Reflection on the Reformation, October 30, 2016

Reformation Reflection

Today is special for Esther and her family. We celebrate with you. For you have all been a blessing to us here. Thank you for your presence. And it is with joy that we welcome you, Esther, into deeper visions of the faith and the church. As we think about that, we may wonder about the church and its future, especially on this 499th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. What will the church be like for the next generation or two? We wonder about the future of the tradition we have known for so long.

Actually, I believe that every fifty years our particular congregation has gone through a major transformation. We were founded as an immigrant German fellowship in 1856. Fifty years later, during the Great War, WW I, the congregation made a radical shift. It built this built this building and room. It changed it language for worship and learning from German to English, and it hired two pastors, the Wilke father and son, creating a strange new thing called a staff ministry. Those were massive changes.

Fifty years after that, in another time of radical transformation in Madison, in the late fifties through early seventies, Ace Schumacher, Tom Loftus, and Joel Diemer led the reshaping of the congregation once more. Most of the other buildings on this site were assembled and remodeled. The front of the church was restructured. St. John’s became a city-wide congregation focused on caring for those in need, strong lay leadership, and ecumenical witness. These were the halcyon days of St. John’s as an institution.

Fifty years later, after the turn of a new millennium, St. John’s refocused itself intensely on caring for those in need and began greatly expanding its shelter and relief work, developing partnership ministries, changing our building once again, until we now sometimes resemble an urban mission center rather than a traditional congregation. In the last decade the amount of service accomplished here in this place has almost tripled, even as the institutional church of the previous decades faded. And this is where we are, at that fifty year crease in time, as we look at what is going on around us and wonder about our future and what in the world is happening to this neighborhood. We welcome Esther this morning into this congregation, fully aware that we are going through our fifty year change and that we are not yet fully aware of how it will all turn out.

But on Reformation Sunday we also sense a deeper cycle. In her book, The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why, Phyllis Tickle outlines a cycle of transformation in the church that involves not fifty years, but five hundred years. Her thought is that every 500 years the larger church goes through a major and radical transformation in which it redefines itself for current conditions and coming centuries.

She says that every five hundred years the church cleans out its attic and has a giant theological rummage sale. The result is always a new church, adapted to the radically changing circumstances of the time, usually with a great deal of decline and death, struggle and pain. The last great transformation was 500 years ago. It was the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation could be seen as a theological debate between German Lutherans and Italian Papists over the nature of a graceful God. And it was that. But the Reformation also embodied the development of the printing press, access of the people to the Bible for the first time, radical shifts in economics, authority, and politics, the emergence of larger national identities, a renaissance of fresh approaches to the classical texts all bubbling to the surface at roughly the same time.

And we are 500 years from that transformation, and we sense in our bones that the larger church is in for some transforming years in the decade ahead. At first we naturally focus on a decline as the old fades away. And although we sense something of what lies in front of us, the ways and means of the church in the coming decades and centuries is not completely clear. The church will no longer be the institution it was. It will be more fluid. It will involve not the printing press but the computer. It will involve not belonging in the sense we know it, but alignment with causes and affiliations which are more ad hoc, task oriented, and temporary. It will move beyond borders and have a global feel. It will at first seem amorphous and very worldly but will also become spiritual in new ways. It will approach death in ways we do not now. It will be able to align with others to stress values such as compassion that have been with us through every transformation.

At this point in the current religious renovation, things can be difficult. And as our fifty and five-hundred year cycles of transformation and reformation converge, we all frankly wonder if we will just survive. But in, with, and under our fears, it is important to remember in this fifty and five hundred year convergence, that we here at St. John’s, yes, we (whether we want it or not)are precisely at ground zero of this transformative re-form. For it is our lot, our calling to be the Lutherans of the Cap East Neighborhood, the trendiest neighborhood in Madison. In this neighborhood there are 19,000 people between the ages of 18 and 35, one of the highest concentrations of young adults anywhere. Almost three out of four people living here are young adults.

It’s often said that young adults do not really care about organized religion or the structures of the church, or church history or fifty or five hundred year cycles. Their faith is different, and as Tickle and so many others have noted, the church of the Protestant Reformation is being radically transformed in this new generation, right before our very eyes, taking on new shapes, purposes, and missions. Another 500 year rummage sale has begun. And we are standing right in the middle of that.

We do not know what our future holds, as not only our congregation but also our church is transformed or reformed or reshaped again. We will be the compassionate community recalling the graceful life of Jesus. And we will care for those in need. And we will be people of song and thought, word and deed, prayer and fellowship, common meals and shared hope, as we move away from our institutional identity into a new spiritual reality. And Esther and all of us will be part of this.

For the church of Christ in every age, beset by change, but Spirit led, will find itself reformed anew, and with fresh hope be blessed.

Reflection for October 23, 2016

Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22, II Timothy 4:6-8; 16-18, Luke 18:9-14 

You can tell from that first reading from Jeremiah that this is National Apostasy Sunday. You may have forgotten all about it. You may have even forgotten what apostasy is. According to the dictionary apostasy is abandonment of one’s faith, cause, or principles. It seems that every year remembering our apostasy is less and less popular. But it once was a grand celebration and wonderful holiday when we took a bit of time from our busy lives to recognize how much we have strayed from the true faith and are now destined for total disaster while we all stood around feeling badly about ourselves and the direction our lives were taking. Oh, those were the days.

But to be honest the festival never really caught on in America. And even though there were some decades when apostasy was fashionable, for quite some time now religious doom and gloom have been losing their luster. National Apostasy Sunday is no longer what it once was. And apostasy now finds itself in that great Christian attic sharing space with other no longer used but not yet discarded concepts such as original sin, apostolic succession, and baptismal covenant responsibility.

Maybe it was the lack of gifts and decorations that did apostasy in. We seem to do well with holidays when we dress up and exchange presents and spend a lot of money. Sack cloth and ashes were never popular attire. Apostasy never did not generate a lot of parties. People thinking deeply about the course of their lives are not usually great examples of frivolity. The theme may have worked for awhile as a family thing, but families hardly spend enough time together these days to really work the guilt thing like they used to. And it seems all the major holidays these days have corporate sponsors, telling us to spend more and more on the celebration. National Apostasy with its inherent call to repentance never did have deep corporate donors who frankly are much more interested in sponsoring our guilt free, pain free, quest for personal satisfaction as it drives consumer passions. Having no corporate sponsors may have done it in.

And organized religion has not been very helpful in preserving the tradition of the formal recognition of our apostasy. We want our faith, our worship, our church to be upbeat, easy going, and light hearted as we celebrate the joy of being alive and all the pleasures we will experience along the way to that ultimate pleasure reserved for each one of us, free of charge, at the end of time. National Apostasy Sunday has faded from all but the bleakest of liturgical calendars.

Perhaps we should just give up on it, enjoy ourselves, sing a song or two about being happy, and then all head off to brunch. But there is this Jeremiah thing, this condemnation of easy going religious practice sliding along a slippery path that comes when people have wandered off in search of more interesting and glitzy, gift-giving gods. And although we might not cast the matter in the same way Jeremiah does, or Jesus, for that matter, and although apostasy has been relegated to the attic of outdated constructs; perhaps it is time to declare: Houston, we still have a problem.

Part of the problem is distraction. We are the most distracted people to ever have lived on this planet. Each of us is bombarded with almost 2,000 advertisements every day. Young adults are now looking at their cell phones an average of once every 4 minutes. We swim in a constant stream of media, messages, and meandering thoughts. We soon become exceptionally superficial people as we stay on the mesmerizing surface, preoccupied with what is offered to us as the next wonderful and amazing thing we absolutely need to become as fully beautiful, wonderful and happy as we deserve to be. Constantly distracted by what is aimed at us, what is going on around us; we never get to what is going on inside us, let alone what is being felt by the people standing next to us.

Part of the problem is distraction that keeps us on the surface. And part of the problem is an avoidance of the fundamental questions around which all human life is shaped. Who am I? Why are we here? What is my life about? How should I relate to suffering? What is going on in the world? Why is everyone so miserable? And why do I still feel bad sometimes, even on the good days? It’s easy to be distracted by what is fed to us because when we actually do begin to move below the surface, we discover a lot of stuff that is difficult and painful. We are supposed to be the most blessed people in the history of the world, and yet we still feel badly as we struggle with old wounds, broken relationships, lost hopes, and limited possibilities. Yes, we all are wonderful people and all of our children have turned out to be above average. But just beneath those amazing social personas we create of ourselves on Facebook lurks a lot of real sorrow, hurt, and pain. And so we wonder about ourselves and the struggles of life, which on the surface we deny, but which still drive us more deeply to questions: Why are we here? What is my life about? How should I relate to suffering? What is going on in the world? Why is everyone so miserable? And why do I still feel bad sometimes, even on the good days?

Part of the problem is the distraction and the avoidance of painful realities. And part of the problem is our low tolerance for emotional work both individually and together. We have become masters of the quick fix and the silver bullet. We want those three easy steps to everlasting joy and happiness. We want things to just go smoothly and easily. And we expect to be rewarded for just trying a little bit. But the real answers to the real questions that come from the real pains take a really long time to move through our fractured souls. It really is just one step at a time. One day at time. Over and over. And there are massive setbacks all along the road to meaning and hope. And we don’t want to hear that. And we don’t want to deal with that. And so we swim back up to the surface to become just more and more distracted.

Part of the problem is the distraction, the avoidance of the questions, the aversion to doing the deep work. And part of the problem is our perversion of our religion, our conversion of religion into just one more superficial commodity that we consume. You see, faith, any faith, in any of the world’s great religious traditions provides the deep seeker with the insights and tools needed to navigate the hard questions, and to make the difficult emotional journey that genuinely changes life. But, but (and this is the apostasy part) we have made our religion into just one more commodity that we consume. These days, we actually shop for our religion as if it were a set of clothes that we put on. We buy into a faith that satisfies our superficial preoccupations with what we think is cool or relevant or what our friends might like. We become way too fussy about things like what kind of worship or service or fellowship a faith group offers. And in all of that superficial consumption of religion, we turn our own faith and even God into a commodity rather than a companion seeking to help us wade through the mess that contemporary life has become. And this is genuine, real, and withering 21st century apostasy.

It is what has become of the Pharisee in Jesus’ story, who somehow thinks that God is really impressed with the fictional social media profile of a wonderful person leading a wonderful life that he posts on his prayer page. But God really doesn’t care about that at all. The Pharisee gives God a resume rather than a heart. And so God in her infinite wisdom responds, let me get back to you on that. But that same God, who knows through Jesus what real pain means, wants nothing more than to hold our hand and walk with us when we are really, really down; like the tax collector who desires nothing more than mercy for sinners. For God is faithful, even when we are distracted, when we are avoiding our pain, when we fail in our efforts to amend our lives, and especially when our lives have been reduced to nothing more than a cry for help: God, be merciful to me, a sinner.

Reflection for October 9, 2016

I Kings 5:1-3 and 7-15, II Timothy 2:8-15, and Luke 17:11-19

I.

     A long time ago, one beautiful fall morning; a man from the congregation in a camouflage hunting jacket came to my office. As he sank in a chair, he told me how it is a simple thing to stop drinking. All he had to do was say no. One drink at a time. And then with a smile he added that although it seemed so easy, it also at times seemed impossible. Sometimes the simple thing is hard to do.

In today’s readings, healing is a simple thing. In the story of Jesus, the healing does not involve any complicated treatment of the leprosy. Jesus uses no healing action and no healing words. He simply tells them to go to the temple, show themselves to the priests, and get certified that they are clean so that they can rejoin society and no longer be outcasts. Healing takes place on the way. Healing is a simple thing.

In the first reading, the healing of the foreign army general also involves a simple thing: taking a bath in the river. The simplicity of the healing is emphasized in the words of the trusted servant to the general: if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it?

Healing involves simple things. Yet like the general in the first reading, like the man in my office years ago, taking that simple step can be difficult. The step toward healing and wholeness may come only after some struggle. That simple step is actually a miracle whenever it happens.

An adult survivor of domestic abuse needs to make peace with her past and get on with her life. To the person who has not experienced her pain, this seems like a simple thing: you are grown now, it is time to move on and you don’t need to live in those patterns that hurt so badly. As simple as that healing step sounds, until the person is ready to make that step; it feels almost impossible. She will continue to live in the hurt until the miracle-inducing gentle words of a friend only at the right moment convince her that it’s time to trust again, know healing, and move beyond that chapter of life.

Another person might be angry at the way he has been treated by a relative. It was not right. The anger wells up in him and possesses his mind and spirit, taking away all sense of peace. In order to heal, he needs to take a simple step, dipping his spirit into the river of forgiveness, letting go and washing away the anger. But until he is able to work through those feelings, that one simple step can be very difficult. He needs the miracle-inducing gentle nudge from a friend at just the right time.

Healing in these readings and in the readings of our lives involves taking a simple step. This is the step of letting go and moving on, of forgiving, deciding to not let the anger, or abuse, or disease, or bullying or the actions of others shape the way I am inside. This is the step of stopping the behavior that is killing us. No matter what we have suffered, at some point we must take that simple step, and bathe in the waters of trust, moving into new chapters of our lives washed clean. And if you are about ready to test the waters of new life, let these readings lead you down to the river’s edge and into the waters.

Perhaps today is a time for you to decide that something needs to be healed in your life. Moving on, embracing your future, deciding to live in the light rather than the dark is a simple step. When you are ready to take that trusting step, God is waiting for you.

 

II.

     Over the years I was in that congregation, each autumn the man in his hunting jacket would return to my office as he continued his simple steps toward sobriety. Each fall he was sometimes haggard, sometimes hopeful as he talked about his journey back to wholeness, one season at a time. The need to make that simple decision was always there.

As the seasons past, he grew in self understanding. He sensed how his spirit and body were related to each other in this. His body had predisposed him to addiction. But also if he allowed his spirit room to breathe, then he was better able to take the simple step toward physical recovery. Sometimes emotional and spiritual healing lead to physical changes.

Our spirit and emotions are connected to our physical bodies. Prayer, meditation, relaxation, and the way we focus our minds can affect our physiology in measurable ways. Sometimes, despite all the medical technology around us, we will not know physical healing until we reorient our emotional lives. The simple steps of healing may need the support of meditation and prayer practice.

If you are experiencing a physical issue, perhaps today is a day to take an emotional and spiritual small step that will have physical implications. Is it time to dip into the healing power of the Spirit of God?

 

III.

     Over the years, the man in my office continued his addiction recovery, long after I left that congregation to serve another. Eventually his hair grayed as he wore the same old frayed jacket as Wisconsin men sometimes do. Through all those hunting seasons, he began to sense not only the need to make one small step and the relationship between his soul and his body. He also sensed how his relationships and family interacted with his success or failure in recovery.

I think these readings remind us that the religious human family also needs to take the simple step toward healing and wholeness.

The first small step of all faith communities toward a healed faith is the recognition that there is really only one God for us all. In the first reading, the army general expresses the beginnings of this monotheistic vision. There is only one God, he declares. It is a first simple step toward the healing of the human family.

But that healing insight for unity still needs to be nurtured. This vision of one God is part of the Hebrew tradition. But the belief could be interpreted in a divisive way to suggest that the God of one nation is superior to the gods of other nations.

Interpreting the faith in a sectarian or nationalistic way leads only to more sorrow, violence, and division. There is one God. In these readings God is for Israel, but also for the generals of Aram as well as Samaritan lepers. All are invited into healing community by the one divine presence that sustains life whether one is Hebrew or Palestinian, Presbyterian or Roman Catholic, Republican or Democrat, Buddhist or Muslim, American or Iranian. These divisions in the human family and the family of faith need the healing of the one divine presence that supports and sustains us all. One God leads us into one healing unity in the family of faith.

In our religious community life and interfaith relationships, we need to take the one step that moves us from thinking our own understandings of God are better than others. As simple as that simple step is, it always seems to require a miracle in trust and faith. We need to step into the humility of knowing that God embraces all humanity in a healing embrace.

Here, in this place, as we break bread together, let us practice the inclusive embrace upon which healing in relationships is founded. Let us sense how the spiritual and physical dimensions converge in healing. Let us nudge each other into the waters of trust and faith where healing is found. Let us have courage to take that one simple step.

We are all on a healing journey as each season passes, our lives become a bit frayed, our hair becomes gray, and God draws us deeper into the mysteries of healing love.

 

 

Reflection for October 2, 2016

Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4, 2 Timothy 1:1-14, Luke 17:5-10

Grace and Peace, in the name of Jesus, Amen. One of the more challenging stories of the Bible is the reading from Luke this morning, so let’s work on that for awhile. Jesus’ story about forcing the slave to continue to serve after a hard day in the field seems strange to us. It sounds harsh, unkind, and even unfair. And it does not seem to answer the question posed by the disciples regarding how faith grows.

But apparently in the Christian communes of Luke and Acts, there were some difficulties. No communal living arrangements are perfect, and in the Luke communes there is some evidence of struggles with such things as people not wanting to give up everything to become Christian and join the commune or others wanting to hold something back from the group.

But today’s story is evidence of something else: another difficulty in the communes of Luke. After awhile, people started to feel that they were entitled to things. When the ultimate community principle is fairness, then occasionally everyone starts to feel that they are entitled to a fair share. In some ways they are. But very easily this moral fairness becomes a personal prerogative, something taken for granted, assumed, and used to limit one’s personal responsibility to the community. In the Luke communes, emphasizing rights rather than responsibilities had become an issue as people argued with each other about what was their due. I’ve already done my fair share, became the common lament. Gratitude declined. Commitment to the community waned while the commune was expected to just take care of everybody. Things began to fall apart. We might say these first Christians were facing the issue of entitlement.

In this light, the story of Jesus makes perfect sense. It is parable to remind members of the community that their sense of entitlement had gotten out of hand. That there was too much emphasis on the community caring for me and not enough emphasis on me caring for the community. The original vision of mutual love and service based on gratitude for our shared blessings had been eroded by the natural human tendency toward ever greater expectations. I should not be asked to do more. In fact, I’ve done my fair share, and it’s time someone took care of me. The story is a jolting first century reminder that it was time to get back to the original sense that we are servants to one another just as Christ came to us humble, in the form of a servant.

And it turns out that this is a matter of growing faith. As the group watched their commune disintegrate, everyone wondered how we might have more faith. Luke makes “more faith” into a matter of recovering the Christian mojo of responsibilities rather than rights, serving rather than being served, and greater thankfulness rather than meeting all my personal expectations.

 

I think importing this warning on entitlement into our own culture is difficult. We really don’t practice this kind of communal living as Christians. Entitlement has become foundational to our social vision. And a lot has happened to us since the time of Luke to make entitlement a challenging issue for any pastor to handle.

Jeffrey Stout, in his book, The Flight from Authority: Religion, Morality, and the Quest for Autonomy (Notre Dame Press, 1981) tells the centuries long story of the movement in social theory away from authority, as the sense of the individual grows. Gradually on every front, personal autonomy replaces communal authority. Absolutes become first less fashionable, then irrelevant, and finally irritating. All of his, he says, was accelerated by the Reformation with its emphasis on personal faith and individual liberty whose 500th anniversary we will celebrate next year. His point is that we now live our lives completely immersed in the ideals of the autonomy of the individual, free as much as possible from any authority, entitled to personal fulfillment as the ultimate good. Absolutes or any claim to broader truth, breed suspicion. Human rights are now foundational to our moral understanding. We are now at the place where everyone is entitled to everything, including their own opinions. And all of this is deeply embedded in our culture, values, institutions, churches, and government. It is the way we think.

This is not an election year issue. It is a centuries old matter of concern. It is not an issue of one political party or another. Those on the left will talk a lot about the need for entitlements. Those on the right will stress their second amendment right to bear arms or the right of a business person to proceed with no government interference. And they both are correct; and yet, according to Luke, there is something wrong here.

And this is not a generational issue. Those who are older depend on entitlements like Medicare and social security. Those who are younger focus on their individual careers or what they want to do with their lives as if their desires were the most important thing. And they both are correct; and yet, according to Luke, there is something wrong here.

And as we flee genuine authority, all of us have this high expectation that leaders, government officials, educators, and police officers will somehow be able to walk that incredibly thin line (about which none of us agree) between being authorative and authoritarian.

It is always easier to see how others are pushing their entitlements, their rights, and their liberties. It is always easier to see the splinter in our neighbor’s eye, but we all just want to hang on to what we have, to make sure we get our “share,” and have the world be the way we want to be.

It is probably too much for an older Lutheran pastor in a small congregation in Madison to take on the movement of social philosophy for the last five hundred years, or human nature for the last five millennia. And we would not want to do away with the human right that undergirds our morality, the growth of human freedom and liberty, and the value of a personal decision and action.

But there is a shadow side to all of that. And at least occasionally, we need to remember the importance of our togetherness rather than our personal preferential options. Perhaps the story from Luke is a reminder to us as well as those original communal Christians. It once reminded members of those communes that their sense of entitlement had gotten out of hand. That there was too much emphasis on the community caring for me and my rights and not enough emphasis on me caring for right of the community. That the original vision of building on mutual love and service based on gratitude to God had been eroded by those ancient human tendencies toward ever greater expectations. The story is a jolting first century reminder that it was and perhaps is time to get back to the original sense that we are all servants to one another just as Christ came to us humble, in the form of a servant.