The Curious Garden

During this annual summer series, we read a children’s story as an additional “scripture” lesson. This week’s story is The Curious Garden, by Peter Brown.

Scripture: Genesis 2.4-9, 15

Life outside of Sunday Morning

In the youth group, we have been seeking ways of discovering how faith really does matter in life outside of Sunday morning. Part of that process has been actively listening to the youth as they voice things that they wrestle with, things that don’t make sense, things they are afraid of or feel ill-equipped to deal with, and things they see as pressing issues in their lives now and in their future.

Perhaps because of the one-two punch of extreme flooding followed by extreme heat, there have been some animated conversations about creation, and ecology, and pollution, and climate change.

What are our responsibilities with the climate and the environment—as humans?—as persons of faith in God and Jesus?

How are we to be good stewards of this world?

These concerns were among the top of our youths’ list. And whether or not you feel the urgency they do about these issues, they are not not issues that going away. And these questions about creation care are not political questions—they are faith questions that are worthy of being wrestled with by people of faith.

The Facts

Whether or not you choose to believe the 97% of climate scientists worldwide who are convinced that the earth’s climate is warming, it is impossible to ignore the vast changes to the ecosystems of the world that have transpired even in the last couple decades. 

Some areas of the globe have experienced more and more intense periods of drought;

Others, more and more intense storm systems;

Others, more wide-ranging and destructive wildfires.

We see that fisheries are collapsing;

That many species have been driven by changes in climate and habitat to occupy areas they never previously occupied;

and that thousands of species are going extinct when the biomes they occupy simply disappear.

That these things are happening is not up for question; they are fact, agreed upon by right and left alike, by both those pro- and anti-science, by those of faith and no faith. The only doubt anyone can inject into the conversation is about the cause—the explanation why these things are happening. But these changes are accepted as factual by all.

They impact our species’ ability to produce food…… and our friends’ ability to work and provide for their families…… 

These realities impact the homes of millions of people worldwide…… and the health of those who live there……

To say nothing of the things we lose along the way:

the species of plants and animals that could have had medical benefits

historic sites and scenic areas

unique biomes created with purpose by God

and perhaps (ultimately) even our ability as a species to survive in certain parts of the globe that were once teeming with abundant life.

These are simply the facts and the concerns they bring. So what then is the response of those aligned with the heart of God?……of those who have committed to discipling the Way of Jesus?

Eden

Once upon a time, in a time long past and a land far, far away—God began cultivating a patch of land we have come to call “Eden.” 

Genesis 1 tells of God’s considered purpose and order in bringing all things into existence. First, spaces are carved out of the “formless void”—spaces that will enable the existence of purposeful objects and life forms: the sun, moon, and stars; birds in the heavens, and fish in the seas; an incredible variety of land-dwelling creatures. All of this is brought into being and God declares it “good” and then “very good” [Genesis 1:31]—words that in Hebrew mean not just good, but:

appropriate

valuable

pleasing

desirable

and beautiful.

This Hebrew concept of goodness is intrinsically bound up with that of shalom/peace. To be good is to be at peace with all around you. It is to be one with other things/people in a way wherein your wellbeing is connected to theirs—to be beneficially interdependent and supporting of each other.

This is the way God describes not just the first human beings, created male and female in God’s image [Genesis 1:27], but “everything that he had made” [Genesis 1:31]. Creation is very good. Very purposeful. Very appropriate. Very much to be desired as it is. Very much at peace with itself…… in balanced harmony with itself……

This is the good creation that God has made.

And this goodness of creation is something the first human is tasked with maintaining. In Genesis 2:15, we learn that God places the first human into the garden of creation with a purpose. And what is that purpose?——”to till it and keep it.”

Tilling

Now, being that we reside in a community shaped by farming, I suspect we are all at least passingly familiar with the concept of tilling the soil—or “working it” as the NIV translates. You don’t just grow crops by scattering seed willy-nilly anywhere and everywhere—that’s part of why Jesus’ parable of the sower grabs our attention so effectively.

Soil must be prepared in order to ensure the seed has the best opportunity to thrive and to be productive. Working the soil involves turning it—breaking it up so there is room for roots to grow and nutrients to be absorbed. Perhaps there are rocks or other things that need removed; or perhaps nutrients that are lacking, so fertilizer has to be worked into the soil. Then there are the inevitable weeds that threaten to choke our plantings by consuming these nutrients; they must be dealt with as well. And of course, it may be that what the soil needs for productivity to happen is a rest—the opportunity to lay fallow for a season. All of these realities are tied up in the concept of working the ground in Genesis 2:15.

But it is considerably broader and different than just that too. The Hebrew word that appears here is the same root as the word “servant”……and in Greek translation, the word “deacon.” The human (in this story) is placed in the garden to serve it. And serving the soil—serving the land……serving the earth—this is a much more expansive concept than simply “working it.”

To serve the land requires prioritizing its wellbeing above that of your own wellbeing.

To serve the earth recognizes that your wellbeing is tied to that of the wellbeing of the planet—to care for it is to care for yourself.

To serve the soil forces us to get dirty for the wellbeing of God’s good creation.

Keeping

The other half of this God-given commission dovetails into this. God places the human in the garden of creation “to keep it” [Genesis 2:15] It may well be sufficient to think of “keeping” creation as not losing it.——But as things stand, we have lost a considerable amount of it, and we continue to lose more.

Just like the first half of the commission, the Hebrew language is both more specific and more expansive at the same time. In Hebrew, to “keep” something is less about having and more about maintaining. Guards in the Old Testament will do this to protect a city. People at risk of losing something will do this to preserve what they find valuable. God calls on the people of Israel to do this in order to maintain their covenant with God, and the people call on God to do this to survive when they face threats both without and within.

To “keep” the good creation of God is to maintain and preserve its goodness and balance—the very things that (not many verses before) God commended creation for.

Taken together, the tasks of serving the earth and keeping it involve both maintaining its goodness and promoting its growth. Yet neither task seems to have been taken very seriously by the faithful of God over (at least) the last few hundred years.

The Command Continues

Which is strange, in a way. You will not find anywhere in scripture that suggests this responsibility was ever rescinded by God or that it was fulfilled along the way. 

As a contrasting example: The command to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth [Genesis 1:28] seems to have been fulfilled by God at the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11 [vv.8-9]. We don’t get another instruction about such expansive multiplication until Jesus tells his followers to do that—and then, not through biology but through disciple-making [Matthew 28:19-20]. 

Yet this God-purposed vocation to till the earth and keep it continues to be fulfilled by faithful folk throughout the biblical story—even after it gets hard [Genesis 3:17-19].

The ground continues to be tilled.

Trees continue to be tended.

Animals continue to be shepherded

There even continues to be concern for the soil itself [Leviticus 25:4-5]

Throughout the story, and all the way to us today: We are inheritors of that vocation to care for the good creation of God.

 

So what are we going to do about it? Are we going to be the boy—or the girl—who sees a need for a gardener? Are we going to reclaim the God-issued directive to care for creation and promote life in it?

Even if you become convinced of this responsibility and discern the leading of God to reclaim the role of “gardener of creation,” it can be hard to know where to start.

Let’s be honest—regardless of what call we may discern to embody the counter-cultural Kingdom of God, it’s hard to know where to start. The problems are so big. The implications are so wide reaching. The issues are so intertwined.

It is here that our children’s book stands as a helpful call to the kind of simplicity of mission that we discussed in Sunday School last week, and which has come up in the sermons a couple times in the past month.

Liam—the boy in the story—saw a problem: “the plants were dying. They needed a gardener.” 

And though he did not yet have the skill set he needed or a sustainability plan that would “solved the problem” completely, he decided to do what he could. In one practically microscopically small area of this world-wide problem, Liam began watering, pruning, and tending a few plants. 

Along the way he learned, because he wanted to do better. 

And as he diligently persisted against all obstacles, Liam not only began to feel like he was competent in his task, but he was also able to see that his actions were producing results. That handful of plants he began caring for began to spread further and further away.

There were, of course, setbacks along the way. And Liam had much to learn. But eventually it was not just his garden that was expanding, it was his mission. Others, seeing the goodness of what Liam was doing—even if they never met him in person—were inspired to take up the responsibility to become gardeners themselves.

 

This is a pretty solid game plan for changing the world:

whether you are taking up the call to care for God’s good creation……

whether you are inspired by the scriptures to affirm the image of God in people who look and sound different than you do yourself……

whether you are hearing loudly the biblical mandate for justice, especially for those that society is structured to disadvantage……

or whether you are just trying to make the world a more compassionate place.

How do we do it?

We will start small, and we usually won’t really know what we’re doing. But that won’t stop us from acting, so we will do what we can where we can.

We will embody our convictions humbly yet boldly; knowing that we have much to learn, yet confident that we are attending to realities and people that are dear to God’s heart.

Our confidence will be such that we do not need others to join us for us to be certain we are doing the right thing. And yet we will be eager to share the work with anyone interested in doing the same.

And so eventually, slowly, over time and space, we will see everything change. It can’t help but change—not if the Lord of Creation is at work through us.

Instructions

During this annual summer series, we read a children’s story as an additional “scripture” lesson. This week’s story is Instructions, by Neil Gaiman & Charles Vess

Scripture: Luke 10:1-12

Intro

I love this story—both the storybook for today and the Gospel lesson. They both invite us into our imaginations—into the realm of what can be and might be, depending on what we choose.

The gospel story (of course) gives scant details about these seventy disciples’ experiences. Reading a little further down the chapter, they return to Jesus absolutely gobsmacked at what God did through them. In verse 17, we read: “The seventy returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!'” (Luke 10:17 NRSV). 

But that’s all we get. The rest is left up to our imaginations. 

Where did they go?

What was it like in that first town?

How many times did they have to “shake the dust from their heels?”

How many people did they bring healing to? What were their stories?

Whatever we are capable of imagining, I’m sure what actually happened proves our imaginations to be too small.

The Instructions

The actual instructions that Jesus offers to these disciples are worthy of some reflection, which is why we preachers can’t resist doing so.

For today though, perhaps all I care to highlight is how following Jesus’ instructions in this ministry forces his disciples to be quite vulnerable to their world.

They are not to bring extra supplies or personal resources. [Luke 10:4]

For their basic necessities of food and shelter, they are to be completely dependent on the generosity of people who may not know Jesus. [Luke 10:5-7]

They will be vulnerable to thieves and ruffians, to the elements, to prejudices and cultural fears. [Luke 10:3] There is nothing predictable about this ministry endeavor.

Which means it genuinely looks exactly like that of Jesus himself.

Vulnerability

We humans aren’t good with vulnerability.
We Americans aren’t good with vulnerability.
We churches aren’t good with vulnerability. 

And that’s why so rarely take any actual risks in ministry and in life. Which is also why our ministry doesn’t really look much like that of Jesus.

 

Use your imagination to think what it’d be like if Jesus tried to send 70 out of today’s churches:

How many committee meetings would we need before we decided to do what Jesus was inviting us to do?

How many “no thank you’s” or “I’m too busy right now’s” would we get from those we recognized as rightly gifted? How many arms would we have to twist before we could find someone—anyone—to go?

Which board would have oversight? How long would that take to sort out?

What kind of advanced fundraising would we require? Where does it fit in the budget?

And what if we thought some other church was sending someone whose theology or life commitments were problematic? How many churches would withdraw their participation in this endeavor?

God help us: for making simple things hard.

 

We do not do what Jesus asks us to do because we simply do not really trust that Jesus will take care of us.

The instructions we follow—or we do not follow—impact the rest of the story.

Perfect Systems

There’s a saying in the business world—”Your system is perfectly designed to produce the result you are getting.” [repeat] Think about that.

Consider what has happened in the American church over the last decades. That happened because it was the natural consequence of the systems we built.

As one tiny fragment of that, consider this: Just this last week, a report came out that declared—having polled a large number of adults representative of the nation at large—that a majority of people now see clergy as irrelevant. This study confirmed that of a Gallop poll in 2018 that indicated only 37% of Americans see clergy as demonstrating higher than average honesty and ethical integrity.

There are reasons that my job does not carry the cache that it once did. Some of those are due to systems within society, but many of them have to do with the systems we’ve built within the church. The result we’ve achieved is the natural consequence of the systems we’ve built.

Consider what has happened to our American culture over the last decades. This resurgence of racial division. The aggressive polarization. The increased violence against minorities. The obscene and expanding wealth inequality and the corresponding decreasing of the middle class. The roll-back of legal protections that shielded the vulnerable. As a nation of immigrants, it seems clear that we have lost ourselves.

How did we get here? I hear so many people asking that. How did we end up in this place? What happened to the America I used to know?

We got here because by accident or by intent, we built systems that were perfectly designed to produce this result. 

The only way we can arrive at a different result is to change the system. We have to obey different instructions and we have to ignore different instructions. We have to build a new system.

Biblical Instructions

Following—or not following—the instructions offered by God in the scriptures will greatly impact our experience of life. As with the seventy in today’s reading, it may not always look like a good idea to do things God’s way. But as we see with our churches and nation in the present age, we cannot afford to disregard God’s leading any longer; the cost of staying the same is simply too high.

Remember Your Name

There is one bit of instruction in the children’s book today that I want to circle back to.

It’s right here [show book]: “Remember your name.”

Names in the ancient world were huge. Your name was more a part of you than what you chose to do with your life. Every name had meaning, and each found fulfillment in the story of the name-bearer:

Abraham: “Father of a multitude”……

Hagar: “Stranger”……

Jacob: “Supplanter” or “One who takes the place of another”……

Moses: “Deliverer”……

Joshua: “Salvation”……

David: “Beloved”……

Hezekiah: “Yahweh strengthens”……

Joel: “Yahweh is God”……

And so on.

Several times in the scriptures we find folks getting their names changed in accordance to their new identity in God.

Abram becomes Abraham……

Sarai becomes Sarah

Jacob becomes Israel……

Hoshea becomes Joshua……

Simon becomes Peter……

You get my point.

Names were seen as important. They were entangled with destiny. And the wrong name—as other biblical stories point out—is a difficult thing to be saddled with.

 

But “remember your name” is a refreshingly biblical instruction.

How many times throughout the Old Testament story do we see God—usually through a prophet—urging the people of Israel to remember who they are?…… to remember the covenant that shapes their lives?…… to remember who God is to them?…… so things will go well for them?……

How many times in the New Testament letters do we find church leaders calling communities of faith back to their center?…… back to the truth of who they are?…… back to who they were when they first heard Jesus name them?……

Remember your name, church. Remember your name.

Remember—

not the names the world gives to you, 

not the names your coworkers speak to your face or behind your back, 

not the names shouted at you in anger or in fear

But remember who God names you to be.

God does not name you fool or idiot or stupid.

God does not call you a pain in the rear.

God does not consider you hopeless.

All of those names that bring embarrassment and shame and despair—they are not who God knows you to be, and God’s knowing is true. God knows you. God has named you.

You are named daughter.

You are named son.

You are named friend.

You are named beloved.

Those names are true. Those names are unchanging.

And if you only get one thing out of this morning—or even out of all the sermons I will ever give—remember your name. 

Against the multitude of voices that deny it, remember your name.

Against those innumerable voices within you, remember your name.

Against whatever people or powers or systems dare to raise a word or hand against the beloved of God, remember your name.

Remember your name, O Church, and no weapon fashioned against you can stand.

Forget your name, O Church, and that perfectly designed system that we have built will consume us completely.

Guess How Much I Love You

During this annual summer series, we read a children’s story as an additional “scripture” lesson. This week’s story is Guess How Much I Love You, by Sam McBratney

Scripture: 1John 4.7-12

Intro

I expect that today’s sermon will be wholly predictable, especially if you know me and have listened to me preach. Some of you may even be able to impersonate me preaching this sermon better than I will be able to preach it myself.

But there is always value in hearing important things again.

There is always value in circling back to the beginning and reminding ourselves of our foundation.

There is always value in hearing the “old, old story of Jesus and his love,” as that familiar hymn proclaims.

1. God’s great love for us

We begin today with the most obvious and yet most mysterious profession of our faith: God loves you. God loves you with a great, all-encompassing love of purity and richness that surpasses even the best examples of love in our human experience.

We can and should marvel at this, as have faithful folk since before Jesus walked the earth. When we look at the expansiveness and intricacy of creation, we cannot help but wonder (like the Psalmist) at God’s attention and love:

“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?” (Psalm 8:3–4 NRSV)

If we even begin to comprehend it, the vastness of God’s love is overwhelming. In another psalm, we see God’s love reaching “to the moon and back”:

“Your steadfast love, O LORD, extends to the heavens,
your faithfulness to the clouds.
Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains,
your judgments are like the great deep;
you save humans and animals alike, O LORD.” (Psalm 36:5–6 NRSV)

To the moon and back.

 

There is, in the Old Testament, a normative way of describing God’s nature. It is first introduced in Exodus 34:6, and is repeated without much variation a dozen or more times throughout the Old Testament—in the Torah/Law sections, among the prophetic oracles, within the poetry and wisdom literature—the whole of the Old Testament universally proclaims:

“You, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” (Psalm 86:15 NRSV)

Which is really just a longer way of saying what 1John communicates in three words (technically four in Greek): “God is love” (1John 4:8b NRSV).

2. Jesus demonstrates that love

Now, given that the New Testament relies on the Old Testament as its foundation, the New Testament authors do not spend much time trying to convince us that God is a God of love——as far as they’re concerned, the Old Testament has already made that case. Instead, they are far more interested in helping us see how Jesus is a demonstration of God’s love for us. 

We could begin this walk down memory lane with perhaps the most famous verses of the scriptures, Jesus’ words to Nicodemus in John chapter 3:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:16–17 NRSV)

It’s not too big of a leap from Jesus’ own words here to those of 1John:

“God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1John 4:9–10 NRSV)

These are important words. They teach us that God’s love was revealed via the incarnation—the physical presence of God embodied just like us. By looking at Jesus, we can see God——

That was taught by Jesus himself [“Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9 NRSV)] 

and it was reinforced by the early church [“He is the image of the invisible God… For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,” (Colossians 1:15, 19 NRSV)].

So those words in 1John 4 [vv.9–10] teach that God’s love was revealed via the incarnation. But they also teach that God’s love was demonstrated through the cross and the resurrection.

Again, Jesus himself says as much—for example in John 15:13: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13 NRSV)

And this, too, is reinforced by the early church. The apostle Paul is particularly emphatic about this in several places, including:

Romans: “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8 NRSV)

And Ephesians: “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved…” (Ephesians 2:4–5 NRSV)

 

When you think about it, Jesus is really a great, big “guess how much I love you” from God to us.

In Jesus, we see that God loves us enough to empty Godself [Philippians 2:6-8] and take on not just a human life—but human life at the absolute bottom of human life…… life among the most powerless…… life among the absolute dregs of society.

Jesus took on life in a place and time

where he was ruled by a foreign dictator

where he was at repeated risk of being murdered

where he belonged to an unimportant family of poor tradesfolk, who were themselves from an unimportant city and an even less important clan.

Given what we know of that place and time, Jesus absolutely experienced famine and disease, he learned the dangers of a census, he became a refugee as a child, and he witnessed high infant mortality and unjust state executions.

This is the human experience that Jesus chose to enter. He could have entered any human experience, but this is the one he chose. Think about that. 

Given that this is the life Jesus chose, it should come as no surprise that both before and since, these picked on and picked over people of the margins are of particular priority to God. As James writes in his letter [James 1:26-27] your attitudes and actions toward those on the fringes of society reveal the truth about your religion—and thus your heart.

 

Jesus loves you enough to enter our world sooo far onto the fringes that the arrival of God incarnate was hardly even noticed.

Jesus loves you enough to face religious persecution by his faith community and government alike.

Jesus loves you enough to consider your physical life in this world more important than his own.

Jesus loves you enough to not allow death the final word in your life.

How much does God love you?——God loves you to the grave and back. 

3. Born of God = demonstrate family resemblance

No New Testament author can speak for very long about God’s love—or the love of Jesus—without recognizing that being the recipients of God’s love changes us. It changes our inner being, our priorities, and thus—our outward actions and relationships. Most of the time in the scriptures, we find phrasing similar to that of 1John:

“Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” (1John 4:11 NRSV)

I suspect we find this instruction and reminder so frequently because it sums up perfectly what Jesus depicted: 

that the person who truly follows him, 

who experiences the inner transformation that only God can bring about, 

and who thus learns to live constantly in the Kingdom reign of God—

this is a person who will naturally demonstrate the family resemblance—love: even love of enemies.

Jesus himself, of course, indicates that the people who are really his disciples will be recognizable in the the world—and not because of 

the radio stations they listen to,
the theme parks they vacation at,
or the beverages they abstain from;

not because of the theological purity they espouse,
the bumper stickers they apply to their SUV,
or the political party they support.

Not even because they were unashamed to forward that meme of Obi-Wan Kenobi that they mistakenly thought was Jesus.

As recorded in John 13, Jesus says:

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34–35 NRSV)

It is love that demonstrates our resemblance to Jesus—and thus to God [Luke 6:35–36]. Loving others, Jesus says, fulfills all scriptural instructions—yet another teaching repeated by the early church. Paul in Romans, for instance, closely paraphrases Jesus when he says:

“The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Romans 13:9–10 NRSV)

What all this means, of course, is that we should aspire to ourselves be a demonstration of God’s love in the world. People should be able to look at us and engage with us (in both vocation and relationship) and get a glimpse of how much God loves them.

That’s why Paul urges the church at Corinth to “Let all that you do be done in love.” (1Corinthians 16:14 NRSV).

It’s why Peter insists that we “Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins.” (1Peter 4:8 NRSV)

It is why the one ritual Jesus commands his followers to carry out is not actually baptism or even communion—it is foot washing. In John 13, Jesus says:

“So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” (John 13:14–15 NRSV)

What does this demonstrate? It demonstrates that “new commandment” of Jesus that we referenced earlier, and which is recorded just after this story:

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34–35 NRSV)

Certainly we don’t think we servants are greater than our master, right? [John 13:16]

Then there can be no mistake that the lives we lead are to be characterized by the same, all-encompassing love.

Outro

But we can only reflect a love like Jesus’ love if we experience Jesus’ love. Because being loved with a love that goes to the grave and back will leave a mark. And that mark looks less like a zig-zag on your forehead or a Jesus-fish on your bumper, and more like a cross in your life [“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their crosrogues and follow me.” (Mark 8:34 NRSV)].

Guess how much I love you, God says…… Now show that to everyone who sees you.

The Path of Life

Scripture: Galatians 5:1, 13-25

Connections

If you pay attention when you’re reading the bible, you’ll find all sorts of connections.

You’ll discover a remarkable continuity in describing God and God’s expectations for the faithful.

You’ll see that Jesus’ teachings are deeply rooted in the Old Testament.

And you’ll realize that the rest of the New Testament is really a direct outgrowth of the teachings of Jesus himself.

That is especially the case with the apostle Paul. For a while and in certain circles, some seemed to simply assume that Paul and Jesus were in opposition to each other. One side held up Paul’s writings as the best articulated theology the Christian should espouse, and the other side pointed out where Paul’s teachings seemed to conflict with those of Jesus.

The dichotomy is, was, and ever will be a false one. And the only reason it emerged at all is because of how deeply we have misunderstood both Jesus and Paul.

The Jesus Adumbration

Take today’s text as an example. Everything we read in the scripture lesson today is really a fairly obvious expansion of some of Jesus’ teachings. In John’s gospel (for instance), Jesus says:

“Very truly I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin… So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8:34, 36 NRSV)

Now imagine: you’re a Christian leader, and the good folk you’re responsible for keep falling back into their destructive behavior patterns of vice and sin. You care for them. You want to see them succeed. You want them to realize the power of God that is capable of changing not just outward actions, but is capable of changing the heart. And those few times you’ve actually gotten anyone to talk about all this, they simply (and frustratingly) blow it off: “I’ll pray for forgiveness [they say], and it’ll be ok; God will forgive me.”

You want these people to know—to truly know—the truth of Jesus’ teaching: “everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin… [but] if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”

 

What do you write to them?
What do you tell them?
How do you encourage them to walk the path of Jesus?

I suspect it would be something like what we find in this passage to the churches of Galatia. There’d be:

A word about the freedom we have in Christ, and a charge to not become slaves to sin. [Galatians 5:1]

A reminder of the reason for the liberty we are given—not for our personal indulgence or even edification, but rather so we can more fully participate in the transformation of all of creation in accordance with God’s desires. [Galatians 5:13-14]

A warning about the self-destructive and communally destructive nature of putting yourself first. [Galatians 5:15]

Some examples of the kinds of behaviors that are particularly adept at enslaving and destroying us. [Galatians 5:19-21]

And of course: Some examples of the kinds of behaviors that are particularly liberating and demonstrative of God’s love and power—enabled (of course) by the ever-present and diligent labors of the Spirit. [Galatians 5:22-23, 25]

You see? All this in Galatians is merely an application of Jesus’ abiding principle: “Very truly I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin… So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8:34, 36 NRSV)

Freedom

Freedom, quite simply, is life as God intends it. We are most at liberty when we are living as we were built to live. This shouldn’t be as difficult to grasp as it seems to be.

When we live as the God who made us intends us to live, we experience greater peace, fulfillment, love, hope, joy, contentment, connection, and purpose. The freedom we discover comes about because everything in us and about us is working as it should.

But when we live in contrary ways to how we were built to function, we find restrictions…… obstacles…… and the ever-tightening noose of powerlessness. 

Paul uses the language of slavery and freedom because those concepts work well in his world; they were a part of everyday life.

I wonder if perhaps the world today is better able to understand these concepts through the language of health and wellness.

Having been built for relationship with God—we are as reliant on the power of the Kingdom for survival as we are dependent on air to breathe and nutrition to fuel our bodies. Without feeding ourselves on God’s Kingdom power, we become malnourished, weak, and deformed.

Or how about conceiving of sin as a virus? The patterns of vice such as those Paul mentions here infect us, take over our healthy cells to replicate, and (in turn) infect others along the way—and this “sin virus” proves remarkably resistant to antibiotics and the like.

Or maybe we could consider the framework of healthy eating. There are foods that are simply unhealthy to consume—especially habitually and over time. Your one-time indulgence may appear to be without consequence, but can sometimes be the first step down the slippery slope of eating all the Girl Scout cookies in one sitting…… or worse. (perhaps I confess my own sin??)
In contrast, there are foods that you know to be exceptionally good for the body. Consuming them bears few harmful consequences—even in large quantities in some cases. When you eat them, you feel better and your body simply works the way it is supposed to.

There are limitless analogies we could use, but the only one that matters is the one that strikes its mark and helps you see that freedom is life as God intends it. There are practices that lead to what Paul calls slavery and death, and there are practices that lead to what he calls freedom and abundant life. The only remarkable thing is that we still struggle to choose.

The Path of Life

As many of you know, I love the Psalms. Alongside the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, the Psalms are the most-read part of my bibles. And though it may not be obvious, I feel a connection between today’s scripture and Psalm 16. 

There, we find the psalmist praying for safekeeping: “Protect me, O God, for in you I take refuge” (Psalm 16:1 NRSV). Yet even amidst the uncertainty that sparks such a prayer, this psalm is essentially an expression of trust in God:

“I bless the LORD who gives me counsel;
in the night also my heart instructs me.

I keep the LORD always before me;
because he is at my right hand. I shall not be moved.” (Psalm 16:7-8 NRSV)

But it is in the final verse that it all comes together: “You [that is, God] show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness and joy…” (Psalm 16:11).

“You show me the path of life.”

“If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8:36 NRSV)

“If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.” (Galatians 5:25 NRSV)

The path of life. This is what Jesus demonstrates for us. This is what he illustrates in his teaching. This is what we are called to follow. This is the best way to become what we want to become, to achieve what we hope to achieve, to fulfill our deepest longings—this path of life is how that happens.

And Jesus says it’s right here. It’s ready and available for anyone and everyone—no matter what the world thinks of you. The only requirement is that you’ve got enough humility to imagine that God might just possibly know what’s good for you. The rest, God is willing to trust to process and relationship.

Choose Life

Way back in Deuteronomy, Moses is laying the groundwork for his retirement. His replacement has already been found and trained. And in that affirming-yet-difficult way that things sometimes happen, the rest of the company of the Israelites seem more than ready to accept the new leadership of Joshua.

But Moses is worried. He knows these people. He’s seen them struggle. He’s been with them when they were cursing God and when they were singing God’s praises. He’s been there when resources ran out, and when they faced an abundance they couldn’t even handle. Through thick and thin.

He knows where they are at. He knows their weaknesses. He knows their faith.

And because of all that, when—at his retirement party—someone starts yelling “speech! speech!”, the best last words he can muster for them is a challenge to follow the path that leads to true life. Recorded in Deuteronomy 30, Moses proclaims:

“This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. 

Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the LORD your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. 

For the LORD is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” (Deuteronomy 30:19–20 NIV11)

 

It is incredible to me how many times in my own life I have had set before me such obvious choices—life and death, blessings and curses——and I still chose death.

It is humiliating to me how many times in my own life I have had to choose between slavery to sin and freedom in Christ——and I still chose slavery.

It is inconceivable to me how many times in my own life I have stared down the works of the flesh and the fruits of the spirit—and I still chose that which is “opposed to the Spirit.”

I still chose “to submit again to a yoke of slavery.” [Galatians 5:1]

 

God help us all if you think I stand before you each week:

as someone who has it all figured out…… 

as someone who has spiritually “leveled up” higher than you……

as someone who’s even remotely good at all this.

I’m not good. I’m tenacious…… which is, of course, a fancy word for: “more stubborn than a box of rocks.”

Somewhere along the way, some drops of living water got dribbled into my mouth—and now I will cross any desert to taste it again.

At some point, I obtained a crumb or two of the bread of life, and I simply cannot find nourishment in anything else.

That doesn’t make me great. It makes me weak. But it seems (in Christ) that weakness is at least a starting place for God’s transforming love to be fulfilled [2Corinthians 12:9].

Choose life, church. Choose life.