Saturday, October 29, 2011

Reformation Sunday: Putting on Grace

Scripture for Reformation Sunday:  Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 46:1-11; Romans 3:19-28; John 8:31-36

Dear Lord, so far today I'm doing alright. I have not gossiped, lost my temper, been greedy, grumpy, nasty, selfish or self-indulgent. I have not whined, complained, cursed, or eaten any chocolate and I have charged nothing on my credit card, but I'm getting out of bed in a minute and I think that I will really need your help then. Amen
Have you ever heard this prayer before?  Maybe you’ve prayed it yourself.  I love this prayer – it’s a reminder to me that no matter my intentions and no matter how hard I try; I just can’t live a life pleasing to God on my own.

That’s what’s Paul is getting at when he says “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  No before you bristle at me calling you a sinner (which I did, along with calling myself a sinner too!), you should know that we define sin as anything which removes us from God and destroys relationship with each other and creation.  One blog I follow puts it this way:
"I don't mean sin as a theological category, sin as a rhetorical device, or sin as a tool by which to shame others. No, I mean sin. Our sin. The kind of sin that makes it really hard for me to trust others the way I should, worrying that they may take advantage of me. The kind of sin that makes it hard for me to share with others the way I should, afraid that there really isn't enough to go around and I'd better get mine first. The kind of sin that makes it hard to imagine the future as God sees it and Jesus preaches it as I should, instead accepting the status quo, playing by the established rules, and doing the best I can rather than taking care of my neighbor."[i]
No matter how “good” you try to be, there’s always something that gets in the way of relationship – we all sin.  But we want to pretend it’s not all that bad.  I remember seeing a skit once called “Worm Theology.”  In it, two people were at church.  One was praying the confession and the other was disagreeing with everything said:  “I’m not that bad…I live a pretty good life…I don’t really have any big sins…I’m actually a pretty good person.”  She listens to the other person confessing her sins and says, in disgust, “Worm theology, that’s what that is!  You just want to feel lower than a worm.” 

It’s not about putting ourselves down and feeling lower than a worm.  It’s about telling the truth about ourselves.  We want to deny that we are indeed sinners in need of a savior.  “Oh I’m pretty good” – but ‘pretty good’ falls short of God’s righteousness – right-ness, living in unbroken relationship with all of creation.

We tell that truth about ourselves each week when we confess our sins:  We confess that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.  We know that we have sinned.  We know that in spite of our best intentions, we can’t keep from sinning.  And we know we can’t be free from sin on our own.
We’re not alone. 

In Jeremiah, we read that God gives the children of Israel in exile a new covenant.  The whole reason they are in exile in the first place is because they couldn’t keep the old covenant.  No matter how faithful God was in keeping God’s part of the covenant, no matter how many times God forgave them for breaking covenant, they could only stay faithful for just so long, and then – well…“all have sinned and fallen short.” 
So God changes the deal – God makes a new covenant, this time written, not on stone, but on their hearts.  God is brokering both sides of this deal – God will uphold God’s end of the bargain and God will uphold humanity’s end of the bargain, for us.

And that’s where the grace kicks in…

God comes down – in the incarnation, in the cross
God gives us that which we don’t deserve for the sake of Jesus – grace – God’s forgiveness and intentional amnesia. Jeremiah tells us that God says, “I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.[ii]  Paul teaches usthey are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”[iii]

We need God’s gift of grace.  We need the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.  We need a reminder that God has always loved us and has already forgiven us.  We hear that each Sunday too, right after we confess our sins and forgiveness is proclaimed. 
I’ll never forget the first time I had ever visited a Lutheran church.  I had never attended a church with a formal liturgy before and had never stood in the middle of the gathered people of God confessing my sins.  We finished the confession, and then Pastor Bob said,

“This is my favorite part of the service.  It is my great joy and delight to announce to you the entire forgiveness of all your sins.”
At that moment, I stood face to face with God’s grace.  I had told the truth about myself in front of God and everybody- and God still loved me.  In fact, God had always loved me and had already forgiven me

Ok - I knew before that morning that I was forgiven.  I had been baptized, I had confessed sins many times - over and over it seemed.  I knew that God forgave me (up here in my head.)  But I got so worried about all the times I failed to live up to the law, that I doubted that God loved me.  I doubted I would ever be good enough. I wondered if God would someday get tired of forgiving me and say, “That’s enough – you’re through!” 
But at that moment, grace overwhelmed me and I KNEW I was forgiven (here in my heart and soul).  What a relief to realize that I didn’t have to live up to some unobtainable standard.  That I didn’t have to do anything to be worthy of God’s love and forgiveness. That even while I was a sinner, God was already pursuing me with grace and love.

That’s another truth we tell each Sunday – that God always comes down.  God always makes the first move to bring us back into relationship.  God always loves, always forgives, always picks us up when we fall, dusts us off and sets us back on the path to righteousness – right-ness with God, each other and creation.

And that truth sets us free.  

[i] David Lose, Dear Working Preacher,
[ii] Jeremiah 31:34b
[iii] Romans 3:24  

Saturday, October 15, 2011

18th Sunday after Pentecost: Putting on Faith

Readings for this Sunday:  Isaiah 45:1-7; Psalm 96; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22

So, today, Jesus is in the temple courtyard, teaching.  The day before, Jesus entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey with psalms waving and shouts of Hosanna.  He went to the temple and drove out the money changers, saying, “My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers!”  Then he left Jerusalem to spend the night in Bethany. 

This morning Jesus returns to Jerusalem, to the temple to teach.  The Pharisees are there too, waiting for an explanation on just who Jesus thinks he is and where he gets off upsetting the temple commerce.

The debate ensues.

Jesus asks them first to tell him if John the Baptizer was acting on God’s authority.  They decline to answer and Jesus tells them the parable of two sons, one who told his father he would work and didn’t and the other who said no to the father, but then went out to work.  Then Jesus told the parable of the wicked tenants who would not give the produce to the landowner and killed his son.  Finally, Jesus tells the parable of the wedding banquet, where the ones who were invited refused to attend and the banquet was opened up to everyone.

We’ve heard those three parables read in worship over the last three weeks.  They are uncomfortable reading taken one at a time, but Jesus unloads them rapid fire on the Pharisees, all at once – it’s no wonder they regroup and try to hatch a plan to trap Jesus.

And they come up with a ‘gotcha’ question.  First, they flatter Jesus and then they drop the bombshell – “We know you are honest and impartial – really, we value your opinion, so tell us:  is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”

This is a no-win for Jesus.  If he says, “Why, yes, it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar,” he can be labeled a Roman collaborator and the crowds will hate him.  If he says, “No, you shouldn’t pay taxes to Caesar,” then he can be accused of treason and hauled off to Pilate. 

Either way, the Pharisees win.

Jesus refuses to play their game.  He makes a simple request – “Show me the money.”

And with that request, he changes the game.

Remember, just the day before, Jesus threw all the money changers out of the temple?  The whole reason that the money changers were there in the first place was to exchange the blasphemous Roman coin, with its graven image of Caesar and the inscription naming Caesar divine son of the gods, into holy temple coin.

What are pious Pharisees doing with that Roman coin – IN THE TEMPLE, where it doesn’t belong?  There’s something not right here, when the teachers of the law are not following their own rules.  Jesus shows them up for what they are and for what they are trying to do.

Having shown their hypocrisy, Jesus then makes his game winning play:

Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s.”

Game over.

Jesus just changed the rules.  This is not about taxes or politics.  It’s about who you worship. It’s about where you put your trust.  It’s about who you name as God. 

If Jesus is saying that the coin bearing the image of the emperor belongs to the emperor, then what does he mean when he says, “Give to God what belongs to God?” 

The emperor’s image is on the coin. So what bears the image of God?

 We do. 

Jesus means us – we bear the image of God, we belong to God.

Give to God what belongs to God.  Jesus points out the simple fact that the Pharisees are holding back, not giving themselves truly to God.  They’re holding back.  God is not the Lord of their lives.  They follow many masters – power, envy, status, wealth.  They may think they are following God, but in reality God is way down the list. 

The Thessalonians could teach those Pharisees a thing or two.

The Thessalonians are living in a way that is giving to God that which is God’s – they are living their faith out loud.

There was no doubt that the Thessalonians had a new Lord – idols are forsaken.  In a culture where it was customary to just add a new god to the ones you worship, the Thessalonians dropped the idols cold and turned all their loyalties to the Living God.  Not only did they joyfully receive the good news of Jesus Christ – preached by Paul and Silas and Timothy and planted in their hearts by the Holy Spirit, they began to live their faith.  

Out loud. 

In public. 

This was not lip service to what they believed.  People noticed.  People talked about the choices the Thessalonians made, the way they treated others with the love and compassion of Jesus, how they endured persecution and stood firm in their faith, how confident they were in their trust in God, their humility and respect for others, how they were full of joy regardless of their circumstances.

The Thessalonians made a big impression alright.  So much so, that people all over Macedonia and Achaia – that is most of Greece and some of Bulgaria and Albania, were talking about the example the Thessalonians.  That would be like saying that all over the East River and in parts of North Dakota, the example of Peace Lutheran and Pollock Lutheran are known and talked about.

That faith the Thessalonians had – that faith was a gift from God.  As Lutherans, we believe that our faith comes from God – it’s a gift.  I have to believe that God still gives the same kind of faith today that the Thessalonians had.  

And I believe that Jesus still calls us to give to God the things that are God’s.

In baptism we are claimed and named by God.  We are marked with the cross of Christ and sealed with the Holy Spirit.  We bear God’s image.  We belong to Jesus.

How does that affect how we think about those things that God has given us?

How does putting on the faith God gives us impact our lives – the choices we make, how we spend our time, how we treat others, how we spend our money, (how we earn our money), how we vote…every aspect of our lives, nothing held back?

Are we so filled with joy at the good news of God’s love for all humanity that we can’t help but live in such a way that it’s clear whose image we bear and to whom we belong?

What would it look like if we lived our faith out loud?

St Francis of Assisi once said, “Preach the gospel, use words if necessary.”

Live your faith out loud!

Saturday, October 8, 2011

17th Sunday after Pentecost: Putting on Joy

Scriptures for this Sunday:  Isaiah 25:1-9; Psalm 23; Philippians 4:1-8 (sermon text); Matthew 22:1-14

When we first moved here to South Dakota, Tim and I were entranced with the beauty of the landscape.  The wide rolling prairies, the amazing cloud formations, the many ponds and little lakes that popped out from around this curve in the road or from behind that hill, the never-ending horizon which makes you think you can see forever – all were a constant source of delight.  We were amazed watching the sun go down, how you can scan from the east and darkness to the west where the final gleams of the sun lingered in the sky.  I would look around while I was driving and feel my soul sigh with joy.  I asked Tim shortly after we got here if he thought we’d ever take living surrounded by such beauty for granted. 
Three months later, and I am still in awe of the landscape.  I admit, I don’t drive around goggle-eyed, gaping at the landscape.  It’s more of a satisfied awareness that beauty surrounds me.  I still feel peaceful driving past the rolling pastures on 83 and wait in anticipation for the glimpse of this pretty little pond tucked in away in the hills.  I still thrill when I crest the big hill on 1804 and there’s the Missouri River.  And I sigh in contentment when I reach the top of Born Hill and the land goes on forever and the sky even farther.

Last Wednesday, the emotion I felt viewing the landscape was neither peaceful nor joyful.  It was fear.  I watched with dismayed fascination as the plumes of smoke billowed from fires here and there.  I lived for 6 years in Southern California and know very well how a small spark in a dry and thirsty land can ravage ravines and threaten homes.  At one point, the smoke cloud curled ominously over Pollock, fingers stretched out as if to grab the town.   
As I watched the smoke billow and the sirens blare and the men going off to fight an unpredictable foe made more dangerous by the buffeting winds, I thought of the irony that this week I was scheduled to preach about joy. 

How do I preach joy to you when you’re tallying up the fire losses? 

For that matter, how do I preach joy to you when you are battling cancer, or other serious illness? 
How do I preach joy to you when you are mourning the loss of a loved one? Or the loss of a relationship, job, a dream?

It’s ridiculous to preach joy in the face of loss and uncertainty.

It’s ridiculous to preach joy when you are sitting in prison, possibly awaiting your execution.  But that’s what Paul does.   “Rejoice in the Lord always!” He’s insistent on joy – “again I say, rejoice!” 
Not only is Paul joyful, he is content right where he is.  Our lectionary reading stops, but Paul says just a few verses later that he has learned to be content with whatever he has.  Paul’s joy does not come from what does or doesn’t have. Paul’s joy does not come from where is he is.  Paul’s joy does not come from who he is or what he’s done or how spiritually mature he is.  Paul’s joy comes from being able to see God’s hand at work in his life, through the good and the bad.

Joy is what we do as Christians.  It’s a way at looking at life and remembering who God is and how God “causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called in accordance with his purpose.”[i]  Rejoice!  Again I say rejoice!
It’s a little like looking at the beauty in the landscape around us.  There are times when it’s so easy to see God’s blessings that the joy pours out of us.  There are times when we are so used to the landscape of good things that flow from our Father’s generous hand that most of the time we go along with joy in the background and then – surprise! – we’re hit again by the wonder of it all and joy bubbles up like a spring.  I haven’t been here in winter yet, but I expect that there will be bleak winter days where I will think ahead to the coming beauty of spring.  There are times like that, where we look past the bleak hills to the coming green and joy swells in anticipation. 

But then there are those times – times when we lose our joy.  Times we dwell in fear.  Fear is the opposite of joy.  Fear is when we let anxiousness reign, when we focus on circumstance, when we forget the divine hand that holds ours along the way.
Where do we find joy at that moment?

Paul tells us:  take everything to God, both those things that you are thankful for and those things that have your worried.  Think on the good things in this world.  When you do this, you are open to God’s peace in your life, you allow God’s peace to guard your heart and your mind, you live in the joy of the Lord.

The Psalmist also tells us where to find joy.  Today’s psalm is so familiar to us all.  It’s often read at funerals, or at times where we feel deep fear.  But it’s not really a sad psalm – not a lament.  It’s a psalm of joy.  Maybe it’s so comforting when we are afraid because every line of the psalm is full of joy and peace and contentment:
·        God is the good shepherd, leading us to peaceful green meadows with tasty grass and cool still waters refreshing to drink from. 
·        God is the bounteous host, filling our cup over and over again with all manner of good things until we feel that it can hold no more.
·        God is the protector, shielding us from the wilderness and all that would devour us.
·        God pursues us always with goodness and mercy – the word is actually steadfast love – welcoming us as honored guests to the feast, inviting us to live in God’s household forever.

Rejoice – don’t worry.  Take everything to God with thanksgiving and supplication.  The peace of the Lord be with you always.  Rejoice.

We read Psalm 23 earlier in worship.  I’d like us to read it again, as a prayer.  We’ll read one line at a time, with a pause between each line.  Take a moment, think about where you have joy and where you have fear.  Give thanks for the joy.  Give the fear to God.
The Lord is my shepherd.  I shall not be in want.

He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters.

He revives my soul and guides me along right pathways for his name’s sake.
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me, your rod and your staff they comfort me.

You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; you have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over.
Surely your goodness and mercy (loving-kindness) shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.[ii]


[i] Romans 8:28, translation used: The Complete Jewish Bible.
[ii] Psalm 23 translation from Lutheran Book of Worship, Augsburg Fortress

Saturday, October 1, 2011

16th Sunday after Pentecost - Putting on confidence

Readings for this Sunday:  Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:7-15; Philippans 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46

 “Confidence” always makes me think of The Sound of Music.  Maria, a young novice, had been sent serve as a governess to seven children of CaptianVon Trapp while she reconsiders her call to be a nun.  She is young and inexperienced and very nervous about what to expect.  Since this is a musical, she starts singing about her predicament while waiting for the bus to go the Von Trapp estate.  Soon she bursts into a rousing song about having confidence in all sorts of things – the sunshine, rain, spring, but most of all she says, “I have confidence in me!”  That confidence lasts long enough for her to boldly march up to the door, rousingly knock on it and embarrass herself by assuming the butler is the Captain.  Her confidence quickly melts away.

One thing I find interesting in her song – never once does she express any confidence in God.  You would think that since Maria is on the path to become a nun, she would have lots of confidence in God and how God was working in her life.  Perhaps that’s her problem.  Things aren’t exactly working out for her at the convent – that’s why they sent her off to be a governess.  Perhaps her problem stems from where she places her confidence.

We place our confidence in all sorts of things.  We are confident in our abilities, our education, our income level or our material possessions, our family heritage, our religious background, and, yes, even in God.  But there is a difference between having confidence in the things that God has blessed us with and having confidence in God.  In the reading from Philippians, Paul explains just what the difference is.

Paul had a lot to boast about. His pedigree was perfect.   
·        He was from a sincerely religious family - Jews who were meticulous about following God’s law. 
·        He was brought into the family of Israel, claimed as one of God’s own - on precisely the correct day for circumcising infants. 
·        He was from the right tribe – not only was he a Israelite, but he was from the tribe of Benjamin – the tribe of Saul, the first king, and the tribe all the other tribes rallied behind in battle, the tribe that unfailingly supported Judah when the kingdom split. 
·        His parents nurtured him in the faith.  His family resisted the Hellenizing forces in their society – Hebrew of Hebrews referred to a strict Jewish family that spoke Hebrew in the home.
·        Yet they also had the rare advantage of being Roman citizens. 

You could say Paul was born with a silver spoon in his mouth.

Paul also had a great resume. 
·        He had a prestigious job - he was a Pharisee.  You might remember that the Pharisees were extremely devout teachers of the law. They strove to keep not only the commandments in the Torah, but all the rules in the various commentaries and interpretations (the Talmud and rabbinical teachings).  
·        He went to the right school - studied under one of the greatest of all rabbis, Gamailel. 
·        He was enthusiastic about his faith, a great defender of Judaism (especially against the heresy of the new Christ followers). 
·        And to top it all off, he was at the top of his profession – he was meticulous about following the law.  The other Pharisees counted him as blameless.  He was the perfect young Pharisee that all the new students wanted to be like.

Yes, Paul had a lot of reasons to be confident. 

But that all changed on the road to Damascus.  All those perks and privileges, all his status and righteousness that he had attained in life suddenly were loss to him.  

It wasn't that Paul suddenly understood that those things were no good, or had no value.  No, those things still were valuable, but Paul realized that the things in which he had placed his confidence had actually hurt him.  These things got in the way of his relationship with God.  These things kept him from seeing things the way God saw them. 

Paul was blinded on the road to Damascus, and when his eyes were opened again, his entire perspective had changed.  Paul may have been confident before his encounter with Jesus, but now Paul had “God-fidence”.

It was his “God-fidence” that gave him strength in his travels.  And Paul’s journeys were not easy.  Beside the miles walked on dry, dusty roads for miles, and the danger from bandits and wild animals – Paul’s message was not always received with open arms.  He was beaten, stoned, run out of town, thrown in jail numerous times, shipwrecked three times and adrift at sea for a couple of days.  And there was the matter of that pesky thorn in the flesh thing. 

As a Pharisee, Paul had a life of privilege and status, of wealth and prominence.  As a Christ follower, he lost his status, he lost privilege, he was often treated as a criminal.  Yet, Paul counts his former life as loss and his life in Christ as gain.  He’s using banking language here – on the balance sheet of life, Paul’s assets of birth and achievement incurred great loss for him.  But the asset of knowing Christ balanced his life, and brought him great gain.     

What is it that we place our confidence in?  What would it look like if we boasted of our pedigree as Paul did his?  Let’s see.  Many of us could say, “I was brought to the waters of baptism as an infant, taught to love God, brought regularly to worship, the scriptures placed in my hand as a child, confirmed at the appointed time.”  We proudly say, “I am a Christian”, or even better, “I am a Lutheran.”  But where does our confidence really lie?  Are we confident in the practice and trappings of our religion? Or do we place our confidence in the object of our worship – in God?

What if we boasted in all that we have achieved?  The world tells us to put our confidence in our educational status, our career choices.  We hear that the one with the most toys wins – clearly a message that material possessions will boost our status and make us happy.   That song sung around the Fourth of July says “I am proud to be an American” –indicating confidence comes from living in the right country. Our society tells us to be proud of where we live, in our homes and our cars.  Not that any of those things are bad.  We are very blessed to have the opportunities that living in the United States brings.  But we need to beware – do those blessings become the source of our confidence or does our confidence rest in the one who gave us those blessings – our gracious God?

What if we boasted in our “God-fidence” as Paul does?  In baptism we are clothed with Jesus. We have been clothed in “God-fidence.” We are marked with the cross of Christ.  We share in Jesus’ death, and we share in his resurrection. We lose everything else to gain Christ.  And daily we live out our baptism, confidently rising each day knowing that exactly what we need for the joys and the trials of that day comes from the source all good things, our God. 

And that “God-fidence” can give us the courage to move beyond our past, both the good and the not-so-good, to reach for the future God has planned for us – to press on to the goal of life in Jesus.

You remember Maria, the young novice sent to be a governess?  Do you know how the story ends?  Not the Hollywood story, but the real story?  As a teen I loved the movie so much – I just had to read the book about the real-life Von Trapps, written by the real-life Maria. 

It was only when she put on the confidence that comes from Jesus that she was able to embrace the vocation God had in mind for her, to bring love and healing into a household trapped in despair and grief. 

It was her “God-fidence” that enabled her to flee Austria with her husband and children when the Nazis wanted to force him to fight for them. 

It was her “God-fidence” that gave her strength to make a new home for her family in a strange country, arriving with only the clothes on their backs. 

And it was her “God-fidence” that inspired her and her family to create a new life for themselves, forming a singing group and eventually a camp that brought music, hope and joy to many.        

How will “God-fidence” give you courage to face your fears?

How does “God-fidence” strengthen you for the tasks of the week ahead?

Where will “God-fidence” lead you to serve?