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A Matter of Trust

(a sermon for February 17, 2019, the 6th Sunday after Pentecost, based on  Jeremiah 17:5-10 and Luke 6:17-26)

The story goes that there were twelve members of the clergy together on a plane, all flying to a church conference in a distant city; and while in the air as sometimes happens the airplane encountered a large storm causing a great deal of turbulence during the flight.  That kind of thing is always a bit disconcerting, but the clergy were actually pretty good-natured about it; joking with their fellow passengers and the flight attendants that there was no reason to worry because, hey, there were twelve ministers on board this plane and, they hastened to add, represented a whole range of religious backgrounds; so just about every base was covered!   Well, everyone had a good laugh, eventually the turbulence subsided, and afterward one of the preachers jokingly asked the flight attendant if the pilot had been aware he’d had some “heavenly help” on board during that storm.   “Well,” said the flight attendant, “he said he was happy to have twelve ministers aboard, but given the choice, he would rather have four good engines!”

It’s true, you know; that for all the choices we have at our disposal at any given time, the only choice that really matters is the one that will save us; so where we choose to place our trust inevitably makes all difference!

It’s actually kind of interesting to note just how many decisions in our lives end up as “a matter of trust.” The teenager you’ll let come into your home and babysit your children when they’re young; the confidence you have in a doctor’s care, or in a lawyer’s advice; the accountant you hire to handle your investments or do your taxes:  I mean, you do your research, you get referrals, you even go online to sites like “Yelp” and “Angie’s List” to check out customer feedback (!): but in the end, it comes down to whether or not you’re going to trust that service, or company, or person with that which is of great importance in your life!

Moreover, what and in whom we trust says a great deal about us, doesn’t it: where our priorities lie and what we believe to be true about our lives and living; in many ways it’s how we discern the pathways we choose to follow in this life. There are just so many choices before us – sometimes we’re aware of those choices, other times they’re made without our even realizing it – but for each one of us, sooner or later, those choices come to bear on our lives in ways positive or negative.  Like I said before, ultimately the only choice that really matters is the one that will save us; so where – and in whom (!) – we place our trust makes all the difference!

And as the prophet Jeremiah says, “Blessed are those who trust in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD.”

Those words from Jeremiah, from which our Old Testament reading this morning is drawn, date back to around 600 BC, a crucial moment in Israel’s history: around the time of the fall of Jerusalem, the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the people to Babylon. So these are words that speak directly to the lives of God’s people in that time; and make no mistake, they’re words of confrontation.  Jeremiah’s message to Israel from the Lord was clear even as it was disturbing: that they needed to fortify themselves by trusting wholly in God, rather than in man-made arrangements and self-styled security, lest in abandoning their faith they be left in ruin, both personally and as a nation.

Here was a nation you see, that had placed their trust in just about everything but God – in the midst of all this upheaval the kings of Judah had increasingly begun to place their allegiances in politics, prosperity and power plays rather than in following the pathway that God would have them lead – but now here was Jeremiah reminding them that “to trust in mere mortals and [to] make mere flesh their strength,” turning their hearts away from God in the process, was to be cursed, to end up no differently than “a shrub in the desert,” wasting away from the scorching sun and the lack of water.  Better to put your trust in something that will thrive in any situation, good or bad; best to put your trust in the Lord, who is like that tree that sends out its roots by the stream: as The Message translates it, “Never a worry through the hottest of summers, never dropping a leaf, serene and calm through droughts, bearing fresh fruit every season.”

A withering shrub left to die a slow and inevitable death out in the desert, on the one hand, or a leafy-green tree bearing fruit in abundance through harvest after harvest: that’s your choice, says Jeremiah.  So the question becomes then, in whom will you trust?

It’s actually a pretty good question for you and me as well.

After all, isn’t it true that we also have a tendency to place our trust in our own strength, or our own possessions, or our own ego driven style of success and fulfillment for the sake of a good life?  Is it not true that all too often our dependence in this world leans more toward the politicians and power brokers than on our faith in the Lord? Even and especially when times are hard and hope is hard to imagine, there is this all-too human temptation to believe that our way out comes with wealth or power or social acceptance or even the people and parties we vote for!   It all sounds good, and there are plenty of media outlets, social and otherwise, that will gladly reinforce the notion; but trouble with such an attitude of life is that wealth is at best, temporary; power and politics are always fleeting; and social acceptance, well, let’s just put it this way:  if you’re the flavor of the month in February, that’s wonderful, but just remember come March there’s going to be another flavor everyone flocks to, and when that time comes you’re just as apt to be put to the back of the freezer!

Jeremiah’s words serve to remind us that these kinds of utterly human pursuits are ultimately shallow in nature, and can never give us the nourishment that we need; and this is to say nothing of the way that such things leave us vulnerable to the damaging winds of life and living.  Truly, anyone who’s been there knows that all the money and the power and prestige in the world can ever change the hurt that comes with grief or hatred or struggle. The truth of it is that we need more.  There is within each one of us a deep need that can only be filled by something that is at once beyond and deeply within ourselves, and that is and can only be God!  It is only when we wholly trust in God, only with our hearts firmly rooted in the holy that we grow and flourish like leafy, life-giving branches.  When we live with our trust placed in God and God alone, it’s then that we find our true blessing.

No doubt you noticed that our gospel reading this morning is Luke’s version of Jesus’ Beatitudes (which, by the way, is not considered here a “Sermon on the Mount,” but a sermon “on a level place,” with Jesus standing there amongst “a great multitude of people” surrounding him). And it’s there that Jesus gives to the people not only a series of blessings, but also a series of “woes.” (One commentator I read this week referred to these as the “woe-beattitudes!”) And those woes are in direct relationship to the blessings.  In other words, “Blessed are you who are poor (notice that’s it not “poor in Spirit” here, like in Matthew, but “poor”) for yours is the Kingdom of God.”  And a few verses later, it’s “but woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.”   Blessed are you who are hungry and who weep… but woe to you who are full, because you’re going to be hungry; and woe to you who laugh now, because before long, make no mistake, you’re going to be mourning and weeping.  And here’s something interesting: “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.”  And what does it say later on?  “Woe to you when all speak well of you.”  So much for being Mr. or Ms. Popularity with hundreds of Facebook friends!

No doubt about it, this is one of those passages that fulfill that well-known prophecy that the gospel have a way not only of comforting the afflicted, but also, as they say, “afflicting the comfortable!”  Once again, in Jesus’ words we hear the same kind of radical reversals that Mary was singing about in the Magnificat; of how the lowly will be lifted up and powerful brought down from their thrones (Luke 1:52).  What’s being proclaimed is the coming of God’s Kingdom into the world; but in the process Jesus is also spelling out some of the very real things of this world that distract us from that kingdom and keep us from God; how placing our trust in the things of the world rather than in God in effect brings woe upon ourselves!

The question that each one of us needs to ask ourselves is this: when it comes down to the nitty-gritty in this life, in what and most importantly, in whom do we really trust?  What is it that we’ll bet our lives on?  Friends, bottom line is that if our trust is in ourselves, or in our money, or our possessions, or our wits and good looks, we’re on shaky ground.  Woe be unto us if we do that, because such things do crumble and blow away like so much scrub brush and tumbleweed.  But for those who place their trust in God, there’s blessing; for even when everything else in the world around us seems to fall away – when the money’s gone, when our ideas fail us, when our friends abandon or betray us, when it seems like we haven’t got anything left inside of us to carry on – we still have the presence, power, the peace and the nurturing care of an infinitely loving God.

Among my many small fascinations in this life is a tree that grows on a rock.

Seriously!  We’ve actually got one of these out in front of our family’s camp up in “the county;” an old yellow birch which has been clinging defiantly to a huge rock on the shore of the lake for longer than my lifetime, its long and gnarled roots wrapped all around it; and yet all the while growing and stretching its shady branches ever further over the water. Many was the time over the years growing up that I’ve marveled at that tree hanging at the angle it does, wondering how it can possibly defy gravity like that!  And even now it remains; still growing and dare I say, still thriving despite all the windswept mid-summer storms and intense winter “nor’easters” that have come at it over the years. Indeed, there have been other trees around our camp – bigger, straighter and seemingly stronger – that have fallen to the ground in that time; trees that were ultimately unable to stand firm against all that our New England weather can typically dish out.  However, come what may, this one precariously perched old tree just never seems to yield!

Of course, looks are often deceiving and upon closer examination you discover that the roots of this tree have over time reached around the rocks, pushed between and through cracks and crevices, and stretched into whatever soil it can find and eventually right into the spring fed mud of the lake itself!  That’s how, despite all outward appearances and seemingly impossible odds, this old birch tree has managed to stay strong, tall and leafy green summer after summer; long past the time when so many other trees have gone to mulch.

When our trust is in God and what God provides us we are indeed like that tree: ever clinging to the rocky ledges of life, yet ever and always surviving as our roots are drinking in the thirst-quenching glory of God’s living water.  As the song goes, when our trust and our care is in the Lord, we shall not be moved… but rest assured, we’ll also grow… we’ll grow tall and strong and lasting.

“Blessed are those who trust in the Lord.”

Blessed are those whose trust is the Lord!

Thanks be to God who makes us strong.

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Posted by on February 18, 2019 in Epiphany, Faith, Jesus, Life, Maine, Old Testament, Sermon

 

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Simeon’s Song: Worth the Wait

(a sermon for December 30, 2018, the 1st Sunday after Christmas; last in a series, based on  Luke 2:22-40)

Sometimes the only thing you can do is sing.

An old friend of mine from my seminary days, a bright and bubbly older lady who went by the name of “Mickey,” used to tell the story of how one snowy winter morning in Maine she’d decided to go cross-country skiing along a beautiful wooded trail that she knew, one that stretched far from any nearby roads, houses or people. The idea, she said, was for some spiritual solitude, but as fate would have it somewhere deep in the woods Mickey fell off her skis and managed to fracture her ankle; so now not only was she injured and unable to make her way home, but also, ironically enough, she was totally alone!

Now, given that this was a time long before cel phones and with no other way of calling out for help out there deep in the Maine woods, most people might have panicked under those circumstances; but not Mickey!  Surely, she reasoned, on this beautiful snowy morning someone else would be out skiing or snowshoeing and happen by, so she’d simply wait there in the snow until someone came by who could help her!  And that’s what she did; however, as the hours began to pass and the snow accumulated all around her Mickey started to wonder, however fleetingly, when or if help would ever come!

So she started to sing.

Actually, she started by reciting psalms and other passages of scripture she’d known from childhood (“I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.” [Psalm 121:1-2] Actually kind of fitting when you think about it, she said afterward) And then, it was Christmas songs, followed by verses from all the old hymns and snippets from choir anthems that she’d sung at one time or another and had always remembered. And as that long day went on Mickey just kept on singing, singing everything and anything she knew how to sing and even a few songs she didn’t!  She sang through her pain and she sang through her fear, and she even sang a bit through her doubt, but above all Mickey sang out of a faith-borne assuredness that the Lord was with her and that she would be alright!  And when eventually, just as darkness had begun to descend, another pair of skiers did happen by so to bring her to safety, they asked how she was doing and Mickey simply smiled and replied in very typical Mickey fashion, “Oh, I’m fine… I hadn’t run out of songs yet!”

Sometimes, you see, the only thing you can do is sing… but when singing is an act of faith, that may well be enough!

In our text for this morning, Luke’s gospel tells us that at the time of Jesus’ birth there was “a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon,” and Luke makes a point of letting us know that this Simeon was a good man, “righteous and devout,” and as The Message puts it, living “in the prayerful expectancy of help for Israel,” that is, waiting for the coming of the Lord’s Messiah.  We’re also supposed to surmise from this passage that Simeon was quite old and that he had been, in fact, waiting just about all his life for this singular event to take place; but, you see, that was alright. For as Luke tells the story, “the Holy Spirit rested” on Simeon and that same Spirit had “shown him that he would see this Messiah of God before he died.”  That’s it… no angel making an “annunciation,” as what was given unto Mary, nor even any heavenly rebuke as what happened to old Zechariah back at the temple; and as for that “heavenly host” that they’d heard about from a bunch of random shepherds?  There was certainly none of that for Simeon; no miracles or signs or wonder, just simply and profoundly this continued assurance from a truly Holy Spirit that this thing was going to happen, it would happen in Simeon’s lifetime… and it was definitely going to be worth the wait.  So keep the faith, Simeon… keep on singing and just wait for it.

So now it’s about 40 days after the child was born in the manger of Bethlehem; which means that Jesus was around a month and a half old and the time had come both for “their purification” (which actually had more to do with Mary than with Jesus, as it was required by every Jewish woman after childbirth) and for Mary and Joseph to come to the Temple and offer up a sacrifice (which because of their poverty, amounted to “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons”), so to consecrate their child to the Lord.  Understand this was a sacred ritual, a duty required and performed by all faithful Jews; and so you have to imagine, as David Lose puts it, that Mary and Joseph “must have been in a reverent, even solemn mood that day, the way many young parents in our congregations are when their first child is to baptized.”  So also imagine, then, how started, even frightened Mary and Joseph might have been when in the midst of this quiet procession into the holy courts of the Temple, here comes “Simeon, old beyond years and beaming with ecstatic revelation, coming up to them to touch the child,” and then, as if that weren’t enough, he starts singing!

You see, on that day of days Simeon was guided by the Holy Spirit to go – go now (!) – to the Temple because there at long last he would see the Messiah, the fulfillment of the Holy Spirit’s promise and the consolation of Israel.  And so, make no mistake, there’s absolutely no reluctance, hesitation or even any kind of appropriateness here on Simeon’s part; I mean, you don’t just run up to new parents and just pick up their baby, but here’s old Simeon fairly well running into the Temple and scooping up the baby Jesus away from Mary and Joseph, all so he can hold this child in his arms; and once Simeon’s seen that angelic little face, once he’s touched his little fingers, maybe counted his toes and then marveled how something so tiny and so delicate can be so… divine, that’s when Simeon’s song begins, a song of praise and thanksgiving for this child who was and is “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

In Latin, it’s referred to as the Nunc Dimittis, which means “now send away,” and it’s actually used today both during services of holy communion and as a funeral liturgy, for not only is this song this incredible proclamation of God’s salvation prepared for all people, it’s also Simeon’s joyous affirmation that now that the Spirit’s lifelong assurances of a Messiah had come to fruition Simeon himself could die in peace.  In other words, my waiting is over, your work is done, so as in the elegant words of the old King James Version of scripture, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word:  For mine eyes have seen thy salvation.”

There are some, you know, who tend to read the words of Simeon’s song as something rather morbid; I mean, why would he even want to talk about death and dying at a time like this, when the light and life of Christmas, to borrow a line from Jean Shepherd here, is at its zenith and all is right with the world?  But you see, Simeon knew that everything in his life had led up to this particular moment of this particular day, and that now that he’d literally seen and held God’s promise in his hands, “after touching and feeling the promise of life which God had granted to him through Christ…” (David Lose, again) then he could accept death “courageously and confidently in the light of God’s promised salvation.”  He could let go now, because the promise had been fulfilled and it had most definitely been worth the wait.

Of course, it needs to be said there that Simeon’s song wasn’t entirely one of joy and praise.  After he’d blessed this child and his parents, Simeon then looked to Mary, and as though to perhaps warn her of what was to come (?), he sings a second verse of his song, of how this child was to “be a sign that will be opposed,” – a “figure misunderstood and contradicted” – “so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.”  And, oh yes, Mary, by the way?  “A sword will pierce your own soul, too.”

It turns out, you see, that there will be more to this story than merely a tale of angels and shepherds and Magi from the Far East bring gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  This child, this baby whose is named Jesus, Emmanuel, Messiah, Christ the Lord… his story will continue; beginning with a baptism of repentance in the River Jordan through great acts of healing, miraculous signs, teachings that change lives and the world, and at the last a triumphal entry into Jerusalem that leads inescapably to the cross.

Even after the shepherds have gone back to their flock; even once the star overhead has faded to blend in with the rest of the night sky and the Magi have opted to go home another way; even after Mary and Joseph settle in to the business of raising an infant even as they’ve had to flee to Egypt as refugees, the story goes on. The baby Jesus, you see, grows up… and his journey, as well as ours, is just beginning.

You know, it’s always struck me as a bit odd that we inevitably end up viewing Christmas as an ending rather than really what it should be, a new beginning.  I realize that this comes in large part because since before Halloween (!) this world has been wholly focused on the run-up to everything surrounding the Christmas holiday, and so once December 26 comes along even the most ardent of Christmas elves are apt to breathe a sigh of relief!   And even here in the church, for over four weeks we’ve devoted ourselves to Advent waiting and watching for the coming of Christ; and so yes, I have to confess that there’s a palpable sense of conclusion in our finally arriving at the manger.  In other words, we’ve come to worship, we’ve sung all our songs and now it’s time, like the shepherds and wise men before us, to return to life and the world and business as usual.

But I ask you, is that actually the case? Is Christmas truly over?   Have we really run out of songs to sing?

Not yet.

Because despite whatever closure we have by our taking down decorations or switching to music other than the holiday variety (!), the fact our journey to Christmas has not so much ended as it is just beginning!

You might have noticed that our text this morning contains a bit of an epilogue to this story of Jesus’ presentation at the Temple and Simeon’s song of praise and glory.  It seems that there in the Temple was also “a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher.” Anna was an 84-year-old widow, and in fact pretty much lived at the temple, “worshipping night and day with her fastings and prayers,” [The Message] and we’re told that at the very same moment Simeon was offering up his tribute, Anna also showed up and “broke into an anthem” of her own, one of “praise to God,” and one that was apparently reprised again and again as she began “to speak about the child to all who were look for the redemption of Jerusalem.”

That’s the key, you know… that’s how Christmas becomes for us the starting place of our journey rather than its conclusion.  It’s in our proclaiming the good news of his coming; it’s about telling the story of his holy birth, yes, but it’s also continuing to tell of his presence and ministry among us and of the price he paid for our redemption before God.  It’s in the work of Christmas that we are called to do: in those powerful words of poet Howard Thurman:

“To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among others,
To make music in the heart.”

Yes, to “make music in the heart!”  Christmas is always about singing out our praises unto the Lord each and every day that we live and breathe; it’s about singing through our pain, and singing through our fear, and even at times singing through our doubt; but it’s ever and always singing out of that faith-borne and faith-full assuredness that the Lord is with us and that we will be alright!

Christmas is not over, beloved; in fact, it’s just getting started!

So let that journey of prayer and praising and service begin with us here and now… and let’s keep singing, because there are plenty of songs yet to sing!

Thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on December 30, 2018 in Christmas, Jesus, Maine, Music, Sermon, Sermon Series, Worship

 

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In Step With the Spirit

(a sermon for July 1, 2018, the 6th Sunday after Pentecost, based on Galatians 5:1, 13-25)

In a collection of sermons and other writings entitled Flesh and Bone, the Rev. Dr. A.K.M. Adam – Boston born Biblical scholar and theologian currently on the faculty at Oxford University – writes about his own journey of faith, confessing that there was a time in his life when he didn’t want to follow Jesus.  In fact, he writes, “I didn’t need Jesus [and] I didn’t have any use for anyone who did need Jesus… I was a skeptic, and I meant business about it.”

But something changed, though Adam freely admits that he isn’t sure what. There was “no blinding light, no voice from heaven,” he says. “I can’t tell you about God appearing to me from heaven and slapping me upside my head, or Elijah coming and tossing a cloak onto me, and me then dropping my plow and following.”  This was partly, Adam goes on to say, because he wasn’t aware of what was happening to him even as it was happening, but mostly it was “because God’s way is usually not to do things with spotlights and special effects, but instead to manage the tiny details in such a way that things just happen in the right way.”  Adam writes that “the God who bent my will from defiance and skepticism to submission and faith didn’t bludgeon me, didn’t beat me with a stick to change my mind, but just set me up to change my own mind.”

I actually found that to be a pretty good explanation as to how belief comes to be; and I also suspect that truth be told, most of us can relate to Adam’s story!  For whereas some of us in this room today might well be able to name the specific time and place where we came to faith, it’s more likely that the majority of us have taken that journey step by step, day by day, experience by experience.   The truth of the matter is that a great many of us are, as they say, “born skeptics,” wondering even as we sit in these pews if this religion thing is all it’s cracked up to be!  And even if we are aware that there’s someone bigger than you and me at work here, we find ourselves wondering aloud why things in this world aren’t working out better than they are! But then, there are also those among us who are content to be looking for the road signs along the way; delighting in the happenstances and messages that pop up from time to time that not only remind us who and whose we are, but also serve to assure us that we’re headed in just the right direction (albeit with a course correction or two!).

The trouble with this, however, is that these kind of road signs aren’t always that obvious; in fact, oftentimes they’re so small as to be almost indiscernible!  I remember once, years ago, having been asked to lead a graveside service at a cemetery way out in the hinterlands of western Maine.  This was in the days before cel phones and GPS units, but I’d been given very specific directions from the funeral home that at the bottom of a long hill on the highway, I was to take the first left, and then, after a couple of miles, I’d find the cemetery.  And that’s what I did – or that’s what I thought I did (!) – because as I took that left hand turn and drove several miles down that well-paved road that got thinner and rougher as I went, it became increasingly clear that there was no cemetery to be found on this road!   It got to the point where – no joke (!) – I stopped at a farm house at the very end of that road, banged on the door and asked the people there in a rather panic-stricken voice, “Do you know where the graveyard is?”  To which the farmer calmly replied, “Well, didn’t you take that first left at the bottom of the hill?”  Turned out there was a left hand turn at the bottom of the hill, but it was an old, rather non-descript road of dirt and grass that I quickly and easily passed by because I reasoned it could not possibly be the right road… but of course it was!

Well, likewise in the journey of faith sometimes we only recognize the signs of God’s presence and influence once we’ve already gone by them!  In the end, what we discover along the way is that we have to be paying attention, staying open to all the little times, places and situations in which God’s Spirit reaches out to us, letting ourselves be led by that Spirit; indeed, to go our way freely in this life, but to always seek to God as we do.  In other words, as Paul says it to the Galatians in our reading this morning, “Since we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit,” or, as it’s beautifully translated elsewhere, “let us keep in step with the Spirit.” (NIV)

Our text for this morning from the 5th chapter of Galatians is all about Christian freedom and life in the Spirit; the tension that exists in a life of faith between, on the one hand, freedom from the law (that is, the freedom we have to do anything we want, regardless of what the law says), but on the other hand, the call we all have as Christians to resist the temptations of the flesh and be led instead by God’s Spirit in all things.  Yes, says Paul, in Christ we are freed from that which the law addresses, and we are free to do anything we desire; but we are also free to not do anything we desire; we are free to set firm standards for our lives on the basis of what we believe in faith, and then to follow them.  Without that at the center of our freedom, you see, we risk becoming as shackled by the flesh as we were by the law.

I remember many years ago a young woman I worked with who, while we were all employed together, turned 21 and was free now to go out and buy and drink alcoholic beverages legally.  And of course, a lot of her friends were trying very hard to get her to go out with them and celebrate this milestone, to go and party at some of the local clubs.  But she wasn’t interested in this at all; she was actually quite a conservative young woman that way, as I recall.  I remember her saying that she didn’t want to go out drinking before, and she didn’t want to go now; and moreover, that this was not what she wanted for her life, not the road she wanted to go down.  And then she said this, which is something I still remember: why should something like a birthday change what she truly believed?

That’s basically what Paul was getting at in his epistle to the Galatians:  the point that ultimately laws don’t matter, and that by Christ, we are set free to live a truly free life, free from all those things in life that would shackle us!  So “stand firm, therefore” says Paul, “and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” 

Of course, these new Christians at Galatia were not understanding this at all!  In fact, as we pick up the reading today, it’s apparent that their new found freedom had not so much liberated them as had created more problems and divisions amongst them.  In fact, this attitude that now all things were legal and thus good had gotten so out of hand, that it had come close to literally destroying them as a people and as a church.  And to this, Paul says to them,  “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another… if, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.”   And, as The Message concludes, “where will your precious freedom be then?”  In their freedom from the law, you see, the Galatians ended up losing the essence of the law, which of course, was love!  And without love, well, the church isn’t the church at all!

Seems to me that’s pretty relevant for those of us in our own time who would seek to follow Christ Jesus and to gather as the church.  There’s no question that we live in a very pluralistic society in which the prevailing winds of the culture are constantly shifting; and as Christians and as the church we continually being asked to discern between that which represents changing times and new ideas, or on the other hand, that which pulls us away from God’s intent for our lives or for his church.  And when you combine this with the fact that just about everyone inside and outside the church has an opinion on such matters, it gets harder and harder to properly read the signs, because as we’ve noted, they’re not always so that obvious to find in such a free-styled world as ours.  That’s why Paul says to the Galatians, and to us, we need to “live freely, animated and motivated by God’s Spirit” [The Message, again] and not by “the desires of the sinful nature.”

It’s at this point of his Epistle that Paul lists down the “obvious” sins of the flesh:  “sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealously, fits of rage, selfish ambition,” [NIV] and on and on it goes, right up to and including “drunkenness and carousing!”   [NRSV] “I am warning you,” Paul says, “as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”  So don’t go down roads such as these; rather, led by the Spirit, be looking out for signs of the Spirit’s presence in your life, that which Paul refers to as the fruit of the Spirit:  “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”  This is the way of true faith, and it comes to us by the Spirit of God!  And if we are led by the Spirit, friends, we are in step with the Spirit… and very close to the Kingdom of God!

So what should we be looking for as we all head back out on the journey this week?  Remember, just as signs are not always that obvious to us, the fruit of the Spirit might not always appear to us as low-hanging!  The truth is that God’s Spirit does indeed move in mysterious, wonderful, and might I add, often very subtle ways; and even amongst unlikely and surprising people! To quote A.K.M Adams again, sometimes “these ideals seep into our lives when we see other folks whom we respect living by their ideals.  We think of self-control… [when we witness] admirable, grace-filled women and men… inclined to exercise self-control; we honor peace and gentleness when we see the [triumph] of patient dignity [over] violent hatred through the example of a truly great person.  When we open our hearts to this message of faith and hope,” we find ourselves seeking out and letting ourselves be led by the Spirit of Holiness, and that’s the beginning of a whole new life indeed.

Who knows where the Spirit will be found in our lives this week, and who knows where that Spirit will seek to lead us?  Perhaps in holiday gatherings and in the opportunities before us as families and friends to “beat the heat” amidst this sultry summer weather?  Perhaps in small but significant “random acts of kindness” both given and received?  Perhaps in and through a new insight for living in the middle of these troubled times?  Or perhaps even in sharing this morning’s sacred meal of bread and wine at the table of blessing?  All I know is that God’s Spirit does move in ways we can never wholly expect; but if we’re paying attention will always serve to remind us that we are bound together by the God who sends us forth in Christ’s name.  And rest assured, if we seek out and live unto that Spirit, we always be walking in step with it wherever life happens to take us.

May it always be so for you and me, beloved.

Thanks be to God!

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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