Sermon for Pentecost 6C

Galatians 5:1, 13-25

“For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1). What does freedom mean to you? When white Americans think of freedom, we tend to think that freedom means we can say whatever we want and do whatever we want, and, especially here in Wyoming, we want the absolute minimum of government regulations interfering with our ability to say and do whatever we want. African Americans, however, may be keenly aware of the history of their ancestors, who actually endured slavery, and so when they hear the word “freedom” they may think of actual freedom from actual slavery, freedom to be their own person and to determine their own destiny. Other groups of people may hear the word “freedom” and understand it in different ways, and associate it with other things. But, generally speaking, we Americans understand freedom as the ability to live our lives as we please with a minimum of interference from others.

But, we need to hear these words of Paul about freedom first in the context of his letter to the Galatians, before we can see what kind of meaning it has for us as Christians today. If you remember from the last several Sundays, Paul was writing to a group of Gentile Christians in the area of Galatia that all they need in order to be right with God is to believe in Christ Jesus as the one who gave his life for them, and who, by his faithfulness, brought both Jewish believers and Gentile believers into one group of people under him. Paul is upset with the Galatians because they are now listening to a group of teachers who say that, in essence, Paul’s message is right, but that they still need to become Jewish first in order to truly be Christian, and that means that the men must be circumcised. So, when Paul is writing about freedom here, he is not talking about the freedom to do what you want and to be who you want without interference from others. Instead, he is talking about freedom from following the requirements of the Torah, the Jewish law. In the section of chapter 5 that our lectionary skips over today, Paul says that if the men allow themselves to be circumcised, then they are obligated to follow the entire Law, which means, for example, that they would have to follow the dietary laws in their eating and observe all of the Jewish festivals. Paul says that none of that is necessary, but that the only thing that counts in Christ Jesus is faith working through love. In the next paragraph, Paul then gets angry and frustrated with both the Galatians and those who are misleading them, and he finally says, in verse 12, “I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!” Yes, Paul really said that, which is probably why the lectionary skipped that part.

But then, Paul resumes talking about freedom in verse 13, “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.” Wait a minute—that’s a bit of a paradox, isn’t it? We usually think that, because we’re free, we’re free—and we shouldn’t become slaves again. Isn’t that what Paul just said earlier? Don’t submit again to a yoke of slavery?  So, what does he mean by saying that Christ set us free to become slaves to one another?

In the movie, “The Princess Bride,” the character Inigo Montoya is set on revenge. He knows that a six-fingered man has killed his father, and he has vowed to find the six-fingered man and kill him in order to avenge his father’s death. Through a series of events in the movie, Inigo finds the six-fingered man, Count Rugen, has a duel with him, and finally kills him. At the end of the movie, Inigo says to Westley that he has been in the revenge business for so long, he doesn’t know what to do with his life now. Westley suggests that Inigo would make a wonderful Dread Pirate Roberts, and Inigo appears to consider this. We don’t know if he took Westley up on the suggestion or not. But with the death of the man who killed his father, Inigo is set free from the bondage of revenge, and now is unsure what to do with his freedom.

My point is that God did not create us to be idle and to sit around and do nothing. And once we realize that we are freed, that we do not have to do anything to become right with God because, in fact, we can’t do anything to become right with God—it’s all a gift of God’s grace and love for us—then we want to do the things which God has urged us to do. And all of these works of the law are summed up by Paul in that great command which Jesus has also taught us, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” And remember that love is not a feeling, it is an active verb. Perhaps for those of us who speak English, a better way to say this great commandment is, “You shall show love to your neighbor as you would show love to yourself.” And how are we to do that? Paul tells us in verse 16: “Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh.” Now, we might hear that as law, especially when Paul goes on to name the works of the flesh and we squirm and think about how, at one time or another, we’ve all done one or two of the things on that list. But an actual better translation of verse 16 would be, “Live by the Spirit, I say, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” When the Holy Spirit is what animates our way of life, rather than the “works of the flesh,” that Paul names, then yes, we may fall into those sins on occasion, but we know that Jesus has died for us and forgiven us, and that the Holy Spirit will continue to urge us to repent and to move forward.

And how do we know that we are living by the Spirit? Well, it’s kind of like that song, “They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love”. Just as the song talks about working side by side, praying for unity, and people knowing we are Christians by our love, Paul says that we will know that we are living by the Spirit when we display the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. What is interesting about this is that, most of the time individual Christians take this list to be virtues that they should strive for. And these are good virtues to try to have, but I’d like to challenge us all a little bit. When Paul was addressing the Galatians, he was not addressing them individually. Rather, he was addressing them as a congregation. As a congregation, these virtues are what other people will see when you live by the Spirit, he tells us.

Now, here is my challenge question to us as a congregation: does the community of Powell see these fruits of the Spirit in us as a group? If so, how? The reason that I’m asking is this: I was updating our webpage this week to include a list of activities that we offer here at Hope. And I listed all of the things that we do during the school year, and some that continue year-round: our quilters, our WELCA circles, our Sunday school and confirmation classes, our Bible studies and Vacation Bible School with the Methodists and Presbyterians. But then I came to community service, and I had a harder time with that. The reason being that I know many of you are active in different service organizations as individuals: Backcountry Horsemen and Kiwanis, for example. And that’s wonderful—please continue in your service in these groups. But the only thing that I came up with that we kind of sort of do as a congregation are the food drives for Loaves & Fishes. Most of the time, if there is a need in the community, we as a congregation give money to it. And again, that’s very good—I’m very pleased that most of the time I don’t have to nudge you all on financial stewardship. But I think that we need to be better at stewarding our time and our talents as a congregation, giving of those for the sake of the community of Powell and of the world. Because I think that Powell needs to see the fruit of the Spirit within us not just as individuals, but as a congregation.

So, here is the assignment that I’m giving to us for the rest of the summer. We as a congregation have been through exercises helping us to find our identity in the Lord. We have chosen three Bible stories that we think describe us and our calling: the feeding of the 5000, the parable of the Good Samaritan, and the commissioning of the disciples in the first chapter of Acts. I want us to be thinking about and planning a continuing project for the community of Powell that we can commit to doing as a congregation that fits in with who we think we are in one or more of these Bible stories. Study and meditate on these three stories and ask the Holy Spirit for guidance. Do not let money be a barrier—let’s dream big! When you think of ideas, come to me or one of the members of the council with them. We’ll be happy to sit down with you and begin to hammer out details. Now I know that we’ve had good ideas in the past. Some we’ve tried and had some success with, while others have fizzled out into the ether. This time is going to be different—those of you who see a need in the community that we might be able to fill, I want you to commit to taking the lead on it and seeing the idea through. Because Powell needs to say, “Hope Lutheran Church is not only a friendly and welcoming place to worship. They are a congregation who shows the love of God in the service they do for the community.”

Last year in the fall, when I went to Luther Lectures at Chico, the professor who was teaching the class took the ELCA’s tagline, “God’s Work. Our Hands” and changed it a bit. He said, “God’s Work. Our Hands—so we don’t get bored.” The good news is that Christ has set us free for freedom. And that freedom is the freedom to become slaves to one another—not because we have to in order to get right with God, but because we want to, so that we can show God’s love to one another. We have not been set free to do nothing, we have been set free to do what God is calling us to do: to show love to our neighbor as we would show love to ourselves. And yes, so we don’t get bored while we’re waiting for Christ to return. So let’s get active and plan something big—we just never know what kind of exciting things God might be calling us to do. Amen.

 

 

 

 

Sermon for Pentecost 5C

Galatians 3:23-29

As I’ve mentioned on previous occasions, there are several reasons why Galatians is in my top two favorites of the Apostle Paul’s letters. And one of those reasons is our reading from Galatians today. In my faith journey, as I was listening for God’s call upon my life, Paul’s words, “there is no longer male and female,” spoke to me as God was showing me that God was indeed calling me, a woman, into the ordained ministry, despite the fact that the church body where I first heard of God’s love for me said that it was not okay for a woman to be a pastor.

These words of Paul’s, I would argue, are the centerpiece of his letter to the Galatians. For the first several chapters of this letter, he is saying that the Galatians, as Gentiles, do not need to first become circumcised and follow all of the requirements of the Jewish law in order to believe in Christ. Rather, it is the faithfulness of Christ and Christ’s work of dying on the cross that makes them right with God. In the part of chapter 3 that our lectionary skips over, Paul continues to make the argument that, since Abraham believed what God promised him and God reckoned that belief to him as righteousness, so, too, all the Galatians need to be right with God is belief and trust in Jesus Christ. That’s it. And God promised Abraham also that all the Gentiles shall be blessed through him. So, therefore, Paul says, the Galatians are descendants of Abraham because they are descendants of the promises God made to Abraham.

So, let’s take a look, then, at today’s passage, and I would like to read it again, just to refresh our memories:

23 Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed.
24 Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith.
25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian,
26 for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.
27 As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.
28 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.

We are made right with God through faith, both the faith that we have in Christ and the faithfulness of Christ to God’s command to live and die for us. All of us who are baptized into Christ are made one in him. In God’s eyes, there is no longer any separating line between us, because we all belong to Christ, and we are all Abraham’s children, and heirs of God’s promises. Do we get what a radical statement that truly is? When we think back on what we know of Paul’s previous life before Christ came to him, when he was persecuting Christians, isn’t it hard to believe that this is the same person? Can we fathom how greatly the Holy Spirit moved and changed Paul? Can any of us say that the Holy Spirit has moved us that deeply and profoundly?

Here’s the thing: these categories that we make for ourselves may be invisible to God through Christ Jesus, but because of our sinfulness, we still see them, and we have difficulties bridging them. Just because we are one in Christ does not mean that our differences are erased and we are just happy, happy all the time. Ideally, what this should mean is that we see our differences and, instead of being afraid of them and condemning them, or somehow trying to ignore them, we acknowledge them and celebrate them. Celebrating our differences does not always mean that we will get along or agree on everything. But celebrating our differences means taking joy in how God has created each individual as a unique and beloved person who God has claimed as God’s own. It means treating each person with respect because we believe that somehow, each person does reflect the image of God. And it means loving and supporting each person we meet to the best of our abilities. Because each one of us has been shown immeasurable and complete grace and love from God, we should be fearful of showing anything less to each person we meet, regardless of who the person is or what she or he has done.

You can probably guess where I’m leading with this. If the Apostle Paul were writing today, I believe that he would say, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, there is no longer gay and straight, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” We have had a horrific shooting in Orlando, Florida, this week. The target was a gay bar. This shooting is not about one single issue. This has to do with many issues: ISIS, gun control, terrorism, and fear of the sexually “other”. But today I’m going to talk about our fear of those who identify as sexually “other”. I do so knowing that we in our congregation have different beliefs about what it means to be sexually “other”, and I am not going to get into all of that today. I am not even going to talk about hot button issues such as same-sex marriage. Instead, I’m going to talk about how we are called, in Christ, to treat other human beings.

The first thing I want to do is to ask you to think about how you would react when you hear the following statements:

A gunman walked into an elementary school and shot 49 people, including both children and teachers.

A gunman walked into a bar and shot 49 people.

A gunman walked into a gay bar and shot 49 people.

Do you have different reactions to each of those statements? If you do, why? What is more or less horrific about each of them? Shouldn’t the loss of life be absolutely horrific to us, no matter who the people killed are? Any time a mass shooting happens, we should be thinking not only about who the shooter is and what his problems are, not only about who the victims are or how they identify as a group, but also simply, “That could have been me. That could have been my sister, my brother, my daughter, my son. Those people who were killed in fact were my sisters and my brothers, even though I did not know them. And because they each bore the image of God, something of God’s image has been destroyed and taken away from this earth. I should be weeping for this loss, just as God weeps with all of us who are hurting.” As Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton said, “We are killing ourselves.”

I have friends who are gay. Some of them are closer to me than others. One of them has journeyed with me since college in my walk through life and through faith. We have discussed faith and theology. I have watched him return to the Episcopal Church. He rejoiced with me when I was ordained, even though he wasn’t able to be present. Another one of my gay friends gave me one of the stoles that I own, one that he commissioned to be made especially for me, even though he has had difficulties with the church in which he grew up. Another gay friend of mine respects me for my faith, even though he doesn’t share it. They are people—different from me, but people nonetheless, and I treasure them and love them. So when I hear people who are supposedly Christian say that the people who were killed “got what they deserved” for supposedly violating God’s law, or that this was God’s “righteous” punishment upon them, I get angry. These are my friends. These are human beings, children of God, whom God loves and rejoices in. They make mistakes, just as I make mistakes. They are broken, but so am I. We all deserve God’s righteous punishment, but through God’s grace, through God’s Son, Jesus Christ, we are saved. We are loved. We are all claimed as God’s children. And all means all. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” There is no longer gay and straight, for all of us are one in Christ Jesus.

So, where do we go from here? How can we live this out in Powell, Wyoming, which is far removed from Orlando? First of all, let’s not be afraid. Over and over in Scripture, God tells us not to be afraid. We need to confront our prejudices, repent of and confess our sins, and find ways to spread the good news that we are all one in Christ Jesus and equally loved by God. We make that statement on the bookmarks in our hymnals, but do we find ways to make that statement when we go out into the community? Pastor Jim Barth of the United Methodist Church did this recently by displaying a rainbow flag on his front porch. I admire that courage and wish I had it. Next, we need to learn about and talk to people who identify somewhere under the acronym of LGBTQ. Hear from them their stories, empathize with them, and love them. The history of this group of people includes a lot of violence against them by people who are afraid of them. One example is what happens when they come out of the closet as teenagers. Did you know that a great number of teenagers who are homeless in this country are homeless because their family kicked them out of the house when they came out of the closet? Did you know that many teen suicides can be traced back to fear of what their family and friends would say when they came out? I don’t pretend to know what it is like to identify as sexually “other,” but I think it is safe to say that, based on the threat of violence alone, people would not identify this way if they felt they had any choice about it. We as Christians are called to show unconditional love to everyone, and everyone means everyone, including those who are LGBTQ.

For the last few weeks, as I’ve preached on Galatians, I’ve ended each sermon with an assignment based on the portion that I’ve preached. Here is your assignment this week: Find someone you know who identifies as LGBTQ. It’s not as hard as you think it is. If it’s not a friend, then it’s a friend of a friend. The person may live here in Powell or somewhere across the country. When you talk to this person, express sorrow over what happened in Orlando. Ask the person, if they are able, to speak to you about how what happened in Orlando affected them. And listen. Do a lot of listening, and speak only if the Holy Spirit moves you to speak. And if the Spirit moves you, and if the timing is appropriate, share with this person the good news that God loves them. God loves them as they are, and in Christ Jesus there is no more barrier separating us from them. In fact, there is no longer us and them, there is simply us. And then, invite them to experience God’s love and grace just as you have heard it proclaimed to you. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost 4C

Galatians 2:15-21

Today is the second in our sermon series on Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Since the first sermon on this book happened two weeks ago, and since there weren’t very many of us here at worship that day, we will start with a quick review of the background of Galatians before we move on to today’s section. The apostle Paul had journeyed to the province of Galatia, which is located in Turkey, and had preached the gospel to some communities there. The gospel that he had preached was the good news about Jesus Christ, and how in Jesus all people are one. He also preached that faith was all that the Galatians needed; they did not have to do anything to have a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. The Galatians accepted this message readily, and after a time, Paul moved on to the next place to continue spreading the good news. But then, he got word that other teachers had come in to the Galatian house churches and said, “Well, yes, Paul’s teaching was essentially right. But, he left out one very important thing: you all have to become Jewish first before you can become Christian. And that means the men have to be circumcised.” The people there listened to these new teachers, and the men allowed themselves to be circumcised. When Paul got word of this, he was absolutely furious and wrote the letter that we have in our Bibles today known as Galatians.

Now that we have the background of the letter fresh in our minds, we still need to fill in some gaps before we tackle the passage that we just heard read to us. For some reason, the lectionary skips over the greater portion of chapter 2, and I think we need to hear what’s going on before we can understand what we have in front of us today. Paul recounts how, after 14 years, he went up to Jerusalem and told the elders of the church there what he was preaching and teaching to the Gentiles (that is, non-Jewish people). The elders of the church said that what Paul was preaching was right, gave to Paul and his companions the right hand of fellowship, and sent them on their way, with only a request that they remember the poor; in other words, contribute financially to help the poor members of the Jerusalem church. The Jerusalem elders did not even require Titus, one of Paul’s Gentile companions, to be circumcised. So, Paul and his companions returned to Antioch. But then, Peter came to Antioch as well, and, because of fear of the faction that said becoming Jewish was necessary first before becoming Christian, Peter drew back and did not eat with the Gentiles. And Paul called Peter out, accusing him of hypocrisy in front of everyone. I don’t know about you, but I would have loved to have been there to have seen that argument!

So, with that background in mind, I’d like to re-read our Galatians passage for today, especially since it didn’t get printed in your Scripture insert.

15 We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 16 yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law. 17 But if, in our effort to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have been found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! 18 But if I build up again the very things that I once tore down, then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor. 19 For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; 20 and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 21 I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.

Justified by faith. That’s some really church-y, theological language right there. And even though those of us who have grown up Lutheran may have heard these words over and over again, could we explain what it means? Not only to ourselves, and not only to other Lutherans, but to those who have never set foot in a church before? And what in the world does this have to do with the big argument that Paul had with Peter in the church in Antioch?

Well, let’s start to unpack this phrase, “justified by faith”. I think most of us Lutherans who have heard this phrase before would say that it means that we don’t get into heaven by doing good things. Rather, we are saved from our sins because of our faith in Christ Jesus. And this is a beginning of the idea of what “justified by faith” means. It comes straight from Martin Luther, who, when he was speaking out and writing against the corrupt practices of the church, proclaimed that all of these good deeds that the church prescribed were not going to get us into heaven, and did not make us any better than anyone else. This is the heart of what Lutheran theology is about.

But, in Lutheran style, I’d like for us to look at this passage again and, with all due respect to Brother Martin, I’d like to say that he may not have quite had the meaning of this passage right. Because the Apostle Paul was not speaking about getting into heaven or being saved from our sins in this passage. He was speaking about the controversy surrounding whether or not Gentiles had to become Jewish first in order to be Christian. And what he is talking about here is relationships: relationships within the Christian community and the relationship that community has with God. We are made right with God by faith, he says, and not by whether or not we are following the requirements of the Jewish law, that is, males having to be circumcised. Paul writes, “But if I build up again the very things that I once tore down, then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor.” In other words, if, once we proclaim that all are one in Christ Jesus, tearing down any walls that might exist, but then suddenly say, “Oh, wait a minute, but you people have to be circumcised first before you are really one of us,” we’re putting up that wall again and showing that we are not truly practicing what we preach.

Now I’m not saying that Martin Luther had the idea of justification wrong. He was interpreting Scripture for his time, and that is what we do today, too: we interpret Scripture so that we hear God speaking to us in our context. And Luther’s interpretation still has meaning for us today: so many of us think, “Well, I’m a good person. I’m going to heaven.” In fact, I saw in the Powell paper last week in the pastor’s column that the pastor who was writing said that the best thing we can say upon meeting the Lord is that “I did my best.” I apologize if I’m misunderstanding him, but that’s not what I want you all to say on that day when you meet the Lord. What I hope that you all will say is something like this, “I am a poor, miserable sinner. As the prophet Isaiah said, all of my so-called righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth, and it is only by Your love and grace and by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ that I stand before You now.” That is Luther’s understanding of justification: that we are all beggars before a loving and gracious God.

But going back to what Paul originally meant when he penned this letter to the Galatians, I think that in our divided and polarized society, we can find new and fresh meaning in the idea of being justified by faith. Now, here I’m going to talk about a technical Greek translation issue, but there is a point, so please bear with me. The phrase that gets translated in our Bible as “faith in Christ” can also be translated as “the faithfulness of Christ.” In other words, we are justified not by our faith in Christ—after all, that could be considered our good work, too, when we forget that it is God who gives us faith—but we are made right with God by the faithfulness of Christ to the command of God: Jesus obeyed God’s command to die for us on the cross and his faithfulness to God is what makes us right by God. That takes away the possibility that we can do anything at all to be in God’s good graces, doesn’t it? And it fits with what Paul is saying: there is no more dividing wall between Jew and Gentile, for Christ has made everyone—and I mean, everyone!—right with God by what he has done for us on the cross.

So, is any of this relevant for us in our daily lives, or is it just a bunch of theological babble? Well, I think it is absolutely relevant as we witness to other people about what Jesus has done for us. It means that we can go out and talk to anyone about how much Jesus loves them. And when I say anyone, I mean anyone: white, black, Hispanic, Native American, Republican, Democrat, straight, gay, drug addict, homeless person, a person who has been labeled by society as a “sinner,” and a person who seems to be the most upstanding person in the community. Do we truly understand how radical God’s welcome and invitation is? Or do we continue to put up walls and barriers where Christ has already broken them down? Do we acknowledge that we are sisters and brothers to the worst person who we can think of? Or do we say one thing and do another because we are afraid of what might happen to us if we’re too radical in our welcome?

When I was in Germany in the spring, there was one night when the provost of the Lutheran Church in Central Germany came to speak to us about what it was like to be the church in this time in the eastern part of the country. He spoke to us about how, due to the Communist government being in power for so long, the people had “forgotten that they had forgotten about God”. He spoke of a spiritual hunger that was being awakened. And then he asked, “How do we communicate the significance of the Reformation to this group of people?” He then asked, “What does justification mean in a society that values accomplishment?” He answered his own question by saying, “We should ask what it means to receive grace from a neighbor and to be a gracious neighbor.” Here is an example that I have seen on Facebook this week: June 6 marked the beginning of Ramadan, a month of fasting for the Muslim community. Some Christians have put up signs in their yards saying: “A blessed Ramadan to all of our Muslim neighbors.” What would happen if we did that here in Powell? Something to think about, right?

At the end of my first sermon on Galatians, I gave you all an assignment: to find people in Powell who are different from you, to get to know them, and to invite them to worship. This week, I’m going to ask you to think about your interactions with your neighbors—and by neighbors I don’t just mean those people who live near you, but everyone you encounter this week. Reflect on how you have received grace from them, and then think about how you can be gracious to them. The good news is that we have received abundant grace and love from God through Jesus Christ, more than we can ever understand, and this now frees us to show that abundant grace and love to everyone we meet. Let’s be bold and show that grace and love to our neighbors this week. Amen.