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, October 30, 2011: Reformation Sunday: God’s Politics, “Damage Control & Spin Doctors”

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

It was not quite four years ago, and the presidential campaign was in full swing, when a controversy arose over comments made by the pastor of a Chicago congregation that was home to one of the front-runners in the race. The candidate was Barack Obama, the pastor was Jeremiah Wright, and the comments concerned Pastor Wright’s interpretation of the events of September 11. At a time when our nation was paralyzed by polarized thinking – when the only way to be for us was to be against them – Jeremiah Wright made the near-blasphemous suggestion that the attacks of September 11th were attributable, at least in part, to our country’s economic exploitation and military presence throughout Africa and the Middle East.

PrintIt was an embarrassment for then-candidate Obama. Pastor Wright was the public voice and the prophetic conscience of one of the largest Black churches on the South Side of Chicago. Obama’s membership in that congregation was a sign of his deep roots in the African-American community and his solidarity with South-siders of all stripes. It was painful to watch pastor and president-to-be position themselves against one another. Eventually, in an act of damage control for his campaign, Barack Obama resigned his membership in the church.

The president at that time, George Bush, was quite familiar with the tactics of damage control and spin doctoring, sometimes both at once, as when his former White House press secretary, Scott McClellan, released a memoir of his time in that position asserting that White House officials, including the president, relied on an aggressive political propaganda campaign to sell the Iraq war to the American people.

Spin doctors and damage control are permanent fixtures in today’s politics. Spin doctoring is the art of interpreting events in their most beneficial aspect for the benefit of the candidate, the elected official, the campaign, the party, etc. Damage control is that set of actions taken to limit the negative effects of any story that might hurt the candidate, official, and so on. As citizens and voters the words hit our own ears with a harsh tone, because we are so accustomed to our politicians protecting their self-interest through the tactics of spin doctoring and damage control.

These past few weeks we’ve been considering God’s Politics however, and we’ve opened ourselves up to the idea that the candidate for office God is backing is you, is each one of us. So, when God sets out to do damage control on our campaign, or to spin the story for positive effect, how might those efforts hit our ears? The answer isn’t far away, in fact, it’s shot all through this morning’s scriptures.

Consider the passage from Jeremiah. There we hear that God’s candidates had made campaign promises they failed to live up to. Specifically, they’d made a covenant with God, that they would be God’s people in a land filled with other gods, other values demanding their worship. Like many campaign promises, this one was broken not long after it was made, as the people of Israel found it more convenient or more profitable to offer their allegiance to the false gods of power and wealth.

Yet, rather than toss them aside like so much collateral damage in today’s political and military tactics, God remains faithful to God’s candidates even when they are unfaithful to God. God says, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:33b-34)

Here we see that God’s Politics are an entirely different sort than the ones we’ve grown accustomed to. Faced with political embarrassment, with gross infidelity on the part of the candidates, with broken campaign promises, God does damage control not for the sake of God’s honor, but for the sake of God’s people. God does not cast aside those who struggle, those who fail, to live up to the planks of God’s platform. Instead, God spins the covenant in a new way. Remembering the law written on the tablets given to Moses at Mount Sinai, God declares through Jeremiah that God will write the law once again, but this time on our hearts, on flesh and not stone.

In the epigraph to his newest book, Healing the Heart of Democracy, Parker Palmer includes a quote from author Terry Tempest Williams in a 2004 article from Orion magazine. She writes,

The human heart is the first home of democracy. It is where we embrace our questions. Can we be equitable? Can we be generous? Can we listen with our whole beings, not just our minds, and offer our attention rather than our opinions? And do we have enough resolve in our hearts to act courageously, relentlessly, without giving up – ever – trusting our fellow citizens to join with us in our determined pursuit of a living democracy?[i]

Might this be what it means for God to have written God’s law on our hearts? That we have been called in our candidacy to consider our relationship to our neighbor not out of obligation, but out of love? That we have been called to listen and learn, rather than speak and judge? That we have been called to work “courageously, relentlessly, without giving up – ever” for the common good, for the ways of being that promote the most life for the most people? For the 99% and not the 1%. Could it be that God’s spin on the covenant is also how God does damage control for all of God’s people?

Candidates, and I mean all of you (and me as well), I have to tell you something about God’s Politics that runs counter to much of what’s being preached in the public square today. God is not a rugged individualist and God’s prophets do not preach the gospel of personal responsibility and self-reliance. One of my favorite preachers, Jim Gertmenian of Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis, put it this way in his sermon last week,

Personal responsibility and self-reliance are fine values, as far as they go, but the heart of Christianity is in another place altogether. It has to do with community, with helping one another, with being vulnerable to one another, with being in this together, not with the rugged individualist who goes it alone. And by the way, the next time someone piously quotes to you the saying, “God helps those who help themselves,” as a justification for cutting social programs, will you please remind that person that those words do not come from scripture, they were never spoken by Jesus of Nazareth, they come from Benjamin Franklin.[ii]

Or, in more ancient words, it is as the Apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans,

“then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of 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.” (Romans 3:27-28)

It is Reformation Sunday, so I would be remiss if, as a Lutheran, I did not make some mention of Martin Luther’s challenge to the powers and principalities of his day, of his confrontation with the Roman church over the sale of indulgences and his act of nailing 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. I don’t think, however, that our brother Martin was looking for fame or annual homage when he took this public action. No, I think he had more in common with those who now occupy the public spaces of cities across the nation this morning, demanding a politics and an economy worthy of the human spirit.

Luther’s rebellious act, which we commemorate today, was a form of civil protest over financial abuses committed by the church and carried out on the backs of the poorest of the poor. Holding their fear of hell over their heads, the church was selling indulgences, guarantees of the forgiveness of sin, as if that was ever theirs to offer. Freedom, Luther preached (recalling Jesus’ words to his opponents, recalling Jeremiah’s prophetic spin doctoring), comes from the deepest truth that in God’s love we are all forgiven, for free, forever.

The demanding question God’s Politics ask of us today is: if all are loved, and all are forgiven, and all belong in this world by virtue of their divine parentage and not their earthly rank, then why do our politics continue to divide and conquer us?

It is four years later and the campaign is, as always in full swing. Once again there are words coming from a Chicago pulpit challenging the candidate to name the sins of empire for what they are. But this time the candidate is you, and empire is all around us. It’s not just about ending the war, though it is that. It’s not just about occupying Wall Street, or Main Street, though it is that as well. It’s about finally setting aside the polarized politics of us and them and remembering God’s spin on the covenant, “they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest… for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” It is not the politics of the 99%, or the 1%, but of the 100%. It is God’s Politics, and we are its ambassadors.