“Serving Our Purpose”
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
The Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
1 November, 2020
All Saints’ Day
Second in “The Holy Habit of Serving” Series
Galatians 5:1-8, 13-15
Ephesians 2:11-22

Today, when we pause to remember those who have lived as saints among us, whose lives of love and service, of gratitude and generosity have inspired our own faith and devotion to God, it’s worth asking ourselves how they would have responded to the animosity, mutual suspicion, and dehumanizing behaviors that are so prevalent in our politically fractured nation today.  Sadly, some of the worst offenders, some of the loudest and most intolerant voices on both sides of the partisan divide today, are members of Christ’s Body, the Church.

It may or may not be reassuring that the Church, from its earliest days, was painfully familiar with such political divisiveness.  The leaders, including Paul, recognized the ways that members were getting side-tracked from their greater purpose as they got sucked into the insider-outsider drama instead of embracing every person (including even those who viewed the world very differently) as a beloved child of God.  It was a destructive dynamic, and that’s why Paul warned the Galatians, “…[I]f you keep attacking each other like wild animals, you had better watch out or you will destroy yourselves.”[1]  It’s how families, church communities, and entire empires fall apart.

In fact, the New Testament contains numerous letters that Paul wrote to a variety of congregations in the earliest days of Christianity.  And every letter referenced, even if briefly, at least one conflict or another that was distracting the believers from their larger spiritual objective.

The two Pauline epistles we heard from today—his letter to the Christians in Galatia, and another to those in Ephesus—both referenced a hot-button political issue for a number of Christian communities.  Then, as now, things became toxic for the community when a sort of tribalism took over, and certain members were disavowing the legitimacy of others who refused to conform to their rules or religious interpretation.  Specifically, they were divided over the issue of circumcision: whether or not the males who professed faith in Jesus Christ, and the males of their households, should be circumcised.  After all, Jesus would have been circumcised on his 8th day of life just as every Jewish boy was and is, according to the Abrahamic Covenant.

Genesis Chapter 17 recounts the moment when God formalized a covenant with Abraham.  There, after God reiterates the promise that Abraham would have offspring as numerous as the stars and would be a blessing for countless generations, we read about God’s expectations for Abraham’s side of the covenant.  Here’s what it says (Gen. 17:9-14):

God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. 10 This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 Throughout your generations every male among you shall be circumcised when he is eight days old, including the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring. 13 Both the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money must be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”

Obviously, this became an issue for people—especially as more and more non-Jewish men recognized divine truth in Jesus’ teachings, and felt called to join the movement Jesus had begun.  Even if human society hadn’t progressed enough by the time Paul was writing (or a very long time thereafter, for that matter) to roundly and explicitly reject the idea that God condoned slavery or people being bought with money, there clearly were men who rejected the idea that they needed to undergo this highly sensitive, elective surgery in order to prove that they identified as someone in a devoted relationship with God.  The argument over the necessity of circumcision called into question the relevance of the Abrahamic Covenant as it had originally been understood and enacted.

When God came to us in Christ Jesus, a “new covenant” was initiated.  We recall it whenever we celebrate Holy Communion, as the cup is lifted and we remember Christ’s words as Luke reported them in his gospel account: “This is cup is the new covenant in my blood.  Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”[2]

Christ’s sacrificial death, the blood he willingly allowed to spill from his flesh in order to prove divine love, represents a new covenant, one that is for all people.  It’s a covenant that liberates adherents from the constraints of Jewish Law (with its many rules) and the legalism that had developed over time and had been twisted into a tool of oppression for many.  It’s the very legalism that Paul is protesting against when he says, “Christ has set us free!  This means we are really free.  Now hold on to your freedom and don’t ever become slaves of the Law again. … If you are a follower of Christ Jesus, it makes no difference whether you are circumcised or not.  All that matters is your faith that makes you love others.”[3]  But he adds a really important caveat: “My friends, you were chosen to be free. So don’t use your freedom as an excuse to do anything you want. Use it as an opportunity to serve each other with love. All that the Law says can be summed up in the command to love others as much as you love yourself.”[4]

As Jesus demonstrated and declared, and as Paul repeatedly explained to the churches he taught and pastored, the freedom God gives us in life is not meant to be used to exploit others for our own personal power or gratification.  Rather, it is to be used to fulfill our human purpose: to love others, even as we are loved by God.  To move through the world as Jesus did, with love; with compassionate concern toward those whom society despises, rejects, and judges to be “less than”, or a “stranger”, even those whom we fear will ask or expect of us more than we feel they deserve.

And what we discover when we stop invoking our God-given freedom as a tool to relinquish ourselves from responsibility or accountability to others, or in order to gain power over others or over the world around us – when we instead use our freedom to serve others as Christ did – we discover the joy, the meaning, and the sense of belonging that our souls are yearning for.  We discover a freedom that is truly free.  Free from worry about someone taking our freedom or power from us.   Free from fear about the ways another might harm or hinder us.  Or fear about what we might lose, as new possibilities and realities are born.

The individuals Paul was especially trying to appeal to were those who didn’t realize how fiercely they were clinging to a tradition that was getting in the way of their greater mission and purpose.  They were more concerned that new members of their community should have a bit of flesh removed as visible “proof” of their Christian identity, than that their lives of love and service demonstrated the truth of it.  It was a perfect example of how human the Church has been from its inception, how resistant its members have always been to change, how compelling the argument, “It’s the only right way, because it’s the way we’ve always done it”, has been from the very beginning.

I acknowledge all of that with a certain humility and awareness that we are going to be doing something today that, for some of us, may be a surprise and will be rather painful.  Some of you may even find yourselves feeling angry about it—and that anger will be a reflection of a reasonable experience of grief, a desire to retain something that is precious and has served us well for many years, and therefore has many memories attached to it, even though it’s time to let it go.

At the conclusion of our communion service today, I will be offering a prayer de-commissioning the communion table that has stood in our chancel for many decades.  I wasn’t able to find details about who originally built it or when.  But I do know that it’s been repaired in ways that make it unusable for anything other than a large table surface.  (We looked at trying to fashion doors or shelves inside it, but at least two very experienced woodworkers felt it would be extremely difficult and would likely destroy the woodwork in the process.)

Countless communion meals have been served from this table; even more services of ordinary worship and special services like weddings and funerals have held items we’ve placed on it as offerings—not just the offering plates, but candles and pictures and ashes and flowers and Bibles and decorations.  It has served its purpose well.

But, as we are preparing this chancel space along with the rest of the church facilities to serve future generations, to be more nimble for various activities, to eventually allow our choir to welcome more members, the Building Our Vision team (who have devoted literally thousands of hours, collectively, making difficult decisions with input from the congregation) have concluded that it’s time to thank God for this table’s service.  And, as a team, they have commissioned and are paying for the building of a new communion table out of the maple wood harvested from the tree that stood outside the sanctuary, the tree that had to be sacrificed in order for our patio and new stairway to be constructed.

The tree, the communion table, the saints who have gone before us—all have served their purpose.  Each one has given of itself or themselves to honor God with the life and gifts they had to offer this world, for the time appointed to each one.  And each one has expressed divine love and faithful presence in their own way.

We are heading into a week (possibly more) that, by all indications, will be deeply fraught and contentious for our nation.  As we fulfill our call to be good citizens by voting, and as we receive and respond to the outcome of this election, let us do our best to set aside the rancorous partisanship and hate- (and fear-) filled drama the world’s powers want to suck us into.  Instead, let us ground ourselves in a prayerful awareness that God faithfully abides with us in all circumstances.  Let us make our identity and purpose clear as Christians, not by our politicians or political party affiliation if we choose one, but whole-heartedly by the love we display.  And may the love we bear witness to, and continue to pray for, spill forward from our lives to bathe the world around us with the hope, healing, and unity we desperately need.  Amen.

[1] Galatians 5:15.

[2] Luke 22:20.

[3] Galatians 5:1, 6; italics mine.

[4] Galatians 5:13-14; italics mine.

 

© 2020 The Congregational Church of Hollis, UCC