I Died, Christ Lives

sermon on Galatians 1 & 2

 

I’d like to issue an apology to you.

I’m sorry for being just me.

More to the point, I apologize that I went quick as I could through college straight to seminary to become a pastor. I can’t say I passed it all with easy flying colors, but I eventually got the proper accreditations to be validated for this.

In that direct trajectory, I apologize I didn’t have the foresight to have been a rich lawyer steeped in rabid atheism beforehand. I wasn’t even one who strayed from the church for a time.

I further apologize for not having something thrilling like a prison record and awful criminal past to show how far I was gone and how much my life has changed, to illustrate my conversion.

In spite of a bit of homophobia when I was part of a fundamentalist youth group, and that I remain a male in a patriarchal culture, and a white person in this racist society, still I don’t have all that oppressive or hate-filled of a personal history behind me.

Heck, I’m even kind of a local boy, a native Wisconsinite. I could’ve had the wherewithal at least to be from somewhere a little questionable, outside of the norm, slightly shady. Like Illinois.

I know it’s not a flashy resume for grace and God’s unconditional welcome. And I apologize for that inconvenience for you as I preach.

I also know it seems backward, that I’m apologizing for not having done something wrong, but the lack of such experience may still be a problematic distraction. Although I’ll continue to have plenty of real reasons to apologize to you, if in these ways today it may seem like I’m a goodie-two-shoes, then you have the odd impetus not to trust this message of grace, instead saying, “What does he know anyway?!”

Now, a number of you don’t really like Paul. That’s a fine attitude, but you probably don’t like Paul for the wrong reasons. You may have some idea of him as curmudgeonly and strict and chauvinistic and who knows what else. I’ll defend him against those, because I find him absolutely full of life and love as he points so clearly to Jesus and away from all the other garbage.

Still, Paul should be awfully unlikeable, not for what he is, but what he was. He names it of himself at the start of this letter to the Galatian churches. He says he was violent and was a persecutor, trying to destroy gatherings of Christians. Not in the form of bombing churches, but doing everything he could to make life both miserable and brief for followers of Jesus. But then it changed. What he thought was right was wrong. Jesus got to him, and the good news worked on him, and he saw things very, very differently. It was a revelation.

So here’s the conundrum: his message of God’s love seems more valid because it was so far from his past, such a change. He’s believable exactly because you’d have doubted anybody like him would ever say it.

In Bible study this week, we sought examples of what it would be like to be confronted with one who had threatened to kill you now allegedly not only on your side, but a prime witness testifying on your behalf. We thought of presidents, and racists who saw the light, of convicts who reformed their ways.

My categories to start leaned in that direction, that the very things that could have disqualified me or made me not to be relied on would be seen as benefits, as qualifications. It reverses what would usually make a credible message and messenger, the paradox that the worse you were the better you are.

Some churches use this model. Where the stronger story of a conversion experience is an endorsement of potential. The sense that the calling comes from God and not from humans can also hold sway, as a person says God laid it on their heart to preach the word, so it doesn’t go through denominational channels like seminary, just as Paul said he didn’t get permission from any church hierarchy.

But the funny thing is that those attempts to show grace’s freedom can end up becoming legalistic all over again. The effort to show no qualification becomes its own qualifier. It’s not in our personal stories (or the lack of them), but only and always centered in Jesus. Certain characteristics may make it occasionally seem more shocking but don’t make it more true.

So apologies again that you’ve only got me as a preacher. But you’ve still got Jesus.

I’ll similarly accept your confession that you’re only you, except for Jesus.

Paul was also dealing with that in his community, their search for personal proof or verification though this can only be trusted. It remains unseen. In that time, within this Bible reading, there were two qualifiers operating, ways they tried to become insiders and find some certainty they were doing okay. One was a restricted diet, keeping kosher. The other was circumcision. I trace Paul as particularly against circumcision because it clearly left out half of all people: women who couldn’t wear such a mark of being an insider and would never have that proof. But at the root, the problem with either is an insistence that Jesus isn’t enough, that you need something else, something more, that there is a way to prove you’ve got it.

We still struggle with this. We still want it verified. We operate as if God’s love has contingencies. In some way, we want it to be dependent on us, don’t really like that God loves you not because of who you are or anything you’ve done but for Christ’s sake. We want to know what to do, how to become more spiritual or more peaceful or more generous, to be converted from our old ways. That may happen, but not per se, for an end result. Those would be incidental byproducts.

One really insidious form is with prayers for healing, that it should mean somehow our believing will be evidenced in our bodies, and that then there’s a right way for our bodies to look or be or feel if God is with us. Health and wellness are taken as marks of faith.

But Paul very clearly refuses to look at his body. I have died, he says. A dead body isn’t much of a place to hunt for evidence of goodness and blessing. So we instead look only to the body of Jesus. Since through his crucifixion, as God has died, all have died. And, with Easter, you’re already a new creation, as good as raised from death to new life. Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Another of the main forms of losing focus on Jesus as we try to be right is in making church about what we do. About getting our lives in order. About your involvement here. About doing good in the world. About striving for justice and being on the right side of some cause. I know you carry burdens that you ought to be better, that you should do more in the community, that you want this to make more of a difference. Again, those can happen, but not because of our efforts, but as byproducts of grace.

Austin Channing Brown for our book discussion this week wrote of the goal in reconciliation like the wolf lying down with the lamb. No matter how good you are with animals or how woke for racial justice, good luck on that without Jesus.

Again though, Paul says we have died. Dead people may not do much good in the community, can’t be rallied to be better people, won’t fix creation. Try giving a pep talk to a crowd of dead folks and you won’t expect much for results.

That’s why sermons aren’t pep talks. They aren’t encouragements to go back out there and try harder. They aren’t motivational self-helps. They aren’t lists of things you should be doing. Partly it’s because none of that works, none of it makes you more godly or more loving, none of it is all that effective, trying to convince a bunch of dead people.

But it’s also that none of it really matters. It’s so trifling and a distraction from the main thing. God came to be with you, to love you, to be in relationship. God died for you, and speaks the word now that raises you, fills you with new eternal life. God is restoring creation and all relations, but you want to get trivial and make it about the little things you do? It’s like you’ve been freely admitted to the college of your dreams and then figure it’s dependent on how pointy your pencils are sharpened. It’s as good as irrelevant!

You want to be better, are worried about how much you need to do, don’t feel like you are good enough? Well Paul asks, will we get it right all the time? Clearly not. We’re still going to be sinners. But that doesn’t invalidate Christ, since nothing we do or don’t do can prove or disprove God’s love. So Paul won’t worry about what to eat or what to wear or how holy he’s acting. In Luther’s terms, we don’t even get too hung up on right decisions. His advice was to “be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly, for he is victorious over sin, death, and the world.”*

When the emphasis falls back on the trivia of oughts and shoulds as if those are the important thing, as if this is about anything we can do, then we’re tearing down the identity and the relationship and the righteousness that is only established in grace. We’re looking for life in our essentially dead selves rather than in the gift from God. We’re trying to muster resurrection on our own, when in the end our confidence, our joyful message is: Alleluia! Christ is risen!

*Luther’s works vol48, p282

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Women & Justice: One in Christ

a sermon on the draft ELCA Social Statement*,  plus Genesis2; Galatians3:26-28,4:7; Proverbs3

With this draft social statement, more Bible study may be a helpful approach. How we hear from the Bible and how we warp it to our own perspectives has been a major factor in the injustices and dismissiveness for women and girls, but the Bible also has extremely strong resource for resolution.

I want to commend again the chance to read more of the statement. First, because this good strong biblical study and examination is in the document itself, so you’re not just hearing me reflect on our faith and gift from God.

But I also suggest reading it to offer your input. The ELCA will have been working on this project for nearly a decade by the time it comes to a vote at next summer’s Churchwide Assembly in Milwaukee. Some of you were part of the process in three study sessions we did last summer. Through September, you can submit comments on what you like or struggle with in the draft.

One other note on process: I want to pause and observe that I’m a male talking about the Women & Justice social statement. At first, I felt awkward about that, as if it doesn’t really relate to me. But of course, it relates intimately and deeply. In the end—just the reverse—I was sad we didn’t have more male participation in our studies and would be nervous if men were not talking about this, since it in some way would fail to own our place either with the problem or the solution.

Recognizing this is something that we all need to work on together, let’s approach it with the Genesis passage we heard. It probably sounded different than what you are used to hearing or how you usually think of this. This is one of those Bible stories that has come to define even our cultural perceptions; although, I’d be quick to say that it isn’t so much the Bible itself that has shaped—or warped—us, but a particular translation and interpretation.

See, as we heard it just now, it was a more authentic translation from the original Hebrew. This has wordplay throughout, so you get to learn some Hebrew. The first word to know is adamah. That means earth. The second Hebrew word you already know: adam. But you probably think that means, what? Actually it is more like “earthling.” God took earth and made an earthling. It’s not a proper name, “Adam,” and is not at all helpful to translate it as “man,” which disconnect the human from the humus, separates us from the land as our origin, and also can be applied to put men (meaning males) first, before all the rest.

Our problem is that since the King James Version at least, that male-centered application of this passage has dominated. The translators did their own picking and choosing to warp things that weren’t in the Hebrew. Right away they started putting in the word “man,” and eventually there gets to be a capital-A guy named Adam.

And after he’s done tilling up the land and categorizing the beasts, this Adam is on a hunt for a wife as a helper. She gets subordinated as being made from a small piece of her husband. That’s a big difference from how we heard it, not as how a man finds a wife, but as a human being the most fitting companions for each other. We might paraphrase the point of Genesis that while a dog may be man’s best friend, that pales next to general human relationships. As the draft statement phrases it, “God creates community and family, not a hierarchy based on… sex (what our bodies look like biologically) or gender (how people express themselves)” (13).

So there we have an enormously influential example of how patriarchal structure and sexist presuppositions have taken what was originally a gender-neutral passage about our connections to earth and the goodness of shared companionship with each other and instead twisted it into a domineering masculine blueprint which, by the end of the next chapter, blames females for all evil and brokenness. That’s abusive not only to women, but also to scripture itself.

The second part of our Bible study, has to recognize that there, of course, too many of parts of the Bible that are ugly to begin with, where it’s not the fault of later translators or misguided theologians but is bad from the get-go.

I’d like to hold these in two categories: problems with old culture, and problems still with our culture.** I was thinking about including a problematic Bible reading, but since I even got pushback last week on Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount, I figured it was maybe going to be too much to ask somebody to read such hard words from the Bible.

There are too many of them, but an especially striking one mentioned in the draft is from 1st Timothy. Brace yourselves. “Women should dress modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes. Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.” (2:9-15)

I agree that you should never have to hear from 1st Timothy in worship. Yet this horrible stuff has had various influence in the church. It may not have affected whether you’re wearing gold today or how you did your hair, but may have contributed to the sense of being dressed in our “Sunday best.” Worse, in some denominations women aren’t allowed to teach Sunday School beyond 5th grade, because then a woman would be teaching a so-called man. Passages like this are still used to say women can’t be pastors.

What may hit closest to home and be the most insidious is the end, that says women will be saved by childbirth, as long as your kids turn out okay. I know many of you already feel that judgmentalism much too strongly, without extra theological pressure, questioning how good of a mother you are, and how good of a person, and how good of a Christian. Yuck. Awful. Wrong.

I want you to understand that that passage should not speak to us here and now. It reflected standard Greco-Roman culture. It makes me even angrier that this wasn’t supposed to be Christian practice, even back then. This claims to be written by Paul, but is exactly the reverse of what Paul really believed and taught, as we’ll hear at the end. Instead, this was the dominant culture trying to subvert Paul and undermine Jesus and keep the women subordinate and submissive while reasserting the old cultural power of men, to displace the true teaching of the church.

So that’s a passage from the Bible bearing the marks of a former society, and is problematic mainly because it keeps trying to influence our sense of how things should be now.

There are also really hard Bible passages that portray ongoing problems, where it may only make things worse when we don’t hear them. I’m thinking first of some very disturbing stories about rape. We don’t read those, but they could remind us the Bible speaks of our human realities, even when they’re not pleasant. We may especially need to hear stuff like that to clarify what’s wrong in our faith’s perspective and yet that our tragedies don’t ultimately separate our stories from God’s. We have to notice, how we see our reality is closely tied to our perception of God, whether as bullying old guy on a cloud or with us in suffering and struggling for life.

In a similar way, this statement directly identifies problems and struggles—objectification, abuse, sexual assault, stereotypes, economic injustices, inadequate health care and the politicization of bodies, vocations from in the home to business leader or pastor, family roles and division of labor, immigration policies, human trafficking, jokes, media, legal processes, and so on. To these complex realities needing improvement, even though we don’t have quick, perfect, or easy solutions, the statement commends to us that the church’s role is to follow God in struggling against such problems and striving for justice and equity.

Finally, that points us to the clear and beneficial part of our Bible study. We’ve looked at where we’ve created the problem by adding sexist interpretations. We’ve looked at history of dominant cultures as persisting the problems. Now we arrive at some of the solution of scripture, including the good news Paul proclaimed: there is no longer male or female, for all are one in Christ, and all are heirs.

Again, to hear the richness of the biblical background, Paul was preaching this into and against that patriarchal culture where only males could receive an inheritance. He’s not saying that differences between us don’t matter. Rather, he insists that our differences don’t preclude us from the fullness of God’s blessing. Paul clearly identified the love of God for all, the relationship with Jesus as life-giving for all, the work of sharing this love and life as the responsibility of all, to change a sinful culture, bringing women to the same standing as men.

The statement faithfully identifies that we put more weight on passages like this than on the crap from 1st Timothy (though the statement doesn’t quite label it that way). This is the sort of belief and attitude that we can hold to for the sake of our own life and wellbeing and also which is our resource to offer to the world, that our sense of God isn’t limiting but expansive and diverse, that we aren’t confined by rigid orders of what’s acceptable as our pre-ordained potential but instead have at our core an identity of belovedness, of connection, of equity and equality. Our belief is in fully honoring and supporting, celebrating and affirming each other and our own lives, and that becomes our practice to embody Jesus in value and grace and reconciliation and understanding and care. That is what the Holy Spirit is accomplishing and what God intends for all, for us, for you.

 

* http://elca.org/Faith/Faith-and-Society/Current-Social-Writing-Projects/Women-and-Justice/Draft

***  see especially statement pp30-32, 49-50

Bible readings:
At the time when Yahweh God made the heavens and the earth, there were no plants or grain growing on the earth, for Yahweh God had not yet sent rain to the earth, and there was no human being to cultivate the soil.

Then Yahweh God formed the earth creature from the dust of the earth and breathed into its nostrils the breath of life, and the earth creature became fully alive.

Yahweh God planted a garden to the east, in Eden—“Land of Pleasure”—and placed in it the earth creature that Yahweh God had made. And Yahweh God planted all sorts of trees in the garden—beautiful trees that produced delicious fruit.

Yahweh God took the earth creature and settled it in the garden of Eden to serve and protect it. Then Yahweh God said, “It is not good for the earth creature to be alone. I will make a fitting companion for it.” So from the soil Yahweh God formed all the various wild beasts and all the birds of the air and brought them to the earth creature to be named. The earth creature gave names to all the cattle, all the birds of the air, and all the wild animals.

But none of them proved to be a fitting companion. So Yahweh God made the earth creature fall into a deep sleep, and while it slept, God divided the earth creature in two, then closed up the flesh from its side. Yahweh God  then fashioned the two halves into male and female, and presented them to one another.

(from Genesis 2, translation Inclusive Bible, Phyllis Trible, et al.)
So you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. 27And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have been made like him. 28There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female. For you are all Christians– you are one in Christ Jesus.
7Now you are no longer a slave but God’s own child. And since you are God’s child, God has made you God’s own heir. (Galatians 3:26-28, 4:7, New Living Trans.)
social statement reading excerpt:
Patriarchy and sexism prevent all human beings from living into the abundant life for which God created them. In patriarchal systems, men are typically viewed as better than women and have more authority than women. Sexism promotes silencing, controlling, and devaluing women, girls, and gender non-conforming people. We believe that many individuals also experience intersecting burdens, according to their race, economic status, sexual orientation, gender identity, immigration status, or because of the language they speak.

We reject patriarchy and sexism as sinful because they deny the truth that all people are created equally in God’s image. Too often behaviors and decisions rooted in patriarchy and sexism cause overt harm, inequities, and degradations. Examples include gender-based violence, pay inequality, human trafficking, restricted access to health care, inadequate research on health issues affecting women, denial of educational opportunities, objectifying portrayals of women in media, and failure to support elderly women, mothers, and children. Patriarchal structures that reinforce and perpetuate rigid sex and gender expectations also harm men and boys, including gay and transgender men when they are forced to conform to narrow gender stereotypes.

In faith, this church is empowered to confess that Christianity is complicit in [these] sins. At the same time, we believe God is at work in [the church and] human community to bring forth new ways of living that challenge the harmful beliefs and effects of patriarchy and sexism. We recognize that significant progress has been made in society; however, cultural and religious beliefs, practices, policies, and laws continue to promote inequality and inequity and continue to degrade, lessen, and harm people. We believe that Christians, together with many other partners, are able to advance and support an equitable common good.
social statement Confession & Forgiveness excerpt:
Grounded in understanding of the Triune God,
we believe God’s intention for humanity is abundant life for all.

While we affirm that God’s intention is equity and fullness of life for everyone,
we confess that the sins of patriarchy and sexism disrupt God’s intention.
When we do not ensure the safety of women, girls, and others, then we sin.
[But] sin is not just individual acts.
Sin is also found and expressed in organizations and institutions.
It is a sin that women are not paid an equal wage for the same work
or must pay more for health care.
It is an injustice to women and girls to demand physical perfection
and to portray women and girls as sexual objects.
Sexism and patriarchy in church and society
prevent women and girls from affirming, celebrating, and expressing
their individuality as God’s good creatures.

As God’s people, forgiven in Jesus Christ,
we are at the same time liberated and sinful.
We are broken, and yet we are made new by grace through faith.
This good news is true even [while injustice remains].
Give thanks for God’s gracious promises to break the bonds of sin
and to empower our lives of hope to seek neighbor justice.
Rejoice that God is always at work to transform and inspire
new ways of living that lean more fully toward God’s intention.
And hear the summons to seek even fuller measures
of justice and equity for all. Amen
social statement Creed excerpt:
We believe God is the creator of all.
We are, therefore, one with humankind made in the image of God,
and one with the whole creation.

We believe God is the Word embodied in Jesus Christ
who unites us through baptism with all Christians
in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.
By his grace, we are liberated to serve God’s whole creation,
seeking peace and justice.

We believe that God the Holy Spirit is always at work,
transforming and inspiring new ways of living in this world
toward God’s promised, beloved, eternal community.

We believe all people are created equally in the image of God.
We affirm that God’s creation is wonderful in its variety.
We believe God creates humanity in diversity,
encompassing a wide variety of experiences, identities, and expressions,
including sex and gender.
Every individual is dependent upon God
and all share in the God-given vocation
to joyfully contribute their gifts to help all of creation flourish. Amen

 

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