Sunday, June 27, 2010

“Free at Last”

Galatians 5:1, 13–25
For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.

Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.

Luke 9:51-62

When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, "Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?" But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village.
As they were going along the road, someone said to him, "I will follow you wherever you go." And Jesus said to him, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head." To another he said, "Follow me." But he said, "Lord, first let me go and bury my father." But Jesus said to him, "Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God." Another said, "I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home." Jesus said to him, "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God."

A Message from the Pastor
“Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we’re free at last!” We’ve all heard those words spoken by Martin Luther King, Jr. They were the last words of his “I Have a Dream” speech. And, no matter what you think of Martin Luther King, Jr., those words have to bring positive feelings to us. After all, we all want to be free. We all want to be able to do and experience whatever we choose and not be hindered by rules and regulations.

However, we all know that we are never completely free. There are rules and regulations. We need them in our secular world to provide order in our daily lives. We need boundaries to protect ourselves and others. However, we also know that with rules and regulations come the need for individuals who create the laws, administer the laws, and interpret the laws. People designated with this authority therefore have the power and control in our secular world. Many times we don’t like it. We don’t like laws being enacted, administered, and interpreted, no matter what our political persuasion.

In the religious world there are also the dynamics of power and control because there are those who have the same authority as those in the secular world. Paul knew this. He didn’t like it. He had been to Galatia and had proclaimed the loving gospel of Jesus Christ. He had told the people who had become Christians that they no longer were subject to the law. Jesus Christ, through no effort on their part, had been made one with God, because Jesus had been crucified died and rose again through the love of God. They, and we, are now one with God, justified by faith through grace. The law was no longer applicable. It had been our disciplinarian. However, Christ’s redeemed act had changed all that. We were free. However, after Paul left Galatia, people, who Paul named as the “Circumcision Party,” came after him to say that there were still laws they needed to follow.

Paul, in this reading today, provided a good comparison between law and gospel, Spirit and flesh, and the spiritual world versus the secular world. There was no need for law, as long as we did not become self-indulgent but, through love, were slaves to one another.

He identified the works of the flesh versus the fruit of the Spirit. (Please note that the “works” are something we are in control of.) The fifteen works of the flesh that he named can be classified into four categories. The first three can be identified as sexual immorality. The next two can be identified as idolatry. The next eight – that’s right – eight can be identified as communal discord, or conflict. (Whenever there is conflict, power and control are involved.) The last two can be identified as self-indulgence. They all involve power and control.

Then, there is the fruit of the Spirit. These are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Please note that fruit comes of its own accord. We cannot make the bush or tree bear fruit. We can work the ground, nourish and feed it, and tend to it, but the fruit is beyond our control. Sometimes, when I wake in the morning, I commit myself to being patient, gentle, and exerting self-control. If you are like me, before the day is over, you find out that you can’t do it. It is beyond your control.

While the works of the flesh are experienced in the secular world, the fruit of he Spirit is experienced as the reign of God draws near. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control occur with the reign of God. It’s what we all desire.

The gospel reading gives us an idea of what we can do to nourish and tend to that which bears fruit.

The author of Luke gives us an idea. I love his imagery of Jesus. Here, in today’s gospel reading, we find that Jesus has “set his face” to go to Jerusalem. He knows what he is going to face, agony, brutality, pain, torture, and death on the cross. But nothing will prevent him from going to Jerusalem and following the will of God. Yet, when we read the story, we find how he acts and responds. Jesus is not received in this one village in Samaria, because of his determination to go to Jerusalem. James and John, “sons of thunder,” want Jesus to reign down fire and consume them. Do you hear the enmity, anger, and strife? Jesus rebukes them and moves on to another town. Then, Jesus faces three people. The first wants to follow him, Jesus accepts this but lets him know that where Jesus goes might not be where he wants to be led. Jesus asks another to follow him. While I don’t fully understand what it means for “the dead to bury their own dead,” I believe Jesus is saying not to let ritual and rules get in the way of proclaiming the reign of God. The last one wants to follow, but has some things to take care of first. Jesus told him that we don’t look back or we will not be able to experience God’s reign. Jesus mentioned to them, and to us, that the highest priority is following Jesus. The importance of family, social priorities, religious significance, business obligations, and, yes, patriotism – as we get ready for Independence Day – are all secondary to following Jesus, on Jesus terms.

The are at least six steps for following Jesus, or six marks of discipleship. We need to be in daily prayer; that’s daily conversation with Jesus in hopes of strengthening our personal relationship with our brother. Next, we worship regularly. We come into communal relationship sharing with one another our desire to thank and praise God, after acknowledging our character defects and shortcomings. We come to worship to receive the means of grace, word and sacrament. We come to be fed for our human journey as spiritual beings. Thirdly, we read scripture. Yes, we read the Book of Faith to find out what God wishes for us to do, but, more importantly, we read the Bible to find Jesus. Wishing to follow him, we look for his presence in history and in our lives. Being fed by these three, we joyously serve. As Paul said, through love we become slaves to one another. We generously give. As people have said to me, “Pastor, I know that everything I receive comes from God; therefore before I do anything else, I give a proportion of what I receive back to God. And then, the sixth mark is to seek spiritual friendships. We come together to worship, we enjoy fellowship after worship, we experience get-togethers, such as “The Lunch Bunch,” we work together on our parade entry, we participate in the vision retreat, and we consider being in the spiritual retreat. All of these are ways to set our face toward Jesus Christ.

We all desire to experience love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These help us to experience the reign of God. When we are able to do so, we can shout out, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last!”

Sunday, June 20, 2010


Luke 8:26-39
Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, "What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me" — for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) Jesus then asked him, "What is your name?" He said, "Legion"; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.

Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.

When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you. So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.

A Message from the Pastor
This is a strange gospel story. It would make a good plot for Hollywood. Picture what is happening. Jesus has just stilled a storm on the Sea of Galilee. He and the disciples are landing on the other side. Jesus steps out of the boat and he is immediately greeted by a crazy man. You could picture a man with wild hair who is totally naked, calling out to Jesus not to torment him. We know that he has been shackled and chained. We know he lives in the tombs. And there, at a distance, is a herd of swine with the swineherds. Because of the demons’ request, Jesus sends the demons into the swine. Can you just see what Hollywood would do with special affects as the demons leave the man and enter the swine? Then, the entire herd of swine rushes down a steep hill and drowns in the Sea of Galilee.

The thrust of this story is not that Jesus knows how to make deviled ham!

The thrust of the story is multilayered, confusing, and difficult to embrace. It is the story of Jesus facing chaos. First, he faced the chaos from the powers of this world with the storm. Then he faced the chaos from spiritual forces. Jesus is here, for us, to face chaos.

First of all, we don’t experience demons like they were described in this story. We don’t see naked men running through the streets or coming out of tombs. It’s difficult to connect with the story or imagine what could possibly be happening. Yet, ask someone who has clinical depression about demons. Ask the family of a schizophrenic about demons. Ask anyone who deals with an anxiety disorder or a compulsive obsessive disorder about demons. Or ask any addict – alcoholic, drug, sex, or gambling – about their demons. And if we need to think about something more “normal,’ think about the times we have grasped thoughts, resentments, or reasons for anger, and how they have engulfed our minds to such an extent that we can’t sleep or think about anything else.

I would like to quote a comment by an author of a commentary I frequently read. He has provided ministry to addicts. (I added my own “spin” to his comments:) I have frequently heard the word "demonic" used in reference to the shootings and killings in our schools; it was used in reference to Timothy McVeigh. It could be used of the Columbine killings and at Virginia Tech, of Saddam Hussein's regime, of the actions against Iraqi prisoners, and I'm sure many other "demonic," dehumanizing, destructive behaviors. We could also think about events that occur that could be identified as “powers of this world.” The difficulty I often find is how do we present Jesus as the cure for such evils in [or the powers of] the world? I have not been able to tell an alcoholic or addict, "Be cured in the name of Jesus" and have their cravings cease or cease experiencing the powers of this world. How does Jesus exorcize the demonic today? To that question, I do not have a good answer. Nor do I.

However, I would like us to consider some things that this story might reveal. First of all, did you notice that Jesus asked for the demon’s name? He named the demon. That’s a beginning. We need to name that which we are facing, whether it is a demon or the powers of this world. Have we named the real demon of the oil spill? Have we named the demon of the Afghanistan and Iraqi wars? Have we named the powers of the world that created Katrina and the demons that fed it. Have we named the powers of the world that have made us face disease, life threatening illnesses, broken relationships and economic difficulties? Have we truly named them? We need to in order to face them with the power of Jesus.

Let’s look at the baptismal rite for Ken in which we just participated. It’s a beautiful rite. We heard Martin Luther’s prayer as water was poured into the basin. We baptized him in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. I anointed him as I placed the sign of the cross on his forehead. He received a candle to remind him to let his light shine. But, in the midst of that we are reminded of what we face. We name it. I began by asking Ken, “Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God?” He answered, “I renounce them.” Then, getting closer to home, I asked, “Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God?” Again, Ken answered, “I renounce them.” Finally, getting more personal, I asked Ken, “Do you renounce the ways of sin that draw you from God?” Again, Ken said, “I renounce them.”

Now, let’s look at what happened in the story. The swineherds went into the city and countryside to tell everyone what happened. When they came to see for themselves, which could have taken many hours or even a day, they found the demoniac sitting at the feet of Jesus, fully clothed, and in his right mind. What happened? They were filled with fear! You would think they would be praising God and thanking Jesus for what happened. After all, there was no more demoniac.

I’ve thought of three reasons that they were afraid. First, the swine were in a Gentile country where pork could be eaten. That was money on the hoof. Their economic livelihood was destroyed. Jesus created this new chaos when he healed the demoniac. And, after all, isn’t economics the god of us all? Second, think about their relationship with the demoniac. They knew where he was. They knew what he did. They could expect what might happen. Not any more. He might want to get even for them shackling and chaining him. They don’t know if the demons will return. Jesus, again, created a new chaos with the exorcism. Finally, do we ever think about what happened when the swine went into the sea. There were hundreds, perhaps thousands, of swine which were now floating as carcasses in the water. Can you imagine the stench? And, there were the fishermen who made a livelihood by fishing off of the shore. That industry could have been destroyed. (Is this shades of the Gulf Oil Spill?) That is another new chaos.

Then, let’s think about the situation with the demoniac. He is in his right mind. Jesus cured him. He’s had time to listen to this charismatic man and probably hear thoughts that impress him greatly. No wonder he wants to be with Jesus. Besides, the people back in the city chained and shackled him. What would happen now. Ask any recovering addict about his/her family. It’s not a matter of instant trust when he begins recovery. That would be a new chaos to deal with. Jesus sends the man back into the city where he was, and the chaos continues. Jesus wants him to tell the people what God has done for him.
Jesus can create new chaos as he changes the old dynamics. There are two sayings with which we are well acquainted. They are diametrically opposed to one another. We all love to realize that, “Jesus accepts us just the way we are.” The other saying is, “Jesus transforms us.” We have difficulty with the second one. We don’t like change.

In the midst of all of this, let’s remember our baptism and what we know. Paul said in the Letter to the Galatians that was read today that we are clothed with Christ in our baptism. We have Christ within us. Paul has also said that we were crucified with Christ and were raised to a new life in Christ. It is not we who live, but Christ who lives within us. Now, if someone commented to me in the midst of a chaotic time, “Don’t worry, it is Christ who lives within you,” I don’t think that would help much. To help us embrace the reality that Christ walks with us in the midst of all this chaos, whether new or old, we need to be in prayer, read scripture, worship, and be in fellowship with others who support us to realize that this is true. We need to know for ourselves, through the power of the Spirit, that Jesus gives us his strength and his capability to face the chaos.

But remember, Jesus gives us new chaos to face. He says to all of us, “Go to your home and tell everyone what God has done for you.”

Sunday, June 13, 2010

“Are We Any Different”

Luke 7:36—8:3
One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee's house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, "If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him — that she is a sinner." Jesus spoke up and said to him, "Simon, I have something to say to you." "Teacher," he replied, "speak." A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?" Simon answered, "I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt." And Jesus said to him, "You have judged rightly." Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, "Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little." Then he said to her, "Your sins are forgiven." But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, "Who is this who even forgives sins?" And he said to the woman, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace."

Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod's steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.

A Message from the Pastor
I don’t know if any of you in this holy space are like me, but when I read stories from the gospel like the one for today, I have a difficult time relating to the story. There are 2,000 years of difference, along with the cultural and custom differences. Therefore, it’s difficult to get an understanding of the context and significance of the circumstances surrounding the story. It has a tendency to go over my head. To help us, I would like to take the story, keep the customs and culture virtually the same, but move the story into the twenty-first century.

Imagine that you and I are hosting a dinner party. Imagine that we have invited several guests, including the pastor. Now, when we have a dinner party, we usually sit around for a few minutes catching up on things in each others’ lives. As we do that, the door bell rings. You, and I, as hosts, answer the door. There at the door you/I greet a woman. She’s probably about five feet four inches tall. She is in her mid or late thirties. As she walks in you/I can’t help but notice the false eyelashes, the mascara, and the other cosmetics that she uses. She has on a mini shirt that is tight fitting. She wears stiletto shoes and has a blouse, or shirt, that we might say is loosely fitting. She sees the pastor and rushes over to him, burying her head in his feet. She begins to sob, notices her tears on his feet, and takes the comb from her hair, letting her hair tumble down. After shaking her hair out, she begins to dry the pastor’s feet with her hair. Then she takes a jar from her purse, containing oil, and massages the pastor’s feet. All the while, the pastor is compassionately patting her head as she sobs.

What would you be thinking? What thoughts would come into your mind about the woman and the pastor? Personally, I would be asking myself, “Pastor, where have you been?”

While this little exercise does not provide the message from Jesus, it helps us to set the context in which Jesus is talking to Simon the Pharisee.

While Jesus does not say this directly, and we may not consciously think it, we would probably be considering ourselves better than her. Aft all, we worship regularly, pray, and read scripture. We are good people, obeying the Ten Commandments and helping others. She is much worse off than we are as a sinner.

Jesus then presents the Pharisee, Simon, with a question. Who loves more, the one who is forgiven more, or the one who is forgiven less? What Jesus could be saying is, “Who is forgiven more, the one who sins more, or the one who thinks s/he sins less? We’re all guilty of it. We have a wall of denial about our sinfulness. We have a fortress built up with our self-centeredness. We look at ourselves and rationalize the insignificance of being sinful.

However, God looks at all people as God’s children. God recognizes that we are all made in God’s image. God knows we are all sinful and are not different, one from another. Jesus saw a child of God in that woman.

Martin Luther said that in order to experience grace, we must know sin. This is very significant. We must know sin in order to experience grace. In addition, in order to experience sin, we must know grace. Grace and sin go hand in hand. To love, then requires the experience of forgiveness.

Furthermore, when I read scripture, worship, and pray, there is the possibility that through the Holy Spirit I might sense, from time to time, a more personal relationship with God. It is then that I will also experience greater sinfulness. I come to realize that I cannot love like Jesus. I cannot be in relationship with the Father, like Jesus. I cannot live a sacrificial life, like Jesus. With all that being said, however, what I might do, many times, is use rationalization and acknowledge that since I am only human, I will be imperfect, and therefore discount the depth of my sinfulness.

We are now in the period of the church year when we focus on the church, what it is and what it is called to do. There are two things that differentiate the church from the world. It is not the Ten Commandments. You can see a plaque of the Ten Commandments on many court house walls, just like the one on the outside wall of the old Jonesborough courthouse. It is not being good. Most people are good. It is not being nice or responding out of necessity to those in need. We see that in the world all the time. The two basic differences of the church are forgiveness and the desire for reconciliation. We are ambassadors of reconciliation. This all comes from our desire to love because of God’s forgiveness for us through Jesus Christ.

An editorial in the Jonesborough newspaper noted that twenty percent of our children will be hungry this summer because they are not in school availing themselves of the school’s food program. Many people will help them because it is the good thing to do. We, the church, help because we love them. We are called to love all people: old and young, rich and poor, women and men, gay and straight, black and white, economically disadvantaged and those who are not. It doesn’t matter. We are all sinful. We are all forgiven.

Paul, in his writing for today, reminds us of this forgiveness. We have been crucified with Christ. In our flesh, it is not we who live, but it is Christ who lives within us. It is through Christ’s presence in our lives that we are able to forgive and to work for reconciliation with all those who cross our path of life.