In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Merry Christmas! I am so glad to see you! My name is Diane Carlisle and I am the Head Verger here at Epiphany. My husband, Terry, and I have been members of Epiphany for almost 40 years. Generally as your Head Verger I do not have the opportunity to speak during the service, but as it is the day after Christmas and the third day in a row of services, and snow is in the air, the risk that I would say something heretical to a large crowd is greatly diminished. I do want to thank Doyt for this opportunity. And I want to thank you for being here, both online and in person.!
As I looked at the readings for today, I contemplated what to speak with you about. It is the day after Christmas so of course speaking on the incarnation would not have been out of place. Another possibility was to speak about the gospel reading today as that really is a traditional place for sermons to begin. Today we heard the prologue to the Gospel of John. Good stuff and much preached on! In fact, if you were here yesterday you heard Doyt preach an extemporaneous sermon on this very reading. My fear here was that I would say something that Is in direct contradiction to what Doyt preaches about regarding the Gospel of John, like who wrote it (now I am not saying I disagree with him, just that I MIGHT say something that contradicts his scholarly knowledge). If you want to know more about the Gospel of John, Doyt has a collection of YouTube videos (126 of them to be precise), that you can watch by going to our YouTube channel.
Another option was to talk about today’s feast day. Today is the Feast of St. Stephen, the first Christian Martyr. He was stoned to death for proclaiming the Good News of Jesus, while the Apostle Paul, before his conversion on the road to Damascus, stood by and watched and was even said to hold the coats of those who were stoning Stephen and cheered them on. No, that’s not a very cheery topic for this day after the incarnation.
So instead I looked at the Epistle for today. Ah! Here we go. Paul is talking about the law, specifically the Law of the Old Testament. Now as a liturgist, I enjoy laws (or rules), the rules of liturgy. I love liturgy because it is predictable and measurable. The rules (we call them rubrics or customaries) create order and beauty. There are rules for what color shoes to wear; where to stand; how to hold our hands. All of these rules or laws help take the focus off of the individual minister and puts it squarely on the worship of God.
Well, as I got into the lectionary I realized Paul isn’t talking about laws to enhance worship, but rather he is talking about laws that the people of the Old Testament followed, and still followed in Jesus’ time and beyond, but it still piqued my interest. Paul is writing to gentile Christians in Galatia. He is angry with the Galatians because they are considering accepting circumcision and other Old Testament laws in order to maintain or improve their relationship with God. In fact he is advocating an entirely different focus on the law. He is not saying that the Galatians shouldn’t follow the law, but he is telling them they do not need to follow the law in order to be justified or in relationship with God. People do not need to follow a set of laws in order to be loved by God. They cannot earn God’s love by doing or not doing certain things. They are loved no matter what.
Everyone is justified or put right with God by faith in Jesus, not by works of the law. Paul maintains that any reliance on the law as a means of obtaining a right (or better) relationship with God is incompatible with the gospel of grace and faith in Christ. God’s action in Christ has revealed that God’s favor is universal, so there is no reason for gentile believers to become members of a now nonexistent “favored group.” Paul believes that a radical shift in history has occurred and that circumcision and the Old Testament laws as a whole belong to a bygone era; a time “before faith came.”
We now are in God by faith in Jesus, we are children of God and have everything a child of God can have. We hear that often – that we are children of God.
So, what does it mean to be a child of God? A child of God is someone who places their entire trust in God. Have you ever been around a young child who needs something? What do they do? They make their needs known. And then what happens? Their needs are met in the way that their parents know is best for them. It may not be what the child thinks they need, but ultimately it is what is best for them. They trust in their parents and their needs are met. It is so with God as well.
I was on an airplane a few weeks ago and a woman and her child, less than a year old, sat down in front of me. My first thought was, “Oh no, I hope the baby doesn’t cry through the entire flight.” I didn’t have my noise cancelling headphones with me. Of course, as soon as we were airborne the baby began to cry. My first thought was, “Darn! So much for a quiet trip.” What I neglected to remember at that moment was that mother’s love for her child, and the mother’s deep yearning to meet her child’s needs whatever they may be. Sure enough, whatever the mother did, the crying soon stopped and the child was restored to contentment. That child had complete trust in its mother. They knew if they but asked in the only way they knew how, their needs would be met.
Isn’t that what is meant by being a child of God? If we trust in God and ask, won’t our needs be met, as may be best for us? They may not be met in the way we want, but they will be met. We are protected and loved and included in the plans and purpose of our God. God provides for all of our needs. Yes, all of them. It’s our child-like faith and trust in God alone that makes us right with God, through Jesus. All we need to do is trust God. That’s a law I really try to live my life by. Maybe you do too.
But what about those Old Testament laws? Aren’t laws the same as rules parents give their children to follow? Weren’t those Old Testament laws meant to bring people closer to God and make people right with God? Paul says no.The Galatians did not need to follow the laws just to follow the law. That will not make God love them more. Paul takes being child-like even further by saying, “You are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.” Indeed they are no longer slaves to the law but free to be children of God.
Last week I had an interesting conversation with some of the scholars in a course I mentor called EfM (Education for Ministry) . EfM is a four year program which studies theology, the history of Christianity, and the Bible. After class a few of us had a discussion about the difference between a slave and a child. After all they both need to follow the rules set by their master (or parents). A slave’s motivation for obeying their master is fear, fear of retribution or worse if they do not do as they are ordered to do. The Mosaic laws were intended as a prescription for the people of God to follow so that they could be justified with God, their Master. If they did not follow the laws, whether they agreed with them or not, their relationship with God would not be realized. It was fear that motivated adherence. However for children the motivation is different.
Parishioner Alvin Moseberry stated that while as parents we expect our children to obey us, our motivation for demanding obedience and the child’s motivation for following the rules are founded on love, the parent’s love for their child and the child’s love for their parents. We want the best for our children, and our children figure out (some quicker than others) that their parents are guiding them in a specific way because they love their children and want what is best for them. Do our children always get it right the first time? No! Have you ever watched a child trying to walk.Their parents clap and cheer them on, they take a couple of steps, and then boom. They are down on their behinds. And the parents’ response? Joy. Joy that they are almost there. As adults I believe we delight in our child’s stumbling, as God delights in our stumbling.
God loves us so much that God is with us in our stumbling as well as our triumphs. Have you ever tried to do something just to fail, and then tried again, and again, and again? And finally whatever it was that you were trying to do, it finally happened? I know I have. And I also know that feeling of finally succeeding, or at least getting closer. I believe God is with us, cheering us on, and loving us even when we stumble because at least we are trying and God delights in our efforts. God comforts us when we fail, and exalts in our triumphs. As long as we try to please God, we are indeed pleasing God, even if we stumble sometimes.
One of the things that Doyt always asks us to consider before we act is, “What would Jesus do if Jesus was you or me?” It is a great filter to run decisions through, and I believe is the message Paul is trying to impress upon the Galatians.that Jesus is teaching us a better way to live. This is the point I’m most excited to share with you today.
As we look forward to next week and the beginning of 2022, I hope that you will reflect on your relationship with God as God’s beloved child, and what that might mean in the way you interact with your neighbor and how you treat yourself. God made us in God’s image as God’s beloved children, so what are we called to do? I can’t give you that answer, you will need to figure that out, with God’s help.
However, I would like to leave you with an invitation to join me in revisiting spiritual practices as a way to help us reorient ourselves as beloved children of God; as followers of Jesus. Is there one or two that you may have been neglecting of late that may help you reframe your life more around living into God’s promise, more into right relationship with God?
Perhaps it is through worshiping God each Sunday that will help remind you of your relationship with God and truly feed your soul, nudging you ever so closer to that deep faith with a sigh too deep for words. Perhaps it is attending Evensong (or listening to our newly released podcasts) and hearing God’s promise through beautiful music. Perhaps it is setting aside time each day for contemplative prayer to listen and sit with God. Perhaps it’s study, like EfM or Bible Study on Fridays, or Jonathan’s Roberts’ C. S. Lewis Minyan that is restarting soon. Maybe that’s the thing. Perhaps it’s service to our neighbors through Service and Outreach, perhaps it’s something else.
For me, it seems in life’s busyness that my contemplative prayer life has suffered, and I have found this may have impaired my ability to act or react in a way where I am being my best self. It’s through contemplation that I am able to listen for God. I am an avid hiker and can often hear God’s still small voice when I am hiking, whether on a walking pilgrimage in the UK or hiking in the woods of Cougar Mountain in Bellevue, Washington.
If it seems like I am pushing works as a way to obtain justification with God, I am not. I am just advocating trying on a new spiritual exercise, or rededicating yourself to those that you used to practice more diligently pre pandemic. If you have fallen out of practice dedicating yourself to spiritual practices may help you live more into your faith. Because when you do that, you can truly experience God’s love for you as God’s beloved child and understand that by faith in Jesus Christ you are made fully righteous with God. Here is what I want you to take home with you today: Being in right relationship with God means realizing you are a child of God, then putting that into action. May 2022 be a joyous, faithful time in your life and may you experience that peace which passes all understanding.