Welcome to our worship on July 5, 2020 – recorded from our Live Zoom worship at 10am. Let us know if you ever want to join us live on Zoom. Send us an email at office@ucup.org.

Posted by United Church In University Place on Sunday, July 5, 2020

Romans 7:18-20; 24-25
18 I know that my selfish desires won’t let me do anything that is good. Even when I want to do right, I cannot. 19 Instead of doing what I know is right, I do wrong. 20 And so, if I don’t do what I know is right, I am no longer the one doing these evil things. The sin that lives in me is what does them 24 Who will rescue me from this body that is doomed to die? 25 Thank God! Jesus Christ will rescue me. So with my mind I serve the Law of God, although my selfish desires make me serve the law of sin.

Matthew 11:12-13; 21-24; 28-30
12 From the time of John the Baptist until now, violent people have been trying to take over the kingdom of heaven by force. 13 All the Books of the Prophets and the Law of Moses told what was going to happen up to the time of John.
21“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22But I tell you, on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for you. 23And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? No, you will be brought down to Hades. For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. 24But I tell you that on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom than for you.”
28“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

For the word of God in Scripture. For the Word of God among us. For the Word of God within us. Thanks be to God!

      The Function of Freedom is to Set Others Free 

This gospel text from Matthew appears over the July 4th celebration every 3rd year in the Revised Common Lectionary. Except these words of Jesus do not invite celebration and fireworks. It has the completely opposite feel where Jesus seems to offer a critique, claiming the people have come up short. I imagine yesterday, a number of people were a bit more circumspect about their patriotism, offering their own critique about the ideals of the Declaration of Independence gone astray. These are harsh words from Jesus: “Woe to you Chorazin; Woe to you Bethsaida…other cities would have repented long ago.” It sounds like a reproach from Jesus – “When will you get it? When will you wake up?” And then a prophetic word about their possible future: “On the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom than for you.” YIKES!!! What would Jesus say to the US in our time? His words are piercingly relevant, accurate and familiar for the times we are living in. We should know that Jesus is not addressing the failure of individuals to respond, but of the society as a whole – an entire generation. The communal sin of having gone astray. 

And we have gone astray… As Americans marked the 4th of July, people continue to be reminded — this year more than ever — that the country has a distance to go when it comes to equality. I have seen at least half a dozen renditions of the haunting speech of Frederick Douglas, a man who escaped enslavement to became a leader in the abolitionist movement, a prominent activist, author and public speaker. Perhaps the most moving rendition came from 5  young descendants of Frederick Douglass, participating in a video for NPR in which they recite excerpts of his famous speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?,” pointing out the hypocrisy of Independence Day. On July 5, 1852, Douglass spoke before an abolitionist group, explaining that the “celebration is a sham.”   

What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? Am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us? I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. This 4th of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. 

After reading their great, great, great, great Grandfather’s words, the group shared their thoughts on how the words are still relevant in today’s culture rooted with systemic racism. One said, ”This speech was written almost 170 years ago, but t is still relevant, especially with today’s protests calling for reform.”

Colin Kaepernick, who became famous for kneeling at football games in a sign of protest against rising racial injustice and police brutality, tweeted, “Black people have been dehumanized, brutalized, criminalized and terrorized by America for centuries, and are expected to join your commemoration of ‘independence’, while you enslaved our ancestors”.  “We reject your celebration of white supremacy & look forward to liberation for all.”

David Oyelowo, actor in the movie Selma, says that America won’t truly heal of racism until the Church repents of its role in supporting it. While there is no question that America has made huge strides when it comes to racial equality over the last 50 to 60 years in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement —  there exists an insidious, evil, vile element within American life that has made it feel like the gains made over the last few decades are irrelevant in relation to how far behind we still are when it comes to racial equality.

The passage from Romans 7 in the lectionary feels spot on, as Paul writes of the inner struggle of his heart – he might be speaking of the anguished wrestlingof anyone who strives to be faithful to God:  “I do not understand my own actions. Even when I want to do right, I cannot. Instead of doing what I know is right, I do wrong.” Contrary to our highest ideals, individual and communal sin becomes visible, embodied in the context of our culture, our family of origin, genetics, environment, economics, and personal decisions. Paul offers a penetrating insight into the human predicament. He highlights our own reflection of our inability to live up to the ideals we set for ourselves, our resolutions, our values, or the way we believe God desires to order our lives. Paul can seem so demanding and righteous, but then he reveals that he, too, is a flawed person. He is doing some deep inner work, calling himself to account, and inviting us to do so as well. 

Commentators suggest that these verses reflect Paul’s Damascus road experience. Listen to what Ted Smith, asst. professor of ethics at Vanderbilt has to say about this text in the commentary “Feasting on the Word”.  “Paul is referring to the greatest demonstration of the power of sin over his own  life – his persecution of the body of Christ. It was not because he failed to keep the law, but because he kept a law that sin had hijacked for its own purposes. Paul is not describing an internal struggle of individual will, but a cosmic drama in which sin overplays its hand, reveals itself as sin, and collapses under the weight of that revelation. We can see this playing out in places of history such as the confrontation between non-violent civil rights marchers and law-enforcement officials on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, AL on 3/7/65. When state and local law enforcement clubbed peaceful marchers, a sinful power showed itself for what it was. While sin seized the bridge that day, it lost the luster and legitimacy it needed to survive as a social order. 

This commentary was written about 10 years ago, but it seems like it could have been written yesterday. Hopefully, we have reached a tipping point in recognizing that white supremacy is losing the luster and legitimacy it needs to survive as a social order. When Jesus says woe to you Chorazin, woe to you Bethsaida, he could be saying woe to you in South Dakota where Peaceful Native American protesters demonstrating in the Black Hills for the Mount Rushmore fireworks display yesterday were met with resistance from law enforcement, pepper sprayed and arrested after they blocked a highway to the monument. I remember being so excited to see Mt. Rushmore when I was an 11 year-old patriotic kid, not knowing the history that the US gov’t took this land back from the Lakota people after gold was discovered nearby. This mountain is sacred to the Lakota people and known to them as Six Grandfathers. Mt Rushmore desecrated their sacred land. It makes me wonder about what other aspects of history I wasn’t taught growing up. Only four years ago police violence escalated against Standing Rock protesters in ND with water cannons when native peoples and others to protest the oil pipeline through sacred land.  

Jesus could be saying “woe to you Seattle for using force against peaceful protestors; woe to you Washington D.C.; woe to you Minneapolis; woe to so many cities in our land. Ted Smith writes that Romans 7 pushes us to tell the truth about the ways that sin flourishes, not only in our failings, but even in our best actions – our work for goods like peace, justice, equality, hospitality, the welfare of vulnerable people, the health of the planet, the proclamation of the gospel, and the sanctity of life.  Sin deforms this world in ways that bend even ethical actions to death dealings ends.  

Within the last few months we are seeing ethical medical decisions being made that are attempting to protect the welfare of vulnerable people being played out in places like AZ right now. A friend of mine, Dr. Danae Dotolo, who is a Social Work professor at UW recently wrote this: Hospitals in AZ are now able to enact crisis mode. This means that everyone who needs hospital care – for any reason – will not receive it. This means when you present at a hospital a physician calls a team and provides only a predetermined amount of medical information about anonymous you. That team makes the determination about the level of care that you are able to receive – think “had a heart attack, needs ICU, could potentially recover, but gets hospice.” This decision would be made because there are people with better chances of recovery who also need that ICU bed – for the toughest example here think “younger and got COVID because they wanted to go out.” The outside team decides so that limited resources are used with the most efficacy – utilitarian reasoning is brutal – and so physicians don’t have to live with the moral harm of making those decisions at the bedside. 

Ted Smith ends his commentary with this: The reading of Romans 7 also points to a fuller account of God’s work of reconciliation. If the problem were weakness of human will, then reconciliation would require nothing more than a little extra willpower. Jesus would be something like a life coach – to help us keep our resolutions. If the problem, however the power of sin to twist the good gifts of God, even the law, to evil ends, then deliverance requires a defeat of that power. That is the gospel Paul proclaims. God does not just give individual humans the willpower to live our best lives now, or say that it does not matter if we do not. In Christ, God sets the cosmos free from bondage, redeeming the law and opening the way to life abundant.

Paul’s theology is that there are forces at work with which we cannot contend. He believes that doing the right thing apart from God’s grace is a losing battle. Paul is saying that we need to turn from self-centeredness to God-centeredness. I never saw the movie Groundhogs Day, but I understand the premise. How did Bill Murray finally break the cycle? It is when he shifts his focus from himself to devoting himself to helping others. Kind of like wearing a mask for others, not ourselves. When he stops focusing on his own desires, and starts attending to others things shift. He did everything wrong until he finally got it. He’d go to sleep, not doing things right and get to start over again til he got it right. Of course this is far too simplistic AND 6 more weeks of winter had to pass, but there is some wisdom in this concept and what Paul is saying. 

Today’s passages reflect our everyday experiences as fallible and broken people. While we focus on action and responsibility, we need to remember that the spiritual journey is a constant process of falling down and getting back up again in the context of a grace that constantly embraces us. Recognizing our own need for grace begins to open our hearts and enables us to accept the brokenness of others and do what is in our power to be grace-givers and healers in companionship with our Graceful God.

Matthew 11 finishes with a pastoral invitation from Jesus. Some clergy preach on just these verses, and not on the verses that precede it.  I know I have taken that route. It is the easier path, but Jesus calls us to the cost of discipleship and then invites all who are weary and bearing heavy burdens to find rest in him. This is a familiar and loved reassuring passage in the Bible, right up there with “Do not be afraid.”

Jesus uses “yoke” as a metaphor for discipleship. A yoke is something burdensome but Jesus calls his yoke “easy,” and his burden “light.”  Could it be both a burden, a responsibility, as well as a place of rest. In one sense we all have yokes that are attached to us. No one lives without a yoke, so what yoke do we choose to put on? UCC pastor Rev. Kathryn Matthews recalls hearing someone say these words: 

Everyone gives their heart to something; be sure that what you give your heart to is worthy of it.”

Whatever we give our heart to, that commitment has the power to make difficult tasks seem more bearable, perhaps even a joy. It’s the things we do for love.  16th century mystic Teresa of Avila said that, “Love turns work into rest.”

This rest isn’t about being idle, but being close, intimate, joyfully, fully in Christ’s presence. There’s still heavy lifting involved. Maybe we serve like Jacob did for the hand of Rachel serving Laban for 7 years, but it seemed to him like just a few days, so great was his love for Leah (Gen. 29). 

As we think about responsibility, love and freedom this weekend, it is not the kind of freedom that says, “I can do as I want to! But a kind of freedom that

Toni Morrison: “The function of freedom is to free someone else.” 

And from Pope Francis: Building a future of freedom requires love of the common good and cooperation in a spirit of subsidiarity and solidarity. May we find rest, and freedom, and responsibility by taking on the yoke of Christ to bring about God’s justice in the world.

On this weekend that we celebrate our countries’ Declaration of Independence, let us remember that Other hearts in other lands are beating as well. This is My Song is set to the tune Finlandia by Jean Sibelius. He wrote Finlandia as a patriotic offering in 1899, symbolizing the struggles of the Finnish people—the serenity of the melody emerges, symbolizing hope and resolution.  Lloyd Stone, an American public school teacher who lived in Hawaii, wrote the first two stanzas of “This Is My Song” during the brief time of peace between two world wars, it was a song of hope for all nations—“for lands afar and mine.” The poet acknowledges love for his own country, but balances that with the love that others feel around the world for their nations. 

It is a hymn we sing every year at this time of year. Let us lift up our voices with Neva, accompanied by Jeff, with visuals by Don.