Proper 9 (July 3-9)
Texts: Galatians 6:1-16;
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20; Isa 66:10-14
WORKING TO SAVE THE AMERICAN EXPERIMENT
Tomorrow our nation celebrates the 246th year of its momentous experiment in freedom. Four more years until the 250th anniversary! Amazing!
But a lot can happen in the next four years, as there are signs that this country — like never before in its history — is in danger of losing its freedom. We have an ex-President who continues to propagate a corrosive lie — a lie which has been denied in 60+ courts of law and by all witnesses sworn-in under oath. It’s an incredibly dangerous lie about the last election which undermines our most fundamental right, that of voting for our leaders and representatives in this democratic form of self-governance by the people. We are a nation divided in ways that hasn’t been this bad since the Civil War. I hope that in four years we can celebrate 250 years of freedom with our democratic institutions strengthened. But what we all do over the next four years will be crucial.
I truly believe that this experiment in democracy and freedom resonates with what God is doing in leading our human species to finally grow up. Two weeks ago, we heard from Paul’s Letter to the Galatians that God only gave the Jewish people, and all other peoples with them, the Law at Mt. Sinai as a temporary measure. Paul compares the law to a combination nanny and tutor (the pedagogue or “disciplinarian”) to help our immature species to be safer while ‘growing up.’ In Jesus Christ, we finally have the chance to see that we can grow up as a species by finally realizing how God intended us to help each other as one human family. Paul pleads with the Galatians to remain true to that Gospel of Jesus Christ against Christian teachers who arrived in Galatia after he had moved on. They are trying to say that, because Jesus and all the first apostles are Jewish, they too should be Jewish. That to follow Jesus Christ you must be circumcised and follow the Jewish law, the Torah.
No!, says Paul. The only true law was given to Abraham and Sarah as a promise that one day they would be a blessing to all the families of the earth (Gen 12:1-3). And it’s only in Jesus Christ that we finally see that promise coming to fulfillment — and thus have a chance to come to maturity as a human species. Paul makes the shocking claim that when we are baptized into God’s family in Jesus Christ, there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. All those ways in which we divide up and pit ourselves against each other can begin melting away in baptism. In short, baptism represents the coming together of the human family as one. One!
I believe that we can be guided by Paul’s argument to be a force for good in our nation’s experiment with freedom. The truth of the Gospel is contained in the Preamble to the United States Constitution: All people are created equal. In other words, all human beings are created as equal brothers and sisters in the one family we just talked about from Galatians. It’s the breathtaking, visionary promise at the very heart of our American experiment. And the Constitution which follows it gives a blueprint as to how to achieve that promise in a governmental structure by the Rule of Law. It is a wonderful document that has helped to bring us very far toward achieving that promise — especially in the last 100 years as we’ve given the vote to women and struggled to solidify the voting rights of People of Color.
But I believe we must also be daring with St. Paul to recognize that it’s the promise of the Preamble to the Constitution — that all people are created as equals to act as one human family — it’s that promise which is even more important than the rest of Constitution itself. It must be our guide in bringing the Constitution around to full inclusion, full equality, and, yes, full freedom for all. Because, let’s be honest, there are elements in the rest of the Constitution which betrayed the promise. Yes, betrayed that promise! At the start of our nation, the Constitution defined the enslaved African peoples as only three-fifths of a person. Indigenous Americans were denied full rights. Women were not allowed to vote. The Electoral College was created as a way to preference landowning men. So at the beginning of our nation the Constitution itself gave full rights only to landowning white men. Their intentions to live by the promise of all people being created equal — the same promise made to Abraham and Sarah and fully realized by baptism into Jesus Christ — that promise was blunted by many elements of the actual Constitution.
And so our history has been a struggle of blood, sweat, and tears to interpret that original Constitution in terms of the promise held in its Preamble. We have fought and struggled, adding crucial Amendments along the way, to truly give full rights to all people, created equally as children of God. I believe that the next four years we stand on a precipice of either more fully realizing the central promise of freedom for all, or of lapsing back into the blunted, restricted version of rights in the original, unamended Constitution.
It’s akin to what St. Paul needed to do when arguing for full freedom with the Galatians: we need to see through the forest of all those laws given at Mt. Sinai, to see the singular seed of promise to Abraham and Sarah that only came to full fruition in Jesus Christ. Similarly, we need to be able to see through the forest of many of the laws in the original Constitution, which restricted the rights of everyone except landowning white men, so that we might continue the march to full freedom as represented in the promise of the Preamble: all people are created equal and thus deserve full and equal access to the pursuits of life, liberty, and happiness.
Paul in Galatians puts the whole matter of the Gospel in terms of freedom. Let’s conclude this morning by trying to bolster our understanding of freedom as citizens in this great country more deeply in light of Jesus Christ. Last week, I used the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous in order to understand how Paul talks about living according to the Flesh or living according the Spirit as two opposing ways of living under the power of “higher powers.” “The Flesh” is Paul’s name for those aspects of our human nature that keep us enslaved to the powers of sin and death. “The Spirit” is Paul’s name for achieving relative freedom by paradoxically serving in the Spirit of Christ. In the Twelve Steps of A.A., it is founded on a similar understanding of “higher powers.” Alcohol has become a higher power that enslaves the alcoholic and leads them down a path of deeper sin and death. In order to begin to gain some freedom for the deadly power of alcohol, one must turn one’s life over to a Higher Power that leads to a more fulfilled life — the Higher Power of God’s love, which can be experienced in the Higher Power of the A.A. group itself as all members remain dedicated to mutually supporting one another in the life of sobriety.
After the first three steps in A.A. — the crucial steps of turning one’s life over from the higher power of alcohol to the healing Higher Power of God — the other nine steps have mostly to do with making “a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves,” admitting “the exact nature of our wrongs.” The alcoholic then goes on t0 seek making “direct amends” to all people who have been wronged (if doing so will not cause further harm to them). When we look back over our history, can we admit the wrongs done under the powers of racism and sexism? Shouldn’t the healing and then strengthening we seek for our democracy these next four years include the steps of fearlessly admitting our racism and sexism and seeking direct means of making amends?
I ended my reflection last week by saying that our church life together might be considered like a group of Sinner’s Anonymous. We recognize in our weekly confessions that the power of sin has enslaved us and that only the Higher Power of God’s love in Jesus Christ can give us true freedom — albeit a paradoxical freedom in that it is only achieved in serving Christ, who commands us to serve one another in love. I think you can see this way of thinking very much in the last two chapters of Galatians as Paul encourages them to true freedom by mutually serving one another:
For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. . . . For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” . . . Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. (Gal 5:1, 13-14; 6:2)
In my favorite commentary on Galatians, NT scholar Louis Martyn sums it up by saying that Paul “is greatly concerned to alert the Galatians to a signal fact of life: Apart from the advent of Christ, all human beings exist in a state of enslavement to powers other than God.”1 The greatest of these powers is Sin, which, as we said, he also names as the Flesh. But shocking in Paul’s pleading with the Galatians has been for them to see that even something good like the law, the Jewish Torah, can come under the power of sin to divide us in ways such that the powerful seek to rule over the rest of us. Even in the face of the Roman Empire, Paul could promote God’s promise to greater freedom in Jesus Christ by taking up a life of serving Christ by serving all others — especially the least powerful who are trampled upon by the powerful of the world.
Martin Luther, too, captured the paradox of this freedom of the Christian in serving Christ with these two simple sentences (from On Christian Liberty):
The Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.
The Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject of all, subject to all.
Brothers and Sisters in Christ, as we celebrate the freedom of this great nation, even as its freedom stands under attack by those within its borders who stand for the authoritarian rule of the powerful, how can you and I be a voice for the true, paradoxical freedom of Christ which leads to a life of loving service? How can you and I be a voice for recognizing the call of freedom for serving others, as opposed to false calls for freedom that give the false sense of being able to be free as isolated individuals from everyone else? In other words, speaking out against the impossible claim to freedom as a freedom from responsibility to others, which simply opens the door for the powerful to prey upon the less powerful? Can our understanding of freedom for serving others help us to solidify our freedom over the next four years? Can we be an influence for more true understandings of freedom, that derive from our faith in Christ, such that four years from now we will celebrate a more stable and fully realized American experiment in democracy and freedom for all? Can we be a strong voice of healing for our original sins of racism and sexism in this country so that we might finally realize the promise of the Preamble, that all people are created equal? Brothers and sisters, we are called to make a difference. We are called to proclaim and participate in the new creation which God is bringing about. We are called to embrace our freedom in Jesus Christ by faithfully serving the common good of all. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethlehem Lutheran Church,
Muskego, WI, July 3, 2022
1. J. Louis Martyn, Galatians, Vol. 33a of the Anchor Bible Commentary (Doubleday, 1997), page 371.