Sunday, March 26, 2017

March 26, 2017 - Apart from Works

We are justified by grace through faith apart from works for the sake of Christ.  Today I want to go deep into thinking about works.  But before I go into works I want talk about the idea that we are justified by grace through faith apart from works.  This is fundamental to a Lutheran theology.  It says all sorts of things about God and about us in relationship to God.  Importantly, it means that if we have a relationship with God, it is because God wants it and makes it.

                To understand this from a specifically Lutheran perspective, you also have to understand that Luther had little faith in humanity.  He did not think we were pretty good, just in need of little fixing.  He saw as fallen, turned in on ourselves.  As a young Augustinian monk, Martin Luther went on a trip to Rome and was severely disappointed.  He thought he was going to go and find a holy city, devout priests serving devout people in the heart of Catholicism in the shadow of the pope.  Instead he found faith for sale and priests and bishops living in luxury.  He found hypocritical priests who mocked the sacraments they administered.  He found monks with loose morals, unconcerned with anything spiritual.  I think he believed he saw what happens when we leave faith in the hands of humanity.  We are turned inward and will always make things about us.  The relationship with God becomes a tool for our own self-gratification or success.

                As I have said before, Luther had some issues and sometimes his take on humanity comes across as pretty hopeless.  I don’t think he would be taken with the power of positive thinking or the many variations of choice-centered theology, that we choose Jesus, that we choose righteousness.  I think Luther sees humanity as that person sitting in the drive-through who has been told to eat healthier and is saying to himself, “Right after this Whopper I will make better choices.” 

                So for Luther works and choices simply could not save us.  The things we do could never save us because they are always a bit suspect, tinged with selfishness, a hidden calculation of “What’s in it for me?”  Again, it sounds pretty dismal, but it is right in that moment of despair that the gospel shines through.  It is right at the moment when we recognize that we cannot please God or earn God’s love on our own that we discover that God is already in love with us.  It is when we realize that what was broken is already fixed, that God is already pleased with us, that we have nothing to add, that we have nothing to do but be loved…it is in the moment that we know that we are loved not because of what we have done but because of who God is, that we are turned toward God in faith.

                These ideas are in the background of some of what is happening in the story of the man born blind that we heard in the gospel reading.  The opening question from the disciples is, “Who did something wrong that this man was born blind?”  That was the assumption of the time.  It is the difficulty of the claim that everything happens for a reason.  Someone must have done something that this man was born blind, otherwise God is not fair and the whole system breaks down.  We like the idea that we live in a causal universe, that people get what they deserve, that doing good things earns you good things and that doing bad things earns somebody else bad things.  A lot of our day to day living works this way.  I know that if I spend time in contemplative prayer in the morning I will have a better rest of my day.  I know that if I practice an instrument (or any skill) every day, I will improve in that skill.  I know that if I don’t text and drive, I have much lower risk of getting into an accident.

                In the story of the man born blind Jesus’ action of healing the man causes all kinds of trouble, because he disrupts the world view.  First, the man born blind can see, which shouldn’t happen if blindness is a consequence from God.  Second, Jesus heals him on the Sabbath, which is not what you are supposed to do.  A good thing is happening, the man can see, because someone is doing the wrong thing, healing a non-life threatening condition on the Sabbath.  So there is a lot of back and forth as people are trying to come to terms with a situation that doesn’t follow the rules.  The Pharisees are getting upset because that simple formula of good things for good people and bad things for bad people is falling apart.

                And just to be clear, this is not “legalistic” Jewish thought versus “gracious” Christian thought.  While you can find this idea in Hebrew scripture you can also find challenged in Hebrew scripture and the same can be said for New Testament scripture as well and it crops up consistently throughout Christian history.  It is a recurring theme because it is such a simple and attractive idea, but it is an idea that is disrupted by grace.

                Going back to Luther, from his perspective, if bad thoughts and actions earn us bad credit with God, we are all going to be called by angry debt collectors, because the debt outweighs the good credit.  We are always more selfish than selfless; we are always more turned inward than turned outward in love.  By the grace of God, the gift of God’s love in Jesus, that debt is wiped clean.  But the flip side of that is that the good credit is wiped clean as well.  The whole system is torn down as it impacts our relationship to God.  If mistakes don’t take away points, good decisions don’t give us extra points.  In Christ, God has turned off the whole credit/debt/point system.  We live in a situation where, as Drew Carey used to say on Whose Line is it Anyway?, “Everything is made up and the points don’t matter.”

                So then you might ask, “If there is no longer a point system, why should I bother doing anything?”  Ask a runner why she runs even though she may never win a race.  Ask a painter why he paints even though he may never sell a piece.  Ask a musician why she plays hours of scales that no one will ever want to listen to.  Ask old lovers why they still hold hands.  Luther didn’t have a deep explanation of works but assumed that they would happen and assumed they would be part of the joy of Christian living.  If the works aren’t there, then the faith probably isn’t there.  Works, loving actions, holy habits in the service of God are simply a byproduct of faith.  If you are in a loving relationship of faith with God, one where you are turning and returning to God, why wouldn’t you do things that nurture that relationship?  Why wouldn’t you come to the meal Christ hosts each Sunday?  Why wouldn’t you be in conversation or paying attention in prayer?  Why wouldn’t you seek to love those whom God loves and care for those who are God’s concern?

                Saying we are justified by grace through faith apart from works doesn’t excuse us from the works.  It excuses us from the guilt and legalism that often surround them.  It excuses us from the voices that tell us the Christian life has to look a particular way.  If you are not doing x, y and z then you are not a real Christian.  As an aside, we do lean toward legalism about being in worship because it is the bare minimum in our tradition.  I suppose you can be an unchurched Christian but you really can’t be an unchurched Lutheran because word and sacrament is so central to how we define ourselves.  Now if I say that you should all run for church council next year, you can yell at me for making an unnecessary law.

                I think the most helpful image in our understanding of works is a tree growing fruit.  Jesus uses this image a few times.  Paul talks about the fruits of the Spirit.  The point is that you can’t tell a tree to bear fruit.  When the conditions are right, it just does.  It is not the obligation of the tree to bear fruit, it hasn’t signed a contract, doesn’t promise a quota, isn’t earning points.  It just does what it has been made to do. 


                That’s the Lutheran theology of works.  Look at Jesus and know that you are loved completely by God.  Be aware of the Spirit of God’s love that is in you.  Bask in that love.  Celebrate that love.  Then go do what you were made to do.

March 19, 2017 - Through Faith

We are justified by grace through faith apart from works for the sake of Christ.  Again, this is the summary statement of the Lutheran tradition I am preaching on in Lent.  We have talked about being justified by grace, but now we add another wrinkle, justified by grace through faith.

This is probably the most specifically Lutheran part of the statement and probably the part which the least number of Lutherans believe.  We don’t have a problem with grace, that beautiful sense of God gifting us the good news.  We don’t have a problem with faith, believing in that God, growing to trust in that God, growing in love for that God.  We do have a problem with the idea that the faith we experience is itself a gift from God.  Yet that was a fundamental idea in Luther’s thought.  Those of you who had to study the Small Catechism when you were younger may have a recollection of Luther’s description of the Apostles’ Creed.  Here is his explanation of the Holy Spirit:

“I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith;”
In the Lutheran tradition even our faith in God is a gift from God.  Remember, for Luther, because we are a fallen humanity, our natural inclination is to be turned in on ourselves.  As Paul laments in the book of Romans, “Wretched man that I am!  Who will rescue me from this body of death?” It is not our natural inclination to turn outward toward God, we need God to help us do it.  We might say that Jesus is the one who draws us out of ourselves.  He clears our vision.  He removes our paralysis and says, “Get up and walk.”
Yet we don’t believe it in the radical way that Luther and then Calvin described it.  We live in a culture that celebrates independence.  We are affected by traditions that center on choice and as I said last week, in our culture, choice is empowering while grace is not.  Grace is freeing, but it is freedom that comes in acknowledging your dependence.  In part, this is a place where the Bible is as unclear as our experiences of faith.  If you want me to defend a grace-centered theology, I will quote Jesus in John, “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me.  I might point to the call of the disciples with the image that often makes people stop a moment.  Jesus calls and, “Immediately they left their nets and followed.”  Was there really a choice?
If I am asked to defend a choice-centered theology, I might quote Jesus in Matthew in the Sermon on the Mount, “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”  That sounds a bit either/or.  I might quote Paul in the letter to the Philippians where he writes, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”
I think the Philippians quote is a good one as we wrestle with this idea since the full quotation is, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”  Is faith a gift of God or is it something that we choose to work at and the answer is, “Yes.”  We get into problems when we try to over-define it and say that one person’s experience of the faith makes another person’s invalid.  Luther himself warned people not to dwell too deeply on the question because you would make yourself crazy as you considered the implications.  If faith is a gift from God, why are there atheists?  Is that God’s choice too?  The important thing for Lutheran theology is to notice that we start from the place of saying faith itself is God’s work.  We don’t come to faith without God’s help.
I think more important for the life of the church is the question, “What is faith?”  Is faith the ability to affirm a series of statements?  Is faith the ability to say the Apostles’ Creed without your fingers crossed or memorizing the Small Catechism?  Those are tools for talking about what you believe, tools for shaping your faith and helping establish a unity of faith among diverse people, but they aren’t faith itself.  Is faith a feeling, the strange warming of the heart that John Wesley described, the feeling of unity with God in the contemplative tradition or the rapture of evangelicals with their hands in the air like they just don’t care?    Feeling seems like a piece of faith, faith should make you feel something, but the feeling isn’t faith itself.
I tend to see faith primarily as a relationship.  Relational language is found throughout scripture and there not just one kind of relationship that is described.  It starts in Exodus with God’s proclamation to Israel, “I will be their God and they will be my people.”  But then it’s described as the relationship between a parent and a child, a master and a slave (product of its time), a homeowner and a steward, a husband and a wife, a teacher and a student, with Jesus, a friend and a friend.
These are all images trying to describe what it means to be in relationship with God none of which capture the whole thing but all of which point to it.  Some of those relationships have more intense feelings than others.  Some of those relationships involve more responsibility than others.  I think all this points to the fact that we each experience the relationship differently.  To be honest I have never been one to get warm and fuzzy about faith.  I don’t get weepy when we sing Borning Cry or Amazing Grace, but I know plenty of people who do and I know some of you do.  But if you could see me while I’m composing these sermons and doing the research and looking up a few words in Hebrew and Greek, that is good stuff.  If you catch me during the week pacing around the sanctuary trying to establish a rhythm so that whole thing sounds right, you would see a different sense of passion.  Now some of your hear that and think I don’t want to do any of those things; that doesn’t sound so exciting.
You don’t have to do them.  Your relationship with God is going to be different than my relationship with God and we all have something to learn from each other.  Some of you feel really connected with God in music and some feel really connected with God in prayer and some in nature and some with your family and some in service and some in fellowship.  The question to ask yourself is what makes you feel connected to God and then go do that.  If you find God in nature, make sure you go to the beach or walk in the woods at some point (we have a great trail behind the church and the labyrinth).  If you connect to God in music, make sure that’s part of your day.  If you connect to God in fellowship, invite people over to be in fellowship with you.  Take the responsibility to do whatever nurtures the relationship of faith.
And if you haven’t found that thing yet, then it’s time to experiment.  I went for years with people assuming that music should be the thing that would get me excited about faith, because I was decent at music.  So people kept inviting me to sing in choirs and do other musical stuff and it was fine and I could do it, but it was always just something else to do.  I had to discover and accept that it was all right that it was this kind of work that nurtured my faith even though it didn’t do that for other people.

I’m going to talk about this more next week as I talk about works, but this is where I see personal choice coming into the relationship of faith.  I am a good Lutheran and I do believe that it is God who sets up this relationship.  If God is this infinite being beyond understanding, I would pretty prideful to think that I can choose to be in relationship with the infinite, but the infinite can choose to be in relationship with me, which is exactly what God has done in Jesus.  In Jesus, God makes God’s self accessible.  God sets up the relationship of faith but we are invited to nurture it as we are able.  That includes coming to worship, receiving the sacrament, being in community, but also includes those things that touch us and move us at a personal level.  If faith is a relationship and a gift of God’s grace, then we need to pay attention to it, tend it, develop it so that we can grow in faith, grow in love and grow toward God.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

March 12, 2017 - By Grace

We are justified by grace through faith apart from works for the sake of Christ.  This is the Lutheranism in a nutshell formula that I am preaching on during Lent.  Last week I talked about what it means to be justified, reconciled to God, restored to a right relationship with God.  Today I am going talk about what it means to say that such justification, such reconciliation, happens by grace.

                The simple definition of grace that I use is saying that God acts first.  Whenever we think we have done something in the divine/human relationship, it turns out that God acted first.  We are constantly in a mode of reaction and response.  Right at the beginning of the scriptural story, before anything else can happen, God speaks and what God says happens.  Before a human being can take a breath, God breathes into the dust.  When we had turned away, God called us back in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  God acts first and this is the nature of grace.

                Grace is freeing and grace is freedom.  God’s grace says you are no longer bound by sin and shame.  God’s grace says you don’t have to save yourself.  God’s grace says you don’t have to be perfect.  God’s grace says you are welcome as you are, whoever you are.  And because you are welcome as you are now, you are set free to grow, to try new ways of living faithfully, to make mistakes along the way.  You are set free to love.

                Grace is freeing and grace is freedom but it doesn’t always feel empowering, or maybe it is just hard to believe that all the work has been done.  Our scriptures don’t always help because often they seem to present a cause and effect kind of universe set up by God.  God speaks to Israel and says, “See I have set before you today life and prosperity; death and adversity.  If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today…the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess.”  Do good and good things will happen.  Do bad and bad things will happen. 

                For many people this is a comforting idea, because it gives you power.  I can choose to make good things happen or make bad things happen.  At its extreme this can give people a mistaken sense of power over God.  If I do this good thing, God has to act on my behalf.  I hear this line of thinking when people talk about tithing.  If I tithe God has to give me more.  And the notion of doing good things and having good results isn’t entirely off-base.  If you are disciplined with diet and exercise, you will have some health benefits.  If you are disciplined with money you will have more of it.  If you are disciplined with study you can learn a new language or skill.

                The cause and effect view of faith works really well when things are going well.  If I am healthy, wealthy and wise I can thank God for creating a universe where I can create my own destiny.  But as I have said before, one of the errors of this view is making assumptions about someone’s moral qualities because of their status in life.  God wouldn’t let a bad person get rich, would God?  Yet some bad people do get rich and some very good people are poor.

                The cause and effect faith really creates problems when things are not going well, when tragedy strikes.  As some of you know, my father died back in September.  He was 78, seemingly healthy, ate a good diet.  He was out on a four-mile hike that he did routinely during the week.  Yet on that day his heart failed and he died.  In a cause and effect universe, you end up asking what he did or what my family did to deserve it. 

                Pretty early on the biblical authors realized the limits of this view.  In the book of Ecclesiastes, the author describes the pursuit of good things, wealth and wisdom, as empty vanity.  Essentially he says, “I had them all and they weren’t worth anything.” The Book of Job is a poetic treatise on the issue, with Job’s friends trying to comfort him but at the same time assure him that he must have done something wrong for the tragedies he encounters.  We as the reader have been clued in at the beginning that he has not.  Job is labeled at the beginning of the story as “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.”  The prophets condemn the identification error, often challenging wealthy people for assuming that wealth is sign of God’s favor.

                The cause and effect faith system also does not recognize when people are caught in systems beyond their control.  Last week I talked about how in the medieval world peasants were peasants and princes were princes and there was no room for upward mobility.  You could work hard to be the best peasant ever but because of the social system, you would still be a peasant.  A couple of years ago there was a list circulating about habits of rich people versus poor people (http://richhabits.net/20-learned-habits-that-will-make-your-child-rich-or-poor/)and it said things like wealthy people read more; they exercise more; they eat healthier food.  Some people were using as proof that wealth and poverty were simply a product of good and bad choices.  This week, as I listened to the debate about health care, there were echoes of that thinking.  Good choices lead to success.  Bad choices lead to failure.  I am not saying that there is no truth to that, but it doesn’t take into account the difference in options between someone who is born into wealth and someone who is born into poverty.

                For instance, in many cities, there are neighborhoods and areas that are known as “food deserts.”  These are places where there is not a grocery store with fresh foods within a few miles.  Many people are getting their food from convenience stores or fast food restaurants where most food is processed and healthy choices are limited.  When I lived in Chicago, we used to drive 30 minutes to Chesterton, Indiana because the food was fresher and cheaper than what we could get at the neighborhood store.  But we had a car and some time and didn’t have to rely on public transportation or walking with bags of groceries.  We had options that other people around us didn’t have.  Many people will choose better food if they have access to it.  But the social system and social economy limit the options.  A child who is born on the south side of Chicago hasn’t done anything wrong, but still grows up with limited options.  We hope that child will make the best choice, but it is still the best choice out of limited options.

                Jesus is a great challenge to that cause and effect theology because he actively defies its logic.  He has the audacity to choose disciples from those who not doing particularly well.  He has the audacity to tell stories of rich fools and blessed widows.  He has the audacity to stand with people who have made bad choices, the tax collectors, the prostitutes and the generally unclean and say, “God is smiling on you.  God is blessing you.  God is loving you.”  He has the audacity to heal those who are disabled, a sign of God’s disfavor in that culture, and tell them that their sins are forgiven, that they are free.  He has the audacity to die on the cross, to fail, and show us that God’s favor is not limited by our good deeds or our mistakes, our successes or failures.  Instead, God’s favor, God’s love is a gift.

                God turns to us in gracious love because God can do no other; because it is the nature of God to be loving.  God turns to us in gracious love with the hope that we will turn to others with gracious love, that we will forgive those who have sinned against us, that we will love those who have made mistakes, that we will show compassion to those with limited options.  God turns to us in gracious love and sends us the one who is both a sign of love and an example of love.  For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that those who believe in him should not perish but have eternal life.


                God acts first, before we know the need, before we are aware.  By grace we have been saved and justified and reconciled.  By grace God sent Jesus who lived and died and rose to be the physical expression of God’s love.  By grace we know the love of God and we know that God is love.

Monday, March 13, 2017

March 5, 2017 - Justification

During the season Lent I am going to be preaching on the central tenant of the Lutheran tradition, justification by faith.  When I was in seminary, there was a phrase I was taught, Lutheranism in a nutshell.  We are justified by grace through faith apart from works for the sake of Christ.  Fair warning, you will not find that exact phrase in the Bible, it is an amalgam of several verses in Paul’s writings.  So the elements of it come from Paul and I am going to preach on each of the five sections.  Today I am going to look at the first phrase, “We are justified.”

                What does it mean to be justified?  A lot has been written about it over the centuries.  Several words might come to mind as we try to describe it: atonement, reconciliation, salvation.  Those may be more comfortable words than justified.  Justified implies guilt and nobody likes to talk about guilt.  Nobody likes to talk about the idea that there might be something fundamentally wrong with me that needs fixing.  But that’s also a place where we are challenged to grow, in recognizing the need, the need for God to act, the need for Christ.  We often tend to present faith as something that is nice rather than something that is necessary.  We try to sell the church as a place you can come and improve your quality of life which is far cry from our basic theology which says, “You need this faith.  You need this cross.  You need this Jesus.”

                The concept of justification or salvation can also create uncomfortable images of God.  Saying that we are saved implies that we needed saving from something.  Saving from what?  Most models of this essentially say that we are saved by God from God.  God is so righteous that even the tiniest imperfection we have can destroy us when we encounter the holy.  The wrath of God (heads melting in Raiders of the Lost Ark) was heading for us because of our guilt and Jesus stepped in the way.  But they are both in the Trinity so end up with a good God, bad God scenario with Jesus saying, “Look make it easy on yourself because I want to help you but that God back there is wrathful.”

Other models have us being saved from hell and eternal damnation.  God is so entirely righteous that God has no choice but to send the wicked to eternal suffering.  The Lutheran theologian Martin Marty had a great take on this.  He wrote an article a few years ago where he said that if we really believe that there is a place where people suffer forever, that their existence will be nothing but pain and then we have the audacity to sit back and play football or eat ice cream or watch a rerun while people in the world are going to suffer forever, then we are probably the kind of people who belong in such a place.

Martin Luther had no problem with the idea that we needed to be justified before God.  He followed in a long line of Christian thinkers who saw the natural human condition as being turned in ourselves rather than being turned outward toward God and neighbor.  And even our most righteous actions are clouded by that inward view because, if we are doing them with hope that the actions will save us, then we are working for our own benefit and not for the glory of God.

So much of the talk of justification sounds kind of foreign to our modern ears that are steeped in positive thinking and growing good self-esteem.  We like the idea that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, we just don’t want to hear that it is our fault, that we actually needed saving or justifying.  And it is true that this language has produced some very unhealthy self-loathing over Christian history as well as images of God that are graceless, threatening and frightening.  Yet it is this justification language that is the place where Jesus goes from being a nice option with good teaching to a necessity in our lives.  The fact is, if you don’t believe that you have imperfections, that you make mistakes; if your self-esteem is very, very high, a lot of this justification language simply won’t make sense.  If we cannot admit our brokenness, then we are not going to see the need for the Jesus story. 

Now in this sermon you have heard me use the term “models” of justification.  I use this because I firmly believe that while the scriptures are inspired by God, they are limited by human language.  You have several authors trying to put this divine concept, being justified, into language that makes sense to human ears.  But every image is imperfect, can’t describe the whole thing, has weaknesses if you think about it too much.  The legal images of God as judge have the awkwardness of God as both prosecutor and defense, being saved by God from God.

Another model for justification is being reconciled to God.  This is a softer image, more like the story of the prodigal son.  It is not that God was looking to prosecute or persecute us, but rather be reconciled with us, welcome us back into full relationship after we had turned away.  We are turned in on ourselves and the more we turn in the further we turn away from the love of God.  The more we crave independence, saying, “Nobody tells me what to do,” the harder it is for us to turn back to God, our shame pushes us away because we know at a deep level that God is love and love is what we are made for.  So God comes to us as one of us, in the face of Jesus, inviting us to follow, inviting us back.  The cross becomes less about Jesus dying in our place, suffering wrath in our place, and more about reminding us of extent of God’s love.  Christ walks into a world where he knows that he will eventually be rejected because that’s what people do.  We fail the temptations.  We try to turn the stones to bread; we look for the wealth; we look for the power over others.  We look for the ways to feel independent.  And Jesus comes anyway, constantly reminding us of our need for God, of our call to love one another, to be part of God’s love, of our call to treat all people as precious and equal in the sight of that God.  He dies for us to show us exactly where that path of self-absorption leads.  Every time we see the cross it is a call to wake up, pay attention, turn around and be reconciled to a loving God who waits for us with open arms.

The legal definition of justification is simply to be found innocent or in religious terms, acceptable to God.  I think one way of looking at this idea is the realization that we were already acceptable to God; we just couldn’t believe it.  We couldn’t believe that we could be reconciled to God because we couldn’t believe that God would want to be reconciled to us, broken us, fallen us, imperfect us, poor us.  We couldn’t believe that we didn’t have to prove ourselves; that we didn’t have to be the best, the perfect, the most faithful, that we could be exactly who we are and still be in an eternal, loving relationship with the eternally loving God.


So this is the good news and this is where we begin.  We have been justified before God, not because we were great but because God is good.  And we, poor us, broken us, imperfect us, can look to the cross of Christ and know that we are loved, we are welcome, we belong with God.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Ash Wednesday - 2017

The Lenten season is traditionally a season of repentance.  It is a time in preparation for Holy Week and Easter when we are invited to take stock of our lives and consider our direction.  Often when people think about what it means to repent they think about being sorry.  Sorrow may a piece of repentance or an emotion that leads you to repentance, but being sorry is not repentance.  This is not a season of regret, simply feeling bad about our mistakes, the things we shouldn’t have done but did anyway; the things we should have done but never got around to; the harmful words we said; the kind words that were silent.
                If you are human, you have done, said or thought something that you regret, maybe even this week, maybe even this day.  The Lenten season invites us to ask how we got to the point that we did, said or thought that thing we regret.  So the other day I was in line at the store and the person two people in front of me was doing that thing of trying to pay with multiple forms of payment, and one of the cards was empty and it was just taking a long time and I could feel myself getting impatient and then judgmental.  Why wouldn’t she be prepared to pay?  Doesn’t she know that she is holding up the line?
                Why was I judgmental?  Because I was impatient.  Why was I impatient?  That’s a deeper question because I didn’t have anywhere I needed to be soon.  I didn’t have anything that I would be late for because checking out was going to take another couple of minutes.  There were no lives I had to save or precious memories that I would miss.  I had plenty of time and yet I was impatient.  So when I think about it I was impatient because I had set up an expectation about how long the checking out process should take and I was angry that my expectation was not being met.  And if that expectation was not being met then probably some other expectations about what I would get done and how and when I would get those things done were also not going to be met.  So I wasn’t angry at this person.  I was really angry because I don’t have control and the world happens without my permission.  I was angry because I am not a god who can even control a simple part of my day.  That’s why it is important to start this season with that powerful message, “Remember you are dust and to dust you will return.” 
Repentance isn’t simply regret; repentance is a change in direction and a change in how you look at the world.  All of the disciplines that Jesus talks about in the gospel have to do with changing how we look at the world, this is part of the reason he encourages people not to do them to gain the attention of others.  It’s not about looking good to the public but being good in private.  He talks about giving alms.  Giving money away changes how we relate to money.  We learn to control it.  We learn to let go of it.  Notice that he says at the end, “Where your treasure is there your heart will be also.”  The act of giving transforms who we are.
Jesus talks about praying.  I tend to see prayer as an attitude more than an action.  Prayer is the process of turning our attention to God and trying to see with God’s vision of the world.  When we spend time paying attention to God it changes the way we see.  So a few extra minutes waiting in line can become a prayerful moment filled with the divine presence rather than a time of impatience and judgement.
Jesus talks about fasting.  We change our relationship to food by giving it up for a time.  We change our relationship to things by parting with them.  We change our relationship to time by creating Sabbath time, fasting from productivity as the world understands it.
We are invited into the disciplines of Lent not because they save us or mark us as good people.  We are still dust and to dust we will return.  We are invited into the disciplines of Lent because they change us, drawing us more deeply into the life of grace that God has extended to the world in Christ. 

God invites us to repent: change our hearts, change our minds, change our vision.  Let us begin that repentance with confession…

Saturday, March 4, 2017

February 26, 2017 - Transfiguration

If your computer has a virus or some system problem, the person you hire to repair it may do a system restore.  Your computer periodically saves back-up pictures of itself, the way that files are arranged, the details of the all-important registry folders.  So what the technician will try to do is start up your computer from the picture where it was last stable.  If you installed a program and then the computer wouldn’t run, the technician starts it at a point before you installed the program.  We are looking for the moment when everything was okay.
                In the gospel reading, Peter stands on the mountaintop with Jesus and Moses and Elijah and says, “We need to freeze this moment.  Let’s build some tents.  Let’s settle here and make sure that people see this dazzling, new and improved Jesus.  Not the Jesus who walks around like a common person but this one who is clearly divine.”  But the moment passes and the common-looking Jesus walks down the mountain to follow the path to the cross. 
                Christianity has a similar impulse to Peter, to go back to a time somewhere in the past when the faith was pure, when it was unclouded by modern rationalism and education.  This is the fundamentalist impulse.  Let’s go back to the Bible because the Bible represents the earliest traditions of the church that we have.   Paul’s letters start being written within 20 years of the crucifixion and resurrection.  If the church could just live like that then we would truly be faithful.  Of course, if you actually read Paul’s letters you discover that he’s dealing with less than perfect communities shaped by a less than perfect faith.  Yet that impulse beckons, if we could just go back to way things were.
                Lutheranism has the same impulse.  Here we are in the 500th anniversary year of the Reformation and within the church you hear voices saying that we need to get back to Luther, back to the fundamentals, back to the passion of those early Reformation years where people were rediscovering the promise of grace that had been hidden by a Roman church focused on penance.  Let’s get back to that purity of Lutheran doctrine.  Of course, if you have been paying attention, you’ve heard how much of Lutheran theology is about sitting in the tension between opposing ideas:  saint and sinner, set free by Christ to be bound to the neighbor; the Lutheran church sits in the complexity of both/and rather than the simplicity of either/or.
                And as we address scripture and as we address Luther we must acknowledge that none of these ideas were created in a vacuum.  Luther’s writings are products of his time just as the biblical writings are products of their time.  We like young Luther who is on fire for the gospel.  We cringe a bit at old Luther who has not seen the Reformation go as he had hoped.  He hoped that his movement would change the church, that people would read the Bible in their own language and come to the same conclusions that he had.  Instead, the Roman church excommunicated him.  The Anabaptists (who would later become the Baptists) read the Bible and came to the conclusion that only adult baptism mattered.  Others read the Bible and questioned whether Jesus was present at Communion believing that it was just a symbolic action.  The Spirit moved but it didn’t move the way Luther wanted it to. 
                We also cringe at older Luther because older Luther showed that he was a product of his time.  He was anti-Semitic, writing documents including “On the Jews and Their Lies” that the broader Lutheran church has since apologized for.  He sided with the princes during the Peasant’s Revolt because he believed that one’s station in life was essentially ordained by God.  A prince is a prince and a peasant is a peasant because God wants it that way.  The job of a peasant is to farm the land.  The job of a prince is to keep the peace.  Although he respected that the peasants felt they were mistreated, he did not see that as a reason or right to revolt.  In his pamphlet, “Against the Murderous Thieving Hordes of Peasants”  (You can see where this is going) he wrote , Let everyone who can, smite, slay, and stab, secretly or openly ... nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful, or devilish than a rebel. It is just as one must kill a mad dog; if you do not strike him he will strike you.”  He was a product of his time.  In the 1500s no one questioned the idea that a peasant is a peasant and a prince is a prince.  Very few people questioned blatant anti-Semitism.  That’s the context in which Luther was writing.
            Just as in the first century no one questioned whether slavery should be a standard part of society or the idea that the sun went around the earth.  The problem with trying to go back to what felt like stable moments is that they were often stable because they weren’t fair.  They were often stable because there were strong boundaries of class or race, people knew their place.  And instability often happens because we learn new things about the world or about ourselves and we can’t take that learning back. 
            The kind of thinking that raises questions about the biblical stories, about the nature of faith, about the very existence of God, is the same kind of thinking that cures diseases, sends people into outer space and provides us with technologies that both simplify and complicate our lives.  It is an unintended consequence of the Reformation that people began to question the common assumptions of their world, a practice which leaves a blossoming of scientific thought and skepticism in its wake.  Luther invited people to see for themselves and ended up disappointed that they saw for themselves and came to different conclusions.
            So when I look at the scriptures and when I look at the Reformation I don’t necessarily see system restore moments, places that we need to get back to.  Frankly, I enjoy electricity though I have a love/hate relationship with my cell phone.  More importantly, the idea of people owning other people is repulsive and I don’t want to go back to it.  The idea that other races are less than human or that women are a little less human than men is disgusting and I don’t want to go back to it.  The idea that social status is a reflection of God’s will and God’s favor or disfavor is foolish and I don’t want back to it.  The idea that all other religions are the work of the devil to be treated as enemies is also foolish and I will not embrace it.
            Jesus didn’t come among us to create special moments to try to recover but rather to show us the way forward in life, to send us on a particular trajectory in this world, a direction guided by God’s grace and God’s love.  So for example Paul couldn’t see an end to slavery, because it was simply part of his world, but he could say that in Christ there is neither slave nor free.  The gospel was pushing him forward, pushing to embrace a broader vision of God’s love, God’s justice and God’s grace.
            This is the nature of the gospel, it expands and embraces.  It leads us to places we didn’t expect to be and then surprises with the realization that God is already there.  We live in a time when communication is instant and global.  We live in a place where many religious ideas seek to coexist.  In Luther’s time there was great concern because the Turkish Empire was growing and threatening to expand to Europe.  Luther did a surprising amount of research on Islam for his day, reading a translation of the Quran and some books of Islamic philosophers, but to my knowledge he never spoke with a Muslim, because he didn’t have access to any.  They were all somewhere else.  They were the other.
            Today the other, many kinds of others, are among us and we are challenged to ask ourselves about the limits of God’s grace.  Is there an “other” that it doesn’t embrace?  Is there an “other” that God rejects?  Most of the system restore points in Christian history have been moments where we tried to define the limits of grace.  The first Jewish Christians thought God’s grace ended with Israel, and Paul proclaimed that it was larger.  In the 16th century, the Catholic Church said grace was found in cathedrals and consecrated buildings and ordained people, and Luther proclaimed that it was larger.  And along the way people have limited God’s grace to particular ethnicities and skin tones; they limited it to social status and whoever the “right” people were in that time and place; they limited it to people who believed in the right way or acted in the right way or loved in the right way.  And each time we have been challenged to see that God’s grace is larger, that it always seems a little bit further ahead than we may be willing to go.

            So again I say that Christian faith is not about preserving a special moment but paying attention to those special moments that send us in God’s direction.  We see Jesus on the mountaintop not so we can live there, but so that we can walk down from mountain with a new way of seeing and being in the world.  We gather each Sunday and remember Christ’s last supper not as a memorial, but as sustenance to send us out in love.  So as you leave today, you have taken part in the grace of God in this worship, and you are empowered to walk in the midst of that loving grace and you are sent to follow that grace.  It is always ahead and wherever you go, it is already there.