was locked.

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I knew no one from the church, I had no way to contact anyone, and all of the warnings started to really flow through my mind. But I did what any good pastor would do, I sat down on the front steps and waited for someone to open the door.

30 minutes later, a disheveled looking old man, the first person I had seen in a long time, peeked from around the corner, walked up the steps, and unlocked the front door without saying a word. I wandered around the building until I found the sanctuary, searched in vain for a worship bulletin, and resigned myself to sit down in a chair by the altar.

During the next hour, the most random assortment of people started flowing in through the sanctuary doors. The church, once renown in the heart of Detroit, was being filled with people who slept outside the night before, people who had no money to put in the offering plate, and people who were having conversations with themselves at a volume loud enough for everyone else to experience.

A group of 7 older black women arranged themselves on folding chairs near the front, and without really discussing it they all flipped their hymnals to the same page and started to sing. A man with wrinkled fingers was hunched over a piano in the corner struggling to keep up with the singing, and a young man had seated himself behind a drum-set hidden in the corner, and was wailing away to a song that only he could hear.

When the first hymn ended, the women huddled together to pick another hymn and began singing. At some point in the middle of their fourth hymn, with the pianist still planking away, and the drummer smashing the cymbals, a gentleman stood up in the middle of the sanctuary with his eyes trained on me. He walked down the main aisle slowly and deliberately until he was towering over me and then declared, “Son, if you don’t start talking, they ain’t liable to quit singing.

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, from the sea to the mountains, from the rivers to the deserts, from the people to the animals; for the Lord has founded life upon the earth. Who then shall worship the Lord in holiness? And who shall stand with the Lord in the holiest of places? Only those who have clean hands, and pure hearts, those who do not lift up their souls to what is false, who do not break their promises. They will receive a blessing from the Lord, and vindication from the God of their salvation. Such is the company of those who seek the Lord.

I stood up after the end of the next hymn, and grabbed the hand held microphone to start participating in worship. I felt like a fool standing in my khakis and blazer, with my bowtie tilted just slightly to the side. I felt ridiculous with my over examined sermon under my arm, and bible in my hand. I felt like I didn’t deserve to stand before the congregation, but all of their eyes were on me. (just like all of yours are right now)

I took off the jacket and tie, rolled up my sleeves, ditched the sermon on my chair, and let the Holy Spirit go to work.

Let us pray” I began, and before I could start praying for our service, the people started shouting out their own prayers. “O Lord, help this boy to preach.” “Yes Lord, show us your mercy.”My God show me your glory!” “Remove our sins, give us your Spirit, clean our hearts!” “Your will be done!” “Have thine own way Lord!” “Help this boy preach, preach preach.

It was only after a few moments of silence that I finally said “amen” without having added any of my own prayers.

I preached on the apostle Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth, about the new creation that comes in knowing Christ. I talked about moments that transform our lives. I said things like “there is a new life in Christ, but just because we find Christ it doesn’t mean our life will get better, but that we are called to make other lives better.” And instead of the typical, and silent, congregation I was used to, the people kept shouting at me while I preached. “Ain’t that the truth!” “Yes Lord!” “We know it, we know it” “Lord, give him strength to preach.” “Speak through him God.

When I got around to the close of the service, when I offered a benediction to the congregation, when the final amen was uttered, I heard them say in return, “Thank you Jesus.”

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Lift up your heads, O gates! Open up you ancient doors! the King of glory is coming. Who is the King of glory? The Lord, strong and mighty, merciful and majestic, the Lord. Jesus Christ the author of salvation, the Good News, the Messiah. The Holy Spirit full of wisdom and truth, giver of life, and partner to our prayers. Lift up your heads, O gates! Open up you ancient doors! The King of glory is coming! Who is the King of glory? The Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory.

We can dress the part, we can read all the right books, we can memorize all the hymns and prayers, but unless we are looking for holiness in our lives, unless we are ready to bow down to the King of glory, then we are forgetting the truth: God is God and we are not.

Many of us are good Christians, we pray for our friends and family, we come to church, we put money in the plate, but there is a profound difference between believing we are holy, and wanting to be holy.

When I arrived at that church in Detroit years ago, I foolishly thought I was bringing something to them. With my well prepared outfit and sermon, I made the assumption that I was bringing God with me, nice and shiny, like a school project. I became my own main character in the story of worship, and it prevented me from seeing the King of glory.

When I stood up in the pulpit to proclaim the words, the people did not see a young man with a seminary education, they did not see some white fool trying his best to not pass out, they saw a vessel for the Lord. Their prayers were not to me, but for the Lord to work through me. The recognized the great division between God and me, and knew that Jesus was the bridge between the two.

They knew that God is God and we are not.

In our contemporary American culture, we tend to view ourselves as the center of the universe.

We assume that everything revolves around us, and that so long as our needs are being me, then everything else should be fine.

We believe that if we wear the right clothes, and get the right education, that holiness will follow accordingly.

We feel holy for giving up an hour every week to sit in a place like this and sing hymns, offer prayers, and listen to a sermon.

That church in Detroit had something that I never knew I needed: They believed that God was the center of the story, that God had the power to transform their lives, and that God really was the King of glory.

Too many of my friends have left the church because they “didn’t get anything out of it.” They might try different styles of worship and different denominations, but if they don’t get anything out of it, they will rarely return. However, church isn’t about what we get out of it, its about what God gets out of us.

Believing we are already holy limits God’s power to make us holy.

It is in the recognition of the great divide between humanity and the Lord that we can let Jesus get to work on our hearts and souls. It is in the great admission of Jesus as the King of glory we start to see ourselves, not as the center of the universe, but instruments for God’s love to be heard in the world. It is in the words of our worship that we recognize the Holy Spirit’s movement in our midst and our lives start to change.

If we remain in the assumption of our holiness, then our lives will stay the same.

But if we truly desire for the Lord to make us holy, then our lives will be transformed. Amen.

Palms Beneath My Feet – Sermon on Mark 11.1-11

Mark 11.1-11

When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back immediately.’ “ They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

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Weekly Chapel Time requires a willing and humble spirit. What we do here on Sunday mornings carries an air of sophisticated and focused liturgy. But when I bring the Preschoolers in during the week… there are no rules. When we worship together most of us have fairly decent attention spans, but the 2, 3, and 4 year-olds need to be consistently bombarded with images and ideas in order to stay focused.

I’ll freely admit that I treat our preschoolers the same way that I treat our worshippers (I’ll let you decide whether or not that is a good thing) because we are all working toward the same goal: a greater awareness of God’s love and mercy in the world.

Anyway, this week, in preparation for Palm Sunday, we gathered the children in the sanctuary for their lesson. They sat in the pews up here in the choir loft, with their little legs dangling in the air, excited and nervous to keep learning about this guy named Jesus. I love quizzing them on previous stories because they are fascinated by scripture. For instance: If I could get all of us to be as excited about Zacchaeus, the wee-little man, climbing up a sycamore tree, just imagine how faithful we would become.

I shared with the children that Jesus needed to get to a strange place called Jerusalem to do something incredible for his friends. They gathered together outside the city and Jesus sent two men to find a donkey for him to ride on. The closer the came to the gates, more and more people gathered palms from the surrounding area and waved them in the air, and placed them on the ground all while shouting “Hosanna!” which means “save us!”

I then had all the children line up with their own palm branches in the center aisle and we were going to recreate the story. I found a young boy to be Jesus and when I asked who they thought the donkey should be they all emphatically yelled, “You Pastor Taylor!” I’m not sure how I felt about them so quickly identifying me with that particular animal, but I let it go.

So there I was on my hands and knees with a child saddled across my back making our way into Jerusalem. I had instructed all the children to either wave their palms or place them on the ground and shout “save us!” to the boy on my back. The entire journey down the center aisle took longer than I thought because I did not want to drop the Jesus on my back, but as I walked forward and saw the palms beneath my feet I was struck by the Holy Spirit.

The children continued to scream and beg for their salvation, the Jesus on my back kept kicking into my rib cage to make me go faster, but all I could think about was what the donkey must have experienced when he carried Jesus into Jerusalem, what it must have been like to deliver the Lord to his death.

The following is an imaginative retelling of the story from the donkey’s perspective…

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With palms beneath my feet, Jesus, there are so many things I wish I could tell you. Carrying you while the crowds scream on our sides, I wish I could share all the things I have seen and heard. This might be the only chance I’ll get, and it already feels too late.

I was there Jesus. I was there in the manger when you were born. Your parents had come into the tiny room and your mother looked like she was about to burst. I was but a young foal back then, but I remember. They were so afraid and alone when they cuddled together holding you close. While they were filled with fear, I was filled with joy. I knew from the moment I saw you that you were special, that you were the Son of God. The other animals could feel it too, and while your family fell into the familiar rhythm of sleep, we gathered around you to share our warmth. I watched you sleep all night and I could feel that our lives were connected, and I knew that I would see you again one day.

You left from Bethlehem but as the years passed I heard stories about your life. I would be in the marketplace, or moving about the village and rumors would fall upon my ears.

When you were a child they said that you stood apart. Other children would spend their days running around and getting into mischief, but you would sit in the synagogue and teach the elders. Your command of the scriptures spread before you even started your ministry. I would watch the people while they talked about you and they were filled with such hope. Words like “messiah, lord, and savior” were used to describe you and I could tell that the Lord was among us.

Then it came to pass that you were baptized by your cousin John in the Jordan river. Witnesses said they saw the sky open up and they heard the voice of God. While others denied the claims, I knew it was true, I could feel that your ministry was about to begin and that everything would change.

You traveled throughout Galilee proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor. You healed the sick, gave sight to the blind, and restored the outcasts to their families. Everywhere you went stories about your love and mercy traveled ahead and the crowds grew larger and larger. You fed the multitudes by the sea, you walked on water, and you brought Lazarus back from the dead. You spoke of mustard seeds, prodigal sons, and good samaritans. You ate with sinners, worked on the sabbath, and argued with the Pharisees. Some say that even just a few weeks ago you were on the mountaintop when Moses and Elijah appeared and you were transfigured.

This morning I was tied up near the door when two of your disciples came close. One of them spoke to my owner and said, “The Lord needs him” and they brought me to you. I knew the time had come when we would be reunited, but the joy I expected to feel has been mixed with trepidation.

Jesus, how I wish you could hear me, how I wish I could tell you all I have seen and heard. We departed early this morning and the crowds gathered around us. It feels as if the closer we get to Jerusalem the people grow louder and more eager to cry out. Do they know what they mean when they say, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”?

I’m beginning to worry Jesus. I don’t think they know who you really are. The people sound more like an angry mob waiting for you to overthrow the Romans than a faithful group waiting for the kingdom of God. They want another Moses to lead them out of physical bondage, they want another David who can lead them into battle, they want another Solomon to build a giant temple.

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These people have suffered but they believe in you. Did you see them take off their cloaks and place them in the road? I have been walking over garments for hours. Did you see them rush into the fields for palm branches to wave them in the air and create a royal pathway? The palms beneath my feet are a sign of how much these people believe in you.

What are you going to do Jesus? I can hear people murmuring about your coming mission, some are saying that you are going to the temple and you are going to overthrow the tables. Some are saying that you are going to lead the rebellion and kill the chief priests and scribes. Some are saying that you are going to destroy the temple and then build a new one.

Jesus I’m afraid for your life! These people don’t know who you really are and what you’ve come to do. They shout “Hosanna, Hosanna!” but I fear their shouts will soon turn to “Crucify, Crucify!” They are only concerned about themselves. Even your disciples on either side of us, I can smell their fear.

Jesus, I was there when you were born. I felt God’s presence in you and I knew you would save the world. But please Jesus, let me take you away from this place. Jerusalem can only bring about your death. We still have a chance to turn around and head home.

Or is it too late? 

The crowds are starting to thin Jesus. The people are beginning to head home. We are stepping through the gate and the palms are no longer beneath my feet. I want to believe in you and what you are doing. I want to believe this is God’s will. But I’m so afraid.

Jesus, I am an old donkey and I don’t know how much further I can carry you.

It’s just us now and the sun is beginning to set.

What will happen? What are you going to do?

If this is the last time I will see you, I wish I could talk to you. I wish I could warn you about what is to come. I wish I could stop you.

You swing your legs around and are standing right before me. Your eyes contain the same hope they did the day you were born in the humble manger. As you pet my old matted fur I can feel all the people you have already touched and healed. I can feel the sick children and parents, I can feel the blind and the lame, the last, least and lost.

What a privilege it was to carry you today my Lord. I knew that we would meet again, I only wish I could do something to warn you.

You’re now leaning in close to whisper in my ear. Is this goodbye? Is this the end?

You said, “No my old friend. I know exactly what I am doing. And this is only the beginning.” Amen.