Sermon: Sunday, October 25, 2015: Festival of the Reformation & Service of Leave-Taking

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

He had no idea what would happen next.

lossy-page1-220px-Martin_Luther_by_Cranach-restoration.tifWhen Martin Luther sat down to write his disputation on “the power and efficacy of indulgences,” which later came to be known as The 95 Theses, he had no idea what would happen next. He hadn’t set out to fracture the church, or to launch a reformation. He was raising a theological objection to the church’s practice of selling indulgences to raise money for the construction of the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome. The theological regime of the day imagined that sins were like debts in an account that needed to be paid, and that the church was the executor of Christ’s estate, able to dip into the treasury of his merits to settle accounts, for a fee.

Luther, whose early years had been plagued by a fear of judgment, objected to the sale of indulgences because they pretended to sell something God has already freely given: the forgiveness of sin. Haunted by the sense that he could never be good enough for God, Luther had turned to scripture and there he found life:

“For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus…” (Romans 3:22-24)

Martin Luther, whose personal struggle with God brought him at last to a sense of his own freedom, was not content to keep that message to himself. Instead, he chose to share it with the religious, political, and economic powers of his day. But he had no idea what would happen next.

When we tell the story of the Reformation, we often focus on its innovations: the push to worship in the language of the people instead of the old Latin; the primacy of scripture over the church’s traditional teachings; opening communion in both kinds to common people; opening the priesthood to marriage; the advent of the printing press which allowed the movement to spread quickly, made it possible for every household to own a bible, and expanded literacy rates.

And isn’t it interesting how those 16th century innovations keep popping up in the on-going reformation of the church in our own day and age: we are still working out what it means to worship in the language(s) of the people, learning how to proclaim the gospel in words that 21st century hearts can hear; we are still discovering how the radical witness of scripture cuts against our longing for stability and tradition; we are still debating who is welcome to receive communion when we gather at the Lord’s Table; we are still wrestling with who may serve the church as clergy and how their relationships will be recognized; we are still catching on to new technologies that are reshaping how the story of God’s movement in the world is shared.

That’s what happened next, those are the things Luther could never have imagined when he set out to make his public witness to the faith that was in him. He could never have imagined how he would be put on trial and excommunicated from the church. He could never have imagined that he would have to flee for his life, that he would become the eye of a religious and political storm that would reshape Europe’s balance of power.

But all of these things are secondary to what came first. What came first was the encounter between Martin Luther and God, the living God, the God who called Abraham and Sara to leave their homes, who called Moses to lead the people out of slavery, who spoke through the prophets in every age to confront the powers and principalities of this world for the sake of freedom and new life. What happened first was the encounter between a soul trapped in fear and doubt and the God who will die before allowing us to remain enslaved to our pasts.

First Luther heard the word of grace, the new covenant written on his heart. First Luther experienced what it meant to be free from the old story of his inadequacy, and experienced the joy of the gospel. First Luther came to understand that God’s decision to love us precedes our decision to love God. Then everything changed.

The irony of the way we so often celebrate Reformation Day in the church is that we treat it like something that happened in the past.  That, somehow, God’s reforming work in the world can be safely contained in the 16th century and trotted out once a year for us to admire from a safe distance.

But there is nothing safe or contained about our encounter with the living God! When we come into God’s presence we are on holy ground. We are like the bush that burned without being consumed. We are destroyed and recreated in the same moment. We are called to be and do more than we ever could have imagined. We are changed.

When Jesus tells those who had followed him that they would know the truth and the truth would make them free, they respond to him saying,

“we are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free?’” (John 8:33)

The irony here is that the foundational story of Israel is the story of the exodus from slavery. So in saying that they have never been slaves to anyone, what they are really saying is, “we have forgotten our story. We have forgotten ourselves. We have grown so accustomed to the way things are, we cannot imagine they have ever been otherwise, or that they could ever be anything else.”

So often when the moment of change comes, we respond like those who’d followed Jesus. In our encounter with the living God we are challenged to act like free people. We are pushed to grow beyond the boundaries of what the world has taught us to expect of ourselves. We are invited to remember that we have always been more than the labels slapped on us at birth. We are more than the rigid gender roles assigned to each infant. We are more than the racial stereotypes we discover in grade school. We are more than jobs people ask us to aspire to when we grow up. We are more than the balances in our bank accounts. We are more than market demographics or generational labels. We are more than the things other people say about people like us. We are free people, even when we act as though we are not.

When I first heard about this congregation while living down in Atlanta, how they were looking for someone to partner with them in redeveloping the church, I didn’t want to apply for the job. I’d made my peace with the fact that I’d never be a pastor. I’d just bought my first home, and hadn’t even lived there six months. When I finally threw my hat in the ring I wasn’t afraid that I wouldn’t get the job. I was afraid that I would. There had already been too much transition and loss in my life. I didn’t want to open myself up to the heartbreak of the new. I didn’t want to change.

Today it feels like everything is changing, though in reality this change has been happening very slowly for almost a decade. When we began our redevelopment there were only two non-negotiables: we weren’t closing and we weren’t moving. So we began, hoping we could make that so; thinking we could direct the course of the changes time had in store for us. But with each new face that walked through these doors, we became a new people. Our story was changed by their stories. They became us. We became something new together. We changed, and as the years wore on we began to ask ourselves when we had decided that being redeveloped, being renewed, being reformed meant getting back to the way things used to be. Our future does not lie in our past.

Simply moving out of our historic home does not make us free, though it does create the conditions of instability that often allow something new to emerge. Finding new ways to worship in a new place does not make us reformers, though it does join us to the growing ranks of Christian people who are reinventing what it means to be the church in an age of rapidly shifting identities, when those claiming no religious identity at all are the fastest growing sector of the American religious landscape.

The Reformation caught fire and spread because it spoke the truth to power, addressing a real need felt by everyday people. In Luther’s day life was brutally hard and often too short. People were terrified of hell, and the church was enriching itself by selling salvation, capitalizing on the people’s fears by taking the money they needed to feed and house themselves so that the wealthy elite in Rome could build an opulent cathedral while the hungry poor went without.

According to the same study that described the rise of the religiously unaffiliated, only half of Americans still believe in hell. It’s not an idea that drives our behavior, it doesn’t provide the kind of leverage the market needs to get us to part with our money. Instead of being preoccupied with the state of our souls after we die, people today are threatened with exclusion from the “American Dream” if they don’t project an image of upward mobility. Presidential candidates feel entitled to write the hungry poor off as “losers.” We have created hell on earth for those living with the least, so that the wealthy elites, the 1%, can build ever-bigger edifices to celebrate their success.

What would it mean for the church of the Reformation to speak with Luther’s passion to the plight of the exploited poor under these circumstances? What does it mean to be justified by grace through faith in an era of unfettered capitalism in the 21st century instead of an age of Christian colonialism like the 16th century? What is the truth that makes us free in a time like this?

We can’t answer all those questions today. However, because we have done the hard work of growing beyond our past, because we made the necessary decision to leave our historic home, because we chose a future together rather than a lonely death, we don’t have to. Instead, we will gather for worship around the means of grace once again next week, and the week after that, and for months and years to come. We will meet people who will have never known this place, but who will become as much a part of St. Luke’s as anyone here today or in ages past.

Today our hearts are breaking as we say our goodbyes to a home that has sheltered us, that has nurtured us, that has seen members of our families married and buried. Here in this place, within these walls, at this font and around this table, we have encountered the living God, and we have been changed. Without this place, we would never have grown strong enough to leave this place. Facing our death, year after year, we have come alive. We are being reformed. We are free, so who knows what will happen next?


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.