Feelin’ Fruity
6.27.10 Pentecost6c
Galatians 5:1, 13-25

This is perhaps the best known passage in the whole book of Galatians. Like we do out of so many other passages that we love, countless needlepoints and posters have been made out of the wise words that we’re offered here. We love hearing about freedom, and the “fruits of the spirit” makes a nice bible school lesson for which we can cut out fruit shapes and more or less call it a day.

But I wonder if this passage says all that we think it does?

As I was looking at it again this week, the very first thing I noticed is that nowhere (at least in the translation I was studying) does the word “from” appear. I might be the only person in here who gets worked up about grammar, but this little tiny thing is actually pretty big when you think about it. When we think about freedom, we always seem to think of it as if we have been “freed from” something. Next Sunday, we’ll celebrate our independence. That is to celebrated that we’ve been freed from the tyranny of another country’s rule. When teenagers are finally released from being grounded, they’ll say something like “I’m finally free!” That is, they are freed from that punishment that they are certain is too harsh. Even in Martin Luther King’s famous “I have a dream” speech, he said, “Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, we’re free at last.” What he was talking about was being freed from the oppression of racial division. Think about it for a second. Most of the examples you can think of that regard any sort of freedom are freedom from things.

Hmmm… but oddly, Paul doesn’t mention that we are freed from anything. (It sure might have made my sermon easier if that’s the move he made!) That makes me think about a couple of things. First of all, Paul doesn’t make any empty promises about how easy our Christian life is going to be– as if we’re free from all these things of the world that are such a pain. And besides that, he doesn’t leave any room for excuses. There’s no way we can twist his words into a scapegoat for ourselves as if we could say, “Nuh-uh… I’ve been set free…that doesn’t apply to me.” But the other thing that Paul’s grammar makes me think is that there must be different types of freedom. Maybe the “From Freedoms” are the political sort.

And if that’s the case, then maybe the “For Freedoms” are a spiritual sort of freedom. For what could we be set free? For service, for love, for being real and genuine Christians.

Christian Freedom
I guess that makes me ask the question “What is Christian Freedom?” If you look closely at Paul’s words, as he talks about making ourselves slaves to one another, we get the idea that Christian freedom isn’t exactly a “whatever suits your fancy” sort of freedom.
First of all, we’d tend to think of freedom maybe as an absence of the things that tie us down. When Donovan was out of town last week, several people (let’s be honest…of course they were all men) said that Donovan was probably having the time of his life. Footloose and wife-free in Atlanta. He could eat all the terrible food he wanted, he could park my car in all the places in which my doors are likely to get more dinged up. Heck, he could even drive faster than the speed limit, which his old woman of a wife won’t let him do. Yep…that sounds pretty darn free.

But Christian freedom isn’t the absence of the things that encumber us. Christian Freedom, in a lot of ways, is more a characteristic of the relationships we’re in. And it becomes especially apparent as a result of our relationship with Christ. Christian Freedom, I think, shapes the way we love our neighbors. What’s interesting about this Christian version of freedom are the opportunities presented to us. With this freedom, we can either focus on ourselves, or we can use it as an opportunity to focus on others. We can allow the things on Paul’s list of no-no’s (or the things that we do that should be on a no-no list) to rule our lives, or we can be free to love and serve Christ, trusting that God will work out the details. We can bear the sweet, sweet fruits of the spirit, or we can watch as that sweet fruit turns to soured wine.

Paul asks the impossible of us: to stay away from a whole list of things that are quite common to our world. But here’s the catch: we can’t do it on our own. The fact that we have sense enough to run away from those things is nothing short of a gift of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit’s work is about transforming us to a newness of life, shaking us up from our own stubborn, hard-heartedness. The fruits of the spirit are gifts to us, but they are more than the results of being guided by the Spirit in ways that allow us to completely love our neighbors as ourselves. The Spirit shapes us through these “Fruits of the Spirit” so that we become people to whom these fruits taste sweet.

Conclusion– Bearing the fruits
I had a whole sermon written, at least in my head, but then Donovan and I watched a movie this week that, in a lot of ways, rocked my world. And I think the clip I’m going to show says it a lot better than I could. The movie is called “Amish Grace”, which admittedly is a “Lifetime Movie”, but it really blew my mind that people could actually be like this. Perhaps some of you remember the shootings in the Amish community at Nickel Mines a few years ago. A shooter came into the school, sent all the boys away, and held a number of girls hostage– for reasons you can only imagine. But before the day was finished, he shot and killed five of those girls, before turning the gun on himself.

Imagine how you’d feel if you were in that community. Imagine how you’d feel if one of those girls was your daughter or sister or friend. What would your first actions be? As I thought about my own response, I’m pretty sure I’d be in shock. Then maybe overcome by grief, and probably finally, filled with rage–at the gunman, maybe even at God. Oh, I’m sure over the next months and years, I’d work really hard at finding a peace about the whole thing.

I guess that’s why the Amish community’s response blew me away and drove me to tears–because what they did is definitely not something I could do. The very same day as the shootings, a group of Amish men–including one father whose daughter was killed– went to the wife of the shooter’s house and expressed their sorrow for her loss. But more than that, they offered her complete and utter forgiveness on behalf of the community.

I wonder if you’re thinking that forgiveness like that is cheap or “easy”. That’s the question we see raised as a mother who lost her daughter becomes irate at her husband’s actions when he went to the shooter’s wife’s house. The man and woman get in an argument, and the woman makes a statement about how his actions of forgiveness cheapen her daughter’s life. But the man, as he starts crying, responds that forgiveness at this time is one of the hardest things he’s done, and it’s not easy at all. He says, “It is NOT easy. The Lord does not set us on an easy path. Faith, when everything is as you want it to be, is not true faith. It is only when our lives are falling apart that we have the chance to make our faith real.”

But the place in this movie that touched me the most is right here. (And this is near the end– but even if you know this part, you still need to see the movie.) Here you see the mom who has been so angry–especially at the shooter’s widow who is in the plaid shirt here, among other parents that lost girls in the tragedy. Watch and see how the fruits of the Spirit not only allow something so amazing, but how the fruit of the Spirit starts to taste sweet to those who embrace it.

[Show Clip]

Did you see that? That whole section just absolutely blows my mind, and I guess it struck me as especially powerful as I’ve been thinking about both the fruits of the spirit, and Paul’s words, “For Freedom, Christ has set you free.”

How free those people really were! They freedom they show us– freedom from needing to hate and worry about how things will wind up– isn’t necessarily necessarily what we think of when we think of freedom. These people were completely free to trust in Christ. And because of that “For Freedom”, they were able to bear beautiful fruits of the spirit. Our real freedom is evidenced by our character– and that is shown by the fruit we bear.

The Message phrases some of the words from the text we read earlier in this way: “Christ has set us free to live a free life. So take your stand! Never again let anyone put a harness of slavery on you. But what happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.”

May it be so! Over and over, on every day, may it be so. Amen.


What Not to Wear
Father’s Day/Pentecost 5c
Galatians 3:23-29

You don’t necessarily have to rush to agree with this, but I’m not much of a clothes or makeup person. They’ve never really held great amounts of interest for me, and if you happen to see me during the week, there’s a good chance that I won’t have any make up on. And bless your heart if you happen to see me “out” when I’m away from the church, especially on my days off. If I’ve managed to get out of the house without Donovan seeing me, there’s a good chance my hair is pulled back in a sloppy ponytail, and my standard uniform of a T-shirt and jeans and some well worn flip-flops. If, by chance, Donovan has seen me, I might look a little better because he regularly lets me know that I can’t go out “like that”.

There’s a relatively new show that’s come out, and I guess it’s there for people like me. It’s called “What Not to Wear”, and while it’s not exactly high quality programming, I’ve become pretty well fascinated by it. The hosts, Stacey and Clinton, will take an unsuspecting person–who has been nominated by their well-meaning friends and family– and they will go through the person’s whole wardrobe, often making terribly insulting comments about their clothing choices. They usually wind up throwing away 90-95% of a person’s clothing. But then, Stacey and Clinton teach the person what kind of things will work with their lifestyle and body shape, and then the person is given a card with $5,000 on it to go buy new clothes. There’s only one catch: the person has to shop according to the “rules” Stacey and Clinton have given them.

I’d like to believe that if I were given a set of rules about what I could and could not wear, that I might become style conscious. Heck, who knows, but with the guidance of someone, I might even become fashionable. But maybe I’d be happier if we all wore uniforms of some sort– that way I didn’t have to work at it.

Maybe that’s why I like this passage so much. This passage suggests a covering that makes us one: Christ.

Probably many of you can’t quite imagine what that’s like, unless you have been somewhere that required a uniform of you, where you pretty much looked the same as everyone else. When I was in high school, they instituted a “standardized dress” policy, where we didn’t have uniforms exactly, but there were only a very few things we could wear. We could wear only khaki or navy pants or skirts, and only solid color shirts with a collar. Shirts were to always be tucked in, and we were always to have a belt– and there were no exceptions to these rules.

The ideas behind the standardized dress were clear: no one could really stand out because we were all the same. A walmart polo shirt looked about the same as a big name brand shirt (or at least that’s what the adults told us.) And in the days of school shootings, in theory, it should be pretty easy to tell who wasn’t one of us. Certainly, we complained. What kid wants to be told what they can and can’t wear? What kid wants to have their wings clipped just as they are starting to become their own people? Besides that, all of us could definitely tell the difference between a walmart shirt and a big name shirt, and all the “in” kids still wore the good names.

But the interesting thing was that it did make us more closely one. Clothes weren’t as big of a deal, and we quit talking about who was wearing what, because we were all wearing the same thing. Even those of us with less fashion sense more or less blended in with those who could wear even a garbage bag fashionably.

Don’t get me wrong– we were still quite divided as every high school is. We still had the art kids and the band kids and the football players and the cheerleaders and all the other groups, but it was pretty hard to tell us apart if you weren’t a part of the atmosphere. And if we were asked to evaluate the plan after graduation, most of us, I think, would admit that maybe the new dress code did make us one body in some ways.

What’s most important about our common faith?
I heard a colleague of mine talking about an experience he had one day where he was in a particularly contentious environment (full of church leaders, no less). Things were getting heated and no one was being especially rational. And finally one of the leaders of that group stopped everyone and said, “What’s most important about our common faith?”

I really can’t imagine this working the way it does, because my guess would be that a question like that would cause more division. Maybe it would be worship? Maybe good theology? The room became completely silent, but slowly people began whispering their best guess: Christ, one by one they said it. And little by little, folks realized that they had completely lost sight of what’s important.

That’s such a profound statement to me, because some times we forget. We get wrapped up in all the ways that we are different, especially when people don’t agree with us, and we forget that Christ is our center. But more than that, we lose sight of the fact that that our most profound differences are nothing compared to the power of Christ to reconcile all things.

Paul is so frustrated with this fledgling church at Galatia. And the heart of his message lies in one of the verses we read today: There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Paul has a vision of what the church could be: one body with a single vision. And he is so frustrated that people are getting dragged down in small little battles that are really inconsequential to the mission of the church, which is to proclaim Christ.

The differences that divide
I’ve been thinking about this letter and about the categories that Paul thinks the church divides themselves into. Slave or free, Jew or Greek… except for the Male and Female groups, we don’t really worry about the other groups that he names. But just because we don’t divide ourselves the way he names doesn’t mean we are off the hook. I wonder how this church, and the larger church divides itself? Young or Old, Wealthy or poor, Republican or Democrat, Baptist or Presbyterian…of course the list goes on…and on…and on…

What if Paul were to say to us “ There is no young nor old, no wealthy or poor, no republican or democrat, for as many of you as were baptized in Christ are one”? I wonder if we’d get upset? In some ways, we’re proud of who we are and the people we associate with. Most of us would think that those things make us the people we are, and if we eliminate those lines…well, who are we?

But as I’ve read back over this passage, and looked at the original language, and what other people have said, I’m not entirely sure Paul is trying to do away with those groups. I don’t think Paul minds us being a part of the groups that we think we fit in, but what really irritates Paul is when those things become our identifiers. Because if our identity is in those things, then all there can be is division– there is never a hope for anything more. But if our identity is in Christ, then what have we to be divided over?

That sounds great, but truth be told, it’s probably one of those things that’s “easier said than done”. I came across a great quote as I was studying this week (and wish I had thought of it myself.) The writer says this, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been difficult and left untried…When will the church proclaim its life giving truth to the world rather than cannibalize itself by targeting its own members, weakening its own witness from within?”

Gosh, put in those terms, the ways that we war over our differences really becomes glaring. That author called the church “cannibals”–as if to say we might just eat each other. I’ve definitely never thought about it like that, but the lady is right. When we worry so much about our differences, we “eat” into not only our resources but our proclamation that Christ is Lord.

What Not to Wear
I started my sermon by talking about one of my favorite shows, “What Not to Wear” and how I wished someone would give me some fashion rules. Maybe in some ways, Paul does offer us some rules about the things we should be wearing, because he sees that the things we ourselves would choose to put on are causing problems and division in the community.

Maybe as we’re looking at this whole of Galatians and the larger body of Paul’s writings, we can find some things that we are never to wear. Only Paul isn’t so much interested in whether we’re wearing baggy blouses or tailored pants. Paul’s rules on what not to wear would probably look something like this:
No meanness
No big egos
No haughtiness
No lack of patience
No judgmentalism
No narrowmindedness

I could go on, but my guess is that if you thought about it, you’d really already know. You’d know there’s a favorite article of “clothing” that you insist on wearing, even though it’s most definitely on the “what not to wear” list. Just like we do with actual clothing, when we have “go to” clothes that we wear and wear, we do the same things with certain attitudes. On the show, the hosts every now and then will like an article of clothing, but they’ll look at it and shake their heads and say, “It’s just worn out.”

As Paul stands with us today, imagine that he could see what you’re really wearing–that he could somehow see through the cloak of niceness we all put on. Would he look at our attitudes and say, “Eeeek…that just doesn’t fit” or “Wow, you’ve really worn that one out”?

So Paul invites us to something different. He invites us to trash those worn out and ill fitting attitudes, and instead clothe ourselves with Christ. I wonder what that could mean? As I’ve been wrestling with that, here’s an idea I have. Maybe every morning as each of us are getting dressed for the day, we could make a conscious and conscientious effort to take off those things on the what not to wear list– that’s a good place to start. But we have to wear something, even as far as attitudes are concerned. So what if we made a conscious and conscientious effort to put on Christ? That is, what if we put on niceness, and acceptance, and love, and patience, and inclusion. What if, on every single day, we put on the uniform of Christ–the uniform that lets people know who we are and what we’re about.

If our worn out, unbecoming, and ill-fitting attitudes towards each other are causing division, what might happen if we worked really hard at clothing ourselves instead with the thing that fits us best: Christ?

Gosh, the church might just become the thing we were created to be: a beautiful conglomeration of all people who have one goal– to tell everyone we meet about the amazing things Christ has done for us.


Just Jesus

Just Jesus
Galatians 2:15-21

Paul is steamed. There is no other nice way to put it, and in fact, Paul himself doesn’t waste much time with niceties.

Let me give you a little background. This is the only one of Paul’s letters that he doesn’t begin with warm greetings. He begins this letter by identifying himself, and then only six verses into this letter, he dives right in with “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one you called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel.” And that sets the tone for the rest of his letter.

This baby, fledgling church is ruining everything. Not only are they themselves going astray, but Paul is quite concerned that their witness will ultimately hurt lots of churches. And he simply cannot stand for that, so as quickly as he learns of the problem, he sets his pen to paper in hopes that he can turn this church around before too much damage is done.

And as we join the story in the passage today, Paul has just set his sights on Peter, who is spreading the word in another location. That sounds great…sounds like a great partnership between two giants of the ancient world. Except for the fact that Peter, according to Paul, is spreading a completely different gospel.

Peter, it seems, wants people to live under the covenant of the law– that is, these folks are still to practice works righteousness where they may earn their salvation by being circumcised, by keeping the over 600 laws, by doing the right things.

And for Paul, this is downright dangerous. If folks are going to be about the business of “earning” their salvation, then as Paul bluntly says, “Christ died for nothing.”

Imagine what a slap in the face that must’ve been. Peter would’ve loved Jesus as much as any of the others. He would’ve mourned and grieved at his death. And he would have been overwhelmed at his resurrection. But imagine the pain it must’ve caused to hear that all of that was for nothing.

[Finish this/make transition!!]

Just Jesus
When we talk about being justified before God– and if you’re having a hard time remembering what that means, think of it like a typewriter. When your text is justified, everything is in a nice neat line. When we’re justified before God, we’re set in line with God.
We know, at least on paper, that Jesus is what saves us. But sometimes, we’re tempted to change that a little bit. It’s almost like we believe that it’s Jesus and something else that saves us. Maybe Jesus and good works? Maybe Jesus and tithing the right amount? Maybe Jesus and thinking the “right” things? We live in a society of “measurable outcomes” meaning that we like to see certain steps checked off before we believe a job is done. It seems way too big that “Just Jesus” could save us, that our salvation could simply be a gift.

That’s where Peter got all tangled up. He didn’t mean to mutilate the gospel into something new, but he was a flawed human being just like the rest of us. It just seemed a little too good to be true that Jesus, and Jesus alone was enough. So when folks were all worried about eating Kosher foods and abiding by the covenant of circumcision, that sounded like a pretty good addition. Almost as if he was saying, “Do this… you know… just in case.”

But as Paul points out, you can’t have it both ways. If you have a “Jesus and” theology, then you have completely lost sight of what grace is– and further, why Jesus died.

I don’t often preach two texts together, because as often as not, the theme linking the two passages is a stretch at best. But what I love today is how this Luke text also drives the point home.

We meet this woman about whom the pharisee says, “He would have known what kind of woman this is who is touching him–that she is a sinner.” The pharisee, apparently much like Peter, needs the rules for the “religion” to work. People in the pharisee’s world need to be and do the right things in order to be “savable”.

We see a “Just Jesus” philosophy at work here. The woman, as far as we can see, hasn’t done the “right” things up until now. In fact, we know that “her sins are many”. But Jesus has forgiven her, and repaired the brokenness her sin has caused, making her whole once again.

That’s pure grace, and as the famous song reminds us, it’s nothing short of Amazing.

When Grace is at stake
When I was playing team sports, our coaches always managed to slip the phrase “losing gracefully” into our talks on sportsmanship…the idea being that when the time comes that you lose the game, you don’t pout and act mean and hateful. Instead, you shake the hands of the other team and remind yourself about how much fun playing the game.

That’s a nice concept. But forget about losing gracefully–what happens when you just lose grace?

I read a lot, and I’ve done a lot of reading from many different time periods. If Literature is any indicator, which I think it must be, then there’s been a definite shift in the way our society views blessings and good things. When people were really tied to the land, there was a definite reminder of God’s hand in our world. But as the industrial revolution happened, and we realized we could “make” things and produce things of our own accord, our sense that we controlled our own destiny has become greater and greater.

I don’t know if you realize it, but grace ought to be put on an “endangered species” list somewhere. Grace is very much at stake in our society because we’re a “do-it-yourself” society. We really believe that everything we have is a product of our hard work and position in life. We believe that we’ve earned things– even how people should treat us is a direct result of how we’ve been towards them. And the problem with this is that we not only hold ourselves to these standards, but we hold everyone else to them. Our mantra isn’t really “Saved by Grace through Faith” as much as it is probably “Everyone gets what they deserve.”

We’re absolutely at risk for losing any sense of grace in our lives. The more we worry about who deserves what, and who is doing the “right things, the less we need Christ at all.

Practical Grace
The woman who washes Jesus’s feet with her tears is overwhelmed by the saving presence of Christ, and she can’t help herself… she is so overwhelmed that all of this just comes pouring out of her. The things she does is done as response to what Christ has already done for her.

If I had to call that action something, I might call it “practical grace.” Grace is a lovely thing for us to talk about in theory, and it’s a great thing for us to remember that grace upon grace has been showered upon us. But if all we know of grace stops there, then we’ve missed the point as badly as Peter and the Pharisee.

When behaviors are modeled for us by stories in the Bible, they are never intended for us to look at and simply say, “Wow. That’s wonderful.” No, they are always modeled for us in hopes that we will learn from the good example and do the same thing in our own lives.

“Practical Grace”, I think, is how we go about living into our identity as having been saved by Christ’s redeeming work in and through us. Practical grace is that outpouring of love and generosity of spirit that we shower upon all people.

The cross of Christ should change us. What we believe about Jesus Christ and his cross should also make us more gracious and appreciative of the different ways in which people in the church witness to their embrace of Christ and this story of the cross. But you know as well as I do, that sadly, there is often a very large gap between the things we believe and the ways we go about living our lives.

There’s an old saying that “The most segregated hour of the week is Sunday at 11 a.m.” I used to smile at that, and think it mildly cute, while rolling my eyes, because there is a lot of truth behind it. But as I’ve grown in my understanding of what the church could be (not just this one, but the whole church), I’ve realized that this statement isn’t particularly cute or funny. We surround ourselves with the people that follow the same rules that we follow. We do this not only in the churches we pick for ourselves, but also in the groups we in which we gather within each church. We decide that one group doesn’t follow the same rules that our group follows and it causes tension. We want them to be just like us.

We worry about our differences, and truth be told, we have a hard time acting graciously to those who either are different from us, or believe differently than we do. But there is good news for slightly selfish, _____________________ people like us. Our experiences and opinions and whatever else are not what binds us together. The cross is what binds us together. 1

But if we were really working with a theology of grace, these things would fade into the background.

A theology of grace– where we believed that we have been saved not by the things that we do and say and think, but by Christ alone, means that this same practice of grace and forgiveness ought to pour out of us onto everyone we meet. If all Christians embody a theology of grace, it would not be so surprising if we become more tolerant of the different ways in which people witness to the amazing things the cross means for our lives.

One of the writers I looked at this week suggested this exercise:

Stop. For a moment be completely still until you can hear and feel your heart beating within you. Marvel at the way it beats without your willing or controlling it. That life-giving pulse is a gift. Imagine with every beat that it is Christ who is beating in your heart, your savior living inside you. More than anything in the world you want Christ within you to shine through all that you do and say.2

When you are really to the point when the thing you want most in the world is for Christ to shine through everything you do, then grace can suddenly start pouring out of you. When that moment comes, then everything the cross means is suddenly real for you. And now that that has happened, the differences between you and “So and so” don’t matter much anymore, because you will know that your life is based on “Just Jesus”, which is the one thing that can ever make us one.

More than enough
6.6.10 (Pentecost 3c)
1 Kings 17:8-24

This isn’t the sermon I was planning to preach today. A month or more ago, I picked out all the texts I was planning to preach, at least through June. I thought I’d be starting a sermon series from Galatians, because every now and then it’s fun to preach through a book, and that’s the book the lectionary offered.

But as I was praying through these texts again at the beginning of the week, all of the sudden this story hit really close to home.

The Backstory
Because the lectionary has us jump into this story in the middle, let me go back and tell you what’s going on.

Elijah is a fairly new prophet, and he’s just begun his work with King Ahab. Ahab, like many others in the ancient world, worshipped the Baals–he even built a temple just for them. Earlier, in chapter 16, the narrator tells us “He made the God of Israel angrier than all the previous kings of Israel put together”. Boy, there’s a distinction you don’t want!

But Elijah is sent to him. (Can you imagine being Elijah– yikes!) And Elijah declares that not a single drop of rain or dew will fall until Elijah himself declares it. Now don’t miss this– the whole area is in tremendous drought because of one man’s selfish hard-heartedness. Maybe Ahab just laughed at him– after all, who could just by saying so, make it stop raining? Elijah, under God’s orders, runs away to a place where he will be cared for…and he had a great existence where even the ravens were at his service. But then the drought becomes so severe that the brooke where he’s been living finally dries up. So, God sends Elijah to Zarephath, which is where the lectionary begins our story today.

You have to understand– it could not have been welcome news that Elijah was being sent to a widow in the land of so much famine. While everyone would have been experiencing lean times, a widow would have had absolutely nothing because she had no one to care for her. And in fact, as we meet the widow today, she is preparing her last meal, because there is nothing left. She is fully prepared that she and her son will very shortly die because there is not enough left for them to live on, and there will be no way for them to get any more in the foreseeable future.

Imagine being Elijah who is sent to her. He is told that she would provide for him, but when he sees her preparing to die, what must it be like for him to take her last little bit? I think if I had been Elijah, I might not have even mentioned anything to the widow. I might have kept on going, knowing that I could surely find something somewhere else. But Elijah really believes that God’s hand is in this situation, so Elijah boldly tells the widow to go ahead and make the meal, that somehow things will work out. Imagine the questions he must’ve had. But somehow he holds his questions, even as he must wonder if he is holding this family’s very life in his hands. And he sits still to watch what God is doing.

The Widow
I like Elijah in this story, but I think he actually turns out to be a minor character in this particular story. I think the widow is who we’re supposed to be looking at–and I’d be lying if I didn’t say that she’s kind of been haunting my thoughts this week. She’s gotten under my skin, and over the course of the week, has really, really impressed me.
Think about the risks she takes, for no other nameable reason than the fact that codes of hospitality dictated her behavior.

First of all, Elijah must be quite a sight. He’s been in the wilderness for sometime–he’s the “wild man” we read about in literature. John the Baptist, who ate bugs and wore garments of hair, wouldn’t have had much on Elijah. Can you imagine being a widow and opening your doors to someone who must’ve looked so rough? It was risky behavior.

But then she takes another risk. She knows she has only enough to feed herself and her son, but when this wild man shows up demanding hospitality, she gives it to him. I looked around, but I couldn’t find a satisfactory answer, and I’m not really sure how free the woman was to say “no” to his demand for hospitality. I’m not sure what the consequences could’ve been if she’d refused. But, I bet every parent would say “Hey…desperate times call for desperate measures.” Most of us probably would’ve made sure our family was fed before we could’ve even though about providing for someone else. But that’s not what she does.

She dares to host God’s messenger (though she probably didn’t know it at the time). And I think by so doing, she dares to host God.

I can’t help but wonder if her actions weren’t at least a little bit responsible for a miracle being given to her. Maybe by practicing these high risk behaviors of extraordinary trust, maybe she puts herself in a place where God can meet her in extraordinary ways. Though she is literally hungering and thirsting, she discovers that God has met her with more than enough.

There was a man named Rufus Watson, who lived to be 99 years old– he was a pitcher in the Negro professional leagues, and he loved this story about Elijah and this peculiar widow with radical trust. And he said this in an interview, “That’s where God meets us, at the bottom of the barrel God meets us when we’ve gone so low that all we can do is look up.”1

V. More than Enough

This has been a really interesting week for me. A week where there was a lot to do, and not a lot of time to do it. Truth be told, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about and doing things for the yard sale–and haven’t had the same amount of time for deep theological thoughts that I usually have. It’s been a week, where I guess I was sort of running on autopilot, just trying to check things off a list. It was not, however, a week of which I expected much.

Three or four times this week, I’ve been surprised at how things have exceeded my relatively low expectations, surprised at how God has worked through willing people. Early this week, we were looking for the letters to go on the sign that’s been sitting in our yard. We knew a man that said we could borrow the sign and the letters, though day after day, the letters were not showing up. The yard sale was coming up quickly, and we had no sign, so we were starting to come up with plans b and c. But then Thursday, word came to me that not only had the letters arrived, but that the man had generously offered to let us “borrow” the sign… indefinitely. It was absolutely more than enough.

I tried to put a notice in “The Sandspur” about our yard sale–in the “from the bulletins” section. I don’t get the paper, so I looked online to make sure our announcement was there. But low and behold, the only announcement that was there for our church was in regards to our T.O.P.S. program. Because the yardsale was coming up this weekend, and there was no announcement for it, I was a little irritated–to say the least.

But then I was on the phone with Grisson, and he said something like “That sure was a nice write-up in the paper about our yardsale. They even had a picture.” I was blown away, because I knew that I hadn’t asked for that. But sure enough, the editor had gotten a writer to do a “Spotlight on Religion” on our event. So much more than I imagined… so much more than enough!

I wonder how often this church feels like the Widow of Zarephath. I wonder if when we look at the offering report each week, if we feel like we’re barely surviving.

Life in Zarephath
I’d be willing to bet before today’s scripture reading that the word “Zarephath” wasn’t a word on the tip of your tongue. Maybe you hadn’t even heard of it. And most likely, you’d never heard a sermon on it. I know this story wasn’t one in my personal canon.

As I did a lot of reading about the place, and the story, I felt discouraged. Writers were making a big to do about people starving and the widows and orphans not being cared for. Quite possibly, those writers didn’t know about bringing the “good news” because they seemed to have missed a very big point of the story. We aren’t told about Zarephath because we need to know that it was the place where people were starving. We need to know about Zarephath because it was the place where God supplied the need.

It was a place where miracles happened. A woman who really expected to eat her last meal still found a way to love her neighbor as herself. A boy was brought back to life by God’s own hand. Nearly empty jugs and jars of needed supplies, never ever ran out.

When people read our story years from now, will they find a people who practiced hospitality, even when it was inconvenient? When they read our story, will they discover a people who trusted God radically, and because of their behaviors, discovered miracles in their midst? Will they find a people who lived faithfully ‘til the end, knowing that God himself is overseeing

I hope you’d loved this story as much as I did, but more than that– I hope you heard a word of hope. Because in the old, slightly buried story of Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath is also another story: God and the Sherwood Church. A place where miracles still happen, a place where what seems to be lacking turns out to be more than enough.


[Altared Lives]
Romans 5:1-5
Trinity SundayC (May 31,2010)

“It builds character”– well at least that’s what my dad always said when I was complaining about some lot in my life… whether it was a bad teacher, or a high school love gone wrong, or my beloved first car that would die two or three times a week. Looking back, maybe it was Dad’s go-to expression when he was tired of my whining. I did finally come up with a response, and every time Dad would say that to me, I’d say “I’m already a character…if I get anymore character, I’d be intolerable.” As far as I can tell, “it builds character” sounds just about as much fu as another expression “It puts hair on your chest”. I’ve never thought either expression was all that helpful…

But as I sat down with this passage this week, my dad’s words were ringing in my ears, I guess because they sound an awful lot like Paul’s words on pain and suffering.

This is a tough passage. Not only is it full of big words, but it forces our attention to things we’d rather not think about: pain and suffering. And if I had to guess, I’d say that neither is something that we as a society are comfortable with. Think about it– we feel like we should say something when someone is having a rough time, but the “I’m thinking about you and praying for you” that we can eek out seems to be inadequate.

So maybe we take words from today’s passage and make needlepoints out of them. Or maybe we silently recite them to ourselves, as if by saying them enough that we might start to find them true for ourselves. But I think this passage is hard, and I think that while we might want to like what it says, I think that it might feel a little inaccessible to us. It almost feels like a cold, impersonal forumla that is only true under the best of circumstances. As if you could to A+B and make it equal C.

But what if it was more than that?

What if it was an invitation to a dance– a dance that ends in our complete transformation?

Well, maybe our ears perk up a little bit at that. After all, we like the idea of being transformed…at least in theory.

I hope someone is daring me to prove that transformation is what’s at the heart of this passage, because it’s awfully easy to get caught in the big words, and miss what Paul is trying to say.

Let’s start where Paul starts. Just five words into this passage, he dumps a huge theological term in our laps: “Justified”. When I was taking theology, we learned a very formal definition that says Justification is “God’s act of declaring or making a sinner righteous before God”

Think of it this way: When you’re thinking in terms of a typewriter or computer, your text is justified. It could be left, right, or center justified, but no matter how it is justified, all the words make a nice neat line. So if we’re justified with God, we’re set in line with God. Paul says that that’s what happens to us as Christians. Through our faith in Christ, we are set in line with God.

Paul might have been a good salesman, because he’s smart enough to realize that anyone who is paying attention might think it a difficult task to be set in line with God. To be really set in line with God, and be made righteous, surely must involve some pruning. It must involve some change. But Paul doesn’t want us to get bogged down in those things, so he quickly reminds us of the benefits to being set in line with God.

He says that we have peace with God. Maybe it depends on where you are in life, and maybe peace with God doesn’t sound like a whole lot. But the truth is that lots of people spend their whole lives trying to make peace with God for a variety of reasons. There’s a whole world of people out there that have heard and know about God and Jesus, but they haven’t been able to come to a peace with those things. Peace is a gift– a tremendous one at that. Paul reminds us that that gift, and the grace that goes with it, come only through our faith in Christ.

But that’s not enough. Paul goes on to talk about our hope. Have you thought about what a tremendous thing hope is? President Obama wrote a book (which I haven’t read, so no one can accuse me of being political) called The Audacity of Hope. Audacity means “fearless boldness”, which I guess we don’t usually use in a way that is complimentary. We talk about the “audacity of so and so, to to such and such”. But maybe having hope at all is audacious. When we look around, there doesn’t seem much to be hopeful about. But Paul reminds us that our hope is in Christ. People that aren’t of the church probably do think our hopefulness is audacious. So even here, Paul is kind of subtly reminding us that we’re different.

Transition: We’re good with all of that so far. Everything Paul has said in these first 2 verses makes sense to us. But then comes verse 3, where Paul ups the ante, so to speak.

As I imagine Paul preaching these words, I imagine him as kind of a pep rally leader in a way that goes something like this:

“Therefore, since we are justified by faith…”
“We have peace with God…”
“We have obtained access to this grace…”
 “We boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God”
“Yeah we do!”
“And not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings…”
“Yeah! Wait… what?”

And that’s where Paul loses the crowd. Why would anyone rejoice in their sufferings? We view suffering as something to be survived, something to get through– not too much worse for the wear. I’m pretty young and without a tremendous amount of life experience, so my knowledge of suffering, at least in my own life, is a little limited. But I know when I’ve gone through rough times, that I’ve not exactly been thrilled with the situation. I don’t remember singing God’s ave been times I’ve been pretty angry with God.

What Paul preaches is definitely counter-intuitive.

But what if Paul is onto something? What if suffering is not just something that’s dropped in our laps every now and then? But what if it’s a gift that’s given to us–not the kind of gift that we hope Santa Claus would bring– it’s not a fuzzy sweater that makes you feel cozy, or that item that you’ve just been waiting for. But what if its a kind of gift that aids us on the road to becoming the people we were created to be?

Catholics believe in something called purgatory– that’s a place where people that have died go while they are awaiting purification before they can go to heaven, believing that you must be made very clean before you will be admitted.

Most protestants don’t hold on to a doctrine that includes purgatory– at least not as a place. We do, though, I think, believe that God is always working to make us better. But what if purgatory wasn’t a place? What if purgation is a process instead of a place? What if purgation is the way that God cleans us up and makes us whole? Well, maybe then these strange words from Romans start to make a little more sense.

We get that on our own, we’re not so great. We’re seriously sinful folks, who are always “falling short of the glory of God.” We get that we need to be cleaned up to be brought into a good relationship with God. But if we had a choice about how we were cleaned up, I’d guess most of us would choose a gentle bubble bath, than a burning refiner’s fire. Our culture praises things of comfort– we see ads for hotels with the fluffiest beds. Cars are sold based on how comfortable they make you feel. We believe we’re entitled to be comfortable, and the fact that God might do something that interferes with our comfort puts on edge.

We talk about God being the potter, and that we are the clay–as if that’s some cute image that talks about how moldable we are. But if you’ve ever worked with clay, you’d know that neither the potter nor the clay has an easy job. The potter literally sometimes has to fight with the clay to get it into shape. Sometimes the clay has to be completely crashed down before it can be the thing that the potter wants it to be.
If we are going to proclaim that we are the clay, then that means that we’re willing to be poked and prodded, willing to have our rough edges shaved away, and sometimes even, that we will have to be pretty well smooshed so that we can be the thing that God wants us to be.

Pain and suffering absolutely knock us down. Those things literally take the wind right out of our sails. But suffering also knocks some other things out of us. Knocks our pride out, knocks out our reliance on ourselves and our sense that we’re an island. Knocks out our sense that we, and not God, are in control. Knocks out our inflated sense of self.

And then the strangest things begin to happen. Suddenly instead of thinking we can handle “it”, then we cry out to God. We realize that we are vulnerable, and that we are in need of someone to take care of us. We realize that we’re a part of a community that will help and support us. Gosh, we might even start making bargains with God, saying “If you will take this away from me, then I will (fill in the blank).” I’m not a big fan of bargaining with God, but I think in that process we name the sinful things about ourselves. “God, if you’ll just make me well, I’ll give my whole heart to you.” “God if you’ll give me this one thing, I’ll stop doing this.” In this process, we’re convicted and maybe convinced of our own sinfulness. Several of Paul’s letters make the connection between suffering and sinfulness, suggesting that the two are very closely linked. Some (but definitely not all) suffering is brought on by the choices that we make in life.

That begs the question, though, what about suffering that isn’t related to sin? Things like prolonged illness aren’t so easy to pinpoint, and I’m not comfortable blaming those things on Sin. But while I can’t say comfortably that someone who is suffering from long illnesses or things like that is suffering so that they’re purged of their sin, but I do fully believe that even in those times, the one suffering is still learning a lot both about himself and his God. And though I wouldn’t wish pain and suffering on anyone, I do believe that through the times of suffering a person is drawn closer to both God and his community.

I talked earlier about this passage as an invitation to dance, with that dance ending in our transformation.

I don’t think Paul is telling us to look for ways that we can suffer, or wanting us to pretend like suffering doesn’t exist, or that it’s not as bad as it seems. He’s not trying to gloss over our sufferings or trying to trivialize them. The rest of the world looks for ways to hurry up and end suffering– seeking before anything else, comfort. But Paul asks those of us in the church to be different. Paul asks us to embrace our sufferings, and to allow them to work in and through us. I think he’s asking us to dance with our suffering, letting it teach us the things that will change us.

Paul’s goal in many of his letters is to help his readers figure out what it means to live the Christian life. He’s really interested in our transformation, because as we know, we can’t really be Christians unless we are completely changed. And Paul knows that our suffering, as much as anything else, has the potential to shape us into new creations. Paul wants us to live altered lives– lives that reflect the living Christ dwelling in our hearts.

I was jotting down notes as I was brainstorming about this sermon, and I made a note about altered lives. Only I was writing so fast, that I misspelled it on my notes. When I looked over it this morning before putting the final touches on this, I saw that I had written “Altared Lives” A-L-T-E-R is how you spell the word that means change. A-L-T-A-R is something where you worship. As I’ve thought back over it, maybe it wasn’t a misspelling. As Paul sees it, our suffering changes us. It alters us.

Paul asks us to take part in this dance of transformation, instead of shutting our pain out– so that we might lead Altared Lives– lives spent in worship and relationship with God. praises during those time. In fact, there h

What a day! Of course it started out as an ordinary day– all the remaining disciples were gathered together in one place. Just hanging out, doing what disciples do. And then all of the sudden, with no warning, comes a violent wind. Can you imagine what that would be like?

What if you we were all here on a Sunday morning, sitting quietly in our pews, singing songs or praying– and then a wind just up and blew in our church. I’d bet it would at least blow out our candles. It might send Carol’s music flying, or my sermon pages might be blown all over the church. Carefully hairsprayed hairdos would be a mess. Who knows? If it got in our big, strong red doors, that would have to be some wind.

I wonder what we’d think. Would we think God himself had marched in, or maybe we’d worry that we were in the middle of an unexpected tornado, and that maybe we were going to meet our maker a lot sooner than we expected.

And then imagine that everyone here started speaking in different languages. Well, that definitely wouldn’t be very “decently and in order”. And then imagine that all these people started showing up– not just from every continent and country, but also from many different time periods. Maybe we’d see Moses, or Paul, or John Calvin, or George Washington, or Jimmy Carter or whoever. People that couldn’t possibly have existed in one space. Imagine that you know these people are speaking different languages that you don’t know, but somehow you are hearing and understanding what they are saying in your own language.

That’s where this text this morning leaves us…in utter chaos, with a whole world of things that just don’t make sense.

Maybe that’s why we don’t celebrate Pentecost too much. If you asked many preachers, especially within this denomination, they’d tell you there are three big holidays in the church year, but if you asked most people in the pews, they’d say there are only two: Easter and Christmas.

Hallmark doesn’t, to my knowledge, start advertising Pentecost 3 or 4 months before it comes. We don’t plan big Pentecost celebrations, and plan to have the whole family over for dinner. In lots of churches, it’s one day of wearing red and lighting candles. And then what? It’s right back to life as usual, entering in fact, a loooooooong season of “ordinary time” that lasts until Advent.

Pentecost is widely remembered and recognized as the birthday of the church. In fact, lots of churches will be having cakes that say “Happy Birthday Church”. We remember Pentecost in this way because this is when the disciples and about 3,000 more came together and became, as we will say later, the “one body of Christ the church”. They were no longer just single people trying to figure out what Jesus meant for their lives, but they were a unified group with a unified mission. Pentecost is the day when the church as we know it came into existence.

Pentecost is the day or season that we set apart to honor and welcome the Holy Spirit’s work in the world. But what do we really know of this Holy Spirit, and further, do we believe that the Holy Spirit is still alive and active in this world?

III. The HS and the PCUSA
I heard a joke several years ago that I’ve been saving for just the right time. The three persons of the Trinity were making vacation plans and discussing amongst themselves where they would go.”I think I’ll go visit the Canadian Rockies this year,” said God the Creator. I haven’t been there in awhile, and I’d like to revisit that wonder of my creation.” “I’m going back to the land of my birth this year,” said Jesus. “There’s been a lot of trouble there recently, and I’d like to go and see for myself how things are going.” “W ell,” announced the Holy Spirit, “I’ve decided that this year I want to spend my vacation in a place where I’ve never been before. That’s why I’m planning to spend my entire summer vacation visiting Presbyterian churches!”1

Ok, ok… groan, I know. I just couldn’t resist. I’m not entirely sure that we Presbyterians deserve the terrible rap that we’ve acquired for being completely without the Holy Spirit, but I guess if we were honest, we’d have to admit that this “Holy Spirit” business isn’t something we’re tremendously comfortable with.

We understand God the Father. We get Jesus the Son. But that Holy Spirit “thing” is so ambiguous that we don’t much know what to do with it. I’d bet that lots of you know what other churches believe about the Holy Spirit. Maybe you’ve heard about Pentecostal churches who believe that the Holy Spirit baptizes with fire, and that the Holy Spirit is responsible for those that are given the gift of speaking in tongues. Maybe you’ve heard about a Holy Spirit who intercedes for us as we pray. I’d bet, though, that while you may know what other denominations believe, you may not be exactly clear on what Presbyterians believe about the Holy Spirit. Don’t worry– you wouldn’t be the only one. Until quite recently, Presbyterians haven’t done a whole lot of talking about the Holy Spirit, so let me give you some tidbits that might help paint a picture of our beliefs.

The Westminster Confession of Faith (one of the confessions to which our denomination ascribes) refers to the Holy Spirit as a source of God’s grace and “the only efficient agent in the application of redemption.” For all humans, the confession says, the Spirit “convicts them of sin, moves them to repentance and persuades and enables them to embrace Jesus Christ by faith.”2

The Brief Statement of Faith (which will we use to affirm our faith later) makes these points about the Holy Spirit:
We trust in God the Holy Spirit, everywhere the giver and renewer of life. The Spirit justifies us by grace through faith, sets us free to accept ourselves and to love God and neighbor, and binds us together with all believers in the one body of Christ, the Church. The same Spirit who inspired the prophets and apostles rules our faith and life in Christ through Scripture, engages us through the Word proclaimed, claims us in the waters of baptism, feeds us with the bread of life and the cup of salvation, and calls women and men to all ministries of the Church. In a broken and fearful world the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing, to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior, to unmask idolatries in Church and culture, to hear the voices of peoples long silenced, and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.

So, clearly our church does have something to say about the Holy Spirit! We believe that the HS is responsible for renewing our energies, for making us one body, for feeding our souls, for calling folks into lots of ministries, for our being able to pray and bear witness to a living God. That’s not a bad list.

I think most of us could get comfortable with those things, except that that list sounds awfully orderly, and if you’ve ever had an encounter with the holy spirit, you know that the Holy Spirit doesn’t seem to do things in the neat, orderly ways we’d like or expect. The Holy Spirit, though it doesn’t always come with a violent wind that we read about, seems to come to shake us out of our comfortable, sometimes apathetic ways. The Holy Spirit broadens our horizons by refusing to leave us as we are.

I think there is another problem that makes us hesitant to embrace either the Holy Spirit or Pentecost. When the Holy Spirit sneaks up on us, or otherwise invades our life, we’re expected to do something with it. The Holy Spirit doesn’t do any of those things I just mentioned just for our knowledge or well-being. Those things are gifts of the spirit, but they’re gifts that we’re expected to use for the good and growth of the church. I don’t know about you, but I get a little antsy when I feel the Holy Spirit move within my own life. I know that somehow, something is about to change… that I’m about to be sent on a journey that I’m quite sure I’m not the person to take.

The Holy Spirit empowers us to do Christ’s work in the world– and as far as I can tell, doesn’t seem to ask a lot of questions about what we want or what we think we should do. As far as I can tell, the Holy Spirit breathes a breath of fresh air on to us, and then simply says, “Ready! Set! Go!”.
I’ve mentioned several times that I’m a firm believer in the Holy Spirit, and I even (contrary to popular belief) believe that the Holy Spirit is active in both the Presbyterian Church and in this church. But I’ll readily admit that we get nervous with the Holy Spirit, because we might just be empowered to do things that we could’ve never imagined.


When Peter quotes the words of the prophet Joel, he claims these words of prophesy for us. In the days to come, God declares, “I will pour out my Spirit upon ALL flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions and your old men shall dream dreams.”

What I hear is that no one is excepted for the workings of the Holy Spirit. But I also hear that no one is excepted from the expectations of the Holy Spirit.

Not everyone will be wild about this. Lots of folks, even on Pentecost day itself, weren’t enamored with the Holy Spirit. Some will say it’s hogwash. Some will be pretty sure that we’re either crazy, or that we’re doing the wrong things. Some will laugh and say ugly things like “They’re filled with new wine”.

But here’s the secret– the disciples and those 3000 other people were absolutely filled with new wine. They would’ve remembered Jesus’ words about new wine in old wineskins. They were filled with the Holy Spirit and new life, and they were bubbling over with the possibilities that awaited them and their suddenly growing community of believers. I’m praying that every person in this room, and every person in the whole wide church will be filled with such a newness of life that it makes people stop and wonder what’s going on. I’m praying that we’re all empowered and set on fire to go out and do Christ’s work in the world.

You’ll notice a card in your bulletin today. I’m asking you to make a commitment during this season of Pentecost. I’m asking that every single day for the next five weeks that you pray for the Holy Spirit to descend upon Sherwood. I’m asking that you’ll pray that we have renewed energy and focus, that we’ll be given brand new ideas on how to be Christ’s church and how to share that Good News with lots of people, and that this body will be made one people. And then I’m asking that you’ll not only pray for these things, but that when God speaks to you that you’ll share the ideas you’ve received with the leaders of this church. Notice I didn’t say “if God speaks to you”– God will speak to and through this body of waiting, expecting, praying people.

I don’t need this card back– it’s to remind yourself of your commitment to be in prayer during this season of Pentecost. Put in your Bible or on your refrigerator, or somewhere that you’ll see it every day. Praying and Listening are things that every single person can do to participate in the ministry of this church.

The Holy Spirit is burning to work through you. Will you feel its gentle breezes of fresh air? Will you listen as it whispers “Go!”?

The Holy Spirit has a word for you and a word for this church. May we, believing in the works and call of the Holy Spirit, listen and answer with the deepest yes of our hearts. May you not flee from the Holy Spirit, but may you seek to Catch the Spirit during this Pentecost!


No Longer Bound
Acts 16:16-34
May 16, 2010


An open door– a sign of welcome, even still. Think about how you feel when you come on an open door. Whether or not you want to go in, you probably at least think to yourself that you’d be made to feel welcome.

There was a community in Atlanta called “The Open Door Community”– the titled noted a sense of welcome to all those that were used to having doors slammed in their faces because they didn’t have enough money for soap or clean clothes. We’d like to believe that nobody would literally slam a door in someone’s face because of their socio-economic status, but we could definitely believe that these people must have felt like life kept slamming doors in their faces. The name of the community suggested that they would be welcome, no matter who they were, or what they could or could not afford.

If you look at Sherwood’s website, the first thing you will notice is a picture of our red doors, open. The caption reads “Wherever you are in your faith story, our doors are open for you.” As I was designing that picture, I wanted anyone that came to our site to know that they would be welcomed in our church.

An open door says a lot. Even as much as it reminds us of our welcome, it also reminds us of our freedom. When the door is open, we are free to come and go as we please. When my now big dog was just a puppy, we bought a baby gate so she wouldn’t wander all over the house. If we happened to be on the other side of the gate, she’d just sit there and whine pitifully because she wanted to be where we were. But she wasn’t free to do that– she was held captive.

Paul and Silas
Because of a run in with some business folks after they had freed a slave with a spirit of divination, Paul and Silas found themselves on the other side of the bars. They were no longer free to come and go as they pleased, but were held on the mercy of another.

Well, I guess that’s not all that remarkable… Paul, along with several other folks in the Bible, picks up the “Go to jail, Do not pass go, do not collect $200” card…more than once. If you’ve ever played the game monopoly, you know that the worst feeling ever is to pick up that card, and wait, and wait, and wait to get out of jail. Your competitors are happily making progress snatching up all the properties while you’re sitting in jail, making no progress whatever.

I don’t mean to reduce Paul and Silas’ imprisonment to a game, because it surely wasn’t. I can’t imagine that sitting in that damp, dank cell was much of a picnic– oddly though, you’d never know it. Instead of whining about their bad luck, they start singing and praying. I’d imagine it looked more like a revival than a prison!

This perplexes me. What gives them the emotional strength to sing and dance and pray? As I’ve been thinking about this, I’ve about decided that it’s their freedom that makes them able to do all these things.

Yes, yes…of course I remember that they are in jail… that they’re not really free to come and go as they please. But, I think there must be different kinds of freedom. I think physical freedom is one sort– the kind where you are free to come and go as you please. But I think there must also be a mental type of freedom. I’m not sure that I could explain this well, because we’re all held hostage by so many things that true freedom is hard to wrap my head around. We’re held captive by money woes, and by concerns of power, and by thoughts of who will like us and who will no longer like us. We don’t, as far as I can tell, really understand true freedom. I can’t tell you exactly what this freedom is, but I’ve caught small glimpses of it and can share those with you. Yesterday, for the first time, I felt completely free as a runner. I wasn’t worried about the things I should be doing, or about bills, or about whether I might actually die before finishing the run. There was just a sense of bliss at knowing the day was mine for the taking. I’ve felt this blissful feeling before as I’ve gotten lost in a good novel or spent a day swimming around in the ocean. I’ve experienced it walking down in the cornfields, with nothing to think about but the cows.

I hope we’ve all experienced these moments– moments when the world isn’t asking anything of us. Moments when all that matters is the present moment. But, if you’re anything like me, these moments are few and far between, and for that matter, easily interrupted. Life calls, and suddenly our sense of freedom and peace is gone.

The fact that Paul and Silas are experiencing freedom and peace in the midst of a dark cell is strange to me. I know I’d be worried about all sorts of things. But they are singing songs and praying. It’s not that they’re free from the cares of life, because they certainly aren’t. They aren’t experiencing those blue-sky days that make us feel so mentally free. That makes me think that there must be at least another type of freedom.

Maybe there is a spiritual type of freedom in addition to the physical and the mental types of freedom. Somehow, I think, the spiritual type of freedom must be a lot bigger and wider than either the phyiscal sort or the mental sort. Paul and Silas were worshipping in quite literally the darkest of circumstances– free in Christ, despite their physical captivity. They were worshipping with other prisioners– completely unfettered.

The Jailhouse Rock
Because they were worshipping in such a fashion, the very foundations of the jail started shaking. I can’t imagine what this was like– but literally, the doors to the jail flew open as a result of this. I’m not sure where Elvis got his inspiration, but I’d say Paul and Silas and their companions were the first to know what a “Jailhouse Rock” was.

I mentioned earlier what a good sign it was to see an open door… but I guess that’s only if you’re not the jailer. The poor jailer was about ready to throw himself on his sword because his whole life and livelihood depended on him being a good jailer, and as you can probably guess, the jailers that have escaped prisoners don’t get nominated for “Jailer of the Year.” In fact, he surely would’ve been fired, and could probably get no work following this, which means his family would go hungry.

Before the jailer could harm himself, Paul stops him by saying “We’re all here”. Now I’m not entirely sure about how all this worked. As Paul says this, the man attributes the fact that all of his prisoners are still in place to the fact that they are Christians. Maybe he’d heard of these Christians and assumed that because they were Christians, they would be doing the right thing. I wonder if people still assume that, or if they have met too many people who say one thing but do another that they wouldn’t necessarily link doing the right thing to being a Christian. But after hearing these folks praying and singing songs, and seeing the power that seems to stem from those actions, the jailer wants to be one of them.

Now, don’t miss this. Of all the people we read about, the jailer should have been the most free. The girl at the beginning of the passage was a slave. Paul and Silas were physically in prison. But the jailer? He should have felt like he had the world at his fingertips. But it turns out he was every bit the captive that the slave girl was– just held captive by different things. For the girl, someone else literally owned her life. For the jailer, the expectations placed on him were keeping him from knowing freedom.

The jailer experiences a “Jailhouse Rock” that changes his life. For the first time in his life, an open door is nothing to be feared. And more than that, it’s something that causes joy– when the door is open, he’s finally free to be like Paul and Silas.

I like stories, either Biblical or otherwise, where I know which character I am. I wonder if we’re supposed to identify with Paul and Silas– the Christians who quite literally rocked the world with their worship and praise. That wouldn’t be a bad place to go, but I’m not sure if we actually do identify with them. As Presbyterians, we’re probably more likely what they were doing worshipping in such a loud fashion than we are to see ourselves as one of them.

But on the other hand, I don’t think we’d want to identify with the jailer either. We wouldn’t like to think that we’re holding people captive, and I don’t think we mean to…so maybe that’s the wrong image. What if we do this though: what if we see an open door, joyously go through it, but then dutifully make sure it gets shut behind us. After all, that open door was clearly meant only for us– and we don’t want just anyone sneaking in. I mean, people are paid good money to make sure that only the right people get in to something– the ballgame, even the Y, has people whose sole job is to make sure that only the ones who are supposed to be there are allowed to come in.

Maybe we’ve seen that happen so much that it’s only natural for us to think that’s the way things should be. I know I’ve said this before, but it’s true again here as well. Our culture operates on a principal of scarcity, where we believe there isn’t enough to go around, or that if we let too many people in, it won’t be good enough for the rest of us. I worked at a public pool as a lifeguard in college, and our admission rates were pretty low. Of course, we had about every type of person you could imagine on hot summer days (and boy, I could tell you some stories). Several times that summer, I’d ask friends or church people to come out, and almost all of them said, “I’d rather pay a little more than have to deal with that.” (That being people that weren’t like them, or didn’t raise their kids in the same way, or didn’t have the same family values, or whatever.) That’s how our culture works. If we let too many people in, what’s left won’t be nice enough for us.

So, I think, we dutifully shut the door behind us, making sure that not just anybody can sneak in. Perhaps without meaning to be, we’re like the well-meaning jailer, who just wants to keep everything and everyone where it belongs. After all, if too many people get in, that would change things. They might have different ideas about how the church works. They might want to do something that you’ve done for years. Gosh, they might even want to sit in your pew. And then all of the sudden, the church would be different. I think it’s different for each of us, but if you think about it, I bet you can think of at least one thing you to that works to keep people out, instead of bringing them in.

We don’t mean to, but we see the open doors of a church, and think maybe it was just meant for us. We don’t want anybody to say “What? Were you raised in a barn?”, so we shut the door right behind us, effectively keeping the “ins” in, and the “outs” out. While we might be great at holding the doors open for other people at the grocery store or whatever, it doesn’t much dawn on us that we need to figuratively hold the doors of the church open for those that would come after us.

We think of people on the inside of open doors as quite free, and we’d definitely put ourselves in this category. But what we don’t realize is that our ultimate freedom is tied up not so much in a door, but in other people’s freedom. Paul and Silas had an open door– they could’ve gone right on out. But they realized that the jailer’s freedom was tied up in their freedom. If they had left, the jailer would have suddenly been bound by their actions.

As I think about it, I’m not sure that it’s enough to sit in the pews Sunday after Sunday, and think ourselves to be free. If you think about it, we in this church aren’t as “free” as we think we are. We worry about money, we’re stressed that we don’t have young people. And while we might not always notice it, it changes the way we do things– it even permeates our worship.

Perhaps we can only know true freedom in Christ when we are working to help others know that same freedom. I wonder if one of the best ways we can do that is by holding the church doors open for all, either literally or metaphorically. While society values a doorkeeper, and we’ve been taught to dutifully shut the door behind us, I’m not sure that this is such an asset in the church.

If freedom is an open door, then how free are we really? And if freedom is an open door, then how free are we helping others who might come in our church to be?

Are you closing the door by the things you do, or don’t do? Or like the jailer, have you experienced a “Jailhouse Rock” that’s changed your life to the point that an open door is no longer a thing to fear?

There is freedom, and there is freedom, and there is a world of difference between the two. While you may be physically free to come and go, my prayer is that you may know true freedom in Christ.

Charge and Benediction
Martin Luther King, Jr, in his famous speech, said this about freedom:
“Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado! Let freedom ring from the curvaceous peaks of California!
But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia! Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee!
Let freedom ring from every hill and every molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

When freedom in Christ really rings in this church, we will help it ring all over our community. But the best way we can be free is by practicing true freedom– a freedom that opens wide the doors.