Free from the Babysitter

sermon on Galatians 3:1-9,23-29


You’ll be shocked to hear that I was called a geek this week.

It partly related to pointing out June 25th will be the 489th anniversary of a definitive Lutheran statement, including that the church is “the assembly of all believers among whom the gospel is purely preached and the holy sacraments administered.” In 1530, Lutherans had to present an accounting of their beliefs, and that bit has stood as our main definition of the church ever since.

Now, I don’t care if you are also ready to call me a geek. Mostly I care that you know what church is.

So I’ll begin by congratulating you: being here involves you in what it means to be the church, as you listen to preaching and receive sacraments, turning again to the waters of baptism and to be fed at the Lord’s table. Here you are connected to the crucified Jesus, as he his set forth in proclamation, and as we again proclaim the resurrection with new life breaking free and spreading: Alleluia! Christ is risen!

For one thing, this means we don’t define church as a building. So much for “here is the church, here is the steeple.” No, church isn’t a place you go; it’s people you’re with.

Another distinction is about all of us here, and far, far beyond. It’s not just an assembly of believers, but the assembly around the world, and across time. We all become the church. And that big, big group is very different than trying to define church as under a pope or a bishop or pastor. For us, leadership doesn’t define the church. In fact, the descriptions go on to say I’m not exactly a leader of this congregation, but a servant. I’m here simply because you need to hear preaching and receive sacraments. I’m at your beck and call for that. You ask for somebody to tell you about Jesus, so I do. I’m grateful you even pay me for doing it.

One other distinction seems more often to affect our sense of what church is: we want to think of church (or believe about ourselves) that it is about doing good and being good.

Not to single them out but illustrating our general notion, in Confirmation this week with students and mentors, thoughts were mainly that church is about being helpful or kind. It means All Are Welcome. Plus we’ve got a garden.

To be clear: I’m in favor of all of that. I hope those are feelings you have about Advent and the MCC and are stories you tell about us. But it’s pretty darn risky as a definition of church.

Similarly, for core identity of church, there’s a banner in the Covenant Room with nine statements labeling a version of what it might mean to “be the church,” things like protect the environment, care for the poor, fight racism, enjoy this life. Once again, I’m absolutely in favor of those. I hope that it’s not just great UCC PR, but fits us in the broader church, too. I want them to be what happens.

But I reiterate: that’s risky. It is risky because those may fail. I may get too comfortable in my white supremacy and ignore racism. Or if I leave a light switch on and hop on another plane and don’t protect the environment. Or if I don’t show much hospitality even though I’ve said All Are Welcome. Or if the garden gets flooded out. Or if I’m not very helpful or kind. Then that has undone what we’d claimed it meant to be the church.

We’d better pause to consider: if the church is about what we do, it’s at risk. And it rapidly becomes pointlessly redundant. Not only can I try protecting the environment apart from church and this group of people, but plenty of people who don’t come to church do it a lot better. So that had better not be our definition.

So instead of church being something we do, let’s realize it mainly happens to us. Instead of making our actions or attitudes the center of church, it is really about Jesus. It is what God is doing for us in Jesus, being in relationship, reaching out, renewing us. And then we’re aware that the main place church can happen and we receive faith is here in worship.

If it’s not about what we do, but about what God gives us in Jesus, we also understand the historic emphasis on his death and resurrection. It doesn’t neglect the life and ministry of Jesus, but is a prioritizing distinction. Again, if we thought church were mainly learning what Jesus did so we could try to go and do likewise, we’d be sorely disappointed, disenchanted, and misdirected. Death and resurrection isn’t something we can do. This is proclamation of a new reality.

This is what’s going on in Galatians. Faith vs. a category Paul names “works of the law.” We could substitute in “things we do,” all the shoulds and oughts, stuff supposed to make us feel right, but with false confidence on one hand and horrible accusation too often on the reverse.

For such instructions, as a kid “Be nice to your sister,” was an indicator insisting I wasn’t being very nice, and it still met a minimal response from me.

More largely, Paul asks why we are so thoughtlessly beguiled, seduced, or bewitched to think that’s how it should work, with rules to follow and imagining we can prove we’re doing it right. Here in 21st Century North America, it’s clearly because that’s the water we’re swimming in. You’re not only told to be nice to your little sister, but how to apply lotion to avoid wrinkles and keep cavities at bay, plus behaviors for allegedly avoiding cancer. There’s what kind of car will make you macho, or safe in bad weather. What is the right diet is followed by what is now the righter diet, and then what is really the right diet. Guilty feelings come for failing at being a better partner or parent or child or employee, with an abundance of ideas and suggestions for improving. There’s what you’re supposed to be in charge of to avoid getting arrested or needing an abortion. There’s how you are successful in life, with grades and resumes and five year plans. Not to mention phone plans.

We might notice it’s an exceptional privilege to imagine we have capacity to address those things and many more, which we wouldn’t in another place or time. But it’s also an incredible burden, destined for disappointment, fraught with failure. Our self-doubt ironically signals the foolishness of such searching for self-confidence. What we try to do for reassurance leaves us all-the-more susceptible to despair.

It’s not entirely negative. There are good things to do; it was right to be told not to hit my sister.

But there’s something a little childish about being mesmerized into all of it.

That goes with the word “babysitter” in my re-translation of this Bible passage. The actual Greek word is “pedagogue,” which we associate with a teacher. But originally this person was on the way to school. It literally means “child-leader,” A pedagogue would walk a child to school, keeping them safe and out of trouble along the way. Kind of like daycare outings when children have to hold onto a rope in single file. That’s what Paul says the law is like. A babysitter along the way.

With that, maybe you have the sense why this isn’t ideal. You’ve got plenty that is vying for your attention, claiming to be the right rope to hold onto to get you safely across life’s streets and keep you from straying too far. You’ve got a whole herd of competing babysitters who want to watch over you and tell you how incapable you are.

You certainly don’t need the church to be one more version of that, to come here expecting that we are just another babysitter, another pedagogue, another set of rules to live by and to-do lists for a supposed happy, healthy, productive life. You don’t need it, and you’d have no reason to trust it in such a competitive marketplace anyway.

What’s more, that’s not how God is going to treat you. Sure, motivations and coercions and guidelines are helpful in their proper place. But God isn’t going to keep treating you like a toddler with a bad attention span.

Instead, God has freed you to live. You are clothed in Christ, trying on unlimited resurrected life. God puts the Holy Spirit into you through this worship service to go out, not just to follow rules or be confined into small roles. You have inherited the blessing. You receive the gift of faith, bestowing on you the inheritance from God. This is last will and testament language in the Bible reading. God’s estate has been conferred to you, not only as a steward for mid-level management, but as the full inheritor, the owner, the responsible adult.

Still more stunning, God is doing this, conferring this identity on you, regardless of who you are or have been or thought you were.

There is no insider to this blessing, as in that old category of neither Jew nor Greek; all are God’s people.

There is neither slave nor free, meaning your social status doesn’t confer it. Those were citizenship categories, of who had a voice in the nation. We could still say you aren’t entitled to more or less as citizen vs. undocumented immigrant or refugee. And if God is for it, who can be against?

Then, “there is not male and female.” I couldn’t find explanations, but I think maybe Paul switches terms from “neither/nor” to not male “and” female to highlight creation story language from Genesis, that “God created them male and female, in the image of God.” That was already a strong statement: all genders are created in the image of God and seen as very good. But maybe Paul is even more saying you’re not just living into the old gender-assigned roles. And in an old culture where only male children—only sons—could inherit the father’s property, Paul is negating that restriction. All of you inherit God’s blessing, God’s promise, this life in Jesus, this adulthood in faith.

The gift of these expansive redefining relationships given by God’s relationship with us is embodied in the Immigrant Creed that Sonja shared in the Facebook group this week, and which we’ll use as our statement of faith in just a moment. And notice again it’s about God and not about what we do.

This is what God is creating right here in this worship service. This is what God is doing in the church always, around the world, through all time, proclaiming an assurance, to free you not only from oughts and shoulds, but freeing you to live.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

NSRV (Nick’s Special Re-done Version) of Galatians 3:1-9, 23-29

You thoughtless Galatians, who has beguiled you? Wasn’t the crucified Jesus Christ set forth in proclamation before your eyes? 2 I only want to know this from you: is it from works of the law you received the Spirit, or from faith preached? 3 Are you so unthinking, beginning with the Spirit but now ending with the flesh? 4 Did you suffer so much for nothing? (If indeed it was for nothing.) 5 So is the Spirit given to you and powerful works done among you because of works of the law, or faithful preaching?
6 Just as Abraham “had confidence in God, and it was considered to him as righteousness,” 7 you know the faithful are the children of Abraham. 8 The scripture foresaw that by faith God would set right the nations, and proclaimed the good news beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you all the nations shall be blessed.” 9 So the faithful are blessed with the faithfulness of Abraham.
23 Before faith came, we were being kept confined under the law, until faith was destined to be unveiled. 24 Thus the law was our babysitter until Christ came, when we would be set right from faith. 25 So faith came, and we are no longer under a babysitter: 26 you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus, 27 and all you baptized into Christ are dressed in Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And since you are of Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, inheriting what has been promised.



from The Immigrant’s Creed

Jose Luis Casal, General Missioner, Tres Rios Presbytery, PCUSA

I believe in Almighty God, who guided the people in exile and in exodus,

the God of Joseph in Egypt and Daniel in Babylon, the God of immigrants.

I believe in Jesus Christ, a displaced Galilean, born away from his home,

who fled his country with his parents when his life was in danger,

and suffered the oppression of a tyrant of a foreign power,

who was persecuted, tortured, and unjustly condemned to death.

But on the third day, this scorned Jesus rose from the dead,

to offer us citizenship in heaven.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the eternal immigrant from God’s kingdom among us,

who speaks all languages, lives in all countries, and reunites all races.

I believe that the church is the secure home for all who constitute it,

the diverse Communion of the Saints who have the same purpose.

I believe in the reconciliation, which identifies us

more than does language, nationality, [social status, or gender].

I believe that in the resurrection God unites us as one people

in which all are distinct and all are alike at the same time.

Beyond this world, I believe in Life Eternal

in which all will be citizens of God’s kingdom, which will never end. Amen


Word and Sacrament

sermon on John6:35,41-51; 1Kings19:4-8
This week, as four-year-old Henry Brezinski and I biked past each other, he said he wanted to come up on the stage and dip a pancake in the syrup. Maybe this sounds strange to you, but I realized he was talking about communion.

Young Henry’s reflection about this bread that looks like a pancake seems far from this reading with Jesus generating complaints by proclaiming, “the bread that I will give for the world is my flesh.” It begs that we slow down and approach this more cautiously.

This is a strange Bible reading. This stuff about eating flesh is just Jesus trying to point you to faith in God. Yet it’s a hard nut to crack, so we’re going to peel off the shell to examine the basic kernel. It gets at the same message Jesus shares, but maybe as spiritual milk instead of having to gnaw at the gristle.

To start, here are two terms: Word and Sacrament. In our understanding, this is how God gives you faith, how God communicates with you, how you know God’s will and receive God’s own self. I should probably say more often how important this is. It is essentially why I’m here: I was ordained into the ministry of Word and Sacrament, and you called me here and pay me to be your pastor so that you can receive Word and Sacrament, so that you’ve got a constant source of this connection to God. It means that even if you don’t like me or if you’ve done something truly awful or you have to be at the hospital ghastly early, you can still insist that I remind you of God’s forgiving grace and abundant life.

That’s also why it’s utterly vital that you should be here for worship. We don’t gather just to sing or chat together. This is our central gathering of Word and Sacrament. This is the fountain of it, the buffet’s feedtrough, the celebration just oozing gloriously with it. Nothing else can fully replace what we accomplish—or, better, what we receive—here in an hour. This is why it is also so disheartening that the past three weeks have had the lowest attendance of any non-blizzard Sundays in my time here. That hurts. It’s painful for me; it hurts us.

Aside from that, for my job and our identity as church, everything else is measured by or should be connected to Word and Sacrament—from shut-in visits to confirmation instruction, social gatherings to committee meetings. If this is what brings God to us, this is what we’re most supposed to be about.

So what is Word and Sacrament? What do we mean by it and how is God using it in your life?

First, the Word. This is God’s voice to you. In our understanding, God speaks in two ways: in Law and in Gospel. The law is how God wants you to live. Chances are, you hear that loud and clear enough that you feel guilty for not living up to it. The gospel, then, shouts over the top of that deafening voice with even more important good news: God forgives you, loves you unconditionally, sets you free from your bondage, breathes into you new life. The Word fills you with Jesus.

This voice of God speaking the Word we connect to Bible readings. But you should also be listening for God’s voice in each sermon. It’s in the declaration of forgiveness that starts the service. We sing it to each other in hymns. And it happens in “mutual conversation and consolation,” as Luther termed it, as we listen and reassure and forgive each other, which is one of the possible ways this happens outside of worship.

That’s a fast intro. Before we move on to Sacraments, let’s pause and see if there are any brief questions on Word…

Next, Sacraments. Sacrament, first of all, is a word that means “sacred thing” or “holy stuff.” The point of sacraments is an intensification of the Word. Instead of a blanket statement like, “Well God loves everybody,” sacraments give absolute confidence that God is talking to you. In this, we have two sacraments, fitting three criteria:
1: It needs stuff, an earthly element
2: It has the promise with it, it is embodying God’s good news
3: Jesus told us to do it

So let’s try out a couple of near misses:
Offering is not a sacrament. It has a physical sign, in your envelope or the offering plate. Jesus told us to give away our money. But it doesn’t have good news; it’s more of the law and what you’re supposed to do than what God is doing for you.
Again, being anointed with oil for healing is not a sacrament. It has a physical sign. It’s good news, a reminder that God strives for wellbeing and works healing in your life and relationships. But Jesus didn’t tell us to do it.

Once more: forgiveness or sharing the peace is not a sacrament. Jesus told us to do it and it shares his good news, but there’s no tangible thing along with it.

So what are our sacraments? Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
First they have stuff, the earthly sign. In baptism, that’s water. In communion, it’s bread and wine. (As a side note: these things are holy only because they go with the Word. Otherwise the water is just tap water and it could be a puddle or scummy lake water or from the toilet. The wine comes in a cheap ol’ grocery store jugs. And our breadbakers are sinners, just like the rest of us.)

Second, Jesus told us to do it. At the Supper, we repeat the story of Jesus instituting this meal, telling us, “Do this for the remembrance of me.” For baptism, it’s the Great Commission at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

Third, these are good news. In communion, you are ingesting the embodiment of forgiveness. In baptism, you are washed clean as God’s beloved child. So the water carries the holy promise directly and solely to Annika Ellen in her baptism this morning. As you swallow the promise in bread and wine, you may know it is for the forgiveness of your sins. It comes to find you exactly where you need it. As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you have the assurance of Jesus’ forgiving presence with you, of his death and resurrection for your sake.

That maybe addresses a question of who or what the sacraments are for. They are for you. Yet maybe we could also see that if it’s for forgiveness, then nobody should be excluded. This isn’t dependent on how well you understand it or how good you’ve been or how much a part of things you feel like you are. Jesus is offering himself for you. Although we excommunicate ourselves when we avoid the meal or don’t come to worship, it’s tough to imagine that Jesus would kick anybody out of communion.

That also raises a point that we may choose for children to be older before they receive communion, hoping that they understand it a bit more. But that’s our rule and not from Jesus. Again, he promises to be here for you no matter what.

So Henry asked about pancakes and syrup. He realizes this meal is special, and it is for him, even if he doesn’t understand everything that’s happening. But do any of us? That’s the point that got us started, that Jesus said the one who “eats the bread that comes down from heaven will not die.” Do we have any idea how to explain that? I don’t. But we trust it, we keep receiving it, we hope in it, we use it because it’s from God and for us.

That parallels baptism. We baptize infants. Annika will have no recollection of this day, but that doesn’t change God’s promise for her in those waters. The point will be that it’s there as a resource for her, a bedrock for her faith for every moment and situation to come. It’s for when she gets sick with an ear infection or when she says her first word or when she frustrates her parents or when she graduates from college or when she robs her 27th bank or when she has her own baby or when she’s in hospice.  She’ll have the resource of baptism to trust that no moment is separated from God’s blessing, that she’s always held in God’s embrace, that the Spirit of Jesus is constantly working for life.

Before we turn toward that baptism, any quick questions on sacraments?

Hymn: Wash, O God, Our Sons and Daughters (ELW #445)

some great interjected questions:
–How do you think Jesus was received with the hard language of “eat my flesh?” (He was often provocative and pushed against us. By the end, the 5000 who enjoyed eating bread were gone and only the disciples left. He asked them if they wanted to leave, and they said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” So we also get provoked and pushed against at church. If we’re only here for cake and snacks, we’d not like to be challenged in how we live. But if we realize we need this good news for our life…)
–We give Sunday School kids good news, but shouldn’t adults hear more law on how we need to act differently and reform our behavior? (Too often Sunday School is law and telling kids what they need to do to be like Jesus. They need more gospel. Also, we don’t control how the Holy Spirit uses law and gospel. If I say, I forgive you, you may hear it as relief or else an accusation that you did something wrong. If I say you are loved, you might rebel against that and say your aren’t loveable. If I say that you should stop oppressing your neighbors, that could be law if you were the abuser or it could be gospel, that God is on the side of ending oppression.)
–Sometimes I don’t understand this right away, but God reveals the message to me later. (Yes, there’s a lot of mystery on this, on how we hear it differently and it doesn’t have the same impact on all of us. And there’s a trajectory there, that somedays I’m just a lousy preacher and you’ll need to hear the next week.)
–What about re-baptism? (We don’t rebaptize. Once is enough. A verse in Ephesians talks about One Lord and One Baptism. Plus, this is God’s work. If we try to say, oh but I’m in a new denomination or I sinned since then or the pastor was a jerk or the water wasn’t the right temperature, if we claim the baptism wasn’t valid or good enough, that undermines God’s promise that you are already forgiven and nothing will separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus.)