June 28, 2020 /4th Sunday after Pentecost / Richard Holmer
1st Reading Jeremiah 28:5-9/ 2nd Reading Romans 6:12-23 / Gospel Matthew 10:40-42
What’s freedom? It depends who you ask – and when you ask them. Freedom could be:
Getting your driver’s license and your own car.
Leaving a refugee camp and coming to America.
When your last child graduates from college.
Winning the lottery and quitting your job.
The doctor telling you that you are cured – cancer free.
Retiring, with the mortgage paid in full.
An effective vaccine for Covid-19 (allowing a return to something like normal).
What does freedom look like to you?
People like freedom. We believe in freedom. We long for freedom. We embrace the notion of personal liberty and independence: freedom to do what we want, when we want, with whomever we want; freedom from constraints, obligations, from any imposed authority. This Saturday we will celebrate our American heritage of freedom. We fought a war to secure our independence. “Give me liberty, or give me death,” said Patrick Henry.
Freedom is prized as an ultimate good – an unqualified blessing. “Everybody wants to be closer to free” (the BoDeans) And yet the truth is we really are not free. We freely acknowledge this every Sunday. We admit that “we are captive to SIN, and cannot free ourselves.” You and I are in bondage to the power of SIN. Jesus describes our condition in blunt words: “Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” (John 8:34) Along with theologians, psychologists tell us that we are not as free as we may imagine. Our actions are driven by instincts, subconscious desires, by history and environment, by our genes, by the Ego, ID and Superego, etc. We might like to imagine that we don’t have to serve anyone other than ourselves. However, a song written by a folksinger, rebel philosopher, Nobel Prize winning poet (and sometime Christian) named Bob Dylan begs to differ with that viewpoint. Over many verses Dylan keeps insisting that “You Gotta Serve Somebody”. Here are a few sample lines:
You may be a preacher with your spiritual pride
Maybe a city councilman taking bribes on the side
You may be rich or poor, you may be blind or lame
You may be living in another country, under another name
You might like to eat caviar, you might like to eat bread
May be sleeping on the floor or sleeping in a king size bed
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord,
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.
(Are you surprised that Dylan recorded two Christian albums?)
Modern culture holds out this alluring promise: get a good education, access the right technology and accumulate sufficient income, and you will experience lasting freedom. Many, then, invest a tremendous amount of time and energy – of themselves – in the effort to attain this glittering goal.
However, the testimony of scripture is that such striving is a fool’s errand. Theologian Sam Wells says this: “For the New Testament, the ideal of absolute freedom from all constraint is a fantasy . . . we’re all part of a story that’s bigger than us, like it or not.”
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Which is pretty much what Paul is saying to us today in our reading from his letter to the Romans. Life as a totally independent free agent is not an option open to us. Bob Dylan says, “You gotta serve somebody.” St. Paul says, “you can be a slave to sin or you can be a slave to grace – but you need to choose.” In other words, your life can be dominated and directed by the forces of Pride, Greed, Lust, Envy, Gluttony, Wrath and Sloth (so-called Deadly Sins – words that describe actual life experience). Or your life can be controlled and directed by the gracious righteousness of God – by faith and hope and above all, by love. And to underscore the momentous nature of this choice, Paul describes the ultimate consequences: “The wages of sin is DEATH, but the free gift of God is ETERNAL LIFE in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Well now that looks like an obvious choice – a real no brainer!
But it proves to be neither obvious nor easy. You see, sin wouldn’t be a problem if it wasn’t so darn tempting! Pride offers many advantages. Greed can pay dividends. Lust can feel very natural, and so forth. Sin provides many kinds of short term gratification. It can seem like a good idea at the time. The promised return on selling your soul, which we can do a piece at a time, is always immediate and tangible. Sin presents itself in bright and alluring packaging (like that apple in the Garden of Eden).
What’s more, choosing the righteousness of God in Jesus Christ includes facing some genuine challenges. Just last week we heard Jesus warning that those who want to follow him must love God more than father or mother or anyone, must be willing to take up the cross (to sacrifice), must lose their old lives in order to find true life in him. The choice is ultimately between death and life. Yet in the near term, the way of sin seems to be more pleasant, more beneficial, more comfortable, than the way of Christ. It’s no surprise that many continue to embrace the dominion of Sin. However, Sin is a hard and cruel master, the returns on sinful living rapidly diminish, and the final payoff is spiritual, emotional, and ultimately physical Death.
It turns out that the kind of freedom we longed for is an illusion. But there is true and lasting freedom. It’s the freedom that grows through self-mastery, self-control. The freedom gained by saying no to Sin and saying yes to God’s gift of grace. Paradoxically, freedom comes through serving the only One who is worthy to be our Lord and Master. Freedom consists in being obedient and faithful to the Truth. Jesus is the free-est person who ever walked on this earth – he was never compelled to do anything, not even to die. Jesus freely chose to live and to die in accordance with his Father’s will. We consistently make the mistake of assuming that freedom is all about doing my will. In Jesus we see the true freedom that comes through doing God’s will (and so he taught us to pray, “Thy will be done.”)
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In purely human terms, it is true, you and I are captives to sin, and cannot free ourselves. But that’s not the whole story. We have a Savior, a liberator, who proclaims, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8:36) So, friends, we are also captive to grace. Ponder that. Since we gotta serve somebody – let it be the Lord.
In Christ we have a master who wants only what is good for us – who was willing to die in order that you and I might find true freedom.
Thanks be to God.