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Swimming in a Fishbowl
The Rev. Keith Gunter
July 1, 2012 

Exodus 14:10-14
Galatians 5:1-6

At one point in our history cameras had film.  It may be surprising to some of you.  And when I mean film, I am not talking about a little disk that is inserted.  I am talking about actual film found in canisters.  We had to be so careful with this film.  You would find yourself, at times when you were trying to load your camera, in your own closet.  And you would carefully stretch it out, and lay it out straight in the darkness, because you knew you only had twenty-four chances to get it right.  Maybe, if you had a fancy camera, you had thirty-six exposures.  This was your film, in little canisters, and this was so important to us.  It was not like the cameras of today when people come back from vacation and tell you, “Oh, we only took three hundred and seventy-two pictures.” You have seen them and you are guilty of it yourself.  You will go to the beach or some national monument and you will take that picture with your digital camera, and you will think, “I don’t know if I got it.  Let me take it again… and again… and let me turn it this way and take it.” You don’t know the blessing that it is nowadays.   Because before that we had just a couple of chances to get it right, knowing that to walk in later to the camera store or pharmacy to receive those 24 shots, the nervousness of “what if we messed up?”  You see, before digital we would see a scene at the end of our vacation, and it was one of those beautiful scenes of our family, where we were in front of that monument or whatever it may be, and our children were there and we see it and think, “Oh, that is perfect.” Then we would pull out our camera and look down to see how many shots we had left.  “Oh, I don’t know if it is that good… I only have three shots left.  Let’s just wait for something better.”

You see we get caught up into that because we had the sense that we wanted to make sure that picture was perfect, was worthy.  We had this hidden list of requirements when we took pictures back then.  We didn’t write down the list but it was as if this picture had to have the right people in it, the right setting, the right sun, the right moment – because you were not going to waste your shot if it wasn’t just right. 

I think somehow, consciously or unconsciously, we can dangerously carry that over in our faith.  We don’t write down the list of requirements anymore, but deep in us is this sense that everything has to be a certain way to live out our faith.  We think, “Well, it must be like this, and you must do this, it has to have this requirement, and it must meet this because then you are living out your faith, otherwise you have missed it.   Paul talks about this.  He simply says that what we end up doing is “add to the Gospel.”  And that is the overarching theme Paul has for the Church in Galatia.  He says it over and over again.  He says, “you are adding to the Gospel,” and then he adds, “that which is not even the Gospel at all,” and are giving it requirements that are not needed.  And Paul is concerned about this.  You and I sit here and listen today and say, “Wait a minute – how do we add to the Gospel? I am not writing anything down.  I am not listing out books and letters to this.  What do you mean, ‘I am adding to the Gospel?’” 

You and I work ourselves to a frenzy when deep within us we say things like, “Well, I better do this to make sure I’m in God’s grace.  I better say these things, or I better pray this way, or I must do this to live out my faith.” Or, even more, when we try to get others to do that.  When we try to tell our children, “You have to do this to live out your faith.” Or to friends or neighbors or co-workers or whomever it may me, we say, “We want you to live and do this certain thing so you will achieve faith.”

As one who is trying to start a new church, who looks upon this church and says, “Oh, this is what it could be!”  And the temptation I have in my community to say, “Oh, if you’ll just do this…”  Then I realize I am adding to the Gospel.  Maybe it is my way of manipulating the Gospel to bring my own peace about it.

Let me stay for a moment with the picture analogy.  I do not know your traditions here around Christmastime, but in Georgia, starting right after Thanksgiving our mailbox will be flooded with Christmas cards.  But they are not really cards anymore are they?  They are Christmas pictures.  What we do in our family is display them.  We have a picture tree and we put them all over our refrigerator, and we talk about them over the dinner table and with friends, “Did you get their Christmas picture?  Oh, and they’re absolutely beautiful!” What is amazing is that some of these pictures have been in the works for about six months.  There’s the family in the Christmas picture who are all dressed in white on the beach.  I don’t think I have ever dressed my kids all in white for the beach.  We orchestrate the pictures and we think that these are the things that have to be in place for the picture to be perfect.  I have seen pictures where families have lined up, and they are all wearing the perfect Christmas sweater that matches their tree.  The smiles are perfect on all their children, every single one of them.  Even their dog has this upright pose.  (“How did you get your dog to smile?”)  And we talk about it and say this is exactly it. 

One day we got at our house, literally the day before Christmas, amongst all the mail, the worst Christmas picture I ever saw.  This wonderful family was destroyed, it seemed like, because in this picture the little girl – something must have happened because she got so angry at her brother that she had reached out and was pulling his hair.  Her eyes were shot with tears.  He was so angry that he turned back to his dad thinking his dad had done something, and he was pulling his dad’s tie.  Meanwhile, the mother was giving this look to the father – the look of all looks.  And all you could see was the tail of the dog going out of the picture.  I took that picture said, “That’s the picture I want!” So I carried it around and saw them that night at the Christmas Eve service, and sure enough, I had my robe on and pulled it out and said, “I got your picture!”  I thought it was an accident; I thought something happened and they didn’t know, and I said, “Did you mean for this to happen?” And I am waiting for their response, for this long story, but all he said as he smiled and took a deep breath was, “You know, we tried forever in that picture to get it right.  We tried to manipulate the whole situation to make this scene.  If you notice in the background, our tree is even about to fall over.  We got tired of manipulating our family to be something that we were not.” How easy that is for you and I.  We try to present this picture of perfection so that everyone else can see it.  And for one moment, he said, “We were tired of it.  This is who we are at times.”

I think that is Paul’s concern as he writes to the Church in Galatia.  He says, “I am worried about you for so many of you are trying to look and do all the ‘right’ things, and have added these rules and regulations to yourself, and you are missing the Gospel.  True freedom is found just in the grace of knowing Jesus Christ.”

Let’s be honest.  Any text that I read to you from Scripture that encourages us to seek freedom in our context, in this blessed nation, is a bit of a challenge.  We live in nation founded upon the pursuit of freedom by those who gave their very life, who like my grandfather taught me what it means to love our country with great pride for the freedom which it gives.  And yet, we must be careful because like Paul and the Church in Galatia we can get caught up, missing a freedom from Christ that brings truth, a freedom that brings a new way of life.  This is different from civic or political or economic freedom.  Paul writes to the Church in Galatia (possibly much like I believe how he would write to the Church in America) concerned with the Church’s understanding or perceived sense of freedom.

I read and re-read this text a hundred times, and while reading it, and in preparing, saying “But I’m free…  I don’t understand Paul… I can’t connect to this text because I am free, I love Jesus.” But then I would get up and walk away, and the next thought in my mind was, “Oh, I love Jesus, but if I don’t get this right, if this sermon isn’t good, if I don’t win the approval of those around me…”  And all of a sudden, I was adding to the Gospel.  All of a sudden I was adding the burden and yoke of slavery, placing it right back on top of me again.  Adding all these requirements of what I must do.

I saw a picture once (Now I can’t do what Todd does and tell you the deep historical reference of some hidden museum that he found it in.  To be honest with you, I think I found it in a hotel lobby somewhere.).  But it was some cruel photographer who took a fishbowl – a plain, ordinary fishbowl, with a goldfish in it and a small castle – and placed the fishbowl on the beach next to the ocean, and he took a picture of that fish.  It was the strangest picture I have ever seen.  I sat there and it almost bothered me for a moment because that fish did not seem bothered by it – the deep sea, the ocean, the vast freedom right next to the fish.  The fish was sitting in the fishbowl completely content with its perceived freedom.

I think that is what happens to us sometimes – this perceived freedom in which we live.  Maybe it is like this: I have two children, ages four and two, and one of our favorite activities this past spring was going out and catching lighting bugs.  We would go out just before dark, where lightning bugs would just cover our yard.  I would kind of limit – like there was some kind of maximum – how many lightning bugs we could catch.  We would barter for a while.  My kids would start out with one hundred, and I would work our way down: “Okay, tonight it is thirty-seven, that’s the deal.”  And they are wrangling them in, and we had so many, and would try to figure out how many we had, and I am trying to count them.  They would send me back in to get some type of jar to hold the bugs in so they could get this collection, this herd (do you call lightning bugs “herds”?), this flock of bugs.  I am holding them in the jar and they are so excited.  The night comes to an end and I say, “That’s all of them.” The lid is on top and I said that I am going to release the top and there is going to be a moment when these bugs are going to just fly out and light up the sky.  My kids gathered around me, and my little girl pretty much was just sitting on top of me waiting for this beautiful moment.  I opened the jar and I pulled my hand back, and you know what happened?  Nothing!  Some bugs were stuck to the lid.  Most of them just sat in that jar.  We tried to encourage them to get out.  My daughter kept saying, “What’s going to happen, Daddy?” And I said, “I don’t know.” So we would shake the jar and hold it upside down, but somehow those bugs had gotten content in their confined space, in their perceived freedom.

I think that is what sin does to us.  Somehow it teaches us that this is freedom, and yet limits what God can do and what there is out there for us to experience.  For many of us, we have had these rules and regulations, and for many of us we have laid upon ourselves this idea that it’s Jesus, and we have to do this, this and this. 

Brothers and Sisters, the beauty in the life and knowing the grace of Jesus Christ is that it is incompatible with anything else.  You can add nothing to it.

Henri Nouwen says it like this: “The question is not: How many people take you seriously? How much are you going to accomplish? The question is not: Can you show some results? But the question is: Are you in love with Jesus?” Nothing more. 

I think that is what Paul points to in verse 6: “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.”  I went back and looked up the word “only” in Greek, it translated, in part, to “only.” But I think that is beautiful.  The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.

I know the temptation will be to go back, to say, “That’s not enough, you’re asking me to step out, to fly out of the jar, to jump into the ocean – or whatever it may be – to go back and not provide.” The temptation to go back and make sure there is some security, some comfort, some type of safety net or cushion around us, because Jesus is good for us sometimes, but ultimately we function in a way that says Jesus might need a little help.  In those moments, you and I put on ourselves the yoke of slavery, the burden of sin, we put it right back on top of us.

Look at the Israelites, after the plague in Exodus, verse 8: “The Israelites who were marching out boldly….” I imagine this parade with the Israelites leaving Egypt, marching out boldly with their shoulders back, head held high with what their God had done for them.  And just a few verses later, the Israelites begin to cry out, “let’s go back, it would have been better for us to be slaves, than to step into this type of freedom.”  And I love what God does.  In God’s mercy and grace, God simply says, “Don’t do anything… Just be still… So that the God of grace may be GOD (and not you).”  Thus, the call to freedom is a call to our character to be still, to quit worrying, to move out from under the bondage of whatever sin we have added to it, and allow God to be God.  Because it is then that we can experience what it means to wait with eager expectation. 

Earlier in Scripture Paul writes, “…to wait as though in pains of labor.” My wife is eight-and-a-half-months pregnant.  I looked over at her last night and I realized what it means to wait.  There is nothing we can do right now, but we wait with eager expectation of the gift and the joy in which God has provided for us.  We wait as those in labor so that we can bear witness to the audacity of Grace, found only in the redeeming work of Jesus.

So maybe the question for you and I this day is, Where have we added to the Gospel?  Are we living a limited freedom that reduces the work of Jesus?  And finally, how might we be still and let the Spirit of the Living God move in a mighty way so that we can proclaim, like Jesus proclaimed, that Jesus was sent to preach the good news to the poor and who was sent to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, to the glory of God.  Amen.

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