24 October 2009

Sermon for Reformation Sunday - "On Freedom"

What is freedom? What does it mean to be truly free? Is it something like this scene from this week’s episode of the show “Heroes?”

Is that freedom? To be welcomed on the one hand, and coerced on the other? To receive promises of unconditional love while also hearing that conditions do indeed apply? Jesus says “you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” Well, our friend Sylar here has seen the truth about himself, and he is most certainly not free. Sylar, knowing the truth, might find himself more of a slave than ever before.

Freedom is a word that gets thrown around a lot these days. And, of course, today we celebrate “Reformation Sunday.” The commonly-held belief is that today we celebrate the Protestant Church throwing off the shackles of their Roman Catholic oppressors. Well, in this Reformation week, there has been a lot of hullabaloo this week between the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England, one of those “churches of the Reformation.” Here’s a commentary from Time Magazine:

‘At first glance, the surprising news on Tuesday that Pope Benedict XVI has created a new structure to welcome some disenchanted Anglicans into the Roman Catholic fold … might look like a happy reunion. But the Vatican's establishment of new "Personal Ordinariates," in which Anglicans, including married priests, can practice Catholicism while maintaining much of their own identity and liturgy, reveals more about the growing internal rifts within each of the two churches than any sign of real hope for reuniting the fractured Christian communion.

For Anglican leaders, the Vatican announcement is the latest minefield to manage in their ongoing effort to avoid a full-fledged schism within their 80-million-strong church, which includes 2.2 million American Episcopalians. Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams is juggling the gripes of Anglicans of all philosophical stripes and ecclesiastical sensibilities, most notably as battles over women and gay clergy have undermined that prized "communion" within Anglicanism for more than two decades.

In the centuries since King Henry VIII pronounced the Church of England independent from papal authority, certain Anglican conservatives have always drifted back to Rome, "swimming the Tiber," as reverting to Catholicism was called. But in the past two decades, more and more seem to be doing so. Benedict's latest ruling confirms and expands earlier ad-hoc decisions by Pope John Paul II to allow several married Anglican priests to convert and remain in the clergy.

Under the new structure, groups of Anglicans can move into a local Catholic Church that will be headed by former Anglican clergy, who can ease them into Catholicism without their having to kiss goodbye their own pastor or the rites they were raised on. Married Anglican priests who convert, like married priests in the Eastern Rite of Catholicism, will not be eligible to become bishops.

The Vatican's doctrinal chief, Cardinal William Levada, told reporters on Tuesday that Catholic leaders were simply responding to requests by certain Anglicans to find a comfortable home in Catholicism. "We have been trying to meet the requests for full communion that have come to us from Anglicans in different parts of the world in recent years in a uniform and equitable way," said Levada, who would not specify how many Anglicans he expected to convert. "With this proposal, the church wants to respond to the legitimate aspirations of these Anglican groups for full and visible unity with the Bishop of Rome." In a joint written statement, Williams, who as Archbishop of Canterbury is the worldwide spiritual head of the Anglican Church, issued a joint statement with the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, saying the decision "brings an end to a period of uncertainty" for those Anglicans who have sought to convert.

But while seeming to douse one flame, the opening of an officially recognized channel for reverting to Roman Catholicism could spark other conflagrations within Anglicanism, both from conservatives and progressives who are suspicious that Rome is poaching their faithful. Indeed, Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Vatican's outgoing chief of ecumenical affairs, used a press conference last week to try to curb such fears, insisting that Rome was "not fishing in the Anglican lake."

The incoming converts, however, may offer a false comfort to Catholics that Rome is winning the battle for Christian hearts and souls in the West. Indeed, in the bosom of Europe, where traditional Catholicism became an immense political force, the church is very much on the defensive. The Pope's eagerness to find a home for the core of conservative-minded Anglicans follows the his outreach earlier this year to the traditionalist breakaway movement founded by French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, which opposes the modern-minded reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

Even Tuesday's news of the forthcoming arrival of like-minded Anglicans to reinforce the traditionalist ranks carries a built-in risk for the Catholic hierarchy. Church liberals will point to the married priests leading Catholic masses as living proof that it's finally time to toss out the celibacy requirement for the clergy.’[1]

It is interesting and painful to watch these kinds of things happen in the church. Interesting because we Lutherans believe that we share the fullness of the gospel with both the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Church. Painful because that sharing the gospel of Christ means we cannot stand alone, ever. Their wounds are our wounds. Their blessings are our blessings. When they rejoice, we rejoice. When they suffer, we suffer.

Perhaps you disagree. Then let me ask you this: how do you think the Vatican and the Church of England reacted to the news that the ELCA is now preparing to bless same-gender relationships and to install pastors in those relationships in congregations willing to call them? Regardless of what we as individuals might think about that change, it has fractured the unity of our church and placed our relationships with other churches on fragile ground. And I can guarantee you that many of our fellow Christians who are watching our church navigate these stormy waters are hurt to see us mistrust, misrepresent and mistreat each other as we sort out our way into the future and who can join us on that road in good conscience.

I love my church. But I also know who we are in my church. Pastor Robert Farrar Capon may have put it best when he wrote the following:

If we are ever to enter fully into the glorious liberty of the [children] of God, we are going to have to spend more time thinking about freedom than we do. The church, by and large, has had a poor record of encouraging freedom. She has spent so much time inculcating in us the fear of making mistakes that she had made us like ill-taught piano students; we play our songs, but we never really hear them, because our main concern is not to make music, but to avoid some flub that will get us in dutch. She has been so afraid we will loose sight of the laws of our nature, that she made us care more about how we look than about who we are; made us act more like the subjects of a police state than fellow citizens of the saints.[2]

Here is the point, friends: we are slaves, you and I. We are not free. We are enslaved, every last one of us, to the point of sin and death. Some of us, like Sylar in the video from “Heroes,” are slaves to our past mistakes. Some of us are slaves to the fears of what might happen if we don’t protect ourselves from every threat, real or imagined. Some of us are slaves to sex, slaves to drugs, slaves to our appearance or our possessions. All of us are slaves to ourselves in one way or another: we are enslaved by the seductive whispers we hear: “you could be better, much happier, if you’d only ________.” And all of us, even and especially the most faithful of us, are slaves to those churches we call our spiritual home. Yes, even our churches can enslave us, in this way: whenever the church becomes more important than the One in whose name it is gathered, the church becomes a tyrant and an enslaver.

But there is good news to be heard this day, here in this church. Right here, in the midst of all our disagreements and fears, in the midst of our uncertainties and our misplaced certainties, in this church which can sometimes enslave us, Jesus Christ, the living Gospel, comes to us and sets us free from our sins. It is a done deal, by the word of Jesus himself.

This is why we celebrate Reformation. And by Reformation, I don’t mean we celebrate a mythological rebellion started 500 years ago by a German monk with authority issues. That was never, ever the point. What we celebrate this day is this one simple truth: Jesus Christ has freed us from sin and made us all members of the family of God, forever. Every last, living one of us, no matter what emblem you might find on our hymnals and outside our doors, has been set free by Jesus from everything that enslaves us. Freedom, without a single condition or contingency, is yours for the taking, right now.

Throughout the checkered history of the church, we have often lost sight of the gospel. In Luther’s time it was indulgences and ignorance that led people away from the saving truth of the gospel. But we have done little better. We have placed our faith in denominations, in individual pastors, in understanding the Bible in a certain way, in one style of worship, in one particular verse from scripture – you name it, we’ve been enslaved to it. But none of those things can save you, friends. Denominations cannot save you. Congregations cannot save you. Your campus pastor cannot save you. Contemporary worship cannot save you. Organ music cannot save you. Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson cannot save you, the Archbishop of Canterbury cannot save you, and the Pope cannot save you. And, last but certainly not least, The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther cannot save you. Only Jesus Christ can save you. Only Jesus can free you from your sins. Only Jesus can make you a member of the household of God forever – and in your baptism, Jesus has done exactly that.

This is the freedom we celebrate when we celebrate Reformation: we celebrate that God makes us free in Jesus. We celebrate the Spirit’s work turning the church back to her savior, freeing us from our idolatry to live for Jesus alone. We celebrate the freedom to be loved without condition, to be adopted without qualification, to be made whole where all we have known is brokenness, failure and regret.

All of us – Anglican, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, and Christians of every stripe and color – are swept up into Reformation. Whenever the gospel of Jesus gets loose and raises another sinner out of death into life, Reformation happens. Whenever lives are changed, whenever wounds are healed, whenever our bondage to anything other than Jesus is broken, we are swept up into Reformation. Thanks be to God: the Reformation of the church continues, until that great and glorious day when our bonds are broken forever in God’s reign, free to worship and serve the Creator in whose image we are fearfully and wonderfully made.

[2] Robert Farrar Capon, Between Noon and Three. Cited by Brian Stoffregen at http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/john8x31.htm

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