September 17, 2017 – The Joyful Exchange

“Reformation Revisited: The Joyful Exchange” Pr. John discusses Luther’s teachings for today.

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Reformation Revisited: The Joyful Exchange

A sermon by John Strommen on Luther’s teachings for today       Sept. 17, 2017

As we ask Luther to join us in the 21st century, we ask whether Luther might have something to offer us 500 years later. Though not the plague of Luther’s time, our lives are often plagued by spiritual maladies. We could use his help. Let’s bring 2017 in clearer focus.

Now, Luther may not have had this distraction in his life, but we sure do. Perhaps some of you have seen the studies recently. Smart phone ownership and social media activity have increased dramatically over the last 6-7 years, and so have other things. Loneliness and depression, especially among younger people, has been rising dramatically as well. We’re failing more and more to connect with each other. Indeed, have you noticed how easy it is for this to happen: you’re with another person, could be a spouse, friend, colleague, whatever, and you’re sitting there or standing there with that person, both working your phones. Is it urgent? Not likely, but you’re each in different worlds. Technology can clearly be a good thing in so many ways, even in relationships, but it can also contribute to a person feeling more isolated. This is our world. We struggle to form authentic relationships and community. In Luther’s day that was true, too, but for different reasons.

Another thing that plagues us is a sense of meaninglessness. One of my favorite film clips is from the classic movie, Annie Hall, where the young introspective character, Alvy Singer, is rather humorously haunted by meaninglessness in 1950 Brooklyn:

Film clip…

Indeed, we are haunted by this question. What am I doing here? Of what value is my toil and my existence? When we imagine a universe without God, we must create our own meaning, and that is a daunting task that is bound to fail. We will often feel that we are merely chasing our own tail, and in the 21st century, we are getting more and more tired by our frenetic activity.

And there is shame. For so many today, shame is more of a felt experience than guilt is. Ask any one who is bullied. Shame tells me that “I’m just not worth very much as a human being.” When we don’t know where our worth and sense of self is coming from, the world provides so many measuring sticks for us that can simply demoralize us and drive us into shame.

Sounds a bit like a story we were exploring last week, the story of the Garden of Eden. Last week we talked about how God endows us all with the gifts of life, creation, each other, meaningful work, and a God who goes for walks with us in the garden. This is the core of who we are, creatures who are gifted by their creator, invited to trust their creator and to love their neighbor.

It is unfortunately part of our story, for each of us, that we would rather trust ourselves than God and  realign our world with us at the center. It is interesting to note that the primary result of Adam and Eve’s actions in the garden is shame. They retreat, cover up, hide. Their sense of meaning scrambled, now they must create our own meaning. Their trust in God breached, they immediately blame each other. Their capacity to love is diminished.

The story of the garden accurately describes 21st century angst: shame, meaninglessness, broken relationships.

Now, religion claims to have the answer, but sometimes religion only increases our loneliness and shame. For instance, “Well, everyone, try harder. Just be a better person and Christian.” Might as well be New Year’s Resolutions!

And often times, Jesus’ talk doesn’t help, especially when it gets told this way: Jesus was tortured and put to death to pay the debt owed to God that we incurred by being messed up sinners. As some have observed, to our modern sensibilities, this sounds like divine child abuse! That’s more off-putting than life-affirming.

But even if you get past that, isn’t this is a glorified version of someone paying your dinner check, or changing the books in heaven to secure your spot in the next life. It has nothing to do with one’s relationship with God or with this life. People always think salvation is about the next life, not this one!

But what about this life, where we struggle with shame, loneliness, meaninglessness?

There’s another way to view our predicament and how God responded with Jesus. Luther often wrote and talked about the “happy exchange.” Imagine that God became one of us not to pay a penalty but to be with us. To help us bear the weight of this crazy life by shouldering for us the brokenness and pain of our lives. To share the life of God with us by offering to us the gift of full participation in his life! All this so that we would have faith and restored trust in God. All this because he loves us.

To the one who struggles with shame, God says in Jesus, “you are of infinite worth to me! Not because of anything you’ve done or not done, but because I declare it to be so. So don’t worry about proving yourself.”

And to the person who is lonely, God says in Jesus, “I have come to you to restore your relationship with me and to restore your relationships with each other. And lo, I am with you always.”

And to the person who is struggling with meaninglessness, God says in Jesus, “I have given you my life and taken your pain upon my shoulders. Now you are a part of me. Do likewise with your neighbor: share my life with your neighbor. Help your neighbor bear their burdens. Everything you do can be filled with meaning. Stop working so hard to find it.”

Do you think, maybe, the work we do here at Mt Carmel matters just a little bit? Does it make a difference in the world?

This is what Paul means when he writes in II Corinthians, So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! The other night at our council meeting, we dwelled in the text from II Corinthians, and the phrase the captured multiple people and spoke to them was, “the old has passed away, everything has become new!” I think God was telling us to be ready for discovery and for re-birth.

The Pharisee Nicodemus struggled to understand Jesus, who was and is God’s new creation. Jesus said only the person who is born again will see the kingdom of heaven. “What?” said Nic. “I’ve already been born once. How can I be born again?” As part of a new creation, another world, where we are Christ’s, where God’s life is extended to us, where mine and my neighbor’s broken lives are picked up by Christ.

Our birth into this new creation is a journey, for each day we are asking together, “what does it mean to live life that is not just my own, but is the life of God extended to me and to my neighbor? What does it mean to let God shoulder my brokenness and despair in this world, and, on behalf of Christ, help my neighbor shoulder his or hers?”

It is the spirit of our new strategic vision to ask these questions as we go on this journey.

We have been given gifts unimaginable. All we can do is say thank you, trust that it is so, and live our lives as witnesses to the new creation in Christ. The old is gone, the new is here. We are reconciled with God and called to be reconcilers. Amen.

 

 

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Pastor John is Mt. Carmel’s Senior Pastor.

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