House of faith – 1

When I say the word “house,” what image comes into your mind? Do you think of a single-family dwelling such as a bungalow on a tree-lined street, or a sprawling suburban manse, or a big country farmhouse, or maybe a towering urban brownstone?

Or do you think of a multi-family dwelling such as an apartment house or condominium complex?

A house can be a group of people as well as a building. The Bible speaks of dynasties such as the “house of David” and nations such as the “house of Israel.” Scripture uses the same term, “house of God,” to refer to a holy place such as the Tabernacle or the Temple, and to the people of God as well.

My favorite use of the word comes when the hero Joshua gives the Israelites a choice. He says: You must decide today whom you will serve. You may choose to serve the false gods of other nations. “But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24.15) What a powerful statement of faith and commitment that is!

The first letter of Peter describes followers of Jesus as living stones who are being built into a spiritual house that has Jesus as its cornerstone. That spiritual house is at least in some sense the church – and by “church” I mean not so much the building as the community that gathers in the building – or online – to serve the Lord.

I’ll be talking about this “house of faith” over the next several Sundays. I introduced this idea to you several years ago in another series of messages. Now we’ll look at it more closely.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, uses a house to describe the way a person comes to new life in Christ. Wesley says repentance is the porch, faith is the door, and the interior of the house is religion itself.

Repentance is the porch, faith is the door, and inside is religion itself, life with God, the kingdom of God or reign of God. With these images, Wesley describes three movements of God’s grace. Not incidentally, these also are the three pillars of Methodist theology and what Wesley calls the scriptural way of salvation.

The first movement of grace goes by several names. In Methodist circles, it’s often called “prevenient grace.” That’s an archaic word I don’t use very often. It means the grace that goes ahead of us, the grace that surrounds us at all times and works to draw us closer to God.

It may better be called “common grace” or “everyday grace,” because it’s available to everyone every day. Sometimes it’s called “seeking grace” to describe how God seeks us out, wherever we try to hide. Sometimes it’s called “convincing grace,” because God hopes to convince us that we cannot save ourselves, we cannot rely on our own strength, we must have a relationship with God if we are to live to the fullest.

This first movement of grace occurs even before we get near the house of faith. It leads us to repentance. This is the first pillar of Methodist theology and the porch of God’s house.

Repentance is not, as often believed, feeling sorry for yourself or sorry for you sins. It’s far more than that. As one pastor puts it, “Jesus doesn’t care if you feel guilty. Jesus wants you to change.”

When Jesus begins his ministry in Galilee, he doesn’t go around proclaiming, “Feel guilty, because you’re a miserable sinner!” No! He proclaims, “Repent, and believe the good news that God’s kingdom is here!” (Matthew 4.17, Mark 1.15)

The Greek word we read as “repent” is “metanoia.” It means “turn around.” It means change the way you think and the way you act. It means make a big U-turn right here and right now. Commit to live differently.

This change of attitude is the first step toward getting right with God. But it’s only the first step. You’re not in the house of faith yet. You’re only standing on the porch. The door is open to you, but the next step is up to you. You’ve got to walk through that door. To do that, you’ve got to have faith.

The second movement of grace is “justifying grace,” or “saving grace.” This is the grace that pardons you for all your wrongdoing, forgives you for all your sins and fills you with confidence that you are saved.

Faith is the door you have to walk through, and faith is the second pillar of Methodist theology. But faith, Wesley cautions us, is not just intellectual assent to the truth of the Bible or to a set of propositions about God or Christ.

Faith is not “a train of ideas in the head,” Wesley insists. It’s a disposition of the heart. It is the sure trust and confidence that God has restored you to divine favor – and not because of your own merits but solely because of the merits of Christ.

Such trust leads to justification. Now there’s a heavy word! It means being set right with God. Like a child playing with blocks or Legos, it’s being stacked or assembled in the right order.

God justifies us, sets us right, by forgiving our sin. Sin is what separates us from God. When God forgives us, we are reconciled with God. We are no longer separated from God. We are now friends with God. Even more, we are accepted and adopted as beloved children of God.

This is the new birth, Wesley says. When we step through the door of faith, we are born anew. And when we step through the door of faith into the house itself, the third movement of grace comes into play. This is “sanctifying grace,” the grace that works to wholly change us.

Justifying grace produces a change of relation. Sanctifying grace produces a change of nature. Justification is what God does for us. Sanctification, another big word, is what God does in us.

One thing we learn when we repent and turn our lives around is how very difficult it is to keep going in the right direction. In fact, we cannot do it on our own. Even after we have been set right with God, we tend to drift. We are “prone to wander,” as that old hymn says. (Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing)

We need more than a change of attitude and a change of relation. We also need a change of nature. That’s what God works in us through sanctifying grace. God works to remake us in the original image of God in which we were created, so that at the end of the process, we look just like Jesus.

Think of it as the best extreme makeover you can imagine. God takes who we have become and remakes us into who he intended for us to be in the first place. Salvation is restoration in the image of God. We were created in God’s image, but we have put on many masks that distort that image. Through this process known as sanctification, God strips away those masks and restores us to his image. This is the third pillar of Methodist theology.

Repentance is the first step toward salvation. We stand on the porch. Then we step through the door of faith, justified. Now we stand in the house of faith itself, sanctified. But God is not finished with us. There’s more work to be done.

Wesley drops the house metaphor at this point, but others have picked it up. Andy Stanley of North Point Community Church in Atlanta speaks of three rooms in the house of faith, three spaces where we explore our relationship with God and one another.

When you first enter the house of faith, you stand in the foyer. This is the welcome area. This is where you are made to feel at ease and comfortable.

Next is the living room. It has big, cushy chairs and sofas and recliners. It’s a place to relax in the company of others and get to know each other better.

Finally, there’s the kitchen. This is the heart of most homes, isn’t it? This is where people naturally congregate because this is where the food and drink are. This is where you can share a cup of coffee and talk over your problems. This is where you form deep and lasting relationships.

The house of faith has other spaces. As that fun song by Audio Adrenaline says, it’s a big, big house with lots and lots of rooms. We’ll open some of the doors to those rooms and explore them next week. Today, I simply invite you to ask yourself where you are in the house of faith, and to remember the steps you took to get there.

Have you felt the movement of God’s seeking and convincing grace? Have you turned away from destructive behavior and turned toward the light of Christ? Are you standing on the porch looking toward the door?

Do you feel God’s justifying and saving grace moving in your life? Do you know God’s pardon? Do you feel set right with God? Do you have the assurance and confidence that you are a beloved child of God? Welcome to the new birth! Step through the door into the house of faith.

Here you will be welcomed in the foyer, then invited into the comfort of the living room. Once you get comfortable, you’ll be ushered into the kitchen, the heart of it all. Here you’ll feel God’s sanctifying grace. You’ll find yourself being changed, remade, molded moment by moment and day by day so that you are becoming more and more like Jesus.

So where are you today, and where have you been on the way of salvation? Are you on the porch? At the door? In the house? In the foyer? The living room? The kitchen? Wherever you are, I invite you to more fully experience the salvation that God offers to all. Welcome to the house of faith! I’m sure you’ll like it. It was built just for you!

The message was delivered July 26, 2020 at Edgerton United Methodist Church in Edgerton, Kansas.         

Prayers for 2 a.m.

It’s the middle of the night, and you’re awake, and you don’t know why. Or maybe you do know why, but knowing why doesn’t help you get back to seep.

Maybe it’s worry – worry over the pandemic, over the health of a loved one, over politics, over work, or lack of work, over a difficult decision, or a difficult person. Maybe it’s frustration about something that’s gone wrong or something you did wrong or you are afraid of doing wrong.

Maybe it’s nothing that you can think of at all. Whatever it is, it’s 2 a.m., and you’re wide awake. What do you do now?

I suspect that you already know what I’m going to say. Pray or read the Bible. Yeah, reading Leviticus will put anybody to sleep. And some people can get really drowsy trying to pray for more than a few minutes at a time. Sometimes I’m one of them.

But I’m not suggesting prayer or Bible reading as a way to put yourself to sleep. I’m suggesting them as a way to move closer to God. If you’re awake, you might as well do something worthwhile, right? Who knows? Maybe God wants to talk to you about something. Maybe it was God who woke you, just to have this time together.

So think of this restless time as an opportunity to converse with God about life, love and anything else that comes to mind. Now is a good time to let your requests be few and your listening be sharp.

It’s often hard to hear the voice of God over the clamor of the day, so take advantage of this very quiet time to listen for a soft inner voice to assure you of God’s care, and possibly to poke you about something that you’ve neglected in your care for others.

To sleep soundly through the night, it always helps to set the stage properly.

Do you end your day with a prayer? It’s a good practice, and I highly recommend it. Most often I do a very simplified version of the Ignatian Daily Examen. What went well today? What didn’t go so well? Where was God in all this?

The idea is to pray with gratitude for what worked as well as for what you learned from what didn’t work. On really bad days, though, you may find that reviewing the bad stuff only refreshes it in your mind, and it doesn’t help you sleep at all.

I have always disliked the traditional version of the children’s prayer “Now I lay me down to sleep.” That talk about dying before you wake does not prepare a soul for sound slumber. Here’s a better version: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. Watch and guard me through the night, and wake me with the morning light.”

I one spent a week at a Trappist monastery, where the monks pray the daily hours, meeting in the chapel for prayer six times a day. I was especially impressed by compline, the last service before bedtime. It brings the day to a close with a thankful remembrance of the day and prayers for forgiveness for failures to express your devotion to God through love for others.

It concludes with the monks singing the ancient song “Salve Regina,” or “Hail, Holy Queen.” As a Catholic priest who was one of my spiritual mentors once said, here we have a bunch of confirmed bachelors, and the last thing they do every night is sing a love song to the Virgin Mary. Then they close their eyes and sleep like babes.

The idea is to give yourself up to God’s keeping, confident that you will sleep well with the assurance of God’s grace. Psalm 4:8 says: “I will lie down and fall asleep in peace because you alone, Lord, let me live in safety” (CEB).

For some, it’s 2 a.m. For me, it’s more often 3 a.m. That’s when you find yourself awake, unable to make your body comfortable, unable to quiet your mind, unable to sleep. Psalm 91 calls it the “terror of the night.” Here’s part of it (Psalm 91:1-6, 9, 11 NRSV).

You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.”

For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence. He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge. His faithfulness is a shield and buckler.

You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day, or the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or the destruction that wastes at noonday.

Because you have made the Lord your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place, no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent.

For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.

Night terror should not threaten us, Psalm 77 says, but instead drive us to God, “You keep my eyelids from closing. I am so troubled that I cannot speak. I commune with my heart in the night. I meditate and search my spirit” (Psalm 77:4, 6 NRSV).

Psalm 116: “Return to your rest, my soul, for the Lord has been good to you” (Psalm 116:7, NIV).

Psalm 63: “My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast, and my mouth praises you with joyful lips when I think of you on my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night, for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.” (Psalm 63:5-7 (NRSV).

You might find it helpful to rehearse some of the ways the Lord has been good to you – counting your blessings instead of counting sheep, as it were.

Or simply repeat again and again this short prayer: “Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison. Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy.”

If you’re still awake, maybe it’s time to get out of bed, flip on a small light and open your Bible. As I’ve already hinted, the psalms are a great resource for prayer anytime, but maybe especially in the deep of the night. Psalm 23 is always comforting: “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.”

Psalm 46: “God is our refuge and strength, a help always near in times of great trouble. That’s why we won’t be afraid when the world falls apart, when the mountains crumble into the center of the sea, when its waters roar and rage, when the mountains shake because of its surging waves” (Psalm 46:1-3 CEB).

Psalm 96: “O sing to the Lord a new song. Sing to the Lord, all the earth. Sing to the Lord, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day. Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples. For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised” (Psalm 96:1-4a NRSV).

See what you’ve done? You’ve turned a restless night into a time of praise!

If you’re still feeling lost or down, turn to Psalm 77, a Psalm of lament that I quoted from briefly before. Here’s more of it: (Psalm 77: 1-3, 7-9, 11-13)

I cry aloud to God, out loud to God, that he may hear me.

In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord. In the night my hand is stretched out without wearying. My soul refuses to be comforted.

Will the Lord spurn me forever, and never again be favorable?

Has his steadfast love ceased forever? Are his promises at an end for all time?

Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in anger shut up his compassion?”

Yet even in his desolation, the Psalmist does not forget God’s graciousness, and he uses this memory to help pull himself out the pit of despair.

I will call to mind the deeds of the Lord. I will remember your wonders of old.

I will meditate on all your work, and muse on your mighty deeds.

Your way, O God, is holy. What god is so great as our God?

Still awake? Try the Gradual Psalms, also called the Psalms of Ascent. There are 15 of them, Psalms 120 to 134. When the Temple stood in Jerusalem, pilgrims recited these psalms one by one as they ascended the steep road to the Temple Mount, or as they ascended the last 15 steps from the lower level of the Temple to the main level. Here are snippets from some of them.

120: I call on the Lord in my distress, and he answers me (Psalm 120:1 NIV).

121: I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth (Psalm 121:1-2 NRSV).

122: I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord!” (Psalm 122:1 NRSV).

125: Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved, but abides forever (Psalm 125:1 NRSV)

126: The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy (Psalm 126:3 NIV).

128: Happy are those who honor the Lord and walk in God’s ways (Psalm 128:1 CEB adapted).

The Psalms of Ascent take you higher and higher. Think of them as climbing the rungs of Jacob’s Ladder from earth to heaven. In fact, you might softly sing the song or hum the tune to yourself between psalms.

If you’re up for a real marathon, turn to Psalm 119. It is the longest of the psalms, 176 verses. It’s an acrostic, meaning that it follows the alphabet from start to finish. It has 22 stanzas, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and eight verses in each stanza. You can’t see it in English, but within each stanza, each verse begins with the same letter.

The psalm begins: Happy are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the way of the Lord (Psalm 119:1 NRSV adapted).

We live in difficult times. It’s hard to stay focused on anything. It’s hard to get anything done. It’s easy to feel guilty about lots of things over which we actually have little control. It’s easy to wake up in the middle of the night with a vague feeling of being worthless and not knowing what to do about it.

Here’s one thing you can do. Remember these words from Psalm 42:8: Through each day the Lord pours his unfailing love upon me, and through each night I sing his songs, praying to the God who gives me life (Psalm 42: 8 NLT)

May you sleep well in coming days, but if not, may you view the time as an opportunity to reconnect with the God who loves you and gives you life. Amen.

This message was delivered July 19, 2020, at Edgerton United Methodist Church, in Edgerton, Kansas, on the Seventh Sunday After Pentecost.

More imagining required

I really wanted to like this book. That’s a terrible way to begin a book review, isn’t it? Yet, that’s how I must start talking about Reclaiming Our Political Roots: Rethinking Church in Nationalist Times, by Yohan Hwang (Wipf & Stock, 2020).

I really did want to like it. I had just finished Scandalous Witness: A Little Political Manifesto for Christians,” by Lee C. Camp. That book raised a lot of good questions about the nature of Christian witness and the relation of Christ and culture.

Curiously, it never mentioned a book that I thought loomed over every page. That’s the classic Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony, by Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon.

I was hoping Hwang’s book would bridge the gap and bring the prickly Hauerwas-Willimon vision closer to reality. Alas, Hwang doesn’t pull it off. He is prone to overstatement of the problem and understatement of a solution.

He begins strongly enough with the assertion that “the church is and should be our true body politic, not the nation-state.” He says it’s deplorable that “we live as Americans first and Christians second.”

You can excuse the exaggeration when he claims: “Overall, the real problem is that the church has ceded all political and economic matters to the state” and “has basically been relegated to providing a social club for like-minded people.”

What’s needed, he says, is “a reimagination and restructuring of society in which the church is politically involved in all facets of our lives.” Super. But he doesn’t do nearly enough reimagining to convince me that his ideas of restructuring have a snowball’s chance of becoming reality.

I am sorry to say that his book is tedious, repetitious and overly simplistic. It relies too much on questionably broad generalizations, caricature and circular, sometimes elliptical, arguments. Far too many times he says, “Like I said” and “I do not want to be misunderstood.”

It was hard for me not to misunderstand. He says: “There was a time in which the church was truly a political body that integrated every aspect of life under itself.” He is not clear when that time was, though he seems to point to the Middle Ages. At least then, he says, the church knew what it was supposed to be about.

As for the church again becoming a true politic, Hwang offers three examples, only one of which I found relevant, and that is the place where he teaches, Chicago Hope Academy, a Christian high school. Even then, he is not clear how this example can be applied by a church that is fractured by theological squabbling and political infighting.

Hwang credits Hauerwas and William Cavanaugh for fueling his exploration of Christianity as a true alternative reality. Hauerwas even writes a positive blurb for the back cover. But Hwang never convincingly shows how the church can be an outpost, a colony that shows the world what life was mean to be like.

Through Speakeasy, I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for a fair review.

White Jesus

There is a ferment in America today over monuments, especially statues – what they mean, who they should depict, where they should be placed, and so on. It’s a highly contentious time.

A couple of weeks ago, Shaun King, a Black Rights Matter activist, made this post on Twitter in response to a post by a right-wing blogger.

King said: “Yes, I think the statues of the white European they claim is Jesus should also come down. They are a form of white supremacy. Always have been. … Tear them down.” In later posts, he added that statues of a white Virgin Mary and white disciples also need to go.

What I want to tell you today is that King is both absolutely right and absolutely wrong.

Mind you, I’m not arguing for a compromise, a position in between, some of this and some of that. Nor am I saying that this is a paradox, an apparent contradiction that somehow really isn’t a contradiction.

No, I am telling you that he is 100 percent correct. The images we have of white Jesus are a form of white supremacy and should come down. At the same time, he is 100 percent wrong. Properly understood, these images could be valuable to our understanding of who Jesus was and who Jesus is for us today.

Those are two dimensions of the truth that make King both right and wrong at the same time. Those two dimensions are historical accuracy and inculturation of the gospel.

First, historical accuracy. I hope I am not shattering any illusions by telling you that Jesus was not white.

The Bible tells us nothing of what Jesus looked like.

The prophet Isaiah says this of the Suffering Servant, the one who personifies Israel and suffers for the world: “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53:2 NRSV).

The New Testament hints that there is nothing distinctive about the way Jesus looks. When soldiers come to arrest him in the Garden of Gethsemane, Judas has to identify him, so the soldiers know who to arrest. He doesn’t stand out among the 11 others who are with him. No halo, no obvious signs of holiness or anything else different about him. (Matthew 26:48, Mark 14:44, John 18:4, 5)

So he must have looked like most any other Middle Eastern male Jew of the time: dark brown or black hair, brown eyes, olive skin. He wouldn’t have been tall, maybe five foot five. He probably was bearded. If we correctly interpret a remark by the Apostle Paul, his hair would have been relatively short (1 Corinthians 11.14) – except maybe for those long forelocks required by Leviticus 19:27.

Here’s a photo of a modern Hasidic Jew, showing one way to wear your forelocks long – curled or braided, perhaps. Let me compare him with a modern depiction of Jesus. This is from a movie version of the gospels called the Lumo Project. Jesus is portrayed by British actor Selva Rasalingham. He is half white and half Tamil. I mention that because the Tamil people in India trace their ancestry through many races. Park that thought to one side – a Jesus of many races. We’ll return to it.

I like Rasalingham as the face of Jesus. But I see three problems. One, hair too long, not to mention artfully umcombed. Two, no forelocks. Three, he was about 50 in this photo, making him 20 years too old.

Still, I hope, you get the idea. Jesus was not white. So where do we get the idea that he was? Remember Tevya’s refrain from the musical “Fiddler on the Roof”? Tradition!

Put it this way. Every image of Jesus is colored by the culture that portrays him.

One image that’s especially important comes from Byzantine art. Starting about A.D. 500, it’s the dominant image of Jesus for a thousand years. It shows Jesus as the Pantocrator, the ruler of all creation. He’s very stern looking, somebody you don’t want to mess with. And, oh yes, he’s white.

As Christianity spreads throughout Europe, the image of white Jesus goes everywhere, and he gets whiter the farther north goes. In America, a new tradition takes root. It begins in 1924 on the cover of a youth magazine published by the Swedish Covenant Church. In 1940, artist Warner Sallman turns his simple charcoal drawing into a painting that has been reproduced around the world literally a billion times.

It doesn’t hurt that Sallman portrays a Nordic Jesus about the time that Nazis and the KKK are working the lie that Jesus was Nordic, not Jewish.

Warner Sallman’s white Jesus and hundreds of others like it foster the illusion of white supremacy. After all, if Jesus is white, and Jesus is God, then God is white, and all authority is white, and – as they say on “Star Trek,” resistance is futile.

Shaun King is right. White Jesus has gotta go.

But wait. Remember that every image of Jesus is colored by the culture that portrays him. If you visit the right museum or gift shop or go to the right website, you can find many other portrayals of Jesus – Jesus in many colors. In Japan, Jesus is Japanese. In China, he’s Chinese. To Native Americans from Alaska to the Southwest, Jesus looks just like them.

In the nations of Africa, Jesus is always black, but not generically so. In Nigeria, he’s Nigerian. In Liberia, he’s Liberian. In Kenya, he’s Kenyan – and so on. And in Ethiopia, he’s Ethiopian (right), as he has been for more than 1,500 years, since about the same time that he was declared white under the Byzantine empire.

It’s called inculturation, or contextualization of the gospel. It’s about how the gospel is represented to other cultures, respecting both the integrity of the gospel and the integrity of the culture. In other words, you don’t do as so many missionaries did for so many years. You don’t go into a black culture and show pictures of a white Jesus. You show pictures of a black Jesus. Because the people you’re trying to reach are rightly suspicious of a white Jesus, representative of a race that considers itself superior. But they would welcome, and might respond to, a black Jesus, who looks just like them.

Some immediately object: But Jesus wasn’t black! No. But he wasn’t white either. And the injustice of his death certainly mirrors the experience of many black people over the ages.

Jesus is not black. Jesus is not white. And yet, he is black and white. Jesus is many colors, all at the same time. Remember how the song goes? “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.”

When my wife Linda and her sister Jan were children, they were both very blond. One Christmas, their parents got an outdoor Nativity set with plastic figures about three feet high, lighted from within. Guess what color hair Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus had?

That Nativity set was eventually passed on to us, for our two blond girls. We had to retire it when the paint started to flake off and it looked like baby Jesus had leprosy. We replaced it with a slightly updated set. The holy family still looks white, but at least they all have dark brown hair.

That’s what contextualization is all about. Whatever the historical Jesus looked like, your personal Jesus looks just like you. Of course, he does. He has to. Here’s a short course in it.

Jesus is the spitting image of God – Colossians 1:15. Jesus brought the light of God into the world when he pitched tent among us. – John 1:14. To be our savior, he had to become just like us – Hebrews 2:17.

We were created in the image of God – Genesis 1:26. We have so debased that image by our sin that it is barely recognizable in us – Romans 3:23. Following Jesus means being transformed into his image through the power of the Holy Spirit – 2 Corinthians 3:18. In short, Jesus had to become just like us so that he could make us just like him.

Ever see a pile of rocks at the beach and wonder who made it and why?

The Israelites had a habit of piling up stones at memorable sites. When Jacob dreamed of a ladder reaching down from heaven, he built a rock shrine and named the place Bethel, meaning “house of God” (Genesis 28). When the Israelites crossed the Jordan River for the first time under Joshua, they erected a cairn of 12 big stones from the river (Joshua 4).

When we sing the song “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” we may puzzle at the second verse: “Here I raise mine Ebenezer.” An Ebenezer is a “stone of help.” 1 Samuel 7:12 says it’s a battle monument erected to declare, “Thus far the Lord has helped us.”

Not all monuments are good. In the wilderness, Moses set up a bronze serpent to remind people of God’s providence. Hundreds of years later, people had turned it into an object of worship. It had to be destroyed. (Numbers 21, 2 Kings 18)

Sometimes monuments have to fall. Maybe this is why one of the 10 Commandments is, “Do not make an idol for yourself in any form” (Exodus 20:4, Deuteronomy 5:8). As someone has said, the point of taking down a monument is not to erase history. The point is to quit celebrating it.

Just because something happened doesn’t mean it deserves a monument. Remember that bit with the Israelites and the golden calf? When Moses started to destroy the idol, someone is bound to have objected, “Moses, wait, you’re destroying history!”

And Moses he kept hammering at it until he ground it to dust. Then he mixed the dust with water and made everyone drink it. The story is recorded in Exodus 32. The history is not erased. But there’s no longer a monument to it, lest someone get the wrong idea about it.

White Jesus needs to go. He doesn’t need to be obliterated, just put into context, and never, ever, lifted up as the only true image of Jesus. Your personal Jesus always looks just like you. If you’re white, Jesus is white. If you’re black, Jesus is black. But whatever color you are, Jesus wants to make you just like him – and he’ll do it if you let him.

This message was delivered July 12, 2020, at Edgerton United Methodist Church.


There’s a lot of talk in America today about the meaning of freedom.

Some of this talk is thoughtful and wise, and some of it is thoughtless and irresponsible. This is the way it’s been for a long time – not only since the start of America, but maybe since the dawn of human history.

You might say that it comes down to two basic ideas of what freedom is: freedom from or freedom for. Those two are intimately connected, but you wouldn’t always know that from the talk you hear.

What’s driving a lot of this talk today is the squabble over wearing face masks. Most people agree that it’s a good idea. It protects others from your germs, and, to a lesser extent, it protects you from the germs of others. The question is whether you should be required to wear a mask in public areas.

Polls show that a clear majority of people support mask wearing. The rest, presumably, do not – and they are usually the loudest, so they’re the ones you hear from most often.

Some Kansans are outraged at the recent statewide mask order by Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly. Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas has received death threats because of his mask order. Across the country, many public health officials have resigned after being threatened for doing their jobs.

But experts say it only takes a few people who don’t comply with public health orders to infect a large population – and the number of infections already is exploding throughout the country.

I suppose no one wants to wear a face mask, maybe especially those health care workers whose jobs require them to wear one almost all the time. Masks are hot, they’re uncomfortable, they’re itchy, and you can barely understand a word anyone is saying while wearing one.

But you wear one to protect others, and yourself, from infection. It’s a matter of safety. It’s a matter of caring.

Others consider individual freedom more important. It’s common to hear someone say, “I won’t wear a mask as a matter of principle. I don’t want the government telling me what I can and can’t do.”

What if a business says it won’t serve you unless you’re wearing a mask? “I don’t want anyone telling me what I can and can’t do.”

What about those signs that say, “No shirt, no shoes, no service”? Are you free to ignore them, too? What about the laws requiring you to wear a helmet while riding a bike, or a seat belt while riding in a car? Can’t a society make any laws to protect its citizens?

Wearing a masks is a “personal decision,” some say. One state governor said recently, “We’ve told people to focus on personal responsibility.” Translated from the political dog-whistle doublespeak, that means, “Do as you like; no one cares.”

It’s gotten strangely political. Donald Trump, who thinks everything is about him, suggests that some people wear masks as a way to “signal disproval of him.”

As the ostensible head of the country, Trump might set a good example for the rest of us by putting one on, but apparently he sees it as a sign of weakness. That’s a line you’ll hear a lot in some circles. People who wear masks are fraidy cats. They’re sheep. They’re blind followers of some vast conspiracy, choose your favorite from a long list of fictional plots and schemes.

Some churches have even gotten into it. They claim an absolute right to do anything they want under the protection of the First Amendment. But the courts have been pretty consistent in ruling that society has a right to protect its citizens from harmful behavior, even those that stem from religious piety.

Here’s what it comes down to, in the words of William Schweiker. He’s an ethicist at the University of Chicago, and a United Methodist elder. He wonders, “How did orders, whether federal, state, or local, meant to protect public health ever come to be seen as a restriction of rights or liberty?”

Then he answers his own question. “It happens when freedom becomes license unbounded by concern for others.” It happens when we define freedom as personal license.

Here’s an example from one of my favorite bad movies, John Wayne’s “The Alamo.” I use this as an example because John Wayne is typical of a certain attitude, and because I’m a longtime Alamo buff. I’ve been hooked on the story since 1955, when I was seven years old, and I first saw Walt Disney’s Davy Crockett series on a tiny round screen in my home in Nokomis, Illinois.

Wayne’s Alamo movie is typical of them all. Given a choice between fact and cheesy fiction, it chooses fiction just about every time. And for a big-budget Western with lots of action, there’s a lot of speechifyin’ goin’ on here.

For example, playing Crockett, Wayne makes this speech that has now become famous: “Republic: I like the sound of the word. It means people can live free, talk free, go or come, buy or sell, be drunk or sober, however they choose.”

Really? Is that what it means to be free – being drunk or sober, however you choose? Can’t you be a drunk in Moscow? Can’t you be an opium addict in Beijing? Can you say that you are truly free in either place? Isn’t there more to freedom than this? Isn’t there much more?

Wayne, or his scriptwriter, has mistaken freedom for personal license. This is a randy teenager’s vision of freedom, the kind of thing you might expect in the comic strip “Zits.” Truth is, many of us do operate from a stunted notion of freedom. We live an adult version of the adolescent fantasy of staying up all night eating junk food and watching bad movies on TV.

But there’s always a cost. I am free to stay up all night just because I want to, but if I do that, I may not be able to function as freely as I’d like the next day. I can eat all the junk food I can stuff down and watch all the junk TV I can stomach, but I may not feel very good afterward, and if I don’t, I have no one to blame but myself, though I am the last one I’ll blame, of course.

Freedom as license always has a cost, but it goes farther than you. When you interpret freedom in terms of your rights alone, you often trample on the rights of others. Usually the only people who can get away with this kind of radical individualism are from groups that are in power, economically and socially.

When you’re on top of the social heap, it’s easy to believe that your rights count more than the rights of others, and it’s easy to enforce, too.

John Stuart Mill, the great 19th-century English philosopher, wrote extensively about the limits of freedom. He defined liberty the way John Wayne defined a republic – living your own life in your own way. But he also said there were rightful boundaries to a person’s liberty. He called it the “harm principle.” Your liberty ends when it harms others. Or, as someone has put it: “Your freedom to swing your fist stops where my nose begins.”

The Apostle Paul sums up the Christian philosophy of freedom in his letter to the church at Galatia. Hear this carefully.

He says: “You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters. Only don’t let this freedom be an opportunity to indulge your selfish impulses, but serve each other through love. All the law has been fulfilled in a single statement: Love your neighbor as yourself” (Galatians 5: 13-14 CEB).

In case you don’t hear that clearly enough, he amplifies the thought in his letter to the Philippians. You ought to have the same attitude as Jesus, he says. That is: “Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others” (Philippians 2:3-4 CEB).

The theme of freedom resonates throughout the Bible. The master story is the liberation of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt, and the foundation of Israel as a foreshadowing of God’s kingdom. That’s followed by the sad story of Israel’s failure to live out its own ideals. Finally, we have the story that Paul tells of God bringing the whole world to freedom through the life and sacrifice of Jesus.

We are blessed to live in a land that guarantees our God-given freedom as human beings. But our government does not give us this freedom. It only recognizes our freedom and guards it.

Freedom is not something within the power of any government to give, only to deny. Freedom is a gift from God. God gives us freedom because God is free, and we are made in God’s image.

That image has become tarnished by sin, and in our sinful state we abuse our freedom more than we honor it. Jesus came to free us from slavery to sin and to restore us to true freedom so that as children of God and heirs of the freedom of God, we might lead lives that give glory and honor to God.

There’s a purpose to freedom, you see. Freedom is more than doing as you please. Freedom always implies responsibility for the other. Freedom means responsibility because there are two dimensions of freedom.

The first dimension is freedom from – freedom from tyranny, freedom from injustice, from want, from fear. All of these are conditions of oppression and domination. They call for liberation, for your freedom from these conditions.

But liberation from always leads to a new dimension of freedom: freedom to grow to your full potential, freedom to love, freedom to be and freedom to be for – freedom for a purpose greater than yourself, freedom for something – and most importantly, for someone besides yourself.

Freedom is not a competition in which I always get my way. Freedom is sharing life with others who also are free. Freedom is recognizing that my freedom can’t come at your expense, just as your freedom can’t come at my expense. We have to learn to get along as people whose freedoms are interconnected and interdependent.

I can’t be truly free unless others are free, and others can’t be truly free unless I am free, and all of us together are truly free only when we are free for one another. It’s a paradox but it’s true. We are free only when we bind ourselves to others in love. When we live only for ourselves, we are the most pitifully enslaved creatures on earth.

Jesus did not die so that you could live drunk or sober, however you choose. Jesus died to set you truly free.

Wave your “Don’t tread on me” banner as high as you want, but if you’re not living for others, if you’re living only for yourself, you are barely living at all, and the one thing you’re not is free.

Freedom is a gift from God to be used in service to others, not in service to self. If you don’t understand that, you are living outside God’s kingdom, not in it. God wants you in it, but you are free to stay outside. It’s your choice. Let me tell you, though. It’s better inside than out.

This message was delivered outdoors at Edgerton United Methodist Church on July 5, 2020, the Fifth Sunday After Pentecost, from Galatians 5: 13-14, and Philippians 2:3-4.