Isaiah 42: 1-9
Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.
Thus says God, the LORD, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: "I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. I am the LORD, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols. See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.
When I lived in California, there was a guy who believed he had figured out the exact date that the world was going to end. I believe the date he settled on was in October of 2012. I remember this because he took out huge billboards all over Oakland and the East Bay warning people to be ready for the day when it all ends. As you may have already guessed, he’s prediction did not pan out. Here we are still alive and breathing on the same Earth in the same universe some 7 years later. This type of certainty about the date of the world’s end is rightly ridiculed as foolishness. In fact in the very same Bible that this man and others use to predict the world’s end- Jesus is frequently telling us not to guess as to when the world will end, because it is not given to us to know. What’s unfortunate about people failing to heed Jesus’ warning here, is that it gives a bad name to eschatology. Eschatology is the fancy word for thoughts about the end of time and creation. Though Jesus did not want us to guess at a date for the world’s end, he was vehement about our need to expect it. Far from being merely the province of wackos and fringe sects and cults, the end time, eschatology is central to the Christian faith.
The 35th Chapter of Isaiah contains a vision of the end, the eschaton. This chapter is written to the Israelites living as exiles in Babylon. It is meant to be a kind of pep talk, a reminder that God has not forgotten the people, that one day their period of exile will end and they will return home to Zion, to Jerusalem. This is the reason for the image of a highway- a road on which God’s children will travel safe from all that would harm them- this is the safe road home of which the exiles dreamed. But Isaiah’s vision goes beyond the immediate desires of the exiles- not only will they return to Zion, they also will experience everlasting joy and gladness, sorrow and sighing will flee away. What’s more, the deaf will hear, the blind will see, the lame will jump like a dear, and the mute shall speak. Waters will spring forth from the desert and it shall bloom abundantly. Isaiah’s vision points beyond the historical situation of the exiles and towards the future fulfillment of God’s kingdom. One day the exiles will return, and one day the world will end by the coming of God’s kingdom in its fullness.
People often confuse the end time, the coming of God’s kingdom in its fullness, with the Armageddon. The Armageddon refers to a final war between the forces of good and evil that is take place before the end. Jesus frequently warns his disciples that wars, and famine, and persecution, and even earthquakes will all occur before the end arrives. His point is that although these events can feel to us like the end of the world, they are not to be confused with God’s kingdom. The end of the world is not a war, it is a banquet. It is eternal celebration of the kingdom of God here upon the earth. Its the time when all tears are wiped away, when wars and killing and sorrow and sighs all cease to be. When the lion lays down with lamb and no one is harmed on all God’s holy mountain. This beatific vision of universal peace, joy, and love is our best effort at understanding the magnificence of God’s kingdom when it finally arrives in fullness on the earth.
A frequent objection to this preaching of God bringing about heaven upon the earth is that it can steal our desire and drive to make the world a better place. If God is going to bring peace on earth, than we perhaps we don’t need to worry ourselves with it. If wars and catastrophes are inevitable then we perhaps we don’t need to object to them. After all, who are we to meddle in God’s plan, God can take care of this alone. Although I follow the logic of this argument, I quite firmly disagree with it. It is my steadfast belief that faith in God’s coming kingdom does not demotivate our struggle to improve the world. I believe instead that this faith is precisely what motivates us to live full lives in which we can struggle for a better world without despair of it ever coming to pass.
Growing up one of my family Christmas Eve traditions is to watch the movie, “Its a Wonderful Life,” as we eat and get ready for the 11 pm service at our church. Each and every time, my father sheds a few tears at the final scene- the scene in which all of George Bailey’s friends show up at his house on Christmas Eve and save he and his beloved Building and Loan from bankruptcy. It's a touching scene illustrating the movie’s line- “No man is poor who has friends.” One might think that having seen the movie enough times to have memorized the final scene, would somehow spoil the rest of the movie. When you know that everything is going to work out in the end much of the suspense is removed from the film. All of the bad things happen to George- and there are many such things, are now viewed from the knowing perspective that none of them will triumph over him. We can watch George fall into the ice water as a child, watch him be hit by the drunken pharmacist, watch his desire to leave Bedford Falls be continually frustrated, watch him attempt to kill himself, and watch Uncle Billy lose his $8,000, and still know that none of these catastrophes will have the last word. In the end, we know that all will work out for George Bailey, not in the way he wished perhaps, but in a more beautiful and divine fashion. Knowing the ending doesn’t take away the power of the movie, we can still feel bad for George’s misfortunes, but we need not worry or despair. We can follow George Bailey to his lowest point, empathize with his depression and hopelessness, and still feel the joy of the final scene because we know that is where this catastrophe is heading.
Happiness is a response to events in our lives. Getting a job, making a friend, having a great meal, all of these are things that can make us happy for a while. Joy, on the other hand, is an inward feeling that comes with confidence in God’s coming kingdom. We can feel joy at times when we are happy, and at times when we are sad. Joy is the comfort and peace that come with trust in God. Even when things are bad, even when George is jumping off the bridge into the icey water below, even then we can still feel joy because we know that God’s kingdom is coming. We know it is to be a marvelous banquet where all our problems and conflicts and sin are washed away.
When John the Baptist asked Jesus if he was the one to come, Jesus replied by paraphrasing Isaiah’s vision. “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” Jesus claimed that in him, the kingdom of God had come to the earth. It was present in his ministry- his healings, his forgiveness of sin, his love for the poor, all bear witness to the presence of God’s kingdom in his time. Wherever Jesus is, there is the kingdom of God. When he departed this earth he promised to be with us anytime two or three are gathered in his name. And so we trust and experience his continued presence with us today. It is this presence of Christ that we feel in our worship and service here at St. Paul’s. When we celebrate this presence in Holy Communion we have a taste of what the kingdom is like in the here and now. And when we proclaim that Christ will come again, we anticipate the day when God’s kingdom arrives in its fullness- when sorrow and sighing shall be no more.
The gift of joy comes to us through faith. Through God, Jesus, the Holy Scriptures, and the Church we come to know and trust that the eschaton, God’s kingdom, is indeed coming. Nourishing this trust in worship, communion, fellowship, song, and prayer is what sustains us through the most difficult of times. The more we come to trust in the coming of the kingdom, the more we will feel its joy in our lives. The more we come to trust in the coming of the kingdom, the more we will desire to spread such joy and faith to others. The more we trust in the coming of the kingdom, the more we are inspired and motivated to better the world no matter how desperate and gloomy it may seem. God has promised that the kingdom will come, and we who share a foretaste of it in communion may continue to resist despair and the powers of death with joy in our hearts for we know that God is bringing about the end of the world by the full appearance of his kingdom- a banquet where all are welcome, where hurt is no more, where sorrow and sadness melt away. May we come to this faith through God and may we face our broken world with the joy of Christ in our hearts. Amen.
When I was 5 years old my parents sat down my brother and I to inform us that we would all be moving to Pennsylvania. My brother took the news in stride. I burst into tears and began screaming. When my parents finally calmed me down enough to ask what I was so upset about, I told them, “You’re making me move and you won’t let me take my stuffed animals with me!” My parents quickly taught me what a moving van was and assured me their would be enough room in it to take all my stuffed animals with us to Pennsylvania. As soon as I had been assured, I quit crying, and never said another word of protest.
As silly as this may sound, I loved my stuffed animals as a kid. Each of my stuffed animals had a name, and a personality, and even their own best stuffed animal friends. I had created a whole pretend world in which my stuffed friends and I lived and interacted. They were my friends, and I genuinely cared about them. The idea of being separated from them was terrible. Even worse was that I thought my parents, the “real” people who were supposed to love me, were so indifferent to my friends and the love we shared, that they would forcibly separate us. For me, and for a lot of children, creating personalities for their stuffed animals, dolls, or toys, can be our first effort at forming loving relationships. It is a way to practice loving and caring for others, a way to learn how to be in mutual loving relationships.
On his last night with his disciples, Jesus gives tells his closest friends that when he is gone, they must love one another as he has first loved them. This commandment to love as Christ first loved them is so central that it is to be the identifying mark of all Christian communities- “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” If we are to seriously attempt to follow this command, as I believe we must if we are to follow Christ, then we need to first be clear about how we are to love one another. Love is an unfortunately broad word which can refer to a variety of experiences- everything from friendship, to romantic love, to how we care for our children, or how we feel about good coffee. To make matters more complicated, our personal understanding of love, is always conditioned by our lived experiences- we understand what love is by how we have experienced it. Sometimes these experiences are harmful or abusive. They can lead us to mistakenly believe that this harm and abuse has something to do with loving. So if we are to make a real attempt to follow Jesus’ command to love one another as He first loved us, it is important to understand how Jesus loves us.
There is a tendency to think of Jesus’ love as a principle that is universally applied. God is love and therefore Jesus loves all people. While that has some truth to it, it can lead us to think of the love of Christ as being impersonal and mandatory. Imagine a young man proposing to someone and saying, “I love you. I love all women, really. You know what I love everybody.” It would make the moment a little less special wouldn’t it? God does not love us in the abstract. God does not love us because we are merely a part of a larger whole that She loves. God does not love us because God must love us. God freely chooses to love us. God freely chooses to love each, individual, one of us, just as we are. God doesn’t just love, humankind, God truly, deeply, personally, and voluntarily loves you. Right now, just as you are, Jesus loves YOU.
In addition to being free, voluntary, and personal, Jesus’ love for us leads him to give freely of his whole being to each one of us. We see this in his life- how he devotes his time to healing others, to loving others, to setting them free from sin and awakening them to true, eternal life, in the kingdom of God. Most especially, we see it in his voluntary, sacrificial, death on our behalf. Jesus’ love for each of us is such that he gives his entire being, even his body and blood, so that we may have life and have it abundantly. The love that Jesus shares with us is a personal, self-giving love that does all it can to lead us to a full, flourishing, life. It is a perfect love, and it is perfectly offered to everyone.
Knowing that you are loved like this by Jesus is great news. Subsequently realizing that you are then to attempt to love others in this same way, is more than a little daunting. “Ohh great I just have to love as perfectly as the Son of God, should be easy.” The truth is that we can’t love as perfectly or as broadly as Jesus did. Given that he is divine as well as human, and that we are merely forgiven human sinners, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. But then what are we to do?!? How are we to follow Jesus’ commandment if it’s not even possible for us? To fully love as Christ loved in this life is not possible, but to practice loving one another in and with Jesus Christ, to grow in our capacity for Christ like love is certainly possible with the grace of God. The Christian life is an ongoing attempt to practice loving others as Christ first loved us in the hopes of growing more and more in the love of Christ.
There are a multitude of ways in which we practice loving others as Christ loved us. We do so in the life of our congregation: we feed each other, we listen to each other, we care for one another’s children, we offer help to one another. This is not always easy, or natural for us, because we can drive one another crazy. We can get on each others nerves, we can even insult and offend one another even if we didn’t mean to. And yet, it is this very people, the sometimes annoying, sometimes offensive, very different people that we are called to love. Through the grace of God in Jesus Christ, we often do so, we often manage to give of ourselves in love to each other. May God continue to help us grow in our Christ like love for one another.
Our personal relationships, especially, partnered romantic relationships, are another way we way in which we seek to practice loving others as Christ loved us.The Church has long honored marriage as a way for people to live out the command of Christ by fully, deeply, giving of themselves in love to one another. We have rightly held us these committed, personal, loving relationships as emulating and pointing towards the love of Christ. As someone who now has 6 years of experience in marriage, I can tell you that the sometimes difficult work of fully loving another person as they are, has been for me much needed and practice in living out the gracious love of Christ. Just as my stuffed animals helped me to practice loving relationships, so too has my relationship with Shannon helped me to practice the self-giving love of Christ. I love my wife, Shannon, and I am grateful to her for loving me. I am also grateful for the Church which affirms our love as good and sacred, which affirms it as pointing to the love of Christ.
There have always been people in the Church who were attracted to and in relationships with people of the same sex. There was not, until the last century, any socially acceptable space for these people to be in mutual, loving, committed, and public, relationships. The widespread condemnation of homosexual relationships in society was shared by the Church. In most cases gay people could only pariticpate in the life of the church if they kept their loves secret. While others had their relationships honored and held up as models of the practice of Christian love, gay people heard their relationships dishonored, degraded and condemned. If they could keep their sexuality a secret, then the church might be open to them. But the Church would never affirm them nor their relationships as sacred attempts to share the love of Christ with another. Disregarding someone’s loving relationship, claiming that their relationship is evil, telling them that they and their love are sinful is an incredibly damaging thing to do to someone. It does not help lead them to freedom in Christ and a full, flourishing, life. It isolates them. It alienates them. It can lead to a damaging self-image, and in turn to despair, depression, addiction, even death. These have been the fruits of the Church’s prohibition on same sex love- fruits not of love, but of death. And why have we, the Church, chosen to cause such harm to people earnestly seeking to follow Jesus? What was the offense for which we were willing to dole out such terrible punishment? Simply put, all these people wanted to do was to emulate the love of Christ in their loving relationship with another. They wanted to love others as Christ first loved them. For this genuine effort to practice loving as Christ loved, the Church has rejected, condemned, and severely damaged these children of God.
As a representative of the Church of Jesus Christ, I want to apologize to all of you, gay and straight, for this shameful, sinful, behavior. When gay people bravely and publicly declared their love for one another and asked to be a part of the Church we were wrong to reject them. We should have welcomed them with open arms. We were supposed to love them as Christ loved us, and instead we rejected and harmed them. That was wrong and if the Church is to be the Church of Jesus Christ it must end this practice. If we truly wish to follow the commandment of Jesus to love one another as he first loved us, we must recognize, honor, and affirm, the loving relationships of same sex couples as genuine, sacred, attempts to emulate and point to the love of Christ for the world. May it be so. Amen.
I went to seminary with a young man by the name of Sam who looked like he walked straight out of J. Crew catalog. Sam was remarkably handsome, he was in great shape, and he dressed immaculately. Sam was smart and well educated, he was a graduate of Columbia University in New York. What’s more he was white, and straight, and to top it off he was very polite and kind. The way in which Sam seemed to so effortlessly check off all of the boxes of what our society considers to be normal, healthy, and good, drove me nuts. I still remember silently despising him as I stood outside our dorm smoking a cigarette after pulling an all nighter to not quite finish a paper when he waved hello to me as he finished his early morning run. He was just so together, so normal, he was the prototype of what our society thinks a nice, young man is supposed to be.
There is a tendency in religion to think that God only wants the best. This tendency is born of a desire to show love and honor to God, to recognize that God is holy. There’s nothing wrong with desiring to give God your very best. I encourage all of you to give the best of your lives to God and to the church, to honor God by making of your lives a living sacrifice. However, the tendency to imagine that God only wants the best can take a rather harmful turn when it is applied to people themselves. In ancient Israel, the priestly class sought to maintain the holiness of God by enforcing purity laws meant to insure that only those who were adequately prepared, the very best, could stand in the assembly of the Lord. This meant that anyone or anything that they deemed abnormal was prohibited from joining in the religious life of the community. One such prohibitive law is found in the 23rd Chapter of Deuteronomy where it says, “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD.”
At first glance this seems a terribly odd and terrifically specific prohibition. Yet the practice of crushing a young boys testicles, or removing all their genitalia, was fairly common in the societies that surrounded Israel. Many of these Ancient Near Eastern Societies castrated boys to serve as eunuchs in their official courts and their harems. Such a practice was alien to Israel, and as such it was deemed impure, and eunuch’s were thus cut off from the assembly of the LORD. When you are trying to collect only your best to present before the LORD, when you are trying to make a congregation full of Sams, you simply can’t allow in people that are so atypical, people that are so different, people that don’t fit our mold of normal and good.
For years this prohibition was relatively uncontroversial simply because there were almost no Eunuchs in Israel. However, that began to change after Israel and Judah were conquered by the Assyrians and the Babylonians. After this conquest, many Israelites were forced into serving the courts of these Emperors, and in these societies it was only eunuchs who could perform such roles. Many Israelite men became eunuchs during the period in exile. This raised the question anew- would these Israelites, now eunuchs themselves, be allowed into the assembly? Could they be included in God’s love and grace?
As Christians in the 21st century our religious inheritance includes a prohibition against sexual relationships between two people of the same gender. Though this prohibition has always been somewhat controversial, in the last 60 years it has become much more so. Millions of people now live in committed, loving, sexual relationships with people of the same gender. And these people, courageous enough to be true to the person God created them to be, have insisted that they too have a right to share in the grace and love of God. They have insisted that they too belong in the assembly of the LORD.
The first strike taken against the prohibition on eunuchs in the assembly of God was taken by the prophet Isaiah who wrote, “Thus says the LORD, ‘To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters, I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.” The word of God that came to Isaiah directly contradicted the earlier legal prohibition against eunuchs. Isaiah heard a new Word from God, a Word of inclusion and love, and he did not hesitate to speak this new Word against the old understanding.
When Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, set off a new religious movement, a new people of God, the question about Eunuchs and their place in the community was still a live one. The stance that the new community was to take was made known from the very beginning; it was made known by this story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. There are two points from this story I want to bring to your attention. The first is that it is God who takes the initiative. This is not a side project of Philip’s, its not a trivial, optional, issue on which there is much room to disagree. No, the angel of the Lord sends Philip to where the eunuch will be, and the Spirit of God instructs him to sit beside the eunuch in his chariot. From the very beginning, God makes clear that this new community will not be a community of only the most normal, most admired, most typical people. God sends Philip to share the gospel with an Ethiopian eunuch.
The second point that I want to make is that ultimately it is Philip who must answer the question of the eunuch, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” God brought these two together, God helped bring the Word to the eunuch, but ultimately it is Philip, it is the Church, that must answer the question, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” When gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people come to the Church in our time, the same question is put to us, “Is there anything to prevent me from being baptized?” We know that the Spirit of God was given to the Ethiopian eunuch after he was baptized. We know that the word of God that came to Isaiah contradicted the earlier prohibition against them. So the question isn’t what the bible says, or what God wishes. The question is whether we will meet our LGBT siblings with the loving acceptance of God or if we will insist on worshipping normality and legalism instead. My prayer is that we will do our best to embody the Holy Spirit in welcoming all to be baptized, loved, and affirmed within the church. May it be so. Amen.
I used to swear a lot. Not necessarily in a mean or nasty way, it was more that I frequently accented my speech with a few four letter words. But then I became a Pastor and a father. Once people know that you are a pastor, they begin to apologize to you for using profanity; as if it were the first time you were hearing these words, as though they were defiling your virgin ears. As odd as this is, it does drive home the point that what we say matters. Around clergy, people often want to be good, to do good, they want to be perceived as decent and kind. And those four letter words, although sometimes useful, can undermine this effort. They can make you sound mean, or careless. After realizing this, I tried to cut down on my cursing, because I want to encourage people in doing their best to be kind, and I definitely don’t want to come off as careless or mean.
Yet as much as becoming clergy has chained my speech patterns, becoming a father has done so even more. My daughter Ruth is getting to the point where she can speak in whole sentences, and, of course, she learns to speak from listening to us. She is a parrot. She will repeat nearly anything you say. If you have any doubt that curse words can sound nasty or mean, wait until you hear a two year old say one. When it comes from the mouths of babes it is easy to see how such language can be ugly, nasty, or even mean. So I now try my best to limit my swearing, I try not to do it at work, try not to do it at home. In my former life, single, with no kids, and working construction, it seemed so natural to swear, but now I have changed, circumstances have changed. I’m not the same person that I was back then. And so know my behavior must change as well. Though I still bring them right out anytime I’m venting to a friend or family about my frustrations, I’m doing a lot better at limiting my swearing,
Our New Testament reading this morning was nearly the entirety of Paul’s letter to Philemon. This letter is unique in all of Scripture not just for its brevity but for its content. Although the letter is addressed not only to Philemon but to the others in his church, it nevertheless is written as a personal letter. In it Paul speaks directly to an individual, most likely Philemon, about a very personal matter; Paul wants Philemon to welcome home his estranged former servant Onesimus, as a brother. Paul is writing from prison where he has met and befriended Onesimus. He baptized him and ever since Onesimus has been helping Paulin his apostolic ministry. He has become a valued colleague and trusted friend to Paul.
We are not sure what is the cause of the estrangement between Onesmus and Philemon. It could be that Onesimus was an unfree servant in Philemon’s house who simply ran away. It might be that Onesimus stole something from Philemon. It could very well be both. But whatever it was, after having met Paul, the two of them decide that Onesimus should return to Philemon to try and make things right. Paul is unable to travel with Onesimus so he does the next best thing, he rights him a letter to take to Philemon. As it turns out, Paul doesn’t just know Onesimus’s master, he actually baptized Philemon as well. So Paul, using his authority, power, and privilege as an apostle, writes to Philemon to ask him to forgive any debts that Onesimus owes, and to no longer treat him as a servant, but rather to welcome him as a brother.
Slavery was a fact of life in the Roman empire in the first century. It was the way of that world. Though not nearly as barbaric as chattel slavery here in the United States, slaves did still belong to their masters, they were not free to leave or to live independent lives. It is therefore, not surprising that Philemon and his house had slaves, for that was the norm. But at some point in his adult life, Philemon converted to Christianity. He was baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This conversion meant that he was living a new life, as a new person. He now belonged to Christ, he was now living in and for Christ. He no longer belonged to the world, and he no longer lived for it.
There are those in our day, and certainly in Paul’s day as well, who view belonging to a church as similiar to belonging to a country club. For them church is a nice place to visit with other like minded people, a place to feel that you are among the good and righteous, but certainly not an institution that requires you to change how you live and interact with the world. This is not the way that Paul viewed faith in God. For Paul, and for Jesus Christ, faith meant turning your world upside down. It meant belonging to a different kingdom, a kingdom in which the meek were blessed, a kingdom in which there was no male or female, jew or greek, free or slave, for all are one in Christ Jesus. Paul believed that faith called you out of the world into a life of service to Christ.
So when Paul meets Onesimus and hears of his estrangement from his former master and his fear of reprisal from Philemon, he knows how he can help. In the ancient church, apostles had incredible authority, their words were taken as divine revelation. This means that Paul could command Philemon to release Onesimus from slavery and forgive his debts. However, Paul chooses not to command Philemon but rather to remind him what his new faith requires of him. Paul writes, “I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become in my imprisonment… I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion, but of your own free will. Perhaps this is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother, especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. If he has wronged you at all , or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, write this with my own hand, I will repay it-- to say nothing of your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord.”
Previously, Philemon had treated Onesimus as the world treated him, as a slave, an inferior person. But now, Philemon has been baptized, he has begun a new life as a follower of Christ. What does this new life require of him? It requires him to see Onesimus as a brother in Christ and no longer as a slave. It requires him to forgive his debtors just as his debts have been forgiven. It requires him to see God in the face of his brother. It requires him to do all that he can to help Onesimus serve God as best he is able. Paul reminds him of his new faith, he reminds him of his new life in Christ and how this life requires him to treat Onesimus as a brother in the flesh and in the Lord.
The world of 1st Century Rome provided many reasons for one to view oneself as superior to others. Masters were superior to slaves. Greeks were superior to Jews. Men were superior to women. Romans were superior to Barbarians. All of these categories divided the people against themselves. In this respect not much has changed from the world of Rome to our world today. Our world is also full of reasons to view yourself as superior to others. The rich are superior to the poor. Whites are superior to non-whites. Citizens are superior to non-citizens. Those who work are superior to those who don’t. Our world is full of dividing lines, things that separate us from one another, things that justify our poor treatment of those different from ourselves. Yet we do not belong to the world, just as Philemon no longer did. We belong to God in Christ. We belong to the church and not to a country club. This belonging to God, this belonging to the church, makes demands upon our lives. It demands that we give up our feelings of superiority. It demands that we see others as siblings in Christ. It demands that we do as Paul did and lend every ounce of our power and privilege to set another free. This is what our faith requires of us. It requires us to acknowledge that we are no more than forgiven sinners and to extend that same grace, forgiveness, and acceptance that we have received in Christ to all others. May we begin to see others, as Paul saw Onesimus, as beloved brethren in Christ.
With the horrific news of the fires consuming large swaths of the Amazon rainforest, I found myself thinking back to my one solitary experience in that part of God’s creation. In high school I did a summer foreign exchange trip to Argentina for a month. At the beginning of our stay the group of American students that I travelled with and the group of American students that I travelled with took a trip to Iguaza Falls at the beginning of our stay. Iguaza Falls are right at the border between Argentina and Brazil, they are the largest system of waterfalls anywhere in the world. And they are absolutely breathtaking. We spent a day hiking around the falls, and everytime we turned a corner I saw the most impressive, and beautiful waterfall I’d ever seen. This most beautiful waterfall would then immediately be topped by the one I discovered around the next corner. It was like they never ended, just waterfall after waterfall after waterfall. So much beauty, and so much water. Everytime I see a waterfall I’m astounded by the sheer amount of water running through it. It doesn’t even have to be a big waterfall, just the fact that the water continues to fall, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. The water never stops, it just keeps flowing. Its been almost 20 years since I visted the falls at Iguaza and watched them pour massive sheets of water over the edge of cliffs, and they are still doing it today. The water never runs out it just keeps coming.
In the literature of the Bible the Jordan river plays an outsize role. The Jordan is actually a fairly small river, especially when compared to the Nile or the Mississippi. However, the land surrounding the Jordan, the majority of the land of Israel in the sixth century BCE and even today, is desert. It is dry and arid and without much vegetation. Like all deserts, water can be hard to come by in Israel. In the dry and desert land of Israel, the flowing fresh waters of the Jordan are salvation; they are the source of life for the people there.
Yet not all in Israel live nearby the Jordan. Many towns and villages are simply too far away from the river’s banks to rely on it as their primary source of water. These folks had to set their minds on another way of getting water- one such method was to build cisterns to collect and store rain water. By digging bowls into the bedrock and guiding rainwater runoff to them, people created a source of water in their small villages away from the Jordan. As ingenious a move as this was, a cistern still can’t compare to running, living, water of the Jordan. There are several problems with cisterns- for one the water in them is stagnant and can easily become polluted and start to stink. The worst thing about cisterns though, is that they are temporary. They can only hold so much water, water that can’t be replenished until the next rain. In the meantime the water can evaporate, or it can seep out of cracks in the cistern. Cisterns are always running dry, running out of water, needing to be refilled. Although they are necessary in places with no access to running water, cisterns are still poor substitutes for the living water of a river.
It was the prophet Jeremiah who first applied the analogy of running, living water to God. In the passage Delilah read this morning, God is taking the people of Israel to court, God is trying them for their breach of covenant. Although God had saved them from bondage in Egypt, and led them through the treacherous wilderness, nevertheless Israel was not faithful to God. “What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?” The leaders of the people especially are condemned for the ways they forgot or turned away from God- the priests who don’t inquire of God, the lawyers and judges who do not know God, the prophets prophesying for Baal. Despite the fact that God was good to them, freed them, saved them, and provided for them, despite all of this, the people still turned to other gods, to the gods of the neighboring nations.It was not only the ancestors who rejected God, but also their children and their children’s children. The people had given up their God, the one true living God, in exchange for no-gods, for idols, for that which does not profit. “Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate,” says the Lord, “for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water. “ Though their God is powerful and merciful and perpetually generous, yet still these people abandoned the God of living water and chased after idols that cannot save them.
Oftentimes the Old Testament’s obsession with rejecting the worship of idols can appear to us as a relic of a past time; something that has little to no relevance for us today. There is a certain logic to this- I very rarely feel tempted to build a statue and begin worshipping it regularly. I imagine most of you are immune to this particular temptation as well. However, the problem with idolatry is not merely an objection to statuary, the problem of idolatry is coming to rely on, coming to trust, coming to have faith in something other than God. This is idolatry. And this is still very much a problem for our world, for the church, and for each one of us. We, as human beings have a tendency to trust in finite things, rather than the infinite. We have a tendency to believe that we can save ourselves, that we can find the answer to our problems apart from God.
What idols do we trust in today? For what are we willing to offer sacrifice? What about the right to bear arms? We trust in this right as part and parcel of a democratic society, we trust in it as part of our constitution, as an inalienable right. This trust, this faith in guns to provide safety and democracy, has led us to allow deadly weapons of war to be easily acquired by civilians, even teenagers. When these weapons of war take the lives of hundreds and thousands each year, vastly more than in any other place on the earth, we continue to trust in them. We view the slaughter of innocents as a required sacrifice at our altar to guns. And the more of these slaughters happen, the less safe we feel, and the more of us feel that we need to have a gun to protect us from all the other guns. The cistern is cracked, we have to perpetually pour more and more water into it, there never seem to be enough guns to keep us safe.
Our nation also spends the better half of all its resources on the military, more than all other countries combined. We trust that this huge military expenditure will make us safe, we have faith in it. Yet the wars and the threats never seem to end, or even to decline in frequency. Despite this, we pour more and more money into the Pentagon every year. It is a cracked cistern, it will always require more and more money.
Or how about growth? Economic growth is widely seen to be the panacea for all of our ills. Every nation needs to show a growing GDP, we need to produce more and more goods and services, we need our economy to continually grow so that we can all have enough. That such growth is exacting a terrible price on our environment, that it is leading to the burning of the Amazon, and the climate crisis, seems to be the sacrifice we are willing to make to the idol of growth.
These are just a few of our modern day idols, the cracked cisterns that we build to save ourselves. Just as the cracked cistern requires more and more water just to keep it level, so too do these idols require more and more of us, while providing less and less. The answer to this problem of cracked cisterns is to turn instead to the living water of God. If the Jordan and its limitless supply of clean, fresh water is right next to you, offering its grace, why on earth would you dig a cistern for yourself? It is God who saves. It is God alone whose love and care and provision never run out. It is God who requires nothing of us, but to surrender to Her. To give ourselves to the river, to the living water of God. The life that worship of idols brings about gets smaller and smaller, narrower and narrower, more and more concerned with protecting what little you have to protect. That is a warped and awful way to live. The life that comes from worshipping God is open and expansive. If we can trust in God to provide we can truly live, opening ourselves to one another, being vulnerable before each other, and giving of ourselves to one another. This is the life that faith in God makes possible, a life of courage, trust, and generosity. May we foresake our idols, our cracked cisterns, and may we turn again to the living water of God. Amen.
11:29 By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned.
11:30 By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days.
11:31 By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.
11:32 And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets--
11:33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions,
11:34 quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.
11:35 Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection.
11:36 Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment.
11:37 They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented--
11:38 of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.
11:39 Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised,
11:40 since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.
12:1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us,
12:2 looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
A little over a month ago, Shannon, Ruthie, Sam and I went to a family reunion in Colorado. Ruth and Sam are among the youngest of the various cousins and second cousins running around the place, and Ruth made fast friends with a little 9 year old by the name of Colson. Colson had taught her a new word that she hadn’t fully comprehended- the idea of a race. Colson would suggest that they race to the elevator and take off, with Ruthie gleefully running behind him. Things got a little confusing when Ruthie tried to use this new bit of vocabulary and would suggest to Colson that they race. Colson would ask, “Race to where?” And Ruthie would just take off running and screaming, “Race, race, race!” For Ruth race just meant run or chase, but for Colson, as for most of us, a race needs to have a destination. A goal. You can’t just race towards nothing, that’s pointless. That’s just running for the sake of running.
The author of the letter to the Hebrews used the idea of a race to talk about the life of faith. Life can be a long journey- it is, if nothing else, a passage through time. If we are very lucky we get to journey through childhood, to adolescence, to becoming an adult, to being middle age, and then an elder, and then eventually, at one point or another the race ends, we die. If life were nothing else but this passage of time it would seem quite pointless, quite meaningless. It would be living just for the sake of living. We are born, we live, we die. But why? What for? What is the purpose of this life? What is the point of this race, its goal, its destination?
This is the question of meaning, as in what is the meaning of life? There are countless answers to this question, some which are the results of thoughtful reflection and some of which are merely implied by the decisions that we make, by how we choose to live. A great deal of meaning in life is found through personal development- for young people, students, much of the meaning of their life is learning, becoming smarter, trained, and skilled is the purpose of much of their life. Once these skills have been attained the meaning of life may become their deployment within a profession: having trained for years to be a doctor the meaning of my life now consists in my work as a physician. We also find meaning in caring for others- be they aging parents or growing children. We can live for our children, find our meaning in their growth, development, and happiness.
Family and work are great ways of finding meaning in our lives, but they are also limited. We will not work forever, every good doctor comes to the time for retirement. Our parents will die, and our children will grow independent, hopefully. One day they will need us less, they will be less able to provide our lives with meaning. The problem with finding meaning in our children, our or work, is that they are finite, they are passing, they are temporary sources of meaning in an infinite world. Your work will come and go, eventually it will go entirely. Your children will grow and learn and need to form independent lives for themselves, lives in which they too must discover meaning, they cannot serve as your personal stable sources of meaning forever. These things will happen and yet the world will go on, it will keep spinning, and time will keep passing, and if you are still here, you will still need a meaning for your life, a goal towards which you are running. What goal might provide this meaning, what could be a permanent source of meaning in a world in which all things pass away?
Mystery names an inexhaustible depth of meaning. The meaning implied in a mystery is not so obvious- it is difficult to comprehend, it is a deep, somewhat hidden meaning. To uncover the layers of meaning in a mystery one must return to it again and again. I recently read a theologian talk about mystery by using the example of the play MacBeth. Here is Herbert McCabe discussing the meaning of MacBeth- “Take for example a play like MacBeth. It is quite clear that you can appreciate the meaning of this play at many levels. In the first place it is a good thriller about murder and intrigue at court. At another, slightly deeper, level it is a piece of English political propaganda slandering the memory of a perfectly decent king, who was however, Scottish. At a deeper level still it is a tragedy about a man over-reaching himself; about the relationship of human life with nature and especially with time. It is about how we belong to the cosmos and to the time that is given to us and yet seek to transcend this and to belong to ourselves, and it is about the revenge that time and nature take upon us. Now, you would not expect tot see all these deep meaning in a play when you watched it for the first time; you have to learn to understand it, and you cannot take short cuts to the depth.” A classic piece of art like MacBeth is a mystery because you can never finish probing to the depths of the meaning that it contains and suggests. The more you interact with this mystery the more layers of its meaning you come to discover and to relish.
At the last church I served, First Congregational Church of Berkeley, communion was only served on the first Sunday of every month during the worship service. There must have been some among the congregation for whom this was not frequent enough, because on the other Sundays of the month, after worship had ended and people had been dismissed, those who wanted would gather at the chancel steps for a small communion service. As one of the young associates I was often assigned to lead this after worship communion, and it soon became one of my favorite duties. There was one elderly man, Will Hurd, who was 90 if he was a day, who never missed communion. On these off Sundays, everyone who took communion had to really want it, it wasn’t part of the regular service so you had to make the decision to stay in the sanctuary as people were leaving and make your way to the front. This was most evident with Will. At 90 Will got around with a walker, slowly. It required a great deal of his physical strength to get up out of the pew, it required focus and concentration to amble with the walker to the chancel steps. The decision to stay and receive communion was one that cost Will something. But it was one he made every Sunday. I would watch Will struggle down the aisle each Sunday and wonder what this ritual meant to him.
Surely, Will thought about his family and all the times that they had taken communion together in that church and other churches. I imagine he thought of his parents with whom he first took communion. And the ritual itself, the words of institution, would have reminded him of those who took part in this ritual over 2,000 years ago when Jesus was not only in the bread but breaking it as well. I don’t know his theology, I don’t know how he understood communion, but I also imagine that at the least the ritual spoke to him of a God whose love for us leads to a giving of self, of body and blood, for us; that it spoke of a grace which allows us to stand in dignity and give freely of our own lives, our own body and blood, for others. And I like to think that Will also thought of us, those who shared the meal with him on that day, and all those who would continue to share the meal with him after his passing, as we do today. Of course, I am not 90 years old, I cannot imagine all of the layers of meaning that the eucharistic mystery had for Will, I can only continue on my own journey- unraveling more and more of the meaning of the mystery of God as I continue to run my race.
The author of Hebrews writes of the heroes of our faith from the Old Testament, reminding us of those who went before us in this race of faith. There were those whose trust in God helped them to lead nations, to fight wars, to build kingdoms. But there were also those whose faith lead them through difficult and trying times as well- those who suffered persecution for their faith, who were thrown to the lions, and forced to flee their homes. In good times, and in the worst of times, each of these held on to their faith in an infinite and infinitely loving God. Their faith helped them to conquer the obstacles before them and to endure the tragedies and pain that come in this life. Their faith in a living, loving God, gave them a destination to race towards, it gave the race itself a purpose, a meaning. They raced, they lived, so as to grow closer to this God of love, to more fully experience this love of God, and to witness to it in their own lives at every opportunity they had. We are connected to these ancestors in the faith, because we run the same race, we seek to serve the same God. Their race is our race. Its fulfillment depends upon us running and seeking to witness to God as they did, and it depends also on those who will run the race after us. Yet the fulfillment of the race, the victory, is never in doubt, for it has already been won, by the faith of Christ Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith. No matter how difficult, painful, and tragic our lives may be, we know that Jesus who suffered on the cross for the joy that was before him, goes with us and before us. We are never alone. The God of Jesus Christ is always beside us and ahead of us, and a great cloud of witnesses cheers us on. Running the race of faith, going ever further into the mystery of a loving God, is one way of finding meaning in this life. It is the meaning offered by the Christian church, the mysterious meaning embodied in the ritual of communion. It is the meaning provided by the mystery of a God that loves all Her children and calls us to love them too. Amen.
11:1 When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.
11:2 The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols.
11:3 Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them.
11:4 I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.
11:5 They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me.
11:6 The sword rages in their cities, it consumes their oracle-priests, and devours because of their schemes.
11:7 My people are bent on turning away from me. To the Most High they call, but he does not raise them up at all.
11:8 How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.
11:9 I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.
11:10 They shall go after the LORD, who roars like a lion; when he roars, his children shall come trembling from the west.
11:11 They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt, and like doves from the land of Assyria; and I will return them to their homes, says the LORD.
I spend a fair deal of time changing diapers these days. Not nearly so much time as my wife does, but it is still a daily task for me. Changing diapers can help one gain a sense of perspective. Because the thought occurs to you, that at one point in your life, someone also did this for you. At one point you too were tiny and helpless, you too were wailing and covered in your own poo, and someone else cared enough to change your diaper for you. It is possible to go your life without once changing a diaper, just as it is possible to go your whole life without ever helping the vulnerable. Changing diapers and helping the vulnerable are optional in this life. Having your diaper changed on the other hand, being the one who is vulnerable and in need of help, this is not optional. We were all once infants helpless in our poopy diapers, and if we’re lucky, we might live long enough to need help changing ourselves in old age. Once we grow older and stronger and a little more independent, we tend to forget that for much of our lives we were in need of help, we were vulnerable and we needed to be saved.
Although Jesus is rightly famous for referring to God as Father, the prophet Hosea, writing 7 centuries before Jesus, had already imagined God as a loving and caring parent. Listen to his description of God’s election of Israel while they were enslaved in Egypt and of God subsequently leading them through the wilderness, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more I called them the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols. Yet it was I who taught Ephrahim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks, I bent down to them and fed them.” Whether we believe God had anything to do with it or not, we are all, all of us, indebted to those who taught us to walk, those who led us with cords of human kindness and bands of love, those who fed us when we could not feed ourselves. In the Church we say that the love and grace and protection that we experience in this life are blessings from God. They are not earned, nor deserved, they are gifts for which we are to be eternally grateful. God did not leave us alone in our time of vulnerability, through parents, grandparents, loved ones, and community, God loved and cared for us, God fed us and taught us to walk.
Immediately after this beautiful portrayal of the intimate caring love of God, Hosea abruptly announces that the people have turned away from God. The result of this turning away is disastrous. “They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me. The sword rages in their cities, it consumes their oracle-priests, and devours because of their schemes.” The cities of Israel will be destroyed by violence and they shall be taken away by a foreign power and returned to bondage as in Egypt. The people whom God chose as God’s own, the people that God loved as a mother loves her child, these people turned away from Her. These people brought disaster on themselves by refusing to return to God.
Twenty years ago we were all learning about a new and terrifying phenomenon- the suicide bomber. The events of 9-11 awakened us to the reality of this new danger, but the men who killed themselves and thousands of others that day, were merely a few among thousands that made the choice to end their own lives by taking as many innocents with them as possible. I can remember how incomprehensible this action was at the time. Who would do something like that? Who are these people? Perhaps the easiest way to deal with this phenomenon was to ascribe it soley to others, others who were somehow so unlike us that being a suicide bomber would make sense to them. It must be something about their religion or their culture that caused them to do this. So we labelled them radical Islamic terrorists. We learned that they were radicalized over the internet, where they nurtured a sense of grievance against the world, a sense of grievance so strong that it led them to hate those who were different from them, so strong that it could lead them to kill themselves and others in the name of God or country. We made sense of this insanity by locating it only in others, others a world away, others completely unlike us.
Over the last week our own country experienced three domestic terrorist attacks: in Gilroy, California, in El Paso, Texas, and last night in Dayton, Ohio. These are only the most recent of the now hundreds of such attacks that we have suffered in the past twenty years. These attacks are carried out by white men, men who look very similar to me. These men have nurtured a sense of grievance over the internet- where they found an ideology that blamed all their misfortune on black and brown people, on immigrants and Jews. These men purchased weapons of war and attacked innocent people, killed innocent people, and then killed themselves. Even those who did not kill themselves and were not killed by law enforcement, even they did not have a follow up plan. No plan for escape, no plan to continue their action, just the plan to kill as many as possible before being killed or captured themselves. The difference between a mass shooter and a suicide bomber is only in their choice of weapon, and the people they have learned to hate. That which seemed so incomprehensible that it could only be done by others completely unlike us, has become commonplace in our own country.
I do not believe that these shootings are the will of God. It is my strong belief that the God who loved us into life wills only the best for all of us. The God of which Hosea speaks, the Holy One who fed us all and led us with bonds of love, this God does not will for his beloved creatures to suffer. However, I do believe that sin has consequences. Just as Hosea believed that Israel’s turning away from God would bring their destruction, and just as Paul said that the wages of sin is death, I believe that our failure to love God and neighbor as ourselves comes with devastating consequences. We elected a President who openly demonizes immigrants and asylum seekers, who refers to populations of non-white people as infestations, who claimed that we are being invaded by Hispanic people. And now we have mass shooters who adore this president, who echo his language of genocide, and who give their lives taking the lives of others that they believe are inferior. Any ideology that values one group of people over all others, any ideology that demonizes other human beings, any ideology that uses the vulnerable as scapegoats for our larger problems is a sinful ideology. Adhering to it is turning away from the God who lovingly created us all. This turning away from God, this sin, has fatal consequences. The sword raged in the cities of Israel, the assault rifle rages in the cities of the United States.
What then are we to do? Are we doomed to reap the wages of our sin forever? Will these domestic terrorist attacks ever end? Has God abandoned us to suffer these consequences of our sin? Hosea did not believe that God had given up on Israel. Despite their sin, Hosea believed that God still loved and cared for God’s people. The cords of human kindness and the bands of love could not be broken by the people’s failures. Listen to Hosea’s words, “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am a God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.” Nothing that we can do can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. There is no sin too awful for God to forgive. There is no situation that the love of God cannot redeem. When the people of Israel were dead in their sin, even then God called them to return. I believe that God has not given up on us either; God has not abandoned us to the consequence of our sin. I believe that God is calling us right now in this very moment to repent of our sins, to return to the ways of God, to once again walk hand in hand with our loving and merciful God.
But the decision to repent, to give up our sinful ways, and to heed God’s welcoming call is ours to make. To return to God we have to give up our sin. We have to stop thinking that United States citizens are somehow superior to other people. We have to stop believing that where you were born or what religion you practice determines your value to God and to the world. We have to start believing that lives are more valuable than legal precedent. We need to recognize that the vulnerable are not our enemies, they are our sisters and brothers, they are us. When people come to this country fleeing violence with their children in tow, we should recognize them as people who are vulnerable just like we often are, instead of making them out to be criminals, and monsters.
Our worship of whiteness and gun ownership is idolatry and it cannot and will not save us. If we wish to end this warring madness we have to return to the God who commanded us to love our neighbor and to honor all people. We must begin to recognize that evil is not only located in others; we must recognize that we are as capable of great evil as everyone else, and we that we are presently enthralled by this evil. This is what repentance will look like for the United States. It is our moral, ethical, political, and religious duty. My prayer is that God will give us the courage to face our own vulnerability, to see ourselves and Christ Jesus in the faces of the vulnerable, and to begin living from the truth that we are all vulnerable people loved by God and commanded to love one another. O God of love and power, make it so. Amen.
“Swing Low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home…” I love that song. I love it so much, I’m having us sing it today, even though it isn’t in our hymnal. Even though it meant I had to fight with the copier to get the insert printed out in the right size. I love it, because of the depth of meaning that it conveys. Swing Low Sweet Chariot has layers, upon layers, of rich meaning. This morning we read the biblical story of Elijah being taken up into heaven by chariots of fire. It is from this story that the song borrows its religious imagery. Elijah was a prophet of God during the period of the divided kingdom; when David’s kingdom had been split into Israel in the north and Judah in the South. In Elijah’s time the northern kingdom of Israel was wealthy and powerful, but its leaders were selfish and corrupt, in their hunger for power they ignored the laws of their God and paid homage to any God or any king that could aid them in their quest for power. It was a hard time to be a man of God; and Elijah’s life was one of near constant conflict and struggle. At one point it got so bad, that Elijah begged God to end it all, to bring him to death. Go refused initially, commanding Elijah to first annoint Elisha as his successor, but after this had occurred God relented. After a lifetime of faithfully serving God in a sinful world that persecuted him for it, Elijah was swept away by chariots of fire, never to be seen again. His God had taken him home.
Swing Low Sweet Chariot is not a Jewish song, it was not composed by Israelites remembering their beloved Elijah. No, Swing Low was created by enslaved African people living in the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries. Many of these people were introduced to the story of Elijah, and of Israel, and to the whole of Christian faith by those who had enslaved them. The white slavemasters viewed themselves as Christians- they read the Bible, they believed in Jesus, they belonged to the church. These slavemasters saw no contradiction between their faith in Christ and their owning and brutalizing other human beings. Quite the oppostie in fact. The slaveowning class in the United States believed that Christianity justified the institution of chattel slavery, and they taught this belief to their children and to their slaves.
As the song, Swing Low Sweet Chariot, attests, many of the enslaved Africans learned about the Bible, its God, and about the faith of Jesus Christ. Not only did they learn about it, many became believers. Yet the enslaved did not understand the faith in the same way as their masters. For like all people, they understood the Bible through the lens of their own context. When they heard the story of Elijah, a righteous man of God living in immoral times and persecuted by the powerful, they identified his situation with their own. Despite their faith and piety, the enslaved were made to suffer horrible pain and indignity. Much like Elijah, they too dreamed of an escape from this life of suffering and trial. What is more, they had come to believe, just as Elijah had come to believe, that their true home was not in this world of suffering, but rather with God. Home with God meant a time when their suffering would end. Home with God meant freedom. Just as God had come to deliver Elijah from this veil of suffering, so too would their God deliver them. And so they sang, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, coming for to carry me home. In the hands of the enslaved this story of Elijah came to be a story about freedom, about God’s promise to deliver the people from slavery. A meaning that the interpretations of the slavemasters had foreclosed. The Christian faith of the enslaved in their God’s deliverance inspired their hunger for freedom and fed their belief that it could be obtained. When they clandestinely made plans to escape the slave holding south, they used songs like Swing Low as coded language. To sing these songs of freedom was to let other slaves know their plans for escape, without the slavemasters knowing any better. This is what I mean by layers and layers of meaning. In the song Swing Low Sweet Chariot one can hear and feel the faith that set slaves free, one can hear the yearning for freedom, for home, one can hear the depth of the faith in a God who frees the oppressed, who will not leave them to their suffering, who will come to carry them home. The deep interwining connection between Christian faith and freedom is perhaps nowhere more perfectly and beautifully present than in slave songs like Swing Low.
From our perspective, one in which chattell slavery has been deemed immoral and unchristian and illegal for over 150 years, it can be difficult to see how our slaveholding ancestors could have believed their actions were consistent with Christian faith. Just this morning we read from Paul’s letter to the Galatians, “For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” How could anyone take a faith with such a profound emphasis on freedom and use it to justify the enslavement of other peoples? I believe that the answer lies in another concept of Paul’s, our slavery to sin.
I was once fortunate enough to take a two week long trip to Ghana, in West Africa. As you often do when traveling, we ate out a lot during this trip. Several times a day I would be asked what I wanted to drink- and after the first day I was already familiar with all the options available to me. If I wanted beer I could have Star or Guiness. If I wanted soda I could have Coke. If I wanted anything else I could have water, or tea. These were the options everywhere we went, options, but limited options. About an hour and a half after returning to Washington D.C. I stopped at a gas station, and went inside to grab something to drink. I was meet with 15 yards of refigerated shelves full of every conceivable kind of beer, wine cooler, soda, juice, sports drink, and energy drink imaginable. The options were overwhelming. I was free to choose any of these, thousands of drinks, and for a second it was paralyzing. I almost longed for the simple Star or Coke choice I had in Ghana.
When Paul writes that Christ has called us to freedom, he means that we are set free from the need to mindlessly follow the laws of a prior generation, from the strictures of tradition, for we have been called to a greater destiny: we have been called to be in Christ. As terrific as this news can be, it can also be overwhelming. There is a moment after liberation, a moment when one has been set free from the laws confining behavior in the past, when one can feel dizzied and disoriented by the infinite options placed before them. What should I choose? Does it matter what I choose? If I am free from the laws of the past, how am I to decide what is best?
Paul believed that freedom from the law did not mean freedom from the consequences of our actions. In fact, he was quite sure that using our freedom to make certain choices would lead us back in to slavery, slavery to sin. Slavery to sin is largely what Paul means by the desires of the flesh. In our freedom we can make choices that will eventually enslave us. Think of the alcoholic who is free to drink as much as he likes to dull his pain, and then no longer free to live without a drink. Think of the free choice to lie, and how it compels you to lie again and again and again. The use of freedom to satisfy sin, is the abuse of freedom, and it results in the loss of freedom and slavery to sin.
When the first slaves were brought to this country, white people chose in their freedom to participate in chattel slavery; to brutalize and abuse an entire race of people for their own benefit. The horrors that this choice brought upon the enslaved is obvious and well established. But this free choice to sin, to refuse to love their neighbors as themselves, also enslaved the slaveowners. It enslaved them to sin. Knowing how they had treated the enslaved, they lived in constant free that one day, should the power dynamic shift, the enslaved would do the same to them. This fear is well attested by the fact that the most brutal slave owning societies were also the ones in which the enslaved outnumbered the slaveowners. This fear and its corresponding desire for safety through cruelty and oppression is what Paul would call a desire of the flesh.
This is all ancient history of course. Slavery ended nearly 170 years ago. Yet as William Faulkner stated, the past is never dead, its not even past. In the United States we live with these two historic understandings of the faith are still very much alive. There is a strain of American Christianity which firmly holds that God chooses to liberate the oppressed, to set them free so that they can live with dignity in Christ. There is also a strain of American Christianity in which the presence of fear compels those with power to treat the powerless as less than human as undeserving. The good news is that in Christ we have been set free from blind allegiance to either of these strains of Christian faith, just as we have been set free from the law and tradition. The question for us is how will we use our freedom? According to Paul we have but two choices we can use it to serve the desires of the flesh and enslave ourselves again to sin, or we can use it to walk in the Spirit and produce the fruits of the Spirit. Our criterion for choosing is simple- does this faith, does this choice, increase my love for God, for neighbor, and for self? If it does it will be accompanied by the fruits of the Spirit- love, joy, peace, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. May we all have the courage to choose freedom in Christ, over slavery to fear and sin. May we find ways to choose faith over fear, love over oppression, and Christ over all things. Amen.
Rev. Andrew Greenhaw
Eternal Student, Christian Minister, Buffalo Wing Enthusiast