Thanksgiving to God

“Thanksgiving to God”

2 Cor 9-11 thanksgiving, words

2 Corinthians 9:6-11 (9:11) – November 19, 2017

Today, the Sunday before Thanksgiving, many people across the United States celebrate as Thanksgiving Sunday. “According to the Internet there are 12 nations – large and small – who celebrate in one form or another their nation’s Thanksgiving Day; whilst other forms and styles of celebration include local “Harvest Thanksgiving” services.” [1]

Both scripture readings this morning feature words of gratitude and thanks to God for giving us our many blessings, and specifically for the blessings of the harvest. First, our psalm for this morning lets us know God has provided so much for us to enjoy. Not only the bounty of the harvest, but more than that. Our Psalmist lets us know God has made the earth and water, and everything else, and provides everything for humanity’s benefit.

Let me read again from Psalm 65: “You, God, soften the earth with showers and bless its abundant crops. 11 You crown the year with a bountiful harvest; even the hard pathways overflow with abundance. 12 The grasslands of the wilderness become a lush pasture, and the hillsides blossom with joy. 13 The meadows are clothed with flocks of sheep, and the valleys are carpeted with grain. They all shout and sing for joy!”

All this bounty is considered to be given to humanity to enjoy. All the harvest and bounty that this psalm celebrates is what the apostle Paul talks about in his letter to the church in Corinth, too. Except, Paul goes one step further.

When we read Paul’s suggestions in this passage today, he urges the believers in Corinth to be generous. Sure, in Paul’s previous letter, in 1 Corinthians, the people from that church were collecting for the poor and persecuted Christians in Jerusalem. Now, with this updated message to Corinth, Paul praises the church for continuing with the collection for the saints in Jerusalem, and urges them to be generous. He broadens his suggestion and encourages them to give gifts freely. “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”

What about that last phrase, anyway? “God loves a cheerful giver.” Sure, Paul is urging his fellow Christians to be generous. However, this goes over and above mere giving of alms, or slipping a dollar in a panhandler’s cup, or even a five-dollar bill in the Salvation Army kettle in the holiday season. Paul lets us know we ought to give cheerfully (Gr. hilaron), or “hilariously,” in the sense of very joyfully. But, he doesn’t want us to throw our money around needlessly. And, not in the sense of thoughtlessly, either.

Money, charity, and giving are discussed in the Bible in several places. I will highlight one: “cheerful” givers always receive God’s loving approval (Prov. 22:8). So, God wants all of us to be cheerful, generous, and open-hearted.

There is a problem here, and Paul mentions it. “Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously.”

One of my favorite bible commentators, Bob Deffinbaugh, writes “Some people simply do not enjoy being generous. It causes them great pain to give up more of what they possess in order to bestow it upon someone who needs it more than they do. Once I suggested to a friend who was dying that she give away some of her possessions while she was alive, so that she could enjoy the act of giving while she was still alive. I had seriously misjudged the situation. This woman did not want to give anything away before she died, because she found no pleasure in giving. Only after her death, when she could keep her possessions no longer, would she reluctantly will them to someone else. How sad.” [2]

This is a cautionary tale for all of us. Certainly, the idea of reluctantly giving away money or worldly goods is something most of us associate with Ebenezer Scrooge of Charles Dickens’s Christmas Carol fame. I know very well that there are great numbers of people who only give “grudgingly.”

So many people love their stuff, don’t they? Or, if not “stuff,” then they are awfully attached to their money, or even their time. Some might hate to part with anything of value, period.  And, especially, “We should not give because we feel there is no alternative, or because we think others will look down on us if we fail to give.” [3] It’s sort of tGod’swisted and perverted, and just like the Pharisees. That is the exact opposite of the reason Paul tells us to give.

As Bob Deffinbaugh relates, “To use an analogy our Lord employs, when we see a brother who has no coat, we don’t have to own a coat factory; all we need is two coats (see Luke 3:11). The reason we may not have the means to give to the poor is because we have not sown from that which we have in order to reap more to give. We, like the widow who cared for Elijah, may need to give first to those in need, and then look to God to supply our needs.” [4]

We can follow Paul’s words and suggestions, and ask—how would we celebrate God’s blessings to us? How could we give thanks? Like I suggested to the children earlier today, we can be generous. Give of what we have. If we have a little extra food or canned goods or pasta, give that. If we have an extra coat, give it to a coat drive. If we have some free time, volunteer or donate that. If God has been good to us and we have some extra money, be generous with whatever God has blessed us with.

When my husband and I were hiking through a state forest some years ago, we came across a stream. The path turned and followed the bubbling, flowing stream. As my husband and I continued walking, we came to a little waterfall, where the water bubbled and traveled downward from one level to another, and then went rushing along its merry way. I think of giving like this. Paul lets us know that generous giving flows out of God’s generosity to us. If we dam up that trickle of giving, we might end up with a backload of water that can’t flow, can’t run free and clear, and cannot transmit God’s blessings to others.

When we understand that everything—every single thing!—we have comes from God, it is much easier to share what we have with others. God supplies both the seed and the harvest. He is the one who makes us rich so that we might be generous on every occasion. Our giving is a demonstration of thanks to God. We thank God for what God has given us by giving it away!

And, what is the final point of Paul’s suggestion? What is the most wonderful thing God gives us? Praise the Lord for God’s unmatchable, unspeakable, unsurpassable Gift—Jesus Christ! Jesus and the grace He freely gives to us is the reason we give to others.

We give thanks that our generosity is rooted in the generosity of our God in the person of our Savior, Jesus Christ. We can say “Happy Thanksgiving,” indeed.

Amen, alleluia.

[1] http://www.thetimelesspsalms.net/w_resources/pentecost23[30]c_2016.htm

The Timeless Psalms: Psalm 65, Joan Stott, prayers and meditations based on lectionary Psalms, 2016.

[2] Religious Affections: A Study of Paul’s 2 Corinthian Correspondence 12. Keeping Your Commitments (2 Cor. 8:16-9:15) https://bible.org/seriespage/12-keeping-your-commitments-2-cor-816-915  Robert L. (Bob) Deffinbaugh, Th.M.

[3] http://soniclight.com/constable/notes/pdf/2corinthians.pdf

2 Corinthians, Expository Notes, Dr. Thomas L. Constable, Dallas Theological Seminary, 2005 edition.

[4] Religious Affections: A Study of Paul’s 2 Corinthian Correspondence 12. Keeping Your Commitments (2 Cor. 8:16-9:15) https://bible.org/seriespage/12-keeping-your-commitments-2-cor-816-915  Robert L. (Bob) Deffinbaugh, Th.M.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

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Keep Watch!

“Keep Watch!”

Matt 25-12 I know you not

Matthew 25:1-13 (25:13) – November 12, 2017

Just two weeks ago, St. Luke’s Church had its big fall Spaghetti Dinner fundraiser. This dinner took quite a bit of planning and preparation. Just ask anyone who worked on planning, preparing, serving, or cleaning up. And, another big thank you to all of those who planned, worked, or ate at the Spaghetti Dinner. It all was much appreciated!

I am a person who is not naturally a planner. Or, rather, I was not the person who would be so very prepared. You know that sort of person. They always plan way in advance. They always bring more supplies, buy plenty of food, and especially are always there in plenty of time, for any occasion. I admire these people. Over time, I have learned how to copy certain aspects of their planning and preparation. However, I am not naturally one of these super-prepared people.

To recap from our scripture from Matthew 25, there are a bunch of young women—strictly speaking, the text calls them “virgins.” They are to accompany the bridegroom and the rest of the bridal party as he travels to the bride’s home, picks her up, and they all go to a large banquet hall to celebrate the ceremony. This was a common feature of weddings in that part of the world, and still is in places around the world, today.

Jesus’s parable from Matthew 25 is all about being prepared. Doing some advance planning. And, at face value, it seems really unfair.      As Dr. David Lose (one of my favorite commentators) said, “All the bridesmaids brought oil, all waited, all fell asleep. And the decision about who gets in comes down to who anticipated the bridegroom would be this incredibly late and so brought more oil. Okay, so maybe it’s not unfair. Maybe it’s just that I’m pretty darn certain that I would have been among the foolish bridesmaids.” [1]

Oh, Dr. Lose, I relate so much! I fear I would have been among the foolish bridesmaids, too! I am afraid I may not be welcomed to the wedding banquet, either.

I have a confession to make. I have never preached a sermon on this parable before. I have always been leery of it. Or afraid of it. I wrestled with the idea of preaching on this parable, and felt convicted by God. So, I decided—with God’s help, when this reading came up as a lectionary Gospel reading that I would definitely preach on it.

Let’s pull back from this brief parable, and look at the larger situation where the Rabbi Jesus tells it. This is sometime midway through Holy Week, where Jesus is being asked when the end times will come. That’s a big reason why He gives this long discourse called the Olivet Discourse, several chapters long in Matthew’s Gospel. Similar to now, people all through the centuries have been aware that the Bible has certain mysterious, even unclear prophecies concerning the end times, just before when the Messiah will come.

Jesus “lets them know that there will be signs, terrible signs, that will give people clues that the end is coming, encouraging them not to listen to idle rumors, but to trust His words. The parable of the bridesmaids compares the listeners to [bridesmaids], entrusted with a role,” [2] while waiting for the bridegroom to come.

Preparation and planning are often mixed up with waiting. Sure, we can plan the menu for a big dinner, and purchase the food for the big event. We prepare everything for the festive table, and get the table centerpieces and flowers and everything else. But sometimes, waiting is somehow involved in this process. Waiting for God to show up. How long do we wait? That was just what the disciples were anxious and worried about. That was one big reason why Jesus told several parables in this particular discourse.

A story one commentator told happened several years ago. Dr. Karoline Lewis relates: “My father-in-law was a World War II veteran and he died a year ago this past April at the age of 96. In the twenty-three years I have known my husband, it was only in the last few that Sam [my father-in-law] ever talked about the war. The last time I saw him was at his bequest to have as many of his grandchildren present, not necessarily for a final goodbye, but as you know, people can sense that death is soon. Of course, that truth elicits its own sense of what waiting is like.

“That day, Sam talked about the war. He talked about the waiting. You see, he had been selected, singled out, not to be sent to the front, but to stay behind. Why? He was good in math. He showed us his notebook in which he had calculated multiple ballistic measurements. And as he worked on his equations, he waited for his fellow soldiers, his friends, to return. Some did. Some did not. He could not understand how he was spared. Yet in the waiting and the wondering he knew God was there, and there was nothing else he could do but trust that truth.” [3]

I wonder how many of us can trust God when we are waiting and wondering? I wonder how many of us continue to have faith in God when things just don’t seem to make any sense? Like in the case of difficult scripture passages like this one, this parable from Matthew where the bridegroom—Jesus—sends the five foolish, unprepared bridesmaids away, not allowing them in to the wedding banquet?

All these bridesmaids were waiting. (As do we. We wait for Jesus to return, and we—the church—have been waiting for centuries.) Five of these bridesmaids were prepared, and had enough oil. Five did not. We can compare that to having extra batteries for your flashlight, like I told the boys during the children’s time before the sermon. But today’s parable does not highlight a shortage of oil for the lamps. No, the oil is plentiful. There is more than enough oil. However, the five bridesmaids forget they are going to need the oil. [4] I sometimes forget I need oil—which God bountifully supplies. Do you sometimes forget, too?

I want to highlight verse 13, where Jesus says “Therefore, keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.”

Yes, there is pain, suffering, loss, grief, sickness, anxiety, and all manner of other difficult things in this world. We are not certain when God will show up. Yet, we can glean some words of advice from this parable: Be prepared. Plan. Watch. Keep awake. And, wait.

“If only we will remember that we have a steady supply of precious ‘oil’ to help light our way. For we have already have Jesus as we await the ‘bridegroom’s’ return.’ We already have Jesus. If only we will pause long enough to recognize and receive this precious gift, it is already ours. All we have to do is fill our lamps.” [5]

We all have been called to lift our lamps—our lights—and lift them high, shining as signs of promise and hope in a dark world with little hope or brightness or light in it. The oil is provided for us. Jesus encourages us to lift our lights in an often dark world.

Indeed, isn’t this what the world needs most of all?

 

(A big thank you to David Lose, Liz Milner, Karoline Lewis and Janet Hunt for their helpful writings as I wrestled with this challenging text from Matthew 25.)

[1] http://www.davidlose.net/2014/11/pentecost-22-a/  “Hope and Help for Foolish Bridesmaids,” David Lose, …in the meantime, 2014.

[2] https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/1534-my-bad-dream  “My Bad Dream,” Liz Milner, Journey with Jesus, 2017.

[3] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3413  “How To Wait,” Karoline Lewis, Dear Working Preacher, 2014.

[4] http://dancingwiththeword.com/oil-for-our-lamps/  “Oil for Our Lamps,” Janet H. Hunt, Dancing with the Word, 2017.  November 5, 2017

[5] Ibid.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

All the Saints

“All the Saints”

Rev 7 multitude white-robes

Revelation 9:7-28 (9:7) – November 5, 2017

Today, we commemorate All Saints Sunday. The first Sunday of November, that day we remember all the saints who are now in heaven, worshiping God in that great cloud of witnesses. We also remember familiar people, relatives and friends known to us, dear to us, who died since last All Saints Day last year. What is it about these formal occasions of remembrance? Often, we remember those who have sacrificed much, displayed tremendous bravery, or were persecuted—even died—at tremendous risk to themselves.

What is it that causes you and me to be listed in among a great multitude of saints like these? Or, aren’t we even to be worthy to be listed on the same page as these rarefied superstar saints? These women and men who followed after God, no matter what?

One of our Scripture readings today comes from the book of Revelation, starting at verse 9: “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”

We break into the narrative as the elderly John has another vision, this time a scene of heaven. And, instead of seeing a predominance of Jews and only a sprinkling of other tribes and people groups, John sees a great multitude of all colors, all ethnicities, all languages and dialects, from every place on the globe.

I am blown away by that vision, the more I think about it. I am in awe, because the great multitude is of every possible description, every possible people group under the sun. Not just me and my family, not just me and the people from the neighborhood where I grew up. Not just people from one region, or one country, or one ethnicity. But, people from everywhere.       These people of the vision are called “saints,” and many people today have only one specific idea of what a “saint” is. St. Francis of Assisi, or St. John of the Cross, or St. Martha—the patron saint of our neighbor Catholic church, or the newly beatified saint, Mother Teresa.

Robert Louis Stevenson, writer of Kidnapped and Treasure Island, has a different definition of “saints.” “The saints are the sinners who keep on going.” And, both apostles Paul and Peter call their friends “saints” in the greetings, to all of the people who receive their letters.

But, we know very well that life often does not go smoothly. Not for us, not for our friends and families, and certainly not for the multitudes who lived in centuries past. Interesting, that “because we sinners are made holy by God’s grace, and not by our own actions, we are able to keep on going as Stevenson says.  Our keeping on in life often involves suffering.” [1] And, if we know anything about history, we know that believers in Christ often had to deal with grief, pain, suffering, and even persecution.

When John received this grand series of visions that he wrote down in the book of Revelation, he was often puzzled. He had to ask the people or elders or angels around him what it was he was seeing. As is the case here: “Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?” 14 I answered, “Sir, you know.”

Leading question, you may say! John persuades the elder to answer the question himself. ““they are before the throne of God and serve God day and night in His temple; and He who sits on the throne will shelter them with His presence. 16 ‘Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat down on them, nor any scorching heat.”

It sounds like to me that these people in heaven, who are identified as “saints” in other places in the book, no longer have to go through that valley of the shadow here on the earth, where God walks right by their side as they are in difficulty. They no longer need to face challenges of health reversals or job loss or crushing poverty or horrible accidents, or various calamities of one sort or another. They are at God’s side in heaven, and never have to experience those trials, losses, hunger and anguish any more.

But we are still left on this side of the veil. On this side, on a troubled world where suffering and loss and fear and anxiety rear their heads all too often. Especially grief, where we mourn the loss of loved ones, friends and relatives who left us too soon.

Rev. Janet Hunt talks about a sad situation like this: “And yet, for all of those for whom I light a candle and remember each All Saints Sunday, there is still really just the one I carry closest of all. One whose dying has me yearning most deeply for the promises of this day.

“It came to me again last week when a beloved cousin came to visit. He had stopped to see his folks the night before he flew out and as he sat with them he told his dad he was going to see Kathleen. “You remember Kathleen, don’t you dad? She was Tommy’s wife.” (Kathleen is my mother.)

“Now in these recent years my dad’s brother does not remember as he once did. For a moment last week, though, there was clarity as he remembered his only brother and as he registered all over again the fact that he had died and with that remembering, his face fell along with his tears. And mine did, too, to hear of his remembering.” [2]

Grief, sorrow and loss are like that, sometimes. We can be fine, content, living our lives. Then, out of nowhere it seems, the thought of that special loved one, that dear friend who is no longer with us in this world, comes to mind.

And then, Janet Hunt reminds us, “nothing makes us more grateful than the gift of that time and place so vividly described in today’s words from Revelation. A time and place:

  • where the whole world will gather and join together in song and where we will be washed clean,
  • where hunger and thirst will no longer hold sway,
  • where there will be shelter from all that would harm,
  • where the very water of life will sustain us,
  • and where God Himself will bend low to wipe away our tears.” [3]

Is such a place even possible? In those times when you or I are grieving anew, remembering with sorrow or longing in our hearts, the apostle John assures us that “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” And, ““Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen!”

In plainer words, from his first letter to the scattered believers in Christ, John gives us further assurance: “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.”

Today, we have a foretaste of heaven from both Scripture readings. Revelation tells us of the wonderful worship service in heaven, where everyone is praising God. And 1 John lets us know that when our Lord Jesus appears to each of us, we shall be like Him in glory.

“So with all of you, I will light the candles this All Saints Day. In memory and in powerful hope we will light the candles. Standing confident in the very promises of God we will light them.[4]

Amen. May it be so. Amen.

[1] https://preachingtip.com/archives-year-a/pentecost-year-a/all-saints-day-all-saints-sunday/

[2] http://dancingwiththeword.com/all-saints-day-in-memory-and-in-hope/

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

By Faith Alone

“By Faith Alone”

sola gratia, scriptura, fide - Lutheran

Romans 3:19-28 (3:28) – October 29, 2017

Today is a festive day in the church. Reformation Sunday, the last Sunday in October every year when we remember the bravery and determination of Father Martin Luther, Professor of Theology at the University of Wittenberg in Germany.

This year is not just an anniversary, it is a huge anniversary. October 31, 1517. This year, on All Hallow’s Eve, countless people throughout the world celebrate the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther and his posting of the 95 Theses, or grievances against the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, on the chapel door in Wittenberg.

As I have said during the past few weeks, I care very much about this celebration. I was baptized and confirmed a Lutheran and spent two full years studying Luther’s Small Catechism in confirmation preparation. I was a history and theology nerd throughout high school, learning as much as I could about the Reformation of the 1500’s, and Martin Luther in particular. I can tell you that Martin Luther had his ups and downs as he was traveling the religious road through life. He really, truly wanted to know exactly how to get right with God.

Our New Testament reading today comes from Romans 3, and it starts in a not-very-good place. The apostle Paul talks about the Law of Moses. All of its statutes and ordinances and restrictions would tie people up in knots as they tried to follow every single little rule. That’s the situation everyone finds themselves in, if we start with Romans 3:19-20. We are all in the same sinking boat. From Eugene Peterson’s wonderful translation The Message: “So where does that put us? Do we Jews get a better break than the other people? Not really. Basically, all of us, whether insiders or outsiders, start out in identical conditions, which is to say that we all start out as sinners. Scripture leaves no doubt about it:”

Martin started out as a monk, became a priest, and eventually earned his doctorate in theology. He was extremely intelligent, and knew lots of different kinds of stuff. Bible, theology, mathematics, rhetoric, Latin, Hebrew and Greek. However, he seemed to have an inferiority complex. Or, to say it in a different way, Martin was scared to death that he would never measure up to God’s standards and the way God wanted him to live.

Martin Luther tried really hard to get into God’s good graces, for years. He was quite earnest about it. He would try and try to pray and meditate, to do things that would get him on the plus side of God’s righteousness ledger. However, he never could measure up, not on his own. Not even because he was trying as hard as he could to get on God’s good side.

Does that sound familiar to anyone here, today? Is anyone here trying desperately to have God approve of them? Did we all hear the scripture reading from the book of Romans? We are all—all of us—in the same sinking boat. What is more, there is no one who can say they are living the right way, God’s way. Everyone falls short.

From time to time, I look at an online discussion board where ministers share their ideas and insights about scripture readings for sermons and bible studies. This was a few years ago, but Pastor Erik from Wisconsin shared the following comment in a discussion about these particular verses from Romans 3:

“This Sunday we celebrate confirmation. As a part of their confirmation requirements, students have to meet with me for a brief discussion/interview. I ask them about faith, life, God, etcetera – see if they learned anything during confirmation. One question I always ask is “How will you get into heaven? How are you saved?” Most often I get the answers – “Pray. Go to church. Do good deeds.[1]

Martin Luther went to the extreme, in this respect. That would have been his answer, for years and years. Martin spent hours every week on his knees, asking God for forgiveness and confessing his sins to God and to his own personal confessor and spiritual director. He fasted, depriving himself of food and drink, regularly. Martin even went on pilgrimages, to try to gain special favor with God and show himself to be extra specially deserving of coming into God’s presence.

And then, he would meticulously chalk up the good deeds he did. Not to be loving and giving, as our Lord had told us to do, but in order to be super-religious, and to show everyone just how religious Martin was being. Just in the same way that the Pharisees were super religious and meticulous in their rule-following in the first century, when our Lord Jesus walked the earth.

What does Romans 3:23 tell us? “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

I don’t know whether anyone here has ever used a bow and arrow. Has anyone? (I would really like to know.) One of my daughters has, plus one of my close friends. The apostle Paul uses an expression here used for shooting arrows—falling short and missing the mark.  Not hitting the target. What’s more, we can never, ever hit the target that God has set for us to hit, no matter how hard we try, because of sin. All of us sin. That’s everyone. No exceptions.

One of my favorite commentators had this weighty insight about sin. Dr. David Lose tells us that “When we talk about sin, it’s almost always in the plural – sins – as in describing bad things we’ve done. But sin described in [Paul’s writings] is not so much a thing as it is a force – the power that seeks to rob the children of God of abundant life.” [2] How about that? We are all stopped from hitting the bull’s eye by this unstoppable force called sin.

But, wait! There’s more from Dr. Lose. Sin is also “a condition in which we are trapped. In this second sense, the condition of sin is very much a state of existential insecurity – being fearful or anxious that you are not safe, not sufficient, not worthy of love and respect.” [3]

Worse and worse! We not only are being stopped by a force that eternally keeps us from hitting this bull’s eye of living God’s way, but this same unstoppable force convinces us that we are not safe, not sufficient, not able even to use a Godly, heavenly bow and arrow—so to speak. It’s the ultimate feeling of insecurity, of feeling less-than, fearful and anxious that we will never get to heaven and never be in God’s presence.

But, who will save us from this wretched situation? From this unstoppable force and condition of sin? How can we come into God’s presence and live God’s way, the way our Lord meant us to live?

Martin Luther was also a diligent student of the Bible. He would pour over Scripture for hours each week. Finally, in 1513, he found this mind-blowing idea in Paul’s letter to the Roman believers.   Verse 3:28:” 28 For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.”   Thanks be to God.

“God also loves us, accepting and loving the insecure, wayward persons we are. Not the person we’ve tried to be or promised to but, but the person we really are. And so God not only forgives us those sins (plural) we commit, but also promises us God’s unconditional love, acceptance, and regard.” [4]

Again, thanks be to God for God’s unspeakable, marvelous, glorious gift!

This sermon is called “By Faith Alone:” Sola fide! Last Sunday’s sermon was “By Grace Alone:” Sola gratia! Last week we looked at Ephesians 2:8-9, which says “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.

We know from Paul’s straight account that all people have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, that no one can boast about their good works, “that none of us can brag that we earned some spiritual star a long time ago. If anyone will boast, we will not boast of our faith; we will not boast about our good works.  If anyone will boast, we will boast about God, the God who forgives us and loves us.  We will boast about Jesus Christ, who died on the cross for you and me. We will boast about the blood of Christ that cleanses us from all sin.” [5]

We are gathered here in this building because of Jesus Christ, because of what He did for us on the Cross, because He conquered death, and because we are now His followers. What more wonderful expression of our faith is there than to say Soli Deo Gloria! Or, to God alone be the glory. Praise God! Alleluia, amen.

[1] http://javacasa.ipower.com/resources/dps_form_results/roma3_19.htm

[2] http://www.davidlose.net/2014/10/ref-day-pen-20-original-insecurity/  “Original Insecurity and the Power of Love,” David Lose, …in the Meantime, 2014.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Mother Teresa, Good Works and Faith  Romans 3:19-28 – ·  Reformation Sermons, Pastor Edward F. Markquart, Grace Lutheran Church, Seattle, Washington.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

By Grace Alone

“By Grace Alone”

 

sola gratia, sola scriptura, sola fide

Ephesians 2:4-10 (2:8) – October 22, 2017

How many people catch their breath or look troubled when they see an ambulance whiz by, sirens blaring, and lights flaring? I think that is a common reaction. I feel that way from time to time, too. Sometimes, I feel helpless, even useless, just watching from the sidelines. Or, in some cases, the sidewalk. Working as a chaplain, I met ambulances in the Emergency Department where they would unload their critically ill patients.

This is so like the situation that the apostle Paul talks about in our scripture reading for this morning. Let’s read Ephesians 2:4-5. “But because of His great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions.”

I know how difficult this discussion is for some people. Some of you or some of your friends or relatives might have traveled to the hospital, following that ambulance. I know, because I met with many families and loved ones in the Emergency Department. I’ve sat next to beds in the intensive care unit or other critical care units and prayed with seriously ill patients. I’ve comforted both patients and their loved ones. Sadly, I have been with a large number of people who died in the hospital. That is what Paul is talking about here. This is the situation. Paul says we—all of us—are dead in transgressions.

This is looking at things from a really dismal point of view. Absolutely! Sure, we might be walking around, physically breathing, hearts pumping. But as Paul tells us, we are dead because of our trespasses. Our transgressions. Our sins. Our thoughts, words and deeds that are not what God wants from us, and not who God wants us to be.

If you think of it in contemporary, even humorous terms, think of the whole human race like zombies—spiritual zombies. Sure, our bodies are walking and breathing, but we are all spiritually dead.

The apostle Paul is really clear about this. We—all of us—are spiritually dead in our trespasses and transgressions. Because of sin. What can we possibly do to heal ourselves from this spiritual death?

Some people might think they are not too bad off, not as bad as other people. I can hear them now: “I haven’t murdered or cheated anybody. I can’t be that sinful.” Or, “Look at that gal. She did all that illegal, nasty stuff. I’m not half as bad as she is.” Well, I have news for you. Really bad news. Everyone has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. (Same apostle, different New Testament letter.)

For some, it might help if you can picture this. It’s as if each of us is in a spiritual boxing ring, boxing with the Devil. The tricky Devil flattens us with the one-two punch of temptation and sin. On our own, we are permanently knocked out, down for the count, forever.

Sin hits different people in different ways. Sometimes it’s sin like anger or envy or jealousy. Other times it’s the sin of pride or gossip or nasty words. Sometimes it’s the sin of mean, unkind thoughts—like Jesus told us, wishing you had something that belonged to somebody else—that is called coveting. Or, getting so angry at a friend or relative you call them, “You idiotic fool!” And, really mean worse than that. Jesus called all of that sin, too.

Let’s read from Ephesians 2:4-5 again: “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.”

Wait a minute. I’ve heard some people with another take on this sin thing. They try to work their way onto God’s good side. “There must be something I can do! Maybe, pray a bunch of times a day—really earnest prayers, too!” Or, “Maybe bringing some extra special offerings will make God happy. Maybe that will take away some of the black marks against me.” Or, “Maybe doing lots of good deeds. Maybe God will look at that and be satisfied.”

Paul says there is a problem with that. We cannot work our way to heaven by ourselves. What does Ephesians 2:8-9 say “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” In other words, the only way we can be accepted by God is only God’s doing. It is all God’s mercy, love, kindness and grace. Especially grace. Grace alone. Sola gratia. Not grace plus good works, no!

“Scripture is clear that we are saved by grace apart from works. If we were saved based on our works we would all be going to hell because our greatest works are filthy rags before God.[1] All we need to do to check that out is to read Isaiah 64:6 – “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like filthy rags.”

Stan Mast from Calvin Theological Seminary had this to say: “I love the old story about C.S. Lewis wandering into an august gathering of theologians in Britain in the last century. They were debating how Christianity differed from other religions. Was it the doctrine of the Incarnation? No, some argued, they found stories of gods appearing in human form in other religions, though not in the precise form as the Gospel. So, was it the Resurrection? No, argued others, there are stories of people rising from the dead in other religions, though not in the precise form as the Gospel. Eventually, Lewis, the great Oxford scholar, wandered into the room and asked what the rumpus was about. When told that they were discussing Christianity’s unique contribution to the world’s religions, he said, “That’s easy. It’s grace.” [2]

God’s grace. Amazing grace. Marvelous grace of our loving Lord.

As I said to the children at the beginning of the service today, grace is undeserved. We do not deserve it. A newborn baby cannot do anything to make his or her parents or grandparents love him or her. We don’t expect them to! Can the newborn baby say “I love you?” Can the newborn baby give people hugs? Yet, the baby’s family loves that tiny human very much.

Remember the definition of grace (actually, Carolyn Brown’s definition): “grace is loving someone even when they don’t deserve it and God’s grace is the fact that God continues to love us, care for us, and forgive us even when we really do not deserve it.” [3]

I used to enjoy taking my children to the park, to the playground with all of the play equipment. I would often bring a book and read while the children played for a good long time. Sooner or later, it would be time to go home. Occasionally, when I would call my children, one or the other of them wouldn’t be ready to leave. Every once in a while, they would take off running in the opposite direction. I would have to go running after them.

Sure, I’d get upset. Sometimes, I’d be afraid and even angry, because they might wander off the playground and run near a busy street. But, I wouldn’t stop loving them. I’m a human, fallible parent. How much more does God love my children? And, how much more does God love me? And, you?

I am okay with God speaking of me—of us—as a small child (which the Bible does, on several occasions). When you or I disobey or run away from God, does God keep loving us? Remember Carolyn Brown’s definition of grace? “God’s grace is the fact that God continues to love us, care for us, and forgive us even when we really do not deserve it.”

From the beginning, in the middle, and to the end, we all are saved, justified by God’s grace alone. By God’s grace, “we become the creatures God had intended from the beginning, God’s magnificent workmanship, God’s masterpiece.” [4]

God’s grace. Marvelous grace of our loving Lord. Amazing grace. Alleluia, amen.

 

[1] God’s Grace…… Earned or Freely Given?  http://www.reformedgnome.com/  Posted on February 9, 2016

[2] The Center for Excellence in Preaching, Stan Mast, resources from Calvin Theological Seminary: Comments & Observations, Textual Points, illustration ideas, 2015. http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/lent-4b-2/?type=lectionary_epistle

[3] Worshiping with Children, Lent 4B, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2015. 2012http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2015/02/year-b-fourth-sunday-in-lent-march-15.html

[4] The Center for Excellence in Preaching, Stan Mast, resources from Calvin Theological Seminary: Comments & Observations, Textual Points, illustration ideas, 2015. http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/lent-4b-2/?type=lectionary_epistle

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

In Christ Alone

“In Christ Alone”

Acts 4-12 salvation, sun

Acts 4:1-17 (4:12) – October 15, 2017

“How many of you remember a time when you were so excited about something that you could barely wait to share that news with another person? Maybe it was getting accepted to the university you dreamed of attending? Or maybe it was that you are finally pregnant after years of waiting? Or maybe it was that you have now been confirmed to be cancer free after lengthy treatment? Or maybe it was when your special someone asked you to marry him? Or maybe you got the job you so desperately hoped for? This exciting news is changing your life, and you want to shout it from the mountaintop!” [1]

With exciting news of that magnitude of importance, who wouldn’t want to share something so earthshaking that is turning your life upside down?

That’s the case here in Acts chapters 3 and 4, where Peter and John are in Jerusalem, telling people about the Messiah Yeshua, the risen Jesus, risen from the dead. Do you know? Have you heard? This news is so exciting that it’s changing my life! Anyway, that is the story that Peter, John, and the rest of the disciples are sharing in downtown Jerusalem at the beginning of Acts 4.

But then, there’s a hitch. A problem, a complication.  Reading from Acts 4:1-2, “The priests and the captain of the temple guard and the Sadducees came up to Peter and John while they were speaking to the people. 2 They were greatly disturbed because the apostles were teaching the people, proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead.” In fact, these religious leaders are so upset, they toss Peter and John in prison.

Peter and John—and countless others throughout the centuries—were thrown into prison because of their beliefs, and because of their witness. It doesn’t matter whether it’s during the persecutions of the Roman emperors, the upheavals and persecutions of the religious wars of the 1500’s and 1600’s, or more modern persecutions and executions of the 20th and 21st centuries, people are still imprisoned for their beliefs. People are still persecuted for naming the name of Jesus Christ in a public forum.

This good news is an extremely important thing to proclaim. In many places in the world today and throughout history, this message of Jesus Christ crucified and risen from the dead is an extremely dangerous one to proclaim, too.

There must be something behind this God-sent boldness that energizes so many people!

“Solus Christus,” or “By Christ Alone” is another one of the foundational principles that sets Protestants apart. Another of the rallying cries of the Reformation, this important principle means Jesus Christ alone is the mediator between God and humanity. Not the priests as mediator between us and God, and not the sacrifices in the Temple as a necessary covering to allow us to come to God, but salvation comes through Jesus Christ alone.

Certain other faith traditions put extra emphasis on the saints, or the Virgin Mary, or on the church hierarchy. Yes, these ought to be honored. Absolutely we have the saints and Mary the mother of Jesus as our blessed examples and those we hold up as special before God. Plus, as the apostle Paul and Doctor Luke tell us repeatedly in the New Testament, we are all called saints of God, so we are all examples for one another.

Back to our passage from Acts 4. What happened to Peter and John? “The next day the rulers, the elders and the teachers of the law met in Jerusalem. They had Peter and John brought before them and began to question them: “By what power or what name did you do this?”

The religious leaders of Israel had thought they had gotten rid of their problem some weeks ago when they had a rabble-rousing rabbi called Jesus crucified. But, no! More and more problems kept cropping up, ever since they had “misplaced” this rabbi’s body, and then there were some scattered reports of Him being raised from the dead, being alive again.

The religious leaders brought Peter and John before them, and asked point blank: “By what power or what name did you do this?”
What is the foundational principle for Peter and John? Just as Acts 4:12 tells us, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.”

What is another way of saying this great Good News? “The message of Jesus entails “salvation” (soteria) — a divine reality that generates wholeness, restoration, and reversal of societal norms (“healed” in Acts 4:9 is literally “saved,” sesotai)” [2]

We can say for sure that Peter, John and the other disciples would absolutely agree with the Reformers: “Solus Christus,” or “By Christ Alone” are we saved.

That was one principle that Protestants were willing to die for, and did.

What about you? What about me? Are we willing to proclaim Christ? Why does Peter say it so clearly? Because he has been with Jesus. So, too, we are with Jesus. “By Christ Alone” we are saved, we are restored, and we are walking by His side.

Praise God, alleluia, amen.

[1] https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship/lectionary-calendar/fourth-sunday-of-easter7#preaching

Preaching Helps and Worship Resources, Rev. Dawn Chesser, Prayers, Lectionary Hymns, United Methodist Church General Board of Discipleship, 2015.

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2388  Commentary, Acts 4:5-12, Troy Troftgruben, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2015.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

 

 

To God Alone Be Glory

“To God Alone Be Glory”

1 Tim 1-17 immortal, invisible, words

1 Timothy 1:12-17 (1:17) – October 8, 2017

When I was young, I was a member of a Lutheran church on the northwest side of Chicago, baptized and confirmed Lutheran, and well trained in liturgical practice and classic hymnody. Later in high school and into my twenties, I spent a number of years in Evangelical churches. I memorized dozens of bible verses, learned pietistic practices, and completed an undergraduate degree in church music from a local bible college. I sang many beloved old hymns and gospel songs, including “Rock of Ages,” “Amazing Grace,” “Blessed Assurance,” and “To God Be the Glory.”

It’s this last gospel song I would like to quote: “To God be the glory—great things He hath done! So loved He the world that He gave us His Son, Who yielded His life an atonement for sin, And opened the Life-gate that all may go in.”

“To God be the glory!” Exactly the topic of my sermon today. Pastor Kevin asked me to preach on one of the “solas,” the foundations or main principles of the Protestant faith. Soli Deo Gloria is one of the “solas” or “onlies” of the Reformation. As we remember Martin Luther and his posting of the 95 Theses, or grievances against the Catholic Church on that chapel door in the town of Wittenberg in October 1517, this October 31, 2017 is the 500th anniversary of his brave act that sparked the Protestant Reformation.

“Soli Deo Gloria,” or, to God alone be glory, is one of the foundational principles that sets Protestants apart. One of the rallying cries of the Reformation, this principle meant that all glory (and honor and worship) is due to God, alone. Not God plus the saints, not God plus the Virgin Mary, not God plus the church hierarchy. God alone is worthy of our glory—and only God is to be worshipped. That was one principle that Protestants were willing to die for, and did.

Our Scripture reading today comes from 1 Timothy 1, starting at verse 12. Paul states: “I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that He considered me trustworthy, appointing me to His service.” Paul is just overflowing with thankfulness here. He is absolutely grateful to the Lord Jesus for extending His grace to Paul and designating Paul a worker for God, in the service of Jesus Christ.

Just to refresh everyone’s memories, the Apostle Paul was not always a follower of Christ. Before he had that sudden, come-to-Jesus experience on the Damascus Road, Paul was called Saul. He was a Pharisee of the Pharisees, and an up-and-coming member of the Sanhedrin—the ruling council of the Jews in Jerusalem. Saul/Paul had studied at the equivalent of the University of Tarsus, a cosmopolitan city where he grew up, in modern-day Turkey. He saw this breakaway sect of Jews following some “false Messiah” as a clear danger to the worship of the one God who made heaven and earth.

Paul tells us himself what his personal situation was—in brief—in the next verse of 1 Timothy 1: “13 Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief.” Sure, Saul/Paul was a fire-breathing zealot, ready to grab these “Christians” off the street and throw them in prison. As he himself states, Paul was formerly “a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man.”

How on earth could God use someone awful like this? A self-admitted bad guy, too! But, wait. This isn’t the end of the story. Not by a long shot. Jesus steps into the picture.

What does Paul say in the next verse? “14 The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.” What happened? Jesus Christ happened. God’s grace was poured out on Paul, and he had a true conversion experience. He once was blind but suddenly was given the gift of sight—spiritual sight.

Here in this letter to Timothy, the Apostle Paul gives his testimony. He tells everyone what a rotten guy he was, and how God reached down and saved him, and what’s more, put Paul into his service. In many Baptist and Evangelical churches, “the sharing of testimony was [and is] a vital practice of faith. Such sharing of stories, such narrating of God’s faithfulness in our lives was not a moment to extol the speaker’s virtues as a follower of Jesus so much as a way to name God’s acting.” [1]

Paul certainly had a different kind of past life, before coming to Christ, and he definitely remembered aspects of that life. We can see that from these two verses: “15 Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. 16 But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display His immense patience as an example for those who would believe in Him and receive eternal life.”

We can hear rumblings of several other “solas” from our Reformation in these verses, can’t we? Sola Fide—faith alone, and Sola Gratia—grace alone, and certainly Solus Christus—by Christ alone. It is at this earthshaking, deep emotional point that Paul can’t stand it any more and breaks into a glorious doxology: “17 Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.”

If we are paying close attention to what he just said, it is at this point that we—all of us—ought to join Paul on our knees and lift our arms to God in praise and awe and honor and glory. Here, in brief, is the tremendous order of events that Paul wrote about at the beginning of his letter to Timothy. Saul/Paul was “the chief of sinners,” came face to face with Jesus, went into God’s service, had his life amazingly changed, and wrote a glorious doxology about it.

Look at this Protestant principle from the point of view of the 1500’s. Was it God—plus the saints, or the Virgin Mary—that caused such a life-changing experience for Paul? I think not. Was it God—plus the church hierarchy—that made Paul do a complete 180 degree turn? No, not that either. It was God alone who brought Paul to his knees. God alone, God’s grace and mercy in Paul’s life, heart and soul had a life-changing effect on Paul. Heart-changing and soul-changing, too!

Sadly, in Martin Luther’s day, many people had (in effect) contingency plans for their salvation. Or, add-ons to get to heaven. For example, they would believe in Jesus Christ and His atonement—plus prayers to the saints; or Jesus Christ and His blood shed on the cross—plus the petitions of the Virgin Mary. All of these additional things were and are blessings, and were and are embraced by people all over the world. Just not to be elevated to the point of worship.

However, Martin Luther and John Calvin and the other Reformers said that it is God alone who was to receive our worship, honor and glory. That is what bursts out of Paul here in 1 Timothy 1. “Immortal, invisible, God only wise, In light inaccessible, hid from our eyes. Most blessed, most glorious, the Ancient of Days, Almighty, victorious—Thy great name we praise.”

Which leads us to our response. Yes, we can celebrate! Yes, such a marvelous God is truly to be given all praise. Blessing and honor, glory and power be unto God and to the Lamb.

But, some of us do not readily burst into speech that might be mistaken as quotes from the King James version of the Bible. I was moved by several paragraphs of a recent book by the noted Christian author Anne Lamott. It comes from the third section of the book “Help Thanks Wow,” which is an exploration of three essential prayers that we all pray at one time or another.

“The third great prayer, Wow, is often offered with a gasp, a sharp intake of breath, when we can’t think of another way to capture the sight of shocking beauty or destruction, of a sudden unbidden insight or an unexpected flash of grace. “Wow” means we are not dulled to wonder.” [2]

Isn’t this another way of expressing Paul’s glorious doxology? It might not be as elegant, but if the Holy Spirit can take the deep, wordless groanings of our hearts and make them understood in prayer, why not the heartfelt, or exuberant, or awestruck simple “Wow!”

As the Reformers tell us, all of us are sinners, saved by God’s grace. So, all of us can say with Paul that God alone is to be worshiped—to God alone be the glory.

We can see from the life of the apostle Paul as well as from the lives of countless followers of Christ throughout the centuries, God can use anyone whom God wishes to use. Paul’s heart-stirring testimony can move us to pray, to serve, to live for God. Our Lord Jesus can take us, wherever and whomever we are, and use us. Here I am, God. Here are we. Send me. Send us.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3034 , September 11, 2016, Eric Barreto

[2] Help Thanks Wow, Anne Lamott, (United States of America: Riverhead Books, published by the Penguin Group, 2012) 71.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)