A Sermon Preached at the Larchmont Avenue Church
July 3, 2011
Rev. Julie Emery
Text: Psalm 46, Galatians 5:1, 13-14
Galatians 5: 1, 13-14
For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery…for you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters, only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as your self.”
What do you love about America? The question was asked of new citizens throughout our country by Alexandra Pelosi, for her documentary film, “Citizen USA: A 50 state roadtrip” which will air on HBO tomorrow.
The common answers were not, as you might guess, freedom. Not free speech or freedom of the press, although people did say things like: “In America I can do anything I want.” Instead, the answers were… simpler. Clean streets or the ability to buy a house. Perhaps American food, or Disneyworld, or perhaps the opportunity for an education. Even 911 phone calls made the list: “I love it,” one woman exclaimed, “because you just call the number and they come right away for your rescue!”
Nearly 1 million people a year become US citizens; Pelosi traveled throughout the US and interviewed people from various countries throughout the world who had gone through the process of naturalization. She documented their stories and their love for this country. She interviewed every day folks as well as a few more famous immigrants such as Henry Kissinger, Madeline Albright, Ariana Huffington, and Gene Simmons from the rock band Kiss. Each of these very different and each who expressed a love for this country that was passionate and clear.
Pelosi described her quest and questioning as a great opportunity to remind us how much we take for granted: the everyday freedoms that are actually luxuries, the simple moments that make our lives so rich and full, those everyday blessings that bit by bit make up what amounts to the “American Dream.” “Even if we don’t believe it any more,” she said, “the American dream is very much alive for these new citizens.”
As Christians we have to be careful, of course, when we talk about God’s blessing upon any one country, even our own USA. Although there is language throughout our scriptures that suggests that God blesses one particular place with God’s presence or favor. Take the 46th Psalm, read just a bit ago by elder Ted Utz, which describes a city of God made glad by a river that runs through it, a city where God makes a home and dwells in it, blessing its inhabitants with peace and security.
That same language is found in the book of Revelation, which is being read by our women’s bible study, describing the New Jerusalem, sitting on a great, high mountain, with walls of jewels and a river of the water of life running through it. And while Psalm 46 does not mention Jerusalem itself, there is a strong theology of God’s dwelling place in the midst of the temple of Jerusalem, the city of God.
The tricky thing is that it’s not altogether clear whether these texts are talking about Jerusalem or the New Jerusalem – the one not yet created. It’s not clear whether the writers think this city of God is on earth or if it will be only in heaven. It’s not clear: Is the city of God a REAL place, or an ideal one?
Recently I read of one of those stories that reminded me that America, at least, is certainly not the equivalent of the City of God described in the Psalms or Revelation. Valarie Kaur describes it as a whirlwind moment: a moment of crisis when one is faced with the choice of supporting the status quo or to follow one’s moral compass and leap into the whirlwind.
Her own whirlwind moment came when she was 20 years old when Valarie was hiding in her bedroom fearfully contemplating events that had occurred in her community shortly after September 11, 2001. You see, Valarie is a third generation S(ee)kh-American. A man in her community had just been murdered. A woman stabbed. And another had been chased by an angry mob. In that moment Valerie considered keeping her head down and staying quiet. She considered running from the whirlwind.
But then, she remembered a short prayer her grandfather had taught her as a child; “Tati Vao Na Lagi, Par Brahm Sharnai…” With that prayer on her lips, instead of hiding in fear she did something quite a bit like what Alexandra Pelosi did. She began touring the United States listening to and telling stories. She took photographs and then movies and told more stories. Stories of hate crimes against her people, stories of people fighting for justice and peace. Stories of pain and sorrow, of hope and unity. Stories that begin to heal the gaping wounds of division. Stories that made for peace.
All the while, she writes, she was praying her grandfather’s prayer, a prayer she did not fully understand until she experienced her whirlwind moment. A prayer which means: “The hot winds cannot touch me; I am sheltered by the divine.”
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea…”
It’s been quite a while since our country felt anything close to secure and stable. Perhaps it’s been quite a while since many of us individually felt something like stability. So often it seems there is always another crisis: another illness, another earthquake or tornado, another news report on the unemployment rate, another something to remind us that the ground is still moving. And yet, perhaps stability itself is a bit of a mirage. As the saying goes, the only true constant is change.
Reading through the Psalms one gets the feeling that the people of Israel felt the same way. “The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; God utters his voice; the earth melts.”
This feeling didn’t seem to go away for Jesus and the early Christians either, who spoke again and again about the great revealing that would come, when God’s presence would be made known and the world would fall to it’s knees. And yet, even while they hoped for the world to be different, even as they hoped for God to come down and claim them, shielding them from the turmoil of the world, they also believed that in Jesus Christ God had already done that: claimed them, dwelt among them, brought them… peace.
Paul, especially, treads this line, as he urges us live in freedom. It is the kind of freedom that comes with joy and celebration. The kind of freedom that comes with knowing that God’s embrace cannot be pushed away. The kind of freedom that comes with knowing that nothing can shake the ground beneath your feet if God dwells among you and in you.
But it is not an “I’m free to do whatever I want,” kind of freedom. It’s a freedom that comes with responsibility. “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
God’s presence gives us true freedom, which means we are free to be for each other and for God. Free to seek one another out and support each other. Free to welcome and feed one another. Free to make the ways for peace, free to tell and live out stories of justice. Free to act to make the world more like a city where God could and does indeed dwell.
You see, the city of God, even when there are those who believe it is actually here on earth, still is an idea, a hope, an impassioned plea as we work to live out the life that God would have for us. “The psalmist does not invite trust in a place but in a Presence who wills to live with people.” The Psalmist reminds us that even in the midst of that great constant change is an even greater constant, the God who is our refuge and strength.
Though wars are still waged, and they are.
Though the earth changes and mountains shake and rumble, and they do.
Though winds swirl around us, even quite literally.
Though doctors may deliver unthinkable news.
Though the financial system shall tremble and jobs may be lost.
Though our families may reconfigure and reconstruct.
Though our friends may move away or just move on.
Though our children may grow and change before our very eyes.
Though our lives may feel some days unrecognizable.
The Lord of the hosts is with us.
Be Still, and know
Stop, and know
Halt, and know,
Let go of everything you cling to
Let go of everything you are doing
Let go. Be free….And know
That I am God.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.