Summer holds an almost sacred status for a child. The countdown may begin weeks away from the last day of class, and it’s likely each second is counted. Then, at last, the bell rings, and the whispered hope of freedom builds into a rushing chorus of trampling feet.
But freedom from what- for what? My brother just arrived home from his first year of college. After a year of study and student work jobs, I’m sure the freedom he might want is from his studies and hard work, freedom to sleep in, play video games, and stay out late with friends.
In the words of my parents, “Keep dreaming”.
We all have a special freedom through Jesus Christ. We are free from trying to be “good” people, to earn our salvation, to prove that we are better than the next person. We are free from sin and death. We are free from being judged.
So I guess we could argue that we’d be ok “sleeping in”on our faith lives, not really bothering to consider what it means to live as free and chosen children of God. Jesus’ faithfulness has already achieved our righteousness. That faithfulness and righteousness doesn’t disappear if we do something wrong.
But we are free. So free from such confining forces as sin and fear that we just might burst with the same joy as that kid hearing the final bell ring. So let that joy burst out!
Our new 125th Anniversary banners show some colorful people splashing around in the waters of baptismal grace. I’ve seen Zion folks splashing their joy into the world. There are folks working to better the community through various outreach efforts from “In the Bag” and the food pantry to Patriots Gateway and Zion Development Corporation. There are folks lifting each other up in prayer and visiting the homebound. There are folks seeking to discover what it mean to be a Christian and supporting each other in that journey in small groups, Bible studies, and worship. There are folks sharing God’s love with young ones in the many children’s and youth ministries. And there are the varieties of ways that each of us, in our own daily lives, live out our freedom to love.
Freedom is yours, that you may serve in the love of Christ.
“A Christian is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to every one.” Freedom of a Christian, Martin Luther.
I enjoy NPR’s “This I believe” segments and happened to click on this one today.
She speaks eloquently about her coming to Christianity, her experience with the living Jesus, and how the bread of life draws people together. She began a food pantry- distributing food from the altar in the sanctuary. What a statement!
From time to time, I hear peoples’ jadedness, their exasperation, and frustration over the many who find their way to our church, asking for money. Some share their experiences of giving money, but then following the person to a drug house. They see their money being used in ways they had not wanted. They resolve to refuse the next time, perhaps helping in other ways.
To hear Sara speak about giving out life giving bread where she also receives it reminds me that all our resources, our very life comes from God. Life and forgiveness. We receive these from God, undeservedly. We go out from our experience with God— and if any followed us, they would see us use these gifts in ways God has not intended.
So it just makes sense that there is one place where all who hunger are fed.
Psalm 68:1–10, 32–35
Sing to God, who rides upon the clouds. (Ps. 68:4)
1 Peter 4:12–14; 5:6–11
Can’t you just get along? This is my exasperated sigh, my desperate wish. I’ve had the privilege of being involved in a variety of Zion’s children’s ministry in the these months of my internship. Every Wednesday I’m over at Patriot’s teaching arts and craft- picking up gluesticks, tying bracelets, finding lost marker caps. More recently I’ve been tutoring a small group of kids in reading. Maybe some of you are picturing an idyllic scene. Smiling children, quietly coloring away. Young students, now reading Chaucer. Ah, no. Kids have feelings and tempers, and know how to push each others’ buttons! So all I want is some magic potion to just make them all get along!
It’s likely most of us have experienced kids acting as rambunctious kids. Bickering, teasing- we call these “childish” behaviors for a reason. But I think we know we don’t completely grow out of these behaviors! There are times when I know I have acted to push someone’s buttons. Maybe out of jealousy, or a need to feel important. There are times when I just don’t want to get along, when I want to be right and stay right, even when maybe, just maybe… I’m really wrong.
Maybe I’m saying this just to make myself feel better, or maybe you’ll agree— but I don’t think I’m the only one who acts in this childish way sometimes. In fact, I think we- the church- has abundant ability and opportunity to bicker and fight— and we use it!
I was told that once there was a sign on the bulletin board of Zion’s Sacristy. It read something like: “If it’s been done the same way for years, don’t change it; If someone’s been doing the same thing for years, don’t take it away from them”. We have a fear of change and fear of losing our sense of importance— even in the church. And this fear causes us to act in ways that divide us.
Our own Lutheran tradition arose out of a debate. It wasn’t meant to divide a church but to renew it, but the fact that we are now our own denomination attests to the fact that we’re not good at living together as Christians, at accepting each other through our differences of opinion and theology, at focusing on our unity through Christ. We at Zion celebrate 125 years of wonderful ministry, and look down the street to Heartland with fear. We must think there are too few people in Rockford to fill both Zion and Heartland, too few to serve with Christ’s love and compassion.
Here’s a word of grace. We’re not the first generation to struggle with the problem that it’s difficult to live together! All the saints, our foremothers and fathers in the faith, have struggled with the issue of unity.
We meet Jesus and the disciples in the Gospel of John, just before Jesus is betrayed, and killed. Jesus is praying to the Father. Jesus and the Father have unity. Together with the Holy Spirit they existed as one before the creation of the world, and together brought creation into being. There is one God, but ours is a God of relationships in unity. Jesus’ ministry could not have been carried out without his relationship to the Father.
Now Jesus prays that the unity he and the Father know would be the same unity the disciples would know. Jesus’ ministry of healing, teaching, and revealing God on earth is about to come to an end. In the John text, Jesus is about to die, and in the Acts’ text, Jesus is ascending, leaving earth to be with the Father. But, Jesus’ ministry continues through the disciples. Before Jesus ascends, he directs the disciples’ attention to the ends of their world; they are not to remain staring up into heaven, waiting for Jesus to come back and do what he’s always been doing, but to get up, go out, and do God’s work themselves!
Jesus’ prayer in John is not for himself, but for his disciples, and for us. Jesus knows that life and ministry are not going to be easy. He knows that living in community is not always going to go smoothly. And so he prays. Verse 11And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one”.
The road of following Jesus and living in community may be difficult and bumpy, but the Father sees us through it, and works to make unity out of diversity, out of chaos. This unity is alive and well in our world today.
It is often in the activities of serving Christ that we diverse people and churches are able to be united. Lutheran Disaster Response is an organization that provides timely and long term recovery efforts where there has been a disaster. It’s not just ELCA Lutherans, but the ELCA along with the LCMS? – two groups who are so unable to work together in other ways.
The recovery after Hurricane Katrina continues today. The ELCA has chosen to hold the next Youth Gathering in New Orleans as a way of highlighting the needs that linger there. Groups from Wartburg Seminary and my home church went down south to volunteer after the hurricane. As I listened to friends and family tell stories, one beautiful story emerged. The churches were actively banding together to help people.
Our ELCA continues to work for unity across the denominations. We continue dialogs with the Roman Catholic church to find common ground and heal the division that birthed us Lutherans. We also work with other Church bodies to form relationships called Full Communion Partners. According to the ELCA news service, “Full communion means the churches will work for visible unity in Jesus Christ, recognize each other’s ministries, work together on a variety of ministry initiatives, and, under certain circumstances, provide for the interchangeability of ordained clergy.” The ELCA’s five full communion partners are the Episcopal Church, the Moravian Church in America, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Reformed Church in America and United Church of Christ. Just this past week, the United Methodist Church agreed that it would like to enter into a full communion relationship with us. At the next Churchwide Assembly in 2009, we may agree to join them in this relationship of unity.
Relationship is what we need to continue God’s ministry. As the Body of Christ, we are God incarnate. A new theme for our Evangelical Lutheran Church is God’s Work, Our Hands. We are about the work of God in our world. But we cannot do that alone. We need each other. We need God to guide us into and to sustain community.
Today we gather around a central symbol of our unity in Christ. We gather around the Lord’s table to be fed the food of forgiveness, the drink of new life. In this Means of Grace, we experience God’s unending love, poured out to all of us. We kneel shoulder to shoulder with those whose opinions about this policy are completely wrong, who insulted us, who are too full of themselves, who broke their promise to us. We kneel shoulder to shoulder and one body, one blood is given to all of us. God’s grace is the source of our unity. God alone has the power to band us together, and God gives that power to us.
Filed under: Sermons | Tags: Bonhoeffer, Cross, Martin Luther King Jr, suffering, suffering church
Psalm 31:1–5, 15–16
Into your hands, O LORD, I commend my spirit. (Ps. 31:5)
1 Peter 2:2–10
O God of mercy, hear our prayer, bring peace to earth again. Amen.
Unless we sit alone in the corner of our house, staring at a blank wall, we cannot go a day without recognizing our desperate need for peace. And even then, as our hymn pointed out, homes are not always the safe harbors of love that they should be. A few minutes on CNN will remind us of wars in foreign places. And sometimes that hits a little closer to home. One of my college friends wrote to me Friday, asking for prayer. She had just received a letter last weekend from a friend and fellow teacher, serving in Iraq. And then in the middle of last week, she had been told that he had been killed in by roadside bomb. Opening our local newspaper reveals headlines of violence: murder, burglaries, drugs. It really can be overwhelming and lead us to despair. Where is God in all this?
Our God, “whose heart compassionate bears every human pain”, is present and experiences our pain and our fear. Suffering is not a sign that God has abandoned us, nor is it something that necessarily separates us from God. God, who knows suffering and abandonment through Jesus’ own suffering on the cross, is fully present among those who suffer.
Suffering often accompanies those who seek to follow God and proclaim God among the people of this world. I invite you to take some time today to go back into your Bibles and read the whole of chapter 7 in Acts. Stephen doesn’t get stoned because he’s walking down the street to pick up groceries! He is witnessing to God. He recounts the foundational storyline of Judaism, of God giving the promise to Abraham, sending Joseph and then his brothers to Egypt during the famine, working through Moses to liberate the people from bondage in Egypt. This is a story the people know and hold central to their faith. But Stephen doesn’t just give the glossy parts. Stephen condemns the Israelites, who after being led from slavery, reject God in favor of a golden calf they have made with their own hands. He continues to declare how Israel has always rejected God’s prophets, sent by God to make God’s will known to the people. Then he goes on to declare how these people have rejected God’s Messiah, Jesus. The people have heard enough. They kill him.
Throughout the Scriptures it is often the case that those who declare God’s will for our way of life meet rejection and death. Through Lent, we followed Jesus to the cross. People didn’t want a guy like Jesus hanging around! He challenged them! He broke the law! He revealed a God who wasn’t so concerned with correct rituals as right practice, right relationship. He declared forgiveness in the face of condemnation! He spoke to and healed people who were the outcasts and outsiders.
He embodied the Kingdom of God, in the present of this world. A kingdom which would break social barriers, declare God most present among the outsiders, demand that there be justice and mercy.
In Jesus’ speech from John, just before his betrayal to the Roman and Hebrew authorities, he declares, “the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these”. Those who believe in Jesus continue his work of declaring God’s kingdom, God’s love for the outcast as well as the privileged.
People who die because of their witness, like Stephen, are called martyrs. They do not back down from the message God has put on their lips, even when it means they will face ridicule, danger, persecution, or even death.
In our modern world, there are those whose following Jesus has led to martyrdom. As Jesus chose to follow through with his Gospel, even when it was likely to lead to death, Christians continue to choose to follow through with their solidarity with the oppressed, even when cries for their death echo around them. In early April, we commemorate the deaths of two such saints.
German Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer died April 9th, 1945. He was a pastor and professor in Germany before and during the 2nd World War. As other church leaders aligned themselves with Hitler’s government, Bonhoeffer was among those who would not. He and others formed the “Confessing Church”. He would not sell out Christianity for his own safety. His God was the God who was in covenantal relationship with the Jews; he could not allow the Jews to be systematically removed from home and business and killed. Through his own ethical deliberation, he decided to become a co-conspirator in failed plots to assassinate Hitler. He was imprisoned in 1943 and hanged right before the end of the war.
Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, died April 4th, 1968. He was inspired with God’s message of justice and solidarity with the oppressed. He dared to speak his dream of racial equality and integration. He had the audacity to question the status quo, to recognize God present among the shoved aside and pushed behind communities. He had the ability to lead a nation into steps for change. Despite being threatened, imprisoned, and bombed, he continued to work for justice. The day he was assassinated, he was in Memphis to support striking sanitation workers. He saw his calling through to the end, recognizing his identity as a Christian called him to be present with those who suffer, working to end their suffering.
We, gathered here at Zion this morning, are also called to follow Jesus. Not called to be martyrs for the sake of being martyrs. But, we must recognize that following Jesus can have its real costs. It has real costs because there is real suffering in our world. To come face to face with suffering, in our own lives, or in the lives of others, can be dangerous. When we stand with Jesus, present in, and working against, the suffering in our world, we just might be moved to action, or to a new understanding of the world and ourselves.
However we find ourselves following Jesus, or struggling to do so, Jesus is with us. Jesus has prepared a place for all of us to be with him. Because of Jesus’ love and sacrifice- not our own.
We do not seek to be a suffering community, a people who call martyrdom upon us, for the sake of some present or future glory. Our nation celebrates Earth Day this Tuesday, and it is good that we should celebrate God’s creation and recognize our responsibility to care for it. The life played out on this earth is not simply a testing ground to determine our eligibility into heaven. We don’t seek lives of suffering or death, afraid of the joys life brings, so that we can call ourselves pious people, well-deserving of riches in heaven.
But there is suffering in our world. We who have been captivated by God’s love are called to live as God’s people. Jesus shows us what that means. It means to be present in love with those who are suffering. It means bringing reconciliation and healing. It means clothing the naked and visiting the imprisoned. And it also means being open to God revealing Godself in ways that break open the box into which we have locked God.
When the world around cries out for peace, God hears. Do not let your hearts be troubled, thinking that God has abandoned us. God does not run from the pain of the world, but runs to embrace it, knowing it. We gather around the Lord’s table today, remembering that God, through Jesus, feels our suffering. We gather, receiving grace and forgiveness from the suffering one, Jesus Christ our Lord.
May the peace of God which breaks into all unrest, be present to you this week.