Sunday, August 30, 2015

“Sow What?”

A Sermon Based Upon Galatians 6: 1-18, NRSV

By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin.  

Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership

Pentecost 13,  August 30th, 2015

 

 

At a university over in Englanda psychology professor recently conducted a rather interesting sort of experiment. In the faculty lounge at that school they have coffee and other drinks available. But instead of having someone stationed there to collect the money for those beverages, they simply have a price list posted and a box sitting there for people to put their money into.

 

So here’s what that psychology professor did. Each week he would post a new price list. But the prices never changed. The only thing that changed was a small picture that he put at the top of the price list. Some weeks he would put a picture of some flowers on the price list. But other weeks he would put a picture of a pair of human eyes at the top of the price list. Well, guess what? On the weeks when those eyes were watching, the people using that break-room put nearly three times the money in the box.

 

We don’t always do what we’re expected to do, but we usually do what we’re inspected to do.  In other words, when we know that someone is watching and when we know that at some point someone is going to take a look at what we’ve done and pass judgment or that we’re going to have to face the consequences, we tend to make more of an effort to do the right thing  (From a sermon by C. Ed ward Bowen, entitled “Sow What?, 2010, at www.goodpreacher.com).

 

However you look at it, freedom is not free.  Freedom comes with a cost, with conditions, and with consequences.  Even as the Church was set free from having to live under the Law of Moses, this did not mean that now they could live without any rules whatsoever.  To receive and keep the gift of Christian freedom, those who follow Christ must now live under Christ’s own law. 

 

FREE TO BE RESPONSIBLE

In Paul’s concluding words about freedom, he wants the church to know that ‘freedom” is built upon two ‘pillars’ of human responsibility: caring and bearing.   As are set free by Christ’s love and forgiveness, we become responsible to ‘bear each other’s burdens’ just as we must continue to ‘carry our own’.   

 

The Christian life of freedom carries within itself the call of human ‘responsibility’ for the sake of others and for our own sake too.  Interestingly, the word ‘responsible’ has at its root the understanding that a person lives their whole life in ‘response’ to the grace God has given to us.  Paul’s words coincide precisely with Jesus great commandment that life is lived to return love to God and to give love to neighbor (Luke 10: 15ff) .   According to Luke’s gospel, Jesus then gave the story of the Good Samaritan to remind us that our ‘neighbor’ can be best imagined not just as helping another Christian, but even as finding a perfect stranger who is in need our compassion and care.  In John’s letter pastoral letter, our human responsibility to bear and to care is summed up in one single line:  “We love, because he first loved us.” (1 Jn. 4:19).

 

The aim of all this ‘caring’ and ‘bearing’ for the sake of ‘God’s love’ is the Christian message.  This is the ‘good news’ that we have to “be”, not just that we have to ‘share’ or ‘speak’:  My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression (or sin), you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness” (6.1).   Did you detect the heart of the Christian faith, when Paul writes about ‘you who have received the Spirit”?   Here is the most important part of our Christian responsibility.  We are to see to ‘restore’ those who have fallen into sin with a ‘spirit of gentleness’.  Our responsibility to ‘love our neighbor’ and to ‘treat our neighbor’ as we would treat ourselves is our work to bring the hope of restoration, redemption, and grace even into the worse of situations and to the most difficult of persons.

 

Recently, when the Boston Bomber suspect was on trial, the nun who became famous because of the movie “Dead Man Walking” (Sister Helen Prejean), visited the bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to give him a chance to repent.   It was of course, controversial, because most people think he doesn’t deserve even that.   But what Sister Helen Prejean said in response to the criticism of her is exactly what Paul is saying here, when she told CNN, “I don’t concern myself with a person’s guilt or innocence.  It’s easy to forgive the innocent, but it’s the guilty who test our morality. (http://www.cnn.com/2015/05/07/us/tsarnaev-dead-man-walking-nun/index.html).

 

I would say that Sister Helen’s primary concern is the concern of the apostle Paul.  The Christian faith and message rises and falls on how God and how we ‘treat the guilty’ because it is how the ‘guilty’ are treated that gives us all the hope of God’s restoring love.

 

FREEDOM HAS CONSEQUENCES

But don’t misunderstand the offer of God’s grace as an excuse to live without thought to the consequences.    Freedom also has consequences.  This is what Paul means when he says: “Don’t be deceived; God is not mocked for you reap whatever you sow.” Paul reminds us that the freedom we have is great, but it is not without limit or without boundary. 

 

As humans who live from the ‘garden’ of the earth, we are most familiar with this final line that says, “you reap whatever you sow.”   If you want beans, you must sow beans.  If you want corn, you must sow corn.  You cannot get beans from corn seeds and you can’t get corn from bean seeds.  This is something we all know to be obviously and absolutely true.  You only ‘reap whatever you sow’.  This is a fact of farming, a fact of gardening and a fact of life.   You can’t dispute it, but you can only learn it and know it and live it—if you want to eat and live. 

 

Why is Paul giving us this agricultural lesson?   Paul is a making for us a visual picture of the invisible, moral and spiritual world through the visible, natural and physical world.  He wants to reminds us about this ‘moral’ law of life because it is not always as evident.   While you can sow and grow a crop in one single season, the season for knowing the results of our moral and spiritual sowing are seldom so quick or fast.  There is a reason for this.  We call it ‘grace’.  God has built in room for change, for repentance, for turnarounds, for life-lessons, and for second chances—and more.  God is not a moral tyrant who zaps us from heaven when we make mistakes.  He loves, he forgives, he redeems and he wants to restore. 

 

I loved the news story from NBC on the last Sunday evening in May.  It told of a man who robbed a bank, but was given a second chance to change his life.  It seems the man was down on his luck, homeless, jobless, and in desperation,  he went out and robbed a bank of 1,000 dollars, handing the bank-teller a note demanding the cash all in small bills.  Then, he walked out of the bank, set down on the curb, and waited for the police to come an arrest him.  He told the judge,  “I’ve had to sleep in the woods before, and I just couldn’t do that again.  The thought of that made a jail cell look good.”  It was then that the judge set out an appeal in the papers that someone please give this man a job.  They did.  He was gifted at Welding and a Welding Company took a chance on him and gave him a chance.  The last scene of the news spot showed him welding and then they cut to him in an interview with him saying,  “I want to work for this company for the rest of my life….”  “I want to be loyal to them and give them everything I’ve got.”  That’s what it means to say that God’s moral laws cuts us all some needed and necessary slack. (http://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=man+given+second+chance+after+robbing+bank+nbc&qpvt=man+given+second+chance+after+robbing+bank+nbc&FORM=VDRE#view=detail&mid=A423B29FB980F3903C12A423B29FB980F3903C12).

 

But here is the one ‘mistake’ we must not make.  We must not think that because God gives us leeway, breathing space and wiggle room with his moral and spiritual laws that he will change them just for us.  This is what Paul means when he says that “God is not mocked”.   We must not deceive ourselves in to mistaking God’s acts of grace, love and forgiveness to give us freedom from our sins as an excuse to misuse our freedom.   Even though we can have God’s forgiveness without conditions, this does not undo the consequences of how we have lived our lives.   The very serious words of Peter also reminds us of this, when he wrote:  “The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.   BUT the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night…  (BUT)  …the heavens will pass away with a great noise…. (BUT)…the elements will melt with fire… BUT … the earth and everything done on it will be disclosed…  So, Peter concludes with a question that follows;  “What sort of persons ought you to be?”  (2 Pet. 3:9-11).   Just like the natural world has physical laws that govern the universe, so the spiritual world has moral laws that will govern the heart, the soul and our human destiny.   In giving us freedom, God has put ‘destiny’ into our own hands with only one control  which gives life its own potential.  God rule is this:  ‘You will reap what you sow’.

 
FREE TO FOLLOW CHRIST’S RULE

Of course, there is something ‘sobering’ about realizing that your life and your destiny is in your own hands.  Sometimes, in this world, when we are pushed and pulled from so many different directions, that we can feel like it is the opposite.  We can feel that we have no real choices.  We can feel that we can do nothing.  We can feel as if we have no power whatsoever to change anything.   We want to give up.

 

But Paul wants us to know that we do have power.  We do have influence.  Our choices do matter and they do make a difference, even if we don’t always see it in the very next moment.   Again, he wants us to visualize it like sowing seeds in the garden and waiting for the coming of the future “harvest time” (v. 9).  You will, when that time comes, eventually get what you sow.  If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit (v. 8).  His point is that our desires, our wills, our choices and our decisions which we make in life, will not always remain hidden or uneventful, but that every action points us in the direction of how things will actually turn out.   If we remain on the lower level of living, we will eventually ‘reap’ nothing but a life lived toward the ‘corruption’ or the ‘end of  our flesh’  which is lived one day and gone the next.  But if we live our lives on a higher, spiritual, enduring level, then we will ‘reap eternal life’ which only comes ‘from the Spirit’ (v. 8). 

 

Because Paul believes that you and I will ‘eventually’ reap what we sow,  he reminds us ‘not to grow weary in doing what is right’ and he also encourages us that ‘whenever we have an opportunity’ we should ‘work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith’ (v.10).   This is exactly who we are when we ‘sow to the Spirit’ the seeds of the Spirit, which bear the lasting, eternal, spiritual fruit of love, joy, peace, and so on.  We sow these kinds of ‘good works’ because we believe in the faithfulness of God and in the integrity God has established in this world and in life itself.  But to believe these kind of things, just like planting a garden, we must have faith and we must act upon that faith.

 

Last spring, when the young 26 year-old humanitarian relief worker from Arizona, Kayla Mueller, had her life end tragically in Syria last February, we did not and still do not, and may never know all the details.  We know that she was captured and held by the Islamic State of Iraq, ISIS.  We know that she had already worked in many dangerous places in other countries, like Africa and Tibet.   We know that she had a deep sense of justice and compassion for those suffering in the world.  We also know that it was claimed that her captures that she was held in a building hit by a Jordanian bombing raid.  But what we didn’t know until most recently, is that while some others working with Kayla, along with Kayla were given a chance to be release, Kayla refused because she would not leave her weak cellmate behind.  In the last hand-written note from Kayla to her parents she wrote: …I have a lot of fight left inside of me. I am not breaking down + I will not give in no matter how long it takes….'Please be patient, give your pain to God. I know you would want me to remain strong. That is exactly what I am doing. Do not fear for me, continue to pray as will I + by God's will we will be together soon.”  (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3095320/U-S-aid-worker-Kayla-Mueller-sacrificed-attempt-escape-ISIS-didn-t-want-leave-weak-cellmate-behind.html).    

 

Kayla’s life was an ‘act of faith’ that will not go unanswered forever.  Her seed will grow, in this life too, and not only in the life to come.  In that prison, and even in her mysterious death, she was free and set free in ways most of us have not yet experienced.  Acts of faith like this, based upon God’s love, resulting in deeds of love for others, is what it means to be free in Christ.   

 

This is the last thing Paul wants us to know, as he concludes his words about Christian Freedom.   Human acts of caring and bearing are the primary ‘works of faith’ that are display our true freedom as share in God’s love and trust in God’s faithfulness.   We are made free in Christ as we follow Christ’s law.  And in his letter to the Colossians, Paul explains that following Christ’s law is nothing more and nothing less than rightly responding to God’s eternal love as it is revealed on the cross (Col. 1.20).  Since Christ was in God when God created all things (Col 1.16) and that God was in Christ (2 Cor. 5: 19) when God reconciledto himself reconciled all things’ ( Col. 1: 20);  since it was only in Christ that ‘all the fullness of the God was pleased to dwell’ (1.19)  and it is in Christ  that ‘all things together “(1.17), then it follows that that there is only one true freedom: “If the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed.” (Jn. 8.33).

 

I know that having Christ and his cross of love as the source of true freedom is not now obvious to everyone.   I know that not all know nor are yet able to follow his rule until it comes to this world fully and finally.  Only God’s love, justice and mercy can judge what happens to those live between the times or appear to ‘fall between the cracks’ of truth, before the truth is completely and fully known.  But none of this changes one iota Christ’s law of love nor does it change God’s moral law that ‘we reap what we sow.’  Everyone may not yet name the ‘only name that is above every name’  (Acts 4.12), but I must conclude as Paul concludes,  “As for those who will follow this rule—(the rule of God’s love through Jesus Christ), peace be upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God….(Gal. 6.16).  Amen.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

“Live By the Spirit”


A Sermon Based Upon Galatians 5: 13-26, NRSV
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin.  
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Pentecost 12, August 23th, 2015

 

Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh.

(Gal. 5:16 NRS)

 
Back in May, CBS THIS Morning news program introduced their audience to the wildly popular, NY Times best-selling new author, who goes by the pen name of Meredith Wild.  “Meredith” is a mom, who was once CEO of a small software company, who now stays at home to write her highly successful series of erotic romance “Hacker-series” novels about a billionaire software mogul named “Blake” who pursues the ‘object of his desire’, an internet entrepreneur named “Erica”. 

When they tried to read a few lines from her book on the morning news, you couldn’t make sense of what they were reading because of the “bleeps” that tried to hide the so called “soft-porn” language.  I think it rather ironic that her so-called ‘soft porn’ books have titles like “Hardwired”, “Hardpressed”, “Hardlined”, and now,  “Hard Limit”.  How do you get ‘soft’ out of that?

 We live in a world that is ‘dominated’ by powers that give into fleshly desires.   While this is not new, what is new is that there is less restraint, both publically and privately.  While the world has not quite gone to ‘anything goes’, you could call our current ‘laissez faire’ attitude to be ‘let’s allow it and see how well it goes for most people.’  What is now missing in our culture is any kind of agreed upon standard of religious restraint for our moral conscious.   It remains to be seen is how far we can go and how long we can survive without the “Christian” moral compass that has been our consensus and guide up until now.

 

WHAT THE FLESH DESIRES

While the world around us releases itself from religious restraints, “We must not ‘forget’ about the ‘menace’ of the flesh”,  wrote pastoral teacher, Maxie Dunnam.   Even when we yearn to be free ‘spirits’, even to free ourselves from ‘religious’ restraints that have become as negative for us, as some were in Jesus’ day,  we must remember that we still inhabit bodies of ‘flesh and blood’ and bones.   To inhabit physical bodies means that not only can they be damaged physically, but that they can also be damaged spiritually, emotionally, mentally, psychologically or socially. We live in a world where the ‘desires’ of the flesh still pull on us downward, will limit us, war against us, and can even overcome us, so that we can fail to reach our full promise and potential as human beings.   Don’t forget about the ‘menace’ of the flesh”!

 

When I first read that word ‘menace’ my mind immediately turned to that famous TV show of the 1950’s “Dennis the Menace”.  You recall how “Dennis” was a ‘menace’ to his family because he was always getting into things, trying things, exploring things.  It is part of growing up, but Dennis was worse than most.  However, when the ‘joyride’ was over, every show finally came around and ended with some kind of moral teaching that Dennis needed to learned by having his ‘fleshly’ and ‘mischievous’ ways corrected.    The show was ‘fun’ to watch because it spoke to something that is true to all of us---the pull of passions, desires, and weaknesses of people who inhabit human flesh.

 

This reality of our human struggle with the flesh goes further back than the New Testament language that Paul expresses in this text.   The ancient Greeks wrote about it, and probably Paul gets some of his own cues from the culture around him.   Ancient Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and others wrote often about the potential ‘negatives’ of the physical world that needed to be overcome, conquered, controlled or disciplined, before a person could achieve moral and ethical excellence.   Socrates said that human actions need to be useful.  Plato said that the world of ‘ideas’ is more eternal than the world of temporary ‘matter’.  Aristotle took the teachings of Plato and Socrates and wrote about the need to live a life of “virtue” or character by balancing human reason with human desires.

 

So, when Paul wrote to the Galatians, “Do not gratify the desires of the flesh” (5:16b), his readers knew much about ‘the struggle’ human beings have to try and overcome the lower, negative, fleshly desires.   They knew about it and we still know about it.  When David Letterman recently retired from CBS’s Late Show, he spoke with Jane Pauley about his past addiction to Alcohol.  “If I hadn’t stopped drinking at age 34, I’d be dead.”  The struggle against our own ‘fleshly’ lower nature continues, whether it is admitted or not.   We see in the continual struggle with crude and rude language.  We see it in the presence of pornography where lines are continually pushed on ‘television’, online, or in print.  We even see our own struggle with the ‘flesh’ showing up at church, when people follow whims, fads, or give into the ‘fleshly’ allure of appearance, pretense or the glitter or gold.

 

I’ve spoken about an associate pastor the church where I was pastor was searching for.  We had discovered a very talented young man, who could preach well, was musical and had many of gifts for ministry.  The congregation liked him, especially some of the younger ladies, for he was handsome, energetic, and appealing.  While we allowing him to do some ‘intern’ and ‘interim’ work for us, some of us in leadership, saw some the ways he ‘used’ his talents, not just to ‘move’ people, but also to ‘manipulate.  By doing our homework, we discovered that he had been run out of another town because of having an affair with a church member’s wife.  It was then that we had to make the ‘unpopular’ decision to release him from ‘consideration’ for our position, because he was living and leading by ‘gratifying the desires of the flesh’.

 

We must realize that Paul is not writing this letter to non-Christians, who have not been “converted” or ‘transformed’ by the Spirit, but he was writing to Christians, who were still being ‘converted” and still being urged to be ‘transformed’ by ‘the renewing of their minds by the Spirit.  In the New Testament, the conversion experience is not a one-time event, but it is an ongoing process, which continues as people are ‘being led by’ God’s Spirit.  In other words, no one has ‘arrived’ as long as we still inhabit this body of ‘flesh and blood’ and bones.

 

So that no one will be confused about what it means to be pulled ‘downward’ toward their lower nature,  Paul makes a list of some of the end results of those living ‘unopposed’ to their lower nature.   He even says these are ‘obvious’ and need no argument.  By this he means that no one ‘in their right mind’ would want to live this way.  He even goes on warn that if you give into these lower ways that you will remain subject to the law and you will live a lesser life and remain outside of sphere of God’s rule.   These ‘fleshly’ ways included sexual, spiritual, religious, emotional, relational, and social taboos and impurities.  Again they ought to be ‘obvious’ to us,  and no one in their right mind should live this way, but what happens when a culture ‘loses’ it’s right mind starts to call even these ‘impurities’ or taboos ‘the new normal’?  How can we continue to see Paul’s clear warning about the lower desires in a world of ‘blurred lines’?   Can people still rise above the culture to be ‘led’ by the Spirit when the norm has become to ‘gratify’ or ‘give into’ the lust of the flesh? 

 

THE FRUIT THE SPIRIT GROWS

Before we can learn ‘not gratify the desires of the flesh’ we need to distinguish that Paul is not saying we that we deny ourselves of what we need.  For Paul it is not the human body (soma) that is the problem, but it is ‘flesh’ (sarx) that is the problem.  Living in the ‘flesh’ mean living the kind of life that only lives to ‘gratify the desires of the flesh’.   To fail to understand this difference has led to all kinds of weird, mistaken religious and secular attempts to overcome the lower, lesser elements of human nature.  Some have even attempted to ‘punishing’ the flesh by inflicting pain so that even it becomes ‘strangely’ pleasurable because the physical pain feels easier than the emotional.  This kind of sadistic perversion corrupts Paul’s intended point.   The point is not the ‘punishment’ of the flesh, or to refuse all ‘gratification’ of the flesh, but the point is the right way to ‘gratify the flesh’ which, balances human reason and desires (Aristotle) by being led by the right Spirit (Paul). 

 

Paul’s approach to controlling lower ‘fleshly desires’  assumes that one can’t control the flesh by simply ‘denying’ it, but one can only control the lower desires of the flesh by ‘growing’ a new kind of ‘fruit’ which is more appetizing because it has become the become the heart’s stronger desire.  Just like you don’t take candy from a baby, you must give them a carrot instead, you also can’t help someone by simply taking something away, but you must teach that person to experience and to like what is more lasting and what is potentially more pleasurable.  You must help them to be gratified by what also satisfies, not only the flesh, but satisfies the whole person who is not only a body, but who is also has a mind, and is a soul who has a spirit.   Paul goes on to show us that the soul’s complete satisfaction is something only ‘love’ can do.

 

When you read on, as Paul unveils his list of ‘spiritual’ virtues as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness…. and so forth  you must notice that they all unfold out of the single, foremost virtue, which is love.   The “Fruit of the Spirit” is really singular and all the greatest, most satisfying values and virtues every human needs, grows out of a context and a commitment to love.  Only ‘love’ can help a person overcome ‘the lust of the flesh’.  For only when you know unconditional love,  are you filled with a satisfaction of love that no ‘lust’ can ever mimic or multiply.   In other words, as the chorus of a Billy Preston song once demanded, “Nothin from nothin means Nothin!  You gotta have something, if you want to be with me.”   His point was that life means more than fulfilling lesser desires, but it means fulfilling the best desires,  which at that time he meant doing something ‘compassionate’ with your life. (http://www.lyricsmode.com/lyrics/b/billy_preston/nothing_from_nothing.html).

 

Besides teaching us that we must ‘replace’ the lesser behaviors with the better behaviors, the other thing Paul teaches about being ‘led by the Spirit’’ is that ‘spiritual’ fruit is a ‘taste’ that grows on you when you starting growing and feeding on it in your own life.  Being patient, kind, generous, gentle, or faithful, is not automatic.  Just like you don’t always immediately like the foods that are best for you, you can acquire a taste and a desire for them, but you have sometimes have to find a ‘motive’ to take the first bite and you have to keep feeding on most nourishing things.    But how do we do this?  How do we take the ‘leap of faith’ we need to overcome our lesser, lower desires that can be so destructive and eventually debilitating?

 

BELONGING TO CHRIST

Paul suggests how this new kind of ‘high-life’ commences and continues, when he says that ‘those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires’ (v.24).   Someone looking to stay in their destructive patterns will immediately gravitate toward the negative implications of Paul’s language.  Why would someone use to ‘gratifying’ their flesh want to ‘crucify’ their flesh?  Do you not see the ridiculous, if not absurd ‘impossibility’ of this demand?  Who would want ‘die’ to anything that is fun, pleasurable, and full of excitement for oneself?  Who would want to inflict upon themselves the difficulty of being ‘patience’, be ‘kind’, ‘generous’ or ‘faithful’ ?   Why would you seek a deeper joy, or desire a peace’ that promises more from love than with hate?  

 

Few take the risk, unless they find a ‘love’ that ‘lifts’ them beyond themselves.   When you finally know that ‘you are not alone’ or that life ‘is not just about you’ so that there is someone to live or a hope to die for, will you be able to ‘crucify’  the lesser desires you have now, for the ‘higher’ ones.   The key to everything Paul hopes for the Galatians, and for what Jesus died for, is that we too might gain this greater sense of ‘belonging’—to each other, and to God.    

 

In one of the first social studies of this century entitled “Bowling Alone”, Harvard scholar Robert Putnam, tells about two guys who just happened to be in a Michigan bowling league together, who are most unlike each other; one old, one young, and one black and one white, one in one profession, and the other in a very different.  They were not alike at all, except that they ‘belong’ to a same group of people who ‘bowled together’ in a league.  When the young white man realizes the older man needs a kidney, he steps forward and finds he is a perfect match.  The younger man of 33 tells the older 63 year old, “I really like you and I wouldn’t hesitate to do this all over again.”  

The older man responds, “Well, Andy, I cared about you before, but now I’m really rooting for you!”  (From E.L. Greene, www.boiseuu.org/sermons/april702bowlingalone.pdf).

 

Yogi Bera, the very articulate baseball great once said, “If you don’t go to people’s funerals, you can be sure that they won’t come to yours.”   We live in a world where the much of the culture is so ‘busy’ feeding its own desires, that is losing it sense of community and love.   As Robert Putnam has rightly suggested, a culture that only feeds its desire to ‘bowl alone’ will lose the healing, the wholeness, and sense of life and love that can only come from ‘belonging’. 

 

In her poem, Spiritual Literacy, Marge Piercy, writes that “…It starts when we say WE, and know WHO you mean, and each day you say it you mean one more…”   Is there any greater sense of ‘belonging’ than to belong to the source of love?   This Christ sent from a God who so loves,  calls us to be ‘led’ by the Spirit so we can learn to desire  the life we should desire, because he has given us the love we need most.   When you ‘live by the Spirit’,  you know that you never live or 'bowl' alone.   AMEN.   

Sunday, August 16, 2015

“What Matters Most”

 A Sermon Based Upon Galatians 5: 1-15, NRSV
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, BA, MDiv, DMin.  
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Pentecost 11, August 16th, 2015

Will Willimon tells about how one day a recruiter for the "Teach America" program visited the campus of Duke University, which is of course, one of the most prestigious universities in the South. The recruiter was there to see if she might be able to find some bright young students willing to teach in some of the most difficult and deprived school systems in the country.

 When the recruiter got up to the podium and saw the auditorium full of young men and women, she said: "I don't know why I am here. You are all special people, who have benefited from the best educational resources that our country has to offer. And I can tell by looking at you, that you are all bound for Wall Street or law school or medical school. And here I am trying to recruit you to take a salary of $15,000 a year and to work in some on the worst situations in our nation. I'm here to beg you to waste your life for a bunch of ungrateful kids in the backwoods of Appalachia or in the inner city of Philadelphia. I must have been crazy to come here.  "But I do have some literature up here, and I would be willing to talk to anybody who might happen to be interested. But I know, just by looking at you, that all of you want to be successes, and here I am inviting you to be failures. So you can all leave now. The meeting is over."

When the recruiter finished speaking, the rows of students stood up, and most of them rushed forward, pushing and shoving their way to get a chance to talk to that recruiter, dying to do something more with their lives than they had ever thought of before (William Willimon, The Intrusive Word, p. 61).

What are you going to use your ‘freedom’ for?    This seems to be what Paul is wondering as he turn his focus from defending freedom to more clearly defining it. 

In chapter 4, Paul reminded the Galatians that they are all descendants of the ‘free woman’, not the ‘slave woman.’   When he says this, Paul speaks allegorically, metaphorically, symbolically and figuratively.   He is not literally saying that Abraham’s second wife Sarah was better than Abraham’s first wife, Hagar.   He is also not saying that Isaac was better than Ishmael or that Jews are better than Arabs, just like he is not saying that Jacob was better than Esau or that Christians are better than Jews.  What Paul is saying is that through Abraham’s wife Sarah that God brought the promise and opportunity of freedom for everyone.  Because of Jesus Christ, we all have a way to become children of the ‘free woman’ (4:31) and we can be free from whatever hinders us.   We can all follow Jesus because: ‘It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” (5:1).

IT IS FOR FREEDOM…. (5:1)
That’s a very big statement isn’t it?   Everything that Jesus died for, was raised for and will come again for, is so that we can be ‘free’.  That’s also what Jesus meant when he himself said, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free….”

FREEDOM IS A BIG WORD and it is at the heart of everything that Paul is trying to communicate to the Christians at Galatia.  For you see, even Christians, just like anyone else, can become confused about what it means to be ‘free’.   They, you, I or we, alone or collectively, can much too easily forget that ‘freedom’ is what faith is all about.  But the question is what kind of ‘freedom’?  What does Paul mean when he says: “It is for Freedom that Christ has set you free! (5:1)

In PAUL’S DEFINITION OF FREEDOM he means a freedom that frees us from ‘slavery’ (NRSV) or ‘bondage’ (KJV) to laws, rules, regulations and meaningless rituals.   In Paul’s definition of freedom he means a freedom that truly sets us free to so that Christ can be a full ‘benefit’ to us (5:2).  In Paul’s definition of freedom he means a freedom that causes us to ‘fall’ into grace rather than ‘fall away from grace’ (5:4).   In Paul’s definition of freedom he means a freedom that is ‘through the Spirit’ and is ‘by grace’ while we ‘wait’ for our ultimate ‘hope of righteousness’ (5:5). 

However we apply Paul’s definition of freedom to our own lives, this is not a freedom, like so many misunderstand it, which releases us from a life of responsibility.   This is a freedom that calls us to be both faithful and responsive to God’s love in Jesus Christ while we become the people we can now hope to ultimately become in Jesus Christ.   This is not a freedom that says that we have arrived or have achieved, but it is a freedom that affirms the potential and possibility of grace in each of us by what Christ has achieved for us all, in his own perfect ‘righteousness’ which has now become true ‘hope’. 

As the people of churches of Galatia had become ‘confused’ (5:10) by those who would call them back to circumcision and legalism,  Paul wants them to know that since Christ has come,  he has revealed a ‘higher’ level of righteousness,  a level which ‘exceeded the righteousness of the Scribes and the Pharisees’ (Matt. 5) and even exceeds the Law of Moses.  Since Christ has ‘set them free’ from being ‘obliged’ to the ‘letter of the law’ which is a ‘letter’ they could never fulfill, nor can we,  now they and we are ‘set free’ for obeying the ‘spirit of the law’, which frees us for a better life and fills us with an even greater hope.  Could we still imagine what such spiritual freedom might still mean for us?

Several years ago I visited a little town in eastern Germany with the strange sounding name,  “Herrnhut”.  Translated the town name means, “shelter of the Lord”.  This town was the place where some of the very first Moravians escaped persecution from the Roman Catholic Church and found shelter on the large estate which was then owned by Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf.  When I visited the large Moravian Church building there, I was struck by the similarities to Home Morvavian Church in Old Salem, and by the simplicity of the worship center, which had no visible religious images.  It was there that the Moravians were ‘set free’ from the ‘idolatries’ and of the Catholic Church of that day so they could live out their faith in sincerity and simplicity.  To become serious about their faith, these Moravians understood that they had to first get free of all the ‘trappings’ of insincere worship and religion.  They focused upon responsibility to community, upon shared work, upon practical organization that matters, and upon religious freedom and education for both men and women.  What was true of the Moravians was also true of Baptists, Methodists, Quakers and many other “Protestant” religious groups of that time.  They were not trying to find freedom so they could escape their human responsibility, but they were trying to gain the freedom to live their responsibility in ways that expressed a true ‘hope of righteousness’. 

SO, DON’T GIVE UP YOUR FREEDOM (5:1b,; 4, 13)
The corruptibility of faith, religion and of humanity in Paul’s day, in the time of the Protestant Reformation, reminds us of the corruptibility of any human, any faith or of any religion in any day.  This is why Paul is so concerned that the Galatians, who have been given ‘freedom’ in Christ, should not ‘submit again to the yoke of slavery’ (5:1b). 

The use of the language of ‘slavery’ or ‘bondage’ is interesting because it is exactly the opposite of what religion and the law of God was all about.  If you recall from reading the Old Testament, the giving of the Law came immediately after the Exodus, the grand moment of the liberation of the people of God from their bondage in Egypt.  How dare that the ‘law’ that was intended to help them maintain their freedom now be used to put them into ‘bondage’ all over ‘again’!    How in the world could the Jewish faith allow this to happen?   How in the world could the churches in Galatia allow this to happen to them again?   How in the world could any church or any religion for that matter, allow faith to become an burden rather than a blessing,  making it an ‘albatross around the neck,  as a punishment or a curse that is ‘enslaving’ rather than ‘freeing’ us with ‘hope’ and ‘righteousness’?   

One of the reasons many today are skeptical of ‘religion’ today is exactly for this reason.  They see the church or faith or religion as a way that limits rather than frees, as a way that strangles rather than strengthens, or as a way that restrains rather than releases.   What Paul wants us to know, finally and fully, is that ‘it is for freedom’ that Christ has ‘set is free’,  but it also follows that because we are truly ‘set free’ we might also abuse or corrupt our God-given ‘freedom’.  

If religion or faith can be corrupted, then what good is it?  Well, the answer is that anything can be ‘corrupted’.  Just like air, water, or land or a ‘soul’ can be polluted or corrupted, so can faith, law, religion or truth.   There is no way around this without taking our ‘freedom’ away.  The potential or possibility of the ‘misuse’ of faith does not disqualify faith, but it can, as Paul warns, ‘cut us off from Christ’.   This is why Paul sounds so serious when he writes in similar words: “Don’t submit again to slavery!  Don’t fall away from grace!  Don’t listen to those who will confuse you!  Don’t stop obeying the truth!  Don’t take away the cross!  Don’t misuse your freedom!    I’m paraphrasing, but you get the message.  This is strong language, but it’s strong for a good purpose. If either the world or the church corrupts the message of ‘freedom’ in Christ, there will be no more ‘freedom’ and “Christ will be of no benefit’.  Without Christ there is no ‘freedom’ and without ‘freedom’ Christ has ‘no benefit’ whatsoever.

I recall years ago, when I was young in ministry, another pastor, who was a bit older than me, trying to tell me that if we could only go back to Leviticus, which meant going back to legalistically following the ‘rules’ or ‘laws’ in the Old Testament, we could not only ‘eat better’ and ‘live better’, but could help save ourselves, our churches and our nation.   He told me that all the ‘answers’ we will ever need to have healthy, happy lives in found how the Bible teaches us to live in those old laws.   It all sounded nice and neat, but something didn’t seem right, especially when I read through Leviticus.  Just read Leviticus and you’ll come to understand what I mean.   There are just parts of the Bible that may have once spoken volumes of truth, but has little relevance to our lives today.

It might surprise you, but the point of the Christian faith is not to “live” the Bible as the point of the Christian faith is so that Christ will become alive in us.   This is not just semantics.  The Bible is important because it leads us to Jesus.  The Bible is a story, but it’s not just any story.  It’s the story of how God calls us all to be part of God’s story.  We become part of God’s story by getting into the Bible, but by letting the Bible get into us.  The only the way such an old, ancient book can get into us, is when we let the living Christ rule our lives. 

You cannot live a ‘book’, no matter how good, holy, or righteous it is.  Even the Word of God is not restricted to the Words of the Bible, for the Bible itself calls Jesus the living “WORD” of God.   Again, the point I’m making is not to belittle the Bible, but to help us realize that the Bible points us to the WORD who is living, relating, and should be alive in us.  It is to the Galatians that Paul has already said: “Nevertheless, it is not I who lives, but Christ lives in me.”  To be a serious Christian does not mean going backward to what the Bible once said, but it means going forward, with the guidance of Bible, so that through the ‘freedom’ we have been given in Christ, the Spirit can lead us, as we let Christ get into us.  We certainly don’t read or study the Bible to live like people used to, but we study the Bible to find the freedom to live faithfully right now and into the future.

THE ONLY THING THAT COUNTS (5:6)
But of course the final point must answer:  What does it mean to let Christ freely live in us and to let Christ lead us to be ‘set free’?   

Such ‘freedom’ in Christ cannot simply mean to be free to be for anything we want or desire.  All freedom does not cultivate or maintain real freedom.  For example, I can say that I live in a ‘free’ country and that I’m free to make my own decisions, but there are also ‘boundaries’ which say I must make a living,  provide for my family, take care of myself, and care for my community.  If I don’t do these things, my freedom will eventually become burdens and then shackles.  If I live irresponsibly, or if I break the norms and rules of life, then I will run into barriers, if not blockades to my freedom.   Paul himself goes on to create a necessary boundary when he says, “Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence…” (5:13). 

The true nature of freedom is not to misuse it, abuse it, or hoard it only for myself.  That is not what ‘freedom’ means in any real sense.  This is why Paul gives us a final word that points us what freedom means by telling us that ‘the only thing that counts is faith working through love’ (5:6).  This is what matters most.  What matters is not following some ritual like circumcision which includes some and excludes others, but what matters most is the kind of faith that leads us to try to include everyone who has faith in Christ.   True freedom is to have the kind of faith that works through love for all.   There may not be any better description of the gospel in the entire New Testament that to say that the good news is that in Jesus Christ God has given us a faith that works through love.  Doesn’t this sound just like Jesus?  Doesn’t this also sound like James, “Faith without works is dead, being alone?”  Doesn’t this sound like the kind of ‘good news’ that can still save our world?   This is something we can build our whole lives and can build the hope of the world upon,  so that we can be people will not only get free from the sins that entangle us, but so we can stay free because we now live the kind of ‘faith’ that (always) works (or always has an effect) because it is a ‘faith that works through love’?

In Daisaku Ikeda’s children’s story, “The Cherry Tree, two children come across an elderly Japanese man who is found nursing a war-damaged cherry tree.  Most of you know that ‘Cherry Trees’ are ‘sacred beauties’ that bloom beautifully all over Japan.  When the children ask the old man why he is tending an almost dead tree, he replies,  It’s true she hasn’t blossomed since before the war.  But one day, with a little tender-loving kindness, she may blossom again.  Not in my lifetime time perhaps, but one day!  I’m sure of it.”   Why was he sure of it?  Because he was sure of the effect of faith, hope, care and love  (As quoted in “Sessions with Galatians” by Eric S. Porterfield,  Smyth & Helwys, p. 70, 2005).

That’s a wonderful thing to teach a child in a war-torn world, isn’t it?  That if we turn our efforts toward a ‘faith that works through love’  we will one day grow the kind of life in the world that will enable us to be free, fruitful and faithful.  Do we have the kind of ‘faith’ that flowers love?  If not what kind of  life do we have when we only live to indulge our own desires?   It could be different, if we would learn to have the kind of faith that works through love.

Marian Preminger was born in Hungary in 1913, was raised in a castle with her aristocratic family, and was surrounded with maids, tutors, governesses, butlers, and chauffeurs. Her grandmother, who lived with them, insisted that whenever they traveled, they take their own linen, for she believed it was beneath their dignity to sleep between sheets used by common people.

While attending school in Vienna, Marian met a handsome young Viennese doctor. They fell in love, eloped and married when she was only eighteen. The marriage lasted only a year, and she returned to Vienna to begin her life as an actress.  While auditioning for a play, she met the brilliant young German director, Otto Preminger.  They fell in love and soon married. They went to America soon thereafter, where he began his career as a movie director. Unfortunately and tragically, Hollywood is a place of ‘self-indulgence’ where Marian got caught up in the glamour, lights and superficial excitement and soon began to live a sordid, promiscuous life.
When Preminger discovered it, he divorced her.

Marian returned to Europe to live the life of a socialite in Paris. In 1948 she learned through the newspaper that Albert Schweitzer, the man she had read about as a little girl, was making one of his periodic visits to Europe and was staying at Gunsbach. She phoned his secretary and was given an appointment to see Dr. Schweitzer the next day. When she arrived in Gunsbach she discovered he was in the village church playing an organ. She listened and turned the pages of music for him. After a visit he invited her to have dinner at his house. By the end of the day she knew she had discovered what she had been looking for all her life. She was with him every day thereafter during his visit, and when he returned to Africa he invited her to come to Lambarene and work in the hospital.

She did - and she found herself. There in Lambarene, the girl born in a castle and raised like a princess, who was accustomed to being waited on with all the luxuries of a spoiled life, became a servant. She changed bandages, bathed babies, fed lepers…and became free. She wrote her autobiography and called it All I Ever Wanted Was Everything. She could not get the everything that would satisfy and give meaning until she could give everything in the kind of ‘faith that works through love’.

When she died in 1979, the New York Times carried her obituary, which included this statement from her: “Albert Schweitzer said there are two classes of people in this world - the helpers, and the non- helpers. I’m a helper.  What an obituary!  (From a sermon by Maxie Dunnam at esermons.com). 

When we dare to have a faith that freely does the works of love,  life works.   Life works because love works.  This is what is like to finally find what matters most.   Amen.