Psalm 44:1-8; Hebrews 3:1-6
Starting next Sunday here at Westminster we will launch an adult-education series called “Faith in the Flesh.” It will explore ways we encounter God in our daily lives. One topic that will recur is the question of where each of us grounds our theology. What are the foundation stones in how we build our convictions about God? Where do we begin, and how do we orient ourselves?
I’ll put some of my cards on the table. For me, one of those foundation stones is the belief that God is committed to setting people free. God delights in experiencing love, justice, and relationship within the human family so much that God wants no one excluded.
For me, our thinking about God originates in the experience of deliverance and freedom. That’s a biblical conviction, as well. We see it repeatedly in the times the Bible looks back on the experience of the Exodus, when God delivered an enslaved people from oppression. The Bible looks back, so new generations have confidence in the present moment. Psalm 44 is a prime example. It begins by acknowledging the importance of remembering and retelling the story of divine deliverance and protection.
Likewise, the New Testament has much to say about being set free through Jesus Christ. Liberation is a defining characteristic of what it means to be Christian—not liberation in the sense of a freedom that entails no accountability, but liberation to live authentically into our God-given dignity, our God-given value, and our God-given potential to bless the world.
From the church’s point of view, how we understand this God-given freedom informs how we ought to respond to Friday’s supreme court ruling that effectively overturns the rights acknowledged by Roe v. Wade. Presbyterians are fond of saying, “God alone is Lord of the conscience.” That’s a line from one of our confessional documents, written nearly 400 years ago. “God alone is Lord of the conscience” is also the first of the “Historical Principles of Church Order” in our denomination’s constitution. It’s a conviction about freedom and charity I expect we’ll hear and rally around much more in the coming months, even years. For our society finds itself now forced to reconsider the power of the state to dictate or to rescind rights involving very personal liberties such as bodily autonomy, familial relationships and whom you’re able to love, procreation, contraception, and sexual expression. Again, to look at these far-reaching issues from a distinctively theological point of view: currents of Christian nationalism have flowed into this country’s deliberations about policy and law. Those of us who understand the freedom and dignity God bestows on humanity differently, in a way that foregrounds compassion and liberties of conscience, have a lot of work ahead of us, if we are to share that vision persuasively with our neighbors.
Back in Psalm 44, recollections of God’s deliverance bring the psalmist to a place that you might find surprising. The psalmist gushes, “In God we have boasted continually.”
To live in freedom, to live in the full expression of one’s value in the heart of a liberating God—sometimes that leads to a bit of swagger in the Bible. Boasting in God’s faithfulness to us, boasting in God’s commitment to human flourishing—this isn’t about being obnoxious. It’s about effusive thanksgiving. It’s about loud praise. It’s about recognizing humanity’s valued place—your valued place, your valued place, my valued place—within God’s creative and hopeful work.
Boasting is actually a rather common biblical theme. Many biblical writers call for boasting as a response to God’s goodness. Something similar is happening in the third chapter of the book of Hebrews.
There the author describes both Moses and Jesus as faithful members of a house, praising them as faithful members of God’s people. We too, share that kind of identity. It’s an honor God showers not only on people like Moses and Jesus. The author insists that we, too, are dwelling places for God’s nobility and honor. The book of Genesis begins by describing God creating humanity in God’s own image. We read about a similar dignity here; God doesn’t create humanity and walk away. God dwells within us.
And what’s the proper response to that? Again: boasting. Boasting before God. Boasting in who we are in God’s eyes.
The final line in the scripture reading that was read was an encouragement to “hold firm the confidence and the pride that belong to hope.” The word translated “confidence” [parrēsia] refers to boldness in how we present ourselves in public. In a lot of Greek literature from that period the word refers to a right and honor of free people in Greek society, as opposed to enslaved people or outsiders. This notion of “boldness” reflects certain status implications of its time. The word describes what’s fitting for a person in good standing, someone with a dignified status. It’s confidence residing in one’s spirit, not cockiness, ego, or lording over others. It’s frankness, freedom, fearlessness. —again, all rooted in a confidence about who God has made us to be.
Therefore, “hold firm the boldness… and the pride that belong to hope.”
Back to that important line: The syntax there in the book of Hebrews is a little ambiguous. It could read “the pride of our hope” or better: “the pride that comes from hope.”
The word “pride” has a bad reputation in the church. Of course, the Bible rightly criticizes arrogance, bragging, or narcissistic selfishness. But pride and boasting are actually biblical virtues, when they stem from the liberation and the welcome we experience from God.
God has made you to live in pride, then, because it’s a response to what God has declared about your great value.
God has made you to rejoice in pride, because that pride is an expression of God-given hope.
The “hope” that the book of Hebrews speaks about is not optimism, wishful thinking, or a determination to forge a better future. More expansively, it’s the consequence of realizing that one is known by God, loved by God, liberated by God, and given the promise of receiving blessings of divine glory and honor. The scope of what the Bible says here is truly cosmic. It’s about discovering one’s importance within the entire scheme of God’s intentions.
Hope is a lived expression of God’s presence among us… and within us. It’s persistent. The poet Emily Dickinson was on to something when she identified hope as a sturdy, ever-singing bird: hope is “the thing with feathers that perches in the soul and sings the tune without the words and never stops—at all.”
That God-given relentless hope inspires confidence… and pride.
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Of course, this sermon is inspired by this weekend’s Twin Cities Pride Festival. My point in preaching on biblical pride is not to detract from LGBTQIA+ pride or to define what “pride” means to that community. I’m urging us to consider the theological dimensions of pride and to ask how a church like ours might contribute generously and supportively to the discourse around LGBTQIA+ pride, liberation, and conscience.
There are links between pride and hope. Those links urge the church—us—to see Pride Month and expressions of pride from the LGBTQIA+ community as related to the dignity of being human and the experience of being embraced by God and bestowed with divine honor and glory. Those links urge us to celebrate advances toward justice, just as God takes delight in justice. Those links should lead us to praise, to gratitude, and to greater boldness in the public square.
For many of us, however, we should also be led to contrition.
Let today be a joyful day, but even as we in the church applaud and boast about liberations that have been experienced, and hope being lived out, let us remember the hard journeys taken to get here. How do God’s people—God’s house—declare themselves “open and affirming” without denying the centuries of oppression so many have experienced from God’s people? How do we celebrate gains in justice without pretending like we’ve arrived? How do we go forward in hope and thanksgiving without losing a posture of confession?
I say this from my own point of view, as a cisgender heterosexual man who had to take my own humbling journey to learn that my queer siblings are worthy of pride, and fully worthy of God’s love. I say this also from a historical point of view, for the Christian church as a whole has little basis for expressing pride in its own treatment of members of the LGBTQIA+ community through the centuries—and still today in the vast majority of Christian congregations.
But the church has always been queer. The church has always had queer members. The church has rarely acknowledged their dignity and honor. The church has rarely tolerated their existence, let alone their boldness.
The celebration of pride should lead us to acknowledge that Christian congregations have made the yoke of discipleship hard and the burden of life heavy for too many. The celebration of pride should lead us to reaffirm our commitment to being a community of unabashed solidarity, advocacy, listening, and belonging. The mass shooting at an Oslo gay bar early Saturday morning reminds us of the urgency and gravity of that commitment, as if we needed any more reminders.
God’s commitment to setting people free from shame, condemnation, and oppression is about more than an Exodus from enslavement many centuries ago. God is still engaged in more of the same.
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We didn’t read from it this morning, but the Apostle Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians is the most tender of his writings. Paul and two of his companions sent it to a gathering of Christ-followers in Thessalonica, a community that had manifested unusually strong faith, love, and hospitality, even in the midst of intense ostracism and oppression inflicted by their neighbors. Paul and his associates had been away from Thessalonica and were worried about their siblings in Christ there until they received assurances that the Thessalonian believers were indeed standing strong and keeping their faith despite the hardships. The letter responds with relief… as well as great pride.
Paul and his friends say—and here I’m quoting from chapter two of the letter – “What is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? Yes, you are our glory and joy!” (1 Thess 2:19–20).
The faithful stamina of some is cause for the rest of the church to boast with great joy. We boast in the faith of others.
I feel the same way when I consider the fierce resilience of spirit I witness in my queer siblings… many who have persevered within the institutional church, and even others who had to get out to experience God’s liberation.
To the people of the church—and of this congregation—who have persevered in faith and hope, despite the opposition you’ve experienced…
To those who have recognized their God-given dignity and chosen pride over shame…
Your selves, your bodies are tangible declarations of hope.
You bear witness to the God who through Christ sets us free from the boundaries, norms, and restrictions we devise to oppress one another.
With you, and your faithful endurance, we take pride… in hope.
Thanks be to God, the God who sets us free from the boundaries and restrictions we place on one another, the God who is the ground of our hope until the promised day of justice comes.
 Westminster Confession of Faith §6.109.
 PC(USA) Book of Order §F-3.0101
 For examples in Paul’s letters, see Rom 5:2; 2 Cor 3:12.
 Frank Lloyd Wright is purported to have said: “When designing a house, you have to ask what the people want to live in, but you must also keep an eye on what they want to live for.” (Thomas G. Long, Hebrews, 52.)
 Luke Timothy Johnson, Hebrews (New Testament Library), 111.
 See Heb 2:5-9; Craig R. Koester, Hebrews (Anchor Bible), 248.
 Emily Dickinson, “Hope is the thing with feathers,” https://poets.org/poem/hope-thing-feathers-254.