May God Thy Gold Refine, July 2, 2017

Lyrical Living: Words to Live By

May God Thy Gold Refine    Click here for audio



Galatians 5:1, 13-15, Mark 5:25-34
Pastor Marty Raths

Call it preacher’s prerogative.  America the Beautiful is my favorite patriotic hymn, and whenever I get to choose the hymns, we sing it on the Sunday when we celebrate Independence Day.  I like the melody of the hymn, and I love the imagery, but most of all I like that it is not uncritically patriotic, which is in keeping with the prophetic spirit of the scriptures. This hymn celebrates what is good about our country, and there is much that is good, but at the same time it recognizes that we are far from perfect as a nation. In the last verse we sing almost as a prayer of confession, “God mend thine every flaw.”  In many ways America is an ideal, and even after all these years we are still trying to live into it.

Perhaps that is why I chose the particular phrase that I did. This summer our preaching theme is Lyrical Living:  Words to Live By. We are preaching on familiar phrases from hymns, and when I was trying to decide upon which phrase to use from America the Beautiful, I kept coming back to this one, “May God thy gold refine. . . .”

Curiously, this hymn suggests that it is the “gold” in our national inheritance that needs refining. Again I believe this strikes the right balance. There are some in our country who see only gold, and others who see no gold at all, but I believe that the patriotic place, and the faithful place, lies between the two.  May God thy gold refine.

We have come a long way in making the ideals of our nation a reality, a nation which ensures liberty and justice for all, but we are not there yet. Like every other nation we have our faults and failings and flaws, but our phrase does not focus upon these.  It calls on God to refine our gold, to purify what is most precious. You see sometimes it is our highest ideals that can cause us to stray, when abundance becomes excess, justice entitlement, contentment indifference.

Or take the ideal we celebrate on Independence Day, the ideal of freedom. When it comes to freedom, we are very fortunate as a nation, and we have much to celebrate. But freedom too can cause us to stray sometimes, and God has had to do some refining of our freedom through the years.

I just finished reading again a very insightful book by Jonathan Haidt called The Righteous Mind. And one of the points that he makes is that we are by nature tribal, and that in many ways this is a good thing.  It is the basis for our deep loyalty to our groups, our family, church, community, sports teams, nation. But our tribal nature does have a shadow side.   

There is something about our tribal nature that resists at times extending to others the very freedoms that we enjoy. Even in America, which was born out of a struggle for freedom, even here, it has been a long, hard struggle to extend our founding freedoms to others, to African Americans, to new immigrants including my Irish and German ancestors and some of your ancestors as well I imagine, to women, to persons with limiting conditions . . . and the struggle goes on because we are not there yet as nation, as Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “No one is truly free until everyone is free.”  May God thy gold refine.

And it is not only our founding freedoms, but the good news of the gospel, that necessitates that all be free. It is an essential part of the abundant life that Jesus promises to all of us. It would be hard to find someone more in bondage than the woman who sought out Jesus in our gospel story. Mark tells us that she had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. But these hemorrhages were not only a physical affliction, they afflicted her emotionally and spiritually and socially and economically as well. She endured much under many doctors, Mark tells us, spending all that she had. But her condition only grew worse. There was also the stigma that went with her affliction.  It made here “unclean” according to religious law, which meant that she was isolated from her social community and cut off from her religious community.  Even her relationship to God was called into question by her ongoing affliction and the dominant theology at that time.

This woman had no one, until she heard word about Jesus. For some reason she trusted Jesus, believed that with him freedom was possible. So she risked going into the crowd so that she could touch him, and in so doing she was healed of her affliction; and what is more, in healing her Jesus made it possible for this woman to begin to restore her life.

With that one word “unclean” a whole world had been constructed around her to keep her in her place, and even now there are those who must live with similar sorts of labels, perceptions, and prejudices that constrain their lives. Bondage was this woman’s God-given lot, at least in the eyes of others, of everyone except Jesus.

So it took a lot of courage on her part not to settle for her society’s judgment of her.  Somehow she believed, and I believe that it was the Holy Spirit working within her, but somehow she believed that God did not see her the way everybody else saw her, and that the biblical promise of shalom, of right relation, of wholeness, of peace, was for her too. So she reached out and touched Jesus’ garment, and she was healed.

In the eyes of others, no one was less deserving of the grace of God than this woman. But with a few spoken words Jesus would change that, and I have Penny Eberhart to thank for this insight.  “Daughter” Jesus said to her. This was not the word of judgment and contempt and rejection that she had experienced for twelve long years. It was a familial word, a word of acceptance and affirmation and restoration.

And then Jesus said to her, “Go in peace.”  And these words were the fulfillment of the good news in her life. That whole world that had been constructed around this woman to keep her in her place, with those 3 words from Jesus, go in peace, and with his calling her daughter, that world came crashing down. Our ideals always pale in comparison to what God has in store for the world. And as I said, sometimes we can be at cross purposes with our own ideals. We can be very persistent, as individuals, as churches and communities, as a society, at keeping others in their place, but God desires that all be free from the human constraints of indifference, ignorance, prejudice, poverty, and hatred.  May God thy gold refine.

When I was child, my mom used to say sometimes, “You can have too much of a good thing.”  I did not much like hearing that as a child, but I understand now what she was saying.  And this is what Paul is saying in his letter to the faithful in Galatia. As good as freedom is, and we are called to freedom in Christ, Paul says, but as good as it is, do not let this freedom become an excuse for self-indulgence. May God thy gold refine.

And for Paul this refining fire is love. As people of faith, we must express our freedom within the constraining virtues that make for a true expression of love:  patience, humility, respect, empathy, forbearance . . . These are not legal constraints, they are moral ones, ones that consider the consequences, that consider the needs of others, that consider the impact upon our own bodies and minds and spirits and souls and relationships, ones that ask, even if I have the right to do this is it the right thing to do.  A wise person once wrote, “It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have these three precious things:  freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence to know when not to practice them.” But in our country we are not always good at practicing prudence, of choosing to restrain from the practice of some of our freedoms.

We have a way of going over the top with our freedoms, too many words said, too many emotions expressed, too much violence shown, too many needs ignored, too many things consumed. And I would like to focus just on this last one, too many things consumed.

We often talk about our being a freedom-loving people, and in many ways we are, but our society tends to encourage this over the top use of our freedom by fostering discontent, by leaving us wanting a little more of this and a little more of that, and sometimes a lot more, and it is hard to be free, truly free, when we are left wanting more all the time. Not to mention its impact upon others around the world who cannot secure for themselves even the most basic needs of life.

A lot of us have had the experience of having to move, and being astonished by how much stuff we have accumulated over the years, almost without even knowing it. Stuff seems to gather around us and our homes like barnacles on a boat, and there is some spiritual discontent at work here.  It does not just happen by chance.

But true freedom requires a spirit of contentment, a sense of when enough is enough for us, when it is not enough for others, and an awareness of what really matters in life. May God thy gold refine. Jesus talked about this a lot, and in a lot of different ways, but sometimes it takes life to give us the needed reminder.

It was the spring of 1992, and we were living in Cass Lake, on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation and in the Chippewa National Forest.  I had been down in the office working, when I came upstairs and looked outside and saw these huge billows of smoke going overhead.  They looked like clouds at first.  That is how big they were.

“The Flora’s [they were our neighbors] must be burning something,” Donna said.

“I don’t think so,” I said.  “It looks like a lot bigger fire than that.”

And then I heard the sound of a plane, and then I saw it flying low over the lake and then over the trees.  Then I saw another plane, and then another one.

“I’m going to see if I can find out what’s going on,” I told Donna.  So I got in the car, and as I was driving out our drive way, I ran into our neighbor, Max, who was a highway patrolman, and he said, “You had better get out of here.  There is a forest fire, and it is really hot, and it is coming our way.”

Now there is lot that goes through your mind when you think to yourself, “We could lose everything.”  So I turned around and rushed back to the house, and I told Donna that we had to get out.  Now!  But what to take?  Of all your things what would you take if you had only a few moments to decide?

We settled for taking each other.  Our son, Nate.  Hershey, our cat. Some photos, and some floppy disks. This was 25 years ago. And what can I say, they had years of sermons on them.  And that was it.  Then we got out of there.

When we really have to get right down to it, there is not a lot in life that is essential to life.  And we certainly do not need all of our stuff to be free, and sometimes the stuff can actually get in the way of our freedom, and the freedom of others.  I revisit that day often.  In a moment of panic we had to decide what mattered, and you know, it was not hard to decide. It was all about relationships, about people not things.  We took each other, our son, our cat, who was a person to us, and those of us who have pets know what I mean by that, and some photos that represented people. May God thy gold refine . . .

“. . . till all success be nobleness, and every gain divine.”  Freedom is a gift, and sometimes a very hard earned one, and not one to be squandered. And this hymn reminds us that we can actually give character to our freedom by how we use it, and for what purposes, and to what ends.  This hymn encourages us to aspire to this:  to the noble using of our freedom, and to the using of it in ways that are in keeping with the will of God, for our sake, for the sake of others, and for the sake of the kingdom coming.  May God thy gold refine, that someday all may be free, and all may have enough.  Amen.





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