Love + Action = Freedom

Psalm 77:13-15 13 Your way, O God, is holy; who is so great a god as our God? You are the God who works wonders and have declared your power among the peoples. By your strength you have redeemed your people, the children of Jacob and Joseph.

Introduction

The way freedom is spoken of today leaves little to be desired. It’s a big concept, described by truncated language reduced to me and mine. While there is some me and mine involved with the concept and the working out of freedom, it doesn’t end there.

To conceive of freedom as strictly how I’m unrestricted by the demands of another renders the concept of freedom malnourished. Does freedom even exist apart from another? If I’m isolated to myself, do I know what freedom is? The discussion is moot; I’m neither free nor not free. I’m just without demands from others. I’m (essentially) free from others for myself.[1] It’s a perpetual turning in of the self, rendering the self wrong-side-out,[2] and locked in its own prison of death. Here, isolation informs the need to pull further and further apart from others, and in that space grows the evil of the devaluation of the other to the point where the other is the enemy.

Freedom, to be something worthwhile (something that one would literally risk life and limb) must be something that exists with others. To be free while still in the presence of another is true freedom. You are you as you are and I am me as I am me; as different as we are, we affirm each other—self-differentiated and together—two Is forming a we of yous. I’m not restricted by you, but voluntarily restrict myself to see to your thriving. This voluntary self-restriction is freedom because I freely enter into it for you. I’m (essentially) free from myself for others. It’s a contagion of affirmation, rendering the self right-side-out, liberated into the realm of life. Here, togetherness informs the need to see myself more and more a part of the group, and in that space the other’s liberation becomes my liberation and love informs my action for the other who is beloved.

Galatians 5:1,13-25

For liberty [a state of freedom from slavery] Christ liberated us. Therefore, persevere and be not ensnared again to the yoke of slavery.
For you, you are summoned into liberty, brothers and sisters, only not liberty for the occasion for the flesh, but through love be slaves to one another. For all the law has been fulfilled in one word, in which “You love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you bite [harm seriously] one another and you eat up [injure seriously] one another, beware (!) you do not consume one another.[3]

(Gal 5: 1, 13-15)

Our friend, Paul, spends much of Galatians working out the concept of freedom of the person in the encounter with God in the event of faith. For Paul, as mentioned last week, we are liberated from a problematic (idolatrous) relationship with the law; a relationship that rendered our obedience to the law ultimate, and love of God and of neighbor as penultimate. You don’t need the law to inform your love of God and of others, rather you need the love of God and of others to inform your relationship to the law.

Jesus is the hinge upon which all realignment hangs. When Christ is proclaimed, there God is encountered; where God is encountered, the divine Spirit of Love resurrects those who were once dead in themselves and ushers them into new life. This new life, according to Paul in Galatians 5, is about freedom informed by the spirit and activity of love. This new life is freedom from the law for others; this new life is the business of law serving love and love serving others. Remember: in the encounter with God in the event of faith, according to the philosophical and theological logic of Galatians, our misalignment to the law is broken and we’re re-centered (each of us) with our faces turned to God and (thus) necessarily to our neighbor and the world (those whom and that which God loves very much).

So, for Paul, if freedom is inherently connected to the reordering of love of God and love of neighbor, why drag in that which is septic and toxic: our misalignment to the law? Paul isn’t an antinomian; Paul isn’t arguing for the law’s abrogation (a word defined as, “the act of formally ending a law, agreement, or custom). Thus, law isn’t gone; it’s just the law, it’s been debarked, it’s become a tool for us to use so that love + action = freedom. In other words, when I enter a space with others, I’m motivated by love for them and either reject or submit to whatever law brings the other life. In that this rejection or submission brings life to my neighbor, I find myself liberated here, too, because now there’s more freedom spreading about and thus more love informed action. In this equation, the law isn’t lord, love is.

While I know the church has done a dastardly job not allowing many people—not part of the dominant group—to be themselves, I have to add that both Paul and Jesus advocate for the full receipt of self. Jesus exhorts one finds themselves when they lose themselves; Paul advocates for a sense of other demanding a real and present self. Both argue for the death of the self from the prison of the self, which does not end in death for death’s sake (this would be the death of the self ending in no self) but in new life (of the self) which is categorically re-oriented for others informed by the love of God’s life-giving Spirit. Herein is freedom: a substantiated self who loves and acts for the other, calling out death-dealing systems and refusing to ever again be yoked to slavery to the law in such a way that the law triumphs over love and over the other.

To solidify his point, Paul highlights what works look like when trapped in the prison of the self unliberated from the self, and he compares those works to the fruits of a self liberated from the self for others. I won’t deliberate long on those, for that’s an entirely different sermon. But when you get a chance, look at the difference and see where love + action = freedom; where that formula is lacking there you will find death, and where it is present you will find life.

Conclusion

Dorothee Sölle writes,

“Unless we are free, we cannot be instruments for the liberation of anyone else. And what prevents us from being free? Anxiety. Liberation is a problem which first begins within us, of not having any anxiety about the consequences. We can have anxiety, but we must control this anxiety. It is anxiety in the sense that we recognize the risk; otherwise it would be blind.”[4]

Dorothee Sölle Thinking About God

What Sölle is getting at here is, essentially, the liberation of the self from the self that is the seat of “being free”. Anxiety is a driving force helping us to protect the self from disaster; but it can also grow so large that it renders us useless in the prison of the self. Rather than just command people not to be anxious and just lose themselves, she articulates a need of self-mastery and self-differentiation that is informed by love of God and love of others. I can see my anxiety, acknowledge my anxiety, and then move forward with my anxiety. This momentum begins the freedom starting within and rippling outward into realms with others.

In other words, love of the other drives us to secure life for others. Is this not the gospel story of God’s love for the world manifest in Jesus the Christ from Nazareth who loved others with God’s Spirit of Love even to the point of his own death? Then, as those who follow Jesus out of the Jordan to the Cross, is this not also our story individually as Christians and corporately as the church? Aren’t we to be those willing to love others beyond our own anxiety so that there is life and liberation for all? When did Christianity and the Church become the message about the laws of power and privilege, the law of the self over and against the other? When did we lose ourselves to our pews and the obligations of standing and sitting for an hour on Sunday?[5] When did the church forget that she’s more than a coffee hour and is a little bit dangerous in a world bent in on itself?[6]

There’s no way around it: love is risky because love risks the security of the self for the security of the other. Love isn’t some saccharine feeling that ends in peace signs and always feeling good. Love propels us beyond ourselves for others and (paradoxically) in this activity we become more ourselves. And herein is freedom, beloved: to be those who are substantially for others with love and corresponding loving action that shakes the foundations of the world. In other words, we love as we were first loved by God, in Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit of love.


[1] Grateful to Holly Tran for mentioning this for aspect to the way freedom is considered in America.

[2] This is the logical trajectory of Ayn Rands Objectivism and its promotion of the selfish.

[3] Translation mine, unless otherwise noted.

[4] Dorothee Sölle, Thinking About God: An Introduction to Theology Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1990. First Eng. Ed SCM Press, 1990. 129.

[5] Sölle, Thinking About God, 144. “One of the main dangers of Protestantism lies in its excessive stress on the kerygma, or more properly, on the kerygma reduced to preaching. The church is regarded as the place where preaching is done. Church takes place between ten and eleven on Sunday morning. The two other functions of the church disappear from view and hardly affect the ordinary members of the congregation. …“If church de facto consists in sitting still for an hour on Sunday without getting to know anyone else, the unity of kerygma, diakonia and koinonia is destroyed. How can any life develop which deserves the name ‘church’, in the sense of the assembled people of God?””

[6] W. Travis McMaken, Our God Loves Justice: An Introduction to Helmut Gollwitzer Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2017. 150-1. “What overcomes this ecclesiastical banality is encounter with the church’s resurrected Lord, with ‘the Easter story [that] broken into our world, bringing with it a power, a world-overcoming revolution, which makes everything different in our life, which forces the church into a totally different direction.’ This encounter delegitimizes the church’s banality and demands that the church become an agent in proclaiming this world-overcoming revolution through word and deed. Instead of leaving the church to its comfortable domestication, ‘the one thing that matters for the church is that she should be both a danger and a help to the world.’ Gollwitzer’s ecclesiology calls for a dangerous church because a church that is not dangerous is not help at all.”

This Love and Life, Our Business

Sermon on Galatians 3:23-29

Psalm 43:5-6 Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul? and why are you so disquieted within me? Put your trust in God; for I will yet give thanks to God, who is the help of my countenance, and my Abba God. (44)

Introduction

In general, the essence and idea of law are neutral. Law should be just law. Laws of nature are true for everyone without exceptions and biases. Gravity works for me like it works for you; gravity isn’t spending a lot of time picking and choosing whom to hold to the earth and whom to let go. Same should be with the laws of society; law (in essence and idea) is neutral saying two things: you can do this and you cannot do that. You can drive this speed or you cannot, the risk is yours; a speed limit sign never issues a ticket and never says good job. Thus, there are implicit consequences of obeying or disobeying the law. In other words, drive this speed limit and you’ll go about your business with little interference from nature and its consequences; drive faster/slower than this speed limit and risk is yours to suffer. Do this and it goes well with you; don’t do this and it won’t go well for you.

Now: enter human arbiters of the law, and everything gets a bit more interesting. Our society needs law (in general) and laws (in specific) to function well because human beings are arbitrary creatures who might float away if left to their own devices. We need law and laws because we need to be reminded we don’t live here alone, there are others who share our space and deserve respect, honor, and dignity. So, in recognizing our need for law we’ve created systems upholding and enforcing the law and the laws of our society. As a result, the implicit consequences of the law are made explicit (reward and punishment). Sadly, the punishment is made explicit, while reward is kept implicit. Anyone here ever pulled over to be told: hey, good job driving 35 mph; you’re really living well today and plus you are saving sooooo much money on gas by driving sensibly, here’s a cookie!!

Law is important, yet, for humankind, we’ve grown misoriented toward the law. Because of law’s inherent goodness (creating order) and benign nature, the law has taken on a divine quality for us. Rather than seeing the law as a gift and tool for human beings to use to their advantage, for their livelihood, for their thriving together and individually, it’s become a thing that must be obeyed or suffer the harrowing consequences of infraction. In other words: we’ve forgotten the law was created for us, and are trapped by the myth we were created for the law. The law’s become God

So, we’re misoriented toward the law; we’ve put all our eggs in the law basket hoping it will save us from ourselves and from others. But it can’t; it can only say: do this/do not do that. We’ve put so much hope in law that we’re naïve to think that once we get a law down on the books, the work is now finished. We’ve invested so much in the law we’ve forgotten our own responsibility for ourselves and for others; we’ve handed our responsibility over to the law’s clergy and church: lawyers, judges, police, courtrooms and prisons. We’ve sold our bodies to the law; we’re now the law’s property. So, those who enforce the law can do whatever they need to do to ensure the law is upheld even take life. We’ve elevated the law above people; we set our sights on the law as the ultimate thing, rendering our neighbor as sacrifice to the law. We will even crucify God to uphold the law in the name or order.

Galatians 3:23-29

Now, before faith came, we were being kept (as by military guard)—being closed up—under the law with respect to the intending faith to be revealed. So then, the law was as our PEDAGOGUE until Christ has happened, in order that we might be declared righteous from faith. Now while faith came, we are no longer subordinated by the pedagogue. For you all are sharing in the same nature of God by means of faith in Christ Jesus. [1]

(Gal. 3:23-26)

According to Paul, the neutrality of the law is gone. The “do this” and “don’t do that” became condemnation to death rather than commendation to life.[2] Paul refers to the law as a “Pedagogue” (παιδαγωγός). This is no compliment. We see this word as “teacher”; but Paul’s usage is more like this: the person who needed to do whatever it took to make sure morals were cultivated in children.[3] Paul highlights that the law must do whatever it takes to ensure obedience; even if the law was given for life, it’s used for death because we can never keep it enough to avoid suffering consequences of disobedience. [4] Thus, the declaration of righteous as children of God is forever elusive; we’ll never obtain it through the law.[5]

For Paul, our relationship to the law is greatly disturbed; we’ve replaced our devotion to God with devotion to the law, demanding the law be something it isn’t…savior. Thus, our misalignment toward the law is only remedied by Christ Jesus, by whom the law is fulfilled[6] and in whom we have faith.[7] Through our relationship with Christ, our devotion to the law is broken because we’re realigned (rightly) to God through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.

In this realignment to God through Christ by the Spirit (who is God’s spirit of love residing in us), our relationship to the law is restored to what it should be: a tool we use to make this world better and not worse for others and for ourselves (because we’re all one in Christ[8]). By the Spirit of love received through faith in Christ, we are rightly oriented to God, thus rightly oriented to our neighbor with love, and thus to the law.[9] The law serves love, and love serves the neighbor; this is our business. The law is no longer a threat but a tool; no longer about condemnation to death but commendation to life. [10] In with the Paraclete, out with the Pedagogue; in with the Spirit, out with the stones; in with life, out with death.

Conclusion

Russian author, Fyodor Dostoevsky, articulated the tragedy of our misalignment to the law perfectly in his brilliant novel, Crime and Punishment.[11] For our purposes, we are looking in on a fever dream the main character, Raskolnikov, has: A horse, yoked to a buggy, is commanded by her owner (Mikolka) to pull the buggy packed with many people. Mikolka demands the horse to move. The horse can’t, though it tried desperately. Mikolka grew angrier and the crowd more fevered.

Under the whipping, the horse struggled to obey; she couldn’t move the cart. Mikolka increased punishment to get obedience. The crowd (in and outside of the buggy) cheered Mikolka. The horse had very few advocates; one old man hollered at Mikolka, “‘What are you about, are you a Christian, you devil?’…” This question was met with further exhortation from the crowd for more severe beatings.

The horse tried to fight back by kicking, but her resistance was met with escalated punishment, “‘I’ll teach you to kick,’ Mikolka shouted ferociously. He threw down the whip, bent forward and picked up from the bottom of the cart a long, thick shaft, he took hold of one end with both hands and with an effort brandished it over the mare….‘It’s my property,’ shouted Mikolka and brought the shaft down with a swinging blow. There was a sound of heavy thud.”

Needless to say, the beating continued; no matter how severe the blow, the horse was unable to pull the buggy. She was exhausted; barely any fight left, no matter how hard she was hit she could not pull the buggy. Then,

“‘I’ll show you!…’ Mikolka screamed frantically; he threw down the shaft, stooped down in the cart and picked up an iron crowbar. ‘Look out,’ he shouted, and with all his might he dealt a stuffing blow at the poor mare. The blow fell; the mare staggered, sank back tried to pull, but the bar fell again with a swinging blow on her back and she fell on the ground like a log.”

Crime and Punishment

The poor horse had few advocates, just random voices hollering into the air; few tried to interfere. The mare was Mikolka’s property; he could do what he wanted. Yet in this story of a helpless beast, there was one little voice that not only hollered, a little body accompanied that little voice.

[a] boy, beside himself, made his way, screaming, through the crowd to the sorrel nag, put his arms around her bleeding dead head and kissed it, kissed the eyes and kissed the lips…Then he jumped up and flew in a frenzy with his little fists out at Mikolka. At that instant his father, who had been running after him, snatched him up and carried him out of the crowd.
‘Come along, come! Let us go home,’ he said to him.
‘Father! Why did they…kill…the poor horse?’ he sobbed, but his voice broke and the words came in shrieks from his panting chest.
‘They are drunk…they are brutal…it’s not our business!’ said the father.

Crime and Punishment

What the father forgot, the young boy remembered: serving love and protecting life is very much our business and not serving the law and allowing death. The law serves love, and love serves the neighbor; this is our business. Life—human life, animal life, all life—is always way more important than enforcing the law at the expense of life; we must make life our business and then the law, not the reverse.

Beloved, remember that the law was created for you, you weren’t created for the law. Remember whose you are: you are the children of God, if children of God then heirs of love and life, and if heirs then those who like their Abba God bring and proclaim love and life to others.


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted

[2] Martin Luther Lectures on Galatians (1535) Chapter 1-4 LW 26 Ed. Jaroslav Pelikan Assoc. Ed. Walter A. Hansen. Saint Louis, MO: Concordia, 1963. 335. “For the Law is a Word that shows life and drive us toward it. Therefore it was not given only for the sake of death. But this is its chief use and end: to reveal death, in order that the nature and enormity of sin might thus become apparent. it does not reveal death in a way that takes delight in it or that seeks to do nothing but kills us. No, it reveals death in order that men may be terrified and humbled and thus fear God.”

[3] Luther LW 26 336. “…before the time of the Gospel and of grace came, it was the function of the Law to keep us confined under it as though we were in prison.”

[4] Luther LW 26 335. “Therefore the function of the Law is only to kill, yet in such a way that God may be able to make alive. Thus the Law was not given merely for the sake of death; but because man is proud and supposes that he is wise, righteous, and holy, therefore it is necessary that he be humbled by the Law, in order that this beast, the presumption of righteousness, may be killed, since man cannot live unless it is killed.”

[5] Luther LW 26 336. “Such is the power of the Law and such is righteousness on the basis of the Law that it forces us to be outwardly good so long as it threatens transgressors with penalties and punishment. Then we comply with the Law out of fear of punishment, but we do so unwillingly and with great indignation. What kind of righteousness is that, if you refrain from evil because you are compelled by the threat of punishment.”

[6] Luther LW 26 347. “The Law is a custodian, not until some other lawgiver comes who demands good works, but until Christ comes, the Justifier and Savior, so that we may be justified through faith in Him, not through works.”

[7] Luther LW 26 343. “By faith in the Word of grace, therefore, the Christian should conquer fear, turn his eyes away form the time of Law, and gaze at Christ Himself and at the faith to come.”

[8] Luther LW 26 356. “In Christ…where there is no Law, there is no distinction among persons at all. there is neither Jew nor Greek, but all are one; for there is one body, one Spirit, one hope of the calling of all, one and the same Gospel, one faith, one Baptism, on God and Father of all, one Christ, and the Lord of all…”

[9] Luther LW 26 349. “Coming at a predetermined time, He truly abolished the entire Law. But now that the Law has been abolished, we are no longer held in custody under its tyranny; but we live securely and happily with Christ, who now reigns sweetly in us by His Spirit. But where the Lord is, there is freedom (2 Cor. 3:17).”

[10] Luther LW 26 352. “But to put on Christ according to the Gospel is a matter, not of imitation but of a new birth and a new creation, namely, that I put on Christ Himself, that is, His innocence, righteousness, wisdom, power, salvation, life, and Spirit…”

[11] The story is found on pages 48-53. All quotations are taken from this section.

Our Stories This Story: The Worker

I recommend reading/listening to the sermon from Ash Wednesday, which functions as an introduction to this Lenten series. You can access it here. For the previous sermons in this series, (“The Youth”) click here and (“The Parents”) click here.

Sermon on Exodus 3:1-15

Psalm 63: 3-4 For [God’s] loving-kindness is better than life itself; my lips shall give [God] praise. So will I bless [God] as long as I live and lift up my hands in [God’s] Name.

Introduction

“Everyday I do the same thing but I don’t think I know what I’m doing. I wonder if they know what they’re doing… Sometimes I just can’t help but watch my colleagues shuffle about as if nothing is wrong as long as they get theirs, as if this is all normal and good. Talk about putting lipstick on a pig. I mean *chuckles* the things they say to me … *sigh* … I feel the drudgery of the demands of life—the demands of just trying to survive—weighing down on me, dragging me down, stealing something vital from me… my soul? My energy? My mind? I don’t know what …this demand to produce, to work, to earn, requires me to neglect my health and wellbeing… Is it irony that they give me some form of healthcare? …*chuckles* I’m gaining weight as I’m wasting away, selling myself to some ambiguous and invisible entity, some myth… I feel trapped. … I’ve realized I’m stuck, empty, and burnt out.”[1]

From the Ash Wednesday 2022 Sermon

We’ve become a people who passes on toil rather than story.

One of the things that Covid_19 exposed is the depths of our exhaustion when it comes to our work. And yet we are trapped. We’re caught between a rock and hard place. Damned if we do; damned if we don’t. We’re exhausted by the day-in and day-out of the incessant demands of work. Yet, just to survive—caring for ourselves and caring for those dependent on us—we must meet these demands. There’s no option for “No thank you”; just options for how much of yourself you’re willing to sacrifice to the system. 

The long-esteemed hand of competition has not made human existence better. Instead it has taken from us our humanity, our dreams, our desires, and our dignity. It’s stripped us of our story of something else, something bigger than the next buck, tech, car, house, and vacation. We’ve become deaf to the cries of our hearts and the hearts of others as we grow more and more busy with our toil.  We’ve been devoured by a dog-eat-dog-world where no one is allowed to stand still long enough to notice we are all falling apart and limping along. We’ve ceased praying for our daily bread because we are desperate to grab whatever crumb we can find while fighting against brothers and sisters.

Everywhere we step is profaned ground, a virtual minefield of potential disasters threatening to take from us the little we’ve managed to scrape together through blood, sweat, and tears. No wonder our anxiety is at an all time high: nothing is secured…nothing. For storyless human beings, this threat of looming nothingness thrusts us further into the hands of a merciless task master. Thus, the cycle continues as we pass on toil from one generation to another, adding to it greater and greater degrees of demoralization. One job is no longer enough to make ends meet for many people, rather there is a need for two, three, and even four just to live and eat.

Exodus 3: 1-15

When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” …

Exodus 3:4-6

I love the image in this story of this simple shepherding human—dirty as all heck!—and random bush—filled with the presence of God—in sudden encounter. As Moses is called to step closer to this divine presence of flame in branches and leaves, he is told to remove his shoes and tread carefully because where he is standing is holy ground. This ground is holy not because God is untouchable or unapproachable, too pure for dirty and sinful human beings. To assume this is to affirm the mythology that God is limited from being around God’s people by their activity or inactivity. Rather, this ground is holy and sacred because where Moses is standing is the source of life and light; everyone must tread carefully in that space or they will have to contend with God’s anger. Listen again to what God says to Moses:

Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey

Exodus 3: 7-8

God is bringing a story to Moses, one that Moses will participate in (a new name added to the great names of God’s story). Moses, like those before him, will be the means by which God demonstrates God’s power on behalf of those who are down-trodden, oppressed, enslaved, and held captive and complicit. Moses will bring this story to God’s people trapped under the violent rule of Pharaoh in order to release them from that bondage. It is through this story and Moses and the Israelites participating in their own liberation in the Passover event that God’s power to right-side up the world occurs—emotionally, spiritually, mentally, physically, economically, socially, and politically. 

He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’:
This is my name forever,

and this my title for all generations.”

Exodus 3:13-15

Moses brings God’s liberative story to the enslaved, demoralized, and dehumanized people of God stuck in toil upon toil. He doesn’t tell them to suck it up and toil more; he tells them to rest and tells Pharaoh to let God’s people go. He doesn’t tell them this is just the way it is; he tells them it can and should be different. He doesn’t tell them to live in increasingly austere conditions to get by; he tells them of a land flowing with abundance and thriving. He doesn’t tell them to limit their dreams for better and their hopes that God hears their cries; he is literally charged to tell them to dream bigger and that they’ve been heard by God. He doesn’t tell them to submit to authority and be good Egyptian citizens; he tells them to rise up and prepare for divine revolution leading to their liberation, release, and freedom. He gives them another (better) story[2] than the one they’ve been living; one that brings light and not darkness, life and not death, liberation, and not captivity. And this is the story they are to pass on…for all generations.

Conclusion

In sermon on Genesis 11, Helmut Gollwitzer preaches,

“This biblical narrator is…deeply convinced that we cannot by our own power break our fetters, cannot get rid of our intoxication, that we need another great help. The Creator, who made the good beginning, must make a new beginning. [God] must come with new gifts, in order that the old gifts of our abilities and our work do not continue to be a curse to us. A new sprit must set us free from the errors of our old spirit…[God] has opened [God’s] heart to us, and made possible a new way of good life, of fellowship, of avoidance of destruction. Into this new way [God] desires to lead us all by God’s Spirit.”[3]

Helmut Gollwitzer Way to Life

In Lent we reckon with our complicity and our captivity in destructive and violent systems specifically as it correlates to our life and labor. But Lent isn’t the end goal; we need not despair no matter how much we are tempted to do so, to throw our hands in the air, call it all a loss, accept what is, and just trudge along in death before we die. There is life to live. Hope exists for us because there’s another story surging toward us in the form of old death and new life; in the form of a humble man from Nazareth who is the son of God. And it’s this coming divine activity in history that is our new history and story. And this divine action will become the history of liberation for all the captives trapped one way or another in this death dealing, life stealing system, and it is this divine action that will put an end to our ceaseless self-sacrifices and the sacrificing of future generations on the table of toil trying desperately (and failing) to satisfy Moloch. May we dare to dream of and also to participate in creating a better world where we can live, love, and labor without fear, threat, anxiety, and despair; where we can feel the joy of God and our own pleasure in the work of our hands. Let us have the audacity to walk as those who are the beloved of God, as those we have been given both new spirits and new lives, as those given a new story to pass on for all generations.


[1] Taken from the Ash Wednesday 2022 Sermon

[2] Dorothee Sölle writes in To Work and to Love “The Exodus event left its indelible mark on the memory of the cult, which in turn embodied the event in its religious institutions…The cult did not have a purely ritualistic function; it created historical consciousness of Israel’s freedom.” God’s activity becomes Israel’s history and this history is a story of God’s activity for and with Israel.

[3] Helmut Gollwitzer The Way to Life: Sermons in a Time of World Crisis Trans David Cairns (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1981). 4.

Sweet Divine Liberty

Psalm 19:13-14 …keep your servant from presumptuous sins; let them not get dominion over me; then shall I be whole and sound, and innocent of a great offense. Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.

Introduction

I spend a lot of time thinking about freedom. Specifically “freedom” as the product of the encounter with God in the event of faith. What does it mean that “in Christ” we are now “free”? Free into what? Free from what?

This freedom as a result of the encounter with God in the event of faith is what Jesus is talking about today in our gospel passage: liberation from captivity, freedom from enslavement, release from bondage.

There’s an aspect of liberation embedded deep within Jesus’s words that any form of enslavement is anti-God. Whether we look at it from the perspective of spiritual, emotional, physical, mental (etc.) enslavement, humans are not created by God to be enslaved to anything or anyone. If we were, then Jesus is a lunatic, and we shouldn’t trust him. But yet we do; it’s why we’re here every Sunday as a result of the faith we have in Christ uniting us into God by the power of the Holy Spirit. We do not come here every Sunday to be enslaved or re-enslaved or enslaved further into our burdens. (This is why church, to continue in being church and good news in the world, must resist the trappings of religious totalitarianism; no one need come here and feel afraid and condemned, for that is not good news, that is not liberation, that is not freedom, that is not Christ.) In coming here and hearing the proclamation of the gospel of the good news of God for the beloved, for you, for the people and the world, we are liberated, we are freed, we are released…

But again, I’m still left curious. Into what am I liberated and freed? And what put me there in the first place?

Luke 4:14-21

And he went into Nazareth—where he had been brought up—and he entered the synagogue—according to his custom on the day of the Sabbath. He stood up to read and the book of the prophet Isaiah was given to him and after unrolling the book he found the place where it was written,

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
for the sake that he has anointed me
to announce good news to the poor,
he has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to set free those who have been broken down/enfeebled,[1]
to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”

And then he rolled up the book and gave it back to the servant, and he sat down. And the eyes of all of the people in the synagogue were fixedly gazing at him.[2]

Luke 4:16-20a

Jesus goes home. Upon going home, he enters the synagogue as was his custom to do on the Sabbath. There’s no way to charge Jesus with not being a faithful and good follower of God. But it’s not just Jesus’s piety that is highlighted by Luke here in the phrase “as was his custom” but also that it was normal for Jesus to stand up, read from the scrolls, and to expound the scriptures.[3] So, that Jesus stood up and took the scroll from the servant of the temple and read it, isn’t the thing. It’s the passage that Jesus read that is the thing.[4]

Through the prophet Isaiah, Jesus makes known for whom his ministry is for: the poor.[5] There’s no reason to qualify this “poor” with an adjective to render it one way or another. We don’t need to feel better about this text by applying adjectives; we can let the word hang where it is as it is. We want to let the word lie because if we did apply adjectives here we would miss out on the breadth of this word in its original context. To be “poor” in Jesus’s context and culture had many and varied connotations; the poor are anyone who has “diminished status honor” for whatever combination of reasons.[6] Thus, using the prophet Isaiah, Jesus describes his mission: to proclaim good news to the poor; and highlights that he is the recipient of the anointing and the Spirit of God to proclaim good news, to set free, to release all these varying examples of the “poor”.[7] The poor will be released by God from their various forms of isolation and captivity; thus they will be partakers of what has been withheld from them: life, freedom, and the fullness of divine presence and love.

In delineating a specific direct object of his proclamation and ministry, Jesus created a dividing line between him and the social, political, religious, and economic boundaries erected—by people—to keep some in and others out.[8] According to Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God, no one…NO ONE is beyond the long arm of God and the expansive substance of divine Love enveloping the entire cosmos. No one is too far gone, no one is too lost, no one is too fractured, no one is too stuck, no one is too trapped, no one. Not me. Not you. Not anyone existing beyond these four walls. And if this is the implied statement falling from Jesus’s proclamation, then any boundary is anathema to God and God’s love; both the boundary and the boundary builders collide with all-encompassing and inclusive divine Love. Thus, it is through Jesus that these boundaries will not only be challenged but also destroyed. The reign of God has come, let the kingdom of humanity tremble; life and light has come into the world, let death and darkness cower.[9]

Conclusion

So, back to the questions from the introduction: Into what am I liberated? And what put me there in the first place?

First, “Into what”: Better to ask, “Into whom…?” In the encounter with God in the event of faith I am liberated and freed and released into God.

Now he began to say to them, “the writing has been fulfilled/completed in your hearing.” (Lk 4:21)

That Jesus the Christ, God of very God, is the one who is the fulfillment of this divine promise spoken by the prophet Isaiah, and if we are brought into this fulfillment of the promise by faith (as in: we do not fulfill this promise ourselves) then we are brought into Christ. This is what it means to be liberated by Christ: not liberated into myself for myself, but unto God thus for those with whom God stands in solidarity with: the poor (as big and expansive as that word can be). As the proclamation of the good news of Christ goes out, liberty and freedom and release of the captives, the oppressed, and the blind bursts forth. As the cages burst open, as chains drop, as jail cells slide open, the liberation of the oppressed and poor is a liberation into God and for others. The imprisoned, the chained, the shackled, the caged, the enslaved step out and into God. While I might be freed, and you too, it cannot mean that it is done in an isolated and autonomous way as if it is just for me and me alone. Rather, we are liberated into God and into community of those brothers and sisters who have been so liberated, too. We then bear a divine burden as those liberated by Christ and into Christ…to bring this same liberation to those who are burdened with various forms of poorness and thus captivity. In other words, we undo what we’ve done and have been complicit in doing…

Thus, second, “what put me there…”: Better to ask “Who put me there…?” There’s a tendency to blame everything on the abstract concept of “Sin” and then to point further away to the myth of Genesis 3, which then makes us point more fingers at each other and at snakes and serpents…But none of that is helpful. I prefer to say that we put ourselves in those prisons, cells, cages, and chains by putting others there. I know enough philosophy, enough ethics, enough history to know that God didn’t enslave us in the fall, we enslaved ourselves. Our inability to see and hear God and our neighbor as they are is our fundamental problem. Stated in the positive: we have a catastrophic hearing and seeing problem. We love hearing what we want to hear, we love seeing what we want to see. So, we create systems and schemes that reflect what we see and hear to benefit ourselves. In various ways, we erect barbed and electrified fences keeping out those deemed different, “other”, not “us”, “them” and then these people lose their humanity. The sad fact is that as we build these walls, these fences, these rules of membership of the ingroup, we, too, lose our humanity. Everyone loses in this system of walls and fences and cages and chains.

Beloved of God, we are guilty of being complicit in dehumanizing systems and schemes even if we, too, were held captive by them. But, by the grace of God, we are sought and liberated so that we can hear and see rightly both God and our neighbor; and in hearing and seeing rightly, we can act and speak with divine inspiration and participate in the great divine mission of love in the world to stand in solidarity with the poor and to liberate the captives.

Beloveds, we were blind and now we see; we were captive and now we are free; let us live and love and bring to all who cry out that sweet divine liberty, long granted to the world through God on a tree and resurrected for thee.


[1] I’m using the translation of θράυω from the Greek dictionary: “to break down, enfeeble”

[2] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

[3] [3] Joel B. Green The Gospel of Luke The New International Commentary on the New Testament Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997. 209, “Luke’s presentation indicates not only that Jesus regularly demonstrated his piety by attendance of the synagogue on the Sabbath, but also that it was his habit to take the role of the one who read and expounded the Scriptures (cf. Acts 17:2). This phrase, ‘as was his custom,’ underscores the paradigmatic quality of this episode, both with regard to his Sabbath practices, and with regard to the content of his proclamation.”

[4] Green Luke 209 “The primary point of focus, then, is the citation from Isaiah, which is itself a mix-text.”

[5] Green Luke 204. “These scenes are also taken up with the consequences of Jesus’ status, the ministry activity that grows out of his obedience to and empowerment from God. Taken together, they highlight four features of Jesus’ ministry. First, his is a ministry empowered by the Spirit. Second, Luke’s central interest in Jesus’ message, and the inseparability of teaching/preaching (4:15, 16-21, 43-44) and the miraculous (4:16-21, 33-36, 38-41), is foregrounded here. Indeed, 4: 18-19 establishes a narrative need for Jesus ‘to bring good news to the poor,’ and so these verses characterize the form and primary recipients of Jesus’ ministry”

[6] Green Luke 211. “In that culture, one’s status in a community was not so much a function of economic realities, but depended on a number of elements, including education, gender, family heritage, religious purity, vocation, economics and so on. Thus, lack of subsistence might account for one’s designation as ‘poor,’ but so might other disadvantaged conditions, and ‘poor’ would serve as a cipher for those of low status, for those excluded according to normal canons of status honor in Mediterranean world. Hence, although ‘poor’ is hardly devoid of economic significance, for Luke this wider meaning of diminished status honor is paramount.”

[7] Green Luke 210. “Consequently, three structural features are emphasized. First, the first three lines each end with ‘me,’ repeating the pronoun in the emphatic position. This underscores in the clearest possible way the inexorable relation of the Spirit’s anointing and the statement of primary mission, ‘to proclaim good news to the poor.’ Second, and as a consequence, the three subsequent infinitive phrases appear in parallel and in a position subordinate to Jesus statement of primary mission. Third, as we have observed, the notion of ‘release’ is twice repeated.”

[8] Green Luke 211. “By directing his good news to these people, Jesus indicates his refusal to recognize those socially determined boundaries, asserting instead that even these “outsiders” are the objects of divine grace. Others may regard such people as beyond the pale of salvation, but God has opened a way for them to belong to God’s family.”

[9] Green Luke 214

Loved and Freed

Sermon on Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7

Psalm 147:1-3 Hallelujah! How good it is to sing praises to our God! How pleasant it is to honor God with praise! The Lord rebuilds Jerusalem; God gathers the exiles of Israel. God heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.

Introduction

The red and blue lights in my review mirror solicited my hard sigh; the same lights were, at that moment, entertaining the boys, seven and six, and their entertainment was entertaining Liza who was just about one. I pulled off the road and into a parking lot to a chorus of “Mommy got pulled over! Mommy got pulled over!” Both boys swaying rhythmically to their own tune. I was not amused; but I wasn’t fully mad, either. It truly was a catchy little tune.

I waited for the police officer to come to my window, clutching my license and registration; I was ready to get this business over with because I had swim lessons to get to and was already late…which may have been the reason for the red and blue lights in my rearview mirror. As I waited, a moment of condemnation came upon me. I soothed myself by remembering I was justified by faith apart from works, so if I was guilty of breaking the law than I was guilty of breaking the law and that was it. Nothing more; nothing less.

When the police officer approached, he asked me if I knew why he was pulling me over. I said, “No.” He said, you were going 60 in a 40. I was shocked. “Really?! In this car?!” “Yes,” he answered. “Are you using VASCAR? Because I know VASCAR can give false readings.” “Yes, I was, and, no, it wasn’t a false reading.” Then he asked for my license and registration, which I eagerly handed to him. He thanked me and then went back to his car.

A while later, he came back and said, “Man, I hate to do this…You’ve been really cool; I hate to give you this ticket.” I smiled, and said, “It’s okay. Really. If I’m guilty, I’m guilty.” He paused and stepped back a little from my car. And then again, “Man! You are so cool about this. I hate giving you this ticket.” I looked at the clock: swim lessons drew nigh; I needed to get this ticket from him. Knowing I couldn’t just grab it, holler “Thanks!” and peel out of there… I did the only thing I knew to do, “Listen,” I started. “I’m a student of the law; well, actually I’m a student of God’s Law. I study theology. And I know that the law can only tell me when I’m breaking it and that I’m guilty when I do break it. I accept that. I am guilty of speeding and you are free to give me that ticket.” He stepped back again and didn’t say anything; I was nervous. Then he spoke, “You have just shown a brother in the Lord mercy. Do me a favor and plead ‘not guilty,’ and I’ll take care of it on my end.”

“Really?! But I’m guilty!” I replied. He laughed and asked me to trust him.

Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7

Now before faith came we were kept—guarded as by the military—under the law, being hemmed in until the intended faith would be revealed. Just as the law has been our trainer [in life and morals] with respect to Christ, so that from faith we may be declared righteous. While faith has come, we are no longer under the trainer [in life and morals].

Galatians 3:23-25

Paul describes to the Galatians the situation they were in prior to Christ’s advent: under the law as if trapped by a warden. The word Paul used to describe “the law” is παιδαγωγός (paidagogos/“pedagogue”). The law, according to Paul, was a pedagogue until faith was revealed. The problem arises here: we think that παιδαγωγός means “teacher.” It can mean that for us, but not in Paul’s context. The word defined according to the context in which it was used can be rendered: the slave who oversaw forcing the boys to school, who watched over and monitored and trained the boys in life and morals. Clearly, “teacher” does not cover the breadth of the definition. So, it’s better to see this word rendered as “warden,” which keeps an eye to the military aspect of having been guarded and kept by the law until Christ came. For all intents and purposes, when those kept by the law stepped out of line, the law would step close and threaten, presenting itself as an address to get back in line for their own good—like the slave would do when bringing the boys to and from school.[1]

The law, according to Paul, loomed and threatened, always bringing with it the potential to convict in order to keep those under its charge in line. But the law isn’t evil or bad; it’s just the law. The first word given by God to God’s people to bring them unto life; the law is revealed to God’s people to give them life abundant. The law was intended to turn God’s people toward God, to reveal the human tendency to think we ourselves are God; the law was there to humble God’s people and bring them toward God.[2] The relationship was always about God and God’s people, and the law was only ever to assist that relationship but not be the definitive thing of the relationship. In other words, the law was created by God for humanity, to serve humanity; humanity was not created for the law, to serve the law.

But a problem developed. Rather than being a word beckoning God’s people to God, it became like a god. And in walked fear, terror, shame, and condemnation. As the law was allowed to take over God’s thrown, it was forced into a position that it was not meant to be in. In response, the people became performative to avoid threat and punishment.[3] Thus, the law became a prison and a warden of the people; from this prison there was no escape because there is absolutely no way to satisfy the demands articulated by the law[4] to such a degree that the law stops demanding. And if it never stops demanding, to where to do you run for comfort? Where is forgiveness? And mercy?[5]

Conclusion

Deliverance from this predicament was and is necessary. Humanity cannot extricate itself from such a plight. And here the law served God’s deliverance of the people through the coming of Christ.[6] Paul explains well: the law was a warden until faith came.[7] God sent God’s only son to be born of Mary and to dwell among the dirty, poor, sick, sinners, ostracized, marginalized, and threatened people…anyone and everyone condemned by the law.

From the moment Jesus was born the law was stripped of its warden like status.[8] A woman who had given birth, was forbidden from touching anything holy, forbidden from going into the sanctuary (being in God’s presence). But then, Mary.  After Jesus’ birth, Mary was unclean. The thing that would have segregated her from her community, the thing that determined that she was unclean was the law. Yet, Mary had given birth and was subsequently holding and nursing Jesus for the full duration of her uncleanness. Very God of very God dwelt with his mother while she was unclean—impure, technically unable to be in the presence of God. Yet, there she was with God because God was with her, physically, in her presence and she in God’s. From the moment of Jesus’s birth, Jesus began to silence the voice and demand of the law…the Law was found dumb in that moment.

And so, it is to be found dumb now, just like it was found dumb when the police officer pulled me over. The law in that moment could not condemn or threaten me; it was just the law, just a word to which I could acknowledge my guilt. Same, too, for you who are in Christ through faith by the power of the Holy Spirit. The law cannot determine who you are or whose you are; the law cannot strip you of your beloved status, no matter what you do or do not do. Everything that we do here on Sunday morning, and how we conduct our lives should be fueled by the very real presence of God’s love in our life and not because we are scared God will flee us or cast us out if we don’t do this or that right. When the church becomes a museum of ritual and traditionalisms, trapped in a static performance of doing just to do, exhibitions to make us feel pious and holy, I fear that church is now no longer worshipping God, but the law. When the church becomes a place serving the law, a place of judgment, of fear, of threat, it has stepped away from its love, Jesus the Christ who silenced the law the moment he came into the world, wrapped in swaddling clothes and laying in the lap of his unclean mother, Mary.

You are the beloved; laugh as the beloved, rejoice as the beloved, and live as the beloved: loved and free.


[1] Martin Luther Lectures on Galatians 1535 Chapters 1-4 Luther’s Works Vol 26 Ed. Jaroslav Pelikan. St. Louis, MO: Concordia 1963. 335. “For the Law is a Word that shows life and drives us toward it. Therefore it was not given only for the sake of death. But this is its chief use and end: to reveal death, in order that the nature and enormity of sin might thus become apparent. It does not reveal death in a way that takes delight in it or that seeks to do nothing but kills us. No, it reveals death in order that men may be … humbled….”

[2] Luther Galatians 335. “Thus the Law was not given merely for the sake of death; but because man is proud and supposes that he is wise, righteous, and holy, therefore it is necessary that the be humbled by the Law, in order that this beat, the presumption of righteousness, may be killed, since man cannot live unless it is killed.”

[3] Luther Galatians 336. “Such is the power of the Law and such is righteousness on the basis of the Law that it forces us to be outwardly good so long as it threatens transgressors with penalties and punishment.”

[4] Luther Galatians 337. “For then a man is confined in a prison from which he cannot escape; and he does not see how he can be delivered form these bonds, that is, set free from these terrors.”

[5] Luther Galatians 337. “That is, the Law is also a spiritual prison and a true hell; for when it discloses sin and threatens death and the eternal wrath of God, man can neither run away nor find any comfort.”

[6] J. Louis Martyn Galatians The Anchor Bible Gen Ed. William Foxwell Albright and David Noel Freedman. (New York: Doubleday, 1997) 363. “…the Law was compelled to serve God’s intention simply by holding all human beings in a bondage that precluded every route of deliverance except that of Christ.”

[7] Luther Galatians 347. “The Law is a custodian, not until some other lawgiver comes who demands good works, but until Christ comes, the Justifier and Savior, so that we may be justified through faith in Him, not through works.”

[8] Martyn Galatians 362. “faith was invasively revealed. Paul’s use of the passive verb “was revealed” shows his intention to speak here of God’s eschatological act, and thus his concern to refer to the faith that is God’s deed in Christ (so also the faith” in w 25 and 26). From 2:16, 3:22-25, and 4:4-6, we see that Paul is referring interchangeably to the coming of Christ, to the coming of Christ’s Spirit, and to the coming both of Christ’s faith and of the faith kindled by Christ’s faith. It is that multifaceted advent that has brought to a close the parenthetical era of the Law, thus radically changing the world in which human beings live.”

The One of Peace

Sermon on Micah 5:2-5a

Luke 1:46b, 53-54 My soul proclaims the greatness of God… God has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich God has sent away empty. God has come to the help of God’s servant Israel, for God has remembered God’s promise of mercy… 

Introduction 

It’s nice to be in charge, right? It’s an ego boost to be the boss, the one where the buck stops. It’s fun to be the leader, the one who decides this and that, and here and there, the one who tells this and that person what to do and what to say. The more power the better, right? For isn’t it in the acquisition of power and dominance—the incessant climbing of the occupational ladder—where I achieve my true human liberty and freedom? As I climb up, I’m freed from the constraints of the lower echelons of human existence, and I finally have that long awaited liberty where none can tread on me. The higher up I move along this ladder, the more I acquire the rewards and accolades of this system, and the more I’m lifted out of the muck and mire of obligation to anyone else. (There’s something wrong with someone who is content with the middle or, God forbid, the lowest rung of the ladder; who wants to stay there?) Here, at the top or near the top, I’m my own law. Here, I am respected. Here, I’m freed from the tyranny of others. Here I’m that which I have strived for: powerful. I get to holler at subordinates and underlings, echoing Eric Cartman from the cartoon series, South Park, “Respect my ah-thor-ah-tah!” It’s nice to be in charge, right?  

Or is it… 

Once I start seeing my leadership in the schema of the personal acquisition of power—and the continual pursuit there in—I will ignore that the ladder I am hoisting myself upon is always made up of the human bodies I was charged to guide and lead in the first place. The bodies will be used to an end to satisfy the unquenchable thirst of a bloated and an autonomous self, untethered from the mores of being human: the humility of existence made tangible in the willing and sometimes not-so-willing self-surrender of the self to other humans in the activity of love. To climb that ladder as far as I can, I must turn off the “human” part of my humanity, which—if you are doing the math—renders to near zero “humanity.” And the farther-up I go pursuing the acquisition of power and privilege, the deeper-in I’m pushed into what can only be described as a solitary confinement with walls built of competition and fear– it only takes one slip (slide?) to fall from that glory. It’s nice to be in charge, right? 

Or is it…. 

Micah 5:2-5a 

And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, 
in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. 

And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great 
to the ends of the earth; 

and he shall be the one of peace.  

Micah 5:4-5

The bulk of Micah’s message (from the beginning of the book to the end) is embedded in Micah’s mission to expose the sins of Jacob and Israel, being the first prophet to declare the destruction of Jerusalem.[1] What sins does Micah expose? In short: moral corruption. The long of it is that there is violence (from the wealthy and powerful) and the proliferation of lies.[2] And the even longer of it is: the heads of the houses of Jacob and the rulers of Israel “abhor justice and pervert equity” and the brick and mortar of their cities are the wrong-doing of the leaders and the spilled blood of the people.[3] And, according to Micah who is emboldened by the passionate Spirit of God in the face of such violence,[4] God will not tolerate this depraved leadership, profiting off of the bodies and souls of God’s beloved.[5]

In the prophesy, Micah, so moved by God’s Spirit, transitions from exposing sins and naming the trespasses of Israel’s and Jacob’s leaders to speaking of one who will be raised up from the small clan of Bethlehem of Ephrathah. This one will be of old and of the ancient of days. This humble one from a humble tribe will be called out to lead God’s beloved in the name of God and in the Spirit of God: delighting in unconditional and unceasing love, forgiveness, mercy, and humility.[6] Specifically in our portion of the text, Micah’s prophesy moves toward a God who rejects the idea of letting iniquity run amok[7] even if the city itself is complacent.[8] so, God comes, and in that God comes, there will be forgiveness and peace because when God comes, so to comes the true leadership of Israel defined not by humanity but by God, the one of peace.[9]

Conclusion

Micah’s words haunt me. Israel’s leadership has run away with Israel for its own power and privilege. And God is coming to rescue God’s beloved. Woe to that leadership so bent on self-aggrandizement and power and authority and privilege; violent leadership that uses the beloved as a means to their own end will be exposed in God’s light of truth. Leadership so bent in this way is in direct opposition to God and God’s conception of leading and can meet no other end in God but death. God has a very specific interpretation of what it means to lead, especially leading God’s beloved: it is done through mercy, kindness, humility, love, and forgiveness. To be completely frank, God doesn’t like it when human leaders forget themselves and become drunk with power and abusive and violent, resulting in the oppression and marginalization of God’s beloved. God will come and rescue the beloved from such domination. Thus, the judgment of this prophecy is targeted at me, the leader of God’s beloved—and others like me holding power and authority. God will come for the beloved and in that the beloved is sought and liberated from oppressive and violent leadership, so too will the violent and oppressive leaders be liberated. It’s nice to be in charge, right? Or is it?

With what shall I come before the Lord,
    and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
    with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
    with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
    the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God?

Micah 6:7-8

It’s into the presence of God I am called. I am pulled off my ladder of power and am dragged onto the carpet; I am beckoned into the light; I am exposed by the Spirit’s prophetic utterance still fresh on Micah’s lips. I am asked to come close and to hear and to see what means to be a good leader. And, it’s not defined in the way that I think it should be: through the acquisition of more and more power and lording it over those under my charge. It won’t look like making people feel small so I can feel big. It won’t even look elite, special, or privileged. Rather, this good leader will look remarkably like a humble and vulnerable infant wrapped in meager rags, laid in a manger, dwelling among the creation in its earthy glory, surrounded by dirty shepherds and an exhausted woman of color. I am asked here: can you lead like this? For here lies the true leader, the one from the ancient of days who knows no end of time but is now a tiny baby in swaddling clothes: humble and accessible to anyone; can you lead like this…of the people for the people? Can you love them like I do?

That this prophetic utterance of Micah is for me it is for you, too. Because divine love does not remain dormant when the beloved is in need: hope exists. We can, right now during this season of Advent in 2021, hope. We can hope because we dwell in and are invited into a story of God acting on behalf of the beloved by coming in the judgment of God’s love to give life to all the beloved trapped and held captive in violent systems—when the captive is set free, so too will the captor be set free through death into new life. We are all beckoned—leaders and the lead alike—to walk humble with God and like God, in love and mercy and forgiveness and humility. And we are called to walk this way not just here in this place, but out in the world, furthering the elastic reach of divine love in the world and for the beloved out there.

O come, Desire of nations,

bind in one the hearts of all [hu]mankind;

bid thou our sad divisions cease

and be thy self our King of Peace.

O come, O come Emmanuel,

and ransom captive Israel,

that mourns in lonely exile here

until the Son of God appear.


[1] 1 Abraham J. Heschel The Prophets “Micah” New York: JPS, 1962. 98 “Micah, a contemporary of Isaiah, apparently regarded the purpose of his mission to be ‘to declare to Jacob his transgression and to Israel his sin’ (3:8). He was the first prophet to predict the destruction of Jerusalem.” 

[2] Heschel Prophets 98. “In his eyes the fatal sin is the sin of moral corruption. The rich men are full of violence, and the inhabitants speak lies: ‘Their tongue is deceitful in their mouth’ (6:12).”

[3] Heschel Prophets 98 “The prophet directs his rebuke particularly against the ‘heads of the house of Jacob and the rulers of the house of Israel, who abhor justice and pervert all equity.’ It is because ‘they build Zion with blood and Jerusalem with wrong’ (3:9-10) that Zion and Jerusalem will be destroyed.”

[4] Heschel Prophets 99. “To the soul of Micah, the taste of God’s word is bitter. In his love for Zion and his people, he is tormented by the vision of the things to come…” 

[5] Heschel Prophets 99. “Here, amidst a people who walk haughtily (2:3), stands a prophet who relentlessly predicts disaster and disgrace for the leaders as well as for the nation, maintaining that ‘her wound is incurable’ (1:9), that the Lord is ‘devising evil’ against the people: ‘It will be an evil time’ (2:3).” 

[6] Heschel Prophets 99. “Micah does not question the justice of the severe punishment which he predicts for his people. Yet it is not in the name of justice that he speaks but in the name of a God who ‘delights in steadfast love,’ ‘pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression’ (7:18).” 

[7] Heschel Prophets 100 “Yet, there is reluctance and sorrow in that anger. It is as if God were apologizing for His severity, for His refusal to be complacent to iniquity. This is God’s apology to Israel. He cannot forget ‘the treasures of wickedness in the house of the wicked’ or ‘acquit the man with wicked scales and with a bag of deceitful weights’ (6:10, 11).”

[8] Heschel Prophets 100 “‘Answer Me!’ calls the voice of God. But who hears the call? ‘The voice of the Lord cries to the city’ (6:9), but the city is complacent.”

[9] Heschel Prophets 101 “Together with the word of doom, Micah proclaims the vision of redemption. God will forgive ‘the remnant of His inheritance,’ and will cast all their sins ‘into the depths of the sea’ (7:18 f.), and every man shall sit under his vine and ‘under his fig tree, and none shall make them afraid’ (4:4).”

With Dirty Hands

Sermon on Mark 7:5-8

Psalm 45:7-8  Your throne, O God, endures for ever and ever, a scepter of righteousness is the scepter of your kingdom; you love righteousness and hate iniquity. Therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness…

Introduction

One of the most difficult things for me to navigate as a teacher is the tendency for students to parrot. When I was a teacher at the high school levels, I would walk around my circle of students and say, “I want to know what *you* think; I don’t need 20 more Rev. Larkins…God knows there’s one too many.” To protect the space for students toward intellectual liberty, I implemented a contract grading system. Making grades dependent on the completion of specific tasks (with flexibility to student need) rather than on memorization and recitation. While I had great success with this grading approach, one thing congested the air preventing authentic and personal wrestling with thought: the deeply ingrained training of conformity for fear of punishment. For the life of me, there were students who just froze when given the liberty to speak their mind, so they would tell me what they thought I wanted to hear.

While I could wax not-so-eloquently about the state of school systems and how they contribute to the conformity of human beings to the status-quo rather than bolstering and building curiosity and creativity, the thing that I want to stress here is that this conformity for fear of punishment moved from chair and desk into pew and table. When I lead chapel as a chaplain at the high school, I’d listen to student voices recite in unison creeds, prayers, and responses. But there was very little life in it. They said the words because they had to, because they were told they must, because they were afraid of some form of punishment if they didn’t. For one reason or another, their hearts were far from those words.

At some point during each semester, I’d exhort them: “Don’t say the words if you really don’t want to; there’s nothing magic in them, you aren’t saved through them but through faith. You have my permission to opt out.” I desired for them to have robust and vigorous relationships with God, the very God who moved heaven and earth to be as close to them as they are to themselves and maybe even closer. I wanted them to embody the liberation that comes with the groundwork of justification with God by faith in Christ alone by the power of the Holy Spirit. I wanted them to want to say those words, those prayers, those responses and not because they were so tied to fear and traditionalism. I wanted them to be ὸ λαός of God bursting forth from the heart, not an illusion built upon words slipping from lips.

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

And then the Pharisees and the scribes questioned him, “Why are your disciples not walking according to the tradition of the elders, but are eating food with unclean hands?” And [Jesus] said to them, “Isaiah prophesied well concerning you pretenders, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with lips, but their heart are held far back from me; and they worship me to no purpose while teaching the teaching of religious precepts of humanity.’ While releasing the command of God you hold fast to the tradition of humanity handed down.”[1]

Mark 7:5-8

So, Jesus’s disciples are caught eating with dirty hands by a group of pharisee-scribes coming from Jerusalem (vv. 1-2).[2] As the disciples sit and eat, this group of religious authorities from Jerusalem confronts Jesus about this brash and flagrant infraction. Why care so much? Well, the issue at stake here for this group of religious authorities is that Jewish people are supposed to wash their hands (and other items (vv. 3-4)[3]) diligently prior to using them to make sure they are ritually clean (the issue of hygiene is less in view here).[4] What’s interesting is there’s only a reference in the First Testament (Ex. 30:18-21; 40:30-32) to diligently washing hands for the sake of purity: priests are supposed to wash their hands prior to the sacrifice.[5]

The command to wash hands—given to the priests—morphed into a human tradition passed down from the religious authorities to the people, and it became normative.[6] This is what Jesus takes issue with, and rightly so. The emphasis on obedience to the traditions handed down by humanity interferes with heart-felt devotion to God. The people, who are merely trying to survive day in and day out, are burdened with superfluous tasks and deeds baptized in the name of God. The work of serving the Lord and offering authentic devotion birthed from the heart gives way to the toil of upholding human made demands for fear of being punished or ostracized. So, in defense of the beleaguered people, Jesus creatively quotes Isaiah[7] to respond to the pharisee-scribes from Jerusalem:

“‘This people honors me with lips, but their heart is held far back from me; and they worship me to no purpose while teaching the teaching of religious precepts of humanity.’”

And concludes with the accusation that they have allowed the traditions of humanity to usurp the command of God (v.8).

Two things I want to highlight here in the profundity of Jesus’s reply. There’s a clear accusation against the religious authorities: they’ve taught and handed down these traditions of humanity and demonstrate they are not holding to the commands of God.[8] The religious authorities are taking the purity of the people into their own hands thus they are commandeering the worship of the people to reflect human traditions handed down (the externals).[9] The more they do this, the further they get from being of the things of God.[10] Their worship of God is of no purpose and in vain. This is their own doing.

The other thing I want to highlight is this: while Jesus is casting divine accusation at the religious authorities for their preference for human tradition over and against divine command, he’s also exposing the people. As the religious authorities peddle these traditions of humanity handed down and baptize them as God’s decree, the people (ὁ λαός) are also far from being of the things of God and are consumed by the things of humanity. They, too, worship in vain and to no purpose. But this is not of their own doing.

Conclusion

My colleague and dear friend The Rev. Dr. Kate Hanch reflects on the call of the black woman preacher, Zilpha Elaw:

“…she described people who were bothered by her ministry as ‘ignorant and prejudiced…men whose whims are law, who walk after the imagination of their own hearts, and to whom the cause of God is a toy…’ She could not and would not give in to [sic.] their objections and neglect God’s calling on her. Her calling was so clear, so distinct, that she remarks ‘it is an easy matter to adopt a string of notions on religion, and make a great ado about them; but the weight of religious obligation, and the principle of conscientious obedience to God are quite another matter.’ To translate that into today’s terms, Elaw implies that it is easier to become legalistic over doctrine than to obey God’s calling on our lives.”[11]

Elaw qtd in The Rev. Dr. Kate Hanch’s forthcoming book.

I was never upset with my beloved students for their fear of performing rightly if vacantly; they were taught to fear things created by human minds and hands. I was upset with their teachers, the ones who instilled the fear. Their teachers had become legalistic and had rejected God’s calling on their life to love people and not idols, and that rejection was reflected in their teaching. And, as Jesus says, what comes out of our mouths is very important.

When we become so consumed with this thing and that thing, with how things should be done and should not be done, with wood and stone, with our own purity and obedience in external things, we lose the marvel and wonder of the divine presence in the encounter with God in the event of faith. All these material and external things surrounding us are here to serve us and our worship; we are not to serve it. When we elevate the material and external things to the realm of the divine, we will—along with the pharisee-scribes—release the word of God and hold fast to the traditions handed down by humanity. When the emphasis falls on us serving the material and external things; we become burdened with toil and our worship is in vain and to no purpose because we are worshipping ourselves.

Even worse than losing ourselves in wrong priorities, we will guide others into this dis-order. As a priest and future doctor of the church, the weight is rightly on me to speak well. Not in terms of doctrine and dogma (human made), not in creeds and prayers (again, human made), but in the Word made flesh, the incarnate word of God, the Christ crucified and raised. Those of us called out to lead from within must remain humbled at the foot of the cross and consumed in the glory of divine activity of life out of death in the resurrection of Jesus. It is not about me bringing you into what makes sense to me, but into what makes sense to God: divine love, divine peace, divine justice for you and for others. In other words, what comes out of my mouth is very important and reveals where my roots are, where my focus is, and to whom my heart belongs (vv.14-15).

Beloved, we have been liberated to love the world not in the purity of our religiosity which actually drives people away, but in the imperfection of our humanity which will call people in. It’s not about getting the external and material right in these walls at this table in these linens; rather, it’s about living through the imperfection of our belovedness into the world making the material and external better for those fighting to survive for truly this is divine love, divine peace, and divine justice in action.

Let us love as we’ve been loved.


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted

[2] RT France The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text TNIGTC Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002. 280. “Matthew’s phrase ἀπὸ Ἱεροσολύμων Φαρισαῖοι καὶ γραμματεῖς suggests a single group coming from Jerusalem to Galilee. Mark’s wording, however, divides the group into the (presumably local) Φαρισαῖοι and τινες τῶν γραμματέων ἐλθόντες ἀπὸ Ἱεροσολύμων. Judging from the area of their concern these scribes from Jerusalem were themselves also Pharisees, and no distinction between the two groups is discernible in the pericope…The fact that in both instances they are described as having arrived…from Jerusalem probably indicates that they have come specially to investigate and/or to dispute with Jesus.”

[3] France Mark 281. “Mark’s explanatory account of Jewish rituals of purity is apparently directed to Gentile readers of the gospel. It is a broad-brush, unsophisticated account, which conveys a general sense of meticulous concern to avoid defilement rather than a nuanced presentation of the purity laws- of the OT and of tradition.”

[4] France Mark 280. “As in 2:18,23-24, it is the behaviour of Jesus’ disciples rather than his actions which provides the point of dispute…The issue this time (as in 2:18) is not one of obedience to the OT laws, but of rules subsequently developed in Pharisaic circles. While no doubt it could normally be expected that hands would be washed before a meal for hygienic reasons (since food was often taken from a common dish), the only hand washing required in the OT for purposes of ritual purity is that of priests before offering sacrifice (Ex. 30:18-21; 40:30-32). The extension of this principle to the eating of ordinary food, and to Jewish people other than priests, was a matter of scribal development, and it is uncertain how far it had progressed by the time of Jesus.”

[5] Ibid.

[6] France Mark 283. τὴν παράδοσιν τῶν περσβυτέρων “The term is not specific, and refers merely to ‘received wisdom’, and that wisdom may not have been of very long standing, nor have been shared by all groups within Judaism at that time. But for the scribes, as for religious groups generally, there is an assumption that what has once been established by usage normative; for them this practice is now self-evidently right. Jesus’ response will therefore focus on this more fundamental issue of the relative authority of tradition as such as a guide to the will of God, rather than on the provenance of the particular tradition in question.”

[7] France Mark 284. “‘The Introductory formula (containing the only use in Mark of the ‘Matthean’ term ὑποκριτής) assumes that Isaiah’s words, which originally described the superficial religious devotion of his eighth-century contemporaries than predicting a future situation, can be directly applied to, indeed were written about, ὑμεῖς. This ‘contemporising’ use of OT texts is typical of much NT interpretation, and presupposes a typological understanding of continuity in the relationship between God and his people such that earlier events and situations appropriately serve as models for a later era of fulfilment, even though in themselves they had no predictive force.”

[8] France Mark 284. “The specific statement that the worship described is ‘vain’ undoubtedly sharpens the application, and the inclusion of διδάσκοντες fits well with the specific application of the charge to scribes rather than to the people in general, but the text even in its Hebrew form describes a worship which is based on externals and is of purely human origin, which is just the point which Jesus goes on to make about the scribal traditions, whereas the specifically LXX point that their worship is ‘in vain’ is nowhere drawn into Jesus’ comments.”

[9] France Mark 284-5. “The contrast in Isaiah between lips (words) and heart is not taken up as a regular form of expression in the gospels, but reflects an important prophetic theme…and corresponds to the charge elsewhere in the gospels that scribal religion is more concerned with external correctness than with fundamental attitudes and relationship to God…”

[10] France Mark 285. “The fundamental contrast is the last—true religion is focused on God, not a merely human activity. What comes from God has the authoritative character of ἐντολή, which requires obedience; what comes from human authority is merely παράδοσις, which may or may not be of value in itself, but cannot have the same mandatory character. Yet they have held fast to the latter, while allowing the former to go by default. ἀφίμι perhaps does not yet denote deliberate rejection, but rather a wrong sense of priorities, resuming in de facto neglect of God’s law…”

[11] Zilpha Elaw qtd in The Rev. Dr. Kate Hanch’s forthcoming book. The reflection by Elaw is from recorded in Sisters of the Spirit: Three Black Women’s Autobiographies of the Nineteenth Century ed. William L. Andrews.

For All People

Sermon on 1 Cor 9:16-23

Psalm 147:5-7 Great is our Lord and mighty in power; there is no limit to his wisdom. The Lord lifts up the lowly, but casts the wicked to the ground. Sing to the Lord with thanksgiving; make music to our God upon the harp. (44)

Introduction

For Quinn’s 7th birthday, we brought him and a few friends to see Frozen. At the time I didn’t know the hit it would be. A week later nearly every 1st grade girl sang the lyrics to Let it go! at the top of their lungs, and I knew. While I believe the movie has a profound inherent quality (of message and story), what seemed to grab the attention seven to eight year-old girls was one particular moment: Elsa breaking free from the strictures of an oppressive environment preventing her from being who she truly is.

After an angry display of her powers, Elsa hurries off. Nothing holds her back; she’s been revealed, and her only choice (so she believes) is to head off alone into the cold, dark, snowy night. And here web receive that song of liberation. As Elsa heads through snow, she shrugs off what was and embraces her newfound liberty. She’s done with everything and now: freedom. She sings while creates as she moves through snow…

It’s funny how some distance makes everything seem small
And the fears that once controlled me can’t get to me at all
It’s time to see what I can do/To test the limits and break through
No right, no wrong, no rules for me
I’m free[1]

Frozen

She creates a castle, releases her hair, and transforms her drab sensible clothing into a stunning dress made of snow and ice. This moment activated chills of every person watching it deeply longing for freedom that is freedom to just be as is! I, too, found myself caught up in the momentum as Elsa’s rejected her captivity to what was.

Let it go, let it go/Can’t hold it back anymore
Let it go, let it go/Turn away and slam the door
I don’t care what they’re going to say
Let the storm rage on
The cold never bothered me anyway

Frozen

Elsa finally gets to just live as she wants to as she is. Elsa is the self-proclaimed queen of her kingdom of ice-olation. She’s free. Or is she?

1 Corinthians 9:18-19, 22-23

Then what is my wage? So that while preaching good tidings I might establish the good news without expense in order not to make full use of my personal ability and power in the good news. For being free from all people I bring myself under subjection to/for all people, so that I might gain many more people (1 Cor 9:18-19).

In the Corinthian situation of chapter 9, Paul is still addressing those whom he addressed earlier in chapter 8. In view are “the strong”—those who feel confident in what they know to be true and in their faith, and those who are economically and socially empowered to participate in this or that event or meal.[2] Chapter 9 is Paul’s further clarifying what he means about the freedom of the gospel for the one who is justified by faith in Christ alone apart from works.

Paul explains to the Corinthians that he received the gospel freely—the good tidings came to him of no charge and was not a product of his own doing (he didn’t earn it or produce it of his own works). He confesses he is without boasting here[3] because he received this gift freely, and he is compelled[4] to preach this good news because he’s been entrusted with this proclamation in word and deed.[5] As Paul freely receives, he freely gives—not from threat of hell or reward of heaven, but just because he cannot do any other in his conformity to Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit who is the foundation of his faith.[6] He hinges it all to this purpose: so as not to make full use of my power and ability in the good news. In other words, Paul has not employed all of his rights to receive wages for his work, which he has entitlement to; he foregoes those by working with his hands to support himself. [7] Thus he exhorts the strong[8]: forego your own entitlement just as I have. [9]

And then with grand emphasis Paul dives deeper into the concept of gospel founded freedom: being free from all people I bring myself under subjection to/for all people (v.19).[10] I love studying languages. The more I study different languages, the more I enjoy my own language and the nitty gritty of grammar, word choice, and sentence structure. So, here I am compelled to highlight the importance of prepositions and cases because Paul is intentional with them. To speak of gospel freedom, for Paul, is to speak not only of freedom from other people (Ελευθερος…ων εκ παντων, the genitive prepositional phrase of belonging) but precisely that this freedom from is hardwired toward freedom to and for other people (πασιν, the dative case carrying with it the “to/for” prepositions, the case of the indirect object).[11]

For Paul, to be truly free is seeing your freedom from as freedom for and to other people. For “the strong” in Corinth this means that their freedom, if it truly is freedom, is not about an ardent insistence for their entitlements and rights. Rather, it’s for the weaker: those who don’t have what they have, those who don’t have access to what they have access to, those who are restricted in their ability to move about and do this and do that because of their dependence on other people and institutions.[12] Paul tells “the strong”: to/for the weak I became weak in that I might gain the weak (v.22). And then he concludes with …to all people I became all things so that I might rescue some. It is anathema for Paul that the believer would use her freedom to secure her entitlement. Instead, for Paul, his freedom from having to justify himself through works of the law is now freedom for those trapped in totalitarian religious and social systems. For Paul, this is the definition of what it means to act like Christ;[13] this is cruciform humanity in encounter with God in the event of faith that produces true freedom.[14]

Conclusion

So, back to Elsa. Is Elsa free when she tromps off into the wild winter night? Is she free as she constructs that stunning palace and her new persona unburdened by demands and expectations of others? No. She’s not free. She’s not acquired freedom but imprisonment. Freedom from when it stops there becomes a prison of the self. In order to maintain that type of freedom you must always pull back and away until you’re isolated. Then you must defend that isolation because freedom (strictly) from can never be free in the presence of another person. If my freedom is defined solely as freedom from (the law, from others, from obligation, from demand, etc.) then I’m not free because I can neither participate in those things nor not feel threatened by their presence indicating my limitedness. I’m not free if I’m limited by the threat of external things; this is the definition of enslavement. If I must have my way, I’m not free.

Elsa doesn’t become truly free until she figures out how to use her power in the presence of other people. Once she realizes love is the controlling factor, she’s released unto real freedom and can exist as is with others—not in her freedom from fueled by anger and rage keeping her isolated but freedom from that is drawn by love to be freedom to and for other people. Compare what she creates to protect herself from others and what she creates for others: in her freedom from she builds an ice palace, locking her away from others and in her freedom to and for she summons a summer snowfall, lays out an ice skating rink, and a snow cloud to protect Olaf.

Beloved, you’re free. God in God’s freedom freely descended because God so loved the world, the creation, the cosmos, so loved you to rescue everything and everyone from the powers of sin, darkness, and death; this is the content of the gospel, of the good news made flesh in Christ Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. That divine freedom is now our freedom from the powers of sin, darkness, and death to be free by faith and not works into grace, light, and life for and to others who are also the objects of divine love. To “share in the nature of the gospel” [15] is to stand with the oppressed, the marginalized, the suffering and hurting, the wounded and sick, the hindered and ostracized. (There is no better expression of freedom than to willingly stand in solidarity with struggling humanity.) Where there are the sick, we become as the sick to rescue the sick from death; where there are those fighting for the right to breath, we become as those fighting for the right to breath to rescue those who are fighting for the right to breath from death; where there are those who have been displaced, we become as those being displaced to rescue the displaced from death. In our freedom from we count it not for us to seize for ourselves but for and to others; for it is this very thing God did for us.


[1] Let it Go! From the move Frozen Written by: Kristen Anderson-Lopez / Robert Lopez Performed by Idina Menzel

[2] And all of this is a further elaboration of chapter 6 where Paul addresses the body and what to do with it.

[3] Anthony Thiselton The First Epistle to the Corinthians TNIGTC 695, “Paul has explained that the can glory or boast only where the principle of ‘freely you received, freely give’ operates, and when a renunciation of ‘rights is entirely voluntary. This cannot apply in his particular case to the act of preaching alone or to proclamation itself, for, like Jeremiah, in every account of his call Paul insists that God’s compulsion presses upon him.”

[4] Thiselton 696, “It is agony if Paul tries to escape form the constraints and commission which the love and grace of ‘the hound of heaven’ presses upon him. With this further logical step glorying (καυχημα) begins to slip back subtly into boasting.”

[5] Keep in mind that as Paul exhorted the Corinthians to treat their bodies well because they are the temples of God (the Holy Spirit), so to is Paul. And, thus, as Paul has received the good news, he has received it as the scribe and the scroll, as the messenger and the message in a bottle. This is why Paul is under Holy Spirit inspired compulsion to proclaim the good news: he is the temple of God proclaiming the good tidings of God (this links him with the great prophetic tradition that precedes him).

[6] Thiselton 697, “The whole argument hinges on sovereign grace, and that it is in freely giving in response to God’s free gift that καυχημα, grounds for taking delight in what one gives, becomes possible only within a framework where pressure and law do not apply: free gift in response to free gift. It is in giving that the believe receives, not as some ‘external’ reward, but through the internal grammar of the blessedness of giving which is a stamp of identification with the cross.”

[7] Collins qtd in Thiselton 697, “‘The object of Paul’s boasting is not the preaching of the gospel…Pauls’ boast is that he has not made use of the rights to which he is entitled…to support himself by the work of his own hands.’”

[8] Martin qtd in Thiselton 698, “‘Paul’s pointed surrender of his eleutheria and exousia (as one of the strong) is therefore…directed precisely at those who have these things and resist giving them up, that is, those of higher status.’”

[9] Thiselton 697, “This verse explicates the point just made above. Only by gratuitously proclaiming the gospel gratis can Paul go beyond the preaching which God has pressed upon him as an inescapable, not voluntary, task, and there by go the extra mile.’ To do this, however, he must forego a right, as he pleads with ‘the strong’ among his readers to do.”

[10] Thiselton 700, “Since ελευθερος is so strongly emphatic, we may retain the positive term free … to denote the Corinthian catchword taken up by Paul, but also combine it with NJB’s subtle use of the negative though I as no a slave to any human being, I put myself in slavery to all people…”

[11] Thiselton 701, “Paul very subtly but also emphatically presses in what precise sense Christian believers and Christian leaders are free and in what sense voluntary slavery performs a wholesome, even essential, saving purpose in Christ-like obedience and love for other.”

[12] Thiselton 705 “In this context the weak may mean those whose options for life and conduct where severely restricted because of their dependence on the wishes of patrons, employers, or slave owners.”

[13] Thiselton 706, “The weak stand in contrast to those with ‘social power, influence, political status…ability to competence in a variety of areas’ and by contrast have ‘low social standing’ and crave for identity, recognition, and acceptance. Paul’s foregoing of his rights to a ‘professional’ status by functioning as a religious rhetorician for a patron and toiling as an artisan demonstrate his solidarity with the weak both as a missionary and pastoral strategist and in Christlike behavior.”

[14] Thiselton 708, “Paul does all that he does to make transparent by his everyday life in the public domain the character of the gospel which he proclaims as the proclamation of the cross…, which derives its character, and not simply its ‘benefits,’ from Christ himself.”

[15] Thiselton 707, “To stand alongside the Jews, the Gentile, the socially dependent and vulnerable, or to live and act in solidarity with every kind of person in every kind of situation is to have a share in the nature of the gospel, i.e., to instantiate what the gospel is and how it operates.”

Are You Free?

Sermon on 1 Cor 8:1-13

Psalm 111:1-3 Hallelujah! I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the assembly of the upright, in the congregation. Great are the deeds of the Lord! they are studied by all who delight in them. His work is full of majesty and splendor, and his righteousness endures for ever.

Introduction

I was taken with the idea that love never participated with law. I was deeply invested in pursuing what seemed a clear and eternal divergence between divine command and promise, following closely to a specific reading of Martin Luther’s theology—the distinction between law and gospel. In this scheme, to be in a loving relationship with someone else means never making any demands on them. Here, Love is about creating space for that person to be as they are wherever they are whenever they are; this was the liberty of God’s grace, the freedom in Christ: true rest from the demands to “perform” and “people please” and “earn righteousness through work” and thus “true life”. While some of these ideas find some grounding (albeit with intentional nuancing), the underbelly of this theology wasn’t rest, freedom, and life but increased suffering, burden, and death. Well, it was rest for one group and toil for everyone else not in that group.

Then one day as I stood in a large church auditorium like sanctuary, watching a video of people talking about the liberative experience of this specific interpretation of God’s love and grace, I saw it. It was the last video. A married couple was sharing their story. The husband spoke about how wonderful this conception of grace was because now he comes home from work and there is no expectation on him to help with the kids or other events, he can rest if he wants to—fall back on the couch, kick shoes off, grab a beer, and watch some tv. Then the camera turned to the wife. “Yeah…,” she said half-heartedly. “It’s great because now when he helps, he wants to.” While her words affirmed her husband’s experience, her face and her eyes told me everything I needed to know. She was not free. She was not rested. She was exhausted, burdened, and suffering by being stripped of any ability to ask for help and to confess pain and discomfort because it would be “law” to him and thus “condemnation.” She was dead. When you see death, you can never unsee death.

That image—her face, her desperate eyes—fuels my academic and pastoral pursuits now as I’ve walked away from that destructive theology.[1] Liberty and freedom in Christ brings liberty and freedom to all and not at the expense of another’s body, mind, soul, and spirit. A relationship is only loving and free where both people in the relationship are mutually engaged in each other’s thriving not in turning a blind eye to things. Where both step into the exposing light of love calling a thing what it is and are willing to do self-reckoning work.

1 Corinthians 8:8-13

Now, “food of any kind will not prove us to God.” Neither if we do not eat are we lacking, nor if we eat are we over and above. But discern carefully this power to act of yours does not become a stumbling block for the weak.

1 Corinthians 8:8-9, translation mine

Paul proclaimed that the believer is justified by faith in Christ (ευαγελλιον) apart from works of the law. She need only faith in Christ, and this becomes the sole foundation of her justification and righteousness with God—there are no works of the law that can justify or make righteous as completely as faith does. Thus, the believer is liberated from the threat of condemnation and death that leads to death and is now free to love God and neighbor. There is nothing that can or will separate her from the love (presence) of God—not even hell. This is the freedom Paul proclaims to his fledgling churches: freedom inherent in the event of encounter with God in faith liberating into life and living. God in Christ comes to the believer, calls her, and rescues her from death into new life in the Spirit. This is grace.

In chapter 8 of 1 Corinthians, Paul pumps the freedom brakes. He details guidelines for the Corinthian believers finding themselves in a conundrum. Some believers are fine eating meat “associated with offerings to pagan deities.”[2] They are whom Paul refers to as “the strong”—a phrase referring to both those confident in their faith and who were wealthy and had access the occasions to eat such meat.[3] Paul writes, while it is true that neither eating nor abstaining from this meat has an impact on their presence before God, it may have an impact on those “weaker” brothers and sisters—those who were both insecure in their faith (unsure about what is okay and not okay) and lower in social status.

Paul challenges the knowledge (γνωσις) of “the strong” resulting in their liberty to eat what they want and do what they please. Paul declares that knowledge (alone) puffs up and inflates and lures toward being an imposter; but paired with love it builds up authentically edifying both the beloved and the lover (vv. 1-2).[4] In other words, “the strong” should keep γνωσις yoked to αγαπη (love): even if they are free to eat, they should care more for their “weak” brother or sister who didn’t have the same access to such food and security in the liberty of their actions.[5]

Paul makes it clear that this love isn’t self-generated but imparted in the encounter with God in the event of faith (v.3). To love God is to be loved by God and known by God; this becomes the foundation for the love fractal. As we are loved by God, we love that which and those whom God loves seeing and knowing those whom God loves by seeing and knowing them, too.[6]

Paul’s point isn’t to side with the “strong” Corinthians or the “weak”, but to say: the composition of the conscience (secure or insecure) can lean toward a miscalculation about what is right to do and what is wrong.[7] Operating out of fear is as problematic as operating out of abundance of confidence. Paul warns “the strong” that their supposed liberty isn’t a reason for autonomous activity without considering the effect on others. [8] It’s not strictly about intent for Paul, these Christians may truly believe they’re free. Impact must also factor in here. For Paul, this is done with freedom wedded to love. Just because you can, says Paul, doesn’t mean you should because it may cause others to be polluted by being tripped up by your actions. [9] For Paul, a future forward ethic keeping in mind the potential impact of one’s actions/words on other brothers and sisters is the definition of freedom

Conclusion

For those who have followed Jesus out of the Jordan and for those who have ears pricked and heads turned hearing Christ call them by name, what is freedom for you? To follow Jesus as disciples means that freedom is going to take on an orientation toward the other. A cruciform freedom puts “weak” brothers and sisters before us. This is not to the loss of our freedom as if we lose ourselves, but in that we have received ourselves in the love of God in the encounter with God in faith, we enter into the plight with our brothers and sisters. True freedom for me is actualized only in freedom for you; if you are not free, am I free? [10] It becomes about mutuality. Mujerista theologian Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz explains,

“Commitment to mutuality is not a light or easy matter. It involves all aspects of one’s life and demands a lifelong permanency. The way in which the commitment is lived out may change. From time to time one maybe less passionate about carrying out the implications of mutuality, but somehow to go back and place oneself in a position of control and domination over others is to betray others and oneself. Such a betrayal, which most of the time occurs by failing to engage in liberative praxis rather than by formal denunciation, results in the ‘friends’ becoming oppressors once again and in the oppressed losing their vision of liberation.”[11]

Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz Mujerista Theology p. 100

If I in my strength cannot tame my liberty and walk with you so you can have your liberty, then I’m not free. If I cannot deem the liberties and freedoms of others as important as mine, then I have not freedom but bondage. If I am threatened by you having as much liberty and freedom as I do, I’m not free. If my autonomy must eclipse and ignore your need; I’m not free but captive.[12]

To be free, to be truly free isn’t to claim your rights as absolutes and acting on them no matter what. To be free, to be truly free is to say with Christ: into this I can enter with you. (This is solidarity.) Freedom can both break the law and obey it because it knows when to do which. If we’re free, then we are free–free to share in the burden of existence while trying to alleviate the yoke of suffering without losing our freedom. If stepping into the anxiety, fears, and concerns of our neighbor means we’ve lost our freedom then we didn’t have freedom to begin with. If we are unable to hear the cries of the weak, to listen to their stories of suffering, and affirm their lived experience, we’re not strong. So, beloved of God, you who are sought and called and loved by God: Are you strong? Are you free?


[1] I give credit for the start of this journey to two colleagues: Dr. Dan Siedell and Dr. W. Travis McMaken.

[2] Anthony Thiselton The First Epistle to the Corinthians TNIGTC 620

[3] Thiselton “ε`ιδωλο’θυτα And the Scope of the Corinthian Catchprhases” 617  “…if Theissen and the majority of specialist writers are correct in their sociological analysis of the identities of ‘the strong’ and ‘the weak,’ the issue of eating meat, together with its scarcity for the poor and the variety of social occasions for the rich, has a decisive bearing on Paul’s discussion.”

[4] Thiselton 622 In re γνωσις Gardner “[compares] the contrast between ‘knowledge’ and love in this verse with the parallel contrast between 13:1-1 and the two chapters on ‘spiritual gifts’ which provide its frame. He sis that γνωσις is practical; but its nature and its relation to love can profoundly determine what kind of practical effects it set in motion.” And, “Love, by contrast, builds solidly, and does not pretend to be what it is not. If it gives stature to a person or to community, that enlargement remains solid and genuine.” “knowledge inflates” “φυσιοω suggests the self-importance of the frog in Aesop’s Fables, or something pretentiously enlarged by virtue of being pumped full of air or wind.”

[5] Thiselton 622-3 “Rather than seeking to demonstrate some individualist assertion of freedom or even victory, love seeks the welfare of the other. Hence if ‘the strong’ express love, they will show active concern that ‘the weak’ are not precipitated into situations of bad conscience, remorse, unease, or stumbling. Rather, the one who loves the other will consider the effect of his or her own attitudes and actions upon ‘weaker’ brothers and sisters.”

[6] Thiselton 626  “The kind of ‘knowledge which ‘the strong’ use manipulatively to assert their ‘rights’ about meat associated idols differs form an unauthentic Christian process of knowing which is inextricably bound up with loving.” And, “…it is part of the concept of authentic Christian knowing and being known that love constitutes a dimension of this process.”

[7] Thiselton 640, “Paul sides neither entirely with ‘the weak’ nor entirely with ‘the strong’ in all respects and in relation to every context or occasion. For the self-awareness or conscience of specific persons (συνεδησις αυτων) does not constitute an infallible guide to moral conduct in Pauls’ view….someone’s self-awareness or conscience may be insufficiently sensitive to register negative judgment or appropriate discomfort in some context…and oversensitive to the point of causing mistaken judgment or unnecessary discomfort in others.”

[8] Thiselton 644, “Paul is not advocating the kind of ‘autonomy’ mistakenly regarded widely today as ‘liberty of conscience.’ Rather, he is arguing for the reverse. Freedom and ‘rights’….must be restrained by self-discipline for the sake of love for the insecure or the vulnerable, for whom ‘my freedom’ might be ‘their ruin.’ This ‘freedom’ may become ‘sin against Christ (8:12).”

[9] Thiselton 654 “By projecting the ‘weak’ into this ‘medium” of γνωσις, the ‘strong’ bring such a person face-to-face with utter destruction. What a way to ‘build’ them!”

[10] Thiselton 650-1, “For in the first case, ‘the weak’ or less secure are tripped up and damaged by the self-assertive behavior of the overconfident; while in the second place it is putting the other before the self, manifest in the transformative effect of the cross, which causes the self-sufficient to turn away….True ‘wisdom’ is seen in Christ’s concern for the ‘weak” and the less secure, to the point of renouncing his own rights, even to he death of the cross.”

[11] Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz Mujerista Theology: A Theology for the Twenty-First Century Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1996. 100.

[12] Thiselton 657-8, “Chrysostom comments, ‘It is foolish in the extreme that we should esteem as so entirely beneath our notice those that Christ so greatly cared for that he should have even chosen to die for them, as not even to abstain from meat on their account.’ This comment captures very well the key contrast through this chapter between asserting one’s own ‘right to choose’ and reflecting with the motivation of love for the other what consequences might be entailed for fellow Christians if self-centered ‘autonomy’ rules patters of Christian attitudes and conduct. It has little or nothing to do with whether actions ’offend’ other Christians in the modern sense of causing psychological irritation annoyance, or displeasure at a purely subjective level. It has everything to do with whether such attitudes and actions cause damage, or whether they genuinely build not just ‘knowledge’ but Christian character and Christian community.”

Sex and Revolution II: Eros, Theology, Revolution

Sancta Colloquia Episode 307 ft. Mason Mennenga

In this episode Mason Mennenga (@masonmennenga) joins me and we talk about the need for a new theology of sex. As I mention in my introductory thoughts, there’s a need to reevaluate the current and negatively pervasive theology of sex. It’s notable and not farfetched to say that our conceptions of sex and marriage coming in from both media and the church are inherently flawed and warped by historic misconceptions and fear of eros. In simpler words: there’s a rampant fear of desire that is woven through the Church’s doctrine of sex and in the culture/media. Both church and culture are bound in the extremes. We need to take seriously that as whole human beings we are wholly spiritual and wholly material and do not divide well. What we think about capital and production will impact our intimacy will impact our spirituality will impact our existence. The sad thing is that, as Mason said, we don’t reimagine constructs but just try to fit new things into old paradigms. Mason makes a really good point: we must go beyond merely speaking of revising or recreating a sex-ethic, we need an actual theology of sex that undergirds this new sex-ethic. One of the ways in which we can go about doing such a necessary revision is to actually…get ready for this…think of Jesus as a sexual being. According to Mason, in making space for thinking of the sexuality of Jesus’s context and Jesus as a sexual being, we allow ourselves or open ourselves to being confronted. Referencing Marcella Althaus Reed, Mason drives home the need for us to be confronted, interrogated and provoked by radical images that draw theology and sex in tighter alignment. Mason also brings up the need for revisiting liturgy…we both agreed, liturgy has plenty of erotic imagery embedded in it. The church may stress (too much, in my opinion) the agapic love of God, but both the scripture and our liturgies scream erotic love. So, why not begin with re-understanding eros and going back into a theology of eros, and, wedded to this need is this one: letting the voices of the oppressed speak and determine for themselves what sex is and what sex is for. It’s time for a regime change. It’s an excellent episode, if I don’t say so myself.

Excited? You Should be. Listen here:

Interview with Mason Mennenga

Mason is a youth worker at Solomon’s Porch, Master of Divinity student, aspiring theologian, podcaster [A People’s Theology], and writer. He enjoys conversation over a drink, being a music snob, stand-up comedy, scrolling through Twitter, and a good read.

Further reading/learning:

Queer Theology: Beyond Apologetics by Linn Marie Tonstad

The Queer God by Marcella Althaus Reid

Indecent Theology: Theological Perversions in Sex, Gender and Politics by Marcella Althaus Reid