Spirit of Life

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.

But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.

Romans 8:1-11

My sermon from 6th Sunday after Pentecost (July 16, 2017) on Romans 8:1-11. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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Did you know that standing still had to be invented? That’s a bit silly thing to say because standing still is standing still. When we’re walking or running or skipping, we’re not standing still. But the concept itself is important because standing still and staying in one sport, isn’t so easy…when you’re on a boat. And that’s what I noticed yesterday, while on a 40’ pirate ship off the Jersey shore. Yesterday, my family and I attended Pirate Adventures in Brick, NJ. My two kids, Oliver and George, dressed up like pirates, with swords, striped shirts, and pirate bandanas. We joined a dozen or so other families and took an hour long adventure looking for treasure along the Jersey shore. The kids learned to talk like pirates and were led by “real-life pirates,” aka college kids who are probably drama majors and are living their best life four voyages a day. Our search for treasure involved shooting water cannons at the notorious Pirate Pete who had taken the keys to our secret treasure chest. And when all was said and done, we walked off the boat with our personal share plastic pirate gold and jewels. Now, since yesterday was a beautiful summer day, we were not the only boat on the water. Jet skis, fishing boats, speed boats, and more zipped by us as they headed out to deeper waters. Every time they passed us by, the wake they left would hit us, causing the pirate ship to bounced around. Trying to stand still while on the ship was….sometimes impossible. Even Pirate Pete needed a solid anchor to keep her from floating away. Standing still isn’t something we think about until standing still is something we can’t easily do. And when we’re in a boat, caught in a current, with waves and wakes slamming into us, what we need is a good, solid anchor, to keep us where we want to be.

Paul, in this week’s reading from his letter to the Romans, is continuing the argument we heard last week. In an almost repetitive, yet tongue twisty kind of way, Paul is reminding the Romans who they were and who they are now. In a sense, Paul is being very pastoral here which is usually something we don’t talk about when it comes to Paul. But as I continue to live my life as a pastor, and as I keep growing into being the Christian God calls all of us to be, my reading of the Bible and of Paul, has changed. Since Paul is writing to a community he’s never met before, and with Romans being his longest letter, we usually act like Paul is trying to explain, in just a few pages, his overall experience and understanding of faith. But Paul doesn’t write abstract letters. He writes letters to real people. And he knows real people, with their own thoughts, concerns, and ideas will hear his words. Paul isn’t being general in his letter. He’s not focusing on coming up with some grand scheme that defines who knows Jesus and who does not. Paul is writing to people who love and cry and smile and feel fear. They are people who Paul expects to meet and people who expect to meet Paul. And, as Paul reminds them over and over again, they are people who know Jesus. And, in their baptism, they are something new.

But how new are they? Yesterday, for a few moments at least, I got to pretend I was a pirate. But after the swashbuckling and water cannon fighting, I was still… me. Once my feet were back on dry land, I still had to live my life. I still had kids to take care of, a sermon to write, emails to read, and a million new things to add to my to do list. The same worries and joys and fears and concerns I had before I got onto the boat were still there, waiting for me, once I got off it. I can imagine the Romans, listening to Paul’s letter, noticing how he keeps reminding them that their baptism makes them new….and then thinking to themselves “really? But I’m still…me. Even after my baptism, the things I am concerned about, those passions and actions and emotions I want to get rid of – they’re still here.” After the joy and excitement and amazing feelings a baptism brings, that energy can feel like it fades when real life comes roaring back. That might be why Paul keeps reminding the Romans who they are, over and over again. And that might be why we gather here at church, over and over again, to hear that same promise. Our relationship with Jesus doesn’t depend on how we feel, or what we know, or what we think we need to know. Our relationship with Jesus depends only on what God has decided to do. And God has claimed each of us as God’s very own, through the gift of faith and baptism. When we’re not feeling Jesus presence, we can cling to the promise that he is here, right now. When we’re wondering where God is in a world that can be so brutal, we can cling to a savior who, even when he was dying on the cross, opened his arms to all. When we’re living our lives with busyness and joys and other concerns that cause us to forget Jesus, our baptism means that Jesus hasn’t forgotten about us. We are real people with real lives and with a real savior who never gives up on us. Paul’s letter to the Romans is reminding all of us about this seed of faith, this seed of relationship, this seed of a new life that God gives to each of us.

This seed, this Spirit of Life, is something we have right now. And Paul invites all of us to take that Spirit seriously. Since we have it, we don’t need to wait for it. We can engage with it right now. Prayer, study, and worship are just some of the tools we have to dig into this Spirit that God gives us. And by taking the time to explore this gift anyway we can, we become as life giving to our neighbors as Jesus is to us. This is how we discover how Jesus is that anchor we need in our lives. Because Jesus never says that storms won’t come. There will be times when the wakes and waves left by other people will crash into us. There will be moments when we will be the wave that tries to overcome us and our neighbors. And there will be times when staying with Jesus will be very hard. But it’s at those times when having Jesus will be the only thing that gets us through.

Amen.

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Side-By-Side

Parables “are fictional stories.”* They are the bread and butter of Jesus’ teaching ministry and filled with images from everyday life. Most of us are not farmers (but if you would like some eggs, there’s someone at CLC you should talk to) but we know what farmers do. Most of us do not plant seeds on acres of land but we do know the type of soil plants need to grow. This reading from the book of Matthew 13:1-9,18-23 is the first parable we will see in this season after Pentecost but it will not be the last. We read the stories Jesus told because Jesus is a storyteller.

As a storyteller, the stories Jesus tells can sometimes appear simplistic. Since these parables include images we know and understand, we trick ourselves into thinking any interpretation of a parable must be just as simple. If the parable confuses, challenges, or makes us uncomfortable, we seek out a simple answer to make ourselves feel better. We do a disservice to parables when we make them simple. Parables are confusing. They sometimes compare two things in striking and unpredictable ways. Parables sometimes do not make sense on the first (or 12th) reading of them and sometimes Jesus’ own explanation of these stories fails to clear up their meaning. Parables are important because they help expose “two equally deep mysteries: the mystery of God and the mystery of human life.”** The God who uses the phrase “I AM WHO I AM” as a name when Moses meets a burning bush is not a God who is neat, tidy, and containable. Anytime we limit God and Jesus inside a simple and safe definition, we miss experiencing who God really is. The God who created everything and who can never be fully comprehended by human beings is the same God who, through Jesus, entered into the mystery of human life. Parables do not try to explain away the mysteries of God and our lives. Instead, parables reveal these mysteries through stories that are challenging, familiar, odd, and comforting. Parables get the gears in our souls turning because engaging in all of life’s mysteries is one of the ways the Spirit transforms us into Godly people.

In today’s parable, a farmer is terrible at their job. The farmer doesn’t try to plant seed in only the places it will grow. Instead, the farmer throws seed around with abandon. In some places, the seed grows. In other places, it is eaten up. The farmer has a success rate of only 25% and yet the farmer keeps sowing. Where are you in the story today? Are you the farmer sowing seeds of love and life with abandon? Are you the rocky ground, the path, or the soil covered in thorns? Are you a seed waiting to sprout, not knowing what kind of soil you have landed in? Find your spot in the story – and discover what the Spirit wants you to hear today.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for 6th Sunday After Pentecost, 7/16/2017.

* Richard Lischer’s Reading the Parables, page 3.
** Richard Lischer’s Reading the Parables, page 13.

Giving Away the Building. From Pastor Marc – My Message for the Messenger, Summer 2017 Edition

How big is our church? Well…there are different ways to answer that question. We could share the physical dimensions of the church, measuring how many people fit in our sanctuary and how tall our church steeple is. We could talk about the number of church members our community has or how many people we have on our mailing lists. But I like to think about our size by looking at our relationships and connections. Our church is big because everyone who calls CLC home is connected to people outside of our church building. We all have neighbors, classmates, coworkers, and friends. Some of our family and friends are living all over the world. As disciples of Jesus Christ, our impact isn’t limited to only the people we see on Sunday morning. Jesus is with us wherever we go and is active in all the relationships we have. Our church isn’t only building on the corner of Church and Pascack roads. The church is the people God has called to be here and the church impacts everyone through the relationships we all have.

One of the relationships that unite us as members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA – our denomination) is the Lutheran World Federation (LWF). The LWF is a global communion of 145 Lutheran denominations from 98 different countries. It’s a network of 74 million Lutherans who worship, pray, celebrate, and gather together for an assembly every six years. The most recent assembly of the LWF was this past May in the country of Nambia. Our denomination’s Presiding Bishop, the Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, attended. In her recent article in the Living Lutheran, she wrote about being a global community united in our life with Christ. And she shared a story I would like to share with you:

At the LWF Assembly a delegate from Russia told this story of freedom in Christ. There used to be a Lutheran church in St. Petersburg. It was a beautiful structure witnessing to the glory of God where the Lutheran immigrants who arrived in the 18th century could worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness. It was skillfully crafted out of wood. St. Mary’s Lutheran Church still stood in St. Petersburg, renamed Leningrad.

The church was a place of worship and hope during the siege of Leningrad during WWII. But people were freezing and starving to death in Leningrad. There was no wood for heating or cooking. So the Lutherans looked at their beloved church and then looked at the suffering around them. Piece by piece they dismantled their building and gave it away for the life of their community.

Last month, we committed ourselves as a congregation to Raise the Roof on our ministry by replacing the flat roofs on our buildings. We are doing this because we know we are a community with a vibrant future in Northern New Jersey. We will continue to share Jesus in all our relationships and use everything God has given us, including our buildings, to give ourselves away for the life of our communities. As we move forward into a new and exciting future, let’s remember that we are more than a building. We are the church. And we are here to love and serve each and every day.

See you in church!

Pastor Marc

Do The Twist: Romans 7 and the Flemington Neshanocks

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

Romans 7:15-25a

My sermon from 5th Sunday after Pentecost (July 9, 2017) on Romans 7:15-25a. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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Section headings in the Bible can be scary and, sometimes, unhelpful. When the bible was first put to paper, it looked different from what we have today. It wasn’t written in English. It didn’t have chapters or verse numbers. And before the invention of spaces between words, each word in the Bible ran into the one next to it. As time went on, and different translations of the Bible were composed, editors added tools to help our interaction with the text. And one of those tools was section headings – these short phrases that describe what the editors think the passage is about. For today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans, different bible translations use different headings to describe what Paul is talking about here. The Message labels all of Romans 7 as “Torn between one way and another.” The New International Version labels this part as “The Law and Sin.” The Common English Bible Translation calls this bit “Living under the Law” and the New Revised Standard version, which we use in worship and which we just read, calls this section “The Inner Conflict.” Section headings are sneaky because they provide a specific point of view that greases the gears in our brains, giving us an interpretation of the text before we actually read. And since these headings are on the physical pages of the Bible’s we read, we sometimes forget these headings are not scripture. Section headings can be helpful but I don’t think they are helpful today because labeling this section from Romans as “the inner conflict” doesn’t jive with what we heard last week. Paul told us in Romans chapter six that we are changed people. In our baptism and in our faith, we are united and connected to Christ. We are no longer enslaved to sin but are now part of Jesus himself. In a sense, our struggle with sin – our struggle with what keeps us separated from God – has been undone because of what Jesus did. Jesus, through the Cross, gave each of us a new subheading describing who we actually are. We are followers of Christ. God has fixed our relationship to the divine by breaking into our world through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul believed this. Paul knew this. Paul experienced this. So it doesn’t make sense for Paul to write these verses as if the “I” here means him or if this is just some generic I that represents each of us because, through our baptisms, we are something new. So what is Paul talking about here? Well, I think it has something to do with old timey baseball.

Yesterday, at historic New Bridge Landing, the Bergen County Historical Society hosted a baseball game between the New York Mutuals and the Flemington Neshanocks. The field was muddy. The sun was hot. And the rules for the game were close to what I knew but also….a little different. For one thing, no one had gloves. The teams played by 1864 rules so all ball handling was done by hand. An out could be made by catching a ball after its first hop. And there was an umpire in a top hat and several handlebar mustaches on the players. During the game, one of the Neshanocks would go up and down the sidelines, asking if anyone had questions. Someone near me asked about the number of old timey ball clubs in the United States. And he told us that here’s probably more than 300, with 20-25 along the East Coast. Someone asked if they played tournaments and that’s when his answer got interesting. Tournaments for old timey baseball clubs do exist but this player doesn’t like them. When a tournament is played, teams are trying to win something. They’re trying for a prize or a trinket or even just the satisfaction of knowing they beat a bunch of teams. Once you’re playing for something, the competition heats up and the nature of the game itself changes. For this player, the experience of ball clubs filled with men and women from the ages of 20 to 65 playing by old fashioned baseball rules – loses its identity. It’s no longer a gentlemanly and gentlewomans outing. It becomes just a game they’re trying to win. But, if you’re already playing by 1864 rules, wearing old fashioned uniforms with knee high socks, and you’re having a having a great time, and spending it with friends with unironic beards and facial hair – haven’t you already won?

That person, the “I,” in our reading from Romans today is someone in need of a savior. As I shared a few weeks ago, this I is a person trying to solve the Roman problem of the passions. They have emotions and feelings and appetites they believe they can overcome by simply practicing the Jewish rituals that Jesus did. But they can’t because there is a deeper problem at hand. Since Paul’s letter is a letter to Romans, the people he’s talking to here are not Jews. He’s reaching out to gentiles. Now, Gentiles have a relationship with God since God created everyone but they don’t have that special and connected relationship with the divine that the Jewish people have. But God, through God’s own initiative, decided to change that. God’s son lived a very human-kind life, showing everyone just how welcoming, loving, inclusive, and challenging God’s kingdom can be. Through acts of love and mercy, Jesus showed what justice and love actually looks like. And then…the people killed him for it…but God’s love had something else in store for all of us.

Paul, in this part of his letter to the Romans, isn’t trying to describe the inner conflict we all have about what’s right and wrong. He’s, instead, reminding the Roman community that their savior has already come. The struggle with following the law is being undone because the gentiles themselves, are being changed. Through the gift of the Holy Spirit, through the gift of faith itself, we are being re-written so that we are a little more like Jesus each and every day. That doesn’t mean, however, that our journey, in faith, is finished. We still have to show up, each and everyday, to the reality of our lives. We’re still going to feel hurt. We’re still going to struggle with the decisions we have to make. We’re still going to discover the ways we cause injustice in the world and we need God to push us to care about the liberation of our neighbor instead of focusing only on ourselves. Paul’s words here sound very real to us because we still need Jesus to help us be Jesus. But Paul is reminding the Romans, and he’s reminding us, that we get to go into the ballgame of life wearing our personal version of a baptized old timey baseball uniform, knowing that the game has already been won. God has done and is doing the heavy lifting to fix our relationship with God. Life isn’t a competitive game that we need to win. Instead, life is about living Jesus-like lives so that the other people around us a – thrive.

Amen.

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Seek: Jesus’s Yoke

I’ve never worn a physical yoke but I have carried intangible ones that were very real. When Jesus talks about yokes in this passage from Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30, he uses an agricultural image people in his crowd knew. A yoke is a heavy piece of wood used to connect two oxen side-by-side at the shoulders. Yokes were used in specific circumstances. One of the oxen would be experienced and well trained. They knew how to pull a plow or a heavy load. The other oxen in the yoke would be inexperienced. They were young and new to plowing. They wouldn’t know what’s expected of them. By teaming up an experienced ox with one who needs help, the farmer could plow their field and train their oxen at the same time. The oxen would do the hard work to prepare the field for planting, together. The old soil and plants from the year before would be plowed over and turned up. The new soil, once fertilized and filled with seeds, would grow a delicious crop. Without a yoke, the inexperienced oxen could never create a crop that would feed others. The yoke made that ox a creature that gives life.

As a baptized Christian, you are yoked. You might not feel it, physically, but you are connected to Jesus right now. As Shelley Best writes, “Through faith, we are partnered with Jesus and taught how to balance and maneuver what is at hand, with the help of one who transforms our deepest desires into passion for God’s just and merciful reign in the world.*” The gift of faith connects us to the One who knows us better than we know ourselves. We are bound to a Jesus who helps us to live in sync with him. This work isn’t easy. This work challenges who we are and what we know. And this work can feel like our trust in God is growing or fading or both, at the same time. There will be times when the heavy load we’re pulling feels like it’s impossible to carry on our own. But we are not alone. We are connected with Jesus. And we need to “trust Jesus to help us carry our load and find rest.”

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for 5th Sunday After Pentecost, 7/9/2017.

* Feasting on the Gospels, Matthew Volume 1. Page 299-301.

Grow in Faith

Do you want to grow closer to God? Today’s passage from Matthew 10:40-42 is an answer to that question.

For the last three weeks, Jesus has been giving instructions to his disciples. Jesus’ work needs workers and the disciples are his hands and feet in the world. What Jesus did during his life on earth will be the disciples’ mission as well. They will bring good news to the poor, which might not be good news to the rich. The disciples will eat meals with the people society says not to. The disciples will advocate for healing and wholeness in a world that fights hard to deny wholeness to everyone. The disciples will preach, teach, and do. The work will be hard but it’s necessary, vital, and life-giving to those who do it.

Jesus’ final words of instruction are these 3 verses from Matthew 10. They are words centered in hospitality. Hospitality is more than inviting someone into your home. Hospitality means we need to be willing to be a guest in someone else’s home too. Hospitality is as simple as offering a cup of cold water to a thirsty child and as complicated as going into the home of an enemy and showing them love and compassion. We want to control how we practice hospitality. We want to decide who we invite into our home and whose home we are invited into. But Jesus breaks control in this passage. When it comes to being God’s people, we don’t get to chose who we show hospitality to. We are called to invite all people into our spaces and to go into the spaces of every other person too. When we do this, we are doing more than just being kind or compassion. We are actively engaged with God. We are actively living with God. We are actively welcoming God. It’s through hospitality that we discover just what it’s like to follow a God who created our world and who lived in it as a guest to show us what God’s love actually looks like.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for 4th Sunday After Pentecost, 7/2/2017.

Set Free: Romans & Lutherans & 1776

Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted, and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness for sanctification. When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death. But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 6:12-23

My sermon from 4th Sunday after Pentecost (July 2, 2017) on Romans 6:12-23. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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It’s Sunday, January 21, 1776 and a Lutheran pastor named Peter Muhlenberg is preparing himself for worship. Now, I imagine he did what most pastors do before service starts. He walked through the sanctuary, making sure everything was in order. He looked in the mirror, making sure his clergy uniform was on straight. And then as people arrived at his church in Woodstock, Virginia, I’m sure Peter greeted them and asked how they were. I wonder if the people he talked to noticed how Peter…was probably a little nervous. Or if they realized his clothes didn’t seem to hang on his body like they normally did. I wonder if any of them knew how different this Sunday would be.

When worship started, the candles were lit. The words of confessions and forgiveness and the prayers of the day were said. And then Pastor Peter Muhlenberg started to read verses from the third chapter of Ecclesiastes. For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die… We know thethse verses because we hear them at funerals. So I imagine the people in Peter’s pews knew these verses too. But when Peter got to the end of the passage, saying a time for war and a time for peace, he stopped speaking. He looked out from his pulpit at the people in the pews and then, with a dramatic flourish, announced “and this is the time for war.” Peter removed his pastor’s uniform to reveal the military uniform of a colonel in Virginia’s militia. He left the pulpit, walked out the main church doors, and went off to fight in the American revolution.

Now, that’s a pretty dramatic story, isn’t it? A Lutheran pastor gave up his calling in the most dramatic way possible to fight in the American revolution. This is a great story for this kind of weekend, when we will spend time launching fireworks, singing patriotic songs, and wearing American flags on our socks. It’s also a great story because it shows how this son of a German immigrant, in a time when people like Ben Franklin considered Germans to be aliens, to be people unwilling to lose their native language and culture and become true “Americans,” – this story shows how Lutherans could, and would, embrace the war for independence. Peter Muhlenberg’s story is a fun story…and it’s probably just that – a story. We don’t hear about this event until a great-nephew, decades after Peter’s death, writes it down. Peter probably never dramatically left his church in the middle of worship but he did serve in the American revolution, retiring with the rank of Major General. He fought at Brandywine, Germantown, and Yorktown. And after the war he served in the very first Congress as a representative from Pennsylvania – and was there when another Lutheran Pastor turned politician, Peter’s younger brother Frederick, became the first Speaker of the House.

If you look closely at our collective history, the founding generation of the United States is filled with Lutherans. Native-born Lutherans and immigrants served, fought, and died for the American revolution. But that concern about Lutherans and their commitment to the United States, took generations to finally disappear. As a faith tradition rooted in immigrant communities, Lutherans were suspect. The early stories about their commitment and service to the founding of this nation disappeared. Time and again, people wondered if Lutherans truly belonged. In the 20th century, when World War 1 broke out, Lutherans started putting American flags in their sanctuaries to show our collective commitment to the country we call home. And even as Lutherans served bravely and admirably in the American armed forces in World War 2, the Lutheran seminary in Columbia, South Carolina had to tear down buildings to prove their loyalty to their country. As Lutherans living in the 21st century, we might never have experience others questioning our loyalty to the United States. But we are, through our shared heritage, connected to a history where the Lutheran and American identity were not always seen as compatible. The flag in our sanctuary does more than just honor all who served bravely for their country or celebrate the founders of this nation like Peter Muhlenberg. The flag also connects us to the generations of Lutherans who felt they need to prove to others who they truly are.
And that need to prove who we are…is right there, in our reading from Romans today. Two weeks ago, I shared how Paul was writing to a community that didn’t know him. They wanted to know what kind of Christ-follower he truly was. Last week, we heard how the Roman community struggled with their own identity. As a people who saw themselves as slaves to their passions – to lust and anger and the desires that caused them personal suffering – they looked to Jesus as a way to better their lives and fix who they were. By participating in the Jewish practices that Jesus did, the Romans thought they could break their cycle of bad behavior and become people God actually loved. The community embraced their identity as Romans trying to solve a Roman problem and saw Jesus and his Jewish rituals as a way to discover a new way of life. By following Jesus, their feelings of lust would end. By following Jesus, the world would treat them better. By trying this Jesus thing, they would become the best Romans they could possibly be. Following Jesus, they thought, would make them better at being the Romans they knew themselves to be. But Paul looks at this community and challenges them. They are not only Romans. They are not just Gentiles who happened to meet God. They are baptized. They know Christ. When the waters of baptism covered their heads, their old ways of looking at the world were buried. When they stood up, with that same water dripping off their faces, they entered a new reality. Even though they were still who they were before they were baptized, with the same bodies and hair and eyes and thoughts – they now were something more. Their old way of looking at the world, asking what God could give them to make them better Roman, is no longer their priority. They have new questions to ask. They have a new point of view to live into. This connection with Jesus is not about what we can get from God. Rather it’s about what God, through us, can give the world. Because, with just a few drops of water and God’s word of promise, we were changed. Even if we were just a child, a baby who couldn’t even walk, we were connected in a very public way with a Jesus who did more than just die for us. He also lives with us, right now, too. He helps us, through words of encouragement, through moments of insight, and through the he brings into our lives, to refine us into people who change the questions we are asking. Instead of asking how others can be like us, Jesus invites us to discover how we can give others the gifts of love and service. Instead of spending time asking about other people’s’ identity, Jesus helps us focus on what it means for us to be identified with Jesus Christ. As human beings, our old questions will never truly die. We will still struggle with concerns that focus on ourselves rather than others. We will still need our own version of flags in our sanctuaries to prove to others and ourselves that, no matter our race or sexuality or ethnicity or beliefs or gender that we, and even those who are different from us, still belong. We are still broken human beings. We are still people who don’t always get things right. Yet, in our baptism, Jesus invites us into something more. We have been given a new identity. We get to ask new and loving questions. And because of who Jesus is and what Jesus did, we are finally set free to be the true Christians God calls us to be.

Amen.

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How Can We? A sermon on Jesus among the Romans

What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

Romans 6:1-11

My sermon from 3rd Sunday after Pentecost (June 25, 2017) on Romans 6:1-11. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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On Wednesday, my cat Finn started to act strangely. Now, I haven’t had Finn for a while and he’s still, technically, a kitten. He’s still developing his normal rhythm of life and I’m still figuring out who he is. But on Wednesday, I knew something was slightly off. He wasn’t in pain or meowing or not eating. He still playfully lashed out at anyone’s feet when they walked by. But something was different and we were concerned. So I did what I always do when a healthcare issue shows up in my life. I googled it. As a child of the internet, looking up things online is….just what I do. When I get a slight cold, I google the symptoms. When my kids ask a question about the world, I flip open my phone. So when Finn started to act strangely, I did what I always do: I looked for a solution. I tried to get a sense of what was going on. And everything I read told me to take him to the vet. So that’s what I did. And now we’re trying to force feed liquid antibiotics to a cat, which is just as easy as it sounds. On Wednesday, I had a problem. My furry family and I sought a solution. The internet helped us use a wide variety of sources to find a way to deal with this situation in our lives. And this approach to problem solving is not too different from what the community in Rome was doing when Paul’s letter first arrived.

Now, we don’t know much about the early Christian community in Rome. We don’t know who brought them them gospel or how many different people taught them about Jesus. But we do know the community was mostly made up of Gentiles, of non-Jews, who probably felt like the normal Roman way of life wasn’t giving them all they needed. Instead, they sought a new way to deal with their problems and that led them to a Jewish way of life. During Jesus’ day, the Jewish faith was growing. There were Romans who believed in God. They found meaning and value in practicing the Jewish food laws, in worshiping God, and saw in the Bible tricks and tips to help them manage their lives. The Jewish way of life, an approach to living modeled by Jesus himself since he is Jewish, was that outside source of information that seemed to solve a problem these Romans had. And that problems was the passions.

So what are the passions? We usually identify them as emotions, appetites, and feelings. We might give them names like lust or sorrow, anxiety or fear. Passions are the feelings and experiences that make us feel as if we are getting in our own way when it comes to living our authentic lives. And in ancient-Greco Roman thought, personal suffering was rooted in these passions. One of the goals of life, then, is to, somehow, master these passions. Instead of being controlled by lust, we tame it. Instead of letting melancholy keep us in sorrows, we overcome it. In a very mind over matter kind of way, living well means developing habits that turn us into being an active participant in all areas of our life. Now we have to step back and realize that this kind of living was only available to a select few. If you were a slave, you couldn’t do this because you didn’t have the agency or the independence to stop anyone from acting on you. And if you were a woman, the patriarchy and wider culture already saw you as weak and it was assumed you would never master human nature. Yet, overall, this idea about mastering the passions was a cultural ideal that impacted all areas of life. Living well, then, was a kind of dying. Life was about doing the hard work necessary to kill off these passions that dominate us. And for some Romans, the Jewish way of life seemed to provide a way to tame these passions. By following the rules, ethics, and behaviors taught in the Books of Moses and modeled by the lives of David and the prophets, the good life – as Roman culture defined it – could be reached. Part of the appeal of Judaism, including this Jesus-based sect inside the city of Rome, were these rules for life that this faith offered. Jesus himself seemed to offer a way to master the passions. But this early Roman community also thought something else. They imagined that mastering their passions was the only way they could make themselves acceptable to God. It was almost as if following Jesus was some kind of self-help program that, once completed, would give them a gold star on their report card from God. And without that gold star, without proving their own worth and value, God would shut them out. This is a type of Christian faith that acts as if we have the power to somehow convince God to fall in love with us. We can, with the right program or habits or life hacks or by entering the right search words into google, we can learn the tricks we need to do to secure our relationship with God. This way of thinking believes that our hope for finding meaning and value in our lives depends only on us. And Paul calls this way of thinking, this way of living, sin. Because the story of Jesus doesn’t show us the tricks we need to do to somehow convince God to finally care about us. The story of Jesus is about a God who loves us so much, that even death itself can’t separate us from God. Life isn’t about dying to our passions. Life with Christ is realizing how, through our baptism, we’ve already died. The old self that tries to chase after God is missing the fact that God already has us. The sin that thinks we can somehow fix our relationship with God is stopping us from seeing how Jesus has already done that work. As followers of Jesus, we’re more than just human beings. We’re more than just a bucket full of appetites, emotions, and feelings. We are the body of Christ. We are part of Jesus. And that’s means you are a beloved child of God – and that changes everything.

I don’t think Paul would have disliked using Google to find out what’s wrong with a cat. Nor do I think he would have been against us trying to figure out how we can better ourselves. When it comes to being more fully who we are, God has given us so many ways to find health and wholeness. Counselors and therapists, life coaches and spiritual directors, are not to be shunned nor are we to consider people who use them as somehow worth less than us. The stigma against mental illness and seeking help is something every Christian is called to fight against. Everyone should have the health resources they need to seek help when they need it and not feel like the church or society or even God will think less of them. The journey of self-betterment can help us grow into being who God calls us to be. But there is nothing we can do to make God love us more. And our journey towards becoming better versions of ourselves starts with what Jesus has already done. Jesus has already died for you. Jesus has already called you as part of God’s holy family. You’re already worth more than you can possibly know.

So life isn’t about chasing after God. Life is about living and knowing that God already has us.

Amen.

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