This sermon was preached at Bethany Lutheran Church at Cherry Hills Village, CO on October 28, 2018. It can be viewed at http://www.bethanylive.org.
The texts were Jeremiah 31: 31-34, Romans 3: 19-28 and John 8: 31-36.
Gather the children after the reading of the gospel. Put on the Halloween Cat ears headband! “I love Halloween! It’s fun to pretend to be someone or something else, isn’t it? What are you all going for as Halloween? Wow! Great ideas! Do you ever or did you when you were younger, play dress up? Why do you think it’s fun to be someone different, or try something new? Yep! It’s fun to explore different pieces of our selves, be silly and have fun! But I can wear cat ears all day long and I’ll never be a cat! But have you ever pretended to be someone you’re not to be someone’s friend or have people like you? Or do you hide something about yourself so that people will think that you are a certain way? Such as pretending to like a song, or movie or an activity? Or even pretending to NOT like someone or something? How do you feel when you aren’t really being yourself? Is it hard? We all do this, even or maybe especially adults. If you’re pretending to be someone you’re not, you have to remember to act a certain way, to say certain things all the time and it can feel like your caught in only pretending and not the truth of who you are. Jesus was talking to some people who were pretending to be someone they weren’t. They told Jesus that they were children of Abraham, and forgot some of their past. You see they were really people of God. They had forgotten the truth that they were God’s people and should be acting like God’s people by taking care of and loving each other. The truth is that no matter who we pretend to be: whether is for fun for Halloween or we’re trying to fit in with friends, is that we are children of God first and God loves us always. And the makes us free from worrying about who will like us or not, or who we should be nice to or not because as children of God, who are always loved, then who do we love? Everyone! So that they know the truth of who they are and that they are free in love too! God gives this gift to us all no matter what! I do really love Halloween because it’s silly and fun. So, here’s a little Halloween treat for each of you. But first let’s pray.
As we talked about with the kids, it’s easy to want to pretend to be something we’re not. Many of us probably have stories of pretending to be someone we weren’t. When I was in the 7th grade, I spent about a week pretending I didn’t need glasses. I am very near sighted and a couple of other issues, and I spent a week not being able to see more than about 2 feet in front of me. But you see, I wanted to be someone else, one of the popular kids at school, and none of the cool, popular kids wore glasses and so it seemed to fit in, I shouldn’t either. Now, it turns out, neither did they play the violin, like Barry Manilow as much as I did, were 4 ft 8, were in advanced classes, or were as church nerdy as I was, but somehow I thought my lack of being with the popular kids had to do with my glasses….yeah. I tried to be something I actually wasn’t and, according to my children, will never be: cool. Nope. No matter how hard I try. I’ll always be a bit nerdy, straight laced, blaring Barry down I-25. I was hoping our hymn of the day could be Copacabana…But it’s who I truly am and I did indeed have friends, friends who knew my heart and liked me for who I was, glasses and all.
Part of being human is experimenting and wrestling with our identity, who we see ourselves to be, who we aspire to be, what we want others to see about us. We convince ourselves that our true selves aren’t lovable and that no one will like us as we really are. We want to belong, even if it means not being true to ourselves, owning our identity and revealing our heart. And this can enslave us in many ways.
And it should be no surprise that this struggle unfolds in our biblical witness. The Israelites have this identity crisis in spades in our John passage this morning, and we don’t have time in one sermon to unpack it. But let’s suffice to sum it up this way: When they tried to be anyone other than the people of God, it went awry, as it does for us all. Slaves in Egypt, captured by Assyria and Babylon, destruction of the temple, occupation by Rome. It’s a mess. Oh no, we’ve never been slaves, they tell Jesus. I sometimes wonder how many times Jesus rolled his eyes and if he ever worried that they might stick that way. RIIIIIGGHHHTTTTT, you’ve never been slaves. Ok. Fine. Then who are you? Are you more concerned with your image or with your relationship with God? Because God is more concerned about a relationship with you, than anything else, Jesus says, to those whom John simply called the Jews, but were probably some of the religious elite. And we should be careful to not think disparagingly of them, as are we no better in this kind of self-deceit? This is why Jesus is trying to reveal to them and us that our true identity as a child of God, even with a bumpy past, is truly our freedom. This is the freedom that Martin Luther came to know after years of trying to be something he could never be: a person who never sinned. This truth of simply being a beloved child of God, free from fear of displeasing God, free from trying to earn God’s love, and free from rules from the Church, spurred Luther to proclaim this epiphany to all who would listen. Luther didn’t want people to confuse church with God and that being the best cobbler, farmer, parent, or whatever, is doing God’s work in the world. We are free in God’s grace to be whomever God calls us to be and no one should judge. But even Luther recognized that “freedom” is tricky.
Freedom in God’s kingdom is very different than our western, 21st century concept of freedom. Freedom isn’t about self-realization, self sufficiency, individuality or the ability to do whatever you want. Freedom isn’t only about you and you alone. Freedom is linked to relationship with God and so also to your neighbor. Freedom is vulnerability to show your heart, to admit that you need renewal, and to simply be you. You, and each of us, created in the image of God. Freedom is belonging to community, in God’s family, as Jesus says. Jesus shows us that freedom means revealing who we truly are as God’s people. We are people freed to feed, clothe and house those who are unhoused, to comfort those who come to our land seeking safety, peace and a better future. Jesus shows us that freedom is ensuring that our siblings are not harmed or erased by racism, anti-Semitism, or homophobia. Jesus always included in God’s grace people whom the rest of the world dismissed, freeing them from labels and marginalization. Jesus was clear that true freedom is to adhere to the law of love, not just of self, but of your neighbor. Our first graders have spent the last two weeks learning about this freedom in the law of love and will share that today in worship. True freedom is to allow God’s love and grace to transform and reform our hearts and lives daily for the sake of the world. We pray with our Jewish siblings, as we all lament the senseless loss of life of 11 beloved children of God. We must also confess the sin of anti-Semitism that has been perpetuated in the past by our denomination and reform ourselves to do so no more. May our hearts and lives be transformed and reformed so that we all seek peace, harmony and the abundant life that Jesus offers for all people.
This is heart of the Reformation story from our past and for the Reformation story that we continue to write today. Reformation isn’t a historical action that is completed but is a truth about God’s continuing actions in our lives and in the world today. Reformation is the truth of the soul of God’s Church on earth. Reformation demands that we stop pretending to be anyone but whom God created us to be. Reformation demands that we pour our gifts and hearts into the world despite the risk, despite fear, despite differences, to reveal our true identity as imperfect, broken yet beloved people of God, called to invite all people have an experience of this God who gifts grace, love and mercy unconditionally. Reformation is an invitation to all people to trust in the promises and freedom in God. God’s promises free us to be Reformation people, always being made new, so that we can live into the truth of who we are, and whose we are. As God promised in Jeremiah, God will always be our God and we will always be God’s people, we simply can’t be anyone else. And it’s enough. Thanks be to God.