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?”
Rooted and Grounded in Love: Know-It-All
Rev. Amy Morgan
August 30, 2015
Proverbs 31:10-31, James 3:13-4:3
He had the good life. Everything you could want. Money, fame, power. Even family and friends. But he wanted more. He wanted what he couldn’t have. He stole, cheated, broke hearts, broke up his family, ruined his career.
Who am I talking about? Take your pick. This isn’t an unfamiliar story. We’ve heard it dozens of times. From preachers to politicians, entrepreneurs to actors. This story gets played out on the public stage over and over again.
We have put these people on pedestals and in positions of power supposedly because they have the wisdom to lead, or the wisdom to govern, or the wisdom to guide. And we are disappointed to discover that, as James says, “bitter envy and selfish ambition” has led them to “be boastful and false to the truth” leading to “disorder and wickedness of every kind.”
We watch these events unfold like a bad car wreck. It’s a horrific sight, the downfall of this great person, but we can’t look away. We stare and think, “How could they?” They should have known better. They had the good life, and they threw it all away.
But perhaps it calls us to reflect upon what we consider to be the good life.
For most of us, the good life would be defined as having enough – enough money, enough love, enough security, enough comfort. But how much is enough? If we define the good life around what we possess, there is always the danger of wanting more, a danger James takes very seriously. This letter claims that if we want what we do not have, we will commit murder. This is not an outside possibility or a slippery slope. This is simple cause and effect.
Now, while most of us here would have to admit that, from time to time, we want something and don’t have it, we aren’t going around murdering people. That absurd!
Well, I hate to tell you friends, but there is more than one way to skin a cat. No, we don’t kill our neighbor and move into their house. We don’t kill our business partner and take over operations. Despite the sensationalism surrounding the occasional occurrence of such things, this is not the norm in our society.
But people die to make our coffee and our chocolate. People die producing our clothes and cell phones and cheap plastic everything. Do we murder them in cold blood? Of course not. But do they die so that we can have what we want at the price we want to pay? Absolutely. There’s really no getting around it.
We can argue about trade agreements and corporate tax structures. We can deliberate the necessities of a global economy. We can remain blissfully ignorant to the working conditions of those around the world who fill our insatiable need for more stuff. But it doesn’t change the fact that James is right. After 2,000 years of civilized development, we are no better and no different. We still possess and love this earthly wisdom that leads us to want more and better stuff, to want what we don’t have. And there is still a straightforward link of cause and effect between covetousness and murder. We can point the finger at corporations or governments, but in the end, the blame falls squarely on each of us who are willing to pay for things that are made in unjust and unsafe working conditions.
These are not terribly popular ideas. And by association, James is not a very popular book of the bible. How many of you have read or studied the book of James before this sermon series?
Not many of you. There’s a reason for that. James is bossy. That’s all there is to it. Of the 108 verses in this short book, exactly half of them are imperatives. None of us would sit and listen to someone who spent half our time together telling us what to do. James doesn’t seem to understand that people don’t particularly like being told what to do.
Oddly, we seem to have no problem with being the ones telling other people what to do. Or at least talking about what we think other people should do. Because, let’s face it, we have great ideas. We are smart people. We’re brilliant, just ask us.
This might be another manifestation of what James describes as “earthly wisdom,” this “unspiritual, devilish” wisdom. Because this is a wisdom that plays a zero-sum game: in order for me to be right, you must be wrong. And because of our “envy and selfish ambition,” we are driven to be right, to be better, smarter, more successful than others. If we know it all, everyone else knows nothing, so our place on top of the dog pile is secure.
By contrast, wisdom from above is “pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” Most of these traits won’t show up in any books or blogs or lists on how to get ahead in the world. We are a know-it-all society. In the information age, it’s all about what you know, who you know, how quickly you can know it.
Unfortunately, most of these characteristics of heavenly wisdom won’t show up in any list describing what people think about the Christian church today, either. Our purity, or a better translation might be “holiness,” has been corrupted by a desire for material success. Our peace has been disrupted by numerous disputes about doctrine and polity. Gentleness has been overshadowed by pride. People on all sides of any debate have been unyielding, leading to schisms. Instead of showing mercy, we give criticism. Our good fruit is dwindling more and more each year. And one of the top descriptors used by younger generations to describe the church today is “hypocritical.”
If it makes us feel any better, these were things that the Christians James was addressing clearly struggled with as well. We are not alone in our failure to possess the wisdom from above.
But we are also not without hope. James tells us that “You do not have, because you do not ask.
You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.”
The good life is still within reach, and God desires to provide us with wisdom from above. So how do we ask? And how do we ask rightly?
First, we must understand that, for James, wisdom is a verb, not a noun. Wisdom is a way of living, not an intellectual accomplishment. We can know the doctrine of the Trinity, but does that move us to live more deeply and richly in relationship with God and neighbor? We can know the doctrine of the electing grace of God, but does comfort and gratitude then move us to embrace serving God and others in the world?
In defining wisdom as a way of life rather than a base of knowledge, James stands firmly in the Jewish tradition from which Christianity originated. Judaism has a rich wisdom tradition, ranging from Proverbs like the one we heard this morning to the preacher of Ecclesiastes, from the Wisdom of Solomon to the Psalms of David. One thing that is common amongst all this wisdom literature, including the book of James, is that they tell people what to do, not what to think.
And Jesus, the good Jew that he was, follows suit. His words meant action. He taught in parables to help people see the real-life application of theology before they even understood what he was talking about. He told people to love God and neighbor, to care for the poor, the outcast, and the prisoner, to give of their whole selves to God and live in a way that was, and is, radically counter-cultural.
So we must first ask for the right thing, and that is, of course, not a thing at all. Instead of asking to have things – be it enough wealth and security or enough knowledge and power - we must instead ask God to orient our hearts and our lives to do the right things.
Then, we must have the courage to actually ask for this. This is really the more difficult part. There is a very good reason why Paul says that proclaiming the good news of a crucified Christ will be seen as foolishness. Pay more for what you buy every day because it encourages companies to pay a fair wage and provide a better life for people you will never meet. Foolishness. Worry more about how rich and joyful and true your worship of God is than about how many people are in the pews and how much money is in the church coffers. Foolishness. Really listen to someone who disagrees with your point of view, and tell them where you think they’re right rather than where you think they’ve gone wrong. Foolishness. Admit it when you’re wrong and acknowledge your fallibility. Foolishness.
This foolishness is the wisdom out of which the good life flows. Not an achievement of goods or an achievement of intellect. Instead, a harvest of righteousness sown in peace for those who make peace. A life of goodness born from doing good things, day in and day out. A life of small acts of kindness, everyday choices, consideration for others that all add up to the good life.
The good life awaits us, friends. May we have the wisdom and courage to ask for it. Amen.
Rooted and Grounded in Love: Respect
Rev. Dr. John Judson
August 16, 2015
Exodus 23:1-9, James 2:1-13
Really James?! Really, you actually expected people to follow your advice and treat the poor like they treat the wealthy? Really? This is not the way the Roman world works. The Roman world is divided into two categories, those who have and those who have not. And the Roman world only works when those two groups follow the socially acceptable protocol. That protocol is that the wealthy act as beneficiaries of the not wealthy…ok, the poor. The wealthy, whose numbers were, by the way, even smaller than our own one percenters, had the obligation to share their wealth with the community. They built roads, endowed temples, provided for the festivals and when times were tough, extra bread for the masses. This is where the phrase “bread and circuses” came from. In exchange for their largess, the masses would bow, scrape and otherwise give the wealthy their appropriate admiration. It was a system that had worked well for hundreds of years. So why in the world James, would you expect it to change in the church? After all, chances are the church only exists, again, because of the largess of the wealthy. Surely you really didn’t expect anyone to listen, did you?
Really James?! Really, you actually expected people to follow your advice in the 21st century? Really? This is not the way things work in the American world. After all, churches have bills to pay, staff to support, buildings to maintain and mission to do. The way the church has operated to make this happen is….well, like Cornerstone Church in San Antonio. It is a church with about ten-thousand members and a five-thousand seat auditorium. The rules are clear. If you want to meet the pastor…not have dinner with him…but meet him, you have to join the $10,000 club. Only those who give more than that amount have any access at all to the pastor. Cornerstone works like another mega-church in San Antonio where my former internist went. It was new and fast growing . When the pastor found out that my internist tithed off of his income, making him one of the largest givers, he was always being asked for his advice, taken to lunch and otherwise held up as the paragon of faith…something by the way which actually bugged him. But, James this is the world. So did you really expect people to listen?
The short answer is, yes. Yes James did expect people to listen and he did so because he was a good Jewish Christian. And just a reminder here, all of the first members of the church were Jews who believed in Jesus as messiah. They did not see themselves as a founder of a new religion.
James expected people to listen because he was a good Jew and as a good Jew he knew his Torah. And part of that Torah was the passage we read out of Exodus this morning. What we need to note out of that section is that every human being was to be given equal respect, dignity and justice. People were not supposed to favor any one person or any other person over another regardless of standing. As the passage states, people are not supposed to be favored because they have money, they are wealthy, nor are they to be favored because they are poor, because the judge feels compassion for them. This is the heart of the Torah that all persons stand equal before God and are therefore to be treated equally in the community. There is a great piece of Jewish Midrash, or legal interpretations where Rabbi Ishmael says, “If before a judge two men appear, one rich and another poor, the judge should say to the rich man, either come back dressed like this man, or dress him like yourself.” This is the way James expected the church to operate, as if every person had equal goods and equal standing. He expected it because it was what the Torah called for.
James also expected it because he was a good Christian. He did so because this was the model that Jesus laid out for his followers. Jesus understood the way the Roman world worked. There were patrons and there were those who were to bow and scrape. Jesus however never allowed those expectations to define his manner of life. He ate with sinners and tax collectors. He fed the poor as well as had dinner with the wealthy. He showed no prejudice toward one or the other. When people say that God has shown prejudice and that God and Jesus have a special place in their heart for the poor, what is meant is not that God and Jesus loved the poor more than the wealthy, it means that God and Jesus cared for the poor because they were the invisible ones, they were the ones who were forgotten, abused and oppressed. God and Jesus worked to even out the scales. Their desire was that the captives go free and the poor be lifted up and the powerful be brought down…so that they stood in the same place. This was the world which Jesus gave his life for, one in which every human being is shown the same respect, and especially shown the same respect inside the Jesus community.
If we are willing to admit it, this is not always an easy thing to do. But it is possible. And I know that it is possible because of you; because of you the members of First Presbyterian Church. Each week I see you welcoming people almost to the point I can’t get you to be quiet for the music before the service. Each week I hear from visitors who remark as to how friendly you are. And this is especially necessary for us because we have cast ourselves as Everybody’s Church. And we have done so not because we think everyone will want to, or ought to, go here but because everyone who walks into our doors is welcomed with open arms regardless of any worldly condition. I ask as well because part of our vision statement is that we are an inclusive church, again meaning inclusive of all who come here. Let me read you our inclusion statement again. It reads…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. In other words we have committed ourselves to being a James’-like church.
The challenge before us then is to continue working on being the kind of church James describes. It is not to rest on our laurels and assume that we have arrived…because the instant we do that we have lost our way. My challenge to you this morning then is to ask yourselves, “How am I helping Everybody’s Church, be just that, a welcoming church where we offer everyone who enters here the respect that they deserve as children of God?”
Rooted and Grounded in Love; God’s ROI
Rev. Dr. John Judson
August 9, 2015
James 1:17-27, Deuteronomy 14:28-29
It was the next to last job I had before going to seminary. I was working for an engineering firm that was designing a new refinery for Chevron. My job was to design, draw and detail the piping arrangement for the tank farm. The tank farm was the area where large tank like containers were arranged so that oil tankers could off-load their cargo and it could be stored prior to refining. The pay was excellent and I enjoyed the people I worked with. Then one day, the unexpected happened. I was called into the office of my boss’s boss, was handed an envelope and told that I was to clean out all of my drafting supplies because I was being let go. I say this was a shock because my boss had entrusted me with tasks beyond my pay-grade because he trusted me. As I was leaving with my pink slip and severance, my boss’s boss, said, “Oh you’re being let go because Chevron is shutting down the entire project. They decided that it was not worth the investment.” As an economics major I got it. The return in their investment was not adequate to continue the project.
Return on investment, or ROI, is part and parcel of the business world. I would guess that many of you at one time or another were part of the process of deciding which projects did or did not have an adequate ROI in order to proceed. But the interesting thing about ROI is that it is not limited to the business world. In fact we are engaged in determining the return on our investment on an almost daily basis. We make a decision to go out to dinner or go eat at home. In so doing we assess the return on the money we will spend at restaurant. Will the meal be worth it? We are going to decide if we will redo our kitchen. The old one works fine, but we believe that the return on our investment in terms of more counter space and better appliances means our ROI is on target. We know that the dream cruise is coming and we know a friend of a friend who has a completely restored 55 Chevy coupe for sale, yes this is my dream, and so we have to decide if the return of driving down Woodward at 10 miles per hour will be worth it. So return on investment is something that we all do, all the time, and interestingly enough, so too does God.
Our passage out of James this morning is all about God’s desire for a return on the investment that God has made in the world. How so? Let’s look at the text. James begins by reminding us that God invests in us. We are told that all good gifts come from God. The impression we are to take from these words has to do with the good gifts of life; the earth, the sky, the stars, the rain, food upon our tables and the like. God’s people are to remember that all that they have, they have because God has invested in us. Without God’s help as creator and sustainer of the world, we would have nothing. The second way in which God invests in the world is through implanting the word. I realize that this is an odd sounding term. Yet for James and his audience the reference would be clear. The implanted word is the implanted presence of Jesus Christ in their, and in our, lives. For you see James understands that what causes one to follow Jesus is not simply that we like his teachings, but that God has literally implanted, through the Spirit, the very presence of Jesus Christ in us. And because God has done so, we become capable of being new people; new people who can give God a return on this investment.
We begin to get a sense of the kind of return that God desires in verse 18 when James writes, “In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.” First fruits within the Jewish tradition were the best that anyone had to offer. Thus James is telling us that we are to be the best creatures that God has created. We are to be the exemplars. And what that means for James is not that we are in church every Sunday but that we exhibit a particular kind of life and become a particular kind of people. Being this kind of people means being slow to speak, slow to anger, ridding ourselves of habits that harm others, and strive to allow the implanted word, the presence of Jesus Christ to lead us. What it also means is that we will strive for true religion. OK, I want to pause here for an explanation. For most of us, religion means a set of beliefs or doctrines that are associated with God or the gods. Being a religious person means believing certain things. In the first century, this was not the case. Religion was a set of practices. To be religious meant to practice certain cultic rituals. It meant going to a particular temple and giving an offering. It meant participating in a particular festival. Therefore when James talks about true religion he is referring to a particular set of practices…namely, caring for the most vulnerable, widows and orphans, and not allowing society to dictate what we do. These were the returns God expected to come out of God’s investment in the world.
I realize that at this moment there are some among you who are a bit uncomfortable with this analogy of God desiring a return on God’s investment. I say this because every time in my ministry that I preach from James with his emphasis on doing, some people are concerned. They are concerned because they have come out of more legalistic Christian traditions in which one’s salvation was always at risk based upon one’s actions. So questions such as the following arise. “How much return on God’s investment does God want?’ What happens if I do not return an adequate investment? Will God send me packing?” “Is God’s love contingent on the return that I give to God?” “What happens to the grace that I so desperately desire from God?” “Is this salvation by works and not by grace?” In other words there is an inner struggle about am I being good enough, doing enough, loving enough or serving enough to be acceptable to God? What I want to let you know this morning is that this passage has nothing to do with salvation, but with transformation.
As I have often said, what God desires is that all human beings become particular kinds of people (those who love God and neighbor) creating particular kinds of communities (where all persons are loved and accepted and the grace of Jesus Christ is shown), in order to help create a new world (in which all persons share in the peace and bounty that God desires for them). This is the direction in which James is headed and he understands that without doing, without putting into practice what Jesus and the prophets taught, it is impossible for people, communities and the world to be changed. This is why he uses the analogy of the face and the mirror. The connection is that if all we do is hear what Jesus teaches we will forget it. If we come to church and hear but do not do we will not be changed by what we have heard. If on the other hand we do what Jesus and the prophets taught, then we will become new people, capable of making new communities and perhaps, with God’s help, a new creation. Doing then is not about salvation, about being good enough or working hard enough to be loved and saved by God. It is about us becoming who God wants us to be. This is the return on investment that God is looking for.
She grew up in a working class family. After completing high school, college and law school she came to Detroit to work for the Tigers negotiating contracts with their players. Unlike many of us who live in the burbs and work in the inner city she chose to live in Detroit…in fact to live next door to a women’s shelter. Over time she befriended many of the women who stayed there. One day as she was running she noticed that there were buildings where the graffiti was sloughing off the bricks. She picked some up and wondered if she could make jewelry out of it. She knew something about jewelry because she had paid her way through college by making it. As she discovered it would make great jewelry she also wondered how this discovery could help others. Teaming with a new found friend they raised capital and created Rebel Nell jewelry. Then Amy Peterson, hired some of the women from the shelter to work for her with this as their mission, “employ disadvantaged women in Detroit, to educate them on financial management, life wellness and business, and to empower them to successfully transition to an independent life.” After two years the company was turning a profit and God was seeing a return on God’s investment in remaking people.
I realize that few of us can found a Rebel Nell, but all of us can in one way or another offer God a return on the investment that God has made in us. The question I would pose to you is this, “What return am I making on all that God has invested in me?”
Rev. Amy Morgan
August 2, 2015
Joshua 24: 1-2a, 14-18; Ephesians 6:10-20
There are certain pages I sometimes wish I could tear out of the Bible. The Leviticus holy code with its extensive list of offenses deserving capital punishment. The story of Jesus calling a Canaanite woman a dog. The part of first Corinthians where Paul commands women to keep silent in churches. But of all the problematic texts in scripture, this one might actually top the list.
Christians over the centuries have spilled blood, fought wars, and done violence in the world by “putting on the whole armor of God and standing against the wiles of the devil.” In the 3rd century, as the church gained political power in the Roman Empire and needed to unify its leadership, the devil took the form of heretics and dissenters. Muslims, Jews, and even Byzantine Christians personified the devil during the Crusades. The devil of the Reformation was anyone who disagreed with the civil leadership’s theological allegiances.
Today, it seems the devil is everywhere. The liberal media. Muslim extremists. Christian extremists. The greedy 1%. The welfare freeloaders. Helicopter parents. Free range parents. It seems like every aspect of our lives creates a divide, establishes an enemy, puts a face on the devil. We are a society plagued by judgement and hatred and fear. Our armor is thick and our swords are sharp.
But we are not putting on the whole armor of God for this battle. Instead of the belt of truth, we wear the belt of opinion. The breastplate of self-righteousness guards our hearts. Our shoes make us ready to proclaim judgement and provoke conflict rather than the gospel of peace. Our shield is information rather than faith, whether the information we have is accurate or not. The helmet of salvation is replaced by the helmet of a sense of security, no matter how false it may actually be. Our sword is words, perhaps, but not the word of God.
Just wars, holy wars, and ideological wars are easier, it would seem, than spiritual warfare. We’d rather fight monsters, give evil a name and a face, than fight the evil that lies within every human heart. Wouldn’t it be easier if greed had talons and our vices had teeth? If a sword or a gun or a nuclear bomb could destroy our malice, our indifference, our bigotry, our vanity?
But the spiritual warfare described in our reading today is like fighting smoke. It permeates everything, we breathe it in, it stings our eyes and burns our throats. We are practically choking on evil and yet, we’d still prefer to arm ourselves and lock our doors to physical threats, real and perceived, than struggle against “the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness.”
When I was a teenager, I read a series of novels by Christian fantasy writer Frank Peretti. The novels depicted contemporary society motivated by angels and demons locked in a cosmic battle for worldly power. I remember scenes of a New Age religion leader with a demon perched on his head, its talon stirring his mind like a cup of hot cocoa. Sin marked a person with a black hole on the chest that grew larger and larger until it killed them. Demonic dragons swallowed people up in one gulp.
This was my understanding of spiritual warfare – cosmic creatures and spiritual forces in an epic battle with humans serving as unwitting pawns. While my beliefs have changed on this matter over the years, this vision of how evil works in the world is not so far removed from how Christians of the first century understood things. Greco-Roman philosophy imagined a kind of ontological continuum stretching from the underworld to the heavens. In between heaven and earth, semi-divine beings struggled to move up toward the immortal and immaterial. New Christian converts, influenced by this philosophy, believed these beings to be locked in a spiritual battle for dominion over the earth.
But in the Christian understanding of spiritual warfare, humans are anything but unwitting pawns. The whole letter to the Ephesians describes the kind of transformed life we are to have in Christ, a life “rooted and grounded in love.” This grounding in love allowed the church to be raised up into the heavenly places of that ontological continuum, growing spiritually into a dwelling place for Christ.
Now, it would be foolish to ascribe to a Greco-Roman view of the cosmos in the 21st century, but the spiritual warfare described in this letter is nonetheless very real, and the consequences for each of us and for the church are no less vital. There is no doubt that the darkness is still very present. To deny evil and its power in the world would be ludicrous.
What is more challenging is to accept that the evil is both within us and around us. The battle front is within our hearts and in the heart of every human being. As the apostle Paul said in his letter to the Romans, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Families, societies, governments, institutions – even the institution of the church - all are subject to the “spiritual forces of evil.” We don’t need to look to a mythical underworld or imagine the exploits of spiritual beings to see that we participate in systems of oppression and are complicit in the suffering of others.
This foe cannot be defeated with special ops or advanced tactical weapons. Guns and bombs and tanks and aircraft often serve to strengthen the rulers, authorities, and powers of evil. Fighting flesh and blood distracts us from fighting the true enemy.
However, God has armed us, both defensively and offensively, for the true battle we are called to fight.
A belt of truth that will help us withstand the lies we are told and the lies we tell ourselves. Lies about what we deserve, lies about who we are, lies about groups of people, lies about what we are capable of.
The breastplate of righteousness to protect our hearts from being divided. In the bible, a righteous person is described as someone with an undivided heart, someone with a singular devotion to God and God’s purposes. This breastplate protects us from “chasing after wind,” as it says in Ecclesiastes, giving fragments of our heart to every selfish desire.
We are advised to put on our feet whatever will make us ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. I love that this one is so open-ended. It speaks to the complexity of peace. One might need justice to be ready to proclaim peace, and someone else might need humility. Peace requires preparation, and that preparation can look different for different people and situations.
I love this next image: a shield of faith “with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one.” There are times we must use our faith as a shield. There are times when the darkness and sin and evil in this world does feel like flaming arrows flying at us. We can dodge depression and addiction, meaninglessness and loneliness, apathy and greed for a while, but at some point, they hit us like a flaming arrow through the heart. Faith, meaning a deep and perhaps inexplicable trust, in God, can act as a shield. The arrows won’t stop flying at us. We will still feel their impact. But we can be shielded from them enough to keep fighting.
The helmet of salvation assures us that nothing in life or in death can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ. God’s saving work protects the most vulnerable and most important part of us. Every hair on our head is under God’s salvation.
”And the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”
I’ve asked people around here, and apparently not many of you did “sword drills” as children – maybe it is a Southern thing. But a sword drill is when the Sunday school teacher calls out a chapter and verse, and the children race to see who can look it up the fastest in their Bible.
The Bible most certainly has been used chapter and verse as a sword, used to cut down those who believe differently, interpret differently. Used to conquer and destroy. But this is not how it was meant to be used.
When the letter to the Ephesians was written, there was no Christian bible. The cannon of texts, including this one, had not yet been established, and no one was going around quoting chapter and verse, because there were no chapters or verses.
The word of God here could be referring to God’s words in the Old Testament, the Law and the prophets. But since one of the main themes of this letter is the reconciliation of Jew and Gentile, we can assume that a large percentage of this church was not Jewish and therefore not deeply familiar with those text. Scholars believe that there was a connection between this church and the community of believers responsible for writing the gospel of John, so it’s also plausible that this is a reference to the first chapter of John, which describes Christ as the word of God made flesh and dwelling among us.
However you interpret the word of God, it is clear that the Holy Spirit is the force of power behind the sword. The Spirit goes by many names in scripture, including Advocate, Comforter, and Counselor. The Spirit is not often associated with condemnation, judgement, or punishment. This is a sword used to advocate for the defenseless, comfort the oppressed, and counsel the lost.
The “armor” of God won’t necessarily protect us physically from pain and harm, and it won’t necessarily fend off our physical enemies. No battle is safe. Following Christ isn’t safe, as first century Christians knew full well. They were despised, oppressed, punished, and even martyred for their faith.
But they fought the darkness. The darkness within – their own envy and selfishness, their fear and anger – and the darkness in the world – hopelessness and injustice, corruption and oppression. In this fight, they did not win power or land or money or any of the spoils of war.
But they did win. They built the church. They learned how to love one another as Christ loved them. They created a spiritual legacy that has lasted over two thousand years and has spread literally all over the world.
I don’t tear pages out of the Bible. Not because I think it would be a sacrilege, though maybe it would. Struggling with scripture, especially those parts of it that make us angry, or hurt, or doubtful, struggling with those texts deepens our faith, strengthens our Christian identity, and restores our hope that God is good, and loving, and just, and merciful and powerful, and ultimately worthy of our worship. Struggling with this text should convince us that we want to be on God’s side in our spiritual battles instead of claiming that God is on our side in worldly conflicts.
So let us be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Let us put on the whole armor of God and stand firm. Relying on God’s power, let us stand against the darkness of our own lives, and strive against the powers and authorities that would destroy others. Because the truth is, the war has been won. In Jesus Christ, God has defeated evil and its power in the world. Daily battles continue to be fought, but the outcome is certain. Praise be to God. Amen.
Rev. Dr John Judson
July 26, 2915
Ephesians 6:1-4. Exodus 20:1-17
Absolute authority. That is what fathers in the Roman Empire had, absolute authority over their children. And they had it from the moment a child was born until the father themselves died. They had it at the birth of their children. When a child was born the child would be laid at the feet of its father and if the father picked up the child it lived. If the father did not pick up the child then the child would either be sold to be raised as a slave or simply left to die. When a child was still a child, the father could, and often did sell them into slavery, especially when times were tough. When a child reached adulthood the father still ruled their lives. A parent directed who they would marry, what they would do and where they lived. If the adult child did not obey, they could be disinherited and be without family and all alone in the world. Though some fathers were kind and caring, most were not, seeing their children as mere means of production and not human beings to be cherished.
We might imagine then the shock and awe of the content of Paul’s letter when it was read by the community; a community made up of men and women who had been raised with the tradition of absolute fatherly authority. It would have blown their minds. It would have blown their minds first because it said that those who followed Jesus Christ were to completely rethink parent-child and child-parent relationships. They were to discard all of the traditional Roman values and replace them with those of the love and grace of God in Jesus Christ. They were, in other words, to rethink their family values.
This transformed way of thinking about relationships meant first rethinking child-parent relationships. While on the surface nothing appeared to have changed, after all Paul writes, children still have to obey their parents as children, and then as adult children they still have to honor their parents, the reasons for obeying and honoring had radically changed. For Roman children and adults, the primary reason for obedience was fear. There was fear of punishment. There was fear of being sold into slavery. There was even fear of being disowned and left penniless. There was also custom. One obeyed because that was what good Romans did. To not obey parents was to bring down the wrath of society upon one’s head. Now however one was to obey and honor “in the Lord.” In other words children were to obey because it was a way of showing the love of Christ to parents. What we need to remember is that Paul’s comments here are based on the opening verses of Chapter 5, where he writes, “…live in love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us…” Children are to obey as a means of giving of their love to their parents.
The second half of this child-parent relationship is intended for adult children. We are to honor our parents for the same reason that our children are to obey us. We are to show honor because by so doing we are showing the love of God in Jesus Christ toward those who gave us life and reared us. We do so as well so that, as the Ten Commandments puts it, it may be well with us. What this means is that when children show honor to their parents it reminds everyone that the value of us does not diminish as we grow older, but that we are valued in and for who we are. Such a recognition creates a society in which life is valued, and so it will go well with that community. .
The transformed way of thinking about relationships meant a second rethinking of parent-child relationships. At this point Paul addresses fathers. And he does so because, as we noted a moment ago, it was fathers who held absolute authority and the power of life and death over their children. And his directions to fathers were ones that completely changed how fathers related to their children. To understand this though I want to go back to my sermon from last week because it will help to understand what Paul is saying here. Last week we talked about the fact that Paul instructed the Ephesians to live in such a way as to move away from those things such as anger, malice and slander, which were intended to diminish and destroy others, towards a life which encouraged and built up others with actions such as forgiveness, kindness and compassion. In a sense this was the direction in which they were to walk. I offer that reminder because that is what Paul is telling fathers that they are to help their children do. Often when people read verse 4 they want to break it up and talk about not making children angry and then about instructing them in the Lord. But I think we ought to view that as a single concept; that fathers are to help set their children on the same path that they, the parents, are to walk. And that is a path away from harming and toward helping others.
Finally a note I do not believe we ought to miss is that Paul uses the word children. This is remarkable because in the Roman world it was only boys who were trained. It was only boys with whom fathers were to concern themselves. Here Paul makes it clear that fathers are to nurture both their sons and their daughters.
As someone who has been both a child and a parent, I realize just how difficult this all is to do. I say this for a couple of reasons. First if you Google how to make children obey, you will get nineteen million hits…so maybe it’s a problem. But it is a problem in the most basic sense because as human beings we want to be in charge; we want to be in control. From the moment we turn two and learn the word “no” we engage in a struggle over who is really in charge. And so parents have to find the right balance of discipline, love and nurture that encourages without crushing; creates independence without callousness; shares our faith without forcing it upon someone. It is never easy, and in fact is one of the most difficult things in the world…hence Paul writing about it 2,000 years ago, and millions of websites and articles today. But it is possible. I know that it is possible because I know you. I see in so many of you the ability to obey and honor parents and as parents to nurture your children.
The challenge then for all of us is finding the balance; the balance as loving parents and respectful children. So that is what I would challenge you to do this week, to ask yourselves, how am I balancing my independence with my obligations to children and parents.
Rooted and Grounded in Love: Growing Up
Rev. Amy Morgan
July 12, 2015
Psalm 133:1-3, Ephesians 4:1-16
“The Encyclopedia of Immaturity” boasts that it is the world’s most complete guide on how to never grow up. It covers such important topics as “How to Make Noises Under Your Arm” and “How to Do a Wheelie.” I bought this book for my husband for his 40th birthday knowing full well he was already an expert on the subject.
I sometimes need to be reminded that immaturity isn’t such a bad thing. After all, didn’t Jesus himself say that we must become like children to enter the kingdom of heaven? But for some reason, I don’t believe Jesus meant that God’s kingdom is only open to those who can make a perfect spit ball or wiggle their ears.
I also don’t think Jesus was advocating the sort of immaturity that permeates our culture today. Public figures making social media faux pas, excessive celebration of sports team victories, and our constant clamoring for the latest and greatest bit of tech are just a few examples of the childish behaviors that might not have been on Jesus’ mind when he encouraged us to become like children.
The letter to the Ephesians offers a corrective of sorts to Jesus’ instruction, encouraging followers of Jesus to “no longer be children” and instead come to “maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ,” growing up “in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.”
This is all well and good if you know what it means. But the greatest problem we have with maturity in our culture is a lack of definition. We have no threshold for adulthood in American culture, no demarcation of the time when we must “put an end to childish ways,” as Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians.
In first century Rome, adulthood for boys meant a ceremonial first shave, a new toga, induction to military service, and a visit to the local house of ill repute. For girls, it meant giving up your dolls and preparing for marriage.
In 21st century America, we have a number of legal thresholds for adulthood. You can drive at 16, vote and buy cigarettes at 18, purchase alcohol at 21.
However we define adulthood legally, this tells us very little about how to be a grown up. A 45-year-old can still drink and party too much, and a 16-year-old can maturely balance school, work, and relationships. Does voting for someone who is as immature as you are make you an adult? How grown up is someone who can legally drive but chooses to text her babysitter at the same time? It is challenging to define maturity around a system of laws.
The fourth chapter of the letter to the Ephesians gives us a different set of criteria to use in helping us grow up.
The chapter begins with a reminder to “lead a life worthy of the calling to which we have been called.” In Greek, it says something more like “walk in your vocation.” The word used here for walk literally means to go back and forth, implying that you are intently busy with something.
I think about all the things that we are intently busy with: planning vacations, watching soccer games, catching up on episodes of the Walking Dead, playing Game of War, and renovating our kitchens. None of these seem to be too intimately connected with what I would consider to be our vocation or calling.
The call of God on each person’s life is secured in our “one baptism.” For many of us, this is an event we were not even cognizant of, much less something of which we could be considered worthy. But Ephesians describes what this “worthiness” looks like: humility, gentleness, patience, bearing with one another in love, unity, peace.
When I asked a group of parents what qualities they thought of when considering what it means to be an adult, the number one response was independence: financial, emotional, physical independence. When you no longer have to depend on your parents for anything, you are a grown up.
This quality of independence is rather contrary to qualities like humility, gentleness, patience, mutual forbearance, unity, and peace. These are all relational, dependent qualities. You humble yourself to others, you are gentle toward others, patient with others, bear the burdens of others, unite with others, make peace with others. These are outward-looking qualities.
And if these qualities define our worthiness, our maturity, we have a lot of growing up to do, I’m afraid. Where is the humility in a presidential candidate with a fragrance called "success"? Where is the gentleness in scathing and hurtful comments posted to blogs, online news articles, and social media sites? Where is the patience in our constant consumption? How are we bearing with one another in love as we shrug off relationships we deem to be too much work or not meeting our needs? Where is the unity in our country fractured by constant partisan bickering and a diminishing concern for the common good? Where is the Spirit of peace in our quest for blame and revenge?
We have a lot of growing up to do. But here is the good news: “each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ's gift.” And Christ’s gift is truly immeasurable. The one who descended to the lowest parts of the earth and “ascended far above the heavens so that he might fill all things,” has equipped us for the work of ministry to build up the body of Christ.
Notice that again there is no mention of independence or personal fulfillment. The end goal is to be a “whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, each part working properly, promoting the body's growth in building itself up in love.” Maturity isn’t about having stronger muscles, it’s about creating stronger ligaments, stronger connections. Growing up means working toward the overall health of the body using the gifts of God which are present everywhere and in everything.
Within our little limb of the body of Christ at FPC Birmingham, we can keep growing up, keep strengthening the body. We are blessed with many, many spiritually mature body builders who we can look to as examples.
I am always awed by those humble saints in this church who model spiritual maturity by doing all the little, invisible tasks that no one even thinks about: filling the pew racks with prayer cards and other materials; giving the kitchen a deep cleaning; stocking up the hospitality baskets in the bathrooms; stuffing envelopes for church mailings; printing the bulletins each week. Humble tasks taken on by humble people. These are grown-ups in the faith from whom we can all learn.
And then there are those who are so beautifully gentle, strengthening our connections with compassion and kindness. Those who teach and care for our children, and those who visit the sick and the homebound members. These, too, are grown-ups in the faith.
Patience is, for many of us, the greatest struggle in growing up, but we have models for that as well. Those who will wait patiently for someone who can’t move quickly or give a ride to someone unable to drive. Those who will take the time to listen to someone trying to sort out their thoughts without interjecting their own foregone conclusion. These are patient grown-ups in the faith.
I’ve seen so many of you bearing with one another, carrying each other’s burdens, praying for each other, caring for each other’s children or bringing a meal in difficult times. There are many grown-ups in the faith who do those things around here.
Our vision statement has been a unifying force in this congregation, helping us share a common purpose. Even when we disagree over how to carry out that vision, we maintain those strong ligaments of connection.
The bond of peace is strong here, too. This congregation, like any, has seen its fair share of conflict. And we have grown up enough to know that peace is preferable to victory, that peace is necessary for the health of the body and must be prioritized over our individual desires and concerns.
We’ve had over 180 years to grow up, and we’ve come a long way. But as any truly mature person will tell you, there is always room to grow, always more to learn. And sometimes, as we age, keeping the body strong becomes more difficult. We can get set in our ways or complacent. We can become too attached to our ideas and stop listening to others and trying to understand their point of view. We can isolate ourselves from others. We might even become a little grumpy at times. So it is important to keep in mind our need to grow, to strengthen our ligaments, to regularly check up on the health of this body.
What is more difficult, perhaps, than maintaining the health of this FPC Birmingham limb of the body of Christ is growing with the whole body of Christ in all the world. The Presbyterian Church (USA) sees itself as a connectional church at its core, yet in recent years we’ve been fractured over a number of controversial issues. We’ve been losing limbs and have disintegrating ligaments.
And once we look outside our denomination, and outside of mainline Protestantism, the body looks to be in even worse shape. The behavior of the church is simply infantile.
After the Supreme Court’s recent decision on marriage equality, Christians have been gloating on one side and throwing dirt on the other. I don’t hear gentle words spoken from many of us about anything we disagree about in the public sphere. We don’t patiently listen to those with differing viewpoints or those trying to figure these things out for themselves. Instead, we follow along with whatever camp reinforces what we want to believe. The unity of the body of Christ worldwide is in shambles, and very few of us are actively working for peace and reconciliation.
We need to grow up. In order to do that, Ephesians tells us that we must “speak the truth in love.” The apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13 that “love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Perhaps this is the true definition of a grown up. Someone who can speak the truth in love.
So let us speak the truth – but not with a bullhorn, not with a sword. Let us wait patiently to speak the truth. Let us understand that the truth will hurt, and be compassionate as we speak. Let us speak the truth politely, humbly, generously, honestly. And let us speak the truth in love no matter the consequences. And perhaps then, finally, we will grow up into the full measure of Christ. Amen.
Rev. Dr. John Judson
June 28. 2015
Isaiah 66:18-23, Ephesians 2:11-22
They really disliked each other. In fact one might say they hated each other. The Jews and Romans had no use for the other and essentially wished that the other would simply go away. The Romans hated the Jews. They hated them because the Jews were atheists. I realize that this is a rather odd statement considering that the Jews worship the one, true, living God. But as far as the Romans were concerned anyone who did not worship the gods of Rome were atheists. The Romans also hated the Jews because the Jews did not fully participate in the cultural activities of the Empire. They did not worship at the temples. They did not offer sacrifices for the emperor. They did not engage in the festivals. The Romans hated the Jews because the Jews were the only religion that was exempted not only from worshipping the Roman gods, but was exempt from some associated taxes as well. This made them extremely unpopular and so there were anti-Jewish riots in many of the Roman cities such as Alexandria. And at one point they were so hated the all Jews were expelled from the city of Rome itself.
Likewise, the Jews hated the Romans. The Jews hated the Romans because the Romans were pagans. The Romans, rather than worshipping the one, true, living God, worshipped a pantheon of gods and goddesses. In other words they were idol worshippers. The Jews hated the Romans because the Romans were their oppressors. Even though Jews could and did worship freely there was no doubt that the Romans were their overlords. The Romans demanded heavy taxes of all non-citizens and restricted the rights of non-citizens, which included most Jews. The Jews hated the Romans because Rome was a culturally imperialistic empire; meaning that Rome pushed its culture on all its conquered peoples. This included things such as Olympic athletic games where all the competitors were naked and Roman theatres with their plays, both of which took place in Jewish territories. The Jews then to protect themselves built legalistic walls. If the Torah said to do “X” the Jewish community would do “X2”.
All of this might have been of little or no concern except for one small issue. That issue was that the Jewish people, the children of Abraham, were on a mission from God. Their mission was to bless the world, and as long as they remained behind the walls which they had created out of the fear of being absorbed into Roman society, they would never be able to fulfill their mission. It was into this situation that God intervened. God intervened by sending God’s own Son, to become incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth. This Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, the messiah would live, die and be raised in order to break down the walls that had been constructed over a period of more than 500 years. This is how Paul puts it in his letter to the church at Ephesus. “In his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the wall that is the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances…” Let me be clear here. Jesus did not do away with the Torah, or laws such as the Ten Commandments. What Jesus did was to break down the barriers that those laws, commandments and ordinances set between Jews and Romans. And by so doing Jesus released into the world two great powers. These powers were peace and the Spirit.
The first power which was released was that of peace. I want you to notice the central place that peace plays in this part of Paul’s letter. Paul tells us that Jesus is our peace; that hostility is gone; that Jesus has created one humanity, thus making peace; that hostility has been put to death; and that Jesus came and proclaimed peace to those who were far off and those who were near. And this peace is not a Roman peace that is enforced by the edge of a sword; meaning be peaceful or else. This is not a Jewish peace of being dominated; meaning we need to act peacefully or we will pay a price. The peace that Jesus Christ brought, that Jesus made possible is a peace that literally takes enemies and makes them friends; that takes strangers and makes them family; that allows people who had nothing in common to live in harmony with one another. This is peace that is closer to the Jewish concept of Shalom in which all things are well as if the Kingdom of God has come and renewed the face of the earth. Jesus Christ made possible reconciliation among enemies so that a lasting peace might be possible.
The second power which was unleashed was that of the Spirit. Paul puts it this way. “So Jesus came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him, both of us (Jews and Romans) have access to one Spirit to the Father.” And this Spirit is not present to give us ecstatic experiences or to comfort us, but to make possible the reconciling work of peace. Again Paul, “So then you are no longer stranger and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints also members of the household of God…in him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in him you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.” In a sense what Paul is telling us is that not only are the walls down and human beings are capable of making peace, but that the Spirit of God empowers that reconciling work. The Spirit of God takes us from being strangers and makes us not only into one family, but into one temple of God. Humanity becomes the place where God dwells, binding us together.
So what does this have to do with us, you might ask? Let me begin with a quote. “We have a statue of liberty on the east coast given to us by a foreign community. But we need a statue of unity built by all Americans, for all Americans -- in every American community. Today, our nation is not united. This country is in trouble because too many Americans prefer not to know each other. Not to care about each other. […] Our country cannot go on like this.” Anyone know that quotation? It was offered in 1967 by Sargent Shriver as he was addressing the issues of race in our nation. It would be easy to say Shriver’s statement still describes our nation today. Yet if we are honest with ourselves we will admit that things have changed. There is no longer “redlining” here in Detroit, meaning people of color were prohibited from living in certain neighborhoods. There are no longer schools which are segregated by law, like the elementary school in which I grew up. All persons may now marry, whether they are straight or gay. We have a black president. Things have changed.
Yet if we are even more honest with ourselves we will admit that we are not there yet. We have not achieved a society that is united. We know this because in South Carolina there are those who continue to defend the Confederate Battle flag on multiple state flags. And by the way those battle flag symbols were only added in the early 1960s in the face of integration. As a Texan whose ancestors fought for the confederacy, I will tell you that those battle flags are not there to “honor” those who fought, but as a sign of latent racism. We know we are not there yet because there are politicians who are telling county clerks that they do not have to issue marriage licenses to gay couples even though the Supreme Court said that they did. We know we are not there yet because even if there is no legal segregation in our schools and neighborhoods there is de facto segregation which leads to inferior education for many of the poor in our nation. We know we are not there yet because we have politicians stating that all Mexicans are rapists and drug dealers. We know we are not there yet because of the Muslim woman who was denied a closed can of coke on an airplane because it could have been used as a weapon. We know we are not there yet because there are those whose entire careers are based on building walls and demonizing “the other.”
But there is hope. There is hope because the Spirit empowers us as followers of Jesus Christ to tear down walls and build bridges. There is hope because we know that peace is possible because we have seen it happen. One of the most powerful signs of that hope came on the steps of the South Carolina legislature. Two groups were squaring off over the Confederate Battle Flag. One group was composed of tough looking white men covered in tattoos holding the Battle Flag. The other group was young black men and women, who were calmly expressing their reasons for seeing the flag as a sign of slavery and racism. It was a moment ripe for conflict. Yet in the end one of the black men reached out his hand in friendship and the white man took it. Even though they did not agree, peace had become possible.
This is our task as the church. We are to be those, who while holding to our core beliefs, reach out in love and peace to those with whom we disagree. We do so in order to build bridges and help make this world a place in which all persons become one people and one nation, united in the love and grace of God. That then is my challenge to all of you, to ask yourselves, how am I building bridges in the places where I live, work and go to school?
Rev. Dr. John Judson
June 21, 2015
Genesis 12:1-3, Ephesians 1:1-14
The tryouts were over. All of us had done our best. We had run the bases, tried to prove that we could hit the ball, showed that we could catch the ball and that given a chance we would make a great addition to some Little League team. The coaches had taken copious notes and met in some smoke filled secret location to figure out who would take whom in the draft; some kids they probably fought over. Others like me it was “You sure you don’t want him.” But then the day arrived; the day of the draft when we would discover where we would end up. All of the boys gathered at the field and the coaches, one by one, called out the players who were on their teams. Excitedly we would make our way onto the field in small clumps. The coaches would then hand us our t-shirts and hats. Then in that moment, something magical happened. We were no longer just kids, we were ball players; ballplayers with dreams of glory and greatness. We were part of a team; part of something greater than ourselves. It was a wonderful day.
How many of you have ever been there? It may not have been Little League, or even a sports team, but you wanted to be part of something greater than yourselves and you got drafted; you got selected and suddenly you were part of a team. Maybe it was a fraternity or sorority. Maybe it was an academic team. Maybe it was a job you had always wanted with a company you always wanted to work for. Or maybe you actually got drafted and joined the military. If you have had any of these experiences then you have some idea of what Paul’s opening sentence in Ephesians is all about. What Paul was trying to tell the Ephesians and is trying to tell us is that we have been drafted by God, made part of Team Jesus and have been given appropriate attire that mark us out as members of that team. I know this may seem a bit of an over reach, but bear with me.
First God drafts us just like those coaches drafted my friends and me. Paul writes, “Just as God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love, he destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ.” What this means is that God chose us long before we knew that God existed. This is one of the most difficult concepts for those of us in the 21st century to wrap our heads around…that God drafts, or chooses us and we do not choose God. I think our image is more like that of high school athletes who are approached by a variety of colleges, each trying to make their case that the athlete should choose them. Then the athlete makes the choice. We think that we are free agents who are approached by a wide variety of belief systems and we choose God in Christ to follow. What Paul tells us though is that even before the foundation of the world God had already drafted us and that our destiny was to become followers of Jesus. OK, I know I sound like Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars, “Luke this is your destiny”, but in some ways this is the image Paul offers. We are drafted by God in order to work for Team Jesus.
The second part is that God calls us over and makes us members of the team, just like those coaches called us onto the field. This is what Paul is talking about when he states, “In Jesus we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses…and with all wisdom and insight he has made known the mystery of his will.” All of these words suggest movement; movement from being those who are not members of Team Jesus to those who are. Redemption means that our relationship with God has been rebuilt and restored. We are no longer those who keep God at arm’s length, but that we move toward God, just as my friends and I did when the coaches called our names on that Little League field. Forgiveness is also movement. It says that we are no longer trapped in our old lives, and in our old ways of doing things; that we are new people who are capable of playing our positions on the team. Finally there is the vision of wisdom; that once we had no idea what God was up to, but now in Jesus we have been given the insight and wisdom we need to be part of God’s work in the world.
The final part is that God gives us a uniform just like the coaches handed us uniforms that marked us out as part of their team. Paul tells the Ephesians that they, and by extension we, “…were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit;” I have to say that some of my most vivid memories are of putting on the uniform before a game. It didn’t matter if it was Little League, high school football, college soccer…or even our church men’s basketball uniform, all were these moments when my purpose became clear…to give everything I had for the team. This image is the heart of the seal of the Spirit. A seal in the first century was a mark which showed that the thing or the person who was marked belonged to another. This mark gave believers their identity. Paul tells us that this identity is what the Holy Spirit does for us. It sets us apart as being part of Team Jesus; as being part of God’s community of faith.
The question for us this morning then, is why have we been made part of this team? Why has God, out of God’s infinite love, made us part of this team? Some people say it’s so we can be better than others; holier than others; set apart from others. Some say that we are part of this team so that we can be saved and get to heaven; so we can be raptured out of here. Yet, if we allow the totality of scripture to speak to us, we will see that our role is to bless the world. When we became part of Team Jesus, we became part of the family of Abraham. And in being part of the family of Abraham we have become those through whom the world was to be blessed; and we are certainly living in a world that needs blessing. This past week alone we have witnessed nine people killed in a church in South Carolina and two block parties, one in Philadelphia and another right here in Detroit, where shooters killed and wounded innocent people. While we may be shocked by this we shouldn’t be. On an average day in America more than ninety people are murdered. We live in a world in which hatred, racism and fear rule our lives. What we are to be about then is to bless this hurting world.
As members of Team Jesus we are to bless the world by refusing to be caught up in the violence and hatred that consumes so much of humanity. We are to be those who offer up the antidote of love, grace and forgiveness in order that the world can be healed. This is a task that only we can perform. The government can’t do it. Helping organizations cannot do it. Only we, the church, Team Jesus can pour forth this kind of love into the world. The challenge I want to give you for this week then, is to ask yourselves, “How am I blessing the world as a member of Team Jesus, where I live, work and go to school?”