To Be Free (November 9, 2014)

freedomA sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon, First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Texts: Exodus 20:1-21; Matthew 22:34-40; Hebrews 10:1-18

 

The Ten Commandments. They have become an iconic litany, carved into stone and placed in prominent places of judicial decision as well as houses of worship all around the world. I wonder how many of us can recite all ten. Perhaps this morning’s “Litany of Deliverance” jogged your memory. The Decalogue has taken a central role in this country’s culture wars as people have fought to keep their sacred monuments in public places. “A 2004 Barna poll indicated that 79% of Americans oppose the idea of removing displays of the Ten Commandments from government buildings, even though another survey indicated that fewer than 10% of Americans can identify more than four of the commandments” (Dan Clendenin, “Ancient Words for Modern Life: The Ten Commandments,” September 29, 2014, journeywithjesus. net).

I suspect a significant number of that 79% were Baptist. In spite of our historical advocacy for the separation of church and state, there are Baptists who would lie down in front of the wrecking ball come to remove one of those granite monuments from in front of their court house or state house. It’s strange to find folks entrapped in defense of the very kind of idol that is prohibited by those same commandments.

Last week we looked at the liberation of a people as we sketched the journey of Moses and the children of Israel from slavery to freedom. We saw God as one who desires that God’s people not dwell in slavery, as a God who hears the peoples’ cry for liberation and acts to set them free. The God of the Exodus is one who gets people out of slavery and sets them on the path to a land of promise where they may live an abundant life of in blessed liberty. And this God goes with them on every step of that long and difficult journey. We also saw connections to people of every age and from every corner of the earth who have claimed the promise of the Exodus that God is a God of freedom, a God who lifts oppression, a God who gets people out of slavery.

But this week, Brian McLaren raises a different concern, how does this God of freedom get the slavery out of the people? We did touch on this last week when we talked about freedom and license and our capacity to use our freedom to selfish and destructive ends. It is again ironic to consider how we might use our freedom to enslave ourselves simply because we can.

I told the Bible study group on Tuesday, that one of the images that has stuck with me in this journey we’re currently on was in the Cain and Abel story. It is that moment when God says to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it” (Genesis 4:6-7). Such a critical moment for Cain. One of the things God is saying to him is that he is free, free to choose but also responsible for his choice. He is free to choose liberating love for his brother or to be enslaved by his anger and his lust to be avenged for his presumed slight.

As I said when we considered this text, what struck this time around is Cain’s freedom. He has this moment when he is completely free to choose. The choice he makes will shape his life from the inside out as well as the outside in. Is it a hard choice? Of course it is. If it wasn’t a real challenge to turn from slavery to freedom, do you think we’d still be reading about it thousands of years later?

It’s a long road to freedom. McLaren writes, “We…must remember that the road to freedom doesn’t follow a straight line from point A to point B. Instead it zigzags and backtracks through a discomfort zone of lack, delay, distress, and strain. In those wild places, character is formed – the personal and social character needed for people to enjoy freedom and aliveness” (Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, p. 42). Think of the freedom, the richness Cain might have known if he’d chosen to love his brother. Not the least of the blessings would have been to have his brother walking with him on life’s journey, not crying out with haunting voice from the blood-soaked ground in which he was buried.

I’ve been singing that song, “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” for a lot of years now. I think I first heard it as a cover by Mary Travers of Peter, Paul and Mary fame back in the early 1970s. There is also a powerfully moving rendition by the great Nina Simone. It became something of an anthem in the Civil Rights Movement. For me, it initially expressed some of my deep feelings about being marginalized by the church for being gay. The first time I sang it was at a Baptist meeting for which I was supposed to sing “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” I know I upset some people with my unannounced change of song, but it felt important on that day to share my pain and frustration. At that point, I did not see any bridge over the troubled water between me and the church, so I couldn’t sing about it with any integrity. I don’t know how effective my protest was for others but it satisfied me on that day. I felt the power of being able to express what was on my heart and mind.

“I wish I knew how it would feel to be free.” I still feel that way at times. Not for the same reasons that motivated my protest forty years ago. There are other ways I wander in the wilderness after all these years. I don’t feel so much oppressed as a gay man. The church – at least in some places – has made great progress in inclusiveness over those years. The things that enslave still come from without but also from within. It’s complicated. We live in this eternal tension between freedom and expectation, liberty and law, love and judgment.

I’m not asking for public confession, but a more generic expression of those things that tend to enslave us today. When McLaren speaks of “Getting Slavery Out of the People” what comes up for you? McLaren, again, argues that “The truth is that we’re all on a wilderness journey out of some form of slavery.” He says, “On a personal level, we know what it is to be enslaved to fear, alcohol, food, rage, worry, lust, shame, inferiority, or control. On a social level, in today’s version of Pharaoh’s economy, millions at the bottom of pyramid work like slaves from before dawn to after dark and still never get ahead. And even those at the top of the pyramid don’t feel free. They wake up each day driven by the need to acquire what others desire, and they fear the lash of their own inner slave drivers: greed, debt, competition, expectation, and desperate, addictive craving for more, more, more” (op. cit., p. 41). Does this sound right? Do you recognize yourself or someone for whom you care in this description?

“I wish I knew how it would feel to be free. I wish I could break all these chains bindin’ me.” As little as we like the idea of commandments or being commanded, there is liberation in this ancient law that God has laid down for us. The purpose of the commandments is to set us free from the slavery that is within us. Look for a minute at how the Ten Commandments and the Great Commandments intertwine. The first five of the Decalogue teach us about love for God and the second five love for neighbor. Jesus is spot on when he says the Great Commandments summarize “all the law and the prophets.”

In an article entitled, “It’s about Freedom,” Hebrew scripture scholar, John Holbert writes, “The Ten Commandments do not begin with a command, but with a claim. The God we worship is a God who first and foremost is a God who majors in freedom, all sorts of freedom. In whatever ways God’s people seem intent on falling back into multiple kinds of slavery, this YHWH is always in the business of searching for ways to grant these would-be slaves a perfect freedom” (John C. Holbert, “It’s about Freedom: Reflections on the Ten Commandments,” March 7, 2012, Opening the Old Testament, patheos.com). To love such a God with one’s whole being is to embrace the freedom that God desires for us. It liberates us from dependence on any other god, the worship of any idol, loyalty to all that enslaves. In God we can be free at last but we must find time and space to ground ourselves in God.

In the second half of the Decalogue, when we are enjoined not to murder, commit adultery, steal, give false testimony or covet, we are given a set of guidelines, which, while not exhaustive, point us toward what it means to love one’s neighbor as one’s self. These commandments go a long way toward describing the challenges and rewards of neighbor love. Frederick Buechner writes that one challenge of the Great Commandments is that “The difficulty is increased when you realize that by loving God and your neighbors, Jesus doesn’t mean loving as primarily a feeling. Instead, he seems to mean that whether or not any feeling is involved, loving God means honoring and obeying and staying in constant touch with God, and loving your neighbors means acting in their best interests no matter what, even if personally you can’t stand them” (Frederick Buechner, “Law of Love,” Whistling in the Dark, frederickbuechner.com).

It’s a long road to freedom and the desire to be free is not easily or cheaply satisfied. The work of love liberates but it is so much more than simple sentiment. As Great Commandment Christians, I wonder if we don’t too glibly utter the words as our mantra. Yes, it’s all about love of God and love of neighbor. We know these words and we proclaim them with easy assurance. But what do they mean for us, for you and me? As we long to be free, we find in the ancient law guidelines, no commandments, that, when embraced and practiced, not just carved into some stone monument or committed to long-lost memory, but actually written on our hearts, will lead us to that freedom in Christ and the way to God for which we long. Amen.

Am I My Brother’s Keeper? (October 5, 2014)

Rev. Rick MixonA sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Texts: Genesis 4:1-17; Psalm 51; James 4:1-8

The drama continues. Now that Adam and Eve are settled outside the garden, it is time for them to be fruitful and multiply. “Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, ‘I have produced a man with the help of the Lord.’ Next she bore his brother Abel.” Two boys, the first family to feature two sons, something that will become a recurring motif in the biblical literature. The naming rituals seem to support the patriarchal notion of preference for the first born. Walter Brueggemann writes, “The names are suggestive: ‘Cain’ derives from qanah, ‘to get, to create.’   The name is given as praise to God. Cain is celebrated and well thought of. As first-born, he embodies future possibility. Abel’s name is ‘vapor, nothingness,’ without the possibility of life. In the text, Abel is dismissed while Cain is an embodiment of vitality” (Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching: Genesis, p. 56).

In fact, Abel appears only briefly in this tale and is gone. Cain is the character that challenges us to consider once more what it means to be human, to be made in the image and likeness of God. Abel, indeed, vanishes and we are left to deal with the Cain in each us.

When we read this story in Bible study, I think all of us had a first impulse to ask the question I’m sure many have asked before us, “Why in the world does God favor Abel’s sacrifice over Cain’s?” Is there something missing from the text or from our understanding of the Ancient Near East that would explain the preference?

Perhaps it says something about an ancient feud between farmers and herdsman. Harold Kushner writes of scholars who have argued this. “The nomadic shepherds thought that the farmers were wicked people for trying to claim some of God’s earth as their private domain, and then violating Mother Earth with their sharp iron plows and tools instead of waiting for it to yield its bounty as shepherds did” (Harold Kushner, “Cain and Abel: Is There Enough Love to Go Around?” in How Good Do We Have to Be? A New Understanding of Guilt and Forgiveness, p. 121).

In Bible study we wondered if there was something in blood versus grain that was more valuable in the ancient sacrificial system. There are others texts that seem to support this. So God would automatically favor Abel’s sacrifice to Cain’s because blood is more valuable than produce.

Is there a subtle challenge from the very beginning to the notion that the first son should be privileged over the second? More than once God seems to lift up a younger sibling to inherit the mantle of authority and move the story along. At least the younger son plays an important role in instructing us in how God expects us to live in this world.

However, nearly every commentator agrees that there is no real answer to this question nor is the text interested in addressing it. As frustrating as it may be for some of us, we are not privy to every aspect of the mind of God. God’s reasoning and motivation are above our pay grade. If it is any help, one can certainly argue that this ancient story is just that – a story, a myth, a parable that is not meant to explain everything as it attempts to explain something. At least we can accept that God’s seemingly arbitrary choice is necessary to the story.

One angle of address is to see in these old stories an evolution of our understanding of God. The ancients told tales that were useful in their time and circumstance for making sense of the world around them. Brian McLaren tells us that “For ancient people in oral cultures, a story was like a hypothesis. A good and helpful story, like a tested hypothesis, would be repeated and improved and enhanced from place to place and generation to generation…storytelling was, like the scientific method, a way of seeking truth, a way of grappling with profound questions, a way of passing on hard-won insights. As our ancestors deepened their understanding, their stories changed – just as our theories change” (Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking: A Year-Long Quest for Spiritual Formation, Reorientation, and Activation,  p. 20).

So what is at stake in this story? As I mentioned earlier, it is the challenge of being fully human in the best since of the word, of learning to live into the image and likeness of God. Sibling rivalry is as old as siblings. Here is evidence in this story of the first siblings. If you want more, I refer you to Harold Kushner’s book, How Good Do We Have to Be? – especially the chapter on Cain and Abel.

It is also interesting to note that the Bible’s first mention of sin is in this story. Kushner argues that the sin found here is, in fact, original sin. He writes, “As I read the biblical narrative, the Original Sin is not disobedience nor is it lust. The Original Sin that affects virtually every one of us and leads to other, worse sins is the belief that there is not enough love to go around, and therefore when someone else is loved, he or she is stealing that love from us” (op. cit., p. 123).

Look at the situation this story addresses. There is nothing here to indicate that God does not love Cain. Think of our own stories. I’m sure each of us could tell a tale or two about a time when a parent or a teacher or a loved one made a fuss about a sibling or a fellow student or a child or friend and we felt left out. Your brother got a blue ribbon or your sister got straight A’s. Your child is demanding or attracting all your spouse’s attention. The job you really wanted went to someone else. Your best friend decided to hang out with another. I’m sure you can add to the list.

But it’s a big leap to go from disappointment to believing you are no longer loved or appreciated or valued. In this Cain comes across as vain and self-centered. He was very angry and downcast. “Why?” God asks. “Do you really think it’s all about you?” (Well, isn’t that a big piece of the problem? Surely he thinks that.) “Can’t you be happy for your brother? If you do well, will you not be accepted? Your day will come, my child.”

And then the ominous warning, “And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” For the first time, sin rears its ugly head. Sin is lurking. It desires to get you in its clutches. Beware if you do not let go of your self-absorption and animosity. They could destroy you.

This is such a powerful statement of our agency. There are choices we can make as we walk this earth. We can choose to give in to the wily tug of sin – all that separates us from our true selves, from our brothers and sister and, ultimately, from God – or we can choose to do well, to live into the love and compassion, responsibility and grace that God blew into the core of our being at creation.

Of course it’s not easy to fulfill our creation in the image and likeness of God. The pull of sin is powerful. We are constantly challenged by that sense that, if we don’t get just what we want, we are not loved, appreciated, accepted. Despite God’s clear warning, Cain gives into his anger and hurt feelings. His self-centered pouting grows dark and ugly, eventually overwhelming him. He lures his brother out to the field and kills him.

“Where is your brother, Cain?” Once again God comes to his creature with a crucial question and once gain the creature lies, trying to keep God in the dark. “How should I know? Am I my brother’s keeper?” “Well, yes, Cain. Yes you are. How could you not know that?” This is central to what it means to be human, to be made in the image and likeness of God – loving and caring for your brother and your sister, your friend and neighbor, your colleague and the stranger in the land. “That’s the way I made you. Relationship and community is what it’s all about, Cain.”

It’s not at all clear how much Cain understands by the end of the story. He’s knows he’s messed up but he is still focused on saving his own skin. “My punishment is greater than I can bear! Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me.” Sadly, we never hear him say “I’m sorry.” He never really repents. He sees that he’s been convicted and he even entertains the thought that he might be guilty. But where is his remorse? Where are his tears for the loss of his brother? It is painful to observe that he doesn’t fully comprehend what it will mean to live the rest of his life without his brother. As someone who has lost his brother, I have to say that Cain’s callousness is incomprehensible to me. The pain is palpable and does not recede easily.

Perhaps that is why God does not exact the expected judgment. No life for a life here. Again, as with his parents, God foregoes the death penalty. Love rules the day. There is enough love to go around, Cain, even for you who has murdered his own brother. However, this is no sappy, sentimental love. By the time he has spent his days wandering the earth, perhaps he will have come to his senses and realized the enormity of his sin. In the end, he may have wished for a quick execution rather than a lifetime to reflect on what he had done. The irony of God’s loving forgiveness is that it gives Cain a lifetime to learn what was expected of him and to understand what he has lost.

As we come to God’s welcome table, let us remember what it means to be human, to be made in the image and likeness of God. Let us look to our capacity for caring about life beyond our own, to our ability to let go of our self-centeredness, to our responsibility for brothers and sisters and all creation. God has made us for communion, to live together in peace and harmony, justice and compassion, love and community with one another, with creation and with God. Today, as we celebrate World Communion Sunday with sisters and brothers around the globe, may we see that we are all in this together. Indeed we are brothers and sisters all in the family of God and, yes, each of us a keeper, companion, sibling, lover of every other. Challenging as it may be at times, that is the role which we have been given and the life to which we have been called. Am I my brother’s keeper?

Oh, yes I am, child of God, and so are you. Amen.