Sermon: Slavery or Freedom

Yesterday, July 1st – was Canada Day… in a couple of days, the United States will be celebrating 4th of July – a day of celebration of independence.  Choosing whom to serve.  It seems very appropriate then, that today we consider Romans 6: 12-23 that Phil Edmonstonread for us: freedom or slavery, discussing who we choose to serve.

For my example today, I’m going to use “anger”, because it is such a controlling emotion. How many have not felt controlled by their anger, rather than in control of their anger.  But the reality is that you could replace anger with any sin, because there are so many to which we can be slaves. Proverbs 6, verses 16 to 19 caution us:

16 There are six things that the Lord hates,
    seven that are an abomination to him:
17 haughty eyes (pride of the heart – arrogance, someone who is holier than thou, looking down on others because someone is better than…), a lying tongue (deception in speech, a lie is a lie – no matter how white or little),
    and hands that shed innocent blood (while it’s talking about murder, it even applies to gossip & character assassination),
18 a heart that devises wicked plans (remember – “as a man thinks in his heart, so he is”, this is premeditation, planning)
    feet that make haste to run to mischief (they have gone from machinations to execution readily – from planning to doing without restraint. But it’s more than that!  It is also when we know what to do and we consciously choose NOT to do it! It could be not participating in gossip – when you listen avidly and fuel the fire; it could be character assassination),
19 a false witness who breathes out lies (knowingly speaking falsely about another person, not simply lying – and that, once again, could include circulating rumours and gossiping),
    and (this is the worst one of them all, the 7th) one who sows discord among brothers (this is basically the sum of the previous 6… and we are back again to gossip & slander, speaking ill of another behind their back, creating divisions rather than unity).

But, unlike animals, humans suppress anger, and more importantly we have anger problems because we forget the purpose of anger.  Instead of using anger to protect our “cubs”, life, loved ones or friends, we have started to use anger to protect our ego!And the reason that I want to talk about anger, is that it is so closely related to many of these sins mentioned in Proverbs.  You know, that emotion that you feel: fury; wrath; rage; mad; ticked off; peeved… whatever you want to call it!  However much we may value loving kindness, we still get angry.  But what happens when anger controls your life? Let me clarify what I mean: there is a healthy and normal anger.  It is part of our fight/flight/freeze response, in which many species, not just humans, get a driving force of adrenaline that helps them escape from danger. With this, we respond to a perceived threat, whether to our children, our self, or our home.  We also see in animals, the same as in humans, the anger that arises from frustration, when we are trying to do a task, and confront failure in our performance.  I’ve watch more than one horse kick the bucket to get the water out!

And by ego, I mean our perception of our ego, which is partly how we want to regard ourselves (internal) and how we want others to perceive us (external).  Ego is our sense of “I”, the way we differentiate ourselves from others.  For some, it is an intoxicating sense of self-importance, something that must be protected.  But it is interesting that the Western view of ego is so different from the Eastern view of ego. For us, our ego is the self, the conscious part of me (my mind, my being) that knows the experience.  But, in Eastern tradition, ego is simply a part of the mind, a trait, a characteristic – but it isn’t actually WHO you are.  And this is important to differentiate when we are talking about anger, especially anger that is directed at protecting the ego! And this kind of anger is poisonous to us.

You all know the story about the boy with the bad temper, whose father sent him out with a bag of nails, and to hammer a nail into the fence every time he lost his temper, right? The first day, he had to drive 37 nails into the fence.  Over time, he got control of his temper, and it gradually dwindled down.  He discovered that it was easier to hold his temper than to drive those nails into the fence.  Finally, the day arrived: the boy didn’t lose his temper at all.  He told his father, and for a moment they celebrated that he had finally learnt to control it.  The father than suggested that for each day that the boy was able to hold his temper, he pull one nail out of the fence!  It took a long time, but finally the boy was able to return to his father and tell him that all the nails were finally pulled out of the fence.
The father took the son by the hand, and they went to look at the fence. And here they saw all of the holes that the nails had left.  The fence would never been the same.  And the father told his son: “When ou say things in anger, or lash out at another person, the words leave scars like these.  You can put a knife into a person and draw it back out, but the hole remains.  Saying “I’m sorry” will not fix the wound.  It is still there.”

Many of you may think that you handle your anger well: “I don’t express my anger, I hold it in and don’t say nasty things.”  But bottling the anger up inside, if you are not actually addressing it, leads to problems also.  In the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 5, verses 21 and 22, Jesus said:

21 “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.

So, a small question:  how many of you know how a worm gets inside an apple?  You may think that the worm burrows in from the outside.  But scientists have discovered that the worm actually comes from the inside.  What happens is that the insect lays its egg on the apple blossom.  The blossom becomes an apple, and when the worm hatches, it is already INSIDE the apple. This is how our ego works on our thoughts, words and actions.  It is already inside of us, and we are busy protecting it!

But, like I said, our “ego” is not “us” – it is our perception of how we “see” ourselves and how the world “should see” us. It is only when we are able to not identify with our ego, that we are able to stop protecting it against every attack and begin to look rationally at our anger! Many of ous think “that made me so angry” or “if so-and-so hadn’t said that, I wouldn’t have reacted that way”.  But the truth is: they didn’t actually “make us” do anything. They may have been a source of temptation, but the reality is that they simply EXPOSED us and how we relate to our ego! And what comes out of our mouths when we are angry, is simply an expression of what is in our heart!

If we would take a moment, and “listen” to the thoughts in our head when we are angry, our self-talk, you might hear:

  • I can’t believe they would say that me!
  • How dare they think they could treat me this way!
  • They aren’t going to get away with this!
  • Karma will teach them a lesson!
  • This isn’t fair!

And so our mind  and thoughts escalate it… IT controls us! How many times have you been angry about a perceived injustice and your mind just won’t let it go? You know you need to relax and stop thinking about the situation or the words, but it keeps playing over and over in your head.  It’s as if there were a recorder stuck on replay! And you decide you’re going to forgive, and the anger just keeps welling up inside of you.  You start praying, and the thoughts interrupt and keep side-tracking you. How long are you a slave to these thoughts and this anger? How long does the replay keep popping up in your mind?

Think about it: how many times is this anger about getting our own way, self-centered desires. You feel righteous indignation – but how righteous is it really? Wasn’t it really about getting your way? Being right? Having your needs met? Ephesians 4:26 warns us:

Be angry, but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.

The whole purpose of the Bible is to draw us closer to God: the same God that is LOVE! God is love and we are called to draw near to God, draw near to LOVE. How do you draw near to love when you are controlled by anger? And what happens when you hold onto that anger past nightfall? You push it aside, deeper down, put a lid on it and ignore it. But it’s still there. You haven’t actually dealt with it, you’ve just covered it up. And when you try to draw near to God, you feel that there is something blocking you.

The truth is anger is a powerful emotion that deceives us into using it to demand our own way, and then we arrive in front of perfect love and we don’t know how to accept it, because perfect love drives out fear. Our ego can’t handle us letting go of our fear! It has been protecting itself for so long, that it can’t afford to let us let go of anything! It has to be right! It has to be protected! It cannot be vulnerable. It cannot be open and accepting. It cannot be forgiving.

If you want to get a handle on your anger, anger is not the problem you must address. Your temper is a symptom of what’s going on in your heart. If you gain self-control over your temper that’s great, but the deeper problem that causes your anger is what needs to change. How we act and live flows from what is in our heart – what we desire or want the most.  So, who do you serve this day? Are you a slave of your ego and your desires? Or do you have the freedom to love others? To see their interests, their point of view, and weigh what they want or need as well as your own wants and needs?

Freedom is being open to love – no longer under the yoke of EGO, but rather under the yoke of LOVE. Choose this day whom you will serve!

My ego – the root of my own downfall

The ego – the root of all evil

Lectionary Readings:

  1. James 1:17-27
  2. Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23

How do you react when you hear the word “Pharisee”?  What type of emotional reaction do you feel rising within you?

What if I told you that in the years of Christ, the Pharisees were the heroes, not the villains?  That to be a Pharisee was to ascribe to a holy life?  Of course, after 2,000 years of Church history, we have a negative picture in our minds when we hear the word “Pharisee”, because we know how they responded to Jesus.  But there’s always more to the story than the part that we’ve heard.

The Pharisees were all lay people, not priests.  Many were scribes or had a level of education which allowed them to study the scriptures and the written traditions.  They were a reform movement; it was their passion that the ordinary people of Israel learn to live out their devotion to God, in a practice, hands on sense.  They believed that every detail of the scriptures could be applied to everyday life, living out holiness in a practical way.

Their virtue was that they believed that everyone could and should strive for the same level of godliness and holiness that God required of the priests who lived in the temple.  An effective “priesthood of the saints”.  They believed that if Israel was to be the nation of priests that the prophets had claimed, then all people should live by the same standards that were required of the priests.

The Pharisees only error was expecting a higher level of obedience and commitment among the people than what the scriptures actually required of the people.  This reform movement was an attempt to call the people of Israel to a life of godliness.

Admittedly, the Pharisees put their traditions on an equal footing with the laws of God given in the Old Testament.  They claimed that God had given 2 laws:

  • the ones written down and
  • the traditions given to the elders.

And so they took it upon themselves to write down these traditions in the Talmud and the Mishnah – because while the Bible tells us what God wants us to do, it doesn’t always tell us HOW to do it.  So, we’re going to help you and tell you HOW God wants you to do it.

For many of us, it’s quite hard to understand the controversy found in Mark.  We automatically think of the hygienic aspect of “washing your hands” before you handle food. Images may come to mind of the SARS virus outbreak or the bird-flu or the influenza H1N1 virus.  But these rituals were about purity and holiness.

In ancient Israel, you had to be in a state of ritual purity in order to worship God.  If you were ritually impure, you needed to go through a purification ritual to become clean again.

The most well-known part of these ritual purity rules are the Old Testament dietary laws:  the clean and unclean. Or the kosher or not-kosher.  The obedience of these rules were the boundary markers between the Jewish people – maintaining their uniqueness as a people and culture.  To obey was to say you were Jewish; to disobey was to abandon your heritage.

The hand-washing law went something like this:

Before you eat, you must pour one and a half (1 ½) eggshells of water over your hands, in a specifically prescribed manner:  hold your hand with the finger-tips upwards and pour the water over them until it ran down to your wrists; and then cleanse the palm of each hand with the fist of the other; and then hold your hands with the finger-tips pointing downwards and pour water on them from the wrists downwards so that it runs off the finger-tips.

The question wasn’t whether or not your hands were dirty and needed washing or whether your hands were spotless: if you failed to wash your hands in this manner was to fail to please God – it was a sin.

But there was, as there usually is, a problem with focusing on the physical world and a list of “dos” and “do nots”.  We often try to solve our problems of the heart by focusing on the surface issues.  Jesus saw that the law was being used to turn people away from God, rather than to bring people to God to see and experience His love and mercy.

Our attempts to apply the Bible to everyday life can become the same kind of legalistic nit-picking Jesus found with the Pharisees.  We don’t have to go too far to find it:

  • Fundamentalist rules that say: no playing cards; no dancing; no movies
  • Baptism by immersion or baptism by sprinkling
  • If you don’t speak in tongues, you haven’t been filled with the Holy Spirit
  • Which translation of the Bible do YOU use?
  • If you don’t tithe 10% of your GROSS income (not net, after taxes or take home pay), you’re not a true Christian
  • If you don’t end your prayers with “in Jesus’ name”, then God can’t answer them

Now that I’ve said them out loud, they sound silly, right?   But they easily fool us into thinking that we can EARN points with God,  rather than to look deep into ourselves and let God fill us with His love.  It’s so much easier to focus on the practices than it is to go to the heart of the matter – as both Jesus (in Mark) and James challenge us to do.  Our worship of God easily becomes lip service: we may go through the motions by have no real inner devotion.

Jesus declared that these rules were no longer binding on us – not that they were wrong, but rather that these rules were obsolete.  It’s not the kind of food that you eat that matters, it what kind of person are you really?  Forget about the cover of the book – what’s the story on the inside?  Forget about the outside forces of nature versus nurture, the environment, the culture you were raised in or the education you had:  How’s your heart?

Many of us fall into the trap of focussing on the surface issues – the symptoms rather than the cause.

I have read (Timothy Peck):

  • If our greatest need had been for information, God would have sent us a teacher;
  • If our greatest need had been for technology, God would have sent us a scientist;
  • If our greatest need had been for money, God would have sent us a economist;
  • If our greatest need had been for pleasure, God would have sent us a entertainer;

But since our greatest need was freedom from the darkness inside ourselves, God sent us what we needed the most:  a Saviour to show us that the change comes from God and a Holy Spirit to be our teacher and comforter.

At the end of the day, Jesus summed up all of the law in just 2 Commandments:

  1. Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul & might; and
  2. Love your neighbour as yourself.

Jesus doesn’t specify the details of HOW you are supposed to do that: He leaves the details up to us.  God has created each of us differently / uniquely.  We each have different talents, abilities and upbringings.  And we have the freedom to express our uniqueness as we live our Christian life.  But the principle stands very firmly: Love God with your whole being, and love your neighbour.  There is no freedom NOT to follow or live by these commands.  These commands transcend all of life: we don’t switch them on and off – today I will because I have some free time, but tomorrow I’ve got other plans.

The difficulty, of course, with such simple laws, is that we have to take full responsibility for ALL of our actions.  We stand alone before God – with all of our internal / HEART baggage – the way we were brought up, our cultural issues, any abuse or mistreatment that we may have received – and we can’t blame anyone or anything for our failure to fulfil these 2 laws.

Because suddenly there’s no small print!  There’s no black and white – you HAVE to do it this way.  The rule is that – whoever you are, wherever you are, whatever YOUR situation – YOU have to Love the Lord your God with all of YOUR heart (the one that YOU have, the way it is), and love your neighbour as yourself.  No excuses.  That one commandment: “Love one another” is enough to keep us busy for the rest of our lives.  Of course, we squabble and fight with each other over the smallest distinctions of practice – clearly violating Jesus’ commands.

It’s like the law of gravity:

In the on-going battle between objects made of aluminium going hundreds of miles per hour and the ground (which I believe is moving at zero miles per hour), the ground has yet to lose the competition.  The ground ALWAYS wins.

We, on the other hand, prefer rules, that we can manipulate and change.  We tend to interpret God’s commandments in a way that suits ourselves.  A little like the No-Calorie Diet.  You know the one.  It’s the one that says:

  • If you eat something, when no one’s watching, it has no calories.
  • If you drink a diet soda, while eating a candy bar or French fries, the calories of the candy bar or French fries are cancelled by the diet soda.
  • When you go out and eat with someone else, your calories don’t count, as long as you ate LESS than the person you’re with.

And the list goes on… these rules that we make to bypass our character (or lack thereof).  We make the rules, and then introduce all the exceptions to them.

God has promised that He has put into each one of us a new heart and a new spirit – His Spirit!  And like a patient that has had a heart transplant, He’s given us an instruction booklet to follow.  A recommended diet:

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.[1]

So, how are you doing with your recovery?  Are you sticking to your spiritual diet? Sneaking in too much junk food, when no one is watching?  Are you getting your spiritual exercise? How about the stress? Do you remember that God has promised that He will take care of ALL your needs?

We ALL have our moments of being a Pharisee.  What we really are, is what we are on the inside, not what we appear to be on the outside.  What we are determines our attitudes and our thoughts. It IS our character.

We make up our own rules about what is right or what is wrong.  We try to make others follow these rules.  We pretend that we know better than God; or we don’t want to follow God’s rules and so make up our own.  But God’s laws are meant to show us where we have fallen short in our relationship with God or our relationships with others.  They tell us where we have hurt our relationships or ourselves and how to heal the broken pieces.

Being holy is made far too complicated by religiosity.  We have to remember that holiness is a state of being, not a state of doing.  To be holy means to be set apart for a task and to be apt for that task.  And our tasks are, as we have already seen, very simple:

  1. Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul & might; and
  2. Love your neighbour as yourself.

Yes, most of the Old Testament was written about being Holy.  But we have to stop focussing on cleanliness. Physical cleanliness does NOT equal Godliness.  Following a specific set of rules will not make us holy.

There is a Japanese fable about a man who went to heaven and to his surprise he saw a shelf covered with human tongues. The heavenly guide told him, “These are the tongues of people who spoke sweet words of virtues, who said what was right, but never did anything to follow their words. So their tongues have come to rest in heaven and the rest of them are somewhere else.”

We should all be radical followers of Jesus and take seriously what He really said.  Follow that man that showed compassion to sinners: to the tax collectors, the woman caught in adultery, the lepers and unclean.  He ate with them and hung out with them.  He said to those who would judge:

Whoever is without sin, throw the first stone.

Leave the judging to God.  Let God sort it out.  Don’t focus on the speck in someone else’s eye, when there might be a telephone pole in your own.

Be slow to speak – especially when it comes to talking with God.  If you’re speaking, you may not hear God talking.  Don’t ask God for direction or enlightenment and then carry on talking – you might miss the answer.

Be slow to anger – understanding that our anger is more likely to fuel the flames of controversy, dividing people and doing incalculable injury to yourself and others around you.

James warns that a true church is not one where the members are angry with each other because anger demonstrates that faith has not yet been implanted and is not yet growing in our hearts. Anger in the church indicates that God’s love is far from us. Anger demonstrates that the word of God has gone in one ear and out the other with no saving effect.

  • But a true church is one that cares for the widows and the orphans and poor and the needy.
  • A true church hears the word of God and keeps in their hearts.
  • A true church is transformed by the word of God into a loving church

I want to end this sermon with a lesson from Zen:

There was a great teacher in Japan: Nan-in.  An educated man, a professor, came to inquire about Zen teachings.  Nan-in served tea.  He poured the cup full, and then kept on pouring.  The man watched the cup overflowing, until he could no longer hold himself back: “Stop. It’s overflowing – no more can fit in!”  and Nan-in replied:  You are like this cup.  Full of your own opinions and speculations.  How can I teach you and show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?

If we are to receive God’s message and be filled with God’s love, we first need to empty our hearts of ourselves, our egos, our pasts, our future, our rules and regulations that we so religiously hold on to.  Let God fill us with His love and His Spirit, so that we can easily keep His two commandments, Loving God and loving our neighbour.

[1] Philippians 4:8