Freedom and liberty
SERMON: 5 Epiphany B 2 4 18
Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins, and give us liberty of that abundant the life which you have made known to us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen
Let's pray that collect for today together. Turning to our bulletins, let us pray.
Now let's take a second and consider what it is we are doing.
The collect is a prayer intended to help us collect ourselves to be more receptive to what the readings have to say to us. When the Bible speaks to us, when we intentionally read it for inspiration and direction, we can better get a sense of what it is that God has in store for us this day and every day.
We have asked God to set us free from the bondage of our sins. We have asked to be given the liberty and abundance of life made known in Jesus. Already we have to stop and ask a couple of questions. Let's ask questions about the first request we made of God. What is sin, anyway? When we ask that question, don't we imagine furious lightning bolts from heaven, terrible behavior and shame and disgrace? Isn't it just the worst?
My definition--and mine only, so don't feel bound by it--is that sin is anything that separates us from God. Anything. Overeating sweets. Devotion to corny movies. Fast cars. Money grubbing. Anything that truly comes between us and God, anything that seriously distracts us from the presence of God in our lives.
I thought I should be a little more diligent than just spout off with my own notions, so I looked sin up in my favorite Episcopal resource, "An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church." Happily I found my definition was not too far off the mark. Here's what the Episcopal Dictionary says sin is: "Following our own will instead of following the will of God, thereby being centered on ourselves instead of God and distorting our relationships with God, other people, and creation." There's a second definition: "Sin is intentional disobedience and rebellion against God."
I am familiar with a popular saying about the human ego, which is it's all about easing God out. Not finding time for or a place for God in our lives. So much for sin.
In contrast, let's consider the "liberty and abundance of life made known in Jesus." How is it liberating to know Jesus? How does life become abundant?
These two issues are the bookends of the Christian faith. Because in sin we cannot experience the delights of faith and only when we experience the abundant life Jesus offers do we achieve true liberty. This may sound like circular logic, but it is not. This is the fact of a life lived in faith.
It's not something that is taken care of once and for all, either. It is something we make intentional decisions about all the time. We can be completely free of sin and attuned to the life Jesus offers one moment and utterly otherwise in a flash. It results from a loss of contact with God and Christian principles, however momentary, however serious the situation. Evidently I am still a work in progress. God isn't done with me yet!
But now that we've attended to the bookends, as I've called them, let's explore the readings for which the collect prepares us.
Our Hebrew Bible reading is from Isaiah. The images and the analogies Isaiah uses to get our attention are electric even these thousands of years later. The first thing that grabbed me was this one, referring to God: 'It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers.' I love this identification of humanity as grasshoppers. After all, we sit above the grasshoppers and consider them jumpy, flighty, busy and, yes, ignoring their short life. That, Isaiah tells us, is how much more God is than us. That gets our attention, doesn't it? That is so us!
There is much, much more in the Isaiah reading, of course. But it makes it clear, just as other readings do, that much as God may love us, as important as we may be to God, God is in charge, God is responsible for the creation, and, no matter how critical we think our roles are, we are, well, like grasshoppers.
Isaiah seems to know that humanity sometimes gets a little too impressed with itself. Guilty, guilty, guilty! God favors the humble, the powerless, the faint. So we ask, why does humanity ever try to be strong, driven, in control?
Readings like the Isaiah selection this morning remind us to appreciate the glory of creation, to give thanks to the Creator, and to be attentive to Creation, as the definition from The Episcopal Dictionary suggested when it said sin is "Following our own will instead of following the will of God, thereby being centered on ourselves instead of God and distorting our relationships with God, other people, and creation." We don't want to have an abusive relationship with Creation, much less with the Creator.
For me the Isaiah reading is a perfect reminder that we are not God. We don't run the show. God does. When we lose sight of that and we re-read this reading, or Jonah, or Job, we are reminded of God's immense power and all God has done.
I am aware that not everyone is looking for notions and images like those found in Isaiah. Some folks reject the idea of Creation as though it contradicts science. I don't see any need to separate the wonders of science and the marvel of Creation. Whatever the final explanation of the creation turns out to be, whatever directed the discoveries science has exposed, all of it was established by something. I call that Something the Creator. God.
I need a concept of a Creator to which I can address my awe, my thanks, my love, my need. I call it God. If you want to call it something else, go ahead. But I wonder sometimes, when an atheist is experiencing awe in nature, for example, to whom or what does the awe get expressed? When grateful for the delights of daily living, who gets the thanks?
Our psalm reinforces many of these ideas. Would anyone care to argue about whether it is good to sing praises to our God, to honor God with praise? Who here hasn't experienced God's healing of the brokenhearted ? The binding up of their wounds? Don't we take comfort in reading that God finds 'pleasure in those who fear him,' although we like to replace fear with respect? These concepts very much fit the ideas we are exploring today of liberty and abundant life in faith.
In the epistle Paul tells the Corinthians to convey the message in a way that it can be heard, becoming, as Paul says he becomes, one of them so they can identify with his message. Isn't this a message for our times? No longer standing on street corners, Bible in hand, shouting threats of hellfire, but instead letting those we care about know of God's love and the comforts that are to be had by those with an active faith. Remembering that Paul is cross with the people of Corinth in the first letter we take this also as an admonition; evidently they had been thinking of themselves much more than they had been thinking of those they might have been trying to bring into the light of the spirit.
Finally we have Jesus' healing of the mother of Andrew and Simon. There are quite a number of interesting features of this reading, but let's focus on being freed from the bondage of our sins and being given the liberty and abundance of life made known in Jesus. In the same way that last week the Gospel depicted Jesus relieving a sufferer of demons, this week he relieves the mother of Simon and Andrew of illness. This unheard of power captured everyone's attention, both those who looked on it positively, which was most folks, and the skeptical, the Roman and religious authorities.
Commentaries suggest that when Jesus lifted up the ailing mother it was effectively a revival, perhaps even a resurrection. In those days for a woman to have working age children, as she did, meant she would have been considered aged. Therefore, being healed of her fever was all the more awesome. That her being lifted up prepared her for the "liberty and abundance of life made known in Jesus" perhaps is being described when the Gospel relates that she began to serve them.
Many consider this service an act of ministry and hence the mother of Andrew and Simon is the first deacon in the Christian tradition. This would be one way for her to discover the liberty of knowing Jesus. It would also be fair to presume that her new status to abundance in her life in faithful service. This is truly the way we discover that the life we want is available for us only in faith. We aren't going to bulldoze our way to happiness. We aren't going to earn our way to happiness. But when we turn our will and our life over to God, when we ask throughout the day what the Almighty would have us do, the prospects of our making good and faithful decisions are magnified extravagantly. It is in this way that we can truly expect the liberty of that abundant the life which has been made known in Jesus. Amen
A sermon preached Feb. 4, 2018 at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Poughkeepsie NY by The Rev. Tyler Jones, Rector