“Stand Fast Therefore: Freedom, Stewardship, and Baptismal Identity”
A sermon preached by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt
At Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA
On November 9, 2014
Exodus 3:1-15, Galatians 5:1, 13-15
Both passages of scripture I’ve chosen to read today are about freedom. They’re both mentioned in the 9th chapter of Brian McLaren’s book We Make the Road by Walking, which some of us in the congregation are reading.
The first of these passages shows us a bit of Moses’ first encounter with God, who meets him in a burning bush. Moses had been born as an Israelite slave in Egypt but had been raised in Pharaoh’s house. Pharaoh’s daughter had drawn him out of the Nile where his mother had floated him in a basket, hoping that this would make him safe from an edict Pharaoh had sent out to kill all the Hebrew babies. Moses then grew up as a child of Pharaoh’s court, but his real mother—a Hebrew slave—was his nursemaid and probably sang him songs of his people. As McLaren points out, Moses surely would have had an identity crisis—he would have been defined in many ways by the Egyptian culture in which he’d grown up and come of age, but he was also deeply a Hebrew. Which of those identities would be more important to him? When he stood up for a slave who was being mistreated, and killed an Egyptian, Moses had to flee for his life to the wilderness. It is here that our passage from Exodus begins.
Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.’ When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ Then he said, ‘Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’ He said further, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
Then the Lord said, ‘I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.’ But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’ He said, ‘I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.’
But Moses said to God, ‘If I come to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you”, and they ask me, “What is his name?” what shall I say to them?’ God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’ He said further, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “I am has sent me to you.” ’ God also said to Moses, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you”: This is my name for ever, and this my title for all generations.
Our second passage was written hundreds and hundreds of years after the story of Moses is reported to have unfolded. It’s from a letter written by the Apostle Paul, a man who himself had an identity crisis, a choice to make about what ultimately defined him. Was it what made him separate from others—his Jewishness, his special status as a member of a special tribe? Or was it instead the love of God for all humanity—Jew, Greek, slave, free, male, female? He had been set free from having to prove his worth. Would he live in the radical freedom of that all-inclusive love, a love which called him into connection with others, or would he instead choose to live to live as a slave to self-interest? That was a question Paul posed not only to himself, not only to his community, but to all generations that followed after him. Listen now for God’s word to us.
For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.
Tuesday morning, a truly marvelous image popped up in my Facebook news feed. It was a photo of little Bryce Gordon McKinney, in a stroller, covered in a blue blanket wrapped up against the morning chill, with a little knit hat on his head, in front of a red sign with a white arrow pointing the way to the polling place.
Bryce’s dad, Ryan, ever the teacher, had posted the photo to his page, underneath a status update proclaiming, “Bryce couldn’t wait to learn about exercising his right to vote. He scored extra stickers.”
Whether we get stickers or not, whether election results turn out the way we want or not, the freedom and right to vote is something which we should never ever take for granted. It’s a freedom for which we can, at least in part, thank our veterans, because in one way or another they were willing to place themselves in harm’s way to protect that (and other freedoms) for us. So tomorrow and on the 11th and today, thank a veteran.
The right to vote, to have our voice heard in the selection of our local, state, and national leaders is an important freedom. But today, the Sunday we baptized little Bryce, we are gathered to celebrate a different sort of freedom.
Not political freedom, as important as that is, and certainly not freedom to do whatever we want whenever we choose, but spiritual freedom, the sort of freedom the Apostle Paul was talking about. The freedom to rise above self-absorption and self-interest… The freedom, paradoxically, to be bound to one another… The freedom to serve one another and the world in love.
Baptism celebrates that freedom. It marks us for that kind of life. In so doing, it sets us up for an identity crisis. Because just as Moses grew up as the child of two cultures—living in Pharaoh’s house but hearing the songs of the Hebrews from his mother who was his nurse—we, too, have our feet in two different ways of life and living. They are defined by different sorts of values.
There is the larger culture in which we live, which is so driven by acquisition and appearance and approval, grasping for power, and striving for security, a world of busyness, where we are so often in a hurry.
It’s a rat race. But as my former professor Walter Brueggemann says, “The problem with the rat race is that even if you win it, you’re still a rat.” The other problem, of course, is that when we are running it, when we are forgetting our connection to others, especially when we forget our connection to those less well off than we, then we are not really free.
Think about the ways the culture in which we live enslaves us. Now I hesitate to use the word slavery for what we undergo, because there are people in the world today, still unfortunately, who are really and truly enslaved—those who are trafficked, who are physically held against their will, who are literally in bondage to someone or some group. To throw the word slavery around is to cheapen it. I get that.
Be that as it may, far too many of us know what it is to be in bondage to society’s impossible standards of beauty. How many girls literally starve themselves to try to reach an airbrushed ideal? That’s got to stop. How many boys feel inadequate because they don’t look like the movie star? That’s got to stop. That is bondage.
Far too many of us know what it is to be held captive to society’s view that even too much is never enough. So we can’t figure out how much we really need to live on.
Far too many of us know what it is to be in bondage to fear: fear of disease and death, fear of the other, fear of speaking out and up.
Then there are the addictions to various and sundry things, you can make the list, they can hold us in their sway, too. We know what it is to be in bondage.
Over against that culture, which as the late David Foster Wallace said in an amazing commencement speech at Kenyon some years ago, is like the water we swim in (and we are the fish who swim in it), there is another culture, another way of being in the world.
It takes intentionality to embrace that culture. It doesn’t happen by accident. You don’t take it in with the air you breathe. It’s not the water you swim in. But with it comes real, true, freedom.
That’s why, by the way, it is so vitally important to be meaningfully and regularly connected to a community of faith. Because in places like this with people like this, we hear stories about and rub shoulders with people who remind us that what ultimately defines us is not the rat race in which we live, it’s not the beauty or success ideals of society, and it’s not the fear which is so much a part of the news cycle we take in.
No, instead, what defines us is our nature as beloved children of God—called to take part in the love of God for the whole world, absolutely no exceptions. None. We live in that identity and we are radically free—to be generous, kind, present, hospitable, helpful, and hopeful among other things. We cultivate and live in that identity and we are reminded that we need not be in bondage to fear. You live in that identity, you are not thinking about using your freedom to do whatever you want whenever you want. You are thinking about how you can use your freedom to serve, to be a blessing to others.
When Karl Barth, that great twentieth century Neo-Orthodox theologian, talked about freedom, spiritual freedom, Christian freedom—he talked about it not so much in terms of “freedom from” (from sin, from others telling us what to do), but in terms of “freedom to and for”. We have freedom, Barth said, to live a life beyond our selfish concerns. We have the freedom to live for others, to bless others, to be who we were created to be in God’s image.
There are all sorts of ways we can live into our freedom.
In the course of the premarital counseling I do with couples—and by the way, Ryan and Jessie were the first couple I did face to face premarital counseling for here at Immanuel—I always spend a session talking about the things that tends to cause trouble in marriages. The person who did our premarital counseling said it was three things: money, sex, and in-laws. Money, intimacy, in-laws and family, how neat or messy you keep your house, what your religious convictions are, these are things that couples can fight about.
As part of the second session, I talk about how to deal with finances and I hold out John Wesley’s rule for dealing with money as a model. He lived by and encouraged others to live by the 80-10-10 rule. If at all possible, and it is almost always more possible than you think, Wesley said, live off of no more than 80 percent of your income, he suggested. Then save at least 10 percent and give at least 10 percent away (to the church or to other charitable causes). It wasn’t until just this week that I realized that when I give people that counsel, I’m inviting them into freedom. I’m helping them to be free from anxiety, free from self-absorption, free to be a blessing.
Saturday morning a week ago, I knocked my phone off the kitchen counter. The inner screen, the touch screen, broke—that’s a bad thing by the way—and it made my phone unusable. I’ve never broken my phone before. That helped me realize how bound I am to that technology and to that sense that I can always be reachable, always available, always connected. I ordered the replacement phone and it came on Monday afternoon. Meanwhile, I found myself more present on my walk to Georgetown and back. I wasn’t trying to capture the blue heron in flight on film, but just taking it in. I wasn’t surreptitiously checking my email at Fletcher’s Cove, I was just being present to the people with whom I was walking. There was real freedom in that—and it was not unrelated to the kind of freedom Paul was talking about.
This week I ran across three stories of men and women in their 90’s who are living in freedom. By the way, Barbara Donnelly had a birthday this week and she is over 90!
For more than 20 years, Arnold Abbott has been feeding the homeless in his hometown of Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, through his group Love Thy Neighbor. On Sunday, he was arrested under the city’s controversial new ordinance that bans public feedings and faces up to two months in jail. Let me remind you that Arnold is 90 years old. After his arrest, he said, “These are the poorest of the poor, they have nothing, they don’t have a roof over their heads. How do you turn them away?” Abbott plans to fight the charges, just as he did in when he sued the city — and won — in 1999 when it tried to stop him from feeding the homeless on the beach. “I don’t do things to purposefully aggravate the situation,” said Abbott. “I’m trying to work with the city. Any human has the right to help his fellow man.”
That is freedom.
Chester Wenger and his wife have been married for 70 years. They have a son who is gay. Chester is a Mennonite missionary and pastor, now retired. After same-gender marriage became legal in Pennsylvania, Chester officiated at his son’s wedding in Pennsylvania. After he officiated, he wrote his Mennonite conference and said, essentially, “This is what I’ve done. I don’t apologize for it. Because this is the right thing to do.”
That is freedom.
This week I saw a wonderful video from a woman named Jean Veloz’s 90th birthday part. Everyone that knows her, knows that this 90-year-old woman has one passion and that is dancing. I watched the video, and let me tell you she danced the socks off of almost all the younger men who took the floor with her. She’s got better moves than many people I’ve seen.
It occurred to me watching Jean Veloz dance, that she too, knows a little something about freedom. It also occurred to me that whether or not we can literally dance or not, when we the freedom to live for others, to give generously for the sake of others, our hearts dance, whether our bodies can or not.
 Bob Norman, Local10.com, http://www.local10.com/news/police-charge-90yearold-man-2-pastors-with-feeding-the-homeless/29510268 (reported on 11/03/2014)
Charles Wenger, “Opinion”, The Mennonite (online edition), https://themennonite.org/opinion/open-letter-beloved-church/, 11/06/2014
“90-Year-Old Grandma Has The Moves!”, http://cutepuppylove.me/2014/08/21/90-year-old-grandma-has-the-moves/, 08/21/2014