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Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Truth Shall Make You Free

Jesus promised his followers, and promises us today, that we will know the truth, and the truth will make us free. When we embrace the truth of our human limitations, and recognize our dependence on God, the slavery of our fears, addictions, and sin will die and we can live in freedom as children of God.

Vicar Meagan McLaughlin
   Reformation Sunday
   Texts: Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 46, Romans 3:19-28, John 8:31-36

Grace and peace to you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I was sitting in a restaurant, eating dinner, when I heard several thunks. I turned and saw a bird flying around inside the restaurant, banging into windows in her frantic attempt to get outside. When she landed on the floor, exhausted, I laid my jacket gently over her and carried her through the door. I opened the jacket cautiously, expecting her to burst out, but she clung for dear life, her tiny talons hooked into the lining, afraid to let go and be free. As I held her, I wondered, how often do we do that? Struggle to be free from that which confines us, and then cling to our cage when we are freed? What does it really mean to be free, and why are we, when we are really honest with ourselves, terrified of it?

We in the United States pride ourselves on being a free country, and in many ways we are free, especially those of us with good health, steady income, solid education, and the privileges that come along with being white, middle-class, American-born. We can travel, study, walk our neighborhoods without fear, eat knowing we will have enough food for another meal, send ourselves and our loved ones off for the day with the belief that we will all come home safely. Most of the time, we have the luxury of living in the illusion that we are in control of our lives, even if it is only through the false security of believing we know what our future holds. Jesus in Matthew promises freedom, and his followers protest, saying they are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone, and we might well make the same claim. We live in a free country, slavery was abolished almost 150 years ago! What do you mean by saying “You will be made free?”

Jesus’ reply to his followers is for us, too: “Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” 19th century Lutheran theologian Rudolph Bultmann defines sin as the brokenness that comes from dependence on worldly things instead of God. By relying on our own efforts or on what we can take from the world for our well-being, we forget our ultimate dependence on God; in other words, we forget what our true relationship with God is. Because of this we feel anger, jealousy, and judgment, and as Bultmann says, the “slavery of anxiety that oppresses all of us (Romans 8:15)—the anxiety in which we each seek to hold on to ourselves and what is ours in the secret feeling that everything, including our own life, is slipping away from us.”  [1]

We are free in one sense, but at a much deeper level, we are all slaves to our own brokenness. As a nation we spend a great deal of time obsessed with how to keep ourselves safe—closing our borders, taking off our shoes at the airport, debating who is to blame for Ebola coming to this country. We labor under the illusion that we can create perfect safety. If the danger is far enough away, and we can build a high enough wall, we feel separated, and protected. When the threat comes too close, we are afraid. Afraid of change, of those we don’t understand, of death. And when we depend on these actions to protect us, and ground our hope in our own efforts instead of trusting in God, we go beyond reasonable steps to take care of ourselves, and build walls that not only separate us from our neighbors, but from God.

On a personal level, we exercise and eat well expecting that this will guarantee our health, to the point where we feel surprised and angry when are sick. We are slaves to addictions that tell us the lie that everything will be OK if only we have enough alcohol, or sex, or food. We buy in, without even being aware, to the idea that growing old, rather than being a normal part of the cycle of life, is something that can and should be prevented, or at least slowed down, with the right lotions or vitamins or procedures. We act out of the illusion that life is a competition for success, love, and resources that only a few will win, and work furiously to be sure we will be one of them, secretly convinced that we are not good enough. We remain confident in the idea of our own power and ability to control our lives, until unexpected events wake us up, and we begin to understand the truth. We are slaves to our own brokenness, and we, like the bird, find ourselves trapped by our own fears, exhausted from our efforts to escape a prison we cannot even see.

We are slaves to our own brokenness, but Jesus made his followers a promise—makes us a promise today. “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” And the truth that Jesus talks about, the truth that will free us, is precisely why we are so afraid of freedom. The truth, as Paul proclaims it, is simply this: we have all sinned, and we all fall short of the glory of God. Every one of us, without exception. What terrifies us about this truth is that when we embrace it, it takes us completely out of the driver’s seat. We can no longer cling to an illusion of safety that is built on our own efforts or beliefs that we are in control. We are vulnerable, exposed for who we are, face-to-face with our own humanity. This is the truth that leads to freedom, the freedom to be exactly the people God created us to be.

We are freed by this truth, because grounded in our own humanity, we can understand Martin Luther’s claim that we are simultaneously sinner and saint. The very truth of our own weakness reveals our need for God, and our place as God’s children. The promise of the covenant Jeremiah talks about is our promise. God’s law has been written on our hearts, God is our God, and we are God’s people. In the core of who we are, God has written the law of love, faithfulness, forgiveness. And as our illusions, addictions, and sinfulness die in the light of this promise, we can see that we have been enslaved. And we can see that we are free.

Like the bird with its talons hooked into my jacket lining, we tend to cling to what we feel sure of, certain that there is nothing to catch us if we let go. The psalmist describes in vivid images the chaos we sometimes feel in this unpredictable world—earthquakes and roaring waters, nations at war. The chaos, as the psalmist sings it, does not go away. Illness, job loss, wars, death, are all a part of this life we live. Promise and hope and certainty come from the presence of a loving God who never abandons us, regardless of the circumstances. “God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in trouble. . . . . The LORD of Hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. . . . Be still and know that I am God.”

By seeing clearly the truth of our own powerlessness, our own brokenness, our own humanity, we are freed from our illusions. We live as people of the covenant, knowing that we belong to God, and we can do that because God has written God’s promise on our hearts. We know the truth. God is our refuge, and will be with us, no matter what may come. Jesus calls us to embrace the truth, and by doing this, we can, like the bird, unhook our talons from the lining of the jacket, and live in freedom.

[1] Rudolf Bultmann, New Testament and Mythology and Other Basic Writings, trans. Schubert Miles Ogden (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 17

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