I recorded my sermon as usual, intending to post it in its entirety here. But I’m not very happy with it as a whole. So I thought I’d get an update in anyway by picking out some fragments that I am happy with. The fragments aren’t bad. They just didn’t come together as a cohesive whole the way I wanted them to.
As followers of Jesus, what are we free from and what are we free to? We’re free, first of all, from fear. We’re free from the story our culture tells that we should strive toward power and meaning. We’re free from a story that tells us that in the beginning and the end we are individuals, that we depend on nothing but ourselves, that we write our own stories, and that we ought to make sure we have enough power over others and our lives to determine the final meaning not only of our stories but the stories of those who surround us.
All of this is revealed by Christ to be an illusion. Jesus, in faith, submits himself to relationship. He passionately opens himself to the divine, to his neighbor, to the world, even to his enemy, and shows us how really to be human. And Paul argues in the passage for today that we are free to do the same: “serve each other through love.”
For Paul, to live for the flesh, rather than for the Spirit, is to seek to establish one’s own life and worth externally, rather than recognizing one’s inherent worth as a created being in relationship with the divine. So he throws out a list of all of the external ways people try to use to justify their existence. This doesn’t mean that things outside yourself aren’t important. They may be very important. But, whatever it may be, it should serve something greater and not be raised to be the greatest.
These means by which we try to find meaning for our lives may not always come to the point of idolatry. But often they do. I’m referring to anything that dominates people and compromises their freedom, their ability to live with faith in true relationship with themselves, their neighbor, and the divine.
Both faith and idolatry begin with the recognition that to be human is to be a contingent being – that is, a creature that depends on something other than itself, alone, for its survival. But faith differs from idolatry in that it lives every moment as if this were true. Faith submits itself to God and other human beings, even to creation. And thus, “to faith” is to live freely within the contingent reality of existence. Idolatry, however, refuses to accept the truth of our need to depend on God, neighbors, and creation. And so – though it may feel and look like freedom – idolatry finds itself grasping at anything and everything that passes by – it grasps at the flesh, and thereby it loses its freedom to all of the external things of life.
Fear drives what I reckon to be the greatest idolatry active today: violence. The resort to violence places trust not in God, but rather puts its hope in our effort alone. Violence denies that, like Christ, we ought to submit ourselves to God, to each other, even to our enemies. It denies the power of resurrection as well, that God’s victory does not look like what we expect. To those who have faith in violence, the idea that Jesus’ crucifixion is a way to participate in freedom and to really live is foolishness pure and simple.
We, perhaps foolishly, are called to practice Christ’s faith, by ceasing to constantly try to take ownership of “the flesh,” the stuff of life. Instead we stand in the Spirit with empty hands, and submit ourselves to each other, to creation, and to God. Because of what Christ taught, how he lived, how he died, and that he rose again, we are free from fear and we are free to live foolishly.
And what happens when you live foolishly, unburdened by idolatry, free in the spirit of Christ? Paul says that you will live with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. You might come to a little church in the center of the city to see friends, hear jazz, sing songs, eat donuts, and talk. You might serve breakfast way too early in the morning to a bunch of homeless folks, or make lunches and serve them at the park. You might end up raising funds for windows, weeding a garden, or helping design a bridal room. You might contribute bras to be strewn across the altar and donated to women in Africa. Or you might donate spa treatments, of all things, for boys and girls locked in cycles of gang violence.
Whatever you do, if you live and die with Christ, these things, and not fear, will be how you live. You may not be lead to live just as the world expects. It sounds ridiculous. And maybe it is.
May you be so blessed to be seen by the world as a fool.
A pastor friend, Elizabeth, here in Denver asked me to guest preach at her church, Edgewater UMC. Here, I’ve included audio and the text. Think it went alright.
Galatians 2:15-21 is one of those passages. It is loaded. This is about as full of meaning and possible interpretations as one short passage of text can get. It stands as a testament to fluidity of interpretation and the great strength of language in bearing the weight of meaning.
Of course, the text does seek to transmit a message to us, but it also exists as simple scaffolding. And we heap meanings upon the structure provided by language, hoping the scaffold will hold.
My translation, for its part, too quickly tries to interpret itself. The translators have included a heading to start the passage. Quote, “Jews and Gentiles Are Saved by Faith.” But let’s stop for a moment.
Here, in this Methodist church, we are heirs of the Protestant reformation. And today’s passage exists at the very center of that reformation. Martin Luther, one of the parents of the Reformation, the father of Lutheranism, came to this passage, among others, to stake a claim about faith and works. He was dissatisfied with the state of his own soul and also the pastoral arrangement of the church that was failing to meet the needs of individuals of faith and society in general in 16th century Europe. By turning to this passage, Luther helped spark a permanent revolution in the West, a revolution that demands traditions and interpretations be tested. We are free to test the scaffolding of language ourselves. We are free to see if it can hold the meaning we are told it holds. We are free to test it with meanings we place upon it ourselves.
I hesitate to question an intellectual giant, such as Martin Luther. I am fearful to question the entire tradition of theology and theory about the church that has grown up around him. However, I do not think this scaffolding can entirely bear the weight of Luther’s interpretation, not to mention hundreds of years of tradition and reflection upon his interpretation.
I openly accept Luther’s revolution, but… I don’t think I can fully accept the inheritance of his interpretation of this passage.
So… in the spirit of this revolution, let us turn to the text and ask, “What’s Paul after, here?”
To begin, we have an issue of translation, which is itself interpretation: Since around the 1950s, translators of the bible have debated whether the Ancient Greek words here translated as “through faith in Jesus Christ,” should instead be translated “through the faith of Jesus Christ,” or put another way, “through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.” I won’t get into the grammatical nit picks here, but suffice it to say it has come to be more and more accepted that it is Christ’s faith that we have trust in that holds us within the unity of the body of the church, rather than our faith in Christ.
I didn’t ask that the less traditional, alternative translation be provided today because I’m a sneaky guy. But, the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible that I have here does note that each time “faith in” is used, it could read “faith of.” Here is what that sounds like:
“We know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through the faith of Jesus Christ. And we have trusted in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law. But if, in our effort to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have been found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! But if I build up again the very things that I once tore down, then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor. For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. 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 the faith of 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.” (Also see the CEB translation)
Read this way, it is the faithfulness of Christ that has already opened a relationship with God to all people, and united all people in Christ’s body. By trusting Christ’s faithfulness, we participate in it and are united by it. Of course, Martin Luther is right. This is very different than trying to obtain righteousness by our own works. But I don’t think that is the main point Paul is trying to get at.
Now, a little background about the text itself: Paul had set up this church in Galatia and then moved on. Imagine him, for a moment, bringing a universal message that Jews and Gentiles alike were welcome in the body of Christ. Imagine Paul preaching that not only Jesus’ people, not only the ethnic Galatians, but all people were carried together in the body of Christ and could participate in the faithfulness of Christ. They were carried together, Paul said, as one people with no division. Imagine Paul urging them to place their trust in Christ’s faith and to live together in Christ’s love.
Then he continued his mission, leaving to plant another community, in another town.
Sometime later, he hears that others have been visiting with the Galatian community. People have moved in behind him and questioned what Paul had taught. They said that, yes, of course, anyone can follow Christ but only with conditions. They wanted the Galatians to become exclusive – to set up strict requirements for membership. To become a follower of Christ, they argued, one must meet the conditions of membership, or else they would not be allowed to be part of the community. They argued, essentially, that if you don’t follow the law, then you couldn’t follow Christ.
Paul hears this, and he’s upset. We think he wrote this letter himself, when he would have normally dictated his letters. So he must have been pretty mad. And what does he say? We are, all of us, put right with God and each other by the faith of Christ. Christ’s faith levels us out. It brings us all back to zero. No matter where we stood before – high or low – now we are standing in solidarity with Jesus Christ, who was crucified. And in this universal body, no one shall have any standing above any other person. The faith of Christ is a simple given for Paul. It is where he begins every thought in this letter. Paul is arguing about the affect the fact of Christ’s faith has upon us and the world, and his points about the difference between faith and works exist in support of his thesis – his central point – that the body of Christ contains all universally.
My apologies to Martin Luther, his interpretation may have been well suited for his time, but for a long time we have made a sub-point the main point. It is time now, to ask what Paul’s message means to us, today.
And we are faced by a very difficult question: Who do we exclude? What conditions have we put in place that welcome some in and show others the door? Where and how have we built up walls of division in the body of Christ, between us and our neighbor, between us and the world? This may sound like a political question, but that is only because it is first and foremost a spiritual question, and the Spirit lives in everything.
So I ask you: who do we make into second-class citizens?
I am the outreach pastor at St. Paul’s Methodist down town. This morning we served breakfast to just over 100 homeless guests. They are surely excluded from much of society, not to mention much of the church. But though they are often hard to see, I reckon they are among the most visible members of our society that feel the pain of exclusion.
I also wonder who here in this church has been excluded? Who, in the church spanning across he globe? Who, in the universal body of Christ across time and space? In our city, state, and country we make divisions as well. In education, healthcare, and the economy we consciously and unconsciously lift some up, force others down, bring some to the center, and sweep others to the margins. Sometimes we do this actively. Sometimes we simply let it happen. Sometimes it is hidden from us. And sometimes we refuse to see it. But the divisions exist, and often we have built them up with our own hands.
Sometimes it is we who are excluded and made to exist as part of some lower class of people. What pain has that caused you to feel? Has it made you angry? Have you sometimes then turned that pain on others, excluding them as well?
I am going to leave you with all of these questions today, and not many answers.
And you may be thinking, “come on, there are practical concerns.” And of course, that is a given. We do have to live in the world we find ourselves in. And those who seek fully to live within the world ethically and consciously, with their eyes open for the Spirit of God, are blessed. They may not always be a blessing, however, and so we require and rely on the freely given grace of the divine, and the mercy and grace of our neighbors to help us seek out divisions and tear them down. Before practical concerns, we owe our allegiance first and foremost, and above all else, to Christ. And here is the answer: in Christ there is no division. May we work for a day when there may be no division in us.
The BBC recently covered a New York state retiree, Phillip Patterson, who wrote out the entirety of the King James 1611 Bible by hand. 788,000 words, penned with care and purpose. It’s an astounding story, especially given that Mr. Patterson doesn’t consider himself that religious. Still, when you watch the video (and you should watch the video), it’s hard to picture him as anything but religious, at least in the sense of one being open to the greater mystery of life and meaning. This is where the language of religion, and the word “religion” in particular, fails to do much good — but that’s another post.
Patterson says “I wondered what was in the Bible. And I knew I didn’t have the… intellectual bandwidth to read it and retain it.” He’s a man searching for knowledge and understanding of a text that speaks so much to the nature of what it means to be in this world. It’s especially interesting that he labored over a text which he feels “is not accepting of [his] lifestyle” as a bisexual man with AIDS. It’s impossible for me to see his work as anything but a sacred pursuit of divine knowledge. When you hear him say, “I would sometimes be sitting and writing, and all of the sudden, it’s like the top of my head opens up and I understand, suddenly, how small our beliefs are. I’m not a slave to what’s written in that book. It’s like everything else in life. Do you believe everything everybody tells you?”, you know - Phillip Patterson, the not-so-religious man who happened to write out the Bible, is a mystic.
As I revisit this man’s story over and over, I am continually struck by the instant kinship I feel with him. He, too, is a seeker, a wanderer in the Cloud of Unknowing. Patterson is working towards knowing by not knowing, by opening himself up to possibility through an experience with the unfamiliar. I feel keenly that the mystic pursuit is a path by which those of us who find ourselves wrapped in lost-ness can emerge into some of the richest parts of our religious traditions. I suppose it’s easy for any person to feel like they don’t fit the movement of their times (the zeitgeist doesn’t have handles, man), and this wanting for place, for name, for identity, can become suffocating. Though when you look at someone like Patterson, or to writings of the past from the likes of Julian of Norwich or Pseudo-Dionysius, you begin to realize that being lost doesn’t have to be a terrible thing. Rather, it can be the very circumstance needed to encounter that which is true, divine, and lovely.
It leaves me lamenting the passing of the mystic as a vocation. The work of pursuing mystery, residing in thought and contemplation in a non-academic, non-analytic way, is both critical and something I feel drawn toward. In some ways, the vocation still exists; I could pack my stuff, head to a monastery, and hermit it up. But for those of us who naturally lean toward relationship and practicality, we are left wondering how to encounter meaning in the felt aimlessness of our journey.
The quick answer for many is “religion.” But, as we saw with Phillip Patterson, those structures and beliefs represented by the word “religion” aren’t for everyone, and they’re not always for me, either. This is where mindfulness practice provides solace. Using physical action to become present, to encourage myself to inhabit my space as wholly as possible at any one moment despite all the confusion and fear that rises from the feelings of not belonging, is to participate in the idea of the modern mystic. It’s what Patterson was doing all along. Still, even the practice must be handled with grace and patience, as being present is difficult; the awareness of how un-present we tend to be is actually hilarious.
I’m lost, and the possible solution involves holding my beliefs with care and examining them, noticing their faults, their quirks, and their value. Mindful awareness, the act of resting in what is, can lead to uncovering and dusting off the beliefs I hold – about religion, about myself, about everything – and thereby allow me to put my tension and my hope in conversation. In those moments, I can begin to notice how “small my beliefs really are” and how much potential resides in the looking, in the lost places, in the act of noticing my breath even when I can’t get a grasp on anything else. I, too, can become a mystic by resting in the notion that knowing can come from not knowing, and that truly, “not all those who wander are lost”
Since moving to Denver I’ve been active in a church called AfterHours Denver (AHD). It’s weird. We meet in a bar three times a month for fellowship and to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to be included in sack lunches. Every day AHD and its partner groups meet in Civic Center Park to distribute up to 150 lunches to the people who congregate there or who are passing through. Communion is also offered in the form of bread and grape juice.
That’s it. It’s weird. There’s no building. There’s no paid staff except Jerry. There’s service and there’s fellowship in the name of Christ.
A common criticism of AHD often comes in the form of a question: “What are you doing to address the root causes of homelessness? The poor don’t need a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.” It is an important question. It is a question that I, myself, have asked. It is also a question that can be cynical. When I have heard it, it is often delivered in a tone that says, “so what?”
The answer is, ‘nothing.’ “What are you doing to address the root causes of homelessness?” Realistically? “Nothing.” So, if the answer is nothing, then who cares? Why continue to do it? I mean, other than the fact that most people like to have something to eat for lunch?
What I intend below is a quick look at AHD and its mission as a movement of Christian hope.
I follow Soren Kierkegaard’s (SK) expansive treatment of hope in his book Works of Love. In it he deals with hope not as a feeling but as action. For SK, hope is “to relate oneself expectantly to the possibility of the good” (249). Importantly, SK points out that hope cannot be put to shame. Even if what is hoped for does not come to pass, still, hope remains intact. This is because the action of hoping for the possibility of the good, a good which may not exist in present time, itself creates the good (296). In the face of crushing poverty this is perhaps not quite satisfying. But hopefully the sandwich adds some tangible satisfaction.
Hebrews 11:1 teaches that faith is the constancy for what is hoped for. To ask the question alone, “do the poor need a PB&J,” and not to participate in hope is to hope nothing at all, is to lose faith, and indeed is to sink into despair (248).
Going out into the park every day, sustained by the Spirit, in communion with homeless women and men, springs out of a constancy of hope. It is a work of love from love, an act of faith from faith. Far from doing nothing, this daily action creates out of nothing a new reality, community, and awareness.
Without public meetings among the poor, the root causes of homelessness will not be addressed. Awareness is the very beginning of the movement to address social problems. In a society in which most wish not to see the poor, in which individuals dismiss an area as dirty or off limits because homeless women and men sleep in doorways — some actively go to the poor, ask them to gather together, and interact with them as individual human beings and blessed creations of a loving God.
The best case scenario is that those who gather are brought to a new consciousness. They come to be awake. If the Spirit of the divine is involved in the least then their being is transferred into a state of aletheia: unconcealedness, disclosure, all truth. Their world experiences an apocálypsis, not a literal destruction but a revelation that destroys preconceived notions, an un-covering, an end to a time in which the reality of the world as it exists was hidden to them. They may experience a re-birth and perhaps take a step on the road toward Christian Discipleship. They may ask, “why do these conditions of poverty exist,” “why have I not come to terms with them until now,” “why have they been hidden from me?” This new awareness may lead toward action addressing homelessness itself.
Worst case scenario? Someone who’s hungry gets something to eat.
When I was small, my dad would occasionally wake me up on Saturday mornings and ask if I wanted pancakes. It was a wonderful question, though an unnecessary one, because what kid turns down pancakes for breakfast? “That’s alright, Father. Just my regular toast points and cottage cheese with a side of honeydew. Fresh squeezed grapefruit juice if you’re so inclined to earn my love this day.” (I hate everything in that meal except toast, by the way. Toast is boss.) So, I would respond like a child who knows maple syrup is manna from heaven/Canada, hurriedly dress, and wait impatiently at the dining room table. He would bring out the utensils first, then the butter, and finally the syrup. This was key, because while he brought out the other accouterments as he was cooking, the syrup came out only moments before the pancakes themselves. He would carry a plate holding a steaming tower out of the kitchen and set it on my place mat. It sat there for a moment, fogging up my glasses as I inched my face closer and closer to take in the aroma, and then my dad would start cutting. Taking a fork and knife, he sectioned off the stack into neat, orderly rows and columns, leaving a stack of perfectly square pieces. It was beautiful. Carefully poured syrup would slide so neatly between the cuts, touching each piece on its way to the surface of the plate below. Each individual bite was as good as another, and I savored them all one by one.
I still cut my pancakes this way, and I’m convinced they taste better when the ritual is followed. Logan visited me in Nashville recently, and he became noticeably excited when I suggested we get breakfast out one morning because “I get to see you cut pancakes.” It’s a running joke for those around me, and I’m okay with that. It is a bit ridiculous, but it’s my ritual. And that’s what makes the difference here, the ritual. It’s a tiny one, but one that still represents so much. I don’t think about its meaning each time I sit down to a short stack, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. My father, unwittingly I’m sure, instilled love and care into a simple meal and its even simpler preparation on random weekend mornings so long ago. I know he did it to make it easier for me to eat, which is why parents cut up any number of foods for their kids. But I still do it; not for convenience, but because it’s a ritual that holds meaning. And really, any ritual worth its salt is inherently about meaning-making. I started thinking about this after hearing a delightful interview with Jerry Seinfeld on Morning Edition last week as I drove to work. I found myself nodding and smiling the entire time he spoke about his relationship with coffee as something that has an elegant way of positively shaping one’s time socially and personally.
Coffee has become that for me in adulthood as well. Seinfeld’s right to note how we use rituals like sharing a coffee and a conversation with someone to set these wonderful spaces apart from the rest of the day. If you let it, the ritual carves out a niche where you can simultaneously hide from the world and be more fully part of it. You’re in it; you’re giving definition to your time and the act at hand. Rituals, especially the little ones that we connect to things and people we love, are constantly pushing us to shape how we navigate the myriad of choices and options open to us as modern, busy people. So, even though cutting pancakes into crisp, exact lines or letting the slow wafts of steam envelop your face before taking that first sip of bold, black brew are tiny exercises in making meaning, they are fraught with meaning nonetheless. And honestly, that’s about as holy and pure as anything else I can think of.