Monday, September 04, 2006

My first sermon as a vicar!

For my first sermon, I was asked to speak a little bit about who I am and what has brought me to this place in my life. When looking at the Gospel text for this Sunday, I can honestly say to you that I had a difficult time relating it to my faith journey. I then proceeded to read our lesson from James. Now, I must admit, like most people in ministry, I can't stand the book of James! Yet, at the same time, in reading it I realized there was a great deal of relevance between the text adn my own life. So, today I will be brave, bold, and will introduce myself to you by preaching on one of the least liked books in the Bible!
In studying James, I have come to believe the bad reputation the book has received is a bit unfair. Sure, the name of Jesus Christ is certainly missing, as it is mentioned only twice and the cross is only mentioned once. Baptism is left out of the picture as is grace. So, really it is not the most Lutheran book in the New Testament. This is emphasized by Martin Luther describing James as "an epistle of straw that is easily consumed by fire. When the straw is burned away, the pure golden nuggest of the Gospel is missing." But, as with any book in the Bible, James does have its place.
The focus of James is works. We as Lutherans tend to view the term "works" as a dirty, evil word. I know my defenses come up any time I hear it in regards to faith and I find myself spurting out, "I am not saved by works but am justified by grace through faith in Jesus Christ!". Then, finding myself out of breath, I go and get a drink of water and go to my quiet place to calm down. The question is, how did we get this way? Why are we so against works in regards to our faith?
Part of this can be attributed to the history of Christianity over the last 2000 years or so. If we look back at the time of the Reformation, people were buying indulgences in an attempt to take years off their time in purgatory. There was a significant amount of idol worship of varying kinds. People throughout history have frantically searched for ways to cleanse themselves of their sin by doing anything and everything imaginable to get into heaven.
Look at the messages we receive today. I have heard many people say to others what constitutes as a real relationship with Jesus Christ. To go to heaven, you need to pray more. You need to go to church more. You need to speak in tongues. You cup needs to be overflowing and you need to open the door of your heart to Jesus Christ. The general message in Christian society is that in order to go to heaven, we need to do this, this, and this. When viewing works this way, it is a little easier to understand our sensitivity regarding this subject, as we believe it is not by our own doing that we are saved, it is by what Christ has done FOR us.
So why do we have the book of James in the first place? Should we just ignore it and pretend it doesn't exist? If we still consider it to be scriptural, where does its message fit into our faith lives?
It may come as a surprise to learn that I did not grow up in church. My parents made the conscious decision early on that they would allow each of us, my two sisters and I, to determine what we believed in regards to religion. You see, my mother was a presbyterian and my father grew up in the mormon church. Upon becoming an adult, my father left the church and had no desire to ever participate in any denomination again.
Throughout my childhood, I had a fascination with religion. Most of my friends were active in their various religions, including: Mormon, Catholic, Buddhist, and Presbyterian. I tagged along with many of them and had a tremendous desire to discover what I believed to be true. An almost nightly ritual I established with my mother was asking her if we could go to church. Typically, there was some reason as to why we could not go, but this desire never escaped me.
In 1992, my parents divorcd, and both married someone new within two years time. My mother's new husband had lived in Alaska for many years and desired to return. So, in 1994, we moved from Kirkland, WA to Petersburg, AK. This was a difficult transition for my sisters and I, especially because our father remained in Seattle. To make the situation even more complex, two weeks after we arrived in Alaska, my new stepfather began showing signs of becoming abusive and we left him.
During this time of crisis in our lives, I again asked my mother if we could go to church. For the first time in my life, she said yes. We first began attending the Presbyterian church. On saturday nights, however, my mother also began attending the Lutheran church. She soon invited me to join her, and it eventually became our church family. In 1996, my younger sister Jamie and I were baptized.
In baptism, I was given new birth and made a member of the Body of Christ. Through this, I was inaugurated into a life of discipleship. When the Pastor said, "Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven" I realized that my life was not my own and I was to be a servant of God. It is through this that I can relate to the book of James.
After much prayer and discernment, in 1999 I enrolled in Trinity Lutheran College in Issaquah, WA. It was here that my faith life blossomed. I came to have a deeper understanding of what it means to be a member of the Body of Christ, and spent these four years discerning what God was calling me to do. I received my Bachelor's in Christian education in 2003, and then enrolled in seminary. Originally, I came to Gettysburg to become a pediatric hospice chaplain, but through my academic courses and life experiences, I now believe my call to be in the parish as an ordained minister.
The book of James calls us to put our faith into action. "Be doers of the word and not merely hearers." The concept of doing encompasses the practical implications of what it means to be a Christian. For me, part of putting my faith into action was to go to Bible college and then seminary. For others, it could be something entirely different. God does not call everyone to become an ordained minister. But God does call all of us to a life of ministry.
We are all called to practice love towards one another. Faith is not to be separated from this. Some have put this as not just talking the talk but walking the walk. Our faith is evidenced through our actions. The greatest strength within our Lutheran tradition is one of the greatest dangers we face. We believe in Christ alone, grace alone, faith alone. We know that we are saved by no one and nothing else other than Christ. So, here is the danger. Why should I do anything for anyone else? Why does it matter how I dress, how I speak, or if I don't do anything for anyone? I'm already saved, so I really don't need to go to church or shovel my neighbors walkway. I have the freedom to do whatever I want without any consequences.
But isn't having faith in Christ more than just a free ticket to heaven? In Holy Communion, we are fed the body and blood of our Lord and Savior in fellowship with our brothers and sisters in Christ, strengthening and nourishing us to continue on in our lives of discipleship. We are given this gift so that Christ can continue being experienced through us towards others.
What a tremendous gift God has given us in entrusting us with caring for others! Through God blessing us with the free gift of grace, we can become blessings. This, I believe, is the heart of the book of James. No, it doesn't mention grace, and in many ways speaks to works righteousness, but the heart of the message is true. We are all called to care for each other because we have been taken care of by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. It is not about what we get out of the deal, but about what we have already been given. It is about faith.


Toby said...

LAURA, Ireally like your first sermon. God knew what He was doing when He called you into the misistry! It was a hard concept, when I was younger, to understand that we are all ministers and I believe the greatest witness we can be for our faith is by how we live our lives. I have never met you but feel I know you after following Asher and Jacobs. Keep up the good work and may God bless your life with happiness and many more great sermons. Oh, by the way I am also ELCA member

Anonymous said...

I usually just use your site to get to all of "Asher's Friends" but I really liked your first sermon. Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

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