Rev. Amy Morgan
September 27, 2015
Psalm 19; Galatians 3:19-29
There was only a small gap between us. Maybe four feet. But it might as well have been a hundred miles. Nobody was crossing that line.
On one side stood my church youth group, a bunch of white teenagers from the Texas Hill Country. We’d come to the Presbyterian Pan American School, located just about a hundred miles from the Mexican border, to scrape and paint some of the dormitories. Just after we’d arrived, the students of the school, who were at that time primarily from Mexico and Central and South America, were brought out en masse to meet us.
While their classes were bilingual, many of the students spoke only rudimentary English. And while some of us were taking Spanish classes at school, we were far from conversant.
So across this gap, we had nothing to say, no way to introduce ourselves, talk about shared interests, and learn about each other.
Even if we could have found a way to communicate, I don’t know if we would have. Growing up in Texas, we had seen plenty of people from Mexico. I had friends at school from Columbia and Bolivia. But to see this concentrated mass of brown-skinned students, neatly dressed in their school uniforms, was an unfamiliar sight, at the very least. There were more students than church kids. We were in the minority, a position most of us had never experienced before. And we had no idea what to do about it.
So we stood there are stared at each other for what seemed like an eternity until we were invited into the cafeteria for dinner.
As we moved toward the prospect of food, a shared meal, it started to dawn on me that there was at least one thing we all had in common. We were hungry teenagers. And we had just completed a unit on food in my Spanish class. I moved toward the edge of the gap and caught the eye of one of the boys from the school. “Hola,” I said. “Hola,” he replied.
I asked him if the food was good.
He looked shocked at my construction of a complete sentence in Spanish. “Hablas Espanol?” I told him I spoke a little Spanish. He and his friends swarmed me and began talking all at once at the warp speed of teenage conversation. I didn’t understand most of what they said, but I had crossed the gap.
For the rest of our week at the school, my new Spanish-speaking friends helped me improve my language skills. They helped me read the Bible and hymns in Spanish during our shared worship services. And all I had to do was stick out, allow myself to be the one white girl speaking broken Spanish in a group of Latino teenagers.
The world of the early church was defined by impassable chasms like the one I faced upon arrival at the Pan American School. The Roman Empire attempted to keep the peace between a multitude of conquered peoples by establishing clear distinctions between citizens and slaves, developing a unique cultural identity, and reinforcing the hierarchy of household power structures. In this context, Paul’s statement on the deconstruction of distinction between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, is not to be taken lightly. Nor would it have made him popular with the Roman authorities. To be proclaiming unity in anything other than Rome would have amounted to treason. But here is Paul, telling the Galatians that they are one in Christ Jesus.
Now, this in no way magically dispensed with all of the dividing walls that existed in first-century Galatia. Paul was not advising that Jews and Greeks find some middle ground where they could all meet up on questions of theology and culture. The concern about the Jewish Law that is the main thesis of this letter maintains that Jews should be Jews and Greeks should be Greeks. As in other letters from Paul, he does not advise that all slaves should be freed so that slave and free are one and the same. And while, of course, there would not have been the possibility of altering the sexes physiologically in Paul’s time, he also doesn’t advocate for a radical reformation of domestic life to blend the roles of the sexes.
There is still a gap. With Jews on one side and Greeks on the other. With slaves on one side and free people on the other. With men on one side and women on the other.
What Paul is saying is that in baptism, we are given the same uniform, we have “clothed ourselves with Christ.” More importantly, we have been given the same promise, the promise given to Abraham, the promise of blessing through Abraham’s offspring.
Like teenagers discovering we all gotta eat, discovering that we have at least something in common in the midst of all our differences, God’s people can connect and find unity in Jesus Christ. We can recognize one another as heirs of the same promise.
But in order to live into that unity, we will sometimes have to risk sticking out.
And that’s tough, because I know some of us come to church to blend in. We want to scoot in the back pew during the first hymn, after that awkward part where everybody shakes hands and hugs and kisses each other. And we want to slip back out during the last hymn, before the pastor gets to the door to ask us how we’re doing.
Or we want to blend into a church that agrees with our theology, and maybe even our politics. We don’t want questions that make us consider another viewpoint or interpretations of scripture that challenge us to change how we think or how we live. Church is supposed to be a place of comfort and support on our spiritual journey, a sanctuary of like-minded people who will reinforce our deeply-held beliefs.
Maybe we even want to blend in to a church where people look and speak and act the way we do. We all like to believe we are color blind and in love with diversity. But walking into church is oftentimes no different than walking into the high school lunch room. You gravitate toward what makes you comfortable. You do everything you can to not stick out.
But Paul tells us that our unity in Christ is all about sticking out. It’s about being the one Jew in a group of Greeks, the one free person among slaves, the sole female on a team of men. Feeling the strangeness of being in the minority, of being the “other,” opens us up to the expansiveness of God’s promise, of God’s grace, of God’s love for all humankind.
While this may be an unusual experience for many of us, there are some of us for whom this feeling is not at all uncommon. So many people here in our congregation and our community feel the friction of sticking out on a daily basis. And our challenge when we are in the majority is to not attempt to assimilate them.
The root of the problem Paul is addressing in his letter to the Galatians is exactly this. The majority of Christians at the time were Jewish. They kept Jewish law, and in order to be fully incorporated into the Jewish community and into the Jewish promise, you had to undergo circumcision.
When non-Jews, mostly Greeks in this region, were called to follow Jesus Christ, they stuck out among the law-following Jewish Christians. And so the easy answer was to help them blend in. They could be circumcised and keep the law, and all would be well.
But that misses the point of both the law and the Jesus event.
The law, Paul says, was meant to be a guardian of sorts, boundaries and guidelines to keep sin contained until Christ came along to deal with sin head-on. Trusting that Christ did what he came to do means that we don’t need to trust in the law anymore to keep us in bounds. There’s nothing wrong with following the law per se. The Psalmist proclaims that The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul. John Calvin believed the law served three purposes: to reflect God’s holiness and human sinfulness; to restrain sin to some degree until God’s redemption of creation is complete; and to reveal God’s desire for our lives.
But the Galatian Christians were attempting to use the law as a form of assimilation, which only served to highlight their distinctions and sanctify their differences.
My freshman year of college, I was invited to go to a show with a group of students from my acting class. I had exactly one friend at the time, who was also in this class. So we planned to meet up in her room and go to the theatre together. I put on what I thought was an awesome outfit for a night at the theatre in New York City. When I arrived at my friend’s place, her jaw dropped when she opened the door, and she yanked me inside. She began pointing out everything about my appearance that would make me stick out – in all the wrong ways- in this group. She gave me a new outfit and accessories, did my make-up and hair, and only then would she be seen in public with me. I’m sure I looked awesome. I certainly blended in. But I didn’t feel like myself. And I certainly didn’t feel like the person I was, the person who showed up at my friend’s door, was acceptable and valuable.
And that is why Paul is so adamant about reliance on Christ and the promises of God rather than the provisions of the Law. Because the law can only highlight was is wrong, how we don’t fit in. As Paul says, “if a law had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness would indeed have been based on law.” But the law can only show us how sinful we are, how depraved humanity is, how far off the mark we are. Sometimes, it’s important for us to see these things. But it is always more important to know that the promise of God is true, that God’s love is for everyone, regardless of their life circumstances, and that unity in Christ is what brings glory to God.
We don’t need to blend in. We need to be different. Male and female. American and Mexican and Syrian. Tall and short. Gay and straight. Black and white. Baptist and Catholic and Pentecostal and Presbyterian.
But in all our differences, we need to recognize that none of them matter before God. We are one in Jesus Christ, heirs to the promises of God. May that great truth give us the courage to stick out, the courage to appreciate our diversity rather than try to assimilate, the courage to cross the gaps and live in the tension that creates so that we may experience the expansiveness of God’s love and grace. Amen.
Rev. Dr. John Judson
September 20, 2015
Genesis 12:1-9, Galatians 3:1-9
I really didn’t believe them. They kept telling me that it was the most beautiful building in the world…in fact one of the most beautiful sights in the world. But I didn’t believe them. After all I was fortunate enough to have seen some pretty cool stuff in my life. But about ten years or so ago on a beautiful, clear morning I turned a corner of some souvenir shops and there is front of me was the Taj Mahal. It took my breath away. I had gone to India with a mission group to visit some projects my former church was supporting. One of the perks was going to see the Taj Mahal. I have to say it was not high on my list of things do, but what the heck. When would I ever get back to India? When I saw it though I realized why it was one of the seven wonders of the modern world. In this case seeing was believing. It was indeed, at least in my opinion, the most beautiful building I had ever seen. Have any of you had the same kind of experience? Someone keeps telling you about something and it is not until you see it that you believe them? Well if you have, then you get what Paul was trying to do in this letter, he was asking the people to remember what they saw so that they would believe him.
Before I jump into that I want to bring everyone up to speed. Paul’s letter to the churches in Galatia is in some ways a heavy weight boxing match between Paul and his opponents that I call the circumcision party. What they are fighting over is the entry requirements into the Jesus’ community. Paul is arguing for a barrier free entry…you want to follow Jesus? Come on in. The Circumcision Party on the other hand wants a high barrier…that one must be circumcised or ritualized into the community. This matters to Paul because, as I said last week, the entry requirements often set the culture of the institution…which can be seen in the arrests made of a large group of young men in a fraternity at Baruch College, for their brutal initiation and killing of one of their pledges. Paul’s on the surface argument in this portion of the letter then is this; the Galatians, who entered into the Jesus’ community through Paul’s barrier free manner, had seen amazing proofs of God’s presence including miracles. In other words Paul argues, you should believe in my way because you have seen results.
It is at this point that many people stop looking at the text. We now know that in this case seeing is believing. But if we end here we will miss the heart of what Paul is trying to tell us. We will miss that not only is seeing believing, but that believing is seeing. Let me say that again, believing is seeing. This in fact is the heat of Paul’s message…that all of the good things that we witness as followers of God in Jesus Christ, come through believing. But in order to fully understand this we must understand what believing means. So here goes….imagine, if you will, one of your friends comes to you and says that he has a sure thing; that there is a horse named Flash-in-the-Pan, in the fifth race at Pimlico this Thursday and that if we bet everything we have we will win big. One way of using the concept of believing would be to say to your friend, “Thanks, and I am thrilled you have a sure thing…in fact I believe you, but I will hang on to my money.” Another way of believing would be to say, “This is great,” and then you sell all you have, go to the betting window and place everything on Flash-in-the-Pan, in the fifth race at Pimlico. This is believing in the Biblical sense. It is faith with feet.
We can see this faith with feet in the Abraham story. When God called Abraham, Abraham didn’t say to God, “Hey this is great that you want me to go to a new land and through me bless the world. Let me put that on my calendar for the fourth of never.” No, instead Abraham got his family together and they undertook the journey to which God had called them. This is belief. It is faith with feet and where this led Abraham was to see the Promises of God come to fruition. What we have to realize about this story is just how amazing this is. When God made this promise to Abraham that through his offspring all of the earth would be blessed, Abraham and Sarah had no children. The fulfillment of the promise seemed impossible. But even when they were, according to the story, beyond the age of having children and before the age of the little blue pill, Abraham and Sarah conceived a child, Isaac. What this points to is the fact that God’s promises are present, but it is our believing, our putting feet to our faith that gives them birth and allows them to be made real. It is in believing that we see. And this is Paul’s point to the Galatians…they are living the same promise-believing-seeing life as was Abraham.
We see this in verse two, “Let me ask you only this, did you receive the Spirit by works of the Law (meaning through being circumcised) or by hearing with faith?” In other words did the Spirit promised by the crucified and risen Jesus come to you through some sort of religious ritual or did it come because you believed, because you were willing to acknowledge the promise of the Spirit and then act upon it? The obvious answer for Paul was that the promise of the Spirit became a reality through believing…and the Spirit not only brought miraculous events but it allowed the Galatians to “experience many things” which we can take to mean love, joy, peace, patience and the other fruits which the Spirit brings. Paul is reminding the Galatians that believing is seeing, and so one can have a barrier free faith, remembering the cause of the letter, because ultimately it is believing that allows God’s promises in Jesus Christ to become realities.
If this seems a bit cryptic, let me offer you a down to earth, Lucas film image from a little known movie called Star Wars. In this movie there is an ordinary young man named Luke Skywalker. His parents are deceased and he lives with his aunt and uncle…sound familiar? Anyway the crux of the film is that he has been given a gift of something called the force. It is within him and is of little or no use. And for it to be of any use he has to believe that it is real…which takes him at least a couple of movies to do. Yet once he believes it is real and then acts to put it to use…the universe is saved because he blows up the death star…yadda, yadda, yadda.
This is where we find ourselves. We are those in whom God has poured out God’s infinite love in Jesus Christ and we are those in whom the Spirit now lives and breathes. The question is, will we believe it? Will we allow our faith to have feet, and act upon these gifts? For it is easy to not believe these two promises. It is easy to see Christianity as a decent set of moral guidelines for ourselves, our children and our grandchildren. But we are asked to believe more than that. We are asked to believe as did the Galatians these promises of God’s gifts of love and Spirit are real and then act upon them. My challenge to you then is this, to ask, “How am I believing God and acting upon the life transforming love and Spirit that God has given me?”
Rev. Dr. John Judson
September 13, 2015
Galatians 1:1-9, Deuteronomy 27:1-8
The soccer ball was flying through the air. The guy next to me lifted up his fist and knocked the ball down the field. “Hand ball,” I exclaimed, “It’s our ball.” “No, it’s not,” he replied. “Sure is, you hit it with your hand.” “No I didn’t. I hit it with my fist. That’s legal.” OK so I was playing soccer in high school gym class with a group of guys who evidently had never played the game, but rules are rules. “No,” I came back, “the rules are that you cannot hit the ball with any part of your arm or hand (trying not to get too technical). If you do it’s a hand ball and the other team gets it.” By this time we had gathered a crowd of teammates around us and the debate began. His team insisted that he was right. Mine didn’t really care. It was soon obvious who was going to get to make the rules…and it wasn’t me and it wasn’t the governing body of soccer at any level. The new rule was you could hit the ball with your fist. To this day I still shudder when I think of all of those guys walking away thinking that is how you play soccer.
It’s an amazing thing isn’t it, watching who thinks that they get to make the rules? Most of us have watched this unfold as of late when a clerk in Kentucky has decided that she, not the state of Kentucky which compels her to issue marriage licenses, and certainly not the Supreme Court which has issued an order to do the same, gets to make the rules. And we read about it this morning in our text in Galatians. For this is what these opening words are about. They are about who gets to make the rules for entry into the Jesus community. I was thinking about how to explain this and decided the best opening analogy would be a boxing match. So here goes…and I have always wanted to do this.
In the near corner, in the red trunks, is Saul of Tarsus, who we know as the Apostle Paul. He claims his power to make decisions comes directly from Jesus. As he writes, Paul an Apostle-sent neither by human commission not from human authorities but through Jesus Christ and God the Father…” He is fighting for a barrier free community in which there are no hurdles to membership. In the far corner, in the blue trunks, are the Circumcisers. They claim that their power is from God through the Torah; the Law of Moses. They claim a thousand years of tradition and the fact that Jesus was a good Jew to make their point; and that point is that in order to gain entry into the Jesus’ community you have to, if you are a male, be circumcised, just as had every member of God’s family since Abraham. So now let’s get ready to rumble.
And that is exactly what is going on. Paul began the fight by teaching the Galatians that they could be part of the Jesus’ community simply by a willingness to follow Jesus. This was countered by the Circumcisers who jabbed that, no you had to be circumcised in order to be part of the Jesus’ community. Paul then countered that with, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one, meaning Paul, who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel…not that there is another Gospel.” It was a heavy weight theological battle.
For many of us here this morning I would guess this would already seem a bit, well unimportant. After all what does it matter who wins? What does it matter whether Paul or the Circumcisers win? This is an argument from a time long, long ago in a land far, far away. Yet what I want to tell you is that it does matter to all of us who are here this morning because how one comes into a community sets the stage for the kind of community into which one is coming. Let me explain. The college I attended had local and not national fraternities. And each fraternity decided on the pledging process, the process for entering into their community. One fraternity, to which a roommate of mine pledged, had a pledging process that eventually got them disbanded. Their process was filled not simply with fun things to do, but things bordering on cruel. And in some ways that carried through to the kind of community they became. There was another fraternity on campus that had no pledging process at all. You wanted to join? You were in. You were part of the group. They decided that they would be the un-fraternity. And their interior life was one of service, fun and joy. In the same way then it matters how the church decided this fight over who gets to make the rules between Paul and the Judaizers because it would, in the end determine what the Jesus’ community looked like.
This is something that Paul understood as well. He understood that if he gets to set the rules then the community will be a barrier free community based on grace and freedom. If his opponents win, it will a restrictive community based on law. And for Paul, Jesus is about grace and not law. Paul knew that Jesus’ ministry was all about grace. Paul knew that Jesus invited all persons to come and follow…and did it in a barrier free manner. It didn’t matter if you were rich or poor, Jew, Roman or Samaritan, healthy or sick, powerful or oppressed, a man or woman, were afflicted with any physical limitations, Jesus opened his arms wide and invited you into his new Kingdom community. He was in some ways the good southern Galilean, who said, “Ya’ll come.” He never told people that they had to go through any kind of a religious ritual to be a follower. All they had to do was follow him and his example to the best of their abilities. His was a barrier free community, open to all
The second reason Paul chose a barrier free entry was freedom. He writes, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord, Jesus Christ who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age…” Let me explain. When people made the choice to follow Jesus, something happened to them. They were changed. They were made new. They had the power to resist sin; to resist the powers in this world that distort the goodness of ourselves as God creatures and goodness of God’s creation. They had the power to live new lives. They had the power to love God and neighbor. And all of this came about without them having to be circumcised or to go through some elaborate religious ritual. This was then the experience of the reality of the no-barrier entry into the Jesus’ community. What Paul wanted the Galatians to remember is that they were already in, and had already received the benefits of being in the community of Jesus, long before his opponents showed up and tried to erect barriers to entry.
In the end we have no idea what the final outcome of the fight in Galatia was; whether or not they chose to become a barrier free community. But what it reminds us of is the fact that every Jesus’ community, every church has to make the decision as to what kind of community it wants to become. Does it want to be a barrier free community or one in which there are extensive rules and regulations. And we see this struggle in the Roman church, where the Pope is trying to make the church more barrier free and he is facing push back from Bishops, priests and lay people who have no desire to bring down some of the barriers. We see it in our own denomination where hundreds of churches have left since the denomination has become fully inclusive of all persons. But we here at Frist Presbyterian have made the conscious decision that we will be a no-barrier community. As our inclusion statement puts it…
“As Everybody’s Church, we strive to be a faithful, open and inclusive community. We welcome the participation of all people of any ability, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or any other life circumstance.”
We are a no-barrier community not because it is fashionable but because it is Biblical; because it is at the heart of Paul’s message of grace and freedom. But we only become that if we live it. My challenge to you all this morning then is this, to ask yourselves, “How am I helping to make Everybody’s Church a no barrier community in which all persons are welcomed and are helped to realize that they are beloved children of God?”
Rev. Dr. John Judson
September 6, 2015
1 Kings 17:1-7, James 5:13-20
Their family was appalled. They took one look at the house Paul and Doris were planning to buy and they were appalled. The front porch was sagging. The roof was in need of repair. The interior was a mess. The weeds outside in the lawn were about three feet tall. The garage was crumbling. In was terrible. The family tried to show them other, nicer properties. The family tried to talk them out of it, but Cindy’s grandparents Paul and Doris Seiler would have none of it. Doris loved the house and, as they say, that was that. But what the family seemed to be forgetting was two things. The first thing was that Doris could see beyond what was in front of her. She could see possibilities. She could see things as they could be. For her this aging home was already beautiful. The second thing that the family was forgetting was that Paul could make Doris’ visions a realty. He was a craftsman who could fix anything from furniture, to cabinets to porches. Anything Doris saw he could create. This home would be their next restoration project.
Do you have that image in your mind; an image of those who can take what is old and broken and restore it? Good, hang on to that for a couple of minutes while we turn to the end of James’ letter. This portion of the letter is one where people often get stuck. They get stuck for two reasons. The first is that James’ view is prescientific. He writes about healing someone who is sick. Instead of calling the doctors you ought to call the elders. Instead of taking appropriate medication you are supposed to be anointed with oil. Instead of going to the hospital we are supposed to pray and that prayer will heal. Please don’t get me wrong. I believe in prayer, but I also believe in genetics, germs, viruses, vaccinations, medications and appropriate surgeries. The second place where people get stuck is on what would appear to be a mechanistic view of prayer. In other words if we pray hard enough we will get what we want; healing, rain or anything else. If that were so the West Coast would be awash in water right now. We get stuck and when we do we often ignore the end of the letter.
What I would like us to do this morning then is to see the proverbial forest rather than the trees. And here are the trees: suffering-pray, cheerful-praise, sick-pray, sick-anoint, sick-raise up, confess-healed, and wander-brought back. While all of these doublets may seem a bit pre-scientific and perhaps overly optimistic about prayer, they show us one thing with great clarity. And that is that God is a God of restoration. God is a God of healing. God is a God of wholeness. God is a God of celebration and cheerfulness. This is the forest in James, a forest of restoration and healing. God desires that we be mentally, emotionally, physically, spiritually and relationally whole. This is why God gives us people who have the gifts to be physicians, nurses, therapists, pastors, elders and friends. This is why God gives us communities of love, prayer and forgiveness. This is why God sent God’s only son into the world, not so we could go to heaven but so that we might be restored and made whole. It is, if you will, the point of this table; a reminder that Jesus gave his life to defeat the powers of this world that tear us down and make us less than what God designed us to be. In other words, God has made each of us, God’s next restoration projects.
There is however, one hitch in this image, this picture of us as God’s restoration project. That hitch is that we need to admit that we need to be restored; that we are in some ways broken, a bit shabby, and in need of being renewed. I say this is a hitch because we live in a place and a time where admitting that we are less than perfect; admitting that we are less than whole and self-sufficient and in need of restoration in anyway, marks us as somehow, weak. I don’t need an annual physical, I’m fine. I may feel depressed but I don’t need to talk to anyone. I am afraid, but I don’t want my friends and church praying for me. Now, I will be happy to pray for others, care for others, listen to others when they are in need…but I will never open myself up, perhaps even to God as needing restoration because when I do I am lost. I know that this is the way the world works because it was what I was taught about ministry. Ministers, I have been told on far too many occasions, are not supposed to have friends in the church. We are not supposed to let people know that we need their prayers and love because we are supposed to be the spiritual healers and not fellow travelers in need of restoration. We are not supposed to model the wrong kind of behavior.
The reality of being human is that we are all broken. We are all like the house Paul and Doris built, in need of restoration; clergy, church staff, elders, members, visitors. We are all there. But as I said a moment ago this is why God gives us those with the gifts to help us heal; gives us loving, praying and forgiving communities; gives us one another. So here is my challenge to us all, that as we come to the table this morning to ask ourselves, how am I allowing God to help heal me through the gifts of others, including this church community?