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the sermon for

Ash Wednesday

18 February 2015

topic: Confession and Forgiveness
We don't confess to be forgiven. We confess because we are forgiven!

A little over two years ago, Christ's Lutheran – the ELCA congregation over in Odessa – and this congregation joined forces and, together, entered the twenty-first century! For a while, we've been talking about what would be the most effective – and, even more so, the most economically feasible – way to reach out to this community. We, finally, decided to give Facebook a try! So, about this time, back in 2003, we launched a shared page. GospelCrossWords we called it. And right from the start, we decided to focus our efforts exclusively on the gospel. Simple, easy posts that people could read, at a glance! Posts that, should they wish, they could share on their page with the click of a finger! Well, it took us about nine months to get to thirty "likes"! But now, two years later, we're over five hundred! Most right here in the area! But many scattered all across the United States! A dozen or so in Africa! One, even, in Pakistan! And this was the post from two days ago...

"we believe in forgiveness, not confession"

"we believe in forgiveness, not confession"

And thinking about that for the past three days, I realized that there couldn't be a better statement of faith for this night than that! "we believe in forgiveness, not confession"

You see, the world around us doesn't believe that! The world around us doesn't believe in forgiveness. It believes in confession! The only way a person will be forgiven – in the world – is if they, first and foremost, are sorry for what they did! They'll be forgiven only if they feel bad! In order to be forgiven, you must regret what you've done and you have to ask for it! If you can't do that... if you don't... if you won't... you'll never be forgiven! It's as simple as that! Forgiveness, to the world, is a very conditional thing. It all depends on confession! If you don't confess it, you're not forgiven! If you don't mean it, you're not forgiven!

It isn't forgiveness that the world believes in. It isn't forgiveness that the world depends on. It isn't forgiveness that the world stakes its life on. It's confession! Repentance! Regret! Remorse! And when that happens, a day like this can become... overbearing and heavy-handed! Fingers get pointed! Fists shaken! Scripture quoted! Jot and tittle! Chapter and verse! The message nothing but shoulds and ought tos and musts! So cramped, so crammed, with rules and regulations that there's no room left for things like compassion... or mercy... or love... And lent becomes a time of sacrifices! Sacrifices to prove just how sorry we are! Of course, it doesn't make things any easier, any less confusing, when the "gospel" for the hour is filled with the word 'reward', over and over and over, again!

The world believes in confession. But we... we believe in forgiveness! And forgiveness is a gift! Free! Unearned! Undeserved! And definitely, not a reward! There's no prayer long enough... no song sweet enough... no heart pure enough... to make god turn the other cheek. That decision comes from god and from god alone! Forgiveness can't be coërced! Forgiveness can't be compelled! It can only be given!

This night, we do not – let me repeat that... This night, we do not confess our sins so that we will be forgiven! We do not confess our sins in order to be forgiven! Forgiveness isn't the result, the product, of our sorrow. In fact, it's just the opposite! Being forgiven is what frees us to confess! Being forgiven is what enables us, allows us, to ourselves just as we are! We aren't forgiven because we confess. We confess because we're forgiven!

Today is Ash Wednesday. But today, also, happens to be the day Martin Luther's died. As such, it's the day of his commemoration. And this is the legacy he left us! Everything is a gift! Life! Salvation! Forgiveness! He tried it the other way. Trying harder. Doing better. And he, always, fell short. He, always, missed the mark! His best... his most... just wasn't enough. That's when he learned to trust not his strength or his understanding, but god's commitment and god's devotion! God's faithfulness! God's hopefulness! God's love!

We're not like the world. We don't believe in confession. We believe in forgiveness! You see, believing in forgiveness is believing in the goodness, in the greatness, of god! There's nothing we can think... or say... or do... to be forgiven! It's a gift! It's all a gift! Believe in confession, you believe in the one confessing. Believe in forgiveness, you believe in the one forgiving!

And then, here, tonight, the two clash... the world... the church... It's a confusing time. We talk of self-examination... repentance... prayer... fasting... sacrificial giving... works of love... all the things that we call that "discipline" of lent! And if we didn't know better, we'd think that is was all about us! You'd think that we, too, believe in confession. But, fortunately, we do know better. And we understand that this day, this season, is all about the one who forgives! All about Jesus! About, especially, Good Friday and Easter! About the cross and the tomb! About the dying and the rising! And all of it... all of it is a gift! From start to finish! From beginning to end! We can do nothing! To earn! To deserve! To merit! To rent or to buy! My friends, this night and all that is in it is about forgiveness! Not confession, but forgiveness! And it's all a gift! Pressed down! Shaken together! Overflowing!

God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us... out of the great love with which he loves us... even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ! That's how Paul puts it! By grace you have been forgiven! By grace we have been saved! By grace! By charity! By love! And because of that... because of that, we don't believe in confession. But here, this night, we believe in forgiveness and in forgiveness alone!

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the sermon for

the Transfiguration of Our Lord

15 February 2015

Mark 9:2-9
We don't change to please god.
God changes to love us!

Today is the Transfiguration of Our Lord, once again! The last Sunday of the season of Epiphany! The Sunday just before Ash Wednesday! And, for me, this is the third most important holiday of the church year! Right behind Good Friday and Reformation Day! You see, I'm not a C&E Christian. And I'm not a C&E pastor. My life and ministry doesn't revolve around the usual Christmas and Easter! Instead, it's Good Friday and Reformation Day and Transfiguration Sunday. For me, Good Friday is the heart and soul of the church! Reformation Day is the foundation for the Lutheran movement! And Transfiguration Sunday... Well, Transfiguration Sunday has become, over the past decade, the reason-for-being of this congregation.

By now, most of you, probably, know the story. How in November, 2001 – just two months after I arrived in Midland – we voted to apply to take part in a new program of the E.L.C.A., the denomination of which we're a part. A short time later, we were accepted and four of us attended the next Transformation Ministries Conference. It was held in Dallas, the first weekend in February, 2002. For the past two or three generations, the church in North America has been... well... struggling, Lutherans included! We've been getting older and we've been growing smaller. And doing things the way we've always done them – no matter how well we do them – doesn't seem to have helped! Basically, the goal of the conference was to encourage us to think outside the box, ministry-wise! We were invited to change! To be transfigured, if you will! Transformed! And try things we've never considered! For that matter, try things we've never imagined! Thirteen years ago, that conference ended the Sunday before this one! And our work here began now!

Those first goals were fairly simple. Committees became ministry teams and chairpersons team leaders. Meetings of any kind were limited to sixty minutes and, back in the day, thirty of those minutes were set aside for devotions. In last year's Transfiguration sermon, you might remember, I talked about another goal we never implemented... changing the name of the congregation! And it was on the afternoon of the Transfiguration of Our Lord that we rearranged the furniture of the worship area for the very first time. An unplanned benefit of which was removing a tier from the altar to make it easier for everyone to receive communion!

Transfiguration! Transformation! Metamorphosis! That's what this day is all about! What it's all about in scripture! What it's all about in worship! What it's all about in our life in this place! And it's become my ebeneezer! My monument! My marker! And it serves as a yearly reminder of our journey together! And in the end, it's this day that has led us back to our roots! To our birthright! To our legacy as Lutheran Christians! Not the sauerkraut or the bratwurst, the lefsa or the lutefisk! But it has led us, again, to the gospel! To the proclamation of Christ and Christ crucified! That message has reclaimed the center of our life together!

Well, all of that was swirling through my thoughts as I looked, again, at the story of the transfiguration! And in the midst of that whirlwind, I tried to glean, one more time, what this day means! Means to me! Means to us! Monday, I read through the passage for the first time... nothing. Tuesday... Wednesday... Finally, Thursday morning, sitting in my office in the midst of sheer silence, I heard a still small voice! And when I understood what the voice was saying, I had to smile! Smile because the message was so incredibly simple!

Today, we don't remember the transformation of Midland Lutheran Church! Today, we don't remember the transformation of anyone a part of Midland Lutheran Church! Today, we don't, even, remember the transformation of the first disciples! Today, we celebrate... Today, we commemorate... exactly what this day is named... The transfiguration of our Lord!

Like everything else in the church, over the centuries, we've made this day all about us! Me included! We talk about Peter and James and John! How they went up the mountain with Jesus! How they saw Jesus shining like the sun! Talking with Moses and Elijah! We focus on Peter's offer to build three booths! How they had to return to the valley and not stay on the peak! But nowhere... nowhere in the story, are we told that they changed! They were the same coming down the mountain as they were going up! The only one who was different was Jesus! The only one anything happened to was our Lord! That's where I got it wrong, there at the beginning! I thought we were the ones called to change! To be different! To do things differently! The name! The meetings! The furniture! And instead, all along, it was god who was different!

Every Sunday morning, we confess our sins and god forgives our sins. But it's not we who change. It's god! It's god! By lowering expectations so we can still be loved! It's not we who must be reconciled to god. It's god who is reconciled to us! Reconciled to our sin! Reconciled to our humanity! It's not we who are converted! It's not we who must repent! It's god! There are no ifs we must satisfy. There's only god's thens! Only god! Period! Exclamation mark!

Face it. None of us are all that different from that hour we first believed! If there is a difference, if we have changed, it's only in knowing the depth and height and width and breadth of god's love for us! Knowing and trusting! Otherwise, our thoughts and words and deeds are, pretty much, the same. What we have been, we are, and we will, always, be!

That's why we don't spend a whole lot of time talking about us after we confess our sins! We don't promise to try harder! We don't promise to do better! Because we're not the ones who do the changing! In the mercy of almighty God, it's Jesus Christ who turns the other cheek! In the mercy of almighty God, it's Jesus Christ who goes the extra mile! In the mercy of almighty God, it's Jesus Christ who does not refuse anyone! It's Jesus Christ who, like the sun, rises on the evil and the good! It's Jesus Christ who, like the rain, falls on the righteous and unrighteous! And at the top of that mountain, the only person transfigured is not Peter or James or John. The only person transformed is not Moses or Elijah. The only person who morphs is Jesus! Christ!

And that is what has become the basis of our own "transfiguration". Realizing... recognizing... that faith, believing, trust, isn't rooted in or based on our need to change. But in and on god's changing! In and on god's loving us! In and on god's loving all! There aren't four "spiritual laws" as some groups suggest. There are only two! Law number one: God loves us! And law number two: No on and no thing can change law number one! Not even god! God has a plan for our lives! To be with us! To be among us, between us! And god will do – god has done – everything and anything it takes to make that dream come true! Not because of us! Our permission! Our coöperation! But, more often than not, without us! In spite of us!

So, this is a special day, a holy day! Not simply because Jesus shines like the sun! But because, on this day, Jesus is different! Changed! This day, he is transfigured! Transformed! Metamorphosed! And because of that, we will be separated, never again! My friends, it's not our loving god that is important! It's not, even, our loving others! The only thing that matters... The only thing that means anything... is that god loves us! And god, always and forever, will!

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