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.

Amen.

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Trinity Sunday, Year C, 2010

Have you seen the movie Wall-E?  While the protagonist of the movie is an adorable trash compacting robot, what I found really interesting was its depiction of humanity.  In the movie, humans have evolved in such a way as to spare them any suffering.  They float around in chairs, so they don’t have to walk.  They stare at screens instead of engaging in risky human interaction.  When they are hungry or thirsty, robots hurriedly bring them refreshment.

We are not quite there in our society yet, but there is a lot of money made every year on products trying to make life a little less painful.  We make luxury cars with surround sound satellite radio so commuting is comfortable.  We make diet pills and elaborate exercise machines so we can lose weight without making too many sacrifices.  We make lightweight electronic books, so we don’t have to schlep around ten pounds of novels when we’re on vacation.

We are incredibly lucky to live in a society where we can protect ourselves from an enormous amount of suffering—we have running water and indoor toilets; our doctors are trained in hygiene and anesthesia; our police, fire brigades and EMTS protect us without bribes.

And yet, even with all of our advances we can never protect ourselves fully from suffering.  Our hearts will still be broken.  Our loved ones will still die, some years before they should. Our bodies will still betray us.  Suffering is a fundamental part of what it means to be human.

Now, if I were marketing a religion, I would make sure that part of the package would be a promise of relief from suffering.  I would tell my followers that if they just followed my God, they would receive an easy life, filled with pleasure.  Paul, however (and that’s St. Paul, not our rector), does not seem to be working with a PR consultant.

In the letter to the Romans, Paul acknowledges what all of us know.  Suffering is part of life and a part of faith.  None of us can escape suffering, no matter how much we try to pad our life with luxuries.  Paul captures this beautifully in the 8th chapter of Romans, writing:

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

This image of all of us, along with all of Creation, leaning forward, groaning, waiting for God really captures the human experience.  When something awful happens:  a child’s death, long term unemployment, hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil about to destroy miles of coastline, there is nothing we can do, but groan our prayers and hope for redemption.

But, Paul’s view of suffering is not entirely negative.

Whenever my sister and I grumbled about doing something that annoyed us, my father would tell us, “You’ll build character!”  At first Paul’s stair step argument in Romans 5 can feel a little bit like a parent telling us to grin and bear our suffering.

Paul writes that we can boast in our suffering and that our suffering will lead to endurance, which will lead to character, which will end in hope.

We all know that suffering does not necessarily produce that outcome.  We all know people for whom suffering has done nothing but embitter them.  So, when we read this text, we may read it cautiously.  We may hold it at arms’ length and think to ourselves, “Oh yeah, Paul?  Prove it.”

We are helped when we understand the context in which Paul is writing.  Paul has been telling the Romans how no one is righteous.  No one can keep the law.  No one can earn righteousness before God.  Paul goes on to explain that through Jesus ‘ willing sacrifice, we are granted righteousness before God.  That righteousness is given to us as pure gift.

In our passage today, Paul is explaining what that gift gives us.  The gift reconciles us to God, giving us peace with our Creator.  We use this passage on Trinity Sunday, because Paul goes on to say that the Holy Spirit pours God’s love in our hearts.  So, the Father sends the Son, who sacrifices himself so we can be at peace with God.  He in turn sends the Holy Spirit, who fills us with God’s love.

So, transformation of suffering into hope is part of this gift, too.  Paul is probably talking about eschatalogical suffering here—suffering having to do with the end of times—since Paul thought Jesus’ return was immanent.  But really, we are all moving toward the Kingdom of God, and we all experience suffering on the way, so I think it is fair to say that our suffering can be included in this conversation.

What’s important to note here is that this transformation of suffering into hope is not something that the sufferer does.  Paul’s whole point is that that God’s gift to us is pure gift—and is not something we can earn.  We can place ourselves before God and pray that our suffering might be transformed into endurance, character and hope.  But we should never use this passage as a weapon against ourselves or anyone else who might be stuck in grief or pain or suffering of any kind.  This passage should never be used to nag or berate.  Instead, this passage offers us a beacon of hope.

Paul’s words offer us hope that our tears and pain may deepen and broaden our compassion, rather than harden our hearts.  His words offer us hope that our crises may make us into more mature, thoughtful people.  His words offer us hope that we might yet be transformed into people of hope—people who so in touch with God’s presence, that our hearts feel deep peace.

We don’t need to be like the characters in Wall-E, completely protected from pain.

Paul’s words give us courage to face the world honestly.  They give us courage to step out of our padded luxury cars, put down our laptops, turn off our televisions.  Paul’s words give us courage to face our broken hearts and bodies head on, knowing that God can transform our suffering into something that betters us.

In my last parish, I had a friend who was in her 80s.  She had a series of health scares, including an episode of congestive heart failure that was completely terrifying to her.  She called me in the midst of all of her struggles and asked if I could come see her.  When I went to visit her, I expected to hear about her pain, her fears, maybe her loneliness.  Instead, she told me, “Sarah, I want to talk with you, because my pain has made me think about all the people in pain around the world.  I want to use this as an opportunity to pray for those people.”

That moment has been one of the most profound of my entire life, because she exemplified what Paul is talking about in his letter to the Romans.  God gave her the grace to experience her suffering as a broadening, deepening experience.  Instead of feeling sorry for herself, she found a way to reach out to the world and care for them through her prayers.  The love of God flowed through her and out to those for whom she prayed.

And whether we are people who feel that kind of hope, or not, Paul is right when he says that God’s hope will not disappoint us.  Because the gift of Jesus’ sacrifice, the gift of God’s love poured out by the Holy Spirit, is our gift, even in our deepest suffering.  Even at our terrified, grief stricken, self-absorbed worst.  Even when we feel not one iota of character or endurance or hope, God’s love pours out for us.  And that love will not disappoint us.

Amen.

Epiphany 4, Year B, 2009

When I was ten, my father got diagnosed with high cholesterol.  My mother was the cook in our house and within days she was deep in the American Heart Association cookbook and ordering a subscription to Cooking Light.  Gone were the omelets, steaks, and sour cream from our lives.  They were replaced by cheerios, pasta, and skinless chicken breasts.

At the time, this did not seem that remarkable to me.  But now, looking back, I am impressed with my mother’s willingness to uproot an entire family’s dietary lifestyle for the health of one member of the family.  If my dad’s eating habits had to change, all of our eating habits had to change.  It would not be fair to him if he was eating a piece of fish while the rest of us chomped down on hamburgers.

Our passage from 1 Corinthians today is also about dietary choices that are good for a community, but the situation Paul is responding to is not as simple as one member of the Corinthian community having high cholesterol!

Corinth was a Greek town with a predominantly Hellenistic culture.  Part of that culture was idol worship.  Small statues would be placed on altars and these “gods” would be given gifts of food.  The food would later be eaten by people in social gatherings.  The religious and social life was entwined together.

This created a huge problem for Corinthian Christians.  After all, they certainly did not believe in worshiping idols or that these small “gods” even existed.  To them, there was only one God.

The Corinthian Christians had broken into two camps.  The first was a group who approached the situation intellectually.  They were secure in their faith, they knew no other gods existed.  Since no other gods existed, then food offered to those gods was no different from any other food.  For this group of Christians, joining in the social eating of food offered to idols was not a problem at all.

The second group of Corinthian Christians were not so sure.  At one point in their lives they, too, had offered up food to idols, and that time was recently enough that eating food to those same idols now made them nervous.  To these Christians, eating the food offered to idols was acknowledging the gods they represented and was just plain wrong.

And this is where Paul comes in.  Paul has been asked to adjudicate this dispute.  He acknowledges that the first group, the intellectuals, are right from a philosophical viewpoint.  He states,

Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “no idol in the world really exists,” and that “there is no God but one.” Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth– as in fact there are many gods and many lords– yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

He agrees with their argument that since there is only one God for the Christians-even if another culture thinks there are many gods-then idols don’t exist so food offered to them is food offered to nothing.

However, just as that group is feeling pretty proud of themselves for being right, Paul turns the argument.

But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols? So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.

In other words, just because the intellectual argument was correct, does not mean that eating the meat offered to idols was right.  By eating the meat, the first group was threatening the faith of the second group.  Members of the second group may know that there is only one God in their head, but that deep knowledge may not have penetrated their heart yet.  Worshiping many gods may still be a temptation for them.  Because of this Paul is saying that he, for one, would choose not to eat the meat sacrificed to idols in front of Corinthian Christians.  Eating the meat did not matter one way or the other to God, but wounding another Christian was absolutely not acceptable.

Paul is telling the Corinthian Christians that they are in this journey together.  They need each other.  If eating meat sacrificed to idols threatens the faith of some of the community, than the entire community should abstain from eating the meat.

In the modern church we do not have a direct comparison to this problem.  As far as I know none of you were part of an idol worshiping religion before you came to Emmanuel!

However, I think we can learn about sticking together from this passage. Paul sums it up well when he says, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”

The desire to be right, the desire to win an argument can blind us to the needs of others.  Whether we are on our high horse about our political beliefs or whose turn it is to take out the trash, our single mindedness can be deadly to our relationships.  I find it helpful to step back from an argument and think about what I really want.  Do I really want to prove that I cleaned exactly 61% of the house or am I just looking for some affirmation and gratitude for the work that I did?  Ultimately what we want, I think is to feel heard and loved in our lives.  When we don’t feel that, being “right” is the next best thing.  But what we really want, is love.

The foundation of any good relationship is love.  We want love ourselves, but we are also asked to give love.  Part of love is seeking the good of the other, even if it means some sacrifice for yourself.  Paul asked the intellectual group of Corinthians to be generous to their brothers and sisters.  We are called to be generous, too.  For instance, if you live with an alcoholic, the generous response is to not keep alcohol in the house.  If you are friends with someone who is pinching pennies, the generous response is to plan a walk through a park together, rather than a shopping trip.  If your father has just had a heart attack, the generous response is to not bring him over those bacon wrapped twinkies you just deep fried.  While none of us can control the behavior of another person we can help to make life a little easier.  We can refrain from being “stumbling blocks” to those around us.

We are a community that worships one God.  And that God reminds us over and over again to love our neighbors as ourselves.  We are bound together by our faith in God, but those binds can enrich us as much as they limit us.  By rooting our identities in a community rather than in our individual lives, we become kinder, more open minded, flexible and loving.  Seeing the world through the different lenses of members of our community helps us to be creative and to learn.  Our community makes us stronger.  Our community makes us better Christians.

Proper 9, Year B, 2006

This season on Oprah, one of Oprah’s guests was a young man named Kyle Maynard.  Kyle Maynard is in his early 20s and in many ways is a typical college student.  He goes to class, lives with a roommate, dates, and is on the wrestling team.  What makes Kyle unique is that he was born with a congenital birth defect that left him with stumps for arms and legs.  He has no elbows, no knees, no hands and no feet.  Most people born with those differences would live life as defeated person.  Kyle’s parents, however, made a decision not to treat him any differently than their other children, so Kyle compensated for his missing limbs and began to learn how to walk, brush his teeth, type, and all the other daily tasks that are required of us. 

Kyle played football and was a wrestler and refused to let any situation defeat him.  In fact, he’s even written a book named No Excuses about his life experiences and his life philosophy.

Kyle’s life is truly a testimony to the power of discipline and the human spirit.  He was not born with strength, but he found strength out of his weakness.

Kyle’s story came to mind as I was reflecting on our Epistle lesson today.  Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians contains different fragments of letters that the apostle Paul wrote to the church at Corinth.  Unlike Chuck, or me, Paul did not have the luxury of living consistently with the people to whom he ministered.  He was a man on the move, which is why we are lucky enough to have so many of his letters.  There were costs to this kind of ministry.  Imagine if Chuck had a habit of periodically disappearing and taking care of some other churches around the east coast. We might get a little restless.  We might even get jealous.  If some other dynamic preacher came along, we might just invite him to come inside and preach to us. 

This is exactly what has happened to Paul.  He has left Corinth to take care of another church and in his absence people he describes as “intruders” have come in and begun teaching bad information to Paul’s people.  These intruders have even questioned the validity of Paul’s ministry.

Paul is really unhappy about this situation.  His response is to persuade the Corinthians that he is, indeed, a valid representative of God.  He does this, not by boasting in his strengths, but by boasting in his weaknesses. Before our passage today, he writes:

But whatever anyone dares to boast of — I am speaking as a fool — I also dare to boast of that. Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I. Are they ministers of Christ? I am talking like a madman — I am a better one: with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless floggings, and often near death.  Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters;  in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches.

(I’m glad I don’t have to measure my ministry by these kinds of hardships!)

Paul transitions from this litany of difficulty to describing a vision he experienced.  He wants to appear humble, so uses the rhetorical devise of writing in the third person.  So, not only has he suffered for the sake of the Gospel, he has also had a direct spiritual encounter with God.  I hope the Corinthians were duly impressed.

While Paul’s rhetorical methods are not subtle, his idea of finding strength in weakness is incredibly powerful.

We live in a world that more and more ascribes to Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” hypothesis.  My two guilty pleasures this summer are “Last Comic Standing” and “So You Think you can Dance”.  The principles behind these shows are the same as any reality competition-the strong survive and the weak get voted off the stage. 

The idea of embracing our weaknesses seems absurd-our weaknesses are what hold us back!  If anything, we should be focused on improving ourselves, becoming better, eliminating any weakness. 

Why then, is Paul so sure that there is strength in weakness? 

Well, the main reason is that God told him.  You see, Paul did not WANT to be weak.  Paul had some ailment or condition that he referred to as  “thorn in his side”.  We don’t know what that was, but we do know that Paul begged God to remove this thorn.  Paul wanted to be strong and dynamic, NOT plagued with some weird condition.  When Paul did complain, God responded by saying, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”

Isn’t it irritating how God always takes what we THINK we know, and turns that knowledge on its head?

Once again, instead of choosing some attractive, healthy, dynamic person to do God’s work, God chooses an ordinary guy, with ordinary problems.  God’s objective was to make Himself known, not to make Paul famous.  God wanted to use Paul to convince the world that God had in fact come to earth to become human in Jesus.  God knew that Paul would be faithful and passionate in all the weird ways that God had designed him to be.  God also knew that Paul’s flaws would force Paul to rely on God, and to witness to God, in a way a stronger person might not have to.

Do we offer the weak parts of ourselves to God?  Most likely, we tuck them away from him, like we’ve been tucking them away from ourselves, our friends and our families.  Do any of us go to a job interview and say, “You know, I am terrible at organizing my time.  I’ll probably be late every day.”  Do we go on a date and say, “I am incredibly passive aggressive.  I will never complain, but I will make you feel guilty every day of your life.” 

No, we do not say these things.  We would be fools to say these things!  So, if it is not wise to go around proclaiming our faults, what does it mean to let God work with our weaknesses?

Maybe it means not being afraid to try to open the weak parts of ourselves.  For instance, I was always the last person picked for a sports team in gym class, and rightfully so.  I have an incredibly strong flight reflex. If a ball is flying at my head I will either duck or run.

Tennis was the only sport that did not cause terror in my heart, only because I could use the racquet to protect my face should a ball hurtle towards me. In addition, I have flat feet, so running gave me shin splints. For years I was afraid of any athletic activity because I had pretty strong evidence it would only humiliate me.  In my early twenties, with the help of good running shoes, I began running.  Slowly. I still run slowly, even awkwardly, but to me it is a miracle. I had to let go of all my anxieties and let God give me the courage and the motivation to train.  I also had to open myself to embarrassment.  I have run races in which I am literally the last person to cross the finish line.  I have been so last that during the Waynesboro 10K a police car pulled alongside me and said, “You can run in the middle of the road if you want.  We’ll follow right behind you.” 

Now, that might not seem miraculous to you, but trust me, only the grace of God could make me get up out of my warm bed Saturday mornings to train. 

What is wonderful is that when you start to take risks,  and to function in the underdeveloped parts of yourself, then you stop relying on your own competency and begin relying on God.  God is able to fill in those places that you lack and gives you strength and courage to complete the tasks you are given.

And if you ever feel overwhelmed, just think of Kyle Maynard, the young man born without full arms and legs.  If God can help Kyle Maynard learn to play sports and type and have a full life, just imagine what he can do with your weak places.