Monday, October 28, 2013's not just something that happened 500 years ago

Grace, peace and mercy are yours from the Triune God.  Amen

Brothers and Sisters, as you know, today we celebrate Reformation Sunday.  This Sunday is set aside to mark the occasion of October 31st, 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenburg Church.  Luther’s theology was (and continues to be) radical stuff. To think that you were saved by the grace of God, as a free gift, rather than doing anything to merit your own salvation...well...that’s hard to wrap your brain around. It’s freedom, but it’s the kind of freedom so real and so raw that it hurts.  Because we do not know how much we need it until we have exhausted all other options.
In today’s Gospel we have Jesus speaking to a group of his followers.    Our text picks up just after Jesus has foretold his own death.  Jesus proclaims that those who “continue in his word” will be free, but those listening miss the point that he is trying to make.  They feel like they are completely free and completely capable of handling things for themselves.  They say, “we have never been slaves to anyone” and seem pretty self-assured that they have this whole salvation thing figured out. They just have to avoid sinning.  Easy enough, right? 
 How easy it is for us to fall into the same trap. We want to think of ourselves as fundamentally good people.  We want to think of ourselves as the sort of people that KNOW we are justified by faith as a gift from God, but deep down, hope that the fact that we are nice and helpful to our neighbors might earn us a few extra points. We decidedly do not appreciate the fact that mean people, or on a different level, those who commit heinous crimes, might get that same freedom in Christ. Because after all, they don’t deserve it! The sin of the drunk driver or thief or person who commits adultery is so visible, that we invite ourselves to judge them.  We would certainly never do such a thing. Our sins are of a different caliber. As long as we manage to avoid the REALLY BAD sins, we like to think that we will be okay.
We heard in the second reading from Romans, “But now, apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed...the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.  For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”’s not actually the bad things that we do to one another.  It is a separation from God, it is a state of being.  It is our human nature and compulsive self-reliance telling us that we ought to try harder next time.  We should have known better.  If we would just follow the right path, then we will be okay.   
All of these “ought’s” and “should’s” and contingencies convict us over and over again.  We feel like it is completely possible to save ourselves, until we try and discover that we can’t. We have been enslaved by the things of this world.  With regards to sin, we are anything but free.  Left to our own devices, we are bound to keep doing the same things over and over again and not getting any closer to salvation.  We need a God who comes to us in the midst of all of this earthly mess to free us from the bondage that we live in.  The Gospel reading today talks about freedom.  We as Americans tend to equate freedom with the ability to do whatever we want all of the time.  Freedom of expression.  Freedom of the press.  Freedom of religion.  Freedom of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  And often, nothing makes us happier than being in charge of our own destiny.   
But this isn’t the sort of freedom that Jesus Christ brings. Through Christ, we are freed from having to justify ourselves, but this comes at the cost of the death of the old self.  We are given salvation as pure gift through faith and the overwhelming grace of a God who wants nothing more than to love us into wholeness.  We will experience this firsthand today in just a few moments when we celebrate the baptism of baby Eleanora.
John’s Gospel is unique in that from the very beginning, it is made clear that Jesus is the Son of God.  God is in the world doing a new thing, God became flesh and lived among us so that we might never have to be separates from God again.  Jesus goes on to say that “everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin, and slaves have no freedom, but the son of the father is free forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” 
So where does that leave us? 
Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “they are NOW justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”  Now is an important word here, it signifies that something radical and new has taken place. God is a reformer. What if the Reformation is not the celebration of the historical event that gave birth to Protestantism, but rather a celebration of the reforming nature of God?                       
When we treat the Reformation as merely a historical event that was set into motion by Martin Luther, not only do we make it yet again about our own abilities as human beings, but we neglect to see how God is continually active as a Reformer in our world.  We are constantly being formed and re-formed into a new creation by the actions of a loving God. The Reformation is not just something that happened 500 years ago and it’s not merely a chance to drag out the red paraments and sing “A Mighty Fortress”, it is a confession of the very nature of God and what it means to be people of faith.  So I leave you with a story and a of couple questions to ponder. 
            A week ago Saturday I returned from five days in Chicago as part of an urban immersion for people who are interested in becoming mission developers, or people who start new churches.  Our group was hosted by a Lutheran Church called Shekinah Chapel in the deeply impoverished suburb of Riverdale, which has a population of 12,000 people, about the same as St Peter.  Shekinah Chapel is the new congregation that started after a very old Lutheran Church, Our Savior’s, closed its doors in the neighborhood.  Shekinah is doing incredible things to organize their neighborhood for real change.  They have after school programs for at-risk youth, they lobby officials to pass laws to protect the safety of their people from the rampant gun violence in Chicago, Riverdale is home to the gun shop that sells 40% of the guns recovered in violent crimes in Chicago, and they provide a Lutheran church home to a whole bunch of people who wouldn’t normally find themselves in a church at all, let alone a Lutheran one. Shekinah let me be a part of their community for a short time, and I came away changed. Their worship does not look like ours, and the people who make up their community do not look like us, but we are part of the incredible body of Christ together.  God’s work, our hands. This is an example of God always making things new in our church and in our world. Change is scary, reformation is not without anxiety, but there is something really beautiful on the other side. A new creation.  That is the promise of the Gospel and the promise of the Reformation.

So….Your homework for this week is to consider a couple questions:

First, where are you being reformed by God?  

Second, where are we being reformed as a congregation and as the ELCA?

Friday, October 04, 2013

Where are YOU participating in the life giving and life changing work of God? A sermon on Luke 16:19-31

Jesus the masterful storyteller strikes again.  We have been in the middle of quite a few weeks in a row of parables from Luke’s Gospel.  We have heard stories of banquets and lost sheep and coins and dishonest managers.  Today we hear a parable of wealth and poverty and life and death.  In the parable that we hear in today’s Gospel, Jesus is making his way ever closer to Jerusalem and on the way, stops to tell a story to some Pharisees.  We hear that this parable is directed to “lovers of money” and these are some of the harshest words in all of scripture.  Let us set the scene for this parable as if we are preparing to watch a play…the lights go up and the curtain rises…
We see a rich man who is dressed in purple and fine linen, and who feasted sumptuously every single day.  This man has a ridiculous abundance of food surrounding him at all times. His table is set with silver cups and overflowing plates of fruit. He never wanted for anything.  He lives in a fine home with a gate to keep out the undesirable people. But our scene cuts to the drama just outside the rich man’s gate.  We also see the poor man Lazarus on the ground, covered in sores and dressed in tattered rags, his only comfort being the stray dogs who surround him, and is so hungry that he hopes for just the crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table.  Death the great equalizer comes, and both men die.  The rich man is buried and Lazarus is carried away by the angels to be with Abraham.  
Then in the sort of reversal that we see so often in Luke’s Gospel, Lazarus is comforted by Abraham after death and we hear about the rich man in agony as he cries out for Abraham to send Lazarus to bring him cool water in the midst of flames that threaten to consume him.  Abraham refuses, saying that the rich man received all his good things in life and besides, a great canyon has been fixed between the two men that cannot be crossed.  It’s as if Abraham was saying, “Too late, sorry.  You have already used up your allotment of good things, now it is your turn to suffer.”  And in his only act of compassion in the parable, the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus back to the world to warn his five brothers to change how they live so that they might not end up in this same place of torment. Abraham refuses, saying that those on earth have Moses and the prophets and their writings, the law, from which to learn.  And the rich man pleads, saying, “They will repent if someone comes back from the dead.”  Abraham ends the conversation by saying, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone rises from the dead.”  And like a great drama on a stage, the lights go dark and the curtain drops and the crowd is left in silence to ponder what they have just heard and seen.   
This parable seems to be tailor-made to preach about what we SHOULD be doing. There is a villain, the rich man; an underdog hero, the poor man Lazarus; a plot line, plenty of drama and a seemingly obvious moral of the story: Do good in this life and you will be rewarded in the afterlife.  Do evil things in this life and you will be punished in the next life.  So be good and pay attention and you will be saved. This is the clearest example of how good intentions and expectations convict us that I have ever seen.  This is the law, because no matter how much we wish it was not so, we cannot save ourselves despite our best efforts.
Furthermore, this scripture text from Luke sounds painfully familiar.  In today’s gospel we hear about an insurmountable chasm between the rich man and the poor man.  Between the haves and the have-nots.  Between those who have their needs comfortably met and those who do not.  The reason this story sounds familiar is that we hear it all the time in the news. Just last week I read a news article, which outlined how the chasm between the wealthiest Americans and the poorest Americans is the largest that it has been since before the Great Depression. How disparities in education, healthcare, and employment have caused this chasm to be nearly insurmountable.   It feels impossible, it feels hopeless.  The problems seem so big and we seem so small.  And it doesn’t seem like there is anything that we can do to fix it, so we often keep living life behind our own gates oblivious to what, or who, lies just outside them.  
But what if the story does not end with someone rising from the dead, but rather starts from that promise?  And it has nothing whatsoever to do with our ability or decision to believe it in order to be saved?  Jesus died on a cross and rose from the dead and took all of that decision making right out of our hands.  When we start from that promise of freedom, where might we go?
When we are freed from the bondage of sin and self, what Luther calls “incurvatus se” or a turning in on one’s self, we are naturally turned outwards to see our neighbor.  Without the promise of Christ on the cross we might only hear this story as a command to do good works to avoid suffering in the afterlife.  But with this promise made for each of us, we are freed. Martin Luther writes that God does not need our good works, but our neighbor does. So we are indeed commanded to serve our neighbor, but this is out of pure love for the Christ in each one of us.
But the reality is that this is very hard.  The problems seem insurmountable, the chasm cannot be crossed.  It is sometimes painful and it definitely puts us outside our comfort zones.  In today’s Gospel text the rich man isn’t evil, he is just oblivious.  He fails to NOTICE Lazarus outside the gate. Many of you know that before I started seminary I spent several years in human services work.  I entered ministry because I wanted to be able to offer hope in the midst of suffering by way of the Gospel, and be a part of a collective whole working for good in this broken world.  In my work, what I heard over and over again, from men and women just like Lazarus, was that the greatest pain they experienced was feeling invisible.  Eye contact and a simple greeting made a world of difference.  So who lies just outside your gate and how can you begin to notice them? 
And where do we start in bridging this chasm? We start by proclaiming the Gospel truth that God in Christ rose from the dead and continues to be active in our broken and beautiful world. God is already among us working to lessen that great chasm between rich and poor.  We acknowledge that our world is broken, but we also proclaim that God lives among us and continually redeems us.  God is already working to overcome these divisions between us, between rich and poor, old and new.  We live in the old world now, and eagerly await the coming of the new.  Three weeks ago we marked the 25th anniversary of the formation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America with a day of service that fulfills our denomination’s mission statement, “God’s Work, Our Hands.”  I cannot think of a better analogy for our lives as Christians.  So where are you participating in the life-giving and life-changing work of God?