Good morning everyone, happy Reformation week! To really get into today’s gospel text about freedom from sin, and in honor of a very well known Lutheran named Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I’m gonna tell you about Bonhoeffer, and about grace, and about potentially getting eaten by bears, and hopefully by the end of this those three things will all make sense together. Several years ago, I worked as a bible camp counselor up in Northern Wisconsin. The camp I worked for owned 2 different camps, a few miles apart from one another. Wapo is the main site, it’s very well up-kept, has fancy air conditioned cabins, has a staff of nearly 100, and is overall really well stocked and well maintained.
Ox Lake is the other site where I mostly worked at, and it’s really rustic compared to wapo. Ox Lake is 300 acres, of mostly just woods, with a few tarp wall cabins and dirt trails here and there, and the first summer I worked there we had 5 families of black bears living with us on our cozy little property. Meanwhile I’m in charge of a bunch of high schoolers, and have to make sure to get them home at the end of each week without being eaten. So during staff training, the Department of Natural Resources came out and did a whole session with us on bear training. And I kid you not, what the DNR came out and trained us to do was, if we came across a bear, we were supposed to puff out our chest, open up our jacket if we were wearing one to make ourselves look as big as possible, wave our arms and in a really low voice shout “Nooo bear, I am a person and you are a bear, go away bear”. The DNR also taught us to yell insults at the bear to try to hurt its confidence, because that’s really the lowest blow you can give a bear. And then usually the bear should run away because black bears are fairly timid, but if instead the bear decides to run at you, you can’t out run it, you can’t climb a tree because they can climb too, you can’t play dead because it’ll just rip you apart, so the only thing you can do is to fight the bear. So for the rest of staff training, they had us surprise tackle each other to practice getting ready to wrestle the bears.
We ran into at least a few bears a week for most of the summer so we had to be pretty cautious, but when you’re in big groups, bears tend to run off before you get to close. The only time bears ever became a real worry was when counselors would have to go out to get firewood. First of all, most counselors had to stay with the kids, so we could only spare one or two counselors at a time, which are not enough people to scare off a bear. Second of all, we had to go off the trails to find fallen trees to chop up, and then we had to use some dull axes to actually chop it up ourselves, and haul it back. It was not an enjoyable or easy experience. Most of the times we had close encounters with bears were times when one or two of us were off on our own chopping firewood.
But Wapo, the other campsite down the road, had several massive stock piles of wood, enough to last them the entire year, and it was already chopped, and it was nicely stored so we didn’t have to worry about it being wet like the wood we’d find in the forest at Ox Lake, and we didn’t have to worry about being stalked by a bear. So really, it was just significantly easier to take wood from wapo and bring it out to Ox Lake for our campfires.
The only problem was that we were explicitly told by our director on a regular basis not to do that. But it was just soooooo much easier. And on rainy nights, or on weeks when the bears were feeling especially friendly, you could count on at least one counselor to quote Romans 6:1 and say ”Shall we sin all the more so that grace may abound?”, and then go ahead and steal some of wapo’s firewood when our director wasn’t watching.
Sometimes when we’re in such a safe place, surrounded by a bunch of Lutherans who are so nice and forgiving, and when we’re living for a God who’s full of grace and mercy, it’s really easy to just go ahead and take the easy way out, and ask for forgiveness later. This is an idea that Dietrich Bonhoeffer refers to as cheap grace. Its grace without cost, trusting that forgiveness and salvation will be there, but forgetting about the sacrifice that Christ had to make in order to give us that grace so freely. Cheap grace is taking from the abundant pile of firewood, and forgetting about the other counselors at wapo who had to spend weeks before the summer started tirelessly chopping that wood so that it could be used freely by everyone else.
Cheap grace is what happens when counselors are joking around saying “shall we sin all the more so that grace may abound”, and conveniently leave out the verse immediately after that says “of course not!” Cheap grace is what happens when a bunch of Jews are talking to Jesus in today’s gospel text and insist that their people have never been slaves to anyone, ignoring the hundreds of years of slavery their ancestors had to suffer, and the decades in the Wilderness as God worked to free them.
When Bonhoeffer talked about grace, he talked about 2 different types of grace: cheap grace, which is the stealing firewood hoping you don’t get caught sort of grace, and costly grace, which is another thing entirely. Costly grace is grace that comes with a life of discipleship and discipline, grace that only comes into play when it has to, because the individual understands the enormous sacrifice that was made in order for that grace to be there, and so would never take advantage of it. Bonhoeffer can explain it this way:
Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, and grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.
Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us”
That costly grace that is what we get from Christ who frees us. We don’t understand Christ’s word, we don’t deserve a place in the household, we consistently fall short, and we are utterly and defenselessly enslaved to sin, so what? So we try. So we live a life of discipleship, doing our best to follow God’s law, knowing that we’ll fall short, but having faith that our God is a God of Grace who frees us from the bondage of sin, and the fear that that brings. Sin is terrifying. Enslavement is terrifying. Being separated from God is terrifying. But we, Christ’s people, are freed from that fear by the costly grace that assures us that as we live our lives of discipleship, as temptation and sin sometimes slip in, we are not bound to a life that is defined by that. We are defined by the grace of Christ, and the freedom that discipleship with him brings, making us free to love and serve our God and our neighbors.
Being a Christian comes with the promise of God’s grace and his abundance and his mercy for when we inevitably fall short, but it also comes with the expectation that we’re going to be called to do a lot of things the hard way. That might mean inviting someone to church, or sharing the gospel with people who don’t want to hear it. It might mean forgiving someone who doesn’t deserve it. It might mean resisting the temptation to sin all the more so that grace may abound. Or it might mean wrestling a bear instead of stealing firewood from the other camp.
But however grace comes to play in your life, remember that while it’s something that shouldn’t be taken advantage of, it’s also something that you can’t avoid needing. We shouldn’t be reckless, but we also shouldn’t be so terrified of sinning and so guilty for our need of grace that we live our lives in constant fear of messing up. One of Martin Luther’s most infamous quotes is “Sin Boldly”. By sin boldly, I believe Luther meant live boldly. We’re called to go about our lives living out the gospel, and serving and loving god and his people, and in doing that, we can find peace in knowing that God is graceful and understands that we’re bound to make mistakes and sin along the way. We’re five hundred and three years into the reformation, and in those five hundred and three years, we’ve sinned more than we could possibly count. Luther did, his predecessors did, the ELCA does, this church does, all Christians do, and we each do. We are captives to that sin and cannot free ourselves, so thank God we have Christ who offers us the grace to move forward into year five hundred and four, as we ask God, what is in store for us next in this crazy, scary, wonderful life of discipleship?
So, as we step into year 504, may you go from here with the confidence to live boldly. May you find humility in the great gifts you’ve received, because what is costly to God cannot be cheap to us. And may you remember what I taught you about how to scare off a black bear in case you’re ever lucky enough to come across one.