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.



Sermon: Sunday, October 28, 2012: Reformation Sunday

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

Welcome to the 495th edition of Reformation Sunday!  In the church in which I grew up, Reformation Sunday was kind of a big deal.  It was the day when we confirmed groups of ninth graders who’d spent two or three years in Wednesday night confirmation classes.  It was a morning for pulling out all the stops on the organ and hiring extra string and brass players.  It was a day for preaching doctrine, talking about justification by grace through faith, and congratulating ourselves on being Lutherans.  A lot has changed.

To get a sense for how much has changed, it might actually be worthwhile to look not at the Reformation Sundays of our youth, or even of the last century, but at the day we’re actually commemorating — October 31, 1517.  On that day, Martin Luther — the Roman Catholic priest, monk and reformer from whom we take our name as Lutherans — wrote a letter to his bishop protesting what was, at that time, a common practice in the church, the sale of indulgences.

Indulgences were a sort of spiritual equivalent to the synthetic collateralized debt obligations, and other such risky financial securities, that contributed to the market crisis of the last decade.  In essence, the church claimed to own the rights to God’s grace and forgiveness, and had sent agents out across Europe to sell these financial instruments, indulgences, to anyone feeling anxious about their salvation or a loved one’s.  The living could even purchase indulgences for the dead, so that a son or daughter might buy an indulgence on behalf of their departed parents to get them released from purgatory and moving on to heaven.

It was a sham, making a commodity out of God’s free gifts of grace and life, but when Luther wrote to his bishop he wasn’t intending to break away from the church and launch a global reform movement.  He was a professor of theology with a doctorate in Bible who was challenging the church on the basis of scripture and tradition, asking the church to consider its conduct and to be renewed.  It was Luther’s colleague, Philipp Melanchthon, who — 30 years later — told the story of Luther nailing his 95 theses, or arguments, on the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg.

There’s a lot more history to be told here, and some of you already know it.  I was at a party last night and met a man who — once he learned that I was a Lutheran pastor — proceeded to summarize all the major plot points of the most recent movie about Martin Luther along with the personal research he’d done into the man, and he didn’t identify as much of a church goer.  There’s a really rich biography here, of a man tormented by doubt, motivated by intellectual integrity, and liberated by grace — but Luther’s life is not the substance of the Reformation.  The Reformation is, essentially, about the church.

To talk about the church is to talk about something much older than even the near-500 year old tradition we share as Lutherans.  It’s even older than the two thousand-year old tradition we share as Christians.  Talk about the church is rooted in a language that predates the life of Jesus, a Greek word, ecclesia, from which we get ecclesiology, or the study of the church.

Earlier this week, Joe Scarry, Rachel Bickel and I heard a presentation on ecclesiology from Bob Sitze, who lives out in Wheaton and, for twenty years worked for the ELCA in hunger education.  We were at a two and a half day training on community organizing as a tool for congregational development, and Bob was laying the foundation for our conference by challenging us to remember what the church actually is.  In its original use (almost 500 years before the time of Jesus), the Greek word ecclesia, that we’ve come to translate as “church,” actually referred to the group of citizens who were called out of their homes to conduct public affairs — to vote on legislation, to decide whether or not to go to war, to do the work required by the greater society.  Bob challenged us, as faith-rooted community organizers, to think about what it might mean that the early church adopted for itself a very secular word that evoked images of people being called out of the comforts of their private dwelling places to take action on behalf of the whole for the sake of the common good.

So, one of the first Reformations to take place occurred when the early church took a word from secular society and civil government and applied it to the life of faith.  Living together in light of what they’d seen and heard from Jesus of Nazareth, who’d lived under and died while confronting empire, the early church imagined a new kind of society — one where the benefits of citizenship were extended to all who were baptized, a citizenship determined not by who your parents were, or how much money you had, or whether or not you spoke the right language … in fact, not by anything you did, but by what God did when God created you in love and claimed you as God’s own.  Citizenship open to everyone.

This new Christian ecclesia, these new citizens — called out from their private dwelling places to take action on behalf of the whole for the sake of the common good — were radicals from the start.  Writing near the end of the second century, the north African lawyer and priest, Tertullian of Carthage, described the radically different nature of the community called out of the comforts of home for the sake of the common good that was the Christian community.  He writes,

The tried men of our elders preside over us, obtaining that honour not by purchase but by established character.  There is no buying and selling of any sort in the things of God.  Though we have our treasure-chest, it is not made up of purchase-money as of a religion that has its price.  These gifts are… not spent on feasts, and drinking-bouts, and eating-houses, but to support and bury poor people, to supply the wants of boys and girls destitute of means and parents, and of old persons confined now to the house; such, too, as have suffered shipwreck; and if there happen to be any in the mines or banished to the islands or shut up in the prisons, for nothing but their fidelity to the cause of God’s Church, they become the nurslings of their confession.  But it is mainly the deeds of love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us.  See, they say, how they love one another, for they themselves are animated by mutual hatred.  See, they say about us, how they are ready even to die for one another, for they themselves would sooner kill. (From “The Apology of Tertullian,” AD 197)

Rodney Stark, a sociologist of religion at Baylor University in Waco, Texas who grew up Lutheran in Jamestown, North Dakota, has studied the rise of the early church.  He suggests that Christianity grew as rapidly as it did during the first three centuries because it proposed such a radical alternative to the values of empire.  It treated women far better than the pagan religions.  He argues that Christianity’s adoption by the Roman Empire actually weakened the faithfulness of the religion by bringing in large numbers of people who did not share the passion or zeal for an alternative way of living that characterized the church Tertullian described.  Stark writes,

Christianity served as a revitalization movement that arose in response to the misery chaos, fear, and brutality of life in the urban Greco-Roman world… Christianity revitalized life in Greco-Roman cities by providing new norms and new kinds of social relationships able to cope with many urgent problems.  To cities filled with the homeless and impoverished, Christianity offered an immediate basis for attachment.  To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family.  To cities torn by violent ethnic strife, Christianity offered a new basis for social solidarity.  And to cities faced with epidemics, fire, and earthquakes, Christianity offered effective nursing services… For what they brought was not simply an urban movement, but a new culture capable of making life in Greco-Roman cities more tolerable.”  (Rodney Stark, “The Rise of Christianity.”  Princeton University Press, 1996, p. 161)

Do you hear in the words of Tertullian and the studies of Rodney Stark the echoes of the ancient meaning of that word, ecclesia — those called out of the comforts of their private homes to take action on behalf of the whole for the sake of the common good?  Do you hear how the early church was redefining what it meant to be a citizen, a member of society, in light of the grace of God they’d found in their baptism?

I know that not all of you are Lutherans by background or upbringing, so I’m going to share something with you that you might not know if you don’t come out of a Lutheran upbringing.  It’s actually pretty uncommon to talk so much about taking action on Reformation Sunday.  You see, part of what Martin Luther was reacting so powerfully against was the idea that salvation was something that could be earned, even bought.  Martin Luther, whose powerful recovery of our biblical inheritance reminds us that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, fought hard against any notion that we are responsible for our own salvation.  That, Luther taught, is God’s work, already accomplished in Christ Jesus.  In baptism we are saved and set free.

This means, if you are sitting in your pew right now wondering if you belong here, if you are good enough to come to this communion rail, to eat this bread and drink from this cup, you can stop worrying.  This ecclesia, this church, this gathering of people drawn out from their homes to take action on behalf of the whole for the sake of the common good, is not made up of good people — it is made up of God’s people.  Ordinary people, made extraordinary not by what any one of us or all of us together has done, but by what God has done in us, and for us, and through us.

This baptism that we keep talking about isn’t reserved for the good people, or the right people, or the successful people, or the smart people.  It’s open to all people.  It’s not a choice that we make, like some other action that we have to take, but it is a sign of God’s choice and God’s action.  God chooses you.  God is reaching out to you.  You are already welcome in this church, among these people, at this font, around this table.

The actions we take, the organizing we do, the ministries we carry out, are not some modern indulgence, a form of payment for the grace and forgiveness we have already received.  They are an expression of the love of God we have seen in Christ Jesus, which — when called out of the home and into the public realm — looks like justice and mercy and compassion and self-sacrifice.

This Reformation Sunday, and every Sunday, we are challenged to re-examine what we think the church is.  When we wake up on Sunday morning, and on every morning, and leave behind the privacy of our homes, we are called by our baptisms to work on behalf of the whole for the sake of the common good.  We are not working for our salvations, which are already in the bag.  We are working on the side of love to revitalize cities and restore creation.  By the grace of God, we are being reformed, every day.




Sermon: Sunday, March 4, 2012: Second Sunday in Lent

[Holding aloft a copy of the Pocket Edition of Luther’s Small Catechism] Was ist das?

Dies ist ein geschenk.  This is a present.  It’s a gift from us to you.  These little pocket editions of Luther’s Small Catechism have been floating around the church, in one form or another, for almost five hundred years now.  Written by Martin Luther and first published in 1529, various editions and translations of this little instruction book have been used to instruct children (and adults) in the faith by parents at home and by teachers and preachers in the church since long before any of us were born.

And, as you learned last week, we’re using these Sundays in Lent as a time of intentional instruction in the basic building blocks of the Christian faith.  The churchy word for this process is catechesis, you see it written in Greek on the front of your bulletin.  It literally means, “to sound down into the ears.”  So, intrinsic to the process of catechesis is speaking and listening.


Last November I was speaking to a group of Lutheran grade school students at St. John’s Lutheran School on Montrose, and I was struck by how the students had memorized and could recite long sections of Luther’s Small Catechism — as they did during chapel worship.  Never fear, I’m not going to ask you to do the same, though I am going to ask you to open the catechisms we passed out with your bulletins and turn to pages 12 & 13.

What you’ve got on the left side shouldn’t be unfamiliar, it’s the Apostle’s Creed.  On the right page you get Luther’s explanation of the First Article of the Creed which deals with God as the creator of all.  He begins by repeating the First Article, “I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.”  And then you see the phrase “what is this?” or “what does this mean?” — the English translation of Luther’s favorite little question, “was ist das?”

Here’s how Luther answers the question:

I believe that God has created me together with all that exists.  God has given me and still preserves my body and soul: eyes, ears, and all limbs and senses; reason and all mental faculties.  In addition, God daily and abundantly provides shoes and clothing, food and drink, house and farm, spouse and children, livestock, and all property — along with all the necessities and nourishment for this body and life.  God protects me against all danger and shields and preserves me from all evil.  And all this is done out of pure, fatherly, and divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness of mine at all!

That last line is the most important one, so let’s say it together one time: without any merit or worthiness of mine at all!

Without any merit or worthiness of mine at all.  This is a tough pill for even the most Lutheran of Lutherans to swallow, though if you were confirmed in the Lutheran church you probably at least learned the formal name for this bit of doctrine: justification by grace through faith.  It is one of the foundational insights of the Lutheran Reformation, that we are saved by grace through faith and not by any works of our own.  But being able to recite that theological formula surely isn’t the same as believing it, much less living it.

A couple of weeks ago Cynthia Stengel forwarded me an essay published in the Wall Street Journal last month by Alain De Botton, a Swiss writer and the author of Religion for Atheists, which comes out in hardcover here in the States on Tuesday.  In his article he discusses the erosion of community that many of us sense has worsened in recent decades and suggests that one root cause has been the loss of a shared public religion.  He’s not recommending a return to monoculture, but he is trying to understand what a common religious life has offered society as a step to suggesting how what has been lost might be regained in a pluralistic world.  He writes,

“Insofar as modern society ever promises us access to a community, it is one centered on the worship of professional success. We sense that we are brushing up against its gates when the first question we are asked at a party is ‘What do you do?,’ our answer to which will determine whether we are warmly welcomed or conclusively abandoned.

In these competitive, pseudo-communal gatherings, only a few sides of us count as currency with which to buy the goodwill of strangers. What matters above all is what is on our business cards. Those who have opted to spend their lives looking after children, writing poetry or nurturing orchards will be left in no doubt that they have run contrary to the dominant mores of the powerful, who will marginalize them accordingly.”

By contrast, he continues,

“the Church asks us to leave behind all references to earthly status.  Here no one asks what anyone else ‘does.’  It no longer matters who is the bond dealer and who the cleaner.  The Church does more, however, than merely declare that worldly success doesn’t matter.   In a variety of ways, it enables us to imagine that we could be happy without it.  Appreciating the reasons why we try to acquire status in the first place, it establishes conditions under which we can willingly surrender our attachment to it.”

While I appreciate the good press, I’m not convinced we always do this quite so well as Alain De Botton suggests.  Still, to the extent that we are able to enact this alternate vision of community, where worth is not tied to wealth, it is a reflection of our belief that our ultimate value lies in our common heritage as creations of God, the creator of heaven and earth.

That is what your confirmation teachers were attempting to instill in you as they taught you Luther’s explanation of the First Article of the Apostles’ Creed.  That you are a creation of the same God who created the crab nebula pulsing in the constellation of Taurus; the same God who binds protons to electrons, making matter possible at the sub-atomic level.  I’m not talking about creationism, I’m talking about creation in all its breathtaking grandeur.  Everything that is and ever was, the heights of Mount Kilamanjaro, the depths of the ocean floor, and you.

You are one of God’s miracles, and that was true long before you ever opened your mouth or took your first step or accepted your first job or brought home your first paycheck. You are one of God’s most miraculous creations, and that is your birthright.  That means it is a truth that no one and nothing can ever take away from you.  That’s what the Creed is trying to tell you, which is why it’s always a little sad when we recite it the way I used to recite the pledge of allegiance in elementary school each day when the bell rang — still half-asleep and not quite sure of its meaning.

“I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.”  Listen to the audacity of that claim.  When Christians gather, we proudly declare that we believe that whatever God there is, however this spinning planet came to rest at just the right midpoint between the burning gasses of the sun and the deep freeze of outer space that allows life to flourish across the globe, that God is both almighty and parental.  That God is both powerful and tender.  That God is both transcendent and as close to us as a parent’s beating heart.  That is not a truth to be droned, but sung.

The apostle Paul writes, “For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith.”  If I got to rewrite that sentence for a modern audience, which I do, I would translate it something like this, “You people of faith, you come from a proud lineage, but the thing that makes your family tree truly impressive is not the number of lawyers or doctors in it, not the number of famous or wealthy people in it.  What makes your family tree truly impressive is that it encompasses the whole world.  Your birthright, your inheritance, is the whole world to treat and love as your own family, just as the God who created the whole world has claimed you as God’s family, not because of who you are but because of who God is.  Love.  Believe that.  You were created in the image and likeness of Love.”

Catechesis is what we call the process of teaching.  Catechisms are the textbooks used to do the teaching.  Catechumens are what we call the people being taught.  In the days of the early church the catechumens were those preparing to be baptised at the Easter Vigil.  We have carried that tradition forward in time, and today we use these forty days of Lent as a period of learning and relearning what it means to be the baptized people of God.  The creeds that we recite in worship were first recited at our baptism, either by us or over us.  They summarize the sweeping drama of God’s grace, from creation to salvation to resurrection, and they put us right at the heart of the action.  Try to listen to the creed with fresh ears again today, not as a set of ideas to believe, but as a story to live.  A grand story with God’s creative love and your miraculous being right at the center of it all.