All in the Family!

john-8-36-freedom-in-christ

“All in the Family!”

 

John 8:36 – October 30, 2016

Happy Reformation Day! Today is Reformation Sunday. When I say Reformation Sunday, what do you think of? “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God!” Or, Martin Luther, beginning the separation from the Catholic faith on October 31, 1517. What about a day to remember and lift up the Protestant Reformation? Or even all the faithful man and women of integrity through the centuries, who suffered and died for being true to their faith?

The Gospel reading for our sermon has a fascinating connection to Reformation Sunday. Jesus is teaching. And as often happens, His listeners do not understand what Jesus says.

All of this chapter of John—the eighth chapter—takes place in Jerusalem during the Festival of Booths. That is a yearly harvest-time celebration where the Jewish people commemorate God’s protection and accompaniment of the Jews on their wilderness wanderings; when they flee from bondage in Egypt to the freedom of the Promised Land.

I think Jesus said it clearly enough, but I wasn’t there. I didn’t hear His words, with first-century ears. And we all know about hindsight. Looking back on things past, hindsight is so often 20/20. Rewinding the tape, living life forwards, the Jewish audience in the Temple in Jerusalem wrangle over what Jesus means by His words. Some agree, some disagree, with contention back and forth.

What are the exact words Jesus says, again? “31 To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to My teaching, you are really My disciples. 32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” The listening Jews—who include the disciples—do misunderstand. Therein lies the source of a great deal of bickering back and forth.

The Jews listening to the Rabbi Jesus are—for the most part—really sincere. They really want to live righteous lives, pleasing to God. But—HOW to do this? That is the problem. And, competing teachers or rabbis had different plans, or step-by-step procedures to help people get closer to God. (It sounds pretty similar to today, doesn’t it?)

Let’s dig deeper, and look at the first phrase Jesus said: “If you hold to My teaching.” This is a phrase that can be translated in several different ways. A more literal way of translating it is “If you abide-dwell in My word.” Remember, we are talking about people who sincerely, legitimately want to get closer to God; see God more clearly, and follow God more nearly.

I suspect people have had difficulty in this area for centuries. Not connecting with God, I mean. Merely “teaching” sounds like it might be possible to get away with just having a nodding acquaintance with God. A kind of distant relationship where we might once in a while attend services, and think about God just a bit, and maybe drop a little money in the basket. But, not much more. Not get really involved.

What about the more literal translation? What was that Jesus said? “If you abide-dwell in My word—” Abide, or dwell. That sounds permanent. Moving in, and putting down roots! And, “in My word.” That is, digging deep! Learning more, and exploring the riches of God’s word. No surface stuff here. Not a nodding acquaintance only, as far as Jesus is concerned. He wants us to move in, lock, stock and barrel. Get to know God, really well, and get to know God’s word. That’s how to show we are really Jesus’s disciples!

Now, the second part of this if-then statement. Because, that’s just what it is. If we abide-dwell in Jesus’s words, then we are really Jesus’s disciples. If we know the truth, then the truth will make us free.

What on earth? Who is free? Who is a slave? What is Jesus saying here?

Can you see the scene in the Temple, here? The Rabbi Jesus makes an incredible statement, “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Let’s quote the exact words, the comeback these people gave to Jesus: “They answered him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?”

A Reformation Day paraphrase could be: “We are the theological descendants of Martin Luther, and have never been slaves to anyone!”

In other words, “What gives? Who are you calling slaves? Slaves to what? We are free-born people, not slaves!”  Jesus has a ready answer. Verse 34: “ Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin.”

Did everyone here listen? Did you all hear what Jesus said? Sounds a lot like Romans 3. Paul quotes from Psalms: “As it is written: ‘There is no one righteous, not even one; … there is no one who does good, not even one.’” And further on in chapter 3: “There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

That does not sound like good news. But—does the Apostle Paul tell us that we are permanently worthless, and there is absolutely no way to reconcile to God? Does Jesus stop right there, and leave us enmeshed in sin? Certainly not!

Jesus “is not talking about physical slavery but a spiritual, even existential state of being enslaved to sin.” [1] The Jewish listeners in the audience around the Rabbi Jesus just did not understand. They could not wrap their heads around the concept of “slaves to sin.”

Quoting again from a commentator: “Further, one is not delivered from such slavery by either history or birth right, but rather by a present and ongoing relationship — relationship to the Son, the one who is in the bosom of the Father and makes the Father known (1:18). Only those who abide with, dwell in, and are in intimate relationship with the Son, the living Word, the logos of God, are free indeed.” [2]

This is exactly what Martin Luther was preaching, from the moment he posted those 95 Theses on the chapel door at the University of Wittenberg. We are not hopeless slaves to sin. We are not people with merely a nodding acquaintance with God. Instead, we have an intimate relationship with the Son, with Jesus. Moreover, we are freed through our belief in Jesus Christ and His death on the cross for our sins. That’s yours and mine. All done! All gone. Our every sin is covered, taken away, is no longer separating us from God.

That is not only good news, that is great news! Tremendous news! And the best news of all? If we abide in His word, Jesus says we are now in God’s family. Listen to what He says in our Scripture passage today: “35 Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. 36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”

Jesus lets us know that a relationship with God is not only a possibility, but a reality. And, the closest relationship of all! All in the family. We can call ourselves the children of God; sons and daughters of the Almighty. We can enter into intimacy with God. We have the right, the privilege to crawl up into our Heavenly Parent’s lap, and call out, “Abba!”

That freedom was what Martin Luther got excited about. That intimacy is the foundation of the Protestant Reformation. That relationship is what we are heirs to today.

Alleluia, amen!

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=827 , Commentary on John 8:31-36, October 31, 2010, David Lose.

[2] Ibid.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2016: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

Struggle for Liberation

“Struggle for Liberation”

Isa 61-1 freedom, liberty word cloud

Isaiah 61:1-3 – August 14, 2016

Has anyone listened to the news? Or, read the newspaper lately? Or, checked out the headlines on their computer news sites? Other than the Olympics—which is some positive, uplifting news, indeed, and a much needed boost in this mixed-up world—there is very little positive going on in the world right now.

Bombings in Thailand, and wide-spread flooding in the Gulf Coast. Not to mention the violence in Milwaukee, poor economic forecast and drought-stricken areas covering large sections worldwide. Add to that, the rise in the prison population in the United States, complicated by the surge in unemployment in many urban areas across the country. Problem upon problem. What can we do about all of this? It makes me feel helpless, and hopeless.

Our Scripture passage from the Hebrew Bible comes from the book of Isaiah, chapter 61. As we read through the first two verses, we might just as well be reading the headlines from the daily paper or from a news site online, or listening to the news on the radio or television. Chapter 61 talks about the poor, those who are captive, brokenhearted, and those in prison. With one huge exception: the prophet has been chosen and anointed by the Lord to bring help and hope to those very people.

Reading from Isaiah 61 again: “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. God has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, margto proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Praise God! The Lord is listening to the poor, the brokenhearted, the captives and the prisoners!

The prophet knows very well he has been sent and deputized to go to these people who are down and out. On the outskirts, on the margins of society. In this world today, so many people are poor, and captive, and prisoners. Outside of this country, certainly. But, even within this country. I am certain there are many people on the outskirts and margins of society very near this church, in a two mile-radius all the way around St. Luke’s Church.

I am preaching through the United Church of Christ’s Statement of Mission for my summer sermon series. This week, our sentence from the mission statement says: “Empowered by the Holy Spirit, we are called: to join oppressed and troubled people in the struggle for liberation.”

This call from the statement of mission certainly echoes Isaiah 61. The prophet is clearly joining oppressed and troubled people. On the outskirts, on the margins of society.

Our Lord Jesus read this very passage from the prophet Isaiah when He started His ministry. Right after Jesus was baptized, He went to Nazareth. While in the synagogue, He was given the opportunity to read from Scripture. This was the passage Jesus read. After reading these verses, “20 Then He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on Him. 21 He began by saying to them, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’”

We have the prophet in the time of Isaiah sent to the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized. We have our Lord Jesus saying—at the beginning of His ministry—that He has been sent to the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized. And, we have the United Church of Christ’s Mission Statement saying that we—all of us—have been sent to the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized.

Jesus chose to hang out with these “down and out” type people, deliberately.

In fact, Jesus was soundly criticized. In the Gospel of Mark, the religious leaders get all righteous on Jesus for hanging out and eating with tax collectors and other “sinners.” The super-righteous Pharisees would not even allow themselves to come near these second-class citizens! That’s how much better they considered themselves. But, our Lord Jesus willingly associated with these “sinners,” these people who according to religious law were ritually unclean.

Jesus came to earth to reach out to all people, to bring the good news of the Gospel to everyone. Jesus came to the tax collectors just as much as the Pharisees, to free all people from their spiritual bondage. To liberate all people, so that we could be free, indeed!

Isn’t that just what God has been doing, all along? All throughout biblical history, and throughout the history of the church? We can follow that thread of liberation through the Hebrew Scriptures, highlighted by the Exodus, where the Jewish people were freed from slavery in Egypt. A huge liberation, to be sure!

We can follow the additional freedoms from oppression and liberations from captivity stated in the Bible. The book of Judges has one after another. The books of the Kings of Judah and Israel, more periodic liberation. The return from captivity of both Judah and Israel. Then, the ultimate liberation from captivity—humanity’s freedom from the bondage to sin and death, paid for us by Jesus Christ and His death on the cross.

Praise God! We have been set free from this bondage of sin and death. The physical, mental, emotional and psychological shackles that kept us all bound as prisoners have been loosened. Thank You, Jesus! I am so very, very happy and grateful and thankful.

Jesus encourages us—each of us—to reach out in the same way. We are to reach out to the poor, the brokenhearted, the oppressed. That is our part, to offer this freedom from bondage to those we meet.

I know what some people might say. “I am just one person. The task is much, much too big. Plus, I haven’t been trained in mission, or evangelism, or chaplaincy, or how to preach.”

Let me tell you a story. A young girl was walking along a beach upon which thousands of starfish had been washed up during a terrible storm. When she came to each starfish, she would pick it up, and throw it back into the ocean. People watched her with amusement. She had been doing this for some time when a man approached her and said, “Little girl, why are you doing this? Look at this beach! You can’t save all these starfish. You can’t begin to make a difference!”

The girl seemed crushed, suddenly deflated. But after a few moments, she bent down, picked up another starfish, and hurled it as far as she could into the ocean. Then she looked up at the man and replied, “Well, I made a difference to that one!” [1]

Remember, our sentence from the mission statement says: “Empowered by the Holy Spirit, we are called: to join oppressed and troubled people in the struggle for liberation.” Exactly so. You and I can do what we are able. No matter how small or how big it might be.

What can I do? This task of freeing the starfish—I mean, people from the penalty of bondage and death? What can we do to join oppressed and troubled people, and sit with them in their time of need? Walk with them through their difficulties?

I know it seems like a small thing, but I go regularly to play for a hymn sing at a nursing home in Chicago. I know the seniors appreciate my playing. What about donating to the Maine Township food pantry? I know it seems small, but there are hungry people throughout the community who will thank us.

Let us follow the prophet, and follow our Lord Jesus in this worthy effort. Engage with others. Find something to do, or say, and do it!

Please God, help us all in this endeavor. Amen!

[1] Adapted from The Star Thrower by Loren C. Eiseley

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2016: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

 

Proclaim the Gospel!

“Proclaim the Gospel!”

Luke 4-18 word cloud

Luke 4:14-21 – June 26, 2016

The primary season is over. You all know what that means. The presidential primaries have been going on for months, and they are finally over. Some people in the United States have followed the debates, listened to the various candidates, and discussed the various political positions, pro and con. What’s more, we are also going to elect congressional representatives, and state and local officials, too. Campaigning will begin in earnest this fall.

All of this campaigning has a purpose. The various candidates all try to have their position distilled down to a simple message. What they stand for. What they will strive to do.

I want us to look at the Gospel passage for today, from Luke. This is the very beginning of the public ministry of Rabbi Jesus. We can draw some parallels between this passage and the political campaign going on in our country, right now.

Sure, this was the very beginning. Jesus was just starting to make a name for Himself as an itinerant rabbi. And, He came to His hometown, the place where He grew up. Maybe where the butcher and baker down the street were good friends with His parents from way back. Maybe the real estate agent across the square sold His parents their house some years before, the house where His mother Mary still lives. In other words—I suspect everyone in that village was there in the synagogue that day to hear what the Rabbi Jesus—their hometown boy!—had to say.

Jesus already had generated some buzz in the greater Nazareth area. “Have you heard the latest about that Jesus? The one who says He is a Rabbi? The one who was baptized in the River Jordan by that Baptizer fellow? And, there was something about the heavens cracking open, a dove flying out of a clear blue sky—and a voice from heaven! I’m not saying all this was for real or not, but that is what people are saying about this Jesus. You know, the guy from our town.”

Jesus had hardly started to do His public ministry, and people were already talking about Him and what had happened in His life. Even in Nazareth, the town where He had grown up.

I am fascinated by this particular reading, where Jesus preaches His first sermon. It is quite a bit like political campaigns. The various candidates all try to have their position distilled down to a simple message. What they stand for. What they will strive to do. Just so, with Jesus.

Let’s read from our passage from the Gospel of Luke, again. “Jesus stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, He found the place where it is written: 18 ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’”

There we have it. Jesus distilled His message down. His position, what He stands for, and what He will strive to do. Jesus is here to proclaim good news. Or, in the word from middle English, God-spell. What we today know as Gospel. Proclaim the good news, indeed!

This is what we are told in the sentence for this week from the United Church of Christ’s Statement of Mission. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, we are called and commit ourselves: To proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ in our suffering world.”
If we say this passage from Luke is Jesus’s basic position statement for His overall ministry, how does that work for us? Jesus said He would proclaim: 1) good news to the poor, 2) freedom for the prisoners, 3) recovery of sight for the blind, and 4) to set the oppressed free.

My first thought is, I’m not poor! Or, a prisoner, or blind, or oppressed, either. I am not any of those things. What kind of stuff is Jesus saying here?

I live a fairly comfortable life in a small condo in Evanston. Seriously, what is Jesus bringing up? Does He have some kind of secret message? If these are the types of people Jesus says He is going to preach and minister to, I am not sure I would be comfortable with it. All that talk about the poor and blind, grief-stricken and oppressed, that is giving me some hesitation about following this new Rabbi Jesus.

But, let’s take a closer, deeper look. Here Jesus is addressing the poor. Could that be the poor in spirit, as well as poor, materially speaking? Next up, He addresses the prisoners. Perhaps, prisoners of sin? Then, speaking to the blind; blind to the love and gifts of God in their lives? And, Jesus came for the oppressed. Oppressed by anxiety, doubt, fear, anger, self-loathing, self-pity, self-righteousness. (I could go on, but I think you all have the idea.)

That is why Jesus has come to earth. That is His message, His purpose statement, distilled down to the pure essence. He has come to preach the Good News. The Gospel. The year of the Lord’s favor.

One of the commentators I consulted said it another way: “This Spirit inspired message is one of justice and mercy, of righteousness and freedom. This is a prophetic ministry, and when Jesus finishes reading the passage He sat down, and with every eye in the congregation focused on Him, He told them: ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ In other words: I’m the one Isaiah spoke of. I’m going to do these very things.” [1]

Jesus is correct. He does do these things. That is why He came. That is the Good News, the distilled message of hope, love and promise from God. Moreover, He has come to bring that message to us—to each and every one of us, no matter what.

Jesus’s message is Good News! However, for us to really hear it, we need to become aware of our poverty, our captivity, our blindness, and what we are oppressed by. This is news “that we are not who we want to be, can be, and should be…and we never will be. Jesus comes bringing good news to those in need, and those who don’t see and admit their need want nothing to do with him.” [2]

What is more, Jesus tells us to do these things, too. We are to proclaim the Good News just as much as He proclaims it. We are sent in the same way that He is sent.

I would like everyone to turn to the back page of the bulletin. Look at the listing of the church staff. Who heads the list? We do. We all do! We are ALL ministers, every one of us sitting here today. Yes, and those in other places right now, too. Ministering, carrying the Good News of the Gospel wherever they are, too.

I loved the way the commentator David Lose put it: “This, in a sense, is what the Body of Christ and community of faith is – God’s hands delivering the promise of good news to all who come in need. Afraid? We may ask those around us. Come here to find courage. Lonely? Come join our community. Ill? Come here – or better, let us come to you – to care for you. Isolated? We will visit you. Discouraged? Let us gather together and encourage one another.”

Good News for all people, just as the angels said at Christ’s birth. Remember the Christmas narrative from Luke chapter 2? This is why Jesus was born to us. This is why He came into the world. How much better news could there possibly be?

What about you? Are you going to accept Jesus Christ’s offer of Good News today? Remember the words of the angel to the shepherds: “I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.”  Ministering, carrying the Good News of the Gospel to each of us, to all the people, today.

[1] http://www.bobcornwall.com/2016/01/the-charismatic-messiah-lectionary.html

[2]  “Jesus’ Inaugural Address,” David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, 2013.  http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1771

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2016: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)