Monday, January 23, 2017

An Idea that Changed the World!

Martin Luther changed the world with an idea.
If you were here last week you heard me say that what makes us Lutheran is our theology.
I am amazed at how many Lutherans don’t know that theology.
So this morning I want to start by sharing with you Martin Luther’s theology as it was taught to me in seminary by Dr. Timothy Wengert.

The question that every religion asks and seeks to answer is how to we get to God.
God is above us, or beyond us.
And as humans we desire to know God, to have a relationship with God.
How does that happen?
In almost every case the answer is like a ladder.
Here are the rungs one does to get closer to God.
Prayer, worship, care for the poor, meditation…Whatever it is.
This was the religion that Martin Luther knew.
It is what he spent his life trying to do.
He tried to climb higher on the ladder.
He became a monk, prayed, fasted, studied, he denied the desires of the flesh.
The problem was that no matter how high Luther climbed on that ladder he could never discover God.
We still have ladders today.
We still kind of believe that if we only could know the secret, meditate more, study more, worship more, give more, we would grow closer to God.
Think of it we put people on the ladder.
Mother Teresa is higher up, right?
Dali Lama, Desmond tutu?
Holy people who are better than us at reaching God?
What if we could just be like those people then we would really have it all together.
This is what Luther was trying to do.
Until, he discovered the truth, in the scripture, in the person of Jesus Christ that we don’t go up to God.
God has come down to us!
God comes to where we are.
Here in this place God is pleased to dwell.
Here with us sinners that we are.
This is grace.

Sometimes at this point in the conversation someone will say, “But how far will God go?”
There are limits right?
Not to murders and thieves?
Not to Isis?
Not to my enemy?
Surely God hasn’t come that far into our world.

Today’s Gospel story is a good example of how far God will go.
Today’s story is a familiar one to us.
Jesus comes to the lakeshore.
Jesus calls Simon and Andrew to be his disciples, and they follow him.
What I didn’t know about this story is how extraordinary are Jesus actions.

In order to become a disciple in Jesus day you had to be the very best of the best.
You had to be the smartest person in your village, city, and town.
It starts when you are 6-10 years old and you start studying the Torah.
This is called Bet Sefer.
If you are the best of the best at reading the Torah you go on to when you are 10-14 to study the prophets.
This is called Bet Talmud.
If you are the best of the best then you go on to Bet Midrash.
You go and you find a Rabbi to teach you.
And even then a Rabbi will make it difficult for you.
If you are the best of the best then you can become a disciple of Rabbi and take on his yoke.
Look at what Jesus does in our Gospel this morning.
First of all he breaks the mold by searching out for disciples.
No rabbi would do that.
You show how important you are by having people come to you.

And second, we know that Simon and Andrew are not the best of the best, because they are still fishing.
If they would have been they would have been studying under a rabbi by now.

This is how far God comes to us.
He comes after us.
Jesus searches us out, and calls us.
And we are really unqualified.
Jesus doesn’t pick the best of the best.
He picks us, imperfect people that we are.
We are the people that Jesus wants.
We can’t be Mother Teresa, Desmond tutu, or whoever.
We can only be us.
And God has come to us.

There is no need to climb a ladder.
Anytime that we are told that “A good Christian does ……..” we should be suspicious of that person.
There is no such thing as “good Christians”.
There is only us imperfect as we are receiving the grace of God.
We don’t deserve it because we are not the best of the best.

This is what Luther came to understand.
He found in the pages of scripture not an angry God who is mad because we can’t get up the ladder, but a loving God full of grace.
A God willing to come down and walk here on this earth with us.
A God with sand in his feet.
A God with the hair that smells like the sea.
A God who eats with sinners.
A God who calls fishermen to be his disciples.
A God who is for you and me.

I want you to know that this theology saved my life.
I mean that literally.
When I discovered it I was relieved, because I am not the best of the best.
I am not meant to be here this morning.
I should not be your pastor.
If you think I am horrible pastor, I agree with you.
I am not good enough, nor smart enough.
I was never the best student.
 I was never the best athlete.
I was never the best looking.
I was never the most holy person.
I was just me.
And this theology freed me from having to be anything other than the mess I am.
I didn’t have to climb the ladder any more.
I know that God comes to me.
How far?
To the Lakeshore…
But ultimately God is willing to come all the way to the cross.
God is willing to die for me.
God is willing to know the pain of this human life.
It sounds silly to many.
“For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

The good news is that we don’t have to climb ladders to know God.
We don’t have to be Mother Teresa or the Dali lama.
We have to only be us, because we have a God who comes to us, and call us to follow him.
We have a God not of ladders, but of grace.
That is an idea that can change the world.

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.