“No Law against Love”
July 10, 2016
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Thursday can be out of date by Sunday.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saying in a brochure and that those lawsuits might be withdrawn.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
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
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
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.
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.”
could despair over our situation—and that is always the temptation.
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,
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
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
Leaders of the Sioux City Cornerstone
World Outreach, represented by First Liberty Institute of Plano, Texas, made
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
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
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
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
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.
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