The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Atonement

One in Christ. Gifted by Grace. Called to Serve.

Time after Pentecost 2016

This sermon was preached on the 26th Sunday after Pentecost, 11/13/2016, at The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Atonement in Asbury Park. The texts of the day were Malachi 4:1-2a; Psalm 98; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; and Luke 21:5-19. Of particular note is the text of Luke 21:13: “This will give you an opportunity to testify.”

The Lord be with you. Let us pray.
God of all people everywhere, we pray for our nation at this time of significant division and distrust. We ask for the courage and stamina to be instruments of your healing and reconciliation at a time when our country is deeply wounded. We trust that you will give us the will, the words and the actions to be witnesses of love, hope, justice and mercy for one another during times of fear, persecution and distress. Give our newly-elected leaders that wisdom as well as humility to direct our government in ways that protect and seek the well-being of all inhabitants of this land. If it is we who are frightened or outraged, help us to find allies to provide safety and encouragement. Empower us to stand up for any who are threatened, oppressed or marginalized. We ask this in the Holy name of the one who endured persecution and insults, and even death on a cross, in order to extend the mercy of God to heal, bless and reconcile the world - Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.[1]

As our bishop Tracie Bartholomew often says these days, “We have work to do, Church.” But that’s nothing new. The Thessalonians had some people convinced that Christ would come any day, and so they were refusing to work to help their community and their neighbor – and so the Church had work to do on its own sense of entitlement, power, and security. Malachi is ending a statement of condemnation for the cheating the people have done on their obligations to God, perverting their faith for what is politically and economically expedient – and so the people of God had work to do in learning that the walk of faith is not for us to feel comfortable and easy, but to unsettle us into a holiness that eradicates our self-serving agendas. And Jesus in Luke is giving instructions and warnings about what faith calls us to do: namely, to TESTIFY to the truth, and to trust God, even if we are sentenced to death. And here we are, with 52.5% of Monmouth County – and therefore, of us – having voted to elect as President a man endorsed by David Duke and the KKK, whose running mate has advocated conversion therapy, and whose election has left immigrant citizens – immigrants like my brother-in-law – afraid that they may face deportation. We have work to do, Church. But that’s not new.
It’s always been true. It was true when Paul faced execution. It was true when Perpetua wrote about her faith as she waited to be sent to the lions in the coliseum. It was true when Augustine argued with the Donatists, and when the Christians in Jerusalem were slaughtered with Jews and Muslims by the European Crusaders, and it was true when Luther and his evangelical movement were threatened with death and war. Oceans rise, empires fall, God sees us through it all; when all we can do is die, that is when we TESTIFY.

TESTIFY, Church. Tell the truth when the KKK distributes recruitment flyers in Lyndhurst. TESTIFY, Church. Tell the truth when swastikas appear on windows in Philadelphia on the anniversary of the Night of Broken Glass. TESTIFY, Church. Tell the truth when you see threats leveled against the most vulnerable in our society. Tell the truth when black bodies lie in streets and when those who have had reason to fear come to the few places they still trust asking what they can do to be safe.

TESTIFY to the peace of Jesus, to the peace we have been given. The peace of Christ is not sleep or silence. The peace of Christ is not the stillness of stagnant waters. The waters of baptism are a flood that wash away sin and hate and death. The peace of Christ is not the safety of individually-wrapped wafers and wine, but a single loaf and a single cup shared around a single table. The peace of Christ is life and death together with poor and oppressed.

TESTIFY, dear Church. Tell the truth! And the truth is that no matter who is president, there is only one God and only one Lord! Jesus Christ is our Master, our King, our Savior. Jesus is the one to whom we pledge allegiance. Jesus Christ is Lord, and Donald Trump is not! Jesus Christ is Lord, and Hillary Clinton is not! Jesus Christ is Lord, and the United States is not! Jesus Christ is Lord, and I am not! Jesus Christ is Lord, and you are not!

TESTIFY, dear Church, that the King of the Universe is neither silent nor asleep. Our Lord acts and commands. We TESTIFY for justice, that God loves the children dead of overdoses, ignored by the economy, and shot in the streets. We TESTIFY for truth, that in a nation with a vicious legacy of white supremacy we should pay some attention when 70% of white voters side with a candidate endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan! We TESTIFY because we are God’s Church, Christ’s Christians, because we are called and commanded to speak out against injustice and use every means to expose the evil that rots in ourselves and our world and we are not afraid!

TESTIFY! We are not afraid, because where we go, Jesus goes with us! We are not afraid of earthquakes and meteors, for the one who walks with us shaped the stars and molded this world! We are not afraid, because Jesus is Lord! We are not afraid, because even if we die, not one hair on our heads will perish! We are not afraid of our own guilt and failure, because Christ frees us from the chains of our past in the healing waters where our confession is met with God’s mercy. We are not afraid because we have too much work to do, because we are too busy to be afraid! We have too much work to do, Church, too much to say, to be paralyzed by fear and apathy and helplessness!

TESTIFY, dear Church! Come out at 3pm to Library Park. It’s across the street. Come out and confess that the one in us is greater than the one in those who hate, who fear, who war, who lie, and who are ruled by everything that is not God’s love and justice. Come out and tell the truth, without fear. Come out and testify that we are ruled by a different king and we live in a different kingdom. Have family plans? Bring them! Have friends coming over? Bring them! Have a soccer game? Instead of rooting, talk to those on the sidelines about how we will come together to protect and serve the most vulnerable.

TESTIFY, dear Church, that we are God’s little flock, and the peace we have is not like the peace the world gives. Our peace is active, our peace is in the midst of working for our neighbor, our peace is given so that we are not afraid! Our peace is a gift to see us through death with good courage, because our God rules even life and death. Our Lord Jesus has already rescued us, so we have work to do in rescuing others! TESTIFY, dear Church, who Jesus is - for us and for our neighbor – the one whose death gives life to others! TESTIFY, dear Church, what we have been called to – to give our power up so that we might see Jesus in our neighbor! TESTIFY, dear Church, to the peace of our Lord Jesus, which burns up the wicked while the sun of God’s justice rises, bringing healing on its wings! And the peace of God, beyond all understanding, will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

[1] This prayer is from Rev. Claire Burkat, bishop of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod of the ELCA.

All Saints, 2016: What We Are Given

This sermon was preached for All Saints' Sunday, November 6, 2016. The readings were: Revelation 7:9-17; Psalm 34:1-10, 22; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12.

In the name of Jesus, amen.

“There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High.” Psalm 46:4. And so the church sings, “Soon we’ll reach the shining river, soon our pilgrimage will cease; soon our happy hearts will quiver with the melody of peace. Yes, we’ll gather at the river, the beautiful, the beautiful river; gather with the saints at the river that flows by the throne of God.”

The point is that there is a place where we are going, or perhaps a place that is coming to us. This road is not lonely. We are all on it together, and when we arrive, there we will be many other gathered to meet us. In the end, God will have God’s way and be our God. In the end, God will fill all in all. There is only one kingdom that does not end, and it is coming, and all the rest of our lives we are strangers passing through.

This is hard to remember for some of us two days before a presidential election. This is hard to remember for some of us today, when again we are required to think about the serious financial challenges of our current ministry in this place. Perhaps we can empathize with Daniel who sees the vision of the beasts arising and asks for help understanding what he is seeing. Perhaps we, too, could ask for understanding, and receive the same answer: “Four kings will rise out of the earth, but the saints of the Most High will receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever and ever.”

This is the promise for today, and the threat: none of this is forever, brothers and sisters. None of this lasts. This building, the endowment, church governance, my time as pastor, our time on earth, the presidential term, the election season, racism, sexism, war, terror, poverty, the United States, even the planet on which we live are not eternal. As the author of Hebrews writes, here, we do not have a lasting city; but we are seeking the city that is to come.

But we are here in this temporary city for now. How do we operate in this city? How shall we participate in our lives together on this road? Do we vote, and for whom? Do we withdraw, and why? In the morass of political and religious arguments, in the midst of contentions where the very idea of what constitutes a fact or a truth is unclear, how shall we make decisions and take action? What we need is guidance.

And for over two thousand years, the saints known and unknown have left markers on the road, signposts of which way to turn and where the path is when we seem to have lost it. Among these signs are the words of Jesus in Luke’s gospel today – blessed are the poor, the hungry, the mourning, the unpopular; woe to the rich, the full, the rejoicing, the heroes. But then, there is something deeper that turns this upside-down set of ideas inside out: love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

So the way the saints have trod for two thousand years, the signs they have left for us, all point away from us. It is not about our hunger or our fullness, our mourning or our rejoicing, our wealth or our poverty. It is about treating others as we wish to be treated. This is how we make decisions as Christians. This is how we walk with the saints, known and unknown, who have gone before us, who walk alongside us, who are yet to come. This is how God makes us into the holy people, for to be a saint is to be holy. God sends the Holy Spirit to call us to turn away from ourselves, and discover the world. The world full of people to love, to bless, to do good for, to pray for, even when the world hates and fears us. The way of the saints is not about slander or judgment, and that is precisely why it is so often shouted down. The way of the saints says that both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are made in the image of God and should be loved for that reason alone, just like every black man dead in the streets, just like every immigrant, just like every enemy of the state, just like every poor person in the pew next to you. The signposts that we have inherited say that our vote is about our vulnerable neighbors and vulnerable world, and not about our self-interest. The words of Jesus point out that our role as a congregation, as a part of His body, is neither to be rich nor poor but to do for others what we would wish them to do for us.

And so, in all our voting and working and walking and serving, we have inherited a way through the confusion and noise. Hear the music of the host of heaven: We hear of Mary: O higher than the cherubim, more glorious than the seraphim, lead their praises: Alleluia! Thou bearer of the eternal Word, most gracious, magnify the Lord: Alleluia! We hear of the faithful of the Scriptures, the prophets and patriarchs: Respond, ye souls in endless rest, ye patriarchs and prophets blest: Alleluia! Alleluia! We hear of the apostles, the disciples, the early Christians, and indeed all the baptized who have died and yet live with God eternally: Ye holy twelve, ye martyrs strong, all saints triumphant raise the song: Alleluia!

This is the city for which we have waited and to which we are going, and this is who has left us an inheritance, a path to that kingdom. And they, as we, were strengthened by the great inheritance given to us by God, the presence of Jesus in our midst. Here is his throne, around which all saints gather to sing in heaven and on earth. Here is his altar, on which his life is poured out for our lives. Here is his table, where he feeds us with himself. Here is the place where the saints are made out of sinners. Here is the place where the Church is born. Here is the place where God is drawing the whole creation. Here are the dead, and see, they live! Here are those who are yet to come; see, they come now in this One! Here is the Church across time and space, rooted in Christ, gathered into one body, so that God might fill all in all!

That is the worship of the heavenly host, around the throne, around the King whose kingdom will come and will never pass away. That is Holy Communion, Saintly Communion, where we are in Union With All Saints! That is our inheritance from those who have gone ahead of us, whom we meet here through Jesus, and whom we shall meet again! Oh, blest communion, fellowship divine, we feebly struggle, they in glory shine; yet all are one in thee, for all are thine. Alleluia! Alleluia! And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long, steals on the ear the distant triumph song, and hearts are brave again and arms are strong. Alleluia! Alleluia!

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, amen.

Reformation 2016: The Word of God

This sermon was preached for Reformation Sunday, October 30th, 2016. The readings were: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 46; Romans 3:19-28; John 8:31-36.

Out of love and zeal for bringing the truth to light,

we begin in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

What is the Reformation? This festival, celebrated on October 31st, what is it for? Is it about a morning in 1517 when a Roman Catholic priest, an Augustinian monk, a lecturer in theology and a professor of Hebrew Scriptures, may or may not have posted an academic disputation on the bulletin board of a tiny town in the backwaters of what would one day become Germany? Can the Reformation be about something so small as a disagreement on the buying and selling of indulgences, and can the Reformation be said to be over now that our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters do not hold to or defend the practices of which Luther complained, practices which long since have ceased to be an issue for Christians? Now that we have a Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, is the Reformation a finished project? Is this day just about some obscure set of Christian disputes which are irrelevant to the people among whom we live? To begin, let us see what brother Martin said in these famous 95 Theses.

Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, in saying, “Do penance”[1], wanted the entire life of the faithful to be one of penitence. This does not refer to a personal activity or pious rite administered by clergy, yet it does not mean solely inner penance – indeed such inner penitence is nothing unless it outwardly produces various bodily sufferings. So, the penalty for sin remains in the form of hatred of self[2] until our entrance into the kingdom of heaven after our deaths.[3] Human penalties may be assigned or forgiven at the behest of human authorities, but God forgives absolutely no one unless at the same time God subjects in all things the one humbled to God’s vicar, the priest. Any Christian who is so humbled has a right to full forgiveness of guilt and penalties, regardless of human declaration or decision. Any true Christian, living or dead, possesses a God-given share in all the benefits of Christ and the Church. But these declarations from pope or priest must not be despised, because they are the declaration by God through God’s vicar – priest or pope – of divine forgiveness. Those who forbid the preaching of the Word of God in some places altogether in order to preach some ceremony or human work are enemies of Christ and of the pope. An injustice is done to the Word of God when, in the very same sermon, equal or more time is spent on human works than on the Word. It is necessary that if celebrations follow any human religious declarations which are completely insignificant things, then the gospel, which is the greatest thing of all, should be celebrated with a hundred times more pomp and circumstance. The treasures of the Church, from which all declarations of forgiveness are distributed, are not sufficiently discussed or known among Christ’s people. These treasures are not temporary worldly riches, nor are they the merits of Christ and the saints which always work grace for the inner person and cross, death, and hell for the outer person. The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God. But this treasure is understandably hated, because it makes “the first last.”[4] And so, away with all those prophets who say to Christ’s people, “Peace, peace,” and there is no peace![5] May it go well for all of those prophets who say to Christ’s people, “Cross, cross,” and there is no cross! Christians must be encouraged diligently to follow Christ, their head,[6] through penalties, death, and hell, and in this way they may be confident of “entering heaven through many tribulations”[7] rather than through the [false] security of peace.[8]

Hear brother Martin, dear friends, and understand the word “reformation” is not about his character or writings, not about some sort of historical heritage or human work or finished schism, and is certainly not about romanticizing the split which the devil worked among Christians 499 years ago. It is not about October 31, or standing up to authority, or about certain hymns. It’s not even really about the Bible, as such. It’s about the gospel. It’s about the good news. It’s about God’s love for us in Jesus Christ and God’s dream of a new creation when we are all freed from sin to live for God and with each other in true peace, in divine love, in perfect harmony.

If the celebration of Reformation is to be a Christian feast, it cannot be a celebration of schism or argument, nor a celebration of translators and printing presses and passionate sermons. Not fiery Martin, nor brilliant Philip, nor brave Frederick, are the focus of this feast. Nor does it refer to what so many call the “Lutheran heritage”, by which presumably is meant a penchant for sitting in the back pews, or perhaps a skill for potluck dinners, or even a strong slant toward service toward the neighbor in honor of God. None of these are the Reformation that must be celebrated; at best, they are insignificant next to that great treasure.

The Reformation is the ongoing work of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Word of God, to which the saints have witnessed for two thousand years and which has been given to us by those who went before us. To us has been given a word that binds our hearts to Christ so that we might truly be free, confident and trusting that we have a place in God’s kingdom that will never fail or fade away. To us has been given the news that God’s name is written on our foreheads in the sign of the cross, and God’s law is written on our hearts, and that forgiveness and life are not privileges to earn but gifts freely given because of God’s mercy. To us has been given the news that here, now, Christ the King comes to reform us from a scattered and sour amalgamation of people into one people who belong to one Lord, who confess one faith, who die and rise in one baptism.

Here, at this font, by water and the Word. Here, at this pulpit, by song and speech and the Word. Here, at this table, by bread and wine and the Word. Here, by the Word of God, by the gospel of Jesus Christ, we are reformed. Here, by the free gift of God, we are made the Church. This, today, here, now, is the Reformation. It has been happening for two thousand years. It is the work of the Holy Spirit, when we were asleep last night, when Luther and Philip were drinking their Wittenberg beer, which Augustine tried to flee his ordination, when Paul went blind on the road. It is the work of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who went to the cross and the grave so that our dying might be transformed into rising. It is the work of one God and Father of us all, who is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. It is the work of the one who reforms the whole world by breaking the bow, shattering the spear, and burning shields with fire; the one who ends all war and conflict in the world, who calls us to be still, for God is at work, God will be exalted, God is in the midst of the city, God will help our city at daybreak.

And so, this is the Word of God, the gospel, the promise that is the Reformation from this day until the last day. This is the Word in which God embraces and keeps us, this is the Word which comes down for us and for our salvation, this is the Word which comforts us in all our struggles and sufferings until our final strife, this is the Word which leads us from death to life:

The Lord of hosts is with us! The God of Jacob is our stronghold! This is the festival of the true Reformation, which is the coming of the Word of God among us, to release us from bondage to sin and death, to declare us beggars and sinners righteous and holy, to reform us and reorient us into one body with Jesus Christ as our head, to send us into a world which hates and despises us and the Reformation among us not because we are holy or good or pure but because it is for us, for sinners, that God has come to give mercy and healing. It is for us, for sinners, that Jesus died. It is for us, for sinners, that the Holy Spirit moves in the world to make all things new. The Reformation is the Resurrection! The Reformation is the Church! The Reformation is the Christian Life, and its work is not complete until the last enemy is defeated, until Christ beats down Satan under our feet forever, until every person sees the image of God in every brother and sister, until the raging of sister and brother against brother and sister is brought to a stillness at last, and when we are still we shall know God. The Reformation will not end, will not cease, for it is God’s ancient promise: God’s law will be written on our hearts, we shall all know God from the least to the greatest, we shall be God’s people with the whole world of Roman Catholics, and with Methodists, and with Baptists, and with Jews, and with Muslims, and atheists, and God will wipe away our tears, and heal what is broken, and forgive us for all the pain we cause each other, and all divisions will be no more. May that day of the kingdom of God come among us very soon.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, amen.

[1] See Matt. 4:17, normally translated “Repent!” in English.

[2] See John 12:25, “those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

[3] See Matt. 7:21-23.

[4] See Matt. 19:30 and 20:16.

[5] See Jer. 6:14; 8:11; and Ezek. 13:10, 16. Peace with God comes through the promise of God’s absolution, not through indulgences or other human works, systems, or efforts.

[6] See for example Col. 1:18.

[7] See Acts 14:22.

[8] The foregoing is a paraphrase of Luther’s 95 Theses, specifically 1-7, 36-38, 53-58, 62, 92-95.