Thursday, June 27, 2013

Reflections on the text – Galatians 5

Read the text here: Galatians 5
Sing for Freedom
For Freedom Christ has set us free…
What does “freedom” mean to you?  There is always lots of talk about what “freedom” really is?  We hear people on all sides of the political spectrum using freedom as a point in debate – “we live in a free country!?”  But what does this really mean?  Does freedom mean that we can do whatever we want?  As we are coming close to July 4th and our annual celebration of American freedom do we really want to hold the position that young men and women of our military for over 2 centuries have died so “I can do whatever I want?” No, I don’t think so.  Unrestrained “freedom” – that is doing whatever I want, with no boundaries is not really freedom, it is a kind of bondage.
Perhaps bondage is the place to start.  So, what is bondage?  A simple definition would be that one is in bondage when one is compelled, forced or enslaved to another person, idea or institution.  207 years ago a group of men meeting in a hot and uncomfortable meeting house in Philadelphia issued a declaration that they would no longer allow themselves to be compelled, forced or bound to England. They declared that they, representing the 13 British colonies, desired freedom – that is the right and ability to order their own economic affairs, manage their own legal system, govern themselves, worship (or not) freely as they saw fit, and to question, write and debate without fear of prosecution.  That was a tall order in 1776.  But the wave that started in Philadelphia would soon wash over other places in the world – most notably France.  This is an interesting comparison, for in many ways the French Revolution was a failed revolution in that one tyranny was simply replaced with another.  The American Revolution had a different outcome.  The seed of freedom grew into a democratic system that continues to stand and function today.   
So what is freedom in this context?  It is obviously not always getting my own way.  It is not being allowed to do anything I want.  Freedom in a political context means that “we the people” have chosen to be a community – a nation – together and that we are thus willing to make compromises and accept a certain amount of self-constraint for the good of the community!  We don’t often think of our nation as a community, but that is what it is and we are a part of this community. Consequently we have to accept that freedom is not all about me, myself and I.  Freedom is about “we the people!”
This moves me back to the passage from Galatians 5.  Paul has written this rather harsh letter to a group of churches in the region of Galatia and in this passage has come to the climax of his argument.   And it also revolves around an understanding of bondage.  Paul says that in Christ believers and followers of Christ are set free – free from the law, free from social categories and prejudices, free from human passions and weakness.  In other words followers of Christ are no longer bound to a conditional legalism or, in other words, an understanding or belief that in order for God to love you and accept you, you are required to do x, y and z.  Followers of Christ are no longer defined by the categories that society has constructed – “rich, poor, slave, free, Jew, Greek, male, female.”  All the definitions of what makes an acceptable person – things like race, gender, economic status, sexual orientation – are no longer viable “for we are all one in Christ.” Followers of Christ no longer live in fear of an angry or vengeful God, but are freed by the experience of God incarnate in Christ Jesus our Lord.  In other words, freedom in Christ means we are free to love and to serve others.  We are freed from the tyranny of my whims and desires, my way or the highway, what I want, or what is best for me. The gift of freedom in Christ means that we are free to love, to care for, to be gracious towards and to give of ourselves to others – to the “neighbor.”
The gift of the Spirit is the spirit of freedom that frees us for service to others.  Perhaps Martin Luther summed it up the best in his short essay “The Freedom of the Christian” when he wrote this:
A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.
A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.

And that sums it up.  Real freedom is not about me, it is about us; Real freedom is not focused on my needs it is focused on our needs; True freedom is freedom to look outside ourselves and love others.  The gift of freedom is the gift of love.  And that is something to sing about!

Friday, June 21, 2013

Reflections on the text – I Kings 19:1-14

Read the text here: I Kings 19
Expecting the Unexpected
Elijah had really had quite a series of spectacular successes – he had provided food for and then raised the dead son of the widow in Nain, he had courageously confronted King Ahab about unfortunate Naboth’s vineyard and he had entered into a contest and handily defeated the priests of Baal.  This last event had ended in violence and the priests of Baal had been killed.  When Queen Jezebel heard about it she was furious and sends her agents out to capture and kill Elijah.  Now we might expect Elijah to stand firm and confront them like he had done before.  But this time, he turns tail and runs for his life.  He escapes from the Northern Kingdom into the Southern Kingdom and keeps going until he gets into the wilderness.  And there he throws a pity party for himself.  “Look at everything I have done, and this is how I am repaid!” He complains to God that things had not turned out as he had expected.  Perhaps he thought he would be able to ride his victory over the priests of Baal to a place of more honor, and that the result of all of his work would be the destruction of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel.  But it didn’t work out that way.  Instead here is Elijah complaining, “I am the only one who is faithful in Israel and what is to become of the people now that I am gone.”  He certainly seems to have a high opinion of himself and his importance.  He expects that the people of Israel will simply be lost without him. He seems to suggest that he even thinks that the work of God, Yahweh, cannot be accomplished without him.
But that is not the end of this story, for the best part is still to come. “What are you doing here, Elijah?”  God seems exasperated with the prophet as God continues to ask the same question over and over again.  And Elijah responds with whining until finally God tells Elijah to step outside.  “Behold God the Lord passes by!”  God will demonstrate God’s power to Elijah as God passes by.  One can imagine Elijah thinking that finally his persecutors were going to get it – there arises a great wind, like a tornado, that is then followed by an earthquake (watch out Ahab!) and finally a fire from heaven!  Wow! Who can withstand God’s power when demonstrated so profoundly!  God will destroy God’s enemies with wind, earthquake and fire – except – but wait.  Elijah realizes that God is not in the wind; God is not in the earthquake; God is not in the fire!  God does not reveal God’s power through these expected ways.  Instead God comes to Elijah in the form of “the sound of sheer silence.”
It is worth looking at the Hebrew phrase here a little more closely.  The three Hebrew words (qol demamah daqqah) can have multiple meanings.  Qol can mean sound or voice; demamah can be translated as whisper, silence or stillness; and daqqah means thin, small, fine or sheer.  Other ways of translating this text have included the King James’ Version’s “still small voice,” or the NIV’s “gentle whisper,” or our NRSV’s “sound of sheer silence.”  All of them are correct.  The point is that God doesn’t always come to us in a spectacular display of power, from above, with wind, earthquake and fire.  But that sometimes, even most of the time, God comes to us silently and quietly in subtle ways.
This is not what we expect. We expect that God will come from above in power and might.  We expect the spectacular and the miraculous.  It is harder for us to accept that most of the time God chooses to reach out to us through the mundane and decidedly messier human process. But the fact is that God is active in our lives, and our community through other people and human processes and this is the way God chooses to act. And since it is not what we expect we too often miss it.  Our text tells us that God sends angels or messengers to provide food and drink for Elijah – my guess is that there were no robes, wings or harps here.  These messengers came to Elijah in the form of ordinary human beings reaching out to someone in need and Elijah recognized this was as being a gift from God.
So one of the keys teachings of this lesson is that God is active most often in our lives through ordinary processes and through others, not usually in spectacular or miraculous ways. There is another issue raised however, and that is the issue of relationship: Our relationship with God and our relationship with each other.  How is that that Elijah could recognize God in the messengers and in the sound of the still small voice?  Because he had been nurturing a relationship with God for a long time.  And so, this text is also a challenge to us to consider our own relationship with God and our relationships with others, especially with those closest to us.  Next week we will be hosting a really incredible program that addresses this very issue – the Faith 5 program.  This is an opportunity for all of us to spend some time prayerfully considering these very issues.  Too often we just expect that our relationship with God will just happen, or that our relationship with family and friends will just be there.  But the truth is that relationships need to be nurtured, especially our relationship with God.  For God continues to come to us in the “sound of sheer silence” and as a “still small voice” reaching out to love us and shower us with grace.