Life is all about choices

There is an inherent flaw in the version of Christianity that is focused entirely on grace.  Well, there are probably multiple inherent flaws in it, but the one I am thinking of this morning comes out of Sunday’s Old Testament lesson in which Moses is clear that even for God’s chosen people, those whom God had rescued from slavery in Egypt and to whom God had promised a land of prosperity through their ancestor Abraham, life was still about choices.

good-choice-bad-choice

Despite the hard line often taken by strongly reformed traditions on whichever sin they’ve decided God cares more about than anything else, in a theological worldview that is only concerned with the grace of God, there is actually little, if any, room for consequences.  The same sort of theology that created sola gratis underlies Your Best Life Now.  It assumes that because one has been washed clean in the blood, there is no room for sin, even though everybody knows that can’t possibly be true.

Moses lays before the Hebrews a choice between life and death, blessing and curses, and God continues to do the same for each of us; especially those of us who claim to follow Jesus.  As committed disciples, the assumption shouldn’t be that we can “sin boldly” or “go on sinning” as people have been trying to argue from the very beginning (see James, the Letter of and Romans, the Letter to), but instead that we are called to live by an even higher standard.  Our lives are testimony of the Gospel of Christ, and when we make bad choices, we bring curses upon ourselves and the entire body of Christ.  Alternatively, when we choose love: of neighbor, of creation, of enemy, we bring blessing upon ourselves and the entire body of Christ.

Grace forgives us our sins, but it doesn’t excuse our bad behavior.  As Lent rapidly approaches, it might behoove us to give some thought to how our lives reflect the Gospel of love.  The benefit of grace is that we have one more opportunity, in a long life of opportunities, to repent of our misdeeds, to acknowledge the times we have chosen curses over blessings, and to once again choose blessing and life.

Jesus does more than save you

Sunday’s Gospel lesson is probably better suited for a Bible Study or academic lecture than it is a sermon.  As John is wont to do, the language that makes up this two day interaction between Jesus and John the Baptist and his disciples is careful, studied, and layered in meaning.  One could take 45 minutes to unpack the verb meno which is translated as “stay.”  A whole class could be devoted to the word Jesus uses for “looking” when he asks the two men “What are you looking for?”  But what struck me late yesterday afternoon as I perused my go-to sermon prep resources occurs much earlier in the story.

As the scene opens, it is some time after the baptism of Jesus.  We don’t actually get that story in John’s Gospel, just JBap’s interpretation of it.  We can’t be sure how long it has been since that momentous day.  It isn’t clear if this story happens before or after Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, but we do know that the experience left a lasting impression on John.  As he sees Jesus once again approaching the River, John says to anyone who will lesson, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”  Again, you could spend an entire Bible Study trying to discern what it means to call Jesus “Lamb of God” (a phrase that only occurs in John 1), but what I have found fascinating is the word that gets translated as “world,” cosmos.

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Cosmos not Cosmo

Translating cosmos as world is already a step to point out the broadness of Jesus’ salvific activity.  To say that he came to take away the sin of the world would already be contrary to the prevailing wisdom of the Judaism which thought that God’s grace was given to the Jews exclusively.  To say that God’s grace extended to the whole world means that God’s love is poured out upon Gentiles, heathens, and depending on your political persuasion, Republicans or Democrats.  <Gasp>  But here’s the thing, cosmos carries a much broarder meaning than simply “world.”  What Jesus did wasn’t simply take away the sin, that is offer salvation to, the world, Jesus came to set right the entire universe that God created.

This may not seem that important to you, and I’m not arguing for life on other planets, in case you were wondering (though I wouldn’t rule it out).  What this really means, at least in my interpretation, is that God really is in control of everything God has made.  It isn’t just that humanity messed up the earth through sin, but that through sin, everything was put out of whack.  In Christ, God sets the whole thing right again.  In Christ, the vision of Eden is restored.  In Christ, the harmony in which the Triune God made everything is restored.  Now, it may not seem like this is true.  There is still plenty that is out of whack – plenty of sin to go around – but the promise, spoken by the last Old Testament Prophet, John the Baptist, is that in Christ, all shall be set right again.

Thank God I’m not like those people

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If ever the Christians in this country needed to hear a parable from Jesus it is the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector during the waning days of the 2016 Presidential Election.  While it seems clear to me that one candidate is clearly more qualified to run this country for the next four years, both candidates, their parties, and their supporters have engaged in a form of dehumanizing rhetoric about which we as a nation should be ashamed.

Whether it is Facebook, Twitter, the 24 hour news cycle, or even my Junior High Youth Group this afternoon, it is impossible to find a safe place, free from anger, fear, and a whole lot of Pharisees praying about themselves, “Thank you Lord that I’m not like those people.”  Here’s the thing, as soon as we start to think that about someone else, we’ve been sucked in to sin.  As soon as we look down at another human being whether it be over their opinion on gun rights, their opinion on double predestination, or their opinion on mild or spicy chicken at Popeye’s, we are no better than the “deplorables” who rabidly attack “Crooked Hillary” or “Racist Donald.”

As we butter our popcorn, ready our bingo cards, and open our Crown Royal bottles in preparation for tonight’s “dumpster fire” of a Presidential Debate, we should pause for a moment and take stock of where we have allowed ourselves to be taken as the body of Christ in the United States of America.  Maybe we’d be better off turning off the TV, pulling out a rosary, and saying the Jesus Prayer five hundred or a thousand times.

“Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

This prayer, which is not unlike the prayer of the tax collector, has worked to calm the minds and hearts of Christians for more than 1,400 years.  It reminds us of our dependence on God alone.  It focuses us not on the other who stands outside of us, but the Lord Jesus who makes his home deep in our hearts.  Most of all, it brings to mind the one fact that every human has in common: all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God; all of us are in need of forgiveness; and it is God’s desire to restore us all to right relationship with him and with one another.  Resist the temptation to be like the Pharisee tonight and for the next three weeks and instead, focus on God who takes delight in our prayers, who longs to be at the center of our lives, and causes those who exalt themselves to be humbled and those who humble themselves to be exalted.

[Don’t] Trust your gut

I’ve been on the road most of the last two weeks.  New Orleans for some R&R, Beckwith for Clergy Conference, and Charleston for my brother’s Air Force retirement ceremony.  This means that I’ve been eating things that I normally wouldn’t eat in quantities I normally wouldn’t eat them.  There was the cheeseburger covered in grilled onions and bacon at 10pm, the several dozen oysters, and the Denny’s Grand Slam breakfast, just to name a few.  The worst idea came last night, however.  I was stopped for the night somewhere between here and there at one of those chain steak restaurants when the waitress gave me a choice I should have refused.

“Do you want a 12 or 16 ounce New York Strip?”

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This is terrible advice

I went with the 16, and I’ve regretted it ever since.  In Sunday’s Gospel lesson, Luke tells us that Jesus told a parable to those who “trusted in themselves.”  This too is a terrible idea.  When we try to trust in ourselves, we are bound to make all sorts of powerful missteps.

In the real life Draughting Theology, we are studying Paul’s letter to the Romans, which has at its core this idea that the primary sin of humanity is idolatry.  Not that we worship other gods, but that we put ourselves in the place of God.  When we trust ourselves to know what is right and to do it, we, more often than not, put our own desires in front of God’s.  We put ourselves at the center, do what’s best for us, and like me trusting my gut, must life to pay the consequences.

I’m eating Tums like they are candy, but in the spiritual realm, the only way out of trusting ourselves, is, as Jesus points out in the parable, to trust only in God’s mercy.  When we confess our tendency to make idols of ourselves, ask God to return to God’s rightful place in our lives, and put our trust in God alone, we will find life to be much more abundant.

Take it from me dear reader, don’t trust your gut.

40 Days of Temptation

I’m not sure why I’ve never noticed this before, but some how, in my rush to figure out what the three temptations of Jesus might mean, I’ve failed to notice that, in fact, Jesus has been tempted constantly for 40 straight days.  Don’t believe me?  It says so, right there in Luke’s Gospel:

After his baptism, Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.

Luke gives us a sampling of what Jesus had to endure: temptations of bread, power, and safety; but what really strikes me is how 2/3rds of the sample temptations start with a question of trust.

“If you are the Son of God…”

As we begin the 40 day season of Lent, temptation will be nipping at your heels.  At least I know it will be for me.  You see, every time I find myself getting closer to God’s dream for me, I realize that the devil is hard at work tempting me to give it all up and follow my own dreams.

“If you really are a beloved child of God…”

The Deceiver is always ready to make you doubt God’s love.  He’s always there to make you question God’s dream.  He never fails to cause hesitation on the pathway to the Kingdom of God.  If you’ve decided to take on a prayer practice, be ready for your life to get busier than ever.  If you’ve given up chocolate, wine, or potato chips, be prepared to have them offered to you again and again.  If you’re seeking a closer relationship with God this Lent, be prepared to wonder if God is a target moving ever farther away.  That’s the job of the Deceiver.

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Withstanding 40 days of temptation isn’t going to be easy.  There are bound to be days when you fall short of whatever ideal you’re striving for this Lent.  When that happens, be kind to yourself, take a deep breath, ask for forgiveness, and for goodness sake, try again.  Lent is a marathon, 40 days of temptation were almost too much for Jesus, but with God’s help, even when we fail, we won’t lose our status as a beloved child of God, no matter what the Devil says to the contrary.

God acts, we respond, und wiederholen

One of the hardest concepts of Christian theology to wrap my mind around is God’s grace.  Every time I try to explain it, I end up caught in a loop of work’s righteousness.  Take for example, the classic, God’s grace is a gift argument.

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God’s grace is sparkly

Logically, if grace is a gift, then all we have to do is open it in order to receive it, but isn’t the act of opening a gift work?  And if it is, then does it mean that those who aren’t able to receive the gift are excluded?  Does God’s grace require some level of cognitive ability in order to understand what it is and intellectually assent to it?  I have my doubts about that.  How then do we explain grace without getting caught in this quagmire?  I think I might have found my answer in the Collect for Ash Wednesday, which seems to put the action in the proper order:

God acts, we respond, und weiderholen
(and repeat, all good theology needs to have some German in it)

After an introductory clause naming God’s desire to restore all things to right relationship, we ask God to “Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness…”  God acts by placing within us “new and contrite hearts.”  Contrite is one of those fifty-cent church words that means feeling sorry for the sins we have committed and desiring forgiveness through confession.  It is because of the contrite heart that God places within us, and nothing we can do in and of ourselves, that we then respond with contrition.  That is to say, our new hearts naturally feel what they were made to feel: lamentation of our sin and acknowledgement of our wretchedness.  Because of the actions of the heart that God has placed within us, God forgives.  In this equation, there is nothing that we do of our own power.  God’s action causes us to respond, and God acts again.  This cycle continues, daily (sometimes hourly or even by the minute) for the rest of our lives as we seek to grow into the likeness of Christ.

Is this a perfect definition of God’s grace?  Of course not.  It raises questions about free will: can we override the contrite heart within us?  It raises questions of forgiveness: does God forgive even if we refuse to be penitent?  It raises questions of time: when exactly does God install that new, contrite heart?  Like I said, God’s grace is a difficult concept to explain, but on this Ash Wednesday, as I prepare to receive a cross of ashes on my brow and be reminded of my mortality, my sinfulness, and my need for a savior, I’m grateful for the Collect that reminds me that God is constantly at work, rebuilding my heart and forgiving me of the sins and offenses that I, from time to time, most grievously have committed.

Let’s Talk About Sin – a sermon

Today’s sermon is now on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.

Despite being the only player to win the World Series 10 times in his career, Yogi Berra, who died at age 90 this week, knew what it was like to get into a slump at the plate.  He once went 32 straight at bats without a hit.  When asked about his inability to hit the ball, Berra, as only he could, looked at the reporter and said, “Slump?  I ain’t in no slump… I just ain’t hitting.”  That’s putting as positive a spin on a negative situation as you can probably get, and at this point in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus’ disciples could use some positive spin.  Berra’s 32 at-bat hitless streak lasted only 7 games, but the disciples have been in a slump for weeks on end.

It all started back in Caesarea Philippi.  Do you remember that story from a few weeks’ back?  That’s the town where Peter first declared that Jesus was the Messiah.  It seemed like he had made good contact, the ball was flying toward the warning track, but a gust of wind, or more accurately, Peter’s hot air, kept it from being a home run.  As Jesus told the disciples what being the Messiah meant: being handed over to the chief priests, scribes, and Pharisees, undergoing great suffering, and ultimately dying, but rising again on the third day, Peter was having none of it.  He took Jesus aside to set things straight, but Jesus turned to him and said, “Get behind me Satan.”  Six days later, Jesus took Peter, James, and John up a high mountain where they saw Jesus transfigured right before their very eyes.  Again, what could have been a homerun moment is marred by Peter opening his mouth despite not really knowing what to say.

As the foursome came down the mountain, Jesus was met by a crowd surrounding his disciples who were arguing with some scribes.  With his head probably buried in his hands, Jesus asks, “What’s going on here?”  A man steps forward and says, “I brought my son here to be healed.  He is possessed by a demon that causes him to have violent seizures.  I asked your disciples to help, but they couldn’t heal him.  Can you?”  Jesus, steam coming from hears, looked around and said, “You faithless generation, how much longer do I have to put up with you?!?”  After Jesus healed the boy, his disciples asked him, “Why couldn’t we do that?”  Jesus responds with simple, albeit crushing words, “You’ve got to pray to heal like that.”

They then headed off toward their home base of Capernaum and for a second time, Jesus tells the disciples that he will be betrayed, killed, and three days later, rise again.  Just like the first go ‘round, the disciples swing and miss as they fail to understand what Jesus is telling them.  Instead, they spend their time arguing over which one of them is the greatest.  “The greatest?!?” Jesus responds, “If you want to be the greatest, you have to make yourself last and servant of all.  Greatest?!?  Psshhhhht.”

Hoping to turn the attention away from the disciples’ ongoing slump, John decides to tell Jesus about a success story.  It seems that somewhere along the way, the disciples ran across an exorcist who was casting out demons in the name of Jesus, and the disciples told him to stop.  Whoosh, another swing and miss for the disciples.  Jesus, like a frustrated manager watching his best hitter swing at a ball in the dirt, first picks his jaw up from the floor, and then he says, “Why on earth would you stop him!?!  For the love of all that is holy, don’t stop him.  Anybody who has enough faith to use my name to cast out demons is a friend of ours.  Honest to me, why would you stop him?  He’s not using my name in vain, he’s using may name to take it to the demons and unless you think that leaving demons alone is a good idea, let him continue with is work because ultimately it is my work!”[1]

Having endured what they thought was the full wrath of their rabbi and friend, the disciples stand there, with their hands in the pockets, staring at their toes, just hoping that he’ll go away for a while, but Jesus isn’t finished.  He knows they still don’t get what he’s about.  With all the fury of a frustrated Saban or Malzahn, Jesus goes for broke on his hitless disciples, letting loose a tirade full of images so grotesque that we almost can’t believe they would come from the mouth of Jesus.  “Look, y’all have got to stop.  Stop being a stumbling block for those who are trying to follow me.  In fact, if you want to be a stumbling block, why don’t you take it, tie it around your neck and throw yourself into the sea.  We’d all be better off.  Stop competing with one another.  Stop trying to seize all the glory to yourselves.  Stop building walls to keep others out.  As soon as you draw a line marking who’s in and who’s out, you’ll always find me on the other side.[2]  Get rid of anything that is holding you back from living fully into the Kingdom of grace that I’ve been telling you about since the very beginning.  I mean it.  Get rid of whatever is causing you to stumble: hands, feet, eyeballs.  Chop ‘em off, gouge ‘em out!  Better to be maimed than full of undying worms and unquenchable fire.[3]

These are harsh words from Jesus.  So harsh that plenty of preachers are going to tell their congregations that Jesus couldn’t possibly have actually said them.  You know what?  I’m pretty sure he did because he needed his disciples to understand the consequences of their sinful faithlessness.  This slump that the disciples were going through came at the most inopportune time.  It wasn’t that the season was just getting started, but the playoff push was on.  Jesus was about to enter Jerusalem for the last time.  Things were about to get a whole lot more difficult and Jesus wanted to be sure that his disciples were prepared for what was coming.

Fast forward 2,000 years and these words are still very difficult to hear.  Partly, they are difficult because we don’t like to hear such violent language from Jesus, but mostly because we really don’t like being confronted with our own sinfulness.  We’d much rather blame it on a stumbling block or shrug our shoulders and say, “the devil made me do it.”  The reality is that we, like the disciples, are perfectly capable of leading ourselves to sinful behavior.  The things which cause us to sin lay squarely within ourselves and in the choices we make.  For those who pull us into sin, the penalties are severe, but even then, we made the choice to follow their lead.  The hard truth of Jesus’ teaching on sin is that we are responsible for our own actions – things done and left undone – and are therefore responsible for the consequences of our own sinful behavior.

Jesus uses hyperbole to teach this lesson, but that isn’t to say he doesn’t mean what he says.  The consequences of our sin are harsh, both for we who do the sinning and for those we sin against.  It would be better, that is to say, less traumatic overall to remove the offending body part before the sin occurs than to endure the suffering the follows our sinful deeds.  We’ve all picked up the pieces after a harsh word, a youthful indiscretion, or the wanton disregard for another human being.  If, by the grace of God, we’ve found ourselves to be remorseful when it was all over (for the sin rather than its consequences), then perhaps you’ve said to yourself, “It would have been better to have ripped out my tongue than to have ever said those words.”  Jesus’ words may be harsh and they may be exaggerated, but they are true and worthy of our attention.  In a few moments we will kneel together and bare our souls to God as we confess our sins.  The silence before our confession may feel painfully long or perhaps too short to even think about starting to list them all.  Either way, Jesus invites us to take this opportunity for a clean slate seriously, to lay aside those wrong desires that lie deep within us and which cause us to sin, and to receive his grace and mercy and enter into the kingdom whole, holy, and fully loved.  Amen.

[1] Thanks to Scott Hoeze at the Center for Excellence in Preaching for opening up the image of an upset Jesus – http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/proper-21b/?type=the_lectionary_gospel

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1528

[3] Again, thanks Scott Hoeze