A Challenge to Recommit
Years ago, when I first became a pastor at Spring Garden, the congregation had undergone a time of consid[...]
Sermon for the 2017 Synod Assembly
Grace and peace to you from God, who raised Christ Jesus from the dead. AMEN.
Five hundred years ago – on May 18, 1517 – a young teacher sent a letter to his superior. What was most on his mind that day was reform of the curriculum at the University of Wittenberg where he served as a relatively new professor. The tone of the letter is positive, cheerful and encouraging about the rising influence of the study of the Bible and Augustinian theology in the work of that school. Now, if the trajectory of his life had ended there, Friar Martin Luther would probably not be remembered today.
But many other things began to change that year as the young reformer and his contemporaries took up other questions about the life of faith. At the start, the questions seemed so academic and technical; the changes small and incremental. Yet through the power of the Spirit, there is no denying the impact of that reform movement on the life of the whole church and also the shaping of culture and history.
One hundred years ago this spring, our country entered World War I with a declaration of war against Germany. It came to be called the Great War, the war to end all wars, and our European allies were relieved when the Yankees finally entered the cause. German Lutherans in this country – including some congregations in this synod – held their breath, knowing that going forward they would need to redefine themselves as Americans, not as immigrants. Here, in Minnesota there was both a groundswell of fierce, anti-war sentiment and an equally strong, patriotic movement under the banner of “America First”.
By 1917 the Lutheran community in the Twin Cities had earned a reputation for taking care of their own. In Saint Paul, the elderly, the orphaned, and sick neighbors all found help through hospitals and institutions like Bethesda and St. John’s German Lutheran Hospital, Lyngblomsten, Linnea Home for the Aged, and what is now Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota. Back then, providing access to health care was a matter of faith. Concern for those who were poor, or ill, or without means to care for themselves was simply a part of the Lutheran landscape. The theme of this Assembly – We Are Lutheran: Among Our Neighbors – stretched through mission societies, women’s auxiliaries and church publications.
But let’s be honest, one hundred years ago, who we saw as our neighbors was quite narrowly defined. Our people. People like us. You see, we Lutherans were good at taking care of our own. And if that were the whole story of our life of faith many of us would not be Lutheran today. There would be no place at this table for us.
When a big anniversary rolls around – and the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation is indeed a milestone – it is tempting to puff out our chests and to root our identity in historical accomplishments. It’s always tempting to define ourselves as the “in” group; the ones who really have it together and to imply that everyone else is the “outside” group. The Other. The ones who need to learn from us because we are so special, so superior.
But thanks be to God, threading through these five hundred years of history has been a conviction we have consistently championed as Lutherans. You see, it is not about how great we are. It’s not about Martin Luther as our home-grown folk hero. It’s about the kind of God we have. The God – who as Christ Jesus has shown us – is a God who looks upon all human beings – beholds the whole creation – with compassion.
In drafting the synod’s statement of purpose, which we introduced at last year’s assembly, the young adults who worked on the text put it like this: We have been grasped by grace.
Grasped by grace. Not built up by our own accomplishments or success. Not defined by our insular loyalties and who we keep out. Not locked into old failures or a terribly narrow way of defining who we are. But we’ve been snatched up – grasped – by God’s grace. Called together, forgiven, strengthened and set free to live in this beautiful and complex world of many nations and cultures, many ways of experiencing faith; a wide open world where God’s love – God’s mercy – runs through every chapter and verse of human history.
In the Gospel of Matthew, four little verses remind us so well about this God, who has claimed us. You see, Jesus was himself once a young teacher. He went to all the cities and the small villages, too – to places like Stanchfield and Rush City and Randolph. He taught in the houses of worship – at all three of the Trinity’s and Pueblo de Fe and at both Bethlehem’s. He surprised people with good news that shook up their world with an announcement of grace and mercy and hope they hadn’t thought they would ever hear as a word for their own lives. He made well and whole those who were ill.
But the middle verse puts all this in perspective. St. Matthew tells us why Jesus did these things. Jesus had compassion.
I know as your bishop how tender-hearted many of you are. You cry when a teenager takes her own life. You weep when you hear the news that someone has called in a bomb threat to the Jewish Community Center or defaced a mosque with ugly, demeaning graffiti. In a world where we expect the powerful to be composed and poised, sometimes you wear your inside emotions on your face. Whether it bubbles up as tenderness or as outrage you know what compassion feels like in your gut. And it is a holy thing.
Why was Jesus’ body literally in an uproar? Because he looked at the people he met and he saw that their lives – their communities – were untethered, adrift, troubled, pulled apart by despair. Matthew recalls that Jesus reached back into the Jewish scriptures for an image to explain what he saw when he was out on the road with others. “They were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd? (Mt 9:36)
Does that sound like any communities we know today? Any countries where people with divergent viewpoints can’t even talk to one another? A world terrorized by economic gaps and callous indifference to those who are little and least?
And how does God respond to a world that is pulling apart at the seams? If you or I were God, I suspect we would be drafting an exit strategy. But no, our God draws even closer when we are troubled and at loose ends. God holds us close. As we see in the resurrection story of Jesus, when we think all is over – when we look around and see no earthly reason to be hopeful – when we are harassed and helpless like troops scattered at the end of battle, a fresh cry goes up. A new word is spoken. Something unimagined before begins to come to life.
Jesus put it this way – The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into [God’s] harvest. Mt 9:38.
As Lutherans in 2017 God doesn’t need us to make more Lutherans, who can fit into the way of life that became familiar in our churches twenty or thirty or fifty years ago. We are not called to make others into who we once were. That is nostalgia; not gospel work.
No, God is looking for a very different kind of labor force today. God is looking for those who will speak up and show up and bear witness that we have a God, who grasps us with grace. A God who says – I claim you. A God, whose compassion is deep enough to hold others close, too. And whether we hear that news from the lips of a Roman Catholic or a Presbyterian or a Pentecostal new believer – or as the witness that all are welcome in the Lutheran congregations of this synod – really doesn’t matter.
The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few. Let me break the news to you. You are needed. No matter what your skills or age or other plans you have for making a big deal out of your life. God needs you. And you. And you. God needs all of us together.
With a sense of surprise and delight, God calls us to learn from all kinds of neighbors and in the process to discover the kind of church God is making us into today. In 2017. Thanks be to God. AMEN.