Monday, October 23, 2017

Sermon: Finding God in the last place you look (Oct 22, 2017)

Pentecost 20A (Reformation Series – Theology of the Cross)
“Finding God in the Last Place You’d Look”
October 22, 2017
Exodus 33:12-33 (RCL); Psalm 99 (RCL); 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:2; Mark 15:33-39

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
            I knew to expect, at some point in my children’s young life, that phase where everything you say is followed by, “Why?” I didn’t expect it so soon as age 2. “Where’s daddy?” At work. “Why?” So he can make money and help people. “Why?” Because he wants to be a contributing member of society. “Why?” Uuuugghhh… I’m already exhausted!
            And yet, I’m grateful, because every day my toddler teaches me something about human nature. With these exchanges, she teaches me that this question, “Why?” is so deeply ingrained and pressing that it nags us just as soon as we start to develop reason and language. Of course as adults, the question most meaningfully makes its appearance in times of suffering: “Why did she die so
young?” “Why has he suffered so long?” “Why would God let this happen?” It’s a question I often get asked as a pastor, usually asked with sad, questioning, sometimes even angry or desperate eyes. Unfortunately, I’m no more privy to the mind of God than anyone else, and so my answer is usually a pathetic, “I don’t know.”
            But really – how can we know? If we knew the mind of God, would that really be God anymore? We are desperate to understand how life works, why God acts the way God does, why things happen the way they do, but the fact is: as soon as you claim to understand God’s ways, you have eaten of the tree in the middle of the Garden of Eden, and put yourself on the same plain as God.
            Martin Luther describes this temptation as a “theology of glory.” A theology of glory tries to rationalize God – for example, by saying in the face of untimely death, “God wanted another angel in heaven.” A theology of glory says that we can determine who will go to heaven and who won’t, based on their good or evil deeds. A theology of glory assumes that we can do something to earn our own salvation – for example, that we need to choose Jesus, and make him our personal Lord and Savior, or that we need to do good so that God will love and accept us, or so that we will be saved.
All of these ways of trying to understand God and faith are so tempting – I think all of us here have fallen into at least one of them at some point. They are tempting because they make sense to us, and we like to understand things. That is why churches that preach the prosperity gospel – the understanding that God gives good things to those who are true believers – are so popular: that way of thinking makes sense for our culture. If you do well, you gain much. Problems can be reasoned through. Everything can be understood if you are smart and rational enough.
Luther pushed against this, instead describing what he called a “theology of the cross.” A theology of the cross points to a God who acts in a way that doesn’t make a lick of sense to our human minds: a God who would choose to reveal his love and character most profoundly through a beaten, humiliated, broken man on a cross. And so, Luther says, if we want to see God, that is the place we must look: we must look for God in suffering, because if there is one concrete thing we know
Peter Paul Ruben's Crucifixion via Wikimedia Commons
about God, it is that in suffering, God is made known to us.
And suffering? Well that’s something we know something about, isn’t it? Just look around the world. In Puerto Rico, 95% are still without power and people are drinking toxic water. California looks like a war zone, and people’s lives have been consumed by fire. Victims of mass shootings – those who witnessed it and survived, and those whose dear family and friends did not survive – are still weeping. Threats of nuclear war. The largest refugee crisis since World War II. Millions of women speaking up about their experiences of sexual harassment and assault. And this is not to mention our individual journeys – this week alone I have sat with and heard from victims of mental illness, victims of cancer and other illnesses, people desperate to leave the suffering of this world – and these are only the things I have heard about.
But here’s the good news about the theology of the cross: we can’t understand why any of these things happen, but we can know, because ours is a God who is made known in suffering, that God is in each of these places. God does not cause suffering – freewill and human sin and brokenness do that – but God goes to where there is suffering. It’s hard to believe, hard to wrap our heads and our hearts around, but it is the promise of the cross: that God will be present in the last place a rational person would ever look for God: in the midst of suffering, oppression, violence, and even death.
I like to think of it this way: There has been quite a lot of hubbub about what is happening in the NFL with players kneeling during the National Anthem. I read a piece about this written by a political conservative who is also a Christian that hit the nail on the head. He said, basically, that whether or not you agree with this gesture as a way to draw attention to police brutality against people of color (which was its original intent), the Christ-like way to respond is not to dismiss it, disparage it, or call people names. What Christ would do is kneel beside those expressing their pain, and say, “Talk to me about why you are kneeling.” He would go into the suffering, not condemn it. Not necessarily agree with the expression of it, but acknowledge it, and be with people in it.
I love this image of Jesus coming to us when we are on our knees – in prayer, in exhaustion, in despair – and kneeling beside us. As I have thought about the ways I have suffered in my life, it was never helpful to me to think things like, “Someone else has it worse than you, Johanna, so get over it.” I know that is a common coping mechanism for people, but for me, that only disregarded the real pain I was feeling. What is helpful to me is that image of Jesus kneeling beside me and saying, “I know, Johanna. It hurts. It isn’t fair. I have felt your pain, and I know how much it hurts. Let’s have a good cry together, and then, if you’re feeling up to it, I’ll make you a cup of tea.”
A theology of glory tries to make human sense of everything. That’s what Paul was talking about in his letter to the Corinthians. But reason doesn’t heal emotional pain. A theology of the cross puts Jesus down in the dark hole with you, where he acknowledges your pain, and holds your hand, and then shows you that there is life after death.
I read a story this week about a seminary professor who was trying to explain basic Christian theology to a bunch of first year seminary students, who seemed less than interested in what he was saying. Exasperated, he finally just drew THIS [hold up large, downward arrow] on the board and said, “This is Christian theology in a nutshell. If you understand this, you know all you need to know,” and he walked out of the room, leaving the students in a tizzy. The next day he explained further, now to a captive audience. The main gist of Christian theology, he said, is this: that God comes down. Every time. God comes down to us. God comes down to us, even and especially when we are suffering. God comes down to kneel beside us when we are broken and at the end of our rope, to feel our pain with us, then to offer his hand and draw us into God’s preferred future – a future of love, connection, and abundant life.
It doesn’t make a lick of sense that God, the Creator of the universe, would do such a thing. No one would think to look for God among the hurting – among the sick, the poor, the oppressed, the forgotten, among women whose bodies and spirits are broken by the abuse they have experienced, among bullied children in a school yard, among communities who can’t “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” because they never had boots to begin with. No God that makes sense would be found in those broken places. And yet, ours is. Ours is there, loving us, and beckoning us into a new and fuller life.

Let us pray… Suffering God, you went to great lengths to show us that you know our pain and feel it with us. Thank you. Thank you for coming down to us, down into our suffering, and loving us there, even as you draw us out and into new life. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Sprit. Amen.

Sermon: Forgiveness will change your life (Oct. 15, 2017)

Pentecost 19A – Reformation Series, “Forgiveness Will Change Your Life”
October 15, 2017

Texts: Exodus 32:1-14 (RCL); Psalm 51:1-12; John 20:19-23; 2 Corinthians 5:14-21


Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

            Forgiveness will change your life. That is the lofty claim of today’s Reformation theme. But to really grasp how true that was for Luther, we need first to have a sense of what his reality was as compared to our own. So to start today, here is a little history lesson:
Death was literally at the doorstep for those living in 16th century Europe. The plague, the “black death,” was breaking out all over and seemed to strike down indiscriminately, taking down otherwise healthy people in a matter of days. In an effort to make sense of this devastation, some wondered if God might be punishing people for their sin, that the cause of death was a God of wrath, who instead of mercy, brought death upon a sinful and unrepentant people.
            The Church capitalized on this rampant fear. In response to people’s fear of their own sin, and the wrath it seemed to bring, the Church offered ample opportunity to confess, including long lists of possible sins one could have committed. Of course, only priests had the authority to forgive those sins, and so the Church had a monopoly on power over people’s peace of mind. As the Church continued to try to assuage people’s guilt from the burden of their sin, it developed a system known as indulgences: that is, people could in essence buy some of Christ’s abundant merit in order to shorten the time they would have to spend in purgatory, a state that was a sort of halfway-between-heaven-and-hell. In fact, people could not only buy their own way out of purgatory, but also, for a hefty price, their deceased loved ones who were presumably already suffering in this in-between state. This sale of indulgences, of course, was what inspired Luther to enter the conversation with his posting of the 95 theses, in which he called out the Church’s abuse.
            But his calling out that abuse didn’t come until after he had lived several years in this devastating state of depression and agony over his sins. Even after
Luther took the vow to become a monk, he was overcome by his sin, spending hours in confession every day. In fact, the confessor would dread Luther’s arrival; for up to six hours a day, he would listen to Brother Martin list every single thing he had ever done wrong. Although Luther had hoped the cloistered life would offer a haven from the crushing reality of his sin, it offered him no relief. It was not until that same confessor, Johann von Staupitz, urged Luther toward a more academic vocation, and in particular one in biblical studies, that Luther was able finally to grasp that God was not a God of wrath, but a God of immense grace – that indeed, ours is a God of forgiveness.
            It is difficult to grasp just how life-changing the news of forgiveness was for Luther without understanding his place in life. He grew up in a home where he experienced more discipline than love, and deeply disappointed his parents by becoming a monk and priest rather than a lawyer as had been planned. He lived life constantly under the burden of sin and the threat of death, both physical and spiritual. And so to suddenly grasp in scripture that this burden, this captivity of sin was not Christ’s hope for us indeed changed his life… and the lives of so many others living in a time when sin and death were in their faces every single day, a time when people carried the weight of their sin like a yoke, and the most compelling relief came from the purchase of Christ’s merits from the institutional Church – who then used that money for less than Christ-like purposes.
            Yes, we can see why Luther saw forgiveness as such good, even life-changing news. But is this news as good and life-changing for us today? In 2017 we are in a really different time of history. Sure, some are still consumed by their sin, maybe even some in this room today. But by and large, most of us fancy ourselves to be pretty good people. And if we slip up somewhere, we are pretty good at noticing and fixing it in the future, right? In this age of optimism and self-help, we are not as keen to dwell in the darkness of our sin, nor to seek external help, even from the Church. Our relationship with God is between us and God, and God is good, and Jesus is our friend, not our judge. The Church has for many become a place not to receive relief from the weight of sin, but rather, to see people we love and learn and teach our children good values and come together to do good in the world. We give money not in order to be forgiven or to get in good with God, but because we are grateful for the work of our Church and want to support it. These are not inherently bad things, but they are different from what Luther was dealing with. So, what does the forgiveness of sins, this essential Reformation teaching, really have to offer us today?
            Well first of all, we are not so sinless as we might like to imagine! As we talked about last week with the Law and Gospel teaching, using Luther’s explanations of the 10 Commandments we can begin to see that keeping the Commandments is not just about keeping laws, but about fulfilling them. It’s not just, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all,” but it is also standing up for those who are oppressed, speaking out against abuse, lifting up the downtrodden. It’s not just going to church on Sunday and calling yourself a Christian, it’s about looking at your priorities and practices and making sure that your Lord and God really is Jesus – not your family, not your bank account, not your safety, not your reputation, not your privacy, not your comfort. When we start to look at it this way, we see that we really do have quite a lot of things for which we need God’s forgiveness! And while there are lots of places where you can see people you love and learn good morals and do good in the world, the truth your will find in the Church – that God does forgive our sins – is extraordinary. Indeed, it is life changing.
            For the second thing forgiveness of sins can offer us, we can look at our Gospel lesson today, in which Jesus gives to his disciples his peace, and the power to forgive others. There is certainly peace in being forgiven, in having Jesus take from our shoulders the weight and burden of our sins (and yes, there are many!), and telling us, “I love you! You are mine!” But there is also peace in the ability to forgive others. Holding onto grudges does not bring life. Holding onto anger does not bring life. The gift of God’s forgiveness of us means also that, as it says in the Lord’s Prayer, God forgives us “as we forgive those who sin against us.” In other words, God’s gift of forgiveness of our sins makes it possible for us to forgive others, and find the life-changing peace that this brings to our hearts.
            The third real gift of forgiveness is what we see in our text from Corinthians: that God has given us the ministry of reconciliation, and that we are to be reconciled to God. Reconciliation is not the same as forgiveness; it is, sort of,
the next step, the possible and often hopeful outcome of forgiveness. Forgiveness is erasing the past, letting it go, moving beyond it. Reconciliation is a restoration of the relationship. Now, sometimes reconciliation is not possible – in the case of abuse, for example, restoring a relationship is not a healthy path.
But with the exception of extreme situations, it is pretty clear here that reconciliation, the restoration of relationships, is a part of God’s hope for us – both with one another and with God. And that is difficult, but such important and life-giving work. Why is it so difficult? Because reconciliation is not just waiting for the other person to admit they were wrong. It requires also looking deep in our own hearts, to see what it is that we might have contributed to the brokenness – and to work on that. As Luther writes, “Judge yourself, speak about yourself, see what you are, search your own heart, and you will soon forget the faults of your neighbor. You will have both hands full with your own faults, yes, more than full!” Such searching of our own hearts requires humility, vulnerability, and a lot of deep breaths. It requires us to put our self-righteousness aside (how quick we are to point the finger and believe we are not to blame!). And it requires a whole lot of prayer – for when we pray for another, especially one who has hurt us, it might not change them but it may very well change you. And that is the business of forgiveness, and of Christ: it is to change, to transform, to create anew our hearts and our lives.
It’s difficult, heart- and time-consuming work. But it is by this work that we are reconciled to God. It is by this work that we ultimately receive the true joy and peace of forgiveness. It is by this work that we can hear the life-changing revelation of a guilt and sin-riddled Martin Luther, and discover that forgiveness, and the reconciliation that follows, does indeed change our life.

Let us pray… Restoring God, you have given us the ministry of reconciliation. Make us humble enough to seek understanding, to find forgiveness, to achieve reconciliation, and then make us grateful for the way that this gift changes our lives. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Sermon: "Telling the Truth Twice" (Law and Gospel) (Oct. 8, 2017)

Pentecost 18A – Reformation Series
“Telling the Truth Twice” – Law and Gospel
October 8, 2017

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Psalm 19; Romans 7:7-13; Luke 4:14-21


Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
            Like last week, I want to start out with a question, this time, association style: What comes to your mind when I say “law”? [wait for answers]
            This week the topic of laws seems to be pretty emotional, as we find ourselves in the aftermath of yet another horrific mass shooting in Las Vegas, with 59 dead and over 500 wounded. Naturally, the topic of “gun laws” has come up, and with it, a slew of emotions on both sides of the issue. Gun laws would keep people safer. Gun laws would infringe upon my rights. Gun laws don’t even work, so what’s the point? Gun laws do work, and this study proves it. In this case, the concept of “law” is for some a good thing that would improve safety, and for others, a bad thing that would take away rights. Oh, is it complicated!
            But we can come back to that. Right now, I want to talk to you about how Luther understood Law, specifically God’s Law, and its relationship to Gospel, because for Luther, Law and Gospel must go together. When we think of God’s
Law, we think of what? The 10 Commandments. Why did God give Moses the 10 Commandments? It was not to keep the Israelites under God’s thumb, or limit how much fun they could have. God gave them out of love – to show the Israelites what love of God and love of neighbor look like. So that’s what Luther says about the Law: the law shows us how to behave as loving, godly people.
            But, Luther goes on, the Law does not actually give us the power to do it. And so, the Law also convicts us, showing us our sin, showing us the many ways we fall short. This is why Luther, when he wrote his Small Catechism, put the 10 Commandments first: because he intended for them to be a tool for Christians to aid in their confession of sins, a practice Luther saw as central to the Christian life. Now, if you’re like me, you look at the 10 Commandments and think you do pretty okay at keeping them. I’m not a murderer, I’m not an adulterer, I don’t steal, etc. But confessing using Luther’s explanations? That gets me every time. Because Luther doesn’t leave it at, “You shall not take the physical life of another person.” In fact he doesn’t even mention that. He says, “We should neither endanger nor harm the lives of our neighbors… but instead, help and support them in all of life’s needs.” Oh, it is always in the “instead” part where I get caught! I mean, I try to be helpful, how many times have I said, “No, I can’t help you” when someone asks for money? How many decisions have I made – or not made – that may not harmed someone directly, but allowed for them to be harmed? How many times have I seen a situation in which I knew I could help, but have been apathetic? Too many to count. And so here, the law convicts me. It shows me how God wants me to behave, but does not give me the power to do it. And so it shows me my sin.
            But this is where the Gospel comes in. Law shows us our sin… and in so doing, drives us to the Gospel, which says, “My child, I love you, and you are forgiven.” And because we have been faced with our shortcomings and sins, the Gospel suddenly becomes more than just a thing we hear on Sunday. It becomes life giving. It becomes a way out of despair. It becomes a lifeline – for without it, we would be forever stuck in our sin. Without the Law, what is even the point of the Gospel? Without the Law, the Gospel is a very nice story, something to make us feel good, but it is not something on which our very lives depend. It’s not something that refreshes and restores us.
            If you come to church often and listen carefully to my sermons, or really to most Lutheran preacher’s sermons, you will likely hear this same Law to Gospel trajectory. The sermon may start out with a nice story or joke, but it is a lead in to talk about how broken we are, how in need of a savior the world is. Once we have realized our need for Jesus, then the sermon gives you Jesus: the promise of love, and grace, and forgiveness, and life everlasting. This is how they teach preaching in Lutheran seminaries, because this is how Luther always interpreted the Bible – first through the lens of Law, and then through the lens of Gospel – because the message of the Gospel means more to us if we first realize our need for it. Make sense?
            So with all that mind, I want to look with you at our Gospel lesson today through the Lutheran lens of Law and Gospel. First, some context: this is Jesus’ first public appearance, his first sermon. It sets the tone for his ministry. And he preaches on Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And then, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” At first glance, this all seems like Gospel to me – this is great news, because we know that these are all the things Jesus came to do! Yay! But please resist jumping right to the Gospel. Dwell first in the Law, in the part that shows us how to live, but does not give us the power to do it, and so we fall short. Think of it the way Luther treats the 10 Commandments, as a tool to help you see your own sin. Or, the analogy I like to use for the Law: look at it as a mirror that helps you see the gunk you have in your teeth, so you can work on picking it out. Take a minute to look at the text yourself and try to see: where do you feel convicted by this text?
I’ll be honest: I feel very convicted by several parts of this text. But I’m going to focus on this line: “he has sent me to proclaim… recovery of sight to the blind.” The reason I’m drawn there is that this week, in the aftermath of this latest
shooting, blindness has been very much on my mind – not the literal sort, but the spiritual and emotional sort. Against my better judgment, I engaged in a thread on social media started by someone I know to be of a different mind from me in the gun debate. She was lamenting that the conversation had so quickly moved to gun control, when we should just be focused on grieving. I get that – a lot of folks feel that way. The comments she heard from gun control advocates, she said, were filled with hate that they couldn’t even see. In my comment, I suggested that those responding with a desire for gun control might, actually, be responding out of love, not hate, out of a desire that we do something, and soon, that would help prevent this from happening again. At least that was the case for the gun control advocates I know. Well, long story short… my point was not well taken, this person’s family and friends and I did not see eye-to-eye, and I got an earful about it.
            But as the conversation went on, I noticed how often someone said something like, “You can’t even see…” or, “How can you not see?” or, “Don’t you realize?” And that’s really the problem, right? With the gun debate and with so many other things. We can’t see. We can see our view, and all its merits, but it is very hard to really see and try to understand the other side. We don’t want to hear it, we don’t believe it, we think it is off-base and maybe even harmful… and our tunnel vision closes in and slowly but surely we find ourselves turned completely in on ourselves. Not surprisingly, this is Luther’s definition of sin: to be turned in on yourself. To be completely blind to the needs and views around you. To be self-focused, to the point that you miss the opportunity to genuinely connect with another human being, another child of God. And so, here I stand, convicted. I have many blind spots, and maybe I try to educate myself so I can assuage my guilt about that, but the reality is that sometimes I don’t know they are there, and sometimes I do know and I just don’t care.
            And this is when the Gospel comes in. The Law shows us our sin… and the Gospel forgives. The Law shows us how to behave but doesn’t give us the power to do it… and the Gospel says, “I love you anyway, and I forgive you, and I am drawing you into something better.” The Law shows us the gunk in our teeth, and the Gospel provides a toothpick. The Law says, “Johanna, you have some blind spots – points of view you don’t want to consider, people you don’t want to acknowledge, and a touch of self-righteousness,” and the Gospel says, “I was sent to proclaim recovery of sight for the blind, and that includes you.” The Gospel gives me the strength and the willingness to hear that message, to open my eyes and see things – some things I don’t want to see, and some things that will bring me life I could not otherwise have known. The Law convicts me, and the Gospel says, “Johanna, beloved child of God, I forgive you.” And that is a message I want and need to hear. Every day.
            What do the Law and the Gospel of God's Word say to you this day?

            Let us pray… Gracious God, your Word tells us the truth twice, first showing us our need for a savior, and then giving us that savior. Thank you for your Law, so that we can see our own sin, and thank you for your Gospel, so that we would never be stuck there. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.