Asbury First United
Text: Matthew 9:9-13
A Village Church
Down deeper than usually we want to swim in the dark pool of the subconscious and the soul there are saving longings for grace, rising up and taking ownership of the visible world. Imagine an ample village green. Church bells chime. Children enter a library. With cane in hand, a woman deposits a letter at the Post Office. We wander in the meadow, the commons, the gracious space of freedom and love, and now pause to knock at the humble door of a Methodist Church. No one is inside. We are alone before the simple altar and pulpit, and in sight of a stained glass window of Jesus, knocking, knocking, knocking with lantern in hand, knocking at the door of the soul. Below him there lies open a Bible, like the one on our altar, and like the ones we present today.
What is the Bible about? It is a question children and adults can both ask. The Bible is a pond shallow enough for toddlers to wade in, and deep enough to drown an elephant. What is the Bible about?
A Promise of Freedom: Hosea
In the first place, the Bible is a book about freedom, or better, a library of books about freedom, divine and human. God is loving us into love and freeing us into freedom. It is freedom that is born, with heartache, in the Garden of Eden. It is freedom that is restored, with blessing, in the covenant with Abraham. It is freedom that is promised, through famine, to the brothers of Joseph. It is freedom that lies across the Red Sea, as Israel flees Pharaoh. Deborah sings a song of freedom! It is freedom that Moses glimpses, as he dies, sitting atop Mt. Nebo. It is freedom that Samuel desires, and Saul denigrates, and David defends, and Solomon defines.
It is freedom that Israel loses, when she ignores the prophets, and freedom that is resurrected by Cyrus who frees Israel from Babylon. It is freedom to worship the One God, with whom Jacob wrestled as Israel (one who wrestles with God), for which the Temple was restored. And it is freedom that Israel awaited as Israel awaited Messiah. In the first place, the Bible is a book about freedom. So when the Bible is used in ways that increase slavery and decrease freedom, beware. In those cases, even in our time, the teaching about the Bible is unbiblical.
John Wesley used the Bible to free coal miners from poverty. Abraham Lincoln used the Bible to free African Americans from slavery. Walter Rauschenbush used the Bible to free immigrants from destitution. Georgia Harkness used the Bible to free women from narrowed roles. Martin Luther King used the Bible to free blacks from segregation. Today many read in Galatians a further freedom of homosexuals from exclusion, and a further freedom of the pre-born from extinction.
Still, the freedom in the Bible comes with a high price, a heavy cost. For all the plaudits great leaders receive, freedom breaks out, one by one, heart by heart. So Hosea, heartsick over his lost love, imagined a similar divine grace, and roared: "I desire mercy, not sacrifice, the knowledge of God, not burnt offerings."
The prophets recall for us the divine desire that all, all might be included in the great open space of covenant love. It is this great promise of freedom that opens and closes the Bible, and that empowers men and women to get up in the morning and to face insurmountable odds, and unwinnable battles, and lost causes. Some causes are worth fighting for even though the outcome is foredoomed.
Here is a poem written by a man of color, remembering his youth and his father. One of our church members gave it to me last spring:
Sundays too my father got up early
And put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
Then with cracked hands that ached
From labor in the weekday weather made
Banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he'd call,
And slowly I would rise and dress
Fearing the chronic angers of that house
, Speaking indifferently to him,
Who had driven out the cold
And polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know of love's austere and lonely offices?
Sundays are about setting children free by stoking the fires of freedom and polishing the shoes of liberty.
A Promise of Love: Matthew
In the second place, the Bible is a book about love, or better, a library of books about love, divine and human. God is freeing us into freedom and loving us into love. It is love that Jesus teaches as the measure of all activity. "But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you." It is love that Paul names as the presence of God in Christ to him. "The life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself up for me." It is love that John commends as our only experience of God. "Beloved let us love one another for love is of God and one who loves is born of God and knows God for God is Love."
Matthew takes up the line from Hosea, placing on the lips of Jesus a great Greek verb, "thelo". We are told: go and learn what this means. A clue is given that Jesus has given the old verse a new spin. And indeed, in Matthew's hands, he has. Here is the meaning of this word, thelo: I desire, I delight in, I enjoy, I crave, I hunger for, I long for….Love is something we receive before it becomes the freedom we achieve.
Love is the power that operates to keep us whole when life splinters us into fragments. God is love at work to encourage us through illness. God is love at work to befriend us in loneliness. God is love at work to maintain us in sorrow. God is love at work to restore us from hate. God is love at work to forgive us our sin. We know love in retrospect.
I remember sitting in church one summer many years ago. The church was Trinity Church in Auburn, then and now an old, worn out building, supported, then and now, by an aged congregation. The choir consisted of three sopranos and one alto, singing "In the Garden." It was a hot August day. The sermon, in retrospect, in form and content was awful. Like the peace of God, it passed all understanding and endured forever. Yet, I hold that sermon, that lifeless malformed misfire of a rhetorical blemish, to have been the saving word of God. It was about forgiveness. That is all I remember. I doubt I knew, entering the worn out sanctuary, how much I needed such a word. If the word depended upon the skill of the servant of the word, I would have heard nothing. But God speaks God's word, and God can use a dead dog to speak if God so chooses. I suppose I am not the only 20 year old ever to have needed forgiveness. Perhaps you know another. Perhaps you are another. If so, may God's love be at work in your heart to mend you, for God is a pardoning God (Wesley).
And pardon is God's work. God does not need us to do God's work of pardoning love. Here is how John Milton put it, as he sat, the greatest of poets, blind and immobilized at his life's end:
When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest He returning chide.
"Doth God exact day labor light denied?"
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, "God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts. Who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly: thousands at his bidding speed,
And post o'er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait.
Sundays are about fixing forgiving love in the hearts of children and adults, and so giving real sight to the blind.
As our Bibles are presented today, let us dust them off, scrub them clean, read them closely, and peruse them under the bifocal promise of freedom and love.