Sunday, July 6, 2014

Phil Kniss: Captive freedom

Journey through Romans: We are free from sin, enslaved to God
Romans 6:15-23; Matthew 16:24-26

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Two days ago Irene and I were in our nation’s capital
on the day our country celebrated “Independence Day.”
It was for a baseball game, and a cookout with our family,
more than for the holiday.
But we, along with most of you,
took a day off work to celebrate the day
we declared independence from England, our motherland.
We look back on that milestone with fondness,
and rightly so.
A few pertinent historical details aside,
it’s safe to say that Independence Day
marks our coming of age as a country,
when we realized we were grown up,
and mature enough to be out on our own,
whether or not Mama England thought we were,
or liked it that we were.

Ever since then,
America has steadfastly upheld the ideal of . . . freedom.
We have made it our business in the world
to be a global defender of . . . freedom.
Nearly every war we have fought in our nation’s history
has been hailed as a battle to defend our . . . freedom,
or someone else’s freedom.

In the news recently, due to all the violence and chaos in Iraq,
we’ve been mulling over the war we fought in Iraq for 9 years
under the banner “Operation Iraqi Freedom.”
The government website for that war used to be
There is a great deal of doubt now, of course,
as to what sort of freedom was ever obtained,
either for Iraqis, or for ourselves,
when we count the staggering cost in human life and dollars,
and see how fragmented and violent life in Iraq continues to be.

Similar questions could be asked, in the aftermath of most wars.
What kind of freedom was gained? . . . for whom? . . . at what cost?
And what new bondage do we now have as a result?

Not only in war, but in other global enterprises,
Americans are renowned for trying to export freedom.
And on the home front, we have virtually worshipped at the altar
of this noble, but nebulous, cultural virtue of freedom.

Now, I will go on record as saying freedom is a very good thing.
I know God thinks so.
The Bible is full of freedom stories.
The most epic one being the Exodus.
God was, and is, all about granting freedom to those in bondage.
In Luke 4:18 Jesus declared that his mission on earth was
proclaim release to the captives, to let the oppressed go free.

So do not think that I’m either anti-American or anti-freedom.
I want us all, people of all kinds, all over the world,
to be the most healthy, joyful, and liberated
citizens of the world,
and citizens of the realm of God.

But I do want to raise some troubling questions about freedom,
at least, as we often define it.
Because as followers of Jesus,
if we’re going to be true to God’s vision of human freedom . . .
we have be a little suspicious
of our Western culture’s vision of freedom.

We in the West have made freedom a virtual absolute,
the “be all” and “end all” of human existence.
We have come to believe that for the human being
to fulfill its greatest potential,
it has to be utterly free to be and to do,
whatever it wishes to be and to do.
The one and only limit to my freedom,
is that I can’t trample on someone else’s freedom.

As a moral principle,
that seems a little short-sighted.
The Declaration of Independence,
which we just celebrated,
insists, rightly, that all people were created equal,
and that our Creator endowed us with certain human rights.
But what it doesn’t give us,
is the deeper theological implications,
of having been created and sustained by God.
I wouldn’t expect it to.
It was a political statement, not a theological statement.

So let me add to it,
from our Judeo-Christian theology of creation.
As created beings,
we are utterly de-pendent on our Creator for all that we are,
and we are responsible to our Creator for all that we do.
The fact that our Creator gave us free will,
does not take away our moral obligation to our Creator.
I am morally responsible to God, for the way I live my life,
because that life was given to me by God.
God my Creator, still has a claim on me.
I cannot under-emphasize how much that shapes how I live.

God, who created all things, and whose character is love,
longs to be in relationship with us,
longs to be reconciled with us,
and longs for us to exist together in reconciled community.
God’s fullest intention and desire for us,
is that we find wholeness as individuals in community.

If we make individual freedom an absolute value,
with the only limit being,
not to violate someone else’s individual freedom,
we undermine the value of community
at the heart of the creation story.

I suggest that instead, we start with the creation story
and say that the only absolute value worth dying for
is fulfilling God’s intention for us as a people
created in communion with each other,
with God, and with Creation.

That makes a world of difference in our ethics, I think.

That’s what Paul was getting at here in Romans.
You may find it helpful to follow along in Romans, ch. 6, vs. 15-23.
Paul talked a lot about freedom in his letters to churches,
including Romans.
It was a favorite theme.
Paul strongly believed in salvation by grace
through faith in Jesus Christ,
which led him to preach a Gospel of freedom.
Because salvation comes by grace,
and not by successfully achieving
all the rigorous demands of the law,
then we are free.
Not free, as in, now we can do whatever we please.
But free, as in, not under bondage from the despair and shame
that goes with trying to earn salvation through perfection.

That was Paul’s passionate and eloquent argument in chapter 5,
which we looked at last Sunday.
Salvation is a gift.
And confessed failures and sins don’t count against us.

Now, in today’s text, he quickly jumps in with a “yes, but.”
He says, don’t get the wrong idea about freedom.
Just because God’s gift makes us free from the guilt of sin,
is not a license to abuse the gift.
We don’t just live however we want to,
without boundaries.

Apparently, some new believers in Rome were so relieved
by this grace and freedom,
they threw caution to the wind,
and threw away their boundaries, too.
Paul says in v. 16, hold on a minute—
“Don’t you know you are still slaves?”
No, you’re not slaves of sin anymore.
You’re freed from that.
But you’re God’s servants now.
v. 18: “You’re servants of righteousness.”
In other words, servants of the right and of the just.

It’s a much better kind of servitude, Paul says.
But it’s servitude, nonetheless.
We are not independent, at all.

He draws a line, and points to the opposite ends, in v. 20ff—
slaves to sin, or slaves to righteousness.
He says, “Formerly, as slaves to sin,
you were free, in regard to righteousness.
Righteousness and justice had no claim on you.
You were free, as far as that went.
Now you are enslaved to God,
and you are free, in regard to sin.
Sin has no claim on you.

So which slavery do you prefer? (v. 23)
Slavery that leads to death,
or slavery that leads to life, and life eternal.

In Christ, we do give up a certain kind of freedom,
in order to gain, not in-dependence,
but a more rewarding kind of de-pendence.
In the words of Jesus, from today’s Gospel reading,
“Those who want to save their life will lose it,
and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

It’s always a temptation to think we become free
by tearing down all fences.
It is simply not the case.
We are free, but only because we get to choose our fences.
God is not a coercive master.
God is a loving master who grants free will.
Nevertheless, God is still a master,
with a rightful claim on our lives.
We are not free from all obligations.

It’s not just Paul and other biblical writers
saying that fences are good things.
It’s really a common sense conclusion.
Knowing and respecting our boundaries, our limits,
gives us a sense of identity and security.
We can never truly be free,
unless we know who we are, and feel secure in that identity.
Show me someone who is confused about who they are,
confused about who they belong to,
confused about our perimeters,
and I’ll show you someone who is living in bondage,
who is losing a healthy sense of self and freedom.

You with me?
I’m guessing you are, because it makes perfect sense—
biblical sense, and common sense.
Now, I’m going to make the opposite point,
and see if you can all stay with me.

Boundaries are also not the be all and end all for the good life.
Boundaries, like freedom, can go to seed, and do bad things.
Boundaries can also lead to bondage,
when they consume all the attention and energy
of an individual or a group.
If we use up all our resources and vision
obsessing over the perimeter,
guarding and protecting the edges of our identity,
we will almost inevitably neglect tending to the center.
And by center, I mean the core of what defines who we are,
and who are called to become.
An emphasis on boundaries,
without a corresponding emphasis on the center,
also leads to a loss of freedom
to be who God intends us to be.

The journey to freedom involves finding a balance between
tending to the center and tending to boundaries.

Does this sound vaguely relevant
to current tensions across the Mennonite family of faith?
I hope it does.
I can hardly turn to any text for preaching these days,
and not read them through the lens of our current context.
So let’s think a little about this text, and our context.

We can all agree, quite easily I think,
that good fences are necessary
for healthy self-definition
and healthy sense of freedom.
Where we disagree often,
is not only where the fences should lie,
but how we want those fences to function,
how high and wide and penetrable they must be,
and who gets the right to determine where they lie.

Different groups, different Christian faith traditions,
have very different understandings on basic questions of
who has authority to erect the fences, and maintain them,
and how much fence-crossing is permitted,
before our health and freedom is threatened.

Our history and theology and practice as Mennonites
make these questions challenging, for good reason:
Mennonites believe that how we live makes a real difference.
Doctrine is important, but discipleship even more so.
It’s not enough to speak good words about what we believe.
Ethics matter, and they matter in all areas of life.
We understand that authority does not operate top down.
We believe cold, hard, rule-making by leaders at the top
who are isolated from their followers,
results in bondage, not freedom.
We believe in communally-discerned fences,
in compassionate boundaries,
in a church where everyone contributes to the decisions
about how our covenant will be lived out.

So . . . for us, living peaceably, in covenant community,
is hard, messy work.
It always will be. It always has been.
We are not at a brand new place in the life of our church.

But it does seem to me,
that if we would spend our best energy, time, and passion
working out what our center is,
and working out what draws us toward that center,
then our ongoing community fence-building project
might have more integrity, and more staying power.

Paul tells us in Romans 6, that by God’s grace,
we are free from the bondage sin brought,
and we are able to live full lives as servants of God.
God has a claim on our lives,
and we do not assert the right to live for ourselves,
since the fullest life we can live
is a life submitted to God’s agenda.

So the more we lean into God’s will for our lives,
or to use Jesus’ words,
the more we lose our lives for the sake of the kingdom,
the more likely we are to find our center—
both individually and as a church.

Individually, we will be focused on taking up our cross
and following as Jesus invited us,
and not living out of fear and self-protection.

Collectively, as a church,
the more we are willing to lose our lives for the kingdom,
that is, let go of institutional pride or self-preservation,
or securing our borders at the cost of mission,
the more likely we will be to have discovered our center,
and to grow toward God’s intention for our life together.

Now, I know this all sounds very nice . . . and simplistic.
Making it real, for us here, for us now, gets complicated.

Because perspective makes all the difference.
Where you sit determines where you see the fence,
and where you see the center.
The very same thing can look to one person
like an unhealthy obsession with institutional boundaries,
and to another person like a healthy clarifying of the center.
That makes our work challenging, to say the least.

But it also tells me that, like it or not,
it makes our continuing work necessary,
if we want to be obedient as the church of Jesus Christ.

Many of you know that in the last eight days,
the main governing boards
of both EMU and Mennonite Church USA,
issued public reports of decisions made
relating to concerns in the church
over how we view same-sex relationships.
The specific questions they dealt with were different.
I won’t make my sermon longer than it is
by recounting all the details.
They are well-documented, online at their websites,
and in the church press.
But if any of you who do not get online,
and haven’t seen the statements yet,
let me know after the service.
I have some hard copies with me.

For the purposes of my sermon,
I’ll simply observe that the decisions reached by both bodies,
for this particular point in time,
elicited some sharp, disappointed reaction across the church,
by persons on both ends
of the conservative and progressive spectrum.
And it gave some reassurance to many others,
myself included,
that there is, in fact, a strong commitment by our church
to stay together at the same table,
and keep putting in the time,
and sometimes grueling effort and energy,
to do the important work of clarifying our center.

Maybe their actions did look like institutional self-preservation
to some of you.
So be it.
I don’t fault your perspective.
Maybe it did look like caving in to cultural pressure
to some of you.
So be it.
I don’t fault your perspective.
What you see is shaped by where you sit.
And your vantage point has its own integrity.

But what I am so grateful for in all of this,
and why I am more hopeful than discouraged,
is that we all still believe enough in this thing called church,
that we are willing to keep working at it,
even when the work is painful.

Some may need to walk away.
Some may feel pushed away.
I hope neither happens,
but I am realistic in expecting that both will.
But the organized church is still a voluntary association,
and we will make the alliances and affiliations
we feel we are called, and able, to make.

We are free in that way, humanly speaking.
But in our alignment with God, and with God’s purposes,
we are not now,
nor do we ever want to be . . . free and independent.
We hear God’s claim of ownership,
which our Creator has already made on us,
and we respond with yes, I am yours.
Do with me as you will.

I invite us to respond with this “I will”
by singing together a hymn text that is in our blue hymnal,
but which we have rarely sung.
It’s “Make me a captive, Lord.”
We decided to put it to a different, more familiar tune,
the tune of “This is my Father’s world.”
You will find this hymn in your bulletin insert.

The poetry is rich and meaningful.
You will want to read it again later,
to try to digest it all.
But let me read the first & last verse, before we sing it.

Make me a captive, Lord, and then I shall be free.
Force me to render up my sword, and I shall conqueror be.
I sink in life’s alarms when by myself I stand;
imprison me within thine arms, and strong shall be my hand.

My will is not my own till thou hast made it thine;
if it would reach a monarch’s throne, it must its crown resign.
It only stands unbent amid the clashing strife,
when on thy bosom it has leant, and found in thee its life.

—Phil Kniss, July 6, 2014

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