Posts

Proper 9A-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

12 score and 2 years ago our ancestors brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. “All men,” of course, referred narrowly only to people of that same gender, who were white, who had lived on American soil for at least two years, and could prove they were of good moral character. We have expanded the circle of inclusion ever since, striving for that, ever elusive, more perfect union.
Abraham Lincoln said it at Gettysburg, ‘It is for us the living to be dedicated to the unfinished work our American ancestors in each generation have so nobly advanced.’ “That this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” (Abraham Lincoln, The Gettysburg Address, 11/19/63)

We all have a stake in this freedom franchise. Whether our ancestors immigrated here in the 19th century like mine or were brought and bought here in bondage against their will, or, whether they walked here during the last ice age, we all have a role in this American experiment in democracy. This strange, COVID-afflicted, safe-distanced anniversary of our nation’s independence, when the meaning of what it is to be American is debated in our national politics, it’s worth remembering this. It is necessary to reassert this so that a new birth of freedom may also be born in our own time.

As luck would have the proper use of our God-given freedom is a question addressed in our readings appointed for today. It is, perhaps, the central question of the great bible narratives of creation, Exodus, Christ and the cross. I would like to think the American dream of human equality is rooted in the witness of scripture and the persistent council of grace in human consciousness that all people are children of God.

Human beings living under every permutation of governance ever devised or bumbled into have asked themselves what am I to do with the miracle of my life?
Chapters 5-8 of Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome from which today’s second lesson was taken is a majestic statement of some of Paul’s greatest themes: The love of God embodied in Jesus’ death; the hope, even during suffering, enjoyed by God’s people; Christian freedom from sin, the law and death itself; and the life-giving leading of the Spirit. Countless Christians, in times of great struggle found strength and joy in Paul’s closing words: “Neither height nor depth nor any other creature shall be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:39) (N.T. Wright, Commentary on Romans)

Many today are misled in believing that, if you are lucky or strong or bold or beautiful and powerful enough, freedom is about living without any obligations, any commitments, any requirements whatsoever. By contrast, Paul invited the Christians in Rome and each of us, to consider the choice we face is not between obedience or freedom, but rather a decision about what we will be freely obedient and dedicated to.

So, it makes perfect sense. That’s why Jesus’ answer to the problem of the proper use of our freedom is this—an animal yoke. What? Yes. Jesus said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

In fact, what Jesus seems to have in mind in a double yoke like this one. (that I hope you can see now.) Stick your head in this, join with me, Jesus says, and you can’t go far wrong.

It seems counterintuitive to find rest and greater freedom in taking upon us a yoke—even the yoke of Jesus. For most of us, I’d wager, a yoke connotes bondage and servitude, a diminishment of freedom and choice. Indeed, Jesus was relentless in his criticism of the Scribes and Pharisees for making the yoke of religion too heavy. They made religion into something used merely to weigh people down with the artificial demands of righteousness.

Jesus’ yoke is different from the one religious Zealots want to lay on you. Instead, here is wisdom written deep within creation: being kind is not a chore, but a natural and gracious response to the God-given dignity in every other. In this yoke we find our own humanity. In this yoke we find purpose for our freedom. In this yoke we find the inalienable human right of all people to Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Human dignity increases as we join ourselves to God’s purpose. In this way we find greater freedom and power. But Jesus’ invitation doesn’t sidestep the fact that a yoke is still a yoke. Faith requires a commitment. Faith assumes there is a load to pull, and that it must be pulled.

People are confused about the purpose of their freedom today. We have an adolescent view of happiness. The yoke of Jesus is humility and concern for the despised. The yoke of Jesus is not a yoke of servitude, or of bondage but of connection, partnership, and sharing our burdens with one another and with Christ who labors alongside us. There will be a new birth of freedom among us in our time when we realize in Christ, we are yoked to those suffering now. We are yoked, so none of can be free when one of us can’t breathe.

We remember the dying words of George Floyd and Eric Garner. “I can’t breathe.” Their deaths sparked national outrage but there were many others you didn’t hear about. Over the past decade, The New York Times found, at least 70 people have died in law enforcement custody after saying the same words — “I can’t breathe.”
The dead ranged in age from 19 to 65. The majority of them had been stopped or held over nonviolent infractions, 911 calls about suspicious behavior, or concerns about their mental health. More than half were black. (I Can’t Breath, NYT, Mike Baker, Jennifer Valentino-DeVries, Manny Fernandez and Michael LaForgia, June 29, 2020)

As we face these challenging times, we need wisdom, wisdom born of grace. We need individual wisdom—yes—but perhaps even more, we need our public institutions to have greater wisdom. It is time once again for a new birth of freedom. Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth but have a new beginning. Jesus’ yoke is easy. Take on the yoke of Jesus. Let him show us the way. Yoked to Christ, we can’t go far wrong. Our life’s journey is made easier when we have a companion along the way with whom we can share our worries who is stronger than we are. Let Jesus lift the crushing burdens impossible for us to lift. See, even our griefs and sorrows are transformed into something like love and understanding when we share our burdens with one another in Christ. See greater meaning and purpose for our lives is at hand. Let freedom ring.

Reformation Sunday, 2019

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

When I was five, I fell asleep on the back of my grandpa’s tractor while he was cutting hay. I got a big ball of dirt and grass in my lungs. “Pneumonia,” they said. I would need regular injections of penicillin. In those days there were no pills to take.  So, that’s how I missed the first two weeks of kindergarten laying in a hospital bed.

I remember the big yellow school bus that came to pick me up my on first day of school-mostly because my mom took a picture of me and our dog, Rusty, standing beside the road.

That same day, for the ride home, my teacher attached a big manila tag to a button on my shirt. It had the bus number written in big black letters. “You still need that tag?” One of the kids asked disbelievingly. After two weeks, the other kids already knew their bus by heart. “You still need that tag?” That question is probably the only other thing I still remember about my first day. How’s it possible you still don’t know? I’m thankful my teacher kept track of my story and took care to provide me with it, because yeah, I did need it. I needed that tag to find my way home again.

Well, the people of Israel should have known. After Exodus, Mt. Sinai, and entry in the Promised Land, they had no excuse.  One could have asked the Israelites, ‘You still need reminding about this whole God thing?”  Well, yes. Yes, they did still need reminding.  So, God wrote a big note for them. It was already written in the book of the Law and the Prophets.  But now, God wrote in big letters on sticky note placed directly on their hearts.  “I will be your God, and you shall be my people… I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:33 & 34.)  God is still doing that. In fact, God is that kind of parent who is always leaving us notes.

Jesus commanded that we be baptized and that we meet him at his Table. These are not prerequisites of grace. They’re not how we merit status as God’s children. They’re sticky notes of grace. Remember, you are marked with the cross of Christ.  You are my child. Partake of living bread and drink of my lifeblood. You are one body, one blood, one people, and that’s the truth.

In the Roman Praetorium, standing before Jesus on the night of his crucifixion, Pilate famously asked, “What is truth?” In a time when we can’t even agree about facts, could there be a more modern question? Jesus showed us what to do in chaotic and confusing times.  Look within yourself. See what’s written there. Remember your baptism. Don’t forget what I taught you seated around my Table. Jesus said, if are my disciples you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:32)

They said to Jesus, “What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free?’” (John 8:33b) We have never been slaves to anyone. They had forgotten their ancestors in Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon. They overlooked their own obvious everyday reality of Roman occupation.  It’s easy to get lost when you can’t remember where you come from.  It’s hard to know which choice is right when you don’t know where you’re going.

We know its flu season now, but each day of the year is sin season. Blindness to the truth, and forgetting our core values rooted in our God-infused identity, are symptoms of sin.  The antidote is written on your heart, marked on your forehead, and in the food we share today. Remember who you are.  This truth, as Martin Luther said, is what cures the fever dream we all have when our mind, energy, and desire become curved in on ourselves and begin to blot out any thought for God and neighbor. This truth restores us from the many ways we put our self in the place of God.

Lutheran pastor and author, Nadia Bolz-Weber writes, “It can be alcoholism or passive aggression. It can be the hateful things we think but never say or it can be adultery, or it can be that feeling of superiority when we are helping others. Sin is the fact that my ideals and values are never enough to make me always do what I should, feel what I should, think what I should. And anything that reveals those “shoulds” to me is what we call The Law, the Law being the very thing Paul in his letter to the Romans said reveals sin. The “shoulds” in our lives are the things that make us see how far off the mark we are.” Sin is so devious and cunning we can get lost even in our attempt to do what’s right.

This truth sparked the Protestant Reformation. Luther knew what is was like for the Law to convict and accuse him. Feeling this way, Luther read that passage we just heard from Romans, “since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift.” (Romans 3:23 & 24). Luther realized the church was pawning off Law as Gospel, and he dared to know the difference, and he became a preacher of Grace, and that changed everything.

To quote a single sentence from Pastor Bolz-Weber: “Because God is our creator and because we rebel against the idea of being created beings and insist on trying to be God for ourselves and because God will not play by our rules and because in the fullness of time when God had had quite enough of all of that God became human in Jesus Christ to show us who God really is and because when God came to God’s own and we received him not, and because God would not be deterred God went so far as to hang from the cross we built and did not even lift a finger to condemn but said forgive them they know not what they are doing and because Jesus Christ defeated even death and the grave and rose on the 3rd day and because we all sin and fall short and are forever turned in on ourselves and forget that we belong to God and that none of our success guarantee this and none of our failures exclude this and because God loves God’s creation God refuses for our sin and brokenness and inability to always do the right things to be the last word because God came to save and not to judge and therefore…therefore you are saved by grace as a gift and not by the works of the law and this truth will set you free like no self-help plan or healthy living or social justice work “shoulds” can ever do.” (Nadia Bolz Weber, “Why the Gospel is More Wizard of Oz-y than the Law,” 10/29/12)

Whether or not you are wearing your bus tag, whether you have been baptized or not, whether or not you come to the Table –the truth is you were created in the image of God. You carry a spark of the infinite within your narrow, mortal frame. All things come from God and return to God. That is how we know where we come from and to where we’re going. That is how we know what will matter most when we get there. They were thirsty. Did you give them something to drink? They were hungry and you gave them something to eat. They were cold or naked and we comforted them. And that’s the truth. Truth to live and to die by.  It is written on our hearts, marked on our foreheads, and in the sack lunch we eat each week –so we don’t forget.  We can’t forget –never forget—we belong to Christ. One body, one blood, one living sanctuary of hope and grace.