Freedom

There’s a great song by the Soup Dragons that celebrates, with a great beat and bravado, that “I’m free to do what I want, any ol’ time.” This is the ideal in our society’s mind’s eye – we are free to choose what we want, to live how we want, to say what we want, and to believe what we want. Freedom!

And to an extent, this is what the American system is designed to do. The Constitution of the United States limits the power of the federal government to restrict individual liberties, providing for a great deal of personal freedom for everyone who lives in the shadow of the American flag. Exercise your liberties. You’re free to do what you want, any ol’ time.

But for we who also live at the foot of the cross and the opening to the empty grave, there’s more. Saint Paul writes that “You have been called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only don’t let this freedom be an opportunity to indulge your selfish impulses, but serve each other through love” (Galatians 5:13). We live not for ourselves, but for others. We are free not for our own sake, but for the sake of others.

Elsewhere Paul writes that Christians are called to “look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4). Jesus teaches us to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:39, quoting Leviticus 19:18), pray for our enemies (Matthew 5:44), deny ourselves (Luke 9:23), and give for the sake of others (Luke 18:22). Central to the Christian faith is the call to serve our neighbors.

This Independence Day I encourage us not only to celebrate freedom, but to use our freedom for the sake of others. For indeed, freedom kept just for one’s own use is as useless as a light kept under a bushel (Matthew 5:14-16).

(Top image: John Trumbull, 1820, oil on canvas. The original hangs in the rotunda of the US Capitol – http://www.aoc.gov/cc/photo-gallery/ptgs_rotunda.cfm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1379717)

Putting Everything on the Table, In Faith – Acts 15

I haven’t been posting sermons here recently … but this one on Acts 15, and the bold faith of those first believers to trust in and be moved by the Spirit to do a new thing, is one I wanted to share. I believe that the church today is in an Acts 15 moment.

Preached on Sunday, April 28

Grace to you and peace, from the One who is, who was, and who is to come. Amen.

“If the people lead, the leaders will follow.”

This is sometimes true.
Leaders often take a pulse, barometer of people,
read what the people are already doing, and only then make decisions.

In the Early Church, the leaders of those first Church Councils decided
upon the Books of the Bible in large part simply by seeing and accepting
what the local churches, what the people, were already reading.
In American history, the constitutional amendment repealing prohibition
was less a bold act of leadership than it was an acknowledgement
of what people were already doing.

Sometimes, often, the people lead, and the leaders simply follow.

In today’s reading from Acts 15, the leaders made a profound decision.
Huge decision. Paradigm-shifting decision.
But, they were merely following what the people – and God’s Spirit – were already doing.
What the people were doing, what God’s Spirit was doing, was profound,
huge, paradigm-shifting.
The Council only recognized it and went along with it.

So what, exactly, were some of those first Christians doing?
They were doing a new thing in faith, in stark contrast to the tradition they received,
in stark contrast to the familiar ways of doing things,
and indeed, in stark contrast to God’s Word itself.
Indeed, on the surface, what they were doing was heresy – Spirit-filled, Spirit-led heresy.

You see, Jesus was a faithful Jew, and the first followers of his were Jews, too,
as were the broader group of Jews who followed his work closely,
including the Pharisees.
Devout Jews observed the Law as a sign of the promises God made to them.
Following the Law – including circumcision, dietary laws, Sabbath laws,
and other such laws – was a way to live faithfully as God’s people,
to follow God’s command, to be a sign and a witness to the world of who you are
and whose you are.
These laws were a big deal. BIG deal. HUGE deal.
Even re-interpreted, so much of Jesus’ work has to do with the law,
and how it is to be followed.
Let’s think of groups today and their distinctive practices.
The Amish reject most forms of modern technology.
Devout Muslims stop everything and pray five times a day, and fast during Ramadan.
Vegetarians do not eat meat.
Vegans do not eat anything derived from animals.
These are distinctive practices that define a group.
Take away these distinctive practice, and the group might not exist,
or at least, might not have as strong an identity and be recognizable.

First century Jews had their distinctive practices. To be a Jew meant to follow the law.
Circumcision. Dietary laws. Sabbath. And more. That is what Jews did.
There was no other way to be a Jew, to be part of God’s chosen people.

And yet, the early Christians – who were Jewish –
had this crazy experience of God’s Spirit moving among them.
Jews from all over the world were coming to faith in Christ,
and Peter and the early Christians were proclaiming the Good News faithfully.
Last week we heard about an Ethiopian – a non-Jew, perhaps – who came to faith.
Philip baptized him.
Then, a few chapters later in Acts, Cornelius, a God-believing Gentile, a Roman Centurion,
is brought to faith and is baptized.
Two non-Jews, brought to faith.
Then, just a little later in Acts, a large number of people were brought to faith in Antioch,
and also these were non-Jews.
And these are only the ones we know about. Surely there were more.

God’s Spirit was moving in ways that were unknown, that were unsettling to the faithful,
ways that were considered heretical because God’s Spirit hadn’t done this before,
moving among the Gentiles in such a way.
God’s law clearly seemed to outline a different experience and life of faith.
Indeed, what was happening was contrary
to much of what they had learned and known about God.
Unsettling, disturbing, baffling … indeed!

But of course, the life and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus
was also contrary to much of what they had learned and known
about faith and life and death and the way God works.
Indeed, a new thing was underfoot,
and it was unsettling and baffling to those committed
to the established ways of doing things, the God-given ways.
Yet, this new thing was an exciting, uncontainable opening to a whole new population,
a whole new segment of believers previously not considered part of God’s people.
Seeing this new thing at work,
the Council at Jerusalem decided to welcome the Gentiles into the church
without burdening them first with the requirements of the law.
No circumcision. No dietary laws. Just faith and baptism.
And in doing so, the leaders were simply affirming what had already happened,
what the people and the Spirit had already done,
with the Ethiopian Eunuch, Cornelius the Centurion, and the Gentiles in Antioch.
No circumcision. No detailed commitment to the distinctive laws of the covenant.
Just faith and baptism, and the life that flows from that.

I wonder what the Spirit might be up to in the church today,
nearly 2000 years after these events.
What is God doing among Lutherans, nearly 500 years after Luther
nailed the 95 theses to the Wittenberg Church door, starting the Reformation?
What is God up to here on the East Side, and here at Grace,
96 years after starting a new thing through those first saints
who established Grace English Evangelical Lutheran Church,
leaving behind the language and customs of their parents’ and grandparents’ faith?

What is that experience of the Spirit here that we,
established in our patterns and practices of faith for many years –
decades, and centuries –
patterns and practices that are legitimate and wonderful and life-giving,
as were the laws of Moses that fed those first Jewish Christians …
What is the experience of the Spirit
that we might need to work hard to grasp, see, and comprehend?
How might God’s Spirit be moving, how might God be at work in ways earth-shatteringly new,
unsettling, and perhaps even heretical and yet, simultaneously, powerful?

I ask a lot of questions here. I’m not entirely sure how to answer them.
But, let me say this. We have to ask the questions.
We have to put everything on the table.
Sacraments. Sunday worship. Music styles. Worship times.
How we spend our money.
What we expect of our members.
How we speak of God.
What and how we teach and live the faith – among children, and adults.
How we serve our community.
How we act toward one another, how we act toward others,
and how we respond to the real hurts and challenges in our world.
Even, what we eat and drink at Coffee Hour.
Everything on the table and up for negotiation with the movement of God’s Spirit.
Hold nothing back. Put everything on the table. Crazy, huh?

Those first Jewish Christians did just that –
they put their valued and beloved traditions – traditions and laws given by God! –
on the table for the sake of sharing the Gospel with those different from them.
These people were willing to mess with the very Word of God, the command of God,
for the sake of sharing this God with others.
Do you see that? Do you see what they did?
They took something they cherished, something they believed given by God Himself,
and they were able to set it aside for the sake of the outsider.
Rather than make the Gentiles become Jews, that is,
rather than make the outsiders become one of them,
they said “let’s make the church look more like the outsiders.”
Let’s make the church look more like the outsiders.

And you know how they did this, how they could make such a huge leap?
They knew the love and power and comfort of our Lord.
They knew that they could let go of something they cherished and enter into a bold –
and frightening – new future because Jesus was with them,
the one who died and rose again would not abandon them.
And so they let something go, they let something die,
knowing that a new life would blow through them in a new way.

They did this not out of any strategy for survival, self-preservation, or institutional renewal.
They did this in faith in the One who promised to always be with them, unto the end of the age,
the One who comes among them, and us, as an outsider.

Dear friends, our Lord is with us, here and now.
Our traditions and practices, handed down to us over 96 years in this place,
500 years in the Lutheran tradition, and 2000 years of Christianity,
our traditions and distinctive practices of faith have told us this –
God is with us. God is faithful to us. God is not going to leave us. God is with us.
With this comforting knowledge, now what?
Are we at another Acts 15 time in history, at least of some degree?
I think we are.
Where is the Spirit of our God blowing now? Let’s look outside and see.
And, wherever the Spirit is blowing, whoever is caught up in that Spirit,
however the church looks kicked up and remade in the Spirit’s movement,
we know this – Christ is with us.
Christ has been faithful to his church since Day One,
and He promises to be faithful until the Time to Come.
And that, dear friends, is good news.

Amen.

It’s a Matter of Equality

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
July 1, 2012
2 Corinthians 8:7-15 (Common English Bible)

Grace to you and peace, from the one who is, who was, and who is to come. Amen.

Saint Paul writes:

“It isn’t that we want others to have financial ease and you financial difficulties,

but it’s a matter of equality. At the present moment, your surplus can fill their deficit.”

It’s not that we want you to have financial difficulties, BUT …

There’s always a but.

In today’s second reading, Saint Paul asks the Christians in Corinth

to continue their commitment to financially support the church in Jerusalem,

which is poor and struggling.

The Church at Corinth, located in a bustling city that was a commercial and cultural crossroads,

was better off than their sisters and brothers in Jerusalem,

and so Paul asks those with more to support those with less.

“It isn’t that we want others to have financial ease and you financial difficulties …”

Yes, you can hear it in his voice.

Paul knows that what he is asking could put some pressure on the church and its people,

that the Christians in Corinth have had some of their own problems to deal with,

including a congregation that itself was careless in its divisions between rich and poor

(Just read 1 Corinthians to see how Paul blasts the church there

for having some come to the Thanksgiving Meal and eat and drink

until they are full and drunk, while others leave hungry).

Nonetheless, Paul doesn’t let the challenges that the Corinthians face

get in the way of his asking for and expecting

their continued generosity toward those less fortunate.

Paul knows the Corinthians can do more.

And he knows that the Christians in Jerusalem are in such a dire situation.

After all, Paul says,

“it’s a matter of equality. At the present moment, your surplus can fill their deficit.”

A matter of equality between one’s surplus, one’s abundance,

and another’s deficit, another’s need. Equality.

In our country we have a commitment to individual liberty and personal freedom,

to self-reliance and independence,

a libertarian streak that runs strongly through our American blood,

and which fuels, I believe, so much of the innovation that our country is known for.

Yet, frankly, what Saint Paul writes in today’s reading stands somewhat in contrast

to that independent, self-reliant streak we’re so known for in our country.

For Paul writes not of a self-reliant Jerusalem church that can pull itself up by its bootstraps,

or of a self-reliant Corinthian church that keeps what it has to itself,

but instead he writes of the interconnected relationship between the two.

In other words, Paul writes, “You need each other.”

All who are in Christ are of one body, he writes elsewhere,

and if one part of the body hurts, the whole body suffers.

Any of you who have ever had a bad ankle, or a bad back, know this.

A hurt in one part of the body makes the rest feel pretty miserable.

And so, Paul here is drawing attention to the fact that

there is a part of the body, over in Jerusalem, that is suffering right now.

The present surplus of the Corinthians, he writes, can alleviate the present deficit of others.

The other day I was talking with a homeless woman,

and she asked why God let all this happen to her – losing her job,

losing her house, medical problems, and so forth.

I responded simply that God is not doing this to her,

but like Christ on the cross, God is suffering alongside of her,

and that it is human sin that has created a situation in which she finds herself.

Because, let’s be honest friends, there is plenty of abundance in this world right now,

here, there, and down the street,

there’s abundance that can alleviate the needs of others.

If the people of Saint Paul, the people of Ramsey County, of Minnesota, of this country,

if we all wanted more homeless shelter beds,

or if we wanted more affordable housing, we could do it.

We found half a billion dollars for a 65,000 seat football stadium,

but we can’t find money for additional homeless shelter beds?

It’s because we don’t want to.

In 2005, former Senators Bob Dole and George McGovern wrote a book together called,

Ending Hunger Now: A Challenge to Persons of Faith.

In this book these two former Senators – a conservative Republican and a liberal Democrat –

said that we don’t have a food shortage in the world.

We don’t have a food problem at all. Instead, what we have is a distribution problem.

Yet the truth is, we don’t have a distribution problem, either.

You can purchase a Coca-Cola in nearly every corner of the world.

We’ve got distribution down just fine.

So what we really have is a problem of the will. We just don’t want to do it.

Because making sure that food was available for all people in the world

might make certain costs rise, might cut into the profits of some merchants

or into the tariff-protected markets of some industry groups,

and might make things more difficult for those of us who live in relative abundance.

“It isn’t that we want others to have financial ease and you financial difficulties,” Paul writes,

“but … but it’s a matter of equality..”

We have the resources in the wealthiest darn country in the world.

We have the abundance. We have the surplus.

But do we have the will to seek, to create, some sort of greater equality?

Paul the Apostle calls us, in faith, to find the will to seek such an equality.

 

Shifting from Paul the Apostle to Paul the Pastor, for a moment,

let me say this: few people in my life have I known

who are as committed to the needs of others,

who are as committed to this sense of quality, as is Pastor Paul Hesterberg.

In my first year here at Grace, I have seen him work tirelessly with and for those who have so little.

From making sure that we have food and gas cards to distribute,

to driving people to doctor’s appointments and court hearings,

to sharing articles with me and with others about matters of concern

for the poor and hungry, to helping folks out in many different ways,

Pastor Paul is committed to this equality about which Saint Paul writes,

to sharing some of his own abundance with those in need.

Pastor Paul has been a role model for us, a caregiver,

a living commitment to those things to which our Lord himself is committed –

feeding the hungry, healing the sick, raising up the lowly, caring for the lonely.

His commitment is one that leaves a legacy among us,

a legacy that we will do well to carry on through existing efforts of care –

such as the food collection for Merrick Food Shelf

that the Social Ministry Committee is coordinating –

and even the creation of new ministries of care and love and outreach

that will help us live into Saint Paul’s calling for us to work for a greater equality

between our abundance and our neighbor’s need.

 

Dear friends, as we celebrate Independence Day this week,

let us not revel in our own individual liberty,

for soldiers didn’t die at Lexington and Concord,

at Brandywine or Germantown, or in the cold winter at Valley Forge,

they didn’t die for individual liberty …

but they died for a nation, for a people to live in freedom, together.

They died to create “a more perfect union.”

Freedom is not just personal or political,

but rightfully – and faithfully – understood,

freedom includes not just freedom from overseas royal tyrants,

but freedom from want, freedom from suffering, freedom from abject poverty,

and freedom for the chance to pursue life, liberty, and happiness.

Together we live into this freedom. Together we share in the abundance of this land and,

as Christians, together we live into the freedom we have in Christ Jesus,

free to give of ourselves as Christ himself gave,

free to give out of what we have, to provide for the needs of our sisters and brothers,

so that there might be greater equality, and greater freedom, for all.

Amen.

It Gets Better

Reformation Day
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.

Read More