Reformation 500 Series

October 1, 2017

Reformation 500 Part One “Re-Formed for the Gospel”

Jeremiah 31:31-34; Romans 12:1-2; Matthew 13:44-53




I want to begin this morning with some words from Bob Dylan!


Come gather ‘round people wherever you roam

And admit that the waters around you have grown

And accept it that soon you'll be drenched to the bone.

If your time to you; Is worth savin'

Then you better start swimmin’ or you'll sink like a stone

For the times they are a changin'.



It’s true, whether we like it or not, “the times they are changing.”  And for institutions, who by nature do not change easily, institutions like the church, this presents a serious challenge.  And for people who belong to such institutions, people who love the church, people who have experienced it at its very best; it’s really hard when things begin to change.  Yet if we want to be a part of God’s unfolding dream for all of creation, if we want to continue to be a partner in “thy kingdom come, thy will be done,” if we want to remain relevant in our ministry; making the needed changes will be crucial, for the Kingdom of God is only present today in its movement toward tomorrow!


St. Paul tried to warn us about the necessity and inevitability of change, he writes in 2 Corinthians, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”  (2 Corinthians 5:17)  If you follow Jesus, things are going to change!  That’s the way it works, that’s how it works.


It’s actually how it has always worked!  When it comes to God, when it comes to God’s presence in our world, it’s always evolving, ever constant in it’s ability to be re-formed in such a way that we are never left alone, always being re-formed to ensure its relevance in our life, always being faithfully re-formed for the sake of the Gospel, the proclamation of the Good News, the fleshing out of the promise that we, and all of creation, are “beloved.”


The late theologian Phyllis Tickle argues in her book, “The Great Emergence,” that Judeo-Christian history has always moved in cycles of reformation, re-formation.  She writes, “About every 500 years the empowered structures of institutionalized Christianity, whatever they may be at that time, become an intolerable carapace, or hard shell, that must be shattered in order that renewal and new growth may occur.  Every 500 years we have needed a dramatic change to keep the church, the gathered people of God, moving forward and more fully into the emerging Kingdom of God.


This year on the last weekend of  October we will celebrate the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation.  It was 500 years ago, on October 31, 1517, that Dr. Martin Luther posted his “Ninety Five Theses” or “propositions” on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg Germany.  As we all know this act, a simple invitation to scholarly debate, ignited the Protestant Reformation, an event that profoundly changed Christianity, Europe and the world.  (The event that gave birth to the Lutheran expression of Christianity.)


Five Hundred years earlier it was the Great Schism between the Roman Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church; 500 years before that it was the collapse of the Roman Empire; And of course 500 years before that it was the ministry of Jesus Christ.  And even more interestingly this pattern can be traced back into the Old Testament and the 500-year periods between Abraham, The Exodus, Israel’s Monarchy, and the Babylonian Captivity.


So what does all this mean?  Well, even I can do that math!  If Phyllis Tickle is right, (and I think she might be,) the Christian faith, now 500 years removed from the Reformation, - is presently in the midst of another period of upheaval, a time of dramatic change, a time of institutional shattering, a time when God is once again making all things new, a time when God’s Spirit is once again on the move, a time in which God is once again re-forming the church, the body of Christ, for the sake of the gospel.  I do believe, “the times they are changing.”


And the evidence is all around us.  Study after study supports what we can clearly see with our own eyes, the current institutional church, in its many and various forms, is in serious decline.  Our numbers are dwindling, our influence is shrinking, and our buildings are falling vacantly into disrepair.  We’ve had a good run, and we’ve done good work, even amazing work, but in recent years, for reasons beyond our control and if we are to be honest - for reasons within our control, the current form of the institutional church seems to have run its course.  The church faithfully ran the race that was set before it but now the course is different, radically different, and so the church must wrestle with new questions about our identity, our mission, and the new ways we might faithfully live these things out in the world.  


In her book, “The Great Emergence” Tickle reminds us that while each 500 year period of historical “re-formation” has ended with a massive upheaval of the established religious institution, it also, has always, given birth to a revitalized, reenergized, and re-formed faith community that effectively and generously was able to proclaim the good news of the Gospel, the message of God’s abounding and steadfast love for all of creation, in a new and faithful way!  Each 500 year period did not end in the ashes of total destruction but rather in the faithful ashes from which new life, like a phoenix, was resurrected!  Our God is not a God of death but rather a God of death and resurrection. 


 So perhaps it’s time for those of us who follow Jesus to loosen our grips on the particular “forms” of our religious institutions, the “adiaphora” of our religious practices, and maybe even some of our “treasured" but not so “foundational” doctrines; Let go and let the historical cycle of faith once again run its appointed course?  Maybe it’s time to let “everything old pass away” and trust instead in the God who is continually “making all things new?”  Maybe it’s time to practice what we preach, to really participate in baptism, to risk death in the hope of resurrection, to move beyond yesterday and into the future, into the next chapter of God’s loving presence in the world, one that just might arise from the ashes of our current-past?


But more importantly, perhaps we must ask how First Lutheran will respond to the challenges of 2017?  How will we celebrate and engage the 500th anniversary of the Reformation?  Will we be focused only on the past, “the good ole days,” or we also embrace the future, and seek out the new things that God is all about in this world?


So let’s take a look at what has happened so far at First Lutheran in 2017.  As the year began you decided to enter into a new ministry partnership and graciously welcomed “The Table,” an emergent alternative styled mission start seeking “to be” and “to do” church in a decidedly different, yet faithful way.  And in the process you “called” a new pastor, with absolutely no real traditional ministry experience!  And this all began on Ash Wednesday with the words, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  If that’s not trusting in “death and resurrection,” I don’t know what is!


About the same time all this was happening, the Spirit moved, and suddenly Lutheran Social Services (LSS) was knocking on the door and asking if there was room “in the inn.”  Would First Lutheran be interested in housing and partnering with LSS?  Today we celebrate that conversation which resulted in the wonderful renovation of old, vacant, and  run down Sunday School rooms, transforming them into new offices that now host the administrative offices of LSS and its mission to “embrace, equip, and empower;” “meeting the needs of the poor,” and “breaking the cycle of poverty one family at a time.”   


And as these things began to come together, something that had always been thriving here, and slowly but surely defining the mission and identity at First Lutheran, the “Caring Hands Pantry and Dinner,” inspired the ultimate vision that we celebrate today.  With “LSS” as an anchor, with “The Table” as a creative force, and “Caring Hands” as the passionate heart beat, First Lutheran is about to engage a new mission statement, its new understanding of its calling “right now, right here, in this place,” (The Church Council has been working on this over the past couple of months.  You will find it in printed in your bulletin.) “First Lutheran Church: Called to be the Heart of Christ feeding our neighbors with Grace, Mercy, Love and Justice.”  This new mission statement invites us to understand ourselves primarily as a faith community called to serve our neighbors in need, to live out the core message and teachings of Jesus, to see Christ in the least of these, and to respond with grace, mercy, love and justice.  And it has also caused us to look for more partners to join us in creating a “community center” dedicated to this mission.  And we are so blessed to have  not only LSS, but also “Future in Humanity,” and “Career Wise” join us this work.  And we look forward to announcing a new partner soon.  (SA)  If all goes as planned, the entire “Church House” will be filled by years end with organizations that share in our mission, that share in the desire to be the heart of Christ for this neighborhood in Downtown Fullerton.  First Lutheran is defining itself not as a place or worship that happens to feed people, but rather a community center serving those in need that also offers worship opportunities.  This is an important distinction, one that I believe makes us more relevant in today’s world, one that connects us to the core of  the work God is doing in this world.


We still have lots of work to do, and important decisions to make, but I believe that we are fully leaning into re-formation, beginning to let “everything old pass away,” and preparing to step into the future where God is already at work “making all things new.”


In today’s Gospel Jesus reminds us that the Kingdom of Heaven is like stumbling upon something of great value, like a treasure or a fine pearl; something that makes everything else pale in comparison; something that makes selling all your possessions and leaving everything you ever had behind - an easy decision; even something worth, as hard as it may be, something worth relinquishing our grip on the way we used to do things as church, trusting the leading of the Spirit, and making significant changes.  I believe in 2017, 500 years after the Reformation, we have stumbled upon our “treasure,” our “pearl” our “new calling” as a community of faith; We have seen Jesus in the least of these, and the work of the kingdom fleshed out in grace, mercy, love and justice; and that we will look back and be able to say in 2017 “the times were a changing” and we jumped into the waters, - we went for it, and that made all the difference.  Amen.


October 8, 2017

Reformation 500 Part Two “Here I Stand”




Last Sunday I began a five part Sermon Series as a way of celebrating the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, a movement that dramatically changed and re-shaped the Christian Faith, gave birth to our Lutheran Church, and as we discussed last week - continues to re-form (re-shape) the church today.  


Historians point to October 31, 1517 as the day the Reformation was ignited, it was on that day that Martin Luther famously posted his 95 Theses (or propositions) for scholarly theological debate on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg Germany.  At the core of Luther’s arguments were his objection to church doctrines that he felt were contrary to the teachings of holy scripture in regard to faith and salvation, in particular the theology and practice of selling indulgences.  Indulgences, (as you may remember from confirmation,) were something you could buy for yourself or for a loved one as “a way of reducing the amount of time and punishment, depending upon the level of “sinfulness,” that one might have to spend in the state of Purgatory before entering into heaven.”  Luther argued that salvation was in Christ alone, that we were saved entirely and only by God’s grace.  There was nothing we could do, or needed to do, to be saved.  Luther was particularly angered by the way these indulgences were sold and marketed by exploiting people’s guilt and fear; and the fact that money raised from indulgences was used to help fund the building of extravagant cathedrals.


By 1520 Rome had finally had enough of Martin Luther and his unceasing questioning of the Church and Papal Authority so they threatened to “excommunicate” him if he did not recant his “heretical” teachings.  Luther continued teaching and preaching “heresy.”  In 1521 Luther was hauled before the religious authorities for a “hearing,” (The Diet of Worms) where he was given the chance to recant his teachings or face excommunication and condemnation as a heretic, (a declaration that essentially amounted to a death sentence.)  Luther asked for, and was granted, 24 hours to consider his reply.  The next day he stood before his accusers and gave his now famous answer …


“Unless I am convicted by scripture and plain reason - I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other - my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.” “Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me, Amen!”


Luther’s bold response led to the formulation of one of the most popular battle cries of the Reformation,“Sola Scriptura.”   The belief that holy scripture “alone” is the source and norm for the life and teachings of the church in the matters of faith and salvation.


In today’s reading the writer of Hebrews declares that “the word of God is living and active”  It is more than just mere words on a page but something that is alive, something that engages us on a personal level, something that cuts right to the heart of the matter.  


In today’s Gospel we are reminded that the Word was present in the beginning and that in the fullness of time The Word became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth.  We are reminded that Jesus is the Word, the one who reveals the true nature of God unto all creation.  Our readings today remind us that the Word of God is more than just words in print on a page but rather something that is alive in the person of Jesus the Christ.


Today’s readings also remind us why Luther so loved the scriptures, why he spent hours studying, dissecting, analyzing, and wrestling with them; And why he was ultimately willing to stake his life upon them; It was because the scriptures were the source of his relationship with Christ;  (The scriptures were the source of his relationship with Christ) the relationship that gave him peace, the relationship that set him free, the relationship that saved him.  Luther loved the scriptures because they connected him to the Living Word of God, his Savior, and his identity as “a beloved child of God.”


Luther’s love of scripture, and his decision to ultimately spend his life studying theology and scripture, was not his first choice in life.  He began his vocational life studying to be a lawyer.  However Luther could never shake an “anguish” that resided in his soul, his desperate “fear of” and “desire to” understand God, his hope to find some kind of true peace with God; It was in all this “existential angst” that Luther, as a last resort, headed off to the monastery to become a monk, and then back to the University to pursue a doctorate and become a teacher of theology and a preacher of the Word. In all this Luther objected, “It will be the death of me!”


So it was that Luther was driven to the scriptures out of despair, in the desperate hope that he might find peace with God; that he might know the truth; that he might begin to understand grace, mercy, freedom, and love; that he might experience some kind of salvation.  Luther did not go to the scriptures in search of hidden knowledge and esoteric secrets, he was not looking for magic formulas to make life easy, he was not trying to discover biblical principles for successful living, he was not looking for passages to memorize and recite in divinely appointed moments, he was not looking for an inspirational quote to create a inspirational poster to hang on his bedroom wall; No, Luther went to the scriptures out of despair, in search of Jesus, in search of a relationship with Jesus, the living Word of God!  


Luther’s cry, “Sola Scriptura,”“Scripture Alone,” was not a call to understand scripture as inerrant or infallible in all matters, it was not a call to replace “the work of the spirit” with “the letter of the law,” it was not a call to a form of Christian fundamentalism that makes an idol of the bible; Rather it was a call to find Christ in the scriptures to find faith in the scriptures, to find hope in the scriptures, to find grace in the scriptures, to find Jesus and the story of God’s love in between the lines of every verse and the heart of every story! At it’s core “Sola Scriptura” was not really about the bible but rather an invitation to be in relationship with the Living Word that comes to us through the bible, through the holy scriptures.  


Luther always made a distinction between the scriptures and the Word of God.  Luther taught that scripture becomes Word only when it comes to us as a “personal address," when it comes to us in such a way that our hearts are moved, when it invites or compels us to enter deeply and more fully into the story of God, in that space where God ’s story and our story intersect and overlap.  Scripture becomes Word in those “aha moments” that reveal God to us and transform life in and around us.  Luther loved the scriptures, Luther stood up and boldly declared, “My conscience is captive to the Word of God,” “Here I stand,” because in the scriptures he finally found the God of grace and love, in and through, Jesus  He would later write of the scriptures, “The Bible is the donkey on which Jesus rode into my heart.”  (Luther actually used a more colorful word for the donkey)


It’s been said that Luther had an amazing gift of being able to insert himself into the biblical narratives in such a way that they became “alive” for him.  Luther did not read ancient stories from afar but instead found himself deeply involved in ancient stories suddenly brought to life.  In the holy scriptures Luther found personal encounter with God time and time again.  And these encounters revealed the nature of God’s love for all of creation, they fleshed out the promises of the Gospel in ways he could grasp and understand, and they gave him a vision of God’s kingdom and a passion for his unique calling in the coming of that kingdom.  In the Bible Luther forum The Word!


Where do you encounter the Word?  How do the scriptures become that Living Word of God in your life?  Are you, like Luther, able to find yourself and your life situation in your reading of the Bible and its stories of faith?


As a Lutheran preacher, it is my hope that in my sermons I am able to “flesh out” the biblical readings with stories and insights that just might take you from “mere listening” to a “deeper participation," perhaps even a life changing encounter with God.   


I have always been a huge believer that bible study is best done in groups.  It has been my experience that the Living Word of God often comes to us most powerfully in discussion, the sharing of thoughts and ideas, and the hearing other perspectives.  In fact that’s the main reason why “The Table” gathers around tables, in circles, to create space for a “Holy Conversation,” an opportunity to engage that Living Word of God.  The Gospel is not fully lived out all alone but most powerfully made alive in the context of community.  


And finally I recommend reading or listening to scripture and then acting it out!  If you really want to have an encounter with the Living Word of God, “do it” and see what happens.  You can read all you want about finding Christ in “the least of these,” but when you take the time to actually feed, clothe, care, and show grace and mercy to “one of the least of these,” to faithfully act out those words of holy scripture, I guarantee you will have a powerful encounter with Jesus, an encounter with the Living Word of God.  And that encounter will change you life!


I would like to conclude by reflecting for a moment on the tragic mass shooting in Las Vegas this past week.  I don’t know about you but events like that cause me to “despair.”  Why, what do we do, where do we go, how do we begin to put an end to the senseless violence in our world?  Today I am thankful to be reminded of the story of how Luther in his despair was driven to the holy scriptures.  And that in his study of the scriptures, in his debate regarding the meaning of the scriptures, in his earnest quest to find the truth in the scriptures, he found Christ, the Living Word of God.  May we too, in our despair, in our world’s despair, seek Christ, in the scriptures.   And may a Word Made Alive, grant us that peace which passes all understanding, hope in the midst of hopelessness; and the courage to boldly proclaim the Gospel, to imagine aloud the Kingdom of God, to (As Luther did!) speak truth to power, to act out the life and teachings of Jesus, and to conclude, “Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me, Amen!”


October 15, 2017

“Reformation 500" Part Three “Saved By Grace”




“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” (Ephesians 2:8)


Last Sunday theme was “Word Alone,” this morning it is “Grace Alone.”  Luther’s bold proclamation that we are “saved,” that we are made “right" with God, that we are “loved” by God, not because of anything that we do, or anything that we can do, but because of God’s grace, God’s grace and mercy rooted in the deep and abiding and unchanging love God has for each and everyone of us!  Luther preached emphatically that this was indeed the true nature of God, that this (and this alone) could be trusted, - that this was the truth of Christ that makes us free.


And perhaps no story in the Gospels tells the story of God’s "amazing grace” better than the story of the Prodigal Son.  It’s a familiar story, but one worth sharing time and time again.


The youngest son rebells against his father, he wants to get away, he wants his freedom, he wants to do things his way.  And not only that - he wants his share of the inheritance, and yes, he wants it now.  It’s as if he is telling his father that he wishes he were dead!


And then he takes his inheritance, all of his stuff, and travels to a distant country where he promptly squanders everything in dissolute living.  His mistakes are compounded by a famine and before you know it he is tending pigs, and so hungry that he is envious of their food.  That’s when he comes to the realization that things back home weren’t really that bad, he realizes what a fool he has been, and he begins to wonder if somehow he might be able to go back home.  Perhaps if he goes back home to his father and begs for forgiveness, perhaps if he publicly humbles himself in an act of contrition, perhaps, just perhaps, his father will take him back as a slave.  That’s his best hope at this point, considering all that he has done.


So, in guilt and in fear, with but a little hope, he begins the journey home.  As he makes his way back home I imagine that he is rehearsing his confession, searching for the best words and actions, in hopes that his father will maybe show a morsel of undeserved mercy upon him and accept him as a slave.  And then the unexpected happens, suddenly his Father appears on the road before him, running to him with out stretched arms.  And before the son can say a word, before he can kneel in the dirt, before he can beg for undeserved forgiveness; his Father, in great love, wraps him up in his arms and kisses him.   The Son attempts to make his confession, his appeal for undeserved mercy, but the father is already calling for the finest robe to be brought out, for a feast to be prepared because his son who once was dead, lost, is now alive, and back home again.  The Son is welcomed back and restored, by grace, by grace alone.  Grace rooted in a deep and abiding and unchanging, unshakable love, the love of his father.  


Jesus told us the parable of the Prodigal Son to teach us about the nature of God, the story of God’s love for us. As St. Paul reminds us in today’s epistle, “God who is rich in mercy, out of the great love from which God loves, even though we were dead in our sin, makes us alive in Christ.  By grace we have been saved!”



Martin Luther’s theological insights into “Grace Alone” was a long time coming.  His quest to understand the grace of God began in earnest on July 2, 1505 as he traveled along the road to Erfurt Germany.  On that fateful day, the then “twenty-one year old law student,” encountered a terrible thunder storm.  Legend says that a bolt of lightening struck very near to Luther, throwing him violently to the ground.  In the midst of the storm, with lightning lighting up the sky and thunder booming all around him, Luther was convinced that he was about to die.  In fear of death, and ultimately uncertain of his salvation, he pleaded with God, “Save me from this storm and I will become a monk!”  As we all know, Luther survived the storm, and true to his word, on July 17th he entered into the monastery. 


One could argue that it was on that fateful day that the true genesis of the reformation began for it revealed the deep fears that resided in Luther’s heart, - the fear that his right relationship with God was extremely fragile and that at any moment he might fall out of God’s favor and be subject to the eternal wrath of God.  It revealed that ultimately Luther was not able to see or understand Christ as a loving savior but rather the avenger of an angry God.  These deep fears regarding his salvation, and his desire to find some kind of lasting peace with God, became the driving force behind what would become the Reformation.


Luther lived in a time when church teachings and practices kept people in a state of anxious fear.  The church taught salvation by grace in baptism, but it also continually warned people that persistent sin might cause them to fall out of that grace.  So in order to remain “saved,” one also needed to do good works and devote themselves to the religious practices of that day.  So it was that Luther, and many others, believed that they while they were saved by God’s grace in baptism, that was no guarantee that they would remain in God’s good graces.  They lived under a terrible fear that the continued presence of sin in their life might cause them to fall away, to somehow become un-saved.


As a monk Luther went to extraordinary efforts to do all the prescribed good works required for salvation.  He said every prayer in his prayer book; he confessed his sins daily occasionally remaining in the confessional booth for up to six hours. He went on pilgrimages, he prayed to the saints, he visited relics, he sought to be pure before God in every way possible; but all to know avail, they did not ease his conscience, in the the end he always remained a hopeless sinner and under the judgment of an angry God.


Thankfully one of Luther’s superiors sent him off to study the scriptures, and in his studies he became fascinated by St. Paul’s teaching on faith and grace, and suddenly and dramatically his life changed again.  This time it was not a thunderbolt from out of the heavens but an “aha” moment that emerged from the holy scriptures.  In an encounter with Christ, that Living Word of God, Luther was finally able to see Jesus, not as the avenger of an angry God, but rather as a savior filled with grace, mercy and love.   Luther declared, “Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise.” 


From that moment on Luther stopped living in constant fear of God.  Secure in his salvation, unshakable in his confidence in God’s love for him and all creation, and filled with that peace that passes all understanding; Luther began to truly live! Deep in his soul he experienced that God in Christ Jesus, in love on the cross, secured his place in God’s heart once and for all.  In Christ he was nothing less than a beloved child of God, and nothing could change that fact! He was no longer obsessed with trying to please God with good works, but instead inspired by grace, empowered by grace, and in cooperation with the grace of God, he became passionate about sharing that grace with others, loving his neighbors, and proclaiming the good news of the Gospel. 



Luther’s understanding of grace changed everything, it changed his life and it changed the church and the world.  How has grace changed your life?  Grace is still a complicated reality that can be hard to grasp.  


On the one hand we can be like the young Luther, we know the stories about grace, we know the theology of grace, but sometimes we just can’t internalize it.  We know all too well that we continue to make mistakes, we know that our motives are not always pure, we are all too aware that sin persists in our life.  And in the midst of all that angst we can wonder if we are truly lovable?  And that often leads to “works righteousness,” and our need to fill our life with “good deeds” that somehow will prove we are lovable and worthy of salvation. The deeds may be good, but they seldom lead us to that really good place of knowing we are unconditionally loved and cherished for who we are and not because of what we do.


And then there’s “cheap grace,” the idea that we take grace for granted, that grace is free, that grace demands no response.  It can be said of Lutherans, that we can be so concerned about “earning” grace that we but no “effort” into grace.  And that results in a church without disciples, a church without servants, a church without service, a church that might be confused with a country club.


Yes, our relationship with grace can be complicated.  But thankfully God’s grace is amazing.  So first things first, let us all be assured this morning that we are loved, loved completely, loved unconditionally, and that this love that we share is abundant and everlasting, that “nothing in all of creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.”  God loves us just as we are, because of who we are, God runs to us before we even have the chance to make our confession.  This is most certainly true!  And lest we forget this truth, let us all be vigilant in our witness to each other, that’s why we come to church, to be reminded, and to remind each other, that we are nothing less than the beloved children of God.  “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” (Ephesians 2:8)


And the next step will happen naturally, because when you experience love, you begin to cooperate with grace.  I love that idea co-operating with grace.  You see when you are no longer worried about whether you are good or not, whether you are loved or not, whether you are saved or not, that’s when grace really sets you free.  All of the sudden you are practicing grace with others: serving your neighbor out of love and not duty, sharing your resources freely in the joy of abundance instead of hesitantly in the fear of scarcity, and passionately seeking after the kingdom instead of following behind it in fear.


Grace, “Grace Alone,” changes everything.  May God’s grace unfold in our hearts this morning, fully opening us all up to the love of God in Christ Jesus.  Amen

October 22, 2017

“Reformation 500" Part Four “The Priesthood of All Believers”




This past week the “left turn indicator” on my car stopped working, the bulb burned out.  Luckily I had an extra bulb in the garage, one that actually fit my car!  So I grabbed the bulb, opened up the hood, and began the search for the back side of my “left turn indicator” light, the spot where I might simply pull out the old bulb and insert the new one.  Even as I was opening the hood I was already complaining about new cars and replacing these kinds of bulbs.  (As many of you know, back in the day, you simply removed the two screws, from the front of the car, that held the plastic lens, removed the old bulb, inserted the new bulb, replaced the lens and the screws back in and you were done.  It was a simple five minute job.)  Anyways back to the present - I opened up the hood and I looked, and I looked, and I looked, but the back side of the “turn indicator light” was no where to be found.  So I got out the car manual so I could look up how to change the “turn indicator bulb” and discovered that it entailed removing the whole light assembly which contained the head light, the running light, and the turn indicator light.  The picture showed two screws that needed to be removed and the direction that the light assembly needed to be moved in order to set it free from its mounting.  I spent the next twenty minutes trying to get the darn thing out, all too no avail.  The two screws were out but it was still catching on something.  So the next step was to go back inside and get on the computer and google, “How do you replace the turn indicator light on a Ford C-Max?”  Within seconds I had located over a dozen homemade videos of people replacing their turn indicator lights.  And they all included the extra step that the manual failed to mention, two additional screws that need to be removed in order for the light assembly to easily be removed.  Armed with my new knowledge, and having been able to watch some actually do it, I went back outside and finished the job!


It’s really amazing how many “Do It Yourself” videos exist on the internet.  There seems to be a Youtube video on just about everything from changing a light on your car to mixing up your own miracle spot remover for that pet stain on your new carpet.  It’s all part of the current “DIY” trend.  “DIY” meaning,  “Do It Yourself.  The phrase, “Do It Yourself” first became popular in the 1950’s when a growing numbers of homeowners began to take on home improvements and maintenance.  But in recent years the DIY movement has grown and expanded as more and more people are taking on projects of all kinds; building, modifying, and repairing all sorts of things without the direct aid of experts or professionals.  Just search for “DIY” on Youtube and you will find thousands of videos on how to do just about anything, - all by yourself!


Unfortunately the DIY movement has also recently expanded into the realm of faith and spirituality. People are increasingly coming to the conclusion that they don’t need the church, they don’t need any organized religion, or seminary trained theologians to practice their faith.  Everything you need can be found on line, even God, and besides that, ultimately it’s really, just a “personal thing!”  And at first glance Luther’s popular Reformation teaching known as “The Priesthood of All Believers” seems to justify this trend.  However that’s not what Luther had in mind at all, Luther was not advocating for a DIY church, in fact he was actually proclaiming just the opposite!


Luther’s “Priesthood of All Believers” was a reaction to the Medieval theological understanding that Priests and Bishops (and the like) were somehow more spiritual than ordinary people, that they belonged to the “spiritual estate.”  Others were regulated to the more inferior “temporal” estate.  While those in the temporal estate could lay claim to authority in regard to ones earthly life, those in the spiritual estate could claim authority to ones eternal, spiritual life.  This understanding gave the Church and its priests great influence and power, as they were believed to literally hold the keys to salvation, the keys to heaven and hell.  The local rulers could put you in jail, the king might be able to take your life, but the Church had the power to keep your soul captive in eternal punishment and everlasting torment. 


As you might imagine this really aggravated Luther and his understanding of God’s grace. Luther believed that everyone had access to salvation by grace through faith because of what Christ had accomplished on the cross!  Luther strongly objected to the notion that the Church and its priests were somehow granted special powers to mediate and distribute the salvation Christ had already won for all believers.  In this matter, in the matter of salvation, Luther proclaimed that we are all priests, that each of us had personal access to the love of God through Christ Jesus.  We do not need priests to be saved!  


And he also strongly rejected the notion that somehow priests were more “spiritual” than so called “ordinary people.”  Luther reportedly exclaimed, “The Mother who lifts up the soiled diaper of her baby does just a holy deed as the priest who lifts the communion chalice.”  Luther argued that in baptism, everyone was called to be “priestly,” to use their gifts, talents, and resource in service to others.  The Priest was called to study the word and administer the sacraments, the mother was called to care for her child, the shoemaker was called to make good shoes, the farmer was called to milk the cow; everyone had a holy calling and everything that one did to contribute to the good life of the community was a holy deed.  Ultimately there was not ordinary work and holy work, there was only the good work that served the neighbor, and all this work was God’s work.


Luther also believed that all Christians were called, not just to their so called “secular” work, but also to the work of the church, to be priests in their faith community.  He believed that every Christian was called to be in prayer for each other and the world, to serve each other and the neighbor, to care for each other and those in need, to share the good news of the gospel with each other and those who are marginalized, and to share the presence of God, in - with - and through, each other and even in the stranger.  In this way too, all Christians are priests; not just in having direct access to God but also in rendering holy service to each other and those in need!


So it is that Luther’s “Priesthood of All Believers” is not a call to DIY (Do It Yourself) Christianity but rather a call to just the opposite.  Luther did not call for a “Priesthood of The Believer,” the idea that somehow an individual could claim to authentically and authoritatively be their own priest, serving only one’s self; but he called for the plural “Priesthood of All Believers,” for a church made of many people, with many gifts, with many passions, with different resources, yet all present to love and to serve each other, and their neighbors.  In other words, “Every Christian is someone else’s priest, and we are all priests to one another!” That is why the church, the body of Christ was re-membered, to co-operate with grace, and be the living presence of God’s love in the world! 


We began this teaching sermon series on the Reformation by unpacking the title word, the idea that there comes a time in history when the church needs to re-form, to re-shape itself in order to continue to bear witness to the love of God and the Kingdom of God.  Five Hundred years ago the Protestant Reformation was able to do just that!  And now 500 years later it has become clear that it is time to once again re-form, re-shape the church.  Not an easy task in so many ways.  


Yet the good news is that the theology of the Reformation is just as relevant as it was back then, in fact our good old Lutheran theology is our greatest resource as we move into the future.  In a world that is becoming increasingly tired of fear based judgment we are able to offer the message of “Grace Alone,” grace rooted in God’s deep and abiding love for everybody and all of creation.  In a world beat down and burdened by legalism we can invite people into a relationship with Jesus, the living word of God that flows from the scriptures and is fleshed out in our presence time and time again.    And in a world that “over values” individualism even unto isolation, in a world that is increasingly tired of being alone, in a world where everything is being turned into a never ending DIY project, we can invite people into a community of faith, into a place of grace, a place where hearts and hands are willing to become those of Christ, a place where people truly care for, and our willing to serve, each other, their neighbors, and even the stranger in their midst. 


May God grant us the faith and the courage to practice what we preach, trusting in the unconditional love of Christ and boldly following the leading of the Spirit.  Amen.

October 29, 2017

Reformation 500 Part Five “The Truth Will Make You Free”

Jeremiah 31:31-34; John 8:31-33





Today we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. On October 31, 1517 Martin Luther posted his 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg.  The ensuing debate, greatly enhanced by the newly invented printing press, led to a momentous shift in the way people understood church and practiced their faith.  Our sermon theme today, the last installment of our Reformation 500 series  is, “The Truth Will Make You Free.”  In many ways the Reformation, with its call to return to “Christ Alone,” “Faith Alone,” “Grace Alone,” and “Word Alone,” set the Medieval Church free from the bondage of the Dark Ages and allowed for it to grow and prosper in the unfolding Enlightenment, and into the Renaissance.  


Today we celebrate and give thanks for the work of Martin Luther and the reformers.  For their proclamation of the Gospel; the truth about the nature of God, and the work of Christ; truly did set the Church, the Body of Christ, free.  Yet we are also reminded that we, as the living heirs of the Reformation, are called not to just look back fondly at our history, but rather to continue to practice “reform," to boldly and faithfully reimagine and reshape the church, to ensure that it remains free and able to continue to do its holy work into the next 500 years.


In today’s Gospel, the traditional Gospel for Reformation Sunday, Jesus calls his disciples to “continue” in his word.  To “continue” is to persist in an activity or process, to hang in there and remain uninterrupted.  So it is that Jesus is not calling his followers to “rest” in the Word, but rather to “abide" in the Word, to “live” in the Word, remain “active” in the Word.  So it is that faith is not a destination but a journey.  And the Reformation was not just a historical event, but rather a living ongoing theological principle to always be pursued.


In many ways the first sentence in our Reformation Gospel from the Eighth Chapter of John gets to the very heart of our calling to be Reformation People.  "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”  I’d like to take some time this morning to unpack this insightful and powerful piece of scripture.




“The truth will make you free."


To be free.  Everyone's desire.  

-For the oppressed it means political freedom.  

-For the poor it is an opportunity to break the cycle of poverty.  

-For the homeless, it’s shelter on a cold night.  

-For those who mourn, freedom is the restoration of hearts broken by death.    

-For the weak, freedom is a strong hand reaching out.  

-For the strong, it’s the opportunity to be vulnerable. 

-For the lonely, it’s a relationship of love.  

-For the sick and "challenged" people, it is healing.  

-For the addicted, it is the regaining of control over life.      

-For the sinner it is forgiveness.

-For the people of “Orange County” freedom could be the opportunity get away from traffic, to slow down, to get away from all the “doing,” and simply rest.


The point is that we all are in need of some kind of freedom, great or small.  We all find ourselves in one kind of bondage or another.  We're all looking for more freedom, a freedom that we can grab hold of and experience, a freedom that will give us peace, a freedom that will give us the abundance of purpose, a freedom grounded in love. 


In this week's Gospel Jesus reveals the source of such freedom, "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free."  


"If you continue in my word".  


What does it mean “to be” in God's Word?  Certainly it means that we should study the scriptures.  But God's word is so much more than just reading and memorizing scripture!  As we discussed a couple of weeks ago, it’s a living Word, a word that creates and transforms those who have ears to hear.  


This living word comes to us in many and varied ways.  


-Through our reading of the scriptures and the holy conversation with others that allows us to discover what they mean for us right here and right now.  

-Through the lives of our families, our dearest friends, our colleagues, and even through the lives of strangers.  

-Through active involvement in the fellowship of the Church, the Body of Christ.  Working together, laughing together, and crying together.

-Through “Caring Hands” that feed, clothe, shelter, and reach out to “the least of these,” activities that reach out to Christ, Jesus fully present in those in need.

-Through gathering together and celebrating the sacraments, the word made flesh given for each of us that we might receive faith and salvation, the beginning of any real freedom.


We are called to continue in the Word, to abide in the Word, to live in the Word, to be uninterrupted in the Word.  So we gather, we study, we talk, we pray, and we reach out to those around us.  The freedom that we desire, the freedom that God desires for us, does not happen "all alone" apart from the Body of Christ, apart from our holy conversations and relationships, apart from that Living Word of God. 


"If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free."  


What does it mean to know the truth?  Martin Luther writes, "Truth does not consist merely in hearing Christ or being able to blabber about him at length but also in believing in your heart and experiencing with your heart that Christ wants to set you free."  


I suppose we can all “blabber” at length about Christ, speak of Christ “off the top of our heads,” recite our favorite memorized doctrine, pray our familiar prayers, and sing our favorite hymns or liturgy without the hymnal.   We’ve all read and shared the latest Christian post on Facebook, heard more than a few inspirational speakers, and survived many a “blabbering” sermon, but such things “alone” do not result in freedom.  


Experiencing Christ and discovering freedom is not just a cerebral “mind” thing.  Ultimately it demands the experience of the heart, that "ah-ha" experience when something grabs hold of you from deep within, and suddenly makes all things new; that feeling of certainty that cannot be put into words and printed on a page, an experience that changes our perspective, that turns the world upside down, shakes us to the core, and fills us with the peace that passes all understanding.  The truth that makes us free is not a purely intellectual enterprise but a total experience involving all of the body: heart, soul, and mind.


Some of us have had these "Gospel Experiences" where we've been in the circle of God's people and felt loved, strong, sure, focused, and free.  But all too often we find our selves all alone at the mercy of what Luther called “the Law.”  Luther used the term “Law” to describe the religious experience without the Gospel.  The law is that old covenant written on cold hard stone.  The Law is that angry judge that lives inside our heads and always finds us guilty and always leaves us captive to doubt, without perspective, weak and vulnerable.  Unlike the Gospel experience that lifts us up in love, the Law experience destroys faith and drags us deeper into the bondage of sin. 


But Christ does not want us to be weak and all alone at the mercy of the Law.  Christ calls us to abide in the Word and experience the truth, to view life through God's eyes, to be in places of grace.  Places where God is present and we are defined by the Gospel.  Places that grant us freedom. 


And ultimately that is what being involved in a faith community is all about.  As we gather here on Sunday mornings, as we gather here to serve the Tuesday night meal, as we gather to work in the pantry on Wednesday mornings, as we gather for rehearsals, luncheons, bible studies, special events, and even meetings; we do so to live out our baptismal promises, to be the Priesthood of All Believers; gathered together in all kinds of ways to remind each other - that we are loved.


Being here, being together, here in this place, is different.  Almost everywhere else I go I get a very different message than the one I receive here in this place.  Here in this place I am renewed and inspired by God’s love fleshed out in each of you, I am filled with faith in the moments when I hang out with you engaged in doing faithful things.  But out there, out there in the world, has a way of breaking me down.  Out there fear reigns, and fear leads to judgment, scapegoating, and doubt. A vicious circle that does not lead to abundant life. Out there I never measure up, I’m not good enough, my mistakes are noted and remembered, my imperfections are highlighted, and I’m named in such a way that I can be controlled and manipulated.  Out there, there is no freedom to be found.


But in here, life in this community, it is different. Here I am not measured, but in grace I am only and unconditionally accepted.  Here I am reminded of my true name, the name that we all share in the waters of baptism; Here I am nothing less than a beloved child of God!  And so it is that in the graceful, grace filled, and grace extending experiences that we share together as a community of faith, abiding together in the love of Christ, we experience the new covenant written on our hearts, and the gospel truth regarding “who” and “whose” we truly are; and in that experience we are made free.  


I suppose that ultimately that’s what it means to be Reformation people, to be people who continue to create, imagine, and sustain communities of faith, in ever changing contexts, yet always filled with God’s never changing grace and love.


May the peace of God, the great love of God, and the freedom of the Gospel, which surpasses all understanding, guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.