Reformation

The new presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Elizabeth Eaton, wrote a humorous story in the Lutheran magazine that just came out.  She writes, “A first-call candidate assigned to the Northeastern Ohio Synod came to me about an interesting encounter she had with a waitress.  The waitress admired our candidate’s Luther Rose pendant and asked what it was.  “It’s Lutheran,” replied the candidate.  “Where’s Lutheran?” asked the waitress.

She said they chuckled that the waitress imagined a place of beauty and mystery called Lutheran and were also a little rueful that she had never heard of Lutheran before.

Growing up where I did in rural Minnesota, Lutherans were by far in the majority.  In my little town of 700 people there were three Lutheran churches in town plus three more in different directions out in the country.  So it was quite a shift for me when I moved to other parts of the country where people didn’t automatically know what a Lutheran was or were even still shocked to see a female pastor or failed to recognize what I was when I wore my collar.  I remember when I was on internship, I was still single, it was a Sunday I had worn a nice outfit and my clergy collar.  After church a family invited me to go to lunch with them and as we were escorted to our seats we passed a table with a couple really handsome, smart-looking fellows who looked to be around my age.  Like I said, I was still single, so I flashed a little smile as I passed their table and as I walked by I heard one of the guys say to the other one – “did you see her?  That nun was flirting with you.”

I didn’t go back and explain to him the error he had made – that I was not a nun – but I did begin to realize that the language I had been speaking my whole life – the language of Lutheranism – was one that not everyone spoke.  And over time I began to realize that even within the Lutheran church sometimes we can all get a little confused about our fundamental beliefs and what sets us apart from other denominations when we hear so many other theologies from various sources all the time.

So what does set us apart as Lutherans?

I’ll tell you right now what is particularly awesome about being Lutheran.  It actually has nothing to do with us or Martin Luther but it has everything to do with God.  It is God’s ridiculous, extravagant notion of grace.

There was a news story I heard earlier this week that illustrated grace perfectly:  Jessica Eaves was shopping in Guthrie, Okla., earlier this month when her wallet was taken. She spotted the man she suspected of taking it in a nearby aisle and wondered what to do next.

“As I saw him, a scripture came to me from the Gospel of Luke, which basically says ‘If someone should take your cloak, you should give them your shirt as well.”

The passage inspired her next actions.  She approached the man and said she would like her wallet back now but if he came with her to the front she would pay for his groceries.  And that is exactly what she did.

Was that what the man deserved?  Most likely we would say he deserved punishment for taking what wasn’t his – but instead of calling the police, the woman decided to bless him and give him a gift.

That is grace right there.

And God’s grace is receiving God’s love and forgiveness – but not because we deserve it.  While we believe that it is important to do good works and to give generously and to forgive others we also believe that it isn’t any of those things that earns salvation for us.  We can do nothing to earn God’s love – it is a complete gift.

We need God’s presence in our lives to bring about any good or blessing from us.  That’s why we confess every week, “we are by nature sinful and unclean, and that we have sinned against Thee by thought, word and deed.”  We are confessing that we are as Luther said – in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.  Lutherans believe that all that could ever be done to achieve our salvation was done on the cross by Jesus.

That is why for the Lutheran – the language we hear much of the time throughout the Christian church about accepting Jesus and deciding to follow Jesus should strike us as not quite right.  Lutheran theology focuses on God’s activity, not ours.

For example, while someone from another denomination might say something like “I accepted Jesus into my heart” the Lutheran would say, “Jesus came into my heart”.  While others might say, “I have decided to live like a believer,” the Lutheran would say, “Jesus love compels me to follow him.”  Others might say, “I was saved when I answered an altar call when I was twelve years old.”  Lutherans would say, “Jesus saved me when he died on the cross.”  Do you see the difference?  Other denominations like to put the emphasis on what human beings can do to get to God but for Lutherans, it’s all about what God has done and still does to get to us or perhaps more appropriately, stay with us.

Even being able to say “I Believe” is a gift – Martin Luther wrote in the small catechism – “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.”

This is why we promote that babies be baptized and that one doesn’t have to have grown up or be able to believe anything in particular before they are baptized.  God’s saving work that happens through baptism happens regardless of what we are able to believe or not.  It’s all a gift.

And it makes complete sense when you think about it.  I mean, when my children were born, I didn’t think to myself, “now okay – when Owen and Jesse can accept me as their mother and start doing the things I tell them to do, then I’m going to love them unconditionally and forgive them for the bad things they do and give them the gift of being their parent” – no, from the moment I heard their cries, from the moment I felt them move, from the moment they were even a possibility Chad and I whispered to each other, I loved them and knew I would give them everything I ever could.  That is what a parent does.  My love is not based on what they will do for me now or someday.  It wouldn’t actually be love if I felt that way.  And if we are made in God’s image, then is it really so strange to think that God would do the same for us? God gifts us with love and mercy and kindness – God does not wait for us to deserve it or ask for it.

Reformation Sunday is not a day that we celebrate Lutherans – because what is particularly awesome is not Lutheranism or Martin Luther or any of us – it is what God has done and continues to do.

A Blessed Reformation Day to all of you!

Dreams

This is what the prophet Joel announced would happen:

“In the Last Days,” God says,
“I will pour out my Spirit
on every kind of people:
Your sons will prophesy,
also your daughters;
Your young men will see visions,
your old men dream dreams.
When the time comes,
I’ll pour out my Spirit
On those who serve me, men and women both,
and they’ll prophesy.
I’ll set wonders in the sky above
and signs on the earth below,

Who cannot love a text like this one?  Anytime in the church year is a good time for dreaming, and any scripture is a good landscape for dreams and hopes – yet, I think on Pentecost this is particularly so. 

And who doesn’t love a dream?  I remember not long ago I watched a video of the speech given on August 28, 1963 by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr – his famous “I Have A Dream” speech – and the beginning of it was obviously something he had written down and taken a great amount of time to craft and it was very good – but it was after he had already been talking for a while when he seemed to go off script – stopped reading off the page and just started talking about the dream of freedom he had for his children and the generations to come.  Even watching just a recording of that speech, fifty years after he first spoke those words, I could feel the electricity and energy of that moment.  It has been written that right before his speech shifted course, Mahalia Jackson had cried out, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” And so he did – and as he did it captured the imagination and the hope of everyone who heard it.  In the wake of that speech, King was named Man of the Year by TIME magazine for 1963, and in 1964, he was the youngest person ever awarded the Nobel Peace Prize

Who doesn’t love a dream?  We must have them.  What is life without them?  We need the dance of possibility, the song of hope, the whisper of challenge within dreams.  Gloria Steinem wrote, “If our dreams weren’t already real within us, we could not even dream them.”  The great C.S. Lewis said, “You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.” And don’t forget the poet Henry David Thoreau who said, Do not lose hold of your dreams or aspirations. For if you do, you may still exist but you have ceased to live.

I think I have your attention.  There is something inside us that needs to have dreams and desires in order to feel alive.  We understand the language of dreams because we are human beings and not robots or machines.  We are created of blood and bone and flesh and the Spirit of the living God – and thus we were created to be dreamers.

I like to tell the story of a classmate of mine from kindergarten through high school – her name is Karen.  She grew up just down the road from me outside our little hometown in Minnesota.  Karen was quiet, but well-liked.  She was active in many activities, liked to draw and play piano.  Somewhere along the way Karen started saying she was going to be an astronaut.  She said it in a matter-of-fact way – like I said I thought I’d become a pastor, and our friend Jamie wanted to own a restaurant.  We all had our dreams and our teachers and parents encouraged each of us and there was never any doubt that we would become those things we dreamed about.  So the wonderful thing was that none of us were surprised when our dreams came true – when Jamie opened her restaurant and when I was ordained and when Karen finally went up on the space shuttle – there was no surprise for any of us. There was happiness, but we had believed in our dreams all along – that was a gift our teachers and parents gave us.  That sense that with hard work and a good attitude, eventually dreams came true.

But the thing that is perplexing to me is that it seems like we treat dreams as something that are only for the young.  As if once we get to a certain age, that dreams become not a sign of good things – like strength and aspiration and hope and persistence, but rather of foolishness and wishful thinking.  And yet, in our scripture for today it clearly says that your young men will see visions and your old men shall dream dreams.  We were not meant to quit dreaming.  We were not meant to just have one dream and once that comes true, call it quits – rather, the dreams within each of us have a holy and certain reason for being there. Far from foolish, far from wishful thinking – we are quite simply, given dreams in order to keep working to make them a reality.

It’s true in life and it is true in work and it is true in the church.

In his book, the 4-hour work week, Timothy Ferris tells a story about a man named Hans who tried paragliding for the first time in Rio de Janeiro.  He describes how Hans ran and stepped off a jagged rock toward 3,000 feet of nothing, holding his breath, he wondered if he would pass out he was so scared – and then he realized he was floating through the air.  He said he left his fear behind on that mountain top and life was different after that.  That moment happened on a Sunday and on Monday Hans returned to work at his law office in California and handed in his three-week notice.  For the last ten years he had faced his alarm clock with the same dread – he would think, “I have to do this for the next 35-40 years?” 

But he said he realized something while he was paragliding – that risks weren’t that scary once you took them.  His colleagues told him what he expected to hear – he was throwing it all away.  He was an attorney on his way to the top – what more did he want?

Hans didn’t know exactly what he wanted but he had tasted it in that moment when he faced his fears and flew.  On the other hand, he did know what bored him to tears, and he was done with it.  No more passing days as the living dead, no more dinners where his colleagues compared cars.  It was over.

Immediately, a strange shift began to happen – Hans felt, for the first time in a long time, at peace with himself and what he was doing.  He had always been terrified of plane turbulence, as if he might die with the best inside of him, but now he could fly through a violent storm sleeping like a baby.  Strange indeed.

More than a year later, he was still getting unsolicited job offers from law firms, but by then he had started his own surf-adventure company based in Brazil.  He spent a lot of time relaxing under palm trees and treating clients to the best time of their lives.

He smiles as he thinks to himself, “Is this what I was so afraid of?”

A popular fortune cookie saying reads, “Many a false step was made by standing still.” 

I wonder what dreams are sitting out there in those pews today. What hopes and aspirations you hold.  Is it a journey you have been wanting to make?  Is it the novel you have been trying to write?  Is it the classes you wish you could take, the business you wanted to start, the long race you wanted to run, is it project you are certain would be a blessing to the church, the community – and you feel like you might just be the one with the gifts and passion to lead it?  If it is a dream that sticks with you, a thought that you cannot shake, a tapping on your shoulder that won’t go away – there’s a name for that – and it’s more than a dream – it’s a calling.  And the only way to deal with a calling is to listen and answer “yes.”  Well, that or ignore it and grow ulcers and probably grow depressed – but I would go with the answering yes.    As Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said, “Whatever you do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius and power and magic in it.”

And while the lessons of remembering the genius and power of our dreams is important for each of us personally, we must remember them as a church as well.  Our church, as most churches, was built on the hopes and dreams of the first settlers who longed for a church home and they planned and they built and lo, there was a church. 

But sometimes churches stop dreaming about possibilities.  Is it because worries become more pressing than dreams?  Or is it because we don’t want to get our hopes up?  Or is it because we don’t really believe God’s promise to always be with us whenever we move forward in faith?  Or is it just plain fear?

Friends, this Pentecost day and always – Jesus has more in mind for us than fear. God has a dream for us – a dream that is realized as the Holy Spirit works through us just as it did through the first disciples when they were empowered to share the good news.  God has a dream for us that we will not be content to remain the same but to grow and evolve and keep finding new ways to love and serve him with our every life and breath.  God has a dream for us – that we will be brave and true, not timid and fearful.  That we will work for justice and peace, even and especially when it is hard.  God has a dream for us – that we not only want to share this faith with the generations that follow us, but that we will pray for this Holy spirit to burn in their hearts and give them absolute fire of will to serve Jesus with all their days.  Do not lose heart, because God has a dream for us – for you – and as the apostle wrote – I am sure that the God who began the good work within you will keep right on helping you grow in his grace until his task within you is finally finished on that day when Jesus Christ returns.  In his name we pray.  Amen.