I'm already changing the plan – the Ten Commandments plan. I want to work from Galatians this week, then pick up in Exodus again the next.
Galatians 5:1 – For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery. If only it were as easily done, as said.
I meant to spell it that way: holey. This plan of God to make us free. Sounds really good. But at least in my experience, it’s also really hard. And scary.
See, I like plans. I like plans in binders, organized with colored tabs for different sections. The more detailed the plan, the better I like it, the less anxious I am. God's plans are not big on binders. God’s plans go something like: Do justice; show kindness; love mercy; walk humbly. I'd call that a “holey plan,” as in a “plan full of holes.” Do justice. Are you kidding me? That's all we get, in THIS world? in THIS country, the only country in the world that treats our refugees by taking kids from their parents and putting them in cages?
Remember what baby Mariah said about her pacifier: "I love my passy. It makes me feel better." I love my binders and my plans – they make me feel better. Plans are not our certainty. Faith is our certainty. Confidence in the saving power of Jesus is our certainty. And in the absence of much faith, we get anxious.
And when we get anxious, what do we do? The same as the Hebrews did, a month into their freedom: dream of slavery. Because, as we know, slavery is as detailed a plan as anyone could ask for. You aren't free, but you don't have to figure anything out. And some days, it's a tempting trade. But it is not a faithful one.
And if that doesn't complicate the business of faith enough, sometimes church itself can get anxious, and then tempted, to hunger for the slavery of laws and rules, instead of holding faith in the unknowable space of spirit and grace. What a difficult instruction of faith: For freedom Christ has set us free. Do not return to the yoke of slavery.
It's lovelier than I can say to be in church with you all. I've had more church Wednesday, Thursday, Friday this week than most people have in three months. And, as Baptist meetings go, it was okay. Okay is the mean point between wonderful and pure aggravation.
This part was wonderful [pictures of Pastor Annette with three different individuals] – two professors and one of the first people to call me a pastor. Both professors were fired, in the purge at my seminary, for being heretics. Dr. Marshall is now president of Central Theological Seminary in Kansas City. She preached here, at my ordination. She's everything to me.
Dr. Tupper wasn't a heretic, but he was an agitator. Once in seminary chapel when a guest preacher said, “God has not, does not and will not ever call women to preach,” Dr. Tupper stood up from his pew, dramatically closed his Bible and stared the man down for the rest of his sermon. He also wrote a big fat theology book on the Providence of God that is regarded as seminal. Almost two years ago he fell and broke his neck. He's now quadriplegic.
I thought I'd never see him again, so this was a tearful time. When I went to speak to him he was so gracious, for a minute. Then he told me he needed to speak to the seminary student who had just preached, regarding her parsing of the text in Amos. “I've never been big on Amos anyway,” he said, “but she still missed a couple of things.”
Yani was one of my students when I was a campus minister at IU. Hers was my first wedding. Yani was also a member here, before graduating from Baylor and then Southern Seminary. She does amazing ministry in South Carolina now.
The other really wonderful stuff included all the field reports. Ministries and missionaries all over the world doing amazing work – work that is respectful to the people and places served. Work done by invitation and in partnership with the people involved. Not band-aid work. It is long-term investment, structure-changing work on the deepest problems facing humanity: poverty, human migration, trafficking and refugees, and race.
We are doing this work in Europe, Asia, Africa, on our southern border and all over our country. All things that our little church could never do by ourselves, that the biggest church in this world could not do by herself, that each of us has a hand in because we are doing it together. Another shape life together takes.
And as good as all that good news was, all the news wasn't good. There's this other thing. Members of this particular set of Baptists aren't getting along with each other. Shocking, I know. The particular fuss is over the fact that the churches involved can't agree about whether or not LGBTQ people are fit to serve as Cooperative Baptist Fellowship organizational leaders and missionary personnel. Some say yes. Some say no. And no one can figure out what to do about the fact that we can't agree.
Now, great is the temptation to tune out here. There was an 18-month information gathering process, followed by a two-part report. The governing board of the organization adopted both parts. But churches aren't part of the organization proper, we just support the organization so they can get all this combined ministry done. None of the report affects how we do our life together. But they need us to do all that ministry and mission. Are ya with me?
The report: Part 1 was a new hiring policy for CBF leadership and missionaries, which says nothing about LGBTQ people at all. Just CBF employee things like, "CBF staff and missionaries must be Christian." That makes sense, I think. And pretty much everybody is happy with Part One, The Policy. Part 2 is called an implementation plan. Summed up, it says LGBTQ people will not be hired for CBF leadership and missions. Some folks are much relieved by this. Others are stressed. I am stressed. I consider this blatant discrimination. It would be illegal, were it not in a religious context.
Then came the meetings this week, where we learned two things from the leadership that adopted the policy and the plan: (1) the implementation plan is not binding; (2) LGBTQ brothers and sisters will not be hired as leadership or missionary personnel. Confused yet? Multiply that by fifty. The only thing I can compare it to is the sound of a Dr. Seuss book being read in slow motion.
What it means for us as a church is a larger discussion than we’ll have today. I love what CBF does, as much as I hate what it’s doing now. That must be reconciled somehow. I don’t see how we can in good faith preach “justice everywhere, except at home." And church, life together, is home.
To the Galatians, Paul insists that the solution to the problem of the anxiety of not agreeing about something that makes us so anxious, is NOT to make new rules and then say the rules aren't binding but we are still going to go by the rules. Friends, if this story, not yet three days old, isn't proof that the church hasn't learned anything in 2000 years, I don't know what is. Remembering the story I just told you, let's pull the text apart too.
Galatia wasn't A church; it was a network of churches. Where? Modern Turkey. The Apostle Paul started several churches in Galatia. This letter is to all of them. The terribly abbreviated version of the story goes like this: Jewish Christians in the church thought it best that Gentile Christians be circumcised. No doubt they thought they were being helpful. Since the first Christians were Jews, these newcomers would get along better by being more Jew-like. Not all-out-Jewish, just a little “Jew-ish.”
It probably matters to remember that outside Christian life, except to do business, Jews didn't mix with Gentiles. The law, the same law that prescribed circumcision, forbade that. Circumcision was just a tiny surgical procedure performed by a rabbi, normally done when a Jewish boy was eight days old. This would require a new plan, of course, since these believers are grown men.
I did the math. I've attended something like 275 church business meetings, and I've heard some unpopular ideas brought to the floor to be voted on. But can you imagine how this went down in a Galatian church council meeting?
I have so many questions about this. Honestly, how did they present it? Was it going to be a new rule? Or maybe it came from the fellowship committee. We’re going to have a father-son campout and, oh, by the way, the guest speaker is a rabbi. Apparently a plan was made, and Paul got wind of it before they went through with it. He's livid. For freedom Christ has set us free. Do not submit again to the yoke of slavery! Doesn't that sound just like Exodus 20, verse 1? And if you think the way I talk about this feels awkward, Paul's language will burn your ears.
If you go ahead and let yourselves be cut around, he says (the word “circumcise” means to cut around), Christ will be of no value to you. If you cut around yourselves, you cut yourself off. – Know that word? It’s castrate! – You castrate yourself from Christ and fall away from grace. You cut yourself from the body, from Christ. The opposite of “cut off” is – what? To bind yourself to the other.
If you go through with this circumcision, you bind yourself to the whole law and simultaneously cut yourselves off from the grace of God. You cast off the very freedom Jesus lived and died and rose to give you. In Christ Jesus, Paul says, circumcision or uncircumcision counts for nothing. The only thing that counts is – what? Faith acted out as love.
And forcing others to look or act the same as you, so that you will be more comfortable being around them, is NOT love. Jews don't get to make Gentiles look like Jews in order for everyone to be Christians. Even Jews know circumcision doesn't make one a Jew. Following the whole law makes one a Jew. And the ones suggesting circumcision don't even do that anymore! Or they wouldn't be trying to figure out how to worship with Gentiles in the first place. It's maddening!
You could not have found a person at the Baptist meeting who doesn't think that LGBTQ people should be welcome and included in CBF life. EVERYBODY is sensitive to their presence and their feelings, which I suppose is commendable. Because what is the baseline morality of our life together? It’s “Don’t be a jerk!”
But being sensitive to another's presence and feelings does not equal faith acted out as love. Sensitive to another's presence and feelings does not require the other to change his or her essential self to make me more comfortable in his, her, or their presence. And sensitive to another's presence and feelings certainly does not qualify as freedom, for me or for the other person. That is, in the words of Paul, a yoke of slavery.
Remember what Paul says in Romans 3. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. To be in Christ is not to be THE SAME; to be in Christ is to be ONE. Because there is just one Christian body. It is Christ’s body. And if we are going to bind ourselves to the fearful ways of this world, we cut ourselves off from that one body. We cannot be one in Christ without being one with each other.
This makes being gathered with other Baptists who drive me crazy very complicated – for them as much as for me. As much as I cannot stand this fight we are pretending is not a fight, that much – OR MORE – I am proud of the mission and ministry we are doing together. And I wish it could be either/or. But it's not. And as it has to do with Galatians, the real hypocrisy at work is that the people pushing this circumcision plan, they don't really want the Gentiles to actually BE Jews. Just “Jew-ish." (Kathleen Norris wrote that she considers herself Christian-ish, as she's not very good at it.)
If you all could be okay about this one thing – you know, just this one little thing – everything else will stay just the same. We'll keep on loving each other and pretending we all agree that this is no big deal, and we can get on with doing the important work of ministry and mission for the least of these in our world. It will be just easier for everyone.
But will it really? Will it be easier for the ones who are literally being cut from the body? Whose biology is more relevant than their spirit and their faith and their calling? Maybe it will be easier for them, because people will do almost anything to fit in, won't they? Because Paul is talking to the Gentiles, not to the Jews. “Listen,” he says, “if you allow yourselves to be circumcised…." Those aren’t words spoken to Jews.
You are Gentiles! Jesus did not set you free to enslave yourself or to erase yourself. God loves YOU! You! as God made you. And God loves you as God finds you. You don't become someone else or something else in order to become God's. You are God's, here, now, as you are. Not someday, when other people decide they are ready to be comfortable around you.
Because this is the plan God made: that we be free and trust what he has done for us in Christ Jesus; that we not get so afraid in the spaces where life isn't clear that we decide to force clarity into some sort of written-down, detailed plan that only makes everything worse.
I really don't know if most people are doing the best they can most of the time. But I know I sleep better and work better and enjoy this life more, when I live as if they are, when I treat them as if they are – including the people I disagree with, the ones who drive me crazy, and I them. The world is mean. The work is hard. And we are weak. That's what God has to work with.
If God made a detailed plan, what's the chance we'd be happy with it? That we'd do it as written? Instead, in Christ Jesus, God did the work: absorbing the hatefulness; relieving us of our weakness; freeing us to simply live; doing the best we can, as much as we can, to love others as Jesus loved us, just as they are, here and now. Thanks be to God.