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Bad Attitudes

She was a patient, kindly woman with a cold, critical mother-in-law. Their relationship was a bit of a cliché, actually. Every year she shopped carefully for her mother-in-law’s Christmas present, and every year her mother-in-law gave it back, saying she hoped she had saved the receipt. But she was a patient, kindly woman, as I said, and she borne up fairly well under a lifetime of little slights and snubs.

No, it wasn’t easy.  But more than anything she wanted to be a good Christian. And for her to be a Christian was to have the right attitude. And she felt this was her Christian duty, because she loved her husband to love his mother. So when her mother-in-law became ill, she quit her job at the bank to stay home to take care of the old woman, who died without once expressing her thanks. And now this patient, kindly woman feels guilty because she sometimes had a bad attitude.

There is something haywire with that story, and I’m sure you can spot it. This woman had a choice. It wasn’t a perfect choice, but it was hers to make. She didn’t have to care for her mother-in-law, but she did, and she did it kindly and patiently. I don’t think people ever do all that they can do, but she got as close as ordinary people can to doing it all. And now she feels bad because in her heart she was sometimes angry, sometimes resentful, because sometimes in the middle of night she bitterly longed to have her life back, and finally because when the old lady finally died she was not that broken up.

But that doesn’t change the fact that she did a good thing. Her husband told her time and again how much he appreciated all she had done for his mother. People called her a saint. But their words sounded hollow because she knows better. She suffers from that particular kind of messed up scrupulosity peculiar to those who want more than anything to be a good Christians, and if you are also that kind of person, you already know it.

My mother used to say—it is a sad thing when you cannot see the good in the good. But it isn’t just sad, it’s tragic and unnecessary. People who are trying to follow Jesus suffer much more for their attitudes than for their actions. And we all need to be reminded that no one ever does anything difficult with a perfect attitude, unmixed with selfishness or impatience or resentment.

We have some freedom when it comes to what we do. We are are free to make the better choice and free to stick with it. Our attitudes, however, are something else altogether. Over those we have no control. Attitudes are like birds that fly over our heads; we can’t stop them. If they make a nest in our hair, then we have a different problem. But for most of us attitudes are birds of passage.  They come and they go.

Some are good; others are bad. If we were to wait for them to align themselves with our actions, a perfect attitude with a good decision, we might well wait forever to do anything. But to do the right thing right now is what is crucial, beloved. And if you can do it with a relatively positive, loving attitude, well that’s gravy. That’s the work of the Holy Spirit. But attitudes alone mean nothing—they change with the weather. Tomorrow they will be different, better perhaps, perhaps worse. But the act is the thing that matters.

The life of discipleship in Christ is a series of tasks we are called upon to perform. When the Lord gives us something to do, we need to do it.  If we waited until we had a better attitude we might well never get around to the job at hand. And when we do the thing we are called to do, our attitude toward it will sometimes improve—and sometimes not. As far as that woman with the cantankerous mother-in-law is concerned, she did what she could. Caring for someone else whom we don’t always feel much inclined to care for is a high achievement. It takes grace to do it. But grace does not always take the form of a loving attitude. Just as often it takes the form of detachment and a sense duty.

Of course when the Kingdom of God finally comes, things will be different. Then every good action will be accompanied by a righteous, loving attitude, but not in this world. In this world we are always victims of our moods, which change constantly like shadows on the moon.

But the action and the feeling we have when we do it are not the same thing, and it is important to keep them separate. In the first place, we need to do the thing you know to be right. Give generously of ourselves. Show compassion for other people even when they don’t particularly merit it. And then have compassion upon ourselves for Jesus’ sake and not expect perfection. When we do that we put ourselves in the place of God, who made us what we are—dependent upon his grace.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Lord’s Prayer…Hallowed Be Thy Name

Right now we are watching Hurricane Matthew crawling through the Bahamas toward the coast of Florida and wondering what will happen next. And this is indeed a world of frightening uncertainties, beloved. Literally anything can happen here. Any day you can take a tumble in the garden, go to the doctor with a sprained ankle, and begin a terrifying medical journey that may lead you anywhere at all. Ask me if you don’t believe it. I know. No wonder you and I wake up in the night troubled by those endless, worrisome possibilities and asking the darkness–What next?

What next? Uncertainty is a terrifying thing. And that is the reason God has given us the name by which we can get hold of him anytime, day or night–Father. He is always there the way you thought your father always would be—ready to answer when you are afraid, doubtful, overwhelmed by those endless possibilities.

In this world the people who love us most can’t always be counted upon to answer. They get old and hard of hearing. Their minds wander. They get Alzheimer’s. They die. They always have their limits. But God the Father does not. His attention span is as limitless as the universe he created. And he is always with us—always ready to hear when we call out to him, always ready to calm our fears and to take us into his arms.

In a multitude of ways God is different from you and me. He never wasn’t and always will be. He is holy. We are not. We give our children names. He gave himself a Name. In the Book of Genesis we are told the story of the burning bush and how the Lord shared his own self-given name with Moses—“I am who I am.” And that became his sacred, mysterious, unpronounceable Name in Israel. To fervent Jews their God was “the Lord,” “the Almighty,” “God most high,” and as many other names they used to avoid profaning that holy Name by speaking it aloud. They walled the Name around with silence in order to protect it from being soiled by common use. They exalted the Name of so high that frightened, lonely people could never reach it.

But when God came down into our world in the person of Jesus, he shared with us another name for himself—“Abba.” In Aramaic it is the most intimate form of the word for a male parent—daddy. “Our Father” is a cold translation indeed of that bosom name that Jesus actually used. Jesus taught us to think of God as a father to us, as a warm, embracing presence scented with the smell of Aqua Velva. And when we face one of life’s terrible uncertainties, the Spirit of Jesus invites us to pray to God the way we called out when we got awake in the night—Daddy! I had a bad dream! I’m afraid!

That’s what he wants of us. God made us precisely so we could do that. Before we were, God already possessed everything–a whole universe of wonder and ineffable beauty. But that was not enough. He wanted children—the most basic human wish. And he made us so that we would call out to him as a child calls out to a loving father and take us into an embrace scented with the smell of the stars.

Oh, there is a dark hurricane blowing through the world tonight–a storm of endless possibilities, some of them very terrifying indeed. We hear it roaring away outside our bedroom window and we are afraid. But God is with us, beloved, closer than we are to ourselves, and all we need do is call out to him—Daddy! Daddy are you there? And he is. And we need not worry that we call out that name too often–the more we use the holier it becomes.

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The Lord’s Prayer….Who Art in Heaven

My wife has gotten used it, I suppose, after all these years—she’s had to–but I am always moving things in the house around—pictures, furniture, little objects—always searching for the right place for them. Consequently nothing in our house stays put. It must be annoying for her, but she doesn’t complain about it—just as she doesn’t complain about the many other annoying things I do. But I can’t help it. There is something in me that is always looking for the right place for things—because there just has to be one. In this world things all have a place, but not heaven.

Heaven is placeless. We have to really stretch our minds to imagine that, because everything else in our experience has a locality, a spot where it is and where it stays unless someone comes along and moves it to a different place.

But God is not in any one place–though we may sense his immediate presence in certain Holy Places. He is present in all places and in all times. He is present at your birth, at every moment of your life, and at your death. Heaven is right here. Right now. Everywhere. Because heaven is not a place, not even a spiritual plane or anything woozy like that. Heaven is the proximity of God to us—his there-ness. He is more completely where you are than where you are.

So when we think of heaven we should imagine a door with no lock and no hinges in a wall that isn’t a wall but the thinnest imaginable veil. And the door in that wall stands always open. You can step into heaven as easily as you step through your bedroom door, more easily in fact. Just say “our Father” and you are there. Because what we do when we pray is step through that door in the wall that is no wall into the place that is no place.

And this is not a just a game of words. Heaven is the profoundest reality of our lives. It is our profoundest comfort when we are struggling to be able to step in heaven. In the place where I am right now, the nearness of heaven is what keeps me going. I know I can step through the door at any time.

And perfect sign of the here-ness of heaven is that story in scripture which says that at the moment that Jesus died, the curtain of the temple that separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies was torn in two, cut as with a knife. Heaven broke into our mortal world. God came near enough to suffer and die with Jesus. And now there is no barrier between us and him. There is no place holier than any other. Because of the death of Jesus Christ heaven is with us, equally and completely present at all times. And the door is always open.

People often talk about heaven as their “home,” and in the profoundest sense it is just exactly that. It is where we really belong while we live out our lives in all the other places. All the while we go from one place to another heaven enfolds us. And when we walk through that door for that last time in the light of God’s presence we will recognize heaven as the place where we always truly belonged.

 

 

 

 

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The Lord’s Prayer….”Our Father”

 

I say it with shame and great sorrow, some fathers aren’t worth the powder to blow. Scallywags! Nothing but! By their wanton neglect and their cruelties great and small they have succeeded in poisoning the name of “father” for countless souls, who as a consequence have lifelong problems finding their way to the One Jesus tenderly called “our Father.”

But for every bad egg there are a so many others who, according to the grace they are given, manage to present an image of God the Father here on earth. I am always being amazed at the fatherliness of fathers. I see those little incarnations of God the Father being transacted everywhere, scenes of men dealing tenderly with children. We all see so many examples of fatherly gentleness for us to begin to catalogue them.

But to take one example from close to home—the other day I got a call from my son Paul, who was on the road somewhere between Nashville and Memphis, Tennessee. I asked what he was doing to pass the time, and he replied that he was practicing the harmonica–all alone in the car. Of course, all alone is exactly where the harmonica should be practiced. But since he has never in the past shown any interest or aptitude for musical performance I Just had to ask—Why? And specifically–Why the harmonica of all instruments?

His answer reflected that marvelous, miraculous fatherliness we so often see played out in the lives of ordinary men. Paul’s nine-month-old son Clayton is delighted by harmonica music. Imagine that! So his father—who like all Roens is totally without any single ounce of musical talent—has determined that he should learn that most demanding of instruments strictly to delight his child.

I am still shaking my head with wonder as I write this. I can only hope was that Paul was keeping both his eyes on the road and at least one hand on the wheel while he is practicing “Turkey in the Straw.” And I also hope that Clayton never tires of harmonica music. But even if he does, whenever he hears it will always sing “daddy” to him.

So from this little example I return to my ordinal point—There are so many fathers who manage in so many small and inestimably precious ways to represent the image of God the Father here on earth. And God the Father was even willing to undertake of new skill for us—being human. That is the meaning of the incarnation we confess—God became like us in Jesus Christ and learned to live out our fleshly existence with all its highs notes and lows not just to delight us but in order to save us from despair and death. He didn’t just learn to play the harmonica—difficult enough–he learned to play the cross for us. And he more than performed for us–in Jesus Christ his only Son, who was himself the very form and likeness of fatherly love, God actually died.

Who can grasp that mystery!

It is the most astonishing demonstration of fatherliness of all. God died for our humanity without exception to make us his daughters and sons. That is the basis upon which we call upon him in the prayer we call “The Lord’s” as father, because he sacrificed of both himself and his own only begotten Son for us.

What a thought to ponder!

So God our Father sums up all the faithfulness and gentleness and sacrificial love of every single earthly father and then adds to it an eternal commitment to us his children. He says–I will love you even when you forget me. When you turn your back on me I will love you. I will love you when your body turn to dust. You will still be my own. And I will always hear your voice calling out to me—and upon that eternal commitment to hear and answer that we are able to pray—Our Father…..

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Thomas, Our Twin….John 20:19-31

Actual Proofs     John 20:19-31

“Then Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ But Jesus replied, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’”

Faith in Jesus as Lord and God only comes through experience. There’s second-hand knowledge of the risen Christ to be gathered elsewhere. We can hear the Bible accounts of how his pathetic, cowering disciples were transformed into daring, confessing apostles when they saw their risen Lord. We can read the lives of the various saints who in the past met the Living One in ways as many and different as they were from each other. We can hear the testimony of people alive today who have come to faith in Jesus as Lord and God through some epiphany and found life piled on life in him. We can gather all that, beloved, but for each one of us there is literally no substitute for a personal encounter with Jesus. And without that encounter, our awareness of who Jesus really is will never reach our hearts, let alone our fingers and our toes. We will never come to recognize him as the only really real thing in a world of shadows and illusions.

So the demand that Thomas makes is not really as presumptuous as it might seem at first. He wanted hard cash as the price of his soul. He knew that it is not enough to simply wish something were true. It has to be. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands,” he told the other disciples, “and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” The unspoken yet operative word here is actually –unless I actually see the mark of the nails, and actually put my finger in the mark of the nails and actually thrust my hand into his side, I will remain an unbeliever. Actual faith is the only kind that deserves the name, and actual faith always comes from a personal experience of God’s faithfulness. So Thomas places the entire weight of responsibility for his believing or unbelieving solely upon the Lord—where it should be, because you and I are incapable of generating that kind of faith in ourselves.

Yet you and I still hesitate to demand that God reveal himself to us concretely, and too often we settle for a disembodied faith, for pale wishes and frail hopes. There are things we each need to make our faith lively and complete, but we have trouble asking for them. Challenging the Almighty seems so risky, like using a hairdryer in the bathtub. But the old saying is still true–if you don’t ask, you don’t get. It really isn’t presumptuous to ask the Lord to disclose himself to you. Indeed he waits for us to ask him to prove himself with actual experiences of his saving power. God does not resent an audacious demand—the Bible is filled with the stories of people like Thomas who tested the power of God—and with miraculous consequences.

What is different about the story of Thomas—whom the scriptures call Didymus, “the Twin”—is that he laid out such very specific requirements. Unless I see. Unless I touch. The operative word here is unless. And for a week we are told his “unless” hung in the air unanswered. He had to wait. But the next time Jesus appeared to his disciples Thomas was present, and he acceded to Thomas’s audacious demand to touch his wounds. But did Thomas actually do it, or was the offer enough? If we read this passage carefully, we notice that it does not say whether or not Thomas actually put his finger in the nail prints or thrust his hand into Jesus’ side. But if he didn’t, he could have.

So to return to our original point, beloved–All of our knowledge of God comes from direct experience, and that experience is available to each of us if we ask. And having asked, we wait for him to do it in his own time and in his own way. If there is one single thing to learn from accounts of his appearances to others it is this—they are never the same. The Lord will not appear to you and me in the way that he appeared to Thomas, as body with still gaping wounds. He will appear as he actually is, as what we need–a concrete answer to an otherwise unanswerable question, a faithful guide through the labyrinth of life, a partner in our great loneliness. How and when he manifests his presence is up to the Lord and not to us. But he will. All you have to do is ask, and then wait.

It took a week for the Lord to appear to Thomas. But when he did—Boy Howdy!—he really did. Thomas is overwhelmed. “My Lord and my God!” he cries out, almost in pain, as if his confession were being wrenched from him. But Jesus asks—“Have you believed because you have seen me?” Then he turns away from Thomas and toward us—“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

In other words, not having seen like Thomas did and still having come to believe, you are blessed and so am I. And that is an encouraging thought, beloved. I don’t know about you, but these days I’ll take whatever encouragement I can get, because it is so easy to become downcast. I have all I can do not to slip into sullen despair, and no one likes being around that. The forces of brutality and vulgarity are riding pretty high at the moment, and the menu of the choices of those we are offered to lead us is unappetizing to say the least. When I read the news, those lines written the Irish poet W.B. Yeats keep recurring to me–

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

            Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

            The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

            The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

            The best lack all conviction, while the worst

            And full of passionate intensity.

 

Yeats was writing in 1919, with the horrors of World War I still fresh in his mind. But his words are as crisp and current as this morning’s paper. These days the worst really are the worst, you must agree, and they are filled with nothing if not passionate intensity. And watching things fall apart, I myself have to struggle hard to keep myself from becoming sullen and despondent and short-tempered.

So it occurred to me when I heard the Story of Thomas in church the other Sunday that now is an excellent time for us to put the Lord to the test. He is the One who wants, who desires, who thirsts to reveal himself. So if faith comes only through experience, then we experience the Healer in being healed, the Savior in being saved, the Prince of Peace in that deep peace which passes all understanding. And having that experience of Jesus as Lord and God, in a dissolving world we will be able to claim the blessedness of those who have not seen him but still believe.

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Bread into Stones Luke 4:1-13

In the Gospel of Luke the devil says to Jesus, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”

So why not? After forty days of fasting in the wilderness, the evangelist tells us that Jesus was “famished,” literally dying of hunger. So if he was capable of turning rocks into rolls–as Luke certainly believes–why not just do it?

In fact, it would have been easier and more sensible for Jesus to have said “yes” to any of the suggestions the devil makes. If he was hungry, why not satisfy his physical needs with a wee little miracle? And if he had a personal destiny to fulfill and the devil had all the kingdoms of the world in his power to give, why not take him up on his offer? Aren’t we born to realize our full potential after all? And if Jesus really needed to demonstrate his special relationship to his Father, why not do it by throwing himself down from the pinnacle of the temple? Nothing to it.

None of the propositions the devil offers him were really that bad in and of themselves. Satan, the consummate campaign manager, always comes up with nifty ideas. The problem was that his suggestions are always just too simple to be workable. He is the master of magical solutions. And since magic is all the devil has, that’s all that he can offer. But magical solutions to real problems never work because they do not take into consideration the agonizing complexity of reality.

In our political cycle the year of the presidential election has come round again—God help us all!–and all we hear are voices from all sides offering magical solutions. They tell us how we can get everything we want at no cost to ourselves. Easy-peasy, the voices say. Nothing to it. Just once I’d like to hear someone running for office say: We can do something about—say—unwanted pregnancies or drug addiction or the terrorist state called ISIS or systemic poverty or the decay of the American middle class, but we are going to have to work together and each make painful sacrifices. But no way. Instead we get are those magical solutions. Water-board the terrorists. Throw out the aliens. Carpet bomb ISIS. Build a wall. Lower taxes. Take care of everyone and make the rich pay for it. Or Wall Street. Or Mexico. But not you possums. Never you. Easy answers to the devilishly complicated problems that confront us—that’s all those strident voices have to offer us. Fish without bones, and bread made from stones.

But enough about those presidential pickers and grinners. What I’m interested in talking to you about is what is really important—living our own ordinary lives in the obedience to the call of Jesus. And there the story of Jesus’ temptations can offer us guidance in making our real, everyday choices.

Now there are some choices we do not have to make because we are who we are–no younger or richer or stronger than God made us. So don’t worry about those choices you have not been offered, beloved. I’m not giving you—or myself—an easy out. Just being realistic. There are options you and I cannot take because they will never be offered to us. But then every once in a while we are presented with a real choice between what is good and what is simply easy.

The other day I was walking down the street when I was approached by a homeless man. He was fairly young and his clothes, though tattered, were clean and neat. “Let me tell you what just happened to me,” he said. But I was in a big hurry–and we all get tired of being hit up, don’t we? So I just handed him a dollar and hurried on. “Thank you,” he called about me, “but I just wanted to tell you what just happened to me.”

And maybe once that tattered man had told me what had just happened to him, he might have gone on from there to ask me for money. But that’s not the point. At that moment in time he simply wanted to be treated as a fellow human being and not just as an object of my charity. But I was in a big hurry on my way to the cemetery.

Now there is nothing wrong with giving to those in need—Jesus expressly told us to do it. It is a good thing, and act of compassion. The problem lies in the “how” of our giving. You and I, beloved, are always tempted to do good things not because they are good, but because it is easy. As T.S. Eliot wrote in Murder in the Cathedral—“The last act is the greatest treason. To do the right thing for the wrong reason.”

In trying to live the life of obedience to the call of Jesus we are always being faced with such real choices. So it is worth remembering that the Lord always demands that we choose the thing that is both good and difficult. That’s what it means for us to take up our cross and follow him.

There never is an answer that is both easy and faithful to our call to follow him, beloved. The story of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness drives that home. His temptations were different from ours. His were gaudy and spectacular–ours are mundane and often tedious. But in essence they are same as his—to take the easy solution to the difficult problem. So Jesus declined to make stones into bread. He said no to the magical solution and remained famished, but obedient to his call to be truly human. And we are also called to do the difficult, beloved, not just the good, knowing that laziness and indifference effectively turn the bread of our kindness into stones.

 

 

 

 

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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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