Sunday, October 27, 2013

Grace for Less-Than-Perfect People ~ John 8:31-38; Romans 3:19-28 ~ Reformation Sunday

I must confess that I am a man.

As a man, I don’t read instructions.  I don’t ask for directions.  I don’t ask for help in lifting heavy objects.

All I need is my mighty strength, my infinite wisdom, my vast experience, and my nerves of steel…

And…I get into trouble.  For all the confidence I put in my flesh, my flesh fails me.  Contrary to what I’d like to believe, my flesh is weak  And that just stinks!

Who among us, male or female, wants to admit to being weak?  Who enjoys being imperfect?  Who loves to ask for help?  That you don’t have it all together? 

Who wants to rely on someone other them themselves to get through life?  Who wants to ask for forgiveness? 

Blindly, we believe that we can achieve anything, endure anything, or overcome anything, totally on our own. 

This can-do spirit can even infect our faith.  We define the Christian life in terms of what we do for God.  We “work our way into up to God” with our good works and our good faith.  We comfortably assume that God will judge us favorably if we do enough good works.  But even then, our flesh fails us.  We are so easily ashamed of ourselves when we question God, when we doubt and cannot trust; when we read the Bible and don’t understand it; and especially when we fail to do what we know is right.  When bad things happen and prayers aren’t answered, do you blame yourself?

The trouble is, we put so much faith in our own strength and our own greatness, that we literally make idols of our flesh.  After all, if we are so strong, so powerful, what do we need God for?

The most painful truth about ourselves is that our flesh is weak.  Very weak.  We all need God. 

And the most outrageous truth about God is that God is gracious.    

This is the truth that sets us free from the bondage of our sinful flesh.  Bound to the flesh, we die; bound to Christ, we live

Our Christian faith is built on the truth that God acts through the person of Jesus Christ to make us right with God’s own self.  Jesus’ blood washes away all of our sin and make us sons and daughters who shall inherit God’s kingdom, totally apart from our merit or deserving. 

Grace means that God does for us what we cannot do ourselves.  God freely gives what we cannot achieve—and what we do not deserve. I daresay that it’s easier to believe in God’s existence than God’s grace.  But this is the greatest truth.

And yet, grace remains so much of a mystery to us because we cannot bear to acknowledge our desperate need for it.   

Given the choice, we’d always choose a faith built upon what we do for God; so that we could put our trust in ourselves rather than in promises that we have yet to see come to fulfillment. 

Dear friends in Christ, the sinner in all of us loves the idea that we can achieve anything—even perfect faith—apart from God.  But if we fail to confess our daily need for God’s grace, we will turn away. 

We’ll never read God’s Word, thinking we already know all there is to know.  We won’t confess our sins because we believe we’re good people.  We’ll put other things first in our lives, believing that our lives won’t be as good if we miss out on them.  We won’t turn to God as long as we believe we’re doing fine. 

Yet God cannot be known apart from grace—and we can never know grace unless we confess our tremendous need for grace. 

Today, Jesus speaks of truth that sets you free: God comes to give you what you did not ask for and what you do not deserve.  God comes to give you what you desperately need. 

You are a child of God because of what God does for you.  God doesn’t come to us from within our hearts; nor do we compel God to come to us by our good works.  God comes from above and beyond yourself, to meet you where you are.  It is grace that brought you here to church today.  At the font, at the table, in the Word, and in the brothers and sisters who care for you, you are reborn into the being of God.  You are no longer a slave to sin, death, and fear.  You are bound to the one who forgives you and gives you righteousness, peace, and hope. 

Without God’s grace, you shall forever be but dust and ashes; no matter how much greatness you achieve in this life. 

Is your life filled with fear and worry?  Are you running yourself ragged to try and please everyone?  Are you ashamed of things you’ve done and the mistakes you’ve made?  Are you questioning God and struggling to believe because of all the hurt in your life and the evil in the world?  Stop putting your faith in your flesh.  Put your faith in Christ and his cross.  Let God’s grace fall upon you like rain. 

You free from your past and your mistakes.  You are forgiven.

You are free to entrust your fears, your worries, and your future into God’s hands.

You are free to be the person God created you to be—a living sign of God’s love in a world that knows so little grace.

You are free to live in God’s peace.  Don’t worry—there will be grace to meet your every need. 

Life will surely bring trouble—but God will always be gracious. 

So leave your sins, your sorrow, and your fear at the cross—and feast on the goodness of God. 

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Go Ahead. Wear God Out with Your Prayers. ~ Luke 18:1-8 ~ Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost

My life of prayer began beneath this picture that hung on the wall of my bedroom since the day I was born.  From the time I could speak, my parents would kneel with me at my bedside while I said my bedtime prayers.

I love images of prayer like this one—because they illustrate the beautiful gift of peace that God gives us when we pray.  Prayer is the gift of peaceful communion with God.  It is such peace that we are to pursue with prayer; “the peace that passes understanding.” 

But much of the time, our prayers will not begin with such peace.  Many of our prayers will begin in anguish.  Our heads will be pounding with stress; our hearts stinging with sorrow; our bodies worn and weary.  We cry out to God with the weight of the world on our shoulders, if only that God would come and take all the hurt away.  But is this what happens when we say “amen?”

Consider for a moment Jesus praying on the Mount of Olives before his crucifixion…  Luke writes that “in his anguish…his sweat became like great drops of blood falling on the ground.”  His disciples couldn’t even stay awake because of their grief.

And then there’s this parable about a widow who’s pleading for justice from the city judge…

In Jesus’ day, people generally didn’t do much to take care of widows.  With their husbands dead, they had little means to support themselves and their children.  Unless their parents or their husbands’ families had the means to care for them (and were kind enough to do so), they’d be beggars for the rest of their lives.  They’d also be an easy target for scoundrels—as this particular widow bad become…

So she goes to the judge and begs him for justice.  Time and time again he refuses; but time and time again she returns.  And finally, he grants her justice—just to shut her up…

Jesus teaches us that we are to be that persistent in our praying.  The reason why, is that God will seem not unlike the judge—as cruel and uncaring when we do not receive the answers we’re expecting. 

We cannot ignore the fact that there is a very real danger for all of us to lose heart in our faith and trust in God—especially considering the times we’re living in right now. 

Just consider our community: how many steel mills have closed and the businesses that have vanished.  Think of how many families who can’t make ends meet.  Many of us who’ve been in this church can remember when this sanctuary was packed and not like it is now. 

There’s the people in our lives that are so precious to us that have departed this life and now we must go on without them. 

How can someone not lose heart when things are already bad—and they get even worse?  Why bother to pray at all?  How can you really believe in the power of prayer when the answers don’t come?

It is in times like these where we have no choice but to surrender—but to what?  To hopelessness?  Or, do we surrender to God?

The first miracle of prayer—is that God gives you the faith to pray.  Prayer is an act of surrender.  We pray because there is no one else; there is nothing else upon which we can rely.  We pray because we are powerless against Satan and chaos.  We pray because we can’t make it on our own.  When we can’t—God can

When you give up trying to fight that which is bigger than you and that you cannot control, God takes over.  God will give you faith by which you will begin to see what God is doing: God is destroying death, eradicating evil and injustice; bringing peace and healing and new life to the world.  And God is taking care of you personally.  You will be okay.  We can’t necessarily pray our troubles away, but we can be at peace as we see by faith what God is doing. 

Furthermore, God will act in your prayers to draw you into God’s saving work for all the world.  The Holy Spirit will transform you into an angel of God’s compassion, mercy, and healing.  You will literally become the answer to someone else’s prayers as God answers yours.  God will form you into the faith of Christ, the love of Christ, and the hope of Christ.

One thing is certain—prayer will often be a wrestling match with God.  When times are tough, there will always be the temptation to give up on prayer; on church; on doing good—and even God.   But your life is a gift from God—so why should you lose it to what is terrible since you can pray?

If you spend more time worrying and weeping about what is, make today the day you turn the tables against fear.  Let that perfect peace with God be the goal you pursue in every prayer—because we will have to wait, sometimes a long time, for God to make right what is wrong.  But pray fervently for that perfect peace with God.  Go ahead and wear God out with your praying.  And always remember: we don’t pray to get God to do things for us.  We pray because of what God is doing for us.  So bring before God what hurts the most today.  Be drawn into God’s presence.  Pray because you believe God will overcome, and by grace, you will too

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Seriously, Count Your Blessings ~ Luke 17:11-19 ~ Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

Does God exist for you?  Or, do you exist for God?
Think about it…  What would you say?
In our Gospel, we hear from ten people whose actions speak louder than words ever could: ten people who had been afflicted with leprosy. 
Two thousand years ago, leprosy was, the most feared and dreadful disease that could ever afflict a human being.  It wasn’t necessarily a fatal disease, but to be infected with leprosy was to become, basically, dead.   Your body would be covered with disgusting reddish or greenish boils that would sting, itch, and peal with excruciating pain. 
And leprosy was extremely contagious.  You could contract the disease simply by touching a piece of clothing or furniture that had been exposed to a leper.  Old Testament Laws mandated that lepers be expelled from their communities and live in isolation.  They were legally required to yell out, “unclean, unclean,” to warn passersby to stay away, lest they become infected. 
Let’s not forget that people thought they could speak for God in those days—so leprosy was interpreted as a sure sign that you are a terrible person, and God is against you.  You may as well have been dead, rather than live like this…
But then it happens that the ten see Jesus approaching, and they cry out to him for mercy.  Jesus immediately tells them to go and show themselves to the priests, who would pronounce them cured of leprosy and permit them to come home.  So all ten go on their way, and all ten are made clean.  But only one gives praise to God.  Only one returns to Jesus to thank him. 
And what we see in the other nine is more than just bad manners…
We all know what it’s like to give a gift and not be thanked.  We know what it’s like to work really hard, go that extra mile, and hear not even a word of appreciation.  And then, the moment you stop giving, you get chewed out.  Then you feel worthless.  Abused. Taken advantage of.  That lack of appreciation basically says to you, “you are nothing to me beyond what you do for me.” 
Thanklessness is an outward expression of the sin that exists in us all.  It is in sin that we reduce other people, and even God, to appliances.   They’re worth nothing more to us than what we get from them.  We see this kind of behavior every day—and we know how toxic it is to our workplaces and our communities. 
Thanklessness is an attitude by which we put ourselves into the center of the universe, and act as though God and neighbor exist only for our own benefit.  It is in sin that we make an idol out of God—worshipping God as little more than a divine ATM machine who should give us whatever we want because we believe we deserve it. 
The nine lepers may be cured—but in their thanklessness, they miss what is the greatest gift they could have received: and wasn’t a cure.  It’s Jesus; God in the flesh who loved and cared for them and saved them when everyone else had left them for dead.  God in the flesh who had mercy on them and accepted them; and not on the basis of their merit or worthiness, but totally out of grace. 
Dear friends, God does not exist for us—but we exist for God.  Yet this is not bad news.  This is the best news—because it is our Creator’s delight to love and care for us; and even to forgive our sins.
When we put on an attitude of thankfulness; and count our blessings, the eyes of our hearts our opened to the reality of God’s presence in our lives.  By giving thanks, we see the God who is with us.
Years ago, a seminary classmate surprised Elizabeth and me when she pulled into an empty parking space, crossed herself, and spoke a prayer of thanksgiving to God…  For a parking space in a nearly empty lot…
She explained that she began thanking God for her parking spaces shortly after her daughter and her Father had died—all within the space of a few months.  At no time in her life had she felt more abandoned by God.  But deep in her heart, she refused to believe that was true.
So she considered what was the biggest annoyance in her day: the lack of adequate parking in the crowded urban neighborhood where she lived and worked.  Anytime she found a space, she thanked God—even if she had to walk a mile to get to where she was going.  And when she had to walk a mile, she thanked God for providing parking spaces for her neighbors. 
Gradually, her broken heart began to heal as she came to realize all the other ways that God was taking care of her.  She discovered that she could love God again because God had never stopped loving her.  Through her thanksgiving, God gave her the hope that she was going to be okay.
You and me exist for God.
And at some point in our lives, we will be where these ten lepers were—lost, abandoned, forsaken, and alone—with nothing in sight to be thankful for.  But God will be there with us—and God will not be silent.  The blessings will flow—if only as a mist of grace.  So never think it silly to count your blessings; to consider your life and reflect upon the good you are permitted to do and receive.  I recall a silly old Sunday school song that’s not at all silly:

When upon life’s billows you are tempest-tossed,
When you are discouraged, thinking all is lost,
Count your many blessings, name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what the Lord hath done.

There is always something to be thankful for—for even when all is lost, one truth remains: your God reigns—and you belong to God. 

Thursday, October 10, 2013

A New Church for New Generations ~ Acts 8:26-40 ~ Contemporary Worship Celebration

There is no time in your life that is more exciting—and at the same time more scary—than the day when your name is called, and you come forward, dressed in your cap and gown, to receive your high school diploma.

Graduation day is always going to be exciting—because, let’s face it: school’s out!  You have successfully completed childhood!  Now it’s time to party with our friends; time to celebrate the freedom of becoming an adult.

But the excitement will always be short lived.  When we graduate from high school, we also graduate from the familiar world we’d always known; most especially the people with whom we’d shared our lives.  You start college or trade school; you begin a new job or you enter the military, and you’re all alone in a brave new world.

That was my experience when I began my freshman year at Grove City College in the fall of 1999.  I’ll never forget the day I moved into the dorm—because the first thing I noticed about my new dorm-mates was how large they were, compared to my 5’ 9”.  I’d never seen that many large men in my whole life.  And my roommate was no exception—although he didn’t sound that burly on the phone.

I realized how far in over my head I was when the R.A.s gathered us in the common area to introduce ourselves to each other.  My heart fell out of my chest when they said, “tell us your name, where you’re from, and what sport you play…”  One by one, they said it: “football team; basketball team; soccer team; baseball team.”  I’d never played any sports in my life—unless you’d count bowling… 

So when it was my turn, I’ve got all the eyes of all the large men on me, and I tell them, “My name’s Jim, and I’m in the marching band.” Everyone stared at me in silence—until some random voice finally said “cool.”  And they moved on.

But let me tell you—as scared as I was that I wasn’t going to fit in, those guys became some of my best friends.  Not one of them ever mistreated me because I was different.

Our God relates in the very same way to those who are outsiders to the Body of Christ in the world.

Over ninety percent of the people in this country believe that God exists—but fewer than a third ever go to church.  So many people who never hear the Word, receive the sacraments, and belong to the community that is the Body of Christ…  Yet God is not content with this status quo. 

God’s heart burns with compassion towards all who do not believe, even the atheist.  God’s love knows no bounds—so God is always doing something new to break down the barriers that keep people from living in the love of Christ.  And God will not stop until everyone’s in.  That’s why God is always doing new things, to bring outsiders in. 

That is what we see happening in the story we just heard from Acts.  An Ethiopian Eunuch (who happened also to be a royal official of the queen) is on his way home from worshipping God in Jerusalem.

The Ethiopian eunuch was a black man—and because of that, there would have been no question in anyone’s mind that he was a Gentile; an outsider…  And even though Gentile converts were permitted to participate in worship at the temple—he would not have been allowed.  The Law of Moses strictly forbids any man whose member had been maimed from coming into the assembly of the Lord.

The fact that he was a royal official of the queen of the Ethiopians would not have mattered.  His kind could not enjoy full membership in the community.  His kind worshipped God on the outside of the temple…

He was an outsider—and he knew it.

But God is about to change all that…  God’s love is so vast that it can never be contained within the boundaries we human beings are so fit to create.  God has a plan for him—as well as for his fellow Africans—that they learn the truth that they are not outsiders to God.  They too, have their place in the community of Christ.  So God goes out in pursuit of the Ethiopian eunuch.  God does this by sending in a man by the name of Philip.

They meet up on the road.  These two vastly different men, from two different worlds, welcome each other.  They read the Word of God together, and right then and there, the Ethiopian becomes the first African to be baptized.  How exciting it is to think that Christianity continues to spread so rapidly in many African nations that they cannot build new churches fast enough.  It’s all because God did something new—God used two ordinary people to it. 

So often we make the mistake to think that faith is found only in churches.  That’s wrong.  With most people not going to church, it’s not outrageous to think that there is more faith among outsiders.  The only difference is that faith has not been kindled yet by the ministries of Word and Sacrament that you and I are called to proclaim. 

People are outsiders—and their faith remains un-kindled—for more reasons than I can ever name here.  There are, of course, the prejudices we all have about those different from us, be they real or imagined.  But there are so many more walls: the people who are poor and disadvantaged, who don’t own “nice church clothes” or the ability to put a gift in the plate.  There are the people who believe God could never love someone like them because of the sins they’ve committed.  There are those who’ve known so much suffering and pain in their lives that they cannot find any way to believe in God at all—and yet they want, they want, to believe that God exists and that hope is real.  The greatest challenge of our time—and our God-given duty—is to join Jesus Christ as he tears down the walls and the boundaries, so that the whole world hears that he is Lord; that his love is unconditional; that the forgiveness of sins and the promise of God’s kingdom is given freely to all apart from our worthiness and deserving.  Everyone has their place in the Body of Christ.  So what new things is Jesus doing to ignite the faith of the neighbors?

The church belongs to God, but it exists for everyone.  It is God’s gift to you and me, to nurture you in your faith.  But you’ll never really know the beauty of this gift, unless you give to it your dreams, your visions, as well as your time and talents—to reform and renew it, so that the least, the lowliest, and the lost of our neighbors may become our brothers and sisters in Christ.  God’s going to use you just like God used Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch to do this.  Your church is not a building or an institution.  It is the arms of Jesus Christ, opened in love and acceptance of every stranger and every sinner.  The power of the Holy Spirit is upon you to make it happen; to make the walls disappear so that the love of Christ touches every heart and every home.

You are sent into the world just like Philip—because God has plans to build a new church out of new generations who will believe.  We’re not without tremendous challenges in our time, but they are no match for the power of God that lives and breathes in people like you and me.  There will always be God—and therefore there will always be the Church.  We can be that church, by the help of God and the Holy Spirit.  Let’s be made new.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Audacity of Faith ~ Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4 ~ Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

I’m about to say something shocking, perhaps offensive, and definitely sacrilegious: I am not a sports fan.  I never have been.  I don’t watch games on TV, and you’ll never see Elizabeth and me at PNC Park or Heinz Field.  It’s not that we hate our black & gold.  Sports just isn’t much of a priority.

But let me tell you that it’s easier for me to confess this to all of you than it is to admit this to the die-hard sports fans you see in this town.  Not too long ago, a complete stranger, decked out in black and gold, asked me if I watched the last Pirates game.  I replied that I never watch the Pirates.  She (literally) punched me in the arm and told me that I didn’t deserve to live!

And yet, I can’t help but feel malaise for our beloved Steelers and their tragic 0-4 season.  None of us could’ve ever imagined such misery could be possible.  But here we are.  How awful it is.  And the question on everyone’s minds, is: who is to blame?  Who’s not doing their job?  Who’s asleep at the switch? 

And; is there any hope?

Long ago, a man by the name of Habakkuk struggled with this very question.  The year is 600 before Christ.  His tiny country of Judah is surrounded by violent and dangerous nations.  God’s chosen people are living as though God does not even exist; committing disgusting acts of violence, perversion, and oppression of the poorest and most vulnerable.  The way Habakkuk sees it, God is asleep at the switch—doing nothing to stop the madness and protect the righteous and innocent.  His worst fear—is that all hope is lost…

At some point in our lives, we will all be where Habakkuk is now, if we’re not there already. Tragedy strikes, and there’s nothing that can be done to reverse the situation.  A loved one dies.  A terminal disease is diagnosed.  A relationship ends.  A job is lost.  We commit a sin, and there’s no way to undo the deed and its dreadful consequences.  You find yourself in a situation you could have never imagined in your worst nightmares, and you call out to God to come and pull you out of the hell and set you back into the life that was before.  But God doesn’t do that.  Then, the tragedies of life become a tragedy of faith: losing all hope that God is going to come and save us. 

Be certain that the devil works very hard to convince you that God is against you or that God doesn’t exist at all—and the devil will point to all the tragedies in your life and all the evil in the world as PROOF.  And in these times we’re living in, it is not difficult to lose all hope. 

Why else would someone not pray or come to church? Why would someone not share their gifts or their faith?  Why would a church close? 

Hopelessness is the belief that God is dead—and that we have nothing to offer to this hurting world, either as individuals or as a congregation.  Hopelessness is the belief that healing isn’t possible; and that the world is going to continue to go down in flames.  Hopelessness makes you a prisoner to fear.

But Habakkuk picks up what is our most effective weapon against the Satan of hopelessness: he prays to God.  And God speaks back what is truth: God is not asleep at the switch, as all the chaos would suggest.  In fact, God is working in the midst of the chaos for the sake of God’s people.  Evil isn’t going to win.  God is in control.  God keeps promises. 

The challenge to Habakkuk and all the faithful is to wait and trust that God will keep every promise.  And when we must wait, God gives us a gift called faith, so that we can (1) personally know God in relationship; (2) witness what God is doing; and (3) even participate in what God is doing.

So often, we say things like, “if I had more faith, God would’ve answered my prayers,” or; “I didn’t pray hard enough for God to answer my prayers.”  Yet faith is not something you achieve.  Faith is a gift of God—just as hope is a gift of God.  Faith begins when you are drawn into the life and ministry of the Triune God for the sake of the world.  God speaks to you through the Word and in your prayers.  God comforts you times of fear and strengthens you in times of weakness.  God makes you an angel; a living sign that God is in the world.  You become a gift to the world by sharing the gift of what you have and who you are. 

If you believe in God, believe in hope.  Listen as God reaches out to you in love, softly and gently calling you by name.  If you believe in God, then come to the waters of baptism and be born and reborn into me.  Let the waters wash away your sins.  Let God’s Word calm your fears, destroy the devil’s lies, and reveal to you your ultimate destiny.  Come to your Lord’s table, eat and drink, live forever, and never be hungry.  And then, go out into the world as God makes hope a reality. 

Why should we live as people without hope?  Why should we be prisoners to fear?  God is with us, even in the darkest of times—and God is in control.  And though the sorrows of today may still be here tomorrow, and the worst of life’s storms be still in the horizon, remember that your God reigns.  God is doing great things!  Trust in God—believe in hope.