Sunday, June 30, 2019

Sermon: "Lose the Recipe", 2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14/Galatians 5:1, 13-25 (June 30, 2019)


Do you ever wonder what scripture would look like if the early Christians hadn’t screwed up so much?

I do. I mean, Paul’s primary motivation for letter-writing was usually to correct some misconception that had been making the rounds in Christian communities, and depending on who you ask, these letters make up anywhere from 30 to almost 50 percent of the New Testament. It was always something with those blockheads: either they were excluding gentiles, or they couldn’t get along with each other, or they were pledging their allegiance to specific teachers instead of to Christ, or they were keeping other people as personal property…they just couldn’t seem to get it right, no matter how many times Paul yelled at—err, wrote to them.

The Church in Galatia, for instance, seemed to have trouble understanding their new relationship with “the Law” now that they were following Christ. Paul had told them that they “were called to freedom” through the Spirit’s leadership and were no longer beholden to religious law, and yet they seemed resistant to that idea. The Law had shaped their entire lives up to this point, and they were struggling to adjust to these new parameters. As one commentary I read put it, “Having accepted Paul’s message of freedom, the Galatians found, ironically, that the freedom of the gospel made them anxious and gave them a precarious social identity.”[1] See, the law had given them things that their new freedom seemed to have taken away: familiar expectations, boundaries, and a sense of their place in the world. Now, they didn’t know how to act or what to do. Although they likely wouldn’t have admitted it, they were afraid to be without the law’s guidance. Paul was writing to reassure them that, in fact, this freedom is a gift, as long as the Galatians used it wisely.

As Paul describes it, freedom in Christ doesn’t mean total anarchy; it means freedom from the burdens of legalism, from the shackles of sin, and from the rigidity of life lived in service to rules for their own sake. Instead of being bound by the inflexible restrictions of the law, followers of Christ are now free to follow the flow of the Spirit, however it moves. They could serve Christ by serving living, breathing human beings, instead of cold, unfeeling mandates.

Paul also implies that freedom in Christ is more reliably righteous than living according to the law. While the law can be interpreted manipulatively in order to satisfy our own selfish impulses, the Spirit will never lead us astray. If the Galatians make the choice to prioritize the Spirit over the Law, he says, the results are infinitely better. Instead of idolatry, hate, fighting, and selfishness, those who choose to follow the Spirit will produce love, joy, peace, and so much more.

This freedom seems like a no-brainer to us, sitting here in the pews and nodding sagely at Paul’s wisdom. But while we no longer feel beholden to religious law the way the Galatians did, we actually have our own legal idols. Only instead of idolizing laws that have divine origins, we idolize the laws of our own human making (which is arguably worse). Oh, our reasons are the same—they give us a sense of familiarity, safety, and orientation in the world around us. We want a set “script” to follow that will keep us safe without our needing to think too much about it. But we also run into the exact same problems that the early Christians did: we tend to manipulate the Law for our own purposes—to indulge our selfish impulses—and the results are ugly.

This is exactly what happens to me when I attempt to cook something. Sure, I’ve made things in the kitchen before. But I refuse to so much as heat up the oven unless I have a recipe to follow. I rely on a recipe the way we human beings seem to rely on our laws: I need a set of rules and instructions to follow; otherwise, I have no idea what to do. I panic. I don’t have enough knowledge or experience to guide me, so I lean on the rules set forth for me in the holy book (by which, of course, I mean the gospel according to Betty Crocker).

But while this dependency works out okay for me most of the time, there’s a couple of problems with it. First of all, I sometimes use the recipes for my own selfish desires. Instead of baking for the sake of creating something that can nourish bodies or bring joy, I’ll pick the recipe that’s the fastest or easiest. Or maybe I’ll use the recipe as an excuse to go to the grocery store and buy the family-sized pack of chocolate chips (“Betty says I need 5 pounds of chocolate; who am I to argue?”).

Worse than that, though, is the fact that reliance on a recipe actually inhibits my growth as a baker. While it may make me FEEL free, in the sense that I wouldn’t be able to cook at all without it, it actually holds me back. My dependence keeps me from learning how to deal with unexpected situations (like a dough that turns out too thin or finding that I’m short an ingredient). It also denies me the opportunity to create something better. Think about it: are the best-tasting, award-winning dishes the ones that are made with slavish adherence to the recipe? Or are they the ones that use “Grandma’s secret ingredient” or “Mom’s special technique”, the ones that were discovered by listening to something other than what’s written on a piece of paper?

Now, don’t get me wrong—I feel no shame in sticking to my recipe-dependent ways. Since I don’t plan on making a career in the kitchen, I’m perfectly fine with producing mediocre dishes infrequently until the end of time. But when it comes to our choice about whether our lives will be led by the rules or by the Spirit…the stakes are much higher. It’s not just a question of whether we’ll produce a tasteless cake or a culinary masterpiece; it’s the difference between idolatry-hate-conflict-jealousy and faithfulness-love-gentleness-kindness. We can’t just brush it off, saying, “It’s okay; someone else will do the cooking”, because we’re talking about how we chose to live our lives, and that responsibility lies on every single one of us.

We MUST choose to live by the Spirit if we want to produce good fruit in our lives. Paul obviously knew that; even Elisha knew to beg Elijah for “a double share” of the spirit that guided him. He knew that he couldn’t do the work he had been called to do unless he was led by the right thing. As long as he had the Spirit, he would feel equipped to step into Elijah’s shoes—the shoes of the greatest prophet in the history of God’s people. That kind of confidence sounds remarkable, but that’s the sort of confidence that comes from living according to the Spirit. When we do that, when we’re willing to let go of the rules and regulations in favor of following the Spirit’s sometimes unpredictable lead, we, sinners that we are, are able to bear remarkable fruit—or, put another way, we take our “cooking” to the next level.

This truly is the highest achievement that a Christian can attain. And there’s no downside, there’s no obstacle other than ourselves. “There is no law against such things,” insists Paul. Just as a beautiful meal prepared according to family wisdom and instinct will always be superior to one made with obsessive obedience to a recipe, the fruits of our Spirit-led actions will always be sweeter than those guided by our legalized self-interest. And yet, we still cling covetously to our rules and our laws—all of us—thinking they’ll help us feel safe.

Humanity still decries the unexpected movement of the Spirit because it doesn’t “follow the rules.” If we didn’t, then why would we be withholding basic hygienic necessities from children? Why would we selfishly horde our resources, financial and otherwise, just because “we earned them and it’s our right”? Why would we have charged a geography teacher with a felony for offering food, water, and shelter to those who desperately needed it? Giving of ourselves to others is the purest, most basic form of Christ-following there is; it demonstrates each and every single fruit of the Spirit that Paul lists. So why in heaven or on earth would we want to legislate these choices into oblivion?

This is not a political statement, at least not in the way that most people use the term. This is not an assertion intended to lift up one group of people over another, or to proclaim one “side” right and the other wrong. This is a scriptural mandate. This is a prophetic call from Paul to all of us to let go of our fear and to trust the Spirit. We need to lose the recipe. The rules don’t keep us as safe as we think they do, anyway. And they certainly don’t result in the sort of fruit that brings about the kingdom of God in this lifetime. If we prioritize the rules and our own sense of comfort over the Spirit’s movement, we aren’t just making a mistake. We’re sinning, pure and simple.

Now, don’t go thinking that I’m not talking to you just because you’re also outraged by where the prioritization of the law over the Spirit has led our society. I’m preaching to myself as much as I’m preaching to any of you. It’s not enough just to KNOW what God wants. It’s not enough to declare what’s righteous and what’s not and call it a day. It wasn’t enough for Elisha to be anointed as Elijah’s successor—he needed to actually do the work to BE a prophet. He was scared, too; he felt helpless and frightened without the instruction of his mentor. He mourned and rent his clothing. But then he picked himself up and literally took on Elijah’s mantle. As unsure as he may have felt, as difficult a task as he must have known it was, he chose to follow the path that God had set before him. And as it turned out, God gave him exactly what he needed to do it—as soon as the other prophets saw Elisha returning, they could see that Elijah’s spirit rested upon him. He had asked for what he needed to do his job, and God had provided it.

Jesus didn’t tell us to “Make Christians of all nations;” he said “Make DISCIPLES of all nations.” A disciple is one who follows another’s teachings, and scripture tells us pretty clearly what these teachings are and how to follow them. Jesus told us to make disciples of all nations—and that includes our own. It’s our job to show each other (our neighbors, our leaders, our families, our friends, our children) how to live according to the Spirit. And it’s our job to convince them that it’s worth it. Convince them that the homemade pie—the one made with love and the guidance of the Spirit—is better, richer, sweeter, more satisfying than the one made from the same callous recipe they’ve been following for years.

I can’t tell you how to do it, but I can tell you that God is and always has been with you. I can tell you that the Spirit is ready to guide your steps if you’re willing to let go of your old habits of apathy and reliance on human institutions. God gives us the ingredients that we need if we just ask for them. We need to trust the goodness and reliability of these resources instead of the stale old recipe that’s been handed down to us, unquestioned and unchanged. The Spirit is doing a new thing; do you not perceive it?[2] Let us have enough faith and courage to try this new thing along with God, and risk our own comfort and safety for the sake of the fruit that God is calling forth from us: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. If we claim to live by the Spirit first and foremost, let’s prove it. Amen.


[1] Braxton, Brad R., Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship (Year C, Volume 3), p. 116.
[2] Isaiah 43:19.

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