- In Strength and Faith
- On Firm Foundation
- Our Fatherâ€™s World
- Knowing How, Knowing Why
- With Love and Hope Surrounded
- To Sacred Truth
- Play On Your Harp
- Coming Through Home
- Yesterday, Today, and Forever
- The One Thing Needful
- In the Face of the West Wind
- To Sacred Truth
- Not So Wild a Dream
- From Redemption to Renaissance
- Salty Days and Starry Nights
- A Holy Restlessness
- The Cross and the Glory
- Remarks - Chapel Dedication
Texts: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Romans 3:19-28; John 8:31-36
When we were college students we probably thought freedom was synonymous with the absence, or the breaking, of rules. It’s likely that in the reunion events for the classes of 1943 and 1988, and all those classes in between, there have been gleeful stories about rules broken. One of my favorites is the story of a significant college official who, as an undergraduate, went out the window of Fjelstad Hall after hours one night for a picnic and was assisted by a security officer. In some sense, I suppose you’d have to call it a freedom story.
There are other kinds of freedom stories. I doubt if any of us missed the live television coverage of the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. People from East and West reached across a concrete barrier, working together for the first time in 40 years, to remove what had divided them. The champagne flowed; rousing songs were sung and united people once again danced for joy, danced for freedom.
It was political freedom they were celebrating, the kind of freedom Moses demanded when he bid the Pharaoh to “let my people go,” the kind of freedom Martin Luther King dreamed of, the kind of freedom that advocates of children’s rights and human rights yearn for. Political freedom is a great gift that has often called for great sacrifice. At its least it sets us free from the oppression of tyrants. And at its best it sets us free to think, act and believe as we choose. But political freedom is fragile. It can still stall out as it has in places like Yugoslavia and Russia. As Western democracies like our own have discovered, political freedom does not solve other elemental forms of bondage; the bondage of individualism that increasingly robs democracy of its essential civil spirit; the bondage of greed that disenfranchises many in a material way.
Lets’ turn to another freedom story, this time from the Republic of Russia. In 1991 the Russia State Humanities University was established. Its curriculum includes courses in women’s studies, world religions and democratic institutions. The former prescribed curriculum based on Communist dogma is out. Intellectual freedom is in – a reality frightening to the old guard but a breath of fresh air to citizens and academics alike. Intellectual freedom is, we believe, axiomatic whether viewed from a religious or secular perspective. For our founder in the faith, Martin Luther, freedom of inquiry opened up the Scriptures for him. That freedom allowed him to discover peace of his spirit and a passion for his life. His various benefactors could assure both him and his academic colleagues at Saxony protection from the threat of political or intellectual censure.
Intellectual freedom is axiomatic for a college like ours bent on influencing the world. Free range into the secrets of mind and nature is fundamental to the discovery of truths about us, our world and the will of God. In the “Agenda for Concordia’s Academic Life,” we affirm that we are called in this place to exercise stewardship of our intellectual talents, to be excellent inquirers, so that we may become what Luther called “able, learned, wise, honorable and well educated citizens.” For in truth we cannot feed hungry people with sympathy, we cannot solve problems for health care with good intentions, nor can we address our problems of brokenness with vaporous piety. It will require intelligent, thoughtful and informed action. And prerequisite to all of that is intellectual freedom.
But at the pinnacle of such acclaim for the life of the mind we are sobered by the historical reality of what the intelligent, well educated, intellectually free leaders of Germany wrought in the first half of this century. At the pinnacle of promise for the essential life of the mind, we note the disarray in the practical life of this best educated society where structures of care cannot begin to keep pace with the brokenness all around us. We are paying the price for the preoccupation of the academy with the pragmatic and the personal to the neglect of the human and spiritual. For the intellect without spirit, the mind without soul, robs us of the best fruit of our intellectual freedom.
A third freedom story: Back in December, American forces landed in Somalia and food relief supply lines were established. In a little out-of-the-way corner of Mogadishu the television camera caught the scene. Parents and children, haggard and emaciated – the victims of unbelievable violence – for the first time in years emerged in the daylight. They were standing in food lines secure in the knowledge that under the protection of American troops they would not be gunned down. They moved up the line confident that at the end, U.N. relief workers would provide them with a fair share of food for the day. While this story has had difficult sequels, it illustrates yet another kind of freedom, the freedom associated with the law. Without some law keepers, the Somalis would not have been abele to stand secure and expectant. Similar stories are being retold in Cambodia these days. The returning chaos in Somalia, the growing chaos of South Africa and the continuing chaos in the former Yugoslavia illustrates in other ways the incredible loss of freedom that accompanies a breakdown in the law.
Many Midwestern Lutherans whose piety was corrupted by a dose of legalism have an especially difficult time sorting out this question of the law. “Thou shalt not smoke, thou shalt not chew, thou shalt not be friends with those who do” is the parody for it and it provides a handy scapegoat for some.
But Martin Luther talked about law as a gift. “The most excellent of all things in the world,” he called it. How so? Well, because the first use of the law as he called it, helps us order life so that we preserve the creation, so that our impulse for justice is given expression and so that our impulse for harming self or neighbor is held in check. So we have traffic laws, civil rights laws and law enforcement and, on a campus, prescribed academic procedures and principles. And 12-step support groups across the land have discovered the laws of self-discipline are keys to a healthy life. It’s all for the sake of serving the neighbor and the world and as such, the law is God’s good gift to us.
As Paul discovered and Luther after him, keeping the law is the road to freedom in serving our neighbor and the law makes us aware of our sin but it is not the road to freedom for our soul. Paul discovered that in his pompous, self-righteous law keeping. Finally, it brought him to his knees and then to his feet and he gave voice to that truth that “no human being would be justified in God’s sight by works of the law.”
Well, there you have three freedom stories and there is truth in all of them. One more story remains, the story told in Luke’s Gospel of the crippled woman. Christ was teaching in the synagogue and there was a crippled woman in the crowd, one who had what the writer describes as “a spirit of infirmity.” Satan had bound her up for 18 years. Because of this disability she was held back, stifled, shackled and unable to achieve her potential either physically or spiritually. Jesus noticed her, picked her out from among a host of able people and then, in violation of the Sabbath law, He said, “Woman, you are freed from your infirmity.” He laid His hands on her and immediately, we are told, she was made straight and free, loosed from the bonds of Satan by the power of Christ.
Now there is a freedom story, the freedom of sacred truth. This is what Jesus was talking about in the Gospel lesson today. “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” Political freedom is to be desired and intellectual freedom is essential and the freedom of the law is necessary, but the freedom of sacred truth, that can set us free indeed!
The miracle is that what sets us free is itself free. Now there is a revolutionary idea to people, how to live the rest of our lives in a “you get what you pay for world.” Just imagine it, how would the most precious freedom of all – the freedom of our soul – be free? Roy Harrisville is a Cobber, now professor emeritus from Luther Seminary. He writes about his gift of freedom with rare grace and insight:
“…where God’s justice is concerned, God’s righteousness, we are all beggars, with nothing to trade. And that reason why is that He’s not a storekeeper, He’s a giver! He’s not operating a market that requires life and time congealed in cold, hard cash; He’s not running a bank (that) needs collateral. He’s after giving what He’s got away. That’s true of just about anything you can say of God. God is love, we’re told, but His love is there only to make us lovely. God is all-powerful, but His power is there only to make us strong. God is Holy, but His Holiness is there only to make us saints.”
James Ford is the chaplain of the United States House of Representatives. Speaking to the ELCA National Assembly in August he said, in his position, he has observed a lot of power in his day – political, military, economic and intellectual, too. But the power of grace, that, he says, is entirely different. Nothing else is even close. It’s free in the first place and it lifts us from our isolation and bondage, from pain and guilt, from the worst that can possibly come our way. It is always there to hear our bourning cry. Ford reminded us that Lutherans are entrusted with a special understating of the centrality of grace, “Sola fide, sola gracia – everything else is adiophora.” That is the sacred truth, the truth that sets us free.
In that freedom we, like the crippled woman, are made straight. We are liberated to do the loving things, the service things, the sacrifice things and yes, the suffering things. Article 20 of the Augsburg Confession puts it this way: “When through faith the Holy Spirit is given, the heart is moved to do good works.” Like the Good Samaritan, our motivation is not to store up spiritual rewards, but to love the Lord and the neighbor with heart, mind and soul, not out of fear, but out of gratitude. As theologian Marva Dawn puts it, “we are set free to do pleasing things because we know that we are already pleasing. When we know we are already acceptable, we don’t have to waste a lot of time and effort trying to prove ourselves.”
Good things like the freedom I have been talking about are often very hard to hold onto. I have not said much about the affairs of the world today because you are well read. I don’t need to describe the ascendancy of individualism and secularism that attempts to marginalize the sacred truth that sets us free. Jesus was wise about he world as His parables and secular encounters indicate again and again. Perhaps that makes all the more significant the sometimes overlooked preface to the well-rehearsed phrase “you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” The preface is “if you continue in my word…you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” There is a connection between continuing in the Word and knowing this truth that sets us free. Our salvation is not a one-time event anymore than is temptation and trial, sin and danger. Staying in the word is the way we stay in touch with the sacred truth that frees us. There are specific concrete challenges in this for us as individuals. Continuing in the word means, quite literally, taking time to speak to God, to listen to God, to study the Word, to share it. In such listening and speaking and study the sacred truth remains alive.
Staying in the Word is likewise critical for the gathered community, the church. These days among the major denominations we have a great temptation to be divided from each other and to be distant from the Word. To read the news magazines of the church you might think our principle business is legislating correct social and political policy. The church that takes the sacred truth seriously can’t avoid engagement in the world but the central task of the church is staying in the Word. As theologian Ted Peters put it, the unity of the church is not to be found in our moral like-mindedness but in the Gospel.
Staying in the Word is essential for this college. In an age when secularism is as strong in the intellectual world as it is in the social world, we must stay in the Word for therein we find that sacred truth that nourishes our discipleship. So to the sacred truth may we e’er faithful be.
It was sacred truth that set the bent woman free. It was sacred truth that inspired the founders of this place. The sacred truth is that God loves us – unconditionally, in season and out – no matter what. May you know this truth and may it set you free. Amen.