Bondage and Freedom

Constraint comes in many forms... some prevents, some serves the gospel.

SJF • Proper 23c • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendent of David — that is my gospel, for which I suffer, even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained.

In our Scripture readings today we hear of three different kinds of bondage, and also of the paradoxical freedom that transcends bondage in each case.

The situation in which Saint Paul found himself involved bondage in its most literal sense. As he wrote to his young disciple Timothy, he was bound in iron chains, kept under house arrest and unable to move from the inexorable path towards judgment before the imperial tribunal and death by execution — though he would move soon enough.

The Scriptural record of the early church, much of it from Paul’s own hand, cuts off before we reach the end of his story. To hear what happens after the end of Luke’s record in Acts of the Apostles, we must rely on other early historians of the church. They tell us of Paul’s execution in Rome in the days of the Emperor Nero.

But regardless of Paul’s ultimate end, here in this letter to his young disciple Timothy as we have been hearing over the last weeks — here he writes of his imprisonment, the indignity of being chained up like a common criminal. But he uses his situation as an opportunity to contrast the human condition of bondage with the divine freedom of truth. He may be in chains, but the gospel is not chained.

Ironically, Paul’s arrest and imprisonment not only did not stop the gospel from spreading, but actually helped the gospel to spread. This is part of the great paradox of his suffering. For as Paul was ferried from port to port on his journey to Rome, at each stop along the way he preached and shared fellowship with Christians in each place. And later in Rome at last he was given opportunity to witness to the power of the gospel, and make his testimony even in the court of the emperor. There he ultimately achieved the crown of martyrdom, executed by the earthly power of humans, but bearing witness to the heavenly power of God, trusting in those words he wrote to Timothy — “The saying is sure: if we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him.”

There is an incident much later in Christian missionary history that bears witness to this truth as well. A group of Europeans in 19th-century Burma were captured by a warlord and placed in prison. Among them was a Christian missionary. The prisoners were hung by chains in a dank prison. One of the other prisoners, a colonial trader, jeered at the missionary, saying, “What do you think your chances are now of converting the heathen!” The missionary answered, “They are just as bright as ever they were, for the light of the Gospel is not quenched — even here.”

My friends, even in the place of bondage, the Christian is free. Think for a moment of the letters that Christians have written from prison: from the time of Paul, writing to Timothy; from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing from a Nazi prison, facing his own execution, awaiting his death; of the letter from Birmingham Jail, from Martin Luther King — yes, the man may be bound, but his gospel is not bound; it goes forth. And those letters are read to this day, while those who imprisoned those men are long gone and forgotten. Another Martin, for whom Martin Luther King was named, Martin Luther, stated it well in his great hymn: “The body they may kill, God’s truth abideth still; his kingdom is forever.” The bondage of restraint cannot stand against the power of God.

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Our gospel reading today tells of a different kind of bondage: a bondage not from without but from within. It is true that the lepers whom Jesus heals are freed from the bondage to disease that has kept them cut off from the rest of human society. But the bondage I want to note today in their case is not that external bondage, but rather the inner compulsion that leads one of them, one out of the ten, the Samaritan, to turn back to Jesus, to thank him for healing him. Here we are not dealing with the iron chain of imprisonment, but rather the elastic band of conscience. You know how that works. When you know that you ought to do something that you haven’t done, and that the longer you wait, and the further you get from the thing your conscience is calling you to, the stronger the pull becomes — the elastic band gets harder to pull the further it goes.

With every step that the healed Samaritan takes away from Jesus, the stronger he feels the pull grow, the pull of the need to give thanks. Finally the pull becomes so strong that he snaps right back to the feet of Jesus and falls there, offering his thanks!

The English writer Dorothy L Sayers once observed that “The divine scheme of things... is at once extremely elastic and extremely rigid. It is elastic, in that it includes a large measure of liberty for the creature; it is rigid in that... however created beings choose to behave, they must accept responsibility for their actions and endure the consequences.” This bondage of the conscience — this responsibility for ones own actions — becomes more binding the more you stretch it. The more freely you move, the stronger will be the pull.

And as we see in the story of the healed Samaritan, this is not a negative bondage — this is not a bad thing. In this case it is the bondage of gratitude: when you know you need to give thanks for something, because as even the casual expression puts it, you owe someone thanks. And it is no accident (I remind us in this stewardship season and on this day of the harvest) that it is exactly a tithe — one tenth — of the healed lepers who turns back: one out of ten, one tenth — a tithe.

This reminds us of our own call to give thanks by returning a portion of the abundance with which we have been blessed back to God — to God’s church, for the work of the church, the work of the spread of that ministry here and now — even to realize that somehow we owe God this portion of what we have received — and how some struggle, and how tautly pulled is that particular elastic in some cases! But when we return in faith and thanksgiving to the one to whom we owe that debt of gratitude, we feel the relief of knowing we have done as God wants us to do. Responding to the bondage of duty leads us to the true freedom of thanksgiving.

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The third form of bondage in our scripture readings today appears in that story of Naaman the Syrian. He too suffers from leprosy, but what seems to hold him in bondage, isn’t the disease himself; it seems to be more his pride — both his personal and his national pride. When the messenger from the prophet asks him to do a simple thing to free himself from the bondage of leprosy, to dip himself in the River Jordan, his personal and national pride stand in the way. He doesn’t want a messenger — he wants the prophet himself! He doesn’t want a to be told just to take a dip in the river, he wants a ritual; he wants a ceremony; after all, he is an important person! He deserves it! And he protests that the rivers of his homeland are better than all the waters of Israel. It takes the wise words of his servants to put him back on the right track: if you’d been asked something hard you would have done it; why not do what is simple? This wise counsel finally frees him from his bondage of pride and nationalism — and he takes those dips in the river, and he is healed of his disease, with his skin like that of a child.

Three forms of bondage — two negative and one positive — are set before us today. May we too, my dear sisters and brothers in Christ, when constrained by bondage beyond our control find the freedom of the Gospel; when healed of our ills give generously in response to the bondage of gratitude; and when challenged to do what is simple, released from the bondage of pride, and trust that God knows best what to ask of each and every one of us, and that God will be true in imparting gracious blessings, when we do as we are bid.+

The Debt of Gratitude

SJF • Proper 6c • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said, “I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love.”

Saint Peter once said, “God is no respecter of persons.”Acts 10:34 A more contemporary church leader, the late Canon Edward Nason West of our own cathedral church, put it more bluntly when he said, “God loves everybody; he simply has no taste.” What they both meant by this is that God is completely unimpressed by people’s self-righteous attempts to get on his good side, and that God is also completely at ease with sinners who struggle to turn to him in faith, however low they may have fallen.

In our Gospel today we have both sorts of people. Simon the Pharisee is a righteous man, a man who has followed all the rules, colored within the lines, payed his taxes on time and stayed within the speed limit. And he’s rather pleased with himself. That’s not to say he thinks himself perfect. He knows that he must have missed the odd requirement of the Law here or there so insignificant that it may have slipped his mind, done something in ignorance without intending to. But on the whole his conscience is clear; and to cover all his bases, every year he will have gone up to the Temple to make the guilt offering to cover any of those sins he might have committed unintentionally and in ignorance, just to keep the accounts balanced. Simon is content with his own righteousness. As far as he’s concerned, his debts are paid; he doesn’t owe God anything — he thinks.

Suddenly, into his neat and orderly world, there comes this woman, this sinner, the kind of person Simon would have crossed to the street two blocks away to avoid even coming near her. The very odor of her perfume would make him sick to his stomach. And not only does this woman of the streets come right into the dining room — along with a whole jar of her offensive perfumed ointment — but she then puts on a scandalous display, uncovering her head and loosening her hair (neither of which any respectable woman of that day would even think of doing in public) and then bending down and weeping and wiping his guest’s feet — with her hair! — and covering them with that expensive perfumed ointment.

And you can well picture the look on that Pharisee’s face as the odor of the perfume wafts down the table in his direction. And no doubt his face betrays his dismay, dismay at this woman’s interruption, and further dismay that Jesus doesn’t react the way he would, cringing from the touch of those unclean hands, if not kicking them away! Yet Jesus seems unperturbed by it all. “Just what is going on here?” the Pharisee asks himself.

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And so may we. First of all, to understand this scene, we need to picture this dinner the way it would have taken place two thousand years ago. People in those days, in that time and place, didn’t sit on chairs at a dinner table. They reclined on couches, leaning on their elbows, dining off a low table, usually C or U-shaped, with all the guests on one side. Leonardo da Vinci got the picture partly right in the “Last Supper” — everyone on one side of the table — though he placed the disciples on chairs rather than on couches. But if you’ve seen any of those gladiator movies, or stories of ancient Rome, you’ve seen what a classical banquet was like. Servants would wait on the table from inside the U, a very convenient way to avoid having to reach around or over the dinner guests to serve and clear the table. So you can picture Simon, and Jesus, and the other guests, reclining on couches. And this, of course, is how the woman of the city was able to stand “behind Jesus at his feet,” and wipe them with her hair, which would have been quite impossible had he been sitting on a chair at a modern dinner table! So as Jesus continues to recline on the couch, this woman is at the other end, weeping and wiping his feet with that perfumed ointment. And he just lets her do it.

Well, Simon is aghast! The odor of scandal is steaming towards him in an offensive cloud. Bad enough this woman has gate-crashed his dinner party, bad enough that she’s acting like this, but Jesus doesn’t seem to be bothered in the least! And that only increases Simon’s dismay.

What Simon has missed in all of this is that when Jesus accepted his invitation to dinner, when Jesus consented to spend time with him, it was just as much an act of grace as when Jesus allowed this fallen woman to wash his feet. Though Simon’s debt may have been smaller, it was a debt nonetheless.

That’s the God’s honest truth, and Jesus tells a little parable, much in the style of that parable we heard Nathan tell David, a parable to try to get the Pharisee to see. Who will show more gratitude: the one whose cancelled debt is big or the one whose cancelled debt is small?

For the Pharisee has forgotten that he has been forgiven too, that in spite of all his best efforts, he still has a spiritual debt —a debt of thanks — maybe not as much as the woman of the streets, but a debt nevertheless. But since he feels that whatever sins he’s committed and been forgiven for are so small, hardly worth mentioning, he doesn’t feel much gratitude towards God for forgiving them. After all, that’s the deal, isn’t it? The Pharisee’s attitude is: “I follow the rules, I do the right sacrifices, I fast on the right days, I say the right prayers, and if I do happen to make some small mistake, commit some small sin, God forgives me, right? So I should be grateful, too? I’m the one doing all the work!” And because he is forgiven what in his own eyes is little, he loves little, showa little gratitude. After all, he thinks he’s earned forgiveness.

The woman, on the other hand, has sinned big time and she knows it! But she also knows that she has been forgiven big time. Although she has been in the gutter — perhaps because she’s been in the gutter — she knows just how low she’s gone. She can’t go any lower! Like the prodigal son she has come to her senses because she has lost everything, but also because she has seen the rescuing hand of God, reaching out to her, the hand that is there for her. From where she has fallen she can see God reaching out to her, and her heart overflows with gratitude.

Oscar Wilde once said, when someone accused him of living in the gutter, “Sir, we are all in the gutter, only some of us are looking at the stars.” Wilde remembered what the Pharisee forgot: that all — all — are sinners in the eye of God, that “there is none righteous, no not one,” and that all forgiveness comes from God, and that “happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven.” Happy — full of gratitude! The Pharisee walks down the street so carefully, eyes downcast to avoid stepping in something unpleasant, or having to deal with people of the wrong sort, people from whom he averts his gaze as he walks with downcast eyes, he never looks up to see the grace unfolding around him: grace working in others, and grace available for him, if he only realized he needed it just as much as they.

But the sinful woman, from where she has fallen, even from the gutter, turns to God in faith and hope. And her heart overflows with gratitude in the knowledge that God has not rejected her; God, unlike the Pharisee, does not turn his gaze from her, but looks into her eyes with the forgiveness that breaks her heart, and opens it. God has not abandoned her or lost track of her no matter how far from the path of righteousness she has strayed.

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What is important to learn from this Gospel is not that those who love are forgiven the debt of sin, but rather that those who are forgiven the debt of sin still owe a debt of love. Note carefully what Jesus says: “Her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence — that is, because of that — she has shown great love.” The woman’s love does not cause God’s forgiveness any more than the Pharisee’s righteousness causes forgiveness. You just can’t earn God’s forgiveness. No way, no how! God loves us and forgives us because it is God’s nature to love and forgive. Not because we’ve earned his love, but because we are his children. Forgiveness is his gift to us. And the Pharisee and the streetwalker, and all of us, are forgiven by God as we turn to him by grace and in faith, whether our sins be scarlet, or the palest shade of pink — we all receive the forgiveness that comes from a gracious and loving God, free and unmerited. And when those waters of forgiveness pour over us we should shout out in gratitude, loving our God who loved us and saved us.

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This is a hard teaching to understand, and it has divided the church from the days when Paul wrote to the Galatians on up through the Reformation and even today. But the Gospel truth is clear, the truth Paul preached and Peter waffled on: God is no respecter of persons, and we are justified by faith, not by doing the works of the law.

That doesn’t mean we should give up on trying to do good; nor does it mean we should consciously go on doing bad — heaven forbid! What it does mean is that we should never forget that we are children of a loving and forgiving Father in heaven; and that whatever we have done or failed to do, God has forgiven us in Jesus Christ — he has nailed all of our sins to the cross, all of them — and in thanks and gratitude for the grace he has shown us we should love him in return.

We gather here to give thanks to our heavenly Father for all his goodness and loving-kindness to us. By his grace we all have been forgiven whatever we have done amiss, whether much or little. Can we do anything but give thanks to him, to show him our love for him by loving each other, as he commanded us to do? Search your hearts, my brothers and sisters, search your hearts and give thanks to God for all he has done for you, for the mercy he has shown you in forgiving your sins and drawing you close to him. Break open the alabaster jars of your hearts and pour out the abundant and fragrant oil of loving thanks to the Lord, the Almighty, and give him the praise and thanksgiving worthy of his Name, even Jesus Christ our Lord. +