Monday, June 21, 2010

Sermon for Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, "Discipline"

Sermon 6/20/10
Galatians 3:23-29

Galatians: Discipline

Today, we continue our journey through Paul’s letter to the Galatians, and we start to see his logic unfolding, as in each text, he builds on the argument he laid down in the last passage. Last week, remember, we talked about how we are saved, and Paul reminded us that it is not adherence to rules, at which we can never be perfect, but faith in God’s free grace, which sets us right with God.
In today’s text, Paul is talking about discipline. We can think about discipline in multiple ways. First, you might think of being a disciplined person. Are you a disciplined person? Do you have something that is sometimes hard to do, but that nonetheless you do regularly? My brother Todd is becoming a very disciplined runner. He’s trying to train for a marathon, and he runs on a set schedule, whether he feels like it or not. That’s discipline. Spiritually speaking, we have disciplines too – spiritual disciplines. I think we’ll be talking about those some months down the road more intentionally – but spiritual disciplines can be prayer, scripture reading, fasting, etc., done on a regular, committed schedule.
But on the other hand, discipline can mean the trouble that we get into when we do something wrong, that is supposed to get us back in line. Both senses of discipline are to keep us in line – remember how we talked about being justified last week – in line with God. Both senses of the word discipline keep us in line, but discipline that happens when we’re in trouble for misbehaving is usually more like punishment. How have you been disciplined in your lifetime? I think I’ve mentioned to you before that I was pretty much a goody-goody two shoes growing up. I didn’t get in trouble very often. So I didn’t get disciplined very often. But the ‘discipline’ I can remember included things like having to go to your room – which was of more consequence when your room didn’t include TVs and ipods and laptops and gaming systems – or not being able to hang out with a particular friend that got me in trouble. My mother wasn’t a particularly tough disciplinarian. But I know others of my friends weren’t so lucky, and they and my less-well behaved little brothers, got grounded with much more regularity than I did, and I know that some of you probably had more strict discipline as children than I did!
 Paul says that outside of faith, the law is our disciplinarian, but that when faith comes, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Jesus, we are all children of God through faith. When he uses the word disciplinarian, you can think of a babysitter. In fact, the role Paul is describing was similar – the word he uses in Greek meant something like a slave who would be in charge of watching children while they were not in school. There’s no real relationship between the disciplinarian and the child – it isn’t a relationship of affection, but of obligation. The slave is required to care for the children by a master. The discipline is meant to keep order, keep things in line. By contrast, Paul says that we belong to Christ, and so we are God’s children and heirs, inheritors of all God’s promises. And because we’re all God’s children, any other categories that are set up for us through the law are meaningless. We’re meant not to be kept in place but set free. Paul names the categories that divided folks in his day: Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. We could add more: native or immigrant, black or white, rich or poor, gay or straight, pro-life or pro-choice, Republican or Democrat, Methodist or Presbyterian: these categories are nothing in the light of the one label that unites us: we are all children of God.
So what does this mean for us? What does it mean to be children of God instead of wards of the law? Next Sunday we will celebrate our graduates from high-school and college. I can guess about one aspect of their journeys that is a common bond, even though they will take different paths. These journeys – from kindergarten through elementary school, during middle-school days and high-school and for some of them beyond that, the journey of education has involved a lot of following rules and learning to be disciplined. You have to learn rules about how to behave in school – which bus to take and how to get along with your classmates, when you can and when you can’t talk in class. You have to learn how to change classes when you get older and make it in three or four minutes from one end of the building to the other. You have to learn your subjects – math and science, history and English, music and art, language and technology and home and career skills – a little bit of everything. And, to a large degree, you have to learn to stay within the boundaries set for you by the rules, by the teachers, by the administration. You can’t miss too many classes, or show up late. You have to get your permission slips signed to go on field trips, and get permission or passes to be in the hallways. Part of learning and growing up is learning to follow the rules – or suffer the consequences! You have to be disciplined, in a way that comes from inside you, your own self-control, or you will be disciplined from without – timeouts, name on the board, missing recess, detention, suspension, failing classes. You have to follow the rules, at least most of the rules most of the time, or you don’t get to pass to the next level.
But it isn’t only about the rules, is it? I hope our graduates have gone beyond the rules – not through the rules, or bending the rules, or breaking the rules, or getting around the rules – but beyond the rules. I hope – not just for our graduates, but for all of us, that we’ve experienced a transition in our lives from learning because we have to learn because the rules say so to learning because we want to learn. And usually, it happens at least in the areas of learning when you are starting to fall in love with a particular subject matter, when you are starting to learn what will be your passions in life. I remember feeling this way during my piano lessons in high-school. For so long practicing was a chore – something I had to do in order to make it through my lessons without my teacher being too upset with me. It took a lot of discipline to keep practicing my scales and playing the same phrases of music over and over. I like piano, and I wanted to play. But it was more work than pleasure for some time. And then, somewhere in there, the transition happened. My playing, my practicing, became enjoyable. I was actually making some music. And making music inspired me to practice more, to love music more, and to invest myself more in what I was doing. I felt the same way my freshman year of college – I was learning so much and being exposed to so many new ideas that I just couldn’t soak it up fast enough. Like I said, I hope you’ve all experienced or will experience this transition – and it isn’t limited to the classroom, or the world of academics – it’s the passion that my brother Todd has for acting, that made him commit all of his summer vacations to theatre workshops and training programs until he could start getting paid to do what he loved. In religious-speak, we call this discovering of passion a vocation, which means a calling. So often, we talk about being called by God as something that happens just to people who think they’re called to be pastors. But I’ll keep saying it until you believe it: we are all God’s children, so we are all called by God
What is your passion? This passion that we seek for our lives, this figuring out of our vocation and our call from God – this leads us back to our text from Galatians. Paul sees that instead of trusting in the faith that they have, instead of being moved by the Spirit that they’ve received, the Galatians keep returning to the law, thinking that the law will save them, that the law will prove them worthy servants of God. But Paul asks the Galatians, challenges and chides them, “Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? Did you experience so much for nothing?—if it really was for nothing. Well then, does God supply you with the Spirit and work miracles among you by your doing the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard?” (1) Where we pick up, Paul is talking about the law that bound these people together before they heard the freeing word of grace in Jesus Christ. Paul argues that while we can live by the law when there are no better alternatives, when we have a better option, we better take it. Because of Jesus, our better alternative, Paul says, is to live by faith, not by the law, and be justified – set straight – by faith. We “are no longer subject to a disciplinarian” but instead we are “children of God through faith,” “clothed with Christ,” and “one in Christ Jesus.”
Paul was trying to teach the Galatians that they could live beyond the rules that they’d been taught from the law. Not against the rules, not breaking the commandments, not ignoring the way that they’d already come to know God – after all, Jesus taught that he came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it. But the Galatians needed to learn that they weren’t bound and imprisoned by the law because they were free in Christ, free by God’s grace to live in a bigger way, live in a deeper way, life in a more challenging and more satisfying way. Imagine if your whole life you had to get a permission slip in order to do anything? That would be ridiculous of course. But that’s how the Galatians were living – so afraid of breaking the rules of the law they once had learned that they were missing out on the joy of following God because of sheer love and passion.
When we make that transition – from law to faith, from rules to freedom, from practicing to passion, finally, change can happen, and finally, transformation occurs, and finally, we start really being disciples and living out the good news that Jesus shared. Instead of God being the Disciplinarian with us as the students just trying to stay out of trouble, Paul reminds us that God is our Parent and we are God’s beloved children. And as God’s children, we’re meant to follow rules, sure, but God most wants us to grow up into the unique creations we’re meant to be. We’re meant to be full of passion for what and who God has called us to be, and we’re meant to mature in faith as we are filled with a Parent’s love. May we be filled with God’s love and freed by God’s love as we continue in a journey of faith. Amen.

Sermon for Third Sunday after Pentecost, "Saved By the Bell"

Sermon 6/13/10
Galatians 2:15-21

Galatians: Saved By the Bell

Today we get past the introduction to Galatians, where Paul is laying out his credentials and why the Galatians should listen to him, and into to the heart of this epistle, the deep theology, the content that Paul wants them to believe and feels like they are mixing up with whatever ‘other gospel’ people have been teaching them. Paul’s writings are certainly not as easy to listen to as the Parables of Jesus, and so you may find yourselves tuning out or getting overwhelmed when you first hear this passage – but Paul has some really good stuff in there when we take the time to examine it closely – stuff that, when we rephrase it into our own words, I bet you will find hits the nail on the head for some of the struggles we face as disciples. Let me share with you this same text from Galatians in Eugene Peterson’s The Message, to help us understand Paul’s argument better. He writes:
15-16We Jews know that we have no advantage of birth over "non-Jewish sinners." We know very well that we are not set right with God by rule-keeping but only through personal faith in Jesus Christ. How do we know? We tried it—and we had the best system of rules the world has ever seen! Convinced that no human being can please God by self-improvement, we believed in Jesus as the Messiah so that we might be set right before God by trusting in the Messiah, not by trying to be good.
 17-18Have some of you noticed that we are not yet perfect? (No great surprise, right?) And are you ready to make the accusation that since people like me, who go through Christ in order to get things right with God, aren't perfectly virtuous, Christ must therefore be an accessory to sin? The accusation is frivolous. If I was "trying to be good," I would be rebuilding the same old barn that I tore down. I would be acting as a charlatan.
 19-21What actually took place is this: I tried keeping rules and working my head off to please God, and it didn't work. So I quit being a "law man" so that I could be God's man. Christ's life showed me how, and enabled me to do it. I identified myself completely with him. Indeed, I have been crucified with Christ. My ego is no longer central. It is no longer important that I appear righteous before you or have your good opinion, and I am no longer driven to impress God. Christ lives in me. The life you see me living is not "mine," but it is lived by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I am not going to go back on that.
   Is it not clear to you that to go back to that old rule-keeping, peer-pleasing religion would be an abandonment of everything personal and free in my relationship with God? I refuse to do that, to repudiate God's grace. If a living relationship with God could come by rule-keeping, then Christ died unnecessarily.
At stake in Paul’s writing is this: the question of how we are saved. What saves us? Paul uses the word “justified” – how are we justified? And to understand this term, you can just think of the documents you create on a computer – you can have your text in a straight line on the right, the left, center your text, or justify it on both sides, so that your columns make straight lines on both margins. That’s my preferred style – nice and neat. To be justified theologically means to be set in a correct line with God. So, how are we justified? What saves us? Paul’s answer, here, and throughout his writings, is that we are justified, saved, by faith in Jesus Christ. Having faith in Jesus Christ gets us in line with God. At first glance, this may not sound like a startling revelation to us, but Paul is teaching directly to a culture that prized obedience to the laws of Moses as the way to be ‘justified’, saved before God.
But Paul’s argument met with a lot of questions and outright disagreement. If your faith saves you, can you do whatever you want, sin as much as you want, as long as you believe in Jesus? If doing good works, or obeying the rules isn’t actually going to do anything for you in God’s eyes, why bother to obey the rules? Why bother to do good works? And really, if you and I both have faith in Christ, but I am really so much better at doing good than you are, shouldn’t I get some better reward than you? And finally, the Galatians and others apparently see Paul’s lack of perfection, the faults they see in him, as proof, somehow, that this whole “justification by faith” thing doesn’t really work out after all. In fact, elsewhere in the scriptures we’ll see that even the other apostles didn’t take Paul’s arguments at face value. James, brother of Jesus, wrote: “Show me your faith without works, and I by my works will show you my faith.” Even today, church-folks still have a lot of debate about how to answer the question: How are you saved?
So why do we struggle with this question so much? As I was preparing my sermon this week I kept thinking of the ordination essays I had to write five years ago as I was preparing to be examined by the Board of Ordained Ministry. One of the questions I had to answer is this: 2) What effect has the practice of ministry had on your understanding of humanity and the need for divine grace? In other words, what had being a pastor helped me understand about people needing grace? And this is what I wrote in part, “The practice of ministry has put a spotlight on the ‘human condition’ for me – this struggle, this tension in which we are caught. On the one hand, we consider ourselves such hopeless, worthless creatures. We’re overcome with a belief that we are without much value, without importance. We hate ourselves, hate our actions. In this sense, our need for grace is complete – we need to be given value, and that value comes in our very existence, our beingness, creations of God. But on the other hand, we are content – smug – ruling the world, in charge, unstoppable. Humanity feels so full of itself that we can’t give anymore. We whine, “we’ve done enough, God, we have no more to give.” In this way, our need for grace is complete – we need to be challenged, prodded, transformed, made new. So I find myself preaching two themes in my practice of ministry: one, where I say, “just being a ‘good person’ isn’t enough. God wants more! God wants all of you!” And the other says, “You are so loved! You are so valued! God’s grace is free – you don’t have to and can’t earn it.” We live in that tension, grace and responsibility.”
We struggle with this question of how we are saved, how we are justified, because we’re torn between so many presumptions. We figure that though we’ve heard otherwise, grace can’t really be free, because nothing’s free, and it seems like some trick to catch us off-guard. And I think we simultaneously feel like we aren’t doing enough, being good enough to get God’s grace, and like we’re basically good people, so what more does God want from us? And then, we feel like at least we’re better than the next guy, so maybe if we highlight to God how not good, not worthy the person next to us is, God won’t pay so much attention to the faults in us. And that’s just another proof that grace can’t really be free – if it was free – if it was for everyone – grace would also have to be free for the person we like the least, who is the worst. And that’s hardly fair, is it?
Ah, but as we all know, life isn’t fair, is it? And really, grace – God’s free gift to all of us – grace isn’t really fair either. I’ll tell you it’s a bad sign that you’re going to end up as a pastor when you have some serious internal theological debates as a sixth grader. Here’s one of mine. There was a girl in my sixth grade class who made my life pretty miserable. She was the most popular girl in school – wealthy, athletic, and pretty, and years later became the homecoming queen and prom queen and senior ball queen – and she was mean to me, and with her friends, made my last year of elementary school pretty miserable. What I struggled with was this: from everything I’d read in the Bible, I understood that if this girl had faith, she could be forgiven and welcomed into heaven someday despite how much horrible stuff she’d done to me, and even though I was so much nicer than her! And it just wasn’t fair! It really got to me, that if God’s grace worked like I thought, God’s grace would be for her too.
And yet: if God was fair, we’d be in big trouble, wouldn’t we? If God was fair, we would try to follow the law, but when we broke a law, we’d be punished. If God was fair, our punishment would be equal to our transgression. If God was fair, the law that we try to follow but can never perfectly fulfill would crush us, body and soul, and God would never be able to forgive us for all the good we fail to do. Thank God God is not fair. Instead, God is gracious. When we have faith in God’s grace, then, we find precious salvation – wholeness – justification.
For through the law I died to the laws, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. By faith. By unfair grace. Amen.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Sermon for Second Sunday after Pentecost, "Galatians"

Sermon 6/6/10, Galatians 1:11-24


This week, we change course for a bit and begin a month of focusing on Paul’s letter to the Galatians. The church in the region of Galatia wasn’t really a single congregation, but a community of worshippers, people to whom Paul had brought the gospel message of Jesus during some of his earlier missionary work. We don’t know exactly what Paul’s been hearing, but we know that the reason he writes this letter to these churches is because he’s been hearing things about the churches that cause him great concern. Paul’s tone is frantic, as if he heard rumors about Galatia and immediately sat down to write and address the troubles. The epistle doesn’t open with the usual long line of greetings from Paul, but gets to the point after the briefest of openings. He says, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ.” Paul’s upset because the people have apparently been leaning away from what he taught them to listen to someone else who is teaching them that the gospel is something different from what Paul presented. Paul actually curses anyone, including himself, who tries to ‘sell’ a gospel that is different from what Paul first shared with them.
            In the verse right before today’s passage begin, Paul writes, “Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.” Nonetheless, what follows in our passage today is Paul explaining why he has the authority to do and teach what he has. First, Paul says, he didn’t get this gospel handed down to him by other humans – it isn’t a human source, he wasn’t taught what he preached. But he received it through a revelation from Jesus Christ himself, on the road to Damascus. Paul brings this up because, as perhaps you can imagine, the disciples who actually walked with Jesus and were called by him and sent out by him and spent three years with him – well, it took them a long time to take Paul seriously. Here was someone who was known as a persecutor of followers of The Way, Jesus-followers, who had never even met Jesus, and now he’s trying to proclaim the good news of Jesus? Paul is reminding the congregations of Galatia that though he may not have been one of the twelve, he still learned about Jesus from Jesus. It was three years later, Paul says, before he really spent time with the other apostles – he went to visit Cephas – who we know as Simon Peter – and James the brother of Jesus. Again, he’s saying that he isn’t just preaching what other people told him – his gospel message comes straight from the source.
            Finally, Paul closes our text for today with what I would consider typical Paul: He mentioned that people knew in Judea that he used to persecute Christians and knew that now he proclaimed that very same faith, and Paul concludes, “they glorified God because of me.” I’ve mentioned to you before that Paul always strikes me as a little full of himself in his writings – and this is a great example of what I mean. I can’t picture myself ever saying, “yeah, they were praising God because of me.” But Paul doesn’t have any qualms talking about himself if it helps to prove his point: his ministry, preaching the gospel of Jesus from Jesus, has been effective, and the Galatians need to return to following Jesus as they’ve been taught.  
            As much as Paul sometimes irks me, I kept mulling over this passage this week and trying to make sense of it, his tone, his confidence, and kept trying to figure out what it meant for us. I’ll admit I find it to be a challenging text. Paul’s arguments and strategy for persuasion seem counter-intuitive to me. He has contact with Peter and James the brother of Jesus and the rest of the twelve, and this would seem to give him more clout and standing, firm up his reputation, make the Galatians more receptive to his message. But instead, he makes it a point, again and again, to insist that the message he has doesn’t come from them – just from God, from Jesus. That’s all good and well – but why not have some extra accreditation? I think of it like giving references – Paul says the Galatians can’t have any references to check. It would be like me showing up here at the pastor without being willing to show you that I’d been to seminary, or been ordained, or been approved by my peers and supervisors for ministry.
            On the other hand, I wonder this: Although I might need some credentials to be the pastor of this congregation, do we, as Christians, really need any credentials to tell our story of God at work in our lives? And finally, I think I understand what Paul is all about. He’s the only one who can tell his story of Jesus at work in his life, and he can’t really tell anyone else’s story as well as he can tell his own. And so it is for us. We just sometimes forget that, and, like the Galatians, tend to put all the preaching of the gospel into the hands of people who have the credentials, like me, instead of in the hands of the people who can tell their own story – which is all of us.
            Consider this: The role of the pastor has change pretty drastically over the years. Last week, during the hymn sing, you heard about camp meetings, one way frontier Christians could gather together for worship, preaching, and praising even though congregations and pastors were few and far between. In Methodism and other traditions, preachers were “circuit riders” – they would travel from congregation to congregation to preach and to administer the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion. But that meant that the day to day life of ministry in congregations was left up to the people. They couldn’t just wait for the next time the preacher would come around to get things done. If they wanted others to know about Jesus, they had to tell the story themselves, do the visiting, do the mission, do the ministry themselves. Paul calls that, as we still do today, the priesthood of all believers. We all have a story to share that is our story to share.
            So maybe when Paul says, “And they glorified God because of me,” we should all strive for his confidence. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to say that you impacted someone else so much that they came to praise God because of you? Now, I’m thankful to not be a circuit rider – and I’m blessed to have as my career this pastoral ministry which allows me to visit, and be in mission, and preacher, and teach, and immerse myself in the life of the church and get paid for it on top of it all. But I’ll tell you what: most people don’t come in these doors for the first time because of me, and what they might have heard about me. They come because of you and what you have said to them and shown them about God at work in your life and in this congregation. And while I hope I might have something to do with it if someone decides to stay here, become a more permanent part of our community, again, it doesn’t matter if I preach dazzling sermons if folks are not welcomed and greeted and talked to by you – if they don’t hear anything from you. That’s because you are the best resource you have for sharing the good news about God’s love – because the best, most convincing, most moving examples of God’s love you’ll have to share are the stories of how God’s love has changed you.
            So maybe it’s ok – for once – to take a little of Paul’s confidence for ourselves. Be a little full of it – full of God, that is, and brimming-over with stories of how God is changing you. You don’t have to write an epistle. You don’t have to preach a sermon. But find a way to tell your story – and watch how God is glorified because of you.