Free to Be Free

4th of July

(Sermon delivered to First Christian Church, Farmville, NC, on June 30, 2013)

Galatians 5:1, 12-25  and Luke 9:51-62 NRSV

For freedom Christ has set us free—and all God’s people here in America on this Sunday before the July 4th proudly and fervently say: “Amen!”

But what exactly does that mean?

I know the type of freedom that most Americans cherish, as I am one of them. We call it the freedom of opportunity.  Which is usually translated in our consumerist society:  the freedom to attain, to acquire, to amass and to accumulate as much as we possibly can.

We are free to go after the American dream. Buy a big house in the suburbs or in a small town, purchase two cars and a dog and raise our children by providing them with the latest smart phones and the trendiest clothes.

And we are free to pursue happiness. To be the people we want to be and to go to the places we want to go. We are free to fulfill our every desire and to meet our every need. We are free to get as much as we can out of this life and this world.

And we American Christians love to evoke Jesus to help us. We look to Jesus as our ticket to attaining the American dream.

In other words, Jesus, for many Americans, becomes just another commodity that we can get, so we can get some more.

I have seen Christian billboards, bumper stickers and t-shirts take the once popular slogan of the American Dairy Association “Got Milk?” and change it to “Got Jesus?”

Do you seek happiness? Want to fulfill your desires, meet your needs? Need help paying the mortgage? Need to build a stronger family? Then, just get you some Jesus!

Yes, God bless America that we are free to worship and get Jesus so Jesus can help us get some more!

The Samaritans had received word from the disciples that Jesus was on the way to visit their village. Can you imagine hearing such an announcement? Jesus is coming to town! Jesus is coming to Farmville! Jesus is coming to help us achieve the American dream, help us with the mortgage, help us strengthen our families, help us go to the places that we want to go and to be the people that we want to be!  Can you imagine the grand reception, the huge welcome that would await Jesus?  No doubt there would be parades, cook-outs and a lot of fireworks to celebrate his arrival.

Let’s read how they celebrated such a grand event early in the first century. In verse 53 we read, “but they did not receive him”…what? Why on earth not?  Because his face was set toward Jerusalem.

His face was set toward Jerusalem. Toward the cross. Toward sacrifice. Toward self-denial. Toward self-giving. Toward pain and toward suffering.  And the Samaritans, of course, were not interested.

So, Jesus goes into another village. Surprisingly someone cries out, “Jesus, I will follow you wherever you go!”

Jesus, assuming the zealot really did not know what he was saying, asks, “Are you sure you really want to do that? Do your really mean that? Do you really want to go with me? Don’t you understand that foxes have holes and birds have nests but the son of man has no where to lay his head.”

So much for Jesus helping us with the American dream of that big home in the suburbs!

To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Let me first bury and mourn my father.” Jesus respond, “Let the dead bury the dead, as for you go and proclaim the Kingdom of God.”

So much for Jesus helping us to meet our needs.

Another said, “I will follow you, but let me first go back and tell my family good-bye.” To which Jesus responds: “Those who look back are not fit for the Kingdom of God.”

So much for Jesus coming to help us build a stronger family!

In other words, Jesus says:

If you want to follow me as my disciples in this world, then you must let go of the things to which the world assigns so much value. You must abandon those things with which the world seduces you into believing they can be the fulfillment of your most profound desires.

Jesus also puts it this way… to truly live, we must first die to self.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed in a Nazi concentration camp for helping Jews escape to Switzerland insightfully wrote, “When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die.”

And the Samaritans wanted none of that. No wonder that night in their village there were no fireworks.

That was not the message they wanted to hear. If Jesus’ face is set toward Jerusalem, then Jesus better get himself to Jerusalem, and we will stay right here.

I attended a church growth conference a few years ago where the speaker talked about the importance of making sure that church members “feel satisfied.”  In other words, if you want the church to grow, the job of your pastor is to make certain that you are happy.

You know, the speaker is absolutely right. Just ask the Samaritans. If Jesus came to the Samaritans with his face set toward the pursuit of happiness, I am sure the pews would have been packed. The problem is that this is not the purpose of the church.

Jesus does not call us to go to church to get happy. Jesus calls to be the church, to be the body of Christ in a broken and fragmented world, with its face set towards Jerusalem.

And Jesus is not just some commodity that we can get so we can get some more…more happiness, more contentment, more fulfillment.  Jesus does not want us to get him, Jesus wants to get us. As William Willimon puts it, Jesus does not want us to get him to meet our needs. Jesus wants to get us and rearrange our needs. He does not want us to get him to fulfill our every desire. He wants to get us and transform our every desire.

Jesus is not interested in helping us to be the people we want to be and to go to the places we want to go. Jesus wants us to be His people and go to the places that he wants to go. And his face is set toward Jerusalem.

As one of my favorite writers, Henri Nouwen has said, sometimes Jesus calls us to places we would rather not go.  Sometimes Christ calls us into “unknown, undesirable and painful places.”

The truth is, that when we come here on Sunday morning, instead of finding ourselves surrounded by a bunch of happy people satisfied and content, we probably should find ourselves in the midst of a people who are more than a little anxious, apprehensive, and nervous for we never know where this Christ is going to lead us next.

This weekend as we Americans celebrate our nation’s birthday, may each of us thank God for our country and the freedom our country affords us.  However, as a church that is not seeking to get Jesus, but continually be in the process of allowing Jesus to get us, to rearrange our needs, transform our desires, lead us toward Jerusalem, toward the cross, toward suffering, self-denial, self-giving, may we be mindful that with our freedom comes a radical call to truly free ourselves of some things that many Americans hold very dear.  May we mindful that we are free to be truly free.

While it is true that we are free acquire and accumulate, to accrue and to amass, to meet our every need and to fulfill our every desire, it is also true that we are free, to abandon and relinquish, to let go and to leave behind.  We are free to be free from all of the material trappings and selfish desires that prevent us from following Christ wherever he leads.  We are free, not to get Jesus to meet our needs and fulfill our desires, but we are free to allow Christ to get us to rearrange our needs and transform our desires.  We are free to not only get to give.

Bonhoeffer did not have to help Jews escape Nazi Germany and flee to Switzerland.  After all he was safe and sound in New York in the early 1940’s. He was free to stay in America and preach the gospel from the safety of a free church pulpit or to teach New Testament in the peace and freedom of a university.  Bonhoeffer could have lived the American dream. But the gospel he preached and the freedom that he was granted compelled Bonhoeffer to return to Germany and stand against Nazi aggression.

Before he was executed by the Germans, he wrote the following words.  They are words that the American Church needs to hear again and hear loudly… “Cheap grace is the preaching of….forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession…  Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ living and incarnate.

“Costly grace is…the gospel which must be sought again and again. The gift which must be asked for, the door at which one must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ.  It is costly because it costs us our lives. It is grace because it gives us the only true life.”

For freedom Christ has set us free—and all God’s people here in America on this Sunday before the July 4th proudly and fervently say: “Amen!”

Let us pray.

O God as we recommit ourselves this day to follow the Christ, give us your grace to let go, give up, and relinquish every desire, trait, and tendency that weighs us down or hinders our faithful work for you in the name of Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Commissioning and Benediction

We came here this morning to get a little bit of Jesus. To get him to help us meet our needs and fulfill our desires. Instead, Jesus came here and got us. Through Jesus, God the creator of all that is has spoken, saying, “I have some very important work to do in this world, and I am here to get you to help me.

Go now and do the work in this world to which you have been called.  You may have to leave friends and family behind.  You may have to give up some things that you hold very dear.  Even life itself.  But in so doing, you will gain the only true life. And may the love of God, the grace of Jesus Christ and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with us all. Amen.

Changing the Invitation to Church

Be the church

From The Least of These or the Exalted of Us

These days, people just don’t seem to want to go to church anymore. But maybe that is a good thing. Because maybe church is not some place to go. Maybe church is something we are supposed to be. So instead of inviting others to go to church for us, perhaps we should be inviting them to come and be the church for others. The invitation should be: “Join us to be the embodiment of Jesus Christ in this fragmented world with a burning passion for the poor and the outcast. Come and join us to be the Body of Christ as we humbly and selflessly seek to care more about ‘the least of these,’ and less about ‘the exalted of us’.”