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Monday, October 28, 2013

A Little Bit of Freedom

This sermon was preached on Reformation Sunday. The text was John 8:31-36

Please pray with me

Lord God, by your Spirit open our hearts and our minds to receive and engage your Word. Grant that we who believe in you may be filled with your Spirit and may know the truth indeed. We ask this through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

What would you do with freedom if you had it? What would you do, if you were truly free? I realize that some of you right now, may be sitting there thinking to
yourselves, what in the world is Pastor talking about? We are free. We live in the “land of the free and the home of the brave”. Like the Judeans in today’s gospel you might even think to yourself, “We have never been slaves to anyone.” And in one sense, you might be right.
Others of you might be thinking to yourselves, “I don’t even know what being free would look like.” You are the ones who feel bound and even overwhelmed by schedules, responsibilities, the demands of families, or your career, and like a hamster on a wheel, you feel like you are endlessly running, endlessly trying, endlessly working to achieve the perfect balance, be the perfect parent, spouse, child, friend, student or worker or whatever, and feeling like you never really measure up. You may be confined by illness, by bodies that are betraying you, or by financial constraints. So the pastor’s words and this gospel’s message of true freedom for you feels out of reach and unrealistic, and more than you can possible hope for. And to some degree, you might be right.
Still others of you are sitting there right now, wondering what you might make for dinner, or thinking ahead to Thanksgiving and forming plans in your heads for the holidays. Or noticing the colors in that window or simple looking around and appreciating how fine this church looks when it is all decked out in red like it is today. Because you are among the ones who may think to yourselves, “Since I believe in Jesus, and I know that I am saved by grace alone through faith alone, I’m good.” And of course, you are partially correct as well.
But I have to tell you, whichever of those you are, this gospel message is for you. It is for all of us.
When we hear the word free or her sister, freedom we often think like the Judeans in John’s gospel today likely did, in the literal or political sense: Freedom as release from oppression or forced servitude; freedom as the removal of externally imposed restrictions or freedom as unfettered enjoyment of life.  Like the 21st century Americans that we all are, we think of freedom in terms of the vast number of choices that we may have. And like the Jews in this gospel text from John, we tend to hear what Jesus is saying in this text in its more literal sense. We assign meaning to this passage based on a concept of freedom as liberation from, rather than invitation to.
But as often happens in the gospel of John, there is some kind of misunderstanding here. Because while in verse 32 Jesus has just let these listeners in on this wonderful secret, this awesome this life-affirming gift, “you will know the truth and the truth will make you free,” in verse 33 the Jews he’s talking to get hung up on the freedom part. They take a literal interpretation of “freedom” and “slavery” and argue that they have never been slaves to anyone. Those were their ancestors who were slaves in Egypt, their ancestors who suffered captivity in Babylon, not them; no one in this generation had ever been a slave.
But they just missed what came first. They missed the invitation. They missed the part in verse 31where Jesus invites them to life as a spiritual reality if they continue in his wordbe my disciples – and then you will know the truth – and be made free.
There is some kind of flaw in their understanding of who Christ is and what he does. They don’t know and can’t see the whole story. They only see in part, as in a smoky mirror, as through a gauzy veil. They haven’t yet learned that without Jesus, we can never be truly free. And it’s not the Egyptians, or the Assyrians, or the Romans that they have to worry about freedom from. It is the enslavement of sin that haunts us all. Yet Jesus has the antidote. Jesus, in fact, is the antidote.
In today’s text, Jesus says, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples.” That word translated from the Greek as “continue” may also be translated as “abide”. Abiding in the word is having a deep, intimate, ongoing relationship with Jesus Christ; abiding in Christ means living as a disciple; dwelling in and with Jesus, means having your whole being focused on Jesus. Abiding this way, will open your heart, it will change your life, and, Jesus tells us, you will know the truth, and that is what makes you free. The truth that makes you free is Jesus. Jesus is the truth. Believing in Jesus doesn’t consist of saying the right creed or confession, rather believing in Jesus shifts our attention away from ourselves and to the one who is Light, the one who is truth, the one who offers us true Life. Believing and abiding leads us down the path of “The Way” to Christ-like living.
The kind of freedom Jesus is talking about in this gospel text for today is the kind of freedom that the Reformation was all about as well - Because understanding the righteousness of God as a gift for those who believe in Jesus Christ, also means knowing that you are invited into a new kind of life and relationship with God, through Jesus Christ, and that your faith is the first gift you have been given.
My friends, the fact of the matter is that we are all in need of saving. What Luther recognized about himself, is that if anything about his own salvation depended on his own character or ability, he was lost. The same may be said for us. But the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ is that it is not up to us. Our salvation is both dependent on and is all about what Jesus did. On the cross of Calvary, Jesus freed us once and for all, from slavery to sin and from death.
Theologian Paul Tillich said that we are saved from, are death and fate, guilt and condemnation, meaninglessness and despair. And what are we saved for? Tillich claimed that freedom from the power of death leads us to live life abundantly; freedom from guilt (through the forgiveness of sins) frees us to live by grace; and freedom from despair and meaninglessness makes it possible to live for Christ and for others in friendship and in service. In deep, meaningful ways. In loving relationships.
The Reformation that we remember today was and is about shifting our attention away from ourselves and to God; because God loves us and delights in our wellbeing so much, God takes on the entire responsibility of our salvation. The Reformation was about helping people to know that no one is out of reach of freedom, of healing, and of experiencing God’s love. It was about opening the door to a relationship with Jesus Christ that leads us into a new kind of life. Abiding in Christ is relationship building, and in it we are empowered to love and serve others as we ourselves have been loved and served.
Trusting in the true power of God’s grace to save, we are freed to take chances for the sake of the gospel. We are freed to embark on true Christ-like living, letting go of our fear of failure. In a letter to Philip Melanthon during the Diet of Worms, Luther advised his friend to Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly, for he is victorious over sin, death, and the world.” Luther wasn’t encouraging Melanthon to go ahead and lead a debauched life, but during a time of trial he wanted his friend to take heart, to have faith, and not to fear, trusting that ultimately God would prevail. The same applies to us, today.
To us, Luther would (and did) say, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.
At the beginning of this sermon, I asked you all a question. Do you remember it? I asked you, what would you do, if you were truly free? Perhaps you are among the ones who thought to yourselves at the beginning of this sermon, “The pastor is nuts. We are free. We’ve never been slaves to anyone.” To you I say, remember the God-awful truth. The truth that we are sinners; that on our own we cannot become righteous; the truth is that we are not free – on our own. We are slaves indeed, enslaved by the brokenness of our sin. Remember the truth that we need God’s help even though it is highly likely that we will rebel against it, that we will reject it. Yet God is persistent and never gives up on us. Know the truth. Abide in Jesus, and find through your relationship with Christ that you are engaged in new life.
Perhaps you are among the ones who felt that this promised freedom is out of reach for you, or that it is more than you can possibly hope for. You know what? You are absolutely correct. The grace of God and the kind of freedom that God grants us is way more than any of us could possible dream of or hope for. It is beyond our comprehension. And it comes to us as sheer grace.
Knowing the truth can free us to love boldly, to care for others unabashedly, and to act with Christ-like compassion and service to others unashamedly.
Belief in Jesus Christ changes hearts, changes minds, and changes lives.
What would you do with freedom if you had it? My brothers and sisters in Christ, by the grace of God alone, you are free. What do you plan to do about it?  

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Coming Clean

Can you think of a time when you were unexpectedly, shockingly blessed? Perhaps it was a time when you were really struggling and help came from and unexpected quarter. Perhaps you were mired in survival mode due to a crisis at work, at home, with your health or the health of someone close to you. Perhaps it was the time you didn’t know how you would make ends meet and somehow, somewhere, help arrived without you even asking. Perhaps the blessing came at a time when you had really and truly screwed up and forgiveness or understanding was more than you hoped for or deserved. Yet come it did, and it was even more than you could comprehend. Perhaps compassion came from a surprising source. Maybe there has been a time in your life when you have felt the dead weight of your brokenness and then someone entered your life and helped you return to life.

What does it feel like to experience unexpected blessing? And how do we respond?
In our gospel reading for today, we read this familiar story about the healing of the ten lepers. It’s a story about response to blessing, a story about thankfulness and healing, right? Just a few moments ago we read Jesus’ words  to the Samaritan, the only former leper to return after being cured, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

So what really happened here? What did happen to the other nine who were cured? Why didn’t they return, and why did the Samaritan?

So, lepers were both religiously and socially unclean. They had to announce their presence if anyone approached them in fact, by calling out, “Unclean! Unclean!” That was the law. It was the signal to the approaching person or group to take a detour, retreat, or otherwise avoid any risk of coming into contact with the lepers. If the approaching person was of a mind to do so, they might throw a few scraps of food to the lepers, or even a few coins. So these people were outcast, unclean, unable to care for themselves, and solely dependent on the charity of others. Charity that was hard to come by.

As Jesus approaches, they call out to him. They seem to know something about him, in fact, they call his name. But note that they don’t ask for healing. They ask for mercy. They also call him master, but that may simply be their way of cow-towing to someone who might be moved to throw a little something to them. “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” And with authority in his voice, Jesus responds, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” He must have said this with some authority, because for some reason, they follow his instructions. And “on their way,” we read, “they were made clean,” and we can just imagine the spots and lesions on their skin drying up and falling away. Suddenly, the disease that marks them as outcasts, as unacceptable, as less than human, disappears and immediately they are cured, and they. are. clean.

Now, according to the law, a leper or anyone else who was considered religiously unclean had to present themselves before the priests to be certified as being truly cured, before they could enter back into society or re-enter Jewish religious community life. So perhaps these lepers had some sense that they would be cured when Jesus spoke these words to them. Perhaps that is why they obeyed him, but none of the other nine seemed to make the connection between what had happened and Jesus himself, for none of them returned. Now, maybe they thanked God when they realized the leprosy had left them, as they danced on their way to see the priest; or perhaps they asked the priest to thank God on their behalf, but we never hear any more about them. Instead what we have is this detail about the one who did return.

This leper, a Samaritan, turned back when he saw that he was cured. He praised God with a loud voice as he prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet, showing him supreme honor and praise and devotion, and thanked him. This man made the connection between what Jesus did and his own healing. He made the connection between his healing and God’s blessing. He recognized Jesus as God’s power to heal and to restore. And he responded to this life-altering gift by giving thanks, by praising God, and by doing it at Jesus’ feet. This Samaritan, this foreigner, showed Jesus his profound gratitude and devotion. This man alone, the one who had been farthest out in the margins, being both Samaritan and leper, doubly cursed, doubly disadvantaged, doubly outcast, recognized his healing as coming from God through Jesus.
And as he was cured his eyes were opened, showing forth the reality of who Jesus was and what Jesus did. And his overwhelming response was to praise God at Jesus’ feet. And it was at that moment, that his faith made him whole. It is in that moment, that he believes. It is his belief in Jesus Christ as the power of God to heal and to transform his life that opens the door to true and everlasting healing.

It is then that Jesus responds to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” There is no talk about faith until after the man returns, after he prostrates himself at Jesus’ feet, after he give God thanks and praise for this healing. Could it be that what Jesus is saying here, a point we often miss in this “your faith has saved you” passage, is that the true demonstration of faith was not in calling out to Jesus for mercy, but in the bone-deep response of thanksgiving?
Could it be that that is where we demonstrate our faith as well?  That it is in our recognition that all that we have and all that we are, that every blessing we receive in every form, even the ones that may not, at first look like blessings, comes from God through the power of Jesus? Could it be that it is then when we turn our thanks and praise to God in genuine gratitude for all that God has done for us, that our faith is lived out and we are made whole? Praising God and thanking Jesus go together.

One of my favorite commentators, Pr. Brian Stoffregen wrote: “In addition to defining faith as the response of thanksgiving, faith is also the ability to see what can't be seen -- to believe the unbelievable. The place to praise God is at the feet of Jesus of Nazareth. The place to see the power of God is at the foot of the cross with Jesus' blood dripping down.”

Just as Jesus transformed the life of the Samaritan, he transforms our lives as well. Our whole lives are transformed, first by the eradication our dis-ease, but then even more importantly, by of the enlightenment that we receive when we come to recognize the source of our blessing, when through our gratitude, we see Jesus for who he truly is. Learning to see is the key.

My friends, Christians have a unique kind of vision. We see the pattern of God’s activity throughout the scriptures – and we give thanks and praise. We see that throughout the history of humankind, it is God who always acts first, who moves toward us, who brings us the healing we so desperately need. We see God’s hand in everything – culminating in the incarnation of Jesus Christ - and we know that our proper response is always and in every way to give praise and thanksgiving. 

And yet, sometimes, our blinders get in the way. Sometimes, our addiction, or our broken relationships, or our pain, or our worries and fears about things we have no control over, or our loneliness, or our poverty of spirit, or our sense of utter despair and isolation, and just plain sin, get in the way of seeing ourselves as blessed at all. It is in those moments, when we cry out “Lord, have mercy on us,” and know God’s blessing that we are moved to respond with our own praise and thanksgiving – or are we? 

As Lutherans, our worship models for us the appropriate pattern of response – Just look at what we’ve done so far this morning. After gathering together, we acknowledged our helplessness in the face of our brokenness. We confessed that we do not always respond as we should to God’s love, nor act in loving ways ourselves, and we received forgiveness for our sins. Then in the Kyrie, we asked for Christ’s mercy. Like the lepers, we called out, Lord Jesus, have mercy on us! Then, responding to the mercy that we know to already be ours, the very next thing we did was to sing a hymn of praise. Here, at the beginning of our worship we acknowledge that God indeed richly blesses us, forgives us, and that our natural and heartfelt response is to praise and thank God, through Jesus. This and every expression of gratitude draws us out of ourselves, acknowledges that there is something larger than we could ever imagine or expect that joins us in every circumstance. And Jesus uses this faith to free us from our fear, our pain, and our neediness, and leads us to embrace life, transformed in God’s grace. We do not do this alone.

We are always and in every way joined in our lives by God’s love through Jesus Christ, the incarnate one, the one who lived so that he might join our living, the one who suffered so that he might join us in our suffering, the one who died in order to join us even in our dying and then would take the sting of death away by his glorious resurrection.

May our gratitude free us from fear, release us from anxiety, and give us the courage to boldly and in good faith face every challenge, respond in thanksgiving to every blessing, and return to Jesus, praising God from whom all good things flow. May our faith help us to shed new light on God’s merciful activity in the world. May our prayers of praise and thanksgiving help us to grow in grateful love and wholeness as God blesses us to live lives that demonstrate the new life that comes from graceful living. And the people of God say,

 Preached at Grace Lutheran Church, Easton, MD 10-13-13

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Little Engine Not, "I Can't!"

 Luke 17:5-10 ~ October 6, 2013
Any of you who happen to be “Facebook Friends” with me, may have noted that there have been a number of special occasions in my family lately. I think one of you may have even commented on it. Because between the latter part of August and the beginning of October, all three of our children’s birthdays as well as Jim and my wedding anniversary fall. As I was telling someone this week, what that meant during all those years that our kids were growing up, when we often had a “kids” birthday party plus a family gathering for each one each year, was that from the latter part of August to the middle of October there was cake – and lots of it – at our house.
Of course, my kids are all grown up now. The youngest just turned 26 the other day. Each year, come this time, it’s natural for me to take a trip down memory lane and with a good dose of nostalgia, remember those sweet times when these awesome creatures entered our lives. Sometimes I go so far as to remember the births themselves, and one of the things I remember, is that like most women there came a time during the labor and delivery process, that I just wanted to scream (and perhaps I even did), “I can’t do this!” I was convinced, in those moments, that I simply didn’t have enough strength, enough endurance, enough of what it took to get the job done.
Our gospel lesson for today starts out with the disciples demanding of Jesus, “Increase our faith!” I think of this as their own little “I can’t do this!” protest along the discipleship road. You may remember that in the text leading up to this point, Jesus has been teaching what the kingdom of God is like. In parables, some of which were quite challenging and, truth be told, perhaps even a little scary, Jesus has been teaching his disciples how the life of discipleship looks different from the life the world around them, because it subverts the values that the world holds on to with an iron fist. Jesus has been challenging the Pharisees and anyone else who perpetuates the poverty of the poor, ignores the plight of the needy, and disregards God’s command that love should guide our actions, interactions and relationships. Jesus has been teaching his followers that in the kingdom of God, barriers are broken down and the boundaries that separate us are eliminated.
Just before this particular text, Jesus says to his disciples that stumbling blocks within their lives are sure to arise, a statement he follows with, “woe to anyone by whom they come!” Teaching them how to live in community, he says that if another disciple sins that they should confront the offender, and if there is repentance, they must forgive that person and welcome them back into community, not just once, but over and over again. No matter how many times they sin against you, you must forgive them when they repent, he tells them.
And the reaction from the disciples when they hear Jesus’ instructions? They plead “Lord, increase our faith”” They might as well be saying, “We can’t do this!” They are overwhelmed and fearful. They don’t believe they have the strength, the endurance or the gifts to do these things expected by God. “We can’t do this! So, Jesus, just increase our faith.” Because surely, if they have more faith, if they have enough faith, then they will be okay doing this discipleship thing. More faith will make the job easier. If we could just have more faith, then we could be better disciples and could be better at following these teachings, right? But right now, they’re just not sure – it all just seems too hard.
But this begs the question, is faith something that is actually quantifiable? Is it something we can measure, accumulate, or store, something that builds up to a critical mass at which point it becomes effective? In this gospel, Jesus’ response reminds us, “You already have all the faith you need to live as disciples of Christ.” Even if your faith were as tiny as this seed your faith would be sufficient for you to do great things. It is faith that is fed through relational living, by following Jesus, and depending on and trusting, even in the middle of doubt, in God. Believe. Trust. Know, that the faith you have been given is all you need.
Our understanding of how we get this faith is one of the parts of our Lutheran heritage and theology that I love. For we believe that faith is given to us - by the power of the Holy Spirit. It is a gift, tiny as a mustard seed but mighty enough to do wondrous things which we receive in our baptism. We didn’t do anything to earn it. God’s favor and blessing and our faith come to us through God’s grace, and aren’t based on “having enough” of anything, or doing enough good works or being “Christian enough” for God’s liking. Rather, we are saved by God’s grace given to us as a living manifestation of God’s love. It frees us to likewise engage the world in love. And each of us has all the faith we need to walk the discipleship road, we simply need to exercise the will to do it.
But we know that discipleship is not easy. The passages just before this one illustrate that fact. Neither does discipleship, living into our faith, “happen naturally.” Even as disciples, we remain broken human beings, living in a broken world. But God takes us in our entirety and teaches us the way to living in relationship built on grace. Discipleship requires intentionality, demands decisions on how we will live that are patterned on the Word of God as revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Jesus commands that our faith be lived out in love, and discipleship requires choosing to respond to God’s grace by living and responding to one another in godly, graceful ways.  Like looking out for the poor and the outcast. Like holding one another up, working together for God’s mission, like forgiving one another when we are wronged, and welcoming the repentant and forgiven ones back into community. We have all the faith we need to do these things. The challenge for each of is to make the daily choice to tap into our faith, discovering as we do pathways in which our behavior reflects the faith that is ours, and using it to build faith in others. That’s not asking much, is it? And the people of God scream out, “But we can’t do it! Lord God, increase our faith!”
I read an old prayer that goes something like, “O God, I don’t’ pray for enough faith to move mountains. I can get enough dynamite and bulldozers to do that. What I need and ask for is enough faith to move me.” That’s the truth of the matter, isn’t it? Because for faith to become alive and evident in our lives requires some movement on our part.
I know that even when we acknowledge that grace is a gift from God, and faith comes from God, there are still going to be times when we are exhausted and worn out and we doubt that we really do have enough strength and endurance in our lives of faith to get us through or to keep us going. There are times when we are tested by our lives lived in community, whether in our homes or our places of employment or even here in church. It is in those moments when we are most tempted to shout, “I just can’t do this! Increase my faith!” And it is in those moments that we are most in need of God’s grace to work in our lives, revealing Godself to us in new and surprising ways. And when that happens, we are changed. There is a movement in our spirit. Our faith becomes alive in a way that we never knew before.
In his commentary of this text, Brian Stoffregen asks some questions about what might happen if we got what the disciples ask for here, and God honored our request for more faith: “Are we sure we really want more faith? More faith could lead us to stop doing some sinful things that we really like to do. More faith could lead us to be more forgiving towards those who have sinned against us – and we really don't want to forgive some of those mean, rotten people. In some cases, we would like to see them dead.
“More faith could lead us to be more like the slave in the story at the end of our text. That is, we become more dutiful slaves of God. Doing our duties willingly: Being more dutiful in attending worship services every week. Being more dutiful in contributing generously of time and money to the church and to the needy. Being more dutiful in participating in Sunday school and committees and other church activities. Being more dutiful and doing such duties willingly, without grumbling or complaining. Could more faith mean sacrificing one's own pleasures for the sake of the needy? Could more faith mean following more closely the footsteps of Jesus – which led him to the ridicule and suffering and death on the cross?
The good news of the gospel is that even when we fail at doing these things, which, because we are broken people living in a broken world we will do, our faith remains, a gift from God. And we are forgiven and restored. The good news of our Lord Jesus Christ lies in the fact that grace comes to us when we least deserve it, when we cling to the “I can’t do it,” when we try and fail and rise to try again. When we are weary, when we cry out “I can’t do it, Lord, increase my faith,” Jesus responds, “Yes you can, because my faith is sufficient for you.” And then he feeds us with his body, quenches our thirst with his blood, and sends us out, freed and forgiven, to love, to serve, and to live in the name of Christ Jesus. Amen.