Pastor Steve Molin
Dear friends in Christ, grace to you and peace, from God our Father, and His Son our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
The call came ten days ago; a collect call. I haven’t had one of those in years. Curiosity compelled me to accept the charges, and the conversation began. “Hi,” the caller said, “my name is Curt and I am an inmate at the Washington County Jail, but I am being released on Tuesday and I need a ride to a halfway house in Hastings. Could you drive me?” Could I drive him, or would I drive him? Ever since I turned someone down when they asked me for a handout and Pastor Linda said, “Hope it wasn’t Jesus!”, I have been reluctant to turn the other way when a person in need asks for help. Thanks a lot, Linda! So I said yes to Curt. Yes, I would drive him. I would be there at 6AM Tuesday.
Before our call ended, Curt mentioned that he’d be standing outside, and he would be wearing a T-shirt, shorts and tennis shoes because that’s all he had in the world. When I picked him up, he wasn’t kidding. It was a chilly morning so I gave him a sweatshirt. We stopped for coffee and a breakfast sandwich and he eagerly ate it as we traveled and talked. Nice man, Curt. Polite, grateful, and articulate. I asked him how it felt to be free and he sniffed the air blowing through the window and said it was wonderful. He hadn’t breathed fresh air in awhile. He hadn’t really been in sunlight in 7 months. He had been confined and controlled for more than half a year. And now he was free.
But the more Curt talked, the more I realized he wasn’t free at all. He would spend a couple of months in a halfway house, not because he wanted to but because a judge had ordered him to. He would be required to attend AA meetings, and to check in with a probation officer for the next several years. The felony on his record would shadow him for life. And the wife and children he had in Forest Lake filled him with feelings of failure and irresponsibility. And the pain of family history and the shame of broken promises left him anything but free.
In the gospel lesson today, Jesus is speaking to a band of Jewish people who had come to follow him. They were inspired by his teaching and amazed by his miracles, but now the words of Jesus had made them a bit testy. “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free,” Jesus told them. And they got all huffy with Jesus! “What do you mean we will be free?” the Jews said to Jesus. We are the daughters and sons of Abraham and we have never been slaves to anyone!” Really? Really? Had they forgotten about the 210 years that the Jews were slaves in Egypt? Had they misremembered the 70 years of Babylonian Captivity? Did they realize that the 612 laws prescribed by Jewish rabbis had shackled them to a rigid life of legalism and guilt? The truth is, they have never been free.
So with the gentleness and accuracy of a surgeon, Jesus corrects their thinking. “Look,” Jesus says, “Everyone who commits a sin – a single sin – is a slave to that sin, because you can’t stop sinning. You know the right thing to do, you may even want to do the right thing, but you can’t do it. And if that isn’t slavery, I don’t know what is. But I’ll tell you one thing,” Jesus concluded, “if the Son of God makes you free, you will be really free.”
Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther resurrected the argument with Jesus, but Luther turned it upside down! This is the essence of what Luther said: “Jesus, you say that I am free, but I am really not. I break your rules all the time, every day and every night, countless times. I confess my sins to the priest for hours on end and I feel free for about a minute…but then when I am walking back to my room, I remember an unconfessed sin, and my guilt and my terror start all over again.” Luther was not free; he was in chains that the church seemed to sanction. He was tormented by guilt that he could not please an angry God.
And then one day, Martin Luther had an epiphany; an eye-opening moment. In studying the book of Romans, he read that righteousness isn’t something we earn by following the rules. Righteousness is a gift that God gives us, and all we have to do is believe it. Grace comes. Forgiveness is given. All the sins, and all the shame, and all the punishment that we deserve for our wrongdoing is wiped away. And we are totally free.
So now, 500 years after Luther’s realization of grace, I have this question for you: What if it’s true? What if we really are forgiven? I know that seems like an absurd question, coming from a Lutheran pastor, and asked among those who have gathered in a worship service. But I ask it because it seems like we’re living our lives as if we don’t believe in grace. We carry around guilt for things we’ve done years ago. We walk through life as if it were a minefield, and if we take one wrong step, we will be blown to Hell. We think that God must surely be angry with us when we drink too much, or smoke too much, or get angry too often, or swear too frequently, or gossip without constraint. We lust, and we lie, and we cheat, and we steal, and we hoard, and we are selfish, and we are often unkind. And the people around us are of little comfort. People outside the church call us hypocrites and point out our flaws with a flair! And our pseudo-religious friends like to point out the flaws that we have but they don’t, so that makes them better than us. So we get beat up by day, and we beat ourselves up by night, and over time, we come to believe that we are not forgiven by Christ. That we are really not free.
Oswald Hoffman tells the story of Mac, the family dog. Every day when Hoffman left for work, he chained Mac up to the front step. He’d been doing this for so long that Mac had worn out the grass in a semi-circle where the chain constrained him. He’d chase the mail carrier, and the paper carrier, and kids on bikes and runners passing by, always held captive by the length of the chain. One day, Hoffman let Mac outside but he forgot to hook him up to the chain. Nine hours later, Hoffman came home and saw Mac chasing cats and cars and bikes, but only to the edge of the yard. Only to the worn out semi-circle. Poor Mac, he was free of all the chains but he didn’t know it so he lived like he was enslaved.
People, is that us? Are we so conditioned that God has us on a leash and we better not stray too far or God will punish us? And further, are we so burdened with guilt that we take the middle man out of the picture and punish ourselves for our straying? That’s not freedom! That is not taking into account God’s grace. That is slavery; the very thing that Jesus died for so we could live lives of joy, not shame. Free is good, but somehow we have forgotten that truth.
So I have one more question for you this morning, and it is this: What one thing would you do in this life if you knew you could not fail…or more pointedly, knowing that you might fail but it doesn’t matter? What matters is that you took that risk.
• Would you volunteer somewhere totally out of your comfort zone?
• Would you approach someone from whom you have been alienated and try to mend the relationship?
• Would you say “no” to your boss and “yes” to your family for a change?
• Would you drive an inmate you never met to a halfway house?
• Would you ignore all of your electronic gadgets for 24 hours and really remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy?
• Would you give more than you thought you could afford?
• Would you ask for help when you have a need?
You know what I think? I think God wants us to feel free enough to take risks with our lives, risks in our relationships, and risks in our faith. Not stupid dangerous risks, like skydiving or bungee-jumping, but the freedom to do something that might make God smile. Free is good, so why not try living and loving and serving and giving simply because God said it would be okay? The Son has made you free and you are free indeed. Now, what are you going to do about it? Thanks be to God. Amen.
©2012 Steven Molin