Reformation 1: Salvation by Grace Through Faith

Reformation 1: Salvation by Grace through Faith, September 24, 2017

Galatians 2:16-21, Psalm 103, Luke 24:44-48

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, O Lord.

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

Have you ever noticed that for a lot of people—even for good, deeply faithful Christians—a lot of faith ends up being more about us than about God?  I mean, we start with the question “what must I do to be saved?” and focus our attention from there.  On how we are doing things to earn our salvation.  So that then, salvation depends on our actions, and not God’s actions.  It’s about what we deserve—or don’t deserve—and not about what God is doing to break the power of sin and death.  Some people focus on the good deeds they have done, and what a moral and upright person they are.  Others focus on how strong their faith is, what a good Christian they are, or in the fact that they believe the right things and say the right prayers and other people don’t.  In either case, we end up focusing on ourselves, instead of on God.  Our faith turns into faith in our own ability to be a good person, do the right thing, and believe the right thing, rather than in God’s ability to forgive and in the saving power of the death and resurrection of our lord and savior Jesus Christ.

This is not a new problem.  This is an old, old trap that Christians have fallen into since the very first followers of Jesus gathered after his resurrection.  And it comes from very understandable places!  We don’t like being helpless.  We want to know what we can do!  And, certainly, we are supposed to respond to God’s gift of salvation by living in the light of his love.  But that’s a response to what God does, not a precondition for God to act.  The more we focus on our own actions, the less room we have to see what God has done and is doing in our lives.  The easier it is to take credit for God’s work, instead of celebrating what God has done in us and gives us the strength and will to do in the world.

On a more selfish level, focusing on our own actions and goodness gives us a lot more room to be self-righteous.  A lot more room to judge other people.  To draw lines about who’s in and who’s out, who’s good and who’s bad, instead of really accepting that every human being is a child of God whom God is working to save.  Do you remember the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector?  The Pharisee and the Tax collector both come to the house of God to pray on the same day.  And the Pharisee thanks God that he isn’t a sinner like the tax collector, and goes on and on about what a wonderful person he is.  And sure, he’s giving lip service to the fact that God made him who he is, but he’s still pretty arrogant about it.  You can tell that under everything, he believes it’s his own abilities and actions that just make him better than other people.  The tax collector, on the other hand, has no such illusions.  He knows he’s a sinner; he knows he is utterly dependent on the grace and mercy and forgiveness of God.  And he goes home forgiven and redeemed, while the Pharisee doesn’t.  Not because he’s a better person than the Pharisee—in fact, he’s a much worse person than the Pharisee—but because he put his faith in God, rather than on his own ability to be good.

Then there’s the social aspects of salvation.  By which I mean, the ways we Christians tend to use the threat of hell and the lure of heaven to try and motivate people to be nice and moral.  The idea is, people won’t do the right thing unless they’re either afraid of punishment or looking for a reward, and so you can use heaven and hell to motivate people.  You literally try to scare the hell out of them, and then dangle the carrot of heaven in front of their nose if they shape up.  It can, in some circumstances, be effective in shaping behavior, although not in others.  Use it too often, and some people get turned into neurotic wrecks angsting over whether they’ve done enough to be saved, while other people start rolling their eyes and tuning out.  And even where this use of heaven and hell are done well and people do listen … you’re still putting the emphasis on humans, what we’re doing, and not on what God is doing.

All of this is true today, it was true in the time of Jesus and the Apostles, and it was most certainly true in the time of Martin Luther.    See, in those days, Christianity was all about earning your salvation.  They had a motto: Do your best, and God will do the rest.  Basically, if you are as good as you possibly can be, go to church every Sunday and every holy day and pray a lot and do lots of good deeds, you will mostly be good enough to go to heaven, and then God will just sort of fill in the gap between your own effort and what’s necessary to get into heaven.

Of course there are several problems with this idea.  One of them is that we’re putting humans at the center and not God, but the other problem with that is, if we’re mostly good enough to earn our own salvation … what in the name of all that’s holy did Jesus die for?  If all we’re talking about is a small gap between what we can do and where we need to be, then why couldn’t God have found some way of filling that gap that was less dramatic, less painful, less gory and gruesome than dying on a cross?  And of course, if humans were capable of earning salvation, Jesus would never have had to die in the first place.  The whole reason for Jesus’ death is that human beings are too broken by sin and death to earn our way into God’s good books by our own merit.  Not just human beings, either.  The whole cosmos is broken by sin and death.  And God loves us and all the world despite the fact that we are so broken, and is willing to do anything—literally anything—to save us and heal us and re-create us and all the cosmos as we were meant to be.  And that anything includes coming to earth and dying on a cross.

This is what Paul is talking about in our reading from Galatians.  “Justification,” is, in this context, a fancy way of saying “made right with God.”  Or “forgiven.”  Or being acquitted, like in a trial.  And the law isn’t just the formal legal rules, but also the traditions and customs and teachings.  If we can make ourselves right with God, if we can justify ourselves, through being “good enough” and following the right teachings and rules, then Christ died for nothing.  That’s the problem with putting ourselves and our abilities at the center.  When the truth is, it was necessary for Jesus Christ to die for us.  He wouldn’t have done it if it weren’t!  We can’t earn our salvation.  We can’t justify ourselves.  We can’t do and say and believe the right things hard enough to make up for all the brokenness inside us.  We can’t make ourselves, through our own efforts, worthy of salvation.  We depend on God’s grace and mercy.

And thank God that grace and mercy are at the core of God’s very being!  The most common description of God in the Bible is that God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”  Grace, in this context, means all the love God gives us that we don’t deserve.  The gifts that God gives that we can never pay back.  Grace is joy, delight, happiness, good fortune—all undeserved.  Grace is light in dark places, and grace is a lifeline to people who are drowning.  Grace is the boundless generosity of God, which gives without limit.  Grace is like winning the lottery when we didn’t even buy a ticket.  It’s something God does that transforms us, saves us, gives us all the love and mercy and hope and joy that can only come from God.

This is the Good News of God: that no matter how broken we are, no matter how far we fall, God loves us.  We don’t have to make ourselves right—and we can’t justify ourselves, no matter how hard we try.  God’s grace is as vast as the universe, and it is given through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ Jesus.  When we say “I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son,” we are saying that Jesus Christ “has purchased and freed me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with gold or silver but with his holy, precious blood and with his innocent suffering and death.”  God loves us so much that he will never let us go, stop at nothing to save and redeem us, to justify us, to mend our broken relationships with him and with each other.  That’s what Jesus died for.  That’s what all of scripture is trying to point us to.  That great truth—that God’s salvation comes through Christ Jesus, freely given for all people—is the heart of the Gospel.  That’s the good news.

And from that good news flows faith.  Faith is something that God plants in us with his word, that he waters and weeds and is always working to help grow.  Faithfulness is how we respond to God’s wonderful gift.  But there’s more.  When Paul says in Galatians that we are justified by faith, he means two things.  In Greek, he’s saying two distinct things at the same time; there’s no way to do that in English, so translators pick one or the other.  The NRSV and NIV and most modern translations choose to say we are justified by faith in Christ, that is, by our belief in Jesus.  The Common English Bible chooses the other translation, that we are saved through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, that is, through Christ’s faithfulness to us.  Paul meant both of those.  We are justified both by our faith and by Christ’s faithfulness.  We can’t be so focused on our faith in Jesus that we forget Jesus’ faithfulness to us.  His absolute dedication to our salvation.

That’s the truth on which the church stands or falls.  When we remember that God’s grace and mercy are at the center of everything, we stand firm and our faith blossoms.  When we forget—when we try to put our own efforts and abilities in the center—when we trust in our own righteousness or hard work or faithfulness—we start to lose our way, and our faith becomes dry and legalistic.  Even when all the rest of our beliefs are perfectly right, if our core is wrong, we’re going to be going in the wrong direction.  God’s grace and saving actions are the compass that guides our path.

The fancy Reformation theological slogan to describe this is “Justification by grace through faith.”  We are made right with God by God’s free gift of salvation in Jesus Christ, in which our faith is rooted.  Our faith is a response to that salvation, planted in us by God, who is always faithful to us.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

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Our God is so Great

Trinity Sunday, May 22nd, 2016

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31, Psalm 8, Romans 5:1-5, John 16:12-15

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.

We worship one God, who is three people.  One-in-three and three-in-one.  The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—each distinct, each different, with their own characteristics, with their own role to play.  Definitely not the same person—they are definitely three.  Yet none of them are God by themselves; they are all three God together.  And if you’re confused, you’re not alone; this concept has been confusing people since the days of Jesus.

The disciple Philip once asked Jesus to show them the Father.  Jesus was a bit frustrated because he’d spent a lot of time trying to teach them that when they saw him, they saw the Father; the Father was there with him in a very tangible way.  Jesus and the Father were one—and yet, at the same time, Jesus prayed to the Father, speaking to him.  All that the Father had was Jesus’, and all that Jesus had was the Father’s—but the Father was not the one dying on the cross.  And then there is the Holy Spirit, who was present with God in creation, through whom all things were made, who was sent by Christ to guide us into truth and call us into right action and stir us up, who breaks down the walls dividing us from God and one another, comforts us in our griefs, pours God’s love into our hearts, and lives among us.  They are one God, who is three people.  And every time in the last two thousand years someone has sat down to figure out logically how it all works, they’ve either failed or fallen into heresy.

I actually find that kind of reassuring, personally.  Don’t get me wrong, I like knowing how and why things work.  But at the same time, God is greater than any mortal can understand.  If we could figure out all the whys and the wherefores and truly understand the depths of who God is … well, that would mean God wasn’t any bigger than we are.  We can’t understand all of God any more than an ant could understand all of a human being, because compared to God, we are smaller than an ant is to us.  All that we know about God, we know because God, in God’s infinite love, has chosen to reveal himself to us.  Think about that for a second: God is greater than we could possibly imagine.  But we know him.  We know him because he loves us.  Us, small, frail, limited as we are.  As the Psalmist says, “O Lord our God, how majestic is your name in all the earth.  When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, what are mere mortals that you should be mindful of them?  What are human beings that you should care for them?”  Yet God does care for us.  God loves us, and so he comes to us and shows himself to us.  And God does that as three persons: Father, Son, and Spirit, who are nevertheless one God together.  It’s not something for us to be able to logically analyze.  It’s a mystery to be lived, not a question to be answered.

But most of us find that kind of ambiguity uncomfortable.  We like things to be tied up into nice, neat, easily understandable packages.  This has always been true, but it is even more true in the modern age.  Everything is designed to be concrete, easily understandable, one right answer that you memorize and move on.  Take school, for example.  For twelve years—longer, if one counts preschool—we sit our children down for hours a day and teach them the things that will be on the test.  2+2=4, water is made up of two hydrogen molecules and one oxygen molecule combined, because is spelled b-e-c-a-u-s-e, and the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776.  The whole system is designed in this way: you memorize the facts and regurgitate them for the test.  There is one right answer to each question, and anything else is wrong.  Then you take the percentage of right answers and use that to determine if the student knows enough to pass the class and move on to learning the next bit of information.  It’s very efficient, and teaches us a lot of things that are very important—but it’s not good at teaching us to deal with situations that can’t easily be boiled down to one right or wrong answer.

This is the season of graduation, when our students who have spent twelve years learning all the things we think everyone should know prepare to move on to the next phase of their lives.  And I know that when I graduated high school, brain full of information and a college scholarship waiting for me, I thought that I knew just about everything I needed to know about how the world worked.  Oh, sure, there were things to learn in college, things to prepare me for my adult career (whatever that would turn out to be), but I thought I knew about people and about life and about myself.  I thought that life was like school: you figure out the right answer—and of course there was always a right answer, and only one right answer at a time—and then you do it.  And that would lead to success and happiness, as if life were a test that I was being graded on.  I thought faith was kind of like that too: you memorized the right answers about God and the Bible and that was all you needed to know.  And since I’d been a good kid and gone to church and Sunday School and Bible School and Camp Lutherwood and Confirmation and youth group, I thought that I knew all the answers I would need.

Boy was I wrong.  There were all kinds of situations where I found that there wasn’t a right answer, only answers that were varying degrees of wrong.  There were all kinds of situations where there were many possible “right” answers.  There were times I found that what would have been the right answer for me was a wrong answer for a friend, and if I tried to insist that I knew the answers, all I did was hurt myself and my friend.  There were a lot of times where, forget having the right answers, I didn’t even know what the right questions were.  Life was a whole lot more complex and less defined than I thought it was, when I graduated from high school.  And the worst part of it was, those answers about God and the Bible and faith that I’d learned in church and Sunday School and Bible School and church camp and confirmation and youth group?  A lot of the time they just didn’t fit.  They weren’t enough.  They had answered the questions I had when I was five, and ten, and fifteen; but by the time I was twenty, twenty-five, and thirty, I had different questions.

Thank God that God is bigger than I thought he was.  The older I got, the more complicated I realized the world was—and each time I realized the world was bigger than I thought, or more complicated than I realized, God was still greater.  And God was still with me.  And those answers I learned as a child and teen weren’t enough to answer all the questions I had, but they provided a foundation for asking the new questions and guiding me to new answers.  The things I learned as a child and teen weren’t the be-all of faith development, but they provided a framework on which to grow, like the trellises my mom uses to support vegetables in her garden.

But what I learned most of all, is that the most important thing in life isn’t having all the answers.  Being right and having the right facts ready to hand is not what life is about.  Life is not about having a nice, neat, logical answer to every question—and neither is faith.  They’re about relationship.  Relationships with God, with family, with friends, with the whole community.  Life and faith are both about participating together, about forming bonds together.  The important thing about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit isn’t figuring out a logical explanation for how it all works, but realizing that it’s all about relationship.  The Father, Son, and Spirit, all different, with their own person and work, and yet participating together in a common life, filled with love and joy.  And that’s the life that we are called to participate in as Christians—by the Father’s creation, Christ’s death and resurrection, and the Holy Spirit’s inspiration, we are called into a life-giving and love-overflowing relationship with God and one another.  We’re given a model of what love looks like, we experience it, and we are called to live in response to that love.  Instead of focusing on giving us the right answers to deal with life’s questions, God gave us the right guiding principle: love.  As God has loved us, so we are called to love God.  As the Father, Son, and Spirit love each other, so we are called to love one another.  That love—God’s love—is what God has given to guide us through life, through all the questions, through times when there is no simple answer, through good times and bad.

We don’t understand all that God is and does; how could we?  God is greater than we could imagine.  But we don’t have to, because God comes to us, God shows himself to us, God shows us what true relationships and true love look like, and God invites us to live out that love and relationship in everything that we see and do.  May God keep us in that love and relationship all the days of our lives.

Amen.

The Gardener and the Fruit Tree

Third Sunday in Lent, February 28th, 2016

Isaiah 55:1-9, Psalm 63:1-8, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13, Luke 13:1-9

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.

When we study parables, often the first thing we look for in them is God. Which one of the characters is he? Sometimes the answer is obvious, and sometimes it isn’t; and there are times when our first impulse is wrong. In the parable of the Gospel reading, the most common response is to see the tree’s owner as the God-character in the parable. And yet, I wonder if that’s what Jesus meant. For one thing, he doesn’t call the tree the “master” or “lord” or anything like that. He’s just identified as a “man.” And, second, he doesn’t really act like God does in any of the other parables of Luke. This man is harsh, judgmental, just waiting for an excuse to chop that tree down and replace it with something better. By contrast, in every other parable in the Gospel of Luke that talks about repentance, the God-character’s deepest impulse is to find what is lost and rejoice over its return. In fact, the character in this parable with the most similarities to how God is depicted in the other parables is the gardener.

The gardener, you see, has a very different attitude. The gardener isn’t tempted by the quick and easy solution of ripping out the sick tree and replacing it with a new one. The gardener’s greatest wish is that the tree might be saved, healed, restored to what God intended it to be, made whole. And the gardener is prepared to do the hard work to bring that about. The gardener’s response isn’t about blame, or taking the easy way out. The gardener’s response is to do what’s best for the tree to save it, even at the cost of some hard, unpleasant work.

Which, if you think about it, is pretty much what Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is all about. God loves us, and God’s greatest concern for our lives is that we be saved, healed, and restored to what God intended for us to be. And God is willing to do the hard, messy, painful work required: he became human, lived, and died so that we might be saved. In his teaching, his death, and resurrection, he is digging around our roots to free us from all the things that bind us down and stunt our spirits, and he is giving us all the fertilizer we need to grow big and strong. He gives us what we need most, without counting the cost to himself. God is generous beyond measure, and desires only our good.

The passage from Isaiah also follows this theme, as the prophet reminds us that God gives us the spiritual food and drink our souls need to thrive and grow. God gives abundantly; God has provided a world that is capable of sustaining the lives of every person on it. God gives, and gives, and gives, and only asks that we respond to his generosity by growing healthy and strong, and bearing fruit.

Bearing fruit. That’s a phrase that can sometimes seem threatening—if you don’t repent, if you don’t bear fruit, God’s going to chop you down like a bad tree! But as I said, I don’t think the one threatening the chopping in the parable is God. On the other hand, sometimes “bearing fruit” sounds like so much work, so hard. If you’re a Christian, you’ve got to show it by bearing the right fruit! All the time! No matter what! But even healthy fruit trees don’t bear fruit all year, but only when the time is right. And then there is a season of dormancy to recover before the next time of fruitfulness. I think this parable is getting at something else. It’s not a command to produce good works on cue. Think about fruit trees you’ve known that didn’t bear fruit. They were usually pretty sickly, right? And you could see they weren’t healthy. If you were a fruit tree, would you want to be like that? With shriveled leaves and dry, brittle branches?  And maybe some moss or fungus growing on you?  I sure wouldn’t! I would much rather be healthy and strong and growing—and a healthy fruit tree is going to produce fruit at the right time, that’s its nature. God doesn’t want us to be pressured or oppressed by the need to produce; God wants us to be healthy and thriving. That’s what repentance leads to; that’s what following God leads to; that’s what Jesus’ work in us and in our lives leads to.

So if God is the gardener, who’s the guy who wants to chop down the sick tree? I wonder if that’s us—humanity. Remember, Jesus didn’t tell this parable out of the blue. Somebody came to Jesus with a really nasty story, about Pontius Pilate—yes, that Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who would later crucify Jesus even knowing he was innocent.  Anyway, ol’ Pilate killed a bunch of Jesus’ countrymen while they were worshiping in the Temple. And they wanted to know why. Were those people especially sinful? Was God using Pilate to punish them? And, oh, hey, what about those eighteen people who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell? Were they being punished? Were they trees cut down because they didn’t bear fruit?

No, Jesus said. They were no better or worse than anything else. They didn’t die because they deserved it. They died because the world is a terrible place, broken by sin and death. They died because a cruel and capricious man like Pilate was given power over life and death. They died because humans didn’t build the tower of Siloam well enough. They were meaningless, empty deaths, for no purpose at all. There are a lot of those in the world, much as we would try to deny it. But humans try to keep finding meaning. We keep trying to make it all make sense. And we keep trying to find a way to make ourselves feel better. If they died because they deserved it, then I don’t have to worry, do I? Because I don’t deserve it! But no, Jesus said, they didn’t deserve it, it wasn’t their fault, their deaths weren’t a punishment from God or the universe. It just happened.

It happened because the world is broken by sin and death. It happened because God’s good plan for creation was shattered by human evil. And that evil has rebounded down the centuries, twisting and turning the world to its own ends … and twisting and stunting us, too. We are sick. Sick and tired of watching good people die for no reason, sick and tired of all the ways the world drags people down, chews them up, and spits them out. We are sick of the poisons the world pours into our ears, into our hearts and minds, the poisons of hate and fear and jealousy and greed. And we are sick of the ways we spew that poison back to one another. And that sickness has stunted our growth, made our branches brittle, shriveled our leaves, and prevented us from bearing much fruit.

Funny, how some people only see that sickness in others. Some people are all too much aware of their own sin; others, all too little. And when we see that sickness in others but not ourselves, it’s all too easy to be the man ordering the tree chopped down because it isn’t giving him what he wants and producing on cue. It’s easy to see the result—no fruit—but ignore the cause—the brokenness and sin we breathe in from the very day we are born.

Jesus has a different perspective. Jesus sees our sin and sickness more clearly than we do. He sees all the bits of poison we don’t even realize we’re breathing in, and he sees what damage it causes us, and he sees the poison we spread, and how it damages those around us. God knows the very worst of us—and God knows all the potential inside. Tupac Shakur wrote a poem called The Rose that Grew From Concrete, in which he points out that when you see a rose growing out of concrete, you don’t critique it for being a bit stunted—you praise it for being strong and good enough to grow at all. We’re the roses growing in concrete, and God the gardener is chipping away at the concrete that strangles our souls and our lives.  Some people–and some groups–have more concrete weighing them down than others do.  But it’s not their fault.

We tend to think of repentance as something we do because we’re sad. That repentance is all about guilt. We do something wrong, we realize it’s wrong, and we turn away from it. And, certainly, that is part of repentance. But it’s also about life. Which is better, a life stunted and sickly, or a life full of growth and good things? Repentance is also about following God to the water of life, to the banquet of good food freely given. Repentance is also about learning to grow freely as God breaks our chains and gives us the fertilizer we need to grow strong. It’s what makes a meaningful life possible, even amidst the brokenness and chaotic evil of the world. May we repent, and live the full and abundant and healthy lives that God has planned for us.

Amen.