Archive for March, 2011

Sermon Lent 3A

John 4:5-42

It was about noon.
The gospel writer never puts in these details for no reason.
It was about noon –
and a woman comes to draw water from a well.
For those of us who have never drawn water from a well,
for those of us who have never known what it’s like to live in a place or a time
when we don’t have running water all the time,
we have to have the point driven home to us.
You don’t draw water from a well at noon.
You draw water from a well early in the morning,
and the women of the community meet at the well
and wait their turn, and swap stories, and maybe complain about their husbands,
and talk about what their kids did yesterday,
and then head home, carrying their full jugs of water on their heads,
enough for one more day.

This woman comes to the well at noon.
Is she a late riser?
Has she already used up her supply of water for the day,
and simply needs more?
Maybe she’s a klutz.
Maybe in the course of her work that day
she wasn’t watching what she was doing,
and her foot accidentally brushed the jug,
and it was just enough to tip it over,
and now she’s got to come all the way back to the well.
Story to tell the other women tomorrow.
There’s no story to the others tomorrow,
because they don’t want to speak to her.
She is an outcast.
The reason that she’s at the well at noon
is not because she uses a lot per day,
nor because she knocked over the jug,
nor because she slept in that morning.
The reason she’s there at noon is that no one wants her there at daybreak.
They can’t stand her.

We all are thirsty for something that satisfies us.
Connection, love, relationship, purpose, fame, identity, recognition –
and the search for something that satisfies has all gone wrong for this woman.
It would be so easy just to call her promiscuous –
and too hard to recognize that the world has ways of drawing us
into choices and lives that are self-destructive.
Whatever life this woman lives,
where she has had five husbands,
and the man that she has been living with now is not her husband,
she lives this life in a community,
that ultimately enables and judges this life.
It would be too easy to call her the ‘worst sinner’ of the village.
It’s simply that her sin is the hardest to hide
and the easiest to point out –
the most vulnerable.

We see it on the so-called ‘reality shows’ that dominate our nights,
where would-be pop-idols or master chefs or dance champions
show their stuff on national television,
with their one chance at living the life that has always been held up as the prize.
We see it on a show called Toddlers and Tiaras
where women who cannot realize their dreams themselves
live them through their children,
who are too young to realize that they are being taught
to thirst for something that will always be just beyond their reach.
We see it on the most popular show among teenagers – Glee,
where what is being celebrated is not so much music,
but the perennial teenage longing to make a connection –
with the audience, with the young man or woman that catches their fancy.
We see it later on at night, with half-hour infomercials
and a spot for a juicy hamburger just when a college student wants that fourth meal
and we see it on those channels that most of us skip over
but some of us don’t –
those channels are available not just at night,
but twenty-four hours a day.
We are thirsty.
Thirsty for connection, thirsty for recognition, thirsty for acknowledgement,
for love, for excitement, for something they know not what.

The conversation between the Samaritan woman and Jesus,
like last week’s conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus,
occurs on two levels.
Jesus speaks of spiritual reality,
and the woman of physical reality,
Jesus asks the woman for a drink to cool his throat,
and tells her of what he can give, that can soothe her soul.
For we long for something that satisfies us,
not for a day, not for an hour,
not something that we have to keep coming back to
and that loses its charm over time –
we long for the consummation,
for something that no thing, no one human being,
can give us,
unless that one human being is also the living God.

The Jesus in need offers us in need the thing we most need –
the knowledge that God is with us,
the knowledge that whatever paths we have chosen
or that have been chosen for us,
whatever ways we have tried to slake our spiritual thirst,
or to dull our pain,
whatever sins we have committed on our way,
he desires to give us the living water,
the life that we can’t name but have always wanted.
More than fame, more than success in romance or career,
more than health for the moment or victory in war or politics
or a life that is at ease,
he desires to give us the life that he shares with the Father
in the unity of the Holy Spirit.
Eternal life, not simply an endless succession of days on the calendar,
but the life that was meant for us from the beginning;
a relationship of love with God and with others,
an eternal life that begins for us at baptism
and is brought to perfection only in the life to come.

The outcast woman makes the perfect evangelist –
for the people of the village are thirsty, too.
They are outcasts as well – Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.
They are waiting for something more,
for a Messiah who will make God’s promises come true.
They are thirsty to worship God in spirit and truth,
and the thirstiest of them all leads them to him.
Let us be thirsty, in these days of Lent,
for the peace that passes all understanding,
for the Spirit of God that is love,
for the justice of God that is mercy,
for the image of God that is Jesus.
Let us come to the well, whether it is early, noon, or almost night for us,
for Jesus is there, waiting for us to ask him
to quench our fevered thirst for God.

March 28, 2011 at 6:00 am Leave a comment

Galatians 2:11-20 – Second of a Lenten Series

11But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; 12for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. 13And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. 14But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?”
15We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 16yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. 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. 17But if, in our effort to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have been found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! 18But if I build up again the very things that I once tore down, then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor. 19For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ;20and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

“When you’re here, you’re family.”
That’s the tag line for The Olive Garden,
whose unlimited salad and breadsticks and never-ending pasta bowls
are served at franchises around the nation.
And yet, it’s much more romantic if you believe
that you are really at a sidewalk café in Little Italy,
or at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Roma or Napoli,
where the barmaid, the waitress, and the owner
all know you by name and welcome you not simply as a customer,
but as a friend, a member of an extended family.
“When you’re here, you’re family.”
Oh really?
I can have the same cynical reaction to Applebee’s,
whose exclusive locations in the strip malls of America
does not prevent them from claiming to be a Neighborhood Grill and Bar.
We’re family, are we?
Well if we were really family,
we wouldn’t be paying so much for the unlimited salad, breadsticks, and pasta,
now would we,
and one glass of beer wouldn’t be so blamed expensive.
Then again, if we were really family,
we’d probably be doing some of the cooking,
washing dishes, and sweeping up too.
I guess I can’t be too critical.

“When you’re here, you’re family.”
It capitalizes on the special nature of Mediterranean culture,
whether in Italy or Greece or in Arabia,
any Mediterranean or Middle Eastern culture.
To eat at the same table with someone in these parts of the world
is truly to be accepted as a member of the family.
That is why when Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners,
it scandalized the Pharisees.
That is why when Peter, or Cephas,
the leader of the apostles,
ate with non-Jewish believers in Christ at the same table in Antioch,
it scandalized the Jewish Christians from Jerusalem,
who had come to see if the thing was true.

And when Peter saw that his fellow Jewish Christians were scandalized,
he tried to make the best of a bad situation.
At least as long as these people were there,
he would eat only with his Jewish brothers-in-Christ
and not with his Gentile brothers-in-Christ.
There’s Gentile believers, and then there’s family.
Surely everyone could understand that.
In trying not to offend anybody, he offended everybody.
And Paul believed that Peter, first of the apostles,
was offending first and foremost Christ and the Gospel.

What makes you family?
Is it blood, or shared interest, or skin color, or nationality, or anything else?
For believing Jewish people from the time of Abraham,
the identifying marks of the family
had been male circumcision
and the keeping of the law, the Torah.
For Paul, these had ceased to function as the center of his life.
For Paul, Christ himself was now at the center of his life,
and his salvation was no longer a matter of him keeping the law,
but it was a matter of what Christ had done for him.
The truth of the Gospel was that Christ had done on the cross
what the keeping of the Law could never have done –
made right the relationship between him and God,
made right the relationship between human beings and God.
What makes you family?
Circumcision, the keeping of the dietary laws,
the way you keep the moral law?
When you’re in Christ, you’re family, says Paul,
and so he confronts Peter in public –
there are not two families, there is one family.
There are not two Lord’s tables, there is one Lord’s table for Jews and Gentiles –
because God-in-Christ has acted,
because Christ has made things right between us and God.

Paul goes on to explain his attitude towards the Law.
“It’s dead to me,” he says –
in much the same way that someone being ostracized from a family
might be being told “You’re dead to me.”
The rules and regulations of the Law
will no longer be the determining factor
in what Paul does.
Instead it is the victory of Jesus that determines Paul,
in such a way that Paul can say
“It is no longer I that live, but Christ who lives in me.”
If there is sin in my life, Christ is there to judge and forgive,
if there is holiness in my life, it is Christ who is the source and the goal.
Paul is no longer able to say,
like the Jewish Christians from Jerusalem,
“We believers keep the Law and you believers do not,”
instead he must say,
“None of us has kept the Law, but it is Christ who frees us
and saves us and unites us
by his faithfulness and grace alone.”

“The Law is dead to me?”
No wonder there were people who were profoundly unsettled by Paul.
No wonder his words still profoundly unsettle us today.
Christians and Jews alike argue over
whether the Gospel of Christ that Paul preaches
actually destroys the holy life or whether it makes it possible;
whether when he says “the Law is dead to me”
he really means that anything goes after Christ.
Paul himself would disagree with that statement, of course,
but it’s no wonder that long after Paul left Antioch
and preached his Gospel in Galatia,
Jewish Christians who still believed in the need for the Law
came to the Gentiles there and said,
Paul made a good start with you, BUT –
you need more than Christ – you need circumcision and the Law of Moses
if you truly want to be part of the people of God.

What makes you a Christian?
What makes you family?
The truth of the Gospel is that Christ’s death and resurrection,
nothing more, and nothing less –
sets you free from the need to justify yourself,
sets you free from the curse of the Law which has no power to save,
sets you free to live Christ’s life which is given to you purely by God’s grace.
When you’re in Christ, you’re family.

March 25, 2011 at 9:55 pm Leave a comment

Sermon – Galatians 1:1-12 – First of a Lenten series

Galatians 1:1-12
Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Paul an apostle — sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead — 2and all the members of God’s family who are with me,
To the churches of Galatia:
3Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, 4who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, 5to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.
6I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel — 7not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. 8But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! 9As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!
10Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.
11For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; 12for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.

“The Truth of the Gospel.”
That is a bold and audacious title for a sermon series,
and yet it is not my idea.
The words “the truth of the Gospel”
come from the second chapter of Paul’s letter to the Galatians,
which we will hear next week.
It is also the title of a book on Galatians,
one of the books I am reading for this series.
And yet this does not make the title of the series any less audacious or bold,
for when St. Paul uses the words “the truth of the Gospel” in Galatians
he does not mean that the Christian religion is true over against other religions,
although he would certainly agree with that point.
He also does not mean that the Christian religion is verifiable,
that one can prove the truth-value of faith in Christ.
Instead, his opponents are those who, like him,
believe that Jesus Christ is the Messiah.
His opponents are those who, like him,
preach in the name of Jesus Christ,
but who in Paul’s mind do not preach him
according to the truth of the Gospel,
who pervert the Gospel and change the Gospel
so that it loses its character as “good news.”
This is not an external threat to the Gospel,
but an internal threat,
a mutation, a cancer, a virus,
which threatens its very truth.
The only therapy, for Paul, is the truth of the Gospel.

And so what is the truth of the Gospel?
And let me be clear, as we think about this, that when we say “Gospel,”
we are not speaking about the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John,
but the Gospel about Jesus Christ, the good news about Jesus Christ,
“the power of God for the salvation for all who believe.”
What is the central core of this Gospel,
so that we can distinguish it from any other Gospel,
Christian or not,
in mutated or viral form?

I was standing in my second-floor apartment in Elizabethtown
walking up and down,
talking on the phone with my pastor about my upcoming interview
with the synod’s candidacy committee.
I only remember the part of the conversation where he said,
“What is the Gospel?”
And I said, “Ummmmmmmmmmm…….God loves us?”
“No.” he said.
And I thought, Oh, great.
Here I am going into an interview,
they’re going to decide whether to let me into seminary,
and I don’t even know what the Gospel is.
Besides, I thought I was pretty safe with that.
“God loves us.” “No.”
Well, then I’m all out of ideas.
Okay, give me some help here.
And over the phone, I hear preaching, the preaching of Paul,
from 1 Corinthians 15:3:
“That Jesus Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, and was buried,
and was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.”
To that Paul adds only one thing in this first part of the letter to the Galatians:
“to set us free from the present evil age.”
That is the Gospel, that is the good news in which we stand,
through which we are being saved.
Indeed God loves us,
loves us so much that he took action, decisive action,
to rescue us from the evil that surrounds and pervades us.
He took that action in Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection,
and calls those who hear to cling to the death and resurrection of Christ
as the sign and sacrament of God’s victory over sin, death, and the devil.
Because God in Christ died for us,
we are set free from everything that had bound us –
this is the good news that transformed Paul’s life
and the good news that transformed the life of the Galatian church.

But now the Galatians are turning to a different Gospel –
not that there are multiple Gospels of Christ,
but only mutations, perversions, additions –
and there is a key word,
for we will explore the particular addition
that Paul is talking about in coming weeks –
and we want to know what the truth of the Gospel is for us today,
we who must hear and believe the good news today.
Paul’s message is simple –
Any Gospel that is Jesus Christ and something else
is not good news any more, but bad;
not freedom any more, but slavery,
not God’s gracious justification of the sinner,
but the sinner’s attempt to justify self,
not God’s breaking of the chains that bind us
but our vain attempt to will or wish them away
or simply to deny them.
But the good news is that the project of our salvation begins and ends
with God’s initiative, with God’s action.
and God’s initiative and action is sufficient to free us.

Let us leave it at that for the moment.
Let us leave it for future weeks to explore
the Galatian church’s attempt to complete their salvation
with something that they could add to the message of Jesus.
Let us leave it with the Gospel that Paul preached,
that Jesus Christ died for our sins
in order to set us free from the present evil age,
according to the will of God the Father.
We are not simply waiting for rescue,
like a drowning man clinging to a piece of driftwood,
like a woman riding out a tsumani on the roof of her house,
but we are those whom God is rescuing
through his gracious act in Jesus Christ.

March 22, 2011 at 3:25 pm Leave a comment

Sermon Lent 2 – March 20, 2011

Now the word of the LORD came to Abram,
saying, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house
and go to the land which I will show you.”
Now the word of the Lord came to Nicodemus,
saying, “You must be born from above.”
Abram responded with immediate obedience,
Nicodemus responded, at least initially, with misunderstanding.
But both are called.
Both are called to leave something behind
and start on a journey,
a journey to a destination which cannot be found on earth.
Whenever they seem to reach a point of safety and security,
they will simply be called again to go, to follow.

Who calls them?
God calls them, through his Word.
We do not know how the Word comes to Abram,
but we do know how the Word came to Nicodemus,
the incarnate Word himself stands before him
and speaks to him.

Throughout the world,
many thousands of people are preparing this Lent for Baptism at Easter.
They are being called to leave an old life,
a life in which self, family and country were chief loyalties,
and to be given a new life,
one in which they are responsible and loyal chiefly
to the Lord Jesus and his Church.
A call, to be born not into a tribe or a nation,
but into a new humanity,
one that unites every tribe and nation in God the Father
and Jesus Christ his Son.
Self, family and country retain importance in the new life –
but they take their places in the new life.
They are now the places in which the Lord of all
calls the baptized to serve him.
This call, like the call to Abram and Nicodemus,
is the call to follow on a journey
not to a comfortable settledness,
but to a new place of mission.

Who calls them?
God calls them, through his Word.
The same Word that spoke to Abram,
that stood before Nicodemus and spoke to him,
now calls people to new life
through the mouths of men and women
and through the words of Holy Scripture.
It is the same Word that called our parents
to bring their children to Baptism.
It is the same Word that calls us to remember and recall
the baptismal promises that our parents made
and we affirmed,
for we can become too comfortable and settled with the old life
and either with innocent or willful misunderstanding
respond to Jesus’ call with a question of our own.

God calls us
to be born of water and the Spirit,
and we say with Nicodemus, “How can I be born a second time?
What must I do to be born?
What must I do to become a child of God,
to live more deeply the life of a child of God?
How can I leave behind all that I was, that I am?
How can these things be?

What must I do to be born?
What a silly question!
Those who in the nineteen-sixties angrily said to their parents,
“I didn’t ask to be born!”
had it right.
No one asks to be born
and no one does anything to be born.
Through the mystery of God’s creative power
handed over into the bodies of a man and a woman
we are willed into existence,
called out of nothingness into an life
where we are connected with all others and all other things
and yet separated, unique in our uniqueness,
given our own distinct point-of-view.
We didn’t ask to be born.

Nor can we do anything to be born from above.
“The wind blows where it wills,” our Lord tells Nicodemus,
and those of us with some Hebrew or who have taken some Bible courses in the past
will know that the Hebrew for “wind” can also mean “breath” or “spirit.”
If we are sons and daughters of God,
if we are know a life that is eternal,
and eternal life not simply meaning an endless flipping of pages on a calendar
but a life that is truly worth being everlasting,
a life in which one trusts that one is at peace with God and in unity with others,
then it is God himself who must bring that to birth,
God himself who must call us into that life of the Spirit
as surely as he called us into the life of the flesh.
God calls people into that eternal life
by the proclamation of the cross of Jesus Christ.
The Son of Man is lifted up from the earth
so that all might the glory streaming from his wounds,
so that his Spirit of love might wound our hearts
and shake us from our settled lives
to follow him wherever he calls us.

The call will look different to each person.
For some it looks like the call of Abram,
to go forth from our home and our kindred and our family’s house
and go to the land which will be shown us.
For some it looks like the call of the Gerasene demoniac,
to remain in our hometowns
and proclaim all the good things that God has done for us.
For some, the call to preach or teach,
For some, the call to sing or heal,
For some, the call to marry and parent,
For some, the call to care
for those who have no one to care for them.
But there is one call, one Spirit, one baptism,
and that call is to faith.
To faith in what God-in-Christ has done for us,
to faith in what God-in-Christ will do for us;
and to live out that faith with our lives of worship and praise and service.

In that faith Abram and Sarai and Lot
set out from their homeland
to go to the land which God would show them.
Nicodemus hesitates on the threshold of faith,
wondering how something old and settled
can become something new.
Those preparing for baptism long for the call of God
to touch them in the waters of Baptism.
And we, the baptized, renew our faith in these forty days of Lent,
remembering with joy the call to the new life,
and looking with faith upon the cross
upon which our Lord died our death
so that we could share his eternal life.

March 21, 2011 at 11:04 am Leave a comment

Sermon Lent 1 – March 13, 2011

It’s the bottom of the ninth.
Charlie Brown’s team has two men out, one run down,
with Snoopy, their best hitter at the plate,
and the Little League championship on the line.
Somehow Charlie Brown has managed to reach third base.
“We’ve got this in the bag,” Lucy says.
“As long as Charlie Brown doesn’t do something stupid, like try to steal home.”
Violet says, “Not even Charlie Brown is that stupid.”
Meanwhile, on third base,
Charlie Brown is thinking,
“I wonder if I should try to steal home?”

“Was I safe or out?” Charlie Brown asks.
“Out?” Lucy says, “You didn’t even get halfway home!”
Everybody walks away, leaving Charlie Brown to lie alone
in the basepath halfway between third base and home plate.
Night falls, and he is still there,
screaming at the heavens,
“Why did I have to try to steal home? Why? Why? Why?”
He thought that this time he could have been the hero.
Instead, he’s still just a blockhead.

For a comic strip,
Peanuts was, in its heyday, surprisingly deep.
Charlie Brown was not just a kid who couldn’t fly his kite,
who couldn’t win a ball game, who couldn’t kick a football,
who couldn’t get up the nerve to talk to the little red-haired girl.
He was Everyman.
He was Adam,
the man of the earth,
wanting to be the hero, but ending up lying on the ground, alone,
an exile from Paradise.
Adam and Eve wanted to be heroes, the stars of their own show,
the masters in their own garden.
The serpent tricked them into believing that they could be like God,.
and then when it is too late, whispers to them, “Oh, you blockheads!”

In reaching for the forbidden fruit of the knowledge of good and evil,
Eve and Adam do not reject God outright.
The serpent would have had no need to be subtle
if it was as simple as that.”.
To say, “You don’t need God, let’s rebel against him,”
Instead, the serpent enticed Adam and Eve
with the promise of God’s glory
that for some reason he had placed just beyond their reach,
but if they reached out and took it,
they would be more God-like.
In the story of the Garden of Eden,
Adam and Eve do not reject God outright –
they simply reject the idea of trusting him,
of living in relationship with him.
A relationship only exists if there are boundaries to it.

Much like Charlie Brown standing there on third base,
thinking that it was all up to him to win the game,
dreaming of accomplishing that great thing that would make him the hero,
Adam and Eve stand there at the tree of knowledge,
at the boundary which God has set in their relationship,
wondering what is there for them, what God has set just out of reach.
There have been some who have blamed God for forbidding the tree,
for planting the tree, for putting the tree in Adam and Eve’s path,
knowing that they would reach for the fruit.
But without a boundary, there is no relationship.
Every relationship that we have has boundaries,
and when they are violated, the relationship is compromised.

Without getting too tough on him,
Charlie Brown violates the relationship between him and his team.
By trying to steal home,
when there is absolutely no chance of him succeeding,
he shows that he doesn’t trust his team to get him home,
he shows that he thinks he has to be the one to get things done,
to be the hero, to be the man.
It has become all about him.

Adam and Eve violate the relationship between human beings and God
when they reach for what God has not given them,
when the serpent or that little voice in their head,
the evil power that wants us alone in the world with him,
says, “The possibilities are endless! It’s up to you!”
And truly, once the fruit is taken and the deed done, the possibilities are endless.
You can almost hear Adam and Eve saying to each other,
“Oh, you blockhead!”
And we violate the relationship between human beings and God
whenever we think it is up to us,
whenever we see something that promises life and freedom
if only we just reach out and take it,
if only we step just across a boundary.
Whether it is the boundary of anger, the boundary of desire for another,
the boundary of property and money, the boundary of truth,
or any other boundary;
crossing it marks the end-point of when we are in relationship with God and others
And crossing it even once marks a turning point in our existence.
If Charlie Brown is everyman, lying in the dust with his failed dreams,
if Adam and Eve is humanity, blaming each other, the serpent, and God,
then they point to the loneliness of our condition,
unable to trust God, unable to trust each other,
seeking glory and coming up empty.

But there is another everyman,
and Lent is his story as well as ours.
Three times the accuser, the serpent of the story,
the little voice comes to him and says,
You can reach out for what you want, for what you need,
you can be the hero, you can be the one who ends the suffering.
And this time Charlie Brown waits on third,
for whatever comes, whether a strikeout or a home run,
this time Adam and Eve speak not a word to the serpent,
accepting the boundary of their relationship to God as creatures,
this time Jesus gets God’s Word right.
“Worship the LORD your God, and serve only him.”
Christ does not reject the suffering,
he does not reject the relationship,
he will wait for his Father’s will
and listen to his Word.
And in doing so, the serpent must be vanquished,
for him and for us.
For he lays down in the dust with us,
he makes his home with the homeless and his friendship with the friendless,
and he raises us from the dust and gives us his Spirit,
his life of relationship with the Father.
Glory, not to us or from us, but to God and from God.

March 14, 2011 at 6:00 am Leave a comment

Ash Wednesday Sermon, March 9, 2011

Ash Wednesday
March 9, 2011

A little boy was asked by his pastor if he was looking forward to Easter,
and the boy said, “No, I’m not.”
The pastor said, “Well, didn’t you give something up for Lent?
Aren’t you looking forward to having that back?”
The boy said, “Yes.”
The pastor said, “Doesn’t the Easter bunny come to your house?
Aren’t you looking forward to that?”
“Yes, I like the Easter bunny.”
“Well then why aren’t you looking forward to Easter?”
And the boy said, “Because after the Easter Bunny comes,
we get dressed up and come to church,
and you always tell the same story every year.”

Now I invented some of the details,
but it’s a true story,
and the little boy in the story was me.
I have no recollection of this at all,
but my mother swears it’s true.

The same story every year –
one might say the same thing about Ash Wednesday.
Haven’t we done this before,
heard of our need for repentance
and listed the litany of our sins
and had the ashes affixed to our forehead,
and thought about the things we were giving up for Lent,
or what we were going to do differently this year?
Truly resolved to do better?
And yet it is the same story every year,
our need for repentance, the litany of our sins, and the ashes are applied once again
to a slightly older forehead, a forehead a year or so closer to its dusty destiny.

If we look at Lent as an opportunity for self-improvement,
as a chance to get it right this time, we will inevitably be disappointed.
The holy season of Lent is neither of those things.
Lent and its culmination in the Easter feast
is the time when we come from our scheming and dreaming and hoping
and hear once again the same old story –
the story of our need and God’s amazing love,
the story of our yawning emptiness and God’s desire to fill us with his grace
the story of the garden, the cross, and the empty tomb.
It is this that we need more than anything else,
the same old story, because we are part of that same old story.
Our Lenten practices of worship, study, prayer, fasting, giving –
they are not about building ourselves up
but rather emptying ourselves so that God can fill us.
We give up something we like,
or we take on other more strenuous fasts,
not because it is good for us,
but because it speaks to our need,
it speaks to the need that we try so hard to fill with other things,
and it reminds us of our frailty,
our utter dependence upon a creation which we have not created,
our need for God who created all things good.

We give away what is ours,
not so we can build a resume as a giver,
but to imitate Christ who gave all of himself for us.
We pray not to be seen praying by others, but to encounter God,
a God who desires nothing but relationship with us,
relationship which he desires to freely give us in Christ.

We return to repentance not because by repenting this Lent
we will finally get it right and move on with life,
we return to repentance because that is our life as the baptized.
Martin Luther’s 1st Thesis of his famous 95 is this:
“When our Lord Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’
he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”
Repentance is simply turning to God,
and that’s what we do in Lent and in all other times,
turning to God,
with nothing in our hands to give,
no great thoughts or exalted feelings to recommend us,
with nothing but the knowledge of our need,
the sign of our frailty upon our heads,
and with our only hope in the Gospel we are given,
that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and ready to relent from punishing.
That in Jesus Christ, we may be reconciled to God,
who for our sake was made to be sin who knew no sin,
that we might become the righteousness of God.
That God who sees in secret will reward us,
not because we have something that we can give him,
but because he delights to give what is his to beggars.
It’s the same old story.
We need to know ourselves as beggars.
Beggars can’t be choosers, we well know.
But beggars can be chosen.

March 10, 2011 at 10:59 am Leave a comment

On Ash Wednesday: Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Guilt, Justification, Renewal

From his Ethics:

“The church is today the community of people who, grasped by the power of Christ’s grace, acknowledge, confess, and take upon themselves not only their personal sins, but also the Western world’s falling away from Jesus Christ as guilt toward Jesus Christ. The church is where Jesus makes his form real in the midst of the world. Therefore only the church can be the place of personal and corporate rebirth and renewal.

“That there are people whose knowledge of this falling away from Jesus Christ is kept fresh – not only by finding it in others but also by confessing it in themselves – is a sign of the living presence of Christ. Confession of guilt happens without a sidelong glance at the others who are also guilty. This confession is strictly exclusive in that it takes all guilt upon itself. When one still calculates and weighs things, an unfruitful self-righteous morality takes the place of confessing guilt face-to-face with the figure of Christ. Because the origin of the confession of guilt is the form of Christ and not our individual transgressions, therefore it is complete and unconditional. Christ conquers us never more strongly than by completely and unconditionally taking on our guilt and declaring it Christ’s own, letting us go free. Looking on this grace of Christ frees us completely from looking at the guilt of others and brings Christians to fall on their knees before Christ with the confession: mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.”

March 9, 2011 at 2:16 pm Leave a comment


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