Sunday, August 16, 2009

Opportunity: Freedom (Galatians 5.13-14)

August 16, 2009
Sermon by: Robert Austell
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You were called to freedom – only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. (Galatians 5:13)

This summer, the session and congregation of this church gave me an extraordinary gift of freedom. If you are new here today or don’t know what I’m talking about, I was given twelve weeks of sabbatical – a rest from the work of pastor of this church, modeled after the biblical idea of Sabbath. In many ways, this gift also parallels God’s gift of grace to each of us. It was not required, surely extravagant, and not deserved so much as freely given.

I remember the months before the sabbatical, wondering how I should use that time. Truly, it was a gift of freedom, not unlike the freedom described in our text this morning.

More than a few neighbors and friends – maybe even some in the congregation – misunderstood. One neighbor persisted in calling it my “vacation.” Many other colleagues in ministry wondered where I’d travel and what I would do. But my perspective on the sabbatical was much closer to the talent challenge I gave the congregation in April. In fact, I called it the “sabbatical challenge.” What do you do when you receive an unexpected and freely given gift with spiritual purpose?

Today, and over the next few weeks, I’d like to share with you some of how I have used that freedom and rest from pastoral work, hopefully in ways that are more than just reporting, but are encouraging and illustrative to you of how we might respond to the grace and freedoms God has given us.

Sabbatical Challenge

The sabbatical offered significant freedom – freedom which could be used or squandered. As I prepared for the time, I asked myself many of the same questions I asked you for the talent challenge. What might this gift, breaking into my routine and habits, stir me to do in a new way? How could I add my own passions, gifts, and obedience to the initial gift of time off from being pastor? When the time was over, what might I bring back to the church, and more importantly, to the Lord?

I chose three areas, and God seemed to open the door to a related fourth. The three areas were writing and recording music, writing books, and focusing on personal health. The open door was an opportunity to teach for a week in Nicaragua at the Bible school where Jason Hinton is director. It was related because the course I taught overlapped the content of one of the books I was hoping to write.

I do have something to show for myself – a full-length CD in final stages of production; a book on worship written at the non-academic level; and somewhere between 25-30 lbs. of weight loss (at least before Bonclarken!). I will also admit to being driven for a while to be able to have something to show at the end.

Unfortunately, grace and freedom are not meant to be tied to performance and production. That’s one of the extremes warned about in this verse in Galatians. And we’ve talked about that before. Depending on your background and experience, you’ve probably experienced one extreme or the other. Grace and freedom can lead to what the Bible might call “licentiousness” – taking advantage of freedom to do anything you want. That is what this verse calls “turning freedom into an opportunity for the flesh.” But grace and freedom can be warped into “legalism” – that performance and production mentality that portrays God as the great test-giver. That, too, is turning freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, particularly when we then use the test-results as a means to control and judge each other.

Instead, the verse in Galatians portrays the purpose of grace and freedom as relational and other-focused. How can I love God? How can I love my neighbor? Grace and freedom are not about me – but are, in turn, to be given away.

So, hard-headed as this pastor can be, I am teachable. Around week six, when I was very discouraged over the lack of progress on my CD and how much time it was taking to do everything, I realized there was more important “fruit” of the sabbatical than coming up with gradable products at the end. That realization helped me break through the impasse and discouragement… and curiously enough to make significant progress on the various projects.

But here’s the real heart of what I bring back from the sabbatical – some lessons observed, experienced, and learned. These are the things I want to share over the next few weeks.

1. Serving God doesn’t require a specific skill set; it requires saying ‘yes’ to what God asks. I’ll look at Acts 10 with you and share about my time living with missionaries.

2. I’ve talked about it before – a lot! – but I was convicted more than ever that worship is a lifestyle. I want to look with you at what we do with the 24 hours in a day. We’ll look at Colossians 4 at open doors and making the most of the time God has given us.

3. We are to be a sent people, meeting people where they are as the face of Christ. This was our theme at Bonclarken this past weekend, and a vital mission God is putting before the church (not just our church – the whole Church). We’ll look at John 17 and Jesus’ prayer for us over that very point.

What Freedoms?

These experiences, along with the talent challenge and some of your responses to that, lead me to an extension of the verse in Galatians.

What freedoms do you have – either to squander or use in service to God and love of neighbor?

A sabbatical is a unique gift of time. And I hesitate to mention it in the same breath as unemployment, for it seemed particularly unfair to be paid when others are not. Nonetheless, work takes up so much time; if you are unemployed, what are you doing with the time? At one point, my father compared the sabbatical to retirement. If you are retired, what are you doing with the time?

Health is a significant freedom, as anyone with health challenges will tell you. What are you doing with the freedom of good health? Will you squander it or use it to serve God and love your neighbor?

Religious and civil freedoms are significant gifts we enjoy in our country, particularly when we understand how compromised and limited those freedoms are in much of the world. But how easy it is to squander those freedoms! We don’t talk about faith or Jesus because we think we don’t know enough or someone might ask a hard question. Some places, evangelism happens despite threat of death or imprisonment. How will you use your freedom?

Our freedoms are embarrassingly many, and this verse among the most convicting in all scripture. We have wealth, health, education, artistic and creative freedoms, access to Internet and amazing technology, leisure time, and the list goes on and on and on. Will we squander or waste those amazing freedoms? Will we serve God and love our neighbor?

The Greatest Freedom

Now I believe these are significant and practical challenges for us from this verse in Galatians. But what the writer has in mind here is an even greater freedom – and responsibility. I have named a number of little freedoms – and some are not so little. But Paul is writing about the greatest freedom and that is the forgiveness, grace, and new start we have through Jesus Christ.

And hear this carefully. This is not just the spiritual point tacked on to the end of a sermon. This is the heart of this verse and what I believe is the heart of our purpose as forgiven and loved children of God. This is the Good News, Gospel story in one sentence. The implied imagery of slavery that is the opposite freedom is a depiction of sin, brokenness, and self-centeredness. The freedom described here is God’s salvation – His releasing the captives for new life.

Paul’s appeal here is for us freshly freed prisoners not to waste the freedom and simply return to the life and ways that once enslaved us. Rather, God has set us free with purpose. All our freedoms are little reflections of this great freedom. Freedom does allow the potential of rejection and waste; but its purpose is life itself. In God’s economy, the purpose is life lived as love toward God and neighbor.

So ponder that deeply. I admit to you the ease with which I get distracted from this great purpose and calling. But it is one God calls us to again and again. And part of my charge as pastor is to issue that call to you again and again.

So hear the Good News: by God’s grace and through Jesus Christ, you are truly free!

Now go live as those God has declared you to be. Go forth to love God and love your neighbor. Amen.

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