Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’He said to them, ‘When you pray, say:
Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.’
And he said to them, ‘Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, “Friend, lend me three loaves of bread;for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.”And he answers from within, “Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.” I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.
‘So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’
During the children's moment, the kids and grown-ups wrote a prayer together. Here's the final product: Dear God (or, alternately, Hey, God, what's up), Guide me, please. Work with me to help. I pray for World Peace. Please help meet my needs for food shelter, love, strength, friends and family, rest, peace, patience, caring, happiness, hope, safety, fun, and prayer. Help me have the courage to apologize. I'm sorry. When someone apologizes to me, help me have compassion and understanding. Help me let it be. Help me say, "It's ok." Help me be fair and kind. Help me when I do something bad. Help me fix it. Help me make good choices. Protect me from myself. Help me not to judge others. Be with me during conflicts. Amen.
How Do We Pray? Luke 11:1-3
This week, Parker Palmer, the Quaker author, shared a poem on Facebook that caught my attention. It is called "Praying" and was written by the poet Mary Oliver. The poem reads:
It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.”
Not only is lovely, but it reminded me of the scripture for this week. I feel like Mary was trying to respond to a similar request that Jesus was. Teach us how to pray. I am not at all surprised that Jesus, or Mary Oliver for that matter, felt like they needed to talk about how to pray. Prayer, an action that is as much at the heart of Christian faith as care for the poor and love of Christ, still befuddles many believers. Nearly 2,000 years after the Gospel of Luke was written, we still find ourselves asking, "Teach us to pray."
You might recognize the prayer that Jesus teaches his disciples. We pray a longer version, the one from a similar story in Matthew, each Sunday. Scholars note that this version contains one statement about God and 5 kinds of petitions directed to God. First, God is presented a parent, in this case a father... one with whom you have a close relationship and can count on to care for you, like the father in the parable of the prodigal son that Jesus will tell in chapter 15. This father loves and cares for his son no matter what. Jesus says that that is the relationship model for God and humanity: God, the ever-loving, ever-nurturing, ridiculously forgiving parent. With this model for God in mind, Jesus offers five ways to engage with God through prayer.
The first way to is to remember that our faith has a certain future orientation. While we will always work to make our faith relevant and responsive to the demands of our current moment, we, and the faith that shapes us, are bound to a holier future. Even as we work out what we are called to be doing at this very moment, we do so with an eye ever on God's unfolding future. As we pray, Jesus calls on us to remember the gracious reign of God that is blossoming, but not yet in bloom. Throughout Luke, Jesus and his ministry are understood to be signs of the coming kingdom. His mother Mary speaks of God's reign as bringing the mighty down from their thrones and lifting up the lowly. God will fill the hungry with good things and send the rich away empty. Jesus spoke of his own ministry with the words of Isaiah: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of the sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." Jesus said in the sermon on the plain that kingdom of God will be for the poor, the hungry, the ones in mourning, and the ones who have been hated. This is future that Jesus wants us to look toward. This is the future that Jesus calls us to work toward. This is why he asked his followers to remember, in our prayers, to call out for God's kin-dom to come.
At the same time, almost in the same breath, Jesus asks his disciples to pray for the things that will help them make it through the day. Recalling the ancient story of God providing the wandering Hebrews with manna for sustenance, Jesus suggests that his disciples pray for their daily bread. In this petition, we are reminded that our real, very human needs for food, shelter, and companionship merit the attention of God. The needs of the moment, like the food that keeps us going and allows us to thrive in creation, are worthy of our prayers as well. Just as we will work with God to assure the future unfolding of God's kin-dom, so, too, can we call on God to hear our basic, most temporal needs. We can't do the future work without an eye on the present need. They are not disconnected.
The next two petitions are also inter-related. One scholar I read this week, David Lose, described Christian community as a "community organized by shared forgiveness." Asking forgiveness and granting it to those who petition us in return is central to who we are a people of God. One of the other scholars I read this week, Meda Stamper, noted that the word for forgiveness, in Greek, is the same word for release. Forgiveness releases us, frees us from the oppression and repression that binds us. Frees us from the mistrust and meanness that we have fallen into. Forgiveness opens us to speak the truth, to apologize, to hear the truth in return. Forgiveness allows for reconnection with God and with one another. Forgiveness resets our relationship, not forgetting what has happened but working through it, using it as foundation to make our connections stronger. So, Jesus tells his disciples to ask for forgiveness and for help in forgiving and releasing those who owe us something.
The final portion of this prayer points us again towards a hope for the future. Jesus instructs his followers to ask to be released from temptation. Some translate this section as "do not let us descend into eternal trial." Temptation and trial can return us to the disconnected, bound up state that we have worked with the Holy Spirit to transcend. This final portion of the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples points towards the hope for a future where our relationship with God is so strong, that we are so filled with the Holy Spirit, that temptation and trial cannot twist us out of our relationship with God and with one another. In the mean-time, with that future in mind, we will pray with and for one another. We can get through any trial better fortified through prayer and the Holy Spirit.
In one short prayer, we have expressed faith is God who is Holy and who listens as attentively to us as the greatest version of a parent would; we have expressed hope for a future where we work with God to renew recreation. We have asked for help with our daily needs. We have asked for and offered forgiveness. And, we've finished with one more expression of hope for a future that does not re-bind us to the things that would tempt us away from God's reign of love. That is quite a lot for one little prayer, isn't it? And yet, we might still have some questions. Why, why do we need to pray? What do we know about the God to whom we are praying? Thankfully, Jesus said a couple things about that, too.
One of the most difficult things about prayer is that once you have opened yourself up and begun to build that relationship with God, it can be frustrating to feel like God is not responding back. Some may even begin to believe that when bad things happen to them, even if they have prayed for a better outcome, that this bad thing is what God has intended for them. I'm not sure that is what Jesus said about prayer. Remember, Jesus used a parental, nurturing metaphor for God. He makes an argument that God can be counted on to respond at least as well as your average human would should a child ask for something to eat. Rather than teaching about what it means when we don't hear what we hope from God, Jesus seems most interested in establishing the character of God as one who can be trusted and is rooted in love. He seems to be making the case that the best way to get to know this God is to keep praying, keep reaching out and speaking truth.Jesus says that, if you keep knocking, you can count on the door being opened. It is in God's nature to open that door, to hand over that fish, to give that child an egg.
One of the scholars I read this week, David Lose, said that "prayer... is not primarily about getting things from God but rather about the relationship we have with God." I think this section of Luke is portraying Jesus as trying to give his followers a template for building this relationship. It is rooted in reverence, honesty, forthrightness, and trust. It has it's eye on present needs and future possibilities. And, it is as persistent as a hungry late night knock on the door. We pray like this not because we need stuff, but because the reverence, honesty, and trust begin to reshape us... begin to mold us into something more divine. As Meda Stamper put it, prayer helps us become ready to live "the only life possible in God's household: one of love." Jesus didn't really get in to what happens when we don't feel like God is responding to our attempts at relationship. That, I guess, really isn't in our control. What Jesus does spend more time on is the stuff that we can control: our own actions and our own attempts to engage. So, maybe that's the best place for us to start to. We seek God out. We knock on some doors. We ask for God's attention. And, maybe, just maybe, our lives will change just because of our searching.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following resources when writing this sermon:
Mary Oliver's poem: http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/414333-praying-it-doesn-t-have-to-be-the-blue-iris-it
Meda Stamper: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2918
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4690
Elisabeth Johnson: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4690
David Lose: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=719
Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’
Are You Listening? Luke 10:38-42
In our Bible, across all the different books, through the works of many different authors, in a variety of different genres, there are few communal values more important than the value of hospitality. From the most ancient texts of the Hebrew Bible through the Gospels of the New Testament, hospitality is a key sign of righteousness. In ancient pagan, Jewish, and early Christian stories, a key test for a hero is whether or not they are willing to welcome friend and stranger alike into their home. They never know who they may be welcoming. Sometimes it's even gods, or representatives of a god. That's what we have in our first scripture from today. Abraham is welcoming strangers who turn out to be angels who bring him good news from God. According to scholars, to be a good host was to offer the guest food, shelter, a place to bathe, and maybe even protection from violence. Hospitality is particularly important in this middle section of Luke, from chapter 9 to chapter 19. Jesus and his disciples were journeying to Jerusalem. They were utterly reliant on people's hospitality along the way. Jesus even went so far as to instruct the 70 disciples he sent out to take almost nothing with them: no purse, no bag, no extra shoes. They should only rely on the people whom they will teach, and on God, for survival. According the Gospel, that's just what they did. Jesus also seemed to travel in the same way. That's how he ended up here, in the house of Martha, shortly after having a surprising conversation with a Pharisee about mercy and tending to the needs of strangers.
Knowing that hospitality was so important in not only the broader culture but also central to early Christian practice, we might also be surprised by this story of Martha and Mary. It seems like Jesus is giving Martha a hard time about her practice of hospitality. Let's return to the story for a minute. Jesus and somewhere between 12 and 82 people were traveling and showed up in a village where Martha welcomes them into her home. How many of you would be prepared to offer between 12 and 82 people food, shelter, and a bath on absolutely no notice? I'd hazard that even the most Martha-ish among us would struggle with such a task. Martha dived right into the work of serving these strangers. Her sister Mary was there, too. Mary had a different reaction. Rather than rush about to get everything ready for all of these people, Mary sat down and began to listen to whatever Jesus was teaching all of the people gathered. Scripture says that she sat at Jesus' feet, that is, she sat in the place of a disciple who was tending to words of a great teacher. Some frustration, naturally, ensues. Martha had a whole pile of unexpected guests to serve. She needed help. It would have been reasonable for her to expect her sister to help fix the meals, set the tables, and pass around some wash basins. As we have seen, that was most certainly not what happened.
It is funny to me that Martha went to Jesus with her frustration. In the counseling classes that I've had, we'd call this triangulation... one person has an issue with another person but goes to a third person to try to get them to fix it rather than simply talking with the person they actually have an issue with. Instead of saying, "Hey, Mary, can you come over here just a minute and help me out," Martha, driven to worry and distraction by all of the service that she saw before her, marched up to Jesus and said, "Do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me." I wonder if Mary even knew that Martha was mad? I wonder if Martha might have even been a little annoyed with Jesus. He could have waited a minute before he started teaching or he could have made sure that everyone pitched in. All this talk about mercy and here he is, ignoring how frazzled she has become while trying to welcome him into her home. She could use some mercy right now... and some help with the dishes.
Given how much Jesus emphasizes service to neighbor as central to the law, you might expect him to agree with Martha, or, at least find someone to help her serve everyone. Maybe you might even expect him to get up and help her himself. After all, the Gospel of John preserved a story where Jesus served his friends by washing their feet and also by sharing a meal with them, a meal we memorialize when we share communion. He does neither of those things in this story. Speaking gently to this woman who was overwhelmed by the enormity of the work before her, he said this, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her." He said you see so much that needs to be done. There's really only one thing that needs to be done right now. Mary chose to sit... listen... be present with her guests. I won't ask her to do something different.
Now, there is a history of interpretation of this text. Oftentimes, Jesus' words will be read a harsh rebuke of a life of faith that is centered around service and action. Martha becomes an archetype for the kind of Christian who prays primarily through protest and good works. People will read it as though Jesus said that there is something wrong with that kind of faith. Mary, then, becomes the archetype for quiet contemplative, waiting to hear a good word from Jesus. Some will read this scripture and say that a quiet, singular faith of learning is what is most demanded of us. I don't actually find that interpretation particularly compelling. Given how consistently Jesus invites his followers into service for God and neighbor, I can't imagine that he would want us to hear this conversation and think that we are wasting our time in acts of service. As one scholar I read noted, that just doesn't make sense in the context of the portrayal of Jesus in the book of Luke. Remember, it is in this Gospel that Jesus describes his own ministry in terms of service to the poor and oppressed. And, this story follows on the heels of the story of the Good Samaritan, where service to one's neighbor is upheld as the central ethic of Jewish religious law. I don't think Jesus is telling us that our acts of service and outreach and advocacy are a waste of time.
Instead, I think that Jesus is asking inviting his followers to discern when the time is best to act and when the time is best to be silent and listen. It will often be tempting to see the pile of work ahead of us, and become worried and distracted. We may become frustrated and lash out at our coworkers and even the people that we have been called to serve. In those moments, when the work seems overwhelming, perhaps that is the time to take a moment to sit. To be in prayer. To listen and learn a new thing from Christ. To know that you are welcome just as you are, not because of what you do or what you have accomplished. Sometimes, it may even mean that the most important part of our call to hospitality is the quietest part, the part where we actually give our full attention to our guest, leaving all the rest of the work for later.
If this is a story about discernment, I think one important question that we are left with is how do we know when we should be living out our faith in action or living out our faith in listening? Because both action and contemplation are necessary. And, I also wonder how do we know when we should disregard the conventions of what is expected of us, even when the conventional expectations are really good ones, and risk engaging with the Divine in a different way, like Mary did? Because Jesus didn't ask us to pick between a life of action and service and a life of isolation and contemplation. We are called to do both. Maybe one sign that can help us figure out when to act and when to wait is a sign that we see Martha exhibiting. She is worrying and distracted. She has become overwhelmed. Jesus seems to say that the worry and lack of focus is what is keeping her from doing the best thing at that moment. Maybe when we see too many jobs to tackle, that can be our sign to stop and listen for the good word that Christ is bringing to us right now. We probably don't need to sit and listen forever. We are constantly being called into action with Christ. Sometimes, though, the listening needs to come first. The gracious presence with a guest need to come first. And, then, we can base our action in what we have learned. We don't have to pit the Marthas and Marys against one another. We need both. We need to be both. And, we can to work together with God to figure out which sister we need to be right now.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following resources when writing this sermon:
Sermon Brainwave podcast: https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=781
Jane Schaberg, "Luke," in the Women's Bible Commentary, Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe, eds (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998).
Mikeal Parson: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2917
Elisabeth Johnson: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1723
Marilyn Salmon: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=625
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4686
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’ Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’
Who Is My Neighbor? Luke 10:25-37
I heard this story recently about someone who moved to Maine from away. He is African American. When he moved here, he wore his hair in long dread locs. And, he got pulled over all the time. He was pulled over so often that it became difficult for him to get around town. And, it wasn't like he was a chronic speeder or terrible driver. He was actually a very careful, conscientious driver and, he still got pulled over all the time. He wondered if it would get better if he cut his hair. Even though he liked his hair and thought that he should be able to wear it any way he pleased, he also wanted to be able to drive around his city. He cut his locs to see if it would make a difference. Nearly immediately he saw a change. While he may still get pulled over occasionally, overall, it is much easier for him to get around town. He's pretty sure it's because he cut his hair.
I heard a similar story from a ministerial colleague. Her family is from Bangor, but her brother now lives and works in Florida. Whenever he comes home to visit his family, he gets pulled over all the time. Nathan is a clean cut high school teacher. He's also black. He cannot drive around the city that he was raised in without being under scrutiny. Whether it is driving around the mall or driving down to Bar Harbor, he gets pull over. I have also heard that if you are Latino and driving through York County, you can bet that you'll be pulled over. I persistently hear people blame all of Maine's drug problems on black gang members who bring drugs here from away, as though they are having twist white Mainers' arms to force them to try heroin. All of these stories are floating around in my memory this week as I heard the news of the deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and 5 police officers in Dallas. I remembered these stories as I read one man's question to Jesus: "Who is my neighbor?"
The story is in the book of Luke. An expert in religious law stood up and asked Jesus a question. Referring to him respectfully as teacher, he said, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus, knowing that he was a Pharisee and knew Scripture well, turned the question back to him. He asked, "What have you read in our religious law?" The man answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all you heart, and with all you soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." Jesus said that he was right. His insight would bring him life. Then, the man asked one more question, just to make sure that he was really getting to the heart of the matter. That's when he asked, "Who is my neighbor?" This is the story Jesus told in response.
Imagine a man who has been beaten nearly to death lying in a ditch. He needs help. Three people are going to walk by him, but only one person will offer help. Two people walked by, people of significant importance in the community, people who lived lives dedicated to their faith, this faith where love of God and love of neighbor were paramount. But, despite all of their religious injunctions to care for the poor and outcast, they walked on by. They didn't even touch him to see if he was ok. Fortunately one person stops, a Samaritan. That's right, the good guy in the story is a Samaritan. None of the original hearers of this story would have expected that.
There had been tension between the Jews and the Samaritans for centuries. Each thought the other was doing Judaism wrong. Jesus would have been raised in a culture where he would have been taught that the Samaritans were not good people... that they were heretics and not ethical. The enmity between the two groups was deep. Just a few chapters before this story, when a Samaritan village would not host Jesus and his followers, Jesus' followers offered to try to make it rain down fire from heaven to destroy the village... That's how little they were taught to value Samaritan life. In the case of a relatively minor case of disrespect, they thought the best response was to destroy all the Samaritans. We should remember that it would have been very surprising to hear a Jew tell a story where a Samaritan was a hero. And, yet, that is exactly what Jesus was doing. A bloodied and beaten person from Jesus' community might not expect a Samaritan to help them. And, yet, that is what is happening in this story.
After telling the story, Jesus asked the lawyer, who was a neighbor to the wounded man? The lawyer, ever wise, said, "The one who showed him mercy." Jesus said, "Go and do likewise." Jesus said that having faith was being neighborly. Being neighborly means showing mercy. Anybody who shows this kind of mercy is following the law, even if the one following the law is a Samaritan who you've been taught to be suspicious of. The question that I have this morning is "what is stopping us from showing the kind of mercy that Jesus was preaching about?" I wonder if it's fear, the kind of fear that turns off our empathy? It is awfully hard to show mercy if you're too afraid to look at the battered body laying in the ditch.
I once heard a story about a family in Augusta who's life was made harder by their neighbors' fear. I may have told you this story before. Initially, they felt very lucky to live in their neighborhood. Their neighbors seemed to delight in the presence of the little boys in the family. The boys were often stopped by friendly grown-ups who invited them in for cookies. As the boys grew, their mom began to hear frightening stories from their neighbors. Her neighbors, the same ones who had given her sons cookies, would whisper and worry about shady characters coming through their neighborhood. The mom realized that they were talking about her sons. As her sons had grown into young black men, the neighbors had grown frightened. The neighbors had forgotten the many year's worth of cookies. All they remembered was their fear.
My hunch is that most of the neighbors would not be able to articulate where the fear came from. That's the way implicit bias works. It is so much a part of our culture that we don't realize that it has seeped in and warped us into fearing our neighbors. Studies have shown us that decades and decades of social training have taught us to fear black men and boys in particular. Young black boys are often judged to be older than they are, and therefore more responsible for their actions. They are given fewer chances by people in power. Because of the way fear of black men and boys has been engrained in our culture, it is often harder to see them as people with needs. If it is harder to see them, it is harder to be merciful. It's harder to be like the Samaritan.
This fear has real consequences for people of color. Take, for example, the terrible bind that we have put police officers in. So much of their funding is wrapped up in arrest rates, either because the federal grants they must apply for prize high arrest rates or because the county needs revenue and expects officers to get revenue by handing out lots of tickets to people for petty offenses. This means that they feel pressure to engage a lot of people and go after easy arrests and fines. They may also be asked to do their job in a way that prioritizes heavy-handed policing of relatively harmless offenses. We demand that they work with a heavy hand, thus increasing the amount of adversarial encounters they have with civilians. You combine this with the implicit bias against people of color in general, and black men and boys in particular, you have a recipe for combustion. We saw some of that combustion this week.
Part of what makes the attack on the officers in Dallas so disheartening is that the Dallas Police department had seen the adverse affect that unchecked fear had on their work in the community and were working diligently to correct it. They were trying to reintroduce mercy. They were being trained to de-escalate potentially combative situations. They were having regular trainings on appropriate use of lethal force. They are trying to be transparent through the use of body cameras and by releasing data about their work. They were even told that traffic violations were not to be understood as a source of revenue, which, according to one article I read, meant that they wrote half as many tickets this year as they did in 2006. They even worked together with Black Lives Matter protesters. They were re-emphasizing empathy and their city was stronger for it. It just shows that the shooter was only interested in destruction, not justice. Had he been paying attention, he would have seen a department that was working hard to be more like the Samaritan, to be more merciful and less fearful. But, his own anger tipped him over into the violence that he decried.
Who is my neighbor? How do I see them and respond with mercy? Dr. Martin Luther King offered this advice when trying to answer these questions. He said when you see someone in danger or in need, rather than ask the question "What will happen to me if I help them," ask "What will happen to them if I don't?" What will happen if white Americans don't see the burden that systemic racism is placing on people of color? What will happen if we don't equip our officers with the tools to do their jobs justly and with mercy? I think the short answer is, "Nothing good."Jesus once asked the lawyer, and I think asks us, too, "Which one was a neighbor to the one who had been beaten bloody?" The answer is the one who showed him mercy. Let us be reminded of our call to mercy. People's very lives are depending on it.
Works Pastor Chrissy consulted while writing this sermon:
Are you interested in asking for must just and merciful policing? Check out the work of Campaign Zero to learn about policies that you can advocate for in your community: http://www.joincampaignzero.org/#campaign
German Lopez is a journalist who cover, among other things, police reform. I found two of his articles particularly compelling this week.
- This article about how we can balance mourning violence against police officers while also advocating for more merciful policing:
- This is an article about how implicit bias affects policing:
Want to know more about implicit bias? Check out Project Implicit:
A helpful description of reforms that the Dallas Police Department had been enacting: http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/07/dallas-police/490583/
I found the following biblical commentaries helpful:
Mikeal C. Parsons: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2912
Michael Progress: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1722
David Lose: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2628
Marilyn Salmon: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=635
Wil Gafney: https://revgalblogpals.org/2016/07/08/11th-hour-preacher-party-what2preach-when-blood-is-running-in-the-streets/
Martin Luther King, Jr.: Dr. King:
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.
Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.
Freedom for One Another: Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Most of the time, when we read about Pharisees in the New Testament, we're reading about how misguided they are. Like the kids taught us a couple week's ago on Children's Sunday, at the very least, they are portrayed as being completely unable to understand Jesus' message. At worst, they are portrayed as Jesus' primary antagonists and maybe even some of the people who actively worked to have him harmed. Generations of Christians who have had no other contact outside of the Bible with Pharisees often understand them to be wicked, overly rigid, and hypocritical. It can be easy to dismiss their wisdom when so often they are portrayed as being foolish. I think it is unwise to completely dismiss the work of the Pharisees. A close reading of the book of Luke shows them seeming to try to protect Jesus from harm a couple different times. And, historians often point to the Pharisees as Jewish leaders who helped preserve Jewish faith and culture in the midst of destructive empires. And, as I have read the book of Galatians over the last couple weeks, I think the Pharisees did something else pretty important, too. You see, Paul had been a Pharisee and I think his time as a Pharisee helped prepare him to follow Christ.
I think the Pharisees taught Paul how to make his faith central to his lifestyle. Pharisees spent a lot of time and energy discerning how best to follow God's law in every aspect of their lives. They understood that the law would shape how and what they ate, how they prayed, how they interacted with family, friends, and strangers. Paul would retain this sense that his faith should affect his behavior long after he stopped being a Pharisee. I think they also taught him how to study scripture and be open to what God reveals in the study. It is very clear from readying Galatians that he knew Scripture well. It is also clear that he was open to new insight that radically changed how he understood Scripture. I think that the Pharisees also taught him that the central ethic of the law is that you shall love your neighbor as yourself. He even quotes the book of Leviticus. Jesus learned that that was the most important part of the law, too. And, I think all this teaching laid the groundwork that allowed Paul to truly embrace the new vision for God's people that he saw in Christ, even though this new vision was so different than that which he was raised in. He knew God would require something new of him. His education helped him to be open to that new thing.
What God showed him through Christ was a new way to live in the law. Instead, Paul learned a kind of law that turned itself outward, into service, through love. Remember from last week's sermon, Paul was certain that Gentiles did not have to follow all of the rules of the law, particularly the requirement of circumcision, in order to follow Jesus. He compared requiring them to do so to enslaving them. While he thought that the law had been necessary at one point, and perhaps continued to be useful for Jewish followers of Jesus, for those who had not first joined in relationship with God through the law, he saw an undue emphasis on the ritual of circumcision and on separation from foreigners as a burden to new Gentile believers. And, more importantly, he found it to be a distraction from the core of the law, the ethic of love. The highly structured lifestyle of the Jewish Christians might have been very appealing to people looking for a way to provide organization for their everyday lives. For Paul, this structure was misguided. It was centered more on separation than it was on love.
Paul found love to be so central to both following Jesus and to properly interpreting the law that he said that followers of Christ should be willing to understand themselves as being enslaved by their love of neighbor. Slavery is a powerful metaphor. That's why Paul deployed it. Slavery wasn't usually a choice. Slavery meant no longer being in charge of one's own life. It meant that an outside force had complete control over your body and your behavior. If I were to be honest, I would tell you that while I understand why he might use this metaphor to describe practice that he found problematic, like asking the Gentiles to be circumcised, I don't really understand why he would use it to describe a practice that he found to not only be good, but to be actually redemptive for humanity. Is it because he'd never actually been enslaved that he can play around with the word in this way? He was an educated man and a Roman citizen. While his religious community carried a historical understanding of having once been enslaved, he personally experienced more freedom than many. Maybe slavery was the closest condition he could imagine that would approximate the level of dedication he thought that one should have to God. Loving one's neighbor should be so integrated into your behavior it is though you have no control over it. It is as though you must do it... are required to do it buy the one who has total control of your body and all your actions. As I said, slavery is a powerful metaphor, if not always a comfortable one.
Or maybe he uses slavery as a way to balance out his sense of freedom. He is very clear that God, through Jesus, is calling people to freedom. He needs, though, to make sure that people don't think that freedom means some libertine, anything goes kind of lifestyle. Freedom is not radical individuality. Instead, it is radical connectedness... a freedom for one another... freedom that binds our futures to the well-being of our neighbors. He said that this kind of freedom is cultivated by living according to the Spirit. The Spirit will show you a way to live bound to your siblings in Christ that is also free of the parts of the law that were once necessary for survival but were always short-term solutions to long-term problems. Jesus provided the long-term solution: love.
Love becomes the law around which Christians organize their lives. Law becomes the defining feature of not only the individual's orientation towards God, but towards other people. Faith is not something that happens simply in one's heart. Faith extends outward, into community, and is cultivated through love in relationship with other humans. Paul says that if you have faith, the Spirit will help you live a life of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Notice that each one of these aspects of love, what Paul calls fruit of the Spirit, will help you build stronger relationships. One cannot be in genuine, healthy relationship with God, or anybody else for that matter, without these facets of love. Paul compares the fruit of the Spirit to the works of the flesh, that is, the evidence of the corruption and oppression that exist in the world and are contrary to God's intent for humanity. Enmity, strife, jealousy quarrels, dissention, envy, and anger all disrupt relationships. The development of factions simply extends the quarrels to wider and wider circles of people. Drunkenness, fornication, and all matter of licentiousness and carousing are all examples of out of control behavior that damages the self and one's relationship. Idolatry disrupts one's relationship with God, the foundation of love that makes all other relationships possible. Sin is rooted not just in one's individual behavior but also in community. Love allows you to build community that function in the way God intends. Love allows you to turn your attention outwards, mirroring God's own attention to humanity through Christ. This love can structure your daily life. Paul argues that all the strictures of religious tradition don't have to. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."
Who is your neighbor? Somebody once asked Jesus the same question. We're going to learn more about that next week. Spoiler alert: It's probably going to be someone you aren't sure you supposed to even like, much less love. All the more reason to practice listening to the Spirit and cultivating the fruit of love, because we're going to need all kinds of tools to put this love into action in the radical way in which Christ demands. It will not be easy. It will be a freedom like we have never known before and a burden that might feel like bondage. That is the paradox of faith as Paul describes it. Not freedom from something but freedom for one another and for God. Freedom that is love in action in service to neighbor. Freedom that is rooted in community. Freedom that grows in faith. Do not look back to a life that was only about survival. Look towards a life of liberation and love and faith. That's what Christ was here for and that's his true mission that we will continue. For you are called to freedom. Build that freedom with love.
Resources Pastor Chrissy consulted when writing this sermon:
Alicia Vargas https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2874
Sarah Henrichs: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1684
Elisabeth Johnson: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=612
Brad Braxton, No Longer Slaves: Galatians and African American Experience, (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2002)
Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.
There Is No Longer... Galatians 3:23-29
For the next couple weeks, we are going to spend some time with Paul's letter to the churches in the southern Galatia. Paul was one of the most influential missionaries who helped spread the early Jesus movement beyond the bounds of ancient Palestine. His legacy was so important that not only did people preserve his letters to local churches and disseminate them beyond their original audience, but his later followers even wrote under his name, calling upon his authority to give weight to their own teachings about how to follow Jesus. If a writing was associated with the Apostle Paul, it was thought to be directly, divinely inspired. Paul himself even stated that his teaching and understanding of mission came directly from God, through his vision of Jesus Christ. We would do well to remember that Paul is not just any missionary. He spoke with authority. In Galatians, he was going to use that authority to offer a strong critique of some faith practices these churches had developed after he moved away.
Galatians is a little different from the other the seven books of the Bible that scholars are pretty sure that Paul wrote. You might remember, most of Paul's letters were written to a specific religious community to address some specific issues that had developed. Galatians was written to be passed around to several churches. What issue would have been so important to Paul that he would have written a letter to be shared with several churches? It turns out that Paul had heard that new missionaries had begun to teach in this area. They taught that these predominantly Gentile churches needed to begin adopting some Jewish practices. In asking the Gentile Christians to adopt these practices, it was almost like they were asking the new Christians to become Jewish in order to then become Christian.
You might remember hearing about this tension between the earliest Jewish followers of Jesus and the newer Gentile believers in the book of Acts. As Jesus' followers began to preach to more and more Gentiles, the early Christian movement, which, at that point, was just a subset of Judaism, was really struggling to understand what it meant to demonstrate one's faith and join this burgeoning religious community. For the Jews who had been taught that cultural isolation was a way to remain pure for God and also a way to protect their small, threatened ethnic group, learning how to engage with Gentiles who professed faith in Christ was no easy thing. It appears that some of them were working with the old "hey, new people, join our group and then immediately change to be just like us" model. That wasn't the model that Paul thought was ideal. Paul wrote this letter to explain, quite heatedly, why.
To better understand what is a very precise and dense theological argument in Galatians, we should remember a few things about Paul. First, he was a devout Jew, and had even been a Pharisee. Second, since he was a Pharisee, we can be pretty sure that he believed that God would one day intervene on behalf of God's people during what came to be known as an Apocalypse. This Apocalypse would be a radical disruption of the sin and oppression that had developed in creation. It would be redemption. Paul did not stop thinking that God would disrupt the world's oppressive order when he began to follow Jesus. Instead, he would come to understand his vision of Christ as a sign that he was witnessing the first part of God's radical disruption and redemption of creation. All the rest of his ministry would be shaped by his certainty that Jesus would be returning very soon and would finish the redemptive, re-creative work of the Apocalypse.
Paul thought that Jesus was coming back soon and wanted to offer redemption and liberation to as many people as possible. That's why this argument over how one becomes part of the Christian community was so important to him. He didn't think God wanted to create more barriers for people to take part in God's liberation. Asking people to become Jewish in order to follow Jesus seemed like an extra barrier to him. It's not that he wanted to completely disavow the law. It's just that he didn't think it was necessary for the Gentiles to follow it. He argued that the law was actually given to the Jewish people by God through Moses. He also argued that it necessary for the people to follow at one point in history. He said that the law had served as a disciplinarian. Disciplinarian was the title given to a slave to was put in charge of keeping boys out of trouble at school. The law presumed that people would get in trouble and was there to offer correction. It is important to note that Paul didn't think this work of correction was God's final word to humanity. Jesus, the Word made flesh, would be God's final word, and Jesus did something the law could not. Jesus offered liberation.
Since the law was simply a stopgap measure to help Jews survive while they waited for the Messiah, Paul thought it was foolish to ask Gentiles to follow the law now that Jesus had come to them as the Messiah. In some of his most passionate writing, Paul would even go so far as to insist that asking Gentile Christians follow the rule of the Law was to insist that they remain in a life that was akin to slavery. In order to avoid this kind of "slavery," Paul wanted the Gentile Christians to look not to Moses' covenant with God, but to an older covenant, the promise God made to Abraham. God promised that all people would be blessed through Abraham, not just certain people who followed certain religious rules. Just as Abraham was first blessed because he had faith in God, Jesus' newest, Gentile followers would be blessed primarily through their faith, not through their ability to learn and follow all of the minute details of the law. For Paul, while Jews may still follow the law, as it was given to them by God, there was no need to ask the same of the Gentiles. They would be blessed through faith in Christ by way of Abraham's covenant. Jesus offered them a kind of adoption into Abraham's family, an adoption where everyone with faith gets the status of the most favored son. Jesus made it so everyone could be Abraham's heir and inherit God's blessing, no circumcision required.
Because all people could become heirs to Abraham's blessing, Paul understood that the social distinctions that would have once prevented people from interacting as family would no longer prevent people from being part of Christian community. In the community where Paul was raised, there was a privileged social ideal: the free, Jewish man. The closer you were to this ideal, the better your life was. You might even be understood as more readily able to develop a relationship with God. According to Paul, in Christ, and in Christian community, variation from that singular social ideal would no longer keep you from being blessed by God. According to Paul, even the most powerful and rigorously protected social hierarchies could no longer be used to prevent you from being a heir to grace. Your faith allowed you to be part of the family. Your faith allowed you to belong to Christ.
It strikes me that it wasn't only the earliest followers of Jesus who struggled to figure out how to welcome people who were not like themselves into the body of Christ. While our social ideal may be different, being a part of certain social groups still gives you unearned privilege, even in church's that say they follow Christ. From the most basic questions of what happens when someone who is dressed is dirty, torn clothes walks into a church full of finely dressed people to the most egregious examples of racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia that have been wrapped up in the guise of Christianity, we still struggle with how to, or even whether to, allow "them," whomever "they" are, to be a part of Christian community. Sometimes even good-hearted attempts to live a communal religious life, where all people have access to the blessing of faith, can still be marred by unacknowledged, unconscious bias towards people who have the least amount of privilege in a society. It can be especially hard if a religious community understands itself to be struggling, and is worried that the introduction of "new" kinds of people will change the character of their faith. Paul's inclusion of the Gentiles definitely changed the face of Christianity. I bet this is why those ancient Christians hung on to this letter from Paul and passed it on well beyond those few churches in Galatia. They knew Christians would struggle to include new people into the community of Christ. They knew that the words of the most authoritative missionary would have the power to challenge those exclusionary practices.
These words of Paul still carry great wisdom and great challenge. "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ". We would do well to regularly ask ourselves if we are being like our ancient siblings in Christ and demanding unnecessary action from those who would join us in following Christ. How can we more readily live into the generous vision of the big adopted family of God, where everyone is an equal heir to grace and difference in ethnicity, sexuality, religious background, and gender are no longer barriers to accessing God? This is a question that is a the very heart of our faith. If we answer it well, our whole world could change.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources when writing this sermon:
Alicia Vargas: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2873
Sarah Henrich: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1683
Elisabeth Johnson: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=610
Bart. D. Ehrman's The New Testament: A Historical Introduction of The Early Christian Writings, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).
Carolyn Osiek, "Galatians," The Women's Bible Commentary, eds. Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998)
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.