By Grace through Faith

“By Grace through Faith”

grace = by grace through faith Lutheran

Romans 3:24 – October 25, 2015

I have a confession to make. I was raised a Lutheran. Baptized and confirmed in a Lutheran church on the northwest side of Chicago, I loved everything about that church. When I was in grammar school and high school, I learned all I could about my church, about being a Lutheran, and even about Martin Luther. I studied Luther’s Small Catechism during my two years of confirmation classes in seventh and eighth grades. So, you could say I know a thing or two about Martin Luther and about the church that to this day bears his name.

This Saturday, October 31st, is the 498th anniversary of the day Martin Luther tacked up the 95 Theses, his 95 points of disagreement he had with the Catholic Church. In 1517, the priest and doctor of theology Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the chapel door in Wittenberg, Germany, at the university where he served as professor. Thanks to the printing press, these 95 points of disagreement spread like wildfire. Not only in Germany, but throughout Europe. The Reformation began in earnest.

Why was Martin so upset? To understand that, we need to take a closer look at Martin’s beginnings. When he was a very young man, Martin Luther felt unworthy of God’s love. He felt lower than a worm sometimes, and tried his hardest to get into God’s good graces! He would go to confession several times a week, do penance after penance, and he made several pilgrimages. All of these things and more to stop feeling unworthy and sinful.

Taking a quick look at the letter the Apostle Paul wrote to the Roman church, you and I might get that same message, too. From chapter three, “There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Martin felt that so deeply! All have sinned! All fall short of God’s glory! All means everyone. All of us.

Romans 3:23 is not good news! This verse is pretty bad news. Rotten news. Really hopeless news, if you ask me. And, that is the news Martin Luther faced, the more and more he read and studied the Bible, meditated, and prayed.

Martin was right. According to the Law of Moses, given to the nation of Israel in the Old Testament, there is no one who can follow the Law one hundred percent. Not the Old Testament Jews, not Jews in Jesus’s day, not Martin Luther, five hundred years ago. And, not you and me, today, either. There is no way anyone can keep every single one of God’s commands! (Even though the Pharisees of Jesus’s day—and the Pharisees of today—try their very hardest.)

Martin Luther regularly reflected on his life and his thoughts, and how far short he fell, compared to where he knew that God wanted him to be. That was what I felt, when I was a teenager, too. I knew I couldn’t keep all of God’s rules, even if I tried really, really hard. Remember Romans 3:23? “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

When I was a teenager, I was a particularly studious teen. I would read books on the Bible and on theology when I was in high school. I prayed regularly, and tried my hardest to get closer to God. I had low self-esteem. I felt sinful, unlovely and unlovable a good deal of the time.

Martin Luther tried even harder to get close to God! He did a ton of good works. He got a university degree in theology, and started teaching from the Old and New Testament at the university in Wittenberg. He studied even more about God, and preached regularly in a church in town. And yet—he still felt sinful and far from God! He still felt unlovable!

Can anyone relate to Martin? Are there times when you—when I—feel unlovable?
I remember hearing the story of a woman, horribly burned in a fire. Her husband came to see her in the hospital and was disgusted and horrified by what he saw. “You are not the woman I married,” he said, and promptly divorced her. Are we so unlovable? Is that what we are afraid God might do to us?

Martin felt sinful and unlovable, too. What’s more, even after lots and lots of good works and all these years of reading and study, he still felt so inadequate. He felt God could not possibly love or forgive him. That is—until he was reading the letter to the Romans, chapter 1, verse 17: “ For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’”

Do you hear? Do you understand? It wasn’t about Martin. It wasn’t about how sinful or unlovable he was. Or, how hard he tried to do good things, or tried to get on God’s good side, or tried to live by good works. God’s righteousness comes by faith. Faith alone! Faith in God!

Remember Romans 3:23? “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Yes. Yes! That is true. But—that isn’t the whole story! Reading, starting from 3:21: “21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”

I can almost see Martin falling off his chair, once he realizes how huge this is. Our sin is taken away through the redeeming that came through Jesus. We are made lovable through God’s grace. Our low self-worth and low self-esteem is now viewed by God through Jesus. God looks at all of us, each one of us, through Jesus-tinted lenses.

We are now brothers and sisters of Jesus, God’s beloved children! We are now redeemed freely. By His grace, through faith, through the redemption that came by and through Christ Jesus. The best part of this gift? It’s a free, undeserved gift, so that no one can pridefully boast about it.

Another way to look at this gift from God comes from a sermon study board online I follow. I recently read this, written a few years ago by a preacher named Erik in Wisconsin.

“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, etc. – 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.” And I shake my head and ask myself “Didn’t I emphasize grace enough?”

“Finally, I said to the class, “Listen, you are saved purely by God’s grace as a gift. I will ask you how you are saved in your confirmation interview. If you don’t remember anything else I’ve taught during these two years, remember this: “You are saved by God’s grace!” Why is it so hard to remember? Probably because we’ve been taught not to trust anything we might get for free, even if it is from God.”

Martin Luther found out that we are saved by faith alone, through grace alone. No good works! No trying and trying really, really hard, and not making it after all that! Salvation is all from God and God’s grace! Romans 3:24 says,” and all are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”

As Martin Luther studied scripture, he finally discovered he was saved by grace, not because of anything he did or deserved. The Rev. David Hansen tells us, “He discovered a God who would send the only Son—not for the perfect people, but for the sinners. He discovered, above all else, a God and a Savior that will NEVER abandon us, that will stand by our side no matter how often we fail or how short we fall.”

Is that good news? Jesus died for our sins. Jesus showed us radical, God-sized grace, and radical, God-sized love.

As I proclaim each week after the Confession of Sin during the Assurance of Pardon, “Believe the Good News of the Gospel: in Jesus Christ, we are forgiven!”

Alleluia, amen!

Thanks to Rev. David L. Hansen and Pastor Erik from Wisconsin for their assistance in the formulation of this sermon!

@chaplaineliza

Suggestion: visit me at my daily blog for 2015: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind .  Thanks!

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Come to Serve

“Come to Serve”

Mark 10-45 serve all

Mark 10:34-45 – October 18, 2015

It’s October in Chicago, and sports teams are a common topic of conversation! Look at the Cubs: a great number of people are rooting for them in the National League championship games, and not just in Chicago, either! Not to mention the Black Hawks, the defending Stanley Cup champions. A lot of people want to get close to these very important people. Just to rub shoulders with greatness. Being close to someone on top.

This is similar to what was happening in our Gospel reading for today. James and John took their Rabbi Jesus aside, to ask Him something privately.

Now, I wanted to make sure that everyone here was aware that lots of people saw Jesus as an earthly King. Everyone recognize that? Because, it helps us to make sense out of what James and John are asking Jesus. The closer that people are to a king or a ruler, the more important they are. The more power and importance they hold. It’s like rubbing shoulders with greatness. The whole reflected glory thing.

So, James and John ask their Rabbi to let them sit on His right and left hands, when He gets to glory. In essence, to be His right hand (and left hand) guys! They not only want to be considered important by everyone else, they want their own share of Jesus’ reflected glory!

That isn’t how it works, friends. Have I mentioned before that these disciples just don’t get it? We can see from their repeated words and conversations that they just don’t understand Jesus and what He is consistently and persistently teaching.

Let’s break it down. Jesus doesn’t get mad. Instead, He patiently goes over the same ground, again. Repeats what He has said a number of times before, and now He adds a new twist. A further caution about traveling with Him, all the way to the Cross.

As we continue to consider this section from the Gospel of Mark, we slam into the horrified reaction of the other ten disciples to what James and John had asked of Jesus. If your brother or sister or good friend had gone behind your back, and tried to get preferential treatment, don’t you think you might have gotten angry, too? Sneaking around and trying to do things under the radar is not okay. No matter how James and John might have justified it.

Jesus turns from this private conversation, and calls all the disciples together to give them a short recap on the Gentiles—the Romans—the worldly way of dealing with pre-eminence, greatness, and authority.

I’m going to take a detour and tell you about a church I attended for a time while I was at seminary. Smaller church, here in the north suburbs of Chicago. The church was going to have a clean-up day in the nursery and small children’s area, after the morning worship service. The Sunday school and children’s ministry people had been planning it for a number of weeks. A number of people had dressed for church with their cleaning clothes on, blue jeans and t-shirts. People even sent out for sandwiches for a quick lunch.

My husband Kevin approved of the clean-up; our children weren’t that far beyond that age group. We couldn’t stay after service that day, but said our good-byes to the cleaners. On our way out, we ran into the associate pastor. She had delivered the sermon that morning and worn her robes up front in church. However, she had transformed; she had changed into blue jeans and a sweatshirt. She had a bucket and a spray bottle of cleanser in her hands, and cheerfully wished us well as we went off to the next event.

My husband’s opinion of that pastor rose at least 75 percent that day. Maybe more. He told me how impressed and pleased he was to see that she was willing to go to work without blowing her own horn. Willing to get her hands dirty for the church, and not just look pastoral and holy up front in the sanctuary. She was willing to be a servant, as well as a leader!

To get back to Jesus and the disciples, Jesus reminds them about the common attitude of the day. How the Gentiles, and especially the Romans, thought about leaders. How these worldly people wanted to be “first” and “greatest,” “lording it over” their underlings. These puffed-up people often seized authority as tyrants! Not the way Jesus acted, at all. Jesus reminds them that the Kingdom of God is decidedly different from the pagan kingdoms of the world.

How did Jesus say we ought to lead? How did Jesus say we ought to be “first” and “great?” I’m going back to what I preached on, two and three weeks ago. Remember how I said that the disciples just did not get what Jesus was telling them? Here, He’s telling them again. Just as Jesus embraced and welcomed children, and raised up vulnerable, disregarded children as an object lesson for the disciples, in the same way Jesus repeats what Godly leadership looks like.

Here Jesus is challenging all of society’s expectations! All of His followers’ expectations and understanding, too! How to be great, in God’s eyes? To be a leader? To be first among your fellows? Jesus said: be a servant. Even more, be a slave, working for others with no expectation of reward or honor.

Not only did Jesus turn society’s expectations of heavy-handed leadership on its head, He also was going against all ideas of political domination. If a Jewish leader were truly humble, and a true servant-leader, what would that do to Roman authority over a conquered province? Could it even affect or subvert the imbalance of military power over the subjugated people of Palestine? Imagine, all with non-violent methods, using servant-leadership.

Which brings me back to reflecting on Jesus’ words in verses 43 and 44: “Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.” Just as one of my fellow ministers said in the online sermon board I follow, she is more than willing to scrub toilets, print the Sunday bulletins and make grilled cheese sandwiches for her church’s weekly soup and sandwich supper. But, getting back to where I started this sermon, this concept of leader as servant of all turns all worldly ideas of leadership upside down!

Can you imagine someone of Michael Jordan or Donald Trump or Oprah’s stature scrubbing toilets? Or washing dishes? What about Pope Francis? Is it easier to think of the humble, genuine Francis doing menial labor? I suspect so.

It isn’t only servant-leadership.

Some people here might be saying to themselves, I am not a leader. I don’t need to consider this, because Jesus is only talking to people in leadership positions.

But, what about regular folks in the pews? To follow Jesus means having a whole paradigm shift on doing relationships. What is your idea of relationships? How does it square up with the examples worldly society raises up?

Here’s a challenge. I invite all of you—each of you in the congregation to think of one specific circumstance in the coming week when you might step aside from being number one to let somebody else go first. It could be getting in line at the grocery store, letting someone pass you while driving on Waukegan or Golf or Dempster, allowing a husband/wife/friend get a word in a conversation, or complimenting someone for doing a task better than you or I could.

There are lots of ways to be a servant. Be kind. Be helpful. Be of service. Let others go first, cheerfully! Why? Because Jesus told us to. Jesus showed us how to do it. Let’s follow His example!

Alleluia, amen.

@chaplaineliza

Suggestion: visit me at my daily blog for 2015: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind .  Thanks!

A Blessing from Jesus

“A Blessing from Jesus”

Mark 10 Jesus blesses the children

Mark 10:13-16 – October 4, 2015

Who doesn’t love babies and small children? A small minority of people do not care for them, but by and large, babies and toddlers bring a smile to many people’s faces. Take social media, for example. Facebook, or Instagram, or Twitter. Do you want a lot of “likes” or “retweets?” Put up a photo or a picture of a darling baby or toddler, and watch how many people share or retweet your post.

We see, today, pictures of Jesus welcoming small children, even babies. Wonderful scenes! Darling, adorable, even touching pictures. However, I caution you—modern ideas of the innocence of children and the freedom we in 21st century America associate with young ones is not consistent with the first century understanding of children. But I’ll get back to that, later on.

This week’s sermon is a continuation of last week’s sermon. Last week—I’m reminded of my summer sermon series, which I compared to a radio serial. “When last we left Jesus, our intrepid hero—!” As I was saying, last week we talked about how much the disciples just didn’t understand the point Jesus was talking about.

In last week’s sermon, to make His point with the disciples, Jesus brought a small child into the middle of their group. Mark tells us that Jesus took the child into His arms. Then said, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in My name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes Me does not welcome Me but the One who sent Me.” Here, again, same story. The disciples are really dense. Very similar situation in this case, and they just don’t seem to understand what Jesus is saying.

Let me set the scene for today’s reading The Rabbi Jesus is teaching, as He so often does. He does not discriminate! He doesn’t only teach to men, but also to women. And the women, often being moms, grandmothers, aunts or older sisters, sometimes bring their children with them to the open-air teaching sessions.

I suspect that Jesus was one of those people who loved and cared about children. Was good with little ones. Can’t you imagine Jesus as being welcoming towards babies, toddlers, children, adolescents? All the kids! Just from His brief interactions with children in the Gospels, I get that feeling. And, I bet moms and grandmas could tell that about the Rabbi Jesus, too.

So, when women try to bring their children to the Rabbi Jesus for a blessing, what happens? Our reading from the Gospel of Mark says that the disciples rebuke those who are bringing the children to Jesus. As I looked at alternate translations, one had the disciples censuring the adults for trying to pester their Rabbi! That’s a strong expression of disapproval!

Hadn’t these guys learned anything from their recent discussion with Jesus? When Jesus brings a small child into the middle of the circle, lifts the child in His arms, and says, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in My name welcomes Me.” Are these men that dense? I guess they are, because in today’s reading Jesus gets really upset with them when He finds out that the disciples are turning parents and children away.

Now, I want everyone to think of our 21st century kind of warm, fuzzy, frolicking idea of childhood, the concept where every child is lifted up as an individual, special, unique and loved. Is everyone thinking of that idea? That idea is absolutely true. However, I have news for you: the first century had no such idea.

I’ll give you a snapshot of two competing but similar ideas from the first century. One, the Roman view. The father—and by that I mean the oldest brother in a family—was the top dog. He ruled the roost. He was the head of the whole extended family. That means younger brothers, and their wives, sisters, and any other dependents. Like elderly relatives, or babies, children, or young adolescents. He was the head of the family, or in Latin, the pater familias.

Children were on the very bottom of the ladder, socially and in terms of that culture. The pater familias could decide whether a baby or small child would be accepted into the family group! So, a baby, a child, did not have any standing in society. At all.

But Jesus and the disciples lived in Palestine. On top of the Greco-Roman culture, they also had Jewish culture to deal with. The Jewish concept of the patriarch was somewhat similar, but not exactly the same. Children were seen as a blessing from the Lord. But, again—the position of children was vulnerable. In both cases—the Greco-Roman culture as well as the Jewish culture, children were dependent, even disregarded. Children were very much counted among “the least of these,” that expression Jesus used in Matthew 25. The ignored of society, overlooked, left out, less than.

All very interesting, you might be thinking. But what has that to do with you and me, in the here and now?

What about these children? These little ones, the downtrodden of society, the overlooked? Jesus rebukes His disciples for their poor treatment of children! In essence, He tells them off! And then, Jesus welcomes the children to Him. I bet He even took them into His lap. Mark tells us He held them in His arms, certainly. And blessed them.

What about last week, when Pope Francis was here in the United States? What do you think parents and grandparents thought when the Pope—personally—blessed their children? I understand that Pope Francis has a special place in his heart for children and young people. I think Jesus did, too!

I have a further question. Does Jesus love only Jewish children? That’s who He was blessing, here in Mark. Do you think Jesus also loved Samaritan children? What about Greek children? Roman children? What about children from all over Africa? Or, from India? Or China or Mongolia? Or children from Gaul (now parts of France and Germany)? Or, across the ocean, indigenous American children? Or indigenous Australian children?

You remember the song “Jesus loves the little children, All the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.” It does not matter what a person’s culture is, or social standing, or any other ranking system. Jesus still wants to embrace them, bless them, and welcome them. That goes for children as well as for adults. Multi-ethnic? Jesus welcomes you! Multi-cultural? Jesus welcomes you, too! No matter what, no matter where, no matter who.

A minister, who used to post to a sermon discussion group I sometimes look at, put up this entry a few years ago. “One of the greatest joys of my ministry is that I serve a church which welcomes children of all ages to the Table. It is so meaningful to serve children as their parents help them break off the bread and dip it in the cup. True communion, true welcoming. … As I invited people to come to the Table, I realized that no one had told me they would be helping me serve, so asked, “Who will help me serve today.” An 8 year old boy who was already up and ready to receive to communion, said, “I will” “Oh dear,” I thought, “what will people think if I have him serve?” I was sure most would be okay, but I thought some may take exception. But I realized there was no way I could refuse such an eager heartfelt offer. So he stood beside me and offered the bread. … I’m certain it was a meaningful experience for him— it certainly was for me. I realize that the “legalities” of some would have said no to his serving, but I know that our Lord said, “Let the little children come to me…”

Here’s a final thought. Jesus transforms children from their lowly, insignificant, disregarded state into wonderful examples for the disciples to follow. Jesus here tells us we all ought to approach Him in the same way as little children do. Wonderful examples for us adults to follow today, too.

When we come to worship, and when we come to communion, we are to come as little children. Trusting, dependent, vulnerable. We do not give ourselves grace and mercy. Instead, Jesus freely offers grace and mercy to all who come to Him. We can praise God for the boundless love and the radical grace extended to each of us, each day.

@chaplaineliza

Suggestion: visit me at my daily blog for 2015: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind .  Thanks!