From the Newsletter: “Wildfire and Memory”

wildfire

Dear Friends at Second Church,

The wildfires ranging through Napa and Sonoma counties in California became more personal for me yesterday, as I saw pictures of a community being evacuated where my great-uncle David has a home.

As it happened, a little later I got an email from a vineyard where I once ordered wine for Christmas, letting me know that they were safe, at least for now, and even though I haven’t purchased anything from them in years, I was glad to know they were still there.

They’re in my prayers now, for sure.

Then this morning, I saw a picture posted by a clergy colleague who has retired to a farm near Santa Rosa, that showed firemen resting for a few minutes on their firetrucks, which were temporarily parked in my friend’s front yard.

What days these are.

Another friend who lives in Florida commented, “When the hurricane came, we had three days to get ready. With the wildfires, you get a call to evacuate within the next twenty minutes.”

It’s an awful thought.

Of course, that doesn’t make a wildfire somehow “worse” than a hurricane. We should resist the impulse to compare worry and suffering. So many places are hurting — and so many are still drying out, digging out, and trying to salvage what remains, which is such melancholy work.

Loss is loss — parsing it is beside the point.

But I do wonder about what I’d carry if I only had twenty minutes to pull it together.

It’s remarkably easy to picture how our girls would be pleading for every beloved stuffed animal while Liz and I were taking down pictures of our grandparents from the downstairs hallway. How the church’s Senior Deacon and I would be frantically over here at the church, too, trying to get the fireproof safe open to stash in a few more things.

How long would I let myself wonder if it made sense to take my diplomas or the hard copies of my sermons?

If you only have twenty minutes, how much of your time do you spend gathering the tools you’ll need for the coming days — the clothes, medicines, contact lens solution, dog food, phones, laptops, etc. — and how much time do you use for securing the irreplaceable items of your own history?

It’s hard to say for certain, of course, and yet I know that my own instincts would lean toward securing the history.

The most precious things are often the least valuable to anyone else — I probably wouldn’t even think to grab the jewelry (a lapse for which my grandmother would never forgive me), but would have the full run of Grace and Emily’s pre-school art work. Does a smurf matter more than a set of china? Who can say? And yet if you had to say, what would you?

Maybe the deeper lesson is not to underestimate how important such things actually are for the future.

Without a sense of where we’ve been, we struggle that much harder to remember who we are.  As we face a future that remains as yet unwritten, we find strength in those reminders of the road we’ve been traveling. The blessings we’ve encountered along the way remind us that there will be other blessings yet to come. We also learn that in so many ways, and even without knowing it, we have even been preparing for this current moment, whatever it may hold.

I concede that this might be a lot to ask of a childhood smurf, grabbed off the shelf before I flee with my family from a wildfire.

Yet the Lord works in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform.

Faith teaches us that our history fits within a larger story of God’s love for the world, and of God’s calling a people into being for love and service. We are those people. That is our story. This is our moment.

Whatever we need to keep close by in order to remember who we are in God and what God calls us to be, may we keep it close, indeed.

 

See you in church,

On Love and Bakeries: A Reflection

granola

Today’s Washington Post reports that last Tuesday, the Food and Drug Administration sent a formal letter of warning to a Massachusetts bakery, regarding a series of violations, one of which was with regard to the labeling of the bakery’s famous granola.

It seems that the Nashoba Brook Bakery in Concord is proud of its granola.

I’m glad.

It’s one of those artisanal bakeries where they aren’t just in the bread and cookie business, but understand themselves as part of the community in a deep way, as a place that takes care of its people, etc., all of which is also surely commendable.

People love the bakery. It has a following, and a bit of a sense of humor.

Keep that in mind, because apparently, if you look at the ingredients listed in their granola, in addition to oats and almonds and brown sugar and stuff, the folks at the bakery have also listed “love” as an ingredient.

According to the Post, “the ‘ingredient’ was a nod to the passion bakers put into their product and a wink to the fans of the snack.”

Well, that was all a little to cute to the FDA, which has regulations about such things, and so on Tuesday, they warned the bakery that “love” was considered “intervening material” on a list of ingredients, and needs to go.

From now on, if “love” is going to be an ingredient, it’s going to have to be a secret one.

What is it with love and bakeries, right now?

You’ve probably heard that in its current term, the US Supreme Court has agreed to hear Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, a case that is also, in its own way, about love–specifically, the right of a bakery to deny a customer service for religious reasons, namely, the baker’s faith-based objections to same-sex marriage.

The baker argues that his cakes are a form of expression, and that therefore he cannot be forced to use his creativity for something in which he does not believe. (See Robert Barnes, “In Major Supreme Court Case, Justice Department Sides With Baker…”, Washington Post 7 September 2017.)

In some sense, he’s claiming that the couple’s love represents a challenge and an affront to his own–his love of craft and right to self-expression through that craft, which is such that he feels it must be desecrated by being placed in service to an unworthy recipient, namely, a same-sex couple getting married.

Notionally, I wonder how far he takes this.

When former clients end up divorcing, does he go after some sort of marriage-means-forever security deposit? Make people return any uneaten portions of the cake they might still have in the back of the freezer?

What does the cake actually mean?

Kind of a lot. For everybody.

For many same-sex couples, there is the abiding awareness of having to keep their love secret — the all-too-familiar-reality that love as they felt and lived it was a “secret ingredient” in so many lives, almost everywhere, and among almost everyone.

That this is no longer the case in more communities (though even now, far from all) is very recent history — which explains some of the power of being able to proclaim it openly at this particular moment — as if love and the liberation of loving and being loved were not already worthy of being proclaimed and celebrated all by themselves. Which for almost everyone else, they are.

People claiming their right to love and be loved are making a powerful public act.

So is refusing to make them a cake when they do.

But it’s a fundamentally despicable one.

The Book of Leviticus declares: “No man among your descendants for all time who has any physical defect is to come and present the food of his God” for sacrifice.

“No man with a defect is to come,” it says, “whether a blind man, or a lame man, a man stunted or overgrown, a man deformed in foot or hand, or with misshapen brows or a film over his eye or a discharge from it….” (Leviticus 21:21).

The list goes on, a sobering reminder that the Bible is, indeed, often entirely comfortable with notions of second-class citizenship.

Even today, a baker who considered it essentially “un-Biblical” to bake for a blind person or someone in a wheelchair could claim solid Scriptural footing.

But the Bible also tells us about heroines like Ruth and Esther, who loved across boundaries and, in so doing, both saved themselves and became foremothers of the entire people.

In the Bible, love liberates.

The strength of the faithful and their success as a people waxes and wanes as they learn forget, and remember that central idea.

It’s the key ingredient in everything.

On that, everyone involved in the court case surely ought to agree.

That only some do tells you just about everything you need to know.

From the Newsletter: “Thoughts and Prayers”

thoughtsprayers

Dear Friends of Second Church,

The reports out of Las Vegas earlier this week have sent us reeling once again, the most recent heartbreak in a long season of devastation.

I’m sure you’ve also seen the pushback against one traditional form of public condolence, the promise that the victims and their families “are in our thoughts and prayers.”

I can understand the pushback — condolences are easily spoken, but not necessarily deeply felt. Pious assurances of sadness and good will, all by themselves, fall well short of God’s call to bring healing to a broken world in the name of Jesus, which is the clear mandate of all Christians.

But I’m also convinced that prayer does matter — it matters deeply.

It matters in large part because, when prayers are deeply felt, they quickly express themselves in actions, like the many citizens of Las Vegas who stood in line for hours to donate blood just hours after the shooting, to name just one obvious example.

For some of us, such gestures are almost instinctive—maybe even more so than kneeling or lifting our hands or speaking particular words to God.  For some of us, the gesture is the prayer.

Either way, prayer is our reminder in word and practice that we are connected to God and neighbor in ways beyond distance, difference, and even time itself.

Eternity is alive in prayer.

In part this means that prayer expresses itself in other concrete steps to offer comfort or, at a more official level, to learn lessons from tragedy, as we seek to show that we are engaged beyond the moment—to live out the truth that we are, in the end, one.

It is in such moments that the full power of human creativity and generosity, both central gifts from God and vital channels of divine grace, start getting to work.

When that happens, I start to feel a little more hopeful about humanity’s chances, despite the many challenges that we face—so many of them, sadly, challenges we have brought upon ourselves.

So I am not one to say that the time for “thoughts and prayers” is over.

I think the world is aching for it begin.

 

See you in church,

2CC Sermon “In God We Trust. All Others Pay Cash.” (Jonah 3:10-4:11)

ingodtrust

Last week, I was reading online about a controversial new start-up venture in Brooklyn, called “Bodega.”

Bodega is a vending machine, of sorts, filled with a little bit of everything you might suddenly run out of in your apartment–from Campbell’s Soup to salsa to toilet paper or tums.

You know–the kind of little things that if you actually from Brooklyn you might run out and grab from an actual bodega.

It made me remember the bodega in my neighborhood when I was growing up. It was called Dom’s.

There’s a lot I could say about Dom’s.

But what I am particularly remembering today was a little faded cardboard sign that Dom had on his cash register.

It said, “Hoy no se fia, manana si.

Hoy no se fia, manana si.

I didn’t know Spanish then. In fact, I still have not gotten to that yet.

So for a long time, I did not know what that meant.

Until one day, I noticed that someone else had written on the sign with a fresh, blue marker.

And what they wrote was this: “In God we trust. All others pay cash.”

II.

Our Scripture this morning is asking the question of what it is to trust in God.

You may not have recognized it right away, but the story comes from the Old Testament account of the prophet Jonah.

It was written likely sometime after 500 BC, but it seems to remember a time at least a century earlier, when the Assyrian Empire, in modern-day Iraq and Iran, was powerful and a very dangerous adversary to the nations of Israel and Judah.

Nineveh was the largest Assyrian city, located on the Tigris River, where the city of Mosul now sits.

And the prophet Jonah was profoundly concerned with the threat of the Assyrians, and felt called to warn the people of Jerusalem that if they did not follow God, the Assyrians might well become the instrument of God’s judgment.

This had happened before.

So you can imagine Jonah’s shock when in the midst of this campaign he hears a new message from God.

God has a mission for him.

God wants him to go, but not out into the streets of Jerusalem.

God wants Jonah to go to Nineveh. To convince them to repent. To save them from the full fury of God’s judgment.

It’s worth noting that Jonah’s best work as a prophet would turn out to be saving the people of Nineveh–which is to say, saving the sworn enemies of his own people.

Jonah sees that coming from the moment he hears God’s message.

The whole thing about the whale–you probably remember that Jonah’s story has a whale in it–the whole thing about the whale is about how Jonah sees God’s mercy coming for the people of Nineveh and tries running the other way.

But to no avail.

In the end, in part thanks to a whale, Jonah convinces the people of Nineveh to repent of their sins, which is something he never achieves with his home audience, back in Jerusalem.

So it’s a strange story, even as stories of Israel’s prophets go…and there are some strange stories when it comes to the prophets.

Jonah takes the whole idea of being a reluctant prophet to a whole new level.

If there’s a lesson to be learned that God is bigger than one people or nation, or that God’s mercy is overflowing and can touch lives even in the most unlikely places and circumstances, well, unfortunately, the prophet Jonah has no interest whatsoever in hearing about any of that.

God seems to have a bigger picture in mind, somehow–and usually prophet stories are about how one person feel called to proclaim that bigger picture to a skeptical audience that’s fallen out of tune with God.

Not here.

Prophets push us to engage morally in ways we don’t find easy to do, but which prove right in the end.

But on this particular occasion, the prophet has no feel for God’s bigger picture.

And actually, this has a lot to teach us.

Because note this: it’s not that Jonah doesn’t believe in God.

God is very much alive in Jonah’s life.

Yet their relationship is a strange one.

When Moses came into the presence of God, he took off his shoes. He had to go up mountains.

Not Jonah.

He treats God’s marching orders like a message from his bossy older brother.

Bring your word to Nineveh, God? Really? You can’t make me.

Get me swallowed by a whale and spat out three days later on the shores of…Nineveh? Fine. I’ll say what you tell me. But even you can’t make me mean it.

Make me watch as the people of Nineveh repent and change their ways? Well, God, I hope you’re happy because now you’ve gone and ruined everything.

In the Scripture we’ve heard this morning, we see Jonah’s anger, even misery, at being the human instrument of God’s great love and mercy.

And so again: Jonah knows that God is utterly real, utterly compelling, utterly powerful, and utterly interested in what’s happening in the world.

But what I want to suggest is that, on a deeper level, Jonah doesn’t have that much faith in God.

III.

Actually, the story of Jonah tells us something about faith.

Because faith isn’t just about knowing that there is a God above.

That part is important. It’s really important.

But it’s only a small part of it to think of God as actually “up there” somewhere.

Really, faith is more about trusting in God.

And maybe this is where we aren’t as different from Jonah as we might like to think.

Because how hard would it have been for Jonah to trust in God if God had said, “Jonah, I’m going to send you on a mission to destroy Nineveh–to speak the words that will rain down my justice upon them”?

I suspect Jonah would have liked that just fine and would have found that easy to trust in.

Trusting God when God tells us to rest in our own familiar assumptions is not a particularly hard sell.

But to hear the voice that calls us out to a distant, even hostile place…to go out in pursuit of a goodness that looks strange to us…to act in the name of hope and life…to do that demands genuine trust in the One who calls us.

It demands a profound confidence in the vantage point of a bigger view.

Not everyone gets there.

As that sign from my childhood cautioned us all: “In God we trust. All others pay cash.”

The story of Jonah cautions us that it doesn’t take much for us to become the kind of people who want even God to pay cash, just like everybody else.

IV.

Despite that, every day, there are people who hear a voice–the voice of God…who feel the wind of the Spirit moving across the face of the deep in our own hearts…who cringe at the unexpected record scratch of conscience.

Every day, there are people who hear the voice and decide to trust in it, even though they may not want to.

Even though it asks something very hard of them.

Let’s not forget that such trust is all around us, too.

Every person in recovery will tell you that they’re there because they’ve decided to trust that voice….

There are those young people who decide that someone else’s definition of who they are and what they might achieve no longer resonates with the voice they hear inside…and they decide to trust that voice….

There are those arguments we have with the people we love, and those times when we just don’t think that we are wrong…not this time…and yet we slowly recognize that we still feel sorry, that perhaps the issue is bigger than just one particular point or principle…or that, just maybe, something very different is what’s actually at stake…and hard as it is, we decide to trust that voice.

We know the voice.

We may not always like it. But we know it.

And the question we need to ask and to keep asking is what we will do when we hear it.

When that happens, we particularly need to remember: such a moment is the very kind of moment to which the prophet Jonah could not rise.

Yet it is precisely in such moments that Jesus calls us to come, take up our cross, and follow him.

V.

We do not always get it right.

Part of life is learning from our capacity to misplace our trust, and even to feel that God truly wants something for us, only to realize later that we were mistaken, and that the voice we heard was not God’s voice.

Part of growing in spirit may well mean that our trust is deeper, but in some ways harder won.

But in a world that tells us, time and time again, “In God we trust. All others pay cash,” to be faithful is to model a very different kind of trust, and not just in God, but in all others, too.

It may lead us into places that we scarcely wish to go, at least at first.

But it ends, not in frustration and anger, as it did for Jonah, but a sense of joining in the very joy of a world made new at last…a world whose manana has finally arrived.

Amen.

2CC Sermon: “Once More, With Feeling” (Genesis 50:15-21; Matthew 18:21-35)

This morning’s Scripture challenges us to think about forgiveness.

In Genesis, we have just a small snippet from the longer, wonderfully complex story of Joseph.

If all you know is the part about the Technicolor dream coat, you’re missing out.

In today’s small bit, Joseph forgives his brothers for their treachery way back when and he suggests that, as he sees it, it wasn’t their treachery that was happening, but actually God working in one of God’s mysterious ways, putting the wheels in motion for Joseph to save them all and many others besides.

So Joseph says, “You meant to do me harm; but God meant to bring good out of it by preserving the lives of many people, as we see today. Do not be afraid. I shall provide for you…” (Genesis 50:21).

And then in Matthew’s Gospel, Peter asks: “Lord…how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”

Jesus answers, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy times seven.”

Then he goes on to tell the parable of an unforgiving servant, generously freed from a multi-million dollar debt for which he is on the verge of defaulting, but who then fails to show that same generosity toward someone who owes him about forty dollars.

It’s very much in keeping with an earlier moment, also in Matthew, when Jesus asks, “Why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?” (Matthew 7:3)

The unforgiving servant is chasing after a mote of debt, having apparently forgotten the crushing beam of his own debt that has been lifted from him.

The implication is clear:

As any of us consider what to do when we are asked to forgive–whether to do it or not…to mean it or not…to expect something further or not…as any of us consider what to do when we are asked or challenged to forgive, let us be mindful also of that within ourselves that might need forgiving.

Maybe, as Genesis suggests, God is somehow already at work for a greater good, even in what hurts us now.

Or maybe in those moments when we are especially poised to judge…ready to deploy the long, bony finger of blame…we need the humility to remember what it is to need forgiving.

We all do things we later come to regret and then can’t easily fix.

We know what that’s like.

But what I think Jesus wants us to see this morning is that while it is bad, indeed, to do wrong…to sin…there is another kind of danger that lurks even in being right.

So often, it turns out that we’re not quite as right as we think.

Quite often, we also find that being right doesn’t mean quite as much as we might be inclined to believe.

Has anyone here ever really sinned? I mean really sinned…can I get a show of hands… (o.k., just kidding….)

Well, if you have really sinned, then you know that all too often, there is a point where someone who is mad at you, and justifiably so, leaves off with being right, and instead becomes self-righteous.

It does not mean you were not wrong to do whatever it was you did.

And yet, somehow, the moment is not quite so simple as that.

Back in the 70s, the psychoanalyst Eric Berne argued that a lot of human interaction was not all that spontaneous, but was actually a kind of endless sequence of unconscious games people play (which is also the name of his book).

In fact, to prove this idea, he went on to name about fifty of the most important of those games.

“Ain’t It Awful” was one–the kind of interaction we might have while waiting on a grocery store line, or at coffee hour–those strange, one-upping kinds of conversations where you talk about how the world is falling apart, with each example more awful than the last.

But the game that especially applies this morning is the one Berne calls “Now I’ve Got You (You SOB)”–it describes those moments when someone is not so secretly gleeful to have caught you doing something wrong, because whatever it is, all their totally unrelated anger at you for anything and everything is suddenly poured into that one specific thing, and on that narrow question, they have you dead to rights.

“Now I’ve Got You.”

If Berne is correct, then the simple question of right and wrong doesn’t turn out to be all that simple, much of the time.

And if there is a part of us that wants it to be, well, Jesus would have us be very wary of that part of ourselves.

Does anybody really want to be Miss Havisham, the old lady in the gloomy mansion, still sitting there among the cobwebs in her decaying wedding dress, with the wedding feast still on the table, withered and spoiled?

Because you know what? In the matter of what had put her there in the first place, she was “right.”

Clearly, she had been wronged by the man who had left her at the altar all those years ago…and yet…awful as that was…unfair as it had been…though she was clearly in the right to be so hurt…somehow her life had not become what being right is supposed to look like.

Instead, she had let herself become prisoner to a kind of truth that could not set her free.

The truth that sustains us is the truth that challenges us…that expands us…that teaches us to open our minds and our hearts, and not to close them.

So if it turns out that that kind truth is not the truth we’re after just now, Jesus would have us look in the mirror–and look to God.

And he would have us hold back on deploying the long, bony finger of blame.

Again, as Jesus asks: “Why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?”

It isn’t that we’re wrong, entirely. It isn’t that there isn’t something there.

It’s that, if we’re not careful, our lives can shrivel up like Miss Havisham’s wedding cake.

If our lives become nothing more than round after round of the “Now I’ve Got You” game, then really what we’ve got is nothing at all.

 

II.

 

That said, if all we do is forgive everythingall the time…it isn’t long before we end up being doormats.

After all, there are some things that really shouldn’t be forgiven…some wrongs that cannot be justified.

If we believe in a moral universe, then, on some level, we must hold that to be true.

Jesus himself says: “if anyone causes the downfall of one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for him to have a millstone hung round his neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea. Alas for the world that any of them should be made to fall! Such things must happen, but alas for the one through whom they happen!” (Matthew 18:6-7 REB).

God’s justice is a real thing.

But more to the point, if our great invitation and our great challenge is actually to love one another, clearly part of that is to care enough to say hard things. And to sit there listening when someone has hard things to say to us.

Neither is easy.

Working things through is a part of forgiveness.

And while it not always possible to work things through successfully, it is far more faithful and far more loving to have tried valiantly and failed than it is to pretend that there was never anything to forgive in the first place, and to breezily let things go.

Christ calls us to love one another, not to enable one another.

But without one another, we cannot become the people that God calls us and needs us to become.

I can’t help but think of Miss Havisham again.

Because for all her failings, there are also the failings of all those people she once knew…the people who should have been there to push her…with great patience and great love, of course…but nevertheless, the commitment to her good that would help her find the strength to live again.

The story seems to suggest that this would not have been possible. And perhaps not, in a story.

But in life, it is possible.

And it’s important that we try.  That’s part of what loving each other is all about.

III. 

Now…if I’ve made this case correctly, by now you should be playing in your mind some sort of highlight reel of your relationship with someone.

Some people have the premium package and are sort of surfing between several different highlight reels at once. That’s o.k.

But as you’re doing that, you may see that, just as Genesis argues, there was something very hard but ultimately good in some moment you’ve been carrying that has seemed unforgiveable.

Or you may simply hear the call of Jesus to love someone enough to try again…to believe enough in their capacity for change and growth that you are willing to try working things through.

Or if that window is no longer open, then you may hear the challenge to live without bitterness, without the self-righteousness that finally makes us smaller.

But whatever you hear, whatever it is you see on that highlight reel, hear again Jesus’ invitation to live fully and joyfully.

He calls each of us to come and find new life in him…to live once more…with feeling.

May we find the courage to do just that.

 

Amen.

“To Have and To Hold: Theological Perspectives on Personal Gun Ownership in the United States”

going-to-the-church

Many thanks to all those who expressed interest in taking a look at my M.Litt. thesis for the University of St Andrews, which was accepted last week.

Theological perspectives on gun ownership tend to emphasize “idolatry,” and while I have great respect for that approach, my own thinking has tried to open up some different lines of inquiry, and has tried to engage more directly with arguments by and on behalf of gun owners, in the hope of offering a fuller picture of the ethical issues involved.

Below is a link to a .pdf of the whole thing.

The document is about 65 pages–please read as much as you care to, with my gratitude.

I would love to know what you think.

Here’s the link:

MGrantMLitt

Sermon: “Freedom From, Freedom For” (Galatians 5:1, 13-25)

fieldofdreams

There is a wonderful moment in the movie “Field of Dreams” when the Iowa farm family that is at its center attends a PTA meeting because someone in their community wants to have a particular book banned by the local school.

The woman behind the proposed ban is acting out of a misplaced Christian impulse, and what quickly comes into the picture when she speaks is a whole slough of harsh invective about morality that is meant in the movie to be more or less a parody.

Well, getting increasingly agitated as the woman speaks is Annie, the wife of Ray, the main character. She is a now settled down mom. But she was a flower child in her youth, and she has a decidedly different opinion of the book that the other woman wants to see banned—perhaps even burned.

Annie loved that book. But maybe more than that, Annie has a different opinion about the idea of banning books, in general, whether or not she agrees with them.

And the two women get into a furious argument there in the school gym, which the other parents watch go back and forth like a tennis match.

Ultimately, it is Annie who prevails, after an impassioned speech about love, understanding, and peace—good values to be sure, which, personally speaking, she doesn’t happen to embody very effectively at that particular moment.
Of course, nor does the other woman seem very much like a disciple of Jesus in that particular moment.

I say this just to note that, in our reading from Galatians this morning, if it sounded to you like the Apostle Paul was one of those people from the 80s, standing in front of a school board, talking angrily and judgmentally about moral turpitude (they actually expressions like that back then)…well, you are to be forgiven.

It is a little bit of a blast from the past.

And as someone who loves Paul—as someone who gets a lot of important sustenance for the journey from Paul—I have to tell you that the mean church lady misinterpretations and misuses of Paul are still a cause for great sadness in my life.

Because there is so much there, and it’s so beautiful, and so important.

But even today, it’s easily obscured by the use and abuse of a kind of “thou shalt not” version of Christianity that still speaks with a megaphone in so many places.

Sometimes it is hard not to wonder if we Christians are more inclined to shout down Jesus rather than listen for his voice.

I worry that we might be.

This week, I’ve wondered if maybe Paul didn’t worry about that in his own day, too, truth be told.

That’s why it’s important to read Paul closely here.

When you do, what you notice is something interesting.

You see, Paul isn’t simply signing off on the danger of the vices he names.

Don’t get him wrong. He still sees them as dangerous, to be sure.

You don’t need to be particularly faithful to see that licentiousness—doing what you want when you want how you want as much as you want with whomever you want—is a precarious and often destructive way to live.

But Paul’s deeper point is that if avoiding the bad is all our faith is, well, then we have missed the mark.

Because for Paul, what it means to have a new life in Christ is not simply that we find the strength or summon the shame to avoid the bad.

For Paul, what faith really is comes down to a newfound power to choose the good.

It’s not simply the power to walk the narrow path of righteousness. That’s not what faith is, for Paul. That’s important, but it’s only the beginning of what faith is.

It’s not that we are perfect, either.

It’s that because of faith, somehow, in what we do, in who we are, a brighter light shines through.

And when you put it that way, I think what Paul is saying is actually meant as a criticism of much of the religion in his day—and perhaps in ours, too.

Because important as it is to seek freedom from sin, the deeper point of faith is to give us the freedom for love, the freedom for good, the freedom for the hard work of building and sustaining the whole human family.

In the early days of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther would speak of what he called “the bondage of the will,” his sense that our shortcomings make it impossible for us to live faithfully without God’s help.

Luther believed that our wills themselves are bound by sin.

But he also believed that when our wills are finally freed—freed by the light of God that shines through even in the darkest of places—then at last, a different path is possible.

When that happens, he argued, we are freed for a very different kind of life.

Paul would have understood that.

Unlike Paul’s list of vices, his list of virtues gives us much more to aspire to.

Paul talks about love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

And that’s what life looks like when we are finally freed. When faith finally takes hold and begins to grow.

It’s not that we are freed from the snares of sin. It’s that we’re freed for the joy and challenge of a very different, deeper kind of life.

I remember when I was seventeen, I was studying for a year in France, and some friends of mine and I decided we would take an Easter trip to Italy for just over a week.

And it was certainly a wonderful trip.

But at one point, I remember, I realized something that I’d never thought of before.

I realized that for the very first time in my life, I was entirely without adult supervision of any kind.

For the very first time in my life, there was nobody waiting up for me. Nobody worrying where I’d been.

I was completely, totally free.

I celebrated this by having a triple serving of pistachio gelato, which is something my parents would never have permitted.

Italy, schmitaly. No way.

Now, I know that others respond to their first taste of freedom from parental constraint in other ways. I’m not here to point fingers.

But if all that trip had been was a scrupulous avoidance of the things I’d been taught to avoid, it would not have been much of a trip.

I mean, yes, except for the gelato, indeed, I did avoid all those things.

But the point of the trip was not that.

The point of the trip was to see new things. The point of the trip was to have new experiences and to build bonds with new people.

And the reason I still remember that trip so fondly all these years later is because I was able to do those things.

It was not only my first taste of freedom. More importantly, it was a small glimpse into what freedom for can be like, as opposed to freedom from something.

All by itself, freedom from is a kind of settling.

And what Paul wants for the Galatians, and what he wants for us, is the freedom for a life that never feels as if it’s settling for anything.

Friends, these are days when our fears may focus our attention on freedom from any number of dangers, toils and snares.

These are difficult days.

But the promise of life in Jesus is a promise of healing and wholeness even in the midst of the world and its brokenness.

It is a freedom for lives of peace and hope, no matter what the world might bring.

The love of God shines through.
And wherever it does, God’s people are transformed, and mobilized.

Where the love of God shines through, everyone else may see a minefield.

God’s people see a field of dreams.

Amen.