Thursday, July 19, 2007

“The Path of Life”

Psalm 16; Gal.5:13-25[1]

I can think of a no more fitting way to commemorate the values that led to the formation of the United States of America than by designating this day as “Immigration Sunday.” There are two reasons for this. First, we are a nation of immigrants, and that is part of what makes us great. My grandfather’s grandfather came here in 1852 looking for freedom after the democratic revolution in Germany failed. The man who runs our local bakery was one of the “boat people” who escaped from Vietnam after the fall of Saigon. Our housekeeper, who has been a part of Kristi’s family longer than me, is a newly naturalized citizen from Mexico. The man who runs our favorite local burger joint is a Presbyterian layman from Seoul, Korea. The physician who prescribed the machine that is making it possible for me to sleep for the first time in 15 years is from India. And our beautiful new niece was born in China. We are a nation of immigrants, and that is part of what makes us great!

Second, the Bible makes it clear that God is a God of wanderers—from Abram to David to Jesus himself, God has wandered with and in his people, who migrated out of desire or necessity. It should come as no surprise that hospitality is one of the prime expressions of faith in the Bible. God’s people were to practice hospitality and kindness because we all share the same Father in heaven.[2] The same is true for us today because in the stranger who is hungry and naked we encounter Christ.

Our Psalm text for the day is a song of trust in the Lord. What we have to understand, however, is that in the Psalms trust is more than just a feeling or a “spiritual” experience.[3] “Trust” is a commitment to way of life and a kind of conduct that is shaped by the commands of God. In Psalm 16, the psalmist alludes to the first commandment: “you shall have no other gods before me”! Here, genuine faith in God is expressed in a life that is committed wholly to God and that avoids the idolatry of anything that would claim one’s ultimate allegiance.[4]

The Psalmist expresses confidence that God will show him “the path of life” by rescuing him and protecting him from danger. There is, however, another sense in which God has shown him the path of life. The Psalmist alludes to fact that God has directed him to “the path of life” through God’s word (Ps. 16:7). From the perspective of biblical ethics, this extended sense of “the path of life” is defined by God’s truth and God’s justice : “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). Throughout the Bible, a chief mark of the commitment to this “path of life” is compassion and kindness toward the most vulnerable: the orphan, the widow, and the alien.[5]

This is “the path of life”—it is the path of justice, of goodness, of love that makes life thrive. The kingdom of God represents a completely different set of values from those that we typically cherish: renouncing one’s rights instead of demanding them; instead of grasping for as much as we can get, giving all we have away for the benefit of others.[6]

I think Paul has this in mind when he speaks of being led by the Spirit of God to bear the “Fruit of the Spirit”: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. This is what a life that is under the guidance of the Spirit looks like. And the motto of such a life is: “you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but serve one another through love” (Galatians 5:13).

When I listen to what is being said about immigrants—whether documented or undocumented, it doesn’t look much like the fruit of the Spirit or the path of life. Much of what I hear is angry and bitter and selfish. But scripture, our confessions and our consciences remind us is that we as Christians cannot fail to consider immigrants—regardless of their legal situation—as fellow human beings created in the image of God, and as brothers and sisters in Christ.

One of our men will be leading us in “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” later in the service. Although the title and some of the words are a bit militaristic, don’t let that fool you. The hymn was written in 1861 by Julia Ward Howe, who was active in the anti-slavery cause.[7] It was used during the Civil War to inspire young men to fight for the cause of abolition. Granted, many of the soldiers who fought in the Union armies were not there because of any conscious commitment to freeing the slaves. But many were. And they sang that song because they believed that they were fighting for the cause of God’s justice. And what specifically were they fighting for? For the rights of people who had been brought here against their will and forced into slavery—people who were resident aliens far from their homelands.

I hope we can join in with him in singing this song as a way of committing ourselves afresh to God’s truth, which is the truth of love; and to God’s justice, which is the justice of compassion; and to God’s kingdom, which is a kingdom defined not by building fences but by giving oneself away in service to others.

[1] A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/1/07 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] Book of Confessions, “The Confession of 1967”: “God has created the peoples of the earth to be one universal family.” (9.41)

[3] J. L. Mays, Psalms, 86.

[4] J. David Pleins, Psalms—Songs of Tragedy, Hope, and Justice, 51; H.-J. Krauss, Psalms 1-50, 236.

[5] See Exodus 22:21; 23:9; Leviticus 19:10, 33; 23:22; 24:22; Numbers 15:29; Deuteronomy 1:16; 24:17, 19, 21; 27:19; Jeremiah 7:6; 22:3; Ezekiel 22:7, 29; Zechariah 7:10; Malachi 3:5.

[6]J. Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 163-96; Hans Küng, The Christian Challenge: A Shortened Version of On Being A Christian, 293-312.

[7] See the article, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” at Battle_Hymn_of_the_Republic .

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