Monday, June 21, 2010


Galatians 3: 23-29, page 825

Before this faith came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed. So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith.
Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law.
You are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.
There is neither Jew nor Greek,
Slave nor free,
Male nor female,
For you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.
This week has been another week of disappointing revelations.
We have now heard apologies from BP for the oil that continues to spew into the Gulf, and despite the message from the Oval Office where President Obama attempted to calm us down assuring us that things will be OK, I’m still pretty concerned, as the bigger companies like BP get the more their mistakes cost, and that despite all the power that our nation’s government has, we still can’t seem to fix everything. Its weeks like this that our humanness is striking – as no matter how rich, powerful, or smart, big companies are still led by people who make mistakes.
Like many of you, in addition to being mad about the oil spill, I was surprised to see that after 40 years of marriage, Al and Tipper Gore announced their separation.
Had it been the Clintons there might have been a different reaction out of people, but the Gore’s separation seems almost tragic leading to all kinds of speculation.
Guest columnist Jonathan Zimmerman wrote an opinion column in the Atlanta-Journal Constitution last Tuesday focused on our speculation.
“Was Al still depressed about his controversial loss to George W. Bush in 2000? Was he too consumed by his fight against global warming, which eventually cooled his marriage? Or,” alluding to South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, “did one of the Gores take a walk on the Appalachian Trail?”
But Zimmerman’s point is not to speculate, but to address the problems that come with what seems to him to be an American obsession with knowing every detail about our leader’s intimate lives. He writes that “the more we pry into our leaders’ private lives, the less able they become to serve and govern the public.”
I am convinced that our culture does have an obsession with lifting leaders up, then, once we discover the flaw that we are looking for, we go about pulling them down from the pedestals that we have placed them on.
It’s an important thing to think about I believe – a society obsessed with celebrity, perpetually lifting up human beings to superhuman status – while simultaneously thirsting for any sign that those same celebrities might have some foible with which to capitalize on.
Our drive, I believe, is to find that shred of humanity hidden behind the veil of perfection – for in pulling our heroes down from their pedestals we find that they are no different, no better, no less human than we are.
But I believe Paul would have us examine this tendency in light of the Gospel. We know now that Al Gore, BP chair Carl-Henric Svanberg – just like Lady Gaga or Tiger Woods – are not perfect - but Paul would have us think about what that imperfection means.
The issue he addresses in our lesson for today is how best to use the law, more specifically, the Jewish Law that made up most of his culture and religious practice, the Law that makes up a good chunk of our Old Testament. This law, he says, may act as our “disciplinarian,” it was put in charge of us to keep us in line. It held us in restraint for our own good, to keep us out of trouble: “So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith” says verse 24.
It’s this statement that is the key to understanding our lesson for today, and it’s possible to read this statement saying that following the law will keep you on the right path – that following the law is the yellow brick road that will lead you to salvation and the promised land, that the law is the straight and narrow way that leads to eternal life – a path that so many have strayed from.
That line of thinking reminds me of friends who say things like, “I think I’ll be going to heaven, I’m a pretty good person. I do what’s right most of the time. I’m not a bad guy.”
But the law according to Paul is not just to help you be a pretty good person. The role of the law according to Paul is to convince you that you that you are not.
The law can only lead you to Christ if it leads you to one vital conclusion – you are not perfect. You are human, you make mistakes, and if your life were under the microscope of celebrity than it would be hard to say that you are any better or any worse than anyone else.
According to Paul, it is impossible to go through life never breaking the law, therefore the law cannot be the means of salvation – if it were we would all be condemned.
The law leads us to the great realization that we are human beings – incapable of saving our selves – and therefore in the radical need of a savior.
In this way the law leads us to Christ – as the law reveals our need.
It is only in Christ Jesus that you are children of God – not because of your work, not because you are pretty good, not because you have the potential to become perfect – you are the children of God because Christ Jesus made it so.
The mistakes, the misdeeds, the shameful acts that are publicized on the covers of newspapers and magazines only make it more obvious than ever. We humans are in need of a savior – and if God loves us it cannot be because we have earned it, it can only be because God’s love is given freely to those whom God chooses to love.
But our world is about earning.
Our world is about being good and achieving to the highest level.
Because of their mistakes in the past months we can be sure that the executives of BP, because of their mistakes, can kiss some of their prestige goodbye.
But if their mistakes can teach us anything, it is that no person can escape the great human flaw of imperfection.
We are all equal then, for we are all equally in need of a savior.
And this is the great offensiveness of Christianity – there is only one hero.
There is only one hero and it’s not Paul or Peter. It’s not you and it’s not me. It’s Christ Jesus.
So there can be no fighting about who is better and who is worse.
There is no Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, neither male nor female for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ then you are Abraham’s seed and heirs according to the promise.
Not because you are good – but because God is good.
We are dependent, not on ourselves, but on God.
The Lord came to Elijah the prophet asking, “What are you doing here, Elijah.”
He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”
Then the great wind came and tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord. Then came an earthquake, and after the earthquake came a fire, and after the fire came a gentle whisper, “it’s not up to you Elijah, for I have reserved seven thousand in Israel – all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and all whose mouths have not kissed him.”
I have been disappointed in the powerful this past week – but I do not depend on the powerful.
The rich have disappointed me this past week – but I do not depend on the rich.
I have been disappointed by the ones who I expect to set an example – but I do not depend on them either.
And if I really think about it – this past week I have fallen short and I have been disappointed in myself.
But I do not depend on myself – I depend on the Lord – my rock and my salvation.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Face to Face

Galatians 2: 11-21, page 824
When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong.
Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.
When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it then that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?
We who are Jews by birth and not ‘Gentile sinners’ know that one is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.
If, while we seek to be justified in Christ, it becomes evident that we ourselves are sinners, does that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not! If I rebuild what I destroyed, I prove that I am a lawbreaker. For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”
Atheists are people who don’t believe in God.
On the other hand, I am the kind of person who doesn’t believe in Atheists.
I tend to think that these folks are just mad at the church or their parents so they’re going after the shock value of saying it – as when it really comes down to it, no matter who you are or how illogical the existence of God seems to you, if the building you were sitting in began to shake you would be calling out to God for help regardless of whether you say you “believe” in God or not.
I also tend to believe that humans most often are self-interested creatures. We are always subconsciously asking ourselves: “What’s in it for me.”
When I consider religion the answers come easy – religion gives you something to believe in, a moral order to guide your life, hope in forgiveness, a community of brothers and sisters, not to mention the assurance of God’s grace, the promise of salvation, and life after death.
As far as I can tell, there are no benefits to being an atheist. You believe in nothing, so you literally get nothing out of the deal.
People claim to be Atheists though, my favorite atheist is a waiter at a restaurant called Twains, happens to have the best wings I’ve ever eaten, so I end up there most Friday afternoons. Among Atheists he is the most bizarre I’ve ever met. He’s what I would have to call an evangelical atheist, as he actually seems interested in bringing converts to his atheist way of thinking.
“Just Google Westboro Baptist Church and you’ll see what I mean,” he said to me a while ago. I didn’t know what he was talking about, so I did Google Westboro Baptist Church to find a group of people protesting at military funerals.
“God laughs” one sign read, as though God thought it were funny to mourn the death of a fallen loved one. This group, I struggle to call them a church, has been protesting military funerals based on the sick theological assumption that “God is killing troops in Iraq and Afghanistan to punish the United States for tolerating homosexuality.”
My friend the waiter, his name is Jason, would rather associate himself with no religion than associate himself with a faith that would do such a thing.
It’s an unfortunate truth that in the eyes of some, we, the church, are viewed as condoning hate, as to them Westboro Baptist Church represents the church as a whole rather than the church at it’s worst.
I wish it weren’t true but I know that it is, as it’s this very thing that we often do to Islam. While I know moderate, tolerant Muslims, my grandfather has asked me again and again, “If there are moderate and tolerant Muslims, where are they and why aren’t they speaking out against terrorism? Their silence is tacit approval,” he has often said.
It is for this reason that Paul in our scripture lesson could not be silent. Paul could not be silent when he saw his faith represented by exclusion and not inclusion. He could not be silent when he perceived his faith, defined by salvation by the grace of God be redefined by Peter’s actions which brought the connotation that salvation came by adherence to the law.
So when Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong.
It’s not often that you hear Christians talking that way.
We are generally too polite to go around opposing people to their faces, we prefer opposing people behind their back, but here Paul is, opposing Peter face to face.
My friend the waiter and I were speaking, face to face, when he gave me a book titled, “The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason,” to help me better understand where he’s coming from. This book, written by Sam Harris, a noted philosopher and avowed atheist, claims that religion is standing in the way of world peace, is the greatest force justifying terrorism; that religion should be left behind if humanity has any hope of progress.
I would like to just get mad and throw this book away; but Harris’ voice presents too important a challenge for our church.
We Christians who confess to believe that our God is a god of love and grace have too often kept our mouths shut while our religion has been co-opted by fundamentalists who’s actions would say that ours is a God of wrath, judgment, and hate.
For too long we have allowed these fundamentalists to win.
In the same way that Paul spoke to Peter when he believed that he had fallen away from the true faith, that he had gone back to adhering to the law as though the law could bring salvation, had separated himself from gentiles as though in the Kingdom of God some were better than others, it is time for us to speak out for the true faith in a world who needs to hear what we have to say.
Peter had been led astray – so Paul opposed him to his face.
And in our world where the Christian faith is so often represented by the likes of Westboro Baptist Church, protesting at funerals, void of compassion, ignorant beyond reason, we must stand for something else.
They have represented the Church to such a degree that to much of the world our faith seems a waste of time, a social club, a means of exclusion rather than a means for inclusion, a mode of preserving the worst of the past rather than paving the way for the future.
So much so that today there are some who would not miss us at all if we simply disappeared.
But how would this world ever make it without the Grace of God.
How would this world ever make it without the free gift of Grace born in Christ Jesus?
For in the world there is no forgiveness, and everything that is to be had must be gained.
In the world we are defined by our work, by our wealth, by our means and our power – and where would the world be without the true identity we gain through our baptism – that we are not chosen by God based on our merit, and that we are not defined by our mistakes or our successes, we are defined by the Grace of God.
Brothers and Sisters in Christ – be defined by this grace.
The world needs it.
The world needs to hear what you have to say – so hear Paul’s example challenge you today – to speak out against this false religion posing as Christianity by opposing it to its face.
Not by complaining about the secularization of the world, but by befriending those who have been misled, face to face, friend to friend, showing the world that there is another way.
Not by fighting amongst yourselves and validating what so many outside the church already assume, but by loving those who you disagree with, speaking kind words to those who would do you harm, face to face, showing the world that we are all children of the same God.
Not by judging those whom you perceive to be beneath you, but by living out the truth, that we are not saved by what we can do or have done, we are saved by the Grace of God – so there can be no room for boasting. Face to face then, friend to friend, equal-to-equal, we must lift each other up for the time of judging must be left to the past.
Paul met Peter, face to face, friend to friend, and brought him back into the light – and this is my charge to you – with love, tenderness, and truth, bring back in to the light all those who walk in darkness.
Let it be said of you: “The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

Sunday, June 6, 2010

And They Praised God Because of Me

Galatians 1: 11-24, page 823

I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not something that a person made up. I did not receive it from any one, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.
For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it.
I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. But when God, who set me apart from birth and called me by grace, was pleased to reveal the Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not consult anyone, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went immediately into Arabia and later returned to Damascus.
Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Peter and stayed with him fifteen days. I saw none of the other apostles – only James, the Lord’s brother.
I assure you before God that what I am writing you is no lie.
Later I went to Syria and Cilicia. I was personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. They only heard this report:
“The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.”
And they praised God because of me.
Today we recognized our graduates – young men and women who have finished something, completed four years of high school or college, a Masters or PhD; and I am reminded of how exciting it is to finish one thing and move on to something new.
People make movies about that kind of “starting over” – the girl whose face was a mess of oil and acne changes over the summer between high school and college and the ugly duckling becomes a swan.
It happened to a friend of mine somewhere between high school and seminary. In seminary he was this ladies man, but all I could think about was when he was in high school how skinny and nerdy he was – with this giant head like a pumpkin on top of his bony frame – he looked like he had to buy his clothes out of the kids section but his hats from the Big and Tall store.
We are all trying to escape something like that.
Something that keeps us from perfection, and we are anxious for the opportunity to start over as though this time will be different.
Hair cuts do that for some people – help you re-invent yourself - but not me, I’ve been getting the same hair cut for most of 29 years and I’m thankful to have found a barber over on 5 Forks who can cut my hair exactly the way I like it, exactly the way it’s always been cut.
There’s nothing worse for a man than to describe what he wants – we want you to already know what we want – so I go to Joe the Barber and just sit down in the chair.
It’s usually un-eventful, but as soon as I sat down last week Joe the barber says to me, “There’s something about those droids.”
This statement shocked me, but he had already put the paper around my neck and the black cloth that catches the hair, so I couldn’t get up and leave.
“There’s something about those droids they use to hunt down terrorists in Afghanistan – you know whenever I take target practice I shoot to the left, no matter how hard I concentrate I always shoot to the left. Droids on the other hand, the human margin of error is gone.”
There’s something a little bit weird about your barber talking to you this way, but in his own unique way my barber Joe illustrates a good point.
We all chase after perfection – and sometimes that’s a good thing – the great football coach, Vince Lombardi of the Super Bowl Champion Green Bay Packers used to address his team saying, “We are going to relentlessly pursue perfection. Now, we’re never going to catch it, but in the relentless pursuit of perfection we will surely catch excellence.”
That works for football – Coach Lombardi took his team to win six division titles, five NFL championships, and two Super Bowls (I and II) – but it doesn’t work for everything.
Paul relentlessly pursued perfection in his life through religious purity in the hopes of catching salvation, but he felt as though he could never quite attain it.
He writes, “I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers.”
He went to the right school, graduated with honors, got a great job – you can imagine his mother at the marketplace talking with her friends – “O Martha, it’s great to see you. What’s your son up to these days? He’s a moil – that’s wonderful. I wish him good luck, we can’t all be like my Paul out persecuting Christians, but a moil is a respectable position.”
Paul’s mother knew that her son had made it – he had done everything he needed to do – we may assume that everyone at the marketplace knew it too.
But Paul didn’t know it. Paul didn’t feel as though he had done it at all.
He asks a question in verse 10 of this first chapter of Galatians, “Am I now trying to win the approval of people, or of God.”
He had won the approval of people already, and in these first verses of his letter we assume that he is now doing something else altogether – re-inventing himself in a way as he writes, “If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.”
Something had happened to him.
He left one thing behind altogether and became something new.
“For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism… But when God, who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles…”
We know what it was that happened to Paul. I pray that you know exactly what it was that happened to Paul – that in your relentless pursuit of perfection, you realized that you would never attain it.
In your relentless pursuit of being the perfect student, you realized that there would always be some question that defied your logic.
In your relentless pursuit of being the perfect parent, one day you found a battery in your daughter’s dirty diaper and you realized that you weren’t watching her as closely as you thought you were (not that I know what that’s like or anything).
In your relentless pursuit of being the purest, most holy person, one day you took a good long look at yourself in the mirror and all you could see was the dirt under your nails that would never go away no matter how hard you scrubbed, you looked deep into your own eyes only to see them dart back and forth in a selfish pursuit of more, you looked at your stomach and saw a gluttony that you could suck in and hide but not break yourself from, you turned around to look at yourself from the back and you just didn’t like what you saw.
You aren’t perfect – and no matter how hard you’ve been trying to catch perfection, you can’t catch it.
It hurts realizing that.
But how good it was that day on the road when Paul, in his damned pursuit of perfection met a man named Jesus, who whispered in his ear, “You don’t have to be good enough Paul, because I am good enough.”
You don’t have to be perfect, because I am perfect.
This is the message that Paul preached, and when he left his life in Judaism for another, it was because he couldn’t go back to the pursuit of perfection once he experienced the grace of God.
There were plenty who were surprised at this drastic change. They only heard the report: “The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” And they praised God because of me, Paul writes.
May they, whoever they are and wherever you go, may they praise God because of you, and because of the grace of God that permeates who you are and how you live.