Sunday, June 30, 2013

Sermon: "SARX WARS, or, How the Apocalypse Stole My Fruits" (St. Paul and the Very Foolish Galatians 5/6)

"SARX WARS, or, How the Apocalypse Stole My Fruits of the Spirit" (St. Paul and the Very Foolish Galatians 5/6)

Preached at South Wedge Mission
Rochester, New York
30 June 2013
Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Text: Galatians 5.1, 13-25 (NRSV, Message)

Click here to listen to "Guided by the Spirit," a simple song I wrote for worship, inspired by the work of Organic Faith's "Devotion" service.


-So, after four weeks of theology and idolatry and time-traveling apostles, we seem to arrived at something that feels a lot more...practical.  In today’s reading from Galatians, we’re given two lists: works of the flesh, and the fruits of the Spirit.  FINALLY!  Clear.  Simple.  Practical.  God bless lists.    

-And of, if only the preacher would just focus on what to avoid so we don’t do wrong, and what to do so we can do good!  Kindness, patience, gentleness, joy, peace, generosity, and love!  You can’t go wrong with that!  And Paul says there’s now Law against these things!  So can’t we just get down to the business of talking about living the faith, about what we need to do?

-Of course...not!  And, lest you string me up and run me out of church, please allow me to blame it on St. Paul.  No, seriously, it is all Paul’s fault.   With a little assistance from our good old friend, the old self/idol-maker, the Ego.  Because, see, Paul isn’t ready to give us the to-do’s yet.  (That’s next week, I promise!)  But where a book of the Bible holds out a list, the Ego in us is ready to be be taken in, like a toddler running full speed at a clear glass door.  The ensuing result can be pretty hilarious - but also, is a case in missing the point!

-Because, see, Paul is still telling the story.  The same story he’s been telling this whole letter.  The Gospel of Freedom.  The Good News about how Christ has come to set us free.  Free from all the ways in which we ourselves, and others, try to define who we are by standards other than God’s promises, and how Christ comes to reclaim us from deception for Himself.  It’s important enough to him to tell it one more time.  Except, this time, on a massive, epic, even COSMIC scale.  

-But first, let’s recap.  See, Paul started out with the story of the Gospel.  The cross.  Then showed how it changed his own story.  Then how it challenged the story of the early church, particularly between codependent Peter and Paul.  And then, he showed how it changes each of our stories, as Christ comes to dwell supernaturally in our hearts.  THEN, he showed how all of our stories are part of Israel’s story - the story of an exodus from slavery into freedom.  And now, for the grand finale, the final cosmic confrontation.  The Last Battle.  The End of Time. (WARNING: Excessive Sci-fi referencing ahead)  

-Now, you might be wondering, if it’s all so cosmic, then where exactly are all the, you know, cosmic thingies?  Shouldn’t there be X-Wings and Death Stars, or Cybernetic Archangels and Demon Hunters and Klingons and Daleks and the like?  

-Well, there is.  Not Daleks, sadly.  But believe it or not, Paul finally peels back the curtain of the present moment to reveal the greater drama going on, in, behind and through every day events.  What we call “apocalyptic,” which is just Greek for a “revealing.”  He’s just waited all this time, because he wanted us to make sure we understood the stakes in our own lives and the work of Christ, before rocketing us into the next realm.  Cause frankly, if he led with Daleks, I would have been just fine staying there.

-The cosmic battle is against something far more insidious.  It’s called “the Flesh.”  Or, in Greek, the “Sarx.”  Throughout much of the history of Christianity, it’s been common to identify the Sarx with the body.  Or, rather, for people who have it in for the body to identify them.  Particularly when people dislike or want to control the particular color, gender, sexuality, or ethnicity of that particular body.  Or, just want to make it seem like Christianity hates bodily things.    

-Which is just plain nonsense in light of Christ’s Incarnation.  Jesus takes ON flesh - not Sarx with a capital S, but actual flesh and bone and muscle.  Jesus becomes human, thereby redeeming and transfiguring material reality.  So even if unhealthy humans have often been rather masochistic towards their bodies, it’s not something that came from the God who shaped bodies from dust, kissed them with the breath of life, and called them Good.  

-En contraire, for Paul, Sarx is something quite different.  Sarx is more like a kind of cosmic power, an entity, a disembodied shadow thing that is everywhere present and nowhere visible in itself.  The Sarx is a kind of Matrix, that human beings have created, continue to fuel, and cannot control.  It is a power that is fundamentally opposed to God.  

-But it’s not a demon or a Satan or the Dark Side.  More like a Frankenstein monster, or a Terminator, or Neo’s machines.  That’s key.  Its the collective consciousness of our self-focused, self-made, self-perpetuating works.  It is an idol.  The Idol.  And it is an Idol that has stolen a life of its own.  From our lives.  Stolen power.  Out of the ruins of our freely surrendered freedom.  Assimilated us into the Borg collective.  Turned us into Darth Vaders.  Half-human; half-machine.  Fully enslaved.     

-We know it is there, claims Paul, because its works are evident.  And I think that the Eugene Peterson Message translation really captures this poignantly.  Let’s hear it again: 

It is obvious what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time: repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness;  20 trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits;  21 the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community. I could go on.

-We know it is there, in other words, because it pretty much describes the broken world that we all live in.  The broken world that we ourselves have made in our own image.  The broken world in which power is about competing and controlling one another.  The world that seems so real and immediate, and yet, feels so fake, and so fleeting, so unfulfilling.  The world that is a mirror of our own darkness.  

-Sort of like a prison.  Or a Matrix.  The Sarx is what happens when we take the image of God in us - the capacity for limitless and bountiful creation in community - and we turn it to our own devices.  When we make reality all about us, when we create idols and then believe their promises.  It’s a prison.  And in trying to make each other into each other’s slaves, we all end up slaves of the Sarx.

-And the Sarx grows and becomes more its own entity because it feeds on our actions.  It can only exist, in fact, by the unrestrained actions of self-serving human will.  If we all suddenly stopped being selfish, it would vanish.  It would be powerless.  But we cannot stop.  And the more we struggle to overcome it by trying to be “good,” the more we create its power.  And with it, its systems of oppression, and of slavery, of abuse, and of destruction.  We are the human batteries that keep the Matrix turned on.  

-Pretty bleak, right?  But see how it’s cosmic?  How Sarx and Sin are so much more than simply character defects that keep us from being existentially fulfilled?  The power of the Ego, of Idolatry, and of Sin, it spoils the story.  From the most personal life to the farthest-reaching corners of the cosmos.  It takes good things, good gifts, like sex, and food, and beverages, and words, and relationships, and joy, and celebration, and community - and twists them all into chains of shame and self-seeking.  It takes life, and turns it into a desert of isolation and loneliness.  

-Paul puts it quite bluntly: if we bite and ravage one another, in no time we will annihilate one another. Consume each other.  Exterminate one another.  I’d definitely take the Daleks over that.  

-But see, I wonder if there’s another reason Paul has held off on the whole cosmic Sarx thing until now.  Because, see, if all along we could just blame some cosmic baddie like the Sarx for all of our problems, we probably wouldn’t have listened to the other stuff.  About salvation.  And our desperate need for it.   

-I wonder if Paul wanted to help us see how we were powerless first.  On our own, ordinary, every day terms.  That our lives are unmanageable, our anti-creations beyond our control.  And the story of the Sarx, portrayed here - it’s like that scene in a sci-fi movie when a character gets a glimpse of the ravaged future.  “This is where your will takes you” says the guide or mentor.  This is the end.  You live in the moment before the end.  But this desolation - that’s the result.  It’s where we’re headed.  

-Because with Sin and Ego, with Sarx and Self, we are playing with power we do not understand.  Our actions have consequences and responsibilities to them far beyond the scope of our comprehension.  Like bad karma channelled into a dark crystal and then placed in the heart of a chaos bomb that will consume individuals, friendships, communities, histories, ecosystems, worlds, the entire cosmos.  And what we thought was freedom to do what we wanted "as long as it doesn't hurt others" - that's the Sarx too.  Playing us with the song of self that we first sang.  A song that has become a dirge.  

-But that’s not all that Paul has given us.  Because he’s also given us the story of the resistance.  The way out.  The story of God’s very nature in Christ Jesus, coming to dwell supernaturally within us.  Paul’s given us the Gospel, the story of how when we were powerless - not powerful - Christ came to set us free.  And with Christ, the Sarx has been crucified and defeated.   

-The battle cry.  “For freedom,” he declares, “Christ has set us free!  So do not submit!  Do not give back your power and your lives and your freedom to the Sarx!  If you haven’t gotten it by now, then look at this final, apocalyptic vision, and take the better path.  The path, not of Self and Ego.  But of Love.  And Faith.  And Joy.  And Patience.  And Gentleness.  And Kindness.  And Generosity.  Take the path that I am giving to you.  The path that leads to the fruits of the Spirit."   

-For freedom Christ has set us free!  And along with a vision of armageddon, Paul also paints a more powerful portrait of freedom, of a kind of Eden, in which human beings follow the Law of Love, and so, share the Fruits of the Tree of Life and of Knowledge.  The Fruits of the Spirit.  The practices of community with God and neighbor.

-And see, that list of “fruits of the Spirit” - it’s not just a check list of how to be a good person.  Even if it were, the Sarx would just find a way to use it to compare, and to hold power over others.  “Well, if HE really believed in God, then he’d show more patience,” or, “look at how I’ve collected seven of nine fruits!  Can’t wait to complete my full set!”  As I hope we’ve learned by now, Paul is far too clever for that.  Besides, it’s not exactly a revelation to be “kind,” right?

-Rather, I think the Fruits of the Spirit, as a kind of vision of paradise, are there as enticements.  As sweet temptations.  As a lover’s promises, set before us like a dream just about to come true.  They are what God is making us into.  Because they are, first and foremost, not about us.  They are not the Fruits of Good Deeds and Devotion.  They are the Fruits of the Spirit.  Rooted in the very character of God, shared with humanity.  

-Because it is first God who is love, love without end.  It is first God who takes joy in God’s creation and beloved children.  God who is patient and gentle and kind to us, even as we are impatient and violent and towards him, repaying God’s generosity with a cross and a collection of idols.  And, in Christ, it is God who is peace, and has given us peace, and desires peace for all.  This is the character of God, revealed in the Incarnate flesh of Jesus.  And shared with us in our hearts and lives by the gift of the Spirit.  

-It’s a picture of who God is making us.  A promise of what we will be.  Hear the Message again: 

He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments,  23 not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.

-And it’s also a pathway.  To follow in the footsteps of the Lover.  Or, if you like, a collection of clues, foretastes, bread crumbs.  Eucharist crumbs.  Hints of heaven.  Fruit snacks.  So that it’s not so much “did I achieve kindness today,” as it is, “I seemed to be able to exhibit kindness to the guy who was pissing me off, a kindness far beyond my ability.  I wonder where that came from?  I’ll follow where it leads.”

-As you may have heard, fruit grows from seeds.  And see, in giving us the Spirit, God has planted, not so much full-grown fruits, as tiny seeds.  Or, in a way, a Holy Kudzu, Benign Viruses or White Blood Cells, that are slowly but surely eating away at the cancerous chains of the Sarx’s slavery.  Grace is downloaded into our Sarx-systems and, day by day, step by step, and failure by failure, is transforming us.  Making us free.  Making us God.

-And that’s where the sailboat analogy comes back.  Us positioning our sails to catch it.  Because it’s not just a vision already achieved.  It’s also a present work.  Hard work.  But it’s not a chore.  Not something we should see as a tedious struggle of achievement.  Granted, it will be challenging.  As Rilke once wrote, nothing of value is without challenge.  It's learning to see the Sarx for the Matrix it is.  It's also discovering the true beauty of embodied reality, as if for the first time.  And it's a hell of a ride.  

-Like early sobriety, as addicts can tell you.  The fruits of the Spirit are the steps we take towards spiritual recovery and sobriety.  Towards a new freedom and a new happiness.  They are what is given us when we finally come to see that we are powerless to overcome this anti-creation we have spawned, this Sarx.  When we cease struggling.  And start letting God do what we cannot do for ourselves.  Then, we are given the power to take up the promises of God, and to embrace the discipline of becoming who we really are.

-And it is a discipline.  But not like punishment, which is fear-driven.  It is a discipline that leads to freedom.  That leads to fruits.  A training.  A commitment.  Just as daily weeding and watering leads to a fruitful harvest, so in our lives, the journey of commitment, into community with God and one another - of risking gentleness and generosity, faithfulness and self-control, and believing that joy can come where power is abandoned - these disciplines give us freedom to live freely, animated, guided by the Spirit of Life itself.  Commitment and submission to God and one another in prayer, worship, community, and service - that’s the freedom of love.  

-And we will find that, in fact, the whole thing is not a cosmic battle after all.  Because God is peace.  And rather than eradicate the Sarx, God is actually seeking to reclaim from the Sarx the goodness of creation.  Starting with you.  And with me.  And then, our gifts and talents and joys.  And yes, sex, and celebration, and especially, a family.  A community grown from the compost of our Sarx.  Pulling from the fertile soil of failure the blessings of the body.  Our bodies.  Our world.  And offering them back.  As gifts.  So that we may be gifts to one another.  

-So, in many ways, I can think of nothing more practical than Sarx and Spirit.  Because it is the story of us all.  Reminds us that slavery really is slavery, however good it feels in the moment.  That we really were slaves of our own making.  And that Christ truly has set us free.  Placed us on a different path.  That Christ is doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves.  It’s less a check-list of to-do’s.  More of a promise of the Power by which we can actually do good things.  The Power that makes us good.

-And that's why we cannot make this part of Galatians into a list.  Because God is not giving us the fruits of the Spirit so we can be better than others.  God is giving them to us so we can be more like God.  And so, better for others.   

-So do not submit!  Do not obey the Sarx.  Do not return to slavery.  Live free, guided by the Spirit.  Because once we have tasted life - true, abundant, completely free life - then believe me, nothing else will ever be the same again.     


Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Sermon: "Notes from Underground (Railroad), or, How Slaves Teach Us Freedom from Being Inclusive"

"Notes from Underground (Railroad), or, How Slaves Teach Us Freedom from Being Inclusive"

For South Wedge Mission
Rochester, New York
23 June 2013
Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Day Text: Galatians 3.5-29

Note: The sermon came out a disaster on Sunday night.  This manuscript represents the proclamation as I intended it.  I am glad to share it more broadly in a more fully realized form.  Thanks for your patience, as always. 


-Last week, it rained in Rochester.  I know, shocking right?  

-So we decided to take the kids to the Rochester Museum and Science Center.  Now, I’ve been going to camps and field trips there to see the Mastodons and the Iroquois longhouses ever since I was five years old.  So its always pretty special to go back, not just to see my progeny following in my footsteps of discovery and wonder, but also, to get to take my own trip down Nostalgia Street.  

-And to discover new things myself.  When we made it to the third floor, I was drawn to the fantastic exhibit telling the story of Rochester’s role in the Underground Railroad.  Which, as it took me awhile to learn, was not actually a steam-engine-driven subway from the deep south to Canada, but a network of houses, churches, tunnels, hollowed out trees, and folks willing to risk the vulnerability of radical hospitality in order to help others reach a place where their humanity was no longer placed in doubt.

-And it was particularly cool to see a map charting out the various routes folks took through the area.  To find out that some of the routes that ran through my hometown of Fairport actually closely mirrored my running routes in high school.  Or that, when I often drive to Honeoye Falls to supply preach at the Episcopal Church there, I am following in the footsteps of midnight travelers on the star light express.  And, of course, there was Frederick Douglass’ house - literally two blocks from here, where School 12 now stands, right here in our own neighborhood.

-Not only does Rochester boast a rich history of radical inclusivity on many fronts - but that, just like the railroad, it’s always been there, running underground, in the roots and soil of the places of my own life.  Hidden in plain sight.  Whispering from the past, like a family of nervous pilgrims, singing softer than a breath the lyrics to “Wade in the Water” from a hollowed out tree.

-But see, if I’m honest, I think the history, this amazing story, remains hidden from me for another reason.  Because as a Yankee who’s spent extensive time in the South, I’ve had to learn the hard truth - that in so many ways, we’re no more free of slavery than 150 years ago, when on Juneteenth, the Emancipation Proclamation finally reached the entire country.  

-It’s written in the story the statistics tell about Rochester.  Only 44% of high school seniors graduate here.  We also boast the 8th highest rate of child poverty, and despite being the richest county in New York State, over 20% of our population lives in poverty.  The great way-station of the Underground Railroad is, today, one of the most segregated cities in the country.   

-And yet, we continue to applaud ourselves on our progressive history.  My chest swells with pride, not just at what I saw at the RMSC, but also every time I walk by School 12 and think of Freddy D.  We name our bridges and our streets after him, and Susan B Anthony.  And yet, just a few weeks ago, a highly qualified candidate was denied appointment as school superintendent because he was openly gay.  

-And see, it kind of exposes the seem in our so-called “inclusivity.”  Because if you’re like me, than you like to be the Includer.  The one who knows better than those close-minded conservatives and so benevolently works to welcome everyone.  I haven’t seen a church yet that does not include the word “welcoming” or “affirming” in their mission statement.  You see, we’re blind, not only to the depth of our history, but also to the dreadful reality of the present, because of how we see ourselves.  As magnanimous progressives.  As good people who mean well.  As if that erases the color line drawn in red around the southeast quadrant of the city.  As if good intentions erases the problem of our privilege.

-Which is why, I think, it’s crucial to pay attention to what St. Paul is doing in today’s reading.  Because while it might seem like all this talk about Israel, and Abraham’s seed, and being heirs to the promise, and all that messy circumcision talk, has nothing to do with us - that it’s culturally irrelevant, that we should just get to the good ethical stuff so we can keep being “good people” - it’s actually quite vital to our transformation.

-Because, see, the great blow to our ego that white people in particular have gone to great lengths throughout history to avoid, is that we aren’t, and have never really been, the Includers.  Or, if we’ve been in that role, we are Includers more in the cast of Pharaoh, seeking to enslave others.  Or like Columbus, using religion and the rhetoric of progress to subjugate and subdue.  Or like the Nazis, who like us were well-intentioned Lutherans - they even founded a peace corp! - and yet, had to have a scapegoat.

-We are quick to use our self-proclaimed status as Includers to place the requirement of a certain circumcision - a mutilation of colored bodies and souls - for inclusion.  Except that inclusion is most often made in our own image.  Stacked in our favor.  A benefit to our own power and privilege.

-And, at the heart of it, is a basic forgetfulness of a Gospel truth that Israel’s story tells us.  That we are not, and never have been, the Includers.  That’s a role we give ourselves, and we are not good at it.  What Israel’s story tells us is that we are, in fact, already always the Included.  

-And here we are, back in our study of Galatians at our themes of idolatry and Gospel, of identity before action, of promises centered on the black hole of our egos, rather than pouring forth from the burning star of the cross of Christ.  Because guess what - like the Judaizers, our privilege makes us quite skilled at manipulating the promises of God to suit our own ends.  And it is always at cost to the community.

-See, the story of Israel is definitely about inclusivity.  But it’s always about being Included.  I don’t think its coincidence that here, precisely here when he is hammering his point home, Paul invokes the most fundamental family story of the descendants of Abraham.  That’s when God promises Abe that his descendants would be more numerous than the stars, and called him to become an illegal immigrant to a foreign land, all on the basis of trust in God’s promise.  And as a sign of the covenant of love between God and God’s people, circumcision was given.  Not as a requirement, but as a sign, a reflection of an Inclusion already accomplished.  A mark, like a brutal wedding ring, sealing the Chosen People as Chosen.  As Included, called to proclaim to the nations the story of the Creator as the great Includer of all nations in the blessings of the good world.  

-Incidentally, circumcision is a lot like baptism.  A sacrament, often done to us, before were even aware or able to act out of our privilege, marking in our flesh and hearts that we are claimed and loved by the Including God.  Pretty sweet, I think.  And thank God we drew the water card, rather than the moil!

-But see, Paul pulls one over on his readers.  Because he claims that in fact, the heir to the promise, the one who is to become the true Includer, is not the Judaizers, who have taken that mantle on themselves.  It’s not even the Jews, who as the Old Testament makes clear, are not unlike us in their repeated failures to include, turning inclusion into exclusion and warfare and genocide.  

-No, the true Includer is the One Jew, Jesus Christ, who on the cross, fulfills the mission of Israel in reconciling and gathering to the God of Israel all nations and peoples.  See, the basis of inclusion in Israel’s story is always the action of God.  It is always God, first through Israel, and ultimately, Incarnate in Christ Jesus, who shows us what Inclusion looks like.  It looks like becoming nothing.  Letting go of the privilege of being the Creator of the Universe.  In order to take on the form of a slave.  Dying.  Being emptied of power.  Being utterly excluded by self-proclaimed Includers.  For the sake of making the Excluders into the Included.

-And see, in both circumcision, and in the other Jewish sacrament, the Passover, the Jewish people remember themselves again and again as the Included.  Frequently in the telling of stories around the sharing of a meal that tastes of the freedom of liberation from slavery in Egypt, they remember that “a wandering Aramean was our father,” and remember God as “the one who called us out of Egypt.”  Their fundamental identities?  As former aliens and slaves whom God, and not humans, Included and blessed.

-What I’m trying to say is this: in remembering that it is in Christ that the Including God is making us the Included, we must remember, with our Jewish brothers and sisters, the hard fact that we are always already included by a power greater than ourselves.  A power and a love that makes nonsense of our delusions of progress and our myths of magnanimity.  Because Christians didn’t invent this thing.  Neither did Jews.  Through Christ, we outsiders, we gentiles, we sinners, are Included into Israel’s song - and Israel in turn has been Included in that song by God.  

-And we are made the Included for the sake, not merely of including others, but of witnessing to the story of the God who has always already included others.  That’s one reason why, in the Mission’s inclusivity statement, we tried to put the emphasis on God’s action: God’s family already includes people of all races, genders, sexualities, ethnicities, classes, ages, etc.  We’re just trying to catch up.  Because the emphasis in our witness is never on what we do or how good we think we are.  It’s on the objective and indisputable goodness of who God is and what GOD has done.  

-And see, when Paul writes that beautiful declaration of freedom - that “there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female, for all are one in Christ Jesus” - it is not an option.  It’s not a choice.  Not something dependent on our slave-making other-excluding privileged inclusivity.  It is not arbitrary, and people’s identities are not up for a vote or tied to our level of enlightenment.  They are hidden in Christ.  No election, referendum, court decision or prejudice can change this truth.  

-We are free because, like the Hebrew slaves led out of Egypt and like Father Abraham, an alien called home, God has acted for us.  We are children of God.  That is who we are.  And nothing, nothing in all of creation can altar that fact.  It is a promise and a covenant from the Creator of the Universe, signed with the mark of a cross in the blood of Jesus.  We are all named as the Included.  Or Christ died for nothing.

-Which, I think, means a very different stance on the very practical issue of inclusivity.  Because I wonder what the church would look like that writes in its mission statement: “we are the Included, and so are you,” rather than “we are inclusive and welcoming,” when we aren’t.  What it would look like to declare, not the beauty of our own inclusivity or the generosity of our own benevolence, but rather, to proclaim, again and again without apology, the Gospel of God’s grace, love and God’s claiming of God’s children, through God’s own Exclusion from us.  If the focus was, in other words, on the promises and the actions of God, rather than on our own promises and failures.

-It might look a lot like having way fewer words and ideals and phrases.  It might change where we live, who our friends are, and who befriends us.  It might upset us and our pride.  It might reduce us to fear and awe.  It might just lead us to get in trouble with the powers as we testify to the basic humanity of ourselves and others.  Because in affirming this truth in them, we must also affirm it in ourselves.  

-But it also does this: because the story of Israel is our story, hidden underneath our well-trodden paths of Christianity and social gospel and good intentions, just as the Underground Railroad was hidden from me at home.  It’s always been there.  And I’d wager that those who risked their lives as conductors on that railroad, I like to think that while they welcomed the stranger and the slave with radical hospitality, that they were also blessed.  Blessed by the songs that the slaves sang, of Abraham, and of Moses, and of the Exodus, and of freedom.  

-And I like to think that, it wasn’t so much Includers saving the outcasts.  Maybe it was more like a people who, freshly aware of the freedom of being Included by a God of Justice and Love, sharing this Good News in spirituals and in their very bodies, a reminder to the privileged that they too were Included.  They too could remember the stories of Israel.  Their story.  They too were slaves who were freed.  They were being liberated by the Gospel witness of colored bodies they had once tried to hide.  That on the Underground Railroad, freedom worked both ways.  Because, bound by chains of privilege and ego, we were slaves too.  

-And I wonder if, letting go of the idols of our own need to feel inclusive, might allow the church in Rochester to reclaim both histories.  To become Gentiles included into the story of the freed slaves of Israel.  And so, to allow our communities to become Underground Railroad stations once more, on the Gospel line of grace, guided by the North Star of the Magi towards a new freedom and a new happiness.  Where we seek, not to be Includers, but simply allow ourselves to be, as Included.  Singing the songs of the slaves, from Israel to the United States.  Running an underground movement of joy and liberation ready to share with others the path to a new creation.  And, in welcoming them, to be reminded of this path ourselves.  

-There’s a freedom train a-comin’.  Get on board, get on board.  That’s underground.  That’s radical.  That’s the promise of God in Christ to us.  Let’s sing it.   


Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Sermon: "Justification on a Spaceship! or, St. Paul Comes to Call (A Homiletic Drama)"

"Justification on a Spaceship!  or, St. Paul Comes to Call (A Homiletic Drama)"
-St. Paul and the Very Foolish Galatians Part 3/6-

Preached/Performed at South Wedge Mission
Rochester, New York
16 June 2013
Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Text: Galatians 2.15-3.1

Regular Text: Pastor Matthew, portrayed on Sunday by Pastor Matthew
Bold Text: St. Paul, portrayed on Sunday by Alex Koroleski


-Grace, mercy and peace is yours from the Triune God (amen).

OK, so as those of you who’ve been following along at home know, we’ve been doing a “sermon series” on St. Paul and his letter to the Galatians. This week. we’re going to hit up a topic much beloved to Lutherans: Justification by faith.  Now, it’s pretty complicated, so...

(wooshing TARDIS sound)

What the...what’s going on?

(St. Paul walks on stage via the sacristy)

-Grace and peace brothers and sisters in Christ.  

-Um, holy s-h-i-t.  You’re...

-Paul (bracket saint apparently!), prisoner of the Lord, proclaimer of the Gospel, et cetera et cetera.  At your service.

-Um, right.  But you’re...St. Paul.  What exactly are you doing here in Rochester of all places?  Aren’t you supposed to be, well, two thousand years ago?

-Well, yes.  I was getting ready to write a particularly scathing third letter to some obstinate Corinthians, when suddenly, I heard a whooshing, and out of thin air, why, a blue box appeared!  A man stepped out, wearing what he called a “bowtie,” which he said was “cool.”  Then he told me I was needed somewhere.  We went inside the box (it was much bigger on the inside!), and next thing I knew, here I am.  

-A blue box.  A bow-tie wearing man.  And what was his name?

-He just said “the Doctor.”

-Doctor?  Doctor Who?

-Exactly.  But that’s besides the point.  Look, he told me this sermon’s only supposed to be 13 minutes or so, so let’s not waste time on petty details.  I’m here now, and we’ve got work to do.  

-Um, ok, I was just introducing the sermon.  It’s on your letter to the Galatians.  Chapter 2, on justification by faith!  

-Let me guess: you’re going to say some version of how no matter what we try to do, we end up being self-deceived sinners who can’t escape their own idolatry.  But luckily, Jesus loves us anyway and does for us what we cannot do for ourselves.  And then end with some vague ethical precept about what we get to do now that we are under grace.  Sound right?

-Wow, you’re good.  How’d you guess?

-You’re a Lutheran.  What else would you preach on?

-How do you know what a Lutheran is?  And anyway, what’s wrong with that sermon?  Isn’t that what the Gospel’s all about?  Isn’t that justification?

-Well, sure.  It’s good stuff.  But sometimes, I get really concerned for all of you people.  Sometimes, you’re not much better than those foolish Galatians.  You make it all so...complicated.

-Complicated?  What do you mean?

-Well, first off, how exactly were you going to explain the whole justification by faith thing?

-Well, I wanted to share with them how your Greek was pretty ambiguous.  That no one’s really sure if you meant to write “by faith in Christ,” or “by the faithfulness of Christ,” or even “by faith, comma, in Christ.”  No offense, but between the five-page long run on sentences, your poor use of the genitive, and your generally cantankerous tone, it’s not exactly like reading the Gospels.

-Oh, and I suppose you never ramble aimlessly in your stuff?  But again, we digress.  Look, that’s all really interesting.  I’m sure some seminarians somewhere are spending their lives writing dissertations on it, along with commentary on my use of the comma.  Really interesting stuff.  But it’s also a lesson in missing the point.  Let me explain.

-OK, go for it.  

-Well, first, regarding justification, y’all western Christians have really made way too much of all it.  “How do I find a gracious God,” “how am I saved,” “how do I know if I’m a good person or not,” etc.  It’s all so...German.  Existential.  Self-obsessed.  Which, by the way, is exactly what sin is really all about.  Self-obsession.  Taking perfectly wonderful things like the Gospel, or food, or sex, or whatever, and making it all about yourself.  As if you’re God or something.  

Oh, we’re good at that too.  Making God all about us.  As if every line in Scripture was about us and our own personal story and salvation.  No offense, but it’s kind of narcissistic.

-Totally!  Like all those people who spend all their lives on Facebook trying to get people to notice what they ate for breakfast, or how smart they are, or how cute their son is, or what a great hiking trip they just took.  Our whole culture feels like its geared towards, well, ourselves.!  

-Sure.  And it’s just all those “other people” Matthew?

-Er, right...touche.  Please continue.

-The way I see it, culture and context change all the time.  But sin, far from being something “original,” is actually quite constant.  Narcissism this.  All about me that.  Look how good I am.  Look at the god I made today.  I’m still waiting for some actual original sin.  So much of it is really just “unoriginal.” 

And look, that whole line about “justification by faith in Christ,” that was just the set up line here.  Seriously.  It’s like, throughout the history of Christianity, people keep stopping at verse 16, hear an opportunity to be self-obsessed, and stop reading what comes after.

-OK.  What does come after Mr. Smarty Pants?

-A lot.  Skip ahead a few verses.  To 19 and 20.  Listen up: 

“I have been crucified with Christ;  and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.  I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.   You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?”

Dang I’m good!  That’s one of my favorite things I ever wrote.  And probably most important too.  

-OK, it is really powerful.  I’ll bite.  Say more.

-Well, check it.  First off, it’s not all about us.  It’s about Jesus.  What Jesus has done.  The faithfulness of God in Jesus to us.  Not about our faith, or what we do or didn’t do or how sinful we are or aren’t.  It’s basically just a description of what Jesus is doing for us in the cross.

-But it does mention us a lot in there...

-OK, sure.  But back it up.  This is really important for all of you to get right.  See, most of the time, with God, we start from ourselves.  Our own experience.  Our own opinions.  And work our way forward to the scripture.  Like when we say, “man, something’s not right, I need a gracious God, who can make me feel better?”

But in reality, we need to start with the cross.  See, we wouldn’t even know we were sinners without Jesus having died first.  It’s not, “we had this problem with sin, and so therefore, logically, Jesus had to die.”  That’s an us-centered logic.  

No, it’s more insulting to our pride than that.  More like, “whoa.  God died on the cross for sin.  Which means, regardless of what we think, we must have needed the cross.  Which means, regardless of how we understand sin, we were in a bad place.  We can’t do this ourselves.  God said so.”  See how we start with God, rather than us?  You don’t even really get to choose your own sin!

-OK, sure.  I mean, it does set the whole thing up differently...

-Sure.  But see, here’s the rub.  Because not only do we set up sin starting with us.  We also set up “salvation” in the same way.  Starting with us.  What we think we need to be whole.  And so, inevitably, we almost always end up with a smaller picture of the Gospel, of Good News, than what God intends.

-You’re saying there’s a bigger Gospel here.  Not just “Jesus died for our sins and we get to go to heaven?”

-Definitely.  First off, it’s way more difficult than you thought.  Being “crucified with Jesus.”  That’s the first part of the Good News.


-Yes.  Work with me here.  See, as much as we love our sin, it’s actually - newsflash - not good for us.  Our hearts are made in the image of God.  We have this infinite capacity for desire, to desire God and to be in loving communion with all creation.  That’s good.  But our hearts are like collapsed stars, like black holes.  They are damaged.  Sucking all of the goodness in the world into themselves, trying to make everything about us.  And then crushing and compressing them into coal.  Idols.  It’s this eternal itch that as mortal creatures, we can’t help but scratch.  But can never satisfy.

-That’s grim.

-Yes.  So when we are crucified with Christ, it means that on the cross, Jesus took our human nature, and the black hole and all that, and destroyed it.  Sealed it up.  Closed the gap.  Reversed the flow.  It’s not so much a payment for sin as it is a repairing of the breach.  Jesus’ life and death literally destroy the sin.

-Sounds like Doctor Who talking.

-Right.  See, we do people a serious disservice when we tell them that becoming Christian is this easy happy thing.  It’s painful as hell.  A crucifixion.  Because we have to have our the black hole, the ego, systematically destroyed and removed.

-That’s good news?

-Yes! God in Christ does for us what we cannot do for ourselves, but long to have done.  Ask an alcoholic or an addict; they can explain it better to you than I can.  But it’s God’s gift to us.  

-So Jesus saves me, only to put me through an excruciating journey of self-deconstruction and self-recovery?  

-Partly.  That mess is our contribution to things.  And don’t say it’s not there ruining our life, and the Gospel.  It is.   And we know it needs to get gone.  And it’s hard.  But God is doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

-So is that the Good News then?  

-No.  Read the next part: “it’s not longer me but Christ who lives in me!” I meant that literally, believe it or not.  It’s something that Western Christians seem to have grossly neglected.  The gift of salvation is not just getting saved or going to heaven.  The gift of salvation is: Jesus.  Living.  In your heart.  Indwelling us.  Alive in us.  Making us new.

-Jesus living in our hearts? Isn’t that kind of...supernatural?  

-Bingo homes.  It’s not just some mythological existentialism.  How else do you think you’re able to actually go about having faith - being faithful to God - in the first place?

-I just believe, right?  I mean, that’s what they always told me.  “Believe in Jesus and accept him into your heart” and all that?  It’s free will to choose Jesus.

-And I thought you were a Lutheran!  It’s not free will.  It’s GOD’S WILL.  It’s NOT ABOUT US!  God literally gives us God’s will in our hearts.  Makes us into new creations, new creatures.  God doesn’t just put a stint in the black hole of our heart to keep it from getting worse.  God puts God’s own Spirit in there.  Like installing a brand new star, a supernova, a new source of power and life, right in our very souls!

-Dude, kind of like in Iron Man, when Tony Stark gets that new heart core energy thing, and then he can fly and power his ironman suit and fight crime and all that!

-And you watch too much television.  But yes.  God’s not just trying to polish us up, tell us we’re ok and accepted just as we are.  That’s what WE want God to say.  It’s so much easier on us.  

But God wants to do radical heart surgery on us.  Take out all the cancer of sin, remove the black hole.  Make us healthy and whole.  Salvation, after all, comes from the word “salve,” which means “health.”  And then, God wants to make us new.  Give us a new heart.  A heart capable of really loving God, and loving each other.  A heart that we were given when we were created.  The heart we destroyed by turning it into a black-hole of self-centeredness and violence.  

-That sounds trippy.  Is that what Orthodox people mean when they say we are “divinized?”

-Yes!  See, that’s a Gospel!  That God loves us so much that God sent God’s Son to die, to repair the breach that has disrupted relationships and ruined the image of God in us.  And God isn’t just “saying” we are good.  God is making us good.  Making us even better than good.  Making us God’s.  Transfiguring us.  And giving us this intimate, divine union with Christ in our hearts.  It’s about this deep relationship with God that’s now made possible.  We are literally made one with Jesus.  With God.  With the source of all being and light and love and grace.

-Whoa.  That’s pretty huge.  Like you said, it’s a much bigger Gospel when we stop making it about us.  Like that blue box you flew in on.  Much bigger on the inside if we just let go of our preconceptions and step inside.

-There you go.  That’s why I’m so ticked at these foolish Galatians!  Not because of what they are doing wrong, necessarily.  But because they are not seeing just how big and how awesome and how beautiful this picture of Jesus’ salvation is!  They’re limiting God, and so limiting their community too!  

-Right.  So there’s that word salvation again.  Are you saying there’s nothing “personal” about it?  Since, you know, it’s not about us?

-Um, no.  Like I said, we START with Jesus and God.  But THEN, we absolutely need to claim this for ourselves.  Look at what I wrote.  It’s Christ who lives IN ME.  Christ died FOR ME.  Christ loved ME.  

-And how exactly is that not narcissistic?

-It’s not narcissistic or selfish to accept a gift.  In fact, it’s more prideful NOT to accept it.  To only want it on our own terms.  But that’s a huge part of the gift.  It is communal AND personal.  It’s not just a theory.  It’s something God is giving to particular, individual people.  God is not far off.  God is so close to us, as St. Augustine once wrote, closer to us than we are to ourselves! We can’t pass this gift off. 

-I can anticipate my people (who are here, by the way, listening to us) wondering: that’s all great and good, but how does knowing all this good stuff about God actually matter for us?  How is supernatural divination actually practical?

-Fair question.  I think you started to hit the nail on the head when you were talking about the iron man.  We’re given the gift to use it, to live into it, to experience a full and abundant life.  It’s first and foremost about living in freedom, and in service to others. 

-Freedom AND service?  I’m lost.

-OK, look.  The rest of the letter is about the practical stuff.  What it looks like.  How to live it.  There’s plenty of “to-dos” coming up.  But for now, I think the practical application is this: ITS NOT ABOUT YOU.  CHRIST IS DOING FOR YOU WHAT YOU CANNOT DO FOR YOURSELF.  I think most times, we need to start with being reminded about who God is and who we are in God, before turning on to being instructed in what to DO or BELIEVE.  

See, the Gospel, I think it’s a lens to look at our selves and our reality and to ask: am I making this about me?  Or am I seeing it through this Good News in Christ?  As a paranoid and prideful narcissist?  Or as a beloved, divinized co-creator?  Which power will we choose? Whose promises will we trust?

-Power?  Choice?  Wait, isn’t that just getting back into, you know, doing stuff?

-Look, if you’re not using it, you’re losing it.  Like playing an instrument and never practicing.  You can’t get better at something if you don’t play.  The difference is, you’re no longer self-obsessed.  No longer required to look at whether you get it right, or how you look doing it, or whether other people like it.  You are free from having to justify yourself.  You don’t have to make salvation happen!  

-What if I don’t feel free?

-You are.  You are perfectly and completely free.  It’s not an option.  The challenge now is, do we live like free people, empowered and indwellt and intimately loved by the God of the universe?  Or do we continue to live under the tyranny of our own way of doing things?  Of us at the middle?

-Got a metaphor or something?  I’m still lost.   

OK, look, it’s kind of like this.  Let’s say you’re in a sailboat, in the middle of a lake.  You can’t move it on your own, but you know it’s supposed to be sailing.  It’s no fun without the movement.  Suddenly, a wind blows.  You can still sit there and say, “oo, a wind, what does it have to do with me?”  Or, you can raise your sail, man the rudder, and let the wind move you on to adventure.  You aren’t the one powering or moving the boat - but because of the wind, you’re able to start practicing your skills.  So it is with the indwelling of Christ’s faithfulness, giving life to our faith.  It can be intimate and gentle, like a soft breeze brushing our cheek.  Or it can be terrifying, like a tsumani kicking up waves that just begs us to risk a thrill ride on a surfboard.  

-Dang, you’re good.  I like that.  

-Good.  So, I think a better question is: where do you sense the Spirit blowing in your own life?  Where do YOU feel it crucifying pride and self-centeredness?  Where do you see it leading you into new creation, even at great risk and uncertainty, calling you to cling to the promises of the Spirit?

-Wow, that’s a great question.  Maybe I should ponder it during our Open Space time.  I mean, I have so many places I put myself first.  So many places I make excuses to try to justify myself, or put myself above others...

-Good idea.  Especially since I think we’re out of time.  But before I go, can you tell me what you heard me say today?  

-Right.  Um, so I think I heard you saying that if all we do is obsess about us (how we are saved, justified, what faith looks like, etc), we end up falling into the trap of narcissism, making it all about us.  Which is bad, since we don’t actually have the capacity to satisfy our infinite cravings and desires.  But, if we start with God in Christ, we discover that not only is God offering the gift of removing our defects - God is also giving us a Tony Stark heart, which is actually Christ, the lover, coming to live in our hearts.  And so we’re free to use this power in faith, clinging to God and depending on Christ.  Sailboat analogy to close.

-My work here is done.  Now it’s up to you to figure out what it means in your own life.  I’ve gotta get back to the blue box before, what did the Doctor say. before all of space and time collapses...

-Um, ok, but, you know, could you maybe come back next week? It’s kind of a doosy - you talk about how there’s neither male nor female, slave for free, Greek nor’s kind of intimidating.

-Believe it or not, this is supposed to BE next week.  But he landed us wrong.  If I come again, like I said, space and time collapsing and all.

-Sure, I get it.  Well, Paul, er, St. Paul...thanks.  This is all pretty confusing to me still.  I know it’s meant to be as simple as clinging to Jesus.  And I appreciate hearing just how much Jesus is offering us and all.  I guess it’s us who complicate things.

-Yeah.  It’s really as simple as keeping the focus on Christ.  Not listening to idols or any voice other than the one that is dwelling in you and making you new.  It’s the other voices - especially our own - that make it complicated.  But all of them, they’re just trying to justify themselves too.  And we already know how that ends.

-Right.  Sure you can’t stay for Open Space?

-Bye Matthew.

-Bye Paul.  And thanks.

(Paul exits, wooshing sound re-commences).