Friday, November 30, 2012

If I Were King

Sermon preached November 25, 2012
First United Methodist Church, Duluth

Texts: John 18:33-37

If I were King of the Forest, Not queen, not duke, not prince.
My regal robes of the forest, would be satin, not cotton, not chintz.
I'd command each thing, be it fish or fowl.
With a woof and a woof and a royal growl - woof.
As I'd click my heel, all the trees would kneel.
And the mountains bow and the bulls kowtow.
And the sparrow would take wing - If I - If I - were King!
Each rabbit would show respect to me. The chipmunks genuflect to me.
Though my tail would lash, I would show compash
For every underling!
If I - If I - were King!
Just King!
Monarch of all I survey -- Mo--na-a-a--a-arch Of all I survey!

If I Were King

One of the rites of passage growing up when I did was an annual viewing of The Wizard of Oz. This was the days before cable, when movies were re-run once a year. For me, for many years, it was before color television. I only heard that the movie changed to color in the land of Oz.
A more recent movie about a lion king is The Lion King. A young Simba imagines what it will be like when he is king. I’m gonna be a mighty king, so enemies beware. I’m gonna be the mane event, like no king was before. I’m brushing up on looking down, I’m working on my roar…. No one saying do this. No one saying be there. No one saying stop that. No one saying see here.
Kings, lion or otherwise, are seen as those who do what they want, at least much of the time. They do what they want, and they get others to help, sometimes commanding others to help. Our picture of being king is of someone who has tremendous resources, and tremendous capacity to increase those resources. Our picture of being king is of someone with power, and power is doing what one wants. We seem enamored with power. How else can one explain popular television shows like Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, Keeping Up With the Kardashians, or The Apprentice.
Kings are powerful and have resources. That’s our picture, and it affected even a poor kid who grew up to be called, “The King.” When friends of Elvis Presley, policemen, approached him in 1976 about what they viewed as a substance abuse problem, The King responded, “You don’t think I can handle it, do you? You don’t think I’m strong enough. I know what I’m doing. I can get off of this stuff anytime I want.” At the time, as Presley biographer Peter Guralnick noted, Presley had some other issues as well – financial issues. He owed hundreds of thousands of dollars “for cars, planes, gifts, guns, jewelry, and clothing, anything in fact on which his eye might alight” (Guralnick, Careless Love, 597)
Flashback to an earlier time, to a place representative of power as we think of it - kingly power, imperial power. Jesus stands in the court of Pilate, governor of Judea under the reign of Tiberius Julius Caesar Augustus, second emperor of Rome. Pilate was Caesar’s man in Jerusalem and Palestine. Emperor’s and kings don’t take kindly to others who lay claim to their power and prestige. Pilate has before him a Jesus, accused of arguing that he is king of the Jewish people. “Are you the king of the Jews?” “My kingdom is not from this world…. My kingdom is not from here.”
Some have argued that Jesus’ words mean that the focus of his life, work and ministry is spiritual, by which they mean other-worldly and focused on the after-life. Yes, Jesus is focused on the spiritual, but it is not a spirituality focused exclusively on what happens after we die. I think some other translations of Jesus’ words, “my kingdom is not from here” capture that more adequately. “My kingdom is not founded on all this” (Phillips). “I’m not that kind of king, not the world’s kind of king” (The Message). A Jesus spirituality is not other-worldly in the sense of focusing on another life. It is other-worldly in the sense of thinking differently about what is most important and most powerful even in this world.
In the liturgical year of the church, the final Sunday before Advent is known as Christ the King Sunday. Christ the King Sunday is a Sunday for renewed commitment to Jesus and commitment to Jesus is commitment to a different kind of world, to a broader understanding of power. What is powerful in Jesus is, in the words of one theologian, “his capacity to enter into relation with those around him – to influence and be influenced by others” (Bernard Loomer, quoted in The Size of God, 11). For Jesus power has something to do with openness, responsiveness, love.
The encounter between Pilate and Jesus is an encounter between the typical view of power in human thinking and the Jesus’ view of power. For Rome, peace rested on strength and threat and intimidation. Things were peaceful because to rock the boat could get you into trouble. Jesus is in big trouble because he is accused of being a king beside Caesar, perhaps challenging Caesar. And in a way, he does. Caesar’s power if based on fear, and it works, for a while. We would be foolish to think that in the area of international relations, there is not a place for strength and power, as we usually think of it. But that kind of power breeds, in reaction, a search for a superior power, and in the long run that does not make for peace. If you have peace only to the extent that you have superior power, you are constantly suspicious, wondering where the next challenge will come from.
For Jesus, power rests in one’s relationship to God and in one’s openness and responsiveness to others. Peace comes from knowing that one’s life rests in God. For Jesus power is creative, responsive, and persuasive love. Power creates beauty, kindness, caring, love. To call Jesus king is to seek to live differently. Our way is not always the way of the world.
We live differently because of Jesus. We give differently because of Jesus. We are wrapping up our financial stewardship campaign. One way to work with this part of our life is to say here’s how much money we need to keep doing what we are doing, and what are you going to contribute. There is value in that approach, and we should always be giving you good financial information. The deeper reason we give, though, is because we really believe God is up to something here. Jesus Spirit is active in our life together and in our lives and we want to participate in that. One of the ways we participate is through our financial giving. It is an important way we participate, but it is not the only way, and the important thing is not simply making our budget - though that matters. The important thing is keeping the Spirit moving in our lives and in our life together.
Christ the King Sunday is a Sunday for renewed commitment to Jesus, and commitment to Jesus is commitment to a different kind of world, to a broader understanding of power. For Jesus power has something to do with openness, responsiveness, love.
Benjamin was raped at age 9, lost his mother to cancer at age 12, and had a father who was often drunk. His siblings were either dead of in jail. After the death of his mother, Benjamin was adopted by an Episcopal priest named Martha Overall. Rev. Overall was the priest at St. Ann’s Church in the South Bronx, a church with an excellent after-school program. Overall worked hard to help Benjamin along, but seemingly without success. He ran away from school, joined a gang, took drugs, and stole from stores and even from his adopted mom. He eventually ended up in jail where Martha Overall bailed him out and the judge sentenced him to probation. Then, Benjamin decided to join a drug recovery program. He’s now clean and is counseling other addicts.
What helped Benjamin turn around? He remembers a time when his adopted mother, Rev. Martha Overall came to St. Ann’s Church. Many in the community and congregation were loyal to her predecessor, a Hispanic person who had been removed from the parish for corruption. Benjamin remembers a time, before Overall adopted him, when she arrived at the church to find protesters waving signs saying “No White Woman Wanted Here.” She went about her work “and the example of her persistence, conscientiousness, self-confidence, and grit… sent a message to Benjamin” (The Nation, December 3, 2012, p. 35). Benjamin has said that his adopted mother’s “determined benevolence and… her fierce faith – in herself, her greater mission and in him, personally "helped me find the strength inside of me I didn’t know I had" (The Nation).
Love is powerful - a persistent, persuasive, powerful presence. Love is the power of the kingdom of God, the power of king Jesus. It is a power that helps others find their inner strength, not a power afraid of the power of others.
Christ the King Sunday is a Sunday for renewed commitment to Jesus, and commitment to Jesus is commitment to a different kind of world, to a broader understanding of power. For Jesus power has something to do with openness, responsiveness, love.
If I were king, and even if I am just myself, this is the kind of power I want working in my life, working on my life, and working in the world. Amen.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Better Git It In Your Soul

Sermon preached November 18, 2012

Texts: I Samuel 1:4-20

I was born in 1959. Let me make this easy for you – 53.
I did not know this at the time, but 1959 was a phenomenal year for jazz. USA Today, in a 2009 article said, “1959 was one of those rare stellar years in the jazz universe when all of the creative, commercial and celestial forces aligned.” Wow. Sounds like a good year to be born!
I realize that talking about jazz does not necessarily grab a lot of people. Jazz, in a good year, represents about 3-5% of music sales. Nevertheless, I hope you will indulge me for just a little longer here. In 1959, four significant jazz albums were released. All four make it near the top of lists like 100 jazz albums that shook the world (all in top 20). There is Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come, perhaps the least well-known of these four. There is Dave Brubeck’s Time Out with “Take Five” as a centerpiece. There is the best-selling jazz record of all-time, Miles Davis’ Kind of Blues with tracks like “So What” and “Blue in Green.” Then there is Charles Mingus’ Mingus Ah Um, which starts off with this song. “Better Git It In Your Soul”

Mingus, Better Git It In Your Soul

As [Hannah] continued praying before the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought she was drunk. So Eli said to her, “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.” But Hannah answered, “No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord.”
When was the last time someone mistook your spirituality for having a little too much to drink? Better git it in your soul.
Now spectacle is not a value in itself. We have all witnessed people whipped up into emotional peaks for hurtful purposes. We know of religious spectacles that ended tragically – Jim Jones in Guiana, David Koresh in Waco. Spectacle and emotion are not valuable all by themselves. Yet God wants God’s love and Spirit woven into the depths of who we are. God desires to have God’s love and Spirit penetrate into our minds, our hearts, our souls. God wants our relationship with God to be our deepest, truest relationship. God seeks to engage us mind, heart and soul.
Anne Lamott’s latest book is about prayer. You may in fact be wondering what I even mean when I use the word “prayer.” It’s certainly not what TV Christians mean. It’s not for display purposes, like plastic sushi or neon. Prayer is private, even when we pray with others. It is communication from the heart to that which surpasses understanding. Let’s say it is communication from one’s heart to God…. Or let’s say it is a cry from deep within to Life or Love, with capital L’s” (Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, 1-2) The book is entitled Help, Thanks, Wow – the three essential prayers. Better git it in your soul.
In encouraging us to go deep, to let our faith be a part of our emotional life, I am not saying that we will always feel wonderful and spiritual and close to God. I am not saying that we should wait for the feeling in order to pray and love. While I hope to grow, and hope we all grow to a place where our prayers come from the deep places inside, like Hannah’s, and our actions of goodness, kindness and love flow readily from a heart filled with love and joy – well sometimes we need to act before the feeling is there. Sometimes we need to pray even when we don’t feel up to it. Our actions are part of forming our hearts.
During a crisis time in his ministry, when John Wesley was struggling with the adequacy of his faith, of his journey with Jesus, a man named Peter Boehler advised Wesley this way. Preach faith til you have it, and then because you have it, you will preach faith (Heitzenrater, Wesley and the People Called Methodist, 77). Boehler was not asking Wesley to be disingenuous. He understood that sometimes we act ahead of where we are, that actions shape our hearts, minds, and souls, and don’t simply flow from our hearts, minds and souls. He also understood that while we seek a congruence between faith and feeling, our feelings can ebb and flow, and we should not simply wait to pray or do good until we feel like it. The goal, though, is to get it in our souls – to have God’s love and Spirit shape who we are, to have our relationship with God in Jesus be the deepest, truest of our relationships – that place where we can pour out our hearts in anguish, where we can share our deepest hopes and disappointments, where we can sing our most beautiful songs, and express our most profound moments of awe.
As I was thinking about this action on the way, living out faith even when our feelings may be lagging, I thought about Ruby’s Pantry. I will confess to you that there are moments, particularly early in a Ruby’s Pantry week when I am thinking, “Again?” I don’t always feel like Ruby’s Pantry. But it is where I need to be, and almost without fail, something gets into my soul. Last month a woman shared with me that she had a piano that she needed to get rid of as she was moving. It would be free to anyone who would be willing to come and get it. Just a couple of days before she moved, I received an e-mail from a person interested in the piano. A connection was made, the piano found a new home. The woman who received the piano thanked me by e-mail. The woman who gave the piano thanked me in person at Ruby’s Pantry Thursday.
This past week a woman came to volunteer. She shared with me that it had been a few months she was last able to do so. Her mother had been ill, and she was flying frequently to Vancouver. Her mother died, and volunteering at Ruby’s Pantry, she said, was part of her getting back to normal. We are about distributing food at Ruby’s Pantry, but we also create community here every month – a community of kindness and dignity and joy. I was touched this month, by the sheer number of volunteers – students, entire families, but even more by the quality of community we were able to create here and are able to create here for a few hours once a month.
Better git it in your soul.
Hannah’s story in I Samuel continues. Chapter 2 begins with Hannah’s song. My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God. I am not sure that translation does a lot for us. That “exult” language is not really our language. Here is Eugene Peterson’s rendering of the first part of Hannah’s song. I’m bursting with God-news! I’m walking on air…. I’m dancing my salvation. There she goes again, crying out from her heart, expressing the depth of her soul. This time it’s joy, thanksgiving, gratitude.
Can we get there? When was the last time someone mistook our spirituality for having a little too much wine to drink? Better git it in your soul.
Toward the end of her book, Anne Lamott writes: Amazing things appear in our lives, almost out of nowhere – landscapes, seascapes, forgiveness – and they keep happening; so many vistas and so much healing to give thanks for. Even when we don’t cooperate, blessings return to our lives, even in the aftermath of tragedy. Things get a little better when we ask for help. People help us. Most astonishing of all, people forgive us, and we eventually forgive them. Talk about miracles. The kids turn out to be okay after all. The widow finally gets back on her feet. If you’re like me, you ask your higher power for help, and then cause further need for help by procrastinating, or refusing to cooperate with simple instructions that follow sincere petition. And yet even so, grace, progress, blessings continue to be given to you, because God gives. It’s God’s job. (99-100). I think Anne Lamott is bursting with God-news, walking on air, and dancing her salvation.
Can we get there? On this week of Thanksgiving, can we get there? For all of us, may we git it in our souls. Amen.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Wishing, Hoping, Thinking, Praying

Sermon preached November 11, 2012

Texts: Mark 12:38-44

Play a bit of Dusty Springfield, “Wishin’ and Hopin’” (1964).
Does anyone know what movie from the 1990s helped that song make a comeback? “My Best Friend’s Wedding” (1997). I find it fun when an older song finds its way into a contemporary movie. Not long ago I watched the movie “Greenberg” and heard a song I’d not heard in years – Albert Hammond, Jr. “It Never Rains in California.”
Anyway, “Wishin’ and Hopin’” does not really give wishing and hoping a good name.

Wishin' and hopin' and thinkin' and prayin'
Plannin' and dreamin' each night of his charms
That won't get you into his arms

The song suggests that action is necessary, not mere wishing and hoping and thinking and praying and planning and dreaming. But, I think that these are necessary elements in the spiritual life. Henri Nouwen: Those who think they have arrived, have lost their way. Those who think they have reached their goal, have missed it…. An important part of the spiritual life is to keep longing, waiting, hoping, expecting. (quoted in the Spiritual Formation Bible).
Jesus: “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
The religious community leaders Jesus is criticizing thought that had it made. They had spiritually arrived. They spiritual journey was ossified because they did not think it needed to go anywhere. They were spiritually and socially arrogant, and their spiritual arrogance led them to justify unjust actions.
In a brilliant rhetorical move, Jesus contrasts these scribes who in their spiritual arrogance devour widows’ houses, with a widow who gives her whole life, her whole self in trust to God. This woman seemingly has nothing over which she could be arrogant. She is poor. She is widowed, and in the time of Jesus those two things often went together for women had little economic standing. She gives what she has – wishing, hoping, thinking, praying, dreaming, longing, waiting, expecting. This isn’t just about money, and I am going to avoid the temptation to use this text in that way during our stewardship time. This is also a symbolic action, a giving of the whole self longing for the fullness of life God promises to those who seek it in God. This woman is willing to trust her life to God whose love nudges, lures, inspires, draws us forward.
The journey with Jesus is something that engages our whole selves, the whole of our lives, or is meant to. The journey with Jesus is dynamic and growing. It is movement and dance. If we think we have arrived, we are probably lost. If we think we have it all together, there is probably something missing. If we lose that sense of hoping, dreaming, longing, expecting, we are missing something. Joan Chittister, in one of her books, writes: “Unchanging commitment to non-change flies in the face of the Holy Spirit” (The Fire in These Ashes, 87)
This aspect of the spiritual life, the journey with Jesus is something we struggle with. It is something I struggle with. A few years ago, I took a Strengths Finder inventory. One of my top five strengths is “Achiever.” Your Achiever theme helps explain your drive. Achiever describes a constant need for achievement. You feel as if every day starts at zero. By the end of the day you must achieve something tangible in order to feel good about yourself…. You have an internal fire burning inside you. It pushes you to do more, to achieve more. (Buckingham and Clifton, Now Discover Your Strengths). I make checklists for myself, daily to do lists, and I like to see stuff get checked off. The spiritual life is not so much arriving at a goal as working toward something that is always out ahead. Life with Jesus is not so much a destination, instead it is a journey, an on-going dance. There are achievements along the way, but I need to see them as temporary landing places, not permanent homes. The journey with Jesus is not the arrogant achievement of the scribes, it is the seeking to offer ones whole self to God of the widow.
The spiritual life, the journey with Jesus is a creative-responsive dance with the Spirit in the midst of change. We change. The world changes. God’s Spirit nudges us to respond in love in the midst of change, and what love requires may change. Today is Veteran’s Day. We honor those who have served our country and the hopes and dreams it represents – liberty and justice. The day began as Armistice Day, marking the end of World War I. The congressional resolution marking Armistice Day (1926): read, in part: the recurring anniversary of this date should be commemorated with thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations. It is thus a day to give thanks for service and a day to seek peace. We often lose that balance. Our deep gratitude for the brave and heroic service of men and women in the military should not be confused with an uncritical acceptance of every act of war. Balancing gratitude for service, critical thinking about war and actions to perpetuate peace is an on-going journey. When we think we have arrived, perhaps we have not.
The spiritual life, the journey with Jesus is a journey filled with hoping, dreaming, longing, expecting. It is living with a God who is both always with us, and always out on some horizon ahead, drawing us forward. Joan Chittister (Called To Question: a spiritual memoir, 222: Growth in the spiritual life is a slow, circuitous route to the God within. It winds through devotion and disaster, through fidelity and sin to the point of self-knowledge and need, self-sufficiency and an unending desire for “the More.”
Last Sunday’s newspaper – Parade – had a brief story about the actor Scott Baio, who played Chachi on Happy Days. He is now playing a television father and in real life is father to a five year old. When asked how he felt about being a tv dad he replied, “it’s very surreal. I forget that I’m 52. In my head, I’m still 23!” I remember when I was younger hearing people say that and frankly I thought it was silly. What do you mean? Can’t you see that you aren’t 23 anymore. Now that I am in my early 50s I understand something of this.
On the journey with Jesus we should all have that sense that there is still more up ahead, a sense of wishing, hoping, thinking, dreaming, longing, expecting. There should be in our lives a certain righteous restlessness as we seek to give our whole lives, our entire selves to God’s love, to God’s dream for the world, knowing that God is always with us, inside us, but also that God is out on the horizon too, and we are always changing. Amen.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Tears of Sorrow, Tears of Joy

Sermon preached November 4, 2012

Texts: John 11:32-44; Revelation 21:1-6a

New translations of the Bible bring with them certain advantages and disadvantages. The most recent translation is getting quite a bit of use in The Untied Methodist Church, it is known as “The Common English Bible.” In the Common English Bible, John 11:35 is translated “Jesus began to cry.” In the version I read, the New Revised Standard Version, that verse reads, “Jesus began to weep.” Cry is more contemporary to be sure, but both these translations have a distinct disadvantage when compared to the good old King James Version. There John 11:35 read simply – “Jesus wept.” That made John 11:35 the most memorized Bible passage among students required to memorize a Bible passage! Now we are adding words and that complicates things, doesn’t it?
Years ago, during my time as a District Superintendent, I was invited to preach during a chapel service at Luther Theological Seminary. The services were brief, and I was told I had about ten minutes. I chose the passage “Jesus wept” and preached how I thought the whole of the gospel could be found in those two words. Given all that we have going in this morning’s worship service, I don’t want to take much more than about ten minutes, and so I better keep this moving along.
“Jesus began weeping” and he was weeping because he was moved by the death of his friend Lazarus and moved by the grief of Lazarus’ friends and families. This is a story about tears of sorrow.
Fast forward to the end of the story, not the end of the story of Lazarus, but the end of the Biblical story in the Book of Revelation. After pages of haunting twists and turns, cryptic symbols and hideous beasts, we arrive at a vision of joy and peace. Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth…. I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. God will dwell with them; the will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more. Cue Eric Clapton, “And I know there’ll be no more tears in heaven.” But maybe that’s not just quite right. Maybe there will be tears of joy in heaven.
Today is All Saints Sunday – a day when we remember and celebrate the saints in our communities of faith and the saints in our lives. We will be reading the names of those from our church community who have died since last we marked All Saints Sunday, and we sincerely hope we have the list right. I know there have been other losses suffered by persons in our community of faith. Today is a day for tears of sorrow and for tears of joy. We weep because of our loss. The sadness of our loss touches us still. We also recall with joy moments shared with these persons. We are grateful for laughter shared, and for lessons of love we learned from and with these persons we remember today.
“Rejoice in God’s saints, today and all days. A world without saints forgets how to praise.” So the song goes. Does a world without saints also forget how to cry – tears of sorrow, tears of joy? I think so. The temptation is great to close our hearts a little, to become hard, cold, cynical. Bombarded with images of hunger, pain, suffering and disaster, it can be overwhelming and we seek to solve the problem by closing off and closing down. The election season can be especially hard on our hearts. Words that might touch us are thrown about so often for narrow political purposes that it is difficult to listen, to keep an open heart. Nastiness is offered in the service of winning an election. We are tempted to close our hearts and let our tear ducts dry up.
The saints in our lives remind us of the importance of keeping our hearts soft and open, open to beauty and to God’s dreams, open to pain and tragedy. They remind us of the importance of tears of sorrow and tears of joy. Our saints can be poets and painters, writers and philosophers, parents and friends and people who sit in pews in churches with us.
Wendy Lesser, in a passage I know I have quoted before, but whose lesson I continue to learn, offers saintly advice (New American Spirituality, 180): We may think that by closing the heart we’ll protect ourselves from feeling the pain of the world, but instead, we isolate ourselves even more from joy…. The opposite of happiness is a fearful, closed heart…. Happiness is a heart so soft and so expansive that it can hold all of the emotions in a cradle of openness…. Happiness is ours when we go through our anger, fear, and pain, all the way to our sadness, and then slowly let sadness develop into tenderness.
A heart open to the world, to its beauty and its tragedy, is a heart that is capable of tears of sorrow and tears of joy. Such an open heart is also a heart open to God and to God’s dream for the world. Our saints help us keep our hearts open and our tears flowing.
Tears are also a prelude to healing. They are a part of the healing of our own hearts and souls. We cannot heal what we cannot feel. Our saints are those who’ve walked the healing road with us. Tears of sorrow and of joy are a part of the work of healing the world. We cannot heal what we refuse to see – hunger, injustice, homelessness, humiliation. The work of healing is inspired by a vision of joy, a vision of a new heaven and a new earth, and we celebrate with joyful tears the small victories that seem to make the new heaven and new earth a little more real here and now. Our saints are those who work for a new heaven and a new earth.
Jesus began to weep – tears of sorrow, ending with the healing of Lazarus – tears of joy. God will wipe every tear from their eyes – tears of sorrow gone in a new heaven and a new earth, only tears of joy. Thanks be to God for saints. A world without saints forgets how to cry tears of sorrow, tears of joy. Amen.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Luther Nailed It

Sermon preached October 28, 2012

Text: Mark 10:46-52

Lutherans. We want to be careful what we say about Lutherans because we are surrounded by them. I used to tell Methodists in Minnesota that it would do their hearts good to visit Dallas because there were big United Methodist Churches on all the major corners and you really had to look hard to find a Lutheran church.
Lutheranism, because of where its stream of Christianity became prominent, has come to be identified with being Scandinavian or German, and these are cultures that are not usually known for demonstrative emotional expression. A lot of Lutheran humor depends on that.

You know you are a Lutheran if:
• You hear something funny during a sermon and smile as loudly as you can
• Your church library has three Jello cookbooks
• All your casserole dishes have your name printed on masking tape on the bottoms.

How do we know Adam was a Lutheran? Who else could stand beside a naked woman and be tempted by a piece of fruit?
It says something about the strength of Scandinavian Lutheran culture that most such humor fits Upper Midwest United Methodists pretty well.
Today is Reformation Sunday, not typically a big deal within The United Methodist Church. Maybe it is one way we try to distinguish ourselves from Lutherans. Maybe we don’t mark this day so much because we United Methodists are really step children of the Reformation – second generation. The Anglican Church from which John Wesley came was already a reformed church. The roots of the Evangelical and United Brethren Churches were in the Reformed Church in Germany. Still - no Luther, no us. When Luther nailed his Ninty-five theses to the church door in Wittenberg in 1517 he started a wave, a movement that reverberated throughout Christianity.
The Ninty-five Theses themselves were not that striking. The official title of that brief work was “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” – and reading them one is not necessarily deeply moved in faith. What began as a small ripple soon became a tidal wave, as Luther followed his thinking about the meaning of Christian faith in more radical directions. Luther argued that Christians are dramatically free yet also subject to the work of love (“Freedom of a Christian,” 1520, Dillenberger, p. 53). One does works of love not to gain God’s approval, not to chalk up points for the heaven board, but out of love for the God who already loves (68). Here’s the remarkable part of that. I don’t do good for others because it earns me points with God. God already loves me, so I am free to love without trying to figure out how many brownie points I may be earning.
Luther wrote movingly about the experience of faith, in many places, including in his “Preface to the Epistle of Paul to the Romans.” Faith is a living, unshakable confidence, a belief in the grace of God so assured that a [person] would die a thousand deaths for its sake (Dillenberger, 24). Faith is contrasted to belief which Luther saw as “an idea without a corresponding experience in the depths of the heart” (23).
Perhaps it was words such as these that John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist stream of Christianity, heard on night in May 1738. In the evening, I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sin, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death. (Outler, p. 66)
Luther got some important things right about Christian faith. We might say, Luther nailed it when it came to some critical issues about what it means to be Christian. He is where we shift from history to the story of our lives.
Luther nailed it about the importance of grace. I love Frederick Buechner’s discussion of grace (Wishful Thinking). Grace is something you can never get but can only be given. There’s no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about any more than you can deserve good looks or bring about your own birth. A good sleep is grace and so are good dreams. Most tears are grace. The smell of rain is grace. Somebody loving you is grace. Loving somebody is grace…. A crucial eccentricity of the Christian faith is the assertion that people are saved by grace. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do. The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.
At the heart of Christian faith is grace. It is grace found in stories like that of a blind beggar named Bartimaeus. Bartimaeus sits by the side of the road. He lives at the margins of his society. People find him easy to ignore. He cries out for mercy – a term meaning loving kindness, grace. He is not arguing that he is owed something. His life is difficult. He hopes Jesus will touch him with some kindness, compassion, love. He is crying out for it. Jesus does not disappoint. “What do you want me to do for you?” “Let me see again.” “Go, your faith has made you well.” A gift is accepted in trust – faith. It heals, grace working through faith. Bartimaeus follows Jesus.
That kind of grace is at the heart of Christian faith and life. God’s love you. The party wouldn’t be complete without you. Can you see your life in this way? You are a gift, and it is a gift to be able to see this.
Luther nailed it not only in identifying grace as at the heart of Christian faith, but also in asserting that we have an on-going need for grace. Even as we seek to follow Jesus, we lose our way sometimes. At the end of the Bartimaeus story, we read, “Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.” A happy ending. But if we follow the story in Mark’s gospel, we later read this: “All of them deserted him and fled.” There is even an interesting detail found only in Mark. A certain young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked. This is sheer speculation, but might this be Bartimaeus? Once he threw off his cloak to get to Jesus, and now he casts it aside to get away?
We can lose our way on the journey with Jesus. We can forget some of the lessons of love. We can neglect important spiritual practices that help us develop in faith, hope and love. We have a life-long need of grace. God’s love is always both creative, presenting us opportunities for being loving, caring, compassionate, for creating beauty and goodness and justice, and responsive, meeting us where we are, even if we have lost our way again.
Luther nailed it in starting a reformation that continues to seek to be reforming. Just about fifty years ago, one of the great theologians of the twentieth century, H. Richard Niebuhr, whose brother Reinhold was also one of the great theologians of the twentieth century, H. Richard Niebuhr published an article entitled “Reformation – Continuing Imperative.” In the article he wrote “I still believe reformation is a permanent movement” (The Responsibility of the Church for Society, 143). Luther understood that forms of Christian faith and life can become stultifying, stifling, dead. If that was true in the 1500s, it was true in 1960 when Niebuhr wrote about reformation as a permanent movement, and it is true today. What Niebuhr wrote fifty years ago still makes sense. I do not believe that we can meet in our day the need the church was founded to meet by becoming more orthodox or more liberal, more biblical or more liturgical. I look for a resymbolization of the message and the life of faith in the One God. (144) It is our task as the church in the twenty-first century to find ways to say meaningfully to our day and time what those around Jesus said to Bartimaeus: “Take heart, he is calling you.” That the number of those who claim no religious affiliation is growing in our country says that we have not yet figured out the next wave of Christian reformation.
We stand within the ripples of the Spirit initiated by Martin Luther. The heart of our faith is grace. Our lives are a gift and to see them as such is also a gift. We, too, hear the words spoken to us, “take heart.”
The call of Jesus to us to take heart, the call of God’s love in Jesus Christ, never goes away, no matter how lost we become or how blinded we become. God’s gracious love is a responsive love, responsive to us where we are.
God’s gracious love, responsive and creative, opens us again and again to the new. We need to find new ways to tell the old, old story. We need to find new ways to keep fresh the traditional spiritual disciplines. God’s gracious love is always creating anew. In our lives we are born again and again and again. In our church, we are reformed and always reforming.
Luther nailed it. May our hearts be strangely warmed, and our church be reformed – again and again and again. Amen.