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Who will be saved? A Sermon on Romans 10:5-15
August 28, 2017, 12:21 pm
Filed under: Sermons

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Grace and peace to you, siblings in Christ.

 

Are you worried about the future of the church? Or maybe its current state? It’s great if you’re not. But if you are, you’re not alone.

 

If you browse through listings of church conferences or skim some of the latest church leadership books, you’ll get the idea that plenty of people are afraid about the decline of the Church.  Attendance is down! Offering is down! The Church is down! There’s lots of fear and lots of blame. There are plenty of people trying to sell solutions and strategies. Fear sells books.

 

At one of my first call events, where the synod office gets together the newest pastors, we were told that us younger new pastors probably wouldn’t spend our ministries in full time calls. There wouldn’t be enough churches with resources to pay salaries, so we’d better think now about what additional job we might be able to have. After eight years of school and the debt to prove it, that certainly gave me reason to fear about the future of the church.

 

So, fear’s out there. But I don’t think that’s what I hear most expressed from people in my congregations. I hear sadness. Maybe that’s mixed with fear, and it certainly can be expressed in many destructive ways, but I think that sadness is more personal. People are sad because they see others missing out on the faith.

 

I’ve sat with grandparents angry about the way Sunday School is being taught and after listening to them, we’ve discovered that they’re really just sad that their own children aren’t involved in church and certainly aren’t passing on the faith to their children in the way that they had once tried to do for them.

 

If there’s failure there, who’s is it? Did the grandparents do something wrong in their raising of their children? Are their children failing at teaching faith to the grandchildren? Has the church failed to reach out? Is it all the pastor’s fault?

 

Or is it that one behind it all, the One we’re hesitant to blame aloud… Is it God’s fault that our churches are getting smaller, the younger generations- and frankly, even the older- aren’t coming to worship, and so many people say they aren’t religious?

 

At it’s root, this isn’t a new question. The old question is “why are some people faithful – some believers- and others not?”

 

 

 

The Apostle Paul tackles this question in the book of Romans. There’s some debate over whether Paul is writing to the community of Christ followers in Rome who are Jewish, or the community of Christ followers in Rome who are non-Jewish, Gentiles. Paul is Jewish, and after an experience of the risen Jesus became a passionate follower of Jesus. He pushes the boundaries and goes outside of the Jewish community to witness to God’s work through Jesus to the Gentiles. Paul goes to those who had never worshipped God in the first place. Paul believes that in Jesus, God is reaching out to a wider group of people. God is doing a new thing in welcoming in those who were outside the promise.

 

We’ve been reading from Romans for a while now. Paul is confusing to follow, especially when his argument os all broken up like it is for our worship readings. Lately, we’ve heard Paul say “nothing can separate us from the love of Christ” and -I’d cut myself off from Christ if it meant I could get my own people to be a part of what God is doing in Christ.

 

Last week, we heard Paul cry out his sadness. Paul is writing that his own people are missing out on the joy and freedom found in Jesus Christ. They are trying to make themselves right with God by following the law God gave. Paul points his audience towards Christ. Jesus brings God’s word into believers in a way that changes what is inside hearts and what comes out of mouths.

 

Jesus has come for all people. Paul wants both his Jewish people and more people to come to see the gifts God gives through Jesus so they are not satisfied until they all rejoice in God’s love shown to us through Jesus.

 

Paul writes that he is having a hard time figuring out why people aren’t believers. He’s especially struggling with the question of why people who were raised in the faith- why his fellow Jews who studied the Torah (the first Bible) aren’t recognizing that their God has acted in Jesus Christ. How can they be missing out?

 

As Paul tries to figure this out, he explores the concept of election. Election means that God chooses. As Paul describes it, God chooses some people to have faith; God hardens the hearts of others. It has nothing to do with anything that person does or doesn’t do. It’s just because God is powerful and God gets to choose and so God does.

 

Election’s a concept religious people have argued about for centuries- millennia. Is it how God works? How do we know if someone is elected for salvation? How can that possibly be fair or merciful? Is the hardened heart a temporary state that God will change into faith? In the end, we simply don’t know.

 

I think Paul’s trying to work things out for himself as he writes. He tries out ideas he may not settle on. By the end, he comes to express what I find most compelling – a sense that God chooses to be gracious. God chooses to be expansive in welcoming people, in saving people.

 

As Lutherans, we confess with Luther’s Small Catechism that it’s the work of the Holy Spirit to create faith. We can’t come to God on our own. We can’t choose God. We’re always only going to choose ourselves. It’s God working within us that draws us to God.

 

I know that’s not really satisfactory when you’re worried about your children who tell you they no longer believe. It’s not really enough when you’re feeling like God’s not here and wonder why you are.

 

If this question of why some are faithful and others not has ever kept you up at night, especially as you pray over loved ones, rest in God’s steadfast love and mercy. Part of the reason we’ve spent so much time reading through Genesis this summer is so that we can hear again those first promises God made to God’s people. Over and over, God repeats the promise of blessing, land, descendants, and relationship to people who are both faithful and not trusting. We’ve read psalms of God’s steadfast love that doesn’t fail us even when we have failed. We hear of Jesus’ compassion, giving abundantly to crowds who have disturbed his time away, immediately saving those who have such little faith. When we are not faithful, God is. God acts with grace, welcoming in those we would think unacceptable.

 

This election stuff is hard to wrap our minds around, and I’m not sure that Paul himself was convinced that’s really how God works anyway. But it does remind us that God’s action is beyond our control. We can’t really change what God is choosing to do in giving or withholding salvation. That doesn’t mean we should just give up and figure there’s nothing we can do to affect the faith lives of those around us. God has called us to a mission. We’re called to be disciples who share the good news of God’s love through Jesus with all the world.

 

We’re workers, but not saviors. It’s up to God to create faith. We can have a part in giving that faith a foothold. We can help create spaces in which faith is wanted and nourished.

Paul gets in to our role in verse 12 and following:

12For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. 13For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” 14But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? 15And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent?

 

Paul wants all people to want more of God. But, before they can want more, they have to know there is something more to want.

 

Our pantry door is in the process of being fixed. It’s been a month since I took it off its hinges so I could replace the track. For that month, every time I walk through the kitchen I can see what’s on the shelf. On the top shelf, supposedly a little more difficult to reach, is a box of brownies. With the door closed, it’s out of sight, out of mind. With no door, they’re in my line of sight… I want them and I want them now!

 

Paul wants us to be people who take off the door and show what’s there to want from God. Paul calls us to be the people who show such joy in our Christian lives that others wonder what it is we have- and they want it for themselves.

 

We have a job to do so that we can have the joy of being a part of what is ultimately God’s job alone.

 

We can look the church in America and feel sad that it doesn’t look like it did in the 1950s. We can feel like we’ve failed or God’s failed because the Sunday School isn’t full and money isn’t more.

 

When we read Paul’s letter to the Romans, we find hope. Paul’s own struggle is with his perception that his own people have failed in their faithfulness. But then Paul realizes that God’s not finished yet. As Paul continues in Romans, he claims salvation for more and more people. He’s paying attention to God’s long game, not the momentary losses. At the moment in which he lives, his own people might be missing out, but God is not done with them yet. God’s taking God’s time in order to expand the community.

 

Listen to his progression, from chapter 10

“Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” 10:13

 

Then in chapter 11, he considers the Jewish people, named Israel, who aren’t worshipping Jesus:

“So I ask, have they stumbled so as to fall? By no means! But through their stumbling salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous. Now if their stumbling means riches for the world, and if their defeat means riches for Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean!” 11:11-12

 

Paul says God’s doing more than expected in order to be more gracious to all people. At Paul’s time, God is bringing in those who were outside. When those outside are brought in, then those who were inside and then walked away will be met as they walk away with God’s lovingkindness- God’s grace.

 

By 11:26, he writes “and so all Israel will be saved.” There is a past, present, and future in God’s plan of salvation. God’s coming back around for everyone.

 

At the end of his long, exploring argument, Paul places this matter back into God’s hands. That’s where we also find an end to our fears. God is lovingkindness and God’s the one who holds all people.

 

Romans 11:36 “For from God and through God and to God are all things. To God be glory forever. Amen.

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Scripture of the Week: Losing Our Lives
August 28, 2017, 10:21 am
Filed under: Devotions

Matthew 16:24-26
24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

Grace and peace to you, siblings in Christ.
This Sunday we’ll hear some challenging words from Jesus, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
Jesus is going to the cross. It’s the last place anyone would expect to find a god. Yet there he goes, and there we are called to follow. We know that the cross meant Jesus’ death, his unity with those who suffer, and led to his resurrection. But what does it mean for us to take up our cross and to lose our lives for Jesus’ sake?
I spent a lot of time in the car these past few weeks. I didn’t get to listen to as many podcasts as I had expected, but I did listen to one that has helped me reframe this passage from Matthew. It was an episode of “On Being,” hosted by Krista Tippet from Dec 2014. Look below for the link so you can listen or read through the part of this episode that especially connects.
Ms. Tippet’s guest was Father James Martin, who spoke about being a Jesuit – Catholic. He explained a part of Ignatian spirituality:
Ignatius wanted us to be free of anything that kept us from following God. He called them disordered attachments. And the idea is that if anything keeps you from being more open to God’s will in your life, get rid of it, basically.
When I read Jesus declaring, “those who lose their life for my sake will find it” I hear where Ignatius’ encouragement helps us follow Jesus. We look at our lives, see what we avoid and what we move towards, and consider if we’re following or missing out on God’s intention for us.
Ignatius- and Jesus- invite us to look at our expectations for our lives and let them go- or at least, not be so attached to them. Do you have a 5-year, 10-year, 20-year plan? Things you expect to do? A track you’ve laid out for yourself? How tightly is your identity bound to your work or to a relationship? Are you so tied to your plans and your vision of yourself that you might be missing what God has in mind for you? So set on your own way that you might be closing yourself off to the new opportunities God is giving you to follow and serve? I encourage you to take that to prayer this week. God is the source of life and meaning.
Jesus loves you so much that he didn’t avoid the hard work God called him to. In Jesus, God has done all things so that you would be well and have life abundantly.
God is with you! -Pastor Liz

https://onbeing.org/programs/james-martin-finding-god-in-all-things/

(EXCERPT)…
FR. MARTIN: Well, Ignatius wanted us to be free of anything that kept us from following God. He called them disordered attachments. And the idea is that if anything keeps you from being more open to God’s will in your life, get rid of it, basically. A simple example. When I was a Jesuit novice, the first part of the Jesuit training, I went into my novice director and we were supposed to assigned to different ministries working with the poor the first year of our Novitiate. And I said, well, you know what?
The last thing I want to do [laughs] I said, is work in a hospital. I don’t think I could stand that. The smells, and the sights, and the sounds. And he said, well, good, then you’ll be working in a hospital. [laughs] And why’s he doing that? It wasn’t to punish me. It was to kind of free me up from that. So, his insight was, which is a very classic Jesuit insight, if that is something that’s going to be preventing you meeting people, and from doing your ministry, you need to let go of it. And the way to let go of it, in this case, was to kind of experience it. And now I can go into hospitals, and imagine a priest who was so unfree that he couldn’t set foot in a hospital. You know, or a Jesuit who couldn’t…
MS. TIPPETT: So is that this concept…
FR. MARTIN: …do that.
MS. TIPPETT: …of agere contra?
FR. MARTIN: Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: To act against, which…
FR. MARTIN: Mm-hmm.
MS. TIPPETT: At the end of your book, The Jesuit Guide to Nearly Everything, you said in this interview you wished you’d written more about that. And I think that’s what you just described, isn’t it, that sometimes, in fact, we have to act against our instincts to do what we actually really want to do. Right?
FR. MARTIN: Yeah. Yeah. So, agere contra, to act against is exactly that, and it’s a way of freeing yourself up. And it can sound kind of masochistic but it’s basically — it’s confronting those fears, not simply for the sake of confronting them, to kind of show how strong you are, master them, but to let go of it.



Scripture’s Silencing: A Sermon for Lectionary 17 Genesis 29:15-28
August 2, 2017, 9:33 am
Filed under: Sermons

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Grace and peace to you, siblings in Christ.

When I started at St. Olaf College, I was an uncertain religion major with a complicated view of Christianity. I’d had the joy of a loving, active congregation and also stood on the frontline of church division and saw the ranks defecting their post and their pastor. I’d found comfort and hope in the pages of the Bible, and also felt the pain of those holy words turned against me. So there I was, at one of our ELCA colleges, trying to work out my faith in the pages of my first assignments.

I titled it, “Between Eve and Mary,” (or something like that) spending my word count fumbling into my first feminist criticism. I asked what was there for me as I tried to sort out my identity and purpose in a Bible that boiled down two possibilities for women- either the cause of men’s fall as the temptress or the bearer of men’s salvation as the impossible virgin mother.

My philosophy professor had once considered a call into ministry himself, so it was with a pastor’s heart that he steered me back into grace. Where I had angrily written Genesis 1: “In the image of God, he created them, male and female he created them,” my professor emphasized “and female,” calling me to reclaim my sex’s place as part of the original blessing. That helped me move forward into discovering new voices and other ways of being Christian than what I had felt trapped into.

When we open up to Genesis today, and read the next chapter of life for the chosen family, I find myself sinking down again.

Jacob has come to find a wife and falls for Rachel. He strikes a deal with her father Laban, buying her in exchange for seven years of labor. When Laban switches daughters in the marriage bed, Jacob is stuck with older sister Leah as he wife. Leah’s like a prom dress you can’t return because you took off the tags and wore it.

We may have started this story out with a romantic scene at the local watering hole, as Jacob first sets eyes on Rachel, but it quickly spirals into women being sold for profit. The literal exchange is, Laban- “I don’t want you to work for free. Tell me, what shall your wages be?” Jacob, “I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.”

We don’t hear the women’s voices. Unlike other women in scripture, they do have the honor of being named. Keeping them straight will be important as they become the mothers of the 12 tribes of Israel.

At this point in Jacob’s story, we see a fascinating shift as Jacob moves from his upbringing in his mother’s tent to “being a man.” I’ve been reading a book on Genesis by Dr. Miguel De La Torre in which he has a discussion of Jacob being raised outside the world of men. When he meets Rachel, he serves her, uncovering the well, watering her sheep. He speaks to her and listens. But then when he comes to Laban’s house, he steps into another realm and slips into the power given to him. He becomes a willing participant in a system that uses women as currency and incubators of the sons of the promise.

So what do we do with a text like this when we find something distasteful in its sanctified treatment of the characters? Do we chalk it up to a different culture with a foreign way of entering marriages? Focus on the romance and ignore the other parts? Use it as another reason religion has no relevance today?

I could get on my soapbox and rage against the patriarchy, maybe I’ve already done that, or I could press on to feel a bit more of the power of this text. Noticing how much I identify with the women who have been forced to be voiceless and powerless, I could wonder when I have silenced others. When have I been as Jacob and Laban, authors and readers of scripture, who simply didn’t notice or care that they were undermining half of humanity. I could roll my eyes at this text, or I could turn my sight inward.

Looking through this text into our lives, we see our own complicity in systems of power that benefit us at the expense of seeing others as less than fully human. We have sinned, by what we have done and what we have left undone. A text like this calls for repentance.

It’s time to confess that we have lived benefiting from having some named group of outsiders to blame or exclude. We’ve called ourselves holy and in the right while pointing at other who are doing it wrong, and that’s helped us feel better about ourselves and be drawn closer together as a community.

We’ve done ministry in a way that requires passive recipients of our good news and good works without first listening to people identify needs and strengths and giving them the agency to decide how- if at all- we might be invited to minister alongside them.

We’ve mouthed Biblical platitudes thoughtlessly, without bringing the whole witness to bear on a situation. This happens when an abused spouse is told staying in the marriage with its hurt is a cross to bear. Not helpful, and not true to God’s intention for us.

We repent from our silence, our ducked heads, our going with the flow so as to not create any waves, when something didn’t threaten us directly enough to merit action. We’ve done nothing so as not to offend, to keep the peace, and keep ourselves safe.

We need God’s forgiveness for those times when we judge others as less than human. For when we keeps costs down by devaluing the well-being of others. When we’ve gambled with other’s safety and spent the resources our children will need.

Church, we’re a community whose worship begins with confession. That may be one of the greatest gifts we offer our culture. We practice saying we’ve been in the wrong, and that we don’t have the power within ourselves to do it right. We need help to live with love and justice. God forgives us and empowers us to continue to work towards God’s kingdom.

We’re not only the ones stepping on others to get ahead, we’re also the ones being ground down. We need God’s assurance that God sees us as people with worth and value, especially when the world tells us we are not enough- because of our bank accounts, or the way we look, our education, or our jobs, our skin color, abilities, struggles, nationality, language, culture, gender identity, or the family we love.

God makes that assurance to you through Jesus. Jesus proves the depth of God’s love for you, the great worth in which God values you. Our Romans text declares “neither death nor life, nor rulers, nor powers… nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus”- there is no cost that would outweigh your value, nothing that would be too great to pay, in God’s loving work of claiming you as God’s own beloved, good, valued creation.

Jesus’ actions make us reevaluate the value of other persons and of all creation. Jesus was challenged and changed by his encounters with people outside his community. He moved from preaching exclusively to the people of Israel to healing foreign women and sending his disciples to the ends of the earth. He welcomed little children, who were seen as prehuman, and named them models of faith. He willingly choose the experience of the blamed outsider and carried the rage and guilt of the community. The good news of his resurrection was first entrusted to the women among his disciples. Jesus’ life and death resets the scales of value, replacing our miserliness with his abundance. The kingdom Jesus is ushering in has room for all to be especially precious to God, and no one less so than another.

God’s resurrecting Jesus is God’s affirmation of his work. The one whose radical welcome led to his being killed is the one who is raised from the dead. Jesus’ way of being is validated in the resurrection. Our “no” is met with God’s “yes.”

Jesus’ coming to us, dying and rising, changes how we know God, how we read the Bible, and how we seek to live in response. Scripture is not a once and done event, but the unfolding witness of a creation encountering God and being inspired as they compile, edit, and record that witness. We are not a once and done church, but a community that is continually in the process of being reborn as we sin, are forgiven, reformed, and sent out into the world to witness to our encounter with God and join God at work.

God is using us, works in progress, to reclaim the value of each person God has so lovingly made. We’re going to mess it up sometimes, but we can’t let that scare us away from trying. At the end of the day, God’s going to restore this whole creation. In the new day God is bringing, we will be one community of beloved people, finally able to look at ourselves and each other as beings of worth.