Tag: Paul

Powerful Weakness

2 Corinthians 12:2-10 81vRnmnrlBL
Mark 6:1-13

Have you been Saved? Call out the day and the hour and the minute you felt Jesus in your heart!
Have you seen angels? When and where and what did they do?
Have you been touched? What miracle did you witness?
What about out of body experiences?
What about dreams of heaven and visitations from the dead?
Can you feel the Spirit!?

In some churches, the space between this world and the unseen is very thin. They feel these great revelations and know the flow of the Spirit as strong a presence as someone right here. Sometimes it is so strong they get possessed, speak in tongues, fall into seizures, or even faint.

And for some churches, and for some people, faith and grace keeps them going. Not supernatural experiences. Not out of body moments. Not miracles.

Minute after minute, hour after hour, day after day, they keep on going to church, keep on praying, keep to their religion in their emptiness.

And in emptiness, we are still strong.

Mother Theresa wrote the following confessing prayer to Jesus:

“Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me? The Child of your Love–and now become as the most hated one–the one–You have thrown away as unwanted–unloved. I call, I cling, I want–and there is no One to answer–no One on Whom I can cling–no, No One.–Alone … Where is my Faith–even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness & darkness–My God–how painful is this unknown pain–I have no Faith–I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart–& make me suffer untold agony.

So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover them–because of the blasphemy–If there be God –please forgive me–When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven–there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives & hurt my very soul.–I am told God loves me–and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul. Did I make a mistake in surrendering blindly to the Call of the Sacred Heart?”

Over her life, she felt in her soul so alone, so empty, so without the Spirit in her…

… and yet, she came to see this as a gift.

She knew this is the feeling Jesus had on the cross. This is the pain that made him cry out “My God, my god, why have you forsaken me?” This is the emptiness that Jesus poured himself to for us.

And that is the loneliness that the forsaken and poor of our world feel from society.

She drew strength from the Emptiness

The weakness forced her to become Strong in ways she wouldn’t have known otherwise

Jesus’ weakness of being human is the strength that unites us with God.

Jesus’ emptiness of his divinity on the cross to feel death is how no matter whether we live or die, our God is with us, our Christ experiencing and having had experienced this with us, and pulling us towards the final victory over death, over sin, over separation.

There is strength in not being self contained.

There IS strength in relying on Christ.

Whether we do so with the gift of tongues and visions, or we do so with the gift of a long, dark, night of the soul where we feel spiritually dry and alone.

There is still strength in relying on Christ versus solely ourselves.

And that is what Paul is arguing today.

Paul knows of churches where the Spirit manifests boldly.

Paul knows of people who have had great visions – himself included.

But he also knows there’s people who practice their faith for minutes, and hours, and days, and weeks, and months and years and never sense anything supernatural. But that does not mean they have less faith than those who can manifest Pentecostal tongues or those who have visions. No – he knows God has said “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”

Christ’s presence is all we need.

When we are weak, we are strong – because then we are relying on Christ and not ourselves.

When we have times when we really feel our faith we should delight in that. And delight in others who do. And when we have times we are just doing the motions out of faith, not out of feeling it, we should delight in that too. Those are times Jesus is carrying us. And we should delight in others who are being carried by Jesus too.

Remember this is Paul who will argue that the body of Christ is made of all kinds of parts and people. Not everyone can be an eye, for we need ears. Not everyone can be an ear, for we need eyes. Not everyone will be a mystic, and spiritual; we need thinkers and doubters and questioners. Not everyone needs to be a thinker and doubter and questioner either — we need our people sensing the divine.

It is our weakness – not being able to be everything for ourselves- that makes us strong. For then we rely on one another; and rely on Christ.

Jesus’ message is the same as Paul’s. Or rather, Paul was preaching similar lessons as Jesus.

We read today that Jesus came to his hometown after having been out and about preaching and doing miracles. He goes to the synagogue and begins to preach.

Just like at the other places, people are amazed at what he is saying. But instead of celebrating the good news of God’s forgiveness and the in breaking of the reign of God… they are amazed at his audacity. They’ve always heard of great preachers and prophets as larger than life characters. Amazing people. Astonishing in person.

But this is just Mary’s son.

There’s his sisters.

And his brothers.

He’s not some super trained doctorate of religion… he’s a carpenter. Look, I’m using the chair he made last year. And Bobby over there used to make mud pies with little Jesus and Tammy there changed his diapers.

This is no miracle worker. This is Just Jesus.

Our church is no church in Corinth. No Saint Paul’s Cathedral or none-denominational mega church. This is Just Saint Michael’s.

What can we do?

The people in Jesus’ hometown thought he was nothing and so saw him do nothing. They were limited by how much they would permit him to be. They knew the human Jesus who had faults and flaws and was so mortal. And they demanded miracle workers to be fully perfect and have everything in order.

But that’s not the message of God. God loved us while we were still sinners. While not perfect, we’re called. While full of the Spirit or full of spiritual emptiness, we are included into the Body of Christ and told there is a spot for us. Those full of visions and those questioning the existence of God both are called to be saints, and to “Come be [Christ’s] light” to the world. (Jesus to Mother Theresa)

So Jesus sends us out. Sends the disciples out. Sends us out. Not loaded with everything figured out and perfect, but carrying just Jesus. He tells them to go with the bare minimum and to rely on the hospitality of strangers. He tells them to go with nothing spare. No backups. No money. Not even an extra cloak or pair of shoes. Just themselves. “Eugene Peterson offers Jesus’ instructions this way: “Don’t think you need a lot of extra equipment for this. You are the equipment” (The Message).

God never calls the equipped. God equips the called.

God never picks perfect people, perfect churches, perfect situations. God makes perfect the strength in those called.

And we, all who are Christian, are called to be Christ’s light to the world.

In your weakness, strength is made perfect.

In your need of Christ, you are filled with Christ whether you feel it or not.

In your brokenness, you are the perfect person to help another who is broken.

In your pain, you understand the pain of another.

Rev. Sally Brown applies these thoughts to our world today. She writes, “…culture is eyeing the churches these days, testing our credibility. Congregations may imagine that they cannot think about public witness until their internal problems, doctrinal and budgetary, are all resolved. But it may be precisely our internal challenges that press us into the kind of engagement with each other and with the Spirit that can turn us, sooner rather than later, away from cloying self-absorption and outward to the world God loves. Even in our weakness, maybe even because of it, we become credible witnesses of saving news in this frantic, fearful world.”

In other words… our culture is looking to us, looking to church communities, to see how to get through our trying times.

America is fractured and fighting. As we fight ourselves, we affect our world. The effects are helping raise tensions everywhere. Are we heading towards another world war?

I don’t know.

I do know, that we, in our imperfection, are called to this hurting country and hurting world. Not because we have it all together, but because we’re authentic in our tries to live together in our diversity. We are the equipment. We are the witnesses. We are the people called to say, “I wholly disagree with you, but I can still love you.” “I will not ever vote like you do, but I will share bread with you.” “I am not you, but I am glad you are my neighbor.”

Who you are now, without everything figured out, is needed now to be Christ’s light.

Amen.

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Whose Baptism?

Acts 8:26-40

thekla2
This fresco represents the calling of Thekla, which led her to renounce her engagement and her life as a married woman. Thekla appears at a window (far left), listening to Paul as he preaches with his raised right hand on an open codex. Behind Paul, stands Theokleia, Thekla’s mother, with her right hand raised in admonition (her eyes and right hand have been scratched out, an indication that someone considered her a heretic). Thekla was not permitted to appear in public, but she heard Paul’s sermon from the window of a neighbor’s house and was spellbound by his words. In spite of her mother’s admonition, she renounced her engagement, followed Paul, and spread the word of God. “Stylistic comparisons suggest a date for these paintings in the late 5th or early 6th century A.D., in particular in the Justinianic period” [Austrian Archaeological Institute (www.oeai.at/index.php/st-pauls-grotto.html)].
 “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” The Ethiopian treasurer asks Philip this as they ride along in the treasurer’s royal cart and carriage. “Look, here is water!”

And Philip responds by leaping off the wagon, and baptizing the new believer.

No special water.

No special time.

No special place.

An ancient story, not in our Bible but still from 180 AD, is the story of “Acts of Paul and Thecla.” Thekla, like the Treasurer in our Gospel today, is a noble. She listens to Paul’s preaching, and she decides to become a follower of Christ. She breaks off her engagement with another nobleman and says: ‘I’m staying a virgin and following Paul about and the Christ!’ This goes over just as well as you think it will. The town flogs and tosses Paul out, but decide to burn her at the stake if she won’t give up Christ.

And she won’t.

What begins is a series of miracles — rain saves her from the fire, smoke covers her like clothing so she doesn’t have to be naked, and Thekla walks boldly back to Paul. She now says – Don’t just let me come with you, listening, but let me cut my hair and pass myself off as a man, so I can preach this good news too! Just give me a baptism!

And Paul says no. She’s a woman, and women clearly don’t preach. So he won’t baptize her.

But Thekla doesn’t go home.

In the very next town, Thekla again is told to give up Christianity and marry a guy. And again she refuses. And again the town takes her clothes away to shame her and tries to kill her. Again miracles occur. When it looks like things are over and Thekla is in the middle of the city arena where the pond is full of hungry seals and the land with every angry beast, Thekla knees and prays.

“In the name of Jesus Christ do I baptize MYSELF” and she throws herself into the pond of hungry creatures.

No special time.

No special place.

No special water.

Then there are more miracles. Lightening strikes and fire and lots of chaos. Every animal and every human that tries to harm Thekla finds they cannot. In the end, the town is scared of her and asks, “Who are you?!”

She answers, “I am the handmaid of the living God; and what I have about me-it is that I have believed on that his Son in whom God is well pleased; for whose sake not one of the beasts hath touched me. For he alone is the goal (or way) of salvation and the substance of life immortal; for unto them that are tossed about he is a refuge, unto the oppressed relief, unto the despairing shelter, and in a word, whosoever believeth not on him, shall not live, but die everlastingly.”

The governor orders clothes given to the woman and her permitted to leave.

But Thekla says no. She’s put on the garments of salvation, and those are what she’ll leave with.

A whole lot of the town converted to Christianity that day.

Thekla then traveled, preaching, testifying, healing, and teaching the Word of God.

When she ran into Paul, he was amazed to see what a following she had, and he asked what was going on – and did she still want baptized? She answered, “He that hath worked together with thee in the Gospel, hath worked with me also unto my baptizing.”

In other words… The same person who converted you, Paul, to Christianity and brought you to understand the scriptures is who baptized me.

That same person is who baptized the Ethiopian treasurer. Philip just was there, enabling the receiving of the gift.

That same person baptized each of us.

The water doesn’t matter.

The time doesn’t matter.

The place doesn’t matter.

Baptism is a gift from God to us, and we respond back to God. And as a community, we welcome our new sibling and begin to walk with them through all of their lives.

It is why little ones can be and are baptized.

Baptisms are from God.

No human can prevent them because we humans, we’re participating in and witnessing a sacred moment between an individual and the Holy Divine.

No one here heard the conversation Rebecca and God had today. But it happened. It is in her soul. There in the desert near Ethiopia, or in the crowded coliseum arena of a city, no one HEARD the conversation that man or woman had.

But Philip and a whole ancient city witnessed the holy moments.

Today you are Rebecca’s witnesses. You need to tell her the story of her baptism. Just like you need to tell the story to Alden, and every one of our children — age 0 to 100.

And we need to remember our own baptisms, and the stories we’ve been told about them.

At that moment, you and God connected in a brand new way. At that moment, you joined in Christ’s birth, and life, death, and resurrection. At that moment, you gained a family that will never, ever fit in one place for a family reunion. (Well… no reunion here on Earth.) At that moment, some human baptized you in the name of Christ – but it was God who reached out, touched you, washed you, sealed you with the Spirit, and gave you a new life in Christ.

So who’s baptism is it? In our scriptures, we hear of people arguing about whether someone has received the baptism of Paul’s, or the baptism of John’s. You may today hear today people refer to the Methodist baptism, or the Catholic baptism, or the United Church of Christ baptism…

But there is only one baptism. One God. One Creator, sustainer, and redeemer in who gifts us this sacred ritual.

We all share the baptism of Christ.

Amen.

Made for Good Works

John 3:14-21gandhi
Ephesians 2:1-10

Paul is writing to the little group of religious refugees in Ephesus.

He says, once — all of you — including all of us here at Saint Michael’s — were existing in the course of the world, following the ‘aeon’ or spirit of the air, the gestalt, or the common way of doing things. And the common way of doing things is disobedient to God. It’s full of trespasses and sins. We harm each other even though we don’t mean to just because we’re in the world. The systems we live in have racism, sexism, and ableism, agism, and all kinds of isms built into them. Without meaning to, we participate. Our clothes are made overseas in sweat shops. Our food is often gathered in by hands paid 10 cents a basket – almost slaves. Our electricity comes from the lives of men and women and kids who suffer from coal pollution.

Just by being – we are harming others.

And even if we die, we still harm others – because now we’re embalmed with chemicals, and our relatives burn fossil fuels to come to our funerals, and those fuels pollute the air, and water, and ground and…

You get the idea.

Living or dying, the “normal” way of the world is to harm others… even if we don’t mean to and don’t want to.

So we become the children of wrath, anger, and frustration. If we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t, why put the extra effort into fair trade and local food instead of the cheapest food? Why bring your own bags to the store when they’ll happily give you plastic? Why conserve electricity. Or not litter.

The world, as it is, encourages us to follow our impulses, our short-lived desires, and have faith only in that which we can touch and sense with our bodies.

Paul says all of this made us dead.

Dead.

Not physically – but inside.

Dead.

Dreading to get up in the morning.

Dead. Depressed and seeking escape.

Dead. Not feeling generous, or merciful, or loving.

Dead. Just existing. Not living. Not thriving.

But, says Paul, God — rich in mercy — rich in love — reached out to us. We didn’t change. We didn’t do anything to merit this. God just in God’s love, and mercy, and grace chose to reach out and touch the world – touch us – full of sin and trespasses and stuck in these systems that force us to just keep sinning against one another – God reaches into this world, and picks us up one by one, and places us in a new world.

A world not ruled by the way things are.

A world instead ruled by the Messiah.

This new world lays atop of the world with the way things are, and we exist in both simultaneously. The new world, reigned by God, is a world of justice, and mercy, and peace. A world where it is possible to live in unified diversity. A world of light, and love, and understanding.

It is the world that one day will be the normal world, the way things usually are. But that heaven on earth is not yet here.

Instead, we get little glimpses of it, and invited to live into it now.

We’re the people with just a foretaste, a little snack, before the big meal.

And since we’re the snackers, it’s our job to get the house ready for the big meal. We know what is to come, and we’re to live that new world into fruition. Live like that new world is already here. Because the more we live like that, the closer by is the realm of God.

Paul says we — who stand with one foot mired in the way things are, and one foot in the realm of God — we’re created for this very work. Created at the very beginning to do good works.

I don’t know if Paul means when we are reborn in Christ, or when God first creates us, but I am confident Paul is saying we Christians have a mission, a purpose – and that is to live our lives in the realm of God.

Living in the realm of God is doing good, doing right, to ourselves and to others.

Now – works and deeds never save us from sin. No one can be perfect. Don’t think church and heaven and God are for the perfect. Paul is not saying earn your way into heaven. Remember? He said God already moved, already opened the door, and is welcoming us into the new creation.

Rather, Paul is saying when we live in that new creation, we cannot help but do goodness to one another. It is what we’re created to do. So keep encouraging it!

Truly, Church and heaven and God are for the sinsick, the people who are sick and tired of the way things are, and want change. The people who want sin to be no more.

We are saved from sin and harm and evil being the norm by God – who came, and showed the world that God is stronger than the sin and harm and evil we inflict on each other, or even God’s own son.

The Easter story is: God won. Jesus is resurrected. Sin, harm, evil, death are defeated.

This is what John and Paul are writing about.

We read today part of Jesus’ speech to Nicodemus in John. Nicodemus, you may recall, is the man who comes to Jesus in the middle of the night to ask questions. And in the book of John, Jesus says — remember Moses lifting up, exalting, the serpent? The serpent was a symbol of death. Yet, through it, came life. So, too, do I have to be lifted up – exalted – through a sign of death.

God defeated the serpent at the serpents’ own game. Defeated death through death. And defeats the way of the world, the way of sin, by entering the world and changing the way of the world to one of love.

Remember – “God so loved the world…” God so LOVES the world… that God’s love is transforming the “normal” from sin to love.

And we’re the people asked to participate.

That’s the condemnation, writes Paul. Judgment doesn’t come from Jesus, or the cross, or even God.

We are our own judges and judgment.

If we love light, and goodness, and Truth, if we want to work for harmony, and peace, and love; then we are already living into the new realm, the new reign, of God.

But if we love darkness, being evil, and lies, if we want to work for self-security, profit, and out of fear, then we don’t like God’s message. And we are choosing to live in the world ruled by the way things are right now.

That is our own judgment. We choose to live into the new world, or we choose to try to keep things the way they are.

John writes like it is super easy to pick one or the other.

But, I find it is SO hard.

Change is scary.

I like being secure and I’d like to be rich.

Sometimes, I don’t want to understand what goes into making my shoes because if I understand, and still choose this brand, then I am implicated. I am guilty. I am now choosing to participate in the sin of harming those workers in India and China.

Sometimes, I prefer the darkness. The not understanding. The not knowing.

Knowing, the light, is too painful. I’d rather my deeds not be exposed.

You’ve heard it said before that ignorance is bliss.

Yes, it is.

The judgement is whether we’ll give up that ignorance, and bliss, and choose the narrow path – full of heart-ache, and full of great reward – but not easy in the least.

Being Christian is hard work. It is heart work: the hardest kind. And changing the world is not easy.

I cannot help but wonder how my own little deeds have any effect on the world. What a penny? A jar of peanut butter? A smile? What are these tokens of kindness compared to the massive amount of harm occurring?

I am a single drop of water in a dry desert.

So Paul writes us encouragement.

Every dollar is made out of pennies.
Every forest is made out of trees.
Every house is made out of nails.
Every Christian is made out of single prayers.

In the body of Christ, no eye can say an ear isn’t needed, and no face say no “part we cover up” isn’t needed. Everything, every little bit, together, makes a difference.

And it all comes down to the little daily things we do.

Comes down to the very atoms of our bodies.

The atoms of the world. And universe.

Changing the world begins wherever you are.

For wherever you are, you are called to live into the realm of God and show it, and its victory, over the realm of the way things currently are.

Today we took an offering for the One Great Hour of Sharing. This helps organizations large and small all across our world.

Consider Sarah. She is a young mother, and was faced with an incredible challenge: her nine-month-old daughter couldn’t consume solid foods — or any food, for that matter — and as a result, the little baby wasn’t growing. Starving.

Willing to try anything, Sarah would feed her daughter new foods in the hope that her daughter’s body would finally accept some type of nourishment. Time and time again her hopes were dashed.

Enter Bread for the World, and the One Great Hour of Sharing, and WIC on Wheels of Lancaster, Pa., and the Pennsylvania Department of Health.

Enter the physical, and spiritual, and mental, and social powers of the World That Will Be. The world of generosity, inclusion, and love.

The mobile clinic brings services for young families directly to communities and offers services such as healthy foods, nutrition education and healthcare referrals.

The mobile clinic has been a godsend for Sarah and her daughter. It was there that Sarah was given a voucher for a literally lifesaving formula for her daughter.

Sarah’s daughter has gained strength, and her sensitive stomach has become more agreeable to some foods with the help of the mobile clinic’s nutritionist.

How was this child saved? Through a mother’s prayers, through the pennies we pay in taxes, through the money we donate to the UCC, through the people who volunteer and promote Bread for the World, through all of us who are living into God’s realm now that says no one – not even a young mother, who lacks transportation, with a sickly child, should suffer physically, socially with stigma or mentally with fear.

Pennies and prayers.

Or consider Ramona of the Dominican Republic. Ramona is a widow with three children who feared she would become destitute – and on the streets.
But things started to turn around when Ramona received and raised her first piglet. She gave four of that sow’s initial offspring to neighbors and sold eight, using the proceeds to invest in more animals. She’s sold over 50 pigs to date and made more than $4,000. Ramona’s business has thrived with help from her children and the day laborers she hires from among her neighbors. She now has nearly 100 animals and a brighter future.

Likewise, Juliana, mother of three, saw everything improve thanks to that one small gift. She has made $620 so far from selling piglets after giving six to neighbors. She’s thrilled that the money helped her send her two sons to school and pay for their school supplies, uniforms, backpacks, shoes and transportation.

Best of all, Juliana’s pig business has brought her back to her community. She used to be a domestic worker in the nation’s capital, Santo Domingo, and made the commute home only on weekends. Now, she earns enough to stay home, raise and sell pigs, and run a small grocery store she and her husband opened in their home.

The pig project is part of the Foods Resource Bank’s Dominican Republic Bateyes project. These programs are supported by One Great Hour of Sharing and encourage love of neighbor. Today, families are “paying it forward,” enabling more and more of their neighbors to make life-changing improvements to their circumstances as well.

The program works and is modeled after Heifer International.

Pigs. Pennies. Prayers.

Now consider, when you are an immigrant and disaster strikes, where do you turn for help?
Listen to one survivor’s words of the California fires last year: “The fire busted open the window in the house and woke us up. We left wearing our pajamas, not even wearing shoes. We spent two nights in a parking lot because the shelter was full. We finally came home and we had no food. [A man from the UCC church] brought food to our house so we could eat.

 

Another survivor said, “Gas stations were selling water for two times the usual price. We left our home with nothing. [The UCC] made sure we had food, water, information, whatever we needed.”
A third survivor added, “The people I worked for evacuated so I lost my job. [There are] seven people [in my family] and we’ve moved four times.”
Because these are immigrants, they were unable to receive support from FEMA or other relief organizations. But we are living into the world that could be, not the world that is.
So – we are called to help everyone.
The UCC of California became a safe place to find assistance, food, water, gift cards, holiday food baskets, connection to recovery resources and social support. They became the advocates of the most vulnerable.
Several women “were being asked to clean up fire damage at the hotel where they were employed and were not supplied with any masks or special gear. When they resisted, their manager berated them and threatened them with the loss of their jobs.”
With the help of the church, these women kept their jobs AND were given the proper gear to not breathe in the toxic ash.
Months after the fires, there are still scores of people who need assistance. Out of work since flames sent them fleeing their homes, many are dealing with unpaid bills and food insecurity.
So the church is still helping. Still sending people out, creating a supportive environment where everyone recovers from the fires together as a community.

People. Pigs. Pennies. Prayer.

The world changes with little deeds, and with how we live our life.
I leave you with two guiding quotes:
First, Mahatma Gandhi: “My life is my message.”
Second, Mother Theresa, “Help one person at a time, and always start with the person nearest you.”

Who is the person nearest you?
Live your life as your message- the message of Christ.

Amen.

_________

 

Benediction

 

Sponsor a child . . . Plant a tree . . . Rebuild a home . . . Visit a prisoner . . . Be a mentor . . . Teach . . . Serve a meal . . . Bring water to the desert . . . Pray . . . Donate . . . the opportunities are endless. And they’re all right here. What part of our world is waiting for you to make a difference?

Bickering Siblings

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16hijab
Romans 4:13-25

Let me read to you something. It may sound a little familiar. It may sound a bit strange.

(Surah 45-67): The Angels said, “O Mary, God gives you good news of a Word from Him. His name is the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, well-esteemed in this world and the next, and one of the nearest. He will speak to the people from the crib, and in adulthood, and will be one of the righteous.”

She said, “My Lord, how can I have a child, when no man has touched me?”

He said, “It will be so. God creates whatever He wills. To have anything done, He only says to it, ‘Be,’ and it is.”

And [God] will teach him the Scripture and wisdom, and the Torah and the Gospel.

[The] messenger [,Jesus, said] to the Children of Israel: “I have come to you with a sign from your Lord. I make for you out of clay the figure of a bird; then I breathe into it, and it becomes a bird by God’s leave. And I heal the blind and the leprous, and I revive the dead, by God’s leave. And I inform you concerning what you eat, and what you store in your homes. In that is a sign for you, if you are believers. And verifying what lies before me of the Torah, and to make lawful for you some of what was forbidden to you. I have come to you with a sign from your Lord; so fear God, and obey me. God is my Lord and your Lord, so worship Him. That is a straight path.”

When Jesus sensed disbelief on their part, he asked, “Who are my allies towards God?”

The disciples said, “We are God’s allies; we have believed in God, and bear witness that we submit. Our Lord, we have believed in what You have revealed, and we have followed the Messenger, so count us among the witnesses.”

They planned, and God planned; but God is the Best of planners.

God said, “O Jesus, I am terminating your life, and raising you to Me, and clearing you of those who disbelieve. And I will make those who follow you superior to those who disbelieve, until the Day of Resurrection. Then to Me is your return; then I will judge between you regarding what you were disputing. As for those who disbelieve, I will punish them with a severe punishment, in this world and the next, and they will have no helpers. And as for those who believe and do good works, He will give them their rewards in full. God does not love the unjust.”

This is what We recite to you of the Verses and the Wise Reminder.

The likeness of Jesus in God’s sight is that of Adam: He created him from dust, then said to him, “Be,” and he was.

The truth is from your Lord, so do not be of those who doubt.

And if anyone disputes with you about him, after the knowledge that has come to you, say, “Come, let us call our children and your children, and our women and your women, and ourselves and yourselves, and let us invoke God’s curse on the liars.”

This is the narrative of truth: there is no god but God. God is the Mighty, the Wise.

But if they turn away—God knows the corrupt.

Say, “O People of the Book, come to terms common between us and you: that we worship none but God, and that we associate nothing with Him, and that none of us takes others as lords besides God.” And if they turn away, say, “Bear witness that we have submitted.”

O People of the Book! Why do you argue about Abraham, when the Torah and the Gospel were not revealed until after him? Will you not reason?

Here you are—you argue about things you know, but why do you argue about things you do not know? God knows, and you do not know.

Abraham was neither a Jew nor a Christian, but he was a Monotheist, a Muslim. And he was not of the Polytheists.


These are the translated words of the Quran. Like our own Gospel, the Quran says Jesus was born of the virgin Mary. Like our own Gospel, the Quran says Jesus healed the blind and the leprous, and brought the dead back to life. Like Gospels we have dropped over the centuries, the Quran says Jesus made a bird out of clay and had it fly. Like our own Gospels today, the Quran says that Jesus was taken up into heaven and is with God.

Like the Jewish Torah, and the Christian Old Testament, the Quran says we are made by God out of dust. Says there are no gods but God, alone. This is called monotheism. Mono-one. Theism. God. One God. We are monotheists. Not polytheists. Not many-gods.

When the Quran says “O People of the Book,” it is speaking to us. To all the children of Abraham. Not his physical children – but the children our own Paul writes about to Romans: Abraham’s spiritual children.

Just like Paul, the Quran points out that Abraham followed and believed God long, long before there were the faiths of Judaism or Christianity or Islam; therefore, long before there was a Quran or Bible or Torah.

But he submitted. To submit is to be muslim. Muslim means a person who has submitted to God. In English it means a particular faith. But it has two meanings in Arabic – the faith, but also what it literally means – to submit.

Much like we are all democrats because we are all part of a democracy. Democrat, however, has two meanings: one – a person is part of a democracy. The second, a person is part of a particular political party in the United States of America.

Abraham couldn’t be Muslim-the-Faith because the Quran and The Prophet Mohammad had not come to be. But he could be Muslim-the-person-who-submits-to-God. Because, as all three faiths of the Book read, Abraham did submit.

You’re a democrat-the-government-citizen because you’re an United States citizen. I don’t know which party line you vote with, if any, and that is none of my business.

So why do we feud so much? Why do today’s Jews and Christians and Muslims bicker although we are all faith siblings? All brothers and sisters through the faith of Abraham, and all brothers and sisters literally because we all know, and affirm, God, God alone, creates all of us?

Because most of us don’t care about nirvana.

Here me out – I challenge any of you here to get into an argument with me about how to achieve enlightenment, and how to step out of samsara and into nirvana. Whatever position you take – Mahayana, Theravada, Vajrayāna or Zen – I’ll take a different one and we can debate.

No one?

The truth is, here in Saint Michael’s United Church of Christ, we don’t care much about Buddha or Bodhisattvas.

But we care an awful lot about what someone says about Jesus and God.

We’re not invested into koans and tantras and the holy books of Budhism.

But we’ve staked our whole lives and afterlives on the Bible, and our prayers, and traditions, and rites.

We argue with our siblings because they are the most like us. We argue with our siblings because we share the most interests, investments, and the most is at stake.

We argue with Jews and Muslims and especially other Christians because these groups are most like us. What they say, and how they say it differently, we greatly care about.

This is as true today as it was in the past when the words were set in the Surahs of the Quran translation I read; it is as true as when Jesus walked and said a prophet is never accepted in his home town. It is as true today as when the ancient Israelites and Samaritans – both ancient Jews to anyone else but themselves – argued. As true as when Sarah tossed out Ishmael and his mother because she didn’t want them around herself and her son… as true as when Cain slew Abel.

We fight – we hate – the people who are most like us because in those few, few ways we are different SO MUCH is invested, risked, and at stake.

Paul, writing to the Romans, was trying so hard for the Roman Christians and Roman Jews to see each other as family. You’re not enemies! You’re siblings! Of the same faith of Abraham. The mono-theists, the One God, faith. He goes over laws – laws like the law to have circumcision, or to keep Kosher, or to keep Saturday or Sunday as the Sabbath, and says – if laws are making you lose faith, give them up!

We are alive in faith, faith gives us life. Faith – submitting to God, and trusting God will do as God promises – even if it looks impossible – keeping this hope against all hope – KEEP FAITH! Laws are good. Jesus said he came to fulfill the Laws and Prophets, not abolish them… but, in today’s language, if the Kings James Version is too difficult to read, get a different version of the Scripture. If Sunday Morning is too early for you to praise God, find another service time. Another church. Maybe not a church – praise in your house or car or with your friends over coffee. KEEP THE FAITH! The how and where and rules – the traditions – are good, but FAITH is what is essential.

What about our heads? All three books – The Torah, the Bible, the Quran – mention we ought to be covering our heads. No one here is wearing a hat. Why not?

Because, somewhere, our ancestors debated this. Our ancestors changed. They decided the FAITH was more important. The FAITH, the following, the trust, of God – than whether or not they covered their heads.

But other ancestors have chosen to keep following that law out of faith, out of submission, to God. And I’m not just talking about Muslima women who wear hijab; or Jewish men who wear yamakas, there are plenty of Christian churches and denominations where scarves still cover heads.

If Paul were writing to us, I think he’d write – don’t argue over whether or not to cover your heads. Argue – are you being faithful to the one and only God? Are you loving your neighbor? Are you loving God?

When we say things like “Don’t shop there, they jew you.” Or call someone a “towel-head,” we are not loving our neighbors. We are hating them.

When we refuse to speak with our siblings, out of fear, our of ignorance, out of hate – we are not being faithful to God who calls us to be the allies, the disciples, the-ones-who-submit to God who calls us to live our faith and preach to all nations.

When we believe that God of the Old Testament, YHWH, El-Shaddai, and the Lord, the God of the New Testament and Allah, are different gods… we forget our faith. We forget Abraham. We forget mono-theism. We forget there is but one god, and that is whom all of the faith children of Abraham are following.

One God. Understood differently. My perspective on my mom and dad is different than my brother’s perspective. But they are still the same mom and dad.

One God. Related to differently. I like doing crafts with my mom. My brother likes fishing with my mom. Still the same mom.

One God. We’re not the same religion. There are profound theological insights and beliefs that differ among us. I am not my brother. He is not me.

But we have the same parents.

And Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have one God. We are all siblings. Bickering siblings, different siblings, but siblings.

Since I razzed on Buddhism a little, I want to end with a Zen Buddist passage… a nun who one day approached a great patriarch to ask if he had any insight into the Nirvana sutra she had been reading.

“I am illiterate,” the man replied, “but perhaps if you could read the words to me I could understand the truth that lies behind them.”

Incredulous, the nun responded, “If you do not know even the characters as they are written in the text, then how can you expect to know the truth to which they point?”

Patiently the patriarch offered his answer, which has become a spiritual maxim for the ages: “Truth has nothing to do with words. Truth can be likened to the bright moon in the sky. Words, in this case, can be likened to a finger. The finger can point to the moon’s location. However, the finger is not the moon. To look at the moon, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger.”

We don’t worship the Bible. Jews don’t worship the Torah. Muslims don’t worship the Quran.

We all worship the Truth, which is God. The Truth – who is larger, brighter, truer, and beyond what our words, traditions, or experiences can capture.

We all worship God.

And we are all siblings.

Amen.

Sola Scriptura – Scripture Alone

luther95theses1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Matthew 22:34-46

 

Love a dead person? Worried they might be being tortured for their sins? Set those rests aside! Buy an Indulgence today! Only $5!

Tired of bad things happening to you? Buy an Indulgence today and get right with God! Piece of mind is priceless, right?

Planning a sin? Never fear! Buy your coverage for that sin now! Got a deal! Booklet of 5 for $5! Never be caught red-handed in a sin again!

See here? This is a Papal Bull – an official letter from the Pope – who is Jesus-on-Earth until Christ returns – and right here – for all you Germans who don’t read Latin – it says I – friar Tetzel, Grand Inquisitor, am telling the truth:

“As soon as the coin in the coffer rings / The soul from Purgatory springs!”

What did you say? Oh the money? The money is to be used to build upon Saint Peter’s Basilica! A most beautiful building of God!

Don’t you want to honor God?

Don’t you want your loved ones to stop suffering?

Don’t you want to cure the current woes in your life?

Get out your money!


It’s 1517, and nearby, the professor and monk Martin Luther watches Friar Tetzel with growing fury. He knows exactly where that money is coming from. It is being collected from moms who can barely provide for their children, and dads struggling to find word, and grandparents sick and worried. And it comes from well meaning friends and scared, uninformed, normal people.

And he knows where it is going. It slips off to friar Tetzel’s two employers – yes, one is the Pope. But the other is the Archbishop of Mainz, Cardinal Albert of Brandenburg. He had to pay an extortionate amount to the Pope to be appointed Cardinal. And now he’s paying his debts back with half the money Tetzel raises.

Luther listens to Tetzel, growing more and more furious, and remembering his trip to Rome seven years prior.

His Monastic Order went to Rome to argue in favor of more stringent requirements on monks. Along the way Luther saw Christianity of all its types across Europe. In places churches were like his own rural Germany — poor, struggling, and rarely assigned leaders who were well educated. In other places were churches who lived out the command to help the poor – and set up orphanages and hospitals. And in other places were affluent churches with well educated leaders. All of them part of the One Holy Roman Empire, all of them part of the One Holy Roman Church.

At long last Martin reached Rome itself – where the Pope ruled as Christ’s Representative. It was (is?) known as the holiest city on Earth; where the place between heaven and earth is so thin you just may hear angels’ wings. The story back then was that the city was literally built over the blood of martyrs and saints who were murdered for their Christian faith. And that holiness of those people so permeated the stone, was so thick in the air, that just being in the city makes a person more holy.

Young Martin Luther is so excited he can barely stand himself.

But… what meets his eyes is not heaven on earth.

Rome wasn’t just the capital of the Church, it was a capital of the Empire. And the position of Pope was not just about the Church… since the Church was also the Empire… the Pope also helped choose the Emperor. Therefore, being pious, being religious, and godly was not a requirement to be Pope. Having money, having connections, and being crafty WAS required.

Clergy copied their Popes (Martin saw 9 over his life time. Some holy, and sadly, many very unholy.) Some of the Popes Martin Luther knew had children, so their clergy had children. Openly, their vows of celibacy were ignored. Some of Martin’s Popes held drunken parties that lasted for days and featured little boys coming out of cakes…. and so the clergy were drunk and at parties and victimizing children.

While some churches were focused on hospitals, and orphanages, or just making ends meet enough to have a copy of Holy Scripture… here in Rome were palaces of gold and silver and jewels for the cardinals and popes. Here in Rome the great cathedrals were full of art and silks and marble. The richness here would save lives if it were sent to other places in the church. But instead, the wealth gathers dust among all the other riches.

Martin was deeply disturbed.

Back at home, the disturbed monk continued to think about the greed and sin he saw in Rome… and the attempts to be generous and holy he saw here in rural Germany.

And seven years pass. During this time, Monk Martin began reading the newly translated and available writings of Saint Augustine from 300 AD. Augustine argued the Bible, rather than church officials, is the ultimate source of religion authority. Augustine resonated with Martin Luther. Here, someone respected by the church– St. Augustine is a church father – gives a way to critique the church and its leaders. He argues scripture – scripture! – is more important than traditions, or the words of church leaders, or credos or dogmas.

So Martin begins to tell his students this, and read to them the works of Augustine. Martin believes the Church can right itself if it returns to scripture and changes itself to reflect scripture. He’s hopeful and optimistic.

Then this fateful day occurs – October 31st, 1517. Let me give you the background: The current Pope has announced it is time to work on St. Peter’s Basilica and sent out friars into the whole Empire to collect money for this. The way they did so was to sell Indulgences, which is absolution — forgiveness — to sinners in return for money.

And THIS Friar – Friar Tetzel – is preaching not just reduction of time in purgatory, but full release from purgatory and forgiveness of sins not yet committed.

THIS Pope and THIS Friar and THIS Archbishop are all concerned about money. Not the poor at all.

Martin has had enough. He writes 95 arguments, 95 theses, and, as legend has it, nails them on the Wittenberg Castle church’s front door announcing he intended to argue these points, and invites people to come argue with him. This is a scholarly thing to do. Come! Join Professor Luther in debating the pros and cons of Indulgences!

Come! Let’s talk about how to use St. Augustine to correct our clergy and get back on the right path!

However, what Luther was arguing wasn’t just about Indulgences… it was about who has power and authority… Scripture, the Pope, the clergy, the traditions of the church? Who is in charge?

And Martin was not known for being… soft spoken. He was a lot like John the Baptist. He was prone to saying things VERY strongly. So when he publishes things like: “Why does not the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus,” the richest king, “build the basilica of St. Peter with his own money rather than with the money of poor believers?” … word gets back to the Pope REAL quick.

And when Martin writes these things against Indulgences, and sends them to the Archbishop selling Indulgences…. Word gets back to the Pope about the heretic Martin Luther real quick.

Over the next several years, Luther would be examined, called to Rome, ordered to Recant, he’ll refuse. Still clinging to Scripture Alone, Martin will tell the people at the Diet of Worms, (not a literal eating of worms. It was a group of clergy called a Diet in the city of Worms): “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. Here I stand, I can do no other. May God help me. Amen.”

Luther would be branded a heretic. (Teizel’s preaching would be branded heretical too.) But Luther would be on the run for his life the rest of his life. And he’ll write against corruption in the church and teach that Scripture Alone is the final authority all his life.


Scripture is who guides us, classical Protestantism teaches. Not fallible clergy, corruptible church institutions, or traditions whose meaning gets lost over time. Scripture is all we need and is, according to Timothy, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).

This led to ideas and teachings that have forever changed our world and affects us right now.

Because Scripture Alone is all a Christian needs to come to God, we are all a priesthood of believers. Every person can come to God without a mediator. No need for saints, or angels, or clergy. You can go to God directly.

It means many churches select their own clergy, or have no clergy at all… because clergy are tutors, not your connection, to God. I stand here today because of the reformation. You, Saint Michael’s, have chosen a woman as your pastor instead of having people elsewhere in the world give you a male pastor. Other churches are picking men, women, transgendered, and genderless pastors. Some pick highly education, some pick highly spiritual, some pick elderly and some pick young. This is because clergy shepherd, but you don’t need them. All you need is the Bible.

Which means you need a Bible.

In Luther’s time, books were rare and precious. Think of all the work that goes into it: you have to cut a tree or collect cotton, and cut it tiny, and wet it, and spread it out, and press it flat, and dry it into sheets of paper. And then you need a goose quill and a knife, and a bottle of ink made of oils and pigments. And someone has to sit and handwrite out every single line, word, and letter…. From Genesis to Numbers to Isaiah to Luke to Revelations. And someone then takes animal skin or fur, makes a thread, and sews page after page together. And someone makes a wood or metal cover to protect the whole thing. THOUSANDS of hours go into making a book.

And when very few read, and even fewer write (they were considered separate skills), this specialist work is not around often and takes more money than most anyone has.

Books are treasures. Literal treasures.

And the Printing Press changed all that. Now hundreds of hours could produce a book. And the power of who had access to scripture changed from only the rich, to now the rich and the middle class.

And by our time, Bibles are free, and everywhere – hotel rooms and pews, our personal homes and offices – our purses, our phones – everywhere. Elevating scripture means scripture is now available to be read – everywhere.

But you have to know how to read.

And learning to read your own language takes years, let alone learning a dead language like Vulgate Latin.

So, in part because of the Protestant Revolution, Bibles have been translated into hundred of languages and are continuing to be translated into new languages. You no longer have to be a scholar to read scripture.

But you do have to be able to read.

Here is the next major change Martin Luther’s insistence on Augustine’s authority of scripture – public education. Why do we require kids to learn to read and write? Why did the early Protestants insist on free, public, school for every child? Because they believed you MUST be able to read your Bible.

Public schools, public libraries, English in common languages, clergy of all walks and styles, and diversity among churches… all of this is related to that fateful time 500 years ago.


Now… Correcting ourselves with scripture, and scripture alone as the final authority, sounds good until we get into using scripture practically… and we add in the claims that early Protestants like Luther did: that scripture is Perfect, Without Errors, the Word of God, and doesn’t contradict itself…

See, Protestants like Charles Wesley, whom you know from the Methodist, admitted that parts of the Bible are… in error.

Scripture, until about 250 years after Jesus’ death, was a combination of oral and written histories and stories. It changed, it was letters, it was midrash, and adapted to the time and place and situation. Jesus quotes things which are not in our Bible, but in Jewish oral history – and our scripture references details of history that aren’t in any of our books. Take Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, for example. Was Adam created and then Eve, or were both created simultaneously? Depends on which story you read. And among the gospels… how many angels, if any, were present in Jesus’ empty tomb?

Sometimes, the scripture seems wrong because times and morality have changed. Deut. 22:28 advises any man who rapes a woman or girl who is not pledged in marriage owes her father money and owes the victim a marriage. Then, this was a charity – the woman would still have a man to care for her and wouldn’t be murdered for the rape… as she would be if she were a wife or fiancée. But nowadays? Absolutely not going to force victims of sexual violence to STAY with their abuser!

Charles Wesley advised we balance scripture with tradition, experience, and reason.

Luther advised cutting out the books and sections of the Bible that he didn’t like… like all of James… Hebrews… Revelations… and all that seemed non-authoritative to him. Other Protestant Reformers said no – and compromised on tossing out some of the Old Testament books, like Bel and the Dragon which we read part of today for the Children’s Message, but keeping all of the New Testament. This is why the Protestant Bible is missing the books known as the Apocrypha.

This isn’t the first time the Church has argued over what scripture is authoritative. The Church had did this in 250 AD, which is why it is missing the many more books that the Ethiopian Christians use.

If Scripture Alone is all that matters… which scripture?

If Scripture Alone is all that matters… what happens when we understand the same passage in different ways? Who is right?

If Scripture Alone is all that matters… what happens when different translators use different words for the ancient Latin, Greek, or Aramaic? Or different words in English for the same word in Greek like…. is it forgive us our debts or forgive us our trespasses? Same word in one language. Two different words in English.


As I said, the authority of scripture is nothing new at all. Not even in 250 AD. In our reading today, Jesus and the educated citizens get into a debate over scripture. Those who like legalism, a lawyer, tries to catch Jesus in legal rules. He asks Jesus – what is the most important commandment out of all of them? As we hear, Jesus summarizes all scripture into a passage from scripture… and one of his own. He uses scripture, applies it, and shows he can draw its root meanings out… not just the legalities.

Jesus then uses scripture to debate back in the same manner since he is speaking with a lawyer. It is said that the messiah will be a Son of David – a descendant of King David. And yet, Jesus points out, when David writes the Psalms, he writes YHWH LORD speaks to my Adonai, my lord… meaning that the Messiah was around during King David’s reign, and more than just a child of David, since David calls him lord. The messiah isn’t just any ol’ human descendant.

Knowledge of tradition and scripture, and his audience, allows Jesus to communicate who he is – not just any ol’ human.

When Jesus faces Satan – he fights Satan with scripture… and Satan uses scripture back against Jesus.

Scripture is authoritative. Important. And often the only authority another holds over themselves.

Biblical literacy is necessary for Christians and non-Christians alike because these texts have shaped and are shaping our modern world. Everything from our fictional books to the way we organize ourselves to our modern debates on homosexuality, abortion, guns, and immigrants is infused with religion – all drawing on different parts of this book.

And we’re called to come to it as Jesus did – with fresh insights, open ears, and ready to not get caught up in ancient and culturally-specific laws, but rather get at the gestalt – the Holy Spirit – of the message. Listening, as we say in the United Church of Christ, for the Still Speaking God who placed a comma at the end of the Bible, and invites us to continue to interact, and engage with God and the world. Invites us to write our own Good News of the relationship we live with Christ. Invites us to creatively take the scriptures and traditions handed to us and apply them to the very real needs of people this very moment.

But we got to know those nuts and bolts parts too… for when we run into the lawyers.

Still, in our lives, this is not who we are called to be. Rev. Daryl Ward writes on sola scriptura, “The Bible contains all that is necessary for salvation. But it also contains much more. We should not be making an idol of it. And we should not be putting semantics and legalism above the fundamental gospel messages of love and mercy. Otherwise we are not being like Jesus. We are being like the Pharisees.” Being like lawyers. ((http://www.ucc.org/daily_devotional_aside_from_that))

Paul tells the Thessalonians, “…we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition… we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God.” Much like Luther, Paul and his aides were opposed, but, because they trusted in God and God’s good news, they carried the message on. They sure didn’t please mortals, but they pleased God.

We are challenged to do the same. To dig into the words about God for the Word of God. To dig into scripture, and traditions, and creeds and dogmas, and pull forth where the Spirit is still moving and working and guiding us to use our rich heritage to love today’s world.

May we always be a reformed and reforming, a united and uniting, a loved and loving church!

Amen.

 

Sola Fide – Faith Alone

Matthew 22:15-22 (34-46)dawn_martinluther
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 (2:1-8)

 

Picture with me the most evil person you can. Historic or not. The most evil.

Got them in mind?

Okay, now, if, on their death bed, they have a change of mind and soul, and had faith in Jesus – would they go to heaven? Even with having not one single good deed their entire life?

If you answer yes – you may be Protestant.
If you answered no – you may be Roman Catholic.

The 500th Anniversary of the start of the Reformation is this October 31st. And it is from that time we get the phrase ‘Sola fide,’ faith alone, and salvation through faith alone is the a root of the division among Protestants and Roman Catholics.

But back in 1517, there was no division here in the Western church. But there was a monk named Martin Luther who was thinking that no matter what he did, he wouldn’t get into heaven.

He could never be good enough.

Martin Luther was from a middle class family in what is now Germany. At his parents’ wish, Martin went into law to be a lawyer. But it’s not where his heart lay. He was obsessed with religion. But the clergy couldn’t marry and carry on family names and lineages. Lawyers could. Clergy gave up their lands. Lawyers did not.

One day, Martin, as a young man, was caught in a thunderstorm and lightening was hitting the ground all around him. He felt his life flashing before his eyes- quite literally. So he cried out to Saint Anne – save me! Pray to God for me! If you save me from this storm, I will be a monk! I’ll stop running away from religion! And the storm subsided. Martin wasn’t injured. So several days later, he left law school and joined a monastery.

To say his parents were happy is a bold faced lie.

Martin still loved studying, and read everything he could to do about religion.

“Many Christians of the late Middle Ages had a great fear of demons and devils, and were terrified of ending up in hell. Mortality rates were high and life was very uncertain due to disease, accidents, childbirth and wars. Luther shared those fears and his first years in the monastery he was tormented with the idea that all men were hopeless sinners in the sight of God and unworthy of salvation… Luther followed all the requirements of the cloister – prayer, fasting, living a spartan life – but carried everything to such an extreme that his superiors were worried about him.

He wore out his confessor with marathon sessions of confessing, going over every thought in detail, then starting again from the beginning. His confessor, Father Staupitz,” – think of that for a moment. His name is Stop-Itz! And stop-it is just what he told Luther. He said, “Look here, if you expect Christ to forgive you, come in with something to forgive- parricide, blasphemy, adultery -instead of all these peccadilloes.” ((https://www.uncommon-travel-germany.com/martin-luther-biography.html))

And still the weight of feeling unworthy before God weighed so heavily on Martin Luther.

See, the church taught that when one was truly sorry for their sins, and confessed them, a representative of God could forgive those sins.

But that wasn’t the end of the story.

Then a person had to pay back to debt they owed God for the sins. Every sin carries a different weight of debt, and priests sometimes kept books with lists of sins and what the debt was for that sin.

Lie? Pray 10 Hail Marys with your rosary.
Kill someone? Time to go on a Crusade and offer your life in return for the life you took. Or pay for someone else to go on a Crusade in your stead.

Other ways of paying off debt, for yourself or on behalf of others (like, say, your son or daughter), was to go view or touch relics. Relics are an item a holy person owned, or a piece of that holy person. By being in their presence, it’s like some of their holiness could wear off on you. And you could pray to them, or to other saints, to intercede for you. To talk with God on your behalf. And to negotiate to lower that amount you owe for all those sins.

And you could visit holy sites, pilgrimages.

And you could give money or land or even your children to the church.

But was it ever enough? How could you be sure you were going to heaven and not hell?

It wasn’t ever enough for Martin Luther.

He wrote, “Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God, and said, ‘As if, indeed, it is not enough, that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the decalogue, without having God add pain to pain by the gospel and also by the gospel threatening us with his righteousness and wrath!’ Thus I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience.”

He realized that even if he sat doing nothing, he was still sinning. Sloth. Or he was thinking unholy thoughts. Or he could have been doing something charitable and he wasn’t.

And he couldn’t pay off the debt of Original Sin.

And always feeling like he was a worm, and nothing, and never good enough for God, and feeling God was punishing people in life and in death, made the monk Martin Luther begin to hate God.

Could anyone make it to heaven? Luther was beginning to think the answer was no.

He wasn’t the only one. Perhaps pastorally, somewhere between Jesus and Martin Luther, the church had begun to teach about Purgatory.

Where would a death-bed confession from an evil person send that soul? The church 500 years ago likely would have answered “Did that person receive forgiveness for their sins after confessing faith, and their sins, and asking for forgiveness? If yes – they had Final Rights… then they died without sin… but with a MAJOR debt. So they are not perfect enough for heaven, but may be given the opportunity to choose purgatory versus hell.”

Everyone Luther saw was going to purgatory because everyone was sinning. Purgatory is where those sins are purged, removed, and soul made fully clean. It was hell, but temporary hell versus the hell of eternity.

So how long does someone end up in temporary hell? It depends on what the living on earth do for the departed. Praying for the dead, giving offerings in their names, lighting candles for them, or getting Indulgences. These are given by clergy as a remission, a payment, of some of the time owed. Sometimes it was wrote out as “The name signed below is given an indulgence of 40 years.” Meaning, it was worth as if the person had lived 40 years as a good Christian.

Remember – we are talking about teachings 500 years ago. Modern Roman Catholic ideas on purgatory and indulgences and heaven and hell are, of course, 500 years more advanced and changed and refined. Just as none of us -I hope!- today preach and think just like Martin Luther… who really hated farmers and Jews, among many other categories of people.

Anyways – hell below, heaven above, and purgatory in between is how Martin Luther’s world understood things. The sinful and unrepentant below, the sinful but repentant in the middle, and the sinless and united with Jesus above.

If you answered that if someone has faith in Jesus before they die, that they’ll be in heaven… regardless if the whole rest of their lives they were evil…Then you’re thinking like Martin Luther in his later years.

After decades of beating himself up, Martin Luther read the works of Saint Augustine, from 300 AD. And he read the book of Romans extensively. Older Luther wrote, “I beat importunately upon Paul at that place, most ardently desiring to know what St. Paul wanted. At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, ‘In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’’ There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’

Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates. There a totally other face of the entire Scripture showed itself to me. Thereupon I ran through the Scriptures from memory. I also found in other terms an analogy, as, the work of God, that is, what God does in us, the power of God, with which he makes us strong, the wisdom of God, with which he makes us wise, the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God. And I extolled my sweetest word with a love as great as the hatred with which I had before hated the word ‘righteousness of God.’ Thus that place in Paul was for me truly the gate to paradise.” (Luther’s Writings 34:336-337)

Martin Luther had discovered “sola fide,” Faith alone. The righteous live by faith.

Faith alone, in Christ alone, means God alone gives grace, gives salvation.

No one is good enough for heaven. But God chooses to look at us as if we are Jesus, if we have faith in Jesus as our Lord and Savior. No works, no deeds, no payments, no prayers, nothing we do on Earth, or in purgatory, will ever cleanse us of all sin. But God loves us anyways. And we can receive this gift of love, which we cannot lose, if we accept Jesus as our Savior. Jesus stands in for all that sin debt.

Martin Luther was so happy and released from his torment that he told EVERYONE about his discovery. We’re going to talk next week about how not everyone thought Martin Luther’s sharing was caring.

This week – we’re looking at sola fide. At solo, only, alone fidelity, faith, or trust.

Luther’s revelation is that NO ONE is good enough for heaven. NO ONE can get to heaven on their own merits. You can’t be a good enough person to stand in the presence of God. Somehow, in someway, you’re always carrying sin. Not a single person living or dead besides Christ is sinless.

But… Jesus promises us life with God, and reunion. So how is that possible?

It must be, Martin concludes, that even though we are sinners, and guilty – God chooses to look at us as if we are Jesus.

And we have to trust this.

No dogmas, no creeds, no teachings, no indulgences, no special prayers get us into heaven. Nothing we do gets us there. This is God’s gift and in faith we receive it through Christ.

That also means there is no one more or less holy, more or less worthy. You either have faith, and receive the gift offered to you – or you don’t and reject the gift. And if received… there isn’t an organization to heaven.

You can’t be the first or the last in heaven. We’re equals. The greatest sinner and the greatest saint are all equals.

So, you might think like Paul – and ask – why should we ever live a life of love and charity then, if love and charity don’t give us rewards?

Some Protestants answered, like the Methodist, that good works are our way of becoming holy and ready for heaven while alive.

But Luther’s answer was we can’t be perfect. Instead, good works, faith works, are our response to God’s love. It is our work to bring the Reign of God closer. It is our voluntary choice to walk closer to God’s Way.

So Jesus, today, in our scripture, tells us to give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar – and to God what belongs to God.

What belongs to God? Our hearts, souls, and minds.

What more we give is out of love and in response to God’s love. It is not required. It is not demanded. It will not earn us Heaven because Heaven is already gifted to us – and we cannot get “more” or it or “less” of it.

So… it is a lie that you have to tithe to be Christian. It is a lie that you have to give money to a church to get into heaven. It is also a lie that willing money to a church safeguards you a place in heaven. Churches promising you a place in the afterlife that have a price tag attached are churches abusing your faith and… working as a cult.

God wants your hearts, souls, and minds. If you choose to support your church, that is your choice. It ain’t giving you more heaven.

It is a lie that if Betty gets 100k likes on Facebook God is going to heal her. Betty is a precious child of God and God wants to best for her whether she gets 100k digital thumbs up or none. Facebook pages doing this gather up all your likes, and then sell the page that used to belong to ‘Betty’ to another business, who changes the name, and then fills your Facebook feed with their advertisements. (Because you clicked ‘like’ on the page when it was for Betty.)

Don’t give Betty a thumbs up. Give a local charity money, or time, or donations if you feel moved to compassion.

What about the posts and messages saying “FORWARD IF YOU LOVE JESUS! Forward to 10 people in 5 minutes to prove you love the Lord!”

Nothing you post, don’t post, forward, or don’t forward, proves your love to God. Don’t get trapped in the guilt and in the manipulation. Don’t start thinking your deeds – or lack thereof – predicates, determines, whether or not you’re heaven-bound.

Salvation, peace, unity, reunion with God is through faith alone.

Trust.

Trust you are loved.

And let that trust, that love, guide your actions.

Let your deeds be faith deeds. Deeds you do out of your faith – not guilt deeds, or shame deeds, or hoping-for-more-heaven-deeds.

You’re good enough. Right now. You’re good enough tomorrow and tomorrow and eternally. God loves you. Right now.

No signing on the dotted line, honking, cross-wearing, movie-watching, radio-station listening, political candidate support or anything else required.

Just faith.

The classical Protestant belief is that faith alone is all that is required.

Amen.

Why Rejoice?

Indonesia VolcanoIsaiah 25:1-9
Philippians 4:1-9

Why rejoice? How can we rejoice at a time like this? Is it right?

Think of this year. What a year. A terrible year of tragedies, and world disasters. A year of record breaking fires, earthquakes, and hurricanes. A year of genocide, and threats of nuclear war, and civil war. A year of racism and homophobia and hating immigrants. And our year is not over.

What a year. Families destroyed. Friends lost. Voices silenced. Homes burned and flooded and flattened. Hopes burned and flooded and flattened. And our year is not over.

There is literally a hurricane headed towards Ireland right now.

Think: Santa Rosa this week. Las Vegas last week. Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands before that. Then Mexico’s earthquake, Texas’ hurricane, the genocide in Mynamar, the starvation of 20 million in Somolia, Yemen, South Sudan and Nigeria. And constantly – terrorist attacks in Europe, threats of war in North Korea, Syria, Palestine…

Was last year better? Or wasn’t it a terrible year too? Was it this bad?

A shroud is cast over us. A mourning shroud, like a suffocating sheet, and depression settles in.

And anxiety. Fear. And even “an inexplicable gloom, inexpressible longing for unnamable things, weeping for that which is not yet lost.” ((Harano))

A post-traumatic stress disorder even though most of us haven’t experienced these things personally. But vicariously, by listening to the stories of others, and watching television, and the news, we know – and we mourn – and we hurt.

We have empathy fatigue.

It’s almost like a new horrific disaster happens and we look at it numbly, and then go about our lives numbly…

Because numbness doesn’t hurt like caring does.

It is like we gradually lose our compassion when always faced with trauma. Big traumas- working in hospitals – or little traumas, like working with school students with rough home lives year after year – or daily trauma… like caring for loved ones with chronic illnesses.

Hopelessness begins to settle in. And a decrease in experiences of pleasure, constant stress and anxiety, sleeplessness or nightmares, and a pervasive negative attitude. Feeling dour. Feeling cynical. And resistant to help others who are suffering because no one is helping us. And what would helping this one person do?

There’s a million more crying for aid.

We are caring people. Called to care. Called to cry with those who weep.

It’s because we’re caring that this secondary trauma sets in.

Because we weep.

Because we love.

At all times in the world, in all ages, there are great and horrible things happening simultaneously. In Isaiah’s time, in Jesus’ time, in our time.

To survive empathy fatigue we need Sabbaths. Times of rest. Times of pausing to do some emotional self care.

We are called to weep, but we are also called to share in one another’s joys. To praise God together. To be happy for one another.

We are to weep with the world. And we are to rejoice with the world.

We are to hold both tender emotions together, in tension. And balance time of sorrow with time of joy – sometimes… maybe all the time… sorrow and joy are both present. It is okay to feel good too. This doesn’t negate the bad. We don’t need to feel guilty. Emotions are like breaths – best in and out, up and down. Feeling both the good and the bad.

Today, let’s do a little self care with scripture and with stories of good. Stories of the simple things that bring joy. Stories of hope and joy. Do ourselves some self care so we will be ready for whatever tomorrow brings.

ISAIAH JOY

Isaiah’s writing comes to us in a time of sorrow. He could easily just focus on the pain alone, and in some verses, he does. The country is weak and powerless. Around them large superpowers fight and war and their little land is caught in the middle – being burned and destroyed over and over again. Nearby is a city that keeps watch – a guarding city – but not protecting the Isaiah’s people. This city is Assyrian, and tries to keep the land for Assyria. For a hundred years Isaiah’s people have been subservient to Assyria, and pay it steep taxes in food and animals and people to just not be annihilated.

Now, suddenly, Babylon has defeated Assyria and leveled the military outpost city.

What will tomorrow bring? No one knows. Will Babylon come and destroy Jerusalem? Or will the Judeans be free?

Isaiah chooses to take the moment to point out : what seemed impossible has become reality. And he invites his people to take time to rejoice in their freedom – however fleeting. Time to appreciate what they have – right now in this moment.

“O Lord, you are my God;
I will exalt you, I will praise your name;
for you have done wonderful things,
plans formed of old, faithful and sure.”

Wonderful things. Like creating the beautiful sunrise we saw this morning. Like painting the sunset we will see this evening. Like matching golden rod with purple asters and the music of crickets and grasshoppers when the birds’ songs are south for the winter.

Faithful and sure plans. Like planning to never leave us stuck in sin, or wallowing in death. Like being certain to always be beside us. Love us. Forgive us.

Isaiah considers the nearby military outpost, and how it is destroyed. Even though the Judeans did nothing. He is in awe. And he praises God more,

“…strong peoples will glorify you;
cities of ruthless nations will fear you.
For you have been a refuge to the poor,
a refuge to the needy in their distress,
a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat.

Strong people who need nothing will still glorify God. And the cities of ruthless, cruel, malicious people will not glorify God, but they will fear God because God is the refuge for the poor. God favors the poor over the rich.

And God is refugee for the needy in their distress. God hears our cries and holds the powerful responsible to help the powerless.

And God is a shelter from the rainstorms and shade from the heat. In God we find our homes. Our eternal homes.

So the strong praise God for leadership and aiding the strong in helping the weak.

And the selfish fear God, for God judges against them as they harm the poor, needy, homeless and weak.

Isaiah continues,

“When the blast of the ruthless was like a winter rainstorm,
the noise of aliens like heat in a dry place,
you subdued the heat with the shade of clouds;
the song of the ruthless was stilled.”

In other words, when the ruthless, the evil-spirited people rained troubles and were an oppressive heat…. God provided shade, protection, over God’s people and sent cool winds to silence the voices of evil.

Cool winds in heat. Rain in droughts. Smiles. Kindness where you didn’t expect it. Flowers through concrete and the fast friendships of children. Birds on the wing and someone holding open a door for another. Things happening daily but which give us glimpses of how God is right here, living with us, giving us the power to do good and care for one another.

Isaiah pictures God as a victorious king who invites all people to a rich feast. The very best feast described in the Bible with aged wines and red meat and the tastiest food.

Then God, personally, will destroy the shroud of sorrow, the blanket covering our joy.

And God, personally, will wipe the tears from every face.

And no one will be shamed or disgraced or lesser. We are all equals.

And God, personally, will swallow – destroy, devour – death once and for all.

And the waiting for God will be worth it. “This is for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”

Remember: Isaiah writes this when he does not know what tomorrow will bring. When there are rumors of war.

But he rejoices in the present moment and keeps alive hope. Hope for the beautiful full reign of God on Earth as God reigns in Heaven.

PHILLIPIANS JOY

Paul also could be focused on misery. He also does not know what tomorrow will bring. And he also chooses to balance his sorrow with times of joy.

He is in prison. Christians are being persecuted, kicked out of their communities, killed. Often by their own relatives. And he hears of how the new churches are fighting each other, he could give up. Paul could get exhausted with caring.

But he takes joy. And urges the churches and us to take time for joy and goodness – even in the middle of pain – too.

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice!”

All though the letter to Philippians, Paul is speaking of joy. He opens his letter with the “remarks that he is “constantly praying with joy” (1:4); he goes on to mention “joy in faith” (1:25) and wants the Philippians to “make my joy complete” by having the same intent and mind (2:2). In chapter 4:1, Paul calls the congregation in Philippi “my joy and crown,”… we too probably need a periodic reminder to “rejoice in the Lord.”
… It may be stating the obvious, but the joy Paul has in mind is not superficial; it has little in common with the obligatory laughter of invisible (non-existing?) audiences in TV sitcoms. There is a difference between something funny and deep joy, which has a lasting effect and the power to change us…

So what is there to rejoice? Real and lasting joy comes from the confidence that, no matter what happens, we are inseparably connected to God… ((Dr. Eberhart https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2148))

“And since we are beset with anxieties that get in the way of rejoicing, Paul tells us to pray in everything, bringing everything, no matter how trivial or how insurmountable, to the God who loves us. We cannot generate freedom from anxiety by our own efforts; the attempt only pushes the anxiety underground, where it festers and leads to secret despair. But Christ will meet us at the place of worry, because Christ has descended to the depths of human despair. Therefore God has become for us the God whose peace “guards” our minds and hearts.

[Lastly] Paul tells us to focus our minds on what is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent and worthy of praise…Paul is holding two realities in view at the same time.

Yes, there is the immediate reality of a world in which human beings are constantly at war somewhere, betraying one another, brutally suppressing each other in order to get ahead, and so forth. This was true of the Roman Empire, and it is true today. Every day we hear and see a culture that focuses on what is false, dishonorable, unjust, impure, and shameful. We begin to think that to act hopefully in such a world is unrealistic.
But Paul also sees another reality, and it is the reality that holds the future. That is the reality of God’s redemption, already here and still drawing near. Training our minds to think of this reality, and thereby to act with hope, is a daily mental discipline. For such a discipline, we need to experience the counter reality of God’s rule in the midst of tangible human relationships. Paul offers his own relationship with the Philippians as just such a tangible counterweight to the temptation of despair and futile thinking.

…Paul promises that the outcome of these habits of heart and mind is “peace that surpasses all understanding.” Written from jail, by a man under threat of capital punishment at the hands of a brutal and corrupt regime, these are extraordinary promises. Rome was always at war somewhere on its borders. The so-called Pax Romana was anything but for Rome’s subject peoples; Tacitus, a Roman senator who served in Rome’s far-flung provinces, wrote bitterly, “They make a desolation and call it peace.”
But Paul sees a different reality alongside the violence and duplicity of Rome. The small and struggling Christian congregation in the Roman colony of Philippi is itself a kind of “colony,” a separate polis with a more powerful Lord who alone has defeated death. Confident, therefore, in the ultimate victory of the God of peace, he encourages us to have quiet minds and hopeful hearts.” And to find time for joy.  ((Dr Eastman https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1011))
OUR JOY

Yes. Terrible things are going on. And yes. We care. And yes, we mourn. And yes, we are going to act and pray and help. But to prevent burn out, to prevent empathy fatigue, we need self care too. Time for joy and laughter.

So let us turn to our joy in our present moment… take a breather. Think of something this week that brought you joy. And let us share.

Think of the county fair.

Think of your family and friends.

Think of your pets.

Your fall garden.

The book you read, the show you watched, the phone call you had.

Let us share, one by one, as we feel so moved, something small or large that brought us joy this week…

I will begin if I may: Wednesday I heard my daughter squeal with pure delight in the kitchen. I went in and found she had dumped a bag of rice on the floor and was doing snow angels in the rice. I could have gotten angry, I could have complained – but she was having so, so much joy. She told me, “Mommy~! Snow!”

So I sat down and did them with her.

My joy is in choosing to see the spilled rice as my daughter does – as wonderful snow.

–sharing—

Amen.