“No Law against Love”

July 10, 2016


Leviticus 19:9-18

Galatians 5:13-25


Karl Barth, one of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century—and many would say of any century—advised that sermons should be prepared with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in another. As I’ve been preaching through Galatians, as I’ve read and thought more about this letter, I keep running across items in the paper that both trouble me and also make Paul’s wisdom stand out in bold relief.

The danger of preparing with the newspaper in one hand, however, is that what seems to be a relevant sermon on Thursday can be out of date by Sunday. And that, as you might imagine, is just what happened this past week. On Thursday afternoon I had pretty much finished a sermon on religious freedom and some lawsuits filed by two conservative Christian congregations in Iowa against the Iowa Civil Rights Commission. On Saturday morning I read that the Commission changed some of what they were saying in a brochure and that those lawsuits might be withdrawn.

I will come back to all this in a few minutes.

But this was a minor development, really, in the face of the horrific assaults in Dallas on Thursday night which came after the shootings in Baton Rouge and Falcon Heights earlier in the week. The words of the prophet Isaiah sound as current as any news report: “God expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry.”

Some have said this past week that they have the feeling our nation is heading towards a cliff.

Others think we’ve already driven off that cliff.

We as a nation have not yet made the important choices. We did not say “Enough” when Sikhs were killed at their temple in Milwaukee. We did not say “Enough” when children were murdered in their classrooms in Connecticut. We did not say “Enough” after the murders in Orlando less than a month ago.

On Thursday, people gathered across the nation to say “Enough.” And yet, as one woman from Dallas wrote: “People young and old, black, white, Latino, were taking a stand in Dallas on Thursday night. Police officers and citizens talked and took selfies. The speakers stepped to the microphone, one by one, to speak about the horrific deaths in Louisiana and Minnesota. Their volume rose as they spoke about hope, and they finished with chants — ‘Enough is enough.’” She concluded: “I was at the protest Thursday night to be lifted up out of my sadness. ‘Enough is enough,’ we chanted. I added my voice. But it was not enough because within a couple of hours five more people were dead.”

We could despair over our situation—and that is always the temptation.

We could despair, but instead we are given a charge: love your neighbor as yourself. We could lament, but instead we are given work to do. Martin Luther King, Jr. continues to guide us in times such as this when he says: “We must work unceasingly to lift this nation that we love to a higher destiny, to a new plateau of compassion, to a more noble expression of our humanness.”

We look back from King to Gandhi to the teachings of Jesus to the words of Leviticus. And all the way along we hear the command that we still find so hard: “Love your neighbor.”

The news changes constantly.

The Word of our God, the prophet says, stands forever.

After listening to Paul’s epistle to the Galatians since late May, we come to the central affirmation of this letter—in Jesus Christ we are set free to be most fully ourselves and at the same time we are set free from our natural preoccupation with ourselves so that we can love one another.

This freedom was the way of Judaism described in the Torah given to Moses: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Paul calls the Christians in Galatia and calls us as well to live in that freedom. It is just that freedom that so threatens many people.

And this is why I continue to be troubled by what I read in the newspaper earlier last week.

Last Monday and Tuesday, a couple of conservative Christian churches in Iowa filed lawsuits in federal court claiming that their religious freedom was being violated.

And yes, as with so much of the concern with religious freedom these days, their concern involves not worship or feeding the hungry or addressing the racism or violence in our nation but restrooms and toilets.

The Fort Des Moines Church of Christ—which, please understand, is in no way connected to our denomination, the United Church of Christ—the Fort Des Moines Church of Christ, represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom out of Scottsdale, Arizona, filed a lawsuit claiming that the Iowa Civil Rights Commission is violating their right to free speech and religious freedom by censoring their views on human sexuality and forcing them to open restrooms to members of the opposite sex. They also claim that the Commission’s interpretation of the state civil rights law prohibits members of the church from making any public comments—including from the pulpit—that could be viewed as unwelcome by transgender people.

Leaders of the Sioux City Cornerstone World Outreach, represented by First Liberty Institute of Plano, Texas, made similar arguments.

I don’t know how far these lawsuits will go in the courts or if they will be withdrawn.

I do know that back in 2007the Iowa legislature prohibited discrimination in public accommodations based on sexual orientation and gender identity. And yet it took nearly ten years for those congregations to start fearing for their freedom.

Why is that?

My guess is it’s because they were working so hard against marriage equality for much of that time. Cory Gordon, the senior pastor of Cornerstone helped lead the successful 2010 effort to remove three of the Iowa Supreme Court justices who had been part of the unanimous affirmation of marriage as a right for all people in Iowa. With the United States Supreme Court decision last year, that battle pretty much ended. So they set their sights on transgender civil rights.

Here’s what I think is happening. People—even people in churches, maybe especially people in churches—keep looking for other human beings to disparage, to devalue, to dehumanize, to hate: Gays, Lesbians, transgender people. Black people, white people. Protesters. Police. And the result is carnage in a church in Charleston or in a nightclub in Orlando or five police officers dead in Dallas.

I don’t know how far these lawsuits will go.

Paul Gowder, who teaches constitutional law over at the Law School, said that access to church bathrooms by transgender persons is a complicated matter. While governments cannot directly regulate religious activities, churches are not exempt from general laws that apply to everyone.

Gowder also says that it would be “blatantly unconstitutional” for state officials to try to regulate the content of church sermons—something I think members of both the Church of Christ and the United Church of Christ can agree on.

And listen to how Professor Gowder put it: “The notion that the Civil Rights Commission can prohibit a church from sermonizing in whatever hateful or discriminatory way they want is absurd.”

The Iowa State Civil Rights Commission along with the Iowa and United States Constitutions might allow hateful and discriminatory sermons.

The Apostle Paul will not.

The freedom that we have—in the pulpit, in our worship, in our common life, and in our life in the world—the freedom that we have is the freedom to love one another. And this in no way allows for the duplicitous talk of “loving the sinner and hating the sin” that is so common among so many.

Paul in his great anger is also Paul at his most eloquent and inspiring here. His deep pastoral concern for the Christians in Galatia has become an abiding challenge to congregations through the ages. The life of a Christian community is not to be one of “biting and devouring one another.” The energy of a congregation is too valuable to be spent in hatred toward others—even in hatred toward those who spew hatred.

This is what Paul is always getting at when he writes, as he does here, about “the flesh” and its desires. Don’t use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, Paul urges. The Greek he uses says something more like “don’t use your freedom as a staging ground for the flesh.” He’s not talking about our skin here. Nor is he, as is often assumed, talking about physical desire or sex.

“Flesh,” as Paul uses the word, is the sinful power that is opposed to God in all human existence and action. It is the flesh—sin—that leads Christians toward the hatred of their neighbors, toward the condemnation and belittling of others. It is the flesh—sin—that leads the violence plaguing our nation.

Sin is so obvious that no list is really needed, but for good measure Paul offers fifteen “works of the flesh.” It’s a fairly conventional list, really. But note that right in the middle of it are what have been called “eight words of dissention and disunity”—enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, and envy—acts that threaten the community far more than sensual vices. This is the sin that Paul warns against. This is the sin that is at large in our nation.

We all know from experience that it is difficult to resist the power of sin.

So instead of resistance, Paul advocates for love.

Paul, who has just spent a lot of ink and papyrus urging the Galatians not to be slaves, now says, “become slaves to one another”—and do this through love: through seeking the best for each other, for seeing in each other the visible image of the invisible God. If any law is to be obeyed in the freedom of the Gospel, it is the Law of Love—indeed, in love all of the Law, all of the Torah is brought to fulfillment.

Paul was one for lists. After listing the works of the flesh, he also offered the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, self-control. Again, the list is mean to illustrate, not to be comprehensive. And these are not just individual qualities—they are characteristics of the whole community. We have discovered such fruit in this congregation. It has developed not out of our own goodness but through the Spirit of God living in us and working through us.

Strangers walk into this space and say, “What a beautiful sanctuary!” And it is—but the windows aren’t all Tiffany, and we have chairs stacked up like a seating warehouse and music stands like a practice room, and the cork floor is crumbling and the walls are held in place by metal rods. When they say how beautiful this place is, they are giving expression to a feeling that there is something special, something significant, important, powerful in this place—that is a place where the Spirit of God bears the fruit of love; this is a place of sanctuary where all people are valued as they are.

There is no law against any of this. There is no reason to sue anyone as we continue to give witness to the love of God for all people made known in Jesus Christ.

We are given a whole new way of thinking about how we live in and change our society—not by force but by actions that call all people to a higher destiny, raising our nation to a new plateau of compassion. Countering evil with good, confronting violence with peace offers the possibility—the only possibility, really—of repentance and new life to everyone involved.

 It is possible to trust the God who in Christ offers freedom instead of bondage. We learn in our congregation that in our personal lives and our public lives we are set free to test limits, to move in directions not defined by the past. We can question old ways and try new paths, seeking the good in ways that are limited only by our love for God and our love for one another.

Our tradition that affirms the right of individual conscience before God, that encourages the freedom to love as we have been loved may be a force for hope and healing in these days.

Continue to live in the freedom that is love.