< back to Sermon archive

Sermon for the 5th Sunday After Pentecost 2023

First Reading: Jeremiah 28:5-9

 5The prophet Jeremiah spoke to Hananiah the prophet in the presence of the priests and all the people who were standing in the house of the Lord, 6and the prophet Jeremiah said, “Amen! May the Lord do so; may the Lord make the words that you have prophesied come true, and bring back to this place from Babylon the vessels of the house of the Lord, and all the exiles. 7Yet hear now this word that I speak in your hearing and in the hearing of all the people. 8The prophets who preceded you and me from ancient times prophesied war, famine, and pestilence against many countries and great kingdoms. 9As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes to pass, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet.”


Psalm 119:153-160

 153Behold my affliction and deliver me, for I do not forget your law. 154Plead my cause and redeem me; according to your promise, give me life. 155Deliverance is far from the wicked, for they do not study your statutes. 156Great is your compassion, O Lord; preserve my life, according to your judgments. 157There are many who persecute and oppress me, yet I have not swerved from your decrees. 158I look with loathing at the faithless, for they have not kept your word. 159See how I love your commandments! O Lord, in your mercy, preserve me. 160The heart of your word is truth; all your righteous judgments endure forevermore.


 Second Reading: Romans 7:1-13

 1Do you not know, brothers — for I am speaking to those who know the law — that the law is binding on a person only as long as he lives? 2For a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage. 3Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress. 4Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. 5For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. 6But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code. 7What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” 8But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. 9I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. 10The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. 11For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. 12So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good. 13Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure.


Gospel: Matthew 10:34-42

 34{Jesus said to the disciples,} “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. 36And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. 37Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 40Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. 41The one who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and the one who receives a righteous person because he is a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. 42And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.”


 Freedom and Slavery

Historically speaking, one could easily say that Americans value freedom greatly, and the exercise of our liberties are a defining value of our culture.  The Declaration of Independence was adopted on July 4, 1776, and the Revolutionary War was fought against England for the sake of freedom.  The bloodiest and costliest war in our nation’s history, the Civil War, was fought largely for the sake of the freedom of slaves.  Today, we’ve seen a proliferation of “rights”, and if you speak out against or violate one of these “rights”, you’ll likely get verbally accosted, ostracized, or worse yet, physically harmed.

Our land has sadly become a place where a person’s “right” to self-expression is forwarded as inalienable, it’s even become a battle cry for unabated sin.  Recently, at a Drag Queen march, many on the march felt they could freely declare, “we’re coming for your children.”  And in the context of living as a democratic society, how our 1st Amendment rights are being defined has gotten so far out of hand, it’s amazing we have any definition of the word Freedom at all!  The problem is, no one wants to acknowledge that rights and freedoms are not free and open-ended.  My father used to tell us boys that one person’s rights end, where another person’s nose begins.  The notion of a person’s rights and freedom have spiritual, moral, and legal limitations.  We must acknowledge that our rights and freedoms are not unlimited, they came at a very high price, and the price we must accept to maintain our freedoms continues to come at a high price.

We’ve all heard the axiom that “Freedom is never free”.  Most of the time we acknowledge this price was at the expense of our families lives on the battlefields, both at home and abroad.  And when you consider just the last 100 years, or so, our country’s military personnel have been involved in one war or conflict after another: WW I (1914-1918), WW II (1939-1945), Korea (1950-1953) Vietnam (1955-1975), Granada (1983), Panama (1989), the Balkans (1992-1995), 9-11 (2001) and of course the war that continues to be fought in the Middle East beginning with Desert Shield and continues even today focused in Afghanistan.  But the cost of our freedom goes beyond the lives of those who serve and died, it includes those who have been permanently impacted both physically and emotionally.

From time to time, we’re reminded of the cost physically and emotionally to those who were severely injured in combat, of the struggles they go through adjusting to disfiguring injuries, prosthetic limbs, the loss of eyesight and or hearing.  By in large, as a country, we’ve done a good job of supporting our veterans, post Desert Storm, and we usually don’t complain about the associated costs.  But we must also admit, that these less seen and less recognized costs are also ones we’re more reluctant to pay.

What’s so often forwarded is, that’s the government’s problem, they should pay for that.  The question is, where does the government get its funding?  You and me, that’s who.  The cost of enjoying our freedoms in this country is quite high!  The problem too many people have today is, they want to ignore, or pass the buck for, the costs and choose instead to focus on what they want and think, and to do whatever they want without any resistance or consequences.  And when those consequences do come home to roost, they want to pass the buck again and have someone else pay the price.  But as the Bible reminds us, we will reap what we sow, it is the law of the harvest (Galatians 6:7).

This reminds me of the story about John’s discovery of the true nature of freedom.  John, your typical American teenager, had just graduated from high school and was planning to attend college in the fall.  Wanting to help John transition into a more independent college setting, his parents decided that it was time for John to do some growing up.  After much discussion between the parents, they decided it was time to end all his curfews.  They weren’t going to be around every day to monitor his activities at college, so he had to learn to be responsible.  From that day on, he could stay out as late as he wanted any night of the week.  John, of course, was thrilled.  At last, he thought, freedom!  Finally, he could stay out with his friends as late as he wanted without being tied to mom’s apron strings.

On the first night of his newfound freedom, John decided to stay out late.  Previously he had to be in by 11 p.m. on a weeknight, but this night he was going to enjoy his freedom.  The clock passed midnight.  Soon became 1 a.m. and still no John.  His parents were concerned.  They weren’t going to go to bed until he came home.  At 2 a.m., he stumbled in.  They stared at each other.  No words were spoken.  After all, they had given him this new freedom.  No reference to the previous night was made at the breakfast table either, as John rushed off to be at his new summer job at 8 a.m.  The next night, John stayed out even later — 2 a.m. became 3 a.m.

Again, John’s parents kept their vigil, unable to sleep.  Finally, at 4 a.m. the door rattled.  The lock opened and in walked John.  Bleary eyed, they stared at John.  He smiled nervously.  But again, no words were spoken then or at the breakfast table the next morning.  After all, this freedom thing had been their idea.  He was just expressing himself.  By the third night they had hoped that John had enough of his new freedom.  But he didn’t.  2 a.m. became 4 a.m. became 6 a.m.  The sun was even beginning to come up over the horizon and still no John.  John’s parents were worried.

At 6:30 a.m., the door rattled and in walked John.  What a night it must have been.  John’s eyes were red.  He was exhausted.  He was so tired he could hardly stand.  So were his parents.  And he had to be at work in a little over one hour.  But again, no comment was made about John’s late hours.  That brought the fourth night.  But this night, things were different.

When John got home from work, he was so tired that he showered, ate, and immediately went to bed, and so did his parents, they were very thankful.  For the rest of the summer John was home every work night and in bed by 11 p.m.  Even on weekends, when he stayed out a little later, he always made sure he called his parents and told them when he was coming home.  John, it seems, had learned an important lesson about freedom.  There’s no such thing as absolute freedom.  There is always a cost associated with our decisions.  Our culture’s promotion of absolute freedom and self-expression is a lie.  There are always limits and consequences.  There are always responsibilities.  Facts are facts, the piper must be paid; the law of the harvest is absolute.

Saint Paul makes a similar point in today’s reading.  Paul, too, insists that there is no such thing as unfettered freedom.  We are all enslaved to someone or something.  We are all owned by someone or something.  We all must obey a master.  Paul says that we all serve either sin or righteousness.  We are owned by either God or our sinfulness.  If you read a little further in our Romans passage, St. Paul laments that he simply is unable to escape his bondage to sin.  “The good that I want to do, I do not do.  And the evil that I do not want to do, that is what I do” (7:19)

Paul assumes an understanding of sin that contradicts our cultural optimism and its conviction that we’re free to choose our own individual destiny.  Even many pious and church going Christians are uncomfortable with Paul’s radical understanding of sin.  Our culture assumes (along with many Christians) that sin is essentially a “choice.”  So we shouldn’t be surprised given our society’s commitment to individualism and personal freedom.  It assumes that humans inhabit some sort of morally neutral place.

According to this school of thought, we sit on a fence and have a choice as to which side of the fence we will come down on.  One side is sin and the other is righteousness.  We have complete and unrestricted freedom to choose the road to sin or the path of righteousness.  Our inner sinful nature, the Old Adam, has no influence whatsoever on our decisions.  This point of view assumes that sin is simply choosing to break or not break God’s rules or commandments, of making or not making bad choices.  Sin is simply a choice between doing good things instead of “naughty” things.

To that point of view Paul would shout a resounding “No!”  “Naughty” actions, breaking the rules, making bad choices are only the symptoms, only the consequences, only the fruit, of a condition that is far worse.  For Paul, sin is bondage.  We affirm this at the beginning of our service each week: “We confess that we’re captive to sin and cannot free ourselves.  We sin daily against God in our thoughts, words, and deeds by what we have done and by what we have left undone.  We have not loved God with our whole heart, nor have we loved our neighbors as ourselves.  Have mercy on us!”  We’re trapped.  As Paul so bluntly puts it, “we’re either slaves to sin and its passions, or we’re slaves to righteousness.  There is no mythical, moral neutrality.  Without the Holy Spirit’s help, we are slaves to the sinful nature we were born with.

This understanding of sin as bondage and not just as bad choices is what I strive to teach when I talk about the Ten Commandments and Luther’s teaching in the Small Catechism.  Over the years, however, I’ve discovered just how difficult it is to teach this understanding of sin.  One example I’ve used is to see the commandments as a “mirror.”  Like a mirror, the commandments show us what we really look like — that we’re sinners always in need of God’s forgiveness in Jesus Christ.  The struggle we have is that we always want to minimize the demands of the commandments in order to blunt our criticism and turn them into some friendly moral instruction.  I always begin confirmation instruction by explaining that the First Commandment tells us we can have nothing that comes between us a God.  Anytime we remove the One true God from our lives, we will replace Him with something else.  Then I ask the confirmands to name the idols in our lives.  Those idols are our little g gods.

Luther, in his Large Catechism takes this further.  There he reminds us of our bondage, of our slavery, of our inescapable compulsion to always “have a god.”  It’s the very nature of human life to have a god, to have someone or something that gives our lives meaning and purpose, someone, or something that we love and are terrified of losing.  We have no choice; we cannot live our lives any other way.  We “have to” have a god.  And our gods enslave us.  Our gods demand that we worship them and appease them.  Whether that god is money or our job or our family or our body, or our cell phones, we’re never free of its demands.  There’s no other way to be a human being.  As St. Paul puts it, we are either slaves to sin, or slaves to righteousness.  The only true freedom is found in our bondage to Jesus.

The church correctly describes this bondage and slavery as “original sin.”  From the moment of our conception, we’re shaped by this “inherited sin” just as much as we’re shaped by our genes.  There is no choice in the matter.  We are owned.  But Paul also reminds us of the hope we have when he talks about another kind of ownership.  In the waters of Baptism, we were named and claimed by Christ, but this is only effective when we receive it in faith.  By receiving this gift in faith, we willingly become obedient to another Master.  And because there are only two choices, slaves of sin … or slaves of righteousness, one master must drive out the other.

In the waters of Baptism, we receive God’s unmerited grace.  Anytime we come to God and truly repent of our failures, we experience God’s unmerited grace.  Each time we come to the table in faith and gratefully receive the true body and blood of Christ in the Holy Supper, we receive God’s unmerited grace.  Anytime the story of Jesus is told, of His death and resurrection, we proclaim the message that all of us were trapped and enslaved to sin.  But because of what God did in Jesus Christ and continues to do, we are free!  Our bondage to original sin is broken.

God forgives us our sin and breaks the hold of those fears, anxieties, and false gods on our souls.  That’s the great irony that comes with being set free in Jesus Christ.  We are still enslaved!  We are still owned.  But now, instead of being enslaved to sin, we’re enslaved to righteousness.  Instead of being owned by sin and evil, we’re now owned by God.  And being owned by God actually means freedom.  We find ourselves serving righteousness.  We find ourselves wanting to do what’s right and just and moral, not because we “have to”, but because we “want to.”

Several years ago, a friend shared with me an experience he had while upgrading a computer for his pastor.  He said he went over and downloaded some software the pastor needed.  When asked how much it would cost, he hesitated and said that he could copy it and get it for nothing.  It wasn’t exactly legal, but everyone does it, he said.  He said he then hesitated and said, “But I supposed that since you are a pastor, you’re not supposed to do things that way.  You can’t do that, can you?”

Before he went any further, he said the pastor stopped him and said, “No, you’ve got it wrong.  I want to pay for that software.  I want to do what’s right.”  He continued, “you see, as a Christian, and not just as a pastor, this is the way I get to live.  I am free to serve Jesus and the guy who sells that software and justly expects to make a profit.”

Martin Luther describes it well in the opening words of his famous 1523 treatise On the Freedom of the Christian.  He says, “I am perfectly free, subject to no one.  At the same time, I am a slave, subject to everyone.”  This is what true freedom is, you and I can be free in Christ.  Today we have the right to choose, we can choose to be enslaved to our old selfish wants and desires, to be slaves to the numerous little gods of this world.  Or, we are free to be slaves of Jesus Christ and servants of your neighbors.  You see, true freedom isn’t an American privilege, it’s a Christian blessing.  And what a blessed freedom it is!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

< back to Sermon archive