Sunday, October 28, 2012

The hardest Truth? ~ Romans 3:19-28 ~ Reformation Sunday ~ October 28, 2012

Last month, our adult Sunday school studied a lesson series entitled “Lutheranism 101.”  The series begins with a question: “are we Lutherans people of a culture—or a confession?”

Usually when I think of being Lutheran, I tend to lean to the cultural end of things...  Like how we’ll stand in line for hot coffee when it’s ninety degrees outside and we don’t have air conditioning...  Or how we instinctively take the back seats in a room...  I remember so many Sundays when the most memorable words I heard were “bring a side dish or dessert...”

Yes, we have our ways, but those things don’t make us a Church...  We are people of a confession; meaning that our church and our faith are built upon a set of fundamental truths that come straight from the pages of God’s Word.  These truths are what launched the European Reformations almost five hundred years ago—and they are the basis for our life and witness to the world here today.

Chief of these truths can be found in our second lesson from Romans 3, that...

“...there is no distinction, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, but they are now justified by his grace that is in Christ Jesus...”

To be a Lutheran means that our faith is built upon these promises.  And keep in mind that these promises apply to those who aren’t Lutheran, but to all who put their faith in them.

We pull no punches on the problem of sin... We recognize that we are all, all sinners; and that there is no person or persons who are more righteous in God’s eyes based upon all the good things they’ve done and the bad things they’ve never done.  “There is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

But we don’t see this truth as a reason for beating ourselves up.  We don’t take this as cause for living in fear or in shame... 

In fact, we don’t have to worry about whether or not we’re good enough for God to love us.  God in Jesus Christ took up the cause of getting us right with God.  He suffered the condemnation we deserved by dying on a cross, and through that cross he gives us his righteousness.  This means that God does not see you for your failings or your shortcomings.  God does not look upon you with disgust.  Instead, God sees in you a beloved child.  And as a beloved child, God will do whatever it takes to ensure that we love in his love forever.

How awesome a truth as this: that you are loved. 

And how hard it is to believe such a truth.

The greatest lies the devil will ever tell you are:

1)      that there is no devil; and,

2)      that God could never love someone like you. 

If the devil can’t convince you of the first, the devil’s going to move right on to convincing you of the second.  And the devil’s work in this department isn’t very hard.

Years ago the man who hired me for my first job in business management told me, “no one ever says ‘thank you’ or ‘good job’ in this business.  The only feedback you’ll ever get is that you’ve failed and that you’re best is not good enough.”  How true his words proved to be...

I don’t think any of us realize just how often we are reminded of our own imperfections every single day.  There’s always someone to tell us that we’re not working hard enough or fast enough.  Our celebrity-obsessed culture always reminds us that unless we look a certain way or dress a certain way or act a certain way, we’re nobody.  Our material-obsessed culture tells us that if we don’t have the best stuff, our life is meaningless.  And to top that all off, the people in our lives and the commitments of our lives make demands of us that we try with all our might to satisfy but seldom ever do. 

So how can you believe in God’s unconditional love with so many voices telling us that you’re not good enough?  And sometimes, there is no voice saying this to you more often than your own...

How quickly we forget, “Jesus loves me, this I know; for the Bible tells me so...  Little ones to him belong, they are weak but he is strong.” 

That is what we celebrate here today—that God has acted through the suffering and death of Christ to bring us into a right relationship with God’s own self. Our sins are nailed to the cross and we bear them no more. 

You are freed from the deadly grip of sin to live in the peace and the joy of God’s love.  And you are free to share that peace and joy with others—because Jesus’ righteousness is now yours.

Far too many people in this world know no kind of unconditional love.  It is all too rare that someone will experience patience or generosity or forgiveness just because they need it.  This is our opportunity.  We can show grace to our world.  We can meet people’s needs.  We can testify to all the world that God has not forsaken the world, but that God so loves the world and that God is in the world.  We can make a difference because we are loved by God- and because we believe that God can and will use us to do good in the world.  And God will be pleased by our offerings, even if the good we do doesn’t turn out like we’d hoped.

So hear the truth, see the truth, and taste the truth—that Christ is given for you.  You are claimed, you are saved, you are loved.

This is what it means to be a Lutheran.  This is what it means to be a Christian.  We are children of God, claimed for eternity, and sent to love the world that Jesus loves.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Cost of Dependence ~ Mark 10:17-31 ~ Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost ~ October 14, 2012

One of the first things Elizabeth and I discovered about each other is that we are both very cost-conscious people...

We are coupon cutters and bargain hunters—and we never pay full price for anything.

That’s why we buy “Crispy Hexagon Cereal” instead of Crispix for breakfast...  That’s why we drink Dr. Thunder instead of Dr. Pepper...  That’s why we enjoy meals out at Arby’s more than we do the really fancy places...

The struggling economy has forced just about all of us to be cost conscious.  At the same time, none of us enjoys a super-abundance of time and energy.  There are always things that we would love to be able to have and to do—but there’s only so much of ourselves to go around.  Every purchase and every commitment we undertake comes at a cost—and there always comes a point where the cost becomes too much...and we must say no, and walk away…

This was indeed the case for the “would-be” disciple in today’s Gospel...

He runs up to Jesus, kneels down before him, and asks, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?

Now this would seem a strange question for him to ask, because he has kept all of the commandments.  He firmly believes that he has not fallen short of keeping God’s Law, and yet, there he is, begging.  What must I do?

But Jesus does not tell him what he should do.  Jesus tells him what he lacks, what he must receive—and what he must become to receive it...

Here is a man who is used to relying on his riches and his righteousness in order to gain whatever he’s needed.  These are his security.  These are what he has built his life upon; these are what give his life meaning and purpose.  But to inherit eternal life, he is completely dependent on the mercy of God in Jesus Christ—just like a person who’s poor; just like a person who’s a sinner; just like a child.

To inherit eternal life, he must become as one who is dependent on God for everything.  But first, he must suffer the loss of everything.

This is why he goes away grieving.  He cannot let go…

Now we may not have much in common with this rich man.  None of us has the wealth of kings and queens to be able to buy whatever we want—and I don’t think anyone here would honestly say that they’ve kept every commandment perfectly since birth.

But we, too, struggle with the problem of cost when it comes to following Jesus. 

When Jesus calls us to follow him, there are a lot of things in our lives that we would rather not let go of, because they bring security and meaning and even enjoyment to our lives.  It’s not that Jesus is telling us that we literally have to divest ourselves of everything we have, but he is teaching us that we cannot be attached to them.

Have you ever found yourself thinking, “as long as I have this or I can do that, everything will be okay?”  We become attached to wealth and health; our careers, our relationships, our interests.  We can’t imagine life without them because we build our lives upon them.  We do not want to lose of them, let alone let go of them.  But we know all too well how quickly these can disappear; we know all too well the turmoil and the pain when we suffer the tragedy of loss…

Today, Jesus is calling us to let go of everything we count on to bring us security and meaning and enjoyment, so that we become fully and completely dependent on him.

But these words are an invitation; not a demand we have to meet in order to become fit for heaven.  These words are an invitation for Jesus to become the one who meets your needs and guides you through life.

When we become dependent on Jesus, he will be our Savior.  He will provide for our daily needs.  He will give us strength to make it through tough times.  He will bring joy and meaning and purpose to your life.

So if you are ready to become a disciple, you begin by giving Jesus the first-fruits of who you are and what you have.  You give Jesus the first moments of your day; giving him thanks before you enjoy your meals; giving him the first-fruits of your treasures before you buy the things you need and want.  You begin by striving to meet the needs of others with the same urgency as you meet your own.

It is not too high a cost to put Christ first because you will receive treasures in heaven as Christ comes to rule in your life.  God’s promises will become more real to you; and he will become the one sure rock and fortress for you to build your life upon.  God will not fail to take care of you, whether times are good or times are tough.

Today, God’s Word announces to you that the Holy Spirit is going to be working on your heart and transforming it so that Jesus is your Lord.  Your life will not be rooted in that which is so easily lost, but instead in the unfailing and amazing grace of God.  So don’t be afraid of what the Spirit will do, because you will taste the goodness of the glorious future that awaits you.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

In God’s Family ~ Mark 10:2-16 ~ Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost ~ October 7, 2012

Little four-year-old Timmy loved Sunday school...

Every Sunday, on the car ride home, he was always anxious to tell Mom and Dad about what he’d learned...  And he was always full of questions...

But a few were rather peculiar...

“Why is God’s name Halloween?”

“Is King Kong real?”

“Are there bad people at Penn Station?”

“Who is Reverend Ebbert?”

After several weeks of strange questions like these, Mom and Dad were considering having a talk with Timmy’s Sunday school teachers, just to check on his progress...

Then on Saturday night, right before they were to tuck Timmy into bed, they find him on his knees and praying:

“Our Father, who’s arts in heaven...  Halloween by thy name.  Thy King Kong come, I will be done, on earth as it is in heaven...  Give us today our daily bread, and give us our bus passes, as we give those who bus pass against us...  And lead us not into Penn Station, but deliver us an eagle...  For thine is the King Kong, and the power, and the glory, for Reverend Ebbert, amen...”

Yes, Timmy’s interpretation of the Lord’s prayer was a bit off, but there was no denying the faith of this little child...

If we pay close attention, little children have much to teach us about being a disciple of Jesus Christ...

In our Gospel lesson today, people are bringing little children to Jesus “in order that he might touch them and bless then...”

But in all likelihood, the scene was quite different from the idyllic pictures we remember from our Sunday school rooms of Jesus embracing a crowd of smiling children...

When people came to Jesus seeking his touch, they did so because they were sick and in dire need of his healing.  The scene here would be no different.  In his day, a child’s life expectancy was such that less than half of them would live to see adulthood—meaning that there would be no shortage of sick and needy children.  So this was one of the reasons why Jesus’ disciples were so eager to keep them away from Jesus.  But it was not the only reason.

Children (as well as women) were treated not as persons but as property in this period of history.  They had no rights; just the duty to keep silent and out of the way so as not to bring dishonor upon their patriarchs. 

So any parent who would bring a child to a man of status like Jesus—especially if that child were ill—would be committing an act of utmost rudeness.  And for Jesus to willingly surround himself with poor and sick children would be the ultimate act of self-debasement.

And yet—the children coming to Jesus demonstrate exactly how one receives the Kingdom of God...

The children came to Jesus with nothing to offer him; no status; nothing to offer Jesus in exchange for his favor...  They came to him in need of everything he could give them. 

So it is with us.  Our successes, our wisdom, our age, along with all the good deeds we’ve ever done cannot save us.  There is none who does not sin; there is none who is immortal.  The lifelong churchgoer needs God’s saving grace just as much as the smallest child or the worst sinner or the most adamant non-believer.  We are all beggars standing before a holy God. We all come to him as helpless little children, fully and completely dependent on him to save us from death and the devil.

When it comes to the family of God, we don’t enter it as we would a social club or a new job, as the result of status or achievement.  We are born into it because that is God’s gracious will for us.  We are born into the family of God through our baptism, for the purpose of receiving the good gifts that God gives us. 

In a world that is stratified in terms of haves and have-nots, where people are defined by how they look or how much money they have in the bank or what they do for a living and from what side of the tracks they come, the good news is that there is a place for everyone in the family of God.  No one belongs to God’s family because of what they have or what they do...  We belong to God’s family solely by God’s gracious shown to us in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

And knowing that we have a place in God’s family, we also have an important purpose...

Even though children depend on their parents to care for them and meet their needs, children can nonetheless play a vital role in the care and keeping of other children in the household.  Being a disciple means that we join Jesus in caring for all the people in God’s household.  And like Jesus, we serve according to people’s needs. 

And whatever we do in Jesus’ name will testify to the most important truth a person will ever learn in their life—that they are a child of God, and that they have a place in God’s family.