Message for Reformation Sunday on John 8:31-36 given on October 29, 2023 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas
Many of you know that last spring my husband and I visited our daughter Leah in northern Spain, where she was teaching English on Fulbright grant. We posted beautiful pictures on Facebook. So here’s a story that never was and never will be posted on Facebook. It’s much more effective to embarrass myself in person!
Dan and I arrived safely in Madrid, and we had to make a connecting flight into Santiago de Compostela in Northwest Spain where Leah lived. We had extra suitcases so we could start bringing some of her winter clothes home. So even though we checked bags (and Iberia lost mine), we still each had a carry-on and a backpack.
I am always cold, so I was dressed in layers, and I put them all on, so I had less to carry. So in addition to my compression stockings, I had on my sweater, my rain jacket, my backpack—which was pretty heavy (lotions, potions, make-up, medicines, etc).
We get into the immigration line and it’s like everyone has taken up race-walking to get to their connecting flight or the arms of their loved one. We’re going as fast as we can through this line, but I am getting so hot with all these layers on, (I have created my own little climatron) and this heavy backpack, and I have got to get this jacket off. So, I am pushing my carry-on, holding onto my passport and immigration papers, and trying to take off my backpack, put it on my carry-on, all while hanging onto my passport, and race-walking through the immigration line. Somehow, I do manage to get my backpack off and put it on my carry-on and wrap the strap around it, and then I hear this big gasp all around me.
Which was all directed at me—because my backpack was actually heavier than my carry-on, so it didn’t roll when I put it on there, it just tipped over, but I was moving fast to keep up with the pace, so I fell over it, onto the floor. With everyone gasping and staring, Dan, who was ahead of me, turns around, to find his wife on the floor. He has this surprised, puzzled look on his face, like, “you knew how to walk when we got off the plane!”
And then he jumped into action and got me off the floor and I was really fine—just a bruised knee since I landed on the suitcase and backpack—It’s like a sports injury—rub some dirt on it and keep walking because you’re in the immigration line at the Madrid airport!
We start moving again and one of the female immigration officers monitoring the line looked at me, and I must have still looked a little rattled because she said, “tranquile, tranquile” ( be tranquil, be tranquil). Then she opened the rope and led Dan and I to the very short, special immigration line for---I don’t know who—people with tight connections and those who fall on their face. And we got through immigration with no line!
Then Dan texts Leah to let her know we got through immigration extra quick because I fell. And I said, “don’t tell her! I already have less stamina than both of you, now she’s going to think it’s going to be a bad trip because mom forgot how to walk. Besides, it’s my story to tell, and I don’t want to tell it. To anyone. Ever.”
But after we reassured her that I was fine, she said, “nice immigration hack, Mom.” Maybe she'll try it on her next trip!
So other than mortal embarrassment and a few laughs, why am I telling you this story? Because it is so hard to ask for help, even when the inevitable result is to fall flat on my face.
The truth is, I get tired of asking for help—I learned how to do it when I was sick with cancer, but I still do not like it. After so many surgeries, I can’t lift the carry-on luggage into the overhead bin, I am not supposed to lift heavy weights in order to build strength; I can’t open the pickle jar, I can’t get the Christmas decorations down from the top shelf—I pretend I can carry out the garbage ;). I need help with all of these mundane tasks and more. But I would not have fallen in that airport if I had just asked Dan to help me—which he is so willing always to do—and he would much rather do, than have me fall or be injured or harmed in any way.
I just had to ask him to hold my passport, hang on to my backpack, step aside from the line and pause a minute. We had plenty of time. But no, I had to try to do gymnastics with a backpack, a carry-on, a jacket and a passport with no upper body strength, while somebody who loves and adores me was right there, beside me.
This is how Jesus feels—we are there, race walking through life, doing every kind of contortion, carrying every burden, and juggling fifteen things, sweating and running, doing everything on our own—trying to be worthy, trying to work hard, trying to earn love or forgiveness or success, making sure we check the boxes, or we fix everybody else and their problems. And Jesus is right there next to us ready and willing to embrace us, and give us what we need, forgive us and make us whole, but we can’t be open to grace sometimes, we refuse help, we rebuff the people he has put in our lives, even the ones who love us or live with us or near us, and we insist on doing it all ourselves.
As if we put the earth on its axis and the stars in the sky.
Maybe it’s not until we are flat on our face that the truth becomes clear to us. Jesus says, “you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.”
Maybe there is no truer, freer place than flat on your face. Maybe there is no truer, freer story, than being spread eagle, like x-marks the spot, on the floor in the middle of immigration in the Madrid airport. Maybe it’s the only story to tell on Facebook.
The Franciscan Order understands “poverty” in a way that includes this face-down spiritual awareness. For them, poverty is more than a life of simplicity, restraint, and lack of material possessions. Fr. Richard Rohr says, “Poverty is when we recognize that myself—by itself—is largely powerless and ineffective.” Poverty is when I recognize that by myself, I am powerless and ineffective.
In this moment, we become open to our own Reformation—literally a re-formation—of being saved by grace—by God’s love, by Jesus’ forgiveness, by the Spirit’s presence and power—not by our doing. Then we become attached to Jesus like the branches to the vine.
This is the hallmark belief of the Reformation which we celebrate today—that God’s love and forgiveness come as a free gift of grace through faith and not by our own work and merit. Like Martin Luther himself, we too, need that moment when our striving fails us, and we experience the truth that by ourselves, without God, without grace, without help, and without other branches on the vine, we are powerless and ineffective.
We cannot make it alone—whatever “It” is for us. Whether it is to get through the day or managing our mental health, whether it is to stay clean from addiction, or to survive illness, whether it is to age well, or to be a parent in this post-Covid, still-anxious time for our kids.
But when we accept grace—that we are nothing on our own, and we are freed to ask for help—our life, our heart, our experience is transformed.
Today we celebrate that during the Red Letter Challenge so many people grew spiritually and their hearts were transformed. Some folks joined a Life Group which is concrete way to share our victories, and ask for prayer and help in our challenges. This was a great weekly spiritual practice for me after not asking for help in Madrid.
When we are embraced by grace, and surrounded with prayer and help, we go from face-down to face-up. We become powerful and effective as we encounter the hands and feet and face of Jesus in each other.
I am grateful to those who have the courage to share their Poster Board testimony today and I invite you to line up behind the baptismal font.—
As they come forward, I invite you this week to pay attention to one area of your life where you need Jesus’ love and grace. Then I invite you to identify an area where you need to ask someone or help—start asking, start practicing. To those sharing your Posterboard testimony, we do with ease and grace, with Jesus by our side—there’s no race walking and I offer you these wise words “tranquile, tranquile.”