I don’t think it is a coincidence that the most common command in the bible is “do not be afraid.” And yet fear is a very real force in all of our lives and it causes us to do some things we are often not proud of. Fear causes us to shut ourselves off from others and even from God, and shame does this as also. Fear and shame are a little different, fear is related to something external, it can be another person, something in our environment, something that might happen, but it is fixed on something outside of oneself. Shame is focused internally, it focuses on the fear that someone else will not accept us if they know something about us, that they won’t like or love or care about me anymore. That they won’t want to be near me, it is the fear of disconnection with other people. Both fear and shame have a profound impact on our lives, they begin to tell us “we aren’t good enough” or “who are you to believe that you can do this” and they can keep us trapped inside that which is known and safe. We may shut ourselves off from other things or other people.
There has been a lot of coverage in the news over the last couple of weeks of the George Zimmerman trial, and I’m not going to go back into the trial itself, nor am I going to try to guess what the jury should or should not have decided. But the incident between George Zimmerman and Travoyn Martin was an episode based out of fear. You see, it arose out of one man seeing another man walking through the neighborhood on a stormy night, reacting out of fear and confronting him and eventually killing him. George Zimmerman believed Trayvon was a threat and he reacted out of that. Now we can’t go back and change the past, we can’t wave a magic wand and make everything better, but can we imagine a better future. This one of the things posted last week that I really liked was from Jermaine Paul, who is a singer, but he wrote, “How cool would it be to live in a world where George Zimmerman offered Trayvon a ride home to get him out of the rain that night.” That’s a different world than what we live in, but it is a world worth imagining and a world worth fighting for. I think it is a world that Jesus envisioned and we are going to hear more about as we go through the sermon today, but it is not the world I grew up in.
Those who know my story know that I spent four years in the Corps of Cadets and another 4 ½ years in the Army and they taught me a lot of the same things. They taught me a lot of what we commonly think about as courage, but courage as they taught is was to be bigger, badder and stronger than whoever else might be a threat. So instead of someone else being a threat you then you can be a threat to them but over the last thirteen years I’ve had to learn about a much different type of courage. The word courage comes from the latin word for heart ‘cur’ and courage literally means to be able to tell the story of one’s heart. That’s vulnerability, that being able to open up to who you really are. To be honest in my time in the Army you didn’t open up who you are but you pushed it down inside and you built up your own little suit of armor around yourself so that you were impervious to anything anyone might say or do about you. But real courage is being willing to take off that armor and to be open and vulnerable knowing that you are able to show who you really are. Knowing that you can be hurt and wounded because your armor is down, that someone might not accept you or the things you create or do. It is the courage to be who you are because who you are is valuable.
We live in a culture that doesn’t understand the very well, we live in a culture where our biggest idol is not money or power, at least as I’m coming to believe our biggest idol is security. We are so desperate to feel safe and secure. A lot of these things come in different forms and we are afraid to have enough to retire, afraid that someone might break into our house, someone might strike as a terrorist in the heart of our city. Yet, I think we have become more and more willing to surrender pieces of who we are to feel safe. We begin to give away pieces of our identity in order to feel safe. Yet, I need to be honest with you: security is a cruel, cruel god. If security is your god, then faith becomes transformed into certainty. There is no longer any room to question or to doubt, and yet when faith is transformed into certainty you are a short, short step from extremism. Faith as the bible understands it is about relationship and a journey, and if you notice from the stories of the bible the disciples often don’t get it and yet they keep following behind Jesus and in the journey they learn and grow. Love becomes trumped by the law. We begin to lock things down, making it more about absolutes and less about getting to know and love others. The world becomes transformed into them and us and we build up walls between us and them. Some of the walls are physical and some of the walls are emotional and social. This was the image of the wall I grew up with:
This is the Berlin Wall, it was built before I was born and while I was in college I got to see it come down, it was the wall that everyone knew about as I was growing up. The Berlin Wall separated East from West Berlin, two groups of people who were not really separate ethnically, sometimes even a family was split apart by the wall, but they were divided by two political systems. The wall separated two groups of people and it kept one group in and one group out and it was built out of fear, for security and honestly I believe it also was built out of a sense of shame.
But we come to know a very different God in Jesus, you see for Jesus faith is learned by following and we are following the one for whom love is the law. If you remember Jesus’ two great commandments, you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus goes even further in the Sermon on the Mount when he tells them “you shall love your enemies” or in John’s gospel when the disciples are gathered around the table and he says, “I give you a new commandment, that you are to love one another.”And love comes up again and again and again as what Jesus commands and that is much different than trying to get it all locked down into a particular way. And as we follow Jesus we realize the world is no longer broken down into them and us, but rather as Paul can say in Galatians:
28 There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3: 28)
All these things that in Paul’s life that had been the defining things became unimportant. Are you a Jew like or are you a Gentile, not a Jew, are you like us or are you not. Are you a slave or are you free, are you a man or are you a woman, rich or poor, college educated or not and we can put all those things in there, but ultimately in Christ all those things no longer matter. And Paul had to learn this in his own life. If you remember Paul’s story, he started out as a Pharisee and he understood that there were certain things that made him right with God and he was so convinced that these early followers of Jesus were wrong that he was out to wipe them out. He stood there looking on as they stoned Stephen and then he was on his way to Damascus to find any of Jesus early followers he could and bring them back to Jerusalem in chains. Until Jesus met him on the way. Paul recounts this way of thinking in Philippians 3:
4 though I could have confidence in my own effort if anyone could. Indeed, if others have reason for confidence in their own efforts, I have even more! 5 I was circumcised when I was eight days old. I am a pure-blooded citizen of Israel and a member of the tribe of Benjamin– a real Hebrew if there ever was one! I was a member of the Pharisees, who demand the strictest obedience to the Jewish law. 6 I was so zealous that I harshly persecuted the church. And as for righteousness, I obeyed the law without fault.
Paul may have been righteous, and I don’t think Paul had any sense of guilt for the way he followed the law, but it was a righteousness without love. And Paul realizes that now everything has changed because of what is now important in his life. Paul continues:
7 I once thought these things were valuable, but now I consider them worthless because of what Christ has done8 Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ
You see Paul had to go through this transformation in his own life, from a world where he was separated from those who were not like him: I am a Jew and beyond that I am a Pharisee and a very zealous Pharisee, so zealous I persecuted these early Christians. I’m righteous, these other people are unrighteous, I’m a saint, they are a sinner, I am good they are bad.
And then we encounter Jesus, and have you ever noticed that Jesus is always getting in trouble for being with the wrong people at the wrong? Almost all his controversies are because he either is healing on Sabbath or he is touching and eating with the wrong people. He touches a leper, that should make him unclean- and yet instead it makes the leper clean. He is sitting at the house of a Pharisee and then a woman comes in and anoints him with perfume and washes his feet with her tears, and while the Pharisee is thinking, ‘if this Jesus was really a prophet he would know what kind of woman this is and not let her touch him’ but instead Jesus says to him ‘do you see this woman, when I came in you didn’t anoint me nor did you wash my feet, but she anointed me and has washed my feet with her tears and her sins which are many are forgiven.’ Or he hangs out with sinners and tax collectors, like Matthew. This is Carvaggio’s painting of the calling of Matthew:
The Calling of St. Matthew by Carvaggio (1599-1600)
Jesus is on the right pointing and Matthew is in the center of the table with a bewildered look on his face, with his fingers pointing to himself as if to say, ‘me, you are calling me.’ This is how Matthew records it in the 9th chapter:
9 As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at his tax collector’s booth. “Follow me and be my disciple,” Jesus said to him. So Matthew got up and followed him.
10 Later, Matthew invited Jesus and his disciples to his home as dinner guests, along with many tax collectors and other disreputable sinners. 11 But when the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with such scum?”
I actually like that translation, even though they take a little freedom with the word there, for I think we often think of being at the table with Jesus being like this:
Where everyone is holy and righteous and good, yet people in Jesus day saw it being more like this:
Where Jesus is there with the sinners, tax collectors, all the wrong people the people they didn’t want to hang out with. Sinners and tax collectors in Jesus day were no less likely than the people in the picture above. In my own experience I keep being stretched as I encounter Jesus among the least likely people I expected. Matthew continues the story
12 When Jesus heard this, he said, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor– sick people do.” 13 Then he added, “Now go and learn the meaning of this Scripture: ‘I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices.’ For I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.”
We come from a tradition, the Lutheran tradition, that gives us a great place to wrestle with this because the person we take our name from, Martin Luther, wrestled mightily with this. Luther started out as an Augustinian monk, the most rigorous of the religious orders of his day, and Luther strove to do everything the right way, to live according to all the rules to try to be right with God and Luther never felt he could achieve that. Staupitz who was Luther’s superior in the order as well as his confessor, after sitting through hours and hours of hearing Luther confess is reported to have said, ‘Luther you come in here confessing every little thing you have done, you can’t so much as fart without coming here fearing condemnation and yet I’ve never once heard you confess anything remotely interesting.’ Yet Luther was afraid that he couldn’t keep all the commandments and love God. He was convinced that God didn’t love him, at least before the reformation breakthrough where he realized that God loved him well before he ever began his journey that led him to monasticism. It transformed him so much that later in his life he could tell his friend and younger colleague, Philip Melancthon who was trying to get everything right and was afraid of making a mistake, “Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ evermore boldly, for he is victorious over sin, death and the world.”
Paul also had to come through this transformation from being viewing righteousness as being a part of the law to being transformed by the righteousness of God that comes through the love of Christ. As he writes in Romans 8:
So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. 2 And because you belong to him, the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you from the power of sin that leads to death.
There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ. Who can take that away from you? Nobody. You have been freed from the power of sin and death, now that doesn’t we don’t find ourselves struggling, but the victory has already been decided. Paul continues
3 The law of Moses was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature. So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins. 4 He did this so that the just requirement of the law would be fully satisfied for us, who no longer follow our sinful nature but instead follow the Spirit. 5 Those who are dominated by the sinful nature think about sinful things, but those who are controlled by the Holy Spirit think about things that please the Spirit.
So who gets to say who we are, who gets to have that word. Is it others who say that we should be afraid of those who are different from us, who ask us to build walls between ourselves and others. No. Is it our own selves telling us that we are not good enough, smart enough, worthy enough. No. It is the God who made us the baptized children of God, who marked us with the cross of Christ forever and sealed us by the Holy Spirit. That God who promises that nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord, nothing in our lives, nothing in heaven or on earth, no rulers or powers, nothing.Who are you, you are baptized children of God and no one, nothing can take that away from you, and you are loved. And it is in that love that we can imagine the way the world looks in light of that love, Jesus spends most of his ministry talking about the kingdom of God, talking about his vision of the way life should be. This was not a new thing, in the Old Testament this would have been talked about in terms of living in God’s shalom, God’s peace and vision for the world and harmony with God and the world around them. That is why the two great commandments are you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. And as we begin to claim who we are in light of this love and identity those things like fear and shame which cause us to give away potions of who we are begin to lose their hold on us. Now this isn’t easy, I certainly don’t claim to be the one who has mastered this. There are times in my own life where fear kept me paralyzed or shame made me believe that I was unloveable. I can own that, and the reality is that I didn’t earn it. Martin Luther would say that “God’s love doesn’t find that which is pleasing to it; God’s love creates that which is pleasing to it.” We weren’t right with God on our own, God went out and made us right, God goes out seeking us because that is who God is. That gives us a great opportunity. You see, in the midst of Jesus ministry he never built any walls, but he sat at a lot of tables and tables bring us together. He sat at tables with those many in his day would have excluded. I had the opportunity to hear Bishop Mark Hanson, the Bishop of the ELCA a couple years ago and he related a story how when he was elected bishop a colleague who he trusted told him, ‘your calling is to take the walls that divide us and turn them into tables for conversation.’ I think that is what Jesus did, he took the walls that divided Matthew from the rest of the community, ‘he’s a sinner, he’s a tax collector’ and he brought him to the table where he was included as well as the other sinners and tax collectors. That’s what Paul did in going from the ministry that divided Jew and Gentiles to being the apostle to the Gentiles. And grace frees us from that shame, that fear that we need to create a different and better past, indeed grace is freedom from having to seek a better past. The reality is that who you are is accepted right now, God has made you and claimed you. So take down the walls and join those at the table. Amen.