Reformation Sunday, October 27, 2013

Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 46, Romans 3:19-28, John 8:31-36

 Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen

Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

 May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Martin Luther, the founder of the Lutheran church, lived in turbulent times.  The Middle Ages were turning into the Early Modern Era, so systems of government and economics were changing.  The Scientific Revolution was just getting started.  The longstanding war between the Ottoman Empire and the Holy Roman Empire was heating up.  The Ottoman Empire, centered in what is now Turkey, was moving northward, conquering the Baltic and threatening the Holy Roman Empire, centered in Germany, from the East.  During Luther’s lifetime they got deep enough into Europe to besiege the city of Vienna.  And the church was corrupt, too; high church offices were bought and sold, bribery was common, the priesthood was torn by sex scandals, church attendance was down, and the average Christian knew shockingly little about the faith they supposedly believed in.  The world, in short, seemed to be going to hell in a handbasket.  There were many good things happening, too—great works of art and literature from the past being rediscovered, for example, and great moral thinkers and philosophers, but they brought with them the uncertainty of change.  In Luther’s day, you could no longer take comfortable old certainties for granted.

It’s no wonder that Luther’s favorite psalm was the psalm we read today, Psalm 46.  “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.  Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake .0+in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.”  No matter what happens, God is with us, a refuge and strength.  In the words of the hymn Luther wrote as a reflection on this psalm, God is a might fortress, victorious over all the forces of evil.  What a comfort!  No matter what troubles, no matter what trials and tribulations, God is with us.  No matter how the nations rage and the kingdoms shake, no matter how the earth moves under our feet, no matter the natural disasters that surround us, God is with us.  We may be tossed and turned, but God is always with us.

But that doesn’t mean that we will always stay the same.  It doesn’t mean that our understanding of who God is and what it means to be God’s people will always stay the same.  God is always the same, but we are not.  Martin Luther found that out.  You see, Martin spent a lot of time reading his Bible, and as he did so, he noticed things.  God’s Holy Spirit was with him, and it opened his eyes to things he hadn’t seen before.  One of those passages he saw with new eyes was today’s reading from Romans, where Paul says that “There is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”  Martin had been taught, as all Christians believed at the time, that you got into heaven when you did more good works than sins.  They believed—as some still believe today—that you had to earn your way into heaven.  They believed you had to make yourself worthy of God’s love and forgiveness.  But that’s not what this passage from Romans says: it says that we are all sinners, every one of us—and we are forgiven solely because of the gift of God’s love through Christ Jesus our Lord.  We don’t earn our way into heaven, which is good, because no human ever born could do it.  But God loves us so much that he gave his only son, Jesus Christ, for the salvation of the world.

This was a big deal!  This set the whole belief system of his day on its ear!  And the more Luther read his Bible, the more he found this whole idea of God’s grace in all sorts of places.  It’s in the Gospels; it’s in Paul’s letters; and while we think of the Old Testament as harsh and unforgiving, you can find God’s love and grace there too, in passages like today’s first reading where the LORD says that he will forgive all of Israel’s sins and make a new covenant with them, pouring out his love and spirit to them, giving them the gift of his love, no matter how often they have fallen astray.  We believe, as Christians, that that new covenant comes in the form of Christ Jesus, who died so that our sinful nature might be forgiven, redeemed, and made whole.

Luther started spreading his ideas, pointing out places where the church’s traditional explanations were wrong, and people listened!  They heard the Holy Spirit speaking through Luther, calling people back to the faith and opening their eyes to see God’s Word.  Luther used the newfangled technology of the printing press to reach a bigger audience, and other people began reading their Bibles more and talking about what God’s Word meant for their own lives.  They didn’t let traditional understandings of what Scripture should mean get in the way of how God was speaking to them through the Bible and through their conversations with one another.  And they started talking about how God’s grace and forgiveness should be lived out.  They weren’t trying to start a new church; they were trying to reform the church they already had, going back to the roots of what it means to be a Christian, roots found in Scripture, in God’s love poured out through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

It had an impact on their lives.  Their new understanding of Scripture changed the way they lived.  It affected how churches were organized and how pastors were trained.  It affected how people were taught about the Bible and about God—after all, the catechism that we teach to our Confirmation students started out as a handbook to help parents instruct their own children in the Christian faith.  But it affected a lot of things outside the church walls, too.  It affected how people treated the poor on an individual level and on a community level, as well as on a governmental level.  It changed how families lived together.  It changed the position of women in the community.  It gave people new ways of dealing with the other changes in society.  Even though they lived in a time of turmoil, a time of change and warfare, a time when nations raged and kingdoms were shaken, God was still their refuge and strength, even more than he had been before.  Their understanding of God’s Word changed, but God was with them, their refuge and their help in trouble.

That was almost 500 years ago, but we, too, live in a time of turmoil and change, and don’t let anybody tell you it’s never happened before.  We, too, live in a time of danger and war and conflict; there is a revolution of science and technology happening in our time, too; there is conflict and corruption within and around the church now just like there was in Luther’s day, and then as now there are far too many people who give lip service to Christianity but don’t live it out.  And there are people with new understandings of God’s Word, new interpretations of what it means to be a Christian.  This should not be a surprise, because it’s happened before.  In fact, it may surprise you, but Luther and his fellow Reformers didn’t think theirs was the only Reformation.  They thought of reformation as something that should be constantly ongoing.  We are all beloved children of God, freed in Christ from our sin, but until Christ comes again, we remain sinners.  We are, in Luther’s words, both saint and sinner at the same time, until the glory of God is revealed.  As we are saints, we hear God’s Word and God’s Spirit is in and around us. But as we are sinners, we fall astray, and sometimes let our own prejudices and assumptions get in the way of God’s Spirit.  We go astray, but God leads us back, forgives us, and reformation begins again.

It’s hard.  It’s hard, because the world is changing.  It would be so much easier if things remained the same; it would be so much easier if we never had to study God’s Word and ask ourselves if our traditions and traditional understandings were leading is towards God or away from God.  Life would be easier if the nation did not rage and tremble.  Life would be easier if there was never a need for reformation.  Life would be easier if we were not sinners who depended on God’s grace and forgiveness.  Life would be easier if there wasn’t any need for reformation.

But through it all, no matter what, God is in our midst, and God is not shaken even when we are.  The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold.  God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

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Putting On Christ

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 12), Year C, June 23, 2013

Isaiah 65:1-9, Psalm 22:19-28, Galatians 3:23-29, Luke 8:26-39

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

 May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

For the last few weeks, we’ve been talking about Galatians.  Next week, we’re going to take a break for Augustana’s 100th anniversary before finishing up this sermon series.  To recap what’s happened so far in Paul’s letter to the Galatians: The Galatians had started to value human traditions as the way to prove themselves followers of God, and Paul tries to set them straight.  He reminds them that no human tradition, no matter how good, can take the place of the Good News of God in Christ Jesus.  No amount of following the rules and toeing the line will save us; only Christ can save us through his life, death, and resurrection.  Paul reminds us that the true Gospel, the Good News that Jesus came to give us, can change our lives as it changed his; the Good News that Christ called Paul to preach is the same Good News that we hear today.  Even in the midst of a world that is broken by sin and death, Christ is with us.  The faithfulness of Christ transforms us, gives us hope in the midst of all our brokenness, gives us faith in God and in one another.

Paul expands on that idea in today’s reading.  First he goes back to the law.  Now, when Paul talks about the law, he’s not just talking about the rules and regulations the government sets up to manage everything from traffic lights to taxes to elementary education to international treaties.  Paul is talking about religious laws—or, perhaps teachings would be a better translation—that govern everyday life.  He’s talking about everything from the Ten Commandments on down, all the things that faithful followers of God are supposed to do.  That’s the law he’s talking about, the law that he says imprisoned us and was our disciplinarian until faith came.

Disciplinarian, imprisoned—those aren’t very nice terms.  But the Law that Paul was talking about, that was part of ordinary religious observance!  We still teach and hold up some of those laws today as good and beneficial.  I just got through teaching the 7th Grade Confirmation students about the Ten Commandments, which is the cornerstone on which the rest of the Law is built.  I think we can all agree that following the Ten Commandments and other such religious teachings is a good thing.  I wouldn’t want to live in a society that didn’t have such a moral code.  So why is Paul so hard on the Law?  Why doesn’t he seem to like it?

I think an analogy with secular law is in order here.  You see, the legal system can’t make anyone good.  All it can do is punish you for being bad.  If you step out of line, you are punished.  And fear of punishment may stop people from doing evil or immoral things, but it won’t make them a good person.  I mean, it’s good to be a law-abiding citizen, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a good person.  All it means is that you’re not a criminal.  There are a lot of people out there who have never broken a law in their lives who are still thoroughly nasty people and miserable excuses for human beings.  I could name some, and I bet you could too.  And while the law tries to promote good behavior, all the incentives in the world can’t change a person’s nature.  You can donate to charity in order to get the tax write-off, and it still won’t make you a generous person, if all you’re doing is the minimum needed to reduce your tax obligations.  Don’t get me wrong, having laws is a good thing.  Restraining evil is a good thing.  Working together for the common good in the form of roads and schools and other necessities is a good thing.  But it can’t save anyone, and it can’t make people better.  And, sometimes, bad laws get made, laws that hurt people; sometimes good laws get interpreted in bad ways, to hurt people.

Religious law is the same way.  It can restrain evil, and it can regulate our life together for the common good.  But following all the traditions and teachings and rules can’t heal anyone’s brokenness or save anyone’s soul.  It can’t transform us; it can’t make us children of God; it can’t make us brothers and sisters in Christ.  And when we start focusing too much on our laws, when we make our traditions the arbiter and central point of our Christian faith, it’s all too easy to forget about the one thing that really can save and transform us: Jesus Christ.  It’s easy to get so focused on what we’re doing, that we can’t see what God has done and is doing for us.  And from there it’s a short step to interpreting God’s law through our own prejudices.  That was the Galatians’ problem: it wasn’t that the laws they were following were bad in themselves, but they were starting to put more trust in those laws than in Christ.

When we were baptized, we became children of God.  When we were baptized, we became united with Christ’s death and resurrection.  When we were baptized, we were washed clean.  When we were baptized, we were transformed.  That’s the core of the Gospel; that’s the core of what it means to be a Christian.  All the laws and traditions in the history of the world are less important than that simple fact.  Laws and traditions can’t save us; Christ can.  Laws and traditions can’t transform us into children of God; Christ can.  Laws and traditions can’t heal our brokenness; Christ can.

We have put on Christ.  We still live in a world broken by sin and death.  We ourselves are broken by sin and death, and will be until Christ comes again.  That brokenness divides us, separates us from one another and from God.  And yet we are clothed in Christ’s love, forgiveness, and righteousness.  And that makes a difference.  We are called to see the world through Christ’s eyes.  We are called to see one another through Christ’s eyes.  We are called to act out of love, not out of fear of punishment. We live in a world that is and always has been fragmented by tribe and race and creed and gender and class and sexuality and age and politics and a thousand other things.  We live in a world where people pay attention to the letter of the law, and not the spirit of it.  And we often fall short of our calling and fall prey to those divisions and temptations.

In Paul’s day, the most fundamental divisions were cultural divisions between Jews and Greeks, economic and class differences between slaves and free people, and gender divisions between men and women.  Those divisions were codified and reinforced by secular laws and customs, and also by the way religious laws and customs were interpreted.  And those divisions were getting in the way of spreading the Gospel, because people were paying more attention to those divisions, to the rules that kept people separate, than they were to the Good News that frees us and unites us all as children of God.  But as Paul said, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”  In other words, Christ brings all people together—and our baptism in Christ is more important than anything that separates us, more important than any tradition or rule that holds us apart.

It’s easy to be blinded by all of society’s rules and prejudices.  It’s easy to use those rules as the basis for our actions, rather than our faith in Christ.  And it’s easy to let our understanding of God’s law be twisted and shaped by our prejudices and divisions, rather than by the light of Christ.  But the truth is, what we share in Christ is more important than any human division could ever be.  When you look at another human being, you see someone for whom Christ died.  Even if it’s someone you don’t like; even if it’s someone you think you have nothing in common with.  Christ’s life, death, and resurrection is the basis of our relationship with God, and it is the basis of our relationships with all people.

Through our baptisms we have been saved, redeemed, made children of God and united in Christ.  That is who we are.  That is more important than any human division.  That is more important than any rule or tradition.  It is Christ who saves us, all of us, no matter who we are or what we look like or where we come from or what group we belong to.  It is Christ, not our ability to follow the laws, not our traditions, not our ability to interpret the teachings.  It is Christ who makes us children of God, who forgives us and saves us no matter how many times we fall short of God’s glory.  That is the Good News, and it is Good News for all people.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Reformation: Freedom in new Words

Reformation,  Sunday, October 23, 2011
Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 46
Romans 3:19-28
John 8:31-36
Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Trinity Lutheran Church, Somerset, PA

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

“They answered him, ‘We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone.'”  Really?  They’ve never been slaves to anyone?  Are they joking?  I seem to recall—you may remember this, too—that before they came to the Promised Land, the descendants of Abraham and Sarah were slaves in Egypt who had to be liberated by God’s saving power.  And then, after they were in the promised land, the Assyrians conquered and enslaved Israel, and then the Babylonians conquered the Assyrian Empire and enslaved both Israel and Judah.  After the Babylonians, they were independent for a while before the Greeks conquered them; and after the Greeks came the Romans, who were oppressive foreign overlords at the very time today’s reading took place.  While the Romans didn’t technically enslave the Jews, they certainly weren’t what anyone would have considered “free.”  And yet, despite a long history of slavery and oppression, when Jesus tells them they will be freed, they indignantly insist that they have never been slaves to anyone!  Denial isn’t just a river in Egypt.

One of my favorite authors is Terry Pratchett.  He writes fantasies that are satires of modern life.  In a book called Feet of Clay, Pratchett tells the story of Dorfl, a golem.  Golems are people made out of clay, brought to life by written words stuck into their heads.  The words make them alive and tell them what to do—and the words tell them to be slaves.  A golem works twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, at the most degrading and dangerous jobs there are.  If you order a golem to do something, the golem will do it, because the words in their head make them obey.  Towards the end of the book, Dorfl is freed—his head is opened up and new words are put into him, words that say he belongs to himself.  Dorfl is transformed by this gift, something he couldn’t have imagined on his own.  He goes out and tries to free others—golems, humans, animals, everyone.  He opens the doors to the sweatshops and the slaughterhouses, breaks the machinery the golems use, and yet despite all the chaos he causes the humans and golems just try to fix it and go on exactly as they did before.  This puzzles Dorfl—his freedom was such a wonderful thing, literally giving him new life, so why are people trying to go back to the things that hold them captive?

He says to Sam Vimes, the head of the City Watch, ‘You Say To People “Throw Off Your Chains” And They Make New Chains For Themselves?’

‘Seems to be a major human activity, yes,’ Vimes said.

Dorfl rumbled as he thought about this. ‘Yes,’ he said eventually. ‘I Can See Why. Freedom Is Like Having The Top Of Your Head Opened Up.’

Freedom is like having the top of your head opened up.  Christian freedom means trusting God to take care of us, trusting God’s love and care and guidance even when the world keeps telling us it’s foolish to depend on anyone besides yourself.  Christian freedom means listening to God’s call to lives of justice and mercy, and love, even when it would be safer and easier to be self-centered.  Christian freedom means letting Christ open up our hearts and minds and replace our words that enslave us to sin with God’s Word that frees us and makes us whole.  That sounds dangerous.  That sounds scary.  When you’re a slave, you don’t have any control over your life, but if something bad happens it’s not your fault.  You don’t have to think, you don’t have to take risks, and however bad things get at least they’re predictable.  Remember the newly freed people of Israel wandering in the desert and grumbling how they wanted to go back to slavery in Egypt because at least there they had food to eat?  Nobody really wants to be a slave, but at the same time—sometimes it seems safer and a whole lot easier.

People make chains for themselves all the time.  Some chains are easier to spot than others.  Addictions—to alcohol, drugs, gambling, hoarding, whatever—those can be easy to spot, at least from the outside.  People who are addicted find their lives controlled by their need.  Yet most people who are addicted try to claim, at some point, that they are fine, that they have it all under control.  They aren’t slaves to their addictions.  They can quit at any time, they say, even when it’s obvious they can’t.

Some chains are harder to spot than others, particularly when (like the people in today’s Gospel lesson) we are in denial.  We confess every Sunday at the beginning of worship that we are sinners, that we fall short of the glory of God, that we are held in chains by sin and cannot free ourselves.  But when it comes down to it, how many of us really take that seriously?  After all, it’s not like we’re Snidely Whiplash, gleefully chortling and twirling a moustache as we plot evil deeds.  Our sins are little things, we tell ourselves.  After all, saying something hurtful when we’re upset isn’t that big a deal, is it?  Paying more attention to our jobs or hobbies than to the people around us isn’t that big a deal, is it?  Watching movies and television shows that treat women like sex objects, play on racial stereotypes, or promote violence isn’t that big a deal, is it?  After all, everyone does it!

And on their own, each little sin may not look like much—but when you add them all together, they dominate every aspect of our lives.  Those sins keep us apart from one another, keep us from building right and lasting relationships with God and each other, breaking us apart, keep us isolated and turned in so that all we can see or hear are our own fears, our anxieties, our prejudices, our flaws.  We don’t want to admit that those sins keep us from listening to God’s Word, and keep us from truly living the good and abundant lives God wants for us.  We build up walls between ourselves as individuals, as communities, as a nation.  And we pretend everything is all right, that we can stop at any time, that we have it all under control, when the truth is, those sins control us, instead.  We don’t want to admit that we are slaves to sin.  We don’t want to admit that there are things we can’t do by ourselves.  Particularly not here in America, where we idolize self-reliance.  Admitting that there are things larger than us, things that we can’t control, feels like weakness.  And so we close our eyes to our brokenness, to our slavery, and pretend that we can do it all ourselves.

Sometimes that self-reliance turns into legalism.  Yes, Jesus saves us … but surely there’s something we need to do to make sure.  God gave us the commandments to help us live full and abundant lives in harmony with God and one another, guidelines for how to live a free life full of love of God and our neighbor.  And yet sometimes, we get so focused on those laws that we fulfill the letter of them while leaving no room in our hearts to love God and our neighbor.  We use those laws to justify our conflicts and our hatred of one another.  We get so focused on how we think God’s Word should be interpreted that we can’t hear what the Holy Spirit is saying to us.  We get so focused on the world around us that we can’t see the ways God is building the kingdom of God among us.  And so the commandments that God gave us as a gift become a curse, chains binding us and showing us just how far we fall short of the grace and freedom God wants for us.

Today is Reformation Sunday, when we commemorate the religious movement in 16th Century Germany that formed the Lutheran church.  Through the Reformation, God freed people from their preconceived notions so that they could follow God’s Word.  People from across Germany, and all of Europe, started reading the Bible with open minds, and praying with open minds, and trusting God to free them from the chains that bound them.  And the church was transformed—Lutherans, other Protestants, Roman Catholics too.  By opening themselves up to God’s Word, people allowed God’s Word to change them.  Relying on God’s Word changed the way they thought and the way they lived.  Everything was affected, not just church life.  The role of women in society changed.  The way they handled poverty changed.  It wasn’t change for the sake of change, but change for the sake of living out the Gospel through love of God and love of neighbor.  It was change for the sake of the freedom that only comes from Christ.

Dorfl the golem found that it was easy to break the physical locks and chains holding people captive, but the things that really made people slaves were the words inside their heads.  For some people, those words are ‘I’m better than everyone else,’ while for others those words are ‘I’m not worth anything.’  Sometimes the words that enslave us are ‘we’ve never done it that way before,’ and sometimes the words that enslave us are ‘that’s the way we always did it—I want something new.’  Sometimes the words that enslave us are ‘what will people think?’ and sometimes the words that enslave us are ‘I don’t care about anyone else.’  There are so many words inside our head that can become prisons without our even realizing it.  And like Dorfl, we can’t free ourselves.  Someone has to open our hearts and minds and replace the words of slavery with the words of freedom.

Thank God for Jesus Christ, the living Word of God, who comes to set us free.  Christ comes to transform and reform us, to heal our relationships with him and with one another.  Christ comes to us when we are so tied up by our brokenness that we don’t even realize it and sets us free.  Christ comes and breaks open hearts and minds made hard and heavy by sin and puts words of love and hope and freedom within us.

Amen.

Sermon: Christ the King

Sorry for posting this a week late, but I was a bit busy with Thanksgiving last week.

Christ the King

Sunday, November 23 2008

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24

Psalm 95
Ephesians 1:15-23
Matthew 25:31-46

Preached by Vicar Anna C. Haugen

First Evangelical Lutheran Church, Greensburg, PA

MP3 of SermonBulletin.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Today is the last Sunday of the church year; next week is the first Sunday of Advent, when we begin preparations for the coming of our Lord.  Today, we celebrate the fact that Jesus Christ is our King, ruler of heaven and earth.  We are citizens of two worlds, of this world we live in now and of the world to come, when Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead.  Jesus Christ is Lord of all.  Jesus Christ is the king of both heaven and earth.  It’s easy to imagine Christ as King of heaven, where he reigns in glory with angels and pearly gates and all that.  It’s a lot harder to imagine Christ as king of this world we live in today.

What does it mean that Christ is King?  What kind of a King is he?  When I think of kings in this world, I think of grand castles and historic wars and riches and crown jewels locked safely behind glass.  Most kings in the world today are ceremonial figureheads, like Queen Elizabeth of England.  She comes out, she waves at crowds, she makes speeches, she travels the world, but in the end the country she rules is actually governed by elected officials in Parliament.  Then there are all the kings in history, who actually did rule their people.  Some were good, some were bad, but all had flaws when you take a close look at them.  They favored the rights of the rich and powerful and ignored the needs of the poor, they played favorites, they started stupid and tragic wars, they lived in lavish palaces while the majority of their people lived in squalor and filth, they had so much power and wealth and used it to get more power and wealth.  Even David and Solomon, the two greatest kings in the Bible, had significant problems.  David’s adultery and poor parenting skills caused a vicious civil war, and his son Solomon the Wise raised taxes and forced labor levies so high to pay for his building projects that on his death the kingdom of Israel-God’s chosen people-were permanently split in two.  That split never healed because a few centuries of rule by bad kings later, the Northern Kingdom was conquered by Assyria and taken off as captives and was never heard from again.  If that’s the legacy of a good king, well, I can see why our forefathers rebelled and threw out the English king in favor of a democratic government.  It’s hard to imagine a king being a good thing, hard to think of Christ as a king, when you think of all the bad things kings have done.

Except our democratically-elected political leaders don’t have that great a track record, either.  Washington, Jefferson, and the rest of the founding fathers owned slaves and left in place a system of slavery that was horribly unjust and cruel and caused a massive civil war for their children and grandchildren to fight.  Lincoln had no plans for the future besides winning the Civil War, and his lack of planning led to problems with Reconstruction after his death.  Our presidents have a better track run over the long term than the kings and queens of many other nations, but that’s not saying much.  All leaders of nations, whatever they call themselves and however they came to power, have fallen short of their promises and caused problems for their people.  Yet they keep making new promises about what they’re going to accomplish as leaders, each promise more lavish than the rest.  And we follow them, hoping they’ll fix all the things that are wrong with the world, all the mistakes their predecessors made.  We hope they’ll make things better for us, make a better world, fix the wrongs and injustices that affect our daily lives and prevent new ones from occurring.

On November 5, the day after the recent election, I visited a few shut-ins, and the conversation naturally turned to politics.  The Obama supporters spoke as if Obama was a savior who would right all the wrongs in America and in the world.  The McCain supporters spoke as if America was doomed and would crumble and fall within the next four years.  Now, politics is a touchy and dangerous subject for any pastor to discuss with parishioners, and I’m not quite comfortable yet with where the boundaries are.  But one thing I know for sure is that no matter which political party won this or any election, no matter which candidate is installed in office, the world is in God’s hands and will always be in God’s hands, difficult as that can be to remember at times.  And so we come back to the question: what does it mean that Christ is King of this world as well as the next?

In the first lesson, the leaders of the world-particularly the kings of Israel and Judah-have failed at their task as leaders and shepherds of their people.  The people are scattered and divided, the rich have gotten greedy and the poor have gotten trampled.  There is no justice anywhere.  The ones with God-given gifts to take care of and protect others have used those gifts to make themselves even richer and stronger at the expense of the ones they’re supposed to be protecting.  It’s not their riches God objects to-it’s the way they’ve used those riches to do the exact opposite of what they should be doing.  The result?  Everyone has suffered.  The nation has been conquered by foreigners and everyone-rich and poor alike-has been carried off into exile.  God sent the prophet Ezekiel to bring comfort: exile is not permanent.  The injustices that plague Israel will be redressed, and a new shepherd, a new king, will be given to lead them.  This king, however, will not be like their old leaders who brought them to this low point.  This new David will be a true shepherd-he will take care of the people with justice, and both rich and poor will be fed and protected and cared for.  This new David is Christ, the Messiah, king of heaven and earth.  What does it mean that Christ is King?  Christ is not just a ceremonial king, there to be brought out for rituals and holidays and ignored the rest of the time.  He has true power of both judgment and protection.  Christ’s kingship means that the old way of doing things, the way of life in which value is calculated by riches and power, will come to an end.  In its place will come a world in which all people are valued, in which everyone gets a fair chance and all will be cared for.  Christ’s kingship means that justice isn’t about who’s got the biggest army or the most money, and it means that no matter how bad things seem to be now, this world is not the end.

But justice can’t happen without judgment, and that means that injustices can’t be swept away under the rug or excused as simply the way things are.  People need to be held accountable for the things they’ve done, good and bad.  God’s justice can’t be bribed, or swayed by politics, or biased in any way.  God knows what is in our hearts and minds, God knows what we’ve done even better than we do, and God will judge everyone with greater justice than any human court could ever hope to do.  Let me repeat that: God will judge.  Not us, God.

In the second lesson, Jesus talks about the judgment that will happen when he comes again.  The story is simple: everyone will be judged and sorted into two groups.  The ones who are righteous-the sheep-will go into the Kingdom of heaven, and those who are not righteous-the goats-will be sent away to eternal punishment.  This parable is pretty well known.  It’s a common subject of sermons and Bible study classes.  It’s an excellent way to show what God’s justice looks like: when we see someone in trouble, and we have the power to help, we should do it.  We see the face of God not in the kings and rulers and powerful and wealthy of this world, but in those who are the most vulnerable.  We see the face of God in people who are hungry, thirsty, alone, naked, sick, imprisoned.  We have been given many gifts, not just of money but of time and talents as well, and we should use them to take care of those who honestly cannot take care of themselves.  This is what Christ our King commands.  This is the standard against which he will judge us.

And again I point out: the standard against which Christ will judge us, not the standard we will use to judge others.  Here’s what most people miss when they read this parable: the sheep don’t think they’re sheep and the goats don’t think they’re goats.  The sheep are honestly surprised to hear that they’ve been serving Christ in their daily lives, and the goats honestly can’t think of a time when they haven’t served.  The problem is that the goats were serving the wrong things-and didn’t know it.  They got so caught up in what they thought needed to be done, they forgot to ask what God thought needed to be done, and how God wanted them to go about doing it.

It’s kind of like when I was a kid and I would take care of my younger brother on Saturdays while Mom and Dad were at work.  We had a list of chores to accomplish, and it was my responsibility to see to it the chores got done and that we both did our fair share.  Now, I was a fairly bossy girl, and my brother has always been laid back, and so normally he’d just go along with whatever I told him to do, and normally I tried to divide things relatively equally.  But sometimes I’d get so caught up in the fact that I was in charge that I would try to make my brother do a lot more than his fair share-and then try and micromanage how he did it.  Well, I never got away with it for very long-eventually, even my laid-back brother would call Mom and Dad to complain, and I would get in trouble.  Even if the chores got done like Mom and Dad wanted, they didn’t get done how Mom and Dad wanted when I made my brother do most of the work, and they got done in ways that harmed the relationship between myself and my brother.  Just as it was easy for me to think I was doing what my parents wanted by bossing my brother around and making him do most of the work, it’s easy for us to arrange things the way we want them and justify it by thinking we’re doing what God wants.  It’s easy to fall back into the habits of power-seeking, of seeing things through the eyes of this world instead of through the eyes of Christ, and not even realize we’re doing it.

That’s a scary thought.  If it’s that easy to forget about the true justice of Christ, if we can honestly think we’re serving God when we really aren’t, what’s to stop us from being goats?  How can we make sure we’re headed for eternal life rather than eternal punishment?  We do our best, but what if that isn’t enough?  Well, the bad news is, our best isn’t enough and there’s no way we can make sure we’re sheep and not goats.  We can’t judge anyone, not ourselves, not others.  The power of judgment belongs exclusively to Christ our King, who isn’t blinded by power and money and all the things we use to decide status.  But the good news is that Christ exercises that judgment along with mercy, in grace and love.  Christ uses his kingship for protection and care.  As sinners, we stand condemned before the throne.  But Christ loves us still.  And that is where we place our trust and our hope of salvation, not in our deeds that often go wrong, but in the grace of God.

Jesus Christ is our king both in this world and the next.  Doing good things isn’t just about salvation.  We do good works because our God and King desires justice in this world, and mercy, and he wants to work through us to accomplish it.  We do good works because our God cares just as much about the weak as he does the strong.  Christ can be seen in the hungry, the thirsty, the lonely, the naked, the sick, the dying.  The world may have forgotten them, but God hasn’t.  And neither should we.

Jesus Christ is Lord of all.  The rulers of this world have the power of laws and armies and bureaucracy in their control, but Christ is still the one in ultimate control.  Things may seem grim or depressing when we see all that’s wrong with the world, all the things that we as human beings have done wrong.  But Christ doesn’t exercise that power through a show of riches and might.  He rules by bringing justice and grace to the world, to those who need it the most.  He rules by gathering up the lost and forsaken, by being a good shepherd to his people.  Thanks be to God.

On righteousness

Reformation Sunday

Sunday, October 26

Jeremiah 31:31-34

Psalm 46
Romans 3:19-28
John 8:31-36

Preached by Vicar Anna C. Haugen

First Evangelical Lutheran Church, Greensburg, PA

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Today is Reformation Sunday. Four hundred and ninety-one years ago this Friday, Martin Luther nailed a list of ninety-five things he thought the church was doing wrong on the church door in Wittenburg, hoping initially only for a theological debate that might reform the church he served. The lessons for today are taken from those texts that were especially valuable to Luther in his realization that the theology of the medieval Roman Catholic church had serious problems in need of reformation. We celebrate this day as a festival of the church to remind ourselves that since the church is made up of humans who have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, it is in constant need of reformation and renewal.

There is a question in the readings today. It stands behind Jeremiah’s vision of the future, and behind Paul’s vision of what Christ has done and is doing in our midst, and behind Jesus’ rebuke of the Jews who had believed in him. The question is this: we are all sinners, so how do we get a right relationship with God?

Israel had been created and formed by God throughout its entire history, and yet by Jeremiah’s day they had strayed so far from the path God taught them that they were destroyed. God was with them in their suffering and promised to rebuild them, but Jeremiah wanted to know what was to keep them from going so far astray a second time? God’s answer was a new covenant, in which God’s commands, God’s words, weren’t just something heard during worship but were so deeply a part of the community of believers that they could never be forgotten or discarded again. Not just the rules and regulations, but knowledge of how to live a happy, healthy, whole life in community with God and with all believers. This new covenant would be given not because they earned it or deserved it, but because they needed it. This gift from God is what would save Israel from another destruction and exile.

Centuries later, the new covenant was created in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul wrote a letter to the church in Rome explaining what that meant not just for Jews but for everyone, Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. No amount of external rules and regulations can keep us safe from sin. Even though we try our hardest to make up for it by following the laws as best we can, we can’t possibly do enough good works to earn our own salvation. The good news of Christ Jesus is that God loves us anyway, and created a new covenant with us to save us. Jesus took the punishment for our sins as his own, and suffered and died so that we would not have to. As baptized children of God, we are tied to his death and resurrection, and through his sacrifice we are given freedom and grace. Christ Jesus and the Holy Spirit live within us and surround us, showing us how to life happy, healthy, whole lives in community with God and with all believers. We have nothing to boast about; it’s not our own actions or beliefs that save us but God’s actions and the faith he gives us.

It’s a wonderful thing, to be saved by God. Unfortunately, we often take that salvation for granted. We have been claimed and saved by God, but we aren’t perfect. The final destruction of sin and death won’t happen until Christ comes again to judge the living and the dead. Until that time, we are caught in between sin and salvation, unable to free ourselves from bondage to sin and yet constantly claimed and forgiven by God, renewed in faith and life. We are, in Luther’s words, both saint and sinner at the same time. Being both saint and sinner is not a comfortable thing to be. We don’t like to think of ourselves as sinners; we prefer to focus on our good deeds, on God’s love for us, and forget the bad things we do. I was participating in a bible study two years ago, when a woman said she didn’t see why we had to start every service with the confession and forgiveness—after all, she wasn’t a sinner, she was a good woman who followed the ten commandments and took care of her family and worked hard, so why should she have to confess anything?

I didn’t quite know what to say. I mean, I know that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, but at the same time I understood where she was coming from. I don’t worship other gods, I don’t take the Lord’s name in vain, I worship on Sundays, I honor my parents, I don’t kill, I don’t commit adultery, I don’t steal, I don’t lie, and I do my best never to covet anything. I’m not perfect, but it sure seems like I’ve got the major stuff covered, right? And there are a lot of people out there, many of them in this church right now, who could say the same thing. It’s so easy to start thinking like the Jews who believed in Jesus in today’s Gospel lesson. “I’m a child of God, who follows the commandments and isn’t a slave to sin. What do you mean ‘you will be made free’? What have I done that needs saving?” And yet, according to Paul, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, including me and everyone else who does their best to obey the commandments. What are we doing wrong?

Let’s start from the beginning. The first commandment says “You shall have no other gods but me.” It sounds easy enough. Who here has ever worshipped, say, Buddha? That’s easy enough to avoid. But considering that today is Reformation Sunday, let’s check out what Luther has to say. In the section on the first commandment in the Large Catechism, Luther asks this question: what does it mean to have a god? Think about it. What does it mean to have a god? Besides the obvious things like coming to church on Sundays, how does believing in God and being a Christian affect you and your daily life? According to Luther, a “god” is what we look to for all good and in which we find refuge in all need. To have a god is … to trust and believe in that one with your whole heart. And that’s the problem, the thing that makes the first commandment so very difficult to follow no matter how good we think we’re being. We may not consciously worship other gods, but it’s very easy to slip into trusting something in this world that we can see and hear and touch more than we trust God.

For me, I know I’m a smart, competent woman. The temptation for me is to put my trust in my own abilities and intelligence, instead of in God. I can think my way out of most problems: figure out what’s wrong, figure out how to fix it, and go out and do what needs to be done. I believe in God, but I also believe I can handle most things. When I need something, when I have a problem, my first instinct isn’t to turn to God for help and guidance, it’s to look for what I can do to fix it. And I never realized how little trust I had in God until I spent last summer working as a chaplain at a mental hospital. You see, the thing about mental illness severe enough to need hospitalization is that you can’t fix it. You can’t think your way through it. Even with the best medication and counseling available to them, the people in that hospital will have to struggle with their illness for the rest of their lives. There was nothing I could do to fix them, or help them fix themselves. Going there ever day, knowing I could do nothing, was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life. It forced me to realize just how much I relied on myself and how little I relied on God. As the summer went on, I had to learn to open myself to the possibility of God working in and through me and in the lives of the staff and patients at that hospital, and put my faith and trust in God instead of in myself. I could not help them. But God could.

Self-reliance is one form of idolatry that Americans are particularly prone to, but not the only one. Look at the political campaigns going on in our country right now. Both sides believe that if they are elected they can fix all the problems in America. Their ultimate trust and faith is in their ideology and political proposals. Or how about money? If there’s one thing that the marked fluctuations and economic problems of the past few weeks have proven, it’s that there are a lot of Americans who put their ultimate faith and trust in the economy instead of in God. To listen to people talk, in our community and in the national news, you would have thought the whole world was coming to an end. What will we do if our investments aren’t worth as much? What will we do if we don’t get a raise this year? What will we do if we don’t have the money to take the vacation we wanted? What will we do if we get laid off? How will we live? As a culture, our love of money and financial security has become the driving force in our lives. Let me be very clear here: being smart, or interested in politics, or having money are not the problem. The problem is when we put more trust in our abilities, politics, and money than we do in God.

The question in today’s lessons is the question for our age as well. I’ve only talked about one of the commandments today, but when you truly look at each of the commandments, at the spirit of the law and not just the letter of it, each one is just as difficult to follow. Paul was right. We are all sinners. We are all slaves to sin. If we can’t even keep the first commandment, how can we possibly make a right relationship with God and our fellow believers?

The answer is simple. We can’t. But God can. We are slaves to sin, but if the son of God makes us free then we are free indeed. God has made a new covenant with us, a new promise, to be our God and make us God’s people. Through Jesus Christ our sins have been forgiven and we have been made whole. Not because we’ve earned it—we haven’t—but because God loves us in spite of our sin and loves us no matter what we do. The God who created us and gave us every good thing in the world, the God we turn away from every day with each sin, loves us enough to die for our sake that we might be saved even though we are still sinners. This is a gift we could never earn, and we cannot pay back. The only thing we can do is rejoice, and open our hearts and minds to the presence of God in us and among us, and allow ourselves to be re-formed in God’s image and in God’s steadfast love.

Bearing fruit: good works, not works righteousness

Some people believe that if you do enough good deeds, if you follow God’s word perfectly enough, you can earn God’s forgiveness (and that if you don’t do enough good works, you’ll go to Hell). This is called “works righteousness” because it is based on a belief that our righteousness comes from the good works we do, instead of God’s grace. The problem with this belief is that “all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23). The grace of God is that even though we are all sinners, God still loves us and sent God’s only son, Jesus, to pay the price for our sin so that we could be saved. There is nothing we can do that would make God love us less, and nothing we can do on our own to earn the love and forgiveness God has already given us; works righteousness doesn’t work. But just because good works can’t “earn” us salvation doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do good things.

God loves us no matter what we do. Our works cannot reconcile us with God or obtain grace. (See Ephesians 2:8-9.) Our sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake through faith, and that faith is a gift of God that we call grace. When our sins are forgiven, our relationship with God is made right. The technical term for this is “justification.” That’s what Lutherans mean when we say we are justified by grace through faith. This is intended to be a comfort; we never have to worry that we have done enough good things to make God happy with us.  Good works have nothing to do with salvation. HOWEVER, you can’t just stop there.

We are saved by God’s grace when he justifies us, but there’s more to the Christian life than just coming into a right relationship with God. Once you are justified, then it becomes a question of living out your faith. We have been given a new life through Christ Jesus, and the Holy Spirit working in us and through us. There’s an old saying: “if being Christian were a crime, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” Living as a Christian is called “sanctification.” And part of living as a Christian—being sanctified—is doing good works. We don’t do good works out of fear of going to Hell; we know that God will always love us and redeem us whether we do good works or not. We do good works because we love God and God loves us; he wants us to do good things, and we want to make him happy. Doing good works is a form of praise to God, just as surely as singing hymns or praise songs is.

I’m sure you can all remember Bible passages that talk about bearing good fruit or having the fruit of the Spirit. (For example, the parable of the sower in Mark 4, John 15:4-9, Ephesians 5:8-20, Colossians 1:9-14, Matthew 3:8, Romans 7:4, and many others.) As Christians, the Holy Spirit works within us, and inspires us to do things that are pleasing to God.  This is what it means to bear good fruit: to have the Spirit working within us, helping us to do good things. God loves us no matter what we do, but he wants us to live fruitful lives. God wants us to help others who need help. God wants us to do the right thing, not because we are afraid, but because we love God and we love our fellow human beings, and doing good works is a way of showing that love.

Christ died to forgive our sins and through that forgiveness the Holy Spirit comes to us. Forgiveness of sins is Justification, and giving the Holy Spirit is Sanctification. They’re not the same thing, though they are closely related.  When Christ saves us, he calls us to live as Christians, and to live out our faith in our daily lives. Each day we are renewed in faith and love by the Holy Spirit. Doing good works is our way of responding to that call. Good works are not necessary for salvation, period. But they are necessary for living according to God’s call. We do them not out of fear, but out of love and respect.

We should also remember that even though good works won’t save us, they do give us other rewards. Here on Earth they make others happy, and they do store up treasures for us in heaven. They don’t grant us salvation, but they do give bonuses once we have been saved.

If you have any questions about the Christian faith, Christian life, or theology, please leave a comment.