WORSHIP SERVICE October 31, 2021 “Finding Freedom by Facing the Truth”

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John  8:31-36             Finding Freedom in Facing the Truth

Next to John 3:16, John chapter 8 verse 31 is probably one of the most famous Bible texts that is often quoted in books movies and television.  “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.”   It sounds like a profound philosophical statement that Jesus says, but what does it really mean?  How does facing the truth help us find freedom?

Sometimes it might be in a very literal way like in a story about a governor who once went to a local prison to see who might be eligible for an executive pardon.  As he was searching for a person who he might set free, he began asking different inmates why they were arrested.  Each one he asked seemed to say the same thing.  They each said that they were innocent and framed by the police.  This kept happening until he came to the last inmate who surprisingly told the governor that he was indeed guilty and he thought that the sentence he had received was fair.  At this news the governor ordered the man released.  All the other inmates demanded to know why this guilty man was released.  The governor replied and said, ‘Well, I didn’t want him to corrupt the rest of you and your innocent souls.”

The governor in this joke may been sarcastic in response.  Was it really possible that all the other inmates were innocent, or were many of them either in denial or just lying to try and get out of jail?  The last one finally tells the truth, and the truth sets him free.

If it were only this easy.  Confessing our guilt does not usually automatically mean we get off from any consequences or are not held accountable.  But facing the truth can lead us to freedom from our inner sense of guilt and shame and bring a sense of peace.  Facing the truth, can free us from repeating the sins of our past and lead us to a change of heart.

The tough part is that facing the truth can be difficult.  It can make us uncomfortable or upset to the extent that we would rather deny it rather than accept it.   We would rather be like the other inmates in the joke, pretending that we are innocent and blaming anybody else except ourselves.  We would rather forget what happened in the past rather than face it and admit that it is causing some problems in the present because we wouldn’t want to offend anyone.

A character who is sport psychologist on the television show, “Ted Lasso” quotes part of this Bible verse that we heard today, but she puts a spin on it which highlights how difficult it can be to follow Jesus’s words.  The show is about an American football coach named Ted Lasso who gets recruited to go to England in order to coach a professional soccer team.  As the season progresses, the viewers discover that Ted is suffering from anxiety and panic attacks.  He is beginning to have episodes from out of the blue that he cannot control. It gets so bad at one point that he has to leave in the middle of an important game.

There is a sports psychologist on the team who Ted knows could help him. But he refuses to make an appointment.  When he finally does get the courage to go and see her, he then keeps cutting their time short and walking out.  We later learn he has had a traumatic event in his youth concerning his father, but he can’t seem to talk about it.  The sports psychologist knows Ted has to face the truth of this difficult event from his past if he is to be free of the attacks he is experiencing.  In order to encourage him by acknowledging that what he needs to do is hard, the sports psychologist tells Ted, “You know, the truth will set you free, but first it will really tick you off.”

I wonder if the listeners of Jesus were a little ticked off when he confronts them with their need to be set free.  It is interesting to see how they react to his message, which you might think sounds like good news at first.  After all, Jesus is saying they can be set free.  Doesn’t that sound like a good thing?  You might have thought the listeners of Jesus would have been eager to hear more, that they might have said, “so tell us about this truth so we can find this freedom.”  But rather than responding in a positive way, they seemed to be in denial.  They claim that they have never been slaves to anyone, so who is Jesus to say they need to be set free?

It is then that Jesus reveals the difficult truth.  Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.  Jesus expands their notion of captivity to include the inner workings of the heart.   He convicts them with a reminder that nobody is perfect and thus everyone has a need to be liberated from the sin that would separate us from God and others.

While Jesus confronts them with an expanded notion of sin, I think he could have also confronted them with a little history, because the fact is that as descendants of Abraham, they had been slaves before.  They had been slaves in Egypt.  Their ancestors had known what it was like to yearn for freedom and how it felt when God had set Moses to lead them out of captivity. But their lack of a sense of their own history keeps them from seeing the point Jesus is trying to make.  Their denial allows them to maintain a false sense of self-righteousness, which inhibits the transformation that Jesus is offering them.

We need to be able to face the difficult parts of our past if we are to be a part of transforming the future.  While confessing our individual sins is important, it is also crucial that groups of people acknowledge how the ancestors of the group they are associated with may have done hurtful things that have had destructive ramifications even into the present day. This is true of different tribes and nations, different religions and even different Christian denominations.

Today is Reformation Sunday, which generally is a point of pride for most Lutherans who know something about their church’s history.  It celebrates how Martin Luther felt set free from the judgment of God through the message of God’s grace in Jesus.  It celebrates how Martin Luther stood up to the Church at the time and challenged it to make changes so that people could know more about the Bible in their own language and could know they were forgiven without having to pay money to the pope.  Luther developed many theological insights which helped people see God and the Scriptures in a new way.

But Luther was not perfect. In fact, his attitude and his writing could get quite ugly at times.  He said some really harsh things about his opponents and in his later years, he also said some really harsh things about the Jewish people.  Luther had thought his new theological insights would be so convincing that even the Jewish folk would want to convert to Christianity.  When they didn’t convert, he turned on them and wrote pages and pages of hateful rhetoric, saying things like their synagogues should be burned and they should be run out of their houses.

Because Luther became such an important figure in history, these horrible writings have later been used by certain leaders to promote anti-Semitism.  They were used by Nazis to justify the holocaust and they are even used by some Neo-Nazis and other hate groups still today.

These are hard truths to face for me, as someone who is a Lutheran.  I wonder if the good that Luther’s writing have done actually outweighs the bad or not.  I lament and mourn that the namesake of our church has been associated with such horrific parts of history.  Although I still wrestle with this, one thing I have found some comfort in is that our ELCA brand of Lutheranism has not been afraid to face the truth.  It took several decades of dialogue with folks of faith in the Jewish tradition, but the ELCA finally drafted a formal apology to the Jewish Community in 1994.  You can read the whole statement on the ELCA website, but here is the core of it:  In the long history of Christianity there exists no more tragic development than the treatment accorded the Jewish people on the part of Christian believers. Very few Christian communities of faith were able to escape the contagion of anti-Judaism and its modern successor, anti-Semitism.

Luther proclaimed a gospel for people as we really are, bidding us to trust a grace sufficient to reach our deepest shames and address the most tragic truths. In the spirit of that truth-telling, we who bear his name and heritage must with pain acknowledge also Luther’s anti-Judaic diatribes and the violent recommendations of his later writings against the Jews. As did many of Luther’s own companions in the sixteenth century, we reject this violent invective, and yet more do we express our deep and abiding sorrow over its tragic effects on subsequent generations…. Grieving the complicity of our own tradition within this history of hatred, moreover, we express our urgent desire to live out our faith in Jesus Christ with love and respect for the Jewish people.

The official statement of apology moved some Lutheran churches to put the statement into practice at a local level.  The same month the statement was released, St. Mark’s Lutheran in San Francisco organized a procession of over 50 of its members who walked to Temple Sherith Israel, which is not far from their location.  They stood on the temple steps where the statement was read out loud in front of the Rabbi and members of the synagogue.  The Rabbi was touched that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America would express itself with such courage concerning the anti-Semitism in Luther’s writings and after the reading, he held a service of welcome at the temple.  That started a series of dinners and dialogues that continued for the next year.  The conversation wasn’t always easy.

“At first, some people felt it was surface, not deep,” said Lucie Ramsay of the formal apology. She was an assistant director of the American Jewish Committee at the time, and she had arranged the first meeting between the clergy that led to the reconciliation service. But in the long run, Ramsay said she witnessed a transformation. After such honest interaction the participants had an expanded awareness and grew to be against all forms of prejudice.   The participants found a sense of freedom from prejudice and stereotypical perceptions by not denying the past and its effects, but by facing the truth.

While the words of Jesus today sound inspiring at first, they are difficult to follow.  This is because even though the truth will set you free at first, it might really tick you off.  It might make you feel angry or uncomfortable.  It might be challenging or convicting. It might sadden you deeply or make you feel like lamenting.  It might make you feel like running away in denial.  But trusting in the grace of God through Jesus we can face the truth no matter how difficult, and in doing so we might just find some freedom.  Amen.


-Pastor Erik Goehner



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