by Anthony Robinson
It is a joy and a privilege for me to be part of this service and celebration of the 20th anniversary of Scott Kramer’s ordination.
I believe I have known Pastor Kramer — Scott — for about half of those twenty years. During that time I have come to know him as a person and a pastor who is both gracious and courageous. He is unfailingly gracious in his treatment of others and his way of being in the world. And he is courageous in his passion for Christ and the gospel.
Were this not enough, Scott loves and lives life fully, climbing Mt. Rainier, traveling half way around the world to learn and love. He finds equal pleasure in feeding the birds that flock to the feeders at his nearby home and in serving up a beer at Luther’s Table in Renton. The early Christian teacher, Irenaeus, said, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” Scott is a fully alive guy, and I am grateful to know him as a colleague and a friend.
Today’s gospel lesson, from John 8, is also particularly appropriate for this day of celebration. The first two verses of this Reformation Sunday text were Scott’s confirmation memory verses. The words are famous and familiar. “You shall know the truth and the truth will make you free.”
What we don’t get so clearly, if we only take this well-known excerpt, this single verse and not the whole passage is that before the truth of the gospel will make us free, there’s a pretty good chance it will make us mad. At least that’s what happens here in John. Jesus’ audience gets mad, in fact mad enough to want to kill him.
Something like that ever happen to you? That the truth makes you mad?
This happens to me about once a week. My wife tells me some truth about myself that I would just as soon not hear, thanks very much. What I want her to tell me is how good, how smart, and how right I am. And she does that . . . occasionally. But she will also tell me the truth I don’t want to hear. When I am wrong about something or some person, when I am wrong in thinking too highly of myself, she let’s me know. Boy, does that irritate me . . . and, boy, do I need it.
Yes, the truth will set us free, but first it will make us mad. At least sometimes when something, or someone, gets under our skin and makes us angry, it isn’t because they are wrong. It’s because they are right.
So what is going on here in this passage? How about if we listen to it one more time, but this time in the contemporary translation, “The Message.” Here it is —
“Then Jesus turned to the Jews who had claimed to believe in him. ‘If you stick with this, living out what I tell you, you are my disciples for sure. Then you will experience for yourselves the truth, and the truth will free you.’
“Surprised, they said, ‘But we’re descendants of Abraham. We’ve never been slaves to anyone. How can you say, “The truth will free you”?’
“Jesus said, ‘I tell you solemnly that anyone who chooses a life of sin is trapped in a dead-end life and is, in fact, a slave. A slave is a transient, who can’t come and go at will. The Son, though, has an established position, the run of the house. So if the Son sets you free, you are free through and through. I know you are Abraham’s descendants. But I also know you are trying to kill me because my message hasn’t yet penetrated your thick skulls. I am talking about things I have seen while keeping company with the Father . . .
“They were indignant, ‘Our father is Abraham.’
“Jesus said, ‘If you were Abraham’s children you would have been doing the things Abraham did, and yet here you are trying to kill me.’”
Pretty tense, pretty testy. How old were you when you were confirmed Scott? Fourteen? Should we really be giving a story like this to a kid?
One way we can evade or sidestep the meaning of this passage is to say that it’s about how Jews didn’t accept Jesus. That would be comforting, wouldn’t it? “Oh, this isn’t about us, this is about them.” But, in fact, it is about us and if we’re going to begin to get this passage, and know it’s power to free, it will be because we see ourselves in those who were both confused and irritated by Jesus.
He told them if you stick with me, you will be free. And they said, “What in the heck are you talking about? We are free. We’ve always been free. We are the descendants of Abraham.”
Now this is interesting. It is also a lie. They say, “We have never been slaves to anyone.” But, hold on, if there is one thing we know about the Hebrew people, it is that they were slaves for a good long time in Pharoah’s land. Remember Exodus? Well, apparently they did not remember it because when Jesus says he can free them, they say — in a fit of righteous indignation — “We have never been slaves to anyone!”
What do we make of their memory lapse? What are they really saying? They sound a little to me, like someone with an alcohol problem, who is in denial about that. “I don’t have a drinking problem! You’re the one who has the problem!”
In the epistle lesson Paul tells us something we may not want to hear either. He tells us that all of us have a sin problem. “There is no distinction . . . all have sinned, all have fallen short of the glory of God.” Now we may affirm that in theory, but in practice are we able to admit, “I’ve got a sin problem . . . I am not the person I pretend to be . . . I need you, Lord. I need your grace. I need a Savior.”
Jesus confronts them, and us, with the truth. We aren’t as blameless or as righteous as we like to imagine. We got a sin problem. You got a sin problem. I got a sin problem. Each and every one of us here right now, needs God’s grace. Each of needs a Savior. The good news is that we have one. “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly,” wrote Paul. When we couldn’t free ourselves, Christ freed us.
Like I said, first it makes us mad; then it sets us free.
There’s an additional dimension to what’s going on here. Do you hear what their tradition, their religion, really means? “We’re descendants of Abraham.” Translation: “We’re better than others.” It means, “We’re the good guys, we’re special, we’ve arrived.” It means, “We’re Lutherans, by
God, and who do you think you are, questioning us, telling us we need to turn our lives over to God?”
When they say, “We’re descendants of Abraham,” “we’re children of Abraham,” Abraham is not so much a model of a wild and risky faith, as he is a badge of status. This is sort of the danger of religion, the danger of tradition. It’s the reason we needed the Reformation 500 years ago, and the reason we still need it today. We humans tend to turn our traditions, even our religions, and their heroes like Abraham and Luther into badges of status instead of a reminder of our need for confession and grace.
A couple years ago I was invited to speak at a church in New York City that is both historic and famous, Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims. The church building occupies an entire city block in Brooklyn, in the beautiful Brooklyn Heights neighborhood. It’s fame owes to the fact that in the 19th century, Henry Ward Beecher held forth from the pulpit of Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims for nearly forty years. He was probably the best know, the leading, preacher in America at the time.
Beecher was also the leading voice of the Abolitionist Movement. In those years, Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims was called, “The Grand Central Station of the Underground Railway.” What a reputation! What a legacy!
The day I was to speak, I arrived at the church early. I was met there by the congregation’s lay leader, president, an older African-American gentleman. Since we had an hour, he asked if I’d like a tour of the church building. Off we went.
During the course the tour I learned that the church had no fewer than thirty-seven different memorials — plaques, statues, painting and so on — to the great Dr. Beecher. If the people in today’s lesson said, “We are descendants of Abraham,” people at Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims sort of said, “We are descendants of Dr. Beecher.”
We came to the Sanctuary, a really grand and lovely space. There my guide said, “You know, twenty years ago I was pretty sure that by now this church would have closed its doors. We were down to maybe fifty elderly people here in worship. We were dying.” Then he brightened. “But something has happened. We’ve experienced renewal, almost a kind of revival. Today we have 400 to 500 people on Sunday; new people, young people, gay and lesbian people too. We have new ministries in the community.”
“That’s great,” I said. “How do you think that happened?”
My guide said, “Well, it wasn’t all our new minister, but he has been important.”
“What did he do?”
“He got us studying the Bible. Our minister gives a great Bible study. In fact, he can give you the entire message of the Bible in just six words.”
“Really? And what might those words be?”
My host got a big grin on his face and said, “The six words that summarize the entire message of the Bible? ‘I am God and you’re not.’” We too laughed. “I am God and you’re not.” It might sound sort of
silly. But is it?
As we talked further it became clear that part of the reason for the
congregation’s struggles was that they had turned their famous preacher, Dr. Beecher, into a badge of belonging and status. The congregation had become impressed with itself, taking pride in its history and greatness. “I think,” said my host, “that we had come to think we were pretty important, a little full of ourselves. And we had forgotten Jesus Christ. We had forgotten what it meant to get down on our knees and ask for help.
When our new minister came and told us that God was saying to us, “I am God and you’re not,” at first it sort of upset us. Made us mad. We thought we were pretty special, and here was this guy saying, “You’re not so special, but God is, God is special.” At first we were a little upset, but then we came to see how this was actually good news. Because we were sort of living in the past, but our Minister helped us to see that God is not just in the past, but here and now. So we took some risks, and well, it seems as if God has surprised us, set us free.”
“I am God and you’re not.” First the truth makes you mad, then it sets you free.
My family has a cabin in Oregon. It’s been in my family for five generations now. With my parents gone, I am now the owner — really the steward — of the cabin and property. Someday I hope to hand it on to my own children.
Back in the old days, when my grandparents were alive, the other cabins around ours were all owned and occupied by friends of my grandparents, people they knew. It was like a big family. On Sundays they would string card tables together beneath the big trees and twenty or more people would gather for Sunday dinner.
But as time went on, those people passed away, and the cabins around us changed hands. Today most of the others cabins are rented out, by people who come and go. My parents, particularly my mother as she grew older, tended to be irritated and offended by these people. People who came and went often bringing too many cars, boats, ill-mannered children, dogs that did their business on her lawn. From her point of view, these folks were the unwashed, heathen, sinners.
A year ago my mother passed away. We miss her. But my wife — the one who sometimes irritates me by telling me the truth about myself — noticed the way I was starting to channel my mother when it came to the people in the cabins around us. Like her, I tended to regard them as intruders and irritants, and to sort of look down my nose at them.
This last summer I built an outdoor campfire circle near our cabin. My wife said she thought it would be nice if, in the evenings, we invited the people staying in the other cabins around us, the rental people, to the campfire. “Invite them?” I said.
The first folks to join us around the campfire were members of the Girl’s Little League team from the Warm Springs Indian Reservation. They were in town to play in the state tournament. We introduced the girls to s’mores. It was a lot of fun. We even went to their games in town. They took 2nd place in State.
Later in the summer we met other people, including Scott and his wife and their little son Oscar, and Oscar’s grandparents, Kathleen and Rich. When they first arrived, they pulled a big boat up, and I felt some of the old irritation. “Where are they going to park that thing?” Scott, it turned out was quite a fisherman. Before they left, he presented us with two twenty-inch rainbow trout, which made a wonderful feast.
Okay, not every experience with the changing cast of neighbors was as gratifying, but it sure beat sitting on our porch and eying the newcomers with suspicion. Yes, the truth is, when my wife first suggested it, I found it irritating. But eventually I found it freeing.
On this Reformation Sunday, as we celebrate your pastor’s ministry, and your own, we come once again before God to acknowledge the truth that both makes us mad and sets us free. We are sinners who stand in need of grace. Sometimes we have turned our faith and the church into our club for saints rather than Christ’s hospital for sinners — including us.
Years ago I heard Garrison Keillor preach. He was preaching to a group of ministers. This is what he said to us. “Leave your good Christian life behind, and follow Christ.”
“Leave your good Christian life behind” — that’s the makes us mad part. Leave behind your status, your security, your holier-than-thou. “Follow Christ,” that’s the part that sets us free. First the bad news: we got a sin problem. Then the good news, the best news: Christ can deal with it. We have a Savior. Thanks be to God.