Sermon for 2/16/20 Matthew 5:21-37

And to think, you could have skipped church today. But no. You’re here. With that scripture. Just sitting out there now. And how in the world will I deal with all of that in 10-12 minutes? Let’s talk about the most obvious piece of the elephant first: divorce. Yeah, we’re just going to dive right in and not waste time. I understand that no one gets married with the intention of getting divorced. But, it happens. I know some of you are divorced. Maybe your parents are divorced. Or, maybe, like me, you have siblings that are divorced. In Jesus’ time, the law was such that marriage was forever and there was no room for things like abuse, neglect, or violence. In Jesus’ time, if a spouse was being beaten on a regular basis, well, that was just too bad. Things have changed, thanks be to God. We read scripture with a different lens. We know that divorce, in some cases, can actually be a healthy and really life giving thing. While it’s painful, I can think of examples where people are actually better friends and parents when they were divorced than when they were married. But I also know that in some circles, scripture can be used to harm and hurt and I doubt that was ever Jesus’ intention. All this to say, if you are divorced or you love someone who is divorced and you or they have been harmed by the church or scripture, I am so sorry. I believe in the freedom that Christ brings and the love that Christ proclaims. 

But what I really want to focus on today is the overarching theme of today’s reading which I believe is reconciliation. Reconciliation is the difficult work that comes after confession and forgiveness. It’s relationship building and rebuilding. It’s community rebuilding, re-identification, and it can be a very slow process. But, in my experience, it’s also worth it. We don’t necessarily talk a lot about reconciliation a lot around here, but that’s not because it’s not important. So I stopped and asked myself that hard question. “Pastor, why don’t you talk about reconciliation more?” After some self reflection (which I didn’t like) and some ignoring of the obvious answer (which I preferred) I confess to you, my beloved, the truth: I don’t talk about it because I’m not all that good at it. 

See, confession I can do. I can lay out my sins like clay pigeons lining up to be shot. I don’t have a problem with that. Years of being raised Catholic, maybe. But, I also try to be self aware. I am still a fan of our confession that proclaims “forgive us our sins known and unknown” because that about covers it all. We know the places where we have messed up and so does God. Now, I will admit that confession isn’t always comfortable. At the same time, it shouldn’t be. When we aren’t living a full life in Christ, it’s not comfortable. Confession to one another isn’t always comfortable. But we are imperfect people serving a perfect God. 

Forgiveness can be easy, at times, because sometimes, it’s not on us, it’s on God. Of course, we must believe, and live, and act like we’ve been forgiven. That’s a whole other sermon for a whole other time. Forgiveness can be tricky when it’s human to human. What I have learned in my brief time here on earth is that forgiveness does not mean forgetting. Now, that’s not the same as holding a grudge. But once you touch a hot stove, you learn not to stand so close when it’s on. Forgiveness is an amazing gift we can give one another and that God gives to us. And it’s free. Forgiveness, however, is also something that keeps us from living in right relationship with one another and with God. It’s that grudge holding that the scripture spoke about.  

Once we’ve done the work of confession and accepted or given forgiveness, then comes the reconciliation. Like I said, this can be slow going work. But, in my opinion, it’s what makes being in relationship as members of the body of Christ worth it. Now, I’ll be honest, sometimes reconciliation isn’t really that hard. Sometimes it’s as simple as “we’re good, right?” And the other person agreeing. And then you move on. But reconciliation usually takes time and trust, and if we’re honest, those are two commodities we as humans don’t always like to just give away. Reconciliation also requires vulnerability which usually isn’t an emotion that most people enjoy dealing with. Over and over in today’s reading we hear Jesus say “you have heard it said…but I say to you.” In that quick turn of phrase is grace.

Please understand, that’s not permission to forget this passage, or the difficulties that come with it. But, what Jesus says only Jesus can say because only Jesus is perfect and we would all do well to remember that every once in a while. There is a difference in being right and being righteous. Reconciliation works to put some space between these two. Following every single letter of the law doesn’t make you a perfect Christian; you may be right, but you may be far from righteous. Righteous is really living into who God created us to be. Reconciliation is the effort, the time, the trust, the love it takes from many people to move from being determined and set in being right to gracefully setting up camp in being righteous. Reconciliation is filled with grace. It is filled with life. It is filled with love. Reconciliation is worth it. 

But, my beloved, it’s not enough for me to stand up here and just talk about all of this with no action. If I desire to continue to be your faith leader, it is to me to set the example. So, I humbly confess to you all the ways I have disappointed you, let you down, betrayed your trust, failed your expectations, or just otherwise failed. I may have done this knowingly or unknowingly. I ask your forgiveness the same way I already have asked for forgiveness from God. And when you’re ready, if I have hurt you, I hope you can forgive me and we can be an example of what reconciliation looks like. And if this doesn’t apply to any of you, then we should consider ourselves blessed. But if it does, then please, follow my example. Start your reconciliation journey today. Remove your armor and be brave with me. This is what being disciples looks like. 

Sermon for 10/20/19 Luke 18:1-8

My beloved, I am starting today’s message by asking for some feedback from you. What does persistence mean to you? Do you find persistence enduring, annoying, or both? From my experience, I have found that persistence and the pure act of just being persistent can be both. It just kind of depends on your perspective. It also kind of depends on who is on the other end of the persistence, right? I mean, when I am being persistent, I feel like I am working (maybe even fighting) for what I want. It can feel like an underdog moment. When my beloved child is being persistent (depending on the time, day, and topic) it can be a test to mommy’s nerves.

Scripture can be persistent too. Did you know that? The Bible isn’t meant to sit on your shelf and collect dust. It’s also not meant to be read and just taken at face value. The Bible is a living, breathing document that should challenge and change us. We should wrestle with scripture often. Scripture is persistent and it was persistent with me this week. See, I kept thinking of the text this way: we Christians are the persistent widow. We should be persistent in prayer. Persistent in asking for justice. Persistent in going to God. But then, what does that make God in this story? Does that mean that God is the judge in this story? Well, that makes no sense at all. Because the judge says that he neither feared God nor had respect for people. I also refuse to believe in a God that would make us, God’s own people, practically beg God for justice. The story, to me, just doesn’t make sense when it’s read that way. So, scripture and I wrestled. A lot. 

What if, instead, God was the widow in this story? To view God as persistent makes me think about God in a new way. (And, honestly, I like thinking about God in new ways.) What might it mean for you, for us, even for this world that God is persistent? What difference does it make? For me, that’s a word of hope. That’s a promise that God doesn’t give up easily and isn’t easily persuaded either. I mean, I think logically we know these things already. But, sometimes my heart and soul need to be reminded that God is going to be persistent in all of the best ways possible. 

When we tell ourselves “I can’t do this” God will be persistent in whispering “yes you can. I created you. I know you can do this.” When you look in the mirror and only see the flaws, wrinkles, gray hairs, extra pounds, or surprise zit, God will be persistent in reminding you how beautifully and wonderfully made you are. And God will keep telling you until you believe it. When evil lurks in all of its forms, no matter what they may be, God will be persistent in reminding you how much you are loved, how much you are cared for, and that yes, grace really is for you too. I don’t know about you, but for me, this is a refreshing take on God. 

Think about it for a moment. Think about God as the widow in this story and put yourself in the place of the judge. Now, I know that may be a bit uncomfortable because the judge isn’t the greatest person in this story, but stick with me here. The widow shows up, day after day after day after day just simply asking for what she wants. She wasn’t forcefull; she wasn’t a bully; she just was consistently persistent. And finally the judge gave her what she wanted. Picture God the same way. God shows up in our lives daily. Maybe we notice,  maybe we don’t. But Jesus promised us that we would have in him, Emmanuel, God with us. So there is no doubt that God shows up persistently every single day in our lives. God is always trying to show us something or tell us something or point us in the right direction. Some days, we/I listen! 

God has to be persistent because sin usually, okay, always gets in the way of us listening to and seeing God. We don’t want to believe that God loves us because of all the horrible things we’ve done (at least, we’ve built them up to be horrible things in our minds). So God must be persistent in telling us we’re loved. But God will do that because that is what God does. God will tell us 1,000 times a day every single day that we are loved if that’s what it will take for us to believe it. God has to be persistent because sin makes us believe that we’re not forgiven. Sure, we can say we are, and we can believe it in our heads, but until we actually live like we’re forgiven, God will persist in reminding us over and over and over again that we are forgiven. Would you like to see the wounds in Jesus’ hands and feet as proof? 

God has to be persistent because sin would have us believe that grace is abundant and amazing and yet somehow misses us. Sure, we Christians can talk a big game about this grace stuff to our neighbors and friends, but do we believe it for ourselves? Do we really understand that we do nothing to earn God’s love and that, my beloved, is grace? Do we really understand that we do nothing to earn God’s forgiveness and that, my beloved, is also grace? And do we really understand, fully comprehend, the life-changing, world turning power grace can be? Grace messed me up. Grace has pulled me out of so many self induced holes and places of darkness that if I even think about grace too much I get choked up. But I get choked up because God had to be persistent with me until I believed it. I’m a bit stubborn you see. 

God is going to keep showing up in your life, day after day, hour after hour, minute after minute to persist in your life, whatever that looks like for you. But God will also persist in sending all of us out into the world. See, as Christians, we can’t just sit here and soak in all of this love and grace and mercy and keep it to ourselves. This isn’t a secret. It’s also not a commodity to be rationed. When we know that God is persistent, that God never gives up on us, then we are freed to love and serve the neighbor with great persistence and Christian love. Because God never gives up on us and never lets go of us, we are freed to take a risk, try new things, and ask big questions. Because God persists in loving us, we are then called to seek justice for our neighbors. We are sent to right wrongs and advocate for those whose voices aren’t being heard. We are empowered to use the power we have to make room for the forgotten and trampled on. In God’s kingdom, we will never run out of food or room at the table. God is persistent like that. May it be on earth as it is in heaven. 

Sermon for 8/18/19 Luke 12:49-56

This is a cheery little piece of scripture, isn’t it? Aren’t you excited you came to church today? Jesus sounds a little…. un-Jesus like today, doesn’t he? I know what you’re wondering. “How in the world is Pastor J going to spin this so I don’t leave here wanting to burn the whole world down?” Because if Jesus is supposed to be good news, then where in the world is the good news in this scripture? I mean, what are we supposed to think when the first thing we hear in this scripture is “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” That’s not fuzzy warm Jesus! Once again, there isn’t necessarily a way around this. Being a follower of Christ isn’t about ease. God isn’t looking for Monday morning quarterbacks. The call to discipleship is one that demands we get in the game, get dirty, and also be willing to lose. 

At first glance, division may not seem comfortable. But, when I really started to think about it, it occurred to me that division is actually our normal way of life. We may not think of it that way necessarily, but we all make choices on a daily basis that may put us at odds with one another. Now, these choices aren’t always going to cause a riff at the Thanksgiving or Christmas table, but it’s possible that other choices might. In our house, it has to be Jif peanut butter, Crest toothpaste, Charmin Ultra toilet paper, and while we didn’t plan it this way, ever since Chris and I could drive, we’ve never driven anything but a GM car. Other things could cause division: cats versus dogs, Cyclones versus Hawkeyes, even (gasp) green versus red. But there are other divisions that do cause heartache and even pit family member against family member. All we have to do is look at the most recent election to know this to be true. These divisions prevent us from really seeing and feeling the presence of God and seeing the kingdom here on earth. 

It wasn’t Jesus purpose to set family member against family member. At the same time, Jesus hasn’t come to “validate human institutions and their values but to initiate God’s radical will” (Carlson, 363 Feasting on the Word). Maybe what Jesus says here seems radical. At the same time, if the disciples (and us, honestly) had been listening all along, this actually wouldn’t seem like such a crazy idea. We first hear of these divisions early on in Mary’s song of praise. The Magnificat, which we normally hear during Advent, speaks of division. She says that God, through Jesus Christ will bring the powerful down from their thrones, separating those who are in power from their places of power. Mary’s song goes on to say that the lowly will be lifted up and the rich will be sent away empty. The divisions that normally divided people will be reversed and God’s reign will be the only thing that makes sense. 

John the Baptist continues this idea of the upheaval of social norms. He says (using the words of Isaiah) that Jesus will come and that valleys will be filled, mountains and hills will be made low, the crooked made straight and the rough ways made smooth. And, in good John the Baptist style, he calls the crowd a brood of vipers. He challenges them to bear fruit worthy of repentance. In short, demolish the walls of division for the good of the kingdom. Jesus himself has challenged societal norms since he started preaching and teaching through Nazareth, Galilee, and all through Israel. In one of his first times preaching at synagogue, he tells those listening that the spirit of God is upon him because he has been anointed to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives and give sight to the blind. Again, the idea is that whatever divisions we try to put in place as humans, God, through Jesus Christ, has come to demolish. The question that we struggle with today is this one: what do we value more, those divisions or furthering the kingdom of God?

I have this theory. I don’t know that we, at least in the western world, know how to live in peace. We only know how to live in conflict avoidance and instead call that avoidance “peace.” No one actually like conflict and division. At least, I’ve never met anyone who has claimed to like it. Instead, we drum up ideas and reasons to avoid conflict, just not deal with it, perhaps even ignore it, and then say “we’re good” and move on. But, in our attempt to avoid conflict and division, we may be the hypocrites Jesus spoke of in verse 56. “we fail to recognize that Jesus’s ministry itself may be responsible for stirring up that conflict, bringing both heat and light to how sin, death, and the devil are at work in our communities. The ministry of the king of peace (Luke 19:37) often hides under the sign of its opposite” (Chan, Working Preacher). Jesus comes to bring peace but we can’t see it because we’re too busy hanging on to being on the right side of division (whichever side that may be). We’re worshiping being right rather than succumbing to Jesus literally shaking us up for true peace built on confession, forgiveness, and repentance. 

In order to have the kind of peace that only Jesus can bring, we have to be willing to engage in the tough work of confession, forgiveness, and repentance. Confession is wonderful but if we only say “I’m sorry” and our actions prove otherwise, God may continue to cause division. We are called to forgive, truly forgive one another. We can’t say “I forgive you” and continue to hold whatever it is over one another. Repentance is the even more difficult work of healing relationships that have been divided only by our actions or inactions. This work of being in community together is hard and can create a crisis feeling. 

In the midst of all that divides us and in the chasms that form between us, when chaos is swirling all around us, there is Christ. No matter what side you find yourself on, there is Christ. And Jesus is willing to stay with us until we get it right. Jesus is willing to love us until we let go of what divides us and instead work for what unites us. Jesus’ peace is wrapped up in the fire he brings through the Holy Spirit. Fire is what burns away all of the noise, all of the walls, all of the divisions that stop the kingdom from being on earth as it is in heaven. And it’s not always fun. And it doesn’t always result in warm fuzzy feelings. But in our attempt to find peace, whatever that may look like, Jesus is always there. Division doesn’t have to be the norm of our lives. Christ has set his face to Jerusalem, to the place where he will be crucified, the saving action for all the world. We could fight it. But, “a God willing to die for us and for this creation is” a “singular matter. That Jesus has no patience with those who do not grasp the urgency of his pilgrimage to Jerusalem, his mission there, and his life’s work” (363 Lull, Feasting on the Word).  Sometimes the things that make for peace are fire and Jesus’ harsh words. Getting our attention has never been so crucial. 

Sermon for 7/21/19 Luke 10:38-42

“But Martha was distracted by her many tasks…” How dare Jesus call me out like that. This text might as well say “but Jealaine was distracted by her many tasks.” I feel seen and offended all at the same time. I think there are better ways of getting my attention, Jesus. This Gospel text didn’t have to come up now, at this time, in this place, in order to get my attention. And I can almost hear Jesus saying “oh really? How else was I to get your attention?” I have no doubt that there has been a Sunday or two where you may have thought “I really feel like Pastor was talking directly to me. She’s got a lot of nerve.” Well, that’s me today except with Jesus. I have a small example of this. 

Last Sunday, Ellen was determined that she wanted to go swimming. On Sunday, after church one thing takes priority: my Sunday afternoon nap. I believe Jesus created naps for a reason. But, Chris wasn’t up for swimming and so I needed to be the best and coolest mom ever and go swimming. Task accepted. It was hot. I was a human jungle gym in the pool. There were like 3000 kids at the pool and Ellen had a great time so that’s all that matters. We made a brief stop at the grocery store before going home. By the time we got home, I was not the cheery ray of sunshine you see before you now. But, I kept moving as soon as we walked in the door. I started our dinner. I put the wet, chlorine filled towels in the washer, I changed my clothes, I filled one of the dog’s water bowls back up, and then I opened the dishwasher to empty that. By this time, Chris had come in the kitchen and said “what are you doing?” I said “emptying the dishwasher” (which, I thought was apparent by the fact that I was literally in the middle of emptying the dishwasher when he asked. It’s not like I was in the middle of brain surgery.) But I think what he really meant is “why are you moving? Why are you still working?” So, in his best and most gentle voice he said “go sit down.” He was inviting me to rest. I will tell you that the look I gave him was not real loving. 

How often does Jesus come among us, begging us to rest, to sit at his feet and learn, to soak in knowledge, to have a sabbath of sorts, and we either miss it or we’re just too busy? I find it interesting that when God created the world, everything was called “good” except for one thing, and that is sabbath. Sabbath is the only thing that, when created, was called “holy.” What a relief it must have been to Martha, perhaps, to take a rest from society’s expectations. And Jesus calls us to rest, calls us to recenter ourselves on that which is life-giving, calls us to just be, and we’re too damned busy to actually do it. 

Now, please understand that I am not telling you all to quit your jobs and go lay on the beach (although if you can afford to do that and want to do that then more power to you). But what do you do that is life giving? I’m not saying that being busy is a bad thing. But, we’ve made busy almost a status of statement in life. We often try and “out busy” one another. “You think you’re busy? Listen to this….” I know I’ve jokingly said that I often need vacations from my vacations. Yet US employees in general leave 170 million vacation days unused every year. Like Martha, our work is good work. It is work that may even leave us really satisfied. But, at the end of the day, we are called to rest. We are called to step away from society’s expectations, and sit with the one who loves us unconditionally. 

So why don’t we do it? Why don’t we take the time to rest? Why don’t we take the time for sabbath? Why don’t we stop for a while and rest at the feet of Jesus? Could it be that we’re missing Jesus? It’s possible. Jesus longs to be in relationship with us. And yet we treat him like anything else on our “to-do” list. As if Jesus is a light bulb we’ve been meaning to replace. We don’t take the time out for a few reasons (at least as I see it). One, we feel guilty when we do take time off to just rest and be. Two, we have a little bit of martyr in us. Perhaps people will feel sorry for us that we’ve been working 6 or 7 days a week straight for the last 18 years. And three, if we take the time to slow down, that means we just might have to listen for Christ and to Christ and do we really want to hear what he has to say to us?

Martha isn’t trying to avoid Christ. She’s not making herself a martyr. She might be dealing with guilt (especially again, because hospitality was expected). But it is as if Jesus is saying to her “Martha, I don’t care about any of that. Just put that stuff down and come and relax. Listen to me.” What keeps you from sitting at the feet of Jesus? Are you afraid of what Jesus might say to you? Are you afraid that you’re going to hear a message of love that you’ve convinced yourself you don’t deserve? Are you afraid that you’re going to hear a word of forgiveness that you’ve craved but keep denying? Are you afraid that instead of hearing judgement and condemnation, that you might hear mercy, peace, and the desire to love you? That is scary, my beloved. If we keep ourselves busy enough we don’t have to be vulnerable. 

It goes against everything this culture stands for to stop what you’re doing and sit at the feet of the one who gives life. It goes against everything that society says we should want to bask in the knowledge and love of the one who gives us love. And it is most certainly counter-cultural to not be busy. Perhaps it’s time that we start to “busy” ourselves with just being. Maybe we should busy ourselves being in the presence of the one who calls us to be. Nothing else in this life matters, my beloved, if we have nothing and no one to call on. Nothing else in this life matters if we are counting on ourselves or our own actions to ensure our salvation. Maybe if you won’t hear Jesus, you’ll hear me: I am giving you permission to rest. I am giving myself permission to rest. I am giving you permission to no longer cower and cave under what society expects of you. I am giving you permission to sit at the feet of the one who loves you and be reminded what it means to be loved, be washed, be fed, and be freed. I am giving you permission to be Mary and Martha in a world that expects you to be either one or the other.  

 

Sermon for 2/24/19 Luke 6:27-38

Do you mean it? I mean seriously, do you mean it? Did you really just hear everything I read, everything that Jesus had to say and then respond “thanks be to God?” Really? Thanks be to God? If you really meant it, then, by all means, please come up here and preach for me. Because my first reaction to a reading like that is “the Gospel of the Lord” and me responding “nah. I don’t like it.” Now before you clutch your pearls and think “Pastor! You can’t talk like that! That’s the bible.” Yes I can. God invites us to wrestle with scripture. Scripture should make us joyous, and should make us think, and should make us uncomfortable. There are stories in our bibles that might make your skin crawl. If you don’t believe me, go home, open your bible to Judges, and read the story of Jael driving a tent stake through a man’s head, killing him instantly. There’s a story we don’t hear on an average Sunday. Thanks be to God?? Let’s be honest with ourselves friends, sometimes scripture is hard. Sometimes scripture is uncomfortable. And sometimes, we just may not like it.

What Jesus is proposing in this continued sermon on the plain is almost impossible. He once again is preaching. This is a continuation of last week’s readings when we heard the beatitudes. If there’s anything that Jesus does well, it’s not sugar coating things. We never hear Jesus say “well, if it’s okay with you” or “if you aren’t too busy” or even “if it will make you feel good.” Jesus is a pretty black and white kind of guy. The first sentence alone is enough to make me want to check out. “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” Nope. I’m out. If this what it means to be a Christian, I’m not sure I want to participate any more. I want to pause here really quick to make sure that while the bible talks about abuse, it is never okay. If you or someone you love is in an abusive relationship, either mental, emotional, spiritual, physical, or otherwise, God does not desire for you to stay in that relationship. Additionally, if you need resources for yourself or someone you love, I am here to help.  

I think what makes this reading so incredibly difficult is that the idea of forgiveness is incredibly powerful and, at the same time, runs contradictory to everything we may feel or desire. Forgiveness, especially for those who wish to do us harm, curse us, abuse us, or takes from us (maybe, or especially) without asking, can feel impossible. Remember that we are still in the season of epiphany. God is still revealing to us, to the disciples, to all people who God is and will continue to be through Jesus Christ. This is a God who has come to turn the world upside down. This God, who became flesh, has come into our lives, and has changed the way we respond to other people. Or, at least it should.

The challenge, of course, comes from what our natural inclinations may be to what God is calling us to. I mean, if we’re honest, our natural instinct is to go blow for blow and cutting words to cutting words. But, how do we live our lives responding with grace and kindness instead of reacting with words or actions that may answer hurt with more hurt. And again, if we’re being honest, we may not always want to respond with grace and kindness. I mean, if you can think of (or picture) the person in your life that has caused you the most heartache and pain, do you really desire to respond to him or her with grace and kindness? Yet that is what God challenges us to do. I’ve read and heard more than once that hurt people hurt people, or that hurting people hurt people. Sometimes those hurts can only be healed by grace.

I know I talk about grace a lot. But when you have experienced the life changing power of grace, you can’t help yourself. God’s grace literally changed my life. Once I learned about God’s grace, my entire relationship with God changed. Here’s a strange thing about grace: I hate that you may have needed to experience it, but at the same time, I am so grateful if you have experienced the life-changing power of God’s grace. Grace is just unmerited love, forgiveness, and mercy. And maybe you have felt it from God. But, more likely, you have experienced grace in relationship with someone else. Even though that grace may have come from another human being, let us not kid ourselves, my beloved. Grace can only be accomplished with and through God. We can’t experience grace without God and really, isn’t that a great place to be?

When I say that grace has the power to change lives, I’m not over exaggerating. It really does. Grace transformed me and my life in such a way that my heart was healed and I felt redeemed. Grace is what called me into ministry. How have you experienced grace? Once you are able to recognize grace in your own life, you are then able to recognize the ways it changes your life and leaves you completely vulnerable. Believe it or not, this vulnerability is a good thing. You may not hear that idea very often. Society wants us to believe that being vulnerable is bad. Vulnerability and shame all too often go hand in hand. But, what if being vulnerable just meant leaving our hearts and minds open to what God can and will do?

When grace leaves us vulnerable, which it often does, then the Holy Spirit is allowed into our lives in such a way that we see and feel a new way of living and loving through Jesus Christ. What Jesus demands of us as disciples is a complete and total change; a repentance and leaving behind of our old selves and instead invites us into holy and wholly living. This holy/wholly living isn’t always neat and tidy. There will be times when we feel rejected. There will be times when we might wonder if this discipleship is all it is cracked up to be. And those times, my beloved, are when we must rely on God. The great reward that Jesus speaks of isn’t material items. We will not gain cars, wealth, or fame from following Christ. But what we will gain and what our reward will be is a better version of ourselves.

None of this happens by chance. We may do our best to live a Christian life daily but we will always fall short because of sin. The temptations of this life are far too great for us to resist. When Jesus commands us to love our enemies, turn the other cheek, and give to everyone who asks of you, there may be times that sin seems almost appealing. The life that Christ calls us to isn’t easy. But the life we are reformed into through that journey of discipleship and following Jesus has a great reward of a better self and a better, greater, deeper love for the world God made. None of this is possible, of course, without grace. Grace is stronger than our sin. Grace is stronger than even our best intentions. Grace is stronger than our hard work. Grace is stronger than our resistance. Which means, even in the moments when we resist God’s grace, it is changing and transforming us for the better. The path is difficult. Let’s not kid ourselves. It can feel lonely, and at times, insurmountable. But, the path is lit by grace. And it is a path that rewards us in ways that are almost unimaginable. Thanks be to God!  

Sermon for 6/12/16 Galatians 2:15-21

Some of you may be wondering why I took off my shoes. I was reminded this week of Moses getting close to the burning bush. The Lord called to Moses and as Moses started to move towards the bush, the Lord said “Come no closer! Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” I’m also going to talk a bit about my feet today (for a reason, by the way, not just because). When I was in Atlanta for continuing education, I slipped away from the conference for about an hour. I called for an Uber ride (which is like a taxi) and went to my appointment. I got settled on the paper covered table after some initial conversation and tried not to be nervous. Malia had made sure I was comfortable and then started in on her work. She dipped the needle into black ink and then touched the needle to my skin. As promised, I did not kick her out of reflex. And so, yes, while I know some of you may not agree with my choices, I did get more tattoos while I was in Atlanta. And they are on my feet. And they have everything to do with today’s reading from Galatians.

On my left foot is tattooed the words “by grace” and on the right foot is tattooed the words “through faith.” I placed them in the order that I did because many times when I start walking from either a seated position or standing still position, I start with my left foot. It is how I desire to walk through life: by grace, through faith. And I fail almost daily. But, that doesn’t mean I don’t keep trying. An interesting verse stood out to me this week as I prayed about this Galatians reading. Verse 16 says “And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.” If someone ever asks you what it means to be Lutheran, direct them to the book of Galatians. So much of what we hold to be true, what we believe, what we profess and claim, week after week and day after day can be found in this book.

One of the beliefs that make us different is that we hold fast to the idea that we are justified, we are made right, only by God’s grace through our faith in Jesus Christ. We cannot ever be made right or be justified by our works. So, let me break that down for you. You cannot earn your way to heaven. You cannot do anything at all to “get right” with God. We all know someone who feels like they have to get right with God before they can come to church. As if all of us have it all together and we’re going to notice. If you have that person in your life who is waiting to get right with God before they come to church, they ain’t never coming to church. Because none of us, none of us can do anything to get right with God.

This idea that we are justified by faith and not through works is one of the biggest sticking points that Martin Luther had with the Catholic church. Now, as a reminder, our friend, Martin Luther (or as I like to call him, “Marty”) was studying to be a Catholic Monk. He took this call to serve God very seriously. But Marty was also very studious, very serious, and and very faithful. He started to study the ideas and beliefs of the Catholic church and felt a lot of the things he learned didn’t jive with the Bible. And Marty believed firmly in sola scriptura (word alone). So when he found out about things like penance and indulgences he started to get angry. We cannot do anything to make God love us more. We cannot do anything to get in “better” with God. We cannot do anything to reverse the sins we’ve already committed. And for Marty, that included saying additional prayers or making large “donations” to the church.

Yes, it is to us to confess our sins. It is on us to admit to God and to one another where we’ve fallen short. It is on us to to admit when we’ve sinned in thought, word, and deed. By what we’ve done, and by what we’ve left undone. We need to confess when we’ve not loved our neighbors with our whole heart. We must admit that daily we are held captive to sin and cannot in any way, shape, or form, free ourselves. And then, we sit back and realize that the only way we can be freed from our sins is through Jesus Christ and not by anything we can do, might do, should do, would do, or could do.

Another important part of the verse I highlighted today (verse 16) says “and we have come to believe in Christ Jesus” so that we will be justified by our faith in him and not through anything we do. But have we? Have we come to believe that? If this were true, we wouldn’t constantly be wondering what we must do to “get right” with God. If this were true, we might not be so quick to judge the sins of others because we too sin and we know that we are all justified through faith in Christ. If it were true that we have come to believe in Christ Jesus then we would quit carrying around the guilt associated with our sins and stop beating ourselves up for the sins God has already forgiven. Our lack of faith has made us masochists. This is the only reason I can think of that we continue to punish ourselves for our sins that God forgave a long time ago.

I cannot think of a simpler way to put this: you cannot do anything by yourself to free yourself from sin. You also cannot do anything to gain more favor with God. Of course, this doesn’t mean that we go out looking to sin day after day. What it means is that when we do fall into sin and the inevitable guilt sets in, we rest assured that God has forgiven us. God has forgiven us not by anything we have done, but through Jesus Christ and the cross. Friends, stop beating yourselves up for the sins you have committed. Stop beating yourself up for falling short. Stop beating yourself up for not achieving the unrealistic goals you have set for yourself. Stop beating yourself up for feeling like a failure. You are not any of those things.

You are forgiven. You are saved. You have been called and claimed. You have been washed clean. You have been fed. You have been sent into a world that is hungry for a word of forgiveness and your life can be proof of that. You are not a failure. You are not your sins. You will not be defined by the times you fell short. You will be claimed for what you are: child of God, beloved, and set free. Brothers and sisters, you are loved. You are forgiven. Start acting like it.