500 Years of the Reformation

Below is my sermon from Sunday, October 29, Reformation Sunday! This year (today actually) marks 500 years since the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, which in Lutheran circles meant lots of festivity, pomp, and considering what our past means for our present and future.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Happy Reformation Sunday! As we approached this day, the five-hundredth anniversary of Martin Luther posting the ninety-five theses in Wittenberg and beginning what we now call the Protestant Reformation, I wondered what there could be for me to say on this morning.

So much has been said about the religious, cultural, and political change that Martin Luther began 500 years ago. Posting his 95 Theses, asking for debate and change in a church that he was part of, a church that he loved, Martin Luther got a lot more than he bargained for. He asked the church to consider its teaching about how people become justified in God’s sight. He asked the church to consider its impact on its most vulnerable members.

He wanted change and reform, but he never wanted division and schism. But his ideas took off, and they changed the face of Christianity, of Europe, of politics. There have been movies, PBS specials, new books, podcasts, and articles. I loved it; I loved hearing about Luther and Lutherans in the news and pop culture. But I wondered, what could be left to say after all of that?

On this Reformation Sunday, we look back on all of that—on all of the history, change, important movements in the church and in culture—but at the same time, we are not historians. We are not sociologists. We are the church, the body of Christ right now. And so, as we look back and remember and give thanks, at the same time we must lean forward, into what it means to be a Reformation people today and in the future. And what a wonderful day it is that we celebrate the future of the church with two baptisms of Mia and Tyler.

Looking back, and leaning forward. This passage from the Gospel of John is always read on Reformation because it has a lot to say, not only about Lutheran theology, but to us right now. Jesus, speaking to a group of people who believe in him says, “if you continue in my word, you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.”

There’s a somewhat humorous aspect to their response: “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone.” It seems they were forgetting about that time in Egypt. They were forgetting about the Babylonians, and the Greeks, and the Romans who were currently ruling over them.

But as much as we can chuckle at Jesus’ disciples and their selective memory, this idea of being enslaved and not knowing it, of needing to be made free, plays out time and again. In Luther’s day, it was what kicked off the whole Reformation. People thought that they could make themselves free from sin. Encouraged by the Church at that time, they believed that if they gave enough money—bought an indulgence, a papal assurance of salvation in exchange for money—or if they did enough good works, then they would be free. They had the power to control their own freedom. The ninety-five theses that Luther posted in 1517 were meant to start a debate around this very issue.

But we are not immune to the same struggles today. We may not be buying indulgences, but we too join in with the selective memory: “What do you mean we need to be made free, Jesus? We are the theological descendants of Luther! We understand that it all depends on God!” And yet, how often do we act differently?

The truth that will set us free actually requires two truths. The truth about ourselves and the truth about God. In the words of Alcoholics Anonymous literature: the truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable.

The truth of the Son, the truth that makes you free, the truth at the heart of the ninety-five theses, is that we are sinners. From our Romans reading, we are reminded that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” It is not an easy truth to hear. We are God’s fallen, sometimes flailing, regularly confused, always imperfect children from birth to death.

No amount of indulgences, or good works, or good intentions, or job promotions, or good grades, or likes, or friend requests, none of it can redeem us from that simple fact. It’s the truth, even if we don’t like to admit it.

But the second truth follows from it: we are also those sinners who are simultaneously God’s beloved children, those sinners whom God calls blessed and holy, those sinners whose futures are not determined by regrets from the past but by the possibility created by the resurrection.

“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.” The truth will set you free: free from the bounds of sin, free from the worries of being enough, or doing enough, of always struggling to be good enough. The truth will set you free: you are enough, because you are God’s beloved child. That is what we will proclaim over Mia and Tyler today. And nothing more than that is ever needed to be enough for God.

As we look back today, we remember the wonderful inheritance of the Reformation. The discovering anew of God’s grace and love. But as we lean forward, we realize that it still applies to us today, just as new as it was five hundred years ago.

May this Reformation Day, may this momentous anniversary, be a reminder to you not just of the past, and where we have come, but may it serve as a reminder of God’s grace to you now, and the hope that remains before us. Amen.

When in Our Music God Is Glorified

When in our music God is glorified,
and adoration leaves no room for pride,
it is as though the whole creation cried:

How oft, in making music, we have found
a new dimension in the world of sound,
as worship moved us to a more profound

So has the church, in liturgy and song,
in faith and love, through centuries of wrong,
borne witness to the truth in ev’ry tongue:

And did not Jesus sing a psalm that night
when utmost evil strove against the light?
Then let us sing, for whom he won the fight:

Let ev’ry instrument be tuned for praise;
let all rejoice who have a voice to raise;
and may God give us faith to sing always:

To wrap up our week of hymn reflections is “When in Our Music God Is Glorified,” suggested to me by Barbara Curtin. It was written by Fred Pratt Green, a Methodist minister and prolific hymnwriter in England.

He was asked to compose a hymn to fit the tune Engelberg, which you also might know as “We Know that Christ Is Raised.” Hymns and tunes are often paired inseparably in our imagination, but are most often not written together.

My favorite line from this hymn must be, “adoration leaves no room for pride.” How often do we seek to out-do one another in, well, everything? Including worshiping God. Including church. Including prayer. But this line reminds us that true worship of God eclipses our pride and hubris. And thank God for that!

What a perfect hymn with which to close out this small series: one more reflection on the importance of music to our lives together as people of God. “Let all rejoice who have a voice to raise, and may God give us faith to sing always.”

When Peace Like a River

When peace like a river attendeth my way,
when sorrows like sea billow roll,
whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,
it is well, it is well with my soul.

Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
let this blest assurance control,
that Christ hath regarded my helpless estate,
and hath shed his own blood for my soul.

He lives—oh, the bliss of this glorious thought;
my sin, not in part, but the whole,
is nailed to his cross and I bear it no more.
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!

Lord, hasten the day when our faith shall be sight,
the clouds be rolled back as a scroll,
the trumpet shall sound and the Lord shall descend;
even so, it is well with my soul.

This hymn, suggested for the blog by Barb Keyser, was written by Horatio Spafford in 1873. He was a lawyer and professor of medical jurisprudence at Chicago Medical College and an active church member all his life.

This hymn has always been a favorite of mine for its beautiful poetry and the wonderful tune written for it by Philip Bliss. But I grew to love it even more knowing its story. Spafford’s wife, Anna Larssen, was ill and advised to visit a different climate. The couple, along with their four daughters, planned a trip to Europe. At the last minute Horatio Spafford stayed behind, planning to follow on another boat.

The boat that his family was on, the Ville du Havre, was hit in the Atlantic by another ship and sank. Anna was saved, but all four of their daughters drowned. Horatio Spafford wrote this hymn during his own ocean crossing, to join his grieving wife in Paris.

The hymn’s main point (made much more poetically than this) is that whatever experiences we might come across, we are not alone. My favorite line is from the second verse: “Christ hath regarded my helpless estate.” One of the most meaningful results of the great mystery of the Incarnation is, for me, that God fully and truly understands the human experience, both good and bad. God in Christ knows what it is to grieve, to feel anger and frustration, to experience joy and love. And God also understands the pain of losing a beloved child.

The hymn does not end there though—with the loss and pain. But it reminds us of the true end of Christ’s story and our story: the resurrection. Christ lives, and so too shall we live. And that is what gives the ability to say, “It is well with my soul.”

Incarnate God, in Jesus Christ you took on our humanity, shared our experiences, and bore all the breadth of human emotion. We turn to you in both celebration and heartache, joy and despair. Be with us, we pray, in the midst of all life’s journeys until we celebrate with all the saints the fullness of your resurrection. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

Take, Oh, Take Me As I Am

Take, oh, take me as I am;
summon out what I shall be;
set your seal upon my heart
and live in me.
(ELW #814)

That’s all, folks! I know, we’re used to hymns being just a little bit longer. This hymn was written by John Bell in the late 1990s. Bell is a Scottish Presbyterian pastor who has been influential in both youth work and liturgy and a member of the Iona Community.

Iona is an association of men and women who keep to a rule of life and faith, while continuing their secular jobs and vocations—a monastery in the world. This hymn was written for a weekly service of commitment in the Iona Abbey, “which involved people being offered the opportunity in some symbolic way to affirm their commitment to Christ or to a specific aspect of discipleship” (From the Hymnal Companion to the ELW).

It is meant to be sung repetitively and contemplatively. I first experienced this hymn at a summer program called Theological Education with Youth. It was a two-week camp, focused on creating an intentional Christian community for that time. Going into my senior year of high school, it was at this camp that I first began to seriously consider a call to ministry.

We sang this hymn at our closing worship, again and again, as each of us was anointed by our leaders and prayed for individually. With easy, repetitive hymns like this, you don’t need the words or music after the second or third time through. I closed my eyes and let the song wash over me. This song is a prayer, beautiful in its simplicity. To borrow from another tradition, it becomes almost like a mantra, something that you breathe in and out.

To this day, hearing or singing this song will transport me back to that chapel at Susquehanna University, to those gathered teenagers, to being prayed for and anointed. Do you have a hymn like that? That takes you back to another place—where you first learned it, or a special occasion when you sang it? Please feel free to share in the comments. Next week will I will be writing about some of these suggested hymns (and the ones that have already been mentioned on previous posts.)

God of all, you know us: our thoughts and prayers, our hopes and dreams, our doubts and desperation. We thank you for your love, which accepts us as who we are, despite our shortcomings. Let your love live in our hearts, and call us forth to lives led for you. Amen.

This Is My Father’s World

This is my Father’s world, and to my list’ning ears
all nature sings, and round me rings
the music of the spheres.
This is my Father’s world; I rest me in the thought
of rocks and trees, of skies and seas;
his hand the wonders wrought.

This is my Father’s world; the birds their carols raise;
the morning light, the lily white
declare their maker’s praise.
This is my Father’s world; he shines in all that’s fair.
In the rustling grass I hear him pass;
he speaks to me ev’rywhere.

This is my Father’s world; oh, let me not forget
that, though the wrong seems oft so strong,
God is the ruler yet.
This is my Father’s world; why should my heart be sad?
The Lord is king, let heaven ring;
God reigns, let earth be glad!

I was reminded of my love of this hymn this summer, when one of our members Lee Berry sang a beautiful solo arrangement of it. The lyrics come from part of a sixteen stanza poem written by Rev. Maltbie D. Babcock and published after his death in 1901. It is in our hymnal, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, as hymn 824.

This hymn resonates with many who often feel the presence of God strongly in nature. The idea of creation itself praising God reminds me of Psalm 96, which reads: “Let the earth be glad; let the sea thunder and all that is in it; let the field be joyful and all that is in it. Then shall the trees of the wood shout for joy at your coming, O Lord.”

This time through reading the hymn, what struck me most was the final stanza, though. “Though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.” It seems as if lately much of creation is not singing a song of joyful praise, but one of fearful might and power. Hurricanes, fires, and earthquakes reveal our powerlessness and fragility. The wrong in the world seems strong outside of natural events, as well, with mass shootings, racist rallies, and a lack of decency in public discourse.

We cannot wash over any of these things—they are tragedies and disasters that we must handle with prayer, with reaching out, with giving of ourselves to others, and supporting real, practical solutions. What the hymn would have us remember, though, is that even in the midst of such horrible events, God is present. God is still God, even when we struggle to feel God’s presence.

“The Lord is king, let heaven ring; God reigns, let earth be glad!”

God of heaven and earth, you created the world and all that is in it. You formed us and called us as sons and daughters to be your people. Let us rejoice in all that is good in your creation, taking joy in the marvelous works of your hands. Let us seek to amend what is wrong in creation, nurturing instead that which gives life. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

Praying Twice

With two weeks off from preaching, thanks to a wonderful Stephen Ministry Sunday last week and an out of town wedding this week, and no sermons to post (or write), I thought I might offer a few short reflections on some hymns instead.

I have always loved hymns. One of my absolute favorite classes in school was Christian Song. We learned some basic music theory, we studied the history of hymnody from early chants to chorales to Watts and Wesley to gospel music and spirituals. We analyzed the words and music. We studied individual author’s bodies of work. But most importantly, we sang.

You can study all you want, but you truly learn about Christian song by singing it. I don’t consider myself skilled in this arena, but at the end of the day it doesn’t matter. Because it’s not a performance, but an act of faith—an act of praise or thankfulness or prayer. Martin Luther is often credited with saying, “He who sings, prays twice.”

Each week, we are blessed with the opportunity to sing, to join our voices together and let the words and music of others—ancient and new—be our words and be our music. The Apostle Paul tells us that when we do not know what to pray, the Spirit of God intercedes with sighs too deep for words. Sometimes, I think, that Spirit comes as a hymn. At moments when I myself don’t have words to say, I can sing. I can share in others’ words and others’ faith.

So, for the next few days and next week, I’ll be writing about some hymns that have been meaningful to me, and why. If you have a favorite hymn, share it in the comments below. Maybe I’ll write about it!

The Tenants in the Vineyard

Below is my sermon from October 8, 2017, on Matthew 21:33-46. Go and read the parable if you haven’t, or what follows won’t make much sense. To be honest, this was a difficult sermon to come up with, because at first glance (or even first ten glances) there isn’t much good news here. Just a frustrating story about people behaving badly and irrationally. And this parable has been used throughout history to defend antisemitism and violence against Jews. Where do we find the good news? I finally found an ‘in’ to the story by considering the ways I personally resist being a tenant and the character of the landowner. What do you think?

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

As some of you know, about six weeks ago, Tim and I decided to adopt a puppy. We did a lot of work ahead of time—we researched what type of dog would fit our lifestyle, we read all about developmental stages, went out and got engaging toys, a new bed, bought her brand of puppy food.

And in the past six weeks, since Lilah arrived, we’ve learned exactly who she thinks is in charge. It’s not us. She thinks that our house is her house, and that she rules the place. Our furniture, clothing, food—it’s all fair game.

She forgets, or doesn’t know, or simply chooses not to accept that she owes her entire existence to us. We provide shelter, food, water, the toys she so lovingly destroys, we play with her and pet her. We clean up after her. All she has to do is simply live there. Even the time she got trapped behind the couch, began crying for help, hasn’t really taught her that we are the ones in charge. We are the ones who take care of her and she does not make the rules.

It’s easy to see this with a dog, or a cat, or a child. They often forget that they are not the ones in charge. They often forget just how easy they have it, with someone else taking care of everything they need—they just have to live there, and follow the rules.

It’s harder to comprehend for us. Us, the adults, who actually are in charge of things, and responsible for things. All of us, who often are in charge of and responsible for others—for children, for older parents, for pets. But it is for us that this parable is meant.

Now the parable is extreme, there is no denying that. We cannot help but be outraged at these tenets and their criminal, homicidal behavior. It is obvious all they owe to the vineyard owner. The digging, the planting, the pruning, the protecting. The owner has done everything possible for these tenets.

Yes, the tenets work hard, but none of that work would be there to do if the owner hadn’t made it possible. The story is extreme—the tenets decide that they will take over. That for some reason, they don’t owe anything to the vineyard owner, so they will get rid of his emissaries, kill his son, and somehow this will mean they own the vineyard.

The image is extreme, but it is also you and me. We forget that we are the tenets. We fail to remember that everything we are and everything we think we ‘own’ are just on loan to us.  These homes, acres, jobs, congregations, children, spouses, communities — even our very bodies — were created by God and given to us for this little span of time. And yet, how often do I behave as though it all ‘belongs to me?’

We might not go to the extreme that the tenets did, but we too resist and block out the voices calling us to repentance, we put God to death in our hearts, and we fail to honor the ways God calls for us to live.

In Exodus, we hear about when God gave the people the Ten Commandments. These weren’t just arbitrary rules, but the ways God wants us to order our lives. The ways that God’s people, wandering in the desert, were to live out this relationship with God.

And you’ll notice they deal both with the vertical—with our relationship with God—and with the horizontal—our relationships with each other. Honor God, and honor your neighbors. The first three commandments all deal with our relationship with God: You shall have no other gods; do not take the name of the Lord in vain; honor the sabbath and keep it holy.

The last seven are all about human relationships: honor your mother and father; do not kill; do not commit adultery; do not steal; do not bear false witness; do not covet anything of your neighbors’. The two go hand in hand. Honoring, respecting, and loving God is lived out in the here and now by honoring, respecting, and loving our neighbors. You can’t have one without the other.

And in our parable, we have neither. There is no honor for God or respect for neighbor. Jesus asks, “What will the landowner do?” It is the crowds, the listeners who respond: “.” As satisfying a response as that is to these wicked tenets, I don’t think the crowds have really gotten the measure of this landowner.

Because as extreme as the tenets are in this parable, the landowner is even more absurd. What landowner would act this way? With tenets rebelling against him, who would send more and more servants, only to have them killed. Who would then send his son, alone and unprotected, to deal with these wicked tenets? The landowner is not making rational decisions.

Jesus’ question is “what will the landowner do?” I think our question must be, what did the landowner do? The landowner sent his son—his only son—to treat with all of us. And when the wicked tenets said, we are not interested in what you have to say, we do not want to live by your rules, we would rather be in charge. When we killed the landowners Son, God raised him from the dead and sent him back to us yet one more time, still bearing the message of God’s crazy, desperate love.

The parable is extreme, because God is extreme. Because God will go to any lengths for us, the tenets working the vineyard of this world. When we seek to forget God, when we try to leave behind the ways God wants us to live, the justice God expects, God keeps calling us back. Any other landowner might have given up, but not God. Because God is extreme, and God’s love is absurd. And thank God for that. Amen.

Best Intentions

Below is my sermon from October 1, 2017, on Matthew 21. I find this parable–which is only found in Matthew–so interesting because it leaves so much unsaid. We don’t know any of the characters’ motivations, thoughts, or even the reactions after the fact. What do you think led them to make the choices they did?

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

When Jesus entered the temple, our reading begins today. The isn’t the first time he has entered the temple lately. Just a few verses before our reading today, Jesus enters the temple a first time—listen to what happened then:

“Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.”

And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them. But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” they were indignant, and they said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” And Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read, ‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise’?” And leaving them, he went out of the city to Bethany and lodged there.”

Our reading today is the first time Jesus is back in the temple since creating chaos and disruption. Just imagine with me, if someone walked into our church in the middle of worship—not to join us—but to tell us we have made a mockery of Christianity, and to tear down and criticize the things we lovingly care for.

We, too, might ask: By what authority are you doing these things? Who are you to tell us, good people of faith, that we are wrong? Jesus turns the question back to them, though—asking where they think John the Baptist’s authority came from. Their careful deliberation of this question reveals that they are not truly interested in his answer, or even their true feelings. They want to say the right things to keep their positions secure.

Jesus knows that. He tells this parable of the two sons to catch them in their maneuverings. They can say whatever they want, but their actions reveal the truth in their hearts. They did not believe John, and they do not believe Jesus. Actions speak louder than words.

It’s easy to hear this parable and feel superior to the chief priests and scribes, who tried to trick Jesus and got tricked themselves instead. But these scribes and elders aren’t bad people. In fact, the scribes and elders are us. They are religious people.

They are the first-century equivalent of church council, Sunday school teachers, and altar guild. And here comes someone they don’t know telling them everything they do is wrong. They want to do what is right.

But just because we want to do what is right doesn’t mean that’s what always happens. How often are we that second son, who tells his father he will go and work but does not go? Often, our actions do not match our intentions, however good they might be. Things happen.

We don’t know why the second son doesn’t go and work. Maybe something important happened. Maybe something happened to prevent him. Maybe he decided he just didn’t care.

Sometimes, even despite our efforts, we fail to live up to our expectations of ourselves. Sometimes our expectations might be too high. Sometimes we might decide they’re just not worth it. Maybe it’s the little things—saying we’ll meet a friend for coffee and backing out at the last minute, saying that work project is top priority and putting it off, saying we’ll do that chore today and then not following through.

But sometimes it’s bigger things: saying we’re not racist, or sexist, or homophobic, but not calling out the inappropriate joke by a friend. Praying for the poor, or for victims of injustice, but not living in ways that will help them. In both the big and little ways—our actions speak louder than our words, and sometimes we fail to live up to our expectations of who we are.

There is another, though, who doesn’t do what is expected. And that is God in Jesus Christ. Our reading from Philippians, known as the Christ hymn, celebrates the ways that Jesus surprises and confounds our expectations: though he was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore, God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name.

No one expects the God of heaven and earth to come among us in the form of a peasant from a country town. The chief priests and elders certainly didn’t. But God’s reversal of expectations leads to a savior who takes upon himself all of our failings and shortcomings, and gives us back only grace and mercy.

And so Paul exhorts the Philippians, and us, to live out their salvation, to live out that grace and mercy, by having in us the same mind that is in Christ Jesus. Were you the second son, failing to live up to your own good intentions today, or yesterday, or last week? I was, at some points. It’s ok.

Today, each day, presents a new day, a new opportunity, in which God asks us to go into the vineyard and work. To go into the everyday places of our lives and shine God’s light through our words and actions. Are we going to get it completely right? Probably not. But each moment is alive with the promise of God’s grace, with the possibility of what we might do in response to that love. Each moment is an opportunity to go into the vineyard. Amen.