Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
This holiday weekend we celebrate 241 years since the signing of the Declaration of Independence. We acknowledge with every rendition of our national anthem the struggle and sacrifice required by the founding generation, and nearly every generation since, to bring into being the opportunity for freedom we now enjoy as our birth rite. They died to make us free.
The American democratic experiment is not quite two and a half centuries old, but the question of how to properly use of our freedom within the span of a single human life is thousands of years old, perhaps as old as history itself. It is the central question addressed by our bible in the great narratives of creation, of the Exodus, and of Christ. Each human being living under every permutation of governance ever devised or bumbled into has had to ask themselves what am I to do with the miracle of my life?
Paul writes, “…the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23) Chapters 5-8 of Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome from which today’s second lesson was read is a majestic statement of some of Paul’s greatest themes: The love of God embodied in Jesus’ death; the hope, even during suffering, enjoyed by God’s people; Christian freedom from sin, the law and death itself; and the life-giving leading of the Spirit. Countless Christians, faced with times of struggle, have found strength and joy in Paul’s closing words: “Neither height nor depth nor any other creature shall be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:39) (N.T. Wright, Commentary on Romans)
For Paul, the difference between slavery and freedom is not whatever political system in which we find ourselves but in dying and rising to new life in solidarity with the ever-living Christ. The exodus, the story of coming out of slavery into freedom—with all the new puzzles and responsibilities that freedom brings!—is the story of the gospel. In the Exodus the Jewish people discovered the character of their rescuing God. Likewise the covenant faithfulness of this same God is fully unveiled in the paschal events of Golgatha and Easter. In Christ, God extends an invitation to all people to become children of a new humanity. We find the true purpose of our freedom, the highest and most noble version of ourselves by walking the way of the cross.
We must give ourselves away to be free. Last Sunday, we heard Jesus tell the disciples, “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:39) By walking the way of the cross Jesus taught us our freedom is not about how well we follow religious rules either. For Jesus, our hard-won freedom in Christ is about a way of living in which we find ourselves willing to give someone a cup of cold water on a hot day. Our freedom has no higher purpose than that.
Many today are misled in believing that, if you are lucky or strong or bold or beautiful and powerful enough, freedom is about living without any obligations, any commitments, any requirements whatsoever. By contrast, Paul invited the Christians in Rome and each of us, to consider the choice we face is not between obedience or freedom, but rather a decision about what we will be freely obedient and dedicated to.
It is human nature to slide toward whatever seems easiest in the short run. Sacrificing short term gratification for long term happiness is always difficult for us. That is why we cannot rely on will power alone to be truly free. The ability to strive for things that bring long term happiness and eternal blessings comes from God—and specifically—from dwelling in God as our small, selfish, frightened ego-self is transformed by connection to the One-life we have in God and to all the living things God has made.
For Paul, we find the power to be free in our baptism, in Christian community, and in the prayers of the Holy Spirit working in us too deep for words that draws us more closely into relationship with God and neighbor and serves to remind us that we are, indeed, God’s own children. (David Lose, Working Preacher)
From here, we can begin to see what makes service to others so central to the Christian message and to the exercise of true freedom. Ancient people were amazed and drawn to Christianity because they said, ‘See how they love each other.’ Hospitality is credited with being a big reason why Christianity spread and grew. Yet, this was never just an outreach strategy. The key component of our mutual welcome and service to one another comes from the presence of Jesus who has joined us all together. My self is become part of your self, your suffering has become part of my suffering, your joy part of my joy. Jesus said, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” (Matthew 10:40)
Here at Immanuel, we exercise our freedom in Christ by welcoming guests here to worship on Sunday, or to play groups, pre-school, tutoring, neighborhood meetings, or simply to come from the park across the street to use the restroom. For Vacation Bible School this week we shared the humble, hospitable gospel with over thirty neighborhood children with the help of twenty adult volunteers. Yet Jesus’ call to hospitality doesn’t stop at our front door. These past several weeks in worship we have read through the entire 10th chapter of Matthew’s gospel and know what Jesus is taking about here to the disciples is their charge to become missionaries.
We say our mission here at Immanuel is to be a living sanctuary of hope and grace. Yet, we know this mission did not come from us, but from what God is already, always, and everywhere doing in the world. We exercise our freedom and walk the way of the cross not by always playing host, but also by relying upon the hospitality of others by being guests. Not only by inviting people into our space, to eat our food, and use our bathrooms—but to go where we are sent into other’s homes, eating their food, navigating their customs, and using their bathrooms. One of the most difficult parts of hospitality is vulnerability. Mutual hospitality –welcoming and being welcomed as we would welcome Christ—is how we abide in the One life of God and discover the true purpose of human freedom.
All people, all things, no matter how marginal, ugly, or shameful find a place of dignity in this welcome. Let me leave you with the words of Sara Miles, author of Take This Bread. She writes, “What I heard, and continue to hear, [in this gospel] is a voice that can crack religious and political convictions open, that advocates for the least qualified, least official, least likely. It [Christianity] proclaims against reason that the hungry will be fed, that those cast down will be raised up, and that all things, including my own failures, are being made new. It offers food without exception to the worthy and unworthy, the screwed-up and pious, and then commands everyone to do the same. It doesn’t promise to solve or erase suffering but to transform it, pledging that by loving one another, even through pain, we will find more life. And it insists that by opening ourselves to strangers, the despised or frightening or unintelligible other, we will see more and more of the holy, since, without exception, all people are one body: God’s. (Sara Miles, Take This Bread: The spiritual memoir of a twenty-first century Christian)