Sunday, August 25, 2019
Scripture: Galatians 3:21-29 & Acts 8:26-38
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon
Just this week I came across the results of a recent poll that revealed around 84 percent of Americans are angrier now than they were a generation ago. 42 percent revealed that this past year made them angrier than at any other point in their life. Those are some distressing poll results, aren’t they? But they aren’t surprising. Sadly, when I first read them I thought, “Only 84 percent? I wonder who those lucky 16 percenters are? What’s their secret? Or maybe they just had a much harder life until recently. Who knows?”
We live in a difficult time. Our society is in upheaval, and it’s exacerbated by the speed of news that washes over us, like waves on a red-flag day on Lake Michigan. It’s quite a time we’re living in, and I’m praying that we find our way out of it sooner than later. It’s truly hurting society, and what pains me so much as a pastor is that the witness of the church to God’s love in Jesus Christ is more readily attached to political agendas than it is to what Scripture actually says about what God is up to in the church and world.
We only have two weeks left in our “I Wonder…” Series, and while there will be questions that we just did not have time for, I thought I could make some connections between these four questions today. We’ll start with the first one because the answer to it opens the door to the other three questions. “I wonder,” the writer so elegantly puts it, “Why did an all-knowing, all-seeing God make such a perfect universe that operates in mathematically precise ways, then give man dominance over much of it in our neck of the woods, and then make us so imperfect that we constantly screw things up?” That just about sums things up, doesn’t it? We live in this glorious cosmos where Earth is positioned just right in our solar system to produce life as we know it. Any closer to the sun, and we’d fry. Any further away, and we’d be ice cubes. If God could do all that and send all these planets and galaxies spinning out into infinite space, why in the world did God give humans the opportunity to make a mess of things?
I think the answer to this question can be given in one word – freedom. God had the freedom to do whatever God wanted. In that freedom, God decided to create everything out of nothing. God’s existence did not need the creation, because the Triune God already existed forever in perfect, glorious relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Yet, God desired to share this glorious existence with others. As part of that good creation, God created humans, and in a spectacularly interesting move, God made us in God’s image. Since God has freedom, God gave us freedom. God could use that freedom to do whatever God wants, and blessedly for the cosmos, God’s will is for the flourishing of life. God chooses not to use that freedom to mess with the creation or to change God’s mind about what God has promised. Scripture tells us that human freedom is something God takes delight in. It is that freedom that allows us to add beauty into the world. It is also that freedom that allows us to “constantly screw things up,” to quote the question.
“For freedom Christ has set us free,” Paul writes in Galatians 5:1. What’s interesting to me is that God clearly desires that we have freedom. Sure, humans use their freedom to make a mess of things, but even when God in Christ is reconciling the world to himself, God still desires that we have freedom. Freedom is an interesting word for us, isn’t it? Like many biblical concepts, I think we’ve come to blend our understanding of the Bible with the ethos and myths of our country, and in the end we accept a lesser version of what freedom is.
So, here’s what’s on my mind. God created us with freedom in particular because love is something that only exists with freedom. We mess things up, so for a time God gave us laws or rules to help us live as fully as one can within the limits of those rules. Yet, we’re prone to take these one of two ways. Some of us want to shed any rules because they make us feel restricted. Why does God want to spoil my fun? Isn’t it my body to do what I want with it? In that situation, we end up viewing the rules as God’s way of harming or limiting us, yet God put them in place to help us be better than we would be without their direction. But then there are others of us who so fall in love with the rules that we start thinking they are the end of the journey, rather than a means to an end. A signpost that says, “Michigan,” is merely a pointer to the glorious thing that is Michigan, not the thing itself. So, too, the law points us to the character of God and of God’s hopes for us, but it is not the end in itself.
Galatians is one of the earlier letters Paul wrote, and he’s on fire when he wrote it. Not only is the good news of the resurrection of Jesus burning up within him, but also he flat out angry at anyone who wants to bind the freedom of following Jesus with anything from the old rules, particularly in this case circumcision. You see, as Paul spread his message in places where non-Jews were accepting it, others came along and said that believing this message was not enough. To be a part of God’s people, you had to follow the rules. The rules call for circumcision, which you could imagine is a bit of a barrier for the converts, right? Now, it’s not my project today to get into the weeds about this, but what we see here is that we humans are pretty good at binding ourselves up with things that don’t lead to the freedom that is found in giving our lives fully over to Christ. Sometimes we grow comfortable in the things that don’t actually make us free.
True freedom is not found in doing whatever I want. True freedom is found in realizing that God has good intentions for my life, and as I seek God’s way, I find a fullness of freedom that is available nowhere else. And that freedom includes a calling to love my neighbor as myself, which means way more than just keeping others at arm’s length. Sure, I have the freedom to break the law and drive 120 miles per hour down my street, but there are consequences for myself (perhaps a ticket?) or others (hitting a pedestrian because I’m out of control). Freedom always exists within limits, and many of those limits to personal freedom connect strongly to our responsibility for others.
So, let me touch on the remaining three questions. We received all sorts of questions in what I call the “social/political” category, which is always treacherous ground for a pastor, particularly in these fraught times. What I strive to do at all times (and what I am trying hard to do once again) is to point out to you what the Bible has to say on these things. I would love it if our political discourse as fellow Christians actually found its deep-rooting in a fully-formed biblical and theological worldview because that, too, is where freedom is found. So, I’ll try to stay there and ask for your good will as I do this. Here we go.
Let’s begin with the question on hate speech. As I said at the beginning, we live in a time where anger seems to be roiling just beneath the surface for many. How do Christians meaningfully respond to hate speech? I think this begins with being firmly rooted in our conviction of who God is and of how God wants us to relate to each other. Throughout history Christians have found themselves taking a different way than those who had power. They didn’t win over the crowds by shouting louder or by having a more convincing argument. No, they stayed rooted in their convictions and lived in a way that caused others to see that they were different. Yes, we should be able to speak up against hate speech, but if our lives don’t reflect that same call to equality and love, then we are, in Paul’s famous words in 1 Corinthians 13, just a “resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” Our response is less about our words than it is about our actions. Our neighboring church, St. John’s Episcopal, is putting on a Latino Heritage Festival this fall. In their social media promotion for this event, someone actually wrote, “I don’t want Latinos living by me.” Now, we could write all sorts of things online to counter that, but wouldn’t it be better if we showed God’s love for our Latino brothers and sisters by showing up to this event and volunteering for it?
Or, let me share with you a children’s story about a real life event that happened awhile back in Tennessee. Here’s how it begins:
The day was bright and sunny as most May days tend to be
In the hills of Appalachia down in Knoxville, Tennessee
A dozen men put on their suits and quickly took their places
In white robes and those tall and pointed hoods that hid their faces
Their feet all fell in rhythm as they started their parade
They raised their fists into the air, they bellowed and they brayed
They loved to stir the people up, they loved when they were taunted
They didn’t mind the anger, that’s precisely what they wanted
As they came around the corner, sure enough, the people roared
They couldn’t quite believe their ears, it seemed to be… support!
Had Knoxville finally seen the light, were people coming ‘round?
The men thought for a moment that they’d found their kind of town
But then they turned their eyes to where the cheering had its source
As one their faces soured as they saw the mighty force
The crowd had painted faces, and some had tacky clothes
Their hair and hats outrageous, each had a red foam nose
The clowns had come in numbers to enjoy the grand parade
They danced and laughed that other clowns had come to town that day
The story goes on about how the clowns keep mishearing “white power” and responding with things like “white flour” and tossing flour into the air or “tight showers” and huddling together to mimic showering together. The Klan gave up, having been left with no room for their hate, and the story ends:
The day was bright and sunny as most May days tend to be
In the hills of Appalachia down in Knoxville, Tennessee
People joined the new parade, the crowd stretched out for miles
The clowns passed out more flowers and made everybody smile
And what would be the lesson of that shiny southern day?
Can we understand the message that the clowns sought to convey?
Seems that when you’re fighting hatred, hatred’s not the thing to use
So here’s to those who march on in their big red floppy shoes
Just as faith without deeds is dead, so too truthful words without action don’t amount to much. Yes, we should be able to give an answer for the hope we have in words, but even more so we must be living in a way that shows what we believe.
So, having covered hate speech, let’s move on to income inequality. There’s a whole sermon series I could do on this, but let me just briefly point out a couple of things. The Bible is pretty honest that there will always be rich and poor. At times people have done some radical things to counter this, like Israel’s observance of the year of Jubilee in Leviticus 25 when all debts were cancelled or the earliest Christians in Acts 2 holding everything in common. But this was never across the board.
However, the Bible has much to say about our mutual responsibility for each other. In the words of 1 John 3, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” Jesus reserves some of his hardest sayings for the rich, including “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Matt. 19:24). So, while the Bible does not say that all incomes should be equal, it does tell us that we have a responsibility for each other. We never have more control over what we have than we do when we are willing to give it away and expect nothing in return. That’s one way we live differently in this world. Our trust should be in God, not in our 401(k) or ability to make a living. Freedom is found in being God-reliant, not self-reliant.
So, from hate speech to income inequality to the #MeToo movement in a couple of minutes. This is a whirlwind, but the thread that connects all of these things is living in this world in a way that the reign of God is taking place in your life and radiating out into the world around you. (Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven, right?) Two very brief thoughts on the #MeToo conversation. First, we have to check our hearts if we don’t respond to these stories from women of sexual assault with compassion and understanding. When this movement first started, I was blown away by how many women in my own life expressed stories of some level of sexual assault or trauma. We must listen. We must grieve. And we must work towards a society and culture that condemns anything that diminishes the image of God in another, which sexual assault certainly does. Second, these stories made me think of my own children and my hopes for them. I want them to grow up in a world where they respect their bodies and the bodies of others. I want them to be the kind of people who don’t objectify others. I want them to understand God’s expectations for the beauty of intimate relationships that honor the other and see the image of God in them. I want others to view my own children that way. God’s reign takes place even in our own bodies and sexuality. To exclude God from our most intimate places creates space for sin, and our culture is reaping what it has sown here. Yet, just like the clowns at the Klan rally I spoke of earlier, we have a chance to change the narrative on this. We know the truth of Jesus. Have we let it set us free – the kind of freedom that exists in responsibility for our neighbor’s well-being racially, economically, and sexually?
We counter the anger of our times by doubling down on being a people who love Jesus and love our neighbors. By being a people who shout less and act more out of love. By trusting that what God wants for us is better than we can want for ourselves. It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. We live into that freedom by daily submitting our whole selves to God, who loves us, and to humbly, consistently, and faithfully using our freedom to enhance the lives of others. Perhaps when we really start doing this, we’ll better be able to understand why God gave us the freedom, and we’ll help restore God’s beautiful creation.
 Christian Century, July 31, 2019 issue, p. 9.