From the time Jesus told his followers – “you know the truth, and the truth will set you free”, disciples across the ages haven’t always understood what Jesus meant about freedom. Immediately, those who heard this reacted defensively claiming the freedom they had been guaranteed through their identity as Jews who were free in their homeland, as opposed to those considered slaves to the Roman occupiers. They were not wrong about this, but they didn’t completely understand the wholeness of which Jesus was referring.
There are many things, beyond human authority, that can take away freedom. Jesus was talking about freedom from sin, something he knew was the supreme oppressor of humanity. Sin, itself is a complicated topic and one I’ll blog about at another time, but I find Augustine’s concept of disordered loves to be very helpful here. Augustine wrote that we love many things, but sometimes we get these loves out of order and that leads to sin. For example, we know that our love of God, should be greater than our love of money. However, we sometimes turn away from God, even deny God, for the sake of profit. When we are told something in confidence, our love of popularity trumps our love of others when we decide to share this information, even though we agreed to keep it a secret. When we protect one love and give up the other, that is an example of sin, and this is what Jesus talks about when he pronounces that truth will make us free. This freedom is to simply love, and love extravagantly without worry about loss, or even about ourselves.
I like what theologian Robert Jenson has written about this freedom to love. He writes “The Gospel is permission, granting of freedom to love. I am free to decide anew, not on the basis of some stated code, what in each situation is in fact needed by the one the situation gives me to love”. When Jenson talks about “stated code” he is talking about anything that binds us and causes us not to fully love another person. It might be fear of rejection, social expectation, money, popularity, even a moral standard. When Jesus pronounces us free, he has released us to love without worry that we might make a “mistake”, that we might offend some sense of propriety, even that we are free to love unburdened by the need to receive anything in return.
This was one of the great rediscoveries of the Lutheran Reformation, which this week begins a celebration of its 500th year. In the years leading up to the Reformation, the Church had fallen into a trap of preaching that humans in some way could become acceptable to God through doing good works. The result of this, was the sad question that people would ask: “Pastor, have I done enough?” What the Reformation unlocked was the understanding that Christ had already answered that question for us and had declared us free of having to depending doing enough. Christ pronounced our freedom, so that we might simply go forth and love each other. So, if you want to do anything to commemorate the Reformation, go and love someone, you are free!
For the text of today's sermon, click here
Devotions for Week of October 30, 2016
"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."
Take a look at this image and what do you see? This is a yoke, something that was used to wrap around two animals who helped to pull a plow or to tow a covered wagon. Sadly, devices such as this also were tools to place around the necks of men and women who were taken into slavery. For many, the yoke is something that symbolizes control, toil, cruelty, and power. Those who wore the yoke felt controlled by it, felt the power behind it, and the pain of the labor that lay in front of it. How then can something that symbolizes oppression and victimization come to be known as a symbol of humility, a symbol of peace and rest?
When we read that Jesus said, "Take my yoke upon you", it must come across as s strange metaphor for living life under the Gospel. If we understand the Gospel as something that makes us free, how then can a device known to control, to enslave, to enforce labor be something that also expresses freedom and gentleness? Yet, just as the cross, an instrument of torture and execution became the symbol of the God who is present in our sufferings, so to the yoke, the symbol of oppression, becomes a symbol of humility and rest when we see Jesus in the yoke with us. When Jesus is on the other side of the yoke, we can be confident of being driven by the power of the Holy Spirit to toil in humility and gentleness with the promise that Jesus is our eternal teacher.
On Friday, I hope to have a chance to attend the ordination of one of my colleagues to the office of pastoral ministry. One of the symbols of the pastoral office, and one that is traditionally bestowed to a new pastor on her ordination is the stole. The stole is a simple garment placed over the back of the pastor's neck and left to drape down over each shoulder. It is a symbol of the yoke, the yoke of Jesus Christ to which a pastor is connected for the rest of her life. Each time a pastor dons the yoke while preparing for worship, the pastor remembers the yoke of humility and gentleness that Jesus promises to those who take that yoke upon themselves.
While the stole may be a symbol for ordained pastors, the yoke of Jesus Christ is a gift for all of us. My friends, yoke yourself to Jesus and learn from him, for it is truly a yoke of gentleness and humility and one that promises joy, peace and rest for all.
Just three weeks left in what has been a completely frustrating, annoying and sickening election cycle. Political campaigns are always full of self-righteous rhetoric and criticism of the opponent. It’s an adversarial process that naturally produces the need to differentiate one candidate from the other, either by elevating oneself or by denigrating the opponent. But this Presidential campaign has taken on an ugliness in the rhetoric that is unprecedented, at least in the modern history of campaigns.
As we look at the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, our emotions might be a little raw after being pounded by relentless campaign messaging extolling the virtues of one candidate or pointing out the ugliness in the other. In a sense, this is what the Pharisee in the parable is doing, campaigning before God, laying claim to all the great things he has done in God’s honor, fasting and tithing and placing himself above those who lie, cheat and steal, and pouring out his contempt on those terrible sinners.
The Pharisees were the good religious people of their time. They were the ones who went to church regularly, observed the laws given to them through their scriptures. They prayed and worshiped, and fasted and gave generously. They believed that pious devotion to God was an important part of living a faithful life. The problem with it was that some Pharisees, like the one pictured in the parable, had used their piety to build up a sense of pride which divided them from others, instead of using their piety to draw others to God.
The Tax Collectors were outcasts in society, foreigners and opportunists. They were puppets of the Roman Empire who were allowed to collect whatever they could from people, as long as they gave over to the Romans what was required. There is no question that Tax Collectors were guilty of corrupt practices and in many ways deserved the distrust and contempt of society.
While the world’s judgment on the Pharisee and the Tax Collector was established and impossible to overcome, when standing before God, something new happens. The prayer of the Tax Collector is honored while the prayer of the Pharisee rings hollow as he tries in vain to prove how worthy he is to a God that knows his own heart. The Pharisee keeps campaigning before God, but the Tax Collector makes the ultimate concession speech: “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” God does not see these two children in the way the world sees them, or in the way they see themselves. God has leveled the playing field. May we see the world through God’s eyes, and not worry about making the next campaign speech.
For the Full Text of the Sermon - Click Here
Devotions for Week of October 23, 2016
For many people of faith, living a daily life devoted to prayer is an important spiritual discipline. For others it is hard to understand why God's people pray, when they see the evidence of prayers going unanswered in the world around them. And for some, prayer is left as the last resort, when all of our own efforts have failed to change our circumstances. How then, do we understand prayer, this great gift and mystery of faith?
It's not possible to offer a quick and satisfying answer to that question, because the entire process of prayer defies easy description. Yet through scripture, we are led to understand that prayer is a fundamental part of living faithfully, and St. Paul exhorts us to persevere in prayer, and pray incessantly despite the world's messages that prayer is a futile exercise and time simply wasted in the outcome.
One way we can understand prayer is as an extension of Christ's command that we love each other, our neighbors and our enemies. It might be easy for us to offer prayer for our neighbors or those who we love, but why pray for those who antagonize, vex, anger and perhaps even hate us? Because, when we pray for those who trouble us, we can find prayer to be most valuable to our own souls. Prayer is the first act of love toward another person because it works to heal any resentments we might have and points us to God's preference for reconciliation in all relationships.
German Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer considered prayer for others to be the sign of life or death in a faith community, and referred to prayer for others as "the purifying bath into which the individual and the community must enter every day". It is a sure sign of love if you are praying for someone, because you cannot hate the one for whom you are praying. Who can invoke the name of Jesus in a prayer, and not see the face of Jesus in the one for whom prayers are offered?
Seen in this way, prayer becomes more than a process of asking for things to happen and waiting in hope that the answer will come. Prayer is a call to loving action for the sake of others, and for the sake of ourselves. Thinking of it that way, prayer becomes an attitude, a tilt toward generosity in all relationships, a built-up resistance toward thinking the worst about someone, and a depressing of our human need to get something in return. That purifying bath that Bonhoeffer wrote about is a remembrance of our baptisms and the promise that God has made to us - to love us persistently and without ceasing.
Prayer is a lifestyle - no, correct that - Prayer is life! So, never stop praying. Never stop loving. Never stop living.
So our Jesus is at it once again, using a parable to reveal truths to us about the Kingdom of God. We have to remember that all these passages are part of Luke’s “On the way to Jerusalem” section. Jerusalem stands as a symbol for the cross and Jesus’ execution and as Jesus moves toward that fateful day, he is preparing his disciples for the time when they will lead the movement without him. He knows that his followers will need to persevere against many obstacles and hostilities in order for the movement to flourish. And this parable illustrates how important prayer is for dealing with the challenges and injustices we face each day.
One of the ways this parable is traditionally interpreted as by comparing God to the unjust and corrupt judge, drawing the conclusion that if a poor widow can constantly badger even a powerful but self-interested politician to get what she wants, how much more can we expect from a loving and gracious God when we make our requests to God in the same way. I think that interpretation is a little too “on the nose” to make sense for disciples today. This interpretation suggests that we can somehow pray God into submission in order to get what we want. I think we all know that prayer doesn’t work that way – that we don’t understand God to be a genie granting wishes, even when we are praying for others – even when we are praying for hurricanes to pass by, praying for healing for a loved one, or praying for the worlds’ hungry to have food. Our experience informs us that prayer does not work that way.
So, I’d like to explore the teaching of this parable from a different perspective. Prayer is not so much a tool to ask God to change our circumstances, but it is a way for us to search the heart of God for what it is we can do to bring God’s will to bear in the world. When you pray, and you ask God to bring food to the hungry, you are not asking God to intervene directly and make food appear. You know that does not happen, even though you may pray the same prayer over and over again. Instead, your prayer is an expression of your faith, that God’s will be done, and that you are open to the Holy Spirit’s guidance in doing your part so that God’s will is done; so that when Jesus comes, such faith can be found on earth.
So the lesson we take from the widow is not about constantly asking for something and receiving it from a reluctant judge, but it is a picture for us of someone whose prayer life is faithful, persistent and above all active in bringing about God’s will for justice in a world plagued by systems that work against it.
Psalm 42, itself a prayer to God, tells us: “By day the LORD commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life.” What a beautiful way to think of prayer, as God’s song to us at night, preparing us for the day of working in the steadfast love of God. The widow, out of her persistence, must have had that song completely memorized, a song that always rises up above the noise of injustice.
For the Full Text of Today's Sermon - Click Here
Devotions for the Week Of October 16,2016
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Gustavus Adolphus Lutheran Church (GA) in New York City has been chosen as one of eight internship congregations to participate this year in a church-wide initiative designed to increase our understanding of Holy Scripture and most importantly, to cultivate our engagement with it. In partnership with The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, Vicar John Heidgerd will be working to develop innovative ways to deepen our faith formation and sense of discipleship for the sake of ourselves and our communities.