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The Advantage of Grace – sermon on Romans 6:12-23

July 2, 2017

We’re looking at a Wesleyan understanding of Grace this month. Two weeks ago, you examined God’s prevenient grace. Before we knew we needed it, God showed us his grace. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Rom. 5:8) Last week, you heard the first part of chapter six in Paul’s letter to the church at Rome. It was all about the grace God offers through Christ’s sacrifice for us on the cross. We call this justifying grace – becoming dead to sin, and alive in Christ, puts us right with God. We are justified through our faith in Christ Jesus.

Today we look at another aspect of God’s grace: sanctification. Sanctifying grace sets us apart as holy to the Lord. It is through the ongoing process of sanctification that we become more and more like Christ.

Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.
What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?
But thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted, and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness for sanctification.
When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death. But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. – Romans 6:12-23

“Therefore,” Paul writes, and immediately we realize we need to jump back to last week’s passage to understand what Paul is about to say. Here’s how that passage ended, in verse eleven: “You must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” Consider yourselves dead to sin, and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Now verse 12 makes sense! Therefore, don’t let sin overpower you, because obedience to sin leads to death.

Sin isn’t a very popular topic in today’s churches. We don’t like to hear about the ways we fall short of God’s plan for us. We don’t want anyone reminding us that our self-centered pursuit of what pleases us is not always pleasing to God. And it’s really easy, when we start talking about sin, to point out the sins of others, as if they might be more terrible than our own mediocre sins.

But all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). We are all guilty, in one way or another. We all need grace. And even after we have accepted Christ’s justifying grace, even after we have begun to walk in newness of life, we keep on needing grace.

Paul tells us that we need to keep on choosing grace as we seek to become more and more like Christ. Whatever we obey, that is what rules us. If we obey sin, it leads to death, but if we obey God, it leads to life. And this is not just-barely-getting-by life. Obedience to God brings us abundant freedom for all eternity, beginning now.

But doesn’t this freedom simply mean that we can go ahead and sin, knowing that God will forgive us? In fact, shouldn’t we sin more, so we can experience even greater levels of God’s grace? No, Paul says. You’re missing the point. The point isn’t personal freedom to do whatever we want.

Theologian Rudolph Bultmann writes, “Genuine freedom … withstands the clamor and pressure of momentary motivations.” Harold Masback adds, “Mere ‘freedom from’ this law or that obligation never leads to flourishing life unless it is linked with ‘freedom for’ a higher, heartfelt commitment.” (Feasting On the Word, Year A, Volume 3, 187.) The point of grace isn’t freedom. The point is sanctification.

Now there’s a word you don’t hear at the coffee shop during the week! That’s definitely a Sunday word, a great example of churchy language that we are supposed to avoid if we want to attract new people, people who might be put off by words that only the Christian insiders understand. But do we understand what sanctification means?

The biblical definition of sanctification is to be set apart for God’s glory. John Wesley used sanctification and perfection interchangeably. We don’t like that word, perfection, either. But Wesley wasn’t trying to set up an impossible standard for living.

For Wesley, “going on toward perfection” was a life-long process of Christian discipleship. Being perfected in grace means that we become more and more like Jesus, saying and doing the things that Jesus said and did, living our lives as he would live them if he were us. It’s a process of transformation.

One of the most frequent criticisms young adults offer the church is that we are hypocrites. We talk the talk, but we don’t walk the walk. We say we love Jesus, but we live our lives as if he didn’t exist (Craig Groeschel, The Christian Atheist).

Paul reminds us, “What advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death” (v 21). Walk the walk, Paul tells us. Live for Christ, now that you are dead to sin. Sanctification isn’t something that happens automatically; it’s a choice we make day by day, sometimes moment by moment.

Sanctification is what happens to us, by God’s grace, when we decide to center our lives on being disciples of Jesus Christ. It is that life of discipleship that sets us apart, and gives glory to God. And here’s the really wonderful thing: when we allow ourselves to be transformed in this way, we begin to transform the world around us.

At our recent Minnesota Annual Conference, Junius Dotson, General Secretary of Discipleship Ministries for the United Methodist Church, had this to say about the purpose of discipleship, or this process of sanctification:
“The point of discipleship is to influence the culture around us. We limit discipleship by segregating the secular from the sacred. We never take our faith public!
“The culture will have to live under the influence of Christ. In the world, [you] are each professionals who have been strategically positioned to reach new people and change their worldview, impacting the people around you. We don’t have to waste time in church meetings talking to death how to go beyond the church walls. We are already in every place in the community, in society.”

You have been strategically positioned to impact the people around you by the way you live out your faith, the way you ‘walk the walk.’ Think about that. How are you strategically placed to bring glory to God throughout the week?

It isn’t by our effort; we can’t strive for it. It is by God’s grace alone that we can be transformed. To what end? What’s the advantage of sanctifying grace? “But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life.” The wages of sin is death – that’s what we earn, what is due to us right now. But the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord – we can’t earn it. God gives us this gift through his Son, Jesus Christ.

Yet we must choose, and the choice is always before us – Obedience to sin that results in death, or obedience to God that results in eternal life, fully transformed into the likeness of the one we follow, Jesus Christ Our Lord, who invites us to this Table now. …

 

Vacating: Day Two

Rain drips from the pine trees into the lake. A mist hovers over the water, like the Spirit at Creation.

This is where healing begins, going back to the very beginning, when everything was new, before corruption began to eat away at the perfect balance.

Even now, the forest is greater than the houses that peek out from their clearings: tiny shelters against the elements that were designed to sustain us (before we broke everything and had to hide from perfection).

Even now, creation claims its rightful place in the Order established by Creator God. Only we struggle into and out of that Order. Only we fight against accepting our place in it.

Creation waits for us to figure it out, to realize that true rest and peace comes from submitting ourselves to the great design. For this is where healing begins: back at the beginning, as the rain drips from the pines into the lake, and the mist hovers over the water.

Who is My Neighbor? Another sermon on Luke 10:25-37

I preached on this text just a few months ago, to a different congregation, so the first part of this sermon is that sermon, with a few tweaks. But events of this past week have demanded that I speak to the violence that has overwhelmed us, and the need to remind my very white congregation that Black Lives Matter.

Here’s the set up to today’s gospel reading, from last week’s reading in Luke 10. What has just happened was the sending of the 70 (or 72) into the villages and towns where Jesus plans to go next. These disciples are the advance team, and their mission is successful.

The 72 have just returned, and Jesus has prayed a prayer of thanksgiving and praise to the Father, rejoicing in the Holy Spirit and blessing these disciples. Everyone’s feeling pretty good about what has just happened. If this were a television show, the commercial break would come right about here.

Luke sets off today’s famous story with one of his signature introductions: “And behold.” Luke acknowledges what has just happened, and connects it to this story with “and.” But there’s that “behold” to show us that we are about to hear something new.

 

25 And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?”27 And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”28 And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.” 29 But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 

30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side.32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. 34 He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?”37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”

The lawyer who steps up to question Jesus only asks two questions. The first is a test, but the lawyer’s question isn’t as simple as our modern translations make it seem. A literal translation might sound more like, “Teacher, I will inherit life eternal having done or fulfilled or acquired what, exactly?” It’s a messy question, and hard to put into simple words.

Jesus identifies a teachable moment, and answers the question with –you guessed it – another question. Actually, two – and this is important. Jesus wants to know “What is in the law? You’re a lawyer, you know the scriptures; you already have your answer. You tell me what it says.” That’s questions number one.

But then Jesus immediately follows with a much more personal question – “How do you read it?” At once we realize that Jesus does not see the Law as a dead and stagnant set of words that mean the same thing to everyone. The Word of God is living and active (Hebrews 4:12), and how we read it determines how we will respond to God’s message.

The lawyer doesn’t hesitate, but begins by quoting the Shema, “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is One. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5)

We think of this as a command, but the verb “shall” is not an imperative in this case. It’s more of an indication that something will surely happen in the future. You are going to love the Lord your God, because the Lord is the only God there is.

The lawyer adds part of Leviticus 19:18(b), and this blending of two verses gives us what we now call “the Great Commandment.” To love God, we must also love our neighbor.

Yes, Jesus says, you’ve got it. Go do it. But just as Jesus turns back to his friends, who are still celebrating their successful mission trip, the lawyer adds a new question, and this isn’t a test, it’s an attempt to justify himself. This guy who was challenging Jesus a moment ago suddenly feels the need to get his approval, so he asks, “Yes, but … who is my neighbor?

I can imagine the others getting quiet as Jesus looks at the lawyer. They have a hunch they know what Jesus is going to do. I imagine Jesus pausing a moment, considering the best way to teach this lawyer about the high cost of discipleship. He decides to take on this expert in the law, and everyone else settles in to listen. They know that a story is coming.

Jesus sets the scene. It’s the road between Jerusalem and Jericho. About a year and a half ago, I was on that road. We stopped at a Bedouin camp to get a good view of what is commonly called The Valley of the Shadow of Death. I think I have shown you some of these photos before, but let’s get a refresher course on what this valley looks like. ….

2015-01-14 Valley of the ShadowIt was the rainy season, so there was a bit of green showing here and there, but when we looked out across the Valley toward Jerusalem, it was hard to imagine anyone walking through this wilderness.

 

That’s Jerusalem off in the distance, on the very rim of the horizon:

2015-01-14 UP to Jerusalem

 

 

 

 

 

When we turned and looked down the valley in the other direction, we could almost make out Jericho.2015-01-14 down to Jericho1

 

In between is treacherous wilderness, and the distance was too great to be traveled on foot in a single day. This made travelers vulnerable to the robbers and nomads who spent their lives scrabbling out an existence in this wasteland.

bedouin homes

The place where our bus stopped was near a Bedouin camp. At first, we thought it had been abandoned, but the tour guide assured us that it was not.

The guide warned us to take valuables with us when we got off the bus, and keep them close. We were also encouraged to not buy anything or try to bargain with these Bedouins. And whatever we did, when the children asked us for candy, even if we had some, we should refuse. It might be a ruse to get us to open our bags or pockets – something you should never do in front of a Bedouin child. You also should not let them catch you taking their pictures.

Bedouins on the run to meet the bus 2015-01-14 10.35.17

Sure enough, as soon as the bus stopped, here they came.

I was careful to wait until the children weren’t looking to take a snapshot.

Bedouin girl 2015-01-14 10.36.45

 

 

Bedouin boy with backpack 2015-01-14 10.36.01This charming little guy had a backpack full of trinkets he was trying to sell us. Everything was “one dollar.” When we declined, he held out his hand and asked, “Candy? Gum?” He went from salesman to beggar in the blink of an eye.

As I tried to imagine someone walking from Jerusalem to Jericho, it occurred to me that these Bedouin children were a much milder version of the robbers in Jesus’ story. Clearly, they were not a real threat to us. We were in no danger of being stripped and left to die on the side of the road.

2015-01-14 Good Samaritan roadBut if this was the road Jesus and his listeners were imagining as he told the story, I could see why you wouldn’t have wanted to travel it alone.

Whenever Jesus tells a parable, he invites us into the story. There is almost always one character with whom we identify. Quite often, there’s a twist somewhere in the story that surprises us. It tells us we’ve been identifying with the wrong character all along, if we really want to be followers of Christ. The story of the Good Samaritan is no exception.

The first two people who accidentally happen by are a priest and a Levite. IF you were the man lying in the ditch, who better to come along than someone whose life is dedicated to God? At the very least, you would expect no further harm to come to you. These must be the heroes, surely.

But they both hurry over to the other side of the road. Neither of these likely heroes stop to help. They probably wanted to avoid contamination – touching this man, who looked like he might be dead, would make them ritually unclean.

It is the third traveler who is moved to compassion. Finally, someone who can do something! He gets down off his camel or donkey, cleans the man’s wounds with wine and oil, bandages him up and puts the man on the camel – or donkey. But there’s a catch. This kind person, whose care has saved a life, is – a Samaritan. The very last person on earth any self-respecting Jew would ask for help. The Enemy.

There was a long history of animosity between the people of Samaria and the people of Israel. It went all the way back to King Solomon’s son, who had failed to keep the kingdom together, and ten tribes had renounced their allegiance to David’s line. They stopped worshiping in Jerusalem, and within a very short time, had turned away from worshiping God alone. The tribe of Judah – the Jews – didn’t even really consider the Samaritans to be Hebrews anymore. As far as they were concerned, the Samaritans were worse than Gentiles.

The disciples and the lawyer who heard Jesus tell this parable might have had a hard time accepting the Samaritan as the hero. They probably assumed it would be the priest or the Levite. After all, it’s easy to justify their failure to help by remembering they were just trying to stay clean. But the person who does the right thing turns out to be a Samaritan – just about the worst possible ethnic group any of the disciples could imagine.

The difference between the Samaritan and the first two holy men who happened along that road between Jerusalem and Jericho wasn’t a matter of eyesight. All three of them saw the man lying in the ditch. The difference is what they did when they saw him. The first two made a beeline for the opposite side of the road. Only the Samaritan saw the man and had compassion. Remember that this word compassion is more than pity. It’s a gut-wrenching, heart-changing feeling. The Samaritan didn’t see an enemy lying in the ditch; he saw a person in need.
He saw a brother, a neighbor, and his heart went out to this stranger.

Jesus says, “Go be like the Samaritan.” Go be like the person you snub. Go be like the person you think you’re too good to be around. Go be like the person you think is your enemy.This week, we have seen violence erupt in an all too familiar pattern.

On Tuesday of this week, Alton Sterling was shot and killed by a police officer in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

On Wednesday, Philando Castile was shot and killed by a police officer in Falcon Heights, Minnesota. These two incidents sparked a wave of protests, prayer vigils, and calls for justice.

On Thursday, a sniper attacked police officers in Dallas Texas as they protected and served during an otherwise peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstration. Five officers died, and seven officers, along with two civilians, were injured.

Each of the people involved in these shooting incidents was a beloved child of God. Every single one. Every single person was a neighbor.

While violence and anger have escalated, many have experienced a growing sense of frustration and a feeling of helplessness. What can we possibly do? How are we to respond?

We may think that we are exempt from racial unrest here in our little corner of the world. But we aren’t. We may not be shouting racist epithets or actively discriminating against people of color, but even in our silence, we still experience privilege because of our white skin. We benefit from a system of oppression and advantage no matter what our intentions are.

During World War II, Martin Niemöller was a prominent Protestant pastor who opposed the Nazi regime. He spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps. After the war, Niemöller gave lectures, and his point was always the same: through their silence, the German people, and the Protestant churches in particular, had given support to Nazi imprisonment, persecution, and the murder of millions of people. Even if they did not agree with Hitler, their silence had made them complicit in the evil that Hitler had perpetrated. Niemöller’s famous words, repeated in several different variations over many speeches, go something like this:

“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out –
because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out –
because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews – and I did not speak out,
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Over the last several days, we have seen T-shirts and signs and hashtags on social media repeating the phrase, “Black Lives Matter,” and sometimes I see a response that says, “All Lives Matter.” One of my black clergy colleagues wrote this week that saying, “All lives matter,” is like saying “All houses matter” when there is one house on fire. Of course all houses matter, but shouldn’t we be throwing some water on the one that is burning right now? It’s like going to the emergency room with a broken leg and hearing the doctor say, “Well you know, all bones matter.” Of course they do, but shouldn’t we be taking care of the one bone that is broken right now?

Instead of saying, “All lives matter,” Jesus said, “Samaritan lives matter.”
Instead of saying, “All lives matter,” Jesus said, “Children’s lives matter.”
Instead of saying, “All lives matter,” Jesus said, “Gentile lives matter.”
Instead of saying, “All lives matter,” Jesus said, “Jewish lives matter.”
Instead of saying, “All lives matter,” Jesus said, “Women’s lives matter.”
Instead of saying, “All lives matter,” Jesus said, “Leper’s lives matter.”

Even though Jesus loved everyone, even dying for their sins, he went out of his way to intentionally help specific groups of people – the alienated, mistreated, and those facing injustice.
So saying, “Black Lives Matter” is one of the most Christ-like things we can do.” (from Stephen Mattson’s article ‘Social Justice is a Christian Tradition – Not a Liberal Agenda’ in Sojourners (08/11/15))

In the Friday Five this week, I issued a call to prayer that echoes our Bishop’s call to pray for peace and justice. If you use Facebook, I invite you to “like” the church’s Facebook page, where you will see a prayer prompt each day this week at noon. Prayer is the most basic, fundamental thing we can do as Christians, to begin the transformational healing our world so desperately needs. No ministry can be effective unless we first bathe it in prayer.

But prayer isn’t enough. It’s a start, but until we actively work at peacemaking, there will be no peace. Until we actively work at listening to the cry of pain in our community, we will keep walking past the very ones Christ calls us to stand beside. Until we actively work at recognizing the privilege we experience just by not having to think about racism if we so choose, our brothers and sisters who have no choice but to think about racism every waking moment will continue to suffer.

So let’s keep praying at noon every day this week. But let’s do more than that. Let’s look for ways we can actively work to overcome hatred and fear with the love of Christ. If a Samaritan can do it, surely we can. If a Jewish lawyer can do it, surely we can.

As we pass through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, the choice is ours. Will we see and cross over to the other side of the road, or will we see and be consumed by gut-wrenching compassion for those who suffer injustice, especially our brothers and sisters of color whose lives matter to God?

When Jesus finished his story, he asked the lawyer, “Who proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” The lawyer said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.” He says the same to each of us. Amen.

Chicken Tortellini Soup

This makes a fast supper (if you have a microwave, and who doesn’t?)

2-3 boneless skinless chicken breasts

2 cups (or one small bag) frozen mixed vegetables

1 package fresh, frozen, or dried cheese tortellini

1 clove garlic

4-6 cups chicken broth or water

salt, pepper, Italian seasoning to taste

In the microwave, thaw 2-3 boneless skinless chicken breasts. Cut into 1″ cubes (you can cut the frozen chicken into cubes if you have a heavy knife or cleaver, and skip the thawing out step, but it will take a little longer to cook the chicken).

In a heavy pot, toss the chicken cubes with some olive oil and a clove of garlic, crushed or minced. Stir frequently as you cook the chicken over medium high heat, until it is cooked through (no pink!). Add 2 cups of frozen mixed vegetables and enough chicken broth to cover. Use a couple of chicken bouillon cubes and a quart of water if you don’t have any broth. Plain water also works, but you will want to add some extra seasoning, particularly salt.

When the soup comes to a boil, add the tortellini and seasonings. Simmer until the tortellini is soft and opaque. Add more water if you need to. Serve with good bread and cheese. Dinner in under 30 minutes.

Post-Thanksgiving Post

firstsnowfall10-10-09.jpgI give God thanks for this day, this
day-after-the-day-after Thanksgiving day.
I thank God for a day in which
I can sip coffee slowly.
The sun sparkles on new snow.
The clock ticks comfortingly
at the top of the stairs.
Today I have the luxury
of puttering at my own pace.
That pace says, “Thanks.”

Whom Will You Serve? Sermon on Joshua 24:14-18

October 25, 2015

My friend Joe was facing great challenges in his job. Demand had recently spiked for the product his company manufactured. At almost the same time, the supplier of a major component had problems with its manufacturing process, and stopped shipping until the problem could be corrected. The pressure was on to meet deadlines that were looming. On top of all this, Joe’s boss was difficult to work for, and several co-workers had quit or transferred to other departments, leaving Joe’s department short-handed, short-supplied, and his boss even more short-tempered than usual. Joe started having nightmares.

One night, as Joe wrestled with his dreams, his wife became alarmed. He was thrashing in the bed, and talking in his sleep. She couldn’t make out words or sentences, but she knew he was having another nightmare. She tried to wake him as gently as she could. “Joe, honey, are you okay? You’re having a bad dream.” Joe’s eyes flew open and he said, “I’m okay. Trust me.” His wife’s face must have looked like she didn’t quite believe him, so he added, “I know you can’t trust me right now, but just trust me.”

Have you ever faced an overwhelming challenge that scared the living daylights out of you? Continue reading

The Miracle Inside a Miracle – Sermon on Mark 5:21-43

June 28, 2015

Years ago, I was meeting with my boss, Pastor Phil Stenberg, to plan worship. As we worked together, it seemed that a constant stream of people came in and out of Phil’s office, calling him away from our work. After yet another person had stopped in, I asked him, “How do you ever get any work done, with all these interruptions?” He leaned back in his chair, smiled, and said, “The interruptions are where real ministry begins.” Continue reading