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?










Christmas I, Year B, 2008

In honor of the incarnation that we celebrated this week, today’s readings are all about the law and grace.

Now, when I hear the words “the Law”, the first images I think of are American ones.  I think of dusty sheriffs patrolling the western frontier.  I think of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood.  I think of lawbreakers like Johnny Cash, singing the “Folsom Prison Blues”. I think of Billy the Kid and Jesse James.  America has always held the law and law-breaking in an exciting tension.  After all, we began as a nation by breaking the law and rebelling against England.  Outlaws have been our heroes as much as the lawmen that chased them down.

When we think about grace, we think about big sweeping outlaw stories, too.  American Christianity, particularly of the conservative sort, loves a huge conversion story.  There is nothing better than when a hopeless outlaw has an experience with Jesus that transforms his life. The first of these that comes to my mind is Charles Colson, who found Jesus while in prison after the Watergate scandal and has spent his life since working in prison ministry.  I think of Anne Lamott’s story, too.  She was addicted to drugs until a series of experiences in which she had a very clear supernatural sense of Jesus’ presence that motivated her to seek healing and a church community.

These dramatic conversion stories are exciting and a give a clear picture of the power of Christ in the life of believers. A new understanding of Christ’s love can motivate people to completely change their lives, making for a remarkable witness to the power of God.  But, what about the rest of us?  What does grace look like for those of us who aren’t outlaws?

As you can imagine, I have at MOST about 2% outlaw in me.  I have been a rule-follower since I was a little kid.  I like order and most laws make sense to me, so I see no need to break them.  I pay my taxes, stop at red lights, and have never done drugs.  I am, as a four year old I know likes to say, “Boooooooowing.”  Matt likes to mess with me in grocery stores by putting an item out of place. He knows I just can’t stand it if a can of beans ends up with the pasta.  He knows I will be unable to resist picking up those beans and putting the can back where it belongs.  I am a rule bound woman.

And yet, the grace of God that comes through Jesus incarnation is still profound to me.

Why is that?  What does the incarnation of Christ and the grace of God offer for us boring rule-bound types?

Well for one thing, in terms of obedience, the law of the Hebrew Scriptures is a lot more complicated than American civil law.  It’s easy to stop at red lights.  It’s not always easy to follow the hundreds of specific household and dietary laws of Leviticus.  It’s really not easy to avoid breaking the laws-such as coveting-which are as much about an emotional response than a behavioral one.  Being obedient to all the laws of the Hebrew Scriptures is nearly impossible.  They are so detailed, following them might be like having an entire lifetime of just putting cans back into the right slots.  While putting cans back in their proper places brings me a moment of satisfaction, it certainly does not offer me a lifetime of joy!

Christ’s incarnation and life changes our relationship to the law.  He follows the law perfectly on our behalf.

But more importantly than changing our relationship to the law, Christ’s incarnation fundamentally transforms the way we relate to God-whether we are outlaws or chronically obedient.

In our reading from Galatians today, Paul writes,

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.

When we were under the law, we related to God as his servants.  We were the vassals to his Lord, the peasant to his King.  Our relationship was based on obedience and loyalty.  We were rewarded when we worshiped him properly and punished when we slipped and worshiped Ba’al instead.

When Jesus is born into Mary and Joseph’s human family, we are invited to join God’s family.  Suddenly, our status has changed.  We are no longer slaves, but children of God.  God sees us as his children and we are invited to call him Father.

Now just think for a minute, if you were here last Sunday, about how you felt about our children as they performed and watched the Christmas pageant.  I saw the tears in your eyes and heard the sighs and laughter.  Our children are beloved here-as they should be.  Now imagine that God feels the same way about you!

This is a big transition to make.  If you’re off being an outlaw, you’re used to railing against authority figures.  If you’re a rule follower, you’re used to trying to please authority figures through your perfect obedience.  Neither of these ways of being really prepares you for the challenge of simply being loved.

We don’t have to prove anything.  We don’t have to earn anything.  We are loved simply because God has chosen to love us.  He has decided to adopt us into his family without any manipulation or trickery on our part.  He loves us.  He wants to be around us.  He wants a deep relationship with us. The relational dynamic has changed.  Now pleasing God means developing an intimate relationship with him, rather than simply obeying his laws.

And this is the true meaning of Christmas.  We welcome the baby Jesus into the human family as a reminder that Jesus has invited us to be a member of his family.  We put up lights and exchange presents and generally rejoice because whether we are outlaws, goody-two-shoes or someone in-between, we are loved and wanted by God, and have become part of his family.

Merry Christmas, indeed!