Saturday, March 12, 2011

Sin and Consequences

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11
March 13, 2011

Sin is most often defined in Lutheran theology as a broken relationship. Sin is not so much about what we do, but who we are in relationship with others. If we treasure our relationships and care for the other person in that relationship, we are less likely to have a broken relationship. When we trust in God to know what is best for us, we strengthen the relationship between us and God.
But, God created within us the ability and desire to make our own decisions. We are concerned about our own wants and needs, and believe they are more important than the wants and needs of the other person. That can lead to a break in the relationship. We believe we know more than God does about what is best for us, and it breaks the trusting relationship between us and God.
… The familiar story from Genesis in our first reading today is usually referred to as “The Fall.” The story of Adam and Eve explains to all humanity why things are the way they are. Eve and Adam are us – we all want to know as much as God; we all want to control our own destinies; we all want to believe there is another way to understand the things God has said which are more in tune with our own preferences.
Eve, and Adam were together in the garden. The serpent reinterpreted God’s words: “Couldn’t you think about it another way? Why wouldn’t you want to know as much as God? Wouldn’t that be cool?” They listened to the serpent’s words and were persuaded that no great harm would come to them.
We might notice that although Eve took the first bite, Adam did not say, “No, Eve. God said we shouldn’t eat this fruit.” He enjoyed his bite as much as she did.  They both put their own wants above the relationship they had with God. They wanted to have even more freedom than they already had. They were not content to be less than God; their actions broke part of the relationship with God. Interestingly, the tasting of the fruit is not termed “sin;” sin does not show up until Chapter 4, when Cain murders Abel.
… Frequently we ask why there is sin in the world and we want to know why God lets bad things happen, especially to good people. The ancient world believed that the waters held the chaos, the evil. In the act of creation, God put in order the various elements of the world. When God’s ruah, God’s wind/breath/spirit, moved over the waters, it held back and controlled the chaos and evil the ancients believed were present there, but did not remove it. The ancient world understood that the chaos and evil was still there, present beyond the dome of the sky and in the deeps of the waters, lurking at the edges of God’s good world.
In some cases, chaos is a result of the natural forces of our world – forces which show up as earthquakes and tsunamis. These forces are not evil. They are not punishment for wrong; they are not rewards for righteousness. They simply are what they are.
The ancients also understood that the world God made was good, but not perfect. As humans interact with God and with each other, God is not pulling puppet strings and in control of every aspect of human lives. God has given responsibility and stewardship of creation to humans – who are not as smart as God, who are not perfect.
The story of creation shows us something else: there is something within each of us that allows us to consider options, alternative ways of understand God’s words and actions. The freedom to think for ourselves leads us to make choices which are not always God-focused. Our choices lead us to broken relationships, because we put our own needs and wants first. Evil and chaos can result from humans making their own decisions and choices.
… Which leads us now to the story of Jesus in the wilderness. Immediately after being baptized in the Jordan River, Jesus heads into the nearby wilderness. Our text makes it plain that Jesus faced temptations; he needed to resist the easy way to accomplish God’s purpose. He needed to say to himself and to God, I’ll do what God wants, not what I might want. Rather than believe in the devil’s promises, Jesus turns his trust to God and God’s promises.
We can learn from both of these texts how to make choices and decisions. We can consult scripture, as Jesus did. As we consult scripture, we need to read scripture in context: in the context of the whole passage, chapter, and book; in the context of the people to whom the author was writing; and in the context of our relationship with each other and with God.
We can learn from Eve and Adam that there are consequences to our actions and decisions. Even though it seems like a good idea at the time, we need to discern what might be some possible consequences of the decisions and actions we are about to make. 
No matter how hard we try to be perfect, it is not possible for us to be perfect and to resist all temptations. There is no way we can know all the consequences.
For example, my parents were both smokers. My father probably began smoking while he was in the service during World War II. My mother began smoking while she was pregnant with Dave, my younger brother. Dad said it would help her feel better during her pregnancy. Dad died of COPD, Mom died of emphysema. When they started smoking, it seemed like a good idea. Once hooked, they were unable to stop. They didn’t realize – not many realized – that they were destroying their health, and putting the health of their children at risk.
Since we are not and cannot be perfect, we can learn from Paul that no matter what actions and decisions we make, Jesus’ life, death and resurrection make us right with God. This is a free gift of God, not dependent on our perfect actions, but depending solely on God’s desire to have a relationship with us. This is grace.
Sin is present in the world. Temptation is present in the world and within each of us. None of us is perfect. We can try to be perfect, but we can’t. What we can do is seek to live with God’s purposes in mind, and treat each other with the love and mercy God shows to us. When we offer each other mercy, we help to heal broken relationships, among us humans, and between us and God.
This week, as we begin the journey to the cross, I invite you to resist the temptation to break relationships. Easier said than done, I know. So let’s give it a focus. The serpent used words to tempt Adam and Eve into eating the forbidden fruit. The devil used words, including the words of scripture, to try to tempt Jesus away from God’s purpose. Paul used words to explain that we are all in need of God’s grace, given through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
This week, let’s resist the temptation to judge others, and instead, let’s say only kind words about other people. Let’s become aware of how many times we criticize someone, and how it feels to stop using words against other people. Let’s also not use our own words against ourselves. Let’s remember that all people, even those who trouble us, even you and I, are children of God, loved and valued by God, and deserving of mercy.
Please pray with me: Gracious God, you created us to be good, but not perfect, and to be in relationships with you and with each other. Help us to be kind and merciful, and to live out your purposes of justice and mercy for all. This week, help us to think and say kind words about ourselves and about each other. Amen

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Guess what? We’re sinners!

March 9, 2011 

We don’t like to think of ourselves as sinners, but on Ash Wednesday it’s hard to avoid thinking about our sinfulness. The texts and actions within this service make it perfectly clear that we are far from perfect.
I once put a message on the sign outside of the church for all to read: “Sinners welcome.” My intent was to say to all those who thought they were too sinful to come to church, that they were welcome. As I spoke with a member with young adult children, she said the sign was having an effect opposite what I intended. Her daughter refused to go to a place that called her a sinner. 
Each week, when we confess our sins, that silence for reflection can seem terribly long, or terribly short, depending on our perspective. It is not enough time to list all of our sins, or it isn’t enough time to remember even one of our sins.
Our texts for today/tonight make sure we know we are sinners. How many if us, for example, think of sin as only a personal matter? For Joel, it was a matter pertaining to the whole people of Israel. The immediate concern appears to have been an infestation of locusts, which turned the sky black, and consumed the entire crop the people were depending on to feed themselves. Joel speaks for God and accused the people as a whole. They have acted faithlessly and thoughtlessly, and God was punishing them.
A similar concern for us is global warming. We have acted together, consuming and abusing the earth God has given us and future generations. Joel would accuse us and declare that the challenges we are about to face are God’s punishment for our faithless and thoughtless actions. We need to repent and turn our hearts toward God.
Our texts for today/tonight make sure we know we are sinners. How many of us, for example, take living our faith as seriously as Paul does? How many of us would welcome beatings, imprisonment, shame, and the like as part of our ministry? Yet for Paul, it simply comes with his calling to share the good news of God’s mercy in Jesus Christ. He turns the hardships into joy, an expression of his faith in Jesus.
Not everyone must experience what Paul does to share our faith in Jesus, but for most of us, telling someone else we believe in Jesus and do such and such – or don’t do such and such – because of our faith is difficult for us to do. In the US, it is not normally risky to express our belief in public, yet we keep silent – we were taught to never discuss religion, politics, or money in polite company. And so, we keep our faith – our Jesus – to ourselves.
Our texts for today/tonight make sure we know we are sinners. How many if us, for example, are just going through the motions when we come to worship, because our minds and hearts are elsewhere? I don’t know about you, but when I take that moment of silence before we begin worship, I am working to gather my scattered thoughts about all the things I have to remember and do, I am working to chase away the distractions which draw me away from my focus on God, and I am working to turn my full attention to God and what God wants from me for the next hour.
Our texts for today/tonight make sure we know we are sinners. How many if us, for example, at least secretly want people to know how generous we are, how much we have given to help such and such a cause? For sure, the people with wings and buildings named after themselves in hospitals and university campuses want their generosity known. Or, how many of us don’t want it made known how little we give in Jesus’ name? How many of us put too much of our faith in our financial treasure, and not as much faith in the treasure of faith in Jesus?
The good news for us is that when we admit our sinfulness, our imperfections, Joel promises us that God is gracious and merciful, abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. Paul declares that we are made right with God through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. And Jesus promises that God hears us when we pray, especially when we pray and confess in the secret of our hearts.
Of what do you need to repent? In what ways are you imperfect? In what ways are you guilty of abusing God’s abundance? For what do you need forgiveness? Where do you need God’s mercy?
Forgiveness and mercy have been promised to us. The more we confess, the more we are able to realize our sinfulness, the more we are able to appreciate the gift of God’s mercy, love, and forgiveness.
Today/tonight we wear the ashes of confession and repentance. But the ashes do not need to remain on our foreheads. In fact, if you wish you may wash them off as you leave worship. We have been made right with God by Jesus – and wear the invisible but always present sign of his love in the cross marked on us at our baptism.

Please pray with me. Merciful God, we forget so often that you are God and we are not. We fail to realize the sins we commit as a whole people, and as individuals. Have mercy on us, your own people. Amen