To be sure, I am not one who can speak deeply from a personal experience of ‘slavery’ — for it is not part of my own history. But then, as Jesus points out to his first listeners today, that sort of experience is not what he is speaking of at all. Rather, the kind of slavery he points to today is the universal kind — for, in fact, we are each one of us ‘slaves’ to sin. Let me tell you of a time when I knew this was so…
After greeting the faithful after the 8 a.m. service I looked down to see that I had spilled wine on the front of my alb. We still had one more service to go that morning so I headed back to the sacristy to seek the advice of someone who would know better than I. I stepped through the door and explained my dilemma, wondering if there was any way to remove the stain in the next hour. Shaking her head, Carole said to me then, “You are the messiest pastor we’ve ever had.” She was laughing as she said it, but I could tell she wasn’t really kidding.
To tell you the truth, I was shocked. Oh, one glance at my desk will tell you that I am not the most orderly person around, but then, that is true of many other pastors. Still while there was always a steady stream of traffic through my office and my ‘messiness’ was by then common knowledge, it was clear that in that moment she was not speaking of my lack of priority in getting papers filed or discarding junk mail.
In spite of Carole’s light tone, I can remember standing still in my surprise at having been so ‘found out’ for I felt a sense of shame flooding me even before I knew what she was talking about. I can remember standing still long enough, too, to hear exactly what she meant. It turns out that for many months now I had been spilling wine on the altar linens. And not just once a week-end, but often more than one time on any given week-end. Clearly, I was entirely oblivious to this — and more than that, as a result, had been going about my business for some time giving no thought at all to the extra work this was causing our very fine altar guild members. I left that conversation determined to prove I could do better.
Now in my defense, there are good reasons beyond my own clumsiness for this. For this is how it was.
It was the practice in that congregation to share the sacrament at every service every week-end. We had lovely gold plated chalices, however, which had a tendency to corrode if the wine was left in them for too long. So the practice in that place was for the pastor, while she spoke the Words of Institution, to pour the wine into the chalice so as to minimize the time the wine would be able to do its damage. Only the pouring ewer wasn’t really a pouring ewer at all. And so apparently, week after week, service after service, a tiny drop of wine would catch on the lip of the ewer and when I wasn’t looking the deep red wine would dribble down onto the altar linen beneath it.
I hadn’t noticed. But of course, the altar guild had. It turns out they had taken to simply moving chalices around in order to cover up my stains between services so as to not have to clean up after me more than once a week, but until that morning not a one of them had said anything to me.
Well, after that I tried to change my ways, to prove them wrong, I really did. Only service after service, week-end after week-end, the aforementioned design flaw in the pouring ewer made it so that no matter how I held it, no matter how carefully I poured from it, there was no stopping that single drop of red wine from making its mark three times a week-end. After a few weeks of doing my best I took to simply running my finger along the lip of the ewer and then wiping my finger on a tissue I kept in the pocket of my alb for just this purpose. Try as I might, I couldn’t make it not ‘spill.’ It felt a little like ‘slavery.’
Now I could come up with a dozen other examples of what it is to be ‘enslaved to sin’ — most much more profound than this one.
For instance, I could speak of my on again off again addiction to caffeine. No, I don’t believe the caffeine itself is sinful. And no, I’m not saying that the experience of others is at all like mine. Still, if I ‘m honest, I have to admit there is an ongoing pattern underlying my succumbing to temptation once more. I grow tired or stressed. I’m taking on too much, trying to prove my own worth once more. I’m insisting that there is so much to do (and pastors, you know how this can be) that I simply can’t get my day off again this week. Then it’s four o’clock in the afternoon. I’m returning from a hospital call with a full slate of meetings still in front of me. I find myself in the drive-through ordering a diet coke. The first sip tastes terrible and then the second and third suddenly have me revived. And I’m right back where I started. A slave to caffeine? Maybe. More than that I know myself to be slave to my own inability to set boundaries on my time and energy, to rely on God and God’s people more than I do on my own limited skills and abilities and energy and time. I know I am a ‘slave to sin.’
Or I could speak of my fear of confronting hard things, of my once more not speaking up in favor of the hurting or the oppressed. I could choose one example now and then make a list of the thousand tired excuses I’ve used over my lifetime for not doing what I’m called to do in the face of injustice. I could speak of how it gets easier and easier to ignore as my fear defines me more and more. Oh yes, that’s slavery, to be sure. That is what it is to be a ‘slave to sin.’
And for that matter? My story about the wine dripping on the altar linens week after week? Well, as I’ve sat with it again this afternoon I am more and more convinced my ‘slavery’ was not in my inability to make a ewer with a design flaw do what it would never do. My ‘slavery’ was tied to my yearning to be liked in all ways at all times. My ‘slavery’ was rooted in the moment of confrontation when I felt ‘found out,’ ‘less than,’ ‘not enough’ — in that quick flash of shame I experienced then that led me to do all I could do to make it right. No, I am not proud of my inattentiveness to the altar guild’s need to constantly be cleaning up after me. At the same time, I wonder now why I didn’t insist instead that we look for a better solution than me using my index finger to catch the mess before it became a mess week after week. Why didn’t we simply purchase something that would work better? And why didn’t I say so, thus sparing every pastor who came after me from the same plight?
No doubt about it, we are all, at one time or another, or perhaps at all times, slaves to fear or doubt or pride or …. you name it. All of us. And even in those times when I think I’m making progress. When I stand up or step up or reach out or speak the truth even when I’m afraid. Even then it is not enough for the struggle goes on and one day I think I get it close to ‘right’ and the next I’m right back in the drive-through paying the price for, if nothing else, trying once more to prove my own worth or value all on my own.
So thanks be to God for the promise that is ours in Christ Jesus today: that promise of freedom which we only get glimmers of in our life together now. For to be sure, there was some freedom experienced by both of us in the moment an altar guild member finally told me the truth. And I knew some freedom in the realization that they would love me even if I was” the messiest pastor they’d ever had.” And while I’m grateful for those glimmers, those make me look forward all the more to the day when I will know the freedom Jesus offers now. When I will know fully and completely that the only way I can be set free is if someone else does it for me. And when I will live in joy and trust that this is already so. When I will feel no more need to prove my own worth or value for I will be resting in the certainty that God already did that by loving me. When I will hear words like ‘You are the messiest pastor we ever had’ not as words to be proven wrong, but rather as words to be listened to and heard which may well provide moments when forgiveness can be extended and received and which can be followed up by together finding a new and better way. Indeed, what a day that will be!
- How have you experienced ‘slavery?’ Are you tempted, along with Jesus’ first listeners, to argue that you have never been ‘enslaved?’ Or is this part of your lived experience? If so, how does that inform your hearing of this text?
- How do you understand yourself to be a ‘slave to sin?’ What story would you offer to help another understand what this means to you?
- How have you experienced being ‘set free’ from sin? How does that experience reflect the larger one Jesus offers in his words today?