Predigt zu Markus 6, 1-13; 5. Sonntag nach Pentecost – 5. Juli 2015 (auf englisch)



Among all the national holidays here in the U.S., July 4th is the biggest one.  It’s Independence Day, people celebrate the autonomy of those territories which later would become the United States of America.  On the 4th of July, we hear all those national songs which praise the beauty of this country, and the freedom we find here.

Historian Vartan Gregorian, who himself is an immigrant from Armenia, once said, ‘America is not an actuality, but a potentiality’. He acknowledges that the U.S., like nay other county on earth, is not perfect, and that there is a lot of work to be done to make the idea, the ideal that is ‘America’, become a reality.  America is a dream, but this dream is alive, and that’s why, still today, so many people come to the U.S.: to live the dream. In German we say, the U.S. is ‘das Land der unbegrenzten Möglichkeiten’, the land of unlimited opportunities, and the U.S. still has this reputation in the world today. Most of us came here from somewhere else, and we stayed here.  So there must be some good about this country, right?

One of the reasons why many came, especially at first, was the prospect of religious freedom.  People often were not permitted to live their beliefs back in the old world, if those beliefs somehow were different from the norm.  This religious freedom is not to be found in many places of the world; and it’s truly something we can be grateful for.  Everyone is free to worship God, or whatever power, whichever way they choose; no one is dependent on any human authority to tell them what is proper to believe and what not. At least this is the great ideal.  That doesn’t mean that certain faiths are not viewed with suspicion in this day and age, especially Islam; but I think that, if we proclaim freedom of faith, we have to protect the freedom of all to worship the way they choose – as long as they don’t hurt anyone, of course.

Now these days many people choose not to not believe at all, or if they believe in some higher power, then in a very vague, non-organized way.  A little while ago I was invited to a BBQ which was attended by a wonderfully diverse crowd of people from all over the world.  Most of them were young urban professionals, with interesting, well paying jobs somewhere in the city or on the Peninsula.  One guy started a conversation with me, and at some point, the inevitable question came: so, what do you do? Are you in the tech sector?

When I told him, ‘Not quite, I’m a pastor’, I got the almost obligatory answer: interesting!  Followed by a pause.  But then we ended up having a very good conversation about faith and religion in the world today.

And at some point this young man said something I found very interesting: People don’t want to be told how to live their lives.  That’s why they rather do other things than be part of a church.  People want to live their freedom and independence in every regard.  And so religious freedom means freedom from religion to many today.

I think this is a great insight.  But this is only one side of the coin; if you flip it, you see that churches, which tell their members in a very detailed way how to live their lives, do quite well – these are churches we often describe as non-denominational and evangelical meg churches.  And so, on the one hand, we seem to have all those who want to be told exactly which way to go and purposely choose churches where this is happening; and then, on the other side, we have all those who think that that’s what’s happening in all churches, and who don’t want to be under the authority of a religious institution.  And we as Lutherans, who are somewhat in the middle theologically and encourage our members to think and discern for themselves, consequently are not doing too well as a denomination.

In the end, it’s all about authority and the use of it.

In today’s gospel, we hear how Jesus returns to his hometown and is rejected.  People realize that he has authority; but they just can’t accept it.  How can it be, that this lad, whom we saw grow up, who is the son of a blue collar guy, should have something to say to us?  His authority is questioned, to the point that Jesus is plain amazed at the prejudices of his townspeople.

But the question for us today, of course, is: what authority do we follow? Do we truly always accept the authority of Jesus Christ in our lives? How do we determine what God’s authority is, how to listen to God’s voice, how to follow God’s will?  Do we pick and choose what we want to belief? Do we reject certain things?  Is that part of our religious freedom, too?

We just heard the beautiful aria from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Passion of John, ‘Ich folge dir gleichfalls’, which translates to ‘I follow you likewise’.  And the words of this aria are very impressive: Ich folge dir gleichfalls mir freudigen Schritten und lasse dich nicht, mein Leben, mein Licht. Und höre nicht auf, selbst an mir zu ziehen, zu schieben, zu bitten.

I follow you likewise with joyful steps

and do not leave you
my life, my light.
Bring me on my way
and do not cease
to pull, push and urge me on.

 The melody of this aria may mislead us to think that following Christ is joyful and danc-y and easy.  But we have to remember that this is a piece for the Passion of John, which describes Christ’s way to the cross; and this way is anything but easy.  And so we have the great words, do not cease to pull and push and urge me on.  We need all this pushing and pulling and cheerleading from God in order to take our following, our discipleship, seriously, and to not take too many freedoms along the way.

Martin Luther, the founder of the church we call Lutheran, once said about Christian freedom: a Christian is the most free Lord of all and subject to no one.  And: a Christian is the most dutiful servant of all and subject to everyone.  Quite a paradox, isn’t it?  What Luther wanted to say with that is that we are not bound to any human authority if this authority is in conflict with the loving will of God, which we find mainly in the Holy Scriptures.  Our conscience is the one instrument which should give us guidance when the will of God cannot be determined clearly.  Can our conscience misguide us?  Yes, certainly.  But even if we, after much prayer and discernment, make the wrong decision, we can still be assured of God’s grace and mercy.

So, as you can see, we have freedom; we are free in God, but not free from God.  And that’s where the second part of Luther’s statement about Christian freedom comes in: we are servants and subjects to everyone.  God’s love and forgiveness means we are called to pass them on.  We love not just through words, but mainly through our deeds.  We are free to serve, as Luther summarizes it.

Now freedom is often misunderstood as the freedom from duty or service of any kind.  But this is not the kind of freedom we have in Christ.  No, we are called to not just be recipients and consumers of God’s grace, but also to be those who give.  In today’s gospel, Jesus sends out the 12 to minister to the world. They are called to be givers as much as they are recipients. If we laid the ministry of this community of faith solely into the hands of those who get paid for it, we would be quite poor; this church and its ministry is only alive and well if you share your time and your passion, if you serve in some capacity that suits you and your special talents.  Imagine if we all just gave a little more in that regard, what difference this would make!

President Obama throughout his presidency has been a strong advocate of public service, a service we offer to one another.  The current administration seems to realize that the freedom we enjoy in this country can only be upheld if we serve one another instead of looking out for our own advantage and feeling entitled to have and to receive; and if we strive to work for the freedom and the pursuit of happiness of our neighbor as well. Even if this neighbor looks different from us or has a different set of beliefs.  And, yes, this is hard, and we need God to push and pull and urge us on as we serve friend and opponents.

Yes, we are free.  We have lots to celebrate.  However, may we never forget that our freedom is in Christ.  We are followers of him and his authority which does not intend to enslave us, but set us free from all we call sin and death.  Let’s face it: we are never truly free, but always follow some idol, some idea, some authority.  What better authority to follow than Christ, who gave his all for us?

Christ, whom we can follow likewise with joyful steps.