Sunday, February 05, 2006

Gospel Liberty

Isaiah 40: 21-31; I Corinthians 9: 16-23
******** United Church of Christ

February 5, 2006

One of the things I love to do best is to go to the movies and watch movies at home. I love stories that invite me to be a part of them, that weave the characters’ lives into my imagination and have it all affect me in a profound way, whether the movie be drama or comedy or fantasy.

One of my favorite black and white films is “Sullivan’s Travels”, starring Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake. It’s about a Hollywood film director who thinks his comedy work is a waste of time. In his quest to make a serious, tragic, truth-telling film about the plight of the impoverished, the film “O Brother, Where Art Thou”, he decides he has to live such a life in order to tell it on screen. But it’s just an act, with a studio RV trailing him the whole way, and a comfortable life just waiting for him when he’s done. It’s not until he goes out a second time, is robbed, assaulted, and his identification stolen that he learns what it means to be at the bottom and how brutal life can be. He winds up in prison. On a particularly dark day, when he is despairing whether he will ever get his life back, he and his prison comrades are guests of a black congregation in their church and shown a comedy movie. He realizes, only by inhabiting this cruel life, that it is indeed laughter that lifts one out of the murky depths and restores one’s hopes.

In his first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul is inviting these new Christians into the story of Christ in such a way as to become a part of it. While their imaginations have been captured by Jesus’ life, his death and resurrection so much so as to be baptized, now it is time for these newly minted Christians to move into the world to persuade others to come to Christ. Paul is engaging the Corinthians by using himself as an example. Paul has not only listened to the message of Christ, that of love, mercy, and justice but has also put himself in the life of those he is trying to reach, as Christ put himself in the life of humanity, in the life of those who needed him most.

Many people have heard this message and taken it to heart. Mahatma Gandhi, when he returned to India after being educated in England and practicing law in South Africa, wore the simple homespun clothing of his fellow Indians. When he saw that most of India was poor and depended on the mercy of the British government, he decided that he must live as one of them but also show them how to support themselves, how to make their own cloth, how to be independent of the British, that one day they would not take their freedom by force but would earn it.

I think Paul and Gandhi would have been great friends. Gandhi said, “You must become the change you wish to see in the world.” This is the meaning of “To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.” Paul is not saying that the Church should be so accommodating and versatile that the Church be all things to all people but that we need to place limits on our human freedom, to relinquish our inalienable rights to reach those who are alienated, who need Christ’s gospel of truth, mercy, love and justice. Paul is urging the Church to take its relationship with Christ and make relationships with all people and not just some.

In our culture it is expected more often than not that we be educated, employed and secure so as to advance ourselves rather than to bring justice and mercy to others. Even when we as a society do help others there is usually something in it for us and our position in society has not wavered. As a society we have not risked anything nor stepped out in faith. The church in Corinth may have had similar concerns; Corinth was a prosperous city and shipping port, famous for its pottery and bronze work, with cosmopolitan, knowledgeable citizens. Paul is instructing the Corinthians in what it means to have a congregational lifestyle and not just an individual one. In other words, for the Church and its members to become weak is to adopt a cruciform way of living, that is, to live the way of the cross.

A hog farmer decided one morning to attend a church in town. He went into town in his work clothes smelling remarkably like his hog pen. The church folks were outraged at the smell. The pastor said to the farmer: "The next time you come here, ask the Lord what you should wear." The farmer agreed. The following Sunday the farmer returned to the same church his work clothes. The pastor asked: "What did the Lord say?" The farmer replied, "The Lord said he had never been to this church and didn't know what to wear."

How do you welcome home one who has been in exile? You who are Open and Affirming, what stranger or guest would test your skills of hospitality? Relationships are never easy, including those we make at church. At church we’re expected to act a certain way because, after all, this is church. This is the place where we have to take you in. Henri Nouwen said that community is “that place where the person you least want to live with always lives.” The way of the cross limits us in that we give up our human freedom for gospel freedom: freedom to love with abandon, to forgive, to help others with no thought to ourselves. We are called to sacrifice our way for God’s way. Usually it’s the way we see things.

Isaiah calls upon his listeners, the exiles who have been living in captivity in Babylon, to lift up their eyes on high and see; see what God sees, as God sees it. We worry about what we can see right in front of us; God’s concerns are all that is. God calls each one by name; not one is missing. God stretches out the heavens like a curtain and spreads them like a tent to live in. For a desert people this is good news. How has this church, this tent to live in as community, been good news for you? How can it become good news for those who are not here yet?

Someone once said if we seek healing, we must become healers. If we are searching for love, we must become love. If we want to be helped, we must help others. We must become good news to one another and to our community. If we are looking for new life, we must come alive as Jesus is alive.

It’s a tall order for those of us who feel as though we do not need to become weak because we already feel weak. But we who band together in the name of Christ are strong because of God’s strength. We do not live only in our individual bodies; we live in the Body of Christ. We who are also exiles on our way home to God are told to wait upon the Lord. We who feel powerless are asked to commit ourselves to God in hopeful expectation of God’s power. Everything does not hinge on our efforts alone. Each day, for some, each hour, we must decide to trust God, to have faith, that the One who calls us to this “gospel liberty” is also the God who created the heavens and the earth, who is never weary, whose strength goes to the helpless and gives them the power to fly.

I want to close with a poem written by Carol Wimmer in 1988, entitled “When I say…I am a Christian”. First, hear these words about the poem by the poet herself, followed by the poem.

“My heart was heavy as I wrote the poem. I had begun to sense an increasing societal resentment toward the attitude of self-righteousness that has been adopted by so many Christians. I knew such behavior was and is a perversion of Christianity. Thus, the sentiment of the poem was born out of my personal awareness of this perversion and the heartache it can cause in our pluralistic society.
I jotted down my thoughts with an inner determination to define the Christian spirit as I wished to experience it. …Four years later, I sent the poem to 5 different publishers. As a result of its first publication in 1992, someone placed the poem on the Internet where it miraculously began taking on a life of its own. From Manila to South Africa; Australia to Singapore; Finland to Bahrain—I’ve received e-mails from people all over the world who express a common desire to walk humbly with God. Therefore, I owe a sincere “Thank You” to the unknown person who originally posted the poem on the Internet and the countless number of readers who have subsequently passed this simple expression on to others.”

When I say..."I am a Christian"
I'm not shouting "I am saved"
I'm whispering "I get lost!"
"That is why I chose this way.

"When I say..."I am a Christian"
don't speak of this with pride.
I'm confessing that I stumble
and need someone to be my guide.

When I say..."I am a Christian"
I'm not trying to be strong.
I'm professing that I'm weak
and pray for strength to carry on.

When I say..."I am a Christian"
I'm not bragging of success.
I'm admitting I have failed
and cannot ever pay the debt.

When I say..."I am a Christian"
I'm not claiming to be perfect,
my flaws are too visible
but God believes I'm worth it.

When I say..."I am a Christian"
I still feel the sting of pain
I have my share of heartaches
which is why I seek His name.

When I say..."I am a Christian"
I do not wish to judge.
I have no authority.
I only know I'm loved.

by Carol Wimmer © 1988

Our citizenship in the kingdom of God is nothing to boast about; it is a gift that we are to share humbly and freely with others. Thanks be to God, for this limiting Christian life that ultimately sets us free: to be empowered and to give power, to love and be loved, to serve and be served, to forgive and to be forgiven, to heal and to be healed and be made whole. Amen.

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