Spectacular Failures

Sermon – Sunday, October 28, 2012
Zion Lutheran Church, Hoople, ND
John 8:31-36

In one of my classes in seminary we had a very large and challenging project to do and the professor said, “It will either be a great success or a spectacular failure!” Failure? That’s not what any of us wanted to hear. We wanted the great success. Who wouldn’t? Many of us wanted the elusive A. No one wanted a project that was a failure. That is the opposite of success. It’s another word for defeat, loss or just plain mess. And spectacular? I hardly thought spectacular was the right adjective to describe failure! Spectacular is another word for wonderful, impressive and astonishing – words normally not associated with failure. But the truth is that is what it means, along with another word…daring. What he was asking us to be was daring – to do our best, to take a chance, take a risk even if it meant a daring mess! That wasn’t the kind of truth we wanted to hear.

It’s not the kind of truth the Jews who believed Jesus wanted to hear either. He told them, “the truth will make you free” and they didn’t want to hear that. Because that meant that they weren’t free. They said, “hey, we’ve never been slaves to anyone.” If I were making a documentary this is where I would stop and tell a little of the backstory. The Jews were never slaves to anyone? Who were they kidding? Did they forget that they had been slaves in Egypt? They were suffering and prayed to be saved from their bondage and so God sent Moses. Then they were slaves to the Assyrians, and then the Persians, and at the time Jesus was talking with them they were under Roman occupation – slaves to the Romans. How could they say they’ve never been slaves to anyone?

The truth is not always easy to admit. In fact, we can’t even admit the truth if we don’t first see the truth. And more often than not we don’t want to see the truth. Jesus said “the truth will set you free” but it doesn’t feel that way. The truth doesn’t always sound like good news; at times it sounds more like a death sentence.

Three years ago when my twenty year old nephew was hit by a car while on his motorcycle, he ended up in a coma. He was in that coma for six months and we prayed that he would get better. We prayed that he would recover, but eventually we had to face the truth that he was not going to get any better. The truth didn’t feel like good news.

I have family members and friends who either had cancer or currently have cancer and many of you have family and friends who are dealing with it right now. No one wants to hear the words cancer. No one wants to hear the truth because it’s just too painful. As hard as it is not to know, sometimes it’s harder to hear the truth.

It’s hard to be involved in an intervention when someone doesn’t want to see that they need help from addictions such as alcohol, drugs, gambling or food. They can’t see that the very thing they think is helping them is actually enslaving them. And sometimes even our worries and fears can become so addictive that they hold us back from living our lives to the fullest.

It’s a whole lot easier to deceive ourselves than to admit the truth. At least that way we can feel good. At least we can have hope, but we don’t see that it’s false hope. We’re living in darkness. We’re living a lie. But it’s something that seems to come naturally to our human nature. We start as children. We don’t want people to be disappointed with us, or we don’t want to get in trouble, so we tell a lie and we think we’re safe. But lies have a way of catching up with us. And eventually the truth comes out. In the meantime…..we’re slaves. “We are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.” We are slaves to our own lies.

Not only do we lie to others, we lie to ourselves and eventually we believe those lies. We don’t want to admit we’re judgmental, or prejudiced, or insensitive, or just plain hard-hearted. It’s always someone else’s fault that something went wrong. They made me late. They forgot to remind me of something. They didn’t treat me right so that’s why I did it. It’s easy to point the finger away from ourselves than take responsibility because when we do that, well… the truth hurts. No one wants to feel bad. But every time we blame someone else instead of owning up to our own sins we “deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” But what’s the rest? We say it every Sunday. “but if we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” We are slaves to sin, but Jesus, who is the Truth, will set us free! That’s good news isn’t it?

Doesn’t everyone want to be free? Believe it or not, freedom can be a scary thing. In the movie, the ShawShank Redemption, the main character, Andy, spent two decades in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Yet, he never gave up hope. He somehow remained free even while in prison, while Brooks, another inmate, was in prison for 50 years and by the time he was finally released he couldn’t adjust to his new freedom and killed himself. He was so used to being held captive that he didn’t know how to be free. Many of us don’t know how to be free either, even when offered God’s grace. We are trapped in our own fears.

God says I forgive you, but we can’t forgive ourselves. We don’t feel worthy enough. We don’t feel we deserve it. We stay slaves to our own anger at not only others but ourselves. How could we do such a thing? How could we let this happen? Why didn’t I prevent this? We don’t know how to be free. Martin Luther suffered from this too. He felt he just couldn’t do enough things to earn God’s good favor and forgiveness. Until….until the words of Scripture finally penetrated his heart and he finally heard them not as a condemnation, but as good news. He finally realized that no he did not deserve God’s forgiveness and love and he could not earn it, but that grace is a free gift. We are saved by grace through faith! It’s not what we do or don’t do that saves us. Only God can save us through Jesus Christ. There is freedom in that truth, and responsibility.

Luther said to “sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly.” What Luther was acknowledging was that yes, we are sinners and we are going to make mistakes. We are going to have failures, but there is something more powerful than our sins and that is the power of Jesus who takes away the sin of the world! We don’t have to be slaves to sin any longer because Jesus has set us free. We are therefore free to serve. We are free to love others with the love that Jesus has shown to us. We are free to forgive others as Jesus has forgiven us. We are free to be daring and risk all for the sake of the Gospel. We are free to make daring choices even if they seem like failures.

Martin Luther made daring choices by standing up for the Gospel. The reformation is not just something that happened in the 16th century. As Christians we are called to continue that reformation today. We are called to continue to re-form and re-create the church in the 21st century. We are called to speak out against injustice wherever we see it. We are called to love people even if it is not easy. We are called to speak the truth even if it is unpopular. We are called to do our best and trust in the promises of God. Trust that God will work all things together for good. We are called to be bold and dare to make spectacular failures!

Jesus dared to make a spectacular failure by His death on the cross. Yet, God worked that spectacular failure for our salvation. Jesus’ death and resurrection became our resurrection. We have been saved by God’s gift of grace. The Son has made us free and we are free indeed! Dare to live in that freedom! Amen!

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What Matters Most

Sermon – Sunday, September 30, 2012
Zion Lutheran Church, Hoople, ND
Mark 9:38-50

“Now the star bellied Sneetches had bellies with stars, but the plain bellied Sneetches had none upon thars. Now those stars weren’t so big they were really quite small. You would think such a thing wouldn’t matter at all.” These words are from the children’s book The Sneetches by Theodore Geisel, more popularly known as Dr. Seuss. They were written in 1961 during the peak of the civil rights movement, yet the message is timeless. The problem is human nature and the sinfulness of pride and arrogance. And as you heard me explain in the children’s sermon it’s a problem that has existed since the beginning of time and certainly one that is highlighted in today’s Scripture readings.

In our Old Testament reading from Numbers we hear that the Spirit of God descended on Eldad and Medad and they were prophesying. What an amazing thing, right? But Joshua, Moses’ assistant and one of his chosen men, told Moses to stop them.

And even Moses is surprised with this response from Joshua… Moses says, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” Moses is right. What a blessing to have all of God’s people witnessing to others. But Joshua isn’t happy. Joshua isn’t overjoyed. Joshua isn’t thanking God that there are now more workers spreading the word of God. No, Moses is right. Joshua is jealous; he doesn’t want other people doing great things. After all, he is one of the chosen people.

And this attitude of self-righteousness continues as we read in Mark’s gospel that John tells Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” Again, someone outside of the established group is doing miraculous deeds and because he is not from Jesus’ group of disciples he is seen as a threat. This outsider is viewed as someone who is against Jesus and his teachings.

But Jesus responds that “whoever is not against us is for us.” This individual was given power by God to cast out demons just as Eldad and Medad were given power to prophesy. The great deeds they were doing were a result of the Spirit of God present in their lives, whether or not they were even aware of it themselves. God is always at work in our lives even when we don’t know it, even when we aren’t aware of it. Yet our very actions are the sign – evidence of the fruit of the Spirit – that God is using us to accomplish great things. But when pride gets in the way we can block that channel for the Holy Spirit to work in us.

The disciples could not cast out demons because they were focusing on themselves. In last week’s gospel they were arguing over who was the greatest. And before that they had tried to cast out demons because they had forgotten to pray first. It seems obvious that the disciples were jealous because these people who weren’t part of the elite group of disciples all of a sudden can do things that the disciples couldn’t do. Aren’t we all like more often than we’d like to admit?

We see someone achieving success at work and wonder why they get the promotion and not us. What do they have that I don’t have? Or someone at school gets an A without studying and we work really hard and our grade is not so good. Or we see someone who lives what we think is a pretty carefree and unfaithful lifestyle and they seem to get ahead and we work hard and try to be a good person and we can’t seem to accomplish anything. We make groups all the time between the people who are in and the people who are out and mostly it’s because in some way, whether we want to admit it or not, they threaten us. We want to get ahead. We want the prize whatever that is. We don’t want others who are different to accomplish those things we can’t and we don’t want to share because there may not be enough. And then what if – like the Sneetches – we eventually can’t tell who is in and who is out? What then?

Jesus said, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” And instead of worrying so much about what the other person or people are or aren’t doing we need to be concerned about our own behavior. We need to keep focused on the real prize and that is Jesus. We need to be concerned about doing the work of the kingdom and not the work of ourselves. When John said the person who was casting out demons had to be stopped he said it was because he was not following us. That’s an interesting choice of words because instead of focusing on following Jesus, the disciples were now the ones who were the focus.

In my home congregation in New Hampshire, there was an Anglican church that was newly formed and they needed a place to worship. So our congregation decided to share our worship space with them until they could find a place of their own. We would worship in the morning and they worshipped there in the afternoon. This was the case for many years until we both grew bigger and had to have separate spaces. The focus however, was never that they believed differently than us and therefore we couldn’t associate with them. The focus was always that though we may have had differences, we were both trying to follow Jesus in our own ways.

And the church in New Hampshire is part of an interfaith council in the city. It is comprised of Lutheran, Methodist, Catholic, Episcopal, Congregational, Unitarian, Mormon, Jewish and several other faith traditions. All work together to help the greater community by finding the things we have in common rather than those things that divide us. Even here in Walsh County we have ministerium groups of different denominations that work together to help those in need in our community. “Those who are not against us are for us.”

How do we know who is for us? The evidence – the fruits of the Spirit – reveals this. The fruits of the Spirit are love, peace, joy, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Acts of kindness, like giving someone a cup of water, are evidence of that Spirit and we must let the Spirit blow where it will. Jesus says we must not be a stumbling block to them. When we are judgmental or narrow-minded we block the work of the Spirit not only in another’s life, but in our own as well. Even in the people that we see as enemies who have beliefs different than ours, there is a portion of truth to be found in them, for God is so almighty and powerful that not one person or group can grasp the fullness of God’s power. God’s glory is immeasurable and God’s love is enough for all people.

The message of the gospel is to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and to love your neighbor as yourself.” Mother Theresa, a great example of living a life of love and service in the world, said, “If you judge people, you have no time to love them.” And when she was asked once how she had accomplished such great things in her life responded, “None of us can do anything great on our own, but we can all do a small thing with great love.” Love may seem like something quite small, but it really does matter, in fact, most of all.

Our Scripture texts today tell us to stop judging and start loving. May the Spirit of God descent upon our hearts and teach us to love as God loves us.   Amen.