Freedom from the past

  • blogpic transformationA sermon preached at Lutheran Church of the Atonement, Florissant, MO on June 26, 2016 based on Luke 9:51-60, Galatians 5:1, 13-25

    It sounds like Jesus is having a bad day. First he’s rejected in Samaria, and his disciples want to rain fire on the Samaritans to punish them. Then it sounds like Jesus is taking out his frustrations on the next three people who want to follow him with these three hard sayings. I want to ask, “What gives, Jesus? What’s up with these seemingly snarky comments?”

    Contrary to how it sounds to us, in these three sayings, Jesus invites his disciples and us, into a new kind of freedom. Maybe that’s why they sound harsh. Following Jesus beckons us to allow him to transform us from who we are into who God created us to be. Franciscan priest and author, Richard Rohr, calls this transformation moving from our false self to our True Self and it can be a painful process. Jesus lets us know in no uncertain terms that following him means letting go of what is comfortable, what we think matters, and what’s familiar in order to embrace who we are in the kingdom of God. Each Jesus’ hard sayings, reveal a false way of following Jesus and pushes us toward the freedom of living as our True Self in union with God.

    The first would-be disciple comes up to Jesus with bold assertion, I will follow you wherever you go. Jesus responds with his first challenging statement: Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.

    You’re not going to get rich following Jesus. Social climbers and material girls need not apply. Jesus has no sleep number bed, no fluffy pillow, no down comforter. Jesus might be sleeping in a straw bed in a barn one night and the cold hard ground the next. Jesus doesn’t own anything and doesn’t seek creature comforts.

    This is a hard message for us who live a very comfortable life in a consumer culture that entices us to consume more and more—a bigger house, newer car, the latest styles, the most advanced gadget, the best beer, the latest anti-aging miracle cream. Advertisers prey on our anxieties about having enough, being secure, being loved, and successful—relentlessly encouraging us to find peace, happiness, and comfort through stuff that is More! New! and Better!

    Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the son of man has nowhere to lay his head. Jesus invites us to stop looking to material comforts and outward success to assuaghhe our anxiety, and instead, to draw near to Jesus who offers us an inner peace and comfort that no amount of money can buy. In Philippians 4, the Apostle Paul says it this way: I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty…I can do all things through him who strengthens me. In Chapter 26, the prophet Isaiah says it this way: Thou dost keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee.

    No matter what our physical circumstances, the God-sized hole inside that drives our anxiety can only be filled with presence of Jesus Christ. Jesus invites us to let go of the false self who looks to the material world for peace, and to step into our True Self, who trusts that all I need comes from Jesus Christ. Jesus’ first hard saying, invites us into this deep freedom from anxiety.

    A second would-be follower says to Jesus, Lord, first let me go and bury my father. But Jesus said to him, Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.

    This response from Jesus sounds particularly harsh. Surely the commandment to honor our Father and Mother includes giving them a proper burial. So what is Jesus getting at?

    In ancient Israel, there were strict Temple rules, requirements and rituals about burial. These requirements were so important that those who were tending to burial tasks were relieved of saying their morning and evening prayers in order to make sure their duty to bury was properly fulfilled. Until the proper burial had taken place, the one responsible for burial was considered ritually unclean. They could not enter the Temple; they could not attend worship, or participate in any religious activity.

    If this would-be disciple followed Jesus without attending to these ritual requirements of burial, he would forever be ostracized from the Temple, like a leper or other outcast. They had to get the rituals right—they had to follow the letter of the law. By saying, Let the dead bury their own dead, Jesus dismantles the rigid requirements of the law. Jesus sets us free from having to do everything right and perfectly in order to be loved by God and saved for eternity. This is exactly what Paul is talking about in our text from Galatians. For freedom Christ has set us free! We are freed from trying to be perfect and now the standard is not whether you’re doing everything right, but whether you’re doing everything with love. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, as Paul reiterates Jesus:You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Bury your father out of love and not in order to earn your salvation by following the rules perfectly.

    When I was in seminary, Jesus’ invitation to let go of being perfect was driven home to me in a powerful way. There was an Institute for Spiritual Direction down the street from the seminary, and I thought it would be a good idea to give spiritual direction a try. A Spiritual Director is someone you meet with monthly who helps you pay attention to your relationship with God. So I sat across from a Director-in-training, Christine, for my very first session and she asked me to tell her about myself.

    Well I was a Type A, perfectionist, over-achiever who worked very hard at earning everyone’s love and approval through compulsive accomplishment. I thought I was doing what I was supposed to do—what God, my parents and everybody else expected of me. I followed the rules. After I told her about all of my accomplishments, Christine looked at me and she held up her index finger. Making spokes in the air coming out from her finger, she said, Here’s Linda and her straight A’s, her speech trophies, and her choirs, and her campus ministry work, and her urban plunge, and her awards.

    Then she held up her finger with a quizzical look on her face as if to say, when I take all of those accomplishments away, who is Linda?

    It was like a building imploding from the inside. My whole life collapsed around me, and there I was covered in dust and dirt in the middle of the rubble. I had done everything right, I followed the rules. I had done everything I thought I was supposed to do, and now I’m 23 years old and I have no idea who I am?

    I was so mad and depressed at the same time. Did I transformation can be painful? It was time to let go of my false self–the one who tried to earn love, approval and salvation, and begin to develop my True Self—For freedom, Christ has set us free.

    The first step was to accept my true identity. Who is Linda? I am a Baptized child of God, I am loved and forgiven through Jesus Christ who calls me to love others as God has loved me. And that’s it. That’s all I need; that’s all you need. No list of accomplishments.

    Jesus says, Let the dead bury their own dead and go proclaim the kingdom of God. Jesus invites us to let go of our false self who earns love and salvation and to step into our True Self whose identity is grounded in God’s love in Jesus Christ. Jesus’ second hard saying, invites us into freedom from perfectionism and the freedom to love as Christ loves us.

    A third would-be disciple approaches and says, I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home. Jesus said to him, No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.

    We have all heard the phrase, first made by philosopher George Santayana, Those who cannot remember the past are condemned …to repeat it. And, Hindsight is 20/20. We all understand the importance of learning from the past, so what is Jesus getting at?

    This time Jesus uses a farming metaphor: A plow in Jesus’ time was most likely made of a single blade with 2 handles for the farmer to hold. The blade was strapped to mule or ox and with the 2 handles, the farmer would both steer the animal and cut the furrow. In order to cut a straight furrow, the farmer had to keep her eyes straight ahead, exactly on the edge of the field where she wanted to end up. The second the farmer looks back, looks away, or does not have her undivided attention on her destination across the field, the animal waivers and walks whichever way she looks and the farmer ends up with a wavy, crooked furrow.

    Wavy, crooked furrows make for bad farming and a poor harvest: patches of land will go unused, watering is more difficult, and your harvest will not be as abundant. But when you have straight furrows, everything else that you do becomes easier—watering, irrigation, drainage, and harvesting are all much easier, plus you have used your land most efficiently.

    So the most successful farmer always keeps his eyes on the future—his eyes are always locked on his destination on edge of the field he’s plowing—and that future arrival point, is what determines his plowing in the present moment—not the past, not the last harvest, not what happened ten years ago, and not whether he feels worthy to be a farmer.

    Jesus knows that the problem of living with one eye looking back, is that we use the past to limit us and close down possibilities in the present and future. Haven’t we all created crooked wavy paths out of our life by keeping one eye looking backwards? If only I hadn’t done that. Why did she say that to me? What are they going to think of me now? If only I had made a different choice, if, if, if.

    We rehearse past events, nurse resentments, and let guilt and shame fester. We all have those painful experiences in life—our first broken heart or a time where we put ourselves out there either in a relationship or a project at work and we felt shut-down or rejected. We react by making a decision internally that affects our future: I’ll never put myself out there again, or we create a new negative belief about ourselves—I don’t deserve to be loved,or I’m just not worthy of a good job,or I don’t deserve happiness, or whatever story you’ve told yourself that you’re now living inside of. We live as if the past determines the future, and off we go with a crooked furrow that grows from a crooked and limited self-understanding.

    Jesus’ third hard saying invites us to be defined not by our past, but by our future—a future that is already determined by Jesus, a future that is secured by Jesus’ death, and defined by Jesus’ resurrection. We already know the other side of the field—the other side of the field is life eternal with God through Jesus Christ! It doesn’t get better than that!

    So in the kingdom, we don’t live from the past forward, but rather, like someone holding a plow, we live from the future backward to the present. We keep our eyes on the kingdom of our risen Lord and we plow a straight path in our life, trusting that in his death and resurrection, all of our past with its pain and disappointment is already redeemed! Then our straight furrow produces a rich harvest of the fruits of the Spirit that Paul identifies in Galatians: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

    Jesus says, No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.

    Jesus invites us let go of the false self that clings to past failures and hurts, and to step into our True Self who lives from God’s promised future. Jesus’ third hard saying, invites us into freedom from the past and to live right now, in the heavenly kingdom that has already been won for us in Christ Jesus.

    Within these hard sayings, Jesus invites us to a spiritual freedom greater than we had imagined. Jesus invites us to live in freedom from anxiety, freedom from perfectionism, and freedom from the past.

    Let the love and power of the risen Lord continue to transform you into your True-Self; your True-Self who completely trusts in God as the source of all you need, the author of who you are, the redeemer of your past, and the future toward which you are living.

  • The Challenge and Gift of Forgiveness in My MeToo StoriesAfter reading my “#MeToo” story, a friend asked whether I had forgiven the colleagues and professors I had written about. As a spiritual and religious person, I am a little embarrassed to admit that I had not thought much about forgiveness in the context of my personal harassment. So as we welcomed and celebrated the Incarnation of God in the human being of Jesus, I pondered this question. I’ve come to realize that forgiveness for those who failed me in various ways when I was a young female pastor had been a part of developing spiritual and emotional maturity; it rarely came as an intentional decision.

    I saw that I’d overlooked forgiving my harassers, in part, because my anger at them was conflated with my frustration with the institutional church, which failed to listen, to take me seriously, and to help me seek justice; it failed even to require appropriate behavior from its male leaders. Further, the church had failed to provide much-needed support as I tried to serve my first two congregations.

    The first congregation had longstanding internal power struggles. It was an inappropriate post for a first-time pastor of either gender, yet my requests for help and guidance from colleagues and judicatory staff went unheeded. Eventually I resigned and embarked upon eight months of therapy to put myself back together, spiritually and psychically. My next call, in a different state, was from an inner-city church in need of an urban ministry strategy. I turned to that judicatory staff for help with developing a cooperative vision and a plan for resourcing and supporting it; again, I was met with inaction. Independently, for four years, I formed partnerships there with other congregations where feasible, as I pastored a congregation in frequent crisis.

    But then, after almost a decade of being a female intern and novice pastor seeking help from my church leaders and finding none, I resigned from the ministry and answered another call – to become a full-time mom and to heal an exhausted mind, body, and spirit. During my extended leave, I focused on my family and self-care. Not on forgiveness.

    Now, turning my attention to that left-behind matter, I find that something has changed, even without my awareness or intention. First, I found that I’ve often thought of forgiveness as something to offer when someone who has wronged me apologizes — forgiveness wipes the slate clean and erases a debt, giving the relationship a fresh start. Such reconciliation is essential in our close, on-going relationships with friends and family. I am grateful to have experienced this in one situation of harassment. The Bible, however, reminds me that I am called upon to forgive others simply because God has forgiven me (Ephesians 4:32). God’s forgiveness is free, unmerited, a gift of love and grace. God expects us to offer this same selfless mercy to others, whether or not it is requested, undeserved, or the hurt goes deep. This kind of forgiveness frees the other, but also frees us from bitterness, resentment, and the spiritual and physical illnesses that can result from hanging on to toxic emotions.

    Still, forgiving does not mean continuing to put ourselves in harm’s way. Forgiving does not mean accepting or condoning a wrong-doer’s behavior. Forgiving does not mean that we do not pursue justice through administrative or legal channels. Forgiving does mean letting go of the desire for revenge. “Repay no one evil for evil … Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:17-19). At its fullest, forgiveness frees us from giving those who have harmed us power over our emotions, choices, thoughts and self-identity; we stop giving them free rent in our heads and hearts. This can be done alongside an adjudication process, or without such a process. Each of us must wrestle with the healing path that is best for us.

    Taking leave to raise my children was a first step in the forgiveness process — a decision to get myself out of harm’s way to heal. What I’ve learned over that time has helped me with other important aspects of forgiveness—forgiveness both for my perpetrators and the institutional church. That included looking at myself and confronting my own expectations. I needed to stop being surprised by sin and to stop expecting the church — or any human institution for that matter — to be free of sin and brokenness. Of course, the church and the people in it fail me and others on a regular basis — as do I, and all of us! My sin has been putting my faith and trust in something other than God incarnate in Jesus Christ (a wonderful reflection as we celebrate the Nativity).

    It is freeing to understand that I am not to expect nor look to the church or anyone in it, to take care of me; that is my job through my relationship with God. I learned the distinction between asking someone to care for and about me in a healthy way versus asking them to take care of me and giving up my own personal power, volition, and responsibility. Without this shift, I would have been perpetually wounded and disappointed by the fact that the church and its leaders are all part of our fallen world. This realization opened me up to forgiving the church. This growing spiritual maturity has resulted in deeper emotional freedom. I have stopped giving my perpetrators power over my identity and confidence and, over time, I have stopped letting mistrust of male colleagues prevent me from exploring team ministry. The last step in this process has been to forgive myself, both for having unrealistic expectations and for hanging on to fear, even unconsciously. Reflecting on and writing about this has helped move me into this last step of self-forgiveness.

    After nine years at home with my children and running a home business, in 2006 I returned to parish ministry. The ELCA (Evangelical Church in America) as an institution also had grown and changed over these years. For instance, there are more policies in place to make congregations safe for everyone, including children, and when pastors or other leaders commit boundary violations, there are procedures and ways to find help. In addition, it's thrilling to be part of a denomination that welcomes LGBTQ+ people into the full life of the church, its ministry, and its marriage rites! In fact, I can say that I love the ELCA now more than I ever have since my ordination in 1989. This reveals my own spiritual and emotional growth toward the freedom and fullness of forgiveness that includes my perpetrators, the institution, and myself.

    This love leads me to care for the church – to help it be faithful when it fails, to seek the path of truth, reconciliation, justice, accountability, and forgiveness — but not to expect it to take care of me. I need to be okay at my core because of the salvation God freely gives in Jesus Christ, and that’s true both when the church and its leaders are faithful, and when we fail. For me, that’s the freedom of forgiveness that comes from a process of deepening my own spiritual life rooted in the love and mercy of God. Through God’s unmerited forgiveness of me, and love for me, I am freed to forgive others, and freed to love and serve as God calls me to today, regardless of what has happened in my past.

    Image: Downloaded from quotefancy.

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