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”, 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 until our entrance into the kingdom of heaven after our deaths. 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.” And so, away with all those prophets who say to Christ’s people, “Peace, peace,” and there is no peace! 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, through penalties, death, and hell, and in this way they may be confident of “entering heaven through many tribulations” rather than through the [false] security of peace.
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.
 See Matt. 4:17, normally translated “Repent!” in English.
 See John 12:25, “those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”
 See Matt. 7:21-23.
 See Matt. 19:30 and 20:16.
 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.
 See for example Col. 1:18.
 See Acts 14:22.
 The foregoing is a paraphrase of Luther’s 95 Theses, specifically 1-7, 36-38, 53-58, 62, 92-95.