Thursday, July 08, 2010

The Fruits of Freedom: July 4, 2010

In an effort to boost recording signal, so the Dragon software might work better, I tried the counter-intuitive approach of turning the recording level to low. What I got was a recording of such low level I couold not even hear it with all the software's boosters. the software certainly could make no sense of it, so this sermon is a reconstruction from memory of what I said last weekend. The learning curve continues!
Galatians 5: 13-26

“For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.”

Did you know that the area that Paul is writing to, Galatia, in what we know as North Central Turkey, is named after the Celts? Apparently the story goes that some petty king or another hired mercenaries from central Germany to come down and do his fighting for him, and those german tribesmen were Celts. This may have even been before the Celts had moved west far enough to have settled Ireland. But that’s why Galatia is named that; Greek for Celt.

There’s your Bible study for the day.

The issue that Paul is addressing in Galatia is one of how to follow Christ. Paul had founded the church in Galatia, and now, other believers, with a slightly different outlook on how to follow Christ, have come along and taught the Galatians that one of the ways that you must follow Christ is to live like Christ—observe the festivals he observed, follow the rules, eat the way he ate. Paul has gotten wind of this, and has written back, in this letter, to address the issues that these “judaisers” have created.

It centers on Freedom. Yes, Jesus has freed us from the law. You don’t have to keep kosher. You don’t have to observe Passover. You get a sense that Paul’s point, stated simply is that in Christ, you can live the way jesus told us to, not as Jesus did.

As followers of Christ, Paul is saying, we have become free from the rules society has placed on us. We are not bound by our economic or social status, we are free to associate with Christians of all stripes.

What freedom doesn’t mean is to be able to live however you want, to indulge in every want and desire, knowing that we have still been forgiven in grace. The “works of the flesh” are even listed by Paul in the text.

So freedom still carries with it a responsibility, by Paul’s way of thinking.

Which brings me to today, the 4th of July, American Independence Day. And we talk about freedom an awful lot, too. But what kind of freedom is it?

For me, I think back to the history I was taught, and one of the things that Americans have always valued is the ability to make our own choices. We will live where we want, if we are willing to work for it-clearing the trees, planting the crops, or working in the factory hard enough to buy a our own house. We value being able to go to the church we prefer, choose the mate we want, raise our kids the way we think is the best.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote about Self-Reliance, and I seem to remember my teachers referring to that essay as a supporting document of the ability of Americans to be able to make our own choices. That it is necessary and valuable for Americans to make their own way as much as possible.

And so, I think, it is.

But what troubles me is that Paul seems to speak of freedom a little differently.

Americans seem to claim to be free to make their own way, to forge their own path, and to heck with the people around them. At least that’s how it seems to be taken today. But in Paul’s thought Christians are free to be able to follow Christ, and care for God’s people in the way they see fit.

But they are not free to follow their baser desires. Or stated more accurately, they will not evidence the Spirit of God if they choose to use their freedom in ways that do not produce the fruits of the spirit, and that is their call, as it is ours today; to live our lives in such a way as to show God’s love as much as possible.

When you try to observe national holidays in religious contexts, it is always a bit like running a rapid. It’s an uneasy bit of paddling, with certain hazards that aren’t always visible threatening to gash your boat. If you ignore the holiday completely, certain people are offended. If you turn the elements of worship over to national symbols too easily, you threaten to worship a nation rather than God in Jesus Christ. And if you wrap the two together inappropriately, you look as if you have made America into the new Israel, the new chosen nation. And for some folks, that just fine. But it is wrong.

We hear talk an awful lot about America being a Christian nation. But if we look at the bedrock values Americans hold as their basic freedoms, and then look at the fruits of the spirit that Paul lists in today’s scripture passage, I do not see one flowing from the other.

The fruits of the spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Given what we understand as American freedoms, how is that “America is a Christian Nation” idea working out, these days?

Thursday, July 01, 2010

True Grace

I apologize for the tardiness of this posting, but it was not a good week in my Dragon dictation software experiment, and this is also VBS week, so I had to transcribe manually when I had free moments! -FD
Luke 9: 51-62
How many of you have heard about a theologian named Dietrich Bonhoeffer? He was a German theologian who lived in the 20th century, died in the 1940's. He was one of a long line of Academic theologians who were German. He came to America in the 20's or the 30's, and studied at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Because he was a curious man, he didn't worship at the Seminary chapel, but instead would go into Harlem and worship at one of the African American congregations there, because it was so foreign to his German Lutheran experience. And he fell in love with those churches, fell in love with that style of worship, fell in love with those people. It affected his theology, affected his worldview, it affected almost everything about what he wrote.

As he was living here in the United States in the 1930's, he began to watch the politics and the news coming out of Germany; the rise of the National Socialist Party, the rise of the Nazis, the rise of Hitler. He was very troubled by this news. In the mid 1930's he made the decision to go home. For a number of people, it was an odd decision, because most of the theologians in Germany were actually leaving at this time because of the political climate. They did not want to be a part of what was starting to happen in Germany. Bonhoeffer went the opposite direction, he went back.

At this time in Germany, the national church was becoming part of the apparatus of the government. When Bonhoeffer came over, he became part of what became known as the Confessing Church, which was an underground movement of pastors and laity who sought to resist what was happening. At one point, Bonhoeffer was assigned the task of organizing and leading an underground seminary. They found this farmhouse way up in the north of Germany, and gathered up the young men from other areas, who wanted to resist this government, and resist what that national church was becoming.

They went on for a while, and then the seminary was found out; someone spied or tattled, or whatever, and all those young men were drafted into the army. Bonhoeffer wasn't caught then.

He became involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler, and this is what he was caught doing. He was sent to a concentration camp.

I don't know if you know this. Most folks know about a few of the symbols the Nazis used to mark different groups in the concentration camps. You know the yellow star of David that marked Jews, of course, fewer of you may know about the pink triangle that symbolized homosexuals, but there was also a symbol for dissident protestant pastors. It was a red triangle, and Bonhoeffer wore one of those. He spent two or three years in a concentration camp, and then, a couple of weeks before the camp was liberated, he was hanged.

It often seems true that you don't become a famous theologian until you've lived into your 60's and 70's. A great achievement seems to be reaching the age when you can distill all of your thought into one great masterwork. The image that pops to mind is the great 12 volume work by Karl Barth titled Apologetics, but what my seminary theology professor called “The Great White Whale”, both for it's inability to be controlled and the fact that it was bound in white leather. Bonhoeffer never got to live to the age where that sort of work became possible; the beginnings of where he thought are tantalizing, but incomplete.

When we read today's scripture, and Jesus says to one “follow me”, and he says to another “Let the dead bury the dead, but as for you, go and proclaim the Kingdom of God”, the scripture becomes a statement about commitment, and about what grace can really do when you respond to it.

When you introduce people to Bonhoeffer in academic settings, the phrase that comes up almost immediately is “cheap grace.” One of the quotes that we have from Bonhoeffer comes from a book called “the Cost of Discipleship”, is this: “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance; baptism without church discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” A man who wrote a phrase like that, a man who would make such a commitment to his faith and to his Christ, that he would return to a country, work in the underground, and eventually be killed by that government; when Jesus called him and said 'Follow me,”, he said “Yes sir.”

This is not one of those sermons where I'm going to say “Now you must make that same commitment, and who shall come forward?” This isn't like that. There's nothing about our government or church, nothing in our lives right now that is calling us to make such stark choices. But do you remember last week, when we talked about the woman who wiped Jesus' feet with her hair, and anointed his feet with oil, and how I said that this was a response to some off-camera forgiveness that she was showing gratitude for onscreen?

To truly be disciples of Christ, we have to be open with Christ. We have to be available with our full selves to what we are called to do. We can't hold ourselves back because of secrets we may have. I'm not saying that you must have some great emotional repentance scene, something like the guy in the tent revival who runs down the center aisle pouring whiskey out of bottles in both hands. I'm not saying that you should have anyone else present; but somehow between you and God, there has been, or at some point will be, a time when you will be laid open and affirming, and fully available with God about everything.

And then you will find out what “there can be no grace without discipleship” means. It is only when we are fully open with God that we can truly become full disciples. Then there will be nothing holding us back. Nothing. God knows it all, he probably did from the beginning, but it is important for us to have shared it with God, so that whatever that thing is, those things are, whatever troubles we have, we are being honest with ourselves, so it is no longer in the way.

There can be no grace without discipleship. No real grace. Repentance isn't “I’m sorry for having gotten bad grades; I’ll try better in the future.” Repentance is “This is something I am being honest about with you, God, and through it, I can serve you better.” It's a change of direction.

I'm not saying that it doesn't take courage, but it also doesn't necessarily require drama. It must be done, however, for us to be true disciples, and for us to respond with true gratitude in the way of the woman who washed Jesus' feet. It must be done in order to follow Christ completely.

True grace isn’t cheap. But it is free.