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Wednesday, June 29 2016
Freedom. When you hear that word, what are some things that pop into your head…?
I know that most of the things that pop into my head when I hear “freedom” [like what you all said] are American patriotic-type things. Maybe it’s because the 4th of July is coming up! Like the Star Spangled Banner ending—LAND OF THE FREE, and HOME OF THE BRAVE. And what word has the show-stopping high note? Yeah, FREE. Sometimes the singer even goes higher on that word than what it technically written.
It’s no accident that our national anthem ends with that line, with FREE as the literal high-point of the song. Freedom is part of our DNA as Americans. From the start, our nation was founded on the concept of being free from the oppression that was happening at the time from our home country, Great Britain. And if you’ve been following the news at all, Great Britain has had a new taste of freedom as well. I guess we Americans come by it naturally!
The Declaration of Independence states that people are born with “unalienable rights”. Anyone know what they are…? “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Liberty, or freedom, is only second to life in this list. Freedom is a close second to being alive for us.
Which is pretty much what Patrick Henry said, when he cried his famous line (say it with me if you know it): “Give me liberty or give me death!” We take this to heart as Americans. We may not be fighting a revolutionary war against England like they were back then—but in a lot of ways, we would rather be dead than not be free.
And this freedom as Americans is taught to us at a very young age. I remember whenever a friend would get annoyed at me for doing something when I was a kid, I would retort, “It’s a free country!” How many have us have used that line before…?
And being a “free country” is a great thing. We can all agree on that. We are able to do things in our country that you can get jailed for or killed for in other countries. And that is a huge deal. That’s the great thing about being an American.
If you had to define the word “freedom” for someone, what would the definition be…? Most people would say something like, it’s the ability to do whatever you want. Older kids and teenagers constantly want more freedom—and when they use this word, it means that they want to do what they want, when they want, how they want. Can I get an amen on that, both family members and teens???
The things is, though, although we live in a “free country”, we are still not free to do whatever we want. Some examples: You are not free to kill someone. You are not free to be with someone else if you are legally married. You are not free to buy or sell illegal drugs. That doesn’t stop people from doing these things, of course—but it does mean that you have to deal with the consequences if you choose to do them.
Although we are a country based on freedom, we can all agree that freedom, despite what we may think, doesn’t mean doing whatever you want all the time. There are some limits to freedom, for the sake of good order and safety.
If anyone could do whatever they wanted all the time, it would be anarchy. It would be like those horror movies called The Purge, and The Purge: Anarchy, where all crime is legal for 12 hours, once a year. I don’t have to tell you that in those 12 hours, horrible and deadly things happen. There’s a new movie out in this series right now, called The Purge: Election Year. Why are these movies still being made? Because we know that if we were actually free to do whatever we wanted, this type of horror movie would be our reality.
In the Bible passage from Paul’s Letter to the Galatians that we read a few minutes ago, Paul starts by talking about freedom. He starts with “For freedom Christ has set us free.”
How has Christ set us free? Well, Jesus died on the cross. And when he died, all our sins died with him. That means anything we have done, thought, or said that was wrong, or any of the times we should have said, thought, or done something and didn’t-- all those sins are dead and gone, because of Jesus’ sacrifice for us on the cross. God doesn’t care about all that stuff anymore, because Jesus died for us. We get to have eternal life with Jesus, because all of our sins are gone and our slate is wiped clean.
And because of that, we don’t have to try to earn points with God or make God love us more. Because of what Jesus did for us, we don’t ever have to feel like we aren’t doing enough to earn our salvation. Jesus did it for us.
How does that make you feel…? Do you feel free? Lighter, even? Because Jesus died for you, you are free from your sins, and freed from having to earn God’s grace. You get all the good stuff that comes from God—love, mercy forgiveness, because Jesus freed you. You are freely loved by God because you are made free by Jesus Christ.
So what does this Christian freedom mean? Well, just like being in a “free country”, being free doesn’t mean that we are completely free to do whatever we want. Freedom never actually means that, as those horror movies show us.
What is DOES mean is that we are free to now live our lives as God intended. Because Jesus has freed us from guilt, shame, and having to earn points with God, we can now live a life of freedom in Christ. We are free to live our lives serving God and serving others—what God created us to be and to do.
Paul tells us in our reading from Galatians: “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery. For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through becoming slaves to one another.”
Here’s the thing. When we define freedom as doing whatever we want, when we want, how we want—who is that all about..? Yeah, ourselves. It’s about our desires, and no one else’s.
But Paul tells us that Christian freedom is not about what we want. It’s about what others need. It’s about serving others. He says in the next line, “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
Our Christian freedom is not about serving ourselves. It is about serving God and serving our neighbors. Sound familiar? It should. Our motto here at Zion, which we talk about all the time, is…? LOVE GOD, LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR. NOTHING ELSE MATTERS.
THAT is the key to what being a free Christian is all about. We are now free from only thinking of ourselves, of looking inward—we are now able to be about others, to look outward. Our freedom is about being free to love God and love others. It’s about serving in Jesus’ name without worrying about making mistakes, because Jesus died for those mistakes. It’s about being free to love everyone, no matter the color of their skin, their sexuality, their gender identity, their socio-economic level, because EVERYONE is our neighbor, not just people who are like us. We are free to love God and love neighbor, because…? NOTHING ELSE MATTERS.
Being FREE in Jesus means living our lives in a meaningful, spiritual, loving way—a way that we would never be able to do without Jesus. Jesus has made this possible for us. When people talk about Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior, they mean that Jesus freed them from their sins and made them free to live for him. Jesus is YOUR personal Lord and Savior. Jesus loved you so much, and wanted you free so much, that he died for YOU.
And because we are free in Jesus, we are able to produce that famous fruit of the Spirit that Paul talks about in our reading. He talks about how, when our focus is inward and we only think of ourselves and what we want, it results in terrible things. But when our focus is outward, and we are truly living into our Christian freedom, loving God and loving others, we produce amazing fruit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”
You could say that those are our “Freedom Fruit”. Because we are free because of what Jesus did for us, these fruit are part of our lives. It’s not about doing these things because it’s the right thing to do. It’s about love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control flowing out of what Jesus has already done for us. We are free to live into this fruit because of Jesus.
And when we mess up (which we will, because we are broken human beings), we can know that because Jesus set us free, we can get back up and continue to live into the fruit of the Spirit. It’s never too late to live into your freedom in Christ.
Christ has freed YOU and made YOU free to love God and love your neighbor. Nothing else matters. How is God calling YOU to live out the fruit of the Spirit and share your freedom in Christ with someone else? Amen?
Tuesday, June 21 2016
So how are you doing? How are all of you doing? This has been an emotional week. For all of us. For the people of Orlando. For gay and lesbian communities across the country, and around the world. For all of us Americans – there is a sense of grief – and pain – of loss. Some of us feel numb. Our lives have been violated – again – by hatred. By one man’s act of hatred.
I’m here to tell you today that it doesn’t have to be this way. AND more to the point – I want to say that we do not need to live – and we will not live – our lives in fear. It’s hard, I know. It seems like no place is safe anymore. Schools. Night clubs. Airports.
Movie theaters. Shopping malls. Churches. If you remember, it was one year ago this week when Dylan Roof killed 9 people at Emmanuel African American Episcopal Church in Charleston. SC. But I hope you agree with me, that we will not let these kinds of acts define who we are. No! Let me take that back. We WILL let these acts define who we are. We CAN and we NEED to show our true colors – as disciples of Jesus Christ.
I am reading a book called “The Jesus Creed.” Do you know what the Jesus Creed is? It’s “Love God, Love your neighbor.” That’s it! We’ve been lifting up that slogan – the Jesus Creed – for years. And now that I have a name to give to that slogan – from now on when you hear me use the phrase, “The Jesus Creed,” you’ll know I’m talking about loving God, and loving our neighbor.
So we show our true colors as disciples of Jesus Christ when we put the Jesus Creed into action. And that love your neighbor thing? I think Jesus meant it! Love. Mercy. Compassion. Forgiveness. It’s hard. Especially in the face of the kind of hatred and fear that leads to the kind of violence we saw just one week ago. I don’t know. I suppose that the kind of news that came out of Orlando last week could cause us to feel as though life is as we know it is spinning out of control. Coming apart at the seams. Again, because no place is safe. If it feels that way for you – it doesn’t have to be this way.
And let me tell you why. In one word. Jesus! When life is spinning out of control – when life is coming apart at the seams – what we need is Jesus. Today’s Gospel reading is a great example of what happens when Jesus touches a life that is spinning out of control.
The man in question is known as the Gerasene demoniac. He is a man possessed by demons – and apparently lots of ‘em. Jesus comes into this man’s life – and makes a difference.
Jesus and his disciples have just gotten out of a boat on the Sea of Galilee – when they are met by this demon possessed man. It’s not the most pleasant experience. In fact, it was kind of scary. The man is shouting – screaming at Jesus. If I were one of those disciples with Jesus – I think I would have jumped back into the boat. “Let’s get out of here!”
But Jesus stands his ground. He faces this man with love, mercy, and compassion, and gives the man exactly what he needs. Jesus gives him the healing that he needs – and orders the demons to come out. And they do. The man is now in his right mind. What was once a troubled, chaotic life is now a life where there is calm and peace. All because of Jesus.
While this man was possessed, the townsfolk – and even members of his own family – couldn’t live with him. He lived in the tombs – which literally were caves in those days. They tried chaining him to control him. But nothing worked. They were afraid of him, and with good reason.
But that’s what happens when people live in fear. We isolate ourselves – we cut ourselves off – from people we are afraid of – or those whom we don’t understand. It doesn’t have to be this way. Not when the Jesus Creed calls us to love each other – to be a friend to that other person – to show respect. To want what is best for that other person. I know, it’s hard. But we don’t need to be at war with other people.
But here’s the problem. Sometimes we just don’t like – we just don’t trust – other people – who look different – who act differently – or whose religious or political views we don’t agree with. Yeah, it happens. But hatred – mistrust – fear – these things never work. Do we need to be vigilant? Yes! Do we need to be on our guard? Absolutely! But to color all people – in this case, Muslims – with the same brush because of the actions of a few – is not in the spirit of the Jesus Creed. Because love wins over hate. Every. Single. Time.
Let me share with you a story. A while back a story came out in the news about two men living in Lincoln, Nebraska.
One of them, a man named Larry Trapp, was, you might say, walking in darkness. He was wheel-chair bound, and diagnosed with a fatal disease. The darkness he was in (or that was in him) was not caused by his disease, but was the result of hatred. Larry was a Grand Dragon in the Nebraska Ku Klux Klan.
The unfortunate focus of his hatred, the other man in this story, happened to be a Jewish cantor named Michael Weisser. Larry harassed Michael with threatening phone calls and a barrage of hate mail. His goal was to get him out of the community.
Michael decided to take a bold approach; to confront his tormentor. He decided to call Larry on the telephone.
“I just kept leaving messages on his answering machine,” says Michael, ‘until finally one day, Larry Trapp, in a fit of anger, picked up the phone. “What do you want?” he said. “You're harassing me! My phone's got a tap on it.”
“I was real quiet and calm.” says Michael. “I said I knew he had a hard time getting around and thought he might need a ride to the grocery store.”
Larry just got completely quiet, and all the anger went out of his voice, and he said, “I've got that taken care of, but thanks for asking.”
The remarkable end of the story is that the two men eventually became friends. The Weissers, this Jewish couple, would have Larry, former grand dragon in the KKK, over for dinner. Amazing! Someone who was so full of hate.
Eventually, Larry decided to devote the time he had left to freeing others from the destructive power of hatred and bigotry.
And the people of Lincoln, Nebraska, and other places saw a great light, the light generated by a sudden reversal, a change of heart, which in turn was caused by someone reaching out, not responding in kind. Not responding to hate with hate – but responding to hate with love.
When we are attacked – and make no mistake – what happened a week ago was not just an attack on people in a nightclub – not just an attack on gay and lesbian people – it was not just an attack on the city of Orlando – it was an attack on us – and perhaps on our way of life. Do we need to be vigilant? Yes. Do we need to be on guard? Absolutely!
But what we must not allow is for hate – mistrust – vengeance – to overcome our love for our neighbor – no matter who that neighbor is. Because love wins over hate. Every. Single. Time.
I love the stories that Tony Campolo tells, so let me share with you another Tony Campolo story. Tony tells of a pastor friend who lives in Manhattan. Every morning this pastor would have breakfast at a little downtown diner. And every morning, he would see the same crowd who also started their day at the diner.
One day, the pastor walked into the diner and introduced himself to the crowd, hoping to create a friendlier atmosphere in the place. It worked. Barriers were broken down. People began conversing with strangers. It worked for everyone but the owner. All he would reveal of himself was his name, Harry.
A few weeks passed, and as all the regular customers became friends, the pastor pressured Harry to reveal a little more about himself. [You know, sometimes pastors can be so pushy!] So Harry reluctantly announced that his real name was Hazim, and he was from Baghdad, Iraq. Now, this was when Saddam Hussein was being portrayed as a real threat to world security, especially Israel. A majority of the patrons of the diner were Jewish and tensions between Arabs and Jews were running high, as they still are today. All the customers in the diner froze as Harry announced his national origin.
The next morning, as the pastor was getting ready, he heard a report that the United States had begun bombing Baghdad. The pastor dropped what he was doing and ran to the subway, hoping to reach the diner before Harry opened that morning. He wanted to reassure Harry of his friendship and love. As the pastor rounded the corner, however, he saw something amazing. The whole regular morning crowd was also lining the sidewalk, waiting for Harry. When Harry arrived, all the customers surrounded him with words of encouragement. Then the pastor prayed over all of them – Jews, Christians, and this recent immigrant, a Moslem from Iraq.
I suspect that one reason some people are so filled with hate is that they have never known the unconditional love of their Heavenly Father that comes to us when we have an encounter with the risen Christ.
Listen! Our other reading – the one from the book of Galatians – says that we are “...children of God through faith.” Did you hear that? You are a child – a beloved daughter – a beloved son – of God. That fact alone is enough for us to distinguish between love and hate.
Some of you are familiar with Max Lucado. He is a pastor and author. Listen to what he has to say. “If God had a refrigerator, your picture would be on it. If He had a wallet, your photo would be in it. He sends you flowers every spring and a sunrise every morning . . . Face it, friend. He is crazy about you!”
That’s how much God loves you. And since God loves us that much – and since the Jesus Creed asks us not only to love God back, but to love our neighbor as we love ourselves – then it seems to me that we are called to love even those who hate us.
Let me suggest, therefore, that we pray for those who want to hurt us. Jesus told us we are to do just that, by the way. To pray for our enemies – to pray for those who hate us – for those who want to do us harm. Not easy, I know. But you know that if you’re praying for someone – praying for their well-being – well – you know that you can’t stay angry for long – if you’re praying for that person who hates you – if you’re praying for the person you don’t like.
The world is filled with fear – violence – hatred. It doesn’t have to be this way.
We show our true colors as disciples of Jesus Christ when we put the Jesus Creed into action. Love God. Love your neighbor. Love. Mercy. Compassion. Forgiveness. Why? Because love wins over hate. Every. Single. Time. Amen
Monday, June 13 2016
There is a story I heard, about a woman who was waiting for her flight. Since she had some time before boarding, she had bought a bag of cookies to munch on. The gate began to fill up as people arrived for the same flight, and a man sat down next to her.
As she got hungry, she started to eat the bag of cookies, placed between her and the man. And as she began eating, she looked over and saw that every time she took a cookie from the bag, the man would take a cookie from the bag and eat it as well. How rude! She thought. How dare he take cookies from me without asking me or even knowing me!
This continued—every cookie she took and ate, the man did the same. The woman got angrier and angrier and more indignant with each cookie. Finally, there was one cookie left. The man laughed, pulled the cookie out of the bag, broke it in half, and gave the woman one of the halves.
As you can imagine, the woman was about to burst with anger. Luckily, it was that moment they began calling for passengers to board. She gathered her things in a fit of rage, rushed to the attendant taking the tickets, and ran onto the plane in an effort to get away from such an awful man.
She secured her suitcase in the overhead compartment and settled into her seat with her purse, and she was still enraged, thinking about the gall of the man who ate her cookies right under her nose. As she reached into her purse to grab a stick of gum for the flight, her hand brushed against something. She pulled that something out of her purse.
It was her bag of cookies. She had actually been eating HIS cookies the whole time!
This story never ceases to amuse me, because she was so angry at this guy for supposedly doing exactly what SHE was doing!!
Our Old Testament reading from 2nd Samuel has a similar situation. King David has a huge problem. While Bathsheba’s husband Uriah was away on military duty, David decided to have Bathsheba for himself and she became pregnant. In order to cover up his mistake, David had her husband Uriah killed (and made to look like it happened in battle). Then, he made Bathsheba his wife. The prophet Nathan then tells David a story. A poor man has one lamb that he raises, that grew up with him and his children. It’s like a daughter to him. A rich man, although he has many lambs, takes the poor man’s one beloved lamb and kills it and serves it to a visitor.
David, when hearing this story, gets incredibly angry. He says (probably yells) that the rich man should die for what he’s done.
And imagine David’s horror when Nathan tells him—“You are the man!” David was so angry at the rich man in the story, that he didn’t realize he had done the exact same thing with Uriah and Bathsheba. He’s like the woman with the bag of cookies waiting for her plane.
Just in case you thought things were different later in Jesus’ time, let’s fast forward to the dinner party described in our reading from Luke. A Pharisee, a strict Jewish religious leader, invites Jesus over to dinner. A woman shows up, and weeps. She cleans Jesus’ feet with her tears and dries them with her hair, and anoints his feet with oil.
Meanwhile, the Pharisee is saying to himself, “If this man [Jesus] were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.” So what’s being implied in this Pharisee’s thoughts is that this woman wasn’t good enough to touch Jesus. We don’t know what this woman has done, we never find out. But we know that she’s clearly made a lot of mistakes in her life, and this Pharisee believes she should NOT be touching Jesus.
Meanwhile, it’s safe to say that this Pharisee is not without sin himself. He may even have made the same mistakes as the woman, who knows? But, like David, he is judging someone else without being able to see that he himself is also in the wrong.
But Jesus tells him a story, of a creditor who forgives two men their debts. One man owes much more money than the other. Who loved the creditor more? The Pharisee replies, the man who owed the most money. And Jesus tells him “You have judged rightly.” And then Jesus tells him that, although he did not welcome Jesus by washing his feet or greeting him with a kiss or anointing him, this woman has done all that.
You see, David from our Old Testament lesson and the Pharisee from our Gospel lesson are trapped in a judgement zone. They are judging others based on what they believe, and really, underlying all that is the assumption that THEY are better than the ones they are judging—when in reality, we are all sinners who make mistakes.
We know what this is. We all do it. How many of us have looked at someone and thought “They’re wearing THAT?” How many of us have looked at someone and thought “I can’t BELIEVE they did that! Who do they think they are?? I would NEVER do that!” You know what I’m talking about! It happens so naturally sometimes, that it’s hard to even notice we’re doing it!
And then when we do make mistakes, we are usually really hard on ourselves and judge ourselves just as harshly. We think we deserve punishment—and wonder if God is punishing us for the things we did. We stick ourselves in this judgement zone and can’t get ourselves out.
So how do David and the Pharisee, and even us—how do we get free of being stuck in this judgement zone, of judging people and ourselves based on the mistakes we make?
Well let’s look at David—He clearly recognizes that what he did was wrong. He says, “I have sinned against the Lord.” And Nathan says “Now the Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die.” So God has gotten rid of David’s sin and put away his mistakes.
The troubling part is, if you continue reading the story in 2 Samuel, that there are still consequences for David’s mistakes. We could spend a whole other sermon talking about that, and what’s going on there, because there are no easy answers—but what we do know is that God was forgiving to David and “put away his sin.”
And despite the mistakes David made, he became one of the greatest kings of Israel. And David begins to realize that it’s not about judging others—it’s about God’s forgiveness for himself and for others.
Fast forward to Jesus and the Pharisee and the woman. Jesus tells the woman that her sins are forgiven. Everyone at the table is freaked out by this-- they say among themselves “Who is this who even forgives sins?” The Jewish leaders can’t handle it. As I like to say, “they can’t even”.
You see, Jesus’ forgiveness is shocking. It’s alarming. It goes against everything we know. It’s like Jesus’ story with the creditor and the debtors—both debtors get their debts forgiven, even though one owes much more than the other. In fact, the guy who owed more loves more, because more was forgiven.
That means that everyone is forgiven by Jesus, no matter how big their mistakes are. That means that those people who act inappropriately, dress inappropriately, murderers, child molesters, prostitutes—those people are forgiven by God, just as we are. And when they find out they are forgiven, they love Jesus a ton because they had a ton to forgive. Told you it was shocking.
But the cool part about all this is that Jesus frees us from being stuck in the judgment zone. Because Jesus forgives everyone, we know that no matter how big our or someone else’s mistakes are, there is forgiveness for us. For all of us.
There is an important disclaimer to all this. Paul explains in his letters to the Romans in chapter six: “Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it?” So just because we are forgiven doesn’t mean we should actively try to sin and do the things that separate us from God and others more!
But it DOES mean that, because of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, we are able to die to the sins and mistakes we do make and rise to new life with Jesus. He died so that we don’t have to be stuck in that judgement zone anymore. All of the mistakes and sins you’ve done, are doing, and will do, died on that cross with Jesus. Jesus died so that everyone—YOU—could be free of judgment and live a new life with him. Jesus gets us out of the judgement zone and living a new and exciting life with him.
So whenever you see the cross—whether it be in church, around someone’s neck, on a billboard—let it remind you of Jesus’ forgiveness. Let it remind you that your sins were nailed to that cross with Jesus and died with him. Let it remind you that no matter how much you mess up, your debt is forgiven by the one who died for you, Jesus Christ. You are now in a judgement-free zone. Amen?