Proper 8, Year C, 2016

The Apostle Paul is angry, you guys. Extremely angry.

Paul has worked hard to teach the Galatians the Gospel, and some rival group has come in and told the Galatians that to be Christian, they must obey the Jewish law, including circumcision.

Paul is so mad that in Galatians 5:12, he writes, “I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!” So, be careful how you talk about circumcision around the Apostle Paul, okay?

Paul passionately wants the Galatians to experience the freedom that comes from faith in Christ. He is furious that anyone would undermine the freedom that comes in Christ. For Paul, freedom means no longer having to follow all the particulars of Jewish law. Freedom means that Jesus has done all the work of salvation for us, so following the law is no longer a requirement.

This is wonderful, amazing news, especially if you were a gentile man looking to become a Christian! Dropping the requirement for circumcision makes conversion MUCH MORE ATTRACTIVE.

Freedom from the law sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? Not having to check to see if what we eat is kosher. Not having to carefully ritually clean your house if it gets mildew. Not having to leave the community when it is your time of the month? Not having to do any ritual sacrifice of your flock?

Not being bound to the law sounds almost exhilarating! We are free! We can do what we want! But before we get to far ahead of ourselves, Paul writes:

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.

We are freed from the law, but our faith in Christ binds us not just to Christ, but also to one another. We are given freedom, not to do whatever we want, but so that we can love each other more deeply. We are called to be slaves to each other, to put others before ourselves.

And just in case we think we can love each other without sacrificing too much, Paul lays out what this kind of freedom prohibits: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.”

What I love about Paul is he writes this FOUR VERSES after he has just wished castration on a group of people. I think Paul is preaching to himself here as much as he is preaching to the Galatians! He knows how tempted we are by our base instincts. For generations the law has been a construct to protect us from these desires and impulses, but now we are free from the law, so what keeps us from just devolving into an orgy of our own desires?

When I first joined the Episcopal Church I was coming from a more conservative evangelical tradition, which put a lot of emphasis on rules. I was a member of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship during college and it was very clear that we were not supposed to drink alcohol. Our bodies were a temple to the Lord, and alcohol would defile that temple.

When I first started attending St. James’ Episcopal Church in Richmond, I went to one of their Wednesday night dinners. You guys, there was WINE there. I about fell over. I was entering a church that was full of love and people serving God, but the strict religious imperative against alcohol was not there. It was very exciting.

Eventually, I joined the choir at St. James’. The choir met immediately after these Wednesday night dinners and let’s just say some of the choir enjoyed the wine at dinner a little more than was helpful. Our choir master finally had enough of giggling and lack of focus and gave us stern instructions to limit our drinking at dinner. There was no religious rule not to drink wine, but there was a community reason not to drink wine—being tipsy does not help a person stay on pitch. The wine was getting in the way of us worshiping God together. When members of the choir sacrificed a glass of wine for the good of the choir, rehearsals went much more smoothly and we were much better prepared for Sunday morning worship.

In our case, Paul was right that one of the things on his list—drunkenness–was getting in the way of our community life. If the altos had been super jealous of the sopranos, that would have been problematic, too. Dissension in the choir would have impacted our worship, as well. Paul’s list of prohibitions are a good guide to indicate when we are getting off the rails when it comes to loving our neighbor.

Paul gives us a list of qualities to look for as signs that we are on the right track: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. He describes these as Fruits of the Spirit, because we only develop these when the Holy Spirit is at work in our lives, making us more like the Jesus we follow. We’ll never be perfect, but the Holy Spirit is at work transforming us into people who actually do love others and who exhibit the Fruits of the Spirit.

Whenever we baptize a child, I walk that child up and down the aisles here at church and I tell that child that you belong to him and he belongs to you. In baptism we become part of a community. And in Christian community we lift up the common good over and above our own individual freedoms. We look out for each other. We take care of each other.

Our country’s identity is so rooted in individual freedoms that it can feel really strange, and even wrong, to build a community rooted in interdependence and sacrifice, yet God calls us to serve one another and to put each other’s wellbeing above our own. We belong to each other. For this really to work, we also need to be vulnerable and honest with each other. While our instincts tell us we want to be independent, God has designed us as interdependent people. We are supposed to help each other, and we are supposed to ask for help when we need it.

We’ll end on a few questions and moments of reflection. I will not ask who you would hope would castrate themselves. I’ll leave that for your personal prayer time.

What fruit of the Spirit do you hope God will grow in you?

What might God be asking you to give up for the good of the community?

What do you need from someone else in the community but are afraid to ask?










Advent 1, Year C, 2006

Today marks the first Sunday of Advent-the liturgical time of the year during which we wait, with eager anticipation, for God to enter the world.

This waiting has been happening for a long time and will continue for a long time.  And, as Christians, we become those who wait.  We wait for God to come back, to usher in a time and justice and peace.

Throughout history there have been those whose most important roles in life have been to actively wait for God, and to prepare those around them to meet God.

The prophet Jeremiah is one of those people.  He was a prophet, who for forty years, warned his society about the ways they were straying from God.  He lived in a tumultuous time, about six hundred years before Christ came into the world.  During his time as a prophet, Jerusalem, which had been ruled by kings in the line of King David, was invaded by the Babylonians.  They removed the rightful king, and replaced him with a puppet king named Zedekiah.  All went according to the Babylonians’ plan for awhile, but  eventually Zedekiah was convinced by the people of Jerusalem to rebel and he did, but was crushed by the Babylonians. 

The people of Jerusalem were devastated and they prayed that God would free them from his captors.  Babylonia was not the only powerful nation of the time, and soon the Egyptian army marched to the area.  The Babylonians backed off of Jerusalem and the people of Jerusalem were thrilled!  Their prayers had been answered!  God had delivered them!

Jeremiah had the unpleasant job to tell them to hold onto their horses for a minute.  He warned them this break was just a reprieve, and he was right.  In the year 586 BC Jerusalem fell to Babylon again. 

The words Jeremiah speaks in our passage today are spoken after Jerusalem has fallen.  Strangely, they are words of hope, not what you would expect in the middle of such dire circumstances. Before our passage today, Jeremiah explains that God has hidden his face from Jerusalem because of its inhabitants’ wickedness.  But his words don’t end there.  Jeremiah describes to his listeners a vision of a restored Jerusalem in which its inhabitants will experience security and abundance.  He speaks of life replacing the desolation that currently describes the town.

In our passage today, Jeremiah speaks specifically of the righteous Branch of David who will execute justice and righteousness in the land.  Righteousness is a key term here.  Remember the figurehead king we discussed earlier? The word for righteousness in Hebrew is Zedek, and the king’s name is Zedekiah.  Unfortunately, this king could not live up to his name.

So, when Jeremiah speaks of a righteous Branch of David, he is specifically contrasting this image of an upright leader with the image of Zedekiah, a corrupt leader.  Righteous not only means just, as we think of it today, it also has connotations of being right-of conforming to norms and expectations.  So, the Branch of which Jeremiah speaks will not be grafted in, as Zedekiah was by the Babylonians, it will be a Branch of the true line of kings-the line of David.  But, this branch will also be righteous in the sense of being holy and aligned with God.  This branch will conform both to lineage and to God’s standards for kingship-being just and merciful.  In fact, this Branch of David will be called righteousness. 

The image of righteousness springing up from desolation, from hopefulness is a beautiful one.  And this image is really the image of Advent. 

Advent is about waiting for God, waiting for righteousness to enter the world.  Waiting for life to come from desolation.  Waiting for salvation.

American protestant theology usually describes salvation in terms of the individual.  We think of a person being “saved” at a prayer meeting, for instance.  When Jeremiah speaks of salvation and God’s righteousness, though, Jeremiah is thinking in terms of a community’s salvation. 

So, what is the difference between individual and community salvation?

When we think of salvation in individual terms, we think of one person’s righteousness.  We think of this individual confessing his sins, being forgiven by God and going on to have a relationship with God.

However, righteousness is not simply about the relationship between individuals and their God.  Righteousness is about a way of life.  When you think of salvation in terms of a community, you begin to understand that righteousness is not just about being connected to God, but it means living out that relationship with God by your relationships with the people around you.  If you are ‘saved’, but are a jerk to your kids, you’re not experiencing righteousness.  If you’re ‘saved’, but are not taking care of orphans, widows, and the poor, you’re not experiencing righteousness.  If you’re ‘saved’, but not seeking to be in right relationship with others, you’re not experiencing righteousness.  Righteousness is a way of life in which a community conforms to the righteousness of Christ.

And in America, I think a lot of our recent culture wars have to do with different groups having different interpretations of what it means to be a righteous people.  Some believe we’ll achieve righteousness by sticking with traditional values.  Some believe we’ll achieve righteousness by eliminating AIDS.  Some believe we’ll achieve righteousness by protecting ourselves from terrorism.  Some believe we’ll achieve righteousness by slowing down global warming.  Some believe we’ll achieve righteousness by fixing inner city schools.  Some believe we’ll achieve righteousness when all races and both genders are treated equally.  Some believe we’ll achieve righteousness when we narrow the gap between rich and poor.  Some believe we’ll achieve righteousness when the media becomes tasteful again.  Some believe we’ll achieve righteousness when we all believe the same things. 

I don’t think we’ll ever achieve righteousness as a nation by backing the right issues.  Our only hope, really, is Jesus.  Our hope rests in a prayer that Jesus will let us conform to his righteousness. This kind of conforming takes effort and sacrifice and cannot be undertaken without the power of God behind us.

Jesus does more than save us from death.  Jesus changes us.  When we are truly in relationship with Christ, we are constantly challenged to grow, deepen and be transformed.  And that transformation is always toward righteousness. 

And for that transformation, we need to wait.  But this is no passive waiting, this is a waiting that is full of longing-longing for Christ, longing for God, longing for righteousness.  This is a waiting full of prayer and of study and of relationship.

This is a waiting full of hope.

Like Jeremiah, we know that God is for us.  And with Jeremiah, we wait for Him.