Karma or Grace

Sermon, February 28, 2016 – The Third Sunday of Lent, Year C
Exodus 3:1-15; Luke 13:1-9

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our redeemer.

This past week, I was reading a comment that someone had left on Facebook about the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. The person said that they did not like Justice Scalia and thought that it was “karma” that he died before he got to enjoy his hunting trip. A rather petty comment, but it reminded me that karma, or at least a pop-culture version of karma, has become an increasingly popular belief in America, even among Christians. What is karma? One scholar describes it as follows:

[Karma]… claims to insure justice. According to the law of karma…we get what we deserve in every life. Our good and bad deeds produce good and bad results from lifetime to lifetime. With karma, there is supposedly no unjust suffering, because no one is innocent. All suffering is deserved on the basis of bad karma.

We sometimes think of karma as “what goes around, comes around.” If you do something mean, you will experience a negative consequence down the road. So, if you are a Supreme Court judge and make decisions that a certain Facebook commentator doesn’t like, you will die in your sleep before your hunting trip. On the flip side, karma means that if you do good things, then you will reap positive consequences down the road.

One thing I have observed about karma is that everyone believes that it is other people who will suffer negative consequences. Not themselves, just others. Does the commentator who took pleasure in Justice Scalia’s death before his hunting trip think that she will suffer a negative consequence for her mean-spirited comment? Surely not. We see karma as the universe’s way of vindicating ourselves and our selfish wants and emotions. My boss is going to get bad karma because he didn’t give me that promotion I wanted. The driver that annoyed me on the road is going to get bad karma because she displeased me with her driving habits. The judge I don’t like is going to get bad karma because he made judicial decisions that I don’t like. Others will get negative karma because they have displeased me in some way.

But me? Heh, I’m basically a good person. I don’t really lie. I only tell harmless fibs. I haven’t murdered anyone. That cashier I chewed out yesterday in the store for being too slow, well she deserved it. I haven’t committed adultery. That woman I was flirting with? That was just harmless fun, I don’t know why my wife got so upset with me. No, I’m basically a good person, and karma will reward me in the end. It’s really all about me and justifying myself.

What does God say to such thoughts? Jeremiah chapter 17, verse 9. “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure.” 1 John chapter 1, verse 8. “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” We are deluded if we think that we are in line for good karma.

Jesus takes on the idea of karma in our Gospel passage.

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

The belief in karma is part of the human condition. The people in the ancient near east would not have called it karma, but they did hold deeply to the belief that if something bad happened to you, it was because you had deserved it. Jesus is referring to two incidents which were apparently news stories in his day. The first involved some Galileans who had gone to the Temple to offer sacrifices to God and were apparently killed by the authorities – perhaps as a result of an overzealous response to a potential riot. We don’t really know. In another incident, people died in a building collapse. In both instances, it doesn’t appear that the people did anything obvious to cause their own deaths, but the people were ready to blame them anyway.

Jesus asks the crowd “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way?” and “do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?” Jesus is challenging their belief in karma. Flip what Jesus is saying and you get “do you think that you are more worthy then the people that died?”

Then Jesus takes it a step further. After asking the rhetorical questions whether the people thought that those who died brought their deaths on themselves through karma, Jesus emphatically says “I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish”. In other words, we are all guilty and we are all deserving of bad karma. If we think that karma is going to be the instrument of our petty revenge on those we don’t like, but which will protect us, we are deluding ourselves.

I don’t usually think that celebrities have very much to contribute to theological or philosophical discussions, but U2’s lead singer Bono had some great things to say about karma and Jesus Christ. In an interview he said

It’s a mind-blowing concept that the God who created the universe might be looking for company, a real relationship with people, but the thing that keeps me on my knees is the difference between Grace and Karma. You see, at the center of all religions is the idea of Karma. You know, what you put out comes back to you: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or in physics…every action is met by an equal or an opposite one. It’s clear to me that Karma is at the very heart of the universe. I’m absolutely sure of it. And yet, along comes this idea called Grace to upend all that “as you reap, so you will sow” stuff. Grace defies reason and logic. Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I’ve done a lot of stupid stuff…. I’d be in big trouble if Karma was going to finally be my judge. I’d be in deep [trouble]. It doesn’t excuse my mistakes, but I’m holding out for Grace. I’m holding out that Jesus took my sins onto the Cross, because I know who I am, and I hope I don’t have to depend on my own religiosity.

Bono is spot on here. The reality is that each one of us is deserving of bad karma. If karma is our judge, as so many believe, we are in deep trouble. We are seriously delusional if we think that the people we don’t like will get bad karma, but that we and our friends will somehow get off scot free.

What then is our hope? Jesus tells us to repent, and that we must do. Indeed, it is all we can do. But we can also see hope in our Old Testament reading where Moses encountered God. Remember that Moses had escaped from Egypt where his people, the Israelites, were enslaved by the Egyptians. God chose Moses to save the Israelites and bring them out of captivity – to save them from their bad karma.

There is much to the story of Moses meeting God in the burning bush, but I want to focus on how God reveals who he is to Moses, because God tells us a lot about himself in how he reveals his identity. It is very important to understand that in ancient culture, knowing somebody’s name was very important as it was thought to give you power over them. And so, by knowing the name of your god, you could invoke that name and seek to manipulate this god through spells, curses, offerings, idols and what not. And so, with that in mind, let’s see how God names himself.

The first way that he identifies himself to Moses is by saying “I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” God tells Moses that he is the same God who has been with the Israelites from the beginning. God isn’t giving his name, but rather telling Moses about who he is in relation to the people. He is the God who has always been with his people.

Later, Moses asked God his name in the following interchange.

Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”

God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’”

When asked for his name, God says “I am who I am.” In the ancient Hebrew, this could also be read as “I will be who I will be.” Do you see what God is doing here? He is saying to Moses “no, I am not giving you a name by which you can manipulate me. I am who I am. I will be who I will be. Your one choice here is to trust me.”

Humanity’s idea of karma is a way to avoid trusting in God and repenting. It is humanity’s way of trying to control God, by declaring that everyone else is due their punishment, but that we are worthy of good karma for ourselves. It’s us trying to substitute our own ideas of right and wrong for God’s view.

Jesus makes it clear that we don’t get to do that. If we are truthful, we can only admit that we are all due bad karma. We can’t think that we can substitute our own judgments for God’s and escape our fate that way. We can’t manipulate God.

Our only hope is to repent. To lay hold of God’s promises to us that he is the God of our fathers and mothers. He is who he is, and he will be who he will be. He has shown us that he is the God who rescues his people. He rescued his people from the flood, from slavery in Egypt, from exile, and, most important of all, from sin and death through the death of his son, Jesus Christ. He is who he is. He will be who he will be. He is and he will be our rescuer and our redeemer. We can only repent and throw ourselves on his mercy confident that he will keep his promises.

And that is what Lent, the season of penitence is about. This is the season where we repent and throw ourselves on the mercy of God. And when Good Friday and Easter come, we celebrate that God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

Let us pray.

Most merciful God, who by the death and resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ delivered and saved the world: grant that by faith in him who suffered on the cross we may triumph in the power of his victory; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen.

Transfiguration and transformation

Sermon, February 7, 2016 – Last Sunday After the Epiphany, Year C
2 Corinthians 3:12- 4:2; Luke 9:28-36

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our redeemer.

Today is the last Sunday of the church season known as Epiphany. The first Sunday of Epiphany traditionally focuses on the Baptism of Jesus when heaven opened and the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus like a dove and God the Father declared “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” The last Sunday of Epiphany, today, traditionally focuses on the Transfiguration of Jesus. We heard Luke’s account of this event today. We read how Jesus shone with a bright light after which God the Father spoke from a cloud saying “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.” In both of these stories, Jesus is marked out by God both through an anointing or glorification, and then by the very voice of God the Father himself.

According to the dictionary, the word epiphany can mean one of two things. First, it can be a manifestation or appearance of a divine or superhuman being; and second it can be an illuminating realization or discovery, often resulting in a personal feeling of elation, awe, or wonder. Both of these definitions are present in Jesus’ baptism and transfiguration. It is very appropriate that these two events serve as bookends for the Church’s season of Epiphany.

Today, we are going to delve a little more deeply into Luke’s account of the Transfiguration. The Transfiguration was a tremendous encouragement and sign of God’s promises to the disciples. And it can also be an encouragement to us. We will also look at how Paul, in the reading from Second Corinthians, contributes to our understanding of this event. To begin, let’s look at the very first sentence from the Gospel reading: “About eight days after Jesus said this…” Said what? Whenever I read something like that in a passage, I go back to read what is being referred to. Luke has provided a context for his Transfiguration account. So, what did Jesus say? Let’s start at chapter 9, verse 23.

Then Jesus said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. 25 What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self? 26 Whoever is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.”

Jesus is telling the disciples here about the cost of discipleship. He is saying that we must follow him in all things, no matter what the cost, and if we do this, we will be safe with God. Jesus warns us that our very souls are at stake when he says “Whoever is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father.” This passage serves as both a warning and an encouragement to us. A warning in that if we are to be disciples of Jesus, we need to follow, obey and acknowledge him. An encouragement in that if we do follow, obey and acknowledge Jesus, we will be remembered by him when he comes into his glory.

The story of the Transfiguration follows this, repeating the message of encouragement. But while the first message has a focus on the future, the message of the Transfiguration has a focus on the present. In the first passage, we are told that we need to follow Jesus now, and that when he later enters into his glory, he will remember us. In the story of the Transfiguration, Jesus was being glorified before the very eyes of the disciples and they heard God declare in their presence “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.” This was a very dramatic demonstration by God that Jesus was the son of God whom they were to follow.

I am willing to bet that none of us here has experienced anything like the Transfiguration, and so it is difficult to picture what this would have been like. In order to understand the full impact it would have had on the disciples, we need to understand their state of mind at the time. Luke includes a good deal of teaching both before and after the Transfiguration account concerning the high cost of following Jesus. It’s not just the immediately preceding passage, but there are others as well. But Luke also sandwiches the transfiguration account between two instances in which Jesus predicted his own death. The disciples might not have understood everything that Jesus had told them, but they probably were feeling a bit overwhelmed and perhaps a little dejected because things weren’t sounding very optimistic.

The Transfiguration was an opportunity for God to reveal to the chosen disciples – and to us – a glimpse of Jesus in his power and his glory. Jesus took his inner circle of disciples up a high mountain with him, and the disciples probably thought that he was going to teach them some more, as they were used to. Well Jesus was indeed going to teach them, but in a way the disciples were most certainly not expecting.

Jesus suddenly was transfigured before them – his clothes became dazzling white and Moses and Elijah appeared with him. You may wonder why Moses and Elijah would have appeared. They were two iconic figures in Jewish history – Moses represented the Law, and Elijah the prophets. The presence of these two heroes of the Jewish faith would have cemented for the disciples that Jesus represented the culmination of God’s redemption plan for Israel.

But the most convincing statement of all comes from God who says “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.” The disciples were told – and through them, we are told – that Jesus is God’s own Son, and that we are to listen to him. Jesus had already told his disciples earlier that a storm was coming – indeed he told them of his impending death and of their coming suffering. But in the Transfiguration, he revealed his supernatural power and glory. He also revealed that he was the culmination of God’s plan to save Israel. God the Father revealed that Jesus was God’s Son, whom the Father loved. In other words, the disciples were told that, despite the coming storm, the tide had turned. They could have confidence in Jesus. The Transfiguration was a foretaste of the glory that Jesus had just spoken to them about.

In today’s reading from Second Corinthians, Paul gives us some more to think about. When Jesus was transfigured before them, the disciples there were able to witness Christ in his glory. Paul writes that we, also, can see the glory of Jesus, albeit in a different way. He writes “whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.” The veil that he is referring to is a spiritual blindness that prevents us from seeing the glory of God. Paul makes this clear when he continues, writing “And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”

Although you may find it difficult to wrap your mind around Paul’s language here, his point is actually very practical. He writes “we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory.” “Unveiled faces” refers to us looking to Jesus with our spiritual blinders off. “Contemplate” refers to us focusing our hearts, minds and souls on Jesus. And the “Lord’s glory” is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ which redeemed us from our sins. Earlier in the chapter, Paul wrote that if the Old Testament law was glorious, “how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness.” So what Paul is saying here is that if we turn to Jesus as our Lord and Savior and focus on him with our hearts, minds and souls, then the Holy Spirit will transform us into his image.

Paul’s point in Second Corinthians takes the message of the Transfiguration and carries it a little farther and makes it directly applicable to our lives. The disciples experienced the miraculous and wondrous glorification of Jesus before their very eyes. But Paul says that we too can be transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory. The disciples heard God the Father declare “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.” And Paul tells us that if we turn to Jesus as our Lord and Savior and focus on him with our hearts, minds and souls, then the Holy Spirit will transform us into his image.

What does it mean to be transformed into his image? In Galatians 5:22-23, Paul writes that “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” Having these characteristics is what it means to be transformed into his image. In our society, when we think of glory, we think of military victories, sports victories, or rugged pickup trucks. But that is not what God means by glory. Jesus was glorified when he died for our sins. We are glorified when the Holy Spirit transforms us to be like Jesus, exhibiting the fruit of the Spirit. These are the virtues that God calls us to exhibit as we become part of the Kingdom of God.

What does it mean to turn our hearts, minds and souls to Jesus? There are a few things we need to do. First, we need to learn about how God has interacted with his people. We need to learn about what Jesus did for us by dying on the cross and rising from the dead. We need to learn what Jesus expects from us if we are to obey him. We need to immerse ourselves in God’s Word, the Bible. The Bible recounts for us the story of how God interacted with his people; it tells us what Jesus did for us on the cross and how he rose from the dead; and it tells us what Jesus expects from us. So regular Bible reading and Bible study is critical.

Second, we need to be people who pray. In Advent, I preached on Paul’s letter to the Philippians where Paul wrote “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” Prayer is about maintaining an attitude of thankfulness to God and of bringing everything that we are anxious about to him. It is about inviting the Holy Spirit into our lives so that we will always seek to view our lives from God’s perspective.

Third, we need to be people who live and act in community with other Christians. Being in community allows us to teach each other about the Gospel and to encourage each other. It also allows us to be the Body of Christ together to a hurting world in need.

We should not be fooled, however, into thinking that the world will love us if we live our lives focused on Jesus as our Lord and Savior. We need to heed Luke’s many warnings about the cost of following Jesus. But we can be confident that if we follow Jesus, both as our Savior and as our Lord, then God will remember us when Jesus comes into his glory. And as we live our lives as disciples of Jesus, the Holy Spirit will also transform us into his image with ever-increasing glory. So let us go forth realistic of the costs of following Jesus, but also confident in the benefits that go beyond anything that we can ask or imagine.

Let us pray.

Almighty Father, whose Son was revealed in majesty before he suffered death upon the cross: give us grace to perceive his glory, that we may be strengthened to suffer with him and be changed into his likeness, from glory to glory; who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.