Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, Lectionary 13
July 2, 2017
Jeremiah 28:5-9, Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18, Romans 6:12-23, Matthew 10:40-42
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
There’s something ironic about talking about slavery on the Fourth of July weekend, don’t you think? The Fourth of July is a holiday devoted to freedom. Liberty! Getting to make our own rules and laws instead of having to do what someone else tells us to! Woohoo, isn’t it awesome to live in the land of the free and the home of the brave! Let’s remember all of the reasons it is AWESOME to be an American, starting with the fact that we are free!
Except that, uh, we aren’t. Or rather, we are politically free. But there are deeper forms of slavery than just the external political reality. Addiction, illness, dysfunctional or abusive relationships—all of these can enslave us just deeply as any external political force. And of all the possible things that hold us in bondage, sin is the worst and the most deeply twisting. Sin corrupts us so that we choose to do things that will hurt ourselves and others. Sin corrupts us so that we don’t even see the problem. It’s not just that sin makes us do bad things; sin makes us think that they’re the right things.
For example. Jesus tells us to love our enemies. There are no qualifiers to that, no limitations. It’s not “we should love our enemies until they do something really bad, and then it’s okay to hate them.” It’s not, “say you love your enemies while plotting to hurt them.” It’s not, “love some of your enemies and hate the rest.” It’s not even “be superficially nice to your enemies while fuming internally about them.” No, all of those would be a lot easier than what Jesus really tells us, which is to love our enemies. Period, full stop, no limitations or exclusions apply. No loopholes to weasel out of it. Love your enemies.
But hating them feels so good! And if they DESERVE to be hurt, if they’re bad people or sinners or have done terrible things, then SURELY God would agree that it’s okay to hate them! There are people in this world who are really, truly, awful people, who have hurt and killed and done terrible things. Who need to be stopped from hurting anyone else. But it’s not our job to hate them, and while it’s our job to protect people in danger, it’s not our job to plot vengeance. But it’s so easy to convince ourselves that God surely wouldn’t mind, just this once. Or even that God would want us to hate them. And then, once you’re used to explaining away or ignoring God’s commands to love, well, lots of other things can be explained away or ignored, too. And pretty soon, we’ve developed a whole series of justifications to make ourselves believe that God approves of everything we do. The temporary benefits blind us to the fact that sinfulness is drawing us further away from God.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul talks a lot about sin, and about slavery. For Paul, sin isn’t just individual acts. Sin is the whole way of thinking that draws us away from God. Sin is not something we do, it’s something we are, something that guides and controls everything about how we see the world and ourselves, how we see God, how we see our fellow human beings. While people can choose whether or not to commit individual bad acts, we can’t choose our state of being. I can choose, for example, whether or not to lie in any one given situation; that’s a choice I can make. But I can’t choose whether or not to be a sinner. The only thing that can free me from slavery to sin and death is the saving action of Jesus Christ our Lord. As baptized children of God, we are freed from slavery to sin!
So the questions the Romans wanted to know is, now that we’re free from the power of sinfulness and have been forgiven and redeemed by Jesus, does that mean we can do anything we want? Does that mean that we can commit any individual sin we please, and it’s fine, because Jesus saved us? It would be very convenient if that were true. But that way of thinking is the first step away from God, back down into that mindset where we can hurt ourselves and others as much as we please, as long as we come up with a good enough excuse for it.
Paul puts it this way. Yeah, sure, you’re no longer slaves of sin, and that’s awesome! But that doesn’t mean we have no responsibilities. The fact that we have been forgiven doesn’t mean we get to choose our own way: we are still in the power of the one who created us, the one who redeems us, the one who guides us through life. We are still slaves. Except that we are now slaves of God. And while being a slave of sin leads only to death and pain (of ourselves and others), being a slave of God leads to love and abundant life, in this world and the next.
Now, wait a minute, hold on, I can hear you saying it. We’re free! God freed us through Jesus’ death and resurrection! And that’s true. We are free. But there’s different kinds of freedom. There’s “freedom from,” which means that we are free from the things that used to restrain us. It’s the Spring Break in Cancun kind of freedom: nothing to hold us back, baby! No consequences, no restraint, we can do ANYTHING WE WANT. Which, uh, yeah, sure, you might be free to do anything you want, but there’s a lot of stuff you still shouldn’t do, right? The more you focus on freedom from restraint, the more it leads you to doing dangerous and destructive stuff just because you can. Yeah, maybe it’s allowed … but that doesn’t mean it’s good.
The other kind of freedom is the “freedom to.” The freedom to do the right thing. The freedom to heal. See, when you’re chained up in bad ways, when you’re hurt, the chains themselves hurt you even more. If you’re in an abusive relationship, for example, even the good times in that relationship keep you from healing because they keep you in that spot where your abuser can hurt you the next time things get bad. And abusers keep you from forming healthy relationships with other people, too. Only when you are free can you heal. Only when you’re free can you start to build healthy relationships. Only when you are free can you start to make good choices that lead to a better life. And that’s the kind of freedom that God gives: the freedom to heal, and the freedom to do the right thing, and the freedom to build healthy relationships with God and with other people.
So why is Paul calling that freedom in Christ, that freedom to heal and build relationships, slavery? Partly, it’s to remind us that the freedom of a Christian is not a license to misbehave. It’s not the Spring Break in Cancun kind of freedom. The freedom of a Christian comes with responsibility, to do the right thing, to spread the love of God, to work for peace and justice and healing. We are not freed to do whatever the hell we want. We are freed to serve God.
But calling our service to God “slavery” is also a way of reminding us that God has to come first. In his explanation of the first Commandment, Martin Luther points out that having no other gods before the Lord our God isn’t just a matter of not being a Buddhist. See, our ‘god’ isn’t just the one we name in our prayers and come to worship occasionally. Our ‘god’ is the number one priority in our life. Everything else that we do, everything we say, flows from our number one priority. Is our priority making money? That’s our God. Is our priority our kids’ sports? That’s our God. Is our priority being liked? That’s our God. Is our priority our political ideology? That’s our God. Once we set something as the most important thing in our life, we start to shape our life and our thoughts and our hopes and dreams and fears and everything about us. We put ourselves in service to things, we enslave ourselves, without ever consciously realizing what we’re doing. We make chains for ourselves. And some of those things may be very good things! But if we build our life around them, it will be warped and constraining and lead us to places we do not want to go. That’s why the first commandment is to put God first. Because if we put anything else first, it will become our god and it will warp us in its service.
Even love of country can be an idol, if we let it. I love America. I am proud to be an American. I am so grateful to God that I was born here, and while other countries are nice to visit, America is and always shall be my home and beloved native land. But when we start to say “America first,” when we lift our love of country to the highest place in our hearts, that is idolatry. Because the highest place in our hearts should belong to God. God is the only one that can give life and hope and healing and growth. God uses many channels to give God’s gifts—family, friends, job, country, community—but we must always remember that they are God’s gifts, above all else.
We have been freed from slavery to sin and death by Jesus Christ our Lord. That means we have a choice. We get to choose what our priorities will be, what we will hold highest in our heart. But when we put anything but God in that first place, we become slaves to that thing. God leads to life, and healing, and right relationships. May we always hold God first in our hearts, and follow him.