Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Don't Waste It!

One of my former parishioners would tell me the story of how he would always have a Bible in his desk at work.
His boss knowing that he was a Christian and that he was good at hearing people’s problems would often send other co-workers to him if they had a problem.
Knowing this parishioner as I did I am sure he would listen and do a great job of making the person feel better.
That is the kind of power everyone here this morning has.
When Vicki and I were dating she was still in college in Maine.
She lived in this great house on the ocean.
She was going to have a party at her house for her family.
It was supposed to rain that day.
I was trying to impress her parents so I told them, “It is not going to rain.”
Sure enough it didn’t.
I want to assure all of you this morning I have no power over the weather.
But if I did, we would all share that same power.

These two stories are about what it means to be a person of God.
What are the limitations?
What are the expectations?
When you tell a co-worker that you are person of faith what does that mean?

In Luther’s day only professional clergy had access to God.
If you wanted your sins forgiven you had to go see the priest and confess.
If you wanted a prayer said so that it wouldn’t rain at your BBQ you had to go to a priest.
If you wanted to know what God thought you went to the priest.

Of all the changes that the Reformation brought perhaps the biggest was to wrest away the power of God from the professional clergy and put it in the hands of the common person.

It meant that people could go directly to God and ask forgiveness.
It meant that a co-worker could be just as much a comfort to you as your priest.
It meant that you could pray for sunshine on your own.
This is a good thing.
But it also brings with it responsibility.
You all are in positions of helping others see God.
You all are expected to show others God’s love.
In your work, play, and everyday life you are expected to act like a priest, monk, prophet, and preacher.

Let me say it another way.
The future of the Gospel is dependent upon you.
One question that we have to ask in our time is will there be a Church in 500 years from now?
I am not so sure.
Organized religion is losing more and more people.
One thing I know that its success is dependent upon all of you.

Our parable for this morning is a complicated one.
It is one of those parables that I wish Jesus never told.
Martin Luther called it a “terrible gospel” that he did not like to preach.
I agree with him on that.
But the idea that “many are called but few are chosen” has been ringing in my ears these days.
It just seems true.
Many people confess that they love Jesus.
Many people call themselves “Christians”.
But it seems that we are reluctant to live that out.
We are reluctant to be Jesus’ people.
Our own insecurity, our own lives often get in our way.

I was reading an article about people of my generation, people born between 1965 and 1984.
My generation is often called Generation X, and we are entering our 40’s.
And according to this article we are not enjoying adulthood.
We are tired, burnt, out and disillusioned.
We find ourselves in more debt, and less successful at this point in our lives than our parents from the baby boom generation.
We were the generation who thought we could have it all.
We could have a family, a successful career that we loved, and money in the bank.
We have found out that all of that is really not possible.
As Dr. Deborah Luepnitz said, “In midlife, what I see in my Gen X patients is total exhaustion. That’s what brings them to treatment. They feel guilty for complaining because it’s wonderful to have, but choices don’t make life easier. Possibilities create pressure.”

I was thinking about this and how we have lost important spiritual tools.
One tool is the ability to be grateful for what we have.
In the article it talked about people that were unhappy because they choose to have kids later in life.
And people that were unhappy because their having kids stopped them from doing what they really wanted.
No one is happy, perhaps because no one is grateful for the life they have.
Second, is the ability to see life not as limited possibility, but to see life as giving us limited choices based on our gifts and passions.
What Luther did when he gave us the power to see ourselves as Priests was say that what we did in everyday life was a calling from God.
To be a parent is a calling from God.
To be a banker, shoemaker, car dealer, cab driver, plumber, or whatever is a calling from God.
In those callings we serve God and our neighbor.
My favorite Luther quote about this is, “God is more pleased with the smell of a father changing a dirty diaper than all the incense in Rome.”

I am convinced that the Church will only exists where it will help people to live out their calling in a powerful and meaningful way.
It is no longer about getting people to come to Church, but about equipping people to be the priesthood of all believers when they go back into their lives.
The reason we have Bible study, adult forum, Sunday school.
It is the reason why we ask people to serve at the Friendly Kitchen, with Family Promise, in the community.
It is not so we can all think of ourselves as great Christians.
It is to equip us for the responsibility of living as a priest in a very complex world.
It is so when a co-worker comes to us with a problem we can offer some words of comfort and hope.
It is so when we are changing a dirty diaper at 3am we can see in it a holy and precious thing.
It is so we wear the garment of faith at all times.
It is so we see in our work a greater purpose.

The parable is about what happens after we get to the banquet.
What happens when we know that we are invited?
As I said last week we can only choose sin, but what happens when we realize this and we know of God’s love given in Jesus Christ.
What will we do with it?
Will we throw it out?
Will we waste it?
Or will we put on the garments of our salvation.
Will we wear the armor of our faith?

Luther once wrote about Word of God,  “Wherever you hear this word being preached and observe people believing, confessing, and acting according to it, have no doubt the true and holy catholic church must be present and that they are a holy Christian people even though they are very few in number, for God’s word does not remain without effect.”
Every week you come and you hear that word.
Every week you kneel at the banquet and receive God’s love given in Jesus Christ.
And then you are sent to be a priest, to share it with others.
The question that the parable posses to us is what will we do with it?
The Reformation set us free from the institutional tyranny of the Church to love and care for others.
What will we do now?

You have the power.
You have the power to forgive sins, to love others, to say words of comfort and hope.
You have the power to turn to God in prayer.
You have the power to ask God for sunny days.
You are a royal priesthood.
Don’t waste it.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

No One's Favorite Sermon

I want to warn you that today’s sermon is not going to be anyone’s favorite sermon.
I am assuming that today’s sermon will challenge a belief that most if not all of you have.
It is not a political belief, but a theological belief.
I am asking this morning for you to give what I am about to say a fair hearing.
It is not that at the end of the day you have to agree with me or Martin Luther, only that you have given what I am about to say some good thought.
When I was planning on the subjects I was going to preach about for this preaching series on the 500 year anniversary of the Reformation I thought about leaving this out all together.
I knew that it would be controversial, and that it would annoy people.
However, it is an important part of Luther’s theology.
And something he was proud of, so much so that in a letter written 9 July 1537, he said: “Regarding [the plan] to collect my writings in volumes, I am quite cool and not at all eager about it…I would rather see them all devoured. For I acknowledge none of them to be really a book of mine, except perhaps the one On the Bound Will and the Catechism.
Because Luther thought it so important I decided to include it, and see where it leads us.

I am assuming that most if not all of you believe in free will.
I know this because in Bible study or adult forum when we get into tricky questions about why there is evil in the world someone will say, “We have free will”.
And everyone else around the table will nod in agreement.
Luther did not believe in free will.
He believed in the bondage of the will.
He believed that our wills cannot choose anything but sin.
We cannot will ourselves to make good decisions.
And even when we think we have made good decisions it is usually for sinful reasons.
We cannot will our way to good behavior, or more importantly salvation.
As St. Paul says in his letter to the Church in Rome
For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”
We can make decisions, but we will always choose sin.
As Luther wrote, “We do not sin against our will but rather according to our will.”
It is who we are.
Our will is bound to sin.
There is no escape.
Luther wrote this in a theological battle he was having with Erasmus who wrote defending free will.
Erasmus believed that people were given two choices by God and it was dependent on them to choose the good.
This is oversimplification of both positions, but it is the essence of the argument.
So was Luther right?

For me, it is the only answer to the problems of the world.
We wouldn’t have the world we have if we could make better choices.
Our world would not be filled with selfishness, greed, and violence.
We wouldn’t have guns.
We wouldn’t have multi billionaires while children go hungry.
We wouldn’t have marches with torches and people yelling racial slogans.
We wouldn’t have people who hate each other over religion.
We wouldn’t have nuclear weapons.

It is interesting to me that we all believe that if we had lived in different times with different choices that we would have made the right ones.
If we had been in Germany in 1934 we would have never have voted for the Nazi party.
We would have stood up for our Jewish brothers and sisters.
Interesting that the Luther church existed in 1934 and the majority of those churches was silent about what was happening.

If I had been in Alabama in 1963 I would be marching with Dr. King.
Interesting that the Luther Church existed in 1963, and most were silent.
Dr. King wrote his "Letter From a Birmingham Jail" to pastors who wanted him to stop protesting because he was disturbing the peace.

Most of us think that if we had lived 2,000 years ago in the time of Jesus we would have been on his side.
We would have been one of those people that dropped everything and followed Jesus all the way to Golgotha.
We would never have betrayed him like Judas, or denied him like Peter, or fled like the other 10.
We certainly wouldn’t have been one of the religious leaders that were so upset with Jesus coming into the temple, turning over the money changers, and preaching for a week in our temple, that they plotted with the Government to have him killed.

The parable that Jesus tells this morning asked this exact question of us.
Where would you be?
Would you be a land manager who thinks you own the land and have the servants killed?
Would you be trying to rob the land owner by not listening to the son?
Before you answer too quickly, really think about that answer.
We tend to protect that which we have.
Once we get something, a house, some land, an important position, we tend to want to protect it at all cost.
Even if that means I will have to kill someone to keep it.

That doesn’t sound like Jesus?
“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
That is Jesus.
My point is only that we are not as noble and good as we think.
And to believe in free will brings us down a road of judgment.
It makes us believe that we are good, and that others are bad.
And in that belief we fall prey to the temptation not only to judge others (think Jesus had some things to say about that?) but also to think too highly of ourselves.

This is exactly what was happening in Luther’s day.
There were really good people (saints, priests, bishops, nuns, monks).
And then there were the bad people, most everyone else.
Luther tries to even the field by pointing out that we all sin.

Because what Luther wants us to see is our need for Jesus Christ, our need for the Holy Spirit, and our need for God.
It is only through that relationship that we can see and understand our failings.
It is by God’s grace and God’s Spirit that we are able to do any good at all.

When I was in college I was playing some pickup basketball in the school gym.
I can be a pretty competitive person.
It was a hard fought game.
There was another student who was one of the Jewish leaders on campus playing on the other team.
We were going at each other good.
I checked the ball with him and he rolled back to me in an angry way to a place I couldn’t get it.
I had to go to the other end of the gym to retrieve the ball.
I don’t know if it was on purpose or not.
I got the ball and went up to him and said, “Didn’t they teach you manners in Jew-boy school.”
As soon as the words were out I knew it was wrong.
I was shocked by my behavior.
I wouldn’t think in a million years that would be something I said or thought.
It was a sin.
It was maybe who I really was/am.

I tell this story because for me it shows the truth of what Luther was trying to get at.
Our will is bound to sin, no matter how much we wish it was different.
For me this helps me to better understand the world we live in.
This is why someone would rent a 37 floor hotel room and kill 59 people with a weapon.
It is why people would follow a mad man who told them they are a superior race.
It is why people for entertainment would lynch someone from a tree and take pictures.
It is why we have the world we do.

I wanted to end a positive note today.
But I am going to leave us hear.
I told you this would not be anyone’s favorite sermon.
I don’t want it to be.
I wanted you to go home and think about it.
I wanted you to go home and think about your bound will, and turn again to Jesus Christ.
It is only in him that we find hope.
Luther was right what he wrote in the hymn we are about to sing, “Do not regard my sinful deeds. Send me the grace my spirit needs; without it I am nothing.”

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Jesus Emptied Himself For Us!

I am wondering this morning if you have ever experienced something in your life that made you feel helpless.
Have you ever had a problem that you that you couldn’t solve?
We probably don’t like that feeling.
We want it to go away.
This morning I want to suggest that it is at these times when God is at work.
That in that helplessness God is up to something.

We know this because as Christians that God that we know died on a cross.
That the God that was revealed to us in Jesus Christ was not an all powerful God, but one who was helpless to stop the violence and death that he faced.
We read today in Philippians, “Though he was in the form of God…but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness, and being found in human form…and became obedient to the point of death- even death on a cross.”
The God that we know in Jesus Christ is not the God who sits up high.
It is not the God who grants wishes.
It is not the God who makes everything wonderful.
It is a God who knows all too well human helplessness, human venerability.

Of all the insights that were brought forth from the Reformation this one was of key importance.
God works are hidden from us, except, in the work of suffering.
The place where we know God’s work is in our suffering.
It is in our places when we feel defeated, we feel lost, and we feel helpless.
In those places we will find God at work.

Luther called people who only saw God in winning and triumph theologians of glory.
But true theologians he argued are found in those who see God truly at work in our suffering.
Before the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004 I would tell people that Yankee fans were theologians of glory.
Red Sox fans knew the theology of the cross.
We knew true agonizing suffering.
We knew what it meant to lose every time.
Yankee fans expected to win every year, we expected to lose.

As we have been exploring these past couple of weeks the themes of the Reformation still are relevant for our times, maybe none more than this one.
We live in a world of glory.
We love glory.
We love the big stories of triumph.
We love the underdog making it big.
We love winning.
We want to be with the winner.
And we want our lives to be great.
We want them to be happy and awesome.

But they are often far from the fairy tales we have been told.
Our lives are often more mundane then we wish they were.
They don’t seem as heroic.

Jesus tells us this morning that the place where God is at work is in prostitutes and tax collectors.
Not in the chief priest and elders!
Not in the people who have it all together?
Not in the people who are telling everyone the mighty acts of God?
But in the people who are beaten down by life, the losers, and the sufferers.
This is hard to fathom.
The question that our faith in God confronts us with is who are we?
Do we have it all together?
Is there nothing in our lives that is bad?
And the second is where is God?
Is God only found in the wonderful moments?
Is God only found in the glorious moments?

A couple of years ago I went up on my day off with my kids to spend some time with my mother.
We had a really wonderful day.
We went sledding at Calumet.
We went out for lunch.
My mom called it, “This is a God is good day.”
It was indeed.

But what about the other days in our lives that are not so wonderful?
What about the day I got the call from my mother that my Dad died?
What about the day I found out that my mom had cancer?
What about the day my friend Sarah died?
What about the night at College when all I wanted to do was quite?
What about the night our family was fighting and my Dad had to leave the house?
What about all those other times when things were not all so wonderful.
What about those times I felt helpless?
What Luther challenges us on is that God is just as much at work in those moments as the “God is good day”.

I was talking to some people in our congregation this week about prayer.
It is interesting to me how some subjects come up in a week more than once for some reason.
But I had several conversations about prayer.
People were telling me that prayer was an essential part of their faith lives.
That it was prayer that got them through some pretty hard times.
And that God always answers prayer.
Isn’t that true?
There are two caveats to this (that the people agreed with me on).
One, not always in the way we think God will answer that prayer.
Two, we only see this in hindsight.
This means that God works in mysterious ways.
And while we are going through struggles we don’t know the outcome.
We don’t know the way that God will work in our lives.
That is the hidden part of God.
To suggest that we do know is dangerous and disingenuous.
It is to be a theologian of Glory.

To say things like, "God will never give you more than you can handle."

“To blessed to be stressed” “Everything happens for a reason.”

Or something else that seems comforting by really ignores or overlooks our pain is not helpful.
On the other hand, to see God in our pain, helplessness, and hurt is to see that Jesus Christ emptied himself for us, took our human form, and can sympathize with our human weakness, is the good news!
The God we know in Jesus Christ has dwells with us.
God sits with us in our helplessness.
Turn to God with your troubles with what aches your heart.
Because we know that God will be there.
Pray with all your might to God to be with you in those times.
Some day you can look back and see God at work in that time.
Not that God caused your suffering.
But that God helped you through, God created something new in you through that moment.
Maybe even that you are stronger in faith for having gone through it with God.
Not that it all got taken care of, that everything is all tied up in a nice bow.
Only that you survived, and maybe learned some lessons along the way about yourself and God.

God does not fix every problem we have.
To believe that is to be a theologian of glory.
But God is in every problem we have.
And we can call on God to be with us through everything we face through our helplessness, pain, heartache, loss, and sin.
To believe that is to be theologian of the cross.
It is to have faith in the God we know through Jesus Christ that even though he was in the form of God emptied himself for us.