Jeremiah 31:31-34; John 8:31-36
October 31, 2010
Grace to you and peace, from the one who is, who was, and who is to come. Amen.
The Israelites just had suffered a whopping at the hands of the Babylonians,
the Temple was looted, desecrated, and destroyed,
a weak, figurehead monarch was set up in Israel,
and much of the population was forcibly relocated east across the Tigris River
into captivity in the foreign land of Babylon.
God’s chosen people, removed from their promised land, were in exile.
For a people whose identity rested largely on their special chosen status,
a status confirmed by God’s gift of a promised land,
this current state of affairs was a complete and utter disaster,
for that land was now far to the west, occupied by foreigners,
and largely a place of memories.
The covenant, that promise between God and his people, seemed broken.
With this conclusion the prophet Jeremiah agrees.
Jeremiah, speaking the Words of God given to him, lays it out there,
making it clear that the people broke this covenant,
that the current state of affairs
was a result of the failure of God’s people to keep their end of the covenant.
But this broken covenant is not the end of the story. Exile is not forever.
No. Jeremiah tells the people,
“The days are surely coming, says the Lord,
when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.
It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors
when I took them by the hand out of the land of Egypt …
I will write my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts;
I will be their God, and they shall be my people …
I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”
This hopeful vision, given to a broken people in a time of desperation and anxiety,
is a promise, a promise that their situation will get better.
This is God’s promise to his chosen people: It gets better.
It gets better.
That is the message of a creative and powerful public service campaign created last month
in the wake of several senseless and tragic suicides of gay teenagers.
It gets better.
Life gets better.
Being a teenager is pretty tough. Many of us in this room might remember,
but we also might have done the best we can to forget those challenging years.
The few young people in this room can likely relate.
There is pressure to perform well in school.
Pressure to dress fashionably, to be funny, to fit in …
Pressure to engage in risky behavior, drinking, drugs, sexual activity …
And even when teens are willing to try a few of these things – and they are –
there is pressure on them to do even more than they might want to do …
And that’s just if you’re straight.
Gay teenagers experience much of that, and more.
If you are a gay teen, you have the challenge of first acknowledging
that you are not what society, your parents, your church says you should be;
And then the challenge of telling others – parents, friends, church – who you really are.
Reactions will reach across the spectrum,
from outright rejection by people you love,
to wholesale embrace,
to a discomfort on the part of some that will just not go away.
In the meantime, you might get picked on, called names, thrown into lockers and then
kicked out of the locker room, forced off the team.
You are likely to be given the cold shoulder,
denied permission to attend the prom with your date.
Former friends may tell you that you should go hang yourself and go to hell,
where you belong,
Your privacy might be violated as you are secretly filmed and the film is posted online …
All because you’re gay.
And I wish I were making this stuff up. But I’m not.
All these things, and more, have happened.
But the good news is that it gets better.
That’s been the message of hope delivered to millions of gay youth
through thousands of videos posted on You Tube,
from recording artists to teachers to a Fort Worth City Council member,
to television show hosts and movie stars,
to coaches and lawyers and athletes,
to President Barack Obama and former First Lady Laura Bush,
to, just this week, Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson, of our own denomination,
the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Through their videos, all of these have said to gay teenagers, It gets better.
The torment of the teen years wanes, the bullying will stop.
As you get older, as you get to know people, gay and straight,
who do not disregard you because of your identity, but who love and accept you,
you will experience a better life.
It gets better.
But, admittedly, our Bishop was pretty late to the party, and me, even a bit later.
The It Gets Better Project has been up and running for well over a month,
so with all due respect,
its not like our Bishop or other church leaders, or even yours truly,
were out there up front, among the early spokespersons
for this important effort, leading this campaign against hatred and violence.
No, we weren’t. No, I wasn’t.
In fact, reflecting a sad state of affairs for the church,
“the secular world has been more concerned and compassionate
about these folks than [has been] the church.”
And those words I just read are a quote, from Bishop Michael Rinehart,
our Lutheran Bishop along the Gulf Coast of Texas and Louisiana.
So why not?
Why has the church – our congregation, our denomination, or the church at large –
why has the church not shown much interest in this issue?
Why is it that kids – who are increasingly an endangered species in our churches –
are hearing messages of hope, healing, and new life
from rock stars and politicians, but not from their pastors?
Perhaps one of the reasons the church has been so silent on this issue
is because we fear that it is so divisive.
Clearly, we can all agree that bullying is wrong,
but the question of homosexuality is one that divides our church and society,
one that increasingly pits generation against generation.
We, in these pews, hold different views on homosexuality,
and that I’m talking about this is making many of us – myself included – uncomfortable.
The last thing many of us want to do,
in a day and age when the church is already fragile,
is to bring up divisive issues, even if the cause is just.
Because the last thing we want to do is to tear ourselves apart.
Better to stay together and not rock the boat, the conventional wisdom goes,
than risk dividing the church.
At some point, though, the cause of justice compels us to not be afraid of fracture.
The lives of bullied kids and a stand against this violent culture are worth the risk.
And faithfulness to the Lord who calls us to care for our neighbor and for the least of these,
demands that we take that risk.
Let us be silent on such things no more.
In his sermon on today’s Gospel text from John 8,
Martin Luther hones in on the distinction between true disciples and false disciples,
on those who continue in Christ
’s Word, and those who do not.
It is not easy reading for our 21st century churchly sensibilities,
sensibilities which just want everybody to place nice and to be nice.
But the Christian life isn’t about being nice.
Rather, it’s about following our Lord, Jesus Christ,
whose mission of upending tables, calling out religious phonies,
and re-drawing the religious lines that define God’s Kingdom,
can really be disconcerting, ironically,
to those of us who believe we’re part of that Kingdom.
And following this guy, our Lord Jesus, is hard work.
As Luther says in his sermon on John 8, today’s Gospel text,
“If Christ had given everyone a sack filled with gold coins, plus a castle or a city –
who would have deserted Him?
… [Anyone would] have welcomed the Gospel … if it meant freedom from the cross,
a free and comfortable life at home, exemption from taxes,
and subservience to no one.”
But that’s not the Christian life.
And so our dear brother Martin Luther was willing to take a few risks,
quite a few risks – for himself, his community, and his church –
for what he believed to be the truth of the Gospel,
a truth that the people of his congregations, community and country
so desperately needed to hear,
even if it meant suffering the assaults of “hordes of devils” that fill the land,
threatening to devour him. (vs. 3, Ein Feste Burg).
Following the truth doesn’t mean joy and peace ….
Following our Lord can cause great division, pain, and anguish.
Luther recognizes that the one who faithfully follows our Lord
will be labeled by others as bold and reckless,
to which Luther suggests that Christ would say,
“He who is bold and reckless will be called a true disciple of mine.”
Especially in the climate of Luther’s day,
with everything that was at stake in the Reformation of the church,
playing nice was no reason to skimp on the Gospel.
For the Gospel was truth, Luther believed,
and the truth would set the church and world free.
Some 1500 years earlier,
the first hearers of John’s Gospel were also committed to the truth,
a commitment that for them led to anguish and separation.
The first hearers of John’s Gospel were people who believed themselves to be faithful Jews,
children of Abraham,
committed to the covenant God made with Israel.
They also believed Jesus to be the fulfillment of that covenant,
God’s own Word of Promise clothed in flesh and blood.
And yet, because of their commitment to Christ,
they felt as outcasts in their own community of faith,
cut off from the synagogue and from the Jewish life and faith
from which their own faith in Jesus as Lord, had sprung.
And so it is for this group of outcasts,
that John wrote his Gospel,
his account of the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth.
In the midst of the religious confusion of their day –
a confusion marked not only by the rupture
between those Jews who followed Jesus and those who did not,
but also by the destruction of the Temple and the occupation
of their Promised Land by Roman invaders –
In the midst of this religious confusion,
Jesus’ comforting words ring out to these outcasts,
promising them that freedom and truth resides with him,
and with him alone.
Because of the power of sin,
freedom cannot be reduced to an inheritance from ancestors,
and truth is not narrowly defined by a body of teachings handed down,
as important and blessed as these things are.
Freedom and truth are found in the person of Christ Jesus himself,
in the Son of God come down to us,
the Passover lamb who frees us from bondage to sin,
who delivers us from slavery into freedom.
Freedom and truth are found in the one willing to walk with us,
breaking bread and sharing wine and forgiving sins,
and healing the sick and restoring the broken,
proclaiming good news to the poor and release to the captives,
and turning over a few tables – literally and figuratively – in the process.
I hope on this Reformation Sunday that we will not be afraid,
afraid to be bold and reckless, to use Luther’s words,
in the way we each seek to follow our Lord Jesus Christ,
for in following the table-turner from Nazareth,
we’re bound to step on a few toes.
Indeed, as Luther said in a letter to his friend and fellow reformer Philip Melancthon,
“Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong, but let your trust in Christ be stronger,
and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world.
We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides.
We, however, says Peter (2. Peter 3:13) are looking forward
to a new heaven and a new earth where justice will reign.”
Did you hear what Luther there writes?
Worry less about your sin and dare to follow Christ,
in bold and reckless ways, if need be,
for we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth where justice will reign …
Do not be afraid. “It gets better.”
And I think that’s the good news for us today, dear friends.
It gets better.
Our Lord will write truth on our hearts, truth that will set us free,
he will bring about his new heaven and new earth,
and our Lord’s justice will reign.
It gets better.
And because it gets better, we are free to live in love and service to our neighbors,
free to seek out the truth of God wherever it is proclaimed,
be that in pulpits or in YouTube videos or
wherever else God chooses to be proclaimed.
We are free to sin, yes, and free to be forgiven …
We are free to take risks in faith.
We are free, because it gets better.
Let it be so for us, for all who suffer, and for this broken world.
It gets better.