Monday, May 14, 2012

Sunday's Sermon: Freedom, Responsibilty, and Joy

This past winter, I was given the opportunity to go deer hunting for the first time in a long time. I enjoyed it immensely including the time spent just sitting quietly with nothing to do except watch deer grazing in the pasture. During such moments, I found myself thinking about a whole lot of things, including something I found quite ironic. I thought about how, back in Europe hunting was restricted. The nobles "owned" the animals in the forests and were the only ones allowed to hunt without obtaining permission from anyone. The common person might be given permission to hunt from time to time, but he certainly wasn’t free to do such a thing whenever he wanted.

Then, the new world was discovered. Immigrants began flocking to this new land, and one of the things they discovered was a land teeming with game. And, there was no longer anyone there telling them when they could and could not hunt. If a family needed meat, the hunter headed to the woods whenever he needed to so that he might provide for his family. He experienced freedom in being able to hunt, and most folks were exceedingly happy about this.

As I sat in my blind, I reflected how things had changed. No longer are we free to just hunt and fish anymore. We have to get hunting licences. The state mandates certain times and seasons for hunting certain animals and catching certain fish. There are regulations and safety courses and all other sorts of things which must be followed to enjoy this sport. We are no longer free to hunt and fish as we wish. We have come full circle in a very real way.

Struck by the irony of this, I wondered how it was that we went from complete freedom in how we were able to hunt in this country to being governed by all the rules and regulations. Did we just accept this? Did anyone complain about losing their freedom and get angry they could no longer use their land and resources as they pleased? I mean most of us value freedom very highly, and we don’t particularly like it when our freedom gets imposed upon.

I mean, if you watch the news or read the newspapers, take a gander from time to time at the editorials and letters to the editor. How often do you hear complaints that our freedoms are being taken away? How often do you hear stories about our rights and liberties being stepped on, usually in the name of safety? How often do you hear people say that we simply need the free market to work, and that will solve many of our problems? They are there in abundance if you look.

There is something deep within each and every person, I believe, that longs for complete and utter freedom. There is something deep within us that longs to break through boundaries, to say the sky is the limit, to do what I want to do when I want to do it, and no one can tell me otherwise. There is something within us that believes if we could ever achieve such a thing, then we would truly find joy, and peace, and contentment, and happiness. Ah, if we could only be free.

Yet, if each and every person actually believed this and achieved this, what would this world be like? If everyone was acting out their own freedom and wishes and desires, would we be able to get along with one another? If no one had any boundaries, any rules, any commands to follow, could we even have a society?

No. Without rules and boundaries, we would have anarchy. Anyone who has been exposed to such conditions knows there is no joy when anarchy reigns. There is no peace. There is no contentment and happiness. The reality of life is that we need boundaries. We need rules. We need some regulations. Without them we have no safety and security. Yet, there is also such a thing as too many rules and regulations. For with too many rules and regulations, one becomes burdened down and loses freedom. That would be called tyrany.  So, how can we find the balance?

Let’s first remember that as Christians, we have been given absolute freedom. I know this might be a little hard to grasp, but that is the reality of God’s grace. St. Paul wrote eloquently about our freedom in the book of Galatians chapter 3. Please listen closely to this,

" 23Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. 24Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. 25But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, 26for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith."

 Paul says forthright, if we break God’s law, we will not be disciplined for it. There is no punishment. Wrap your head around that for a moment. Essentially, you are free to do whatever you want because you won’t be disciplined for it. Ah, but would that be wise? No. Not at all. In fact, we know that just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should. So, what should we do?

In Matthew chapter 11, verses 28-30, Jesus says this, "28"Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." Now, in the rabbinical tradition of Judaism, a rabbi’s yoke was his teaching. A rabbi’s students, or disciples, would pledge to carry his yoke–his teachings–his way upon them. So, what is Jesus’ teaching?

In our Gospel lesson today, Jesus says this, "9As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. 12"This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you."

To responsibly live as Christians, we follow Jesus’ commands. And those commands are summed up in that we are called to love one another as Jesus loved us. Therefore, we are called to be imitators of Jesus Christ. We are called to shoulder the responsibility of following His commands, and by doing so, He tells us we will have His joy in us and our joy will be complete. But how is this possible? Can following rules and commands and taking upon ourselves such a responsibility really be joyful?

It can. Here’s an illustration of just how. Today is Mother’s Day, and I remember what happened just before my wife became a mother and I became a father. It was just over seven years ago in January of 2005. We had been prepped by Aggieland Pregnancy Outreach in College Station, TX that we would be parents on January 5th. My birthday is January 4th, and we decided to celebrate it a day or so early because of the newly expected arrival. At the spur of the moment, we decided to eat at Pizza Hut in Sealy and then drive to Katy to take in a movie.
As Dawna and I sat at the table, eating our pizza and enjoying conversation, I remember clear as a bell saying, "You know, in a few days we won’t be able to do this anymore. We won’t be able to just do stuff spur of the moment. Our lives will change."

In a real way, I was saying, "We won’t have as much freedom anymore. We’re going to be tied down by kids."
Dawna replied, "Yes. But it will be a good thing. We’re ready for this."

Dawna’s response acknowledged the truth of what I said, but she also knew that by taking upon ourselves the responsibility of parenting, we would find a joy beyond what we knew with just the two of us.

Good parents know this. Good parents know that when they have children, they are giving up freedom and taking on responsibility. Good parents know they are bound by certain rules and commands and regulations–to raise their children, and protect them, and provide for them. And yet, good parents find that even in giving up their freedom, they find something immeasurable as they raise their children–they find massive amounts of joy.
Most of your mothers likely did. Most of you who are mothers likely do, and they provide us a wonderful illustration of what Jesus tells us today: if we want to find true joy, then we will find it when we obey Jesus’ commandments, especially when we love one another as He first loved us. Amen.


Kathy said...

First, thank you for your prayers. Baby Amanda was born on the 8th, and both Mom and baby are now at home and doing fine.

...So this means now I have a little time to return to the important business of writing annoying comments.

I understand the complexities of life, but we must not become confused. You cannot pull a passage out of the Bible and run with it. We must interpret Scripture within the context of the Tradition of the Apostles.

Shortly after the passage in Galatians 3, Paul writes: "Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication.... those who do such things WILL NOT INHERIT THE KINGDOM OF GOD." (5:19-21)

What does this mean? If a person is committing serious sin, and dies -- will he go directly to heaven? What is the answer? The Church, in the 2000-year Tradition of the Apostles, says: No.

You wrote that Martin Luther, a 14th century monk (actually 16th century [1505]) said: Read the plain meaning of Scripture. Well, what is the plain meaning of Matthew 16:18? I patiently await your answer.

Kevin Haug said...

First, congratulations on baby Amanda, and I am glad she is doing well.

Second: agreed, Paul says those who commit such things will not inherit the Kingdom of God. But, what is the Kingdom of God? Is it a future reality only or is it also immanant? So much of how this statement is interpreted depends upon how one answers those questions.

And as to Matthew 16:18, (are we really going to do this again?), one must decide what the rock is Jesus is referring to. Jesus tells Peter, "upon this rock, I will build my Church." Is Jesus refering to Peter himself or Peter's declaration? Did he rename Simon, "Peter" or rock because Peter would be the rock or because Peter declared what the rock was/is (Jesus being the Messiah, the Son of the Living God)? And if Jesus is declaring that Peter is supposed to be that rock, why did He say "upon this rock I will build my Church" instead of "upon you I will build my Church."

In my estimation, if Jesus were referring to Peter in front of all the other disciples, He would have left no doubt in their minds by saying "upon you, I will build my Church."

Therefore, plainly, Jesus is referring to the statement, "Upon this rock, that I am the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, I will build my Church and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it."

Kathy said...

I don't recall doing Mt 16:18 w/ you.

Take another look, and forget that Luther changed the 1500-year-old interpretation from the Tradition of the Church.

Jesus calls Peter "Simon son of Jonah," and then changes his name to "Peter." As everyone knows, Peter means "rock." An edifice, a strong, permanent building, is built on rock -- not words. Common sense.

You have 3 proofs: 1) 2000 years of Church Tradition. 2) The obvious plain meaning of the text. 3) The crumbling and collapse of "churches" not built on Rock.

The only reason to reject these 3 proofs would be an attachment to the theology of Martin Luther.

It is also very possible that Jesus meant BOTH Peter's confession and the person of Peter -- but certainly history has shown that he meant Peter, the Head of the Apostles, is the solid, unifying element of his Church.

Kathy said...

Just re-reading your comment...

Jesus said: "And I tell YOU, YOU are Peter ("Rock") and upon this rock I will build my church."

Of course Jesus is saying "upon YOU I will build my church"!

This could not be more clear!

Kevin Haug said...

A couple of comments on your three proofs:

#1. James became the defacto leader of the Church in Jerusalem even when Peter was still around. Why? It is fact that you don't have 2000 years of tradition that Peter is the founder of the Church. The Roman part of the Church needed some sort of legitimation when it got into a pissing contest with the Patriarch of Constantinople. That's when Rome took center stage. Jerusalem was the center to begin with.

2. The plain meaning is not obvious. Again, what is the rock Jesus is referring to? Scholars are divided. The Greek isn't perfectly clear either. Petra in the Greek is used oftentimes to refer to stone that has been cut from a tomb--a reference to the resurrection as the rock of the Church. Could it also refer to Peter himself? Sure. But it isn't plain as day.

3. There are more than a few churches out there who are not built upon the interpretation that petra refers to Peter. The Eastern Orthodox Church certainly isn't faltering. Lutheranism in the global perspective isn't faltering. Churches which have gotten away from preaching Christ and following His commands are--witness many of the mainline denominations in the U.S. However, your tendency towards a myopic view (equating ECLA Lutheranism with global Lutheranism) prevents you from seeing that these denominations are doing pretty well in the global sense.