****** Congregational Church, Bridgeport, CT
August 24, 2008
I have always been fascinated by the life of nuns and monks. I have watched movies such as The Song of Bernadette and Agnes of God and many others. I have read books and stories about their aesthetic life. I am intrigued by the human desire to unite with God so fully that one renounces worldly living for life in community, bound by sacred vows of poverty, obedience and chastity. These vows are presented as an offering to God, a sacrifice, not as a refusal of God’s gifts of fullness, free will and sexuality but as a surrender of these, as a gift to God, that the living of their lives may be transformed into something sacred.
One of my aunts on my mother’s side was not a nun per se but she did give her life in a similar manner to be a missionary in India for the Methodist church—for 37 years. Now in her eighties she believes God is calling her back to India.
Where does this single-mindedness, this single-heartedness, come from? Most of us struggle with the numerous demands placed on our love, our strength and patience, our money and resources, and our time. How does one focus so clearly on Christ that one is able to relinquish the struggle and give everything over to God?
But how are we, whose tradition does not include sacred vows to serve God with our whole lives, to unite with God and with each other that we might begin to live our lives as a living sacrifice? Those who take sacred vows are bound by them. Two of the ways we know this is through the promises of marriage and church covenant. Some might argue that we don’t really think of ourselves as being bound by those promises, that they can be broken quite painfully and with great struggle and difficulty but they can be broken. We break the bonds of community, of covenant with one another and with God and other churches. We break the bonds of humanity with any who might be different than we are, who think differently, look different, behave, live, believe, vote, speak differently than we do. We are a covenant people and we are a covenant-breaking people.
Our nation began with a covenant: “We the people…”. Our faith began with a covenant between God and Abraham and Sarah, a covenant that has been renewed again and again. God gave us a new covenant in Jesus, that salvation, grace and forgiveness, the unconditional love of God would be given to all nations, all people.
When Jesus said to Peter, “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven”, the binding that he spoke of was to be something life-giving. It was not to be a bond like that of chains or handcuffs but to be in bonds as in knit together, tied together like a web, like a garment, like sinew to bone, like hand in hand, heartstring to heartstring.
In being bound to each other and to God we are not completely free. This has been a problem for humankind since time immemorial. Cain and Abel were bound by blood yet Cain killed his brother. The Israelites, who were once slaves in chains and set free by God, broke their covenant with God and worshipped a golden calf. Our nation, free from the tyranny of the British Empire, wrote the Bill of Rights to establish freedoms of speech and privacy and many others, yet these freedoms are often abused in the name of freedom and at the expense of the bonds we share with one another as citizens, friends, and neighbors of the same country. We think we can say anything because we have the right to the freedom of speech. But when that speech is hurtful, abusive, and violent we tear at and loose the bonds of community and covenant that hold us together.
These bonds of covenant to God and each other are to set us free to love one another, not to destroy one another. To loose is to destroy, to dissolve bonds. What we destroy, what we dissolve, what we loose on earth will be loosed in heaven, Jesus also warned us. We have been given freedom but it is to be a responsible freedom, a sacrificial freedom. It is a sacrificial freedom in that we sacrifice neither the individual nor the community at the cost of the other but both are a living sacrifice for each other, that is, they make each other sacred. We have been given the keys to the kingdom; we are co-creators of this kingdom with God; we are responsible for binding what needs to be bound and dissolving what needs to be dissolved. We need to dissolve our unwillingness to listen to those who disagree with us, even violently disagree.
“A man said to the universe: ‘Sir I exist!’ ‘However,’ replied the universe, ‘The fact has not created in me a sense of obligation.’” These lines written in 1899 by Stephen Crane, who wrote The Red Badge of Courage, suggest that the universe is indifferent toward us, that it does not owe us anything, nor are we bound to it, thus we are set free to create the destiny of our own choosing.
Perhaps if we believe the universe doesn’t owe us anything, then the universe can’t disappoint us. But imagine going to the government, to your senator or representative, to the president, or to your employer and receiving this response of indifference. Imagine going to a parent, declaring one’s existence and being given the answer, “That doesn’t mean I’m obligated to you or to your happiness.” The irony of this poem is that God is obligated to us and we ought to be obligated to one another—in our common bond of being a creature of this earth. The universe is really the community, the vast cosmic neighborhood we live in. To live in community is to be bound to one another, to be obligated to one another. In my view this poem is a response to individualism gone rampant, where the bonds between us and the universe have been loosed.
However, in the Church the individual and the collective or body are called to live in harmony. The members of the body are not subordinate to the body or to each other but to Christ the head of the Church and to the commandment to love God and to love one another as Christ has loved us. We are free as individuals but we are individuals bound to one another, whether we like it or not, which imposes a responsibility on this freedom we hold so dear.
The values of freedom and life, which our country prizes greatly, are worthy to be sure. But even if these are destroyed there is one thing left that still binds us together and that is love: love that seeks the good for all people on this earth and not just some. If we are not free in any other way we are still free to love and that is what it means to be set free from sin. We are free to love God with our lives, with our minds, with our hearts, with our breath. Even in death, as Jesus showed us, we can still love, even those who hurt us. The bonds of love can never be destroyed and that is why it is worthy of our devotion, our worship and our living sacrifice.
What is it that binds you to the Church? Is it the communion we celebrate? Is it your love for God lived out in the life of Jesus Christ? Is it the community of fellow disciples finding their own way of making Peter’s humble confession that Jesus is the son of the living God? We are not a credal church; our faith is not bound by a creed upon which all must believe. We believe that creeds and statements of faith are a place to begin. So what does it mean when we say that Jesus is the center of our lives and of our life together, when we say Christ is the head of the Church? What do we say of Jesus in the living of our lives? What does this faith community say about Jesus, especially to people who are new and those who are strangers and outcasts? What is the tie that binds you together? What is that bond that is able to transform you from a group of individuals into a body that presents itself as a living sacrifice to God?
The bonds we make, we make not hard and fast but in faith: faith in God, faith in Christ, faith in the Spirit, faith in one another and with humility. Peter confessed his faith in Jesus but it was a confession made by a very human being. Our statements of faith and our efforts to bind ourselves to God and to each other are tenuous, an attempt to name what cannot be named, to see what cannot be seen. It is God who binds us together, who reveals to us in everyday life who we are, to whom we belong, to whom we are obligated, who shows us the difficult, joyful, undivided way of love for all persons and creatures of this earth that all life might be transformed. Amen.