Monday, January 16, 2017

Sin Boldly!

You have heard this many times from me, and you will hear it many more.
This year we are celebrating the 500 anniversary of the Reformation.
All this year I am going to be using the anniversary in my preaching a lot.
 And I am going to reminding us that the reformation is not just a distant historical event, but an ongoing reality within the Church.
There is an important link between what happened 500 years ago in Wittenberg Germany and today.
This weekend we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.
Martin Luther King Jr. the 20th century civil rights advocate was named after Martin Luther the German monk from the 16th century.
MLK’s father was also a pastor and loved the theology of the Martin Luther and named his son after him.
All these years later what still survives more than anything else is Martin Luther’s theological idea.
It is what makes us Lutheran.
Not our liturgy.
Not our great pot luck suppers.
Not how we take communion.
What makes us Lutheran is our theology.
I would offer this morning that the theology of Martin Luther is still unique within Christianity.
Most of what Christianity has become in America is some version of self-help and get rich quick schemes.
Christianity has become about making everyone feel good.
God has become our therapist.
What some people call therapeutic deism.
God is a man who floats around on a cloud making everything works out for the best.

Luther’s theology was simple.
It is based in scripture that all of us are sinful and need the saving power of Jesus Christ.
Consider our Gospel reading for this morning.
It has in it the central message of the Reformation.
“Here is the Lamb of God who comes to take away the sin of the world.”
Jesus takes away the sin of the world.
This seems simple enough.
But we have missed the message.
Because this is MLK weekend, and because he shared Martin Luther’s name, I want to use as an example this morning our discussions we have about race.
I want to start by saying that this is maybe one of the more complicated discussions we have in our society.
And that I have never had one of these discussions end well.
But this morning I am going to talk about it anyway.

Most of the conversations I have with white people about race I hear people say, “I am not racists.”
I think what people want to convey in saying that is that they are good people, that they don’t see “race”.
But I think we can agree that racism still exists.
The problem is that we see it only in a few people that live in the south, you know the people who join the KKK or the Nazi party.
Those are the racists, and I am not one of those people.

The first thing is that we are people who know we are sinners.
We know we sin.
I don’t understand why we have such trouble confessing actual sin.
I hear it from people a lot lately.
They’ll say something like, “I know I am sinner. I know I am not perfect.”
And yet when confronted with an actual sin they have done they will be defensive about it.
They will make excuses.
The same thing happens when we talk about race.
We admit that we are not perfect on the subject; we admit that there is racism, and yet we get very defensive about it.
If we are going to have these difficult discussions about race we have to be willing to listen.
We have to be willing to say that there are things we don’t know.
There are people who experience the world in different ways then we do.

We will never know what it is like to be a black person in America.
You will never know what it is like to walk into a store and have security follow you around.
You will never know what it is like to be told that people like you don’t belong here.
You will never know what it is like to fear the police.
You will never know what it is like to be judged based simply on the color of your skin and nothing else.
And that is the experience of many people of color in our country.
In New Hampshire, in Concord!
Why would we say that they are wrong?
It is their experience, not ours.
That is the start of understanding is to listen to someone else’s story without judgment and have empathy for them and what they struggle through.

I really believe that is the only way we will be able to live on the same planet.
We have to talk to each other.
We have to listen to one another.
We have to have difficult uncomfortable conversations.
Because that is how we are saved.
Through the acknowledgement of sin, and the giving it away to Jesus!

Jesus comes to take away the sin of the world.
What if we won’t give him our sin?
What if we refuse to acknowledge it?
How can Jesus take it away?

Notice also, that in the Gospel, it doesn’t say just your sin.
It says the sin of the world.
Racism is bigger than you.
It includes you, but the problem is bigger than any one of us.
It includes generations of teaching on how people of color are inferior.
It includes generations of television, movies, and images of how much better whites are than blacks.
Even if you wanted to it is too big for you to overcome.
And that is the lie of our age.
That individually we can overcome all hatred and violence.
It can only be overcome through Jesus Christ!
Only Jesus can take away the sin of the world.
So why can’t we admit it.
Why can’t we give it over to Jesus?
Only when we do will we feel the power of God’s grace.

Let us confess together that the sin of the world holds us in it’s grasp.
Let us confess that we have failed to love our neighbors as our selves.
That we are too defenses when we talk about race.
That we have failed to listen to the suffering of others.
That we have failed to take into account our privilege and position.
And then let us hear the sweet sound of grace.

Let us remember that my kids go to school with people from all races.
Let us remember that we work with and make friends with people from all races.
Let us remember that we live in community with people of all races.
Let us remember that we elected a black president twice.
Let us remember that there is no such thing as race.
There is no black and white, only children of God.
That a white guy from the 16th century changed the course history 500 years ago by reminding us that it is through grace that God takes away the sin of the world.
As Luther wrote in the Heidelberg disputation, “It is certain that man must utterly despair of his own ability before he is prepared to receive the grace of Christ.”
That a black man from the 20th century who shared the same name reminded us of that grace, and that we are all the same under God’s eye.
Martin Luther King once said in his Christmas sermon on Peace, “Every man is somebody because he is a child of God”.
We are all sinners who are set free by God’s grace.
“Behold the lamb of God who comes to take away the sin of the world”
Thanks be to God for God’s grace that saves us from sin!
We should never be afraid to confess that sin, because then we are reminded that we are saved from it!

Monday, January 9, 2017

It Is Enough

I was at the Planet Fitness on Saturday and there were a lot of people there.
I am assuming that some of that is the New Year’s crowd.
You know people who have made a resolution to get in better shape, exercise more.
There is nothing wrong with this.
There is nothing wrong with making a resolution and trying to change a behavior that will make you healthier.
Except I wonder if this is what is making us crazy.
We believe too much in the myth of self improvement.
We believe too much in the idea that if we only could change this thing about ourselves then we would be really happy, or satisfied.
It is dangerous because what happens when we fail?
When we can’t change, or won’t change, or don’t change what happens to how we see ourselves?
What happens if we do change some behavior but still feel horrible about our lives and ourselves?
We feel like failures.
We feel shame.
We are unable to accept ourselves as we are, as God made us to be.
Again this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t exercise, or that we shouldn’t be healthy.
As we start this New Year I want us to ask ourselves some deeper spiritual questions.
I want us not to change our lives, but to live our lives more fully.
I want us to think about not what we have to do, but about what God can do.

I think that subtle shift in us is means everything.
It will help us to get away from the false idea of self-improvement.
It will help us to get off the cycle of shame.
It will get us to see God in our lives.

The place to start is in our baptisms.
Today we hear the story of Jesus’ baptism.
And our baptism is not the same as Jesus’ baptism, but it shares some similarities.
In our baptisms God claims us as God’s children.
God says to us, “This is my son/daughter, my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.”
God is pleased in us.
God is pleased that we are his children.
God loves us as we are.
Not as some better part of ourselves but as us.
That is something worth thinking about this New Year.
That God is pleased to dwell with us, in us.
That we are part of God’s plan; God has a purpose for us.
This year we let us remember that we can walk each day, not alone, but with God.

I really believe that in some way we are all on this earth trying to do the same thing.
We are trying to figure out what makes a good life.
This is why the idea of self-improvement is so seductive.
It says to us that if we only do this thing then we will discover the secret to a good life, a happy life.
That if we become more of something.
If we become more beautiful, skinny, toned, rich, good, kind, loving, generous then we will have it all together.
Here is what I found so far in this life I never have it all together.
If there is some part of my life that is going well it usually means that something else is out of whack.
If I can do something well for a while then it is only a matter of time before I sin and something else gets screwed up.
We are trying to solve a spiritual problem with a practical solution.
The real issue is not what is wrong with us.
The real issue is that we can’t accept that something is wrong with us.
We feel a need to fix it.
Why can’t we let God fix it?

What would it look like if we didn’t fix it?
What if we just said this is who I am?
This is as good as it gets.
This is life right here and now.
Life is messed up, I am messed up.
And to hear God in that place say to us, “Here is my child, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
That is the gift of our Baptism.
That is the Epiphany that we can have this year.
We can see God in our lives.
We can see God’s grace given to us so that we don’t have to fix us, but live in our imperfection.

The second thing that we share with Jesus baptism is that it leads us into the wilderness.
That is where we are.
Not in Eden.
Not in some idyllic place that is wonderful and perfect.
We are in the wilderness.
We are in a place without water, a barren place.
And we might be there but we go there with the blessing.
We can with stand that wilderness, because we go drenched in the waters of our baptism.
Our baptism gives us the blessing of knowing that we are beloved.
New things burst into sight because of the blessing.
Because we have heard God call us beloved.
We have heard from God in the waters of baptism that even though it is barren God is still there.

I went this week to visit someone who is dying.
He is not a member of our congregation, but he asked to see a Lutheran pastor.
He wants me to do his funeral.
I asked him what I should say.
He said, “For those I have wronged I hope you forgive me, and for those that have wronged me I forgive you.”
I thought that sums up our lives.
We can’t always do the right thing.
We won’t always do or say the right thing.
But we can ask for forgiveness.
We can forgive others.
We can remember that God forgives us.
And that might be the only way to get through life.
Because there is no state of that we can reach of perfection.
I don’t care how many New Year’s resolution we make.
I don’t care how many self-improvement books we read.
We will always be just short of the glory of God.

What we hear from God in our baptisms is that it is ok.
There is no reason to feel shame or regret.
There is only the acknowledgement of our sin, and God’s magnificent grace.

That is the spiritual truth of our lives.
I offer it to you this morning.
I offer it to you so that you can get away from the cycle of shame.
You can stop feeling horrible that you didn’t lose those 15 pounds, or you continue to get angry at your kids, or you didn’t give more money to the homeless shelter.
You can stop trying to be more, and just be who God made you to be.
That is good enough.
Let me also say that it is hard enough just being us.

God’s blessing to us, given at our baptisms, when we were babies, before we knew about all of life’s complications, is enough.
To know that we are beloved.
To know that in the wilderness there is water.
To know that there is forgiveness.
To just be us.
That is enough.
I hope for you this year not a resolution, but an epiphany about your worth and how much God loves you.

Monday, January 2, 2017

A Great Christmas Story!

Today’s Gospel from Matthew is a great Christmas story.
It is not as well known, nor well liked as Luke’s story.
It doesn’t have all the niceties of Luke’s story.
There is no angel chorus, no manger, no sheep, and no shepherds.
Instead it has a political tyrant out to kill Jesus.
It has Mary and Joseph fleeing Bethlehem for Egypt.
It has the killing of innocent children.
Why is this a Christmas story?

Because it is more like the world we know.
We know the story of political tyrants who set out to hurt innocent people.
We know that this world is not what it should be.

Consider the family that our congregation set out to help a couple of years ago.
They were refugees from Bhutan.
In 1985 the government of Bhutan made a law where everyone had to prove that they had been living in Bhutan before 1958.
The ruling government was trying to rid the country of immigrants that came there from Nepal 27 years earlier.
Then in 1998 more discriminatory measures were introduced, including a national ethnic dress code, an official state language.
Eventually people began fleeing Bhutan back into Nepal.
However, Nepal didn’t want them either.
They ended up in refugee camps.
Some estimates say that over 100,000- southern Bhutanese of Nepalese ethnicity have been made refugees.
I only know this story because of our relationship with that family.
It is not something that gets reported on the news.
In fact, at the end of this year what we seem to think is really important to report on is that Carrie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds, and George Michael died.
And this story of our Bhutanese friends is repeated many times over around the world.
It is estimated that 33,972 people per day are forced to flee their homes became of war, civil conflict, or human rights abuses.
Millions of people whose stories we never hear and whose names we never know are without a country or home.

Now why should we care?
We should care because Jesus began his life as a refugee fleeing from tyranny.
Jesus is helpless in this story.
He can’t defend himself.
He is only a baby.
Except he has a couple of things going for him, he has God, and he has faithful parents.

And that is what makes this a great Christmas story, because Christmas is about the incarnation.
It is about God being with us even in the worse and most horrible of times.
It is about God becoming human.
It is about God becoming human so we can become children of God.
Jesus comes to show us the way.

The way is through love and faithfulness.
That is how we deal with the powers of the world, through faithfulness to God.
To care for people who are displaced, and forgotten.
That is why our congregation reached out to help a refugee family here in Concord, because we felt called by God to help.
We heard the angel whisper in our ear and tell us to love and care for others.
We follow Jesus into the unknown.

Matthew’s Christmas story is filled with unknowns.
Should Joseph take Mary as his wife after she is found to be with child?
Should the Wise men follow the star?
Should they tell Herod about what they found?
Where should Jesus and his family live?
And it is filled with surprises.
The King is a poor child, with poor parents.
Herod is out to kill this child, not worship him.
Mary’s baby is Immanuel “God with us”.
Mary and Joseph need to flee into Egypt a dangerous and unknown country.

That is how life is when we follow God.
It is full of surprises.
Not all of them good.
This week I did an overnight at the synagogue for Family Promise.
The person who was the other volunteer was telling me her life story.
It was a story not unlike others I have heard.
It had twist and turns, joys and triumphs.
And she said, “You know life is surprising.”
Yes it is.
Because we don’t know what will come next.
We don’t know what this New Year will bring?

What we do have is a Christmas story that tells us what is always true of life no matter the year.
The world is filled with sin.
It has tyrants who want to start wars, kill people, keep power, and pass unjust laws.
Into that world God has come to dwell with us.
And because of that we know that we will not be alone.
We also know to follow in his footsteps to care for the refugee, the lost and forgotten, and the ones who get screwed by those in power.
In them we find Christ, and our purpose.

I want to end today with a poem written by the German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonheoffer.

“In me there is darkness,
But with You there is light;
I am lonely, but You do not leave me;
I am feeble in heart, but with You there is help;
I am restless, but with You there is peace.
In me there is bitterness, but with You there is patience;
I do not understand Your ways,
But You know the way for me.”

“Lord Jesus Christ,
You were poor
And in distress, a captive and forsaken as I am.
You know all man’s troubles;
You abide with me
When all men fail me;
You remember and seek me;
It is Your will that I should know You
And turn to You.
Lord, I hear Your call and follow;
Help me.”

He wrote that while in prison waiting to be executed by the Nazis for trying to kill Hitler.
It is not just the call of Bonheoffer but all of our call to follow Jesus.
Lord we ask in this New Year for your help as we hear your call and follow you!
Be with us!