Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 6th Sunday After Pentecost + June 26, 2016
For the last week I was at Berry College in Rome, Georgia for Affirm, a summer gathering for youth from all over the Southeastern Synod. Beth Smith, Sandy Vollmer, Bishop Gordy, Anna Gordy Montgomery, and six St. Andrew youth were also there.
As a whole group we focused on a theme verse, Micah 6:8: “God has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” We talked about what it means to act in the cause of justice, to stand with God on the side of those who are vulnerable or in need. We talked about what it means to love mercy, grace, and forgiveness and to live mercifully in a world where anger and retribution and fear are too often our guiding values. We talked about how we can walk through our lives not pridefully or demandingly, but humbly, alongside our God who “came not to be served, but to be serve” (Mark 10:45; Matt. 20:28). By the end of the week I felt like this huge group of people from all over Tennessee, Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama had come together in conversation about what it means to live as a Christian in today’s world. I can’t speak for everyone there, but for me, it helped to renew my sense of call to the Church and the work of Christ.
And that’s just the big picture. We also spent time in separate “units,” where we focused on unique themes and lessons. For instance, Sandy was a leader in a group called Missionaries, which helped youth discover their own gifts and how they could use them for service in the world. Chloe Stiles and Emma Tallyn were part of this group. They spent some of their days out in the community, volunteering at food pantries, the Salvation Army, and the Boys and Girls club.
I was part of another group, called Bridges. Our group spent time talking about the barriers that divide people from one another: things like prejudice, assumptions, classism, racism, sexism. Then we talked about how we can “build bridges” to get over these barriers and form real relationships with those who are different than us, to know them and to feel known, and in that way make help us and others feel the love of God that seeks us out just as we are and binds us together in community.
Each day our group began by focusing one of the five promises we made in baptism: to “…live among God’s faithful people; to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s Supper; to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed; to serve all people following the example of Jesus; and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.”
We made posters of these promises and hung them on a wall in our classroom space, surrounding a bowl of water. Whenever our students came to unit time, this was the first thing they saw: a reminder that they were claimed by God as God’s children in the waters of baptism, and a reminder of the lives they are called to live through their baptism.
About halfway through Affirm we added something to this wall. We had spent the day talking about stereotypes, but the youth weren’t getting as riled up about the topic as the leaders had hoped. So we asked them about the stereotypes that affected them personally: how do other people judge you automatically based on one thing they see about you? We had the students write down one way they felt unfairly judged, and then took their picture with that judgement. That night the staff added these portraits to our baptism wall.
The posters reminding us of the promises of our baptism, reminding us that God loves us and sees us as beloved children, still hung on the wall, but now scattered among them were pictures with a jarringly different message: reminders of how the world sees and judges us. Pictures of teenagers I’d come to know and love holding up heartbreaking judgments from their own experiences: “I’m black, so I must be dangerous.” “I have a mental illness, so I must be fragile.” “I’m a man, so I must not have feelings.” Suddenly that wall looked a lot more like life in the world: a confusing mixture of what God says about us, what others say about us, and our own sense of who we are and what we can be.
Since I knew I’d be preaching this morning, I’d been carrying today’s reading from Galatians in my head throughout the week at Affirm, looking for connections between what we were doing there and what Paul wrote about thousands of years ago.
Paul wrote to a group of Christians who were struggling with how the requirements of the Jewish law should be applied to the Christian community. Specifically, the were fighting — and I mean fighting, like Fox News vs. MSNBC — about whether gentile converts to this Jewish Jesus-movement had to be circumcised in order to join the community. Paul’s answer to this debate was strong and clear: “In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6).
This strong statement flows from one of Paul’s core principles: it is not the law that saves us, that makes us righteous, that brings us into the strongest covenant of God’s love: it is faith. It is not obedience to the law that makes us a community of God’s people; it is the faith of Christ. We are freed from the demands of the law by this faithful welcome into relationship with God. This is what Paul was talking about in that first phrase from today’s reading: “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”
At Affirm, as I looked at our baptismal wall — how those images of the world’s judgments sliced into the images of the promises and claims of baptism — I thought again of Paul’s statement: “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”
Too often our the judgments of others become a “yoke of slavery.” There is a way in which the assumptions and expectations of society become like a law for us. They are the basic means by which we judge one another and ourselves. We often bind ourselves to them, not because it is the right thing to do, but because if we don’t we will suffer the consequences. We will be judged; we will be outcast; we will be treated with disdain. Maybe especially as teenagers — but definitely as adults too — we measure ourselves by these social expectations to decide whether we’re good enough, to see where we have to change or where we will take a stand as rebels. We define ourselves based on these social laws, and we judge others by them too.
But as Christians we stand on the promise that these laws are not what makes us “good enough.” And obedience to these social expectations is not what makes us into a community. What matters is how God sees us. And God sees us as beloved children, as people who are sinners and yet saints, as part of the God’s community.
The church, in its ideal form, represents this reality on earth. In its best form, the church is to be a place where God’s grace defines us rather than obedience to laws, assumptions, and social expectations. In the church people of different nations fellowship together, the poor are welcome alongside the rich, criminals and outcasts are given mercy.
I’m reminded of a story Nadia Bolz-Weber tells: when she was young, she had a lazy eye. At school they called her all sorts of horrible nicknames: but her church was the one place where they called her by her name.
May we strive to be that kind of church: a church where people are known by the name God calls them and not by how they mold to human standards; a church where people may truly feel that “for freedom Christ has set us free,” may truly feel the truth that God has called each of us to a life of love and mercy and community, not because we deserve it, but because God says it shall be so.
This is both grace and commandment for us. As Paul wrote: “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. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
Let us pray: O God, you set us free in Jesus Christ with a power greater than all that would keep us captive. Grant that we might live gracefully in our freedom without selfishness or arrogance, and through love become slaves to the freedom of the gospel for the sake of your reign. Amen.
 Affirmation of Baptism, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 236.
 Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastrix (Nashville: Jericho Books, 2014).
 Scripture (Series 1) prayer, June 26, 2016, Vanderbilt Divinity School’s Revised Common Lectionary resource site, http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/prayers.php?id=268