"This I Believe" by Michael K. Beard (Nov. 17 Sermon)

Over the years, there have been many rifts and divisions over important issues such as Revolution, Slavery, War, who could administer the Sacraments, Race Relations, and Women's rights to be ministers. And now the issue of equal treatment of all God's children. All have been debated at this very pulpit from various sides of the issue.

I as a self-professed skeptic, am proud to be a part of this great pulpit tradition. Today's Lectionary readings read like a politician’s speech. Malachi promises that the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all of the evil doers shall burn up leaving them neither root nor branch. Isaiah speaks of a great new creation, an end to the sound of weeping, the cry of distress—a peaceable kingdom. Pretty dramatic stuff for our climate change world. Looking at the world we face today—a world of sectarian strife, poverty and environmental destruction -- it is difficult to believe that some ever-present but unseen God will take its people by the hand and lead us to new freedom -- that come hell or high-water, a God will make a way out of no way.

But that is exactly what the writers of today's readings want us to believe. I wish that I could, but I can't. Not in the movies and not in real life.

Our founding theologian, Paul, raised an appropriate theme for our current national political circus: "For freedom we have been set free," he writes. "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.” Hello.This I do believe.

For most of my working life, I have had to wrestle with the false dichotomy between freedom and responsibility. My political nemesis these years, the National Rifle Association, claims to be the nation's pre-eminent freedom organization. Their version of freedom is one that is a total anathema to me: Freedom as a license for one to do what one pleases regardless of the consequences to society. In the US our concept of freedom seems to have evolved to mean freedom FROM obligation to anything beyond ourselves. Too often it seems to mean compromising our ethics and values for the sake of doing what feels good – freedom TO.

The pre-eminent symbol of our freedom as a nation is the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. In my public debates and speeches, I have often suggested that the U.S. should erect a Statue of Responsibility in the San Francisco harbor because we as a nation must live with that constant tension between Freedom and Responsibility.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer observes that Freedom and Responsibility are corresponding concepts. Responsibility is the freedom which is given only in the obligation to God and to our neighbors. Responsibility presupposes freedom and freedom can consist only in responsibility. However, the responsible person must act in the freedom of his or her own self without the support of persons, circumstances or principles. Nothing can answer for me, nothing can exonerate me except my own deed and my own self. Neither the purity of my motives, nor opportune circumstances, nor the value, nor the significant purpose of an intended act can become the governing law of my action -- for in that case I would indeed no longer be free. What I do must be done with the knowledge that as a free person there is no claim I can make to a valid self- justification. I must weigh-up, judge, decide and act on my own and then leave that action up to God -- or I might say up to time or history.

I believe Paul Tillich's definition of sin as a state of separation: separation from individuals when we can not accept others as part of our world; separation from ourselves when we are not capable of loving ourselves; and separation from the ground of our being, the roots and meaning of our life. What some would call God.

If sin is separation, then grace is the acceptance and embrace of community and community life. As Paul has written, the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, You shall love your neighbor as your self. This understanding of freedom alone bears the life-giving fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

Some ask why I as a profound skeptic of religion remain an active part of a church if I do not believe in the basic premise. Because I DO believe' that the best rules for living in our complex world are those set forth in Judeo-Christian theology: Love your neighbor as yourself, seek justice; love mercy, care for our environment, and walk humbly with one another. Our founder, John Wesley gave the roadmap: Do all of the good you can, in all the ways you can, at all the times you can, to all the people that you can, for as long as ever you can.To me, this is the essential meaning of being a member of this congregation - to strive to do this as a congregation and as individuals.

As for myself, in the words of the poet Nikki Giovanni "I hope that I die warmed by the life that I tried to live."

Scripture:

Malachi 4: 1-2a - "All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire."

Isaiah 65:17-25 -  The peaceable kingdom:  "See, I will create a new heavens and a new earth"