Freedom from…

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 6th Sunday After Pentecost + June 26, 2016

Readings: 1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21; Galatians 5:1, 13-25; Luke 9:51-62


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.”[1]

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.[2]

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.[3]


[1] Affirmation of Baptism, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 236.

[2] Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastrix (Nashville: Jericho Books, 2014).

[3] 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

When God Tells a New Story

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 5th Sunday of Easter + April 24, 2016

Readings: Acts 11:1-18; Revelation 21:1-16; John 13:31-35


 

“Millennial” is one of the biggest buzzwords of the day. It’s the label given to my generation: people born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s. One of the hottest topics right now is classifying Millennials, and I’m sure you’ve all seen some of these articles; the stories range from “Millennials are self-entitled and refuse to wear anything but flip-flops” to “Millennials are optimistic and highly likely to volunteer and donate.”

In my experience as a Millennial I’ve noticed something that all these articles seem to neglect: there is a huge swath of us Millennials that really, really likes Harry Potter. Even nine years after the release of the last book in the series and five years after the last movie hit theaters, not a day goes by without a Harry Potter-related post — or ten — popping up on my Facebook newsfeed. A seminary classmate of mine told me that if she hadn’t gotten married by the time she turned 30 — if she hadn’t gotten to have the bachelorette party and the wedding reception — she was going to throw herself a party with her best friends at the Harry Potter-themed amusement park at Universal Studios. I’ve spent hours with friends — and strangers — talking about which Hogwarts House we’d be sorted into. (TEAM HUFFLEPUFF!) Maybe once or twice we even pondered which House Jesus might belong to, and how the answer might explain our understanding of the gospel.

Jesus Hogwarts

“Which House would Jesus belong to?” — just a snippet of the conversation.

All that to say: I know I’m kind of a nerd, but maybe it’s not that strange that as I mused about this sermon, my thoughts wandered to the Harry Potter story. The main conflict of the Harry Potter series is, on the surface, the fight between Harry and the evil wizard Voldemort. But really the conflict is wider and deeper than that: it is a fight between two opposing stories of how the world should be, two opposing stories of who belongs in the community of wizards and who is an outsider.

Voldemort’s story might be titled “Magic is Might.”[1] People with magical abilities are obviously the most powerful, and so they are a higher class, the ones meant to rule. People without magical powers are lesser beings, and creatures of different species — magic or not — are low on the ladder. And even within the group of magical people are different classes: “Purebloods” — people born of two magical parents — are the cream of the crop, and those born from non-magical parents are openly insulted. Voldemort’s followers aren’t exactly supporting him; they are supporting the story he tells about the world.

Harry Potter represents a different story. In this story people are not judged by birth or ability, but by their love and compassion. And even for those who do wrong there is room for forgiveness and redemption. Those who fight on Harry’s side are fighting for this story of how the world should be.

If we can get past all the crazy Harry Potter vocabulary — wizard and muggle and mudblood — that conflict begins to sound very, very familiar. We are all constantly telling stories that define and redefine who is “us” and who is “them.” And those stories can be messy: they change depending on the people involved and the issue at hand. My story is obviously right to me, and your story is obviously right to you, and a third person might offer a completely different interpretation. And our stories play out in how we define what is right and wrong, just and unjust, necessary and flexible.

Despite all that gray area and disagreement in our world of stories, it’s hard to imagine someone reading the Harry Potter books and thinking, “Harry is so misguided. Purebloods are clearly superior to mudbloods.” That’s because of the way the story is told: even though it is told with some sympathy toward the villains, there is no gray area about who is right in the series. The storytelling leads us to side with Harry; and not just with Harry, but with the enslaved house-elves, with the werewolf Professor Lupin; readers even feel sympathy for the giant spiders that live in the forest behind the school — all because of the way the story is told.

The stories we are told have a great impact on the way we feel and think and act in the world. The stories we hold on to give us the structure by which we make sense of facts and statistics, Bible passages and the face of the person next to us. Our stories often affect whether we see God active in the world around us, where we see God, what we hear from God.

But then, sometimes God says, “I’m overriding your story,” steps in, and tells us a new story.

That’s what happened to Peter according to the story we just read from the book of Acts.  Peter was praying on a rooftop, started to get hungry, and then had a vision. Something like a sheet descended from heaven, and all these different creatures were hanging out on it together: pigs and sand lizards and ravens. Peter heard a voice say: “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”

But Peter had God figured out. He knew this vision was a test. He knew the story that God had told to Moses: in this world there are clean animals and unclean animals. And God’s people do not eat the unclean animals (Lev. 11). So hungry Peter replied obediently, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.”

I wonder if Peter expected to hear something like, “Well done, Peter! You passed the test!”  Instead, the voice reprimanded him: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Peter and God went through this routine three times before the sheet-thing went back up to heaven (Acts 10:9-16).

Peter knew the old story that had been passed down to him. The story of clean and unclean animals was important to his people, his culture, and his religion. During the Maccabean Revolt against the foreign armies occupying Jerusalem, about 200 years earlier, people had been martyred for refusing to betray their Jewish identity by eating pig meat (2 Maccabees 7). It must have been terribly difficult for Peter to believe that God was telling him a radically different story.

But the main point of God’s new story was not “go ahead and eat all the animals.” The new story really started when a Roman centurion asked Peter to come visit him.

Peter would have had a good reason to avoid visiting Cornelius. Cornelius was a Gentile, a non-Jew, someone from outside the circle of God’s chosen people. But Peter interpreted this fact through the new story God had just told him: “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean” (Acts 10:28).

This visit got Peter in trouble. Our reading started with a group of Jewish Jesus-followers criticizing Peter: “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Why did you fellowship with the unclean gentiles?

They were living in another story; Peter had to bring them into the new story God had told him. Peter told them about the vision with the sheet and the animals and the voice. He told them that this Roman centurion had been visited by an angel, and that while Peter preached the gospel, the Holy Spirit fell upon Cornelius and his family; they began speaking in tongues and praising God. Peter explained, “If then God gave them the same gift that God gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”

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Pentecost, Estella Louisa M Canziani (1887-1964)

It is a testament to how difficult this story was to the early Jesus-followers that it appears twice in a row in the book of Acts: we walk through it with Peter in chapter ten, and then in chapter eleven Peter tells the whole thing, in detail, to those who criticized him. In fact much of the New Testament is devoted to telling and re-telling God’s new story: a redefinition of who is part of God’s people and what it means to be God’s people.

God continues to tell this story to us today. And the story is always new, because God is continually updating the categories. To hear that God is at work among the Gentiles does not surprise us here today; after all we are Gentiles, and we believe that God is at work among us. But what if the story is: God is not only at work within the ELCA, but also within Methodist and Roman Catholic and Baptists churches, and even — gasp — within the Missouri Synod? What if the story is that God is at work within Democrats and Republicans and those who have given up on the political system? What if the story is that God moves in the prayers of both illegal immigrants and border patrol agents? What if God is still transgressing the laws we thought God had given us?

If God is moving in all those different places — does that change how we understand one another? If those are the stories God is telling — does that change our own stories?

On the night in which he was betrayed, Jesus, that great storyteller, told a few last stories to his disciples. We catch a very short one in our gospel reading for today: “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Okay, so that’s more a commandment than a story, but I call it a story because it asks us to remember the entire story of Jesus’s life, and all the little stories that make it up. It makes us remember and tell all those stories through a certain framework, and that framework is love. He didn’t say “As I proved the Pharisees wrong, you also should prove others wrong,” or something like that. He said very clearly: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Love ought to be the basic framework for every story we tell as Christians, every story we tell about others and about ourselves. Love ought to be the framework for the stories we use to make sense of what is going on in the world — and even the stories we tell of our enemies, impossible as that feels. And when stories of love become hard to tell, we need to listen in again for the story God is telling us.


[1] This is the title of a statue put up in the Ministry of Magic after it is taken over by Team Voldemort. The statue features a wizard and a witch sitting on thrones made of humans. (Described in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.)

Receive Children, Receive Me (World Day of Prayer 2016)

Written for the 2016 World Day of Prayer, hosted by the Church Women of Franklin + March 4, 2016

Reading: Mark 10:13-16


 

When a child at St. Andrew is preparing for their first Holy Communion, we teach them about the sacrament with the help of a book by Daniel Erlander called A Place for You. The book tells the story of Jesus’s ministry: how he loved, shared, healed, forgave, and welcomed. It tells the story of the Church: how people continue to join Jesus’s family through the waters of baptism and how all kinds of people gather around the Lord’s table as the family of Jesus.

In Daniel Erlander’s telling of the gospel story, there are a group of characters he calls “the crabby people.” He introduces them by saying: “By loving all people, Jesus upset the crabby people who thought God only loves some people.” The crabby people reappear throughout the story. When Jesus eats with sinners, the crabby people say: “He should only eat with good people like us.” When Jesus miraculously feeds thousands of people, the crabby people are in the crowd saying, “Some of these people don’t deserve free food.” When the Church continues the ministry of Jesus — welcoming outsiders and proclaiming that God loves everyone — the crabby people say, “I thought we put a stop to this! It’s like Jesus is back.” On one page there’s a tiny drawing of the crabby people in the corner saying, “We still don’t like this!”

mannamercyimage

In the story we just read from the Gospel of Mark, the disciples are being crabby people. Others are bringing little children to be blessed by Jesus, but the disciples snap at them. We can imagine them saying, “This great teacher doesn’t have time for little children! Move along!”

But Jesus reprimands his crabby disciples. Not only are the little children worth his time, but he tells the disciples that only people who will enter the Kingdom of God are those who can receive the Kingdom like a little child does. There’s something the kids have that the adults are missing — even the adults who spend all their time with Jesus.

There are lots of opinions about how children receive the Kingdom and what it is we adults need to learn from them. Some people point out how children had pretty much no social status in the ancient world; maybe we need to give up our craving for status, become humble, in order to better receive the Kingdom. Some point out how children are totally dependent on their guardians; maybe we need to learn to give up our protests of independence and admit our total dependence on God.

Today I am thinking about how children receive the Kingdom of God in terms of how children receive the people around them. Children are born receiving people like God receives people; they have to be taught to be crabby people.

Children are born ready to trust people and ready to accept people. After all, they don’t have a choice at first, when they are young and entirely dependent on the people around them. But as they grow, they are taught not to accept everyone. Sometimes that’s a good thing, like when we teach our children not to take candy from a stranger. Sometimes that’s a tragic thing, like when a parent neglects or abuses their child, and the child learns from that experience that she can’t trust people. Sometimes it’s an unjust thing, like when a child learns that people who look different than her, or grew up somewhere else, need to be treated like a whole different category of human.

An old Rogers and Hammerstein song comes to mind: “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught,” from the musical South Pacific.

You’ve got to be taught

To hate and fear,

You’ve got to be taught

From year to year,

It’s got to be drummed

In your dear little ear

You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid

Of people whose eyes are oddly made,

And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,

You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,

Before you are six or seven or eight,

To hate all the people your relatives hate,

You’ve got to be carefully taught!

When we teach children to draw a boundary between “us” and “them,” it’s usually out of fear and a desire for safety. Even the most hateful racism, I think, is a cover for (misplaced) fear. But children aren’t born with such fear; they have to be carefully taught.

By the time we are adults, most of us have become much less like children and much more like crabby people. We divide and choose “us” over “them” in so many ways. We choose people from our nation over people from another nation. We choose people who look like us over people who look different.

But when God looks at the human race — actually, when God looks at all of creation — God doesn’t see “us” and “them.” God looks and sees only children of God. God looks and sees a world God has made. God looks and sees one family. God is greater than our fear and our hurt and our distrust, and God sees beyond them to the picture of an entire world that is broken and hurting, an entire world that needs God’s love. And so God offers grace to the whole of creation and hopes that everyone and everything receives that grace.

And so the little child sees the world like the great God does. Our broken world hasn’t yet taught them to live out of fear instead of hope and love. So if the Kingdom of God is a way of life where hope and love finally beat out fear and hate, then the children enter it much more easily than we adults do. It is we adults who are more likely to say: Wait, they shouldn’t be here. Wait, I don’t feel safe around them. Wait, I thought they were the bad guys.

Jesus calls us to be more like young children. To live out of love and hope even though living out of fear seems like the more reasonable and even the safer thing to do. We need to take that risk, because so many are suffering on the other side of the boundaries we draw.

The liturgy for today’s worship reminded us of how the economic embargo on Cuba endangers the “health and growth” of children on the other side of that line, as well as hurting other vulnerable groups of people. The embargo prevents advancements in medicine and technology from reaching people who need it on the other side of the line. It too often stops efforts to bring aid to those who suffer. In fact the United Nations condemns this embargo because of the way it prevents help for those who desperately need it.

And if you are not so familiar with the situation in Cuba — I wasn’t until I started preparing for today’s service — I’m sure that by now you have thought of other examples of those who suffer because of the ways humans draw boundaries of “us” and “them.” At the very least you’ll be reminded when you turn on the news later and see images of refugees packed into camps, or another story of discrimination against people of color or foreigners, or another hate crime. Maybe you’ll be more personally reminded when someone puts you on the other side of a line.

We need to enter the Kingdom of God. We need to start living out of God’s love for all people and God’s hope for all people — for the sake of those who are vulnerable, those who are suffering.

The theme for the 2016 World Day of Prayer is “Receive Children, Receive Me.” That title should remind us of an earlier story from the Gospel of Mark, another time Jesus takes a little child into his arms. Jesus says: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me” (Mark 9:37).

Children are some of the most vulnerable people in every society, and they are the ones most unjustly hurt by the lines we draw. We need to remember that the way we welcome and care for them is the way we welcome and care for Christ.

For many of us, it is easier to welcome and care for all children than it is to welcome and care for all all adults. We tend to see children as innocent and in more desperate need of our care. But I wonder: can we learn to better see all people as children of God? Children of God who need care and grace, as much as we can give? Can we hear in the gospel news that God loves all people a wider, more demanding message? “Receive my children, receive me.” Or “Receive my creation, receive me.”

When we receive all people as God’s children, we enter into the Kingdom as a little child.

At the end of that book I was talking about at the beginning of the sermon, there’s a beautiful picture of the Kingdom of God. Jesus has his arms spread wide in welcome over the Communion table, and crowds of people and animals are gathered around him. People with skin of all different shades celebrate together. The lion lies down with the lamb. People wear clothes from all sorts of cultures and time periods, and they’re hanging out with penguins and giraffes and squid.

At the bottom of the page is a question: “Can you find the crabby people? Are they still crabby?”

Nope. They’re standing right next to Jesus, in the middle of the family that welcomes in all people, and finally, there in the Kingdom of God, they are smiling.

On the back cover of the book, they are dancing with a little child.

Open My Ears, Lord

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + Midweek Lenten Service + March 2, 2016


 

A reading from the Gospel According to Matthew:

Then the disciples came and asked him, ‘Why do you speak to them in parables?’ He answered, ‘To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. The reason I speak to them in parables is that “seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.” With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says:
“You will indeed listen, but never understand,
and you will indeed look, but never perceive.
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and their ears are hard of hearing,
and they have shut their eyes;
so that they might not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and understand with their heart and turn—
and I would heal them.”
But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.
(Matt. 13:10-17, NRSV)

When I was a senior in college, I got to work as a teaching assistant for our Introduction to the New Testament course. One of subjects the professor emphasized over and over was the biblical idea of the resurrection of the dead. She talked about how when modern Christians hear “the resurrection,” we tend to think of Jesus’s resurrection on Easter. But when the Bible says “the resurrection,” most of the time the writers are referring to Last Day when all people will be physically resurrected. This was an ancient Jewish belief that was important in the Jesus movement. In class we studied 1 Corinthians 15, where Paul emphasized this belief: “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?” (1 Cor. 15:12).

In the intro class the resurrection of the dead was talked about multiple times; we used it as an example when we were teaching the students Bible study skills; it was on the study guide, and we held study sessions prior to exams. And, of course, there was a short essay question about it on the final. No student should have been able to leave that class without a pretty good understanding of what the biblical writers were talking about when they wrote about the resurrection of the dead.

The semester ended; winter break began. I was pulling into my parents’ driveway after the long drive home from college when my phone rang: it was the professor; she’d been grading the exams. “I don’t really know what to do,” she began. “Do you remember that question on the final about the resurrection?”

“Yeah.”

“They all got it wrong. Everyone wrote about Jesus’s resurrection. Not a single person wrote about the resurrection of the dead. Did I not cover that well enough in class? Should I just delete that question?”

“No, we covered that pretty well…” I responded. The students didn’t take in the information we’d shared – over and over – because they’d come into the class with their understanding already pretty well set.

One of the main things I learned as a TA that semester is that when people are sure they know something, it is very difficult to get them to actually hear you when you’re telling them something that doesn’t fit into their understanding. There were a number of times that I taught something in a lecture, then got back homework that said something totally opposite – and that was clearly a response they’d either learned in Sunday school or picked up from pop culture’s understanding of Christianity. And that opposite understanding wasn’t written like, “I disagree with you; I think this is what that Bible passage means.” It was written like “This is what I heard you say.” That’s when I started to understand something about what Jesus meant when he talked about “you who have ears to hear” – and you who don’t have ears to hear.

Now, of course, I have that experience all the time. I get into a debate with someone, and I find they aren’t responding to what I’m actually saying, but to what they’ve already decided someone with my viewpoint thinks. I’m sure you’ve all had that experience, too. And then there’s the even-more-common experience of arguing with someone close to you, then feeling like they’re not even trying to understand your opinion or feelings, but just jumping up to defend themselves or prove that they are right and you are wrong.

Since we’re in an election year, we are surrounded by even more examples of people arguing past each other, trying to outshout each other, and just generally not listening.

And, just to make an honest confession – it is Lent, after all – I’ve been the person with closed ears too many times to count.

Having closed ears might be part of being human. After all, self-defense is a natural animal extinct. And scientists talk about “confirmation bias” – the tendency for us to search out information that confirms what we already think; to interpret new information based on how we already understand things; to remember better information that confirms our opinions. Scientists have to work to counter this in their experiments; maybe we ought to work to counter this in our daily lives.

When it comes to listening to the Word of God for our time and place, I think our tendency towards confirmation bias gets even stronger. After all, the stakes are so high: we are trying to listen to what the Creator of the Universe wants for our world. We’re trying to listen for how to act, how to raise our families, how to lead our congregation, how to do our jobs, how to do everything according to God’s will. It seems like a good place to “play it safe” and stick with what we know.

But sometimes that leads to making our understanding, or our community’s understanding, or our culture’s understanding into an idol. We shy away from questioning. We close our ears to alternate understandings.

My fear is that when we do those things, we do not have ears to hear what God is saying to us.

A reading from Isaiah:

The Lord God has given me
the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain
the weary with a word.
Morning by morning he wakens—
wakens my ear
to listen as those who are taught.
The Lord God has opened my ear,
and I was not rebellious,
I did not turn backwards.
(Isaiah 50:4-5, NRSV)

This passage from Isaiah is one of the “Songs of the Suffering Servant.” There are four or five of these songs in the book of Isaiah. They tell of a servant chosen by God to bring salvation and justice, comfort and righteousness. The servant is righteous, yet he is scorned and he suffers, he bears afflictions for others. He is obedient, and he is humble.

He is, Christians say, astoundingly Christ-like.

In those few verses I just read the servant says that he listens “as those who are taught,” that God has opened his ear, and he is not rebellious.

Listening with open ears like a student willing to be taught is a humble action. It means putting ourselves in a state where we can admit that maybe this other person has something to offer me that maybe I do not yet have. It means being willing to let another viewpoint past our own. It means being willing to lay down our need to defend ourselves or come out as the top dog. It means putting ourselves at risk of being changed. It is a vulnerable thing to do.

Listening with open ears is also an opportunity to hear from God.

How does God open our ears to hear God’s word in our time and place, and for our time and place?

I believe that one way God opens our ears is through others. When we read scripture with others, we may be opened to new ways of understanding. When we talk about faith with others, we may be given new insights. When we listen to another person’s life experiences, we may be given a new vision of the world and a new sense of mission for our world. Being in community with others is so important. And it is best, our ears are opened most fully, when our community is diverse: when we don’t all agree, when we don’t all come from the same background, when we don’t all live similar lives.

When we listen for God in the midst of diversity, we may just hear God say: “I am doing even more than you could have imagined.”

Peace & Love (aka the Hippie Sermon)

Written for Saint Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 4th Sunday of the Epiphany + January 31, 2016

Readings: Jeremiah 1:4-10; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30


 

This week I spent a couple of days at Lutheranch, a Lutheran retreat center about an hour west of Atlanta. I was there with a handful of other new pastors as part of our First Call Theological Education program. This is a program for all new pastors; we are required to meet a few times a year for the first three years of our ministry. It’s an opportunity to continue learning more about ministry, to ask questions that come up in our first calls, and to support one another. Bishop Julian Gordy and an assistant to the Bishop, Ben Moravitz, lead the retreats.

The main topic for this retreat was worship. (I should let you know that Bishop Gordy mentioned St. Andrew quite a few times during our class sessions, since we are a congregation that puts a lot of consideration into how we worship, creating beautiful and meaningful services.)

One part of the worship service that kept coming up over and over, even in our free time conversations, was the Exchange of Peace. Here at St. Andrew, we do a pretty good job of maintaining a sense of worship as we shake hands and tell our neighbors “peace be with you.” But in a lot of congregations, this moment drags on for a long time, and people start talking about the game or the party. Bishop Gordy told enough stories about that kind of sharing of the peace to make me sure it’s one of his special pet peeves. When passing the peace becomes a social hour, it takes away from its true, historical, and religious purpose.

The Exchange of Peace has been a part of Christian worship since the time when the New Testament was being written. The idea behind the practice can be traced to the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus said, “When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift” (Matt. 5:23-24). The Exchange of Peace was built into worship as an opportunity to go and make peace with someone you need to make peace with before joining with them in Holy Communion.  This helps to keep the whole community strong and united.

And for those of you who are not a fan of shaking hands or hugging: you should be glad we’re not asked to kiss each other anymore. There are five places in the New Testament where Christians are encouraged to “greet one another with a holy kiss” (Rom. 16:16; 1 Cor. 16:20; 1 Cor. 13:12; 1 Thess. 5:26; 1 Peter 5:14). In the ancient church this instruction was folded into the Exchange of Peace. In fact, if you want to research the Exchange of Peace, you’ll probably find more information by searching for the “kiss of peace” — even on Wikipedia.

There’s a sermon from the late 4th/early 5th century (just to name drop: it was written by St. Augustine) that describes where the Holy Kiss fit into worship: the priest would bless the wine and the bread, the people would say the Lord’s Prayer together, and then they would say “Peace be with you” and kiss one another on the lips. Augustine explained the point of this: “When your lips draw near to those of your brother, do not let your heart withdraw from his. Hence, these are great and powerful sacraments.”[1]

This practice was from a time and culture where kissing people on the lips as a greeting was common. The way the Exchange of Peace is practiced has changed as those cultural norms have changed.

The ELCA worship guidelines recommend that the Exchange of Peace occur between the Prayers of Intercession and Holy Communion; this can also be traced back to the ancient church. One ELCA resource explains how meaningfully this fits into the flow of our worship:

…the congregation prays for peace in the Church, peace in the world, and peace for all those in need. Then the congregation follows through [on their part in fulfilling these prayers] with the people offering peace and reconciliation to one another. This is not human peace alone, but the peace which is possible only through Christ. Then, after the exchange of peace, we receive the gift of Christ’s peace in our sharing Holy Communion.[2]

 The Exchange of Peace has been part of Christian worship for thousands of years, and it is meant to help us live with one another in the spirit of the peace Christ gives to us not only as individuals, but as the Church. It is meant to help us sustain our life together as a community united in Christ.

This is also the purpose behind the letter we know as First Corinthians. The church in Corinth was having trouble acting as a community that was truly united Christ. In the course of the letter Paul touched on a number of places where the Corinthians divided themselves: they divided themselves based on which apostle they followed; some claimed Peter, some Paul, some a man named Apollos (1:10-17).  They divided themselves by accusing one another in a court of law (6:1-8). They divided themselves over whether it was alright for Christians to eat meat that had been sacrificed to pagan idols (10:23-11:1). They divided themselves when they celebrated Holy Communion, as wealthier members gathered together for a feast while the poor members were left hungry (11:17-34). They divided themselves over which spiritual gifts were more impressive and important than the others (12:1-11).

As he addressed each issue, Paul worked to help the Corinthians see the importance of doing everything for the good of the community. Quit boasting about who brought you to Christ; you are all in Christ (3:5-9). Quit bringing each other to court, and forgive each other (6:7-8). Quit feasting while others get weak and sick; wait for one another before celebrating the Lord’s Supper (11:27-34).

Paul dedicated a large chunk of this letter (ch. 12-14) to advising the Corinthians on how to use their spiritual gifts for building up the community rather than dividing it (14:26). And as part of that instruction Paul wrote the beautiful words of 1 Cor. 13. These are some of the most well-known and well-loved words in all of literature. “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging symbol. […] Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. […] Now these three remain: faith, hope, and love; and the greatest of these is love.”

We often place Paul’s words in the same category as love poetry, as if Paul’s words would fit neatly with a Robert Burns poem…

O my Luve is like a red, red rose

That’s newly sprung in June;

O my Luve is like the melody

That’s sweetly played in tune.[3]

…or with a Shakespeare sonnet…

…Love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove:

O no! it is an ever-fixed mark

That looks on tempests and is never shaken.[4]

But really, Paul’s beautiful words might fit better with some more everyday phrases: “I don’t care who started it. Don’t hit your sister! Love your sister!”

Paul was writing to a community that was being broken apart from within. People were holding on tight to ideas of who was “worthy” or important in the church based on social status, on wealth, or on talents. But here in chapter thirteen Paul said: Look, the only thing that really matters, that is truly important, is that you love one another. In the end all these worldly things will end and fade away. In the end, even faith won’t be needed anymore, because we will see and know fully. In the end, even hope won’t be needed, because it will be fulfilled. But in the end, love will remain. So make love your priority now.[5]

All this brings me back to something else that Bishop Gordy said about St. Andrew this week. He talked a lot about our attention to worship, but he also lifted us up because we care about one another. We don’t agree on all issues, we don’t all believe in exactly the same way, but we are committed to loving one another. We know how to disagree and then share the peace with one another.

That is possible because it is not a peace that comes from within us; it is a peace that comes from Christ, who has intentionally gathered us together — with all our differences — in order to be his church here in this place.

Christ has gathered us to love one another with the love of Christ, and to welcome others into that love. This is our first and greatest calling.

May God continue to give us the love we need to truly love one another: to be patient and kind; to not be irritable or resentful; to bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things. Amen.


 

[1] St. Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 227, The Fathers of the Church, (1959), Sermons on Liturgical Seasons vol. 38, ed. Roy Joseph Deferrari, p. 197. Admittedly, I found the quote on the Wikipedia article “Kiss of Peace.”

[2] “What is the ‘Exchange of Peace’?” Worship Formation & Liturgical Resources: Frequently Asked Questions, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, (January 2013). Available online at http://download.elca.org/ELCA%20Resource%20Repository/What_is_the_Exchange_of_Peace.pdf

[3] Robert Burns, “A Red, Red Rose,” (1796).

[4] William Shakespeare, Sonnet 116.

[5] Brian Peterson, “Commentary on 1 Corinthians 13:1-13,” Working Preacher, Jan. 31, 2016. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2734

Abundance for All

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 24th Sunday After Pentecost + November 8, 2015

Readings: 1 Kings 17:8-16; Ps. 146; Heb. 9:24-28; Mk. 12:38-44


I have to start off by saying how awkward I felt reading today’s gospel. Standing there in the midst of you all, in my beautiful long robe, and repeating the words of Jesus: “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes…” Coming up from my special seat to read, “Beware the scribes, who like to have the best seats in the synagogues…” Proclaiming the faith of that poor widow, who gave everything she had to Temple…from a gold-covered book. I gotta wonder what’s running through Jesus’s mind this morning.

But at least that experience reminds me of my place in this story. I am one of the scribes. I’m educated about religions matters, I wear a collar around my neck that sometimes gains me special privileges, and I sure say a lot of long prayers in public. And — although it still feels weird to say — I have a place of some authority and leadership within the church. Yep, I’m a scribe. And this morning I think Jesus is warning me not to let myself get too much like “those” scribes: those scribes who get caught up in their honor and neglect the people God called them to serve.

There are a few of you out there who share this obvious connection to the scribes with me. But I want to invite everyone to see themselves as scribes in the story this morning: after all, we’re a pretty educated bunch, and Lutheran churches are run by the congregation, so you each have authority and leadership in this place. Plus, we subscribe to the “priesthood of all believers,” which is a reminder that each of you is called by God to a life of service in God’s mission. So, imagine with me that we are all scribes trying not to be one of “those” scribes that Jesus warns people about.

If we’re going to read Jesus’s words here as having a message not just for some Jewish scribes in the first century, but also for us today, I think that message is about faithful leadership and faithful stewardship, and that is something that applies to all of us — fancy robe or not. We are all stewards of what God has given us; we are all part of the miracles God is performing around us.

The Widow’s Mite, Jesus Mafa. (Image from Vanderbilt Divinity Library’s “Art in the Christian Tradition” project.)

This scene at the Temple comes soon after Jesus’s arrival in Jerusalem. He’s already made a public demonstration against the way the Temple is being run by flipping over some tables, chasing people out of the place, and proclaiming that its leaders have turned it into a “den of thieves” (Mk. 11:12-17). Since then he’s been arguing publicly with the religious leaders.

By the time we get to today’s reading he is once again condemning them in the Temple itself. He accuses them not only of hypocrisy, but of abuse: “They devour widows’ houses,” he says. And then he watches a poor widow give everything she has to the Temple. He points out how much she gives: it looks insignificant, just two small copper coins, but it’s everything to her. The widow is a beautiful image of trust in God and total dedication to God. And the question hangs unsaid in the air: Are the temple leaders doing right by this widow? Are they good stewards of her pure, faithful gift?

The Gospel of Mark continues: As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” (Remember: these are country bumpkins seeing the sites of the big city for the first time. I hear in this disciple’s voice the feelings of awe I get while standing in the streets of Chicago and looking up at the skyscrapers towering above me.) Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down” (Mk. 13:1-2).

When all these passages are read together, we get a clear message: God is not happy with the way these religious leaders are running things. They are not good stewards of their position, nor of God’s commandments, nor of the faith entrusted to them. They seem to be under the impression that being chosen by God for their position means receiving a greater share in God’s blessings, means deserving the lion’s share of status and wealth.

How often does our culture give us the same message? It’s easy to get caught up in the idea that “God’s abundance” means God gives an abundance to each individual faithful person. Jesus said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Lk. 6:20).  But that’s hard to remember or understand when we’re surrounded by a different message: “Blessed are the wealthy, because…well, look at ‘em!”

But God’s abundance is not for individuals, but for the community. As Bishop Julian Gordy is fond of reminding us, when we see the word “you” in the New Testament, it’s almost always not “you,” but “y’all.” God works through the whole lot of us for the good of the whole lot of us.

So in contrast to the scribes and to the proclamation of our culture we have the story of Elijah and a widow. Elijah is held to be one of the greatest of the prophets. You may remember him from such stories as “Elijah is taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire” (2 Kings 2). It is written that God will send Elijah back to usher in judgement day, the day the messiah comes (Mal. 4:5-6). So throughout the gospels, when people are trying to figure out just who Jesus is, someone always wonders “Could he be Elijah?” (ex., Mk. 8:27-30). When Jesus is transfigured for a few moments into a glorious, shining figure, Elijah and Moses appear alongside him (ex., Mark 9:2-8). Elijah still holds a very important place in Jewish belief and customs; places are set for him at holy ceremonies like circumcision and Passover. All that to say: Elijah was most definitely a man chosen by God.

But Elijah didn’t enjoy a high standing in his community like the scribes did. And Elijah didn’t have wealth or even comfort. Elijah appeared in the Bible for the first time to announce that God was going to withhold the rain from Israel because King Ahab was running around building shrines to other gods. And of course people were loading up to shoot the messenger, so Elijah went into hiding, where God sent ravens to bring him food. But then the brook that had been his only source of water dried up in the drought (1 Kings 16:29-17:7).

This is the point where we see God work the miracle from today’s readings. But it’s not a spectacular miracle; God doesn’t teach the ravens to make jugs so they can carry Elijah water; God doesn’t make water spring from the dry ground. It’s not even an everyday kind of spectacular miracle, like God sending a rich person Elijah’s way to offer him access to a private well and rich food and a soft bed.

Instead, it is a miracle of unlikely companions and survival. In the midst of a culture war between those who are faithful to the God of Israel and those who worship Canaan’s god, Baal, God sends Elijah to a foreign widow, a woman who in all likelihood had been raised to worship a foreign god. God says, “Go to this woman; I have commanded her to feed you.” The first part of the miracle is that Elijah trusts God and goes to her.

I love to read this part from the widow’s point of view: a foreign prophet of a foreign God shows up in her town and tells her to give him some food. And she clearly didn’t get a warning message from the God of Israel, because, far from having food prepared for this prophet, she seems resigned to starve. She says, “I have nothing. I have just enough to make a last meager meal for myself and my son, and then we’re going to die.”

But Elijah says, “Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake out of what you have, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.” The second part of the miracle is that the widow does what Elijah asks. She doesn’t say “Who are you to ask for the first serving of my last meal?” She doesn’t say “Whatever, your God is not my god — why should I do what you say?” Instead, somehow she has faith enough to be generous with her last hope for survival.

And the third part of the miracle is where God is most obviously at work: the meal and the oil do not run out. Again, this is not riches: the jars do not suddenly overflow with milk and honey. But there is just enough supply to keep making bread so that the widow and her household can survive the drought. God gives them their daily bread.

Elijah and the Widow of Zarepheth, Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Both the gospel story and the story of Elijah are examples of God setting people up for miracles. God is putting people and circumstances in place for everyone to benefit from God’s abundance.

In the gospel story, in the Temple, the widow is doing her part in the miracle by giving two small coins, and the richer people are doing their part by giving some of what they have. But many of the scribes are not doing their part in the miracle: they are holding up the flow of God’s abundance, keeping too much of the money and the knowledge and the status for themselves instead of helping it continue to bless more of God’s people.

But in the case of Elijah and the widow, each person steps into the role God has called them to, taking chances in the faith that God will provide. And God does provide: through small miracles and through other people who put their faith into action.

May we also be people who seek God’s abundance, not for ourselves, but in ourselves, and in others. Our world is overflowing with opportunities to be part of God’s miracles: in relationships, in generosity, in service. We need only have the faith to step into the fountain and splash around.

May we also be people who seek God’s abundance, not for ourselves, but in ourselves, and in others. Our world is overflowing with opportunities to be part of God’s miracles: in relationships, in generosity, in service. We need only have the faith to step into the fountain and splash around.

“Nothing outside a person can defile him”

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 14th Sunday After Pentecost + August 30, 2015

Texts: Deut. 4:1-2, 6-9; Psalm 15; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Confession: I preached on these same Bible passages last week at a friend’s church. But the sermon you’re about to hear is wholly different from that sermon for a whole lot of reasons: you’re a different church, God is doing something different here than God is doing over there…I could go on and on. But the biggest reason for all that is different between that sermon and this sermon is that between then and now I had a tiny revelation. (Thanks to Pr. Scott Jamieson’s preaching at the Church of Another Chance.)

I approached that sermon thinking about the gospel story like this: the Pharisees and scribes say to Jesus, “How can you let your disciples eat without washing their hands? That’s against our religion,” and Jesus says to them, “It’s not what goes into a person that defiles them, it’s what comes out.”

But that’s not exactly what Jesus says. It’s one of the meanings of what Jesus says, but the actual words are, “there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile him.” There is nothing outside of a person that by going in is able to defile him.

It’s just a little difference, but it totally changes the impact of what Jesus is saying — at least for me. If Jesus had said, “It’s not what goes in that defiles, it’s what comes out,” he still would have been calling for a big shift in thinking: stop worrying so much about all these outside rituals; pay attention to what’s going on inside. But in this way of telling the story, we just kind of brush past the outside things and on to the inside things. If the message hits home, the Pharisees and scribes will walk away with one question: What’s going on inside of me? They will mediate on what’s going on in their hearts, on how sincere their faith and their practices are.

But Jesus’s actual words are even more intense. They linger a little longer over our relationship to the things outside of us. He says the things outside of us don’t have the power to defile us. This is more than saying, “don’t worry so much about outside things.” This is making the bold claim: “What’s inside of you is stronger than whatever comes at you from the outside. The outside things have no power over the inside things.”

And this claim should make the scribes and the Pharisees and us, too, rethink how we relate to world and the people outside of us. We should walk away with two sets of questions: The first has to do with our deepest, driving intentions: What’s going on inside of me? Is that core part of me we call a heart, that firebox that holds all my intentions and desires — is that part of me truly seeking to follow God, or am I driven by something more worldly? And the second question is: If what comes at me from the outside does not have the power to defile me, but what comes out of me does have the power to defile me, how will I act? How will I relate to the people and the situations I encounter?

For one thing, we should stop making excuses for our own behavior. C. S. Lewis once wrote about his own struggle with the habit of blaming his actions on the outside things. He wrote:

When I come to my evening prayers and try to reckon up the sins of the day, nine times out of ten the most obvious one is some sin against charity; I have sulked or snapped or sneered or snubbed or stormed. And the excuse that immediately springs to my mind is that the provocation was so sudden and unexpected; I was caught off my guard, I had not time to collect myself. Now that may be an extenuating circumstance as regards those particular acts: they would obviously be worse if they had been deliberate and premeditated. On the other hand, surely what a man does when he is taken off his guard is the best evidence for what sort of a man he is? Surely what pops out before the man has time to put on a disguise is the truth? … The suddenness of the provocation does not make me an ill-tempered man; it only shows me what an ill-tempered man I am.[1]

When I first read that years ago, it stuck with me like I had a rock in my shoe. It’s sort of a modern re-telling of Jesus’s words to the Pharisees and scribes: What comes at you from the outside doesn’t make you into something you’re not. But what you do — especially when your guard is down — is probably a revelation of your most honest self.

But there’s some good news that comes trailing along after that bitter-tasting reminder. What is outside of us does not have power over what we do, and what we do does not have power over God. Our actions cannot make God stop loving us. God accepts us, sins and all, and even the most sincere and mature Christian saint is still a sinner in need of grace. We are always going to need forgiveness, and it is always going to be there for us.

But even Martin Luther said that having faith in God’s grace should change the way we act — but we’re not working on our own to make that happen. As the Holy Spirit gives us faith in God’s unconditional love, that love changes the deepest part of us. It changes our desires. It points our lives in the direction of that love. It changes the way we see ourselves. It changes the way we see others. And because our hearts are being transformed, our actions are being transformed, too.[2]

Our actions can help us see where we are still in need of God’s transforming power. If we notice, like C. S. Lewis did, that we’re often hurting other people with our impatience,  that can clue us in that we need to pray for God to help us learn patience. It’s not a matter of becoming watchdogs of our own actions; it’s a matter of tuning in to the gospel message that God loves us unconditionally, and that God loves those around us unconditionally, and of trusting that message more and more fully, more and more deeply, so that that message changes our very being.

Jesus’s teaching that “there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile” — that should change the way we see the world in another way, too. The difference that believing in that statement makes is obvious in the differences between Jesus and the Pharisees.

The Pharisees lived like they needed to protect themselves from anything that might harm them. Throughout the gospels we see them putting up walls to keep people out. They wouldn’t eat with people who did not obey their traditions. They cast judgement on others for every little way that they broke the rules: we see that they judged Jesus’s disciples for eating without washing their hands, for picking the heads off of grain on the Sabbath (Mark 2:23-28). They criticized Jesus for eating with sinners (Luke 5:27-32; 15:1-2) and for healing on the Sabbath (Mark 3:1-6). They were always on the lookout for contamination, so that they could cast it away.

Can you imagine what it would be like to live like that? They must have always been on the lookout, so that they could avoid anything that might have contaminated them. It sounds to me like a life chained to fear.

But Jesus believed that the things outside of him did not have power over who he was. He lived his life free from that fear. Free from the need to always protect himself or prove himself, he could go to the people who needed help. He could eat with the tax-collectors and the prostitutes. Rather than building walls made of judgement, he could open himself up in love.

I wonder where we stand on that spectrum from Pharisee to Jesus, from fear to faith, from self-preservation to hospitality. Are we focused on proving ourselves to be good, or are we living out of that somewhat reckless freedom that comes with knowing we are forgiven, and that God’s Holy Spirit is at work in our hearts? Are we focused on keeping ourselves safe, or can we take the risk of loving as Christ loves?

Of course there are ways in which the things outside of us can affect what’s going on inside of us. We can think of people around us who become “bad influences,” or of the way the everyday stresses of life can wear us down, or of how a tragedy can make us feel totally weak and exhausted. Sometimes the way we have been treated by other people makes us want or need to protect ourselves.

This is why we need to make sure we are constantly tapping back in to God’s love, the source of our strength. We see that Jesus himself did this habitually. Jesus surrounded himself with faithful friends (the disciples); Jesus frequently went off by himself to pray; Jesus took part in the rituals of his people. In the same way we should make a habit of participating in Christian community, of remembering our baptism and taking communion, of keeping personal practices that help us keep connected to the God who loves us and strengthens us, who guides us and transforms us.

We do all this for our own benefit, to keep living free from fear, free from anxiety about our own perfection. We do it to refill ourselves with the promises of God. And we also tap into God’s love for the sake of others, that we may be open rather than closed, vulnerable rather than defensive — that we may be less concerned with keeping ourselves safe, and more concerned with sharing the love God gives us.


[1] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), pp. 192.

[2] See Luther’s “On the Freedom of a Christian,” also called “Concerning Christian Liberty.”