Monday, October 30, 2017

The Fifth Sola

For a long time I only thought there were three "solas."  Three Reformation rallying cries:  "Sola Gratia!  Sola Fide! Sola Scriptura!"

Grace alone.  Faith alone. Scripture alone.

It didn't seem to me that you could add to these.

But somewhere along the line I learned that there were two more: Solus Christus (Christ alone) and Soli Gloria Dei (To the glory of God alone.)

Tonight I am considering that fifth "sola."  To the glory of God alone.

What does it mean to live "for the glory of God alone"?

I'm tempted to get a picture of a particularly religious life, because there is a part of my unconscious brain where I think that of course, a particularly religious life gives glory to God.  And that could be the particularly religious life of someone who is a clergy person or an educator, someone who lives in a monastery and prays without ceasing, literally.  Or it could be the particularly religious life of someone who has goes to Bible studies all of the time, or volunteers at the church, or sings Christian songs, or works for justice.

But then I think about it some more.  And while I think that singing Christian songs and praying and working for justice are all important things, and while I even admire those who live in monasteries where they pray and make delicious soup (I imagine) and pray and welcome visitors, I don't think that's what it means to live for the glory of God alone.

And I'm not so sure that I'm very good at it.

I am thinking about Jesus words in Matthew 6, "Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear."  I am thinking about how Jesus encourages us to look at the lilies of the field or the birds of the air.  The lilies and the birds live for the glory of God without thinking about it, just by being what they are.  They fly and they feed their young; they wave in the wind, they bloom and they fade.

They just live.

I've been thinking lately that to live for the glory of God alone is something like this -- it is not so noble or self-conscious.  It is to glory in the God who created us, and the world.  It is to notice things, small things, the tiniest flowers in the yard (which are weeds), the way the sun feels on a cool day, to look up at the stars on a dark night.

I'm not very good at it.

Instead, I confess, I'm anxious.  My worst times are Saturday nights and Sunday mornings, as I am getting ready for church.  I'm worried about all of the things that could go wrong, whether my voice will squeak on the high notes or whether anyone will show up,  mostly things I can't do anything about.  I wake up in the middle of the night and I can't fall asleep because I'm anxious, and I think, "It should not be this way.  I love worship.  I love worshipping.  Why am I feeling this way?"

Maybe next time I feel this way in the middle of the night I should go out in the dark and look up at the stars.

I live just north of Houston, and one of the surprises in this new house is that it is just like living in the country.  When it's clear, I can look up and see the stars.

I have not seen the stars for many years.

To live for the glory of God alone.  What does it look like?

I remember once having a conversation with women from one of my churches.  They were not sure whether fifth graders should have Holy Communion.  Their proof?  They had overheard a conversation between two girls after they had received the sacrament.  "It was good!" the girls said to one another.  The woman thought they were not taking communion seriously enough.  But I thought the girls were right.  It was good!  They were tasting the bread, and they were glorying in it.

Maybe that's what it looks like:  to live for the glory of God.

Maybe it looks like wonder, and maybe it looks like laughter.  Maybe it looks like the tears you let stream down your face when you are overwhelmed by sorrow, or joy.  Maybe it looks like singing at the top of your lungs, even when your voice squeaks.  Maybe it looks like hitting bottom, maybe it looks like being raised up.  Maybe it looks like tasting bread, and knowing it's good.

 That fifth sola.  It's our whole lives, lived in God, with God, from God.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Sermon For Reformation 2017

“Shining in the gift of faith”
A sermon for Reformation 500, 2017

           All fall we have been learning these words, this verse:
            Let your light so shine before others
            That they may see your good works
            And give glory to your father in heaven.

            And it’s been good.  All fall we have been living into the promise of God that we are the light- - that we have been given the light of Christ to shine –  and today
            – I want to pause, and acknowledge that we are also in a special time and a special day as this is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation
            We’ve talked a little about that here.
             During Lent we studied Luther’s Small Catechism. 
            Hannah Alfred from our church shared the significance of her trip to Germany this spring, and what she learned about Luther and the Reformation.   
            There have been events all over our Synod and in fact, all over the country and all over the world commemorating this year and this day.            Last Sunday night some of us got together and watched a movie about Martin Luther’s life, and its significance. 

            In two days it will be October 31, 2017, exactly 500 years after Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the University church door in Wittenberg.   
            He didn’t mean to change the world.  He just wanted to have a conversation.
             He was concerned about a particular practice in the church of his time – the practice of selling forgiveness through indulgences
            And He was beginning to experience God – the grace of God – to know God in a different way than he had before – and he wanted to make sure that this message got out clearly.
             So he nailed those 95 statements to the door – meaning to start a conversation – and instead started a revolution. 

            And at the heart of this revolution was Freedom. 
            You might be surprised to hear that. 
            You have perhaps have heard that it was the grace of God, or about faith – or you might have heard that it was about the Word of God, and its center in our life.
            And all of that would be true.  But all of these things – grace and faith and the word of God – brought freedom to Martin Luther.
             It was about, as the Gospel reading from John tells us “the truth that sets us free.”

            In this short passage from the gospel of John, Jesus is speaking with some of the Jewish people who had followed him.  “If you continue in my Word,” he tells him, You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
             Seems simple doesn’t it?   First the promise of knowing the truth, and then the promise that this truth has the power to make us free. 
            But it’s interesting – instead of meeting Jesus’ words with joy – or gratitude – or anything positive at all
            – they say, “Wait a minute! What do you mean ‘free’?  We aren’t slaves!  We have never been slaves

            It’s an interesting response by people who tell a particular story as a part of their history – the story about how they were slaves in Egypt, and how God delivered them with a mighty hand and brought them into the promised land. 
            That’s the story of Jewish People.  Passover.  That tells him who they are.   
            And that’s not even the only time they were slaves.  They were slaves of the Babylonians, and of the Persians, and even now – they were living under Roman rule. 

            (Denial.  It’s not just a river in Egypt.)

            But that’s one of the truths that will set us free, one of the truths that Martin Luther found in the Scriptures – not the only one, the truth about us. 
            The truth is that we are captive to sin – not just Peter who betrayed Jesus, and not just the other disciples, and not just the soldiers who put him to death ….
            The truth about us is that we are slaves.  The truth is that we miss the mark, that we fail, that we fall down, that we hurt one another, sometimes without meaning to, sometimes intentionally. 
            The truth is that we are broken, flawed,  imperfect.  And we’re not that good at admitting it.

            It’s like the popular song, “Amazing Grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.” 
            You know that one?  And there was one time that I found an old bulletin with the words to Amazing Grace printed on it, and someone had crossed out the word “wretch”.  Because you know, that seems sort of harsh, right? 

            It’s hard to admit, but it’s also the truth behind the very first of Luther’s 95 theses – “that when our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “repent”, he willed for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”
            I don’t think Luther means that we need to spend our whole lives beating ourselves up – but he does mean that we need to be able to tell the truth about ourselves – that there are things we need to repent of.       That there are things about us that need to change.  It’s one of the reasons we confess our sins and hear the promise of forgiveness every single Sunday.  It’s part of the truth that sets us free. 

            But it’s not the only truth.   It’s not just the truth about us that we need to know.
             It’s also the truth about God, the truth about Jesus.

            Those of you who were at the Luther movie on Sunday night – there this very powerful moment in it when Luther’s confessor turns to him and says, You are not being honest with yourself, Martin. 
            God isn’t angry with you.  You are angry with God.  
            Think about that for a moment.  And what Luther’s confessor is saying to him.  “God isn’t angry with you.” 
            The truth about God – the truth about the God we know in Jesus is that he loves you
            – and he loves you in all over your messy imperfect humanity – so much that he went to the cross –- and he rose to new life – for YOU. 
            The truth about Jesus is that through his death and resurrection he has imprinted his life and love on us and in our hearts, that he has given us his light to shine in our hearts and in our community,
             and that there is nothing that we can do to make him love us less.   We can’t earn this love, or this salvation.   
            We can’t MAKE God love us, and we can’t stop God from loving us.

            Like a friend of our family once said to me, a long time ago, during a time when I was sort of down and discouraged with life in general and myself in particular.
            I love you, kid.  He said.  And there’s not a darn thing you can do about it. –( Okay – he used somewhat stronger language than this.)
            I love you – and there’s not ONE THING you can do about it
             THAT’s the truth that sets us free. 
            He loves you – YOU – and you the way you really are, not you with the photo touch ups or the you you post about on Facebook, or the you that you put in the resume
             And this truth sets us free – there is nothing we HAVE to do to earn God’s love.  
            There is nothing we HAVE to do – but there  are plenty of things that we are FREE to do. 
            We don’t worship because we have to.  We don’t pray because we have to 
            We don’t read the Bible because we have to. 
            We don’t serve because we have to. 
            We do it because the love of God has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.   

            If the Son has set us free, we are free indeed.  Free to see ourselves as we really are, free to trust God in death – to trust God with our lives.  Free to love our neighbor, to serve freely those who most need it.  Free for another 500 years --– to let God re-form and re-new us as the people of God and to shine that light for the sake of the world God loves  


Sunday, October 22, 2017

Pentecost 23 Year A: Shining in the Gift of Worship

Matthew 22:15-21

            Recently I’ve been thinking back to the long journeys I took to church when I lived in Tokyo many years ago. 
            I would get up early on Sunday mornings, walk to the train station, and then transfer twice before I got to my destination. 
            After I got off the train, it was a twenty minute walk to Hiyoshi Church, where I worshipped in Japanese every single Sunday. 
            I remember the first week, when someone walked with me from the train station, I thought, “I will never be able to do this on my own.”  But I did. 
            I remembered the route, and took the trains and walked the winding streets every single week.

            Then one week, a gentleman sat down next to me on the train and struck up a conversation. 
            Where was I going, he wanted to know.  To church, I replied. 
            He was curious, having never been to church before.  He asked if he could go to church, too.  I said that he certainly could. 
            I was thinking that I was fulfilling my calling as a missionary!  Someone is going to church because of me! 
            But then he kept asking me if he needed to have money in order to come to church. 
            I kept assuring him that it was perfectly okay if he didn’t have money.  He could come to church and worship without paying for it. 
            I wondered why he was so worried, or what he could be thinking.  But I kept assuring him – no offering was necessary.
             I just wanted him to experience a worship service.
            You don’t have to pay to go to worship.  There is no entrance fee.  I stand by my statement to that Japanese gentleman. 
            But today – when we are ‘shining in our worship –‘  there is an offering – and it is an integral part of the worship. 
            It’s not an entrance fee and you don’t ‘have to’ – but it’s not optional either.
            Today we are “shining in our worship’ – and we will also be receiving our commitments for the coming year. 
            And today the gospel reading is all about money – and about what it means…..
            The setting is the temple. 
            The time is “Holy Week” – which means that Jesus will soon be crucified.
             The religious leaders are trying to trap Jesus by asking him a question about money and taxes – and they believe that no matter which way he answers, he will be giving the wrong answer to someone.    They asked him, “What do you think, Jesus?  Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” 
            If he says, “Yes,” he’s made the Pharisees angry – because they think it is not right to pay taxes to the occupying forces of Rome. 
            If he answers, “No,” he will obviously be leading an uprising, and the forces of Rome will be need to bring him down.  What is Jesus going to say?

            So this is not just money, is it?  Like everything else in life. 
            But it’s about money too.  Like so much in life.

            It’s interesting that the two groups who approach Jesus are the Pharisees and the Herodians.  They hate each other. 
            They don’t agree on anything. 
            But it appears that they are united in one thing – their hatred for Jesus.  So they ask the question – they bait the trap – and they wait.

            But Jesus takes it in another direction.
             He answers their question with a question.  First, he asks them if they have the coin.  Surprisingly, someone does have a coin.
             I say, it’s a surprise because they are in the temple, and Roman coins should be changed to Jewish coins for offerings in the temple. 
            But, someone has a Roman coin, and Jesus asks, “Whose image and likeness do you see?” 

            Of course – it’s Caesar. 
            So Jesus says, “Give to Caesar the things that our Caesar’s – “ which, on the face of it means – meet your obligations, pay your taxes, be a good citizen, -- all well and good – but he doesn’t stop there. 

            Then he adds something else, “And Give to God the things that are God’s.”


            What DOESN’T belong to God?

            This casts everything in an entirely new light, doesn’t it? 
            It doesn’t mean that we don’t have responsibilities to the state – It doesn’t mean that Jesus says it’s okay not to pay taxes
            – but Jesus is also NOT saying that there are compartments where we can divide our loyalties either. 
            In fact, there are several places where Jesus speaks out particularly about loyalties which are divided.
             NO – regardless of all of our other obligations in life – ultimately, everything belongs to God.

            It all goes back to the “image and likeness” on the coin. 
            “It’s an interesting phrase, “Image and likeness”. 
            It is Caesar’s “image and likeness” on the coin.
             But if you go all the way back to Genesis, chapter 1, verse 26 (and I can’t help but think that Jesus is counting on us remembering this verse),
            when God made humanity, he made us “in the image and likeness of God.’ 
            Each and every one of us. 

            And then for us who have been baptized, and who have had the cross traced on our foreheads, there is even more:  we have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked by the cross of Christ forever. 

            We belong to God.  Every one of us.  And every part of us.

            And that is, in part, why we take the offering every Sunday during worship. 
            It is God of course who is always always offering himself to us.  And that is what Sunday is about. 
            But it is also about us, offering ourselves back to God.  And offering ourselves to our neighbor. 
            We offer the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, confessing that God is God (and we are not). 
            We offer our time and our talents. 
            And we don’t hold back our wealth either.

            What we put in the offering plate, no matter how big it is, is just part of the picture. 
            The part that doesn’t go in the offering plate – well, that belongs to God too, and it matters how we use it. 
            What goes in the offering plate – helps us to remember that EVERYTHING belongs to God, helps us to remember that everything is a gift from God, and also helps us to remember that we are a community of faith, and that we serve and worship God TOGETHER.  

            So I told that man, you don’t need money to come to church. 
            In the Shinto religion of Japan, you put your coin in before you can pray. 
            You pay and then you can pray.   You pay to get access.
            So it was a good answer, the right answer . 
            For us, You don’t pay your money in order to be able to pray. 
            You put your coin in the offering because you can already pray – for free. 
            You put you dollars in the offering because we already belong to God because of what God has done – because God’s image and likeness has been stamped on us, because we are redeemed. 
            You give up a portion of your wealth because it was never yours to begin with, because you are part of the body of Christ, that body also made in the image of God. 
            You give because you are part of the body of Christ and part of the mission of God and –well --  it’s not your mission either, the mission belongs to God, and because we are privileged to play a part in it. 
            Let your light so shine before others
            That they may see your good works
            And give glory to your father in heaven.


Sunday, October 1, 2017

Pentecost Year A: "Shining in the Gift of Prayer"

Philippians 2:1-11

Dear  friends in Christ, Dear People of Grace – Grace to you and peace from God our creator, and from our risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  AMEN

            What are your first memories of prayer? Who taught you to pray?  How do you practice prayer now?  This week we are “shining in the gift of prayer” – and for me – the gift of prayer is linked – first of all to my family, and the prayers my parents always said with us at mealtime and at bedtime. 
            My family taught me my first prayers. 

            But there was also LeRoy Palmquist, my 4th grade Sunday School teacher. 
            Our class met every week in the choir room – there were not enough classrooms – and I have to admit that I don’t remember much of anything we did in 4th grade Sunday School – except for the one week that we did not take out the workbooks.
             Instead, he taught us how to pray.  He taught us how we could make our own prayers, using the acronym “ACTS.”  A stood for adoration, or praise. 
             You always began a prayer to God with praise.  “God you are wonderful, awesome, mighty!”   
            Then you moved to C, which stood for Confession.  You confessed your sins.  “I’m sorry that I hit my sister, or that I doubted your love for me.” 
            The next letter stood for Thanksgiving, and was the easiest.  “Thank you!”  The children at the pre-school are best at saying thank you to God for everything – EVERYTHING. 
            And finally, S stood for supplication.  Which is a word most 4th graders don’t know.  But it meant “asking for help”.  Supplication means saying to God “Help me.”  “Help us.”  
            What are your first memories of prayer?  Who taught you to pray?  How do you practice prayer now?
            We are shining in the gift of prayer this week – and it is a gift – and it’s a gift to be simple in prayer as well. 
            I have never stopped praying those simple prayers I learned in childhood, or the ones that are written down in our worship books.  
            I believe that written out prayers are true prayers,  and also that simple prayers, “Thank you,” and “Help me” and “Wow” can be prayers as well. 
            We are shining in the gift of prayer this week – but it might be good to start with what prayer is – and why we do it. 
            What is prayer – after all? 
            How do you define it?  (maybe ask for some people to say what their definition of prayer is.) 
            When I think about prayer, I often think of the disciples’ simple request to Jesus, “Teach us to pray.”  
            And of course this is where we get the Lord’s prayer, from this simple request. 
            But sometimes when I think of the disciples’ request, I imagine that they aren’t asking, “Teach us a prayer to say,” or even, “Teach us HOW to Pray,”
             “Teach us a METHOD of prayer.” 
            But maybe they are asking, “Teach us to come to you…. With everything. 
            Teach us to confide in your, to ask you, to depend on you, to TRUST you.” 
            “Teach us to pray…. Rather than NOT pray.”  How can we trust you, depend on you, come to you …. ?” 
            Because that’s what prayer is. 
            It is conversation with God.  It is depending on God. 
            It is trusting God – with our secrets, with our needs, with our whole lives –  our whole congregation -- and our whole world!

            And this is where stewardship comes in, too. 
            We are stewards of everything that God has entrusted to us.  And prayer is at the heart of remembering that. 
            Prayer is the foundation of our mission, and our vision. 
            Not perfunctory prayer – “God, bless all the plans we have already made for ourselves.”
             But real, simple, trusting prayer, “God, help us to follow you.  Help us to want for ourselves what you want for us.”
             If it’s true, what the Psalmist says, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it…”  it’s probably a good idea to check in with the owner once in awhile….
            So prayer is the foundation of our lives, because praying reminds us who and whose we are 
            Prayer reminds us of who God is – and of who we are. 
            The passage from our reading from Philippians gets to the heart of this as well. 
            Paul begins with his vision for the congregation in Philippi – a congregation he dearly loves and (if you read the beginning of the letter) prays for always. 
            Paul is writing to them from prison, and he prays for them to be in full accord and to be of one mind. 
            Now anyone who has ever been part of a congregation might think this is an impossible thing to ask.
             We are people with many different ideas.  We don’t all think alike.  Some of us are native Texans.  And some of us emigrated from the Midwest. 
            Some of us have been Lutheran forever, and some of us are pretty new to this particular faith tradition. 
            We don’t all share the same political perspectives – and we might have some different priorities as well. 
            But Paul isn’t asking for uniformity.  He is asking for unity.  And through prayer, I believe we can travel in this direction.
            Because the unity we seek is through Christ Jesus.  Paul’s vision is of him, and his “downward ascent.”  
            For love of us, he came down here to live with us,  to know us and be known by us, to suffer with us and for us, to die for us. 
            This is the direction of our lives as well. 
            We live this downward ascent.  We live our lives – not for ourselves, but for the sake of God, and for one another. 
            As Paul writes in Philippians, “let each of you look not to your own interests but to the interests of others.” 
            One of the ways we do this is through prayer.   
            We do this by prayer that is honest – not just saying what we think God wants to hear – but admitting our fears and our doubts and our failings.
            Do you know why we bow our heads sometimes when we pray?    Back in the days where there were kings, subjects knelt and bowed their heads in front of the king, which exposed their necks. 
            They put themselves in a position of vulnerability in front of the king. 
            In one of the powerful moment in the movie, Luther , the Lutheran princes kneel in front of the Emperor Charles. 
            But what they are saying is, you can kill us, but we will not give up our faith. 
            The Lord’s prayer itself begins with this “downward ascent.” 
            We begin by praying that God’s will be done and God’s kingdom come.  Not our will, and not our kingdoms.  But God’s.
             And then we pray asking that God meet our daily needs, and our spiritual needs, and keeps us from temptation and evil. 

            There are many ways to pray and many methods of prayer.  You can color your prayers (I do) and you can use your body in your prayers.       You can pray the prayers in the back of your hymnal, and you can say, simply “Help me.  I am yours.” 
            You can pray like the children, “Thank you God for my dog and for bugs.”  You can pray in silence. 
            You can pray the Faith 5,  which some of our families here use, and which includes time for sharing scripture together and the important moments of our days. 
            You can pray like my Sunday School teacher, LeRoy Palmquist – A for Adoration, C for Confession, T for Thanksgiving, S for Supplication.

            But all of our prayers begin in the same place, with Jesus, the one who “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited.” 
            They begin with the one who came down for us, and in his Spirit, is with us still, even to the end of the age.  They begin with Jesus, and they end with Amen.  Let it be so.  Make our lights shine Lord, for that is your will for us.