Tag Archives: Sin

David Anointed King (Reformation Sunday) – October 25, 2015 (NL Week 7)

Sunday’s Reading:
2 Samuel 5:1-5; 6:1-5

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

On October 31, 1517, a young Augustinian monk named Martin Luther changed the course of history and the direction of Western civilization when he defiantly nailed his 95 Theses – properly titled “A Disputation on the Power an Efficacy of Indulgences” – to the door of the castle church at Wittenberg in Germany. At least, that’s the short, simple, and triumphant version of the story that we Lutheran Christians tell ourselves when we celebrate the anniversary of beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Many of us gather on this Reformation Sunday with that story firmly implanted in our minds, and we are met in worship today by a similarly triumphant story from Scripture centered on a vital figure in the history of God’s people. After the failure of Israel’s first king – a man named Saul whose tragic story was sadly passed over in this year’s telling of the Biblical story – the people of Israel and Judah were eager to place their lives and their fortunes in the hands of the one who had been anointed by God to succeed Saul. David, once a young shepherd whose musical talent, rugged good looks, and valor in warfare had endeared him to his people, now stood at the pinnacle of power in the eastern Mediterranean, having been given charge over the twelve tribes of Israel as the ruler of an unprecedented “united kingdom”. His reign as king became legendary, and long after his death David continued to be the model for every king who would follow him, both in terms of faithfulness to God and in terms of skillful and discerning leadership.

Two men. Two significant eras in the history of God’s people. Two leaders lionized for their boldness and courage in the face of opposition. David and Luther certainly share a number of characteristics in the popular imagination, although I’m not sure that most of those characteristics are terribly helpful for our reflection, especially because many of them don’t actually match the historical record. If, however, we cut through the myths, I think there are lessons to be learned from the lives of these two figures who loom large in our collective memories, and those lessons are capable of drawing us beyond “hero worship” to a proper understanding of God’s movement in their lives (and ours).

On the positive side, both Luther’s reformation project and David’s rise to the monarchy have in common a desire to place God at the center of community life. In today’s reading, we hear the account of David bringing the Ark of the Covenant, the visible symbol of God’s presence among the people of Israel, back into the midst of the people. The new king was convinced that keeping the nation together and making it strong would require the people to acknowledge God as the source of their blessings and their common life. So we have this evocative scene in which David leads a procession containing the Ark into the city of Jerusalem, the newly established capital of the United Kingdom, accompanied by dancing and music and wild celebration. At its core, then, the story of David’s ascent to the throne is also a story of gratitude and remembrance of God’s gracious favor poured out upon him and the entire nation, and that is certainly worthy of being lifted up as an example for us.

In the same way, if we cut through the mythology around Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses, which was surely less dramatic than we commonly imagine, we recognize the truly profound impact of this young priest and university professor calling the church to take Christ’s command to be a repentant and forgiven people seriously. Where some within the church had lost their proper focus, Luther called the whole church to remember that – in the words of one of those famous Theses –  “[t]he true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God. (Thesis 62, “The 95 Theses”, Luther’s Works, vol. 31, p. 31)

While we rightly celebrate these defining events in the church’s history, we also do well to remember that both of these men were flawed, and that the stories we tell ourselves about them are demonstrably false if we leave out their faults and failings in the interest of advancing our own interests. So, for example, David was described as being “a man after God’s own heart,” but he was also the perpetrator of one of the most heinous abuses of power in the entire Old Testament. His assault of Bathsheba, his violation of her marriage to Uriah the Hittite, and his treachery in sending Uriah to the front lines of battle to be killed at the hands of the Ammonites, all of these are reminders of David’s humanity, including his inability to place his own desires aside for the sake of holiness or godliness. Luther’s life is also rife with examples of his fallibility. His fierce polemic against other Christian groups – from the Roman Catholic church to the Anabaptist and Reformed churches – became the justification for the slaughter of tens of thousands, and his rhetoric about the Jewish people has had an even more devastating impact upon that community through the centuries. In trying to serve the cause of God as he understood it, Luther’s frequent lack of humility did great harm to the Church and to society in general.

As Christians – those who have been grafted onto God’s chosen people and given a share in God’s grace – and particularly as Lutheran Christians, what can we take away from the stories of Martin Luther and King David? On the one hand, there is much to be emulated as we look at the lives of these two saints of God. David’s desire to seek after God’s heart and God’s will is certainly a desire that we should share. His symbolic act of placing the Ark back at the center of Israel’s common life is one that we might ponder as we are pulled to and fro by all the people and things that demand our attention. Likewise, Luther’s pursuit of the gracious God revealed in Holy Scripture is a part of our DNA as those who have inherited his legacy, and to the extent that we set our minds to pursuing the truth about God in Christ for ourselves, we embody one of the Reformation’s most enduring projects. By the same token, the very idea of reformation, of being continually shaped by the Holy Spirit’s movement in our midst, is an idea and worthy of being recalled regularly for the sake of our life together.

On the other hand, of course, some of the most significant learnings we might take from these two figures are examples of what not to do. We do well to remember the excesses of David’s leadership, and his abuse of that leadership to satisfy his own needs and desires. We also do well to avoid the hubris that led Luther to espouse a rhetoric which has done profound and lasting damage to the unity of the Church, and with which we are still coming to terms as heirs of the Reformation. As we examine that lives of David and Luther, we are called to be discerning about those parts of their legacies that are praiseworthy, and to learn the lessons of those parts that are worthy of criticism so that we can avoid their mistakes.

On this Reformation Sunday, brothers and sisters, let us give thanks for the lives of our forerunners in the faith – David and Martin – and for the example they set in seeking to be faithful to God in word and deed. Let us pray for the wisdom to see their failures for what they are, and the grace to avoid them so that God might be glorified. Finally, let us pray that God’s Holy Spirit would continue to move in our midst, forming us to be God’s people in the world, and drawing us ever closer to one another in the bonds of love and peace, for the sake of the church and the world that God loves. Amen.

Garden of Eden – September 13, 2015 (NL Week 1)

Sunday’s Reading:
Genesis 2:4b-25

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

In the beginning, God got to work. The first two chapters of the Bible tell the story of that beginning, and that story makes abundantly clear that creation exists because of the activity of God – the one who hovered over the waters, who spoke the heavens and earth and all life into existence. It also reminds of something that we too often forget when we look around at the world today: that this creation – the incredible diversity of life, the rock and soil and water and sky and space – all of it is good. In fact, when we regard the whole creation in its fullness, it’s not just good; it’s very good (Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31, NRSV)

So that’s where we start: with God’s work. God looks upon nothingness and makes a world of stunning beauty and unfathomable vitality and awesome power, and calls it very good. We also start with the recognition that there’s something particularly important about us, about humanity. In the first chapter of Genesis, we hear God speaking about the creation of humankind in a way that we’re still trying to wrap our heads around: Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” 27So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:26-27, NRSV) Then, in today’s passage, we read more about the special care with which God regards us as those created in God’s image: then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being… (Genesis 2:7, NRSV) These two passages are remarkable! How incredible a privilege it is to bear the image and likeness of the Creator! How wonderful it is to contemplate this amazing image of God kneeling down in the dust and dirt to mold humanity, and then to stoop even lower to fill that lifeless lump with God’s own breath, the same Spirit that rushed over the formless void before God spoke light into existence!

The witness of Holy Scripture about humankind is amazing, but it should also be humbling. After all, we not only bear God’s image, we also bear responsibility for the rest of this creation. We’ve already read from chapter one the language of “dominion” – lordship or rule – over the birds and fish and animals and other life, and we have certainly exercised that dominion throughout our history, both in ways that are profoundly beautiful and in ways that are profoundly destructive. Chapter two provides with a corrective that should resonate with us: The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. (Genesis 2:15, NRSV) Another translation of this passage reads that humankind was placed in the garden “to watch it and work it.” (Gen 2:15, Alter) God did not create this world of beauty and life and wonder so that humanity could suck it dry and leave it desolate, but so that the whole community of life might be preserved. This is nothing less than the work of God, and it is work that we are called to do with our own lives, using our own heads and hearts and hands each and every day. Before anything else, before any talk of creating societies or building kingdoms or establishing laws or even determining what constitutes proper worship, this is the work that we are given to do: God’s work, the work of stewarding this creation so that it might continue to reflect the goodness of the one who brought it into being.

That’s an incredible responsibility, brothers and sisters, and it only grows. As life continues to break out all over this planet – we are called to nourish it, to create the conditions that allow it to flourish. We know, of course, that this is easier said than done. It’s not long after God calls everything very good that brokenness enters our world, that our thirst to take the place of God leads us to substitute our own wants and desires for the will of our Creator. In recognizing our calling to do God’s work, we are also all too aware of our shortcomings, of the effects of sin and death that wrack this weary world and prevent us from being fully devoted to this calling. As Christians, we draw strength from the knowledge that God stooped low again in the person of Jesus, that God made not only the image of the Divine, but the fullness of divinity, present in Christ. Though our own sinful work led us to nail God’s hands to rough wood and stretch them out toward the heavens, God’s life and power were too great to be overcome by humanity’s sinful pride, and by his rising, we were redeemed to once again devote our hands to God’s work. It’s still not easy work. It is work that requires us to lay aside our own convenience, our own wants and desires, our attitude of superiority, so that we might serve others and the world that God has made. In the end, this is our great calling: to watch and work in this broken and beautiful garden, to see in our brothers and sisters around the globe the image and likeness of God that we all bear, to seek always to do God’s work rather than our own, so that God’s will might be done on earth as it is in the heavens.

As our journey through the Scriptures continues, we’ll learn more about how that will unfolded in the lives of our fathers and mothers in the faith, and we’ll read about how they opened themselves to doing God’s work with their own hands – or, more often than not, how God’s work happened in spite of them. For now, let us give thanks for God’s care and concern for us, for the wondrous creation that we call home, and for the joy and challenge of being partners with our Creator as we seek to use our hands in service of God’s unfolding work. Amen.

Life with God: The Book of Psalms – Week 6 – July 5, 2015

Sunday’s Reading:
Psalm 146

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

We, the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, ensure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
(Preamble to the Constitution of the United States of America, adopted Sept. 17, 1778)

This weekend, our nation pauses to commemorate the declaration of our independence from the British crown. It is a day for celebration, a day to give thanks for the opportunity to live and work and grow and play and seek our fortunes as citizens of these United States. It is common on this day for us to wax poetic about the greatness of our nation, to declare loudly for all to hear that we are proud to be Americans, to deck the halls with red, white, and blue and rejoice in the ideals upon which this Union was founded: Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

So why, on the occasion of celebrating our independence, would I think it necessary to read from the preamble to the Constitution, which wasn’t adopted until twelve years after the Declaration? Well, in truth, I think the words I read above, the words that introduce and explain the reason for adopting our system of government, provide a necessary corrective for our expressions of patriotism and love of nation. The framers of the Constitution recognized that our founding was simply a first step, and that the continued formation of our nation would require diligence and hard work. In adopting the Constitution, they endeavored only to make our Union “more perfect,” not “perfect” once for all. There are scholarly disputes about the extent to which the framers were informed by Christian faith, but all of them – orthodox Christian or not – seemed to enter into their work with a profound realism about human nature, about our fallibility and short-sightedness and recklessness. That realism is shared by the psalmist, and it is perhaps the enduring image that we can take away from Psalm 146 this morning.

This psalm is, as the theme for today indicates, a psalm of praise, a song that invites us to declare the wonder and majesty of God. We’ve talked before about the importance of praising God, about the necessity of looking beyond ourselves to the one who created us and sustains us. Notice how quickly the psalm turns from praising God to issuing this stark warning about human beings and human institutions:

Do not put your trust in princes,
     in mortals, in whom there is no help.
When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
     on that very day their plans perish.
(Psalm 146:3-4 NRSV)

The people of Israel had heard the warnings of their prophets; they knew all too well the failings of human authority. The psalmist is not content to allow his people to reflect on God’s power and presence without being absolutely certain that Israel understood the surpassing greatness and justice and righteousness of God. That God, of course, is a God who does not exercise authority and power merely for God’s own glory. No, the God revealed in Scripture, the God we have come to know more fully through Jesus Christ, is a God whose power is exercised precisely for the good of the other, for the good of the marginalized, for the good of the vulnerable and despised. In the psalmist’s day, that included people on a familiar and oft-repeated list: the oppressed, the hungry, and the captive; the blind and the lame; the stranger, the orphan, and the widow. In our own day, we might come up with our own list of people who find themselves on the outside looking in: the poor, the hungry, and the ex-convict; those suffering from mental illnesses, or addictions, or diseases like HIV/AIDS; the immigrant or the racial “minority”. The witness of the psalms – indeed, of all the Scriptures – is that our God is concerned with the plight of those who are deprived of their dignity and worth by human authorities and human institutions. As Christians, we too are called to be concerned with the ways in which our society – formally and informally – signals to these groups that they are less important, that their lives don’t matter as much as ours, that they somehow do not share in the image of God that all of us bear by virtue of our having been created by God. As Americans, we do well to remember the words of our founders, who understood that human government is always a work in progress, and that to be a government of, by, and for the people is to understand that, at best, we will forever be striving for a “more perfect Union”.

As we enter the 240th year of our Independence as a nation, our Christian faith and the legacy of our founders suggest that we must do more than celebrate. We must also recommit ourselves to the ideals upon which our faith and our nation are supposed to be built. In his moving eulogy at the funeral of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the pastor of Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston who was killed along with eight fellow church members in a racially-motivated massacre last month, the president reflected on the grace that has been poured out upon our nation – in language very similar to that found in our closing hymn, “O Beautiful for Spacious Skies”. He talked of the great gift of grace that has not failed us despite our history of not living up to our highest ideals. He shared his belief that we are now living in a moment in which we have been graced again with the opportunity for renewed understanding, for renewed commitment to our governing principles, for renewed attention to the problems of poverty and hunger and prejudice that continue to plague us as a people. I share that optimism and that belief, but I base it, not in the power of human authority or institutions, but in the power of God, who reigns forever, to transform us by grace, to strengthen what President Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature,” and to call us once again to affirm that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are the inalienable right of all people.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, let us lift our voices to praise our good and gracious God. Let us pray that God would, in the words of our closing hymn, “shed his grace on [us],” “refine our gold,” and “mend [our] every flaw,” both as God’s people and as citizens of these United States. Let us pray that God would continue to mold our hearts and minds into the image of Christ, so that we might be the kind of people God has called us to be through the Gospel. Finally, let us pray that we might marry our love of country with a fervent love of liberty and justice for all, and that we might be willing to do the work that is necessary to make that statement a reality for all of our brothers and sisters and fellow Americans. Amen and amen.

Hope of Resurrection (Seventh Sunday of Easter) – May 17, 2015 (NL Week 37)

Sunday’s Readings:
Complementary Text: Matthew 6:24
Preaching Text: Romans 6:1-14

As chapter six of Paul’s letter to the Romans begins, the apostle has made some sweeping claims about the problems that face humanity and the solution to those problems that was revealed in Jesus. In chapter three, lays out the stark truth for the community at Rome: All people – without exception – have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Since we are unable to make our relationship with God by our own strength or power, Jesus Christ fulfills God’s divine plan of salvation by his obedient suffering and death for our sake and for the sake of the whole creation. Paul states clearly that it is because of what God has done in Christ – and not because of anything we have done, are doing, or might do in the future – that the relationship between God and humanity can be restored.

Paul is a smart man, and he knows that this radical gospel, this good news about Jesus Christ, can be easily misinterpreted, so here in chapter six he anticipates one of the possible responses to the startling claim that it is God’s grace, not our action, that renews our relationship with God. That response is incredibly simple and, frankly, incredibly human: Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? (Romans 6:1, NRSV) Or, put another way: if God’s extravagant love is poured out on us to save us from sin, shouldn’t we keep on sinning so that God can keep showering us with forgiveness and grace?

On one level, this kind of question makes sense, right? Grace is undoubtedly good, and if God is determined to be gracious to us, why not give God every opportunity? While this scenario makes sense from a logical perspective, for Paul, this whole question is ridiculous, because it stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to live as God’s people and to be joined to Christ.

You see, in Paul’s view, all people live in one of two different spheres of existence that are mutually exclusive. The first sphere of existence is what Paul laid out in chapters 1-3, the kind of existence that he sees as common to all humanity by virtue of our being human. This is the realm of Sin – what we might call Sin with a capital S. Far from referring to certain acts of disobedience, Paul sees Sin as a reality, a state of being in which creation itself is trapped and dying. Sin distorts the truth and alienates us from one another, from God, and from our true selves. When we are trapped in the realm of Sin, even our best intentions are fatally flawed, and we are incapable of living the kind of lives that God desires. This is the problem that confronts all of humanity, and it is the problem that God seeks to address through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. On the cross, Christ took on the power of sin and broke it forever, making it possible for us to be freed from the realm of Sin and to live in another kind of existence under the gracious reign of God in Christ.

For Paul, then, to think that Sin serves the cause of Christ – to ask, “Shall we continue in Sin so that grace may abound?” – is to underestimate the significance of Christ’s death and to invite the power of Sin to take hold of us once again. This is why Paul asks incredulously, “How can we who died to sin go on living in it?” (Romans 6:2, NRSV)

Of course, we know all too well that Sin is powerful, and that it doesn’t give up without a fight. The pull to give in to our selfish impulses, to seek our own advantage at the expense of others, to give ourselves back into the power of Sin, is very strong. We continue to struggle daily with the forces of Sin that oppose God’s will for us and for our world. That’s why Paul’s powerful reminder of what God has done for us in Christ, particularly through the sacrament of Holy Baptism, is so important. For Paul, Holy Baptism is a sign and seal of this change of existence, the act by which we are drawn with Christ from death into life, the act by which Sin’s grip on us is loosed forever. As you’ve undoubtedly heard many times, Baptism is not simply a nice ceremony that we observe as a nod to history or tradition. It is a mark of our new identity, a tangible sign of our having been buried with Christ and freed to live a new kind of life. Because of Christ, we now stand securely under God’s reign, and Sin has no power to hold us back again. As long as we remember who we are and in whom we find our life, our strength, our peace, and our joy, we will be less likely to offer ourselves or any part of ourselves to be used in ways that defy God’s will for our lives.

Having looked at the past and the present, Paul also calls us to look to the future, reminding us that Christ is also our hope in the face of suffering, decay, and death. Because we have been joined to Christ, God’s Holy Spirit is moving in us, in our community, and in our world, so that we might be, to live in the hopeful expectation that we – along with the whole creation – might one day be freed from death and enjoy the fullness of life shared by the Triune God. For Paul, that hope is as sure and certain as God’s promise to be gracious, a promise that will never fail, regardless of our own faults and fears and failing.

This is the good news that Paul shares with the Romans and with us. In Holy Baptism, we are joined to Christ, and through his death and resurrection we are freed from the tyranny of Sin, and offered the hope of life that will last into the age to come. This week, brothers and sisters, may you live with the knowledge of God’s great love for you in Christ; may you remember your identity as a beloved child of God, claimed in Holy Baptism to walk in newness of life; finally, may you draw strength from the hope of resurrection that is ours in Christ today and always. Thanks be to God! Amen.