Tuesday, July 30, 2013

10 Pentecost, Year C, 28 July 2013

Colossians 2:6-15; Luke 11:1-13
Preached by Rev. Dr. Jason Haddox 

It was a hot, sticky August day in southern Louisiana.  Old Mrs. Thibodaux was sitting on her front porch, down in the bayou outside of New Orleans, rocking and fanning herself in the heat.  The deputy sheriff drove up in a jeep and spoke to her.  “Mrs. Thibodaux, you better come with me.  There’s a hurricane on the way, we need to get you to safety.”  Mrs. Thibodaux said, “You go on, son, I’ll be all right.  Jesus will take care of me.”  The deputy drove away.

Pretty soon the rain began to fall and the wind began to blow and the waters began to rise.  The yard was flooded all around the house, when the deputy came back in a flat-bottomed motorboat and called to Mrs. Thibodaux, still sitting on the porch with the water lapping the top step.  “Mrs. Thibodaux, you have to come with me.  This storm is going to destroy all this area, we’ve got to evacuate everyone.”  Mrs. Thibodaux called back. “You go on, son, I’ll be all right.  Jesus will take care of me.”  The deputy motored away. 

The storm continued to mount, and the winds grew fierce, and the waters rose even higher.  The sheriff came back, flying a helicopter, and hovered over Mrs. Thibodaux’s house, where she was now peering out through an attic window.  He hollered down to her, “Mrs. Thibodaux, I’m going to drop this rope ladder down to you.  You climb up and we’re going to get you out of here before the storm destroys the house and everything else.”  Mrs. Thibodaux hollered back. “You go on, son, I’ll be all right.  Jesus will take care of me.”  The deputy flew away. 

When Mrs. Thibodaux arrived at the Pearly Gates, Jesus was there to welcome her into heaven. She asked him, “Jesus, I trusted you to take care of me.  Why didn’t you take care of me?” Jesus answered her.  “Dear one, I sent you a jeep, and a boat, and a helicopter.  What more were you waiting for?” 

Hear again the letter to the Colossians:
“When you (all) were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh,
God made you (all) alive together with [Christ], when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands.
He set this aside, nailing it to the cross.”  

The bills of indebtedness, the lists of things done and left undone; the record of sins and transgressions, the books of recordkeeping against humanity, are nailed to the cross.  For one and for all and for ever.  

“He disarmed the rulers and authorities, and made a public example of them,
triumphing over them in it.”
“Disarmed” could also be translated “stripped naked”!   

It is an image the Christians at Colossae, a city of the Roman empire, would have recognized.  They had seen the triumphal processions of conquered peoples led through the streets, naked and in chains, preceding the victorious Roman soldiers.  They knew what that looked like.  That, says the author of Colossians, is what God in Christ has done to the powers of death and destruction.  They have been stripped and humiliated.  They are finished. 

“When you (all) were buried with Christ in baptism,
you (all) were also raised with him through faith in the power of God,
who raised him from the dead.” 

This baptism into the death and resurrection of Christ changes us all, for the death and resurrection of Christ has changed everything.  Death does not have the last word; the power of God is greater than the power of death; we have the promise of new and unending life poured over us with the water of baptism and signed on our foreheads with the oil of anointing. 

When we pass the font and touch the water and sign ourselves with the cross on our way to communion, we remember that reality in our bodies.  That regardless of what we think or how we feel, what our state of mind or life condition may be at any moment, that this is the Ultimate Reality in which we live. 


The old monk of Wittenberg, Martin Luther, used to say to himself in times of struggle:  “Baptizatus Sum.”


It means, “I am baptized.” But it means more than that.  The verb form really has the sense of “I have been and still continue to be baptized.” It’s not just a once-and-done sort of deal. It’s a continual thing, something that stays with you, something that is a part of you, surrounds you, no matter what context or situation you find yourself in.


Martin Luther wrestled with the demons of doubt and despair—spending a decent part of your life knowing that there are powerful people out there who want to kill you will do that to a person. When things got really bad for Martin Luther, he would remind himself, "Baptizatus sum." What a wonderful reminder for you and me, as well! When all seems right with you and your life and the world is your oyster, you are baptized. When it seems like everything has gone wrong and everything is messed up, you are baptized. And when it seems that all you have going for you is your Baptism, then you have everything!


In times requiring patience, you are baptized. In great suffering, you are baptized. In hard work, you are baptized. In dire need, you are baptized. In distresses, plagues, when they throw you in prison, you are baptized. When they revolt against you, in work, when you can't sleep, then you are baptized, baptized, and baptized. When you don't have enough to eat, when you hear the Gospel in its purity, when the kindness of God is obvious even to you and me: baptized, baptized, baptized, and baptized.”  


This is who we are, at the deepest and realest place of our souls.  Beyond and beneath all the other stories we tell about ourselves, or that have been told about us. 


God in Christ has covered us in love and welcome and new life.  We stand immersed in that love, always.  We hear it in the words of Scripture, we touch it in the water of the font, we taste it in the bread and wine of communion, we greet it in our brothers and sisters when we say “The Peace of the Lord be with you.”  Do you know that’s what we’re doing, at the Peace?  The Peace is not about “Good morning, lovely to see you, how’s the family?”  It’s about recognizing and welcoming Jesus in that other person.


For this reason, because we have been bathed and drenched in God’s love and forgiveness, we can turn to God in prayer.  We can say with Jesus and the disciples those familiar words: Father, hallowed be your name.  Your kingdom come.  Give us each day our daily bread.  Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.  And do not bring us to the time of trial.


Two requests that are about God: that God’s name may be honored, and that God’s kingdom, God’s dominion, God’s intention for the creation and all who live on the earth may be accomplished. 


If God is the creator and ruler of all things,

 then the earthly authorities and policy makers and powerbrokers are secondary.
If God created all things and pronounced over them “It is SO GOOD”,

then how do we go about naming and honoring that essential goodness?

If we are praying for God’s kingdom to come on earth, what are we doing to help?


Three requests that are about us: 

Give us each day the bread we need for today. 

Just for today.  Never mind tomorrow.

That prayer is a little distant for most of us, because most of us aren’t that close to the edge.  We can go home after church today, most of us, and open the pantry or the refrigerator and know that there will be something in there.  And if not, we have the ability to drive to the store and select what we like.  We don’t have to beg God—or anyone else—for enough to eat to get us through the day.  We are blessed.  Not everyone is so blessed. 


How do we share “daily bread” with hungry people—physically hungry, emotionally hungry, spiritually hungry?  We all know at least a few.


Forgive us, as we forgive others.

We stand drenched in the love and forgiveness of God, reconciled to God and one another in Christ.  And for this reason, we can extend love and forgiveness and reconciliation to others, even to those who have not heard of this good news, even to those who—just maybe—we don’t want to forgive.  Because it’s not about us gritting our teeth (physical or spiritual) and grudgingly offering forgiveness even though we’re still mad or hurt (which we may well be, by the way); it is about recognizing that we have been bathed in forgiveness and love, and that we are called to give that forgiveness and love away to someone who needs it.  Perhaps most especially someone we may not really feel like forgiving. 


Do not bring us to the time of trial.

Save us from the crises that we know will come—either by keeping us out of harm’s way, or if not, then by walking with us in the midst of those crises and struggles.


How do we walk alongside of folks who are going through “a time of trial”?  What does that look like in your place, where you work or live or hang out?


It’s not much, as a prayer goes.  It’s quite short and very simple.  But Jesus gives it to his followers as a mark of identity—“their” prayer, as contrasted with the followers of John the Baptist for instance.  We call it “the Lord’s Prayer” but it really is “the Disciples’ Prayer”—our prayer as Jesus’ disciples. 


Jesus also tells them to pray and not give up.  To ask and seek and knock persistently, even shamelessly.  And he tells them that the friend whose door is closed and locked, whose children are with him asleep, will indeed get up and answer the one who keeps knocking and asking.  The word translated “get up” in Greek is anastas.  It’s the root of the girl’s name Anastasia.  It can mean simply “wake up, get up out of bed”, but it is more than just that.  It is also the word we call in English: Resurrection.  Jesus is telling them a resurrection story, about this desperate, persistent person knocking at midnight, who is aided and fed by the One who Rises Up to provide for his needs. 

We are Jesus’ people—People of the Resurrection.  We have been washed and drenched in God’s love and forgiveness and reconciliation; we have been nourished at Christ’s table in order to become Christ’s body, his hands and feet and eyes and ears in this world; we have been bold to say with Jesus “Our Father in heaven…” and pray for our own needs and the needs of the world.  So many needs; so many people who hunger and thirst—for bread, for kindness, for a word of hope and mercy.   

At the end of every Eucharist we hear the Deacon’s bidding: 
Go in peace to love and serve the Lord. 
It is a sending, a final instruction:  Get out of here! 
There is something important to do, this day, this week, out there. 

How do we come to our own Mrs. Thibodauxes, the people we know, to help them in “the time of trial”?  Or are we ourselves sitting up on the porch, waiting for divine intervention to drop from heaven?  The jeep, and the boat, and the helicopter are human tools, guided by human hands.  We have tools, and we have hands.  What more are we waiting for?

Thursday, July 25, 2013

9 Pentecost, Year C, 21 July 2013

Luke 10:38-42
          Preached by Ian Lasch

I can’t read our Gospel passage for today without thinking of those times when I’m able to get out of town and go home to visit my parents. My mother in particular has an urge to make sure that my every need is met before she’s able to relax and catch up or visit. Have I eaten? Am I hungry? Do I need something to drink? Do I need to rest after my drive? Would I like to put my feet up? Because she prides herself on her hospitality so greatly, I’ve come to realize that the first half hour or so of being at her house won’t actually involve anything more than being taken care of. We all have that in us, to some extent. We all want to make sure we welcome our guests and visitors. All of which is just to say that Martha’s anxiety and her excitement are understandable. That’s one thing that, in reading today’s Gospel, we mustn’t forget. But even in that most natural of instincts, she’s gently reminded that she is missing the mark. She is called to something different.

          Martha was only doing what her society told her that she ought to do. Being hospitable and entertaining her guests is what people at that time, and particularly women at that time, were “supposed” to do. Had you asked her, she may even have considered it her calling. This is so ingrained in her that she’s actually bothered when her sister Mary stops and does nothing in order to sit at the feet of the Master, and listen… In order to simply be with Christ. To bask in his love. Martha doesn’t understand how her sister could so neglect her duties, but Jesus gently corrects Martha. He observes that she is anxious and distracted by many things. She is perturbed. She is mixed up. She has become convinced that what her society tells her she ought to be doing is what is really important. As he so often does, Jesus simplifies things: “There is need of only one thing.” In saying this, he reminds her of something that is a familiar theme throughout the Gospels, and all of scripture: our call to be followers of Christ is not as complicated as we make it, but it is not easy, either. It is not what we expect, and it often involves fighting our own instincts or going against what our culture says is right.

          While hospitality may not hold the importance to our society that it once did, it’s still not hard to see the similarities between Martha’s time and our own. We are all familiar with expectations of how we ought to behave in our everyday lives. We are assailed on all sides and at all times by messages from our culture about what it is that’s really important. Do what feels right. Take what you want. Keep up with the Joneses. Look out for number one. But the Gospel tells us that even in our own universe the best we can hope for is being number two. We are called to follow Christ, and following means that he comes before us.

This is simpler than we think. Just last week we heard in Luke’s Gospel that all we have to do is to love the Lord our God with all our heart, and all our soul, and all our strength, and with all our mind. Not keep ourselves busy doing things, or wait upon him, or earn his love. Just love him with all that we are. But following Christ is also harder than we think. Because loving him that much means literally giving our all to him. It means loving him even more than we want that new car, new house, or new job. It means loving him more than we love all the things that we have now, and all the things that we wish we had. It means letting go of who we are in order to be the people and the disciples that he wants us to be.

          That kind of love for God and desire to follow him is truly transformational. It’s only by loving him with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength that we’re able to ignore the urgings of our culture to acquire more, to work harder, and to look out for ourselves. In loving God enough to set ourselves aside, we can truly begin to love our neighbors as ourselves. This simple, freeing love is important enough that Jesus himself said that there was need of only this one thing.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

8 Pentecost, Year C, July 14, 2013

Luke 10: 25-37
Preached by Rev. Dr. Jason Haddox 

George Zimmerman was found innocent of the death of Trayvon Martin yesterday in Florida.  He was not found guilty on a lesser charge.  He was judged altogether innocent of wrongdoing by the jury.  And yet he pulled the trigger that took the life of another human being.  No matter what the motivation was, no matter what he imagined he was doing in that moment, no matter what the judge and jury and media have said, nothing in heaven or on earth can undo that act.  And it was an act motivated by racial division.  Whatever fear and anxiety was at work that day in that neighborhood to bring those events to pass, the divisions and fears of race and class were present.  For that is who we are, as a people.  It is in the air we breathe.  It is part of our life together, part of the culture in which we live.  “Us and Them,” however we draw the lines.  Have mercy, Lord, for we are sinners in your sight.  

This morning Jesus is asked by an expert teacher of the Hebrew scriptures and traditions, “How may I inherit zohn aionion (Greek).  The phrase is translated “eternal life”, but it might also be translated “the life of eternity.”  The question has to do with the present:  how does a person participate in that way of life NOW, never mind sometime later after death.  This question is about the Kingdom of God, which Jesus has been proclaiming and enacting all along—how does one enter into that living reality?  In other words, how does one live “in the world, but not of the world” as we know it?  And is that even possible? 

Jesus answers not by listing “Do this, that and the other thing” but by asking another question:  “What do you read, O thou expert in the scriptures and the traditions?  You know the book as well as I do.”  This scholar of the scriptures and traditions replies with words taken from two separate locations in the Hebrew Bible:  Love God with everything you are (Deut. 6:4-5); love your neighbor as yourself (Lev. 19:18).”  Very good, Jesus replies.  You get 100% on the quiz!     

But then our resident know-it-all asks another question: “Who is my neighbor?”  The implied question-behind-the-question is “Who is NOT my neighbor?  Who can I ignore--who am I allowed to cut from the guest list?”  Jesus does not answer the question; instead he tells a story.   

The idea of a Good (or better, Merciful or Neighborly) Samaritan is, for Jesus’ audience that day, an absolute contradiction in terms.  The enmity between Samaritans and the people of Jerusalem and Judea went back for centuries—they had as little to do with one another as possible.  They were distantly related, many generations in the past, but now they had no use for one another and often went out of their way to avoid interacting with each other.  

Jesus tells a story of a man traveling in dangerous territory, who was attacked, mugged, beaten, and left for dead.  Those community leaders, both religious and secular, who saw this man and should have stopped to help one of their own, kept on walking.  The person who by all societal norms would have been expected to walk on by, perhaps even with a gesture of disdain, sees what has happened, stops, and goes to great lengths to help the man, naked and half-dead, who had fallen into the hands of robbers.  This is scandalous, even disgusting!  It’s not supposed to work that way!  Both Jesus and his hearers know that—and that is exactly the point. 

In telling the story of a Samaritan who does the deeds of a neighbor, Jesus turns his hearers’ treasured stereotype on its head.  The Samaritan, the hated enemy of all who heard that parable, embodies what it means to be a person of “zohn aionion”; he is the one who demonstrates what it means to be neighbor; he is the one who does the deeds, and lives in the way, the domain, the eternal life of God’s kingdom, even on an isolated desert road, vulnerable, surrounded by danger and uncertainty.  He is not merely being kind to another person (as good a thing as that may be); he embodies God’s kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.   Christ, the Word of God Incarnate, points to one assumed to be utterly incapable of even knowing the truth of God as the only one who understands it at all.    

And take note:  Jesus himself will shortly be given into the hands of those who will beat him, strip him, and leave him for dead along a public roadside.  In a sense Jesus is telling this story on himself.  He will be the one, there on the side of the road, beaten and bloodied.  Who is it then that will show pity to Jesus in his sufferings?  Where does one discover Jesus in his sorrows? 

We find Jesus in every place of suffering and sorrow.  In all those situations, in all those lives, that are broken and hurting and half-dead.  The big obvious ones on the nightly news; the little tiny ones we ignore and hurry past on the street or the sidewalk.  Jesus is there, in all of that mess.  And that is where Jesus—hiding, disguised as one of the least, the lost, the insignificant and the dead—looks for us to meet him.  

Jesus is there even in our own brokenness and pain and death—all the little deaths, on the way to the big final one.  And when we ourselves are hurting and broken and half-dead or worse, Jesus comes and finds us, in ways and in the appearance of neighbors, perhaps even Merciful Enemies, who may be surprising, or even distressful or unwelcome to us.   

Because we don’t like letting go of control.  We want to know who’s in and who’s out.  We want to know with certainty where the lines between “Our People” and “Them People” lie.  We live our lives trying to manage our own lists of acceptable and unacceptable, worthy and unworthy.  “Who is my neighbor?” we ask, along with the expert in the law and traditions this morning.   Jesus gives him—and us—no answer, but a story. 

I want to tell you a story.  A confession, in fact.   

In the spring of 2010 I was living in Bloomfield, New Jersey, a comfortable suburban area just a short train ride from New York City.  One afternoon I walked downtown to do some errands, and was returning home when I realized someone was walking behind me.  I glanced back and saw a young man, in his late teens or early twenties, walking maybe eight or ten feet behind me at about the same speed as I.  We were on a sidewalk beside a busy major street in broad daylight.  I had no reason to be anxious or nervous, but I suddenly realized that I was both of those things.  I wondered as I walked: “Why do I feel uneasy in this situation?”  And it hit me like a slap in the face: because of the color of this young man’s skin.  I was white; he was black.  And that was all it took to cause me to wonder…and I was horrified.  Horrified that I had thought such thoughts and felt such feelings, even subconsciously; horrified that there was THAT in me that would create such an imagined scenario.  Without a single justifiable reason, I had glanced once over my shoulder at this young man and judged him.  I had assumed him to be a potential threat. 
I went home that afternoon and cried.  For myself, and for him, and for all of us.  Because we’ve been trained, you and I, and all of us.  “You’ve got to be carefully taught,” as the words of Oscar Hammerstein II in the musical South Pacific remind us—to fear those who are different, who are strange, who are “not our kind of people.” This fear and suspicion of one another is not natural; it is taught and learned and reinforced.  And it can be otherwise.  It can be different.  We can learn to live another way, according to a different set of priorities.  Jesus tells the story of an enemy who is a neighbor, to shock his hearers into seeing that the lines we draw around ourselves, to protect ourselves and hold one another at arms’ length are not God’s lines.  And then he goes to the cross, where he opens his arms, to show us how generous, how deep and broad and high the wide-embracing circle of God’s love really is. 

What is your story?  Of a time, a person, a situation, that shattered some belief you had held about “them people”?  That caught you up by the scruff of the neck and demanded something—that what you’d always thought, or been told by those around you, could not be thought, could not be held as true, any more?  That drew the circle wider than you’d ever imagined it could be?

This is metanoia.  This is the place of the turning, where the armor of supposed knowledge we build for ourselves breaks, and the zohn aionion, the life in eternity, the Kingdom of God, can break in and take us over.   

My sisters and brothers, may it be so for us.  May it be so among us. 


Wednesday, July 10, 2013

7 Pentecost, Year C, 7 July 2013

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
Preached by Rev. Dr. Jason Haddox

In recent years, in my hometown of Baytown, Texas, my father has undertaken a work of conversion: the transforming of an unused patch of suburban back yard into a vegetable garden.  He has tilled the earth, built raised planting beds, enriched the soil, planted seeds and watered and pulled endless weeds.  And all that before so much as one blessed tomato or pepper shows up.  It is tiresome, necessary work, but not always immediately rewarding in itself, this business of getting the garden ready. 

In the gospel this morning, the Seventy are getting the garden ready:  They too are tilling the soil; pulling out the weeds and rocks and old tires.  They are building connections with the people they meet, for something that they, the Seventy, know is coming.    They have been with Jesus, learning from him and watching him, and now they are being sent out to do and say the things they have seen and heard him do and say.

They are engaged in Preparatio evangelica—preparation of themselves and of the people they meet, to hear the Good News of God’s deeds in Jesus, and in those who follow Jesus.  Jesus is intending to go into the towns and villages of Galilee himself; he’s sending the advance team ahead to get folks ready to receive what he brings to them. 

Jesus speaks to his followers, who are now becoming this advance team:  “Travel light; don’t get distracted.  Carry and embody the Peace of God as you go.  Be content with whatever comes your way; share what you have been given: healing, salvation, and the news of the Kingdom near at hand.  If they reject you, shake off the dust and move on; if they acclaim you and celebrate you for miraculous deeds, give thanks that God has been there with you.  Do not take personally what comes next—for good or for ill.”  

This is a very different set of instructions on living than we hear most of the time.  And the Seventy don’t quite understand either.  They go and do as Jesus tells them, and then come rushing back excited about everything they are able to do.  “Jesus, you won’t believe what happened!  Check it out…”  And Jesus has to tell them again “Look y’all, that’s great, but it’s really not the point.  The spiritual fireworks, and demonstrations of power, and the healings, and everything—none of those things are an end in themselves. 

Remember the message:  ‘The kingdom, the dominion, the power and presence of God Almighty, is here.  Right here, among you, in your midst.  You don’t have to go running around looking for it or trying to conjure it up; it’s here, for you all, right now.’”

 Then and now, Jesus speaks this word to his hearers: that it is possible to travel lightly on the earth, not accumulating things for the sake of a false sense of security; that it is possible to depend on hospitality and kindness from others.

That it is possible, and more than possible, to live in and into the peace of God which passes all understanding, which is not dependent on outward circumstances, even in the midst of sickness and struggle. 

That it is more than possible—that it is needful, that it is essential—to call forth the healing and saving power of the Reign of God into the places we see in need of that healing, saving, amazing grace.   Because even in those places of need, whether in our own private lives or out there in God’s beloved and broken world, salvation and healing and grace are to be had.  They are near; they are at hand.  And so we can do all that Jesus asks us to do.  Because we have been given all that we need to do with. 

The garden is waiting.  God’s kingdom garden longs to flourish and grow and bear good, nourishing, delicious fruit.  We are invited, called, sent, as assistant-gardeners, diggers and weeders and tillers of the soil, to work alongside Jesus the Good Gardener, to make that possibility a reality, in this place, in our time.

 My brothers and sisters, may it be so for us; may it be so among us.

Monday, July 1, 2013

6 Pentecost, Year C, 30 June 2013

2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14; Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20;
Galatians 5:1, 13-25; Saint Luke 9:51-62
Preached by Rev. Lou Scales 

237 years ago tomorrow, July 1, 1776, was a hot day in Philadelphia, and from the description, it was about like it is here today in Augusta. To make matters worse, a
thunderstorm struck, with lightning and pelting rain.  Delegates to the Continental Congress were meeting in the state house, and a fateful decision was about to be
made. In his award-winning biography of John Adams, David McCullough describes how Adams, not known as a great orator, rose to speak—how he spoke logically,
clearly, carefully, and, "looking into the future, saw a new nation, a new time."


Later, Adams remembered his words: "Objects of the most stupendous magnitude, measures in which the lives and liberties of millions, born and unborn, are most
essentially interested, are now before us. We are in the very midst of revolution, the most complete, unexpected, and remarkable of any in the history of the world." 

Two New Jersey delegates, Frances Hopkinson and the Reverend John Witherspoon arrived late, after Adams had been speaking for nearly an hour and was concluding.
Witherspoon --a Presbyterian minister—was the only clergyman there. He was president of the College of New Jersey, which later became Princeton University, and he asked if Mr. Adams would mind repeating his address.  Adams good-naturedly objected that he wasn’t much of an orator, but other delegates urged him and Adams began again and delivered the hour-long speech a second time. 

The debate lasted nine hours. A preliminary vote on the matter of declaring independence from Great Britain was taken, and nine colonies voted in favor. A motion to adjourn for the night was adopted. The tension at the City Tavern, where many of the delegates were lodging and where they talked into the night, increased as word reached Philadelphia of the sighting of a hundred British ships off New York. 

They began again on the morning of July 2, at 9:00a.m. At 10:00 the storm returned outside. A vote was taken. No colony opposed the motion. The colonies had declared their independence.  McCullough reflects: "It was John Adams, more than anyone, who made it happen. Further, he seems to have understood more clearly than any what a momentous day it was and in the privacy of two long letters to his wife Abigail, he poured out his feelings as did no one else." 

Adams wrote to his wife:  “The second day of July 1776 will be the most memorable
epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the Day of Deliverance by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illumination from one end of this continent to the other from this time forward forever more.” (David McCullough, John Adams pp. 126-131) 

The delegates discussed the matter and refined the document for two more days. They argued over every word. Then, Thomas Jefferson wrote these lines:  ”We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed." 

I honestly love that story. I love the fact that a minister from Scotland, albeit a Presbyterian, was there and played an important role and signed the declaration—actually committing an act of treason against the crown. I love the references to the Creator, to the will and providence of God, and the invocation of the idea of freedom as the heart of the whole enterprise. They voted for a final time on July 4 and lined up and signed it and sent it out for the world to see and hear.  Adams hoped it would be celebrated with "shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations," and that’s a pretty good description of what will happen in Columbia and Richmond Counties, and the rest of the nation, for that matter, this coming Thursday. And Mr. Adams also hoped that it would be commemorated in solemn acts of devotion to Almighty God, which is what we are doing here this morning. 

It is an occasion for people of faith to reflect on the meaning of freedom, the particular and important meaning that word has for Christians. Paul, writing to the Christian churches in Galatia (modern Turkey), said, "For freedom, Christ has set us free.” They were Gentile churches and they were deeply divided by a disagreement over how to be followers of Jesus Christ, focusing on the question of freedom. Did they have to obey the Law of Moses? Or were they free from the law as Paul, their teacher, had said? 

Jesus was a Jew. The disciples were Jews. The early church was Jewish. The first Christians met in synagogues and never thought they would be anything but Jewish.
Jesus had said that he came to fulfill the law—the Law of Moses, the foundation of their life as a people, a nation.  The law—613 rules based essentially on the Ten
Commandments—regulated and gave order to all of life. It defined how life was to be lived with God and in community. It told them what to eat and not eat, how to
dress, how to relate with neighbors, spouses, children. Its instructions included how and when to work, how to cook, how to raise children, how to farm. It included rules about feast days and fasts and sacrifices and offerings and prayers. Torah—the law, is why Jews survived twenty centuries of exile and persecution. It is why there is an
Israel today.


The trouble started when our first missionary told the story of Jesus to non-Jews, Gentiles—or Greeks, as he called them. Paul traveled into the lands of the Gentiles
and spoke about Jesus so compellingly that something happened that no one anticipated. Gentiles became believers. Paul baptized them and told them to stick together. Paul told them they were the church. Paul called them the body of Christ.


Now by Jewish standards, these Gentile Christians were a motley crew. They didn’t look or act like God’s kind of people. They ate food that was unclean according to
Jewish law. They didn’t keep Sabbath, didn’t observe the fasts and feasts. Those Gentiles looked like sinners. So the Jerusalem church sent teams of teachers north to
those Gentile enclaves to do some remedial work. Paul, they said, missed something important. If you want to be true Christians, you have to abide by the Law of Moses: the dietary restrictions, the feast days, and your men must be circumcised, just like us, just like the law requires. 

When Paul heard about it, he was livid. Paul was a Jew, followed the law, kept kosher—but for non-Jews to try to become Jews on the way to being Christian was to miss the whole point. You are loved by God in Jesus Christ, he said. That love is given to you as a gift you can’t earn, no matter what you do, no matter how many rules you obey or sacrifices you make. Nor can you put yourself outside the focus of God’s love. It is grace—the grace of God in Jesus Christ—that saves us and redeems us and reconciles us and sets us free. 

We are free from all the ways people have tried to please God because God has already shown his pleasure.  We are free to live in joyful gratitude, free to fulfill the real and original intent of the law—which is love for the neighbor. Paul’s letter to the Galatians has been called the Magna Carta of Christian freedom. 

In Christ, he wrote, there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. For all are one in Christ. And he wrote, "For freedom Christ has set us free. . . . Do not
submit again to the yoke of slavery."  To the good, upstanding, law-abiding people down in Jerusalem, doing the very best they could to keep all the rules, Paul must have seemed like a hopeless liberal, preaching grace, telling people that God loved them no matter what they did or didn’t do. What kind of religion was that? 

But Paul’s message doesn’t stop there. There’s more.  "Do not submit again to the yoke of slavery. . . . Become slaves to one another."  Now in that statement Paul uttered a very sophisticated understanding of human nature and what it means to be free. "Do not submit to the yoke of slavery. . . . Become slaves to one another." 

The modern definition of freedom has to do with autonomy, independence, sovereignty. Webster’s first definition is "the absence of necessity, coercion, restraint,"
none of which sounds like Paul’s admonition to become slaves to one another.
In fact, the Christian definition of freedom—because it is freedom in Christ, defined by Christ—differs fundamentally from the popular, cultural definition.  Freedom in the abstract sounds like the right to do whatever you please, but that is not it at all. Christians are free in Jesus Christ from the necessity of earning their salvation; but because it is Jesus Christ who is doing the defining, love of neighbor, commitment to the community is the other side of freedom. It is grace and responsibility. 

There is important truth in that idea. Those brave souls who signed the Declaration of Independence were not thinking about declaring their right to do whatever they pleased for their own self-realization and gratification.  They were declaring independence in order to become a new nation, and perhaps more than anyone else in history, they knew that freedom from external political coercion was freedom to serve the common good and that it was going to require serious sacrifice: people were going to die for it, and fight to defend it, and work very hard to maintain it. David McCullough wrote, "What in another time and society might be taken as platitudes about public service, were to John and Abigail Adams a life-long creed" (p. 29). 

It is not about doing what you please—although the culture and the market economy in which we live sounds sometimes as if that is exactly what it means. University of
Chicago sociologist Jean Bethke Elshtain, in one of her latest books, Who Are We?, worries that in our obsession with individual rights, our insistence on the right of the
individual to do whatever he or she pleases, we are losing a sense of "social covenant," a sense of obligation to the community, to our neighbor.  She cites an automobile advertisement that is a virtual invitation to selfishness. The copy reads this way, "Little
kids are selfish. Impulsive. They don’t make rational decisions. When they see something they want, they want it now. Little kids have a lot of fun. Hmmm."

Elshtain urges a rebirth of civil commitment, a rededication to the common good, a reinvestment in the institutions where the common good is actually strengthened: In political parties, labor unions, schools, and churches. And she is not alone.  The late Thomas Merton observed, "I do not find in myself the power to be happy doing what I like. . . . On the contrary, if I do nothing but what pleases my fancy, I will be
miserable most of the time. This would not be so if my will had not been created to use its own freedom in the love of others" (No Man Is an Island, p. 35). 

John Adams hoped that the birth of freedom would be commemorated in churches. And a fitting way for that hope to be fulfilled is for churches to remind the world that

freedom—to do whatever one wants to do—is simply license and is ultimately self-destructive; that real freedom is the liberty to give oneself fully and generously to others.  That’s the greatest reversal of all. Real freedom is found in the act of serving another person, an institution, a cause other than you. Real freedom is discovering you by forgetting you for a change.  Jesus turned a lot of things upside down. You can’t earn your way into the kingdom. God has already opened the door and invites you to stop groveling and whining, to stand up and walk in. 

You can’t earn God’s love because God has already given it to you. All you can do is be grateful and try to live up to it.  You can’t get in because you’re the right race, or
gender, or economic class. It’s not a matter of ethnic group, income, or sexual orientation. In Christ there is no Jew or Greek, no slave or free, no male or female.
You see, you’re not really free when you do exactly what you want to do. You are really free when you voluntarily limit your own freedom by being a servant to others.

The Good News is about grace and it is also about responsibility.  Grace leads to freedom, which leads to love. And unless you get to love, to being a servant, you do not really know the grace. If your freedom simply allows you to make yourself your own life’s project, you’re not getting it.

Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl survived the holocaust and later wrote very movingly about what it was like to be caught in the very antithesis of freedom, a kind
of absolute imprisonment that would end in death. He wrote:  ”We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been
few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last human freedom—to choose one’s attitude in any given set
of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” (A Rumor of Angels, p. 8) 

Dear friends, let us commemorate this day, this freedom, in solemn devotion to Almighty God, and let us give thanks for this land of liberty.Let us be grateful for the amazing grace of God—given to each of us in Jesus Christ.  Let us be grateful for the freedom Our Lord gives—freedom to let go of frantic efforts to please God, freedom to love God with our heart, mind, soul and strength; freedom to love one another.  For Christians—for us—the best picture of freedom is Jesus Christ, on a cross: there voluntarily; there because of self-emptying; there because of love.  For freedom, Christ has set us free. Paul said this to us so many years ago, and today I remind you of it in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. AMEN.