Proper 9, Year C, 2013

Listen to the sermon here.

How many of you went to see the film adaptation of Les Miserables that came out last year?

As a former teenage girl, I had been extremely familiar with Eponine’s plot—the poor rejected girl who has to suffer through watching the love of her life choose a soprano. Like many of you former and current teenage girls, I had sung “On My Own” in the shower about 500 times over the course of my life.  Every time some cute boy I had a crush on chose another girl, out would come my double cassette recording of the London production.

So what a shock to watch the film adaptation as an adult and realize that poor Eponine is not the heart of the story at all!  The real meat of the story is not Eponine’s broken heart, Marius and Cosette’s love story, or even Fantine’s extremely dramatic, extremely tuberculer death. The heart of Les Miserables is the conflict between Jean Valjean and Javert.

For the two of you who are not familiar with the plot:  Valjean in his youth stole some bread, was locked up for 19 years, released, stole some candlesticks, was forgiven by a bishop, which gave him faith and an inner drive to be a good man.  He changed his identity and became the mayor of a town committed to serving those around him.  Javert, on the other hand, was an upstanding police officer, absolutely committed to justice, who had it in for Valjean and relished the idea of re-arresting him.  There are also revolutionaries and barricades and shifty innkeepers and an orphan girl, but you’ll have to see it to get those stories!

Javert does not care that Valjean has changed his life and is a contributing member of society.  He can only see the former thief, former prisoner in front of him.  They battle throughout the musical.  At one point Valjean has the opportunity to kill Javert, but does not.  Javert is so distressed that Valjean has offered him this grace, that he ends up throwing himself off a bridge into the Seine.  The heart of Les Miserables is a battle between grace and the law.

I don’t know whether God does screenings of movies in heaven, but if he does host a showing of Les Mis, I’m pretty sure the Apostle Paul is in the front row with a bucket of popcorn, humming under his breath.

Paul spent a lot of time persuading people that grace was the new order after Jesus’ resurrection.  For the last six weeks or so, our lectionary has led us through Paul’s letter to the Galatians.

To sum up:  Paul is incredibly irritated with the Galatians.  He skips his customary opening where he spends a paragraph thanking the community for how great it is and just dives in telling them, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel”  Paul has visited the Galatians and taught them personally all about the grace that Jesus has given them.

Not long after Paul and his friends left Galatia, another group came in and told them that grace was fine, but the Galatians were still going to need to be circumcised if they wanted to be Christians.

Paul then spends five chapters outlining why this is a terrible idea.  Namely that the whole point of Christ’s resurrection was to create a new way for human beings to be reconciled to God, so that human beings no longer had to follow the law perfectly.

Don’t worry, lest things get too crazy, Paul explains that without the law we don’t just go around doing whatever we want to do, but that we now live in tension between the flesh and the Spirit.  The Spirit will give us the power to resist all the same yucky human behaviors from which the Law was designed to protect us.  Instead of walking around stewing in anger, factions, sorcery and drunkness, the Spirit will transform us into people marked by “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control”.  (Not as exciting, I know.  But in the long run, much better for us!)

So, after five chapters of going on and on about circumcision and what a bad idea it is and how unfaithful the Galatians are being by perpetuating circumcision among new believers, you would think that Paul would end with a really strong finish.  After all, he is defending grace, the core of Christian theology!

Instead Paul writes this:

May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.  For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!  As for those who will follow this rule—peace be upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God.

In the Greek the second sentence is much shorter—“Neither circumcision or uncircumcision—but new creation!”

This is how crazy grace is.  Even though Paul is theologically correct in being anti-circumcision, he knows ultimately it doesn’t matter.  Circumcision, uncircumcision—Eh!  Paul cares enough to want the Galatians to have a correct understanding of grace, but he loves Jesus enough to wish the Galatians on either side of the argument peace.

Christ’s resurrection changes the nature of the universe so completely, that our old categories do not apply.  Circumcision and uncircumcision aren’t even relevant. We are in a new creation and we are a new creation.

Jean Valjean lives into this new creation by living a life based on the idea that he is loved and forgiven and called to do good in the world.  But Javert cannot see the new creation, even when it is right in front of his face!  He can only see the old creation, the old rules, the old categories.  He can only see good or bad, criminal or upstanding citizen.  He has no capacity for nuance.  And his lack of imagination kills him.

As Christians we have done a terrible job living in the ambiguity of the new creation.  We love labels! Are you baptized or not? Are you confirmed or not?  Are you Catholic?  Are you Protestant?  Are you a progressive Christian or a conservative Christian?  We love rules.  We love to know who is in and who is out.

When I was involved with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in college we had a problem.  We were a pretty conservative group who spent a lot of time worrying about whether we were following the rules correctly. But even though we were conservative, there was another group on campus that was snatching our members because they thought they were the only denomination that was following Biblical rules correctly. The International Church of Christ  recruited members on many college campuses and may still be operating.  When they pursued our members they would make it clear that the student’s faith was not adequate.  If they had not undergone a believer’s baptism, followed the doctrine of the ICoC, and actively recruited disciples, they were not real Christians.

Not many of our group left to join the ICoC, but a handful did.  There was something compelling to them about having external rules to follow that let them know they were being faithful to God.  There was a safety in law.  With a strict law, their faith could be measured and found adequate.

As Episcopalians, we have the uncomfortable job of living in a lot of ambiguity.  Because our church is rooted in how we worship, rather than what doctrine we believe, sometimes what we believe can feel rather loosey goosey.  But I think the advantage to the way we do things, is that we are forced to actually turn to the Holy Spirit when we are making a decision, rather than following a universal set of rules.  And the fifth chapter of Galatians is a fabulous way to check in about whether we are following the Spirit.  Are our lives marked by enmity and jealousy and out of control behavior? Or are we slowly developing patience and love and joy?

And to be fair, Episcopalians do have hundreds of pages of Church Canons and we even pay church lawyers, so we probably don’t completely understand that we are living in a new creation, either!

What would our lives look like if we lived lives like Jean Vanjean’s, rooted in a deep knowledge of God’s grace?  What risks might we take?  What forgiveness might we offer others?  What forgiveness might we offer ourselves?  May God give us the gift of insight into his expansive, generous grace that welcomes all of us into a new creation.   Amen.


Proper 8, Year C, 2010

Listen to the sermon here.

The word freedom means many different things to many different people in our culture.  Lately there has been a lot of conversation about Stewart Brand’s 1984 speech in which he declared that “information wants to be free”.  (In the same paragraph he said that information also wants to be expensive, but that part of the quote has disappeared in our public discourse.)  People are ruminating on whether that sentence means that information is inexpensive, whether information wants to roam without limitations, whether it wants to be politically free.  For twenty-five years we’ve been debating what Brand meant and that is just one use of the word free!  Freedom also has powerful political connotations.  We are the land of the free, we let freedom ring, when we’re mad at France we call our fried potatoes freedom fries.

For us, freedom means we don’t have a King, that we rule ourselves.  But it also means we can do whatever we want and we resent when government interferes with our bodies, our guns, our money.  Freedom evokes summer vacations and the backseats of cars and long stretches of highway.  And sometimes our use of the word freedom makes no sense at all. This week Fox and Friends, a morning cable news show, was doing a Fourth of July food special and they had representatives from the restaurant Hooters there and the news anchor said, “Nothings spells freedom like a Hooters meal.”

In today’s world, and in the ancient world, the word freedom meant many different things to different people.  The apostle Paul knew he had to be careful when he used the word in his letter to the Galatians.

Paul and the Galatians go way back.  Paul started the churches in Galatia and knows them well.  He writes this letter to them out of frustration.  He has heard that since he’s left, some teachers have come to the churches and instructed their members that they must be circumcised and follow more of the Jewish law in order to be Christians.

The letter to the Galatians is argument against circumcision and the need for Christians to follow the Jewish law.  Paul is arguing that following Christ means one no longer has to follow every detail of the Jewish law, because Christ fulfilled the law himself.  However, you can imagine the reaction if one of our modern politician’s platform was to abolish our laws entirely.

We would be upset!  As much as we may talk about freedom in our country, if suddenly murder or theft or brutality was legal, we would be seriously unhappy.  We know that laws are necessary to reign in our wild, jealous, angry, selfish impulses.

In the same way, Paul is predicting his audience’s objections.  Paul knows that the Galatians are afraid if they abolish the law, that people will just run wild!  If there is no law, what is to stop people from adultery and murder and generally bad behavior?

When you are free, it means you used to be bound to something.  In our country’s case, that was English rule.  In the Galatians case, it means the Jewish law.  But Paul explains that in the freedom from Jewish law, they are now bound to something else—each other.  Paul says, “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.”

The thing that will keep the Galatians in check is their love for one another.  When a person acts out of love for the other, he or she will refrain from doing harmful things.  Paul reminds the Galatians that the law can be summed up as “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

In this new freedom, Paul calls them to live in that spirit of love, rather than gratifying everything their bodies might want.   Paul does not want them to be slaves to the Jewish law any more, but he also doesn’t want them to be slaves to their bodies either.  Following the spirit is the third option.

So, what does it mean for us to be free.  Are we slaves to each other in love, or are we yoked to something else?

Somewhere in the last week I read or heard a story about a woman from a Middle Eastern culture who came to the west for the first time and was shopping.  Now we in the West might look at a woman in a head scarf or hijab and feel real pity for the oppression she is under.  We might long to show her the freedom women in the west experience.  This particular Middle Eastern woman was not used to shopping by sizes.  In her home country, she had a relationship with a dressmaker who would make things just for her.  So, she had no idea what size she was.  The shop she was in was pretty fancy and when she asked the shopkeeper for help, the shopkeeper sneered that they did not have sizes that would fit her.  She said that women should be a size six or smaller and if they were not, the store did not carry their size.  At that moment, the woman from the Middle East had an insight.  Western women were just as oppressed as Middle Eastern women—just by a different power.  Western women were oppressed by the cultural pressures to be thin and attractive.  Never before had this woman worried about her shape or her weight.  She had always been at home in her body, but in an instant she saw herself as unworthy and ugly.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that story.  I don’t consider myself enslaved by our culture’s idea of beauty, but I spend well over a thousand dollars every year on haircuts, make up, whitening toothpaste, pedicures, new clothes.  And every morning I spent at least twenty minutes putting on make up, blow drying my hair, straightening it, making sure I’m wearing earrings and clothes that match.  I think sometimes we can be so entrenched in our culture, that we don’t even realize we’re at some level enslaved by it.  I’m certainly not going to experiment with freedom by not grooming myself any more.

We are all bound to things that are not God.  We may be bound to dysfunctional families, our work, expectations that others have for us, expectations that we have for ourselves.  We may be bound to more ominous things: abusive relationships, drugs, alcohol, adulterous sex, power, money.  Trying to extricate ourselves from all these binding things so we can live in the freedom of Christ can be tricky.

Thankfully, Paul gives us markers to look for to see if we’re living into our freedom by following the Spirit.  These markers are a gift from God that are given out of God’s grace. They are the fruits of the Spirit’s work in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Everyone knows someone they think of as a saint.  Some person who is just so kind, it’s almost hard to believe.  Well that person often can be described as having several—if not all—of the characteristics described above.  We are all eligible to receive those gifts—and it starts with choosing the freedom Christ offers us from whatever it is we are bound to.  Christ has the power to unshackle us from whatever we are enslaved to, but then, of course, we are bound to him and bound to one another.

And that may be too threatening for some people.  Being bound to Christ and to other Christians can be challenging.  Real, deep relationships take enormous effort.  Learning to love your neighbor as yourself is no picnic.  Especially when your neighbor is a big pain in the neck.  But that kind of intimacy and conflict and reconciliation are the kind of experiences that start shaping us as people of patience and faithfulness and gentleness and self-control.

The messy, human, holy relationships of Christians loving God and loving each other is freedom, even if that freedom feels more like a hot church on a Sunday morning than something more ecstatic and fitting the word “freedom”.  But freedom is as much an internal shift as a set of external circumstances.  A single, unattached, independently wealthy man who rides his motorcycle along the shore of northern California, may not experience nearly the freedom of a little old lady in a nursing home who has said her morning prayers faithfully for 80 years and knows with all certainty that she belongs to God.

For true freedom comes when are bound—bound to God, bound to love, bound to one another.