We ARE Justified by Faith

We ARE Justified by Faith

A placeholder entry for commentary on the sermon offered May 26, 2013 at Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Sylva, NC.

Romans 5:1-5

The general idea is that being justified by our faith gives us freedom to act, to follow through and be confident of our place as a loved child of God. I’m getting a little too much out of close reading word choices for someone that doesn’t know Greek, I think, but in the context of this section of Romans, it makes sense–Paul spends time explaining justification by faith and then turns to the implications of this, and I think we sometimes get trapped in the pressure that follows justification by faith, turning what should be a relief into worry.

What Winning Looks Like

What Winning Looks Like

Sermon text: Acts 9:1-20

Preached April 14, 2013 at Cullowhee Baptist Church

This a rich text. It provides us with two different call narratives. The first and most famous is the call to Saul on the road to Damascus. This is, arguably, the second most important passage in the New Testament to the history of Christianity. Without Paul’s mission to Greece, it is hard to see how the Jesus movement would have survived in the West. And, narratively, the story is compelling; in America, we treat Amazing Grace like a Christian National Anthem, and that is simply Newton retelling this story with reference to his own life. We like the idea of renewal, the clear explanation that it is never too late, and we are never too far gone, to change our ways and come into the light.

But that makes it easy to ignore the call of Ananias, which is in many ways more compelling to us today. Because I don’t know that we get a better picture of the difficulty to us of following Jesus’s teachings in the New Testament than we get here. Ananias is called by Jesus to welcome Saul, baptize him and heal him. Ananias responds, “really? Saul? The guy who persecutes us and watched approvingly while they stoned our brother Stephen?” But Ananias, a faithful man, readily agrees and goes to find Saul. This is what turning the other cheek looks like. Wanting to let that man remain blind, but going to heal him anyway. This is the resurrection. It is as if Jesus says to Ananias, “what do you have to fear? Saul stood by at Stephen’s physical death, and that is the worst that he can do.” Resurrection is living without that fear, and instead embracing the hope that Saul could change. So as we go through life, and we fear those who could take our sense of self away from us, who could damage our pride, who could take the glory we worked for, we, too, can remember the resurrection and let go of the bitterness that comes from fear. This is what winning looks like. It means accepting the burden of sharing our grace with others, of knowing that we have some power and some choice to exercise. Winning is going to Saul, who so desperately needs help, and welcoming him. Winning is releasing yourself of bitterness toward others, even when it may be well-earned.

Delivery was again a little off. I had a strange adrenaline surge about 10 minutes before this sermon, so I was completely dry-mouthed at the start. I thought I did a good job of maintaining energy, but again felt that I was letting the message down somewhat by not doing more to build the message and by spending too little time on Ananias as resurrection renewed.

When to Walk Away

When to Walk Away

Sermon text: John 18-33-37
Preached November 25, 2012 at Cullowhee Baptist Church

Rather than being Advent 1, this year the Sunday after thanksgiving fell on Christ the King Sunday. So I had some new texts on which to preach. Naturally, and contrary to the more consistent message of Cullowhee Baptist Church, I chose to preach about Pilate, and about Peter, and about us, rather than about Christ. It had been a long time since I felt quite the way I did about the sermon. I hit all the points I wanted to hit, and yet I felt that I did not do justice to the urgency of the message I was preaching–that we so often look at the past and wish we could have been there to commit some violent act to prevent an injustice, that we forget that we have the opportunity to insist on peaceful solutions every day. We find it so easy to tell a story and have no sympathy for the characters we recognize to be “bad,” that we get used to thinking about life in that way, rather than as the complicated, messy milieu we encounter every day. We are sometimes so focused on what we would have done that we sometimes miss out on opportunities to do now, in the way our Prince of Peace showed us.

Presidential Debates

As I sat down to watch the debates last night, and saw the eager facebook and twitter posts from friends hosting parties and debate drinking games, I remembered what it was like when election season was all about the game of the election to me. I still have friends who recognize that their lives will be unaffected by these elections, and are able to snipe on that basis. But whether it is vocational change, or geographical change, or simply growing older, I cannot engage at that level any longer. The stakes are too high, and almost always entirely ignored in the noise of the election season. Will there be substantive differences in the lives of the rural poor based on who wins these elections (especially the NC gubernatorial election)? Yes. Will these issues get any play? Almost certainly not. Whenever I go to the Jackson County Health Department, there are long lines. Advertisements for free dental clinics are prominently advertised at my doctor’s office. Every week, different people from CBC unload massive boxes of food for delivery to local school children. And yet, my political mailings are about whether John Snow is not dedicated enough to banning family planning services.

To reiterate, elections matter. A great deal. But it seems to me both a waste of time to spend extensive energy tracking the campaign like a pennant race and a trivialization of the issues at stake to do so.

A Loved Child of God


Preached at Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church in Sylva, NC

Sermon Text: James 3:13-4:3

No text again today, though I have (scratchy) audio to post later. Perhaps the most important aspect of Christian life, for me, is finding people who are trapped in a narrative of hopelessness, and bring them back from that dark place. Frequently, that hopelessness is part of an individual’s narrative of domination and submission–that you have lost agency because of the actions of others. When you are trapped in these narratives, your world becomes very small, magnifying the impact of every slight or argument. But James offers us tools to use to help those we find so trapped. In the text of his letter, James urges people to lay aside their disputations and try to work out of the wisdom of God rather than their own selfish ambitions. If we place our own lives within the greater context of Christian history, then, the disputes of those life-or-death issues in churches such as the new paint in the sanctuary, or whether to have pew cushions, fade in importance. The stakes frequently seem so high because we aren’t able to connect to a bigger picture. I think James’s message here is that we all must remain so connected, and help others to find that bigger pictures. In his terms, that bigger picture is the wisdom of God. As Christians, starting with the idea that we are all loved children of God, and that it is our job to make sure others feel like tit is key to our mission. So when you see someone overreacting to minor conflicts, question what motivates them. Wonder what is happening in their lives. See whether you can provide them with an ear and let them talk themselves out of their narrative.

I remained quite happy with extemporaneous delivery, and the sanctuary at Shepherd of the Hills is a great space for being able to move around. And on this day, two people approached me to let me know that the message was one they needed to hear. And that, after all, is the job of a preacher.

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