Sermon preview: ‘Maturity as Freedom’
A reflection on this coming Sunday’s sermon, from Rev. Chandler Stokes:
As Sunday, March 30—the Fourth Sunday in Lent—approaches, I want to share with you where my thoughts are turning.
A short time ago, I preached on this very same text. At that time I spoke of Israel’s naming their hard past “Massah and Meribah” as a healthy response to their failures. The words mean “trouble and strife” or something to that effect. Israel didn’t try to sugar-coat its past; they openly said, “This was a place where we failed.” And then in that sermon I talked about some of Westminster’s past failures.
This time I want to open up the same text and put it into another part of the Bible’s narrative context. There are two aspects of Israel’s journey in view. One dimension of their journey is that this quarreling that they name was part of their adolescence as a people. They did move on from that place. They grew beyond those particular quarrels. That is the larger theme of our Lenten series—Christian maturity: the gospel assumes that we can grow and mature. A second dimension, more particular to this Sunday, is their location: they have been released from their bondage in Egypt and are now in the wilderness. They’re no longer shackled, but they are in the wilderness. Freedom is part of being in the wilderness. This is how my colleague, Doug King put it: “Freedom is a brand new mindset.”
Freedom is a brand new mindset. The prayer of confession that we will pray this coming Sunday touches on this theme:
Holy God, we find it hard to trust your promises. You invite us to trust your love and to trust that perfect love casts our fear. We are still afraid to love, afraid to risk sacrifice for someone else. We fear the unknown that comes with risking love.
We admit that we would rather repeat the misery we know than risk an unknown future; to risk a new future, even if it promises freedom, grace, and life. Lord, hear our prayer.
Freedom is a mindset, and it is not an easy one to embrace—note Israel’s complaints in the wilderness.
While writing the prayer, the grace of the gospel, the grace that is essential to the art of preaching, began to emerge for me. First it led me to 1 John 4 where we find this:
God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear…
Quite often the way we experience the freedom of the gospel, the way we experience our personal liberation, is through love. Love assuages the fear that keeps us from freedom, from the maturity that is freedom. Sometimes we seemingly experience that love from God. And sometimes (far more commonly) God’s love seems to be mediated through others.
So, as I begin to work toward the sermon for Sunday, I feel I will want to address our experience of love. I will want to offer some insights into the character of love. Ultimately, I will want to find a way for us to be embraced by that liberating love in our worship. That’s where we seem to be headed this Sunday.
A few more thoughts on the music this week—March 30, 2014:
One of our young people, Karl Falb, will be playing at the 8.30a service on Sunday. He is very gifted. He’ll be playing a Bach solo piece and the well-known Meditation from the opera, Thais, by Massenet. They are both substantive pieces that Karl plays with great confidence, depth, and expression.
At 11a, the sanctuary choir will be singing, I Would See Jesus—I will have more to add here.
Although these words often come to me just as I am heading into the choir room to pray with the choir before we lead the rest of the congregation in worship, at this early point in the week, I am imagining that I will ask of them something like this: “Today we hope as we all turn our attention to God, we hope that one of the collateral blessings will be that we experience something of the love of God. So, as we go into worship, I ask you simply to trust that there is a perfection in love, a perfect love in God that holds you right now, that is more true and more real than anything else. Trust it. Lean into it. Allow it to be your ground and your inspiration for offering your gifts of singing today. Let that true love be the very ground on which you stand and which you breathe in and breathe out.”
We considered many, many hymns before we finally settled on these. We will open with What Wondrous Love is This. It’s a traditional Lenten hymn that speaks of God’s extraordinary love that Christ offered in suffering. The notes in the hymnal say, “With its ballad-like repetitions before and after each stanza’s central narrative lines, this meditative needs performance in order to be effective. Its haunting melody proves the means of convincing us that the only adequate response to ‘wondrous love’ is to ‘sing on.’” That’s another thought I might share with the choir before worship also. But Helen and I also chose this hymn, because it will be the first hymn we sing since we closed down the organ a few weeks back, and we want to give some room for the colors of the organ to be meaningful and expressive. This hymn fits that bill too. It’s not always possible to offer a hymn, the text of which links us to one of the main themes of the service, and works so well musically.
The closing hymn is a new text to a well-known tune. The tune is “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need”—so it can invoke the text of Psalm 23 without our singing that text. Instead the text is Psalm 126—a beautiful psalm that is often read on Christmas Eve. This is the Psalm.
1 When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.
2 Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then it was said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
3 The Lord has done great things for us,
and we rejoiced.
4 Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
like the watercourses in the Negeb.
5 May those who sow in tears
reap with shouts of joy.
6 Those who go out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
carrying their sheaves.
Now, what this psalm adds to our understanding of freedom and love is illuminating. Psalm 126 is about the end of the exile. If ever there were a moment in Israel’s history that opens up the themes of freedom and love, it is the return from exile. Israel was reluctant to return from Israel. They needed to trust God’s love in a way that they really had never had to do in order to give up their relative comfort in exile for the freedom and risk of return. The hymn includes these lines:
When God restored our common life, our hope, our liberty, at first it seemed a passing dream…
We praise the One who gave the growth, with voices full and strong…
Thus, in addition to the theme of God’s unbelievable love offering liberty, now the theme of singing links the opening and closing hymns.
As I reflect on what these hymns might evoke, I am reminded of a conversation not long ago. I was telling a friend just the other day how amazed I am at the worship on Sunday mornings at Westminster. I said something like this: “When I look out over the sea of faces, I know quite a number of people who are suffering, well, suffering in a hundred different ways: just from the common stresses of making ends meet while keeping their sanity… All at once sometimes I simply know that his wife is getting chemo; her mother just died; those two are fighting off divorce; they are in agony over their child’s illness or stress. The list of woes goes on and on, but here they are. They’ve figured out how to get here, through all the obstacles of time and emotion, of burden and distraction. They come and they sing. And when they sing…, when they sing, it’s as if they were all saying, ‘I don’t know what else to do but sing,’ and they just pour out their voices into the hymns, praying that that is one of the ways that God will hold them together and help them through the week. I am amazed at the faith, the hope, the dedication, … the singing.”
As I work the theme of freedom and love, the complexities of how we experience love arise. I’ve been introduced to the poet, and now professor at Yale Divinity School, Christian Wiman. I find his insights unflinching, honest and deeply insightful. These are excerpts from a piece upon which I’ve been meditating. And I offer it to you:
I was reading Hans Urs von Balthasar, who suggests that this is the case: God obstructs man, pursues man, haunts him with “a love that runs after him, pulls him out of the pit, casts aside his chains and places him in the freedom of divine and now even human love.” And now even human love. For Balthasar, the man pursued by God may very well have loved another person, but not fully, not in the freedom of ultimate love, which scours the ego and urges one toward the spark of divinity within another person. It is those sparks that must unite; that is the only fire that time and change will not snuff out. (Wiman, By Love We Are Led to God)
[Speaking of his experience of love, he says]: But it was human love that reawakened divine love. Put another way, it was pure contingency that caught fire in our lives, and it was Christ whom we found—together, and his presence dependent upon our being together—burning there. I can’t speak for other people. I only know that I did not know what love was until I encountered one that kept opening and opening and opening. And until I acknowledged that what that love was opening onto, and into, was God. (Wiman, same)
God pursues and haunts humanity with “a love that runs after us, pulls us out of the pit, casts aside our chains and places us in the freedom of divine and now even human love.”
What I’ve been thinking is that love really is the only way to true freedom. I know somewhere in my bones that, if I offer forgiveness, acceptance, grace—all those colors of love—to Karen, her most beautiful self emerges. I think she feels free; she senses that the way is clear for her heart to open. When I don’t, she experiences much less freedom; I think she can feel suffocated, cut off from life.
Of course, it doesn’t work evenly or perfectly. I do think that my actually leaving room for her heart to expand gives her the opportunity to love. It doesn’t mean that, if I love her this way, she will love me that way. There is no mathematical equation, but the math can’t even emerge if I don’t risk love to start with. And where does that ability of mine (albeit a meager ability) come from? Her having love me… no doubt, from God’s having loved her and me, ultimately.
Sometimes it seems that the degree to which I can love, I can assuage another’s fear. Some fears take years and years of loving to undo. Some take but a moment… but they take a real moment of love.
As I still work toward Sunday’s sermon on God’s liberating love that moves us to the maturity of freedom, there are some other quotations that are feeding my reflections. These two are quite close to the heart of the matter:
...the idea of love is not enough. The idea of justice is not enough. Even the face of the other, as compelling as that is, is still not enough. The simple commandment to love does not transform our lives until it becomes the enacted story of Jesus’ own suffering unto death, out of love for those in need. Not just 'love your neighbor as yourself', but 'Love one another as I have loved you.’ (Rev. Dr. Arthur Holder, “Whitby and All That” address at Epiphany West 2002)
Holder’s understanding of love makes sense to me. The love that sets others free is sacrificial. It is setting aside one’s own stuff for the sake of another person. Some weeks ago I quoted my colleague, Michael Lindvall on this: In order for people to really change, something must die: Old habits of the heart must die, fear and self-centeredness must die, complaining and peevishness must die, anger and hatefulness must die. When fear and self-centeredness die, when complaining and peevishness must die, anger and hatefulness die, love becomes possible—the real love, the love that really is enough, as Holder puts it.
The truth which makes men free is for the most part the truth which men prefer not to hear. (Herbert Sebastian Agar)
This line is what makes the confession so important. We have to lift up our reluctance to be free and to be honest.