Free At Last!

“And you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:32) Last week as we at long last commemorated the first official Juneteenth these familiar words from John’s Gospel took on new meaning for me. When the news finally reached Galveston on June 19, 1865 that our black sisters and brothers were free from the bondage of slavery the truth is that they had already been free for a year and a half and didn’t know it.

The Emancipation Proclamation was issued by President Lincoln on January 1, 1863, and the fact that it took 18 months to reach Texas is hard for us in the 5G Information Age to imagine. But technology aside it is even more embarrassing to realize that it has taken 156 years for America to officially recognize this historic event.

The parallel observation for me when thinking about John 8:32 is that far too many of us who strive to follow Jesus Christ have been prisoners to sin, guilt, fear and the spiritual death those things bring for all our lives without knowing the good news that we are already free. In the words of Father Malcolm Boyd‘s book by the same title we are “Free to Live, Free to Die” because the chains of death were broken once and for all in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

What will we do with that freedom? It is not a gift to be hoarded as a personal prize, for if we do our efforts to protect our own privileges will poison the well of eternal life. If any of God’s children are enslaved none of us are truly free.

So recognizing Juneteenth is not an end in itself. It is one more step on the long road to liberty and justice for all, to the day when we all can say together, “Free at Last, Free at Last. Thank God Almighty we are free at last!”

Prayer of Lament

O God! We have added Austin to our awful litany of mass shootings. I pray for the victims, the first responders, the survivors, and for whatever demons the shooter or shooters are dealing with. I also pray for our society where this tragedy barely makes a blip on the radar of our consciousness. We are so numb to this senselessness that it has become a ho hum normal occurrence. Please shock us into caring again, to mourning again, and revive our consciences and our desire for peace. Trouble our souls deep in denial. Call us to compassion for victims and passion for doing our part to create your peaceable kin-dom here on earth as it is in heaven.

The alarm is ringing again. It is not good to keep hitting the snooze button. It is not OK to pull up the covers and pretend this is just a bad dream. Wake us, give us ears to hear the cries of your children and the clarion call for all people of faith to put prayers and thoughts into action. Hear our prayer and disrupt our false sense of security. Make our fear a motivation for change and not an excuse to avoid the cold, harsh truth. Christ have mercy. Amen

The Naked Truth, Sermon on Genesis 3:1-13

Back in pre-Covid times a pastor stopped at the home of Mary Johnson for a pastoral visit.  When there was no response to his knock he left his card with a note on it that simply said Revelation 3:20.  When Mary found the note she looked up that verse which says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.”  That Sunday after worship Mary handed the pastor a similarly cryptic note that just said Genesis 3:10.  That verse from our text for today says, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked.”

Genesis 3 is part of the second creation story in our Bible.  The first story in Genesis 1 describes 6 days of creation ending with humans created in the image of God, as Pastor Chris reminded us last week.   And at the end of that chapter God pronounces all of creation very good.  Genesis 1 is what theologian Matthew Fox calls our “original blessing.  Scholars believe that chapters 2 & 3 were written by a different author and describe in more narrative form the origin of sin and its consequences. 

I have no scholarly evidence for this, but I have a theory that the author of the second story looked over the sorry state of the human race and said, “This is not very good.  If we were created in God’s image what went wrong?”  Genesis 2 & 3 are an attempt to answer that question.  We sometimes mistakenly think these creation stories are historical descriptions of how we and our universe were created, but they’re not.  No one was around to observe the beginning.  These stories are poetic attempts after the fact by ancient humans to make sense out of why we are here and how we got here.

Here’s a problem I’ve been having recently.  I’ve always been a believer in Imago Dei, which is the Latin term for “in the image of God.”  But I’m having an increasingly hard time believing humans are created in God’s image when I look at the mess our world is in right now.  There have been at least 63 mass shootings in the US in the month of May alone and 242 since January 1. That’s 1.5 mass shootings per day!!  Here in Columbus there have been more than 70 deaths from gun violence already this year which is twice the number compared to the last three years.  I don’t even know how many brown and black people have died at the hands of police since George Floyd was killed a year ago.  Whatever we are doing to address these problems isn’t working, and yet the bitter partisan warfare in Congress keeps any new ideas from even being tried.  And don’t get me started on climate change.  In those Genesis stories God specifically charges humans with being good stewards of God’s creation, and we have failed miserably.

So how do we resolve these conflicting accounts of human nature?  Are we created in God’s image or are we disobedient and selfish like Adam and Eve, wanting to be like God?  The answer is Yes, we are both.  At our very essence humans are in harmony with God and all of creation.  But our image of God is tarnished by the temptations of the world.  There was a commercial years ago for Michelob beer that fanned the flames of consumerism by asking “Who says you can’t have it all?”  God says, that’s who.  God is the creator and we are the creatures, and when we try to reverse that order of things all kinds of calamity ensues.  Our history as a human race constantly at war with one another has left a trail of tears all over this planet.

Another question this text raises is why were Adam and Eve afraid because they were naked?  Is it like when I’m afraid when I look at my naked body in a mirror?  No, this is not about body shaming.  It is a metaphorical nakedness that means we are all spiritually exposed.  God knows us inside and out.  We can run from God and our own sinfulness, but we can’t hide – just ask Adam and Eve. 

Doesn’t being able to take your mask off feel good? We can breathe better after a long year.  Well it also feels good to be unmasked before God because confession is the only pathway to forgiveness.  We can’t be forgiven for something we refuse to acknowledge in our selves.  But this second creation story has all too often been interpreted to mean life is hard for all of us because of Eve’s original sin, which is a bad rap for women because Adam was just as guilty.   

So does this story mean Adam and Eve were punished by being evicted from the Garden?   No, this is a way of explaining why life is so hard, and we make it harder whenever we put anything else first before God. 

One of the best things I’ve been able to do during this Covid year has been to participate via zoom in an excellent book study group with some of our church members and other interested folks.  We have learned a great deal from several books about racism.   One of the added benefits is that the group has introduced me to the work of Dr. Brene Brown, a social worker and research professor at the University of Houston.  Her ideas have come up so often in our discussions that we are on a first-name basis and have made her an honorary member of our group. 

Brene has spent over twenty years studying the effects of shame and guilt on human development and behavior.  She stresses that shame and guilt are not synonymous terms even though we often use them that way.  The distinction Dr. Brown makes is that we feel guilt over a bad thing we have done, but we feel shame when we confuse bad behavior with our basic value as a person.  On one of her podcasts Brene uses a real-life example she actually observed in a classroom where a teacher was berating a student in front of her class for constantly failing to turn in assigned work.  That’s awful enough, but the teacher went on to take the student’s paper and write S T U P I D across the top of it.  In other words the teacher was passing judgment not on the student’s school work but on her value as a person.  I truly hope that teacher has found a new line of work.  I also hope none of us have experienced that kind of shaming from a teacher or parent on a preacher, but I fear many of us have. 

I bring that up because it is critical to the way we interpret the Fall, as this second creation story is often called.  If you aren’t familiar with the consequences for Adam and Eve, hear what the rest of Genesis 3 says: 

“To the woman God said,  ‘I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing;
    in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband,
    and he shall rule over you’  (As an aside, that verse has been used to justify sexism and patriarchy for millennia, but the women among us already knew that.)

And to the manGod said,  ‘…cursed is the ground because of you;
    in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; 18 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field.
19 By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, …’”

Those verses have often been misused to shame people when they really are about guilt, not about shame.  Remember the difference – guilt is for bad behavior, shame is calling someone a bad person.  Bad behaviors have consequences, but they do not forever make us bad people.    Before they were written down these stories were passed down orally for centuries as a way for people to make sense of their lives.  Women wondered why childbirth is so painful, and this story is a pre-scientific attempt to answer that question.  Rather than add a load of guilt to the pain of childbirth why not accept the simple fact that pushing a baby’s head through a very small opening really hurts? 

Similarly, ancient people, like many of us today asked why life is so hard.  Remember this was a very agrarian culture.  There were no Kroger’s in town to buy food.  They had to plant, grow, hunt or harvest everything they needed on land that is mostly desert, and they naturally wanted to know why. 

Unfortunately the story of the Fall has been misused many times by the church to control people by shaming them.  For example, the communion ritual for United Methodists used to include a prayer where congregations were asked to confess by saying, “We bewail our manifold sins and wickedness which we from time to time have most grievously committed.”  And we wondered back then why many people stayed away on Communion Sunday!  Yes, we still need confession more than ever, but we don’t need to be shamed for being the fallible human beings we all are. 

The Gospel is like a meme I saw on Facebook recently which said, “I’m so grateful that neither my sin nor my stupidity keep God from loving me.”  Yes, our lives are often hard, but God loves us all so much that God was willing in Jesus to come and share our experience of life and even death.  That’s what love is; sharing both the joys and sorrows of life with each other, even those who are hard to love.

I recently watched an on-line workshop with Bishop Michael Curry, the presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church.  Bishop Curry has a recent book out entitled “Love is the Way.” That title sounds a bit simplistic to me given the hurricane of hate we are living in as a society right now.  When it was time for Q&A I asked how can we reconcile the Gospel of love with the righteous anger we see in the Hebrew prophets and even on occasion from Jesus himself.  I didn’t include this, but I often want the angry Jesus who turns over tables in the temple to come and clean up the mess we’ve made of things.

Bishop Curry’s response to my question was that as Christians we must speak out against injustice, but in his words we judge “policies not people.”  In other words hate the sin but love the sinner: call out guilty actions or attitudes, but don‘t try to shame anyone, not even the worst among us. Shaming doesn’t work. Besides, whoever you or I want to nominate as the worst people among us the answer is yes, God still loves those people – all of them; the other – enemies, foreign and domestic – those we fear – or vehemently disagree with – be they across town or across the dining room table. 

God loves them all, and all means all.  Jesus did not say, “Come to me those who look like me, or think like me, or love like me.”  Jesus said, “Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

Like Adam and Eve, we are all naked before God, no matter how hard we try to hide.    That sounds really scary, but it’s not, because God is Love.  These days we all have to decide where it’s safe to take off your mask.  We are wearing them in our church building still out of love for those who may not be able to be vaccinated, but here’s the Good News – When we come into God’s presence, wherever we are, or to the Lord’s Table we can come just as we are with nothing to hide.  Amen

Originally preached at Northwest UMC, June 6, 2021

Swimming for My Life

This post is either a little late for memorial day or a little early for Father’s Day or maybe both. As part of my rehab from back surgery last fall I have been spending a lot of time in the YMCA pool. I am not a good swimmer, but I have greatly increased my stamina over the last two months. I am swimming because it is low impact and about the only kind of aerobic exercise I can do because of my back.

While swimming I’ve had an unexpected revelation of admiration for my father who died a little over three years ago at the age of 96. Dad was a bomber pilot in World War II. Because our relationship was always rather strained there are lots of questions now that I wish I had asked my dad, among those are questions about his military service. I don’t know if he would have wanted to talk about a very traumatic experience he had in the war or not, and now I will never know.

I know he only made a few actual bombing runs because he got to Europe near the end of the war. I wish I had asked him about those, but because I grew up in the Vietnam war era I have always been a little anti-militaristic. The one biggest event that happened to my dad which I wish I could talk to him about occurred when he was co-pilot on a B-17 that was bringing him and 16 others back to the states after the war.

My sisters and I discovered after Dad died that he had written an article about this event for the newsletter at the retirement community where he lived for the final 28 years of his life. He titled his article “The Big Splash” because the B-17 those men were on developed engine trouble shortly after leaving the Azores in the North Atlantic Ocean and had to “ditch,” which is pilot speak for crash landing in water.

They ditched at midnight in a heavy fog, which caused them to hit the water too fast, breaking the plane in two. My dad was unconscious for a bit but was revived by the pilot and able to escape the sinking plane. Unfortunately most of his crew mates were not so fortunate, and by the time they were rescued only 4 survived the crash and 12 hours in the cold water.

Dad wrote that he thought part of the reason their rescue was delayed might have been because the radio man, in the pressure of the moment, sent the wrong coordinates for their location when the May Day signal went out.

What we do know for sure is that my dad and his buddies spent 12 long hours in the dark in cold water where sharks were known to roam. I did not remember all that while swimming in the comfortable 84-degree water at the Y, but when I did my amazement at what that experience must have been like truly inspired me. I remember telling myself, “OK, Steve, if Dad could do this for 12 hours, you can certainly do it for 30 minutes.” And I have reminded myself of that frequently ever since when I get tired in the pool or inhale at the wrong time. It’s those times I ask Dad and my Abba Father to help me finish my swim.

I don’t know if my dad and those guys had life jackets on or were in life rafts. I doubt if they had time to deploy the latter, and I know from first-hand experience that having a life jacket on while out of control in a strong current is still quite unsettling. (See my post, “When Oceans Rise,” May 9, 2019 for that story).

These recollections have not only helped keep me swimming when I needed motivation, they have also helped me understand and appreciate who my dad was as a result of that experience. I know there was no treatment for PTSD in 1945, and I wish I had been more aware of that and given my dad the credit he deserved for coping as well as he did for his remaining 70 plus years of life. I was much too judgmental of his rigid and legalistic coping skills, and I hope he can forgive me for that.

My dad was not religious growing up, and I know this big splash story was a baptism of sorts (and a baptism of fire) for him which made him a Christian; and that meant being a part of the larger Christian family began for me immediately when I was born 15 months after Dad’s near-death ordeal.

I don’t know for sure, but I’m guessing there was a lot of praying during that long night in 1945; prayers that no sharks would be attracted by the blood in the water; prayers for the men who died from exposure before the rescuers arrived, and lots of bargaining with God and promises to change if they could be spared.

My prayers while swimming in the pool under the watchful eye of a lifeguard are pretty trivial by comparison. Mostly my prayers take the form of remembering biblical stories about Jesus napping in the boat during a storm and then calming the sea (Mark 4:35-40), or Jesus walking on the water and Peter’s short-lived attempt to do the same (Matthew 14: 25-32).

So, when you need a faith booster, be it in actual water or in the metaphorical oceans we call life, draw strength from the biblical or personal stories that inspire you to just keep swimming. That kind of faith is described so well in these words from the praise song “When Oceans Rise” by Jake R. Sanderson:

“You call me out upon the waters
The great unknown
Where feet may fail
And there I find You in the mystery
In oceans deep
My faith will stand

And I will call upon Your name
And keep my eyes above the waves
When oceans rise
My soul will rest in Your embrace
For I am Yours
You are mine

Your grace abounds in deepest waters
Your sovereign hand
Will be my guide
Where feet may fail and fear surrounds me
You’ve never failed
And You won’t start now

So I will call upon Your name
And keep my eyes above the waves
When oceans rise, my soul will rest in Your embrace
For I am Yours and You are mine

Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders
Let me walk upon the waters
Wherever You would call me
Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander
And my faith will be made stronger
In the presence of my Savior.”