Sunday, July 5, 2015

Christian Freedom: A Theology of Imperfection (A sermon for today) - Mark 6:1-13 and 2 Corinthians 12:2-10

[sermon begins after 2 Bible readings]

Mark 6:1-13  He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. 2 On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, "Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! 3 Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?" And they took offense at him. 4 Then Jesus said to them, "Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house." 5 And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. 6 And he was amazed at their unbelief. Then he went about among the villages teaching. 7 He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. 8 He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; 9 but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. 10 He said to them, "Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. 11 If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them." 12 So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. 13 They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.

2 Corinthians 12:2-10  I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. 3 And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— 4 was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. 5 On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. 6 But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, 7 even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. 8 Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, 9 but he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness." So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 10 Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.

[sermon begins]

There are more than a few ways in which I’m like my mother.  One similarity we share is that we’re both complete softies when it comes to children peddling their wares in the name of fundraising.  There’s a Christmas cactus in my church office that Monica, now a young woman, sold me a least a decade ago. I have a double-spoon rest that I pull out when I have company so that the mashed potatoes or gravy or whatever it is dripping off the spoon stays off the counter.  However, there’s one fundraiser to which I’m utterly immune no matter how darling the young person.  Magazines. 

Magazines are easy for me to resist, in part, because they become a must-read project.  My mother does not have these inhibitions.  When she’s approached by a grandchild or someone else’s grandchild selling magazines, she goes for it.  Thanks to my mother’s willingness to buy magazines, I am the recipient of Smithsonian magazine.  I believe a sibling or two of mine also receives this magazine.  It covers two of my mother’s favorite things – supporting kid fundraisers and making sure her kids are up to speed on their history. 

Honestly?  I delight in this magazine.  I learn stuff.  I don’t get to every issue but every issue I get to gives me something.  (I don’t get kickbacks for talking this up, I promise.)  My mother asks me every year in the spring whether or not I want to renew and I say, “Yes!” The bi-monthly issue just came this past week.[1]  It includes some brain science, a status update on the city of Pompeii, and the soon-to-be-released book controversially attributed to Harper Lee along with an update on her home town of Monroeville, Alabama and her life since the 1960 publishing of To Kill a Mockingbird.

There is also a series of articles under the heading “The Presence of the Past.”  There’s an article about Ferguson, Missouri and a photo-essay of the battlefields of the U.S. Civil War 150 years after the war.  These last two articles are why I opened the magazine the same day that I received it.  I’ve also read different perspectives about the killings at Emanuel AME church and the burning black churches as Confederate battle flags come down in the South as well as the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage.  A lot is happening in America in a short period of time and I can’t seem to get enough reading material.

I’ve also read today’s Bible passages.  Thank the good Lord Jesus because these bits of Bible couldn’t have come soon enough to disrupt my study of systemic racism in America and same-gendered relationships in Christianity.  The verses in Mark, and maybe especially the second Corinthians, are reminders of the main things. 
In Mark, the apostles are heading into the villages two-by-two.  Jesus sends them off with strict instructions to travel with no bags, no money, and no extra clothes.  In modern parlance, they don’t even have a carry-on bag.  They have shoes and a walking stick.  Off they go!  And what are they to say to people they meet?  Repent.  That is all.  Repent.  And what are they to do?  Heal.

In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he talks about various ways people validate themselves as sent from God.  He tells a story about someone who had a vision. The vision itself is not boast-worthy nor is it divine authorization to do anything.  So if fancy-pants personal visions don’t get him anywhere, what does?  Paul keeps this really simple.  Weakness.  Christ’s power is perfected in weakness.

The apostles go marching into towns, two-by-two, to preach repentance.  And how do they do this?  Through their utter dependence on the hospitality given to them.  They can’t pay for it, they can’t nibble on snacks packed along for a dry spell.  They go out to preach repentance not out of strength and power but out of the vulnerability.  They witness out of their hunger, their poverty, and their dusty shirts.  Jesus doesn’t say that you can be my disciples if you have your act together.  Jesus tells these apostles to go survive on whatever other people are willing to give them and preach repentance to them. 

What does this mean?  Well, maybe it means a few things.  Maybe it means when you’re new to a community, that you allow the community to offer you hope and healing through your weakness.  Maybe it means that, if you’ve been part of a community for a while, radical hospitality given to the stranger may teach you something about God through your own weakness.

Last week, at Bob Olson’s funeral, Bob’s life preached in this way.  As skilled and gifted as Bob was as an engineer, in my conversations with Bob he was acutely aware of his imperfections – the limits of how far his humanity could get him with God and with other people.  This is where his testimony as a Christian is so powerful.  He worshiped Sunday after Sunday with the awareness and humility of needing to hear Jesus’ promise of forgiveness of sin.  His vulnerability was a proclamation of his need for Jesus.  It was that simple.

Listen again to Paul words to the Corinthians:

“…but [the Lord] said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness." So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me; Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”  

Paul’s words are part of the freedom of a Christian that Martin Luther wrote about almost 500 years ago, quoting Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.[2]  The meme version of Luther’s treatise comes at the beginning of his essay and reads this way:

A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.
A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.[3]

Hear that again:
A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.
A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.[4]

Jesus’ sending of the apostles out with nothing, the apostle Paul’s assertion of boasting in weakness, and Luther’s paradox of Christian freedom are significant as part of the conversation in America today with a lot of people talking loudly about religious freedom. 

When we gather on Sunday mornings to worship, we are a bit like the people who the apostles set out to visit.  It can be easier to close the door on their message of repentance.  To tell those dirty, needy apostles, “Thanks, but no thanks,” and watch the dust shake off of them as they walk away.  But then we miss the sweet relief of faith, the healing and wholeness given though the cross of Christ as we repent of our sin. 

The national conversation about freedom is an important one.  All the reading, conversation, and taking action are a part of America’s ethos from its constitutional inception.  However, the rhetoric of freedom takes an unhelpful turn when we claim only its perfection as a model without repenting for the human imperfections and sin that are necessarily embedded in it, robbing people of the very freedom it claims to offer. 

This is where Jesus comes into the mix and assures us that his “power is made perfect in weakness.”  Jesus is not resorting to perfection to accomplish faith in us or anyone else.  My fellow Christians, Christ sets us free from sin and death through his death on a cross then sends us out, imperfect and vulnerable, for the sake of Christ and for the sake of other people.  This is good news indeed.  Amen.

[1] Smithsonian, July-August 2015.
[2] Martin Luther, “The Freedom of a Christian (1520)” in Three Treatises: from the American Edition of Luther’s Works 31. (Philadephia: Fortress Press, 1947), p. 290. Read full text by Martin Luther at this link:
[3] Ibid, p. 277.
[4] Ibid, p. 277.

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