Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Faith Alone!

Faith Alone.
This was a central idea of the Reformation that we are saved by faith alone.
What does it mean to live by faith alone?
How do we get faith?
Most of us don’t like this idea.
Well…most of us have probably never really thought about it that much.
We might want to live by faith.
But most of us live by works.
We live believing in our works.
We live believing that we have lived a good life, a hard working life.

During the time of the Reformation this saying was about getting to heaven.
That you got to heaven by faith alone, through grace alone, because of Christ alone, that was shone in the Word alone.
Those things formed the core of what the Reformers were trying to teach.

It was through Christ that we are saved.
And to have faith meant to trust in Christ and his promise of eternal life.
It is great, but I think we are uncomfortable with it because we want to do something.

I can’t tell you how many times in my years as a pastor I have been challenged on this point.
People say something like, “If you don’t have to be good, then you will just do whatever you want.”
In other words, it can’t be that simple.
It can’t just be about trusting in God.
What do I have to do?

Our Gospel for this morning is a good example of what people are trying to get at.
We don’t like the idea that people get something for nothing.
We are usually like the people hired at the start of the day.
We feel that we have worked harder, done more, then the people hired at the end of the day.
When I first read the Gospel for this morning I thought it was about grace.
But it is more about faith.
In our relationship with Jesus what do we come to know?
That God is gracious and loving.
We know this because we have come to experience it ourselves.
We see that so much of our lives are out of our control.
That the things we want to do we don’t do.
And we come to see our own need for God.
For God to forgive us, lead us, and help us.
Because of this we learn to trust God, and place all things in God’s hands.
That is what is missing from the workers in our Gospel, a trust that God is God and works on a different level that we do.
Our faith is putting our trust in God’s hands.
The powerful core of our shared faith is that God is generous beyond our simple mindset.
And we really need it.
I can hardly keep up these days with all the things that are going on in the world.
It seems that bad news is coming at an ever increasing pace.
Earthquakes in Mexico, multiple destructive hurricanes in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico, people dying in terrorist attacks, wars and rumors of wars.
As the 80/90 Rock Group REM once sang, “It’s the end of the world as we know it.”
When people ask me, “how I am?” it is a hard to say.
I am fine, but I see the rest of the world falling apart.

And this doesn’t even take into account the personal struggles of people I care about.
My mother’s cancer.
My friend’s cancer.
Or your struggles that I hold in my heart.
Getting older and struggling with life changes.
All of the things that happen in our congregation that I worry about like people coming to church less and less.
All of these things are on my mind.
I am sure that you have your own list of things that are troubling you.

If I lived by works this would be impossible to keep up with.
It would be devastating to think about all the problems of the world, and how few solutions there are.
But to live by faith is to trust in a gracious and loving God.
As Martin Luther wrote, “The law says, ‘do this,’ and it is never done. Grace says, ‘believe this,’ and everything is already done.”
Faith alone is to believe that the world with all of its problems has at the center a God of grace.

We don’t live there very often.
We live in a world of judgment.
We judge each other.
We live in a world of anger.
We are angry all the time at each other.
It is nice to think that the other side is getting what we think they deserve.
When we build a relationship with God we come to find out it doesn’t work that way with God.
Jesus tells us that, “the first are last and the last are first”.
The parable he tells this morning is one that the original hearers would be shocked and angered at.
And I suspect the same is true for us.
To think Jesus is being overly gracious.
Except it is parable about the kingdom of God.
It is a parable about the way that God works that contradicts the systems of the world.
Jesus tells us today that the only way to live in the kingdom is by faith alone.

I think the only way to live in our world is by faith alone, because the whole thing is crazy.
It is out of control.
It doesn’t make sense.
And so all I have is a God of grace.

How do we get this faith?
According to Luther we get by hearing God’s word.
Coming to Church and receiving the sacraments are part of that.
For me, often it is through you and some act of kindness that I am reminded of God’s promise.
Like this card I got from Alva for my birthday one year.
“Have faith in untraveled roads….Whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive if you have faith” (Matthew 21:22)
Often I will get a card or nice word from one of you that will help me.
I know that you also do that for each other.
The Word of God reminds us of God’s grace and love.
It reminds us of God’s promise and brings us back to our faith.

One of the great things about being a pastor is that you get to see people’s faith all the time.
Many people that I have had the privilege of being the pastor to have shown great faith in their lives.
They are people that have experienced great heartache and pain, and still trust that God has their best interest at heart.
They express this faith in different ways, in different language, but it is all the same thing.

Faith is not believing in some doctrine.
It is not having the “right” words to say.
It is about a deep relationship that one develops over many years.
It is relationship that develops of hearing God’s word over and over again.
In that relationship one learns to trust God.
One learns that life happens, good things and bad things.
“That if we live we live to the Lord, and if we die we die to the Lord.”

Today I wish for all of you faith alone.
Faith that keeps you going.
faith that helps you get through those hard times.
Faith that keeps you from becoming too cynical.
Faith to know how much God cares about you.
Faith that keeps you believing in a Gracious and loving God.

Monday, September 18, 2017

500 Years Later Jesus Still Needs to Be the Center

Most theologies are linear.
They work on the philosophical premise that one thing leads to another.
Something like because of this, this other thing is true, and that leads one to conclude that this is the case.
Something like if A, then B, equals C.
This is not the case with Lutheran theology.
It is more random, because there is a center to it.
In the middle is Jesus.
Everything revolves around this one thing.
We forgive because Jesus forgave.
We love because Jesus loved.
We are kind because Jesus is kind.
At the center of everything is Jesus.
And at the center of Jesus is grace.
Grace is more important than anything.
And let us be honest grace is not always linear.
It doesn’t always make sense.

I once gave a sermon about grace in a congregation that I was not the pastor of.
After the sermon a well meaning person came up to me and said, “God has to punish sin, because God is righteous and hates sin.”
It is a good argument; there is solid reasoning behind it.
If only I believe in solid reasoning to talk about God.
What I believe in is a center.
We believe that when we talk about God Jesus is at the center of that discussion.

Because often times what happens is that if we don’t put Jesus at the center we put ourselves.
We trust our reasoning.
We trust our understanding.
We trust our goodness.
Without God at the center it becomes about what we can do.
This was the problem at the time of the Reformation.
People’s lives were not good.
And the only thing they had to hold onto was the promise that heaven would be better.
So the Church was really important to people.
Because of this the Church had become so powerful.
And the Church exploited people for money and power.
The Church became the center instead of Jesus.
And that is an important distinction.
It became about what the Church taught or said.
It became about buildings, land, and who was in charge.
And then it became about what you did to earn your way into heaven.
You get to heaven by serving the Church, by going to worship, by giving money, by following the rules.
You earned heaven.

Luther brought the Church back to the center.
It wasn’t about what you did.
It wasn’t about the Church.
It wasn’t about buildings and land.
It wasn’t about accumulating power and wealth.
It was about Jesus Christ.
What Jesus did for us.
It was about the grace that Jesus showed us through his death and resurrection.

Our Bible reading for this morning is a good example.
When God is the center of our lives what we see is grace and forgiveness.
When we are at the center what we do is demand from other’s more than what we have received.
We are always more willing to judge others based on our standards.
And that is why we need God at the center.
God teaches us that what grace can and does look like.
God’s grace flows through us.

I wish I could say that after the reformation the Church saw the error of its ways and fix its theology.
That is not what happens.
500 years later we still need a reformation that brings us back to the center of things.
It is no longer about the Church, but what we have put in the center is us.
Too much of the popular theology of our day is about what we do.
It is about us having more faith.

Joel Olsteen got a lot of negative press about not opening his church to victims of the hurricane in Houston.
I will give him a pass on that.
It is not for me to judge what he does with his congregation.
I will not give him a pass on the horrible theology he peddles.
It has very little to do with God.
It has to do with you fixing your life.
It is about you having more faith.
For example Joel Olsteeen once wrote, “When you focus on being a blessing, God makes sure that you are always blessed with abundance”
Seems harmless, maybe even some good advice.
But think about that sentence again.
Who comes first?
You do.
When you focus on being a blessing then God acts.
Instead of God as the center and beginning of our lives, we become the center and beginning.
God blesses us not because we are a blessing.
But because God is God, merciful, loving, and filled with grace.
Consider Olsteen’s quote against one of Martin Luther’s, “Moreover, we are also certain and sure that we please God, not by the merit of our own working, but by the favor of his mercy promised to us, and the if we do less than we should or do it badly, he does not hold this against us, but in a fatherly way pardons and corrects us. Hence the glorying of all the saints in their God.”

I think that putting ourselves in as the center causes us lots of problems.
We have become a people of know it alls.
We think we know everything there is to know.
We also think that we can’t do anything wrong.
This usually works for a while in our lives, until it doesn’t.
Until something happens in our life that doesn’t fit with how we think things should go.
Until we come across something that we can’t solve or do anything about.
Then what?

I have noticed that what I say a lot to people about their lives is this, “Put that in God’s hands.”
“We are going to lay that at God’s feet and let God take care of it.”
This is hard to do.
Because we have come to believe that we are the center.
Everything revolves around us.
This might be why we are all so exhausted and stressed out.
Because we have come to believe that everything is about what we do.
Everything is on our shoulders.

How much better is life when we lay our burdens down?
Our lives are better when we give them to God.
When we admit that we can’t do it all, we can’t have it all, that we don’t know it all.
That we are limited people, with limited capacity.
Our lives become so much better.
We can lift the worry and stress from our lives, by giving it to the Lord, by keeping in focus God’s love for us, God’s mercy for us, and God’s grace.

May you keep Jesus at the center of your lives.
May you place the burdens of the day upon the Lord.
500 years later much has changed but our need to keep God at the center of our lives has not.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Don't Turn Jesus Into a Moses!

Martin Luther once said, “Be sure that you do not make Christ into a Moses, as if Christ did nothing more than teach and provide examples as the other saints do.”
Today’s Gospel Jesus gives great advice.
In your personal life if you are having a problem with someone the best way to deal with it is to go and talk to that person.
The worse way of dealing with it is to not talk to that person but go and talk to someone else.
In the therapeutic world this is called triangulation.
It drags someone into a drama who really has nothing to do with it.
And worse it does not actually solve the problem.
Usually it makes things worse.
One of the things that will kill any Church community is the parking lot meetings.
You know these are the ones when people leave a meeting don’t say what they are really thinking.
Then they go to the parking lot and start telling everyone all the things that are wrong with the church, the pastor, and the decisions that were made in the meeting.
This is why I tell people on our congregational council at the start of every year that if you have a problem while we are in the meeting is the time to bring it up.

So that could be a sermon that I could give today.
I could tell us all about how important it is for us to talk to each other.
How important it is for our congregational life that we don’t talk behind each other’s backs.
That would be a good sermon I suppose.
Like I said, “Jesus gives some real good practical advice here.”
I do believe that if we could do this our lives would be better, and filled with less drama.
But that sermon would be making Christ into a Moses.

The problem is that sermon would not be “good news”.
It would not satisfy our deeper needs and desires.
It would not help us spiritually.
And it would have very little to actually do with Jesus.
It would be more about what we do, and why we do it.
I suspect that at the end of that sermon we would leave here less than fulfilled.

But what is the good news in this Bible lesson we have from today?
It appears to be that straight forward.
Jesus is giving us advice about how to live more holy as a community that meets and gathers in his name.
This is the great thing about the Bible is that underneath it all there is always something to dig up.

Today we hear it at the end of what Jesus says.
Jesus sneaks it in on us and we could easily pass it over.
“For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
We have all heard that verse.
I usually hear it quoted (and I usually quote it) when we have some kind of Church event and not a lot of people show up.
“There are only two people at Bible Study, but Jesus said where two or three are gathered in my name I am there.”

But this week I heard it different.
Jesus is teaching about what to do in the midst of conflict.
Not just any conflict, but conflict among those who follow him.
Amazing that Jesus knows the human heart well enough to know that where two or three are gathered in his name their will be conflict.

We often think of the Church as a nice place to go and be with lovely people.
And that is hopefully part of it for us.
But no matter what Church I am in, no matter how awesome it is, there is always conflict.
Because the Church is filled with people like me.
By that I mean sinners.
People who think different and act different.
And when we are at our worse we can’t abide with people that think or act different than us.
We won’t have it.
And so we forget what grace looks like, we forget what it means to love each other.
And as long as humans are involved there will be sin, and because of that there will be conflict.
Jesus knows this.
Like I said last week, Jesus is not about utopia but about what is real in life.
Sin is real.

So there will be conflict, because we are part of the Church.
But what is even more amazing than Jesus knowledge of who we are is the answer.
“I am there among them.”
In the midst of that sin, of that conflict Jesus is still present!
Stop and think about that for a second.
We often think about Church being some idealist place that we retreat to.
But what Jesus tells us this morning is that it is a broken place, that has in it Jesus!
That is what makes us a community of faith, the presence of Jesus.
Not our ability to love each other, or care for one another.
Not our ability to keep out conflict.
That will be unavoidable.
But Jesus is here all the time.
Jesus is in the midst of the conflict!

What does it look like for us to see Jesus not just in the good things around us, but also the bad things?
It means that we live in this place of perpetual truth, that we understand who we are that we are not perfect.
We are not great or awesome.
We are flawed, but made whole.
We are sinful, but forgiven.
We are in conflict, but able to work through it.
Because in our midst is Jesus Christ.

I have said this many times that if you want proof that God exists all you have to do is see that there is a Church at all.
We try so hard to mess this thing up.
We try by insisting on our own way.
We try by talking about each other behind our backs.
We try by not really loving each other.
We try by being petty about things that don’t really matter.
By not extending the grace God gives us to each other.

And yet despite all that here we are.
Here we are together this morning, singing about God’s grace and love.
“Joyful, Joyful we adore thee, God of glory, Lord of love!”
 Here we are remembering Jesus in bread and wine, confessing our sins, and yes even caring for each other through sickness, divorces, addictions, and all sorts of other things.
Not because of us, but because in the midst of us is Jesus Christ.
At the center of everything is Jesus.

May we always remember that through the conflict, our sin, and imperfection Christ is here.
And may we always rely upon him to heal us, forgive us, and help us love others, and the world.
Because Jesus is more than a Moses, Jesus always sends love, forgiveness, and grace.