Reformation Sunday, 30 October 2005
John 8:31 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.
Seeing the chains of bondage
There comes a tipping point in lives and stories when what we hide from ourselves becomes bare. There comes a time when the impact of the secret long suppressed becomes a weight so burdensome that it must come out. There comes a dark moment in time when slavery, when bondage must be recognized and spoken about. Until this point, freedom is not possible.
For Scrooge, in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, that point is the culmination of a journey through Christmases past, present and future where, with the clarity of voice that only a mute specter can provide, Ebenezer hears that his future is short in this life, and weighed down with many chains of the bondage of his own bitterness and greed in the next. We see his chains, in the story, literally, and know with him that in order to break that bondage, a new life, a new way of living is required.
With his great speech on the steps of a great monument, in front of a crowd of marchers, we heard Martin Luther King, Jr. speak the words of the bitterness of bondage that, despite the freedom that was proclaimed 100 years earlier for African American slaves, still existed in all corners of our nation. We were forced to look as a nation and discover that their bondage was the bondage of us all. We were forced to see that in order to break that bondage, a new life, a new way of living was required.
We saw and continue to see in the scenes of New Orleans played and replayed from our television sets in the wake of Katrina, that there is a significant population that lives mostly ignored by the polite society of our country. This population knows no barriers of race or creed. It is simply the poor and dispossessed, condemned to live without resources like cars and even houses that many of us take for granted. We discover the economic bondage that seems to be a reality, certainly, but also a bondage of a different sort. A bondage of blame and righteous accusation that echoes down through the corridors of this proud but humbled nation.
I am speaking specifically about those who want to see, in the events in New Orleans, and indeed in other parts of the world where earthquakes and fires and floods have ravaged so many areas, the hand of an angry vengeful God, meting out punishment to the wicked and the ungodly. They proclaim a modern event like the flood of Noah, like the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. They too warn of a needed change of life, a new way of living. But they do not recognize that they approach the attitude and the danger of the descendants of Abraham who protest being called slaves and bristle at the claims Jesus makes to the contrary. I am aware that in order to break this bondage, new life, a new way of living is requred.
Opening our eyes
While the intention, to effect a turn-around in the lives of the people of the world, may be good, the result is not. The main problem is that most of us are in favor of a turn-around, a reformation, for other people, but not for ourselves. Pointing fingers and stating that we know how to fix other people is not only emotionally bad for the other people, it is also bad for us.
Then we drag God into all of this. We do not ask whether making natural events into the actions of God justifies our use of them to hit others over the head with their sins is a good thing. In the process it makes things worse. Perhaps our best idea about how to deal with the bondage in our lives is to have God do some horrific violence to the world to get our attention (so long as it happens to those sinful others we are safe anyway). But I’m sure this is not God’s idea. Which is not to say that God is not serious about dealing with the reality and the bondage of our broken world, of our sin and our death. It is just that the Bible is pretty clear that God has another idea about how to go about it.
The first part is to recognize that sin itself is just that bondage. “Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” Our bondage is in our propensity to refuse to live as God lives, for the sake of the beloved other. Our bondage is that, in the face of death, we try to grab and control life for our own sakes rather than others. Our bondage is pervasive, and includes a whole world, perhaps even a whole cosmos. So that the ability to point out others’ faults, others’ bondage and not look our own in the face is part of the problem, not part of the solution.
We need to be confronted with the notion, made humorous by Walt Kelley’s Pogo cartoon many years ago. “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” Only when we see how deeply we participate in the bondage, only when we see that there is no amount of new life creation that we can do to get ourselves out of the bondage (a realization that might cut severely into the sales in the “self help” section of your local bookstore), only when we sink to the depths of our existence can we even begin let go of ourselves and then, finally, God’s plan will begin to dawn on us.
A surprise approach to breaking the bondage
In J. R. R. Tolkien’s trilogy the Lord of the Rings, the only thing that the people of Middle Earth can pin their hopes on is that Sauron, the dark Lord, cannot imagine that they would not try to learn the secrets of the ring of power and use it. He cannot imagine that the people would instead attempt to destroy it. That is his downfall in the novel, because there is found a group of companions who work together to give up power and dominion and all that goes with it, even though they are tempted along the way.
Gods way of overcoming our bondage is similar. God enters into it. God endures the alienation, the suffering, even the death that are the marks of our bondage. In Jesus Christ, the son, we are set free from the bondage because it can no longer separate us from God and each other. More than that, by going through the depths of our bondage Jesus emerges on the other side, truly a new creation. He teaches and lives in such a way as to invite us, embolden us, and lead us through death to life.
And now comes the surprising realization that the God of the cross, the Christ of the cross was not absent from New Orleans in the days following Katrina, but was suffering there with the people and for the people. The God of the cross is not absent from New York in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, but continues to be there as a light in the midst of the darkness of this world. God is not in the disasters in a vengeful way, but rather the God of the cross is in them in a redemptive way. And we dare not use these events for our own purposes no matter how noble, but rather place ourselves in the center of the suffering and live God’s future into the present, proclaiming freedom from bondage for all.
Psalm 46, the basis for the great hymn A Mighty Fortress, speaks clearly of God’s presence as the anchor in the midst of the storms of this world. It speaks of a God who is in the midst of the city, even thought he city be rocked and tumultuous. It speaks of the river that whose streams make glad the city of God, a river of cleansing and healing. Perhaps the image is of a river like the mighty Mississippi, that cleanses two-thirds of our nation before it filters through the Louisiana wetlands and out to sea. It speaks of a God who brings violence and war to an end. All the while speaking comfort to a people in bondage, reminding us that God is with us and is our refuge and strength.
Free at last
The freedom that God gives, connecting us to a future that is not yet, but becomes possible for us to see and experience, does indeed set us free in the here and now. Scrooge is liberated from his chains by the very dreams that depict them. By staring one future clearly in the face, he is able to live into another life into a much different future.
So we too, are liberated by the experience of seeing our bondage clearly and also seeing and tasting, if only in part, the future God has in store for us. We are not only aware that our ultimate destiny has been altered by the gift of God’s grace, but we are also aware that we can experience that destiny, that future in the here and now because we have been freed for life in the present. The tipping point in our lives is Jesus Christ, who lives with us in our bondage and leads us to freedom in the love of God.
This freedom is not only freed from sin, death and the power over evil in our world. That in itself is a wonderful gift, but it is only the start of what God is doing. We are also freed for a life lived for others. This freedom opens to us the tremendous possibilities of God’s future. It allows us to see that God’s project is no more and no less than the reformation, the re-creation of the entire cosmos. And we see that we are both the objects and the agents of God’s continuing work in the world. And even if we cannot fully experience the results in the here and now, we are given courage to be witnesses, to be prophets of that time to come.
Just such a prophet and witness was the Monk, Priest and Professor, Martin Luther, who saw the bondage and the freedom of the world in radically new ways, informed, as he was, by God’s grace. Though he did not know, nor would he anticipate the scope of the reform movement he started five-hundred years ago, he did have the vision and the courage to act and speak in concert with God’s project. In the process, not only his life, but the course of human history were changed forever.
So too, with his namesake, Martin Luther King, Jr. He knew, when he spoke in Washington nearly 40 years ago that he would not see the progress that was sure to come as our nation faced its legacy of bondage and began the slow hard road to the reconciliation of our current reality with the founding ideals of liberty and justice for all people. But he could see that the day was coming, he put the vision in front of the people so that they could see it too. He spoke in concert with Jesus Christ, who sets all of us free.
And it is the vision of the crucified and risen Christ that keeps me, as a Christian, focused on God’s future rather than on the hiding and denying of my bondage to sin. It is a vision that allows me to face with courage and truth the reality of my sin and know that I have been loved and redeemed beyond its power, though I still live in its grasp. It is that vision that helps me to sing clearly of God’s love and the freedom from bondage that comes only from God’s gracious gift of his Son: “I’m free at last, free at last, great God almighty, I’m free at last.”
Rev. Dr. Luke Bouman