Re-Reformation 2019

 

a sermon (sort of) on Jeremiah31:31-34; Psalm46; Romans3:19-28; John8:31-36

 

These are risky readings, warping our view of Reformation Sunday.

The risk arises since, even at the ripe old age of nearly 536 years old, still Martin Luther is a raucous hilarious mic-dropping butt-kicking no-holds-barred headline-grabbing cultural-innovating brainiac wise-cracking ninja kung fu dynamo rockstar superhero…at least according to the psycho diehard metal head over-the-top Lutherans. Which may taint our view just a wee smidge.

With that, these readings, always assigned as lectionary readings for Reformation Sunday, don’t function like Bible readings normally would on a Sunday. They’re not here to speak for themselves, but are intended to point us back to Luther, back to 1517 and the years following, to the disputes of that time and the core theological argument.

…Still, I want to pause and note that it’s not the theological core of a few Reformers. I would reiterate and reinforce that, if anything, it’s recovering the biblical core, the center of the God we know in Jesus, the heart of this good news faith, the kernel of who we are in relation to God. This isn’t a Martin Luther deal. It’s not a Lutheran identity. It’s not just Protestants. This is Christian, but also proclaimed in our Old Testament, the Jewish scriptures.

One way I like to make this distinction is when I’m asked if the ELCA is the liberal or the conservative kind of Lutheran, compared to Missouri and Wisconsin Synods, I get a kick out of answering that we’re the conservative ones, because nothing will interfere with our total insistence that God loves you. We recognize this as the beating heart of our faith. The word “evangelical” in E.L.C.A. comes from the word for good news, and we strive foremost to maintain that good news. The indispensable component is absolutely grounded in and flowing from God’s love for us. That’s our core. That’s what matters.

So if absolutely anything gets in the way of that, those interruptions and interventions displace the vital central message. As soon as it becomes an implication that God loves you…except. Except if you’re divorced, except for your financial status, except you’re not very nice, except you’re not trying hard enough, except you’re not really repentant, except if life’s not going well, except if your faith isn’t very certain, except if you fit (or don’t fit) into society this way or that way or any way, except you’re, well…you. As soon as any exception starts to creep in, giving you lessons and telling you you need to be different somehow, and it infringes on the core message of God’s love for you, then we’ve lost our center. It makes you or culture or your worries or sin more powerful, more important than God.

So the ELCA—certainly not always, never exclusively, but with strong focus and intention—the ELCA conserves this message of God’s assessment of you in love as the primary declaration. We keep it when many others allow the good news to be overshadowed. At least on our good days, we recognize as most ultimate God’s passionate work for you. We don’t have a corner on that market. But it does mean other things shouldn’t become more imperative, like our sense of self or our pet projects or institutional preservation or social justice passions or views of the Other or past or plans or whatever. God loves you, beginning and end of story. Thesis statement. Main point. Anything else is a footnote.

For all those things that can mess it up, it’s ironic that it ends up being the focus on our history that’s problematic for us today, when we look to Luther and want to hold his superhero tradition so central, as if he’s an essential, banner aspect. Oops!

Back to the point about these Bible readings: they are intended to highlight the theological theme that Luther so clearly lifted up. But whereas we can find that theme reverberating under every Bible passage, these today are chosen not really to keep us centered in the message, but to remind us of Luther keeping us centered in the message.

So we have Psalm 46, which we sang just to remove any vague pretense; this Psalm was assigned for today because Luther’s paraphrase of it became a popular hymn. Sure, it’s a great Psalm, proclaiming that even when society is shaking and natural disasters storming, still we are held by God, “a refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” Hopefully you got some of that as we sang. But maybe you mostly thought of Martin Luther.

The other readings do it, too. The end of the Romans reading is there as the direct language for the 16th Century framing of this. When the Evangelical Protesters were threatened with excommunication and possible death and had to give an accounting of their beliefs, this verse summarized the core, the doctrine on which the church stands or falls: justification by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.

Of course, that’s awful church-speak and not very illuminating to hear. Even if it is our alleged core, “justification” isn’t a helpful term. In our re-translation, it came across as “correct,” that there’s nothing you can finally say is wrong with your life, since you’ve been set right or deemed correct with God. Whatever was wrong has been corrected, and this flows into your other relationships.

That perspective is also the point of the Jeremiah reading, that what sets us right and renews our relationships isn’t the law, isn’t finger-wagging of shouds and oughts, isn’t that you’re so brow-beaten into doing exactly what you’re supposed to and threatened with punishment if not. It’s not that you’ve finally learned your lesson and try hard enough to love your neighbor. It’s simply that God won’t give up, won’t let you fall away, and God’s love flowing into you flows also out from you. You’ve got a new heart, brought about and effected by God having an awful memory when it comes to sin, even though God excels at remembering the promises for you.

But this reading about right relationships gets corrupted and corroded into antagonisms, with a disparaging view claiming that the old covenant was Catholicism versus the Reformers’ new faith. Still worse is to claim that Christianity is the new covenant, superseding Judaism. We keep falling into the old traps, in service of what we should be rallying against.

The language of Jesus, then, is that you’ve been freed. Trying to climb out of sin is like trying to climb out of your skin. There’s no way you can wriggle or squirm or run fast enough to do get away. In fact, trying just sinks you further in. But you’re no longer enslaved. You’re freed. Not having to earn your keep, but given the gift of inheritance, life, freedom from God.

So they’re all great Bible readings that lead to some very central stuff for us. But the pointer gets skewed because we end up using them to point to Martin Luther, point back five centuries.

That’s not okay if today becomes a history lesson, a rearview mirror, a self-congratulatory party, a retrospective, if the story stops at Luther.

But it can be okay, or better than okay, when it helps reinforce and resonate the core message of what God does for you, when you thank Luther on the way past, then continue to Jesus. It can be great when it gives you new life, when you are inspired and invigorated and ready to live. When you are comforted in knowing you are eternally loved. When security isn’t built on being the in-group but rests in Jesus.

See, this is still a word for today. Another of the ideas handed down to us is semper reformanda—always reforming. Reformation Sunday is because Jesus is still working on us, because this central message needs to be spoken and lived into our own time and place, into our lives, into every day and each moment.

So four quick examples of how we’re still and always reforming:cassock.jpg

  1. I’m reading a book recommended by Sarah Key called Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the U.S. (That’s us, folks.) Pastor Lenny Duncan talks about having a prison record but coming into a Lutheran congregation and being told he was welcome at the communion table, no strings attached. That’s grace, and it changed him. But he also says if that’s really the message, we’ve horribly excluded and put down African Americans, and for the sake of the message we need to fix it. He points out that too long has “white is holy and black equals sin” (67). It’s at his suggestion that I’m wearing this black cassock today, among the ways God’s working and this church is still and always reforming.
  2. This afternoon, the synod Reconciling in Christ team is celebrating 10 years of the ELCA vote to be more inclusive to LGBTQ people. It was a step, but we need more. Still there’s way, way, way too much from the church that makes people not feel okay, feel at risk, feel incorrect because of their gender identity or sexual orientation. God loves you and that’s what makes you correct, so we need to figure out how everybody gets to hear that message. We’re still and always reforming.
  3. 500 years ago, some of the focus straightened out our relationship with God. Now we’re straightening out our relationship with all the other creatures, not thinking humans are the only important ones or that only we are loved by God. We practice this at the MCC, sometimes referred to as an Eco-Reformation. With our Earthkeeping liturgy today, we have some reminder of the spread of this work, which invites us to be still and always reforming.
  4. God loves You. You’re the last example. I don’t know how you need that message today, what difference it makes, what other insidious demonic voices it might shut down that have called you wrong, how this good news might well up inside of you, what it will do with your heart and what exactly is the new life you’ll live. But that assurance is your core: you’re always being made new, always given a fresh start, set free as a beloved child of God, still and always reforming.
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Health-to-Go

 sermon on Luke 17:11-19 and 2nd Kings 5:1-3,7-15c

 

What are we doing here? Where do we go from here? And where do we place ourselves in this reading? It makes a difference for our expectations of what is happening here.

These stories of course don’t directly fit our dividing lines as transferable to our setting. There’s the place of institutional religion, where priests operate and prayers and gratitude and devotion may be offered and things can be set right.

But Jesus is not in the place of religion. Neither was the prophet Elisha. So the people in these stories looking for healing didn’t go to the institution. They didn’t go to the priests. Even though we usually consider this our place of institutional religion, that might not be the equivalent encounter in the stories.

To make it one notch more complex, the church is not our parallel institution, by and large. Our place of medical healing—our institution—is the hospital or clinic. And the priests of the institution to pronounce who is well are the doctors or nurses. But, again, the story doesn’t have healing from the institutionalized professionals. It has Jesus.

That points us back here. Maybe we can ignore church as institution, and not focus on the so-called religious professionals (which is part of why I try to come across as pretty unprofessional). Maybe this is the place to bump into Jesus and be surprised by an unexpected word of blessing and healing.

Before we hear that word of blessing and healing, though, let’s pay attention to what we’re listening for. Neither Elisha nor Jesus has a stethoscope or MRI machine. They prescribe neither surgery nor pills. That’s not what Jesus needed to diagnose as the way to get healthy.

I’m going to try to draw a foggy line here by saying Jesus shows God is not most concerned about your illness or disease; God is most concerned about you. That’s a tough contrast because in many cases a sickness or health problem feels like the biggest worry, the thing you’d most like to have addressed or resolved.

In this distinction, it’s not that Jesus is ignoring or doesn’t care about your illness. But he doesn’t treat it in isolation or as superseding everything else.

In faith, we recognize health and healing as a matter of wholeness, not a matter of cure. Jesus isn’t isolating illness as if that’s all there is to you, as if what’s wrong has taken over everything about you. It’s not just treating an injury or removing germs or patching up parts. You’re not the sum of your vital signs or test results. Jesus is addressing the whole of you. He’s not saving you just from a single thing; he’s saving you for life.

I have heard some of you say while you’re sick that you don’t only want to be treated as sick, don’t want to be identified only by cancer, don’t want to be known for the problem, don’t want your relationships restricted to revolving around receiving for a small set of needs.

That’s what this sense of wholeness is about from God in Jesus, that you may have life and have it abundantly. It’s more than a doctor checking on a surgical follow-up. It’s how all of your life goes.

I know some health problems can be all-consuming, and our culture tries convincing us to expect we ought to be totally cured, and that’s what’s right. We do pray for those specifics, for direct relief, for successful procedures. We celebrate fine-tuned laparoscopic skill attending to the precise details, the science and wisdom for better alleviating pains and hurts.

But even when you’re not sick, it fosters such a narrow view of health and life—that food is only for balancing nutrients and counting calories, that exercise is for cardiovascular gain, that you need the right amount of this and not too much of that, and have to follow the rules and you’ll keep yourself right and then be fortunate enough to stay alive.

But this Jesus-model of fullness of life is sometimes embodied for us by those who can’t be cured, whose ailment may never change, who may even end up dying (just as all of us eventually will), but who are still vibrantly engaging life and know who they are.

Again, to draw a distinction: this isn’t about putting on a happy face even when you’re miserable and feeling rotten. It’s not about pretending nothing’s wrong. Our God of compassion is suffering with you. When things aren’t going well, I cry with you. That is our community responding with assistance, just as Sarah Key mentioned, so much that she wouldn’t wish away her ankle injury.

That also leads us to note that not everything is ever wrong. There is more to life, and there will be still more to come. Even in the worst, you are beloved by God and held by God and sustained in God’s promise. You are worthwhile to community. You are you.

The ten lepers in the story had a very particular version of this. Sure, their skin disease was problematic. But it may not have been all that much physical suffering. It may have been itchy ringworm or flaky psoriasis, which qualified among these skin diseases in this category.

The larger issue was that they were identified and entirely confined by the term “leprosy.” They had no other interaction with society besides being defined as lepers. They couldn’t work. They couldn’t live in town. They couldn’t go up to others and have a conversation. They had to call out from a distance with the disparaging yell, “Unclean! Unclean!” Imagine being required to claim that awful label for yourself! Being defined as wrong. They were quarantined from life’s goodness.

The healing, the wholeness, the salvation, the restoration from Jesus, then, is more than fresh unblemished skin. It’s the opportunity to interact in life and in relationships. This, and not mere remediation of medical maladies, is God’s intention.

That’s highlighted further that this is the God of all creation. So certainly the search for healing and wholeness won’t stop at national boundaries or be limited to the preferred insiders, but is exemplified by expanding to include enemy Syrian generals and heretical Samaritans, those who would be rejected as having no business receiving good from God or knowing God or praising God. Jesus’ mission will not allow anybody to be left out. It includes the the ill and immigrants, the unfaithful and the unkind, the proudly pretentious and the desperate and unknowing. We are all held in God’s intention for abundant life.

So God meets us sometimes not with showiness or miracles. It turns out miracles are too small for this big purpose. God comes with remarkable restoration and reassurance, with words of blessing and healing. This isn’t the fancy latest expensive technocratic highly-researched procedure. It can be a simple unspectacular washing in water, maybe like the small splash of this font that incorporates you by baptism into this caring community. Maybe it’s the spoken reminder that—of course!—God in Christ wants fullness of life for you, that just as it’s not ultimately dependent on your genes or your physical regimen or your attitude or your insurance plan, neither is it allotted in proportion to your faith. Your abundant God lavishes this gift of life on you and all creation. It may later be the whispering word that wakes you from the big nap, calling you into a new day of life, even beyond the grave, calling you to come out, blown along by the Spirit into a fresh breath of air.

Today it’s simply in the word “Go.” You have come today to this place not for medical diagnosis, not for small miracles, but to find an encounter with Jesus, to see how he addresses you and your needs. And his word is “Go.” Go back to life. Go live. Go be in relationships. Go into the world. Go away from the confines of culture and the limiting sense of illness. Go away from the identity that you did it wrong, that you need to do something else, that you should be different. Go. Just go and be. Go and do what you will. Go live in the world. Go experience God’s intentions.

Nine of the lepers heard that commission and they went, went off to live at last. One remained to supplement it with some praise and thanks to Jesus.

At this point, you too can listen to Jesus, sending you back into life. For some, that may be enough, that you got what you came for, and you can go on your way today and live. I mean that as an honest offer, for sure. Others may need more time, to give thanks or to pray and encounter Jesus and interact with God about illness and health and wholeness and life. Whichever is right for you today is what’s right.

I realize there’s a risk 90% of you might get up now and leave, that you listen to Jesus and Go. But finishing the service—the institutional rule-following with a religious professional—isn’t what’s important. It’s not the point. Just as we’re not here for minute medical management, we’re also not here for the religious institution. All this is always only in service of life, so that you can know God’s work is that you and all people and all creation may live.

So you can stay. Or, in the words of our commission from Jesus, you can “get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

 

 

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