Tag Archive: Martin Luther


Persevering in Prayer

This is Sunday’s sermon I preached on Luke 18:1-8 at Community Lutheran Church in Sterling, Virginia.

The Gospel reading this morning opens with this: “Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”  Jesus says the disciples have a need to pray always.  It’s a necessity.  It’s not a suggestion or a tip, but it’s necessary.  That’s pretty strong language.  And maybe as good Lutherans we don’t like to hear that language of “must,” but when we think about prayer as our means of communication with God, it is pretty important stuff!

In thinking about prayer, I spent some time on that most theological of resources, YouTube, watching movie clips in which people try to pray.  While one from the end of Bruce Almighty was very touching and heartfelt, most of them were funny.  Usually, in these scenes people unaccustomed to praying are asked to pray before a meal or before a group of people.  They try to build a prayer, stringing together bits and pieces of religious language they’ve heard, along with song lyrics (a little Godspell perhaps?), and even the Pledge of Allegiance.  People look up from their prayers, eyebrows raised, concern on their faces and awkwardness and hilarity ensue.

Now watching these clips gave me a good chuckle, but these movies also pointed out another truth: many people are uncomfortable with prayer.  Maybe that’s why Jesus spends a great deal of time encouraging the disciples to pray, especially in the Gospel of Luke.  In Luke’s Gospel, we hear about Jesus praying and discussing prayer more often than in the any of the other Gospels.

Jesus’ parable about the persistent widow must have struck his listeners and the early church as pretty funny.  Here’s a vulnerable widow persistently harassing a judge who is neither objective nor impartial to give her justice.  The odds are not in her favor, and yet, she never gives up.  Finally, he gives in, figuring that it’s in his best interest to give her what she wants.  And what we miss as English speakers is that the judge actually says he’s going to act “in order that she doesn’t finally strike him in the eye.”  Yes.  That’s what it says! So Jesus is telling a parable where the powerful judge is worried about a vulnerable, powerless widow giving him a black eye.  This lady might not only physically make him look bad, but also ruin his reputation by continually seeking justice.  The image must have been quite an absurd one to Jesus’ hearers!

Jesus goes on to say that if even this terrible guy gives justice to the widow out of his own selfish interests, how much more will a good and loving God give ear and justice to God’s chosen ones who cry out day and night?

Right before this story, Jesus spoke with the Pharisees and explained that the kingdom of God was already present.  He explained that it was not completely here and that it was unlike any other kingdom they might have seen in the world.  Instead, he said that it was here already, growing in and among people.  He then spoke about how the Son of Man would come again unexpectedly.  It is in this context that we hear about the need to pray always.

In the first communities to receive and hear Luke’s Gospel, the faithful believers were eagerly waiting for Jesus to return and to bring about the fullness of God’s kingdom on earth.  But they needed encouragement to hold on and to be faithful during this period of waiting.  The Romans had destroyed the magnificent Temple in Jerusalem, and the believers were trying to figure out what it meant to follow Christ in the Roman Empire.  How long must they wait for God’s reign and justice?  How long must they hold on until Jesus returned?  And how could they hold fast in the meantime?

The answer was to be persistent in prayer.  And the same is true for us today.  Prayer is a means of communicating with God.  As Teresa of Avila, the 16th century mystic and reformer wrote, “Prayer, is nothing but friendly intercourse, and frequent solitary converse, with Him who we know loves us.”  It’s a way of not only telling God what is on our minds and in our hearts, but of being open to listening to the whispers of the Holy Spirit.  It’s also a way of connecting with one another in community.  Listening to others pray not only inspires us to pray, but also opens us to the concerns and needs of those around us.  And coming before God to intercede for others brings us closer to those for whom we are praying.  Prayer shapes our attitudes toward God and others and transforms our hearts in the process.

Prayer is an incredible gift and yet I still find that I don’t pray as often as I’d like to or as I should.  And maybe it’s the same for you.  I’d love to tell you that I pray every day for an hour, but that would be lying.  When things are difficult, perhaps it is easier to pray more, but what about when things are going pretty well? It has been my experience that God is always patiently and persistently reminding me of my need to pray.  I am reminded of this through others requesting prayer and also through others in the body of Christ reminding me of the importance of prayer.  I also experience God calling me to prayer through that still, small voice that seems to gently say, “spend time with me in prayer.”

And even then, I confess that I sometimes put it off, metaphorically sticking my fingers in my ears and saying, “la la la la – I’ve got other things to do!”  But I’ve found that once I make that time to pray, it is almost always the case that I feel a greater sense of calm and peace.  You see, God always faithfully pursues, calling us to spend time with God in spite of ourselves.  Out of amazing love, God has chosen each and every one of us.  And so, God wants to hear everything that we have to say, even if we’re angry or frustrated with God.  That’s incredible.

But then there are the other times when prayer is a struggle.  Sometimes it seems as if God isn’t listening and that things will never change.  Sometimes the prayers seem to go unanswered.  Sometimes it seems that the right words don’t come and there doesn’t seem to be any sign of that peace or calm showing up.  Sometimes even though we feel called to serve or to take action, it can seem that what we’re doing isn’t making any difference.  What then?

It is then that we are to be persistent – to continue praying and bringing our needs, hurts, hopes and dreams before God in prayer.  It is then that we can remember that Jesus continued praying in the Garden of Gethsemane before the crucifixion even though it was difficult.  It is then that we can remember that Jesus prayed for his disciples and continues to encourage us to pray.  It is then that the Holy Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.  It is then that we persevere and push onward, trusting that God does hear and will act.

And it’s crucial to remember that we are a part of a community.  We’re not just praying alone or for our own needs, but with and for others and they for us.  As Martin Luther wrote in A Simple Way to Pray: “Finally, mark this, that you must always speak the Amen firmly.  Never doubt that God in his mercy will surely hear you and say ‘yes’ to your prayers.  Never think that you are kneeling or standing alone, rather think that the whole of Christendom, all devout Christians, are standing there beside you and you are standing among them in a common, united petition which God cannot disdain.  Do not leave your prayer without having said or thought, ‘Very well, God has heard my prayer; this I know as a certainty and a truth.’  That is what Amen means.”

When Jesus asks if he will find faith when he returns, I think he’s talking about this dogged, messy, stubborn, persistent faith that keeps on praying despite the odds.  It’s a faith that keeps on keeping on even though it doesn’t make any rational sense.  It’s hanging on tightly to God, even when it may seem foolish to others to do so.  It’s the faith that follows the way of the cross, believing that in death there is life.

In the words of one of my favorite singers, Audrey Assad:

My faith is not a fire
As much as it’s a glow
A little burning ember
In my weary soul
And it’s not too much
It’s just enough to give me hope
Because your love moves slow

God calls and empowers us through the Holy Spirit to persistent prayer and faith.  God invites, reminds and emboldens us to keep a steady ember aglow, waiting for God to fan us into faithful flames, capable of setting the world on fire with God’s love.

Unlike the unjust judge, God longs for us to spend time in prayer, pouring out our hearts, silently and aloud, through words and actions, individually and in community.  As Luther reminds us, “prayer is not overcoming God’s reluctance.  It is laying hold of His willingness.”  Praying to God is not wearing out a selfish and partial judge, but persistently embracing and enjoying God’s goodness and the relationship God wants to have with us.

In the week ahead, I invite and encourage you to experiment with prayer.  Pray for each member of your family – even the extended family.  Pray for your neighbors.  Pray for Community Lutheran.  Pray for the people you pass on the sidewalk.  Pray for people with whom you have a hard time interacting.  Pray for the person who cuts you off in traffic.  I know, that’s a tough one!  Request that others pray for you.  See what happens! Remember, you don’t have to be eloquent or use big theological words – you are talking to God, the One who knows you better than anyone else, even yourself.  God has given you a voice and a way of praying, so embrace it and use it!  Thanks be to God! Amen.

© 2013. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

Audrey Assad singing “Slow:”

Yesterday was Reformation Day, which I started by humming “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”  As a side note, I personally believe that every day should begin with this song! Anyway, after a musical beginning, I headed out early as I do every morning to Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität (LMU) München so that I would make it to my Hebrew class in time.  As I walked into the building from the subway I was thinking about spending time with my husband and one of my best friends later that afternoon.  Half daydreaming, I looked up at the door and there was a sign on it that said the building would be closed on Thursday, November 1 for Allerheiligen (All Saints’ Day).  I grinned, knowing that this day off gave me more time to spend with my hubby and friend, but then I looked pass the paper sign and through the glass door.

Through that door and on the left side of the grand old university hallway was a homeless man, sitting on one of the metal chairs that folds down from out of the wall.  He was wearing a black winter hat and had his hands tucked into his jacket pockets.  His head was leaned forward, bowed down in sleep.  I had seen him there before, wandering the university’s halls or sitting on the chairs on colder days, so I wasn’t really surprised to see him in the building.  However, seeing the note about Allerheiligen – about All Saints’ Day – and looking at this man jarred my senses.  The question that came to mind was: “who are the saints of God?”

On Tuesday, October 30, I had visited the Alte Pinakothek, a gorgeous art gallery featuring medieval and Renaissance art from all over Europe.  A lot of this art is religious in nature, and many of the paintings featured saints with their golden halos and the symbols of their sufferings, deeds, and miracles.  Having minored in Medieval Studies in college, this was all familiar (and wonderful!) to me.  I know a lot of the saints stories and so looking at these paintings featuring these people is kind of like visiting old friends.  But thinking about these depictions in contrast to the man I saw sleeping in the hall of the university… what a world of difference.

“Who are the saints of God?”  “Who are the holy ones of God?”

Are they just those who have lived exemplary lives?
Are the saints limited to those who have been martyred in the name of Christ?
Are they only those who can work miracles?

Martin Luther spoke of Christians at “simul justus et peccator” (simultaneously justified through Christ and sinners).  This means that while we are forgiven and washed clean of all our sins in baptism, we still continue to sin – we are always, at the same time, saints saved through Christ and his righteousness, and sinners.  Crazy!  Through Christ’s loving acts – his death and resurrection – we are all glorious saints, just like in those in the paintings.  At the same time, we are also imperfect people who continue to mess up, hurt ourselves and others, and fall short.  And as sinner/saints, we are dependent on God’s grace and not on what we have done or haven’t done.

And what of the homeless man?  I don’t know his situation or circumstances.  I don’t know his story.  I have no idea whether or not he believes in Christ.  I have no idea if he’s been baptized.  But what if I were to act as if he were one of the holy saints of God?  What if I looked a bit closer and saw Christ in him?  How would this change things?

I still love medieval and Renaissance art.  The vibrant colors and masterful depictions of Biblical stories, classical myths, and saints continue to enchant me.  But looking around, I think that there are other beautiful works of art.  They’re not depictions done in the medium of gold leaf, rich paints or delicate carvings, but depictions artfully crafted by the fingers of God in flesh and blood.  They’re images with flaws and imperfections, shocks and surprises, but maybe if we look a bit harder, we might see a halo poking through.

© 2012. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

“Homeless Man Sleeping with His Bible”

This is the sermon I preached this morning at Trinity Lutheran Church in North Bethesda, Maryland for the Feast of Mary, Mother of Our Lord.

Luke 1:46–55
And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

In order to get to the seminary in Gettysburg, I drive up Rt. 15, a pretty drive through farmland and over the Catoctin Mountains. About 40 minutes into my drive, I usually reach Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland just before crossing over the border into Pennsylvania. For those of you who haven’t been out that way, behind the University on a hill and reaching over the trees on an 80-foot tall bell tower is a gleaming gold statue of the Virgin Mary with her arms in a welcoming gesture. Each morning, I can’t help but look up at this statue to see how the sun is hitting it or how the morning fog is drifting around the mountains. Looking at this gorgeous golden statue, it’s almost hard to imagine Mary’s earthly life.

Mary’s own words in the Magnificat, our Gospel reading for today, sum up her life best: she sings that God looked on the “lowliness of his servant.” Mary was a poor, young Jewish girl, recently engaged to Joseph when she received the unexpected and life-changing news that she was to bear a son. This was not just any son either, but, as the angel Gabriel explained, a holy child, a child who would be known as the “Son of the Most High” and the “Son of God,” whose kingdom would have no end. Mary bears the son who shows us that God is indeed with us.

In her song, Mary sings exuberantly about the great deeds of God – actions affecting both the world and her own personal life. In fact, it is due to God’s work in her life that she declares that all generations will call her blessed. This is very odd considering that God’s work in her life almost certainly would have caused people to whisper about and look down on this pregnant, unmarried girl. Yet, even with these thoughts, Mary recognized that what God was doing in her was important and that she was chosen for a great task, and she joyfully responded to God’s call, trusting Gabriel’s message that “nothing will be impossible with God.”

Instead of choosing the rich or powerful, the ones society esteems, God calls and raises up the ordinary. Again and again, God’s stunning and gracious theme of lifting up the lowly is repeated in Scripture. Joseph, once a slave and prisoner in Egypt, is given tremendous power in the Pharaoh’s court. The shepherd boy David crushes the mighty Goliath and becomes a king who will be honored throughout time. God selects a poor, young woman from Nazareth to bring about the incarnation. And it is in the shame and humiliation of the cross that God’s incredible love for all of humanity, each and every one of us, is made visible.

As Mary sings, “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” In the Magnificat, Mary sings about the God who cares for the poor and hungry, once more giving them a name and a place in society. In the early church, Mary was given the name “Theotokos” a word which literally means “God-bearer.” While Mary’s specific calling was to physically bear God to the world, amazingly enough, God has also called us to be God-bearers – those who share the love of God with the world.

Our lives bear witness to the God who has been at work in them. Think about it – the word “Christian” indicates that we are to share Christ with one another and with the world. This title we carry is a sign, pointing to the one we follow. Like a sort of holy graffiti spelling out “God is here,” our lives should proclaim the work of the living and active God. But how do we bear the love of Christ to others?

This task may seem too big for us. I know some days it certainly feels that way to me! We say, “I can’t do what God is calling me to do. I’m not good enough” or “I don’t have the skills needed” or “I’m too afraid” or “what will I say?” But Mary, a young girl, uneducated and of low-ranking status in society, shows us that God doesn’t necessarily call those we would choose. Instead, God calls each one of us to be a part of the extraordinary work God is doing – to be a part of the kingdom of God, already here and still not quite fully realized.

Sadly, instead of following Mary’s example, we often construct barriers and walls to keep God out, when all God asks is that we become open to hearing how God is calling us. As Martin Luther pointed out when discussing the three miracles of Christmas, “the virgin birth is a mere trifle for God; that God should become man is a greater miracle; but most amazing of all is that this maiden should credit the announcement that she, rather than some other virgin, had been chosen to be mother of God. She held fast to the word of the angel because she had become a new creature. Even so must we be transformed and renewed in heart from day-to-day. Otherwise, Christ is born in vain.”

Just like Mary, the mother of our Lord, God asks us to be receptive to the work God longs to do in us and through us. Moreover, we must actually believe that God can and will do what God promises. Otherwise, as Luther argued, what is the point of Jesus coming into the world if we are not transformed by his love or refuse to heed his call or to share his love with those around us? In those moments when we believe and hold fast to the promises of God and allow God to work through us, we become God-bearers to those around us, even if we can’t always see the fruits of our labor.

This summer, I was a chaplain during my Clinical Pastoral Education internship. When I first began, I had this nervous feeling that people would be asking difficult theological questions of me – maybe even questions I wasn’t prepared to answer. Talk about intimidated! However, after a few weeks of visits, I realized, much to my surprise, that, more than anything, people wanted someone to listen, someone to whom they could explain their sorrows, fears, hope and dreams. Yes, above all, people wanted a compassionate ear, someone who would patiently and empathetically listen.

I found that as a chaplain, I was called to share the love of Christ with others by being with them in their struggles and loneliness. I came to realize that it wasn’t always in the words we say, but in how we open ourselves to receive others’ stories and to be with others that we bear God to those around us.

There is incredible good news in the lessons I learned this summer, as well as in the shining example Mary gives us. Both remind us that all are capable of bearing God to the world. It definitely doesn’t take a seminarian or a chaplain to listen or to be with others in their difficulties. Remember, Mary didn’t have any seminary training in order to be a God-bearer! Instead, Mary’s story and her song ask us to remember that each and every one of us, no matter how ordinary we think we are, has been called to show the love, mercy and compassion of God to others.

Within the church, people can respond to God’s call by being Stephen Ministers – people trained to be empathetic listeners – or by participating in other ministries. But it’s crucial to remember that God’s love is not confined inside the walls of the church. This spring, I was strengthened and encouraged in my faith by a Muslim woman. This young woman spoke of the difficulties one sometimes faces as a person of faith, but that these hardships only made her feel closer to God. This conversation reminded me that God is with us in all of our sufferings and trials and gave me energy to finish out the spring semester.

And, more recently, a friend of mine witnessed to the love of God by helping his neighbors. After hearing that they were grieving and going through a difficult time, he listened to their story, helped them bring groceries inside and offered his help if they needed it in the future. As Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest and prolific spiritual writer explained, “we are called to witness, always with our lives and sometimes with our words, to the great things God has done for us.” Sometimes simple gestures of patience, compassion and kindness are all people need to break through the darkness and remind them that there are people who care and a God who loves them.

There is a song by Brandon Heath entitled “Give Me Your Eyes” which has become a moving prayer for me. The lyrics are as follows:

“Give me your eyes for just one second,
Give me your eyes so I can see,
Everything that I keep missing,
Give me your love for humanity.
Give me your arms for the broken-hearted,
The ones that are far beyond my reach,
Give me you heart for the ones forgotten,
Give me your eyes so I can see…”

If we, like Mary, are open to listening to God and to what God is calling us to, we will indeed be given everything we need to reach out to others. Just as God kept the promises made to Abraham and the promise that a Savior would be born, God will be faithful and grant us what we need to reach out in love, mercy and service to others.

And, if we keep our eyes and, most importantly, our hearts open, we will find that there are plenty of people who could use a listening ear, a kind word or a shoulder to cry on. Moreover, we, like Mary in her song, can share the joy we have in knowing God and the freedom of forgiveness with a world weary and weighed down with violence, bad news and hurt. There are so many hungry people waiting to be filled with good things, whether that means food, a safe place to stay or hope for the future. How can we share God with them so that they also might be filled with good things?

Both CPE and Mary’s story have taught me that there is a beautiful ebb and flow to all of this. Mary is open to God’s frightening call to bring a Savior into the world, even though it might have meant ridicule and persecution for her. The disciples were open to Jesus’ call to follow and were empowered to spread the news of the kingdom of God. Jesus was open to life as one of us – open to suffering and death on a cruel cross in order to bring light, forgiveness and new life to every corner of the world. What if any of them hadn’t been open to God’s call or had said “no?”

This ebb and flow is crucial in our lives as followers of Christ. Daily, we remember our baptisms in which we have died with Christ and been raised to new life in him. Week after week we gather around the Lord’s Table to receive God and be nourished so that we can be sent back into the world to witness to God’s work in our lives. We must listen to others in order to know what they are going through in their lives so we can help bear their burdens. And, we ourselves, must be able to receive assistance from friends, neighbors and even strangers, so that, once again, we may be ready to tackle the tasks we have been given.

As Albert Schweitzer, a theologian, renowned organist and philanthropist of the 20th century encouraged, “Impart as much as you can of your spiritual being to those who are on the road with you, and accept as something precious what comes back to you from them.” We must learn to give and receive in our walk with Christ. We must spend time being filled up with the Spirit of God in worship, prayer, hearing the Word, in Communion and in fellowship with others so that we might reach out in love.

Each of us has an integral and irreplaceable part to play in this holy rhythm – this sacred dance. Are we open to what God is calling us to do or where God is calling us to be? Are we open to serving those God is calling us to serve? Do we take the time to listen to the still voice of God instead of plowing forward with our own agendas? Are we, like Mary, able to trust God and the work God wants to do in our lives? And, like Mary, can we sing out in joy and thanksgiving about the great things God has done for us and all people?

Mary’s song, the Magnificat, not only reminds us of the miraculous acts of God, but it serves as a witness to us that we are also called to be “God-bearers,” to use the gifts we have been given to share the love and forgiveness of God with the world. A young girl once listened to and trusted in the call of God to give birth to a child – a child who would grow up and change the world forever. If you listen closely, what is God calling you to do? Amen.

© 2010. Annabelle Peake. All rights reserved.

Sharing in Paul’s Joy

This is the sermon I preached at Trinity Lutheran Church in Greencastle, PA today.

Philippians 3:4b-14:
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

As I began preparing for this sermon, I started by reading over the texts for the day. And as I read, I found myself being drawn to the reading from Philippians. So far, so good. But, oddly enough, as I read it again and again, songs kept popping into my head. And not hymns or contemporary Christian music, but a song from Disney’s Hercules movie and a song from the musical Hairspray. Weird. And as I tried to figure why this was happening, I began to think – what would it be like if Paul had put this passage to music?

(to the tune of “Without Love” from Hairspray)
Once I was a Pharisee
Who never broke the rules
Never looked inside myself
But on the outside, I looked good!

Then we met and you made me
The man I am today
Jesus, I will follow you
On your holy way

‘Cause
Without you
I consider all things a loss
Without you
How could I ever bear my cross?

Jesus, I’ll be yours forever
‘Cause
I never wanna be
Without you…
Jesus, you have set me free
No, I ain’t lyin’
You have set me free
Oh, oh, oh!

Perhaps it would have sounded something like that – well, if Paul was influenced by 1960s rock-n-roll and showtunes.

In any case, I think the joyful and upbeat tune conveys Paul’s message to the church in Philippi very well. This passage is a fairly well-known one, but I think that sometimes it’s hard to hear the joy, hope and appreciation in Paul’s voice when he says he considers all things rubbish for the sake of Christ.

Before we get there though, let’s take a look at how Paul arrived at this statement about rubbish. Paul starts by listing his inherited traits, including his Jewish ancestry and the traditions he participated in from his early life – like circumcision on the eighth day. Next, he moves on to describe what he himself had accomplished, saying, “as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” Now, up until this point, it seems that Paul is almost boasting about his accomplishments. He was a Pharisee, one skilled in interpreting and explaining the Law of Moses. And not only could he interpret and explain it, but he followed it carefully as a way of life – an incredibly admirable endeavor. In addition, to show how devout he was, Paul even mentions his persecution of the church. One can almost see him sort of shaking his head as he admits this to his fellow Christians.

And then comes the twist. Paul says, “yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish…” In fact, Paul’s wording here is very strong – think of the strongest word for rubbish or filth you can find and that’s what Paul is getting at. Yes, Paul has a potty mouth here!

What would this statement sound like in our context? Imagine being born into a good family and then having a wonderful opportunity to go to an Ivy League school where you excel in everything you are doing. You graduate and achieve all you ever wanted – an amazing job, a sweet sports car and all the honor and prestige you could ever desire. Then, you have a life-changing encounter with the living God and tell your friends, “I count all that I had as nothing because of Christ. Actually, everything I’ve ever known and the opportunities I’ve had, have been nothing compared to experiencing Christ. I’ve even lost my six-figure job, my corner office and my amazing house and I consider them all garbage now because I have Jesus in my life.” Anyone who heard you say that would probably think you were in some sort of incredible denial, unwilling to admit that you had failed or fallen from where you were. It’d be a huge shock to hear those words coming out of someone’s mouth today and it was most likely a huge shock for Paul’s readers to hear him describe where he had been and how his life had changed.

Paul does not stop here, however. He says he wants nothing more than to be found in Christ – to be found following Jesus, no matter what the cost. It is at this moment that Paul declares that all his works and blameless adherence to the law don’t mean anything without faith. As he explains, it is through this faith in Christ that he, that is Paul, and we too, have righteousness that comes from God. God does not look at us and see our works, judging whether or not we have been “good enough” or judging whether or not we have measured up. Nor does God look at us and see our sins piling up around us.

This is where the love for God and the joy and hope I was speaking about earlier enter into the picture. Paul’s love for God stems out of his overflowing gratitude for what Christ has done for us on the cross. Because of the cross, when God looks at us, God sees the righteousness of Christ. Instead of the multitude of sins, God sees Christ’s perfection and the loving obedience that brought him to the cross on Calvary. God sees us covered over in mercy and grace. It is through Jesus that we have been made righteous – that we are able to stand before God. That, my friends, is grace. It is that precious gift, freely bestowed by a loving God. It is not something that we attain through clinging tightly to the law or by living perfectly. Otherwise, we wouldn’t make it – we would all be judged under the law and found wanting. As Casey Novak, Assistant District Attorney on the hit television show Law and Order: SVU pointed out, “No one is above the law.” As someone slightly more credible than Ms. Novak, namely Martin Luther, put it “…we let God alone work in us and in all our powers do we do nothing of our own.”

It is with this in mind, that Paul continues his letter passionately, saying that he wants to know Christ, to experience him and the power of the resurrection. It would be easy to see why one would want to experience the resurrection with its redemptive glory and invitation to new life, but Paul also states that part of the experience of knowing Christ is sharing in his sufferings. Here, Paul is saying that he wants to die to sin and experience new and abundant life with Christ. This is what we are to do every day in living out our baptism. Daily, we die to the old person and we are raised again, loved and forgiven to go out and serve.

Lest we become frustrated when we feel like we continue falling short and sinning far too much, Paul assures us that we are to keep on moving forward. We can do so because Christ has made us his own. This phrase “Christ Jesus has made me his own” is interesting because it can be translated as “I have been won by Christ Jesus.” Jesus has won us in the fight against sin, the powers of the world and the Devil – the very things we renounce in baptism. Jesus is with us, strengthening and encouraging us to continue following him. No matter how many times we stumble or fall, Christ has already won us and nothing can remove his victory. The key is to keep trying, no matter how difficult it seems. To keep moving forward, even when it may seem like you’ve done something unforgivable or when you feel there is no hope.

Paul reassures the Philippians and us that he is by no means perfect yet, but that he is also journeying “toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” That’s an awful wordy sentence, but I think we can break it down and make it a bit easier to understand.

A few weeks ago, many of us, myself included, were glued to the television watching the Winter Olympics. We cheered for the United States and for those who had overcome so much to make it all the way to the medal podium. We teared up over those touching stories the announcers presented between all the action. We were absorbed in what happened in Vancouver. With all of this in mind, however, I couldn’t help but think about the athletes’ lives after the Olympics finished. They have spent their whole lives straining toward the Olympic prize, trying to beat incredible odds to attain that one glorious, shining moment on the winners’ podium. But what happens when they have achieved that?

In his letter, Paul writes, “not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” Paul’s goal isn’t an Olympic medal, but rather life in God through Christ. In fact, the Greek phrasing Paul uses can be translated as “the prize of the upward invitation of God in Christ Jesus.” God is inviting us to a whole new life and a new way of thinking. Our goal is not one that we can achieve, like putting a check mark on a to-do list, but the goal is rather the invitation to a whole new way of life. It’s only the beginning of the adventure that lies ahead of us.

Life with Christ is just that – an adventure. It’s dying to our old selves and discovering our new identities as people living in and walking with Jesus. It’s picking up our crosses and following our Lord. It’s failing and falling, and getting back up, knowing that Christ is with us and will not let us go. It’s looking at life through the eyes of Jesus and realizing that, thankfully, we don’t have to be perfect to be loved by God! It’s struggles and joys, fears and hopes, death and resurrection. It is an adventure, but it is one we are by no means traveling through alone. God is with us and will remain with us. Moreover, our brothers and sisters in faith are our companions on the trip.

It is this journey we experience on a smaller scale during the Lenten season. We began on Ash Wednesday, confessing our sins and with the reminder that we are dust and to dust we will return. As we journey, maybe we have given up something or taken up a new spiritual discipline in order to try to focus more on our relationship with God. Next week will be Palm Sunday and then, Holy Week. Good Friday will bring the crucifixion and with it, the reminder of the heavy price Christ paid for us on the cross. But the Easter Vigil and Sunday will once again remind us of the Resurrection and the hope and joy Jesus’ rising brings to us.

I believe it is with this joy that Paul writes. He has come to realize through his encounter with Christ that it is not about him and how well he can uphold the law or obey the rules, but rather about the beautiful and unmerited gift of grace and forgiveness that God gives us. Take a moment. Think about that. That’s freedom. It’s freedom from the frustration and despair that comes from falling short of what we should be. It’s freedom from the exhaustion we feel when we are trying to live up to other peoples’ standards or trying to be all things for all the people around us. It’s freedom in which God says “I have done this for you – rest in this grace and know that I love you.” Paul’s joy is one of liberation and his hope is one of hearing the invitation of God and setting out to join God on the adventure.

Yes, God is with us through it all, sustaining us through the Holy Spirit, and encouraging us by reassuring us that Christ has already made us righteous before God. How amazing to have a God who loves us so much! Thinking of this, let us share in Paul’s joy and hope. And, knowing this love and the freedom and righteousness we have through Christ, how can we keep from singing? Amen.

© 2010. Annabelle Peake. All rights reserved.

This is a sermon (my first one!) I preached for a Lenten service at Trinity Lutheran Church in North Bethesda.

Isaiah 12:1-6
Thanksgiving and Praise
1You will say in that day: I will give thanks to you, O Lord, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, and you comforted me. 2Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation. 3With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.

4And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted. 5Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth. 6Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.

Romans 9:30-33
30What then are we to say? Gentiles, who did not strive for righteousness, have attained it, that is, righteousness through faith; 31but Israel, who did strive for the righteousness that is based on the law, did not succeed in fulfilling that law. 32Why not? Because they did not strive for it on the basis of faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone, 33as it is written, “See, I am laying in Zion a stone that will make people stumble, a rock that will make them fall, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”

1 Corinthians 10:1-4
Warnings from Israel’s History
1I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, 2and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, 3and all ate the same spiritual food, 4and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.

These readings seem to paint two very different images of Jesus. He is described as being both a stumbling block and the rock of salvation – simultaneously. How can something or someone be the thing that causes me to trip and my salvation all rolled into one? When I hear references to Jesus as a stumbling block, they seem to contradict my understanding of who He is. I am much more comfortable with Jesus as the mighty rock of salvation we sing about in Rock of Ages or How Can I Keep From Singing?, than Jesus, the one who causes people to stumble and fall. I’m not a big fan of things that trip me up and perhaps this stems from the fact that I am, as some of you probably know, a rather clumsy person. I become frustrated when I trip over things – frustrated with what I’ve tripped over, which is more often than not my own two feet, and frustrated with myself for not being able to walk upright.

In their desire to walk upright spiritually, many Jews in Jesus’ lifetime, including the religious leaders, had become so obsessed with following the written law as perfectly as they could, they had lost sight of what loving and serving God was truly about. The law that had been given to them as a covenant from God and as a way of guiding their faith had become their focus. They had forgotten how their forefather Abraham had lived by faith, trusting in God’s promise to make him the father of a nation, even to the point of being willing to sacrifice his only son Isaac. They had forgotten how Jacob had wrestled with God and refused to let go until he was blessed.

They seemed to forget that their forefathers had not only lived, spoke and struggled with God, but had often broken laws, were deceitful and even treacherous. Even the great King David had broken the Commandments by committing adultery with Bathsheba and arranging for the murder of her husband Uriah. Despite all of these sins and faults, God worked through these familiar biblical heroes and remained faithful to His promises. As Isaiah says, “You will say in that day: I will give thanks to you, O Lord, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, and you comforted me. Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.”

Instead of cultivating this type of personal relationship with God, they had turned their devotion to God into devotion to the law. Rather than living by faith, the ancient Jews devoted themselves to following the law to a tee and saw salvation as something to be attained through their own actions, rather than something from God.

I recently read the book The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs. This humorous book describes Jacobs’ endeavor to follow biblical law as literally as possible for one full year. He seeks to follow dietary laws, laws about stoning and laws about how to sacrifice animals. He also takes a crack at laws such as Leviticus 19:19: “You shall not let your animals breed with a different kind; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed; nor shall you put on a garment made of two different materials.” In modern times, with our food production and our clothing blends, I think we have fully succeeded in breaking all three of those! In preparing for his experiment, Jacobs’ gathers a list which includes over 700 laws from both the Old and New Testaments. 700! I don’t think I could come close to naming, much less following, that many laws, secular or biblical. Following and obeying laws is certainly a good thing, but how can someone possibly follow and uphold so many? It seems impossible. As Paul points out in his letter to the Romans, Israel failed to attain righteousness by upholding the law.

So when Jesus came to the Jews and did not fit their expectations of the Messiah, preaching love and offering the forgiveness of sins and salvation freely, as a gift, it turned their world upside down. These people, much like many of us today, had the mindset of “what do I have to do to attain salvation?,” or “what can I do to merit this?” When someone gives us a gift or does something for us, how often do we think “now what do I have to do for her?” or “what does she want from me?” When the answer is to simply accept the gift, we cannot fathom that we don’t have to do anything else – that all we have to do is say “thank you.” To a people used to trying to attain righteousness and perfection through following the law, this was a huge hurdle – Jesus and His gift of grace, mercy and salvation were a stumbling block.

As Martin Luther put it in his Heidelberg Disputation, “Law says, ‘do this,’ and it’s never done. Grace says, ‘believe in this’ and everything is already done.” This beautiful grace is what we hear every week in Communion: “The body of Christ given for you. The blood of Christ shed for you.” Everything has already been done for us on the cross. Thankfully, the forgiveness of our sins and our salvation do not depend on our actions or how well we do. God’s love for us does not change, even if we make mistakes or fall short.

When you trip over something, you lose your balance – your footing is thrown off and your arms fly out to grab hold of something to steady yourself. I can’t help but think of one of my all time favorite movies, Fiddler on the Roof. In the prologue, Tevye describes life in the village of Anatevka: “A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no? But in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof, trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word… Tradition.” Tradition and laws gave structure and purpose to the Jewish life and when Jesus came along with new, radical teachings, He upset the balance. That’s what Jesus did to those He encountered then and He continues to do to us today. He shakes up what we know and causes us to rethink what we’ve been doing and how we’ve been living.

At the same time Christ is shaking up the old way of viewing things, He’s laying a new foundation for the future. With this foundation, we can stand securely, knowing that nothing can separate us from the love of God. As Paul writes in Romans, “whoever believes in Him shall not be put to shame.” With faith in Christ, we’ve built our houses on rock – not on shifting sand. Or for a different image, imagine a rock climber clinging to the surface of a rock face. As he journeys up the side of the mountain, he grasps the rock tightly, looking for sure footing and handholds. With the rope of faith tying him securely to the rock, even if he slips, he cannot fall far – the rock he’s tied into will under no circumstances give way.

God’s grace frees us from constantly thinking about whether or not we are good enough to deserve this gift, which enables us to actively share this love with others. Jesus, like a stone tossed in a pond, creates a ripple effect – driving us to move out with purpose and action into our community. We can do this by using the unique talents we have been given to reach out to those around us. We can work in the church or volunteer in our neighborhoods. We can listen to a friend or help a stranger. Standing on the rock of salvation, we are only limited by our imaginations in how we share this love. This rock, the one who causes us to stumble and rethink our ways, offers us solid footing, rooted in grace, faith and love.

So how can Christ be simultaneously a stumbling block and the rock of salvation? The same way God’s grace enables us to be simultaneously sinners and saints. And for this gift of grace, we can use Isaiah’s words: “Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted. Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth. Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.” Amen.

© 2009. Annabelle Peake. All rights reserved.

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