Monday, October 23, 2017

Grace Alone

John 1:14-18 
Sola Gratia
October 22, 2017

What are you thinking about? Why do you hesitate to convert yourself? 
Why don't you have fears about your sins?
Why don't you confess now?

You priest, nobleman, merchant, wife, virgin, you married people, young person, old man, enter into your church which is for you, as I have said, and visit the most holy Cross. It has been placed there for you, and it always cries and calls for you. Are you perhaps ashamed to visit the Cross with a candle and yet not ashamed to visit a tavern? Are you ashamed to go to the apostolic confessors, but not ashamed to go to a dance? Behold, you are on the raging sea of the world in storm and danger, not knowing if you will safely reach the harbor of salvation. Do you not know that everything which man has hangs on a thin thread and that all of life is but a struggle on earth? Let us then fight, for the day it is well, but ill tomorrow. Today alive and tomorrow dead.
You should know that all who confess and in penance put alms into the coffer according to the counsel of the confessor, will obtain complete remission of all their sins. Why are you then standing there? Run for the salvation of your souls!
Don't you hear the voices of your wailing dead parents and others who say, “Have mercy upon me, have mercy upon me, because we are in severe punishment and pain. From this you could redeem us with a small alms and yet you do not want to do so.”
Now is the time to hear the voice of God. He does not want the death of the sinner, but that he be converted and live. Convert yourselves then, you are outside the fellowship of the Church. No masses, no sermons, prayers, sacraments, or intercession can help you.
Convert yourself with all you heart and use the medicine that has been given to you.   

This is part of a sermon of Johann Tetzel,
the Catholic monk who made
Luther so mad that he started the whole Reformation.
“The alms in the coffer” were called indulgences.
Basically indulgences were money given to the church
and it made things easier between you and God.
or between your dead loved ones and God.
It was an offer you couldn’t refuse.

Now Tetzel gets a bad rap, but
I don’t think Tetzel’s heart was in a bad place,
He was just doing what hundreds of other priests
were doing around Europe at the time.
he was just following the practice of the Christian church
Which in its own way just trying to
figurine a way around the crazy system that had
been developed over the last 1500 years.

The crazy system that had been developed said this:
If you wanted to go to heaven, you needed to be
in a “state of grace”. That is you needed to be in a
place where all your sins were forgiven
and you could be in God’s presence free and clear.

If a person fell out of a state of Grace,
by committing a sin 
there was a process whereby you could get
back into a state of Grace.

So when a person sinned, they would acknowledge it,
and repent of the sin, then they would have to confess it
 to a priest or another church official.
After they confessed, then they would
receive a penance to do to erase the sin,
depending on the gravity of the sin,
that might be days spent in prayer, or fasting,
or it might be as much as a pilgrimage to a holy site.
(funnily enough, it never seemed to be
apologizing to the person you sinned against)

Then when repentance, confession and penance were satisfied,
the person was again in a state of grace --
in harmony and fellowship with the church and God,
and ready and confident to face death
without the threat of purgatory –
which was like a mini hell, a place
where a person would spend centuries
in a nasty place between earth and heaven
paying for the sins they did not repent, confess or do penance for.

Now, I don’t know about you, but just this morning,
I have sinned in thought, word, and deed  
several times before I got to this point today
and I’m not even done with my sermon.
And with work, and homemaking, and whatever else
it is I have to do to take care of my life now,
I would imagine that I would fall behind
on the satisfaction of my sins pretty quickly.

And the man and woman of medieval times
had considerable more responsibilities and
time-consuming duties than most
of us could imagine -- just to stay alive.
So most people lived in fear of the torture
that would happen to them after death
They also lived with the horrible reminder
of what was currently happening to their
dead relatives who never got back in a state of grace either.

People lived in constant terror of God’s wrath.
They believed in an angry God,
who spent all his time judging every
move we made and every thought we had.
Who was writing out eternal check lists
and keeping track of ever sin and misstep.
They believed in a God who seemed determine
to punish us if we didn’t do the right things.
This was the crazy system that Christians had developed over 1500 years 
because humans have a tendency to make things more complicated 
and nasty than they need to be.

So imagine what a relief it would be to hear
John Tetzel, a monk from Leipzig tell them
that for just a bit of money, a little donation, 
They could get through the process a little easier?
For just some money, they could stop worrying
about their loved ones that the church told them were in purgatory?
Imagine how much would people spend for that relief?
Actually, quite a bit of money,
enough to build a very large church in Rome.
Millions of medieval dollars.

But Martin Luther didn’t see mercy.
He saw a scam, extortion. A way for the church to graft­­­­­­­­­­­ money
and reap inadequacy in people. He saw how the church made people
act out of terror and fear of God instead of out of love for God.
He saw how it put an awful distance between God and those
who needed God’s love the most.
And he saw how the power of forgiveness
was taken out of God’s hands and put in the hands of the pope.
Luther knew that this was wrong.

Luther found his answer to this in scripture,
specifically in Paul’s letter to the Romans
and the Ephesians where Paul writes:
 “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God”
Luther realized that the answer was 
Grace Alone.

Now the word grace had been used before, but
God’s grace was only talked about in the way
that if you worked at it, if you did your part,
and you confessed, repented and fulfilled your penance
that God would eventually have grace on you.
Do A, B and C and God would have grace D.

But Luther’s answer was Grace Alone.
God forgives even when we haven’t earned it.
D became A. 

God’s grace came first. God’s forgiveness came first.
because that’s how God was.
Grace Alone. Not works then grace,
or indulgences then grace, or prayers then grace,
or clean living then grace, or a good attitude then grace.
Just God’s Grace alone has done it for us.
Everything else could come after that.
Every prayer and service we offered
would grow out of our gratitude for God’s grace.

This was Jesus message, this was the message
of Christ’s cross and resurrection.
It was so simple and so revolutionary
that human beings couldn’t believe it
How could God just love us? There’s no free lunch.
So we made Jesus into something so complicated
and contrived – actually the opposite of
Jesus message -- and it held the world captive for years.

So this is Luther’s gift to the world.
Uncovering the gospel which was hidden for so many years.
Grace Alone. The ability to say “God loves you”
without any qualifiers, without any hesitation.

This is outlined in the fourth article of the Augsburg Confession,
the document which clarified the position of the new church
that had been created out of Luther’s discovery and inspiration.
It says: “Human beings cannot be justified before God
by their own powers merits, or works.
But they are justified as a gift
 – a gift, gratis, free of charge, Grace.

This was the good news. 
This is still the good news.
I remember the first time I read that sentence.
I was in a class on the Lutheran theology that I was taking on the weekend. 
This was before I ever thought of going to seminary.
I can remember where I was sitting,
how the light was coming in the window.
I remember reading those words.
I remember feeling surprise, shock, joy.
I remember thinking with urgency, “people need to be told this”
and saying to myself, “It would be great to have a job
where you could tell people this.”
After 500 years, it was still a revelation to me.

Because even after 500 years of this stuff,
the world still doesn’t get it.
The world is still stuck in the A-B-C
and then grace, then forgiveness, then love.
The church still doesn’t get yet either.
How could God just love us? there has to be more to the story.

We still have churches that like to fill you with fear of God
that want to scare you into doing A,B and C.

We still have churches that use God to graft money
out of fearful people, or people hoping for God’s blessing.
People’s purses and pockets still open wide
with the hope that some hard cash will appease God.

The Lutheran Church still has a clear message
to those that still think that God’s love needs to be
rationed out to the select few who pass the test
or get the right answers.
To those who think that God’s love only
goes to those with the right sexuality or
the right morals or the right beliefs or
the right number of zeros in their bank account.

We have something to say to those
that want to make Jesus into a symbol of patriotism
and wrap Jesus in a flag.
We have something to say to those that claim that
God is the possession of any one country.

The message is that it is God’s
grace alone that saves us.
It’s not what country we’re born in.
it is not what we’ve done or haven’t done
We can say, “God’s loves you”
to everyone without reserve or hesitation.
Because it is Grace alone that saves.

And this world outside the church
today still needs this word of Grace alone.
We have leaders who say that the only way to help things
is more laws harsher penalties, making an example of more people.
We have a world that spends its time trying to get
an upper leg on others, that see that the only way to win
is to overpower others, to force them into submission.
The world needs to know the great power of Grace.
The world needs to know that more gets accomplished 
with understanding and forgiveness than force and coercion.

And the world needs grace because it still
 deems some people worthless and as throw-aways 

because of how little money they have or because of the color of their skin.
I mean we have some who are saying that the  people of Puerto Rico
don’t deserve to be helped because the country has a large debt.

The world needs to share this grace that each of us has been given.
To remember that no one is worth more
than another in the eyes of God.
That no one has more value than another because
they can leverage the system more than another.
As Martin Luther wrote on a slip of paper before he died:
“We are all beggars. That’s the truth.” And that is the truth.
Grace alone has brought us here, so no one can boast.

And this world still needs God’s Grace right now because
this world has so much it needs to be forgiven for.
Hatred, violence, racism, sexism, callousness, apathy, fear.
There is so much holding us back, so much keeping us from being
the individuals and the people that God created us to be.

But God’s grace and God’s forgiveness always gives us the ability
to start over again, every day, every hour.
Grace Alone is new life. Grace makes the impossible possible.

As Luther wrote:
“The law says “do this” and it is never done.
Grace says “believe in this” and it is already done.”

Believe in this.
God’s grace is the only thing that has saved us,

and Grace Alone is the only thing that will save this world.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Seventy Times Seven

Matthew 18 21-35
September 17, 2017

So Peter asks, “How many times should we forgive someone?
Seven times?
He probably thought he was being generous with that.
But Jesus says No, a lot more than that.
Try seventy and seven times.

Now these numbers were not just picked out of the air.
Their linked to an important reference in Genesis.
After Cain kills Abel, Cain is banished from his home and
sent to wander around the earth. He tells God that
he can’t live with that punishment, and
someone will surely kill him. So God protects him
with a seven times vengeance against anyone who does.

Then Cain’s great, great grandson Lamech,
brags to his wives saying,
“I killed a man for wounding me,
 And even killed a kid when he hit me.
If Cain is avenged seven fold,
then anyone who hurts me
will be avenged seventy-seven fold.”

Which I’m sure made him sound honorable then,
but now, it kind of just makes him seem sad.

It important to remember that in Jesus time
and before, revenge was a way of life.
Forgive Thy NeighborScott Erickson
If someone did something 
to you or your family,
you didn’t just brood over it, 
and internalize it
and stopped talking to the person or leave the neighborhood,
you got back at them. 
It was your right and obligation.
If you didn’t, you and your family’s 
honor was at stake.
In Leviticus 24, 
it’s spelled out and kind of tried to temper it,
“an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”
You hurt me, then you owe me.

Jesus says that the call of the Christian 
is not seventy-seven fold vengeance, but seventy-seven fold forgiveness.
Jesus is calling for his disciples 
to undo the curse of Cain
and the vengeance of Lamech 
that has trapped their
people in endless cycles of hate, 
vengeance, and violence,
over the generations.

In this system, it wasn’t just willy-nilly wild west violence,
although there was some of that.
The promise of vengeance was kind of the legal system
at the time, you knew if you did something,
someone would get back at you for it.
And like anything, counting another’s sins against you
and retribution owed to you had been turned
into a commodity. The ones who could tally
up the most sins were the most powerful,
and the ones with the most sins tallied up
against them were losers, or if you were a loser,
that was the assumption anyway.

So now knowing some of that, we can look at Jesus parable.

In the parable, A slave owes a king a ton of money.
Remember, exaggeration is one method of parables.
And 10,000 talents was a lot.
One talent was 15 years wages, this was 10,000 times that.
Basically It’s a lot of money. More money than can be repaid.
This means that king had a lot of power over his subjects.
He could do almost anything he wanted.
And if he held onto that debt, he could leverage it
over this man and his whole family not just now, 
but for years to come.
And what does he do?
He releases the slave of the obligation of the debt.
Not just some of it, all of it. That must have sounded ridiculous.
And scandalous and radical.
Holding onto debts and grudges maintained power,
the caste system, a pecking order.
If the king started just forgiving people it would be
mass hysteria, dogs and cats living together,
you wouldn’t know who was who, slave or free,
man or woman, Jew or Greek.
This would be a new world, new freedom, new life.
Jesus meant to overturn a basic system of society.

For this now former slave, it could have been
a new morning, a new day, a new life for everyone.
He could have passed the Kings forgiveness on
and created a new reality in his community.
But as soon as he left that meeting with the king,
the slave forgot the new world he was given.
He went out into the world and forgot the forgiveness he was given,
and resumed the old way. The counting every debt,
the demand, the violence and the torture.

Now Matthew’s Jesus is always taking it over the top
in God’s justice department, but this old way
of accounting sins is torture –
 for the counted and for the counter.

Have you ever been in a position of not being able to forgive someone
for something they’ve done, whether it’s a large or small offense?
Of grumbling every time their name comes up
and relishing every bad thing that happens to them?
Of course you have, just like I have. Everyone has.
It’s human nature. And I can tell you it’s not good for you.
You think about it, you relive it, you imagine you’re offense over and over again. 
The one who’s done it has probably moved on and doesn’t
think much about it. But you can be held by the offense for years.

A society that is build around revenge and getting even cannot move on.
It cannot sustain itself, it will eventually blow itself up
with depression, or addiction, or guns, or nuclear bombs.
Jesus wants to overthrow this system with our forgiveness and love.
Now a days, we’re more sophisticated than they were in Jesus time,
we like our retribution for sins taken care of by our institutions,
we like our justice departments, we like our revenge meted
out by solitary confinement and the death penalty,
we like our debts counted by credit agencies and payday loan companies,
we still like the church to divide us
into holy and not holy, sinful and righteous.
We’re comfortable with the caste system
created by sin and debt and we are reluctant to give it up
but still and all, it’s torture for everyone.
It cannot survive.
And that is why Jesus made forgiveness front and center of his ministry.
And that’s why God’s forgiveness comes first
and sets us free so we can pass it on and
create a new reality in our community.

Here’s an example.
So the parents of the victims of Sandy Hook,
the school shooting where 20 first graders were killed in 2012,
They have a foundation who’s purpose it is to curb school shootings.

Their foundation works on reasonable gun control
and all of those safety precautions.
But their main focus is mental health reform,
getting young people, like the one who shot their children,
help they need before they reach a crisis.

They’re also working on an effort to make sure that
all children have friends, they started a program called
“No Child Eats Alone”, which encourages students and staff
to go and eat with children who are eating alone.
And “Know Me Know My Name” an effort for every staff teacher and administrative person to know every child’s name and use it regularly.
Now they could have easily gone to work on tougher sentences,
or more security in schools. Or they could have done nothing
and walked around bitter and scarred from this tragedy.
They have every reason not to be sympathetic,
to hold on to a grudge, to be angry and not forgiving.
I met a couple of them two years ago,
and they still missed their children,
you could still feel their pain.

And they hated what the young man did to them
and to their children,
but they didn’t call him a monster they didn’t dehumanize him.
They realized that he was troubled,
that he fell through the system,
and should have had help, he should have had a friend.
They went to a place of compassion for the man who offended them.

And I don’t know what their religious background is,
or whether they’re Christian, but this, I think,
is a profound example of forgiveness,
Even thought they didn’t call it that.

Forgiveness is such an important part of our faith.
But from bible studies and discussions, I still think
we’re unsure about what that means.
So I made a list of some thought that I’ve had,
maybe you have more.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean that people who have
committed crimes and hurt people should be free and prisons emptied.
But it does mean that as Christians we should demand that
prison be centers of rehabilitation and not punishment and torture.

Forgiveness does not mean that we shouldn’t  demand justice
And speaking the truth to power.
We can forgive and still try to correct systems and people that
use their privilege to take advantage of others
It doesn’t mean stopping to demand that things change.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean that we should continue to take abuse.
too often this parable has been used to give abusers a free ride
and to return people –usually women and children –
back into situations of sexual and domestic abuse.
Forgiveness doesn’t always mean reconciliation, that takes both people.
Forgiveness can only happen after the abuse is over.

Forgiveness doesn’t always mean telling someone they’re forgiven. Sometimes the person doesn’t need to know,
sometimes it’s too dangerous and sometimes the person is dead,
Sometimes we forgive people who aren’t even sorry.

Forgiveness isn’t only for the offender. It is for us.
It releases us. Some have said its, disempowering the past,
It’s not letting bitterness and anger to eat away at us.
It’s stopping the torture in our own brains.

Sometimes forgiveness doesn’t come to us.
That is where we need to rely on God’s power
and grace and love to help us.
Forgiveness isn’t easy,
 Jesus asks us to do a lot of things that aren’t easy.

And finally, forgiveness starts with remembering we are forgiven.
In Jesus parable, the first thing that happens is that the
king forgives the servant everything. He is released and freed.
He was able to start a new day and a new life.
But the servant forgot that, and that’s where the trouble began.

We have been forgiven by God through the grace of Jesus Christ.
We have been loosed, released from the bonds,
 set free, free to live and new day and a new life.
And that is where our own forgiveness of others starts.

And that is why we have a rite of confession and forgiveness in our worship.
So I ask you right now to stand, and remember you are forgiven.

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. But God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

Most merciful God,
we confess that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. We have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. For the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us. Forgive us, renew us, and lead us, so that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways, to the glory of your holy name. Amen

In the mercy of almighty God, Jesus Christ was given to die for us, and for his sake God forgives us all our sins. As a called and ordained minister of the church of Christ, and by his authority, I therefore declare to you the entire forgiveness of all your sins, in the name of the Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit.


Monday, September 11, 2017

What A Mess!

Matthew 18:15-20     
September 10, 2017

We’re in Matthew 18 this week.
Only two chapters ago, in Matthew 16, the concept of the church
was brought up for the first time when Jesus told Peter
he was going to build his church around his confession.
And here, just two chapters later,
Jesus has to talk about church conflict. That was fast.

As bible passages go, Matthew 18 is probably
the most directly applicable one we’ve got.
Most parables and stories take some interpretation before
we can figure out how to apply them and then we’re never sure.
But in this one, Jesus lays it out for us:
If someone sins, or does something that hurts you,
The first step is to talk to the other person directly. Alone.
There’s more, but to be honest, most people don’t get past this step.

If you’ve ever had one of these conversations,
you know that they can be very uncomfortable.
It can be uncomfortable to tell someone that they’ve hurt you.
You can hear things in response that can be uncomfortable.
You can hear about your own sin and wrongdoing.
And you can end up with a broken relationship
or being closer to a person than you really intended.
When Jesus is asking for this kind of stuff,
Church can get very very messy.

Generally just don’t do this.
We’d rather not have that awkward conversation, 
we’d rather complain about someone to other people,
or yell about them on social media, or just roll our eyes,
call them hopeless, and never talk to them again.

In Jesus time, people needed the community to survive.
Now we can easily live without community.
We have a greater temptation now to cut others off.

We are told now, that our world is politically polarized,
and we know that’s true, but the problem is not
is not disagreement, we’ve always had those.
The problem is that we cut off those we disagree with.
Of course we need to stay away from a person who is abusive
But it seems like a wrong opinion, or an offhand comment are
a justifiable reason to not ever talk, or listen to another person.

It’s easier to feud, fight, hold grudges, break off, run away,
cut off contact, and curse someone from afar.
It’s easier for people just to be around a select group,
to not be around people that annoy them,
and to just be detached.

Lots of people now, when they go to church they go
go to big mega-churches where they can
just come in on Sunday morning, have a good worship,
remain anonymous and leave without being engaged further.
I think that is a by-product of this need to be detached.

But Jesus has more expectations for communities that bear his name. 
Jesus wants us to take the more difficult road.
Not the path of being right and comfortable, but of being reconciled.
And that path has to go through disagreement, 
through hurt feelings, through anger, through sin, 
and to forgiveness, and to reconciliation.
And people usually would rather not take that path.

Pastor named Lillian Daniel wrote a funny little article
a few years ago called “Spiritual But not religious? Stop boring me.”
She complains about the people that she meets on planes
when they find she’s a minister,
they tell her that they’re “spiritual but not religious”.
We hear that a lot these days.

She writes when a person tells her they are
“spiritual but not religious”:

“Such a person will always share this
as if it is some kind of daring insight, unique to him, 
bold in its rebellion against the religious status quo.

Next thing you know, he's telling me that he finds God in the sunsets.
These people always find God in the sunsets.
And in walks on the beach.
Sometimes I think these people never leave the beach
or the mountains, what with all the communing with
God they do on hilltops, hiking trails and . . .
did I mention the beach at sunset yet?

Like people who go to church don't see God in the sunset!”

What she goes on basically to say 
is that being spiritual by yourself with nature is easy.
Sunsets don’t have their own opinions, They don’t talk back,
they don’t change their mind, have a bad day.
Spirituality in nature is lovely once in a while,
but it’s also unchallenging, and boring, it’s safe.

The big problem with church is there are people.
People are messy. Lots of people who are different are
really messy. People have different thoughts, goals, ideas.
People say the wrong thing, change their
minds have bad hair days. People sin.
Religion is just people organized around their faith.
People are the problem. But people are also the joy.

Jesus said “Where two or three are gathered I’ll be there.”
we can’t be disciples alone.

I say people like us who are willing to get in and get messy
with each other are the daring ones.
Those who experience one another’s sin on a regular basis.
Those who have a vague sense of annoyance at someone,
those who have been hurt by other believers and lived through it,
we’re the brave ones. Religion is for the brave.

Relationships beyond our chosen friends and family are challenging.
The church community that Matthew outlines
is not for the faint of heart.
It’s not just a pretty sunset.

This week I went to a press conference at the church
of a friend here in Clintonville, Columbus Mennonite.
The congregation had decided to open their church up to
a woman who was being threatened to be deported.
Her children have been here most of their lives
and she has been living here for more than a decade.
She was not a criminal of any kind and didn’t break any laws
but INS was going to deport her.

Columbus Mennonite discussed it and opted to
keep her in sanctuary, that is live in their church
and not leave until a legal remedy was found
and she was able to stay in the US.

Now the church could have faced legal troubles
the pastor and leadership could have been charged legally.

As I was standing there listening in the press conference,
as a pastor, I couldn’t help but think: What a mess for that congregation.
There’s the legal problems, but then
then there’s the personal issue of having
a stranger live in their church building
for an indefinite amount of time.­­­­
 What kind of difficult discussions were had?
What kind of disagreements? What could go wrong here?
It has the potential to separate the church,
but it also has the potential to bring it together stronger.
And at the same time, I couldn't help but feel a little jealous
because in that potential for a big mess, is where we find real joy.

Luckily, the INS caved after the first day and
Edith Espinal and her son
outside Columbus Mennonite Church
she was granted a temporary stay.
So she was able to go home. 
But depending on
what happens with her, 
they could be in the situation again.

No matter what you might 
think of their decision,
and lots of Christians 
have lots of thoughts on this,
They were willing to do the hard work
and face the messy situation and take the risk as a community.

This is what it means 
to be Christ’s Church.
To be willing to get into trouble together
and see where God takes us.

At Gethsemane, we strive to be a community of messiness.
We sing God’s good news of course,
but we also welcome all people,
we care for each other,
and we serve those in need.
That’s where it can get difficult.
That’s where it can get messy.
And that’s where we really know God.

What a mess, and what a joy.
That is God’s kingdom on earth.