Monthly Archives: January 2016

Proclaiming Liberty to the Captives

Sermon on Luke 4:16-30 preached January 24, 2016

In our gospel for today it says that in the synagogue in Nazareth that Sabbath morning when Jesus was given the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, he unrolled it “and found the place where it was written, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ And he rolled up the scroll again and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And it says that the eyes of all the synagogue were fixed upon him.”

Without boring you too much with my family’s doings, I want to tell you a little about a relative of mine–Mary Lois Olson, my father’s younger sister. Dogs and children always adored my Aunt Mary Lois. They just couldn’t help themselves. When I was little and she came to visit us, I fell deeply and hopelessly in love with her. She was very pretty, for one thing, with an ocean of red-gold hair, and when she looked at you, you filled her eyes. And what a smile! It would take your breath away. When she smiled at you like that, for that magical, mystical moment you were the center of the whole universe.

But Mary Lois was what they used to call “wild” girl–which meant that she wanted to have her own way and be free. And that frequently put her at odds with my grandmother—the state officer in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union–who was a force of nature in her own right and—Bless her heart!—who also liked having her own way. And if you combine a wild, independent-thinking girl and a state officer in the WCTU you are bound to have an explosion. And that’s exactly what happened. BOOM! Oh, my Aunt Mary Lois fought like a bobcat for her independence—and she won–pretty much. She moved out to western Montana and got a job teaching first grade—as I said, children and dogs adored her–and she married a man who smoked and drank beer, and who was much older than herself. She married him, I suspect, precisely because my grandmother did not approve of him at all.

But my Aunt was independent as a hog on ice, as my father put it. She rode motorcycles when women didn’t do that and flew airplanes when women didn’t do that, and lived her own life precisely the way that she wanted to live it, which most women didn’t do either, not back in those days. You would have liked her, beloved. She was so determined and smart and funny. She taught first grade out there in Livingston, Montana for 42 years in the same school. And I am sure that hundreds of little boys must have fallen in love with her just the way I did. They just couldn’t help it. Now I have known and loved a number strong-minded women—I married one of them—but my Aunt Mary Lois was in a class by herself when it came to tough-minded self-sufficiency.

But life goes on, beloved, and everything changes in time. Now Aunt Mary Lois is ninety-one years old, and Nature has thrown everything it had at her—she has had cancer, several heart attacks, and numerous strokes—but she is still ticking, still clothed in her right mind, and confined to a nursing home. And she is miserable. She has lost her house, her beloved dog, and worst of all she has lost her freedom. And she is also furious at the way things have turned out for her. My Cousin Kathy told me that the other day her mother is in trouble at the nursing home because she threw her walker at one of the nurses, and hit her. Oh, I forgot to tell you that Aunt Mary Lois was always very good at sports. But for her this is no laughing matter.

She is trapped, and she is putting her poor daughter through absolute hell, only and all because she just wants to be free, as she always has been, and go back to her own house and live her life as she always has, on her own. But she can’t.

Because it turns out that freedom, beloved, is a more than just a little to ask of life. It is more than life is prepared to grant. My Aunt Mary Lois has discovered the truth–that none of us is as free as she thinks she is—rather later than most. But sometimes it just takes a lifetime for us to recognize the depth of our bondage. We are accustomed, you and I, to regard liberty as our birthright, a given, something to which we are entitled. Or we think of our independence as something we fought for and got by our own strength and will, as ours by right of conquest. We take freedom for granted, as something that belongs to us, like car or a cell-phone or a wedding ring.

Then life comes along and reveals the facts of the matter—that true freedom, is a grant and not a given. It is not so much a civil right as a gift of God smeared with the blood of Jesus Christ. . . . So many people are angry and miserable because they can’t quite grasp that—especially these days when none of us are as free as we used to think we were. But the truth is beginning to dawn upon even the dimmest among us that other people, to a large degree, run our lives.

The other day I read that 158 families and corporations donate almost half of the money for the early stages of any presidential campaign. They decide who we will eventually vote for. And that’s not so surprising because they are the ones who have the money. In America today the richest one percent of our population owns more wealth than the bottom 90 percent. Consider that, beloved–in our lifetimes the United States of America has become a banana republic, a dictatorship of the rich.

So is it any wonder, beloved, that our system seems so unfair and that ordinary voices, like yours and mine, go unheard in the marble halls of power? And is it any wonder that ordinary people like you and me, are hopping mad. Some of us crazy mad. That anger is the source of the popularity of both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, strident voices to which in earlier times no one would have paid any attention. But these days the loudest voices speak to people’s sense of helplessness and anger. They are mad because they feel that they have lost their freedom. Like my Aunt Mary Lois, they would like to pitch their walker at one of the nurses.

But before we lose our cool and start pitching walkers, you and I need to consider what freedom really is in the light of the gospel. Because I would suggest that none of us are really free, in and of ourselves–not the rich or the powerful any more than the poor and dependent. And if there is freedom to be experienced, it is gift and not a given.

So when Jesus wanted a text to sum up the reason for his coming he used those beautiful words from the writings of the prophet Isaiah—“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives. . . .” And it is worth noticing that the good news Jesus proclaimed is addressed to people who are not free. Oh, they thought they were free, just as many modern Americans do.

The Jews in Jesus time believed that because they were descended from Abraham they were of all peoples uniquely free. So they were offended when later in the Gospel of John Jesus says to them, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” They got all puffed up and insulted when he said this. “We are descendants of Abraham,” they replied, “and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?” (John 8:33). But those people who heard Jesus preach weren’t politically free nor were they spiritually free. They were at the mercy of powers greater than themselves, and they found their condition of bondage humiliating. It made them mad.

And there are a lot of people around us here in this country who are hopping mad because they are not free either. They are angry because they are not as young as they used to be. Because they have gone grey upstairs and have a touch of sciatica that makes them shuffle a bit. They have what I would call “age rage.” Or they are angry because they are not as wealthy as they thought they once were. So what if gas at the pump is $1.71 a gallon, and they can still afford eat out four times a week? They still feel as if they have been robbed because they have to pay taxes. And they are mad as hell with the government or the president or congress or Wall Street or big oil or the media whatever because of who and what we all are—limited.

But no one has stolen our freedom, beloved, because we are slaves to our own selves. We are limited by these bodies we inhabit–in time they wear out. In the Gospel of John, chapter 21 verse 8 the risen Lord says to Peter, “Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and go where ever you wished. But when you grow old, someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go” (21:18). And that happens to us all, if we live long enough, someone else will fasten our belts and take us somewhere where we do not want to go—like Aunt Mary Lois.

We are limited by the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Our lives are out of our control in so very many ways and in the indifferent hands of others. We are always waking up and finding ourselves where we never in this life expected to be–in these bodies and in these circumstances. You never know where you are going to end up and it isn’t always where you want to be–the world is filled with unhappy people who cannot reconcile themselves to that most basic of all truths. We are captives of our selves.

As Jesus said to those Jews were insulted by the mere suggestion that they might be anything less than free—“Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” Our bondage is built into our very souls; it is hard-wired into who we are–death-bound sinners. Nevertheless, Jesus of Nazareth once came to set at liberty those who are oppressed, and the risen the Lord is still setting men and women free to live a new kind of life. . . .

I want to tell you a little about someone else before we part, beloved. It is someone you have never heard of, but he has been on my mind lately. His name was Elmo Weeks, and he was the owner of a funeral home in Savannah, Georgia. Back in the bad old days when AIDS was exploding and people were deathly afraid of it, Elmo did something remarkable. He said, “Yes.” In those bad old days when fathers and mothers shunned their sons and left them to die alone because they were ashamed and local funeral homes in Savannah wouldn’t take their bodies because they were afraid of catching AIDS, Elmo Weeks always said, “Of course. I’ll come over myself.” Then he always went and he never sent a bill.

I was a pastor in Savannah for a long time and I cannot remember how many times I knew of that Fox and Weeks Funeral Home took the shunned, the destitute and homeless, the unwanted remains of those whom only Jesus loved and found them a decent place to lie. When he was asked Elmo Weeks always said, “Yes. Of course. I’ll come over myself.”

Elmo himself died the other day, but it is worth remembering him this morning, because in his own modest way he demonstrated what true freedom is. If God had left us alone with our fears we would never be able to say anything but “No,” beloved. When offered the hard choice between what is right and what is not, we would do nothing at all.

But the Spirit of the Lord, which filled Jesus in such a remarkable way, was poured out through his cross and resurrection unto the whole world. It was poured into our lives, beloved, in baptism, and the Spirit of Jesus makes it possible, when we are confronted with crying needs of a suffering world, to say “Yes.” When others harden their hearts and hide their faces, we, beloved, are able to say, “Of course”–like Elmo Weeks–and like so many others of whom you could tell me. Maybe you yourself may have said “yes” from time to time. If so, bless your heart. Bless your heart. And thank you, Jesus! I myself, don’t want anything else from life, beloved. I have everything I need. By the grace of God I have money, marbles, and chalk, as my father used to say. I certainly don’t need to tell you how to run your lives, beloved, and I doubt you would let me if I tried.

But I still have one more thing to say—not my words but those of Ahmed Fouad Negm, another person you have never heard of, an Egyptian poet who died recently and who during his life was often imprisoned because of his outspoken criticism of the Egyptian government. He wrote this—“Don’t tire your brain in the work of politics. Mind your own business with vim and vigor.” That’s good advice for us, living in these interesting times. But in the course of minding your own business with vim and vigor, recall that Jesus has also set you free. Think continually about Him. And whenever you are offered a choice whether or not to do what is loving, what is compassionate and gentle, what is difficult and painful and unpopular but right—whenever possible for Jesus’ sake say—“Yes, of course. I’ll come over myself.” And then go. . . .


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Water into Wine, John 2:1-11

In the Gospel lesson for today we are told that “when the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it had come from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine when the guests have become too drunk to tell the difference. But you have kept the good wine until now.’”

My grandmother–bless her heart!–my father’s mother, was a state officer in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union—the WCTU–and my mama was a born-again Baptist before she married by father and strayed into the Lutheran Church, so I grew up in household that was dry on both edges and in the middle. We were not so much dry as arid, arid as the Sahara Desert. At home we drank no alcohol in any form whatsoever. So the first time I ever tasted wine was at my confirmation, which was also my first communion. Even then it wasn’t much wine—just a tiny thimbleful. Some of you remember the short rations we Lutherans used to receive at communion in wee little glass cups like tableware for a tea party set for mice. I was twelve years old at the time, and it wasn’t the best wine by any means, nothing like the incomparable vintage the Gospel of John tells us that Jesus produced out of water at the marriage feast at Cana in Galilee. This was just plain old Manischewitz from a dusty bottle that was kept in a closet in the sacristy of St. Olaf Lutheran Church in rural Alexander, North Dakota. But I will never forget my first taste of it. I don’t remember that I found it altogether pleasant, but apart from the terrible haircut my father gave me beforehand, the taste of that wine is the single thing I remember most vividly about my confirmation day, how it burned going down and how the vapors rose to fill my head.

There is nothing less like water than wine, beloved. It is as different as can be. And that’s what makes the miracle recorded in our Gospel lesson so remarkable and so profound. Because nothing is less like water than wine, and nothing is less like ordinary existence than the life that Jesus offers those who follow him. It is as different as can be–a different order of experience altogether. The presence of Jesus transforms us—it changes us radically–if we, like the servants in Gospel story, do what he tells us to do. Because radical obedience is necessary to fully experience the new life that Jesus offers. You and I must seek to be like him, not only by telling the truth but also by being the truth we tell. That’s what it means to follow Jesus, letting his Spirit form our words and guide out steps. The life of Obedience is not always easy or pleasant, nor is it ever uncomplicated—Heaven knows!–but that new life is as different from ordinary existence as night is from day–as radically different as water is from wine—and infinitely better. The real presence of Jesus lifts our lives out of the ordinary into the realm of the wonderful, like tepid bathwater transformed into the most excellent Bordeaux.

Now I am going to level with you up front, beloved. I’m too old to play games any more. This is not going to be a sermon on the benefits of temperance and the dangers of ardent spirits. My childhood was one long, tedious temperance sermon. I remember my grandmother—the state WCTU officer—bless her heart!–warning me that taking just one swig of demon rum would put me in danger of catching fire and being consumed by spontaneous combustion. Poof! She said this to scare me. But it didn’t work. I was no infant Einstein but even I knew better than that. It is mistake, beloved, to tell children things that you know are not true. It makes them skeptical about the things you say that are true. So whatever the dangers of demon rum, our gospel lesson is not a temperance sermon—far from it!

The Bible numbers wine among the good gifts of God that enrich human life and fill its special occasions with joy and deep meaning. The Gospel of John tells us that in the very first of his miracles Jesus produced an astonishing one hundred and twenty gallons of the most excellent wine, better wine anyone at that marriage feast had any right to expect, better than anyone in that pokey village of Cana of Galilee had ever tasted, and the St. Paul tells us that on very last night of his life Jesus took the cup of wine, gave it to disciples, and said—“This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me” (1 Corinthians 11:25). The wine in the cup was not just wine—it was the sign of the new life Jesus offers us through our baptism. In baptism–that fire washing Pastor Abbott talked about last Sunday–Jesus gives us his Spirit. And in, with, and under the bread and wine of Holy Communion Spirit offers us the opportunity to share in his life and become more like him—not only telling the truth but being the truth.

As St. Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians: “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” (12:13). No, this in not a sermon on the dangers of alcohol, although it has its dangers. No one would say that too many cocktails before dinner is a good thing. It isn’t. The misuse of any of creation’s good gifts—sex, food, alcohol, whatever—can be as disastrous for the soul as it is for the body. We try to teach our children moderation, both by word and by example, because moderation is a good and healthy thing. But the problem for us Christians, for you and me, is not that are not moderate enough, our problem is that in some respects we are too moderate, beloved. We are lukewarm when we should be on fire. Too often we are reluctant to let go of our apprehensions and our fears and actually live out the implications of our fire washing. We drink the Spirit of Jesus in tiny portions like those tiny little shot glasses we used to use for Holy Communion, more appropriate for mice then for people. We take the Jesus, the good wine of Cana, in teaspoons, like cough medicine. Then we wonder why our lives seem so empty and unsatisfying. . . . .

I have a favorite story in this regard, beloved, and it is also about a wedding. Only this wedding took place not in Cana in Galilee but in Washington, DC, when I was in graduate school there. Some friends of mine got married in the garden at Dumbarton Oaks. It was a very sweet affair on a warm afternoon in June. Everything was perfect. So understandably they wanted to put away of bit of that perfection for later. And who could blame them? So they decided to save the top layer of their wedding cake to share on their first anniversary. What a sweet idea! So they lifted it off, with the little bride and groom on the top, and wrapped it up so carefully in aluminum foil, and put it away in the freezing compartment of their apartment-sized refrigerator—where it was in the way, of course. The cake made it impossible even to freeze ice cubes. But they kept it around for a whole year. And then on their first anniversary they took it out to thaw so they could share it. How romantic! After a candlelight dinner, they opened a bottle of champagne–POP!—and tried to cut into the cake. Oh what a surprise! Try as they might they couldn’t cut it because, you see, it wasn’t cake at all. It never was cake. The clever baker had covered a cardboard box with pretty frosting. And it was that empty box they had cherished a whole year. Oh they laughed about it later when they told the story, but you could tell that it saddened and grieved them too.

Because hollowness is always a disappointment, beloved. And the lives of too many Christians are like that. Hollow. They go through the motions of the faith, but their lives are just a pantomime of discipleship—a play without a plot. But beloved, when the Lord Jesus died on the cross in agony beyond our imagining, was buried in the tomb three days—our worst nightmare–and rose again to everyone’s surprise and amazement on the third day it was not so that our lives might be an empty box, a hollow form, covered with pious frosting. It was so that we might overcome our fears and live the life that really deserves to be called life. “I came that they may have life,” the risen Lord says in the Gospel of John, “and have it abundantly” (10:10). He died and rose again so that each day we might taste anew the incomparable new wine of Cana, which is Jesus Christ himself, who calls us not only to tell the truth but also to be the truth. . .

We Roens have pretty but sickly little cat named Narcissa. As a result of her numerous allergies -every two months or so Narcissa starts to die. She gets weak and frail, then we know it’s time for her to get her shot. I call Narcissa our million dollar cat because when she starts to break down like that we have to take her to the cat hospital where the cat doctor, in exchange for a sizable contribution gives her a shot of steroids not unlike those that professional baseball players use illegally to bulk their muscles and boost their performance. But it works. Boy howdy how it works. No sooner does Narcissa receive her performance enhancing shot than a miracle takes place in her little body. Within hours she is a new cat. TAH-TAH-TAH-DUM! SUPER CAT! Narcissa is transformed. She becomes a veritable Barry Bonds, a feline Alex Rodriguez. She is fully live again, she is beautiful again, she is ready to sign a forty million dollar contract with the Yankees, she is in shape to win the Tour de France, She is ready to go for another two months. And every time I witness that remarkable transformation I think to myself—I need one of them performance enhancing shots Narcissa gets myself. But the truth is you and I already have the prescription without the side effects. It is a great gift and it comes to us without cost. It is the gift that Jesus brought to that wedding in Cana of Galilee—himself. Through the fire washing of baptism, his Spirit is already within us, ready to take away our fears and give us the strength to do what needs to be done and say what needs to be said.

And none of us—none of us has found our all that we can be and all that we can do if we just put our trust in him. None of us has realized the full potential of our obedience to Jesus. Remember what he said to his poor mother when she came to him, all anxious and worried, to report that at the wedding feast in Cana they had run out of wine. Never mind, mother, Jesus says to her. I am here. So put your mind at rest. And Mary trusted him. She took Jesus at his word and said to the servants—Do whatever he says. They went ahead and did what they were told. And Jesus, in his turn, resolved of the problem of the exhausted wine in the most spectacular manner imaginable. And the risen Lord will similarly take care of us, if we let go of our fears, trust in him, and do what we are told. . .

We are living in evil times, beloved. Do I need to tell you that? Look around you. And in such evil times as these we are living through right now, beloved, the worst and most deadly temptation we face as followers of Jesus face is to remain silent. In a time when those who aspire to the highest offices in our land do nothing but tell lies and preach the most outrageous bigotry and hatred, in a time when all we hear are lies all around us, whispered and shouted aloud, someone needs to tell the truth. And if it is not you and me, who have the Spirit of Jesus, beloved, who will it be? We have been washed by the fire of baptism. We have tasted the new wine of Cana. If you and I are not Jesus in this world who will be?

In such times as these, when evil everywhere threatens to get the upper hand, it is easy for us, oh so, so easy to be moderate, to sit around and play Bible trivia while the rest of the world goes to hell in the proverbial handbasket. The silence of Christians, who should and do know better, always plays into the hands of the devil and his people. You and the denomination of which you are a part want to be considered authentic Lutherans. Well historically we Lutherans have always been much too good at keeping our mouths shut. Too often we Lutherans have let the haters get in control, and when the haters get in control then all hell does really does break out. We need to tell the truth and be the truth right now . . . or never.

Well, that’s enough. All that still needs saying is this—Jesus wants our lives to be more than a hollow form. He offers each one of us a cup that “runneth over,” as the palmist says–the incomparable wine of Cana plus a big hunk of real wedding cake on the side. It is a great gift, and it comes to us without cost. It is Jesus himself. Why then should we settle for a package of stale saline crackers and a cup of tepid water?

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

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