Reformation Freedom

Yesterday, we commemorated the Reformation in worship at St. Paul’s. Reformation Sunday is one of the days in the church calendar that is assigned the same readings every year. So, even though I haven’t been doing this too long, I already feel like I’m running out of things to say about John 8. I tried to focus on just one part of it–what does it mean to be captive (a slave) to sin? And how does Jesus set us free from that?

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Have you ever been offered something you had no idea you needed? Something, in fact, that you thought you most certainly did not need? It’s happened to me more than once, but the most memorable, and probably funniest, time for me was when I was in third grade. My teacher sent a note home to let my parents know I needed glasses.

I was devasted and more than a little bit offended. I could see just fine! How was he to know what I could and couldn’t see anyway? I maintained this stubborn conviction that I had no need of glasses at all until the moment I walked out of the optometrists wearing them for the first time. And suddenly, everything was clear. I had thought I could see fine, but only because I had no idea what I was missing. Trees had leaves! Like, leaves that you could see individually!

A week before, I was positive that I had no trouble seeing at all. And I would argue endlessly with anyone who would suggest otherwise. It was only after the fact that I realized, I did, in fact, need help.

When people point out help that we don’t think we need, it’s a natural reaction to become defensive, offended, or upset. Jesus says to his followers: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

“What do you mean?” they ask, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. Why are you telling us ‘You will be made free?’” We shouldn’t miss the irony here, that these people are descendants of Abraham, and therefore their ancestors have been enslaved by the Egyptians, by the Babylonians, and now they are living under Roman occupation.

But in offering them freedom, Jesus has implied that freedom is something they don’t already have. That they are the opposite of free right now. No wonder they were upset. Imagine if Jesus walked into our sanctuary this morning and said to us, “If you continue in my word, you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.” We are Americans, Jesus. We are free, who are you to tell us that we’re not?

But we, and they, have missed the point. Jesus isn’t talking about political freedom, as he explains. He’s talking about freedom from sin. Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin, he says. I’m honestly not sure if that is more or less offensive than what they originally assumed he meant.

Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin—pair that with our reading from Romans, where Paul writes: all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and we are left to assume that all of us are slaves to sin. In fact, in a prayer of confession that we often use, we say the words: we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves. We say the very thing that Jesus says, and that Paul reiterates: we are slaves to sin.

But what does it mean to be captive to sin? To think about that question, I want to look at what happens just before Jesus says this in the Gospel of John. When we read these lessons in church, we always have just a short snippet of a much larger narrative. And we have to, or else we’d be here for hours each week. But sometimes it’s helpful to see what’s going on around the piece that we read. Because Jesus didn’t just start talking about freedom from sin out of the blue.

Jesus had been teaching his disciples, and the other Jews who believed in him, when the scribes and Pharisees who didn’t believe in him brought a woman before him. “Teacher,” they said, “this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. The law says we are to stone such women. What do you say?”

It’s admitted that this is a test. They want to catch Jesus making a mistake, so that they might bring a charge against him. Jesus bends over and writes in the dirt. We’re never told what he writes. But he straightens up and says: “Let anyone who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And one by one, they leave, until it is just the woman and Jesus. “Where are they?” Jesus asks her, “has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she replies.

Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.  Being captive to sin means that we’re stuck in this vicious circle where we know there’s something wrong, but we can’t do anything about it. Sin becomes a power over us, and we are unable to do the right or just thing. Instead, we try to justify ourselves.

Like the Pharisees and scribes, we can feel the weight of our sin—of our inadequacies or our vulnerability—and we try to cover it up by pointing the finger at others, by blaming, by making excuses, by working harder, by never taking a day off.  We try to cover it up by putting our trust in our ability to at least not be as awful as everyone else.

That way doesn’t lead to freedom, Jesus says, but there is a way that does. When we are able to accept that we are, in fact, in need of help, the way forward is there. Stop trying to free yourself from what binds you—for it is God who will make you free. It is God who calls us daughters and sons and gives us a place in the household. We are justified by God’s grace as a gift. We are set free from sin—from needing to prove ourselves, from seeking glory, from hurting one another—not by anything we have done, but because of God’s righteousness. And that freedom is found in relationship. Relationship with Jesus, relationship with God. A place in God’s household forever, not as slaves, but as children.

Martin Luther started the Protestant Reformation over 500 years ago, on October 31, 1517. We still mark that event today in our church, not to celebrate the history or to remind ourselves what happened. We still commemorate the Reformation because we still need to hear its truths today. Luther and the Reformers sought to invite Christians into a new vision of the possibility of genuine relationship with God, of the promise of forgiveness predicated not upon what we have done but upon what Christ has done.

We are justified by God’s grace as gift, Paul wrote in the first century. We still need to hear that unbelievable promise today: God’s love is not something we can earn, because we already have it. “The truth will set you free,” says Jesus. Free from the need to prove ourselves. Free from the need to earn our place in the household. Free from the guilt and shame that we feel when we don’t measure up. Free to experience God’s love—with no strings attached—and to let that love permeate every part of lives. Free from living the cycles of sin and free to live God’s way of righteousness.

If you continue in my word, you will be my disciples; you will know the truth and the truth will set you free. May the truth of God’s unconditional, unearned love and grace set us free this day, and every day. Amen.

Wrestling with God

What is prayer? How do we pray? One of my professors once described prayer as “buzzing God’s ear with God’s promises.” Reminding God of the things that God promised to do: establish justice and mercy, peace and wholeness. There’s a couple examples of prayer in our readings for Sunday: Jesus’ parable of the persistent widow, and Jacob’s wrestling match with God. What about you? Is this an apt description of your prayer life, or do you have another metaphor to share?

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

When I was in Target recently, I noticed a young boy shopping with his mom. He was maybe eight or nine years old. And he was jogging next to the cart she was pushing, carrying a baseball bat. He was trying to convince his mom to let him put the bat in the cart. “No,” she said, “that’s not what we’re shopping for today.” As I turned down another aisle, I could hear him begin to explain his reasons for needing this particular baseball bat.

I saw them later again in another section of the store. The bat wasn’t in the cart yet, but his mom also hadn’t made him put it back. “Please,” he said, “please.” He said he would do chores to pay for. He said it was just what he needed to improve his game. He said he wouldn’t ask for anything else ever again. He said it was on sale; this was a great price. I honestly didn’t know whether to admire him or to be annoyed on his mom’s behalf. The last time I saw them was in the parking lot. Feeling very nosy, but needing to know, I peeked in their cart. And lo and behold, there it was! He got the bat. His persistence had paid off.

In light of our reading for today, it makes me wonder—is this what prayer is supposed to be like? Today we read the parable of the persistent widow from the gospel of Luke. This poor widow just wants justice. The judge is a bad man. He doesn’t fear God or respect people—something he openly admits. He gives the widow justice in the end, but only because she kept bothering him. Pestering him. Nagging him.

This is not an easy parable to interpret. Is God like the judge? How can that be? The judge is not a good person, at all. The judge can’t represent God, because we know that God is good. So, God is not the judge, but we can learn from the story of the judge, says Jesus. If even an unjust judge will grant justice eventually, imagine what our good and gracious God will do for us!

Pray and don’t give up is a good message. I can get on board with that being the main point of the parable, but even there we run into problems. There are times in my life when I have prayed faithfully and persistently for things that I just didn’t get. I bet it is the same for you. Why is that? Jesus seems to say here that God will swiftly answer prayers, if we are persistent. And yet we don’t see that played out in our lives.

Sometimes, especially in hindsight, it’s easy to see why God doesn’t give us all the things we pray for. I’ve certainly prayed for ill-advised things from time to time. When I’ve been really hurting and angry, I’ve wanted God to hurt the people who hurt me. Just a couple of strategically placed lightning bolts. God hasn’t said yes to those sorts of prayers for me. Something I’m thankful for after the fact.

But what about the prayers for things that are reasonable? What about hungry people who are just praying for something to eat? What about sick people desperately praying for a cure? What about people like the widow crying out for justice? We know that God is on the side of justice. Why can’t those prayers be answered, and answered quickly? The difficult, but honest, truth is: I don’t know.

I don’t know why, sometimes, even though we’re praying for good and just things, there just seems to be no response from God. And our readings today don’t offer any answers to the question of unanswered prayer. They do, though, offer us another perspective on prayer. Our reading starts, “Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not lose heart.” It’s not a parable about why some prayers are answered and some aren’t. It’s a parable about persisting in prayer, even when we might want to lose heart.

And in that case, it is paired perfectly with our first reading from Genesis. Jacob wrestling with a man, that sometime in the course of the night, he realizes is God. Jacob is in a tough spot here. He knows that his brother Esau—whose birthright he stole—has an army and might be ready to move against him. He’s scared, he’s defenseless, and out of the middle of nowhere, this man comes and starts to wrestle with him.

They strive together all night. Neither can prevail against the other. When morning is beginning to break, the figure strikes Jacob on the hip, putting it out of joint. But still Jacob will not let go. Realizing who he has been wrestling with, he demands a blessing. What is your name, the Lord asks? Jacob—which means supplanter, he responds. It’s a name he’s had since birth, since he came out of the womb grasping his twin’s heel. From now on, the Lord says, you shall be called Israel, for you have striven with God and prevailed. Israel—he who strives with God. Jacob leaves this encounter with a new name, a blessing, and a limp.

What does perseverance in prayer look like? Refusing to let go of God. Fighting with God to demand a blessing. Being willing to be changed, even to be damaged, in this exchange with the Almighty, and coming out on the other side limping, but blessed.

What these readings seem to say to me about prayer is that God delights in those who dare to strive with God. To contend with God. To wrestle with God. Wrestling with God, clawing and grabbing and grappling for some hold, it’s not a bad thing. Wrestling is the opposite of apathy. It’s the opposite of resignation. To fight with God is to stay close, to keep our arms wrapped around the one who alone can bless us. Fighting with God means we refuse to walk away.

Prayer is not passive—prayer is a no-holds-barred wrestling match. And when we are discouraged in prayer, when we lose heart (and it’s honest to admit we will sometimes feel that way), we will sometimes feel like the widow, begging for justice and not getting the answers we want. When we feel that way, the message is clear: persevere. We might not get the answer we want, we might end up limping and hurting, but when God is our wrestling partner, we will come out on the other side blessed. Amen.

 

I’m Grateful

Gratitude is having a bit of moment lately. There have been several studies about the benefits of gratitude. Here’s an article from Psychology Today that talks about seven proven benefits of gratitude. I think talking about gratitude is especially important in society today, when having more or better is seemingly prized above all else. But as Christians, we don’t talk about gratitude in the general sense. We think about gratitude as a response to all that God has done for us. In our Gospel lesson from Luke, the Samaritan leper is able to express his gratitude to God in person and finds himself the recipient of another blessing. What are you grateful for?

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

“I’m grateful.” If you ask our bishop, Pat Davenport, how she’s doing, that’s the response you’re likely going to get. “I’m grateful.” The first couple of times I heard it in answer to my casual, “How are you?”, I was surprised. I was expecting to hear “good,” “fine,” maybe even “great” or perhaps “tired.” But not “grateful.”

Even now, expecting to get this answer from her, I’m still often surprised. I serve on our synod council, the governing board of the synod, and I know that there are many reasons why our bishop might not be grateful at any given time. A lot of her time is spent dealing with bureaucracy, upset churches and pastors, legal matters. As the first black woman bishop in our church, she deals with a lot of institutionalized racism and is constantly being asked to speak and address various issues. She could easily say, “I’m tired…I’m frustrated…I’m busy.” But instead, she chooses to say, “I’m grateful.” Each and every time.

I don’t doubt that gratitude is something she is truly feeling in the moment, but in saying, “I’m grateful,” she is also choosing her words with care. She is making a point, to the person asking the question, and to herself. There are dozens of emotions we might feel at any moment. Bishop Davenport chooses to give voice to her gratitude. She chooses to practice being grateful.

When we practice gratitude in life’s ordinary, everyday moments, we are more likely to turn to gratitude when we’re thrown a curve ball. What made the one leper turn back after being healed? Were not all of them grateful? I have to imagine that this tenth leper had practiced gratitude, had cultivated gratitude, in his life.

Luke’s gospel says that Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee when he came upon these lepers. If you take a look at a first century map of the Middle East, you’ll see that there is no region between Samaria and Galilee. The two are neighboring regions. But they had a contentious history with each other. A history of exile and pain, of religious fighting and long-bred hatred for each other. And Jesus is in no-man’s land. The space in between, the space that is neither one nor the other.

And it’s in this in between space that he comes upon these ten lepers. They keep their distance, because they do not want to infect anyone else with their disease. What is called leprosy in the Bible could actually refer to any number of skin diseases, some of them not contagious at all, and others very much so. The people didn’t understand what caused the diseases or how they spread, so lepers were cast out from their homes and villages to keep others safe. And in this group of lepers we surprisingly find both Galileans and a Samaritan. Their differences are overcome by their shared status as outsiders.

And these ten lepers call out to Jesus for mercy. And much like Elisha in the first reading, Jesus does no fancy hand-waving or calling on God’s name. He simply tells them to go and show themselves to the priests. That’s what you did when you thought you were healed of leprosy. The priests could confirm that you were healed, and you could come back to be part of the community again.

And so, they go to see the priests. And on the way, they are miraculously healed. It’s not just a healing of their bodies. This is a restoration of their identities. Jesus has enabled their return to all that makes us fully human—family, community, companionship, and intimacy. He releases them to feel again—to embrace and to be embraced, to worship in community, to reclaim all the social and spiritual ties their disease has stolen from them. Jesus found them in a no-man’s land and invited ten exiles home.

And that’s when our lepers take two different paths. One of them, seeing that he was healed, turns back to give praise to God and acknowledge Jesus. The other nine—well, we don’t actually know what they do. The story doesn’t tell us. Presumably, they do exactly what Jesus told them to do and continue on to the priests. They, too, are healed. All ten are healed; all ten are restored to their community and receive a miraculous blessing. The nine haven’t done anything wrong. They did what Jesus told them to, and they received their healing.

But the one turned back. And this one was a Samaritan. This one not only saw that he was healed but returned to give thanks. To give voice to the feeling of gratitude that surely all ten felt. And Jesus blesses him a second time, saying: “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” Your faith has made you well. It could also be translated: your faith has healed you. Your faith has made you whole. Or even, your faith has saved you.

Giving thanks gives this Samaritan leper a second blessing: a wellness that runs beyond the physical. He acknowledges what has happened to him, and in turn sees himself blessed again. He’s not any more physically healed than he was before he returned to Jesus, but his ability to give voice to his gratitude has opened the door to a new way of being.

Awareness of what God is doing in our lives opens us up to the blessings that are right there. Being grateful, acknowledging the ways God has blessed us—it doesn’t cause us to get good things. Just as the lepers were healed whether or not they were thankful, so too we receive God’s blessings day after day whether we thankful or not. God is generous. God wills wholeness. No matter who is broken, God’s mission is healing.

Gratitude, though, opens us up to a second blessing. It’s a blessing of perspective. A blessing of realizing just what God is up to in our lives. A blessing of abundance and grace. A blessing that can change our outlook, improve our relationships, and actually make us physically healthier. No wonder Jesus told the grateful leper: your faith has made you well.

Gratitude isn’t about sticking our heads in the sand and pretending that everything is wonderful. There’s plenty in our world that we shouldn’t be grateful for. Gratitude isn’t about ignoring very real problems in our own lives and in the world. But it is about not letting them be the controlling forces in our lives. Instead we let God’s abundance and love control how we respond to things. We let that shape our perspective and rule how we deal with the rest.

So this week, let’s try to practice gratitude. It’s going to be my goal to start and end each day by thinking of just three things I am grateful to God for. I invite you to join me in that. When we give voice to ways God has loved us and cared for us each day, we might just see ourselves a doubly-blessed. How am I today? I’m grateful. Amen.

Size Doesn’t Matter

Have you ever wanted more faith? Faith that would take away your doubts or fears or second-thoughts? Faith that would make you capable of what you needed to do? If so, you’re in good company. The disciples in our gospel are feeling just that way. See what Jesus has to say to them, and what he says to us this day.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

The disciples said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” Increase our faith! Have you ever felt like the disciples in this reading? I know I have. Something happens in your life, or in the world, and you just don’t know how you’re going to handle it. You’re scared, or anxious, you have doubts. And it seems that if only you could have more faith, you might be alright.

The disciples aren’t in an easy spot right here. At this point in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus has set his face toward Jerusalem. He is on a dedicated journey that will take him to his own death. The disciples might not know exactly what lies ahead, but they have the sense at least that it won’t easy. Jesus has told them after all, that being his disciple means doing hard things. It might even require their lives.

And just before our reading started, he shared more about what it means to be his follower. He said to them, “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble. Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.”

And that’s where our reading picks up and the apostles cry out, “Increase our faith!” Increase our faith indeed. They earnestly want to be able to do these things that Jesus says, to forgive, to lift one another up, but they fear that their faith is not up to the task. They worry they don’t have enough faith to see them through. I can’t say I blame them—it’s quite the task.

And, as I said, I think we can understand how they feel. When tossed about by life’s storms, dealing with sickness or grief, with mental illness or addiction, with seemingly impossible political and social ills, we too want to cry out, “increase our faith!” If only I had more faith, then I wouldn’t doubt so much. If only I had more faith, then I would know what to do. If only I had more faith, then…

Jesus’ response to this earnest and desperate plea at first seems terribly dismissive. “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” He seems to say that they lack even that infinitesimal about of faith.

But what if he’s saying something else entirely? What if instead of dismissing their plea, he’s telling them it’s an unnecessary one? What if faith isn’t something that you can have more or less of in the first place? What do we mean when we talk about faith? What exactly are we asking when we beg God to give us more faith?

The disciples, and us sometimes, have commoditized faith. We’ve turned it into something that we can have, that we can store up and accumulate. But faith doesn’t work like that. As Jesus says, it’s not the size of one’s faith that’s important. Because maybe faith can’t even be measured in size terms at all. The disciples ask for their faith to be increased. You’re asking the wrong question, says Jesus. You don’t need more faith, he says. Even if you have this much faith (his thumb and forefinger pinching together) it is enough! Even a tiny seed of faith holds tree-like potential. And you have it within you! God has given you faith that is sufficient, even when it might not always seem like it.

Your faith—your faith—has the ability to do amazing things. Even when it feels small. Even when it feels like you need more. Even in the face of great challenges and hardships. Because faith is about trusting in God. And there’s no more or less of that. There’s just trust.

And then Jesus gives an example of what this faith looks like in our lives. There’s this parable about the master and his slave. And it’s good to say that this parable probably makes us uncomfortable. To hear Jesus talking so casually about slavery. But slavery then isn’t the same as what in America think of with our history of chattel slavery based on race. In Jesus’ time, people found themselves as slaves often for a set period of years. It wasn’t based on race, and it wasn’t something that could be passed down to your children.

To hear Jesus use analogies of masters and slaves wouldn’t be surprising, it would just been a helpful analogy at the time. While it’s good for us to acknowledge how this analogy falls short in our time, we can also see what he originally meant. So, what does faith look like in this parable? It isn’t big or flashy. There’s certainly no trees jumping into the sea. Faith is simply doing the task that’s been given to you right now. When one task is done, another will take its place.

Faith isn’t always moving mountains or performing miracles. Often, our lives call us to things that seem mundane, ordinary, even boring. But done in faith, there is no such thing as an ordinary task. It was Mother Teresa who said, “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” We can do small things with great faith, too.

Having faith doesn’t mean that our lives will be simpler or easier. Having faith doesn’t mean we won’t have doubts. Having faith doesn’t mean that we won’t have trials or temptations. Having faith doesn’t mean we won’t wonder what God is doing in our lives or in the world. Having faith doesn’t mean we won’t have pain or suffering in our lives. Having faith means trusting that we are not alone in any of these things. Faith means trusting that God will see us through.

Increase our faith! The disciples begged Jesus. They had one thing very right: God gives us faith. Faith is something that comes to us, not because we tried really hard or did the right things. Faith comes to us as a gift from God. God gives us faith, and God has given us more than we need. No matter how big or small your faith feels—faith from God, faith in God, even in tiny amounts, has the ability to do amazing and wonderful things. If your faith is only the size of a mustard seed—it is enough to make a huge difference. Amen.