“Bound and Free” – Sermon for June 23, 2013

Categories: Sermons

“Bound and Free”

A Sermon on Galatians 3:23-29 for the 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

By The Rev. Matthew Emery, preached June 23, 2013

They say “don’t judge a book by its cover”, right?  What you can see on the outside, the wisdom would have us believe, doesn’t always match up with what’s on the inside.  That’s a pretty old nugget of wisdom.  Now… I’ll admit that when I hear it, I usually assume that I’m being encouraged to look past a shabby exterior so that I might see what turns out to be a true gem on the inside—whether it’s a book, a bottle of wine, an experience, another person even.  It goes the other way, too, though.  Some gorgeous, beautifully bound books contain stories that are simply drivel upon reading.  The well-dressed guy at the party sometimes is the one puking in the bathroom by the end of the night.  Sometimes the congregation with the big building and the stunning stained glass windows and the professional-quality choir is the assembly so conflicted that they’re just one little squabble away from blowing apart, while the humble little neighborhood church inauspiciously lives as a true and faithful and vital community of radical hospitality and life-changing compassion and courageous witness to the alternative ways of God’s kingdom.

But for all that we say about not judging a book by its cover, that’s exactly the sort of thing that we humans end up doing all the time, is it not?  Staring down a long aisle of choices, how many of us have tried out a new breakfast cereal because the box looked interesting?  Overwhelmed by a store full of choices and a mind empty of expertise, how many of us have selected a bottle of wine because the label looked cool?  And if we didn’t judge books themselves by their covers, then a stroll through the UConn Co-op or Barnes & Noble wouldn’t be nearly as entertaining… and probably the whole magazine industry would end up out of business!

Now, these sorts of things are relatively innocent, but when we’re honest with ourselves, we know that we make judgments about other people based on externals too.   We’re embarrassed, most of us, by that truth, but we recognize it nonetheless—or at least we aught to.  Whether it be the clothes that someone wears, or the letters that come after their name indicating the academic degree or professional certification they possess, or even something like the tonality of a person’s voice, we all fall victim to taking note of these matters, sometimes subconsciously and sometimes consciously.  I know I do it from time to time, and I’m pretty sure you probably do to.

In our better moments, most of us ultimately know that this isn’t the way we are supposed to be.  And the famous verse within this reading we’ve just heard from Paul’s letter to the Galatians, a verse that probably many of us have heard over and over again, it confirms that… the verse that proclaims to us that “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.”

In the time this letter was written, there was a lot to these external realities.  A person—at least a male anyway—was either Jewish or he was not, and you could see it in the cover or lack thereof on his down-below parts.  A person was either a free citizen or a slave bound up by economic and other circumstances.  A person was male or female, and this was both pretty obvious for the most part, and it carried with it insurmountable differences in the roles they would occupy in society and the ways other people would treat them.

We today can end up being pretty smug about ourselves, thinking we’ve heard this truth that Paul proclaims—that these categories are no longer—and begun to enact that reality.  Particularly in a community like this one, we like to think we’ve gotten beyond classifying people by race and ethnicity and gender, gotten beyond the idea that anyone would be a slave anymore.  And yet judicial and correctional system statistics will show us we’ve got a long way to go before there truly is no distinction in race and ethnicity.  Income and salary data proves that there is still male and female.  The recent garment factory collapse in Bangladesh reveals that slavery is not as far away from our wallets and our wardrobes as we’d like to think.

And what else might have Paul have said if he were writing today.  Maybe in the midst of our complex immigration controversies, that “There is neither native born nor illegal immigrant.”  That in a society dramatically divided by income, “There is neither monied, nor working class, nor poor.”  That in a society still polarized by race, that “there are neither people of color nor people who think they have no color.”  That in a society still plagued by hatred around sexuality, “there is no longer gay or straight, no longer gender-conforming or transgender.”  That in a country as polarized politically as ever, that “There is no longer Republican or Democrat or Independent.”[1]

These are possibly what would Paul have said today, but if none of those possibilities have yet made you uncomfortable, then I still haven’t gotten it.  Because the truth is, as one writer puts it, “ ‘Paul manages to offend virtually everyone’ in this passage.”[2]  He was challenging the heart of people’s identities, the categories by which the world ran.  He claiming that in Jesus Christ, God was taking down all of the ways we humans judge a book by its cover, so to speak.

Thes radical, inclusive, barrier-breaking, world-transforming nature of God’s grace is show in full expression when we welcome a new Christian into the body of Christ through the sacrament of Holy Baptism, as just in a few moments we are going to do with Leo and Nevaeha[3]—and especially when the new Christians we are welcoming are infants like them.  None of us know what lays ahead for either Leo or Nevaeha.  They could end up wildly successful by our society’s standards or deeply struggling; they may follow a path of fervent faith or a journey of doubt and despair.  But that’s just it, you see.  The Word of God that flows in and through and with and under the waters of their baptism… that Word, that promise, that grace, it speaks God’s love and reaches with God’s claim and embraces with the community of God’s people even before Leo or Nevaeha can respond.  The Word spoke and the promise reached and the grace embraced each of one of us here, before any of us could respond, either.

What difference does it make, though—one could ask—if someone gets baptized at this young age and then their life wanders off, far from God?  Why have a child baptized—or why get baptized yourself if coming to Christian faith as an adult—if it doesn’t somehow magically guarantee a successful and blessed life?  If you’ve ever found yourself wondering that, you’re definitely not the first.  One of the early Protestant Reformers, Johannes Brenz, a Lutheran, addressed that matter in his examination of Galatians, saying “My answer is what Paul wrote to the Romans:  ‘God is faithful, even if every human being is a liar.’ And, ‘The unbelief of the ungodly does not cancel out the faith of God.’”[4]  John Calvin, the major figure at the root of our own Reformed tradition, felt similarly, writing that the sacraments present the grace of God to all alike, and that even if someone later tries to turns from that grace, “they cannot destroy the faithfulness of God and the true meaning of the sacrament.”[5]

The grace that has embraced you, you can’t run from it my friends.  God loves you, and “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to” change that.  No matter what ups and downs of the world end up being pictured on the cover of your book of life, you can’t change that core story, the story of the one beloved and claimed and called by God.  You are stuck with that story, bound forever to the love and life of Jesus Christ.

And that, sisters and brothers, is the greatest freedom anyone can have.

 Blessing and honor, glory and power be unto God, now and forever.  Amen.

[1] This paragraph adapted from Carol E. Holtz-Martin, homiletical commentary on Galatians 3:23-29 for Proper 7 in Feasting on the Word:  Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Year C, Vol. 3 – Pentecost and Season after Pentecost 1, (Lousville, KY:  Westminister John Knox Press), p. 165.

[2] Holz-Martin, ibid., citing Beverly Gaventa’s commentary on Galatians 3:23-29 in Charles B. Cousar, Beverly Gaventa, J. Clinton McCann, and James D. Newsome, eds., Texts for Preaching:  A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year C (Lousivlle, KY:  Westminster John Knox Press, 1994).

[3] Their names are Leoric and Nevaehalis, but they go by ‘Leo’ and ‘Nevaeha’, respectively.

[4] Johannes Brenz, Explanation of Galatians, reprinted in Gerald L. Bray, ed., Galatians, Ephesians, Reformation Commentary on Scripture, ed. Timothy George, New Testament Vol. 10 (Downers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press, 2011), p. 127.

[5] John Calvin, Commentary on Galatians, reprinted in Gerald L. Bray, ed., Galatians, Ephesians, Reformation Commentary on Scripture, ed. Timothy George, New Testament Vol. 10 (Downers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press, 2011), p. 128.

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