Jesus, source of living water

Lent Wednesday 1A, Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Jeremiah 2:4-13

Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Saint Luke Lutheran Church, Bloomsburg, 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.

On Sunday, we heard in our Gospel lesson about the Samaritan woman at the well, to whom Jesus offered living water.  Now, in tonight’s reading from Jeremiah we hear again about living water: about how the people of Israel have forsaken their God, the fountain of living water.  No one can live without water.  Thirst will kill you far more quickly than starvation, and dirty water can be almost as dangerous as no water at all.  In our world today, more than 1.2 billion people lack access to safe water.  Each year a lack of clean water kills between 2 and 5 million people.  5,000 children die each day from diseases passed through dirty water.  Lack of water undermines everything else in a community: food production, health care, education, political and economic stability.  Even here in Pennsylvania, a land blessed with an abundance of water, and the wealth to keep it clean and deliver it right to peoples’ homes, industries such as gas mining can contaminate clean water supplies if they are not careful.

Water is a big deal, and people who feel its lack know that far better than anyone else.  It’s pretty obvious why God’s nourishment of our souls is called “living water.”  Without that nourishment our souls quickly become parched.  I have been through times when I felt spiritually dry, when I didn’t have much time to spend on God and my relationships with my church family, and worshipping and prayer and Bible reading didn’t seem to help me feel connected to the love of God.  Let me tell you, it was hard—every trouble seemed so much bigger, overwhelming.  When finally I could taste that living water again, I knew just how great a gift it was.  And just as physical water can be contaminated with disease or poisons, so can spiritual water.  Some people try to fill that thirst with material possessions, or with food or drink, or with political ideology, or prejudice, or with entertainment, or with other things.  Yet none of those can fill our need for God’s love and saving grace, and our experience of being part of the body of Christ.  So why do we turn away from the living water to those cracked cisterns that hold no water?

In one of his Nooma videos, Rob Bell talks about a bumper sticker he saw, “God Bless America.”  As Bell points out, God has blessed America.  Like the people of Israel, we live in a plentiful land and eat its fruits and good things, all of them given to us by God.  Yet like the people of Israel, we turn away.  We think we’re entitled to always have our own way, no matter what “our own way” is or what its consequences might be.  We go after things that we want, but that aren’t good for us.  Or we go after things that are good for us within reason, but we gorge ourselves on them to the exclusion of the things we need most.  We call good things bad and bad things good.  We forget all the things that God has done for us.  We forget or can’t imagine what life is like without those blessings.  We take them for granted.  We convince ourselves that we have earned all that we have on our own merit, that we can do what we want, that some of the things that draw us away from God don’t matter and that others can actually replace our relationships with God and one another.  We forsake the fountain of living water to dig cracked cisterns that can hold no water, and try to convince ourselves that it satisfies our thirst.  And so we live in a land flowing with milk and honey and all good things, surrounded by streams of living water, and our souls are parched.

We have turned away from God.  We are broken cisterns that can hold no water without God’s saving grace.  But if we return to God, if we confess our sin and brokenness, God will fill us with his own living water.  That water flows from the cross of Christ, who suffered and died that we might be made whole and saved from our sins.  No matter how far we go astray, no matter how often we misuse the blessings that God has given us, no matter how much we hurt ourselves and others with our broken sinfulness, we are still God’s beloved children.  When we return to the cross, and realize just how much we need God’s loving care, we are forgiven, washed clean, and given the living water that is the only thing that can truly satisfy our thirst.

Amen.

Covenant

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

 

Exodus 34:1-9, 27-28

Preached by Anna C. Haugen

Saint Luke Lutheran Church, Bloomsburg, 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’s reading begins just after the Golden Calf incident.  The people of Israel, having been freed from slavery in Egypt, had promised God to worship only him and follow God’s commandments.  God promised to be their God, and they promised to be God’s people.  This was a solemn promise, called a covenant—it was as binding and important as a marriage vow, or a treaty between nations.  But the people of Israel turned right around and made for themselves an idol, a statue made of gold, to worship, and in the resulting party ended up breaking just about every single one of the commandments they had just promised to obey.  God was understandably angry.  It seemed like there was no way back—the tablets on which the covenant and the commandments were written had been broken, the people had rejected their God and God had responded in kind.

But that is not the end of the story.  In fact, that is where today’s story begins.  God commanded Moses to make two new tablets, to replace the ones that had been broken.  Even though the people rejected God, God did not reject the people.  Even though the people had broken their promises to God, God did not break his promises to them.

And when God renewed his covenant—his commitment to be with the people of Israel—this is how he signed his name: the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty.  Those words resonate through all of Scripture, and they are the most common description of God.  Our God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

We are like the people of Israel.  Like them, we promise to be God’s people, to follow God’s word and to live as God calls us.  Yet we go astray.  We make idols out of our possessions and our leaders and our entertainers.  We choose to focus our lives on other things, and forget our relationship with God and our promises to him. We love ourselves but not our neighbor.  We are a stiff-necked people, unwilling to follow God’s commands, preferring our own way.  We are sinners, however much we like to pretend otherwise.

And yet God still loves us.  No matter how often we break our promises to God, God will never break his promises to us.  When we stray, God goes forth like a shepherd to find us.  When we confess our brokenness and return to the LORD our God, he is always waiting with open arms to embrace us.

That does not mean that our sins, our brokenness, our hurtful ways, don’t matter.  They do matter, and they do have consequences.  How often do our selfish actions come back to haunt us, or worse, to haunt other people?  How often does our stiff-necked insistence on following our own path instead of God’s path separate us from one another and from God?  But God’s faithfulness to us endures no matter how many times we turn away from him.  God is the only one in the world who can hate the sin and still truly, fully love the sinner.  And no matter how many times we turn away from God, God has promised to be faithful to us, and God keeps his promises.

God made a covenant—a deep, mutual promise of relationship—with the people of Israel at Sinai.  God made another covenant with us, in the blood of our lord and savior Jesus Christ, who died for us on the cross.  In Christ’s death, our sinful self dies as well, and Jesus bears the consequences of our sin.  In Christ’s resurrection, we are born to new life in him.  And all God asks is that we love the Lord our God with all our heart, and all our strength, and all our mind, and love our neighbors as ourselves.

We won’t always succeed.  Sometimes, we backslide into bad habits, or choose to go astray.  But God has promised to love us and save us no matter what.  Our God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.  Our God loves us so much that he sent his only son to die for our sake, to save us from our sins.

Amen.

Recommendation: The Rob Bell Controversy

There’s a lot of controversy over Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins, in which he argues that God, in God’s infinite love and mercy, will save everyone regardless of their faith.  (This is a very old and well-established theological position called “universalism” or “universal salvation.”)  The Huffington Post has a great article about it: fair, balanced, and informative.

The Rob Bell Controversy: Does Anyone Go to Hell?

Up and Down religion

You know what the most common theological problem among Christians is?  It’s that, without realizing it, we all tend to twist our religion into something about us, that despite its trappings has very little to do with our lord and savior Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.

We are slaves to sin.  This is not something we want to admit to anyone, least of all ourselves.  We want to believe that we are fundamentally in control of our own lives and our own destinies.  We want to believe that we can get into heaven on our own merit.  This is “up religion” because We want to believe we can climb up to heaven by ourselves.  Even if we can’t control everything, we want to control what we can–there’s an old slogan, “Do your best and let God do the rest.”  In other words, most of it rests on us–God just fills in the gaps between what we can do and what we can’t.  To make ourselves feel better about our failures, we look around us for people who fail more often than we do, so that we can say “Well, at least I’m better than them.”  It leads to works righteousness, the belief that we can create a right relationship with God and with the world around us (be righteous) by doing good works to make up for any sin we might do.  It also leads us to turn our focus into our self, a kind of theological navel-gazing.  It’s about what we want, not about what God wants.

The problem with “up religion” is that however much we might like the idea, it doesn’t fit what we know of God.  God’s deepest and most fundamental relationship with humanity is through Christ Jesus–who did not stay up in heaven and invite us up, but came down to meet us and promised to be with us always down here on Earth in our daily life.  Christ Jesus became an ordinary human, and he took our sins on himself through crucifixion–the messiest, most painful, most shameful death imaginable to the time and place he lived.  We are sinners and we can’t do enough good to balance out our sin, but God loves us anyway.  We cannot climb up to heaven–and if we do, all we will find is a distorted mirror of our own desires, a god made in our image.  Instead, God comes down to us and claims us as we are.  We cannot go out to find God, but God does come to find us.  We can shut God out of our lives, but we cannot bring him in by our own efforts.

So how do we keep from slipping into an “up” religion?  First, be aware of the difference.  When you think about anything related to God or religion, ask yourself if you’re thinking about it in an “up” way or a “down” way.  Is it about you, or is it about God?  Are you leaving space for God to work in you and in your life?  Do you accept the fact that you are not the one in control of your life?  You won’t be perfectly open to this all the time; all have sinned, remember, and “up” religion is one of the most natural heresies to slip into.  But that’s okay.  God loves you anyway.

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.