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  

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