Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Room to grow

One of the things that seems hardest to accept about our faith is that we can do nothing to earn it or achieve it on our own. In a world that focuses on success and accomplishment, it seems difficult to understand that one of our greatest attributes, faith, is purely a gift and we can't do anything about it.

In relationship to this theological idea, I've been considering the images of the vine and the branches (John 15:5) and the potter and the clay (Isaiah 64:8).

Branches do not grow on their own; they are fed from the main vine and they grow reaching out to other branches and into the larger world. We understand God to be the giver of all gifts- feeding us from the Word and at the table (the Lord's Supper). The Spirit intercedes in our prayers and is our advocate in all places. God, our Maker, Redeemer and Sustainer is the vine that gives us life and sends us spiraling out beyond our roots to new places where we can flourish. No more can we do this on our own, without God, than could the branches grow without the vine.

So too clay is nothing but formless and void of meaning without a potter, Someone to give shape and meaning to the medium. A potter gives direction to the clay: depth, height and purpose. God gives us gifts, physical, mental and spiritual, so that we might understand the depth, height and purpose of God's love for us and for all of creation. We cannot do that for ourselves, independent of God, anymore than the clay can make it happen of its own accord.

I hope that thinking of God as the Source of your being and all beings today will bring an interesting thought to your mind. I'm grateful for the way I see my life being shaped and for how I've been brought to new growth with all the other vines around me.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Exercise your prayer muscle

I've recently begun to make more of an effort to get into shape. This has meant going to the gym every day. I have to make myself go every day so that it will become a habit for me.

When I don't go to the gym, it's not really that I don't want to work out because it's uncomfortable or I don't like exercise. It's really because I get bored and get distracted. I have an extremely long attention span, but staying on the treadmill for 30 minutes requires concentration on something in which I'm not that interested.

As I walking and running today, I was thinking about prayer and how many people talk about their difficulty in praying consistently. I think prayer is an exercise. It's an exercise of our spiritual muscle, our faith muscles. If you haven't been doing it for a while, it's hard. Yet we all (well, most of us) want to be like those prayer warriors we know- the spiritual equivalent of marathon runners.

The thing is, you have to start slow. A short prayer before a meal. A prayer of thanks before bed. A meditation on your day during your shower. Eventually your endurance will build and you will be able to concentrate in longer stretches and listen, as well as speak, to God.

And not everyone can be a marathon runner. Luther reminds us that we can begin our day with "Dear God" and say "amen" just before falling asleep- everything in the middle, that is- our whole day, is our prayer.

Sing On (Sermon 6/1/2008)

Deuteronomy 11:18-21, 26-28; Romans 1:16-17, 3:22b-28; Matthew 7:21-29

My life flows on in endless song; above earth’s lamentation,
I catch the sweet, though far-off hymn that hails a new creation
No storm can shake my in-most calm while to that Rock I’m clinging.
Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?

This song has been endlessly flowing through my head this week and I’ve had a somewhat difficult time figuring out why. It’s my “stress” hymn: the song I sing when I feel under a great deal of pressure. I sang it every day when my husband was in Iraq. I sang it when the septic tank overflowed and I was mopping the floor. And I guess I am little stressed now about leaving you and wondering what comes after my time at Gloria Dei.

But what could be stressful about the Bible passages we heard today? Our texts seem to be focused on teaching your children about faith, understanding the meaning of the gospel and realizing there are distractions and detractors all around- who interfere with that message of faith and of the gospel.

Those messages seem clear, but there are complications. What does the writer of Deuteronomy mean by the blessing and the curse? How we will be cursed if we follow gods we have not known? How can we follow them if we don’t know them?

And what about Paul’s phrase in the letter to the Romans: “For in [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith…” What does that mean? And we understand that a person is justified by faith apart from work prescribed by the law, but what about those commands we just heard to talk about our faith from sunrise to sunset- with a blessing and curse depending on them.

Then there are those individuals whom Jesus mentions- who are turned away because he does not know them. Though they offer a laundry list of all they did in the name of God, Jesus replies, “You missed the heart of my message, though. You did what you did for yourselves and not for the good of those around you.” But how do we avoid becoming that kind of person ourselves?

The hymn hints at the answers to those questions: “I hear the sweet, though far-off hymn that hails a new creation…” But when does that new creation come and how do we know?

What though my joys and comforts die? The Lord my Savior liveth.
What though the darkness gather round? Songs in the night he giveth.

It’s almost impossible to hear the story of the house on the rock and the house on sand without mentally picturing the destruction of the natural disasters in the world in the past years: from Hurricane Katrina and the tsunami in Indonesia to the recent hurricanes in Myanmar and the earthquake in China. And most of us have our own memories of disasters- personal and public. These events definitely shake out inmost calm and our songs in the night seem to be, “Why have you forsaken me? How could this have happened to those good people?”

The struggles of this life lead us off to follow gods we have not known, but that seem to offer blessing and security. Alcohol, drugs and sex offer an alternative to loneliness, boredom and personal insecurity. Politicians and public figures seem to offer change, sure answers and public security. Some teachers of the faith offer certainty in the place of faith, prosperity in the place of prayer, and crystal clarity in the place of mystery. But in the midst of the real stuff of life, when our joys and comforts die, their words and their altars seem to crumble away- they become sinking sand.

So how can we have the strength to teach our children, to teach each other and to carry to the world the message of the Solid Rock, the love and forgiveness of God in Christ Jesus, when we seem to be weak and worn? We must believe in the message of hope Paul offers in Romans: “For there is no distinction among people, since all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God- they are now justified by God’s grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”

Just like for Abraham, as Paul says later in Romans, God counts our efforts toward goodness as righteousness. God formed and knows our inmost selves and God knows we are trying, though we continuously fall short. So we have been saved from sin and from our selves by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And the Holy Spirit renews us daily, that new creation, so that we might believe in the redemption, in the forgiveness we have received.

When we try, in good faith, to help our neighbors, God works through us, so that Jesus will be able to say to us: “I know you. You visited me, clothed me and fed me. You gave me a phone call and sent me a card. And, even before you did those things, I gave myself, my body and blood, for you. Welcome home.”

The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart, a fountain ever springing!
All things are mine, since I am his! How can I keep from singing?

Reinhold Niebuhr was a theologian who advised presidents and many public figures and he said this in 1952, a time when there were many things that people feared and worried over, despite the relative prosperity of the country at the time. His formula for stress relief is this:

“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished along; therefore, we must be saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend as it is from our standpoint; therefore, we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.”

The only place we receive that kind of hope, that kind of faith, that kind of love and that kind of forgiveness is from God. Because of God’s righteousness, God’s generosity, those gifts are poured out for us. And those gifts remain solid, come hell or high water. No adjustment for inflation. There is always enough to go around. And we cannot be separated from them. The Spirit gives us faith so that we might believe in this hope that has been poured into our hearts.

We receive the blessings of those gifts, hope, faith, love and forgiveness, when we think about them when we get up and when we go to bed, while we’re eating and when we’re driving, talking to our children, our spouses and our neighbors. We all must remind each of these things. We need to hear the gospel, the good news from one another.

This is the cross- through which we have been saved and joined forever to the God who created and loves us.

Here is the water- that washes us and draws us together.

There is the foretaste of the feast to come- when all things will be made new, all our questions will be answered and the answers will no longer seem as necessary.

We build the houses of hearts on these everlasting truths, on this foundation:

Christ is Lord of heaven and earth.

How can we keep from singing?