Occupy Wittenberg?

It started with one man, a pastor. Fed up with watching the poor in his community get taken advantage of so that those who were wealthy could get even wealthier, he protested publicly in the town square. Making use of the latest technology, his ideas spread. What was a local protest became a worldwide movement, spread farther than could ever have been imagined before. Those in power, those with the most to lose, dug in their heels and refused to hear the very real critique against the corruption and abuses of the current system, but the protest only grew stronger.

Looking out over the past few weeks, and the growth of the Occupy movement, this story is familiar. It started with one blog post, and grew into a movement making use of social media to spread the word. Concerned with the well-being of the poorest in the US, they have lobbed some very real critiques at the current political and economic systems of the US; but those in power have not listened.

But this is not the story of Occupy Wall Street, this is the story that we recount every year on this day, the story of the Reformation. While Martin Luther's critique of Rome and her power structure had a profound theological motivation, he appears to have been compelled to act - above all else - out of pastoral concern for his flock. Watching the poor families under his charge hand over what little they had only to have that money go into the pockets of bishops who already had more wealth than they could possibly spend, Luther could not remain silent. And, thanks to the new technology of the printing press, Luther's ideas spread farther and faster than anyone could have anticipated.

Am I overstating the case? Am I seeing connections where there are none? Have a listen to Martin Luther himself, in the 95 Theses he posted on the evening before All Saints Day, in 1517:
46. Christians are to be taught that, unless they have more than they need, they must reserve enough for their family needs and by no means squander it on indulgences.
And as he later explains what he means by this thesis:
There are many who have neither bread nor proper clothing and yet, led astray by the din and noise of the preachers of indulgences, rob themselves and bring about their own poverty in order to increase the wealth of the indulgence sellers.

Certainly, Luther is not opposed to wealth. He goes on to argue in other places that the princes and public officials have an obligation - in their public office - to acquire and accumulate a certain amount of wealth ... But that wealth is to be acquired and accumulated for the public good. That is, certain members in society as Luther envisioned it had an obligation to acquire wealth so that they could make sure that everyone else in the town/province had enough. How different would our conversation be today in America if this was how we viewed wealth?

Martin Luther saw the poor being exploited by the wealthy, and he attacked the underlying theological system that allowed such exploitation to take place. At the end of the day, the truth our current system believes in is this: Those who have the most deserve it, because they have worked the hardest. Make no mistake, this is a theological claim. But the Reformation truth is this: "Work" and "deserving" are not a part of the gospel lexicon, but grace and mercy are. On Reformation Day, in a country with a predominantly Protestant Christian population, I cannot help but wonder: Where is the grace and mercy of our political and economic systems?

Reformation Day Sermon

Preparing for Reformation Sunday this year, I happened across this: the first Reformation Sunday sermon that I preached. It is from Reformation Sunday, 2006. While sermons tend to go stale pretty quickly after being preached this one has held up pretty well, and still speaks to me.

Disclaimer: Like all sermons, the text of the manuscript is not necessarily the same as the text preached.

The Pursuit of God

Grace and peace to you in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.

On this Reformation Sunday, I want to talk with you some about why we are here.

Not the existential question “Why are we here on the face of this earth,” but why are we here at Saint John Lutheran Church.

For many of us in this congregation, we grew up in the Lutheran church. Our parents were Lutheran, and their parents before that. We were born into and raised in the Lutheran church, and we never left.

Others in this congregation married into the Lutheran Church. You grew up in another tradition, maybe Baptist, Episcopal, or Presbyterian, and married someone who was a Lutheran. Rather than worship at two different churches, you joined your spouse at the Lutheran church.

Still others live in the community surrounding this church. You come here to worship because it is the closest church to your house, and you want to be a part of this community.

I am one of those who grew up in the Lutheran church. By that I don’t mean that my parents brought me to the Lutheran church on Sunday morning, I mean that I spent the much of my childhood inside the walls of Lutheran churches – I grew up in the church.

Many of you know my story. My Dad was a Lutheran pastor, as was my grandfather and my great-grandfather. And not just them, my great-uncle and a number of my great-great uncles were also Lutheran pastors. All told, I am the 12th Lutheran pastor in my family.
In fact, I am so Lutheran that my Episcopal friends at the seminary I attended called me “Little Luther.”
It would seem that I had little choice in being a Lutheran.

But in fact, just as you did, I did have a choice, and I continue to choose the Lutheran church; and I hope you will continue to choose the Lutheran church.

I could find the hymns that I love in the Baptist church.
I could find the liturgy that I love in the Roman Catholic or Episcopal Church.
I could find the emphasis on Scripture that I love in any number of non-denominational churches.

Yet, here I am, here we are, in Saint John Lutheran church. Why?

I can’t answer for you, but I know why I – in a world littered with different churches and different denominations – continue to choose the Lutheran tradition. And it starts for me with the story of Martin Luther.

Martin had just finished his undergraduate studies and was preparing for law school. He grew up in the church, raised by faithful parents. He went to religious schools for his entire education.
He was like many of us – a faithfully person living his life as best he could – yet not terribly committed to the church – after all, he was a college student.
It was then that he was caught just outside the forest in a fierce thunderstorm. With the rain pouring down on him, the thunder rolling overhead, and lightning flashing almost non-stop, young Martin saw no sign of shelter. So he called out to God for help, pledging to enter a monastery if God would save him from this storm.

Well, Martin did survive the storm. You can call it fate or chance, but Luther described it as God’s guidance that this young man who had big plans for a successful career as a lawyer wound up in a monastery.
In fact, Luther would say that God pursued him, leading him to a life in the church.

But it did not end there. Luther immersed himself in both the monastic and the scholastic worlds as he taught at the University of Wittenberg. He soaked in the Bible, teaching from the Old and the New Testament and preaching regularly in the Stadtkirche, the city church of Saint Mary’s.

Spending time as a monk in isolation, Brother Martin had a great deal of time to reflect on his life. In doing so, Luther realized how far he fell short of what he should be. He was very aware of his inadequacies and he failings. He was sure that he was unlovable – that even God could not love such a person.

Interior of the Castle Church,
All Saints, in Wittenberg 
But in his study of Scripture, Luther discovered something else. He discovered a God who loves us so dearly, that we are relentlessly pursued just as Luther was during that storm. He discovered a God who would send the only Son – not for the perfect people, but for the sinners. He discovered, above all else, a God and a Savior that will NEVER abandon us, that will stand by our side no matter how often we fail or how short we fall.

And Luther began to tell the world about this God. He began to talk about the God who adopts us as beloved sons and daughters in the waters of baptism, and never lets us go. He began to talk about the Christ who relentless pursues the lost sons and daughters of God into the darkest places of the world – not to scold them but to save them. He began to talk about the Spirit that transforms our lives, so that even while we continue to sin we become more and more God-like and Christ-like.

For a variety of reasons, what Luther began to say to the world got him into trouble. He was thrown out of the church. The emperor sentenced him to death and put a price on his head. So this young man, now about 35, who once had never thought about a life in the church, who thought he was unworthy of God’s love, went into hiding because of his proclamation of God’s love.

Luther went to a castle called the Wartburg, high on a mountaintop outside of the city of Eisenach. There Luther became depressed. He was sure now that God had abandoned him, that he was right to feel unworthy of God’s love.

But God’s love in Christ Jesus pursued Luther even to that mountaintop. There, once again, Luther encountered the light of Christ, creeping into even the darkest of places in his life. He dove back into the Scriptures, translating the Bible from the Latin into the German. And Luther left that mountaintop fortress even more convinced that God will never abandon those who are adopted as God’s sons and daughters in the waters of baptism.

Why do I continue to choose the Lutheran church?

Because I know that this life is often frightening, chaotic, and sad; and I need a Savior who will stand by my side especially in those dark, tragic times.

Because I know that there are times that I will fail, when sin will overpower me; and I need a Spirit that will strengthen and transform me.

Because I know that I will wander and that I will lose my way; and I need a God who loves me enough to pursue me and find me, who loves me enough to bring me home and never give up on me.

I continue to be a Lutheran because – as it did for Martin Luther – it all began here for me, in the waters of baptism, when Christ wrapped me up in his arms and God said, “You are my beloved son, and I will pursue you wherever you go, and I will never let you go.”

And that, dear friends, is reason enough and grace enough for me.

Pericope Pondering: Proper 25A

One of my homiletics professors once said, "If you are lucky, you have two or three good sermons in you. The rest are just variations of those same sermons."

Preparing to preach this Sunday, I feel as if I have preached this sermon before. In fact, I feel as though I have been preaching the same sermon for the last month. Ok, maybe not the exact same sermon, but variations on a theme. And I'm ok with that, because I feel like Jesus has been doing the same thing in the appointed lections for the last month.

Let's recap:
  • The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard (Matt 20:1-16, Proper 20A). Not actually about good management or employment policies. Some were concerned with what other people deserved / received. Jesus' sermon: Stop worrying about what others receive, and live the life that you are called to.
  • The Parable of the Two Sons (Matt 21:23-32, Proper 21A). Not actually about parenting styles or the assignment of chores. Some were concerned with saying the right things, keeping up the right appearances. Jesus' sermon: What you say and how you appear are not as important as what you actually do, so go and live the life that you are called to.
  • The Parable of the Wicked Tenants (Matt. 21:33-46, Proper 22A). Not actually a guide for landlords or renters. Again, talking to the same people who were concerned with what they deserved, based on who they were. Jesus' sermon: It ain't yours, it belongs to the landowner, your job is to get out there and produce fruit - so get out there, and live the life you that you are called to.
  • The Parable of the Wedding Banquet (Matt. 22:1-14, Proper 23A). Not actually a guide for good wedding planning. Talking to those who were sure that they deserved to be at the banquet. Jesus' sermon: Everyone is welcome to the banquet, but those at the banquet should clothe themselves in lives of love - so get out there, and live the life that you are called to.
  • The Enacted Parable of the Coin (Matt. 22:15-22, Proper 24A). Not actually about money, or taxes. Still talking to the same folks, concerned with tripping Jesus up over the minutiae of the law. Jesus' sermon: Quit obsessing over the little things, get out there and love your neighbor, and live the life that you have been called to. (Or, as Paul said, live lives that are so filled with faith and love that we don't even have to speak of your faith, everyone already knows.)
Notice a common thread? Ok, so maybe this isn't where your exegesis has taken you for the last five weeks But between events of the world, the Gospel texts, and the other appointed texts for the day, this is where I have landed.

Jesus is concerned with the lives that we are called to!

And this Sunday, Jesus drives it home. This is the conclusion of what the lectionary has given to us as a six week sermon. View the rest as illustrations, this is thematic statement that pulls the whole thing together. How do we work in the vineyard of the Lord? How do we become the child who does the will of the Father? How do we produce fruit in the land that we working for the Landlord? How do we clothe ourselves for the banquet? How do we render to God that which is God's?

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself. On this hangs all the law and all the prophets - this is the life that God is calling us to. And, as Martin Luther taught, we love God precisely by loving our neighbor.

So let us get out there, and live the lives that God has called us to.

God is a Single Parent

The other day, I found myself talking with a friend about what it’s like to be a divorced parent. I explained that when my daughter and I play monsters, she's the baby-monster and I’m the daddy-monster; but when we play dolls, I’m the mommy-doll while she’s the baby-doll. Yes, I’m the fixer of broken things in our house, but I’m also the painter of fingernails and the braider of hair. In many ways, single parents are called to provide both motherly and fatherly love. And in families with divorced parents, both mothers and fathers are called to be both things when the beloved child is in their home.

While talking about this with my friend it occurred to me: God is a single parent.

Spend any time at all in the world of preachers and lovers of theology, and you’ll encounter debate over images & language we use to speak of God. On one side stand those who argue it’s only appropriate to use male imagery to talk about God -- God as Father, male pronouns, etc. On the other side stand those who argue for female imagery -- God as Mother, female pronouns, etc. Between either side is a spectrum of people trying to discern how to faithfully speak about God with images and language that will appeal to modern Christians.

Have we missed the point?

Study the images, metaphors, analogies, and language used in Scripture to describe God and what’s revealed is how God loves us like a parent loves a child. In one passage we hear about God as a father looking after his wayward children. In another, we hear about God as a mother nurturing her children. And if that’s the point, then perhaps neither "God as mother" nor "God as father" alone will get us where we need to be. Perhaps what we really need is a theology of God’s love as single parent!

As a divorced parent, my job is to provide my daughter with both fatherly and motherly love when she’s in our home (just as I know her mother provides both for her in theirs). Similarly, God's love is at times best expressed with words and images traditionally associated with a paternal love and care; at others with words and images traditionally associated with maternal love and care. It is not a case of having to choose between one or the other. Or, one could use an image that encompasses both ways of loving: God is a single parent.

In the world of single parents, divorced parents, merged families, and blended families, we’re discovering new ways to provide children with the love they need and deserve. There’s no longer only one way to be a family, nor only one way to love a child. Perhaps in these wonderful expressions of family we can find new ways to speak of God’s love for the world.

Build a Right Relationship

A friend from my time serving on the Board of the Lutheran Youth Organization, Vance Blackfox wrote a post for the Living Lutheran blog. What follows is a highlight of that longer post. A member of the Cherokee Nation, Vance is also an ELCA seminarian at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. Vance has served the church in many ways over the years, and I look forward to what he will bring to our church as a pastor. 

For over 500 years Christopher Columbus has been heralded as the man who discovered the Americas.

Over the centuries school children within the United States have been taught more about Columbus and his voyages to the west than they have been taught about the peoples and nations that already called this place in the world their home.

Each year, along with the other citizens of the United States, American Indian and Alaska Native people are reminded not only of Columbus’ commission by the Spanish monarchs, his three ships and his accidentally sailing into our homelands; we are also reminded of the destruction of a people and their culture.

He and his entourage did not serve as the best example of how to enter into the lands of our peoples for the many others who came after him to conquer us and claim our homelands for themselves.

Columbus’ arrival on our shores marked for many the beginning of the development of the new world, and yet for so many others, American Indians and Alaska Natives specifically, it marks the beginning of the invasion.


Although there are great and varied tasks that need to be accomplished, and though we might not ever reach the summit of equality and justice for American Indian and Alaska Native people in my lifetime, there are many smaller things that could make a big difference in the shaping of future generations of Lutherans when it comes to working toward that goal. Today, most American Indian and Alaska Native people, as well as many American Indian and Alaska Native organizations that I have been a part of, do not acknowledge Columbus Day as a holiday.

I urge you to take some time today to learn about the tribal nations that originally inhabited the land where your community and church now exist.

Learn about the present status of the tribal nations nearest your community. Does that tribe still live on its traditional lands or has it been relocated by the federal government to the place where is the tribe now?

How have missionaries affected tribal nations both negatively and positively?

What other ways have Lutherans appropriately or inappropriately engaged with American Indian and Alaska Natives in the past?

Build appropriate and right relationships with the tribal nations that exist in your state or region.

I urge you to go and read the entirety of Vance's post at the Living Lutheran blog.

Of Wedding Invitations and Obituaries

This sermon is from October 9, 2010; Proper 23A, Matthew 22:1-14. It is a fairly direct transcript of the sermon preached, probably still typo-ridden. I hope that beyond the carelessness of my typing skills, you will find something that speaks to you.

As we gathered last week, I shared with you that I was not crazy about preaching on Jesus’ parable of the wicked tenants. This week offers more of the same. Such a wonderful, uplifting parable: entire towns being burned to the ground, people being bound hand and foot, weeping and gnashing of teeth. It gives you a warm, fuzzy feeling inside, doesn’t it?

I’ve often thought that if Jesus was a preacher, he wouldn’t have a job for very long.

Then I remember. Jesus was a preacher, and he didn’t have a job for very long. In fact, as we look at this parable, Jesus is preaching in Jerusalem – and this is not very long before his job as a preacher comes to an abrupt end. It is not very long – after sermons like this one this morning, and parables like this – that Jesus winds up turned over to the authorities.

So what are we to do with this parable of the wedding banquet, this sermon of Jesus?

This parable fits, in many ways, with what we have heard for the last month as we have been walking through the parables of Jesus.

One of my mentors used to say: if you’re a good preacher and you’re lucky – you’ve got three good sermons in you. The rest are variations just on those.
And this is a variation of the same sermon that Jesus has been preaching.

Jesus tells how the invitations to the wedding banquet went out, and the people would not come. And so the servants went out and they gathered all of these people off of the streets: the homeless folks, the ones with no party to go to on a Saturday night, the people that no one else wanted to spend time with. Went out and gathered them and brought them into the party.

And this was this one guy, who wasn’t wearing what he wasn’t supposed to be wearing. This one guy, who wasn’t wearing the traditional wedding clothes. And so he gets thrown out.

You have to ask, as Jesus is preaching this parable: What’s the problem here? What is the problem with this one guy?

I think we can find the answer looking at how this fits with those other parables we have heard. The parable of the laborers in the vineyard, the parable of the two sons – one who works and one who does not, the parable of the wicked tenants in the vineyard. Jesus is talking, if you recall, to and about the Pharisees and the religious leaders.

Jesus is talking to the Pharisees: these people who went to great lengths to express their faith publicly – who said all of the right words and all of the right prayers – who could go down the checklist, and assure you that they believed all of the right things – who every knew spent plenty of time in the Temple, in church. These people who made sure that they dotted all the i’s and crossed all the t’s, and did all those nice things, the right things, that good religious people are supposed to do.

So once again, Jesus is preaching with these Pharisees in mind. And I have a feeling that the issue is the same as it has been as we have listened to the rest of the parables this month.

The issue is not what you say … but what you do.
The issue for Jesus is the number of people who talk about how important God is and how important faith is and how important religion is … and then treat others as if none of that matters.
The issue over and over again in Matthew’s Gospel is the greatest commandment. There are plenty of us who are willing to say that we love the Lord God with all their heart and soul and mind. But then we ignore the second half: love your neighbor as yourself.

The issue, to paraphrase Martin Luther, is that you cannot love God without also loving your neighbor. Jesus’ issue this morning is with those of us who profess loudly and strongly that we love God – and then ignore our neighbor.

If you were paying attention to the news last week, there was a rather prominent death last week. Did you catch the obituary? No, not Steve Jobs. Another, more important loss.

Last week, the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth died, and I want to share some of Pastor Shuttlesworth’s story with you.

Fred Shuttlesworth was the pastor of Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. During the civil rights struggles of the fifties and sixties, Pastor Shuttlesworth was near death many times: when he was beat up by the clan, and by the police, and when his congregation – his church – was bombed.

Shuttlesworth mug shot from the night
of the Freedom Rider protests.
Seven years before Martin Luther King, Jr visited Birmingham, before Rosa Parks sat in the front of a bus, before most of the nation had awoken to the great inequality between black and white in the South, before it all, Pastor Shuttlesworth was working against hate; teaching us what Jesus meant when he said, “love your neighbor.” Shuttlesworth led the way, teaching the church – both black and white – how non-violent resistance could be used to defeat segregation.

I once had the opportunity to meet and hear Pastor Shuttlesworth, and since hearing of his death one of the things he said just sticks with me – one of the things he said just haunts me. He said that
there is so much theology – so many words spoken about God – there is so much theology in our world that is really and truly a theology without morality, a theology without commitment, and ultimately, a theology without a god.
Because if your theology – if your words about God – if your theology is about the God that the Gospels proclaim, it changes your life.

If your theology, your words about God, are about the God that Jesus proclaims, about the God o Exodus and resurrection, the God of the cross, then it will change how you interact with every person you meet. It will change how you look at this world that God has made, and how you look at the people who God loves so dearly. And if it doesn’t – then you are talking about a different god!

I think Jesus is talking this morning in the parable of the wedding banquet – in all of these parables that we have been hearing – about how faith is so often a lot of nice words, and good feelings, and nice sentiment … and nothing else.

And Jesus is challenging us to say about our faith: forget about what’s coming out of your mouth – how are you treating the people in your life? How are you treating the people around you in the world? How are you praying for and loving your enemy?

How is what you believe about God making a difference in the world?

And those who don’t believe. If they looked at your life – not your words – if they looked at how you live, what sort of god would they say you believe in?

Look at the news last week – is yours the god who praises those who make the most money? The god who remembers a man like Steve Jobs with praise and adulation, but forgets a man like Fred Shuttlesworth?

Is yours the god who looks out for number one? The god who makes sure that only those who earn the most deserve love and health and happiness?

Or is the god that our lives proclaim – as we heard from St. Paul – the God of whatever is pure and just and good? Or is the god that our lives proclaim the God who is love, and calls us to lives that shaped by love above all things?

I’ll be honest with you: I’ve been troubled this week.
There’s a great phrase: “A holy discomfort.” That sense of being uncomfortable, of things not being quite right, but know it’s a good thing and you know it’s God. Fred Shuttlesworth has left me this week with a holy discomfort.

Another thing Pastor Shuttlesworth once said is, “I say very little about anything, until I am ready to act – and I think more people should be like that.”

Are you and I ready to act on our faith? Are you and I ready to clothe ourselves for God’s wedding banquet in love for our neighbor? Are we ready to show up at God’s table, not with good words and nice feelings, but with lives transformed by God’s love? Are we ready to risk everything – everything – to show the world God’s love?

I want to share with you one more story from the life of Pastor Shuttlesworth.

Shortly before I heard Pastor Shuttlesworth, the last of the Klansmen responsible for the bombings in Birmingham had finally been convicted, some 50 years later. This man who had been responsible for countless deaths and acts of hate – including the bombing of Shuttlesworth’s own church.

Someone asked Pastor Shuttlesworth, “Do you hate white people?”
Shuttlesworth responded, “Man, you’re asking the wrong question.”
But the inquirer persisted, referring to the man just convicted. “With everything you have been through, it would be understandable – justifiable – if you hated white people.”

“Friend,” said Shuttlesworth, “I can not say that I love Jesus, and then hate white people. I cannot say that I love Jesus and hate. Let me tell you, if it wasn’t for a man named Bull Connor, I wouldn’t know Jesus as well as I know him today. So how can I hate Bull Connor – I give thanks for him.”

That … That is living into the faith that Jesus proclaimed. That is what it looks like to take seriously the words of Jesus – the words that we profess in this place – about the love of our neighbor.

And I’m troubled. I am troubled by that.
I am troubled by the life and words and witness of Pastor Shuttlesworth, because I know that I’m not there.

I know that I’m not there. I know that I don’t live my life with the love that I should. I’m troubled.
But it is a holy discomfort, because I know that God is calling me – God is calling us – to more. God is calling us to lives of more love.
God is calling us to lives that make a difference.
God is calling us to change this world.

And so I pray.
I pray that God will give me the grace to live that sort of life, because that’s the only way we can do it: with God’s help. I’m sure not going to do it on my own – I need God to show me the way.
I pray that God will give me the courage – that God will give me the strength – to risk everything for Jesus’ love, and for the people whom God loves.

I pray that God will continue to give me – to give all of us – a holy discomfort, so that I am not satisfied with indifference and inaction, so that when I show up at that great wedding banquet, that when God welcomes me to the table, I will be properly clothed in all of God’s love.