With arms wide open

File:Luther-Predigt-LC-WB.jpg

Watching for the Morning of October 28, 2018

Reformation Sunday

The name ‘Lutheran’ was originally a slur cast by Luther’s opponents against those who were persuaded by Luther’s profound insight into the scriptures and the central truth of Christian faith.

Perhaps some heard only a call for the reform of the church’s life. Perhaps some saw the possibility of personal advancement or enrichment. But I suspect these came later. In the beginning there was only a compelling explosiveness to Luther’s teaching that the favor of God is freely given not earned.

Their opponents called them ‘Lutherans’. The name implied they were something separate from the Christian community, followers of a heretical and sectarian leader rather than of Christ and Christ’s church. Luther insisted that ‘Christian’ was the correct term; they were followers of Christ. He also accepted the term ‘evangelisch’.

The German word ‘evangelisch’ translates as ‘evangelical’, from the Greek word for ‘gospel’ or ‘good news’. Though ‘evangelical’ has come to have a different meaning in the modern American context, it was powerful and accurate for Luther and his movement. They believed that God had revealed anew the ‘evangel’, the news of a victory won for us over sin, death and the devil. We are not soldiers on the moral battlefield of life; we are hostages rescued and set free. We do not have to become holy; Christ has enveloped us in his holiness. Where we see too well our sins and failings; God sees only the image of his beloved son with arms stretched wide.

Yes, wrapped in Christ, graced by God’s spirit, there is a path to follow, a new creation to be. But the favor of God does not depend on us but on Christ. We are free from rites and rituals thought to appease God so that we can be about those things that truly please God – loving and serving our neighbor.

The celebration of the Reformation on this coming Sunday is not about the Lutheran church or the protestant communion. It poses no cheers for ancient heroes or the teams that now bear their names. It speaks to us of this Gospel, this fundamental truth that lies at the heart of our life together: our hope is not in ourselves and our accomplishments, but in this God who forgives sins and raises the dead, not because we deserve it – for we surely do not – but because God delights to give.

Church bodies shaped by such an insight cannot be self-righteous or judgmental; they can only be communities with arms wide open and feet ready to walk with those in need.

The Prayer for October 28, 2018 (for Reformation Day)

Gracious and eternal God,
who by your Word called all things into being,
and by your Spirit sustains and renews the earth,
send forth your Word and your Spirit upon your church,
that ever renewed they may bear faithful witness to your grace and life.

The texts for October 28, 2018 (assigned for Reformation Day)

First Reading: Jeremiah 31:31-34
“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.”
– Though the covenant formed between God and the people at Sinai lies broken (what God’s people promised they have failed to do and kingship and temple have perished) God’s promise abides and God will establish a new covenant where God’s teaching/commands are written on the heart.

Psalmody: Psalm 46
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” – A hymn proclaiming the power of God to protect and preserve the people and expressing their confident trust in God’s saving work. It provided the inspiration for Luther’s famous hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”

Second Reading: Romans 3:19-28
“Since 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.” – Paul’s classic expression of his understanding of the function of law and gospel and the idea that we are brought into a right relationship with God (justified) not by the law, but by the free gift of God (by grace) apprehended by our trust in that gift (through faith). This phrase “Justification by grace through faith” becomes a summary statement of the 16th century reforming movement and subsequent Lutheran churches.

Gospel: John 8:31-36
“If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” – This promise of freedom in Christ – freedom from authorities or powers that would prevent their living in service of God – is spoken to followers who do not abide in Jesus’ teaching, and his challenge will reveal their true heart.

Sunday we will also make use of the assigned Gospel for the Sunday from October 23 to October 29:

Appointed Gospel for Proper 25 B: Mark 10:46-52
“As Jesus and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside.” – Once again in Mark’s Gospel opening blind eyes follows an account of the disciples failing to understand Jesus and his mission.

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Follow these links for other posts on Reformation Sunday.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Luther-Predigt-LC-WB.jpg Attributed to Lucas Cranach the Younger [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

But there are others

File:Lucas Cranach d.Ä. (Werkst.) - Martin Luther und Philipp Melanchthon (1543).jpg

Watching for the Morning of October 29, 2017

Reformation Sunday

Sunday is the 500th anniversary of the posting of the 95 Theses, and names like Martin Luther, Philip Melancthon, and Katherine von Bora (Katy Luther) will surely get the major share of attention.

But there are others.

There are others like Justus Jonas who was dear friend to Luther, and Bugenhagen, and Frederick the Wise of course, without whom none of us would remember Luther except as another heretic committed to the flames. And there is John the Steadfast who became the Elector of Saxony after his brother Frederick and stayed the course despite its ultimate cost. (Saxony was defeated by Emperor Charles V in 1547 and the lands, title and privileged vote as Elector were stripped away and given to the Duke of Saxony who had betrayed the Protestant cause.)

But there are others.

Luther and his colleagues in Saxony were protected by Elector Frederick. So, too, those in other sympathetic German states. But the emperor had direct control in the Low Countries and enforced his Edict of Worms declaring Luther outside the protection of the law, forbidding anyone to provide any food, clothing, protection or assistance to Luther, and authorizing the confiscation of the property of any sympathizers, supporters, patrons, or followers.

Johann Esch, Heinrich Voes, and Lampertus Thorn were among the monks in the Augustinian monastery in Antwerp arrested for supporting Luther’s ideas. The prior and others recanted, but these three refused. On July 1, 1523, Esch and Voes were burned at the stake. Thorn died in prison.

So we will read these wonderful texts for Reformation Day, this Sunday, and sing with trumpets the stirring hymn, “A Mighty Fortress,” and for some it will be like singing the old college fight song – a stirring tribute and remembrance of our team. But it is not about our team. It is about this compelling and dangerous word of Jesus that sets free and makes true disciples. It is about the promise of God through Jeremiah to establish with God’s frail and corrupt humanity a new covenant. It is about this message that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” but “are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” It is about the work of God to fashion a new creation and our trust in and allegiance to that work.

Even when it may lead to the flames.

The Prayer for Reformation Sunday, October 29, 2017

Gracious and eternal God,
who by your Word called all things into being,
and by your Spirit sustains and renews the earth,
send forth your Word and your Spirit upon your church,
that ever renewed they may bear faithful witness to your grace and life.

The texts for Reformation Sunday, October 29, 2017 (assigned for Reformation Day)

First Reading: Jeremiah 31:31-34
“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.”
– Though the covenant formed between God and the people at Sinai lies broken (what God’s people promised they have failed to do and kingship and temple have perished) God’s promise abides and God will establish a new covenant where God’s teaching/commands are written on the heart.

Psalmody: Psalm 46
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” – A hymn proclaiming the power of God to protect and preserve the people and expressing their confident trust in God’s saving work. It provided the inspiration for Luther’s famous hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”

Second Reading: Romans 3:19-28
“Since 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.” – Paul’s classic expression of his understanding of the function of law and gospel and the idea that we are brought into a right relationship with God (justified) not by the law, but by the free gift of God (by grace) apprehended by our trust in that gift (through faith). This phrase “Justification by grace through faith” becomes a summary statement of the 16th century reforming movement and subsequent Lutheran churches.

Gospel: John 8:31-36
“If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” – This promise of freedom in Christ – freedom from authorities or powers that would prevent their living in service of God – is spoken to followers who do not abide in Jesus’ teaching, and his challenge will reveal their true heart.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ALucas_Cranach_d.%C3%84._(Werkst.)_-_Martin_Luther_und_Philipp_Melanchthon_(1543).jpg workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

True sons and daughters

File:Confirmation blessing.jpg

Watching for the Morning of October 30, 2016

Reformation Sunday / Rite of Confirmation

Sunday in our parish we will celebrate the confirmation of three young people who will rise to affirm their intention to continue in the covenant God established with them at their baptism. It brings an added joy and celebration to the tradition of observing Reformation Sunday – a day to remember the insights that lie at the heart of the 16th century Reformation, and the principle that the church is always being reformed by the Spirit of God through the Word read, proclaimed, sung and feasted.

Among the great insights of the Reformation was the recognition that God is not served by the performance of religious works, but by the love of neighbor embodied in the work of daily life. When I create a medicine to save lives I serve God by serving my neighbor. It does not have to have a religious hashtag. But when I buy a medicine and manipulate its price to maximize profit for executives and shareholders the ground gets considerably shakier. Perhaps serving shareholders is serving neighbor, but the truth of that statement would ring truer if the officers and board weren’t themselves major shareholders – and if it weren’t the sick, the “weaker members”, who bear the burden.

This idea of vocation not as a calling from God to serve the institutional structure of the church but as a calling to serve one’s neighbor is one of many profound religious insights from the Reformation that dramatically reshaped the path of western society and the history of the world. Unfortunately we didn’t always embody the genius of those insights. Too many religious wars and burnings at the stake followed in the Reformation’s train. Not that these were new to the human community, but the genius of the Gospel should have called out more from us than changing the team colors and fight song.

But the confirmands who come forward this Sunday rise not to pledge themselves to “the church” – they rise to pledge themselves to the God who calls them to be church, to be a people of God living in the world for the sake of the world, to be a people in whom God’s law/teaching/will is written on the heart. Heaven knows earth has enough religion; we need true sons and daughters of God.

The Prayer for Reformation Sunday, October 30, 2016

Gracious and eternal God,
who by your Word called all things into being,
and by your Spirit sustains and renews the earth,
send forth your Word and your Spirit upon your church,
that ever renewed they may bear faithful witness to your grace and life.

The texts for Reformation Sunday, October 30, 2016 (assigned for Reformation Day)

First Reading: Jeremiah 31:31-34
“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.”
– Though the covenant formed between God and Israel at Sinai lies broken (what God’s people promised they have failed to do and kingship and temple have perished) God’s promise abides and God will establish a new covenant where God’s teaching/commands are written on the heart.

Psalmody: Psalm 46
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” – A hymn proclaiming the power of God to protect and preserve the people and expressing their confident trust in God’s saving work. It provided the inspiration for Luther’s famous hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”

Second Reading: Romans 3:19-28
“Since 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.” – Paul’s classic expression of his understanding of the function of law and gospel and the idea that we are brought into a right relationship with God (justified) not by the law, but by the free gift of God (by grace) apprehended by our trust in that gift (through faith). This phrase “Justification by grace through faith” becomes a summary statement of the 16th century reforming movement and subsequent Lutheran churches.

Gospel: John 8:31-36
“If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” – This promise of freedom in Christ – freedom from authorities or powers that would prevent their living in service of God – is spoken to followers who do not abide in Jesus’ teaching, and his challenge will reveal their true heart.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Confirmation_blessing.jpg

Like Christmas morning

Christmas Tree and gifts

Friday

Romans 3:19-28

There is no distinction, 23since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,

I was baptized in a Lutheran congregation as a child, in the church where my father had been raised. My mother was raised in a Lutheran congregation. Their parents were all from Scandinavia, so of course they belonged to Lutheran churches. I made my confirmation in a Lutheran church; I attended a Lutheran college; I went to a Lutheran Seminary. But it was in my fourth year of seminary that I became a Lutheran.

I was one of those students who would ask the provocative question. I was never content to take notes and regurgitate answers; I wanted to understand, to push through to the heart of the matter. So one day, when my required World Missions class had a guest speaker from the Lutheran Church in Thailand, I raised my hand and asked “Why do you, a person from (then) 20th century Thailand, identify with a 16th century German monk?”

Without being phased at all, he answered me: “I don’t identify with a 16th century German monk; I identify with his understanding of the Gospel.”

In that moment all the light bulbs went off and I became a Lutheran. The Lutheran expression of Christian faith isn’t about the culture of church music, hymns, coffee and potluck suppers. It is about an idea. One central, unshakeable idea: God has come to make us his own for no reason but his own goodness. God has come to give salvation as a gift. God has come to heal a broken world, forgive an indebted world, deliver a captive world, redeem a world in bondage. God is the physician who does not ask whether her patient is worthy of her ministrations; she simply works to save the life of the patient before her. God is the lifeguard who does not ask what kind of idiot swims out beyond their depth. God is the fireman rushing up the World Trade Center without asking if its safe; there are people to be rescued and a fire to be extinguished.

Lutherans call it grace. The official phrase the 16th century reformers used to summarize all this is: justification by grace through faith. We are brought into a right relationship with God by his free gift and favor, a relationship that is a relationship of faith, of trusting the gift that is given.

There are other things to talk about in Christian faith. What does it mean for us to live as sons and daughters of the Most High? What is our mission in the world? What does the scripture mean when it calls us to holiness of life? Lutherans can argue about all manner of things – and usually do: sexual ethics, capital punishment, worship and liturgy, gender neutral language, the authority of bishops, whether we should even call them bishops. But none of this defines us. What defines us – or should define us – is this idea of grace.   We defend that idea like a dog with a bone.

It’s not grace and works. It’s not grace and a certain spiritual experience. It’s not grace and a doctrine. It’s not grace and democracy or capitalism or liberalism or anything. It is just grace. Life is gift. Redemption is gift. Forgiveness is gift. The life of the age to come is a gift. It is not the only doctrine, but it is the font of all other doctrines.

Yes it’s a gift that is of no use unless you receive it. But the receiving of it is no credit to us. No one stands around on Christmas morning to say, “Oh, look how well you opened that gift!” They ooh and aah at the gift.

Sunday morning is, and should always be, a kind of Christmas morning, oohing and aahing at the gift.

And Christian life is living every day as Christmas day.

 

Photo: dkbonde

Making space

File:Moving Mess.jpgWednesday

John 8:31-36

31“If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

It doesn’t sound like an insult to us. It sounds like a promise. But we are not a society that makes a sharp social distinction between those who are freeborn and those who are manumitted. Jesus’ hearers take offense at the suggestion that they need to be made free and respond indignantly: “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”

This little exchange reveals much. These Judeans have pledged their allegiance to Jesus; they have ‘believed’ in him. But Jesus is doubtful and tests their fidelity.

John’s Gospel is full of examples where Jesus is speaking of a spiritual reality and his hearers are stuck in a literal meaning. Nicodemus is told he must be born ‘from above’, but the word also means ‘a second time’ and he puzzles over how it is possible to enter back into the womb. Jesus tells the woman at the well that if she knew who it was that asked her for a drink, she would ask him for living water (which also means fresh, running water), but she responds that Jesus has no bucket. So here, Jesus speaks of freedom and his hearers think only of the institutions of slavery and bond-service. All by itself, this opening exchange reveals that there is something lacking in the professed faith of these Judeans.

The dialogue will get worse. Jesus will question their parentage. He will announce that their deeds show they are not children of God but children of the devil. “There is no place in you for my word,” says Jesus.

The Greek word means to make space. Imagine moving in with a new spouse who makes no room in the closet for your clothes, no shelf in the bathroom for your sundries, no space in the living room for your family photos. These pseudo-disciples have made no space in their lives for Jesus’ teaching, his word, his Spirit.

There is a reason that Christians spend time in the scriptures, in worship, in books that deepen the life of faith. They are trying to make room for the things that Jesus says. They are trying to make room for the Spirit’s gifts. They are moving out old furniture and clearing out closets in order to make room for God.

They want to know true freedom.

 

Photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMoving_Mess.jpg, By Steve Ryan from Groveland, CA, USA (Moving Mess – Day 4) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

At great cost

Watching for the Morning of October 25, 2015

Year B

Reformation Sunday

Photo credit: dkbonde

Martin Luther was a pious monk, pastor and Bible professor. He did not set out to start a revolution. He wanted only to correct some abuses he saw happening in the hands of the indulgence preachers.

Naïvely, Luther thought (or at least claimed to think) that Prince Albert and the Pope would want to know what was being said in their name and would want to correct it. He wasn’t looking for excommunication and the threat of burning at the stake.

Luther seemed to think that if he just had the opportunity to explain himself, everything would be straightened out – but the more he explained, the deeper grew the hole. The message of the grace of God he found in scripture didn’t blend with the amount of money and power that was at stake in the indulgence controversy or the renaissance papacy.

So when the long sought opportunity to discuss (so he thought) his teaching finally arrived in 1521 at the Diet of Worms (the governing body of the Holy Roman Empire, now presided over by Emperor Charles V), Luther was not prepared for the outcome. He was given no chance to defend himself, only asked whether the books were his and whether he was ready to recant. A parliamentary maneuver requesting a night to think it over allowed him to say a little more the next day than a simple “yes” or “no” – but not much more, only a recognition that some of his writings were statements from scripture and he could not in good conscience recant those. He needed to be shown what in his writings was false.

Luther’s prince, Elector Frederick, was better at reading the tea leaves and arranged for a band of armed men to kidnap Luther and take him into hiding to the Wartburg castle. Luther was condemned by the council – and anyone who aided him liable to forfeiture of all their lands and titles. But there, in the Wartburg, Luther – needing something to keep busy – set about translating the New Testament into German. Thanks to the invention of the printing press, the Bible began to became available to all.

Eventually, Luther could stay on the sidelines no longer and returned to take control off the chaotic reformation underway in Wittenberg. When Katie offered to marry him, Luther was still under sentence as an outlaw of the empire, though the Emperor was unable to enforce it until he seized Electoral Saxony in 1547, a year after Luther had died.

We forget, sometimes, the price that some of our sisters and brothers have paid for confessing Christ – a price that people are still paying in various places in our world.

And we forget, sometimes, that God’s free grace did not come without price to God.

Reformation Sunday takes us into the scriptures (as it should) and takes us into prayer for the Spirit to work its reforming and renewing work in and among us (as it should) – but this day also takes us back to remember and honor those of the 16th century whose rich insights into the Gospel, fought for at great personal risk, are our privilege to inherit. And it bids us remember all those who even now confess the grace of God at great personal cost.

The Prayer for Reformation Sunday, October 25, 2015

Gracious and eternal God,
who by your Word called all things into being,
and by your Spirit sustains and renews the earth,
send forth your Word and your Spirit upon your church,
that ever renewed they may bear faithful witness to your grace and life.

The texts for Reformation Sunday, October 25, 2015 (assigned for Reformation Day)

First Reading: Jeremiah 31:31-34
“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.”
– Though the covenant formed between God and Israel when God’s law was given at Sinai lies broken, God will create a new covenant relationship, where God’s teaching/commands are written on the heart.

Psalmody: Psalm 46
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” – A hymn proclaiming the power of God to protect and preserve the people and expressing their confident trust in God’s saving work. It provided the inspiration for Luther’s famous hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”

Second Reading: Romans 3:19-28
“Since 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.” – Paul’s classic expression of his understanding of the function of law and gospel and the idea that we are brought into a right relationship with God (justified) not by the law, but by the free gift of God (by grace) apprehended by our trust in that gift (through faith). This phrase “Justification by grace through faith” becomes a summary statement of the 16th century reforming movement and subsequent Lutheran churches.

Gospel: John 8:31-36
“If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” – This promise of freedom in Christ – freedom from authorities or powers that would prevent their living in service of God – is spoken to followers who do not abide in Jesus’ teaching, and his challenge will reveal their true heart.

 

Photocredit: The Wartburg, dkbonde

“A new covenant”

Saturday

Jeremiah 31

Sharing the first ring of the Kransekage, a Danish wedding cake

Sharing the first ring of the Kransekage, a Danish wedding cake

31The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.

It is difficult to communicate how profound a declaration this is. It is the word of a marital partner repeatedly betrayed and, at the end of a brutal divorce, declaring: “We will yet have a happy marriage. There will be a new wedding. The day will surely come when perfect love is written on the heart.”

If it were not the voice of God, we would give the spurned spouse a “Denial is not a river in Egypt” award.

God will start again. A people created by a promise to Abraham, led out of bondage, wondrously delivered into a new land and provided with every blessing, turn instead to the gods of the land, the gods of fertility and prosperity, the gods of the surrounding nations, the values of ancient cultures built on wealth and power,

God let it fall to dust, crushed by yet greater wealth and power. Temple, priesthood, kingship, city, all destroyed.

But God will start again.

It is the pattern found throughout the Biblical narrative from the very beginning: Garden and betrayal. God appeals to Cain, but Cain chooses murder. God gives Adam and Eve to one another in perfect love, and Lamech chooses multiple wives, Sodom chooses rape, the daughters of Lot choose incest. Judah chooses prostitution. Gibeah chooses rape and murder. David murders Uriah and takes his wife. Prostitution, pederasty, adultery, God’s precious, intimate, life-giving gift is sacrificed to the gods of power and pleasure. Self-giving love becomes selfish love.

War, pillaging, slavery, hunger, everywhere God’s gift of a good and bountiful creation is corrupted and abused.

But God will start again. A new heaven and a new earth – not meaning God will discard the old, but God will heal the broken and wounded world until the soiled becomes pure, like a bride adorned. Though your sins are as scarlet, they shall be white as snow.”

God will birth us from above. God will pour out his holy Spirit. God will conform us to the image of Christ. The deserts shall blossom. A holy city.

“I will make a new covenant.” There shall be a new wedding. Our rebellious, defiant hearts shall be made free. We shall learn love and fidelity. The will and purpose of God will be written on our hearts.

Come, Holy Spirit, Come. Come and begin your work now in me.

33But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

Being made free

Friday

John 8

File:Jacob Savery the Elder - Garden of Eden - 1601.jpg

Jacob Savery the elder, Garden of Eden, 1601

31“If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

33They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”

It is a tragic conversation. Jesus offers freedom and they take offense: “We…have never been slaves to anyone.” How dare you?! How dare you suggest that we are not free?! How dare you suggest that we are not liberated people, able to chose our own way?! How dare you suggest that we are bound in ignorance, passions and fears?! How dare you suggest that we are captive to our own brokenness?! How dare you suggest that we need some word, some spirit, some vision besides our own?! What do we need from you that we cannot do on our own?! We can make our own choices, chart our own path, seek our own destiny!

The truth is they abide in themselves. Like we all do.

The narrative of Adam and Eve is a rich and subtle text. Created by the breath of God and the soil of the earth, our first parents are given a royal garden to tend. They may feast upon the bounty of that garden. Every fruit of every tree save one is theirs, including the tree of life. But the serpent breaks the spell. With that crafty question “Did God say?” they become the interpreters of God’s word rather than the hearers of it. They now decide what God means instead of living in his word. But some words are not meant to be analyzed. A marriage vow is spoken and received, not evaluated and interpreted. A parent’s love is spoken and inhabited, not studied and debated. What should be a handshake is now an 80 page contract. We do not trust and abide in God’s declaration of love; we parse it.

We imagine we are free, when we are bound within ourselves. We cannot escape our self-consciousness. We cannot let go our self-concern. Only God’s word, God’s speech, God’s declaration of love and grace can free us from ourselves.

Some belief is not belief at all. It is a religiousness that serves the self: inflating my self-image, enhancing my self-righteousness, seeking God’s favor and protection. If Jesus can feed 5,000 from five small bits of bread, I will never be hungry again. Nothing here about feeding the hungry, only feeding myself and my own.

And there is only one remedy for untwisting my soul. Abiding in his word. Dwelling in his promise. Being daily encountered by an incomprehensible self-sacrificing love. Eating the bread that gives eternal life rather than the bread that sustains daily life.

Abiding there will show me the truth of all existence and free me from myself, free me to love God and neighbor, free me to live as heaven’s gardeners in true innocence and faithfulness, in true grace and life.

“A Mighty Fortress”

Thursday

Psalm 46

Photo credit: dkbonde

The Wartburg.  Photo credit: dkbonde

1God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
2Therefore we will not fear,
though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;

This psalm is the source of Luther’s famous hymn: “A Mighty Fortress.” It is profound expression of trust in God in the midst of life’s chaos.

Luther was an outlaw when he wrote the hymn. He had been condemned at the Imperial Diet in Worms in 1521. The imperial edict forbade anyone to provide any food, clothing, protection or assistance to Luther. It required that he be immediately imprisoned or sent in chains to the Emperor and authorized the authorities to confiscate the property of any “sympathizers, supporters, patrons, protectors and followers” of Luther.

Luther had been given free passage to the Diet, so was allowed to leave the city before the edict was published. Once outside the city, he was kidnapped (by friends) and taken into hiding at the Wartburg. There he grew a beard and masqueraded as Junker Jorg. Bored, he sent for his Greek New Testament and translated it into German. When Wittenberg was torn by zealous proponents of a swifter, more radical reform, Luther returned despite the sentence over his head. In a series of sermons he rebuked the reformers for failing to act in love.

Though Luther was out of hiding, the Emperor was not in a position to march on Saxony to enforce the edict – Suleiman the Magnificent was advancing on Vienna; Hapsburg lands were under attack from Charles’ brother Ferdinand; and Turkish pirates threatened the Mediterranean – but the threat remained and Wittenberg did fall to imperial troops in 1547 (though Luther had died the year before).

In the tumult of those years, Luther transformed the psalm into a hymn that expressed the same profound trust in God despite the chaos of the world around him.

We live in a time when fear is a tool of politics and media. The lead-in to the evening news seems always to warn of some imminent threat, from Ebola to terrorism to the hidden dangers of ordinary household products. We see images of floods and fires and civil unrest and it is easy to imagine that the world is devolving into chaos. To suggest that “God is our refuge and strength,” may seem like denial. But neither Luther nor the psalmist is pretending. Luther’s hymn declares, “Though life be wrenched away, he [Satan] cannot win the day. One little word shall fell him.”

The psalm does not promise that nothing bad shall happen to believers. It simply celebrates God’s triumph over all the forces of chaos, whether in nature or in politics. It remembers that whatever may happen, God has spoken. He has passed judgment. He has declared us forgiven. He has opened the grave. And neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Not a tame lion

Watching for the morning of October 26

Year A

Reformation Sunday
The Ninteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 25 / Lectionary 30

File:Cranach Martin Luther.JPG

Portrait of the young Luther by Lucas Cranach the Elder

Reformation Day is October 31st, the eve of All Saints when, in 1517, Martin Luther is supposed to have nailed the 95 theses to the doors of the castle church in Wittenberg. There is some doubt about the historicity of that event – though no doubt about the 95 theses themselves. What seems in legend as a defiant act of protest was in fact something less. The theses, written in Latin and proposing a debate on the sacrament of penance, would have belonged on the doors of the castle church since that was the sanctuary used by the University of Wittenberg and constituted the university bulletin board where such notices were posted – and Latin was the language of scholarly debate. But there is apparently no evidence the debate occurred beyond the uproar that arose from the radical challenge to the marketing of papal indulgences and the daring proclamation (among others) that

  1. Any truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without indulgence letters.
  2. Christians are to be taught that he who sees a needy man and passes him by, yet gives his money for indulgences, does not buy papal indulgences but God’s wrath.
  3. Christians are to be taught that the pope, in granting indulgences, needs and thus desires their devout prayer more than their money.
  4. Christians are to be taught that if the pope knew the exactions of the indulgence preachers, he would rather that the basilica of St. Peter were burned to ashes than built up with the skin, flesh, and bones of his sheep.
  5. The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.

For a religious system that was constructed around the fear of judgment and hell and a sacramental system to remove the penalties of sin, Luther had brought an axe to the root of the tree. What began as an effort to reform the excesses of the marketing of indulgences became one of those moments when the liberating power of the message of God’s grace escaped our natural human efforts to contain it.

Reformation Day is not a celebration of the Protestant Reformation; it is a humble remembrance of God’s repeated triumphs over every effort to domesticate him. In the wonderful words of C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe: Aslan is not a tame lion.

Sunday we will read the great and wonderful lessons that are associated with Reformation Day, since few families would come to worship on Halloween. But we will also read the appointed Gospel for the Sunday that falls from October 23 to 29, since everything else we say about the 16th century reformation is meaningless if we do not hear Jesus say that the chief command is to love God with all our heart and soul and mind – and then hear him add that the obscure commandment from Leviticus 19 is equal to it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

The Prayer for Reformation Sunday

Gracious and eternal God,
who by your Word called all things into being,
and by your Spirit sustains and renews the earth,
send forth your Word and your Spirit upon your church,
that ever renewed they may bear faithful witness to your grace and life.

The Assigned Texts for Reformation Sunday

First Reading: Jeremiah 31:31-34
“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.”
– Though the covenant formed between God and Israel when God’s law was given at Sinai lies broken, God will create a new covenant relationship, where God’s teaching/commands are written on the heart.

Psalmody: Psalm 46
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” – A hymn proclaiming the power of God to protect and preserve the people and expressing their confident trust in God’s saving work. It provided the inspiration for Luther’s famous hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”

Second Reading: Romans 3:19-28
“Since 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.” – Paul’s classic expression of his understanding of the function of law and gospel and the idea that we are brought into a right relationship with God (justified) not by the law, but by the free gift of God (by grace) apprehended by our trust in that gift (through faith). This phrase “Justification by grace through faith” becomes a summary statement of the reforming movement.

Gospel: John 8:31-36
“If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” – This promise of freedom in Christ – freedom from authorities or powers that would prevent their living in service of God – is spoken to followers who do not abide in Jesus’ teaching, and his challenge will reveal their true heart.

The assigned Gospel for the Sunday from October 23 to October 29

Gospel: Matthew 22:34-46
“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” – The Pharisees bring one final challenge to discredit Jesus by asking him which is the chief commandment taking precedence over all others. Jesus rightly begins with the familiar text to love the LORD, but then adds, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

(The text of the 95 Theses is from Luther’s Works, Vol. 31, Career of the Reformer I (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.), Philadelphia: Fortress Press, pp. 25-33.)