What is Our Freedom For?

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + The Festival of the Reformation + October 30, 2016

Readings: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 46; Romans 3:19-28; John 8:31-36

There’s an old Jewish story about a man with the habit of gossip. One day he decided it was time to change his ways, to repent of his sins, and to try to make up for the harm he’d done in his years of spreading rumors, hurtful stories, and lies.

He knocked on the door of the village rabbi and asked, “Is there something I can do to make amends?”

 The rabbi stroked his beard and replied, “Go home and come back with a pillow.”

 Relieved, the man soon completed the odd errand. Would such a simple gift be all that was needed to atone for this sin?

 When he returned, the rabbi continued. “Now, slice it open.”

 It was a windy day, and the breeze picked up the feathers, wafting them over the housetops and into the fields.

 “Now, go gather all of the feathers again and put them back in the pillow.”

 “But that’s impossible!” exclaimed the man.

 “In the same way, it’s impossible to repair all the damage that your words have done.”[1]

The point of the story is to visualize how our words can have effects that run far beyond our reach and our control. The image of feathers scattered through a village and across the fields might also help us understand what Jesus meant when he said, “everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” Just like those feathers got out of that gossipy man’s control, so our sins can get out of our control — and too often they control us.

There are many ways to relate to that metaphor of being slaves to sin. One way is by thinking about the consequences off our misdeeds. We might do something wrong in a hot moment and immediately regret it, but the consequences of that one instant can have a hold on our lives for a long time. Some sins entrap us, like the classic case of a person who lies once, then must continue to construct lie after lie to avoid getting caught in that first lie. Some sins become habits and addictions, and it comes to feel less I am making a choice and more like that desire or that habit is taking over my body and my mind. Some sins are sneaky, like social sins; we may not even realize that we are trapped in sin because it’s the norm of behavior, everybody’s doing it. “Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin,” Jesus said, and we all know what that can feel like.

But of course, that wasn’t the main point of Jesus’s message. Jesus came to give freedom: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” Jesus proclaims that we are no longer slaves to sin; now we are children of God.

The promise given here is not that God will be the enabling parent who bails us out every time we do wrong; nor is God a heavenly eraser following behind us, rubbing away all our mistakes and wrongdoing. As I’m sure you’ve figured out during your life as a Christian, even after baptism, even after being born again, we still have to deal with the consequences of our sins. And we still have to work hard to break sinful habits or change the way we see the world or even just admit that we are wrong. We are no longer slaves to sin, but we are not getting off scot-free, and we are not made into perfect angels. This is why Martin Luther said that even as free Christians we are still sinners.

Our true God-given freedom is this: God will not define us by the sins we have committed. Other people will (at least some of them), but God will not. No matter what, God see us as God’s children, as justified, as forgiven and lovable. This is why Martin Luther said that though we are still sinners, we are also saints.

This freedom showed itself clearly in Martin Luther’s own life: before the epiphany of his core belief — that people are “saved by grace through faith” and not by our own efforts — Luther was paralyzingly fearful about his sinfulness. He thought of God as jailer and executioner, and he spent hours at a time in confession, fasted, did all sorts of acts of penance.[2] He was a slave to sin through his fear of being sinful and condemned. When he discovered God’s grace, God freed him from that anxiety, from that fear, from that feeling of being trapped. Today we celebrate how that freedom enabled — even demanded — that Luther boldly witness to the gospel, changing the church and the world through that same message of freedom.

From our beginnings Lutherans and other Protestants have been accused of uplifting this freedom to such an extent that we throw out the law and ethics and any idea of the need for good works. This is a misunderstanding of Lutheran teaching, but sometimes I think we deserve the criticism. I remember times in seminary where one classmate would make a claim like, “God wants us to care for the poor,” and at least three people would respond, “BUT WE ARE NOT SAVED THROUGH WORKS!!!” Sometimes we focus too much on what we are free from, on our freedom itself, and we forget to emphasize what God frees us for, what God frees us to do and to be.

Freedom in itself is never the goal. Freedom is what we need in order to live in a different way — and that difference is what we really desire when we desire freedom.

Let’s go back to the metaphor of slavery. Maybe, if we imagine with all our concentration and all our powers of empathy, we might imagine the faintest hint of what it may feel like to be a slave, to be owned by another human being. Your body, your time, your energy, your relationships, your future, are all controlled by someone else. As a slave, freedom would be your chief desire. But even then, it’s not freedom itself is not exactly what you would be dreaming of; it’s all that freedom offers; it’s freedom to live a different life in all its details. Freedom to work for your own profit; freedom to keep your children by your side; freedom to rest when you need to rest; freedom to come and go and sing and love and dream.

We might be able to relate a little more easily to a soldier’s longing for freedom from wartime service. That longing is not simply for an end to the war, for freedom from bullets and bombs and trenches; it’s longing to be free to live differently. In the TV series Band of Brothers, the soldiers share dreams of what they long to be free to do. One man, Liebgott, says: “First thing I’m gonna do is get my job back at the cab company […] Then I’m gonna find me a nice Jewish girl…marry her, then I’m gonna buy a house, a big house, with lots of bedrooms for all the little Liebgotts we’re gonna be making.”[3]

In Forrest Gump Forrest’s wartime friend, Bubba, dreams in detail of going home, buying his own shrimping boat, and cooking up “shrimp-kabobs, shrimp creole, shrimp gumbo…pineapple shrimp, lemon shrimp, coconut shrimp…shrimp salad, shrimp and potatoes…”[4]

At the very least, I think all of us can relate to the desire to be free from particularly stressful seasons in our life. But at those times we don’t just imagine a life free from piles of paperwork or constantly being on the road; we imagine being free to do other things with our time. When I was in school, during finals I didn’t daydream about not having to write papers, I daydreamed about being free to read novels, go out with friends, and sleep for a full eight hours at night.

As Christians freed from the slavery to sin, what are we free to do?

The answer is not “we are free to sin without fear!” Or at least I hope that’s not what you were thinking.

Martin Luther wrote a paper called “On the Freedom of a Christian.” In it he pointed out that as Christians — freed from fear and anxiety about our sin, our forgiveness, our lovableness, our eternal fate — we are free to boldly serve God and neighbor, to boldly do good works. That is what God dreams that we do with the freedom God has given us.

It sounds like kind of an obvious answer, or even a trick. “Freed from slavery…to be a servant? That doesn’t really sound like freedom at all.” But consider how hard it can be to figure out the right thing to do. I know I’m supposed to love my brother: but in this situation does loving him mean paying off a debt he owes, or making him face the consequences of his actions? Sometimes it seems like one Bible passage teaches me to act one way and another Bible passages teaches me the opposite. Libraries of books have been written in attempts to discern what exactly is God’s will, how we are to read certain passages of scripture, how to make the right decisions based on specific situations. And let’s be real, there are no easy answers to the hard questions. Fear of sinning and earning divine wrath could leave us frozen, but through Christ we are free to take the risk of acting, hoping and praying that we are doing good, but knowing that we cannot lose God’s love.

During today’s service this year’s confirmands will be publicly affirming their baptisms, and the rest of us will promise our support to them in their life in Christ.

Baptism reminds us both that we are free from something and that we are free for something. In baptism we are freed from slavery to sin, from fear of punishment, from the thought that God might not love us or forgive us. And in baptism we are freed into a covenant with God, rooted in the forgiveness and new life that God gives us. We are freed to:

…live among God’s faithful people; hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s Supper; proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed; serve all people following the example of Jesus; and strive for justice and peace in all the earth.[5]

 This is God’s dream for our Christian freedom. May we live it out. Amen.

[1] Lois Tverberg, Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), ch. 7, kindle edition. Based on a traditional Jewish story as told in Joseph Telushkin, Words that Hurt, Words that Heal: How to Choose Words Wisely and Well (New York: Harper, 1998), p. 3.

[2] James Kittelson, Luther The Reformer, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Publishing House, 1986) p. 79.

[3] Band of Brothers, “Why We Fight,” episode 9, directed by David Frankel, written by John Orloff, (based on the book Band of Brothers by Stephen Ambrose), HBO, October 28, 2001.

[4] Forrest Gump, directed by Robert Zemeckis, written by Eric Roth (based on the book Forrest Gump by Winston Groom), Paramount Pictures, 1994.

[5] Evangelical Lutheran Worship, 236.


Freedom from…

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 6th Sunday After Pentecost + June 26, 2016

Readings: 1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21; Galatians 5:1, 13-25; Luke 9:51-62

For the last week I was at Berry College in Rome, Georgia for Affirm, a summer gathering for youth from all over the Southeastern Synod. Beth Smith, Sandy Vollmer, Bishop Gordy, Anna Gordy Montgomery, and six St. Andrew youth were also there.

As a whole group we focused on a theme verse, Micah 6:8: “God has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” We talked about what it means to act in the cause of justice, to stand with God on the side of those who are vulnerable or in need. We talked about what it means to love mercy, grace, and forgiveness and to live mercifully in a world where anger and retribution and fear are too often our guiding values. We talked about how we can walk through our lives not pridefully or demandingly, but humbly, alongside our God who “came not to be served, but to be serve” (Mark 10:45; Matt. 20:28). By the end of the week I felt like this huge group of people from all over Tennessee, Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama had come together in conversation about what it means to live as a Christian in today’s world. I can’t speak for everyone there, but for me, it helped to renew my sense of call to the Church and the work of Christ.

And that’s just the big picture. We also spent time in separate “units,” where we focused on unique themes and lessons. For instance, Sandy was a leader in a group called Missionaries, which helped youth discover their own gifts and how they could use them for service in the world. Chloe Stiles and Emma Tallyn were part of this group. They spent some of their days out in the community, volunteering at food pantries, the Salvation Army, and the Boys and Girls club.

I was part of another group, called Bridges. Our group spent time talking about the barriers that divide people from one another: things like prejudice, assumptions, classism, racism, sexism. Then we talked about how we can “build bridges” to get over these barriers and form real relationships with those who are different than us, to know them and to feel known, and in that way make help us and others feel the love of God that seeks us out just as we are and binds us together in community.

Each day our group began by focusing one of the five promises we made in baptism: to “…live among God’s faithful people; to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s Supper; to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed; to serve all people following the example of Jesus; and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.”[1]

We made posters of these promises and hung them on a wall in our classroom space, surrounding a bowl of water. Whenever our students came to unit time, this was the first thing they saw: a reminder that they were claimed by God as God’s children in the waters of baptism, and a reminder of the lives they are called to live through their baptism.

About halfway through Affirm we added something to this wall. We had spent the day talking about stereotypes, but the youth weren’t getting as riled up about the topic as the leaders had hoped. So we asked them about the stereotypes that affected them personally: how do other people judge you automatically based on one thing they see about you? We had the students write down one way they felt unfairly judged, and then took their picture with that judgement. That night the staff added these portraits to our baptism wall.

The posters reminding us of the promises of our baptism, reminding us that God loves us and sees us as beloved children, still hung on the wall, but now scattered among them were pictures with a jarringly different message: reminders of how the world sees and judges us. Pictures of teenagers I’d come to know and love holding up heartbreaking judgments from their own experiences: “I’m black, so I must be dangerous.” “I have a mental illness, so I must be fragile.” “I’m a man, so I must not have feelings.” Suddenly that wall looked a lot more like life in the world: a confusing mixture of what God says about us, what others say about us, and our own sense of who we are and what we can be.

Since I knew I’d be preaching this morning, I’d been carrying today’s reading from Galatians in my head throughout the week at Affirm, looking for connections between what we were doing there and what Paul wrote about thousands of years ago.

Paul wrote to a group of Christians who were struggling with how the requirements of the Jewish law should be applied to the Christian community. Specifically, the were fighting — and I mean fighting, like Fox News vs. MSNBC — about whether gentile converts to this Jewish Jesus-movement had to be circumcised in order to join the community. Paul’s answer to this debate was strong and clear: “In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6).

This strong statement flows from one of Paul’s core principles: it is not the law that saves us, that makes us righteous, that brings us into the strongest covenant of God’s love: it is faith. It is not obedience to the law that makes us a community of God’s people; it is the faith of Christ. We are freed from the demands of the law by this faithful welcome into relationship with God. This is what Paul was talking about in that first phrase from today’s reading: “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”

At Affirm, as I looked at our baptismal wall — how those images of the world’s judgments sliced into the images of the promises and claims of baptism — I thought again of Paul’s statement: “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”

Too often our the judgments of others become a “yoke of slavery.” There is a way in which the assumptions and expectations of society become like a law for us. They are the basic means by which we judge one another and ourselves. We often bind ourselves to them, not because it is the right thing to do, but because if we don’t we will suffer the consequences. We will be judged; we will be outcast; we will be treated with disdain. Maybe especially as teenagers — but definitely as adults too — we measure ourselves by these social expectations to decide whether we’re good enough, to see where we have to change or where we will take a stand as rebels. We define ourselves based on these social laws, and we judge others by them too.

But as Christians we stand on the promise that these laws are not what makes us “good enough.” And obedience to these social expectations is not what makes us into a community. What matters is how God sees us. And God sees us as beloved children, as people who are sinners and yet saints, as part of the God’s community.

The church, in its ideal form, represents this reality on earth. In its best form, the church is to be a place where God’s grace defines us rather than obedience to laws, assumptions, and social expectations. In the church people of different nations fellowship together, the poor are welcome alongside the rich, criminals and outcasts are given mercy.

I’m reminded of a story Nadia Bolz-Weber tells: when she was young, she had a lazy eye. At school they called her all sorts of horrible nicknames: but her church was the one place where they called her by her name.[2]

May we strive to be that kind of church: a church where people are known by the name God calls them and not by how they mold to human standards; a church where people may truly feel that “for freedom Christ has set us free,” may truly feel the truth that God has called each of us to a life of love and mercy and community, not because we deserve it, but because God says it shall be so.

This is both grace and commandment for us. As Paul wrote: “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”

Let us pray: O God, you set us free in Jesus Christ with a power greater than all that would keep us captive. Grant that we might live gracefully in our freedom without selfishness or arrogance, and through love become slaves to the freedom of the gospel for the sake of your reign. Amen.[3]

[1] Affirmation of Baptism, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 236.

[2] Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastrix (Nashville: Jericho Books, 2014).

[3] Scripture (Series 1) prayer, June 26, 2016, Vanderbilt Divinity School’s Revised Common Lectionary resource site, http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/prayers.php?id=268