Sermon: Sunday, October 30, 2016: Reformation Sunday

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

“We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”

It’s a jaw-dropper of a statement, “we have never been slaves to anyone.” Jesus is talking to his Jewish followers about freedom. The line he delivers, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free,” should have landed easily with this crowd. He’s talking to people whose foundational stories are the story of the exodus from slavery and the exile in Babylon, which Jesus knows because, as a Jew growing up in occupied Israel, they are his stories too. Yet somehow they’ve forgotten who they are, where they came from, and how they got there.

This mass amnesia is an ever-present threat. As George Santayana famously put it, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Anymore that sounds like the premise for a horror movie. Imagine: a nation so beset by forgetfulness that it keeps imagining it will arrive at a new future by practicing the same old mistakes. Which echo of a war are we now living in? Is is the Gulf War or the Cold War? Which memory of an economy are we being haunted by? Is is the Great Depression or the Great Recession? What am I seeing when I tune into the news to find citizens marching to protest violence against Black and Brown bodies? Is it Emmett Till or Rodney King? What is going on up in North Dakota as Native Americans face off against federal forces? Are we headed for another Battle of Little Big Horn or massacre at Wounded Knee?

Life in these United States, life in the world, so often feels like being caught in an endless, tragic, memory. In light of this, who wouldn’t opt for a bit of mass amnesia. Or, at the very least, mass nostalgia. If we must remember the bad old days, can we just agree to remember them as not that bad? Current campaign slogans aside, Americans have been looking back to look forward for a long time now.


“Ozzie & Harriet”

Those first TV families — June and Ward Cleaver and their boys, Wally and “Beaver”; Ozzie and Harriet, and their two boys, David and “Ricky”; Andy Taylor and his son, Opie; Steven Douglas and his three sons. What was up with all these sons and no daughters? The widowers raising boys with no mothers? The notion of a single-mother was a tragedy on television, while the idea of a single-father was somehow quietly noble. How have these differences in our representations of male and female authority and sufficiency continued to haunt us?


So we arrive at Reformation Sunday — and not just any Reformation Sunday, but the kick-off to a year-long global commemoration of the Protestant Reformation. The New York Times has already gotten in on the story, publishing a piece this weekend that proclaims, “Long Before Twitter, Martin Luther was a Media Pioneer.” Pope Francis will travel tomorrow to Sweden to participate in Reformation events there, continuing the long, hard work of reconciliation between our two church bodies. I understand how it’s newsworthy. I just wonder if it’s the story we need to hear right now, or if it’s the story we want to hear instead. Are we possibly like the Jewish people in this morning’s gospel, asking Jesus to explain himself when he talk to us about freedom, preferring to forget all the ways we have been enslaved?

decolonizeLast weekend I attended a one-day conference at LSTC titled “#decolonizeLutheranism.” Organized by clergy and seminarians acting on their own, not as a project of the seminary, synod, or churchwide organization, this gathering set itself the task of trying to understand what it might look like to strip Lutheranism of its particular social, historical, and ethnic expressions — to “decolonize” Lutheranism. The organizers hoped they might pull together 50-60 people. Instead, over 200 showed up, flying in from all parts of the country, hungry for a conversation about what it means to call ourselves Lutheran at a moment when people are increasingly ambivalent about calling themselves Christian, or even religious. What does it mean to claim an identity that was forged at a very particular moment in time, in a very specific place, at the beginning of a time of upheaval that cracked open the Holy Roman Empire and charted a new course for Europe? But more, what does it mean to call ourselves Lutherans, a global community of more than 72 million people, when American Lutherans are a shrinking minority in the landscape of religious identity, while Lutherans in Namibia are the majority? There are large Lutheran communities in Slovakia, Kazakhstan, Tanzania, Brazil, India and South Africa which are not simply comprised of descendants of European and North American immigrants, but have taken roots in the soils of many lands, taking on the flavors of many foods and the sounds of many songs and the customs of many peoples.

All of which means we cannot say who we will be, or even who we are, simply by remembering and recounting just one version of who we have been. As we enter into this global retelling of the reformation story, we must keep Paul’s words to the community in Rome in mind, “Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that or works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” (Rom. 3:27-28)

These words, memorized by Lutheran confirmands generation after generation, should both comfort and terrify us at once. They tell us there is nothing we have to do, or even can do, to earn our place before God. They remind us that all that we are, and all that we have, come to us as a gift from a loving Creator. They also call us to faith — not as a litmus test, not as a new work, but as a way of life, as a discipline, as a daily dying to who we have been so that God can bring to life that which we are by grace becoming.

A few years ago I heard one of the most remarkable sermons of my life, preached by a pastor I’m lucky enough to call my mentor and my friend, the Rev. Jim Gertmenian, recently retired from Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis. In it, he retold a story from the beginning of the exodus cycle, a story from Moses’ infancy, the story of the moment when his mother, Jochebed, set her infant son in a basket of pitch and reeds, and set him on the waters of the Nile to save him from the death awaiting all Hebrew boys by the decree of Pharaoh.

It was a stunning sermon for so many reasons, not least of which is that Jim is a master storyteller with a poet’s ear. In his retelling we could feel the cool mud of the river bed pressing up between Jochebed’s toes. We could hear her heart beating faster and faster as the moment came to release the raft. We could imagine the horror and desperation felt by any mother, any parent, who has reached the place where their next best action is to let go of their child and place that life in the hands of God.

Then he made this point: the exodus begins with this act of faith, freedom and liberation stem from this moment, the act of placing that which is most precious to us in God’s hands and trusting God to be faithful. Too often, he pointed out, we imagine that reformation, or liberation, is about stripping away the husk, the dead inessentials, that are smothering the precious center from thriving. But the story of the exodus does not begin with a call to return to some older, purer, practice of faith. It does not imagine some essential Judaism, or Christianity, or Lutheranism that can be salvaged from the particularities of history. Instead, this story teaches that God is faithful, and that we can trust that which is most precious, most essential, most loved to God’s care. We can let go of that which we imagine to be most central to our faith, to our lives, and entrust it to God, who is always guiding us into a future in which we are all God’s people, no longer divided by labels, with that knowledge as close to us as our own hearts (Jer. 31:33-34)

This is the truth that sets us free. We Lutherans, we Methodists, we Christians, we Jews, we Muslims, we Hindus, we agnostics, we atheists, we spiritual but not religious, we living, we dead, we people, we planet, we belong to one another in ways our labels cannot erase. We have no need to boast, nor to forget. We have heard the truth. Not willful ignorance of our painful past, but faith in God’s future. We are free.



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.