Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, October 9, 2016: Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: 2 Kings 5:1-15c  +  Psalm 111  +  2 Timothy 2:8-15  +  Luke 17:11-19

man-silhouetteThis man is revolting. He is rotten, inside and out. He is toxic, and whatever he’s got, it is spreading. It spreads from person to person, and if we’re not careful it will consume our whole nation. There is a place for folks like him, and it’s not among decent people. If it were up to me we’d send him somewhere we’d never have to see him again.

But somehow he’s still here. Despite the obvious rot, he is still treated as though he is a person of substance, a person deserving our attention and respect. Why is that? How is it that this man believes there to be one set of rules to govern the majority of people and a different set of rules that apply to him? Is it because he is wealthy? Is it because people are afraid of him, because of his history of combativeness? Is it because his exploits have made other people rich? Is it because he enjoys the favor of the ruling establishment, because he has the endorsement of the nation’s elites? Is that why he thinks he plays by different rules?

You know who I’m talking about, right? His reputation precedes him. He’s the kind of public figure who needs no more than a single name.

He is Naaman.

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By 1530 it had been more than a decade since Luther had presented his 95 theses and launched the Protestant Reformation. Families, cities, and nations were deeply divided and the rhetoric used by each side to describe the other was so inflammatory it might actually make us feel better about our present electoral embarrassments. Writing against the Roman papacy Luther once remarked,

“You are desperate, thorough arch-rascals, murderers, traitors, liars, the very scum of all the most evil people on earth. You are full of all the worst devils in hell — full, full, and so full that you can do nothing but vomit, throw, and blow out devils!”

And you thought “basket of deplorables” was rough? Luther had all the best words. Though Paul still advises us to avoid “wrangling” over them. (2 Tim. 2:14)

In 1530 the Lutherans were tasked with doing more than railing against all they did not agree with and could not support, but to make a positive statement of faith which became one of the most important documents of the entire Reformation, the Augsburg Confession. In it, Martin Luther, Philipp Melanchthon, and other early theologians of the Lutheran reform movement found new words to share the good news of the free gift of God’s love, justice, mercy, and liberation. Describing what we have come to know as the doctrine of justification, the Augsburg Confession says,

“It is taught that we cannot obtain forgiveness of sin and righteousness before God through our own merit, work, or satisfactions, but that we receive forgiveness of sin and become righteous before God out of grace for Christ’s sake through faith when we believe that Christ has suffered for us and that for his sake our sin is forgiven and righteousness and eternal life are given to us.” (AC IV)

Later, because we have such a hard time believing that our standing before God has everything to do with God’s grace and nothing to do with our goodness, the Lutherans had to write an explanation and defense of all they’d written in the Augsburg Confession, so they expanded their explanation of justification:

“Reconciliation does not depend upon our merits. But if the forgiveness of sins depended upon our merits and reconciliation were by the law, it would be useless. For since we do not keep the law, it would also follow that the promise of reconciliation would never apply to us … For if the promise required the law and condition of our own merits, it would follow that the promise is useless since we never keep the law.” (Apol IV.42)

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jordan_river

Baptisms still take place in the River Jordan.

Still, God does not simply meet us where we are — God graciously changes us, though in practice it can feel like anything but a gift. For Naaman, change came in accepting that he was no better than any other of God’s own people. There was no special water reserved for people like him. There was no elite baptism. God’s love and God’s justice are strong enough that they do not fail to encompass even a narcissistic, belligerent fellow like Naaman; but God’s love and God’s justice do change Naaman who, in the end, takes his place among all God’s ordinary saints, proclaiming that there is no God in all the earth but the one who met Israel in the waters of liberation from slavery, who met them in the crossing of the Jordan as they entered into a promised land, the same God who meets us at the font.

If the story of Naaman is just a story about how God works through ordinary water to heal and restore people to fullness of life, I can accept it. It’s a miracle story from Hebrew scripture that prefigures the Christian sacrament of baptism, so let’s just sing “All Are Welcome” and continue feeling good about ourselves. And if the doctrine of justification by grace through faith is just a bit of Reformation history, passed down through the generations for confirmands to memorize, then I can manage it. It’s one more bit of theology in one more book on one more shelf to be referenced in one more sermon.

But this story and our history is more than that.

The story of Naaman is the voice of our ancestors telling us that there will always be rotten bullies spreading their illness, getting preferential treatment, enjoying the spoils of war and the approval of the nation. Still, God meets them in the water. The power of the doctrine of justification by grace through faith is that it tells the truth about me. That too often I believe I have earned my place in this world when in reality my successes are the products of a wide set of factors, many of which I have no control over and for which I can claim no credit: my race, my gender, my class, my nationality.

Even more fundamentally, the doctrine of justification reminds me that I am not a good person. I am filled with anger at others but minimize my own failures. I set goals and intentions for myself that I am not able to keep. I delight in the public embarrassments of those I consider hypocrites and pray that my own hypocrisies will remain hidden. I judge people. I judge them over important things and over petty things. But if I stood before God’s judgment, as I do, as we all do, I would come up lacking. When we stand before God’s judgment, we come up lacking. We are rotten. And still, God meets us in the water.

reformation500-enOur stories and our histories, our confessions and our doctrines, are not abstractions for us to agree or disagree with, they are our attempts to describe reality as we have experienced it in our skin. As we begin this 4-week series looking at the legacy of the Lutheran Reformation at the start of the global observance of its 500th anniversary, we are reminded that our history as a movement within Christianity includes the fact that we were born at a moment no less political, no less violent, no less corrupt, no less horrifying than the one we’re currently in. This week’s outrageous statements shock us, but they should not surprise us. Honestly, we’ve all heard worse. The depth of the divide in our nation scares us, but it should not defeat us. Our nation has been through worse, more than once, and so has the Church. If these recurring atrocities of human nature should convince us of anything, it is that human nature is inherently atrocious.

Therefore, it is a gift when we remember that Christ did not come to reward the righteous, but to save sinners. God did not come looking for perfection, but offering salvation. The Holy Spirit who breathed life into us as the first of many gifts comes to us over and over and over again to heal us, to justify us, to liberate us, to forgive us, to save us. What else can we say in response to such grace, such divine generosity, so many gifts, but “Thank you!”

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, October 26, 2014: Reformation Sunday

Texts: Jeremiah 31:31–34  +  Psalm 46  +  Romans 3:19–28  +  John 8:31–36

Öèôðîâàÿ ðåïðîäóêöèÿ íàõîäèòñÿ â èíòåðíåò-ìóçåå gallerix.ruIt’s Reformation Sunday, a festival of the church that for the most part is only celebrated by Lutherans.  It’s an odd holiday, in that it celebrates both a moment and a movement in the church. The moment was the posting of the 95 theses by Martin Luther on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany — a moment that sparked a movement which came to be known as the Reformation, a watershed moment in the Western Church in which the power and the practices of the church were radically transformed, a radical upheaval that ended up challenging Christian people and communities to understand their faith in entirely new ways.

As the father of this movement Martin Luther tends to be the focus of many a Reformation Day sermon.  That’s understandable, as his biography gives us a sense of the bold faith, the intellectual honesty, and the community of friends and supporters that were needed for the Reformation to be transformed from a single act of public provocation to a movement that swept the continent and changed the world. But I’d like to give some consideration to another famous Lutheran this morning, one whose ideas have had just as deep an impact on how we understand the world around us: Werner Heisenberg.

Werner HeisenbergWerner Heisenberg was a 20th century Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist who helped launch the study of quantum mechanics and who is best known for his uncertainty principle. The essence of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle is that there is a “fundamental limit to the precision with which certain pairs of physical properties of a particle, such as position and momentum, can be known simultaneously.” What this means is that the more precisely we define where a particle is, the less accurately we can tell where it is going. This insight was a cornerstone in the development of models for understanding the universe in which we live on a subatomic level, and it has influenced the development of everything from the microchips that make modern computing possible to the MRI machines that allow doctors to image our internal physiology for diagnosis and treatment.

Today quantum mechanics and Heisenberg’s uncertainly principle are taken for granted. During his life however, they represented a radical break with how scientists had understood the very nature of energy and matter. In his 1952 book “Physics and Philosophy: the Revolution in Modern Science” Werner Heisenberg remembers the fear and trembling that overtook him as he began to understand the implications of what he and his colleagues were proposing.

“I remember discussions with (Niels) Bohr which went through many hours till very late at night and ended almost in despair; and when at the end of the discussion I went alone for a walk in the neighboring park I repeated to myself again and again the question: Can nature possibly be so absurd as it seemed to us in these atomic experiments? … Here the foundations of physics have started moving, and … this motion has caused the feeling that the ground would be cut from science.”

This feeling of groundlessness was shared by others in the emerging field of quantum mechanics.  Albert Einstein said, “It was as if the ground had been pulled out from under me, with no firm foundation to be seen anywhere, upon which one could have built.”

Jesus told those who followed him, “if you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:31-32)  Freedom, however, is not the same as security.  For Werner Heisenberg and Albert Einstein and the community of scientists who proposed the nucleus of our new knowledge of energy and matter, space and time, the freedom that followed on the heels of truth felt like having the ground ripped out from under them.

In Martin Luther’s day the truth that challenged the structures of reality was a theological and a political one. In articulating the doctrine of justification by grace through faith, Luther reminded the Christian world that the good news of God in Christ Jesus is that we are saved by the goodness of God, and not through any goodness of our own. This threatened centuries of church teaching that terrified ordinary people with visions of hell, and used that fear to transfer wealth from poor people to the wealthy church so that the basilica of St. Peter could be built on the backs of people who gave more than they had to ensure that they and their loved ones would not spend an eternity in purgatory. This disruption in the area of theology sent ripples out in the fields of politics and economics and soon all of Europe was in revolt, challenging the power of the Holy Roman Empire.

Friends, we are living in a moment of great upheaval in the church and in the world, like none that we’ve experienced since the Reformation — and in some ways, like none that we’ve experienced since Christian faith was adopted by the emperor Constantine in the 4th century. Advances in science and technology have shrunk our world to such an extent that it is now quicker and cheaper for us to fly to the far reaches of another continent than it is to buy a car. Imagine trying to explain that to early American settlers who spent months crossing North America. With a few flicks of our fingers across the glass screens of our phones we can access more information than the Library of Alexandria, which housed all the known wisdom of the ancient world. All this knowledge is rapidly transforming not only our local culture, but our global culture.

And it’s changing our church culture. If the Reformation decoupled the church and the Holy Roman Empire, and the Enlightenment decoupled the church and the state, then the modern age of information has decoupled the church and the family. What was once a given — that children would assume the religious identity of their parents — is no longer true. Each new generation of young people is faced with a flood of information and experience that challenges any notion of a single way to be in the world. Rites of passage such as baptism and confirmation that used to be expected elements of a family upbringing have been set aside under the rubric of personal choice, waiting to see what religious identity (if any) children will select for themselves. The relationships between individuals within a nuclear family unit have been challenged as deeply in this present age as the relationships between subatomic particles were a century ago by quantum mechanics.

In moments like these, it is easy to despair, to feel as though the ground beneath us is crumbling, as though the fabric of reality is being ripped apart. It’s also at moments like these that I think Werner Heisenberg’s principle of uncertainty remains useful, the one that says we can know where a thing is or where it’s headed, but not both at the same time.

There is so much energy being spent in the church today naming where the church is. Millions of dollars are being spent describing the state of the church in space and time, the decline in membership, the collapse of the institutions that support it, the loss of the architecture that identifies it, the erosion of the traditions that maintain it. We are becoming experts at naming where the church is today, which makes it so much harder to say with any certain what direction it’s going.

To some, the Reformation of the 16th century looked like the end of the church, because they could not imagine a church that did not exist arm in arm with empire. To some, the field of quantum mechanics in the 20th century looked like the end of knowledge, as the very essence of energy and matter was reimagined. In our own day, we are grappling with what it will mean to claim a religious identity in community, when both the range of identities and the stability of communities are more fluid than ever before. It feels like the ground beneath us is shifting and the world we have known is disappearing.

If the reformations of the past in science and society have anything to teach us, it is that there is life on the other side of these upheavals. It’s too early to know with any certainty where the church will be on the other side of this moment of evolution, but if we can pull back from our obsessive interest with describing what is and look at the signs of what is becoming, we might be encouraged to notice that there is a movement taking shape at the intersection of religion, politics, economics and identity. People around the world are crying out for new ways of ordering their life together in ways that are ethical, sustainable, and hospitable. More and more we want to find ways to live with dignity in the presence of diversity, to engage difference rather than to simply tolerate it.

It is my prayer that the church, whatever it is becoming in this new reformation, will find a way to be both particle and wave, both matter and energy, both institution and movement as the ground beneath us gives way, and the new earth comes into view.

Amen.

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