John 8:31-36 Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Trinity Lutheran Church, Somerset, PA
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
“They answered him, ‘We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone.'” Really? They’ve never been slaves to anyone? Are they joking? I seem to recall—you may remember this, too—that before they came to the Promised Land, the descendants of Abraham and Sarah were slaves in Egypt who had to be liberated by God’s saving power. And then, after they were in the promised land, the Assyrians conquered and enslaved Israel, and then the Babylonians conquered the Assyrian Empire and enslaved both Israel and Judah. After the Babylonians, they were independent for a while before the Greeks conquered them; and after the Greeks came the Romans, who were oppressive foreign overlords at the very time today’s reading took place. While the Romans didn’t technically enslave the Jews, they certainly weren’t what anyone would have considered “free.” And yet, despite a long history of slavery and oppression, when Jesus tells them they will be freed, they indignantly insist that they have never been slaves to anyone! Denial isn’t just a river in Egypt.
One of my favorite authors is Terry Pratchett. He writes fantasies that are satires of modern life. In a book called Feet of Clay, Pratchett tells the story of Dorfl, a golem. Golems are people made out of clay, brought to life by written words stuck into their heads. The words make them alive and tell them what to do—and the words tell them to be slaves. A golem works twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, at the most degrading and dangerous jobs there are. If you order a golem to do something, the golem will do it, because the words in their head make them obey. Towards the end of the book, Dorfl is freed—his head is opened up and new words are put into him, words that say he belongs to himself. Dorfl is transformed by this gift, something he couldn’t have imagined on his own. He goes out and tries to free others—golems, humans, animals, everyone. He opens the doors to the sweatshops and the slaughterhouses, breaks the machinery the golems use, and yet despite all the chaos he causes the humans and golems just try to fix it and go on exactly as they did before. This puzzles Dorfl—his freedom was such a wonderful thing, literally giving him new life, so why are people trying to go back to the things that hold them captive?
He says to Sam Vimes, the head of the City Watch, ‘You Say To People “Throw Off Your Chains” And They Make New Chains For Themselves?’
‘Seems to be a major human activity, yes,’ Vimes said.
Dorfl rumbled as he thought about this. ‘Yes,’ he said eventually. ‘I Can See Why. Freedom Is Like Having The Top Of Your Head Opened Up.’
Freedom is like having the top of your head opened up. Christian freedom means trusting God to take care of us, trusting God’s love and care and guidance even when the world keeps telling us it’s foolish to depend on anyone besides yourself. Christian freedom means listening to God’s call to lives of justice and mercy, and love, even when it would be safer and easier to be self-centered. Christian freedom means letting Christ open up our hearts and minds and replace our words that enslave us to sin with God’s Word that frees us and makes us whole. That sounds dangerous. That sounds scary. When you’re a slave, you don’t have any control over your life, but if something bad happens it’s not your fault. You don’t have to think, you don’t have to take risks, and however bad things get at least they’re predictable. Remember the newly freed people of Israel wandering in the desert and grumbling how they wanted to go back to slavery in Egypt because at least there they had food to eat? Nobody really wants to be a slave, but at the same time—sometimes it seems safer and a whole lot easier.
People make chains for themselves all the time. Some chains are easier to spot than others. Addictions—to alcohol, drugs, gambling, hoarding, whatever—those can be easy to spot, at least from the outside. People who are addicted find their lives controlled by their need. Yet most people who are addicted try to claim, at some point, that they are fine, that they have it all under control. They aren’t slaves to their addictions. They can quit at any time, they say, even when it’s obvious they can’t.
Some chains are harder to spot than others, particularly when (like the people in today’s Gospel lesson) we are in denial. We confess every Sunday at the beginning of worship that we are sinners, that we fall short of the glory of God, that we are held in chains by sin and cannot free ourselves. But when it comes down to it, how many of us really take that seriously? After all, it’s not like we’re Snidely Whiplash, gleefully chortling and twirling a moustache as we plot evil deeds. Our sins are little things, we tell ourselves. After all, saying something hurtful when we’re upset isn’t that big a deal, is it? Paying more attention to our jobs or hobbies than to the people around us isn’t that big a deal, is it? Watching movies and television shows that treat women like sex objects, play on racial stereotypes, or promote violence isn’t that big a deal, is it? After all, everyone does it!
And on their own, each little sin may not look like much—but when you add them all together, they dominate every aspect of our lives. Those sins keep us apart from one another, keep us from building right and lasting relationships with God and each other, breaking us apart, keep us isolated and turned in so that all we can see or hear are our own fears, our anxieties, our prejudices, our flaws. We don’t want to admit that those sins keep us from listening to God’s Word, and keep us from truly living the good and abundant lives God wants for us. We build up walls between ourselves as individuals, as communities, as a nation. And we pretend everything is all right, that we can stop at any time, that we have it all under control, when the truth is, those sins control us, instead. We don’t want to admit that we are slaves to sin. We don’t want to admit that there are things we can’t do by ourselves. Particularly not here in America, where we idolize self-reliance. Admitting that there are things larger than us, things that we can’t control, feels like weakness. And so we close our eyes to our brokenness, to our slavery, and pretend that we can do it all ourselves.
Sometimes that self-reliance turns into legalism. Yes, Jesus saves us … but surely there’s something we need to do to make sure. God gave us the commandments to help us live full and abundant lives in harmony with God and one another, guidelines for how to live a free life full of love of God and our neighbor. And yet sometimes, we get so focused on those laws that we fulfill the letter of them while leaving no room in our hearts to love God and our neighbor. We use those laws to justify our conflicts and our hatred of one another. We get so focused on how we think God’s Word should be interpreted that we can’t hear what the Holy Spirit is saying to us. We get so focused on the world around us that we can’t see the ways God is building the kingdom of God among us. And so the commandments that God gave us as a gift become a curse, chains binding us and showing us just how far we fall short of the grace and freedom God wants for us.
Today is Reformation Sunday, when we commemorate the religious movement in 16th Century Germany that formed the Lutheran church. Through the Reformation, God freed people from their preconceived notions so that they could follow God’s Word. People from across Germany, and all of Europe, started reading the Bible with open minds, and praying with open minds, and trusting God to free them from the chains that bound them. And the church was transformed—Lutherans, other Protestants, Roman Catholics too. By opening themselves up to God’s Word, people allowed God’s Word to change them. Relying on God’s Word changed the way they thought and the way they lived. Everything was affected, not just church life. The role of women in society changed. The way they handled poverty changed. It wasn’t change for the sake of change, but change for the sake of living out the Gospel through love of God and love of neighbor. It was change for the sake of the freedom that only comes from Christ.
Dorfl the golem found that it was easy to break the physical locks and chains holding people captive, but the things that really made people slaves were the words inside their heads. For some people, those words are ‘I’m better than everyone else,’ while for others those words are ‘I’m not worth anything.’ Sometimes the words that enslave us are ‘we’ve never done it that way before,’ and sometimes the words that enslave us are ‘that’s the way we always did it—I want something new.’ Sometimes the words that enslave us are ‘what will people think?’ and sometimes the words that enslave us are ‘I don’t care about anyone else.’ There are so many words inside our head that can become prisons without our even realizing it. And like Dorfl, we can’t free ourselves. Someone has to open our hearts and minds and replace the words of slavery with the words of freedom.
Thank God for Jesus Christ, the living Word of God, who comes to set us free. Christ comes to transform and reform us, to heal our relationships with him and with one another. Christ comes to us when we are so tied up by our brokenness that we don’t even realize it and sets us free. Christ comes and breaks open hearts and minds made hard and heavy by sin and puts words of love and hope and freedom within us.