Ash Wednesday – February 14, 2018

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Increasing as I age, I become more aware of my sinful nature. It’s not as if I’m a terrible person, but I realize the powerful effect sin has on my life and the world God loves. Perhaps it is the realization I have that I have the power to destroy and great potential to create distress and havoc. Not that I would ever wish to access my ability to create harm and hurt others, but I am aware of my power and limitations.

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St. Ignatius described sin as putting our hope in the wrong things. From this perspective, I can see how far off my inner drive and thoughts are from the will of God. I think for some it would be just easier to give into sin and live a life without any internal examination to discover the beauty of one’s self. In other words, it is so tempting to live life in these times of transition with the motto, “Do whatever you want as long as you don’t harm anyone.” After all, it is the beginning of the age of authenticity. The point in time where our own experience directs our life and if we don’t like doing something we might as well quit the practice because the cost of missing out on something else is too significant.

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The world is getting smaller every day and more focus on the self. Losing sight of the inner relatedness of life is easy.

As Dr. King taught, “all people see in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

In other words, what affects one person impacts us all. We might not consciously be aware of, but we are all, as Dr. King suggests, woven together into one fabric of life.

Moving away from our self-centered way of living to a concern for the Commonwealth of all people was Dr. King’s vision of what he called the “Beloved community” in which he meant the Body of Christ dwelling together under the Reign of God. The sin manifests itself when we divide the world into the “good” and the “bad.” Of course, we are always the good ones; the others are bad. The ones who have a problem are still outside of us, and therefore we tell ourselves we must struggle against those outside our group.

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But a real community is different because of the realization that the evil is inside of us – not just inside the community or group, but inside of me. Jesus talks about this as thinking about the need to remove the speck of dust from my neighbor’s eye but overlooking the log that dwells within my eye. Sin dwells within me. Warfare is within me, within my community. We confess that we aren’t living the life God desires for us and that we place our hope in things that do not create an experience for all.

Jesus calls us into living a different vision for life. A life where, through our baptism into Christ’s death, we too are called to live a different narrative. A narrative where we are called to be agents of peace amidst the violent nature of the world while recognizing the warfare that is going on inside of me.

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Jesus calls us to seek the wholeness, in that our souls are restless until they abide with God. Nothing else will satisfy this longing. Many will attempt to fill their spiritual needs with things that are not spiritual, and as a result, they can never find that inner peace as they continuously battle their own self.

Jesus gives us words of great hope this Ash Wednesday. He tells us that he is God’s “Way, Truth, and Life.” There is a need in all of our souls that we cannot meet. It’s impossible for a human to be completely satisfied on our own. We seek for meaning and life outside ourselves.

This is the day we remember how we have placed our hope in those things that are not God. That we have all wondered from the Truth, Way, and Life that God desires for us. This is the day we remember that we are not at peace. We wrestle with far more matters of life than we care to admit. This is the day where we remember that we have neglected God’s call to live peacefully in community with the world God loves. And because of all this, one day our life on earth will eventually come to an end.

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This is a heavy day. But there is hope. Hope is found in the alternative vision Jesus offers in which there are many places to dwell in God’s house. In Jesus, there are many kinds of people who stay and live out what Dr. King called a “beloved community.”

This Lent, we will dig deeper what it means that Jesus is the “Way.” Not “one way” or “a way” but “The Way.” Jesus words in the Gospel speak to us in ways that our culture cannot and will not talk. So, remember to listen to his words as if you were hearing them for the first time. Think about what you are seeing in your life and what God wants to show you. For God is there, ready to receive us and forgive us even in spite of ourselves.

Hear his invitation to repentance and the possibility of growth in your faith again. Trust that where Jesus is, there we may also be. Amen.

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Water and the Word: Lutherans and Baptism

From the looks of it, baptism may not appear to be a miracle, but it is the most important step in the faith of person.  It can looks so ordinary – a couple of ministers in robes, a couple of parents, gathered around a bowl to say a few words and splash some water on a baby who many times is a sleep.  Who’d ever guess that this might just be the most important event in someone’s life?

But, isn’t just like God, you know….the God who was born in a manger, to hide what might be the most miraculous event in a simple ceremony.

Baptism is a miracle in it we hear the Word of God and the washing of water in which God declares each of us to be God’s own beloved. Where we are taken into the communion of other saints, and are given a future that God promises to us that not even death or the devil will be able to destroy.

To understand the importance of this sacrament, we need to back-fill the biblical story all the way back to the first chapter of the first book in the bible, Genesis.  Where Adam and Eve experience the fall from paradise.

Christian understanding is that it was because of turning their back on God that God cast them out of the garden and because of this, everyone is born into what St. Augustine calls “Original Sin”.

The bible speaks of the wages of sin as death.  In that we all will die as a result of the fall.

St. Paul talks about the “old self” before baptism, as being the Old Adam, as in the Adam before the fall.

And I think we can carry this a step further in Lutheran’s understanding of baptism.  The Old Adam in each of us loves to attach baptism and ignore the promise that God has made to us in the water and the word.  “Water”… humph…   “Water!  Whoever heard of water and God coming to us?  We flush our toilets with water and now you’re telling me that God is coming to me through means of water? Ha!

Hear how silly of a claim that is for a non-believer?

But baptism isn’t just water for Lutherans, it is water along with the Word of God.  The water and the Word cannot be separated.  Apart from the Word of God, the water is just water.  Apart from the water, the Word is still God’s Word, but the sacrament isn’t there without both.

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Make disciples of all nations” Jesus says in Matthew’s gospel.  How does this happen?   We make disciples through baptism, “baptizing them in the name of the father, son and holy spirit.”

Let’s face it.   That’s the easy part.  The sacrament is the easy part.  But that’s not where Jesus ends it.

And teach them to obey everything that I have commanded you, remembering I am with you always, to the end of the age.” – Matthew 28:20

Go therefore” The syntax of the text is a command.  We receive Jesus’ command to go.

So why is it, if our baptism into Christ is so full of grace and gifts, isn’t it hard to understand why the world isn’t clamoring for it, shouldn’t our calendar be so full of scheduled baptisms that we find it hard to fit them all in?

Actually though, the truth of the matter is quite the opposite.

There isn’t a gift, next to Jesus himself, that the ‘Old Adam’, the world, and the devil have a deeper hatred.  Baptism, as we say in our liturgy is about a death.  It is the funeral for the Old Adam, but it’s also about a birth.  It’s the birth of your new identity.  So, it’s no wonder that the Old Adam in us wants to attach God’s promise to us in baptism. 

See, the Old Adam in us likes things the way they are because they please us.   The ‘Old Adam’ in us wants to attack God’s promise to make it seem as though we are doing something for God —  not something that God has done and does for us.  As a result, people wind up fearing, loving, and trusting in what they do and what they can do, and it demishishes what God has done for us.

I’ve heard it said on many occasions from pagans, atheists, and unbelievers, that baptism is a magical, good luck charm and a life after death insurance policy so that we won’t be afraid to die.  I can see their point, based upon their observation of laissez-fare cultural Christianity in which one is baptized but that’s the extent of their faith life.

And then, on the other side, the super-pious ignore Baptism as if God can’t do what God has promised, and needs our help in god’s assistance.  This can lead us to believe that we can concentration on our own convictions and decisions for Christ, and to trust in our own “experiences” as being the truth.

At the end of the day, the fact is, Christ has commanded Baptism.  Baptism shouldn’t be scary nor is it malicious…. It is a loving order that God has directed to the Church.

And so, I leave you with this question.  “What’s the point?”  Here again, in the Small Catechism, Luther says that baptism is about the forgiveness of sin, redeems from death and the devil, and the offer of eternal life.  

Our baptism was a mini-judgement.  As the Word of God was spoken to you and the water washed across your face, God has judged you already.  You’ve been told the verdict and what it will be on the last day.  “Not guilty,” and the same words at God’s Son Jesus were uttered, “This is my son, the beloved. With you I am well pleased.”  After God’s judgement, then we receive the gifts of the last judgement: forgiveness, deliverance, and everlasting life.

The old Adam in us hears this and says, “Wait a minute, there has to be a catch somewhere.  Nothing in life is free.  How can god do that?” So, the Old Adam hunts around for a good response.  “This stuff is too good to be true.”  Where’s the catch? What’s the hidden agenda?”

Aha” old Adam finally reads Luther’s response.  “We have to believe it… that’s the price tag.”  There’s a method to this logic.  If we just have enough believe in God.  If we convince ourselves that our believe in God is sufficient, surly God will be pleased with us, right?

God doesn’t work that way, though.  There is no catch, not trap, nor hidden agendas or even a price tag on baptism.  It is only a free gift.

God wants you to believe, but God isn’t waiting for you to come up with enough belief or trust on your own. God gives what God commands– making a believer out of you, and putting to death the old Adam.

Baptism is just the entry point into the Christian faith.  From our baptism onward, God sends the Holy Spirit to work in us each day to make believers out of us.  Then there’s the old Adam that says, “It can’t be a gift. Somehow there’s got to be a catch to everything.  And what about the people who are baptized and never do anything about it? There must be something we have to do ourselves to get what we want from God.”

No” says god.  “There isn’t a catch. All I have to give is yours, and I’ve already given everything you need in your baptism, as a gift.  All I want is to make a better believer out of you.  And I’m doing that myself.  There’s nothing more that can be done.

“I started on you on the day you were baptized, and I’m going to keep at until the day I take you to myself.”

Sisters and brothers, when we are able finally see and recognize the gift God has offered, is what will finally destroy the old Adam.

Finally we can jump off the merry-go-round of trying to self-justify and just be the man or woman, girl or boy who God has created you to be and nothing more.  It is God setting you free from yourself.  Knowing the promise, we are freed from trying to impress God.

You are freed to call on God as Abba. You are free from trying to impress people with your old Adam’s religion.  You are free to speak the word to your neighbors, telling them of all that God does and gives.  You’re free from your own doubts and judgements.  You are free to believe what God has already told you and will tell you each new day:  He who believes and is baptized shall be saved.” That’s you.  In our baptism we can be sure of that.

Amen.