Sunday, October 31, 2010

Reformation Day - October 31, 2010 [Romans 3:19-28]

Apparently the thing to do nowadays is to hold a rally. Specifically, if you want to whip up enthusiasm for your cause and restore something to the center of the political or social landscape, just reserve some large public space and rally people. Yesterday, for example, in our nation’s capital, comedians John Stewart and Stephen Colbert held their Rally to Restore Sanity and/or March to Keep Fear Alive. Authorities will likely dispute the number of people who showed up to take part in an event that was both silly mockery of current political discourse as well as serious statement on certain political positions, but suffice it to say the National Mall was crawling with people who were there to rally.  Stewart’s and Colbert’s rally was, of course, a response to the Tea Party’s Rally to Restore Honor—held in late August—which likewise attracted untold thousands to Washington, D.C.

So, if rallies are the thing to have, today, Lutherans the world over—more than 70 million of us!—will hold their Rally to Restore their Lutheran Identity. In Wittenberg, Germany, where the Protestant Reformation unwittingly got kicked-off 493 years ago to this day, townspeople will dress up like Martin Luther and his wife, Katie, and hand out shrink-wrapped copies of his Small Catechism on every street corner. You’d better believe that in Lutheran congregations across the globe, the rousing strains of “A Mighty Fortress is our God” will be belted out, just as you can believe that worshipers will mutter under their breath about how they liked the version in the old red hymnal better.

photo by Meredith Sizemore
And at our congregation’s outpost here in the middle of Baptist country, you—yes, you!—can rally at our very own Reformation Fest after the service. Enjoy German food and root beer (since we can’t serve the real stuff), and try your hand at the “95 Theses Relay,” where competitors will race against each other in an attempt to nail copies of that epoch-turning document to a door that the property team has set up in the yard. Here we stand: it’s a real rally, folks—an annual event in the midst of a world that seems to know less and less what “Lutheran” is about. It’s all an effort to Restore our Lutheran Identity…a statement to ourselves, if no one else (sigh), that lutefisk-eaters and potluck dinner providers are alive and kicking in the 21st century.

However, when the last chords of the pipe organ fade away today, and the Lutheran-red blouses and vests are hung back in the closet to be worn another time, maybe Pentecost, we still might have failed to grasp the true meaning of this day and the movement of which it reminds us. For this is most certainly true: any celebration of the Reformation or commemoration of Martin Luther’s criticisms of the Roman church in the early 1500’s is really a rally to restore the church. The Protestant Reformation did not occur to establish a particular group’s identity, or to declare theological supremacy, or even to found a denomination named “Lutheran” or “Reformed.” The Reformation happened as a result of an attempt by several church men and women to reiterate a message of God’s grace. They preached it from church pulpits, they discussed it over their family meal tables with their children, they stood in front of fearsome Councils and Diets to defend it, and yes, they even nailed it to church doors, as was common practice in those days for starting a university debate or posting a public notice.

The point of the Reformation was not so much about human identity as it was about the very nature of God and the crux of the news about his Son. As the apostle Paul puts it in his letter to the church in Rome, written roughly fifteen centuries earlier: “For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” That was it, in a teeny-tiny nutshell. Essentially it is very church-y, theo-speak that means this: no more working or buying or reasoning or even praying your way to God’s good favor. God gives it to us on his own accord. In fact, God heaps it upon us, undeserved, like a helping of German potato salad. In the loving arms of Jesus Christ, God accepts us freely and transforms us graciously to be his people and nothing this world can throw at us can ever change that. “For there is no distinction,” the apostle also says, “since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they [who have sinned] are now justified by his grace”—that is, made right, set free from sin, forgiven—“as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.” A reiteration of grace.

These words of Paul can send chills of gratitude and wonder down our spines, but for Martin Luther, they struck across the page and straight into his soul like the bolt of real lightning that had initially sent him from law school to the monastery. Besieged for his whole life by the idea that he would never be able to satisfy a righteous God, and influenced by a religious system that had obscured the message of grace with all kinds of pietistic hoop-jumping and money-making evangelism strategies, Luther had convinced himself that God would never think he was good enough. Yet Luther realized after reading and re-reading Paul’s letter to the Romans, a central message that appeared again and again throughout Scripture: that through the life, death and resurrection of Christ, God had indeed found Luther and declared him good. Christ’s faithfulness to the covenant, even to the point of death, had secured for all people the mercy of God.

Hugo Vogel, 19th c.
Although not at all a new concept, it was revolutionary. You could say it rallied the church, especially when the Pope’s representatives showed up in the towns of northern Germany in the early 1500’s selling indulgences to raise funds for a new cathedral in Rome. Luther and his colleagues didn’t have to work too hard to rally a reform of some of the church’s practices. And just as the Lutheran reformers’ efforts sought to restore God’s grace in Jesus to the center of the church’s life and message, the Reformation also underscored the importance of God’s Word, the Holy Scriptures, for faith. As the sole means by which people could come to meet and understand this Christ who died for all, the Bible served as the foundation for church reform. It became a Constitution, of sorts, for those who wanted to judge church doctrine and practice.

Much has been written about the socio-economic and geopolitical forces that enabled Luther’s reforms to go viral and, in the process, transform the western world, but we cannot forget that one of the main reasons that the message of the reformers spread so well and so fast was because one of the dominant questions people more or less seemed to be asking was “How do I find a gracious God?” It was certainly the main question on Luther’s mind, the monkey on his back, so to speak, that led him to those passages of grace: “How do I find a gracious God?” The answer came back, and resounds to us even now—in the Word; in the water of baptism; in the bread and the wine; and in what Luther called the “mutual conversation and consolation among the brethren and sistren”: in Jesus Christ, Our Lord.

I’m not so sure that is the dominant question that people, even fairly religious ones, ask these days. In a culture where more and more people describe themselves as un-churched or even agnostic, where denominational identity even among believers is on its last legs, and, most of all, where rugged individualism rules the day, I’m not so sure that many people ask “How do I find a gracious God?” I hesitate to speak for an entire cultural ethos (especially when I don’t dare speak for my family without first consulting with my wife), but I would venture to say that the dominant question people are asking today concerning faith is, “How is this relevant?” “How does this apply to me and what I’m experiencing?”

As I listen to the voices of both criticism and praise in faith and culture, and as I peruse Bible study curriculum for youth and young adults, that question appears to be the one that is forefront in people’s minds—articulated or not. I would venture to say that most people can find a gracious God, and maybe even recognize there is one to be met in Jesus Christ. But the prevailing sentiment is, “So what?” Like Sally, who upbraids Linus for enticing her out into the pumpkin patch to await the Great Pumpkin, folks these days are wondering “what’s the point?” I know that I, myself, am often bound to pose the same questions and wonder if it’s really worth missing the Hallowe’en party at Violet’s house to be drawn into the life of faith.

To make it worse, basic foundations to Christian faith can often come across like antiquated, superstitious, empty tradition. Bedrocks like the holy sacraments, regular Sunday worship and even the Holy Scriptures become more and more distant to a culture that upgrades and uploads to a faster, flashier, mode of communication every three months. It is so easy, in such a technology-saturated culture, to fall into thinking that the present is superior to everything that came before us, just as we expect, in so many ways, that the next-version-of-whatever will be more advanced than what came out last week. In many ways, it becomes difficult to adhere to the authority of ancient Scripture, despite the fact that it is a living Word.

That, I would suggest, is where our rallying comes in. As those who know they have been claimed by a gracious God, we rally to spread the news that the life of faith is really what keeps us alive. We rally to restore the church—not so much as placing it at the center of world influence but holding it accountable to the gospel. Yearly, weekly, and minute-by-minute this rally will continue as we reach into God’s Word and gather as his people for worship. Will Willimon, former dean of the chapel at Duke Divinity School says that the church “is never-ending training in learning to trust the Bible, learning to take ourselves a little less seriously and the Bible a little more so.” (William H. Willimon, Pastor: the Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry.  Abingdon Press, 2002. pg 125)

As we do that, as we strengthen our trust in the Bible, the body of Christ will need you to reach into your own story to find those theses—those points of meaning where grace has slapped you upside the head—and nail them to the front door of your life, for all to see.

And you will be relevant, if relevance is what the world wants so badly. Rest assured that we will be relevant because we will be introducing them to Jesus. We won’t be introducing them to a program, or an ideology, or even a wonderful congregation. We will be introducing them to Jesus, who is relevant—who dies to be relevant—and always will be in ways in which our sinfulness will often blind us.
“God’s Word forever shall abide, no thanks to foes, who fear it.

For God himself fights by our side, with weapons of the Spirit.”

Sounds like a rally cry, doesn’t it?
“Were they to take our house, goods, honor, child, or spouse…

Though life be wrenched away, they cannot win the day.

The kingdom’s ours. For…ev…ER.”

OMG! Forever.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 23C] - October 10, 2010 (Luke 17:11-19)

You see, they were accustomed to shouting out. Declared by ritual Jewish law to be unclean, lepers—and all those stricken with any incurable skin disease—were not only to live alone and outside the city walls away from people, they were also to walk around shouting “Unclean! Unclean!” at the top of their lungs wherever they went to warn people of their presence. It was a humiliating chore, to say the least. As if it weren’t bad enough to be burdened with such a debilitating, disfiguring condition, a leper also had to bear the responsibility of reminding others how contagious they could be, what an outcast they were. When all they probably wanted was to fit in, to be one of the crowd, to be, at the very least, ignored and passed by—the leper was charged with constantly calling attention to his or her status as an ugly outsider. “Unclean! I’m a mess! I’m a reject!” they would essentially walk around saying. As much as anyone could get accustomed to such a thing, lepers were accustomed to shouting out.

So it would not have been that strange to be walking along the road in first-century Israel and happen upon lepers who were shouting at people. However, on this occasion, as Jesus makes his way to Jerusalem, the lepers do not cry out “Unclean! Unclean!” Ten of them, in fact, clumping together at a distance like a pack of mangy, stray dogs in a borderland village between Samaria and Galilee, glimpse Jesus and his disciples and cry out for mercy. “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” Recognizing Jesus for who he is (the only non-disciples to ascribe this name to Jesus), these ten lepers heave their desire for mercy upon him. It is not clear from the passage whether their expectation was that they would be healed, or if they simply saw him as a source of alms. Nevertheless, Jesus tells them to go present themselves to the priests.
The priests in those days were like the gatekeepers of the community. According to Jewish code, priests could declare people clean and restore them to dignity and to human community. Still stricken with leprosy—and probably still shouting out to people on their path—the ten turn to go check in with the priests and on their way, mysteriously, they are cleansed, much like Naaman the Syrian who had dipped seven times in the River Jordan to cure him of his leprosy. Both Naaman and the ten lepers were asked to do something that didn’t quite seem effective in order to realize their healing. Go to the priests. “OK,” they shrug. On their way, they are healed.

And then they fall silent…finally! No longer infectious, no longer contagious, they have no need to shout out anymore. No need to cry out on the road, no need to remind everyone of their condition. No more shouting…except for one…one leper who returns, still shouting, still crying out, still yelling at the time of his lungs—yet this time contagious with praise and thanksgiving.

Each week either Chris or I stand in front of you as we prepare the table for Holy Communion and we have a little dialogue. “The Lord be with you,” we say.  And you respond, “And also with you,” as if there is something about Jesus that is catching, something that can be shared. Perhaps we should shout it?

Then we continue: “Lift up your hearts,” to which you reply, “We lift them to the Lord.”

Then we suggest, “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God,” and you oblige: “It is right to give our thanks and praise.”

At that point either Chris or I, directing our attention to the one who has called us here, to the one who has given us new life, to the one who has healed us of sin time and time again, says, “It is indeed right, our duty and our joy, that we should at all times and in all places give thanks and praise to you, almighty and merciful God, through our Savior Jesus Christ.”  The green hymnal used the word “salutary” at this point, which I thought was helpful. “Salutary,” a seldom-used word these days, means, well, “helpful.” Beneficial. Good for us.

Well, whether or not we say “salutary” every Sunday in our worship we still participate in the very actions that single Samaritan leper demonstrated on that road to Jerusalem. Getting ready to share the bread of life and the cup of salvation, you and I have, in some sense, heard his shouting and contracted his infectious joy and thanksgiving. Down through the ages it has been passed along, from one cleansed sinner to another. He has declared us clean in the waters of baptism and set us free. We find ourselves responding to Jesus’ great mercy for us by shouting praise and giving our thanks. In fact, the words in Greek for this leper’s actions are doxazon and eucharistein, two words which may sound foreign to our ears, until when we think of the words doxology and Eucharist. Enthralled by Jesus’ mercy and thrilled to be healed, the leper forgets the priests and instead runs back to the feet of the one who healed him, shouting doxology and making eucharist as he goes. Praise and thanksgiving: yes, these things are right, they are a joy…and they are good for us.

One of our professors at seminary had a practice of carrying his hymnal with him as he left his pew to get in line to receive Holy Communion. Whereas most people, when it came time to stand up and follow the usher’s lead, stop singing the communion hymns, and lay their hymnal down to assume a more quiet stance in line, this professor would keep on singing, stopping only for the few seconds it took him to hold out his hand and take the bread. I liked the image: so filled with joy and thankfulness on the way to receive and give thanks to Jesus that his words of praise cannot be silenced. I have noticed, with happiness, that several of you sing at the communion rail as you kneel. It is an infectious action. That one professor, with such a simple gesture, spurred several other worshippers to think again about their attitude toward Jesus’ merciful presence.

Indeed, the experience of the one leper reminds us that not only is praise and thanksgiving really the first and best response to our Lord’s grace, but that before we can be sent out into the world with the news about Jesus, we must return to him in worship. Jesus’ shock at the ingratitude of the other nine does not mean their healing is revoked. After all, they did exactly what he commanded. But the one leper reveals the truest life of the sinner who has been redeemed: through this return in praise and thanksgiving we realize in our heart of hearts that, in the end, the only place we really can go to encounter God’s mercy is in the person of Jesus Christ, the one who hangs on the cross.

Christian writer Don Miller writes in his best-selling book, Blue Like Jazz, that “the most important thing that happens within Christian spirituality is when a person falls in love with Jesus.” He goes on to say, “I know our culture will sometimes understand a love for Jesus as weakness. There is this lie floating around that says I am supposed to be able to do life along, without any help, without stopping to worship something bigger than myself. But I actually believe there is something bigger than me,” Miller continues, “and I need for there to be something bigger than me. I need someone to put awe inside me; I need to come second to someone who has everything figured out.” (Thomas Nelson, 2003. p 237). Salutary.

And that all makes sense to me—the need to fall down and worship something bigger and more awe-inspiring than myself, the carrying my hymnal to Communion so I can sing my praise, the salutary effect this all has on my soul, but often it’s still as if only about a tenth of me, if that, actually succeeds in responding. I estimate that only about a tenth of my heart, my mind, my soul—a tenth, at the most—that sings with joy and praise when I know I can run to him on the road. For all the times I’ve been drawn into the wonder of praise and thanksgiving at the foot of Jesus, there are nine more parts of me that go elsewhere.  There are nine more parts of me that fall in love with something other than Jesus. But thanks to the actions of this one leper, I’d like to think Jesus is pleased with that one faithful part.

Earlier this summer a stray cat started hanging out on our porch. We thought he was a little sketchy both in appearance and behavior, so we kept clear of him. We made sure our daughters knew he was an unclean cat. But eventually he wore us down, and we finally fed him one morning. One bowl. That was all. He disappeared later that day and night, but the next morning, about the same time, that cat came back. And, of course, we did it again. We gave him more food. And again. And now every morning. Our girls, ages two and three, get so excited each morning when they discover he’s returned.
It never gets old for them, even here on day forty-three. It’s like they can’t believe it. You should see their faces. They are so happy that he has come back for more, as if he’s expressing his thanks.

I’d like to think that’s something like the look on Jesus’ face each times he sees us rounding the bend, bowled over as we are by his mercy, the hymnals of our hearts open wide, growing more and more accustomed to shouting out our cries for mercy or our songs of thanksgiving.

The Lord be with you!!!

And also with you.

Got it! Thanks. And thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.