Archive for the ‘St Paul’ Category

I am . . . Free

In Grace, Matthew, Romans, Sin, St Paul, UCC Annapolis on June 24, 2014 at 2:04 pm

The United Church of Christ of Annapolis

Romans 6:1-11; Matthew 10:24-39


Friends, I have a confession to make: last week, I broke the law of our city by jaywalking. That’s right, you now have a minister whom you know if a lawbreaker. And not only that, but one who broke the law consciously and without regret. But I did have a reason: You see, it was one of those intensely hot days. I was wearing my clerical collar, which does not lend itself to comfort in the humidity of Annapolis. On the other side of the street, there was a long, long stretch of glorious shade, and I just had to get over there. Just had to. So, not seeing any traffic on Duke of Gloucester, I crossed. Not that far from the offices of the City Council. And so – I broke the law.

Now, while I’m willing to confess along with St. Paul that “I am chief amongst sinners,” (1 Tim. 1:15, attr. to St. Paul) I suspect that I am in a sanctuary full of people who have broken laws. Raise your hand if you have never transgressed a law, ever. So: let me reiterate what we share in the beginning: God has loved you, God loves you now, and God will love you always. The parking ticket will be OK. All laws that you have broken will be forgiven. The grace of God is with you!

This is what St. Paul is saying in the beginning of today’s reading from the Letter to the Romans. We are a people living in grace – we have already “died to sin.” What does that mean? Well, obviously it doesn’t mean that we don’t break laws anymore, and it doesn’t mean that we live lives where we don’t hurt one another, either. After all, we begin each worship service confessing that we have sinned in thought, word, and deed. We do this because, rather than struggling hard to say that we’re living perfect lives, we confess that we all make mistakes, but that we gather together nonetheless and we share in the joy that comes from laying down those burdens, together, free in the knowledge that “sin” is not that which defines us. Therefore, when Paul says we have “died to sin,” he’s saying that we are not a people defined by our sins and everything that has caused us hurt and to hurt one another. So if we are not a people defined by what holds us back, what are we defined by?

There’s an old saying that there are two certainties in life: “death, and taxes.” Paul focuses on the certainty of death in this passage: we all will die. That’s a universal law. I was once asked in this very church by one of our children, James, “why did Paul write to the Romans?” I think this very passage is the reason – to explain to us that we have to die. But Paul doesn’t see our death as the death that happens when the county issues a death certificate. Not at all! Paul, instead, sees that death as something we choose to make happen when we decide to live in the Jesus Way. When the first Christians felt called to be baptized, they decided to DIE to the way that they once had lived their lives, and now instead be resurrected to LIFE in the radical, subversive and alternative way that Jesus had exemplified for us. That’s the universal death that Paul talks about here.

Choosing to die to how we have lived is not easy – in fact, it’s excruciatingly painful. Paul writes, “We know that our old self was crucified with [Jesus] so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin.” Letting go of all that which we know causes harm and pain to others, but gives us immediate satisfaction, is extremely painful. It is, I think, as painful as a crucifixion, which is why we don’t readily do it. It’s why we fear doing it, letting go of our “fictions of control.”

One such thing is our approach to stewardship of the earth. In that litany of praise to a God woven into the very fabric of the universe, Genesis 1, humankind acknowledges that it has been given “stewardship over all the earth.” And yet, as I write this, I know we continue to perpetuate a throw-away culture that fails to see the earth’s resources as finite, and our usage of them as damaging not just in the immediate time, but for the lives of ancestors we will never know about. A styrofoam cup takes at least 500 years to biodegrade; most plastics, if they can and are recycled, can only be recycled once before they, too, take 500 years to biodegrade. Yet, we accept excess packaging and one-use food containers as a “necessary evil” for delivery. If we accept them as a necessary evil, however, we are accepting these materials as a “sin.” How can we make aware the grace of God’s love if we are contributing to the sin of our negligent, if not willful, harm to the environment of our world? If you begin to even picture the scale of a societal shift that would be needed to create a change on this, you can see how changing this would be a painful societal shift. Think about our dependence on oil and gas, even to come here this morning and power these very lights? But the result of dying to that damaging, sinful ways of living, and being resurrected to a life in harmony with the world: Abundant life. Less air pollution in the creation of one-use items, less toxicity leaching into our waterways, less damage to our world. Is it doable? By all means! It must be. But we must have faith that we can do it, and work through the fear that we cannot. This applies just as much to War, Gun violence, and a myriad of other issues that plague us.

Every time we turn away from that which harms each other, we die a little more to that way of life. And it feels like a death because we’re not sure what we’re going to do in its stead. Our old way of life, marked by excess stuff, selfish desires, or whatever it might have once been, dies a little more. That could cause us fear. Though it seems trivial, we are overwhelmed by the question of how are we going to get drinks to people in fast food establishments without styrofoam containers. The fear of an alternative that might cost too much has kept us from doing it. Yet we must die to that way of life, and have faith that we will be resurrected to a new way of doing things.

Jesus tells us in Matthew 10:39: “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” It’s one of the greatest paradoxes in the Christian faith, and it’s repeated by Jesus again in Matthew 16. God’s grace, woven into the very fabric of the universe, will be experienced when we let go of all those things that we’re afraid we cannot do without but yet cause harm and divisiveness: when we die to our old way of life, regardless of how much pain it causes to do so, and we live in the Jesus Way, a way that depends on faith, hope, and love. How much fear is in your life? What motivates you every single day – fear, or love?

For much of our lives, it has been laws that have helped keep us on the straight and narrow. But a law on its own motivates primarily negatively – fear of punishment if we don’t do what it says. Fear hardly inspires us to give up that which we are already living by. In the case of environmental change, no amount of fear mongering to date has yet prompted a real and visceral change in how the majority of our world is living its life. Same with our criminal justice system: tough punishment for crimes has resulted not in a decrease of crime, but a 500% increase in the population of incarcerated people over the past 30 years in the United States. The regional body of our denomination itself just voted to end “the New Jim Crow”, which has seen a disproportionate number of African American people placed in prisons on maximum sentences for crimes that other demographic groups receive little if no punishment for in that same 30-year-period. Punishment and fear do not, alone, motivate us.

So what do we turn to? No laws? When we die to the old way of doing things, having engaged with and worked through our fear of what it means to dispense of those old ways and live in an entirely new way, we live by three things alone: faith, hope, and love. We are resurrected from the deathliness of our old ways that were ossified and fixed into place by fear and brought with Christ into a way of living that is motivated primarily by love of the other, love of that which is different. To be free, we cannot be motivated by laws or fear, but by love.

Skeptics in our room will say, “I cannot love our way out of the homelessness crisis.” Love requires action, both individual and community-based action, and the development of structures and values that are developed in love and can change as the need requires it.  If we shrug our shoulders, though, Paul has assured us that grace cannot be seen. If we, those who purport to have been baptized into death with Christ and therefore dead to that which denies thriving and abundant life in the world, refuse to change our way, then we are not living as resurrected people through whom flows the grace of God. We must be the ones motivated by love to transform our world, co-creators with Christ, unveiling the freeing grace which heals all wounds, which heals all divisions, which unites us together.

Jaywalking was invented in the early twentieth century in the United States. It was developed by the automobile lobby as a way to ridicule anyone who was not driving and helped to fuel the transition of our culture from one reliant on walking and public transportation to one reliant on the individual automobile. It dressed itself up as a public service good, as the lobby funded social organizations such as the Scouts and Kiwanis to promote “safe” crossing alternatives in the rising wave of automobile crossing. Their announcements derided pedestrians as uncool: the term itself is derogatory: a “jay” was an uneducated, backwards bumpkin new to the city. To not be a “jaywalker” was to be someone who was a sophisticated urbanite, one who was dead to wonder and probably drove a car, because that was “the thing to do.” It’s a law only in a handful of countries, places where automobiles have primacy over people. The lobby behind it helped shape America’s twentieth century development such that public transport has become infeasible for so many communities. So yes, I broke a law this week when I crossed the street. It didn’t occur to me at the time that it was an act of civil disobedience, but perhaps it was. Perhaps it was meant as a repudiation of a shift in our lived architecture from walkable distances to spread out ones linked not by shared transport, but by individual ones. Perhaps it was a statement to all and sundry that what matters most is the people themselves who inhabit a place and not the machines that move within them.

And so, take it from this sermon and keep moving it: live by love first. Engage with that which you know is sin in our way of living in the world, and work through that fear that seems to freeze it in place. Know that God’s grace is with you, and that in dying to sin and resurrecting to life, it is illuminated for us and others. And, know too that you are never alone: Christ is with us, in this Body of Christ, in our prayers, and everywhere we gather to intentionally die to the old, harmful ways of living and be resurrected in the new ways of living in the world.



St Paul’s Commencement Speech

In Acts, Fear, Idolatry, St Paul, UCC Annapolis on May 27, 2014 at 2:37 pm

“St Paul’s Commencement Speech”

May 25, 2014

The United Church of Christ of Annapolis

Book of Acts 17:22-31

It is the season of commencement speeches. We get told incredible pieces of advice in 22-minutes sermons, which are chopped down into snippets and posted on social media. Here, an arbitrary collection of such quotes that range from the inspiring to the absurd:

“You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.” – J.K. Rowling, Harvard University 2008

You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.” – Steve Jobs, Stanford University 2005

“The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.” – David Foster Wallace, Kenyon College, 2005

“By the time I was your age, I thought I knew who I was, but I had no idea. For example, when I was your age I was dating men. So what I’m saying is, when you’re older, most of you will be gay.” -Ellen DeGeneres, Tulane University, 2009

“There are few things more liberating in this life than having your worst fear realized.” -Conan O’Brien, Dartmouth College, 2011

“When you go to apply for your first job, don’t wear these robes. Medieval garb does not instill confidence in future employers. And if someone does offer you a job, say yes. You can always quit later.” -Stephen Colbert, Knox College 2006

The idea of a commencement speech is to offer the opportunity for someone who has lived a wise and long successful life to lecture an incoming crowd of people who are just beginning life with wisdom and anecdotes they wished they’d known when they were their age. It takes place in a ceremony marking the end of a long period of accomplishment, but is itself meant to mark a beginning – commencing a new thing, rather than ending a good thing. It is a very American practice: it looks forward, and does not seem interested in looking backward for the people who have just finished a degree. In fact, it cannot look back, because a good commencement speech challenges rigid thinking and encourages a breaking of the boundaries and risk-taking that is necessary to live a successful life. The tools one needs to get through school fashion new tools to get one through life. You need to leave the old tools behind, and begin using the new ones, with new ways of thinking and acting.

St Paul’s speech to the Athenians was much shorter than our normal 22-minute commencement speech, but it marked the beginning of something new in Christianity. It, too, has pithy quotes, my favorite of which is “in God we live and move and have our being,” although Paul himself didn’t write that – he pulled that from an ancient Greek poet. Yet what makes it profound is that it begins Paul’s outright ministry to the Greeks, the Gentiles, to everyone else including the Jews. Before this speech, Paul limited himself to sharing his message about Jesus with Jewish people living in the area around the Mediterranean. After this speech, Paul opens up his ministry to all people. Paul realizes that Jesus’ message of love, of service to one another, of living in shared community, of seeing true loyalty as due to each other and not to structures of power, was a message that needed to be shared with everyone.

How did he arrive at this? There’s evidence in his speech: “I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship. . .”, he says in v. 23. Paul, who had not too long before this been a zealous and close-minded persecutor of anything that was not purely related to his radical brand of Judaism, had learned to respectfully and carefully examine the objects of worship of another culture. When he did this, he not-too-surprisingly, found God. He had learned to recognize that God is not exclusively located in one single practice of religion, nor isolated to a single race or anything else: God was everywhere, calling out to one another to love each other with that same, passionate love with which God loves humankind.

What Paul encounters in Athens is idolatry; not quite worship to God, even if he recognizes that God is present there. He encounters figures of gods hewn from precious metals and rocks. He sees entire rituals performed around these figures, with animals sacrificed to them and attention drawn to them. He realizes, perhaps, why he has always disliked idolatry: it was worship to an object that pulled a person’s attention away from God to an inanimate object, and he knew that to serve God, one had to “love your neighbor as yourself.” All of that extravagant energy, all that attention, all that beauty and skill in poetry and drama, in speeches and acts of sacrifice, were being pointed to gold, silver, marble and iron, and not God located in the people around them.

What are our idols today? There are many things that pull our attention and focus away from God and each other, and these are our idols today. In ancient Greece we know the gods represented desired things:

Wealth – Plutus

Love (both erotic and platonic) – Aprodite

Wisdom and Knowledge – Athena

Power – Zeus

War – Ares

Efficiency and speed – Hermes

Order and discipline – Apollo

Chaos and entertainment – Bacchus

You would worship the one who could give you what you desired and wanted, and ply that god with gifts to convince them to give it to you. Today, our idols are much the same, though they don’t have the personification that the Greek gods did. We sacrifice to them, too: our well-being, our time, our values, our love of one another, and so much more, are sacrificed in order to receive the blessings that power, wealth, order and discipline, or non-stop entertainment give to us.

Paul spoke to the Athenians on Mars Hill, where philosophers and learned people would gather, to share with them what he thought was the antidote to the inherent selfishness of their society: the church, belonging to the Body of Christ today, and becoming one with God. His call was to plant churches, and in so doing he realized that they should be spiritual homes for all. He did not dismiss his audience as pagans and idolaters – far from it! He showed that he respected them and their religion by carefully contemplating it. But, he wanted to correct them from engaging in a self-serving religion and instead invite them into a religion that was focused on an unknown God because it was focused on one another, with each person being unknowable.

Today, we have much the same challenge. Our world might feel increasingly saturated with a chaotic number of activities, yet structured to an exhaustive point where failure seems inevitable and yet unforgivable. A parody in the television show Portlandia displayed a family using charts to show lifetime success if their pre-school child was accepted to a rather posh preschool, and lifetime failure if he did not perform well at his interview. While overblown, the comedy sketch shows us something of our own society. we are obsessed with success as defined by our society; we’re not scared enough of the living death that occurs when we are over-worked, over-stressed, over-tired or over-stimulated. Communities should help relieve that; not increase that! Yet, in our own church community, many of our committee positions are viewed as life-draining, rather than life-affirming. We need to fix that.

In our world, we are encouraged to take advantage of others and preserve our own financial well-being as we buy products and services from others, sometimes aware that the people making our clothes are not earning a living wage. We measure everything, yet have no real respect for how our way of life impacts our natural environment. It is a temptation, to those of us who might see this, to keep from constantly shouting at everyone around us for not seeing the error of their ways. It is a temptation every Sunday to harangue about why we don’t jump to it for justice and peace each day, actively agitating against that which is killing our compassion to one another and our world.

Paul understood that God is in all things, and all things are in God. He, like us, need to carefully examine the world around us, and each of the idols that we and our culture worships, and discover where in that is God located? Paul finds it in the unknown God, and he shares this with the gathered people. He tells them, as a Greek poet has already told them, that “we too are God’s offspring.” Paul is not a Greek: and yet, he has made it part of his lifeskill to bring the message of Jesus Christ to the Greeks to get to know and appreciate and respect them.

We, too, must carefully examine our world. We must get to know everything that drives it, and we must live with open eyes and open arms. We must, as God does and Jesus did, love it. Paul learns to love the world, and love this Greek culture. We must learn to love our world and love our culture. But we, like him, must also learn how to redirect people to life within this world, rather than the deathliness that comes from selfishness. Where people are worshipping the stock market, we might be called to help them recognize God within that market, and help people to see the other people that those fluctuations in numbers represent. Where people worship entertainment, we might be called to help people recognize God in the relationships forged in company together around a good joke, a good dinner, or even a good movie. We should recognize that all things in the world serve to bring people together, but that when we focus on the tools that bring us together rather than the act of togetherness and unity, we lose the point of Jesus’ life amongst us, and God’s love that remains with us.

Jesus, as he is about to leave, reminds his disciples that they will still have what he calls the Advocate, which we call the Holy Spirit, with them after he leaves. They will no longer have the person of Jesus with them, but they will be able to follow him through prayer and discernment in their world. They formed the church to be the organization that keeps following Jesus, that calls people to focus on life. Paul was founding those churches. We continue them, being communities of spiritual nurture that reaches far beyond the walls of this place. Today, we share with one another an additional collection for strengthen the church Sunday. We make it possible for other communities to speak lovingly into their societies and help others focus on God, the God present in the other person, in one another, in the bonds of love. We mark this commencement of life together, a life where we will experience failure, but also hope; disappointment, but also life; sadness, but also love: and we will connect the dots together so that at all times we love one another, and in so doing, be a church living life in a way that shows that we love God. Amen.