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Edward F. Markquart

Freedom in Christ

Reformation Sunday     Luke 5:33-6:11
(Also coupled with Galatians 5:1, 13, Pentecost 6C; Galatians Series)

Jesus means freedom.  Jesus means freedom, not only from sin and guilt, but from rules, regulations and rituals. These rules, regulations and rituals seem to originate in the Bible but are merely cultural impositions us. Jesus means freedom from this particular rules, regulations and rituals. Let me tell you a story.  

This morning I would like to begin by telling you a fable. This is a very famous fable from childhood, and I would like to take this fable and slightly alter it to meet the needs of our day.

This fable happened long ago, some one hundred and fifty years ago, when there was a ship sailing from England to the United States. When you sailed from England to the United States some one hundred and fifty years ago, it was a relatively safe journey but could be a frightening trip on one of those old large windjammers. It could be unnerving crisscrossing the ocean on a windjammer.

As this old man sailed across the Atlantic Ocean, his vessel was hit by a violent storm that started to shatter all the sails. The masts toppled over and slowly the ship was disintegrating. The old man threw his body into a life raft and before anyone could get into that life raft with him, that raft burst away from the main vessel. The raft set out to sea with only this little old man. He was alone in the life raft.

For two nights and days, the storm beat against this small raft and finally one day, the raft washed up onto an island shore. The man was alone on that deserted island.  As he washed up onto that island, the man did not know what to expect. He didn’t know whether or not there were renegade pirates on that island. He didn’t know if there were going to be savages there. He didn’t know if this was an English penal colony where they had gotten rid of the undesirables from old England. There were none of these.

Instead, there were millions upon millions of Lilliputans, little people, about that tall, about one inch tall. There were millions upon millions of these Lilliputans, and Gulliver was dumbfounded. The Lilliputans thought that Gulliver was a giant, a huge giant, cruel and mean. So the Lilliputans began to wage war against Gulliver and they pulled out their canons and they began to shoot at him. Their little wads of mud bounced off of Gulliver’s body, as did the arrows from their bows. The arrows were merely toothpicks and they too bounced off of Gulliver’s gigantic body.

So, one moon lit night, when Gulliver was asleep on a hill, the legions of Lilluputans crept up silently with string and thread, and very quietly tied strings around each of his fingers. They silently tied hundreds of strings around each of his fingers. Hundreds of strings to each of his fingers and also to his wrists, elbows and arms. They put strings and threads around his chest, around his knees, around his toes. Every hair on his head had a string. The Lilluputans tied Gulliver firmly down, and when Gulliver awoke the next morning, he couldn’t move. He had been tied down by thousands upon thousands upon thousands of silver thin threads.

Gulliver was sure to die because he couldn’t feed himself. Gulliver was sure to die because he couldn’t give himself water. Thus ends of version of Gulliver’s Travels. Did Gulliver live? Did Gulliver die? You complete the last epoch of the story.

One thing was sure: Gulliver needed to be set free from the thousands upon thousands of little ties and knots, strings and threads, that were holding him down and killing him and his freedom.

The meaning of this fable is obvious. It is the nature of human institutions, whether they be government, schools, churches, social conventions; it is the nature of all human institutions to put thousands upon thousands upon thousands of little regulations on people in order to hold them down, tie them down. 

For example, I think you know what it means to work with the Federal Government. If you apply for welfare or food stamps, or whatever you apply for to the government, you know that there are miles of red tape, a myriad of rules and regulations. A visit to the Federal office to apply for food stamps is dreaded. … I could give you hundreds of samples of this tendency. Merely talk with Dr. Charles Salzer of our parish, who is Chief of Staff at a local hospital, and he despairs at all the paper work required by the government for Medicare or any other program. Dr. Salzer throws up his hands, not knowing where to begin with all the paperwork that is now required by the government for each hospital. So many rules and regulations. Thousands of them. Let me give you a second example of this tendency. Let’s say you are going to sell your house and an FHA loan is being considered. The FHA comes out to inspect your house, and they have the thickest rulebook you have ever seen. Or, have you applied for a building permit at the city recently? … It is the nature of all human institutions, whether they are churches, schools or governments, to start to make a shift. A subtle shift is made, where the original purpose of the institution was to serve people, and instead, the people start to serve the institution. It happens again and again and again. The legal needs of the institution become greater than the real needs of the people. A shift occurs and the needs and regulations of the institution become greater than the needs of the people. 

It is precisely that attitude of Gulliver being strapped down with thousands upon thousands of little regulations that the Gospel lesson speaks about today. In the Judaism of that time in history, their religion had become a religion of a thousand rules and regulations. The original purpose of the Old Testament religion was to help people meet their spiritual and emotional needs. That is the purpose of the Old Testament religion: to help people praise God and serve one another. But instead, there were thousands of little traditions that people had to do, and those regulations became the preoccupation of the Old Testament church.

The gospel story for today is about plucking and eating of grain.  The gospel story is a trilogy of three stories, and in all three stories, Jesus is the liberator. Jesus is the liberator who sets people free. Jesus sets people free, not from sin, and not from guilt. Jesus sets people free from the thousands of rules and regulations that started to tie people down.

Let me tell you the three stories. They are beautiful stories. They are intended to be told together as a trilogy. They are not intended to be told individually.

The first story is this:  It was the day before the Sabbath, and Jesus and his friends were having a party.  They were having a good time and laughing, smiling, eating, drinking and having a good time. They were having a real nice party. The followers of John the Baptist crashed that party and said, “Jesus, you can’t do that. That violates our religious tradition. Don’t you know that it is the day before the Sabbath, and on the day before the Sabbath, you are supposed to be pious and holy? You are to fast in preparation for the Sabbath. You are not supposed to drink. You are not supposed to eat. You are supposed to wear old clothes and look pious. Here, you are having a party. You can’t do that.” … To which Jesus said, “My religion is a religion of new wine. You can’t take new wine and put it into old wineskins. When the new wine expands, the old wineskins just burst. Mine is a religion of new wine.” To which John the Baptist’s followers replied, “You can’t have a party on the day before the Sabbath.  You are supposed to fast, be serious, and pious, like we do. Our teacher, John the Baptist, calls you winebibber and a party boy. It looks like his descriptions are true.”  Their rule was this: a religious day of fasting before the Sabbath began. 

Story two. Jesus and his disciples were walking along through the grain fields on the Sabbath, and the Jews, like the government, had hundreds of little rules and regulations, including laws for the Sabbath. They had regulations such as: you couldn’t cook. You couldn’t bake. You couldn’t’ pick up water. If your donkey fell in a hole, you couldn’t pull it out. They had rules and regulations that defined the word, “work.” You couldn’t work on the Sabbath, and any action such as baking, cooking, picking up water, or pulling your donkey from a hole was defined by Jewish law as being work. … Jesus and his disciples were talking through a grain field. I can’t imagine walking through grain fields and picking grain to eat, so in my imagination, I have them walking through a pea patch and picking peas. The disciples were walking through a field of peas and they were hungry, so the disciples and Jesus picked some peas as they walked along. They picked the peas, opened the pods, and popped peas into their mouths. The Pharisees saw this and shouted at him, “Jesus, you can’t do that. That violates our tradition. For one thing, it is work to pick peas and secondly, it is work to open the shell. You can neither pick food or open the shell. It is against our laws. You can’t do work on the Sabbath. You’re not being religious enough.” … Jesus said to them, “You misunderstand. Human beings weren’t made to obey the Sabbath rules and regulations. The Sabbath day of rest was made for human beings. The Sabbath Day was given to us to worship God, relax, rest, and recuperate. The Sabbath is to free us from all the work we have been doing this past week. The Sabbath wasn’t made in order so human beings had a bunch of rules and regulations to follow. The Sabbath was made for us people, so we could rest and rehabilitate.” To which the Pharisees said, “You can’t do that on the Sabbath. It violates our rules and regulations.”

The third story. It was on the Sabbath day again. These stories are part of a trilogy.  Jesus and his disciples had come to the synagogue to worship. There was an old man right outside of the synagogue who had a withered hand.  According to the Gospel of Hebrews, one of the apocryphal gospels of that time, the old man was a stonemason. The stonemason couldn’t work because he had withered hands. Jesus came to heal him and the Pharisees said, “You can’t do that. You can’t heal a man on the Sabbath. That violates our rules and regulations. According to our law, you can help people if they are getting worse, but you can’t help a person get better when they are sick on the Sabbath. That violates our law because our law dictates that you can’t do any religious work such as making a man better.” Jesus shook his head and said, “That is absolute nonsense.” Jesus healed the man.

In all three of these stories, Jesus means freedom. From other sermons and Bible lessons, we know that Jesus means freedom and he frees us from the sinfulness of our lives. Jesus also frees us from the guilt that binds us. But in today’s stories, Jesus means freedom and he frees us from the rules, regulations and rituals, from those customs, that we have become convinced are the will and purpose of God. In order to be Christian or religious, we have to do these customs, these rules, regulations and rituals. Jesus frees us from all customs that interfere with helping people praise God and serve one another. What are the rules, regulations and rituals? Any customs that we think we have to do in order to be religious.

As we all know, we have been a part of many churches in the past who believe that the purpose of their church is to retain its religious customs, its rules and regulations. The purpose for many Lutheran churches is to retain our Lutheran heritage. If you change the worship service, you are violating the traditions of God. We have our rules and regulations here at Grace Lutheran Church and we quietly impose them on people.

I would like to give you a series of illustrations today where Jesus means freedom. Jesus means freedom from our religious customs that we think are somehow God-given but are not. I would like to give you several examples of this from my own personal history, that are part of my real world experience with rules, regulations and rituals that feel like the will of God.

First example. Years ago, but this happens even today, I called on a person at the hospital when I was a young assistant pastor. I listened to the person, said the prayers, gave the Sacrament, and the person asked me as I left the door, “And when will the pastor be calling on me?” I wasn’t the real pastor. Pastor So and So was the real pastor, and when he called, the angels of God finally came into the hospital room.

Second example. I grew up on Norwegian legalism back in Jackson, Minnesota. In this Norwegian legalism, I learned that I was not supposed to dance, drink, or smoke. I was not supposed to go to the bowling alley because it was next door to the pool hall, and the pool hall was a very sinful place. I think this was because off the smoke hanging in the air above those green tables, and of course, the bar at the far end of the pool hall. We could play the card game, Rook, but not bridge. We could drink wine but not beer or vodka. There were all kinds of things that we permissible and not permissible, so I grew up on Norwegian legalism in my childhood. … In young adulthood, I remember pastor who loved to drink beer, but he was always careful not to leave beer bottles in his trashcan but boxed them up and returned them to the store in the next larger town where he bought the beer. This young pastor wanted to protect his privacy of enjoying beer, so his parishioners would not know.

A third example of rules, regulations and rituals that we thought were the will of God. It was deemed true that certain people were more religious than others, by the degree of their association with the church. The more Christian people were especially those who loved their Norwegian heritage and came to worship more often; those who didn’t weren’t quite as religious. Someone could be a skunk, but if he or she came to church sufficiently, he or she was a forgiven skunk.

A fourth example. Don’t date or marry Roman Catholics. My sister married a devout Catholic and it was clear to me that this was a violation of God’s will for our lives. We were to date and marry Lutherans, not Catholics.

A fifth example. The years passed, but the same principle applied. I remember here at Grace that a divorced person was asked to be on the church council, and this upset certain members of our congregation.  They said, “Divorced people can’t serve on the church council because they won’t be good role models for our children.”

A sixth example. It was more than twenty-five years ago that a black man and white woman got married and did almost everybody have a snit over that. The pastor, the congregation, the family members, the parents, the children. This was heresy, for a black and white woman to get married. It violated all the rules of God’s law.

A seventh example. You can’t be a male, wear long hair and be a Christian. The “long hairs,” as they were called then, were tolerated but not fully accepted into the church. This situation was complicated by the fact that a favorite picture of Jesus showed him wearing long hair, and of course, looking very Nordic, and white and thin faced with a well-proportioned nose. Even having a portrait of the actual Jesus wearing long hair, “long hairs” violated our customs, the ways we did things.

An eighth example. You can’t be too poor and come to worship. It violates our rules, regulations and rituals not to be clean, well pressed and come to worship. In the old days, you actually had to wear a suit and tie if you were an adult male for that was the customary dress. Rules, regulations, rituals.

 Ninth example, we can’t use contemporary music. God created the organ for worship and we are to be lead with this magnificent instrument. The guitar, drums and bass guitar are not quite instruments of the devil but coming close.

Tenth example, only men can be Lutheran pastors and only men can serve on the church council. Women can teach Sunday School and serve socials but not be preachers or leaders in the church. We will not accept women interns because men interns are more effective than women interns. We will not accept women as youth directors because men are more authoritative then women as youth directors.  Besides, women can get pregnant, have children, and they won’t be as effective as men who won’t be so tied down with the children. By the way, let’s put change tables for babies only in the women’s bathrooms since the men rarely use them.

The list goes on and on. We, the church, are forever being confronted with our rules, regulations and rituals that we have felt are the rules, regulations and rituals of God. Over time, we often love our rules, regulations and rituals as much as Jesus Christ. We cling to our religious customs as much as Jesus and his love for all people. Pastors of previous generations fought women’s suffrage and the right to vote based on their Biblical interpretations of women as being the weaker sex who needed not to talk in the voting booth. This was a highly charged issue for some pastors two generations ago.

Jesus means freedom, not only from sin and guilt. Jesus also means freedom from our interpretations and customs that we think Christianity should be. In the trilogy of Biblical stories for today, Jesus is forever freeing us to worship and serve our fellow human beings, in this time, this place and this culture.

One last comment. When I grew up, we sang the hymn, “Holy Holy Holy” every Sunday morning. I mean, every Sunday morning. I thought that it was the will of God that we sang it every Sunday. Amen.

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