11/26/17 – Stewardship Sunday Sermon: Freedom (Eleutheria) in Our Belovedness

A German professor of Biblical Studies was haunted and tormented by the belief that God was a harsh, punitive and demanding judge. This understanding of God did not help him love God at all, but actually made him angry and even hateful towards God and made him feel like a helpless sinner and worthless slave. Based on our lessons this morning, we can see how the Scriptures can potentially support this belief in a punitive God. However, our Collect invites us to delve deeper into our sacred texts. Our Collect invites us to “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest” all of the holy Scriptures. And that is exactly what this German Bible professor did. He kept reading, marking, learning, meditating and inwardly digesting the words of the Bible, especially the words of St. Paul. And then one day, the penny dropped; and he understood that through faith he could be absolutely and completely justified before God. Through faith, he could experience God as a warm, generous, and adoring father who loved him as if he were his only son. With this realization, the professor felt that he had been born again and that the gates of paradise had been flung wide open; and by entering through these gates, he came to see and understand the whole of Scripture in a different light.[1] He understood all of Scripture in light of God’s radical love and grace, which are revealed fully in Christ and poured lavishly upon each of us through faith. The professor no longer felt tormented but rather profoundly liberated, entirely free to be bold and courageous and to take great risks. This experience of liberation and freedom was so significant for him that he actually decided to change his last name to “Freedom,” specifically the Greek word for “Freedom” which is eleutheria. Eleutheria.

Now does anyone know who I am talking about? Does anyone know a Professor Freedom? Or a Dr. Eleutheria? I will give you a hint. He was born in 1483 on the Feast Day of a saint whom I apparently can’t stop talking about, a saint whom I celebrated with several preschool kids this last Monday: the fourth-century Roman soldier St. Martin of Tours. This medieval German Bible professor was named after the beloved St. Martin and we know him today not as Dr. Freedom or Dr. eleutheria, but rather as Martin Luther, perhaps the most influential person in Western history.

As a result of discovering freedom (eleutheria) in his belovedness, Martin Luther came to understand and describe faith as “a living, bold, daring and audacious trust in God’s grace, so certain of God’s favor that it would risk death a thousand times trusting it.” Martin Luther said, “Such confidence and knowledge of God’s grace makes us happy, joyful, bold and able to take great risks in our relationship with God and with all creatures.” And it was these powerful words of Martin Luther that inspired the conversion and “strangely warmed” the heart of John Wesley, an Anglican priest who then launched the Methodist church in the 18th century.

St. Martin of Tours, Martin Luther, John Wesley, and hundreds of other saints (including Martin Luther King Jr.) all discovered profound freedom in their belovedness which empowered them to take great risks. As we continue here at Redeemer to discover freedom in our belovedness, what risks will we take?

The invitation in Christ’s parable this morning is not to live in fear of a punitive God who will call us worthless slaves and then throw us into outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. No; Jesus includes these words in the parable in order to make the point that if we choose to believe that God is an angry and “harsh man” (as the servant did) then our lives will indeed be dark and miserable, just like Martin Luther’s life before his spiritual liberation. The invitation in Christ’s parable is rather to trust boldly and even recklessly in God’s love and generosity, to find freedom in our belovedness so that we can take risks like the first two servants in the parable and thus enjoy all of the abundance that God has in store for us.

The other lessons this morning also teach us to believe and trust boldly in a God of mercy and love, not a God of wrath. The Psalm invites us to look to the Lord until he shows us his mercy (Ps. 123:4). And in his letter to the church in Thessalonica, Paul writes, “God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation [liberation] through our Lord Jesus Christ.” And the Hebrew Scriptures recount the story of a bold warrior and prophetess named Deborah whose trust in God’s strength empowered her to defeat Israelites’ enemies, with the help of a man named Barak. All of the lessons urge us to trust boldly in God’s love and generosity.

Today is Stewardship Sunday for Redeemer when we are invited to make a stewardship pledge to the church. We all should have a pledge card in our worship booklet this morning. The stewardship pledge is a statement of intent in which we state how much we intend to give to the church this year; it can change (decrease or increase) throughout the year as one’s financial circumstances may change. And we can pledge anywhere from $50 to $800 to $9,000 to $20,000 or more or less. Traditionally, the invitation is to tithe, which to give a tenth of our income to the church. But whatever the amount is, I invite us to take a risk, like the first two servants in the parable. Whatever amount we pledge, let’s pledge with a faith that is “bold, daring and audacious,” a faith that is “so certain of God’s favor that it would risk death a thousand times trusting it.” Let us pledge generously and freely because of the freedom (the eleutheria) that we discover in our belovedness.

Now I also ask that we do not pledge out of guilt; let us not pledge because we feel like we should. As my youth ministers used to say to me growing up, “Don’t ‘should’ on yourself.” Giving money to the church out of fear and guilt is actually what Jesus’s parable is warning us against. Moreover, giving money to the church out of fear and guilt is exactly what Martin Luther raged against, in the 95 theses that he supposedly nailed to the door of the Wittenberg Church (500 years ago, almost exactly) in 1517, an event that essentially launched the Protestant Reformation.

Let us instead give generously and freely because we have freely received. Everything we have is a gift from God; and giving to the church is how we acknowledge this and show our gratitude. As I say every time we receive the offering at the altar, “All things come of thee, O Lord; and of thine own, have we given thee.” And it is by giving freely and generously that we actually experience deep joy.

I’ve been reading a book called The Book of Joy, about a five-day long conversation between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu, the Anglican Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town in South Africa. If you’re looking for some inspiring spiritual reading during the season of Advent this year, I highly recommend this book. It’s very rare that I will laugh out loud while reading a book, but these two spiritual giants seriously crack me up with their teasing and mischievous antics. And according to the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu, one of the essential pillars of joy is generosity. I want to read something that Desmond Tutu says when talking about generosity. He says, “I’ve sometimes joked and said God doesn’t know math, because when you give to others, it should be that you are subtracting from yourself. But in this incredible kind of way, [when] you give [. . .] you are [actually] making space for more to be given to you [. . .] In the end generosity is the best way of becoming […] more and more joyful.”[2]

So on this Stewardship Sunday, I invites us all to seize that faith that is bold and daring so that we can find freedom in our belovedness, like Martin Luther; freedom to take a risk and to experience joy by giving generously to the Body of Christ on earth, to this church; to help this church fulfill its mission of being a “sacred space for sharing individual gifts and diverse views [such as Buddhist and Jewish perspectives of Scripture]; as we seek to embody the love of God in San Rafael and the world [by serving the poor and the hungry through the Marin Interfaith Street Chaplaincy, Rise Against Hunger, and more]; and as we, inspired by intellectual curiosity and generous hospitality, strive to provide a welcoming place where people of all ages, genders, colors, and sexual orientations can deepen their understanding and experience of God’s liberating love through prayer, worship and service.” Between now and the offering, I invite us to prayerfully consider what we feel called to pledge. Let us each take a risk; let us receive joy and then listen to God say these words to each of us, “Well done, my good and faithful servant; you have been generous and trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; now enter into my joy.” Amen.

[1] Preface to the Complete Edition of Luther’s Latin Works (1545) by Dr. Martin Luther, 1483-1546 Translated by Andrew Thornton, OSB from the “Vorrede zu Band I der Opera Latina der Wittenberger Ausgabe. 1545” in vol. 4 of Luthers Werke in Auswahl, ed. Otto Clemen, 6th ed., (Berlin: de Gruyter. 1967). pp. 421-428.

[2] Douglas Abrams, The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, co-authored by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu (Penguin Random House: New York, 2016), 263-264.