Monday, August 26, 2013

You Are Set Free
Luke 13:10-17
August 25, 2013[1]

10 Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. 11 And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, "Woman, you are set free from your ailment." 13 When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 14 But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, "There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day." 15 But the Lord answered him and said, "You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? 16 And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?" 17 When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing. (Luke 13:10-17, NRSV)

Our Gospel Lesson this morning tells us a story of healing.  A woman had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years.  Jesus healed her—on a Sabbath, no less—but he did not merely heal her physically.  He also healed her spiritually.  Jesus told her that she was “set free” from her infirmity (v. 12).
The approach that Jesus took with this woman is quite different from our current experience.  How many of us have visited a doctor for an ailment and been told by the doctor, “You are set free from your ailment.  Please leave a check for your “Co-pay” amount to the receptionist on your way out the door!” 
You are set free.  These are words of invitation—they are not only a precondition to healing for this unnamed woman; they also are an important condition to the discussion we had last week about “staying in the race,” God’s invitation to holiness.  You may recall the words, “let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles…” (Hebrews 12:1).  We spoke a bit last week about attachments and the weight that we carry.  This week, we add the word “freedom” to the invitation.  When God invites us to holiness, God invites us to freedom.
Freedom is a word that is near and dear to the heart of Americans.  It’s a word that we sing about, but with very different meanings. 
  • On our patriotic days, we sing, “From every mountainside let freedom ring.”  That, of course, is from the song “America.”[2]  We are singing about an ideal of liberty that was part of the founding of this country.  An ideal for which many, many people have put their lives on the line and died.
  • But freedom is an ideal that we work towards.  Every once in awhile, we are awakened to the reality that freedom had been an elusive goal for some people in our country.  When Peter, Paul and Mary sang “It’s the hammer of justice, it’s the bell of freedom,”[3] it was a call for justice for all, and it was a reminder that some people still struggled to reach that same American ideal of “freedom and justice for all.”  This coming week, we commemorate the day fifty years ago on which nearly a quarter of a million people marched on Washington, D.C. seeking that same dream of freedom.
  • What a different meaning, we heard from another song of the 60s, when Davy Jones of the Monkees sang “I Wanna be Free like the bluebirds flying by me…”  In this song, being free meant a non-committal relationship--holding hands while “walking in the sand, laughing in the sun, doing all these things without any strings to tie me down.”[4]
It is amazing that the same word in the English language can mean both a celebrated dream that speaks of justice, and also speaks of “don’t tie me down.” 
What did Jesus mean when He told the woman who had been crippled by this spirit for eighteen years, “you are set free”?  (v. 12).  Was He making a political statement?  Was He speaking about civil rights?  Was He speaking about the nature of her love relationships?  I don’t think so—I think the freedom that Jesus spoke about was far different.  The freedom that those songs sang about is all external.  Jesus spoke to the woman about freedom that was internal.
Freedom does not exist in a vacuum.  It is a relational word.  For the word “freedom” to have a specific meaning, we have to identify what we are free from.  We are free from something.  It is a word of emancipation—with roots dating back to the days that Moses told the Pharaoh to “let my people go” (Exodus 5:1).  When we are freed, we are released from something or someone that bound us.  Those chains that bind us can be external, but they can be internal too.  When Jesus told the woman that she was set free from her infirmity, he was saying that she was released from the control that her infirmity had upon her spirit, upon her life.  She could be freed from her spiritual infirmity, whether or not she was healed from her physical infirmity.
Freedom doesn’t always mean that we will be healed from the external circumstances in which we find ourselves.  Not everyone who suffers will receive the gift of healing.  Some people have live with illness and with suffering.  Even the Apostle Paul suffered physically.  He wrote that he suffered from a “thorn in the flesh.”  Three times, he prayed that God would remove this thorn, but the thorn remained.  What Paul received, instead, was the assurance from God that God’s grace would be sufficient for him (2 Corinthians 12:7-9).  For Paul, freedom meant that his thorn in the flesh could not separate him from the love of God in Jesus Christ.  His thorn in the flesh was transformed from a thorn of pain into a sign of God’s grace.
Those words “You are set free” tell us that the chains that bound us have been broken.  But when we speak of spiritual freedom, we are talking about chains that are internal.  When Jesus sets us free, He frees us from the chains of sin.  He frees us to become the people that God created us to be in the first place.  He frees us to become the children of God.
Yet, for some reason, we have trouble accepting this freedom.  Freedom in Christ means taking on some degree of risk.  It means that we are launching out into unfamiliar territory.  Freedom in Christ means that we change our way of living.  It means that even as we give up the habits and ways of coping that brought us comfort, we need to learn to look to God for comfort.  It means that as we give up old relationships that dragged us down, we look for new relationships that lift us up.  It means that as we let go of the external possessions that seemed so important, we look to the new life within us as the source of meaning within our lives.  It even means that we change the way that we see the world around us.  We now look at the world free from the lenses of fear, skepticism and doubt that obscured our vision.  We discover that the truth which “sets us free” (John 8:33) is Jesus Christ himself, the One who is the “way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6). 
Christ offers that same freedom to us, yet we have to claim it.  Picking up again on the themes that we spoke about last week, we have to get into the race, we have to let go of the weight and sin that ways us down and we have to persevere until we reach the finish line.  Even when the ways of the past try to call us back, we need to continue to “press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14).
So I ask you this morning to prayerfully consider these questions: 
Freedom is very personal, for it means that we find our freedom inside, through the Christ that dwells in us.  What does freedom mean for you this morning?
What are the chains that bind you spiritually and hold you back from living the abundant life that God offers to you through Jesus Christ?  Are the chains called fear?  Anger?  Hurt feelings from past wrongs?  Pride?  Guilt?  Do you find yourself caught in a cycle of perpetually reliving an event from the past?  Do you find yourself caught in a web of looking to external sources of comfort rather than looking to the Prince of Peace?  Jesus offers you freedom this morning.
Are you willing to receive the freedom that Christ offers to you?  Some people, when offered the opportunity to claim their freedom, don’t accept it, preferring the comfort of the familiar chains to the uncertainties of freedom in Christ.  Are you willing to claim the freedom that God offers you to live as His child?  Are you willing to let God change your life?
Just as Jesus spoke the words to the woman who had been crippled for eighteen years, he speaks the words to you this morning, “You are set free.” 
We began this sermon by remembering songs about freedom.  In Advent, we sing another freedom song:  “Come, Thou long-expected Jesus, born to set thy people free.”  The Good News of the Gospel is that Jesus the Christ has come to set us free.  He offers this freedom to you and to me.  May you receive this freedom that Christ offers today! 
May it be so!
Copyright © 2013 by Thomas E. Frost.  All rights reserved.

[1] Preached at Cunningham United Methodist Church in Palmyra, Virginia.
[2] Samuel F. Smith, “America,” from The United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville:  The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989), 697.
[3] Lee Hays and Pete Seeger, “If I Had a Hammer,” in MetroLyrics, viewed on the internet on August 25, 2013 at
[4] Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, “I Wanna Be Free,” viewed on the internet on August 25, 2013 at www.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Staying in the Race
Hebrews 11:29 – 12:2; Luke 12:49-59
August 18, 2013[1]

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, 2 looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1-2, NRSV)

On April 30, 2013, just 15 days after two bomb blasts transformed the Boylston Street finish line of the Boston Marathon into confusion, John Young crossed the finish line.  On the day of the race, John had reached the 25.7 mile marker and had about a half mile to go.  Sue Casey, John’s wife, and their 10 year-old son Owen had been waiting for him on the day of the race, and they waited for him on that day later when John finished his race.  It was important to John to finish the race.  You see, John suffers from dwarfism, and for his entire life he has had to persevere in the race that life has handed to him.  He says that he got some of that persistent attitude from his mother.  She always told him that “You finish what you start.”[2]
The Letter to the Hebrews tells us to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1).  It tells us to stay in the race.
Chapter 11 of Hebrews gives us a “Who’s Who” of women and men who stayed in the race.
To stay in the race, you have to get into the race in the first place.  You have to start.  But even what we think to be our starting point is not really the beginning.  Long before we make the decision to start the race, God has been looking for us, calling us, inviting us to the starting blocks.  He knows that we need Him before we realize it ourselves.  We call this grace of God that goes before us “prevenient grace,” the grace that goes before.
But God created us with free will.  We develop the ego that causes us to go our own ways; we make a choice.  We also need to make a choice to follow God.  In our Christian faith, the starting point comes with our decision to accept into our hearts and lives the love, grace and forgiveness extended to us through Jesus Christ.  We decide to become a follower, a disciple, of Jesus Christ.  In our Methodist way of understanding, this decision is sealed in our baptism, through which we are identified as a Child of God.  In the various Christian denominations, we use lots of different words to express this:  some call it a conversion experience; some call it coming to faith; some call it being saved; some call it justification; some call it a new birth.  But whatever we call it, in the life of Christian faith, there is a starting point in which we recognize our need for God, we see that through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God comes to us and offers us a restored, renewed relationship.  This act of God in restoring, redeeming, justifying us is what we call “justifying grace.”  God offers this grace to us freely; but we need to accept it.  This is our starting point.  If you want to finish the race, you have to start.  Your starting point may come in a church service; it may come in your place of employment; it may come in the middle of a sleepless night; it may come dramatically; it may come very quietly.  It may take place in a moment of struggle, in a moment of desperation.  But it means that there has come a point in which you recognize that you need God and you say yes.  You begin the race. 
To stay in the race, you have to get rid of everything that weighs you down.  The New Jerusalem Bible puts it this way:  it says we “should throw off everything that weighs us down and the sin that clings so closely” (Hebrews 12:1, NJB).  From the day we are born, we start to accumulate baggage, attachments to things, attachments to people.  At first, some of these attachments are necessary for our survival.  A newborn baby could not survive on its own; that child needs the love and support and nourishment of its mother, or someone who can step in and take on that role of mother.  But at some point, that child grows up and that relationship with mom changes.  My mother and my father always will be a part of who I am; but the relationship changes.  That relationship of dependence needs to grow into a relationship of loving respect and honor; but you cannot remain attached and dependent forever.  We become attached not only to people; we become attached to things, to careers, to our cars, our homes, even to our notions of who we are.  Jesus tells us to let go of these things.  One day, a certain ruler, one who followed the laws of God since the day he was born, asked Jesus how he could obtain eternal life.  Jesus told him to sell everything that he had, give the proceeds to the poor, and to follow him (Luke 18:18-25).  It is hard to stay in the race if you are focused on other things in your life.
Closely related to letting go of our attachments to things is that we need to let go of “the sin that clings so closely” (v. 1).  This is so hard to do in our world, because sin comes in so many forms and so many disguises.  It’s a bit of an old fashioned word, one that we don’t use a lot in our culture, but we certainly see a lot of sin in our culture.  Most of the time, when we speak about sin, we refer to really bad stuff; and that bad stuff certainly is included.  But sin can also mean something far different.  The root word for sin comes from archery; it means “missing the mark.”  Sin is anything that causes us to miss the mark.  The sin in our lives may cause us to miss the mark by a little, or by a lot; but we still miss.  Anything in our lives that draws us away from God is sin in our lives.  Our call to finish the race means that we need to lay this sin aside.  For some of us, it will mean changing our relationships; for some of us, it will mean changing our careers; for others, it may mean struggling to let go of addictions; we cannot do this by ourselves—we need God’s “sanctifying” grace.  For all of us, it means putting God first in our lives.
Chapter 12 of Hebrews begins with a word that is easy to overlook.  It says, “therefore…”  We tend to overlook this word, to think of it as announcing the conclusion of an argument, but it means so much more here.  It means “consequently.”  It means because of what has just been stated before, something else is the inevitable result.  If the result of “therefore” is that we persevere in finishing the race, what leads up to it?  Our call to stay in the race is the result of a promise—a promise that is hinted at in the last words of Chapter 11; a promise that “God has provided something better.”  We may begin to see the fruits of this promise in this life; we may not.  Many of the people described in the “Who’s Who” that we find catalogued in Chapter 11 did not in their lifetime.  But they stayed in the race because of the promise of God for something better.  They were convinced of the truth of an old gospel song that says, “this troubled world is not my final home.”[3] 
During my reading this week, I was reading for a second time a book by James Martin called My Life with the Saints.  In this book, Martin tells about the influence that many who preceded him in the faith have had on his life, just as Hebrews talks about some of the early heroes of faith.  A phrase jumped out at me that I had not noticed before.  Martin talks about the ways the “invitation to holiness” came to the various saints that he describes.[4]  At some point in their lives, they heard the call of God to change direction, to leave everything else and to follow Him.  Each of us receive these invitations to holiness from God—I think we receive them every day; sadly, we miss many of them.  Through these invitations, God continually calls us to Himself. 
Hebrews looks to Jesus as the ultimate example of staying in the race.
Jesus stayed in the race.  Hebrews calls Jesus the “pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” The race that Jesus ran led Him to a cross.  He calls us to follow Him, to be baptized with the baptism with which He is baptized.  He calls us to follow Him—to get into the race and stay in the race until we reach the finish line.  And when we don’t think we can make it on our own, when we are about to collapse in the middle of the track, Jesus comes and picks us up and carries us to the finish line. 
I can’t close without offering a few words in memory of someone in my life who reached the finish line this past week.  He died at the age of 90.  Uncle Kellie was my mom’s oldest brother.  He was a railroad man, followed in his father’s footsteps.  He loved railroading; but railroading was not first in his life.  He loved music—he played his trumpet in church services until about a year ago with a tone that was clear and crisp; but the trumpet was not first in his life.  He loved his family; together with his wife Lois, they raised a wonderful family of six kids, and were blessed with eighteen grandchildren and twelve great-grandchildren.  Uncle Kellie loved his family; but family was not first in his life.  First in his life was his devotion to God, to the God revealed in Jesus Christ.  Uncle Kellie accepted the invitation to holiness.  He stayed in the race, and he crossed the finish line, where today he joins that great cloud of witnesses with Aunt Lois, my parents, my grandparents, and Jesus Christ himself.
Uncle Kellie accepted God’s invitation to holiness.  That invitation is offered to you and me, as well.  Have you accepted the invitation?  Have you joined in the race?  Will you stay in the race?  My prayer for you this morning is that you will say YES.
Copyright © 2013 by Thomas E. Frost.  All rights reserved.

[1] Preached at Cunningham United Methodist Church in Palmyra, Virginia.
[2] Beth Stebner, “'You finish what you start': Man with dwarfism completes Boston Marathon 15 days after bombings, ’ (New York Daily News, May 2, 2013), viewed on the Internet on August 16, 2013 at
[3] Stuart Hamblen, “Until Then,” (Hamblen Music, 1958).
[4] James Martin, My Life with the Saints (Chicago:  Loyola Press, 2006), 303.