Weekly Sermons

Weekly Reflections for Sunday Morning Worship Sharing
via Zoom

Jesus said, “If you hold to My teaching, you are really My disciples.  Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”  His hearers answered him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone.  How can you say that we shall be set free?”  Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin.  Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever.  So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
John 8: 31-36  (NIV)
If your first concern is to look after yourself, you’ll never find yourself.  But if you forget about yourself and look to Me, you’ll find both yourself and Me.
Matthew 10:39  (The Message, Eugene Peterson)
Are We Free Indeed?
Last week’s news included a report of a 51 year-old diabetic man in California who was self-quarantining to avoid COVID-19 exposure.  In early June, after many weeks of isolation, he decided to accept a neighbor’s invitation to a party.  A few days later, he got a call from someone else who had attended the party – an asymptomatic COVID-positive guy who knew he had the virus but wasn’t sick and didn’t think he could infect anyone else.  He began feeling  guilty for not telling people, so he phoned to encourage other attenders to get tested.  When the diabetic man started feeling ill two weeks after the party, he went for the test, was hospitalized three days later with COVID illness, was placed on a ventilator that same evening, and died two hours later.  In a final message he recorded before being intubated, he apologized to his family for his selfish choice of partying for an evening instead of choosing to continue living under quarantine in order not to put their lives and his own in what turned out to be permanent peril.  One can only imagine the devastation being felt by the partygoer who knowingly spread the virus.
On this Independence Day holiday – time set aside each year to celebrate the freedoms afforded to citizens and residents of the USA by our democratic system of governance — it is ironic that the most powerful nation on earth is being held captive by an invisible virus and by the restrictive measures needed to control and stop its deadly spread.  Individuals, families, organizations, and government entities all are being forced to make difficult, unwanted choices to suspend various liberties temporarily in order to preserve their freedom to keep breathing and living.  Every day’s news brings reports of people angrily protesting requirements for facemask-wearing, physical distancing, and other pandemic mitigation efforts, usually claiming that their rights and freedoms are being violated.  I have yet to meet anyone who enjoys wearing a facemask.  At least some, however, have chosen to relinquish their freedom from self-consciousness and discomfort, in exchange for other greater freedoms — from guilt for infecting someone else, or from the suffering and expense of becoming infected themselves.
One lesson we should learn from the coronavirus pandemic is that freedom is relative, a matter of trade-offs.  In exchange for freedom from the terrible costs of COVID illness and pandemic, we are called upon to limit our freedom to go wherever we want to go, do whatever we want to do, and exhale our droplet-laden breath upon others whose paths we cross.  When in the past this nation’s democratic freedom has been threatened militarily, young people have been made to suspend personal liberties to help defend national ones.  In order to maintain our democracy’s freedom of speech and press, citizens are expected to refrain from slandering or libeling others and from publishing obscenity.  Freedoms of assembly and religion come with the understanding that those exercises will not involve illegal or harmful activities.  Like the choice between freedom from COVID illness or freedom from mask-wearing, life is a constant series of decisions about surrendering lesser freedoms in order to gain the greater ones.  It is exactly the point Jesus tried to make in telling his parable of the pearl of great price (Matthew 13:45,46).
In John 8:31ff, Jesus engaged in dialogue with a group of Jews who believed in him and became his followers.  He told them that by living according to his teaching, their minds and hearts would be illuminated to know the truth, and knowing it would set them free.  The followers reacted strongly to the suggestion that they, proud and patriotic descendants of Abraham, were anything less than free.  Jesus surely enjoyed the irony of their argument, knowing that they probably were following him primarily in hopes that he was the conquering Messiah who finally would defeat the oppressive Roman army that was occupying Palestine and chase them back to Italy.  He clarified his message for them, pointing out that it is sin which spiritually enslaves people in selfishness.  He as God’s Son had come to break sin’s bondage and free them to become what God created them to be.  Regardless of one’s national or political circumstances, it was Jesus’ spiritual liberation alone that could make them “free indeed,” free not just from external restraints but from the internal self-focus that makes friendship with God impossible.  As we celebrate national freedom and independence over this holiday weekend, we would all be wise to make sure we are doing the things necessary to be fully liberated, free indeed.
Embrace the Paradox    Jesus often employed paradox to make his hearers think deeply about eternal Truth.  The Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12) are a good early example – “blessed are the poor in spirit…., those who mourn…., the meek…., those who hunger and thirst” – people we on first thought consider unfortunate.  In Matthew 10:39, Jesus told his disciples that “whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.”  It is another expression of the truth that the pearl of ultimate value is worth trading our lesser pearls for — and that sacrificing lesser, temporary freedoms in order to gain the freedom of living eternally in friendship with God is wise stewardship.  Many people think of living for Christ as a life of being deprived of this life’s “freedoms” in order to avoid going to hell.  Others seem to believe that the way to fulfillment and meaning is to exploit all of life’s pleasures, no matter the cost or whom it hurts. The Truth that sets us free turns out to be the opposite of those.  We are freed to live as we were created to live, freed to live with deep meaning and in joyful service of God.  What people think of as freedoms end up making them captives, while the things people consider bondages are in fact the pathway to being “free indeed.”
                  The 19th century hymn writer George Matheson (1842-1906) captured this Truth beautifully in the lyrics of his hymn “Make Me a Captive, Lord.”  These are the first and last verses he wrote, set to the tune PARADOXY:
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 ‘til Thou has made it Thine; If it would reach the monarch’s throne, it must its crown resign.
It only stands unbent amid the clashing strife when on Thy bosom it has leaned, and found in Thee its life.
Acknowledge Our Bondages      In his John 8 discussion with his followers, Jesus couldn’t make much progress with them so long as they insisted they were not and had never been enslaved.  It remains true today that until we acknowledge the things in our lives that have more authority over our values and choices than Christ has – sin, Jesus called it (John 8:34) — he will not be able to help us see how those things are preventing us from being “free indeed.”  They are the weeds in last Sunday’s sower parable that capture and strangle our spiritual devotion to God.
                When we lived in Africa, all of our indigenous friends there had lived all their lives under governments and political systems that afforded far fewer political, economic, and social freedoms than we enjoy in the US.  It was ironic for us to note that quite often, because of their devoted spiritual lives and their utter dependence upon God for everyday survival, they experienced true freedom in ways we rarely saw back home in the US. They were far from perfect and were subject to the same selfishness we are.  But they did their work, tended their families, helped one another, celebrated good outcomes, and gave thanks to the Lord.  Because they had less, they were far less encumbered by overfilled business and entertainment schedules or by worries about protecting wealth and material possessions – and they tended to be far more grateful for small blessings.  Their governments claimed to be independent, but their communities and families had to be interdependent for the sake of the well-being of everyone.  
                We in the West like to think we live in freedom, but far too often we don’t acknowledge that our manner of living holds us captive in many ways that prevent our being “free indeed.”  Besides concerns for material possessions and wealth, we too often are bound by the need to please others, or the need to control others, or the need to get our own way no matter whom it hurts, or the need for escape through substance abuse.  Our culture of entertainment consumes ever more of our time, leaving ever less for family, faith community, deep friendships, and benevolent service.  In this time of racial upheaval, we are confronted by the unacknowledged biases and privileges that have perpetuated bondages for far too long.  Only when we acknowledge that we are really not “free indeed” can Christ begin to show us his better way.
Cooperate with Christ’s Offer to Free Us    Jesus told his listeners in John 8 that the first step towards his kind of freedom was to “hold to his teaching.”  The only interpretation of that which makes sense to me is both to know that teaching and then to obey it.  That will require some serious study, some careful listening to the Spirit, some testing with other followers of Christ, and some determination to exchange the priorities that have held us in bondage for ones that will move us towards liberty.  Jesus’ half-brother James concurs in James 1:22-25:  “Do not merely listen to the word….Do what it says…. The one who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, who continues to do that and does not forget what he has heard, but does it – he will be blessed in what he does.”  And Peter expresses the same sentiment in I Peter 2:16 writing, “Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God.”
As we celebrate freedom American-style this weekend, we would do well to ask, “are we free indeed, Jesus-style?”  We would do well to pray with George Matheson, “Make me a captive, Lord, and then I shall be free.”  We would do well to rededicate ourselves to holding to Christ’s teaching, and then doing what it says as the pathway to being free indeed.  And we would do well to wear our masks and sacrifice other comforts and freedoms in order to allow our neighbors the simple freedom of staying alive.
Ron Ferguson, 5 July 2020  
Queries for Reflection and Worship-Sharing
1)  What are the things you are thankful to be freed to (do)?  What are you thankful to be freed from?  Of those things, which ones do you consider gifts of God’s grace?
2)  What freedoms have you needed to suspend because of the COVID-19 pandemic?  Have you discovered any new freedoms during this time of social restrictions?
3)  In what ways do you see our culture’s freedoms creating bondage in people’s lives?
4)  American statesman Adlai Stevenson wrote, “Patriotism is not a short and frenzied outburst of emotion, but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime.”  The same could be said of Christian discipleship.  What are the most important ways of doing patriotism?  The most important ways of doing discipleship?