(Preached at Trinity Lutheran Church, Centerbrook, CT)
Readings: Deuteronomy 6:1-9; Romans 3:19-24; Mark 12:28-34
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
First a word of thanksgiving. Thanks to Pastor Brett Hertzog Betkoski for the invitation to be with you today.
This is my first Sunday “in the pulpit” since I left St. Paul in Old Saybrook in late August. I’m currently serving as a Campus Minister and one of the Religion Faculty at Notre Dame High School in West Haven. What that means is I teach one hundred ten freshman, that is one hundred ten freshman boys divided into five class sections, who are mostly interested in Football, Lacrosse, Basketball, Baseball, Hockey and Video Games and I get to tell them about Jesus.
With my two other Campus Ministry colleagues who are also Religion Teachers, we provide students with opportunities for community building and support, student led morning and afternoon daily prayer liturgies, have them put together service projects that serve the wider New Haven area that partner with other organizations, and go away together on retreats and mission trips – in fact, the three of us will be taking fourteen kids to the Incarnation Center in Deep River next weekend, and another Campus Minister and I will be leading a service trip to Kentucky with a group of students in March, 2022.
I see what I am doing now as missionary work to bring together the already churched, under-churched, unchurched and de-churched student body and faculty. I am called to connect this next generation of young people who are trying to find their way in this culture that demands so much of them (while offering so many empty promises) with a God who loves them and with a community that cares about their well-being.
It is both beautiful and life-giving work, and after many years of my own soul searching, it feels like a true calling to be a part of day after day. But do you know what else it is? It feels like being church, when most churches – whether they are Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Evangelical, Charismatic, Young, Old, Progressive, Conservative, online, in-person, innovative or traditional are struggling to find their way in a post-Christian, post-modern and (please God soon), post-pandemic world.
I read an article by Pastor turned consultant and coach Allen White published on October 12 titled, “Start Leading the Church You Have,” meaning we can’t go back to pre-pandemic norms no matter how hard we try. That era is over. Stadiums are full of sports fans again, but sanctuaries remain half empty. Some folks are online and never coming back, some folks checked-out or were on the way out before the pandemic as the pressures of work, sports, bills and time management are just too much for one more optional activity like church has become in the last few years. Those folks are gone. The people that remain, a year and a half into this pandemic (and yes, it is still going,) are the folks we have. So, it is time, Allen White strongly suggests, to do the mourning and lamenting we need to do and get on with the work and ministry we can and are called to do and stop looking backwards.
I read another article by Rev. Elizabeth Felicetti, Rector of St. David’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, VA who wrote in The Atlantic last week, “My Church Doesn’t Know What to Do Anymore” as she faithfully describes the inability to walk a middle-ground between mask mandates and opposition, the political trauma of the last several years, people complaining about the most mundane things but have become in-your-face-open-hostility, the financial pressure churches are facing and the quite visible congregation that is about half to a third the size it was on March 1, 2020.
She’s not alone.
I’m not the first pastor to leave parishes in what feels like a wave of people in every field of work changing or leaving careers in the last several months dubbed the Great Resignation. Maybe you have changed jobs or are thinking about doing so also for a variety of reasons. To me a watershed moment was getting blasted during the sharing of the peace this summer (we were doing it at the end of the service on the way out) when a woman got in my face shouting, “WHEN ARE WE GOING TO DO REAL CHURCH?” to which I looked confused and asked her, “what do you mean?” She again shouted, “YOU KNOW! REAL CHURCH!” in an accusative tone. I paused, composed myself and replied, “Well, please tell me what you think we aren’t doing and we can try to work it in. We already have hymns, readings, sermon, creed, prayers and communion and the peace. We’re doing what we can, and are tying to do kind of a lot right now…” (we had online, in-person and outside worship going at the time and we’re starting some small group activities) to which she growled and stormed off leaving me to say to myself as she walked away, “umm, good morning?”
It ain’t easy leading churches these days.
I urge you to pray for Pastor Brett and his family. He is not only my friend, colleague and confidant, but now that I am joining Trinity as a member of this congregation, he’s my pastor too. And as good as anyone can be at both letting go and not letting the stress get to you, life these last two years has been really, really tough. It is good for us to remember that Brett is only human like the rest of us, and the pandemic has taken its ugly toll on all of us.
God have mercy on us all.
The Protestant Reformation we commemorate today started 504 years ago on October 31, 1517 when our old friend and namesake Dr. Martin Luther (the 16th century German Monk, not the 20th century American Civil Rights leader) posted those 95 Theses (or ideas) against the sale of indulgences on the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany.
Thankfully, we in the church don’t try to sell forgiveness anymore! Most years on Reformation Sunday, we celebrate our identity as Lutheran-Christians, sing the songs, state our need for ongoing reform, and pray for greater religious unity among all Christians and non-Christians alike. It can be both meaningful and fun.
When we celebrated the 500th anniversary a few years ago in 2017 at St. Paul, my wife Tammie and I dressed up as Martin and Katie Luther and we threw a big party at church doing what church folks seem to do best- eat way too much food, share in a lot of stories, sing songs, and genuinely enjoy being together in a world that most of the time could care less about Lutherans let alone the church, our message or our mission in the world. It was a joyful time to be church. My son was even confirmed that weekend. As a lifelong Lutheran and as one who has been to Wittenberg on several occasions – I could not have been more-proud. I remember Pastor Brett telling me of the door you all left outside for people in the community to leave their grievances and hurts done by the church at large: that was such a brilliant and powerful witness of truth-telling and reconciliation work we need to continue to do in our world. I wish I had thought of doing that.
But we’re not in Kansas (or Wittenberg for that matter) anymore.
We are in year two of a Global Pandemic that is re-imagining many of the ways we live and approach each other. A lot of the energy is hostile. In years to come, at least in our lifetimes, I am willing to bet we’ll refer to B.C. not as those ancient days before the Birth of Jesus, but Before Covid, when the world felt normal and plodded along as if all of us were immune to the danger that was just lurking around the corner and we were oblivious to the pain, suffering, death, lament and mourning that was coming.
Yet here we are. Two years will be here before you know it. Five months from now the questions will be: what have we learned? And what can we do about it?
The Rev. Lura Groen, a Facebook friend and ELCA colleague who serves as pastor of Abiding Savior Lutheran Church in Columbia, MD wrote a powerful piece on Monday October 25, which I am going to share with you in a minute. Just like your outside church door, it’s an idea I wish I had come up with myself. She expresses, I believe, what a lot of leaders are currently feeling.
But after I share it, I want to pivot (to use a covid times word) to the hope we have, and the future that awaits us….
“Lutherans, the church of your childhood is dead. We will never again feel those feelings, have those experiences. For better and for worse. We’ve had them, they’ve shaped us, but they’re done now. The Lutheran church as we know it now is dying. The dominance of Germanic/Scandinavian culture is over. The church that functions on white middle class Midwestern assumptions of leadership, communication, relationships, and institutional growth is failing. Full time professionals with master’s degrees, constitutions with asterisks, and slightly updated hymnals aren’t saving us. Our congregations, and our denomination, have dying numbers. But God is doing a new thing, building communities of grace, creating a Lutheranism beyond our dreaming. I don’t yet know what it will look like, although I have seen glimpses. It’s beautiful. It will give you, me, us, new life. And we each have a choice, how long we will mourn the old, and remain in its slow death, or when we will jump into the new life God is bringing. We choose as individuals, as well as together as congregations and as a denomination. And our choices together determine if our congregations, our denomination, die with the old or become part of new life. Our choices won’t change God’s love for us. If we want to slowly die with our old ways, God will hold us as we weep. But if we step into the new, God will dance with us, will be the breath in our laughter, will teach us new songs, will be the new rhythm in our souls. And we will be saved, no matter what choice we make. Eternal life is ours, through Christ who loves us. But glimpses of salvation, infinite life, are ours right now, before death, in this new thing God is doing. Do you want in? I do.” (Pastor Lura Groen, Abiding Savior Lutheran Church, Columbia, MD, posted 10.25.2021)
I do too. So where do we go from here?
Our readings for this Reformation Sunday, 2021, give us a great way forward.
The Word after all, does what it says it is going to do.
These ancient Words of Deuteronomy call us to remember first of all, that God is God. We have way too many false gods in our lives we file under “priorities” from success, to busyness, to politics and whatever flashing lights and distractions are in front of us at the moment and we miss the things that endure and really matter.
What are we supposed to do? – but keep the Word of God close to us – in our hearts, among our families and friends, and written on the doorposts – if we can look beyond our neighbors’ lists of grievances. Maybe as good Lutherans we hold those two things in tension together.
Luther stated in the Small Catechism, “We are to fear and love God, so that we do not despise preaching or God’s Word, but instead keep that Word holy and gladly hear and learn it.” (Martin Luther, Explanation to the 3rd Commandment, Small Catechism)
I’ve seen this at work in my classroom.
There are in class, depending on the section, fourteen to twenty-eight boys each period. Most of them have had little to no exposure reading scripture before this year. Now they get excited finding passages they have learned how to look up in Bibles (real, bound paper books – not just on search engines) to debate the finer points of what God is up to in this world and in their lives. Luther called church: “The Mouth House” and this is what he meant as God’s people share the message of love, mercy and hope we have in Jesus with each other as we open the Word and the Spirit opens each of us to one another and the wider world.
Passersby in the hallway often peek in my classroom curiously. I imagine them thinking, “wow, its noisy in there,” but we are not just goofing around (well, sometimes we are). The Spirit is at work among these kids as they proclaim the Word to each other, and I do my best to facilitate good questions for them to engage and then get out of the way.
Just this Thursday one of my kids asked as he entered the classroom, “Are we reading from the Bible today?” When I nodded my head in the affirmative he turned to his friend and exclaimed, “Yay!”
They quickly grabbed their Bibles from the shelf where they are kept and asked what we were going to read and explore, because they were eager for God’s good and Holy Word to speak to them. How cool is that?
This is church as the Mouth House.
Can you imagine how we might turn this world upside down if we made our homes, our gatherings in small groups and this very building Mouth Houses as “God’s Word which is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12) filled those conversations, spaces and our very bodies with faith, hope and love – and the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13)? Maybe, just maybe we’d stop lamenting what we’ve lost, end the needless bickering and staring in into the review mirror to get back to the mission to which we are called and lies ahead of us. Maybe as we open our Bibles, we’d even join Nicky in shouting “Yay!”
In Romans, we have this mouthful of St. Paul’s witness we classify as “justification by faith.” For Luther, this became the rallying cry of his generation – that it’s not how hard we try to get God to love us, it is Christ’s underserved love for us (we call that grace) which calls us what we are – sinful, broken people consumed by division and death that could use freeing from the lies we believe about ourselves: that we can never be enough, do enough or amount to enough, and neither can anybody else…
It’s the reason we yell at each other for not doing church right – and it is the reason people keep leaving churches in droves.
Because if it is all up to us, as Luther says in his pulpit prayer, “we’d surely bring destruction to it all.”
Yet we have the promise – that Jesus pays the cost “not with silver or gold but his own holy and precious blood” (Luther, Explanation to the 2nd Article of the Creed, Small Catechism) and as Isaiah says (in 53:5), “by his stripes we are healed.”
For too long we’ve made the Reformation and our Lutheran heritage about getting our Theology right. The longer I live and the longer I do ministry in whatever setting I am in, I have come to realize we’ll never get our Theology right – and that is what grace is ultimately about – God loving you and me even in spite of our best efforts to understand or do it ourselves. If we can keep handing over our humanity to God so we can simply get over ourselves, I think to myself, “man, the church would be a much more humble and joyful place.” We could own our own failures, tend to those church doors where people are grieving, and people might even want to be part of what God is up to in, with, under and among us.
And lastly (and I must apologize now, because it has been a lot of set-up to get to this point in the sermon where I get to our reading from Mark), it really does all come down to love… Specifically, our lives depend on God’s unlimited love for us in Jesus Christ. The gospel makes clear that love is the economy in which God operates. Love is not about what is owed or getting more out of people for less. Love is not about expenses accrued or balance sheets or showing off what we bought or getting what you pay for or even finding a fair price, or better yet —finding a real bargain. Do you really want to find your faith on sale? I certainly don’t.
Love is about relationships that cost everything.
When you love someone there isn’t anything you wouldn’t do, or any price you wouldn’t pay. You might be disappointed, but you forgive. You mend and heal. You do what you do because you care, because you want what is best for the other, because you want them to know the only thing that matters to you – is them and their well-being. And you’d do it again without thinking twice about it, even if the stakes get higher. They always are.
That, friends, is how God relates to us. That is why Jesus was born and lived and called followers from all the wrong places and ministered to the hurting and grieving and all the wrong people, why he ultimately was rejected by the uptight religious people and power brokers and why he suffered and why he died alone but also why he rose again – to love you, because you are worth it.
And it is out of that love he invites us to love him back because in that love we’ll find life. It is God’s love alone that breathes life in a world consumed by blame and shame and death. And when we love him back, when we love each other, and when we start to love ourselves, then maybe just maybe we’ll start loving the world around us like Jesus does.
And when that happens it doesn’t matter what we sing, or which liturgy we use or what clothes we wear, or what programs we run or put to rest, or how many buildings we may need to close in the coming months or how many leaders we need to develop in the next few years.
What happens when we share the love of Jesus, is that life starts to feel like we are actually living; people in all their brokenness start to feel like they are actually valued and together we start to feel like we are actually being church.