“A Free Gift” – 06-29-14 – Proper 8 – Cycle A

Listen to the sermon here:

Scripture – Jeremiah 28:5-9; Psalm 89:1-4,15-18; Romans 6:12-23; Matthew 10:40-42

Rob was heard asking, “How do I know if I have done enough good things, if I have gone to confession often enough, if I am forgiven for my sins, if I have given enough money to help other people, if I have done kind acts for enough people?” How do I know if I have earned salvation? How can I be sure that I will be welcomed in heaven when I die?”

Christina said, “You missed something, Rob.” “What would that be?” said Rob. “Grace,” said Christina. “You have missed the gift called “grace.” “Who gives this gift?” said Rob. “How do I get it and how can it be free?” Christina said, “God gives the gift. It is free.” “Wow,” said Rob. “Free?” “How can that be?” “What should I say to God in thanksgiving?”

Christina replied, “Just say ‘thank you’ and act as though you really appreciate this gift of freedom from guilt, from fear, from any kind of anxiety.” Rob replied, “Does that mean I can sin recklessly? I can drink too much, gamble too much, say unkind things without feeling sorry?” “Well,” Christina replied, “No! It does not give you license to treat yourself in those ways. That would show that you are ungrateful to God. Think, this precious, tremendous gift of grace is not a ‘light’ gift! It is a very expensive gift. Jesus temporarily lost his life in the process.”

“Oh,” said Rob, quietly. “Oh. Do you mean my life is not my own? Do you mean that I don’t have a wild kind of freedom?” “Correct, said Christina. “That kind of behavior with that kind of freedom harms yourself. It is unhealthy. Worse yet, it hurts people even when you don’t realize what it is doing to people around you, including setting a bad example for young people, like your little nephew, Adam.” “Rob,” Christina said, “You need to hear these words from 1st Century Paul in a letter he wrote to the church in Rome. It is in Romans 6. I will read from The Message by Eugene Peterson.”

What Is True Freedom?
So since we’re out from under the old tyranny, does that mean we can live any old way we want? Since we’re free in the freedom of God, can we do anything that comes to mind? Hardly. You know well enough from your own experience that there are some acts of so-called freedom that destroy freedom. Offer yourselves to sin, for instance, and it’s your last free act. But offer yourselves to the ways of God and the freedom never quits. All your lives you’ve let sin tell you what to do. But, thank God, you’ve started listening to a new master, one whose commands set you free to live openly in his freedom!

Romans 6 from The Message by Eugene Peterson

In the New Revised Standard Version of the scripture, Paul uses the word “grace.” “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” In Romans 6:22 and 23, we hear these wonderful words, “But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Rob is listening as Christina lets these words of Paul pour from her lips. “Thank you, Christina. I have been careless about listening and reading God’s word through Paul and everyone else.” Christina waits for Rob to finish so she can enlighten him about the “everyone else” that he mentioned. She says, “Rob, did you ever hear of a prophet of God named Jeremiah?” “Vaguely,” murmurs Rob. He really was not in the mood to listen to Christina talk about some guy named Jeremiah. But Christina was on a roll. So here she goes.

“Jeremiah was a major prophet only second to Isaiah.” Of course I need to say that Jeremiah was a prophet for our God.” In this passage of scripture was another prophet representing another God or representing himself, really. The second prophet in this account is Hananiah. Hananiah was promising good things for the Israelites trapped in Babylon against their will. Jeremiah does not keep silent about Hananiah’s promises. Jeremiah announces to Hananiah and to the Israelites that if a prophet promises good things and they come true, then the prophet is truly from our God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The opposite is true. If the promise does not come true, the prophet is not from our God.

Christina could not stop. She tells Rob that listening to false prophets leads to sin. Christina questions Rob, “Can you tell false friends from true friends?” “Rob,” she says, “Tell me, are you a good judge of personalities? Is the person to be trusted? Does the person care about your welfare – about your well-being? Rob, use your head and your heart, your instincts. Don’t just fall for the speech of any person. Use your eyes, your ears, your vision, your conscience.”

“If there is the tiniest doubt, don’t!” “Don’t what?” shouts Rob. His patience is wearing thin with Christina. She seems to be a busybody. Is she a false prophet? “Oh my,” he thinks, “What is a person to do?” It just happens that a mature person was nearby waiting for a bus and could not help but hear this conversation which seems more like a teaching moment than a conversation. Mr. Mature finally opens his mouth and out flows all of his thoughts from the last 15 minutes. He says, “Son,” speaking to Rob, “Christina seems to have a good head on her shoulders and a good heart between good lungs as she has increased her volume and is using much breath trying to convince you about watching for true prophets, about making good choices.”

Mr Mature continues, “When I first arrived at this spot, I heard the word “grace.” I can tell you a thing or two about that gift. And it surely is a gift. It simply cannot be earned. It comes simply upon us if we believe in Jesus as our Savior and the graciousness of the Father and the always-presence of the Holy Spirit within us and around us.”

Rob remarked, “That was a long sentence but it seemed that you were telling me how to receive this gift and it was not about works, it was about believing. How can I take that plunge? Believing in something that I cannot see, something which I cannot earn? Seems like pure trust and acceptance to me? Is that how it is?”

“Well,” said Mr. Mature. “There is something else that we do as Christians which brings us into the fold. It is called baptism. It seems that this act has always been called baptism. Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. Some people believe that infants should be baptized while other Christians believe that baptism should wait until the person understands baptism and can decide if he or she is ready for this gift – this gift of grace.

Baptism is a gift. We can decide to accept it, but it is only with the Holy Spirit that baptism can happen. When we are baptized, we are drawn irretrievably into God’s kingdom. It is forever and for certain.

The mark of the cross seals this arrangement; this promise; this claiming of a person into the family of God. Christina chimes into this monologue, “Yes, Rob, did you hear that?” “Hear what,” says Rob. “Did you hear ‘family of God?’” “Well, yes I did,” says Rob. “What is the family of God? Where is the family of God? Will it fit into my house? Is our table big enough?”

Both Mr. Mature and Christina shout as with one voice, “Wait! Wait. Rob! The answer is no.” Mr. Mature goes on, “No the family of God will not fit in your house and around your table! The family of God is everyone who was ever baptized or perhaps believed intensely without the actual act of baptism. The family of God includes persons who gave a drink of water to a child.” Now it is Rob’s turn to say, “Wait!” “Giving a drink of water to anyone seems like something we do. I thought you were saying that doing things is not the way to receive the gift called grace. Will you please decide which it is! Do we do things to come into the grace-filled family or do we just believe to come into this family?” demands Rob.

“Good question,” says Mr. Mature. “First comes the grace. Then, in our thankfulness, we serve God and each other including people we do not know.” “Great,” says Rob. “I think I have it. Was I ever baptized?” “We don’t know, Rob. Whom could you ask?” “Well,” says Rob, reflecting on his young life. “ I need to check but I don’t think so. You would think my parents or grandparents would have told me or had pictures or would have taken me to Sunday School. Sunday School does not sit in my memory even vaguely. How did I start being aware that God was a living God? Let’s see. How did that happen?”

“How sad,” said Christina and Mr. Mature together. “That means you never learned the song, ‘Jesus Loves Me’ or the song ‘For God So Loved The World’ or ‘Thank You, Lord, For Saving My Soul.’ And you missed the love of a Sunday School teacher. A Sunday School teacher is a person who has heard God’s call to tell; to tell the gospel of our risen Christ. Oh Rob, what can we do to show you how sad we feel because you have missed this in your young years?”

Rob senses these words coming through his brain and at the same time through his heart where feelings live: “Aren’t you going to invite me to be baptized; to walk with you in the Family of God? Will your church invite me through those solid, red doors? Will I feel loved there?

“Good question, Rob. Each and every Christian congregation should hear your questions and do a fast examination of their friendliness quotient. But, yes, forgive us for not inviting you into our arms before you had to invite yourself. How bad of us! Please, don’t tell the evangelism consultant who is working with our congregation, training us to be more genuinely welcoming. Come, receive the gift! Receive the grace of God soaking deep into your bones, and then serve the Lord with us!”

Dear God, our gracious Father, our Savior and Lord, and our ever-flowing Holy Spirit, help us to listen to your voice commanding us to tell; and furthermore, open our mouths to invite, to tell. Open the doors of our temples. Help us to open those red doors, or whatever color, widely. Help us to be the friendly face, the listening face, the glowing face, the inviting face! Amen