Tag: Paul

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?

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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.

To be or not to be?

Jonah 3:10-4:11 Tennant_and_Tchaikowsky_as_Hamlet_and_Yorick
Philippians 1:21-30

“To be or not to be; that is the question” is a famous phrase from Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, and is spoken by Hamlet. He asks – what is better? To live; or to die? Back and forth Hamlet goes, considering the pros and cons of living or dying.

In our scripture readings today, both Jonah and Paul are considering living or dying, too. Considering if life is worth the effort to keep fighting for every second.

The word of God has come to Jonah and told him to go to the home of his enemies, to warn them if they don’t repent, God will destroy them. Instead, Jonah runs the exact opposite way. And runs and runs. And each encounter he has with death – storm, whale, desert – he doesn’t die. Finally he delivers the message half-heartedly to the city of Ninevah. Instead of killing him, as what happens to most prophets, the city immediately changes their way.

He’s the most successful prophet.

And yet, Jonah gets very mad, for now God won’t destroy the town. Jonah complains to God – “This is why I didn’t want to come! You, God, are too merciful and loving! You should kill me now! It’s better I die than I live.”

I wonder, what is too much for Jonah, so much that he wants to die. Is God’s mercy too much?

God’s care for the righteous and the unrighteous too much?

God’s love for all people too much?

I wonder if Jonah wants to die because he’s saved his enemies. When he goes home, what will his neighbors and friends say when they hear that the Assyrians are doing just fine, even after all the murder they did to the Israelites, because Jonah went and preached to them.

I wonder if Jonah wants to die because he feels his life has no meaning whatsoever. He knew from the very beginning that God wouldn’t kill all these people. So what was the point of even going?

God asks Jonah, “Is it right for you to be so angry?”

Jonah doesn’t answer, but goes out of the city, makes a little tent, and sits to watch and hope that the city doesn’t keep up their changed ways… or God changes God’s mind again. Jonah wants God to destroy Jonah’s enemies.

As Jonah sulks, God causes a bush to grow and give Jonah shade. Jonah goes from very angry to very happy. The next day, a worm eats the bush, there is no more shade, and now it is hot and windy.

Jonah tells God, again, to kill him. This time because he is suffering from the heat and dust.

God asks Jonah – is it right for you to be angry about the bush?

Jonah replies: “Yes! Angry enough to die!”

God replies back, “You didn’t plant the bush or cause it to grow. It just appeared and disappeared. I made people, and cause them to grow, and they’ve been here a long time. Shouldn’t I be concerned about Ninevah, with its 120,000 people who don’t know right from wrong, and all their animals?”

The book doesn’t record Jonah’s reply.

Maybe Jonah replied once again, “Yes, angry enough to die!” This would mean Jonah thinks God should be so angry when someone hurts people that God would be willing to die.

Or maybe Jonah’s answer is again, “I knew you wouldn’t harm them. Just let me die.” Jonah continues to sulk and miss God’s point and message of universal love.

I read, that for Jonah, life is cheap. He’s willing to give his life up out of anger over a bush; and he’s willing for innocent people and animals to die because he doesn’t like their leaders.

God, however, says life is not cheap. God tries to show Jonah again and again that even a bush has worth. People have much, much more worth.

Not a sparrow falls without God knowing. And we are worth many, many sparrows.

There are no lives that are truly meaningless. Somewhere, somehow, every person is called to bring good into the world. Some do this like Paul, with eagerness. Some do this like Jonah, begrudgingly. But we all have the call, the invite, to deep meaning and purpose to our lives.

Even so, death can be a sweet thought.

It is for Paul.

Paul is pretty much sitting on death row. He is accused of sedition, of encouraging others to be more loyal to someone other than Caesar… and he is very guilty. So guilty, he is STILL preaching against Rome through his letters to the young Christian churches. This letter today is addressed to the church in Philippi and full of messages such as “don’t be intimidated by your opponents” and they may destroy your body, but not your soul.

Paul also writes about considering death. How can you not contemplate death when you can feel it coming closer and closer?

Paul writes, “I don’t know which I prefer” living, or dying. To paraphrase, he says: If I die, I know I’ll be with Christ – and that is far better than any day here on earth. But if I live, I can help you all and encourage you. I guess, living or dying, I am with Christ. And living or dying, I gain.

Since I don’t know if I’m going to die and see Christ, or be released and see you, give me this comfort: live your lives in a manner worthy of the Good News of Christ. So whenever I hear about you here in Rome or there in heaven, I’ll hear you are standing firm together and striving together in the faith of the Gospel.

Paul is considering his death because it literally may be this afternoon, or tomorrow, or in years. But he can feel its presence. And he has decided – he is ready to die. Death no longer scares him. He welcomes death, even.

Have you ever met someone who is ready to die? It is unnerving. Every creature has a survival instinct that makes us fight tooth and nail to survive, to live. We abhor death, and avoid it, or try to make it pretty and sanitized. We say euphemisms – she passed away. He is in eternal sleep. They went to heaven.

Death is taboo.

But Paul is welcoming it. And sometimes, people we love welcome death too.

Someone I love recently told me she is ready to die. I wanted to protest and tell her I want her to see my daughter grow up. I want her to always be around in my life because she’s always been in my life. I want to know so much more about her childhood and have a million conversations I’ve put off or not yet even considered. I want…

And I realized, all my protests against my loved one dying are because of things –I wanted–.

I paused in our conversation, and I considered her life, and what she wanted.

She wants her parents, and siblings, and even some children, who are all long dead. She wants to converse with friends about times no one else alive remembers. She wants to be less lonely.

She wants to be in less pain and misery. Every day there is more of both as her body slowly dies and she knows there will be no more better days… only worse and worse days trapped in this fragile flesh body.

She wants to pass with dignity and grace.

If she gets her druthers – at home and in her sleep. Who wouldn’t want to go that way?

And if that’s not possible, then in a nursing home where there are people to care for her without being a strain on her family.

And she is ready. Ready to die.

I am not ready for her to die.

When I worked at Children’s Hospital, sometimes doctors or nurses or chaplains asked parents, “Who are you doing this treatment for? For your child, or for yourselves?”

Is it in the child’s best interest to do another round of chemo that likely will not work but which will make them very, very sick. There is a slim chance it will save their life… but the evidence in this case shows it is much more likely the child will spend their last month in misery. Is it better to go for this tiny slim chance, or is it better to have the child go home and die with grace and dignity?

What does the child want?

Dylan Thomas wrote a poem called “Do not go gentle into that good night.” The refrain is “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” He tells wise men, good men, wild men and grave men to fight for every single second of their lives and not to die gently, peacefully. The last line is addressed to his own father who he pleads for any blessing, any word — just don’t die and rage instead against death.

Who did Dylan write the poem for, and who was he considering?

His line to his father is: “Curse me, bless me… I pray.”

Sometimes, the most loving thing to do is to accept the person we love, that we are going to miss more than our own lives, is ready to die. Accept their choice, and help them go gently into the good night. Help them die in the manner they choose. Love them, as they let go bit by bit, of this world and step into the next.

Love them, and support them, when their wishes for their lives, and deaths, are counter to our own.

Love them, and support them, and know that death is hard work and as they go about the hard work of dying, we are called to be Christ for them. To walk along side them. To be their advocates, to give them agency, to give them dignity, and to help them depart to Christ.

It is actually a blessing when our loved ones jar us with mentioning their preparations for death. That panic we feel tells us how much we have left undone. Moves us to have those conversations we have put off and do those things we always said we’d do someday.

It is a blessing, because we can work on ourselves accepting our loved one’s desires… and when they ask for the permission to let go, to stop fighting, and go home… we can take their hands and say, “Well done, Good and Faithful servant, enter now into the joy of your Lord.”

“It’s okay to die.”

We know it is okay to die because it is not the end of God’s story. It is not the end of ourselves. Death is not the final word – there is a resurrection and a victory.

So… Is it better to be or not to be? That is not the question. The question is: In who’s interest am I acting? Whom am I considering? How can we face this transition together?

Amen.

Forgive – don’t forget

Matthew 18:21-35

Margaret Adams Parker Reconciliation
“Reconciliation” by Margaret Adams Parker

Romans 14:1-12

“The Bible says you should forgive and forget.”

How often I have been told that!

I wonder, was Jesus ever told that? What about Paul? Or Moses? Or God? Because none of them preach forgive and forget! Actually, they taught the exact opposite… to forgive, and don’t forget.

I get told to forgive and forget when someone does me a wrong. As a teen, it was me saying “I’m so angry SoAndSo stole from my purse! I should confront them!”

And I was told, “Now, now, it’s better to forgive and forget. Let it be.”

As an adult, I’ve had people tell me of their spouse beating them, and then the victim says, “But if I hold my love’s violence against them, then I’m not forgiving them. So I choose to forgive and forget. I know in their heart they didn’t mean it.”

Good Christians – don’t forgive and forget. You are NOT floor mats, to be stomped on, ripped and torn, and hurt. You don’t have to be a victim to be Christian. You don’t have to forget who and how others hurt you. You are not called to abuse.

“However, if by “forgive and forget” one means, “I will act as if the sin had never occurred and live as if I don’t remember it,” then we can run into trouble. For example, a rape victim can choose to forgive the rapist, but that does not mean she should act as if that sin had never happened. To spend time alone with the rapist, especially if he is unrepentant, is not what Scripture teaches. Forgiveness involves not holding a sin against a person any longer, but forgiveness is different from trust. It is wise to take precautions, and sometimes the dynamics of a relationship will have to change. “Being cautious doesn’t mean we haven’t forgiven.” ((https://www.gotquestions.org/forgive-forget.html))

Listen to our scripture today:

Peter asks Jesus “how many times should I forgive a brother?” and offers the generous 7 times. Then, just as now, we say something like fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Or, 3 strikes you’re out. Seven times is an awful lot of “second” chances.

But Jesus says no – forgive your brother an unlimited amount… and then he tells a parable to explain what he means.

In this parable, a king has loaned an absurd amount of money to his servant. The king called this guy in and said it is time to pay back what you borrowed — but the man didn’t have an absurd amount of money to return. So the king said – well, then, we’ll sell you and your wife and kids and home and all you own into slavery.

The guy in insane debt fell on his knees and begged for forgiveness. He promised to make all things right if given time. He begged for mercy.

The king had pity. Instead of saying – okay, I’ll give you another year. Or, okay, I’ll sell only you and not your family into slavery. Instead, the king said — I forgive you of this 300 million dollars. You don’t have to pay me back. The indebted man got so much more than what he asked for.

Note – the king did this when the servant asked for forgiveness from his heart. Additionally, the king did it out of pity — you can only have pity on someone or something from a position of power. Otherwise, you commiserate. The king looks down on this guy, and out of his power over the man, chooses to forgive everything when the weak one asks.

This isn’t a situation of an abused person forgiving their abuser. That would be the weak forgiving the powerful. This is a case like your bank choosing to forgive your house mortgage entirely because you wrote to them about how you can’t pay the mortgage right now and you’d like more time before they foreclose.

So the deeply forgiven man heads out. He passes someone else who owes him some cash and he says – hey! Pay up!

Just like the forgiven man had done, this guy also falls on his knees and pleas – give me some more time! I’ll pay you everything back!

But the forgiven man doesn’t forgive this guy or give this guy more time. Instead, he throws the man in prison.

Sorta like your bank forgives your whole mortgage, but then you sue your cousin because he missed a payment on the car you cosigned for him.

So word gets back to the king about what the forgiven man has done. The king summons the man back, and says – hey! What’s the deal? You pleaded with me for more time, and I gave you way, way more than more time. Your coworker pleaded for more time from you, and you didn’t forgive his debt like I did yours, or even give him the time. Instead, you chose to throw him in jail. I guess that’s the way you want to be treated too. So, into jail with you until you pay the absurd amount you borrowed from me — just like you did to your brother.

Jesus then concludes his story by saying God treats us the same way – if we forgive, we are forgiven. If we demand payment, God will demand payment.

Now… did anyone FORGET in this story?

Absolutely not. Actually, remembering is a major part of the forgiveness. The forgiven guy is supposed to remember how much mercy — unwarranted gifts — he has been given. He is supposed to remember the kindness he has been shown. And then he is supposed to give that mercy and kindness to others when they are in the same situation he was in.

The king remembers too. He remembered the forgiven guy wronged him, but that the guy had asked for more time to make it right. The king remembers he gave the slave great generosity. And he remembers that the slave chose to respond to this generosity not with love and gratitude, but with greediness.

If someone you forgive uses your mercy as a blank check to do more and more wrong… don’t forget. Take that mercy back.

Forgiveness is never supposed to be power to do harm. It is supposed to be a balm to bring people back together into right relationships.

Forgiveness is not something to do and forget.

And the Bible says no where that it is easy.

We’re told about forgiveness in the Bible from the perspective of the person who forgives, the person who asks for mercy, and the people who witness it. Everywhere, scripture notes… forgiveness is hard.

The prodigal son must reach utter rock bottom before he is willing to admit he has done wrong. He is so stubborn! When he comes back, he comes back about crawling on his belly. He is deeply ashamed. He intends to beg his father to take him in as a slave – not as a son. This year, scientists looked at our brains and our bodies when we are proven wrong. They found that it PHYSICALLY hurts — hurts like being slapped — when we know we’re in the wrong. People avoid admitting their wrongs not just out of pride, but out of fear of the pain, and fear of rejection, and the dual punishment the wronged person and their own bodies will do. When someone actually admits their wrong to you, and asks for forgiveness, they have already suffered and are suffering.

Now you have the power. The upper hand. This person has admitted they are in the wrong. You are in the right. What will you do? The law and common sense says you can take all the revenge and should take all that you’re owed. Sue them for every penny. Burn the relationship to the ground. Tell everyone what a mess up they are. It is your right.

And the Bible says that we are permitted to loosen and bind what we will. You can choose punishment in this situation for the wronged person. You can also choose mercy. You can choose love. You can choose to walk away even without an answer.

The power and right is in your hands. What will you do with it?

Giving it away, forgive- forgo- to give away – means giving up your right to extract vengeance for the wrong committed to you. This is just as hard as asking for forgiveness. This is acting against our nature, and acting against our culture. It is purposefully stepping out of the patterns of the world around us and forging a new way.

Who wants to give up power? Who wants to lower themselves and say – we are equals? Who wants to admit someone did them a horrible wrong, and then say ‘but I am choosing not to get my pound of flesh from them.’

Forgiving, and asking forgiveness, is very hard.

So, too, is witnessing it. Remember that brother of the prodigal son is furious. And often people who watch Jesus forgive sins are incensed. How can he do this? It isn’t just! It is against the balance books! It isn’t fair.

Forgiving isn’t fair. It is mercy. It is unearned favor.

Forgiving is not how the world works.

Forgiving is choosing to live into God’s realm.

Remember, part two of Jesus’ story says rules we apply to others, God will apply to us. What we do on Earth is reflected in heaven. If we demand every penny be paid back to us, God will demand we pay back every penny we owe others – and owe God.

Jesus suggests our debt to others and God is so absurdly large, that we can never pay it back. Instead, we need forgiveness and mercy. Therefore, we should practice forgiveness and mercy.

Because forgiveness is not an easy task, not easily given.

Remembering is what makes forgiveness worth so much.

No where does Jesus say forget – just forgive.