Reformation Sunday, October 28, 2018

The holy gospel according to John, the 8th chapter.  

Glory to you, O Lord.

31 Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." 33 They answered him, "We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, "You will be made free'?" 34 Jesus answered them, "Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35 The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36 So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.

The gospel of the Lord.  Praise to you, O Christ.

Sermon Reformation 2018

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Creator, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.  

We celebrate with Heather today as she affirms her faith in the rite of Confirmation.  As we rejoice with her this reformation Sunday, we will focus on two key words - truth and freedom. 

Jesus says to his disciples and to us: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.”

Truth and freedom are the two key words for us today. We hear a great deal about truth and freedom these days in the news. So we ask the perpetual Lutheran question, “What does this mean?” 

Truth is important.  People need the truth to get along in the world. If you have beliefs that aren't true, you are going to have problems.  You will make bad decisions based on false information and fake news. 

Telling something that is not true can get you in trouble.  We can all remember getting trouble for telling fibs when we were little. If you are an adult and you do that in a courtroom, you can be in legal trouble. 

Truth has had a variety of meanings or understandings throughout history. The dictionary gives the first meaning as being faithful or constant.  Think about it as being true to your principles.   

Being true means being faithful to what you say you stand for - being true to your word.  In this definition, being true is also being sincere in your actions.

The next definition of truth is factual truth.  Something is true if it exists.  Something is true if it actually happened the way you say it happened.  

The fact checkers who monitor our news and our election process are concerned with this meaning of truth.  They check carefully to see if the politicians are stating actual facts, or embellishing them, or just plain making things up. 

The fact checkers have a scale that starts at true, then goes to mostly true, half true, mostly false, false, to finally - “liar, liar, pants on fire.”  Fact checkers don’t see truth as black and white.  They see stages.  They see shades of gray.  

The fact checkers would probably call, “Pants on fire” to Jesus’ audience in today’s gospel.  They said, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone.”  What???  

Have they totally forgotten the most important story in their history? The descendants of Abraham, the Jewish people, were slaves in Egypt.  And they were slaves to the Assyrians, the Persians, and the Romans.  

Another definition of truth goes beyond the facts.  There is something called ultimate truth.  Jesus is usually talking about ultimate truth, the deeper meaning. 

For example, Jesus uses parables to teach people the deeper truth about their relationship with God.  C.S. Lewis writes about the truth of the law that was written at the beginning of history which explains how the world works, and the deeper truth, the truth of God’s love, that was written before the dawn of time. 

For example, the parable stories themselves are not historical truth.  There was never really a person who was the Good Samaritan.  And an actual man did not sell everything he owned to buy a field with a pearl in it. 

Does it matter if these stories did not happen in history?  Does that make them untrue?  Of course not.  They are true because they teach us about our relationship with God. They teach about the deeper truth of God’s love. 

Jesus is talking about ultimate truth, our relationship with God, when he tells the disciples two important truths in today’s gospel. 

Here is the first truth.  It is a hard truth.  Jesus tells the Jews who believed in him that they are slaves to sin. They don’t want to hear it. They are in total denial.  They have forgotten their past.    But, here is an even harder truth. Jesus is talking to us, too.  We are also slaves to sin.  

When we are slaves to sin, we cannot free ourselves.  Sin makes it hard for me to trust anyone.  Sin makes me think that people are out to take advantage of me, or make fun of me, or hurt me in some way.

Sin makes it hard for me to share with other people.  It makes me afraid that there isn’t enough to go around and I should get mine first.  

It makes it hard for me to see the future the way God sees it, and the way  Jesus preaches it.  It makes me want to keep things the way they are and just do the best I can for myself, without taking care of my neighbor. 

And it isn’t just my individual sin that enslaves me. The whole world is broken and fallen.  Every decision I make - from the way I spend my money to the way I spend my time - can contribute in negative ways to the health of the planet and the well-being of my neighbors, as well as people who live in other countries and on other continents. 

The words, “We are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves” may be the truest words we speak every week.  When someone asks us how we are doing, we can say that we are fine, but the truth will always be that we do not live up to the vision God has for us.

The truth is, we can grow and do better, but we can never fully change ourselves.  We can help the world, but we ourselves can never save it.  We can never save ourselves or anyone else. 

That is the first truth - we are slaves to sin.

The second truth is the good news for today.  The second truth Jesus tells - is about God’s great love for us. The second truth is about freedom. 

Slaves are owned by their masters.  They can be bought and sold.  Their families, their wives, their husbands, their children can be bought and sold.  They have no control.  It isn’t their house. They are at the mercy of the master.

Freedom means new life for a slave.  Former President Franklin Roosevelt talked about four freedoms that should be world-wide objectives: Freedom of speech, Freedom to worship God, Freedom from want, and Freedom from fear. A slave has none of these. 

The children in the house have a permanent place.  They have security.  They have a home. They have a future. They have freedom from want and fear.  They have freedom of speech and freedom to worship God. 

If you are a child in God’s house, you have these freedoms. You have been redeemed from your slavery to sin.  You have been forgiven.  

One version of the Lord’s Prayer says, “Forgive us our debts.”  Our sin is like a debt we owe.  When we forgive someone we take on the burden of their debt.  We don’t keep asking them to repay us or make it up to us.  We no longer remind them of what they did.  We don’t hold it against them. 

When God forgives our sins, Christ takes on the burden of the debt.  Christ no longer reminds us of what we did.  Christ does not ask us to repay, not that we ever could. 

The truth that makes us free is the truth at the heart of the 95 theses that Luther nailed to the Wittenberg church door over 500 years ago.  It is the truth that we are sinners, sinners that no indulgences or good works could ever redeem.  

It is the truth that we are sinners for whom Christ died.  We are the sinners who are now free to love and serve our neighbors, care for the poor, share all that we have, and spread the good news of Jesus Christ.  

It is the truth that we who have died with Christ - will rise with Christ. We will have new life.  To God be the glory, now and forever. Amen.

22nd Sunday after Pentecost

Gospel and Sermon for October 21, 2018

The holy Gospel according to Mark, the 10th chapter.  

Glory to you, O Lord.

35 James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you." 36 And he said to them, "What is it you want me to do for you?" 37 And they said to him, "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory." 38 But Jesus said to them, "You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?" 39 They replied, "We are able." Then Jesus said to them, "The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; 40 but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared." 41 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42 So Jesus called them and said to them, "You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

The gospel of the Lord.  Praise to you, O Christ.

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Creator and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

It was the third time Jesus told his disciples what was going to happen to him.  He says that he will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes.  He will be mocked, flogged, and killed.  On the third day he will rise again. 

James and John, along with Peter, have been closer to Jesus than any of the disciples.  But they still don’t get what he is teaching them.  

The first time Jesus tells the disciples what is going to happen is right after Peter has declared that Jesus is the Messiah.  Then Jesus started talking about suffering and death and Peter took Jesus aside and rebuked him.  Peter, the first to declare that Jesus is the Messiah, didn’t really understand what he was saying.

The next time Jesus talked about his upcoming suffering and death, the disciples were afraid to say anything.  Nobody asked him about it. They were scared to ask the teacher a question.

The third time Jesus talked about his death and resurrection, James and John, sons of Zebedee, are the ones to come forward.  They haven’t gotten the message any better than Peter did, but they have a different approach.

They know Jesus is the Messiah, but they still see the Messiah as an earthly king.   They want to be sitting in the best seats right next to him at the royal banquet.  They are bold enough to ask Jesus about it, too.  

The other disciples are not very happy with the brothers’ request.  It isn’t that the others understand Jesus anymore than James and John.  They just wish they had thought of it first.

Before we get started feeling all superior to the dumb disciples who don’t understand Jesus’ teaching, we need to remember something about ourselves.  Don’t we sometimes do the same thing James and John did?

If we are honest with ourselves, I bet we can all remember a time when we have asked Jesus for the best seats.  Maybe we have asked for a promotion at work.  Maybe we have asked for the best grade on the test, or to win the purple ribbon at the state fair.  

Maybe we have even mentioned to Jesus that we sure hope that our team wins the big game this week so that we can have bragging rights? Or maybe we haven’t asked to be number one.  Maybe we have just asked to be ahead of our rivals, whoever they might be.  

Whatever it is we have wanted, we have probably been just like the Zebedee brothers and told Jesus to say yes before we even asked for what we wanted.

Jesus uses their request as a teaching opportunity on leadership.  He reminds all the disciples that the Gentile rulers are tyrants and lord their power over everyone else.  He tells them that things will be different in his reign.  

Everywhere that Jesus reigns, the greatest will be the servants.  Jesus will set the example for all of us.  We are all called to be servants for each other. 

What does it look like when we are servants?  When I first think about servants, my mind goes initially to two British television shows, Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey.  They both tell the stories of two groups of people. The rich people own the huge mansions and live upstairs. 

The servants work downstairs.  The servants do everything for the upstairs family.  The rich people wouldn’t know how to prepare a meal or even dress themselves without the servants’ help.  

This model of servanthood is not what Jesus is talking about, though.  This model is like the model that the Gentiles have. Jesus is describing a very different kind of world where everyone is a servant.  In the reign of God, all leaders are servants and all servants are leaders.

Robert Greenleaf wrote extensively about servant leadership.  He said that if you are a servant first, then a leader, you will look to the needs of the people and ask how you can help them solve problems.  You will be very different from someone who just wants to be a leader. That person just wants power and possessions.

Jesus listens to our concerns, no matter how big or small they are. When we are servant leaders we listen to others.  We learn of their concerns.  We hear their ideas.  We hear their stories.  We give them our time and our patience.  We recognize them as children of God, brothers and sisters in Christ.

We don’t just tell other people what to do and walk away. We help them figure out what would work best to solve their problems.  And we help them implement the plan.  Jesus does not just tell us what to do and walk away.  He promised to be with us always.  He walks with us and helps us when we ask. 

When we are servant leaders we care about others. We show respect for them in the way we talk and act.  Jesus did not distinguish between the rich and poor.  He showed respect for everyone he met. 

Jesus healed people everywhere he went.  We might not have the power to say a prayer and cure a disease like he did.   But we do have the power to pray for others.  When we are servant leaders, we are healers. We can work to heal broken relationships.  We can use kind words.  We can show forgiveness.  We can encourage others to forgive also.  

Jesus talked about what was going to happen to him when he reached Jerusalem.  He tried to prepare his disciples for the future.  When we are servant leaders, we are forward-looking.  We have long term goals and we stay focused on the way things can be.  We hold to the vision of a different way of living.  We hold to the vision of life in a world where Jesus reigns.

We know that all that we have and all that we are is a gift from God.  God trusts us to use our lives wisely.  God trusts us to use the earth wisely.  God trusts us to be wise in our relationships with each other.  

When we are servant leaders, we are good stewards.  Stewardship has always been a part of the servant’s job.  The servant knows that everything belongs to the Master.  Nothing really belongs to the servant.

Jesus tells us that things will be different in the world where he reigns. Like James and John, and all the disciples, we are called to be servants to one another.  

We know Jesus’ words to the disciples are true.  Christ has died.  Christ has risen.  He reigns at the right hand of God.  We pray that the reign of God will come also to us.