50 Theses for a Still-Reforming Church

I’m no Martin Luther. I’ll be the first to say that. But today, on the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation, I set a challenge for myself. Writing is my spiritual practice, so I decided to write my own set of theses. I didn’t go for 95 of them because, honestly, I didn’t have that much to say. Instead I chose 50, one for each decade of the Reformation.

Most of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses centered on reforming the church, so that’s where I focused my own ideas. This is simply a spiritual exercise for me but one that, in the spirit of Luther, I wanted to share with others. I’d love to hear what resonates with you, and what does not. And, I’d love to hear your own theses for a church that is still being reformed.

Here they are:

Basic affirmations on church:
1. That wherever two or more are gathered in Christ’s name, he is present, and therefore Christ is present in the church.
2. That “the church” may refer to local churches, as in the case of congregations, to the “wider church, as in the case of denominations, or to the “universal church” as in the case of the entire body of Christian believers.
3. That the local church is at the heart of our faith. Without strong local churches, denominations and movements cannot hope to survive.
4. That the purpose of the local church is to equip those who would be Christ’s disciples to live out their faith through worship, formation, and encouragement.
5. That local churches possess the best understanding of their community and its needs.
On clergy:
 6. That pastors are called first and foremost to be “pastors and teachers”, capable of equipping others to understand and embody the faith.
7. That pastoral ministry is a calling that demands adequate preparation, including in-person intellectual and spiritual formation in a community of learning.
8. That pastors should be able to use wisdom from other disciplines, such as administration or marketing, but should be encouraged to develop theological and Biblical depth first.
9. That candidates for ministry should be given support, including financial support, in order that they may better prepare for their calling.
10. That seminaries should be upheld as the standard for ministerial formation, and should be invested in by local churches and the wider church.
11. That the local church deserves nothing less than well-trained ministers who are committed to serving as pastors.
12. That clergy should be the first to affirm that our calling does not make us special or unique, and that the calling of every Christian to discipleship, lay or ordained, is equally important and challenging.
On the need for the wider church:
13. That even churches with a strong congregational polity need the mutual support and fellowship of other congregations.
14. That covenantal relationships between congregations strengthen all involved, and provide a way for local churches to share resources and engage in impactful ministry and social witness.
15. That when the wider church is empowered to do ministry, in local judicatories or national denominations, the wider church exists to serve the local churches, and not vice versa.
On the administration of the wider church:
16. That wider church administrators at all levels are called to be servant leaders.
17. That these leaders should constantly discern the will of God and the spiritual needs of the people they serve.
18. That the wider church must be on guard against being so excessively influenced by corporate culture that it becomes something that is no longer church.
19. That when wider church bodies become divested from their concern about local churches, they have strayed from their mission.
20. That when the wider church experiences serious disconnection with local churches, attention must be made to repairing that relationship.
On the transparency and accountability of the wider church:
21. That given our covenantal relationships, it is fitting that wider church ministries should be financially supported primarily by local congregations.
22. That local churches should support the wider church generously.
23. That any setting of the wider church should be answerable to the congregations which support it.
24. That full transparency around financial and budgetary matters, or the stewardship of any other resources, should be considered normative.
25. That while confidentiality must and should be preserved around certain matters, a culture of secrecy must be avoided at all costs.
26. That when choosing leaders, the people of God should feel confident that a fair and transparent process was used, and that the discernment of God’s will was at the center of that process.
27. That the wider church may speak on behalf of local churches but must also be willing to listen to the will of those it represents.
On always being reformed:
28. That the “freedom of conscience” valued in Protestant traditions be upheld, along with the right of individual Christians to raise concerns or critiques.
29. That those who seek reform should be able to speak freely, without fear of intimidation or retribution.
30. That the unity of the church should be preserved, but that true unity requires space to be made for faithful dissent.
31. That debate and dialogue is not an affront to church unity, but rather a tool that may be used for communal spiritual discernment.
32. That no setting of the church should ever believe itself to be infallible, or beyond dysfunction.
33. That the spirit of continuing reformation should be nurtured, inconvenient though it may sometimes be, and be allowed to flourish in our life together.
On equipping disciples:
34. That education and formation are essential for the faithful continuation of any church tradition.
35. That a major priority of the wider church should be to support local churches as they form disciples.
36. That wider church settings should cherish the legacy of the Reformation and make available and accessible resources that will help Christians to understand their faith.
37. That the promotion of Christ’s love and grace should be more important to the wider church than the promotion of itself.
On the wider church’s mission in the world:
38: That Christ has called us to three great tasks: to love God, to love ourselves as God loves us, and to love our neighbors.
39. That this witness must be deeply rooted in our belief in Jesus Christ, and in his call to us to be disciples.
40: That the wider church is called to serve our neighbors through the generous sharing of resources.
41. That we must strive for the equality of all people without asking for assimilation.
42. That we must appreciate the beauty of diversity without appropriating what is not ours.
43. That we must be a witness for peace and justice both globally and in our own backyards.
44. That we must first mirror the justice we hope to see in the world within our own organizations.
On courage:
45: That the church is called into a future in which God is already waiting.
46. That true discipleship means that we who are the church must follow Christ into this future, and be willing to lose everything.
47. That unless we are willing to lose even our own life, the church can never hope to be reborn.
48. That if a church is truly the body of Christ, that body can live in the certain hope of resurrection.
49. That the church’s resurrection often comes in the form of reformation.
50. That God still has a use for the church, and that we are being re-formed today that we may endure for the next 500 years, and beyond.
If you’re interested in what it means to live our faith courageously, you might be interested in my next book. Courageous Faith: How to Rise and Resist in a Time of Fear, is available for pre-order now:
https://www.uccresources.com/products/courageous-faith-how-to-rise-and-resist-in-a-time-of-fear-heath

Always Being Reformed: Sermon for October 29, 2017

This is the final sermon in a four week series on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. To start at the beginning, please click here.

Over the past month we have been on a journey through the landscape of the Protestant Reformation in preparation for this Tuesday, All Hallow’s Eve. That day marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther posting his 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Church.

Portrait_of_Martin_Luther_as_an_Augustinian_MonkFor two weeks we talked about Luther, first as a young man, and then as a man who changed the course of Christianity and really the entire world. Then last week we talked about John Calvin, another key reformer. And I told you that this week I was going to talk a little about what all this meant to our own church, and our own faith tradition.

And in order to do that, I first want to turn to the Scripture we read today from the Gospel of Matthew. This is a part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, where he teaches about the heart of our faith.

Jesus talks here about “salt and light”. These were two very valuable things in Jesus day. Salt was useful for many things, not just cooking, and it was not inexpensive. And light, in these pre-electric days, was coveted too. And Jesus talked about how we are called to be the salt of the earth, and the light of the world. We are called to be valuable and useful.

You’ve heard a lot about being the light in this church. You know my affection for the song, “This Little Light of Mine”. I’ve told you before that even though we might think of it as a kids’ song, it’s really a profound testament to what it means to lead a Christian life. And it’s this passage in particular that spells out why:

Jesus says, “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

In other words, “Hide it under a bushel? No! I’m going to let it shine.” It was this very passage that spoke to some of the people responsible for our church being here.

Last week we left off with Calvin and how he started what we now called the Reformed tradition. And like the tradition that descended more closely from Luther, the Reformed tradition expanded too. Soon Reformed churches had spread to the Netherlands, some parts of Germany, and Scotland. Those Scottish Reformed folks would later call themselves “Presbyterians”, and would bring the Presbyterian Church to this country, particularly in the colonies south of New England.

But it was what was happening in England that most shaped us. England was in the midst of its own Protestant Reformation. King Henry VIII had broken away from the Pope’s authority in the 1530’s and the Church of England, or the Anglican Church, had become the official church. That may make it sound like England was a good place for Protestants, but that was only true if you were Henry’s kind of Protestant.

That was a problem for a group of Christians who had been influenced by Calvin’s ideas. They looked at the Anglican Church and they felt like Henry hadn’t gone far enough. They tried to change the church, but they met resistance and were persecuted. Some wanted to “purify” the church. They would later be called Puritans. Others believed the church was beyond repair. They were called Separatists, and they ended up having to flee from England to the Netherlands where they were building a church in exile.

MayflowerHarborYou might know the story that’s coming now. In the Netherlands some of Separatists decided to come to the New World, partially in order to find a place they could worship freely. Before their ship left their pastor, a man named John Robinson, preached a sermon to them. And in it he talked about Luther and Calvin and what we had learned about church from the Reformation.

And then he said these words, “God hath yet more light and truth to break forth from (God’s) word.” More light. The kind of light we cannot hide under a basket. These were the words that rang in the Pilgrims’ ears as they set off on a journey that would end up in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

Likewise, some Puritans who had stayed in England set off for this land too. Settling in Boston and on the north shore, they heard similar words from John Winthrop right before they landed. He said that the “eyes of the world” were upon them and, using Jesus words, that they would build here, “a city on the hill” that would be an example for the world. In many ways Boston became that city to them. It was meant to be a shining example to the world of the faith they embraced.

So, this sounds great, right? Forward-thinking, positive. Lots of light and understanding? Well, yes and no. Certainly it was more progressive than many places but. as was true in every other place where one faith reigned supreme, Massachusetts was a hard place for those who disagreed with what the people in charge said. And one of the people who kept running afoul of the more well-known ministers in the Boston area was a man named John Wheelwright.

You know Wheelwright because he was the founder of our church. His portrait is downstairs in the vestry. And like Calvin and Luther, Wheelwright really believed in the grace of God. He believed in it so much that the folks in Massachusetts thought it was a little too much. And when he called some of the other Puritan ministers out, they were done with him. They banished him to the frontiers of the most terrible place they could think of then: New Hampshire.

Wheelwright.John.AmAntiquarianSocSo that’s how our church got here. It was 1638. Only 18 years after the Pilgrims had landed at Plymouth. Only 74 years since John Calvin had died. Only 121 years after Luther posted his big ideas to the door of a church. In other words, only a couple of generations into the Reformation. This church is 379 years old. That means that we’ve been around for a lot of the 500 years of the Reformation.

And that also means that we know a lot about what it means to reform. I’m not going to go deeper into the church history here. I preached a sermon on that last April for our birthday, and there are a lot of resources available if you want to read more. But I will say that we have never been a church that was not closely tied to the Reformation and to reformation itself. It’s in our very DNA.

There’s a phrase that Reformed churches use quite a bit: “The church Reformed, and always being reformed, by the Word of God.” More simply, “Reformed and always reforming.” The church is always changing. This isn’t change for change sake, but rather purposeful change, change that comes because we are following God into what is next.

To use a UCC catchphrase, “God is still speaking…” That means that we are called to listen, to act, and something to change.

That change is sometimes not easy. John Wheelwright knew that. So did our ancestors in this congregation who decided to support American independence, to work for the abolition of slavery, and to become Open and Affirming. The surest way to make others unhappy with you is to seek to change what needs to be changed. But they did it anyway, because, like Luther, they believed that they could “do no other”.

And so that’s the challenge that we now take up. If the church is Reformed and always being reformed, where is God calling us now? What are we being asked to reform, or to re-form? How will we grow and change for the next 500 years?

The Refomation began 500 years ago, but it has never really ended. The spirit of reformation, the Holy Spirit that guided Luther and Calvin, also guided the Pilgrims and John Wheelwright. And it has guided this church for generations too. And now it guides you and me as well.

And so long as we are following that Holy Spirit into the future God is already preparing for us, we will be on the right path. God is reforming God’s church, and that means God is again and again re-forming us for the work that is left to do.

IMG_6541What remains on this anniversary is the challenge that Jesus issued so many years ago on that hillside. We may not be a city on a hill, but we are a church on the hill, and we have a lot of light in this place. We must now take the light that shines brightly around us, and share it with the world.

It’s time to move aside the bushel basket, or anything else that would dim our light, and instead share the light with the world. No longer can we keep hidden what is meant to be shared. Because the reformation continues, and we are called to be the light. It’s time to take our places in the reformation, and it’s time to let it shine.

Martin Luther and the Courage to Reform: Sermon for October 15, 2017

To read the previous sermon in this series, please click here.

Last week I ended with what I think was my first ever sermon cliffhanger, cutting off right as the action was about to happen. Maybe it wasn’t as dramatic as a tv show during sweeps, but the story I’m telling takes more than one week to tell, and that was the natural midpoint.

This is the second in a four week sermon series on the Protestant Reformation. The actual Reformation took decades to unfold, but we date the anniversary back to one event that happened 500 years ago this very month on October 31, 1517. That was the day that Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg church.

And that’s what our cliffhanger was last week. Just to recap, last week’s sermon was about the young Martin Luther. We talked about how as a boy Luther was scared to death of breaking the rules. He came to see God as a scary and angry figure, as quick to punish as an irate school master. The young man grew up and became a law student, and one day he was caught in a thunderstorm that was so violent that he promised God he would become a monk if he survived.

Luther did survive, and he kept his promise and became a monk. It was in the monastery that he began to read the Bible himself, something that not many people in that day and age had a chance to do. And in the monastery Luther began trying to reconcile the God he knew in Scripture, and the grace and love of God, with what was being taught by the church of his day.

One of Luther’s greatest frustrations was the selling of indulgences. People could buy these for themselves, or for a loved one who had died. They were told that if they paid, their sins would be forgiven. You can imagine how these were abused. If you were scared to death of going to hell, church could sell you forgiveness. Or, if your mother had died, and you were worried she was stuck in purgatory, it was pretty easy to say “you know, if you really loved your mother, you’d pay a little to be sure she went to heaven”.

The church already had quite a bit of wealth, but back in Rome they were just breaking ground on a brand new cathedral, one we know today as St. Peter’s. The sale of indulgences funded that new cathedral’s construction. And so indulgence by indulgence, brick by brick, fearful believers were building a new basilica.

Martin Luther didn’t think this was right. More than that, he didn’t think it was faithful to Scripture and to who Jesus really was. And so he wrote his 95 Theses, his 95 statements about faith and the abuses he saw, and he posted it to the church door. And that’s where we left off last week.

This week we read a passage from 1 Timothy. It’s a letter from Paul, or at least someone who is speaking in Paul’s style, to another young man of faith. Timothy was a young pastor who was just learning what it meant to keep the faith and be courageous. Paul was his mentor. And the words in this letter are ones from a mentor to a timid student who is trying to figure out who they are. Timothy is told, “fight the good fight of faith”.
They are words that could have been said to the young Luther as well. He was now 34 years old, not so far removed from the timid and fearful young man he had been. And I don’t think he wanted to fight. But now he was in the fight of his life.

I use those words cautiously because I don’t like glorifying violence. But there are times when standing up for what we know as true means that others are going to want to fight against us. Being courageous does not mean wanting to fight. Being courageous means telling the truth when something is wrong, even if it means that we will have to enter a fight we’d rather not be a part of.

Luther could have stayed quietly in the monastery, keeping his new found knowledge of God’s love and grace to himself. But as he looked at what the church was doing, he knew he couldn’t be silent. And he knew that as soon as he spoke he would be in the fight of his life. He also knew that the odds were stacked against him.

But he posted the theses anyway. And after they were posted, more people kept reading them. They started to get around. And then the local bishop saw them, and he passed them on to the Pope. And the Pope was not happy, especially because they needed those indulgences Luther was railing on about to build St. Peters.

The next year, in 1518, Luther was charged with heresy. He found protection, for a few years, under a prince called Fredrick the Wise who was sympathetic to his ideas. In 1521, though, the Emperor called Luther to appear before him, and Luther had no choice. And so four years after he had posted those ideas to the church door, Luther was finally called to answer for them.

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Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms by von Warner

You might remember from your history classes an event called the “Diet of Worms”. Funny name aside, this is where Luther takes his stand in the good fight of faith. And there’s a popular version of this story, and then the more likely version. The popular one goes like this: Luther is called before the Emperor and asked to recant, and say he was wrong. Luther refuses to do so, and shouts out “Here I stand! I can do none other!”

It’s a great story. But historians tell us it might not be exactly true. That’s okay, though, because the more likely story is even more powerful. Historians say that on the first day of the Diet, Luther appeared before the council. His books and writings were laid before him, and he was asked a simple question: Did you write these?

The answer, of course, is “yes”. But Luther doesn’t say that. Instead he asks to be given time to reflect and pray. This is pretty far from “here I stand”. But the next day Luther comes back. And he’s asked again if he wrote these books. And this time he says yes. And he is asked whether he will recant. And he says no. In fact, he says this:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.

In other words, “Here I stand…I can do none other.”

Luther’s words only convince the council that he is a threat. He is declared an outlaw and heretic, which means that anyone was allowed to kill him. And as he leaves the council he is immediately kidnapped. Fortunately, his kidnappers were sent by the friendly Frederick the Wise. They keep him safe, and they bring him to a castle in Wartburg. He grows a beard and assumes the identity of a man named “Squire George”, and goes into hiding.

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Actual photo of Martin Luther translating the Gospels from Greek.

It’s in Wartburg that Luther does what might be the most radical thing of all. He takes the New Testament, a book that your average German has never heard in the German language, and he translates it from Greek. He translates it not into the scholarly Latin which can only be read by clergy and academics, but into German. And for the first time, your average person in the pews could hear the stories of God’s love and grace for themselves, and not just as the church wants for them to hear them.

Over time Luther started to find more public support. His ideas were spreading, and he kept writing and encouraging reformation. At one point Luther encouraged all the priests, monks, and nuns to leave their cloisters. One of those nuns who leaves, Katharina, goes on to be his wife. He even becomes a father, having six children. Eventually the Emperor got distracted by other pressing issues, and Luther was left alone. He kept writing and ministering until his death in 1546. And 500 years later, we still remember his life, and his legacy.

Because of Martin Luther, you and I are here today, doing church together in a very different way. We are a member of a Protestant denomination that seeks to understand the Scriptures in light of God’s grace and love. We explore the big questions of faith together, with the church and pastor as teacher, and not tyrant. We do not believe that we are saved by our good works, but that we do good works because God’s grace has already saved us.

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Katharina Luther by Cranach the Elder

And, like Luther, we take up the call to be courageous in our faith. We fight the good fight of faith in our daily lives, not by violence or aggression, but by standing fast in what we know and believe about God. We live out our faith in this world, gratefully serving others with love, because we know already that we are loved by God.

Today we are baptizing the newest member into the faith. They are about to start a journey of their own. Today we will be making vows to support them, and to help them to grow in this faith, so that one day, they too may be courageous. The line from Christ to this font has traveled through so many spiritual ancestors who have taught us what it means to live out the faith. Martin Luther is one of them.

And so, as we come to the font again today, we remember our own baptisms. We remember a God who loves us into courage. And with Luther and all of the others, we proclaim the good news of God’s love and grace saying “here we stand…we can do none other.”

Martin Luther and the Fear of Breaking the Rules: Sermon for October 8, 2017

The following is the first sermon in a four week sermon series celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.

You don’t have to be a Christian to know who Martin Luther was. Anyone who cares about history knows that he was the man who symbolically began the Protestant Reformation when he walked to a church in Wittenberg Germany, and nailed his 95 Theses up there on the door for all to see.

Later this month, on Halloween day actually, the world will celebrate the 500th anniversary of Luther’s actions. This is a major historical event for everyone, but for Christians, and for Protestant Christians in particular, this is huge. Because Martin Luther lived, and spoke, and acted with courage, the shape of Christianity looks very different than it did back then.

Martin Luther changed the world. He was a mighty figure whose reputation has grown over the centuries. And I love reading about Martin Luther, because his life is so inspiring to me. But what really made me love Luther, what really drew me in, was learning about Martin Luther, the child and the young man. Because every great person who changes the world is first a young person, and what happens to them in those earliest years is what makes them who they are.

This morning we read the story of the Ten Commandments as our Scripture. I’ve preached about the Ten Commandments and what they mean for us today many times, so I’m not going to do that today. But I did want us to read them because they symbolize something that was important in young Martin Luther’s life: rules.

Martin knew that the world had rules. God had rules. The church had rules. His school had rules. And he was deathly afraid of breaking any of them. Part of the reason why was a system that had been set up at his school. Throughout the week one of the boys in his class would be chosen to observe all the other boys in secret. You never knew who it was, or when they were near you.

If a boy broke a rule and the boy who was the observer saw it, he would write it down. At the end of the week the observer would turn in his list of rule breakers to the headmaster. And the headmaster, armed with this intel, would then beat each boy for the rules he had broken.

Can you imagine being a boy in that class? Can you imagine young Martin on Fridays, unsure what the teacher did or did not know? Can you imagine him wondering if he would be beaten that day, and how bad the beating would be?

51WbSZBr3gL._SY346_Over 400 years later the field of psychology would come into its own, and would tell us that we form our earliest images of God based on the adults who are in authority around us when we are children. Our parents and our teachers, for instance. Erik Erikson, the famed psychologist, would go on to write a book called “Young Man Luther” all about Martin as a boy and a young man. He wanted to figure out what had made Martin into a man willing to face down the powers of the church. And this story is one he retold.

The same Martin who as a boy had been so scared and anxious about rule breaking and punishment at school grew up to be a young man who was scared and anxious about rule breaking and punishment when it came to his relationship with God. Martin became consumed with fear that he was going to be punished by an angry God who had been marking down his every mistake.

And his church didn’t help. The church of his day emphasized God’s wrath and punishment, and capitalized on it. The fear of hell drove people to engage in elaborate forms of penance. Churches even sold “indulgences”, payments you could make to the church in order to be forgiven for your sin. The church knew that they could market to the fear of good people in order to fund their own coffers.

And unlike today, there was no other church. If you were a German in the 1500’s, you were a Catholic because that’s all there was. You couldn’t go down the street to the church on the next block. The Catholic church was your one connection to God, and to heaven.

It’s important to stop here and note too that this was a very different world from ours, and a very different Catholic Church than the one that we know today. Corruption has existed in every denomination at one time or another. The fact the Catholic church was the only game in town made it easier for bad practices to flourish. You may have heard the phrase “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”? That’s what happened here. People just thought it was normal.

One of the outcomes of the Protestant reformation was that Catholicism had its own reformation where many of these practices were changed. It’s important that when we talk about what happened 500 years ago we make every attempt not to malign our Catholic siblings, or their faith, nor that we believe we who are Protestants are above corruption.

That said, this was the church that Martin Luther knew. And it was the church that was there for him when another fearful event happened in his life. Martin had grown up into a bright young man, and he had begun to study the law. He was well on his way to being a lawyer when one day in 1505, when he was about 22 years old, he was caught walking in a terrible thunderstorm.

The storm was so bad, with lightning crashing all around him, that he thought for sure that he was going to die. In his absolute terror, Martin calls out to God, and he makes a promise: God, if you save me, I will become a monk. He survives. And Martin is good to his word. He leaves school and he joins the monastery, and he begins to study to be a monk and a priest.

It was fear that got Martin into the monastery, but it is the monastery that teaches Martin that maybe he didn’t quite understand God. One thing that you have to realize about Martin’s time is that everything you knew about God and Scripture and the church was taught to you by the clergy. The printing press had just come into being about 75 years prior, and its spread was slow. Moreover, even if you could read, most books weren’t in German. The Bible in particular was written in Latin. Only the most scholarly of Germans, like the monks, could have even read it.

Portrait_of_Martin_Luther_as_an_Augustinian_Monk

Martin Luther as an Augustinian monk.

But here was Martin, finally getting to read it. And, as he read the Gospels, as he read Paul’s letters, as he read of a God who loved God’s people, it didn’t quite square with what he had always been told about God. Here in the Bible was a story about a God who is not waiting to punish us at the end of our lives like a school master at the of the week. Here is a God who loves us, and who loves us so much that God gives us the grace of forgiveness.

Martin’s whole life he had been taught that the only way he could be saved from eternal punishment was by his works. If only he was good enough, if only he worked hard enough, if only he bought enough indulgences, took on enough penance, then maybe…maybe…God would save him from punishment. But now he saw that this wasn’t who God really was.

Twelve years after that day in the thunderstorm, twelve years of learning and unlearning so much, Martin Luther walked through the town of Wittenberg towards the church in town. At about two in the afternoon he reached the doors of the church, and posted his 95 Theses. Legend says he “nailed” them to the door, but that makes it sound a little more dramatic than it probably actually was. In actuality the church door was a lot like a well-read bulletin board of a few decades ago. Maybe even like a Facebook page today. If someone had something they wanted to share, something they wanted others to discuss, it was not uncommon for them to tack it to the door of the church for others to see.

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The doors of the Wittenberg church as they look today.

That’s not to say, though, that what Martin did that day was not courageous. The 95 Theses are really just 95 statements about who God was, and what that meant for the church. Martin knew that in the eyes of the church they would make him a heretic, and perhaps even cost him his life. But Martin had come to understand God’s love and God’s grace, and he felt compelled to share it with others, and to reform his church, even if it meant his whole life was about to change. And once it was done, there was no going back.

Next week we’ll talk about what happened next, and how it changed everything…and still changes everything even for us today…

Blessed are the Different: A Sermon for All Saints’ Sunday 2014

Matthew 5:1-12
5:1 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.

5:2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

5:3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

5:4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

5:5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

5:6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

5:7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

5:8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

5:9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

5:10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

5:11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.

5:12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

When I was in middle school my Catholic friends began this process of choosing saints’ names. They were all about to be confirmed, and they had to pick one saint, whose life they respected, and take their name for their confirmation. I only knew a few saints like Patrick and Francis, so it was really fascinating for me to here about all these different saints because we in the Protestant traditions don’t really talk about them much.

We don’t discount saints, but we tend to see sainthood as something that happened to people a long time ago. The saints are people like Peter, Paul, the disciples, the early first believers. We don’t keep looking for saints among us and canonizing them the way our Catholic brothers and sisters do. Even now Mother Theresa and John Paul II are becoming official saints in the Catholic Church, but we don’t have anything similar.

Martin Luther

Martin Luther

In a way, that’s okay with me. And here’s why: I tried to be a saint once. I was in elementary school and I figured sainthood was a sure-fire ticket into heaven, so I’d give it a try. I was very holy. For about all of five minutes. Then I gave it up.

Sainthood, I decided, was just too hard. So, whenever All Saints’ Sunday comes up on the church calendar, which is today, I always approach it with this knowledge in the back of my head that sainthood was a failed vocation for me, and we are talking about other people.

And every year on All Saints’ we read this same passage from the Gospel of Matthew. It’s the Beatitudes, which is basically a list Jesus gives of the people who are “blessed”: the poor, the mourning, the meek, the ones who hunger for justice, the merciful, the pure, the peacemakers, the persecuted. And for each of these, a sort of blessing is given, like seeing God or inheriting the earth.

So, at first glance we might think, “that’s why we read it on All Saints’…it’s about people who can do no wrong. It’s about saints who have no reward in this life, but God’s blessing in the next.” And, maybe that’s true for some, but I think it all goes a little deeper than that.

One of you told me a story recently about the beatitudes. A storyteller told a story of a parent who was asked if they had a favorite child. Surprisingly the parent said “oh yes, I do”. The person who asked was appalled but the parent explained, “whichever of my children is going through the hardest time on any given day is my favorite, because that is the time when I am favoring them by giving them most of my thoughts, and my prayers, and my attention.

As it turns out, the word “blessed” can also be understood as meaning “favored”. And, the storyteller said, if we think of God as a divine parent who loves all of God’s children, perhaps the beatitudes are less about God loving the holy and perfect ones more, and more about God favoring us by drawing closer when we are in the hardest of times.

I think there’s something to that. And I think there’s good news there for those of us who are not saints. These words are not about being a reminder to us of how far off the mark we are. If anything, they are a reminder that God is present and loving us in our hardest, perhaps even least saintly, hours.

So, again, why do we read it today?

For me, it all comes down to an idea that a man named Martin Luther summarized in a Latin phrase nearly 500 years ago: Simul Iustus et Peccator. To translate that, “simultaneously saint and sinner”. Luther was talking about all of us there. He was saying that all of us occupy this space of being both. We mess up. A lot. We sin. A lot. We get it wrong. A lot. And yet, somehow we are still saints too.

Now, I told you my feelings on sainthood and how it didn’t sound like a sustainable career option for me. So, you can understand my suspicion here. And yet, I think Martin Luther was right. But before I came to believe that, I had to give up some of my old assumptions of what saints were like.

Now, when you think about a saint, what do you think of? Someone on a stained glass window? A figure on a prayer card or pendant? A statue? Mother Theresa in Calcutta? I’m not saying that some saints aren’t like that, but I think that’s a shortsighted view of sainthood.

Because in our tradition, we understand sainthood a little differently. Saints are not perfect people. Saints, instead, are simply everyday people who have died in the hopes of Christ’s Resurrection.

I talked about this yesterday at Gary’s memorial service. Gary is now a saint. And though he was a wonderful person, and his life shined as an example of God’s love, he’s not a saint because of that. Gary is a saint simply because when he left this life he joined the great Communion of Saints, the community of all who have lived and believed and somehow been found by Christ’s love.

But you and I, we are not saints. At least not yet. We are still wrestling it out in that space where Luther called us both “saints and sinners”. And, as hard as sainthood is, sometimes this feels even harder.

And here’s why I think that is. In the New Testament, when the word for “saint” is used, it doesn’t just mean “good person” or “holy person” or anything like that. Instead, the original word, “hagios”, isn’t even a noun at all. It’s an adjective, a description. And what it means is perhaps that most challenging part of all of becoming a saint. It means “different”, or “set apart”.

In other words, if you want to get ready to be a saint, then you have to be different. Different is not just okay, it’s good according to the Bible. Being different is what you and I are called to be. And the only thing that’s wrong with that, is this: being different is hard.

Don’t believe me? Ask any fourth grader you know what it means to be different. They’ll tell you it’s not such a great thing to be. In fact, we spend so much of our life trying not to be different, and trying not to stand out. Being set-apart is not something that makes most of us feel good. Instead it’s something that terrifies us.

And yet, it’s what God asks of us. God asks us to live our lives in a way that often goes against what is easy, accepted, or well-understood. We are called on constantly to choose the right over the easy, the good over the popular, and the meaningful over the mindless. In short, we are being called not just to be set-apart, but to voluntarily set ourselves apart. This is not for the faint of heart.

And yet, there are some days when we see it so clearly. There are some days when we understand at a gut level that this is what we have chosen and that we would never be happy choosing another way. And those are the days when, despite our stumbles and our wrong turns, we are closer to sainthood than ever.

And those are the days that we too are blessed. Those are the days when we are favored by God. Because, just like children can tell us that being different isn’t easy, their parents will tell you that watching them go through that is pretty hard too. And I’d imagine that in those times those children who are feeling the strain of being different in some way become “favored” by their parents. And if God if our divine parent, I’d imagine that on those days when we are struggling the most with this whole Christian life thing, and the ways in which we are called to be different, God is drawing a little closer to us too.

Listen again to the ones Jesus calls blessed: the poor, the mourning, the meek, the hungry for justice, the merciful, the pure, the peacemakers, the persecuted. In other words, the different. The ones who choose another way. The ones who, for all their imperfections, might just be becoming saints after all. At least one day, hopefully a long time from now.

But while we are not yet saints, others are. And we have known them. And so on this All Saints’ Sunday, I have this question for you: Who are the saints who you have known?

Who in your life is no longer with us, but taught you that maybe being different wasn’t just okay, but that it was the way to being blessed? Who lived their life in a way that taught you that God was with you, and that you were blessed? Who built something with their lives that remains as blessing to you still?

We all have these people. And on this All Saints, they deserve a moment to be lifted up, and so I invite you to do that now…

The Bible Clearly Says…: Sermon for June 2, 2013

Martin Luther, by Cranach

Martin Luther, by Cranach

Earlier this week I was reading a news article about a social issue, and the reporter had interviewed a pastor. And he was talking about this issue and he said, “the Bible clearly says that this is wrong”. And I remember thinking to myself, “actually, I don’t think that’s what the Bible says at all.” In fact, I think that the Bible says the exact opposite.

And it made me think about how many times I had heard that line: “the Bible clearly says”. And it made me think about the ways that we become confident that we are right, and the ways we can take what is meant to be a message of grace and hope and love for one another and instead turn it into at best a tool to justify our own worldview, and at worst a weapon used to impose that worldview on others.

I was thinking about that when reading today’s text. The passage we read today comes from the very beginning of the Epistle to the Galatians. “Epistle” is just a fancy word for “letter”, really, and this is a letter that Paul wrote to a church that he had started.

Paul had come to this community and he had taught the people there, who were not Jewish like many of the other early Christian people, all about God, and Jesus, and God’s love for them. Paul had taught a Gospel of grace. He had taught them about Jesus, a man whose compassion and love for the world had transformed the world. And he had taught them about being his disciples.

And then, after he left to go on and start other churches, the Galatians had been on their own. And that’s when other teachers had come to the church. And they started telling the Galatians, “you’re doing it all wrong”. And there wasn’t a Bible at this point, because it hadn’t been compiled yet, so they weren’t saying “the Bible clearly says”. But there was the law of Moses, the law that the Jewish community had followed for centuries. And most Christians at the very beginning had been raised in that law and saw that as the authority. And they were saying to these new Christians, “the law clearly says this is what you should do.”

And so, this church that had been taught about grace and about Christ’s love by Paul, all of a sudden was adopting the ways of their new teachers. And they were doing things like arguing about whether they should all get circumcised, and whether or not they had to prepare their food a certain way. And it was causing a rift in this new church.

Paul hears about it, and he writes them a letter. And this letter is probably the angriest letter that Paul sends to any of the churches. And he lays it out to them, starting with these first lines. He tells the Galatians, “look, I know the law”. Paul had been a lawyer, he had been raised in a family that followed the law, and he had been so committed to it that he had even persecuted the early church before his own conversion. He even says, “look, I was a zealot”. And he tells them this to show them that if anyone is going to say to them “Scripture clearly says” or “the law clearly says” he would know better than anyone.

And he tells them, “you know what I taught you” and people are trying to confuse you. He says to them, “I’m not trying to please other people. I’m trying to please God. And regardless of what the people coming in telling you what the law clearly says, don’t forget the real message of grace I taught you.”

Paul was speaking to a church 2,000 years ago. But, his words could just as easily speak to churches everywhere today. Because Christianity is caught in this tension about how we read the Scripture. And this has always been happening to some degree, but in our country the Bible is sometimes used as a political football, meant to justify or not justify whatever big issue is up for public discussion.

And I’m always fascinated when people say “the Bible clearly says this is wrong” or “the Bible clearly says this is right”. Because when it comes to practical matters, the Bible doesn’t clearly say a whole lot. Because the Bible is not just one book, it’s a collection of books, and it’s no secret to those who read it that often those books leave the reader with even less clarity than they had coming in.

And sometimes that means that the Bible has been used to justify some pretty heinous things. In the 1800’s in the South, Christian preachers used the Bible to justify slavery. The Baptist Church split into the American Baptists, the ones we have up here, and the Southern Baptists because the ones down South said “the Bible clearly says it’s okay to have slaves”. The same with the Presbyterians, the Episcopalians, the Methodists, and others, though they all later reconciled.

Fast forward to this century, and the Bible was used again to justify segregation in the South. It was used to fight giving women the right to vote. It’s used to keep science out of classrooms, and it’s used to in dozens of other ways. Someone is always willing to stand up and say “the Bible clearly says…” And God help you, literally, if you try to tell them otherwise.

It’s easy to get intimidated in those situations. Especially if you’re not someone who has devoted a lot of your life to studying the Scripture. It’s easy to feel like the other person must know what they are talking about. That’s especially true if you hear people quoting chapter and verse from memory.

But, that doesn’t mean that you don’t have something to say too. Because here’s what I believe. The Bible doesn’t clearly say much, but it does clearly say this: that God’s love for us is far bigger than anything we could imagine, that Christ taught us how to reflect that love to the world in our lives together, and that the Holy Spirit continues to guide us in every time and place.

That’s the test I use when someone says to me, “the Bible clearly says…” I go back to Jesus, the man who said love God and love your neighbor was the full extent of the law, and I ask myself whether that particular person’s interpretation of the Bible is in agreement with the way Christ asked us to love the world. And, often, I find that it’s not. And so I read the Scriptures for myself instead.

Now, you may disagree with me. And that’s okay. Because the clergy do not hold a monopoly on the Bible. The Bible, and the legacy of Christ, belong to you as much as they belong to me. Clergy are trained in a certain way, and we learn tools that help us to understand the Scripture, and we can be good resources for helping to interpret them. But in the end, this book belongs to each of us, not just some of us.

Martin Luther, the great reformer who helped to launch the Protestant Reformation, really believed that was true. He had been a priest in a time when only priests and a few others could read the Bible. That was literally true because, first, not many people could read. Second, the printing press hadn’t been invented yet, so there wasn’t much to read. And, third, what was available was often in Latin and not the language of the people.

Part of the Protestant Reformation, the movement that brought churches like ours, was the idea that everyone should be able to read this book. And printing presses were invented right at the time Martin Luther was doing his work, so the timing was perfect. And all of a sudden, it was possible for everyone to have a Bible. And not just a Bible printed in Latin, but one printed in German, their own language. And those early Lutherans and other early Protestants stressed education for this reason. They wanted everyone to be able to read this for themselves. They wanted Christianity to be a religion that promoted education, and that wanted you to use your mind and read for yourself. They didn’t want to control the Bible; they wanted to open it up so that everyone could claim it.

Which means that this is your Bible too. Our church isn’t known as one full of Bible-thumpers. We don’t walk around telling people what the Bible clearly says. I hope we don’t start doing that. But we are people of this book as much as any other church is. It’s ours too. And that means that we can claim it, and read it for ourselves, and find out what is really says, not just what talking heads on TV or people with an agenda say it says.

I think I started reading the Bible because I’d been told so many times what the Bible clearly said and I wanted to see for myself. And what I found was not a scary book full of rules. What I found was grace, and compassion, and a witness to God’s love. Ironically, it’s a big part of what made me go to seminary.

And you too are free to explore. So, how will you do that? Will you read the Bible for yourself? Will you come to a Christian education class? Will you start a prayer group? Will you go to a Bible study?

Today in the visioning process we are going to be talking about some of the ways that the church can help you to do that, and so I hope you will stay and tell us what would be helpful. This book, this faith, is yours as much as it is anyone else’s. You have as much claim to the name of Christian as anyone, whether you carry a Bible in your hand, or not. That means that the doors of faith have been flung open wide to you. How will you walk through? Amen.

What Happens Now? – A Sermon on the Ascension for May 20, 2012

I couldn’t wait to get to college. As much as I loved my parents, like every college freshman I was eager to be on my own. And so we pulled up to the dorm as soon as it opened on the first day, I got everything I could out of the car as quickly as possible, set it up in my dorm room, and told my parents that I was fine, and that I’d see them on fall break.

But as soon as my parents disappeared out the front doors of the dorm, and sinking realization hit me: I was on my own. I wondered, was I ready? Could I do it? And most of all, what happens now?

I sometimes wonder if that’s what the disciples were thinking on the day that Jesus left them there at Bethany. Today we read the story of the Ascension, when Jesus is lifted up into heaven. It seems like he is leaving the world behind, and on its own.

It hadn’t been all that long since Christ has been put to death, and then had been resurrected. I wonder if when he rose again the disciples had thought they had him back in their midst for good. I wonder if they expected him to stay. Or were they ready to be on their own? Were they like college freshmen, eager for mom and dad to get back in the station wagon so that a new life could finally begin?

I always imagined that the disciples were there saying, “Where are you going? You just got back?” But Scripture tells us that they receive Christ’s blessing, and after Christ returns to heaven, they return to Jerusalem with “great joy” and that they are continuously in the temple after that, celebrating.

I wonder how long that lasted?

I was the youngest of my parents kids, and born significantly after my sisters, so by the time I went to college they had had kids in the house for 33 consecutive years. I think they had earned a vacation. So they did what they had always dreamed of doing, and they went to Paris. This was before the days of cell phones, and so I didn’t really have an easy way to reach them. And so a few weeks in to my freshman year, when I hit the inevitable point of having some problem I wasn’t sure how to handle, I realized that for the first time in my life I couldn’t turn to mom and dad for advice. I had to rely on what they had taught me, and trust that it wouldn’t lead me wrong.

I wonder how long it took before they had a question they couldn’t answer on their own, and they wished he was back there? I wonder if they too realized that they just had to rely on what he had taught them, and trust that it wouldn’t lead them wrong?

That can be a scary thing sometimes. We can feel like we are on our own. As much as we beleive that God is still active in our lives, as much as we believe in the continual guidance of the Holy Spirit, we can feel like the disciples had it easy. They at least got to have some face time with Jesus. We haven’t gotten that.

Have you ever played that game where you answer the question, “If you could have dinner with any person living or dead, who would you pick?” The answers have their fair share of presidents, famous artists, and historical figures. But whenever I’ve heard it played the one answer I hear more than any other is Jesus.

I don’t think that’s a coincidence, especially for those of us who would follow the way of Christ. I’d like to think that maybe some Tuesday Jesus and I could go down to half-price pizza night together. (I’m sure even Jesus likes a good deal.) We could sit there and talk about what how we Christians are doing on creating the world he wanted us to create. And then we could talk about how we who would be disciples sometimes get it wrong. If I could just sit with him, and talk to him, and get my marching orders directly from him, face to face, I’d know what to do. I’d be sure I was on the right path.

None of us have had that chance yet. At least I’m assuming. (If Jesus has been down at La Toscanella and you haven’t been telling me I’m going to be really sad.) Instead we have to trust the witness of the disciples, who had those sit down dinners all those years ago, and who tried to pass on what they remembered to the ones who came next, who passed it on to the ones after that, and the ones after that, and all the way down to us.

But, for those of us 2,000 years later, though, we might, understandably, ask where is God now?

Like I’ve said, I believe Jesus is still here. I believe Jesus is here with us today in worship. I even believe Jesus is down the street at the pizza place on Tuesday nights. I believe Jesus is always with us.

When Jesus returned to God he stopped being with us in a physical way. That means that he no longer was just with a small group of people in one place long ago. He now was able to be with all of us, all the time. Christ is here right now in West Dover, and he’s down the road in Brattleboro, and he’s out in California, and across the oceans in every place you can think of. He’s even there at Bethany, where we last saw him 2,000 years ago. He’s with us still.

I believe that. But I also believe this. We have a harder time believing in what we cannot see. And so for those of us who are Christians, we need physical daily reminders of who Christ is, and what Christ desires for us. We need to be reminded that Christ is with us daily, and that God is here.

So what’s the answer? It’s us. You and I. The church. And the world around us.

There are two parts to this, and every one of us has played both roles. First, we have to learn how to see Christ in everyone we meet. And second, we need to learn how to be Christ to everyone we meet.

Maybe you’ve heard it said before that Christ comes disguised as the stranger. Christ is in our midst every day, but he doesn’t look like the Sunday school painting of him with the white robes and long hair and sandals. He might look like a woman who needs money for food. Or a man who is in the hospital, fighting AIDS. He might look like the kid who is getting bullied in high school, or the veteran returning from Afghanistan.

Jesus might show up in the most unexpected places. And when Jesus does, I want to be ready. I want to meet Jesus, and love Jesus, and be the person Jesus wanted me to be. And so I try to practice. With every person I meet, no matter how they might challenge me, I try to see Jesus in them. That’s not easy. But it’s the best way I know how to make sure I don’t go through a day without seeing Jesus in the world around me. And I’ve found that as hard as it may be for me to see Christ in some people, when I can do it, I’m blessed by it.

But then there’s the other side. And that’s not just learning to see Christ in others, but also learning how to be Christ to others. Martin Luther wrote that we Christians are called to be “little Christ’s” to one another. Our job is to imitate Christ in our lives, and respond to those we meet the way we think Christ would respond to them. When we do that well, lives are changed.

I’ll give you an example that was shared with me. I’ve been given permission to share it with you too. Someone I know lost their father suddenly, and traumatically, when she was 9 years old. In the aftermath of his death, her Sunday school teacher went out of her way to may time and space for her. She gave her space to ask the questions she needed to ask, and reassured her that God was still there, still loving her. It didn’t make the pain go away, but it did help the girl to feel that someone was making time and space for her and taking her faith questions seriously.

That Sunday school teacher was a little Christ to the little girl who needed to know that Christ was there with her. Maybe you have your own stories. Who has been Christ to you in your life? Who has stepped in when you have needed it most, and treated you the way Christ would have? Who has seen the Christ in you, and met it with their own?

And now the harder part: How are you going to be Christ to the people in your life? To your family? To your friends? To your neighbors? To that person that annoys the ever-living love out of you?

And here’s the question for all of us gathered here today: How is this church going to be Christ to the people in our community? To those who are hungry? To those who are just getting by? To those who are sick? To those who need hope? To those who want to see who Christ really was, and how incredible that love really can be?

These are the questions we Christians ask ourselves everyday: Where can I see Christ in my life, and how can I be Christ to others? Here’s my challenge to you this week. Each day, try to see the image of Christ in someone you meet. The more difficult the better. And then, try to find Christ in yourself, and be Christ to that person. I promise, Christ is there. In both of you. And when you find him you will find that he was not the only one who was lifted up to greater things on Ascension Day. We all were. And we all continue to be. Amen.

“Here I Stand” – Sermon for March 11, 2012

John 2:13-22
2:13 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.

2:14 In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables.

2:15 Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.

2:16 He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

2:17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

2:18 The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?”

2:19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

2:20 The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?”

2:21 But he was speaking of the temple of his body.

2:22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

When most of us think about Jesus we have this certain image. We picture a loving, non-violent, peaceful man who is kind to everyone. We don’t picture someone who is angry. We don’t picture someone who knocks over tables and yells. We think that’s the exact opposite of who Jesus really is. But then we have passages like this, and we’re often not really sure what to make of them. And we have to ask ourselves, what in the world could have made Jesus so enraged? The answer is in the story.

Jesus went to Jerusalem. It was almost the Passover, and he went, along with many other people, to the Temple. The holiest site in Jerusalem. The physical center of the faith. The people who came to the Temple did two things: they made sacrifices and they paid their taxes. Giving to the Temple was not optional. It wasn’t like a Sunday morning offering. It was something you had to do to go in.

And in order to make sure all the mandatory religious activities were able to happen, this industry sprang out in the Temple. There were people who sold sheep and cows and doves for the sacrifices. And there were money changers who would convert Roman currency to Hebrew money, sometimes at rates as high as 300%. It was usury at its worst, but they had the market cornered. Every observant person would not risk not paying the rates. This is how religion had been done for a long time in Jerusalem, and no one could really question it.

Which is why they were so shaken when Jesus came and, literally, turned everything upside down. Throws animals out. Takes the tables and knocks them over. Money was probably going everywhere. And the religious leaders came to him and said, “What gives you the right to do this?”

He tells them, “you can destroy this Temple, and in 3 days I’ll raise it up again.” They think he’s crazy because the temple has been being rebuilt for years. But Jesus was talking about himself and how he knew they were about kill him, and how he would rise up again. He was telling them, though they didn’t know it, that everything was about to change, and business as usual was over.

They killed him not long after. The religious leaders knew he was a threat. If he would overturn tables and cause a scene in their Temple, what would he do next? They thought they could overturn him just as easily as he overturned those tables. Who did this son of a carpenter from some backwoods town think he was?

But he rose again. And in the new movement he started there was no room for animal sacrifices or money changers. At least not for a while.

Fast forward 15 centuries. To Germany. And to a monk named Martin. The church was trying to build a new temple, this time in Rome. It was called St. Peter’s. And they had a fundraising problem. So they started to sell these indulgences. Pay a little and your sins will be forgiven. Pay a lot and the soul of your dear departed mother or spouse will be sprung from purgatory and released to heaven.

These were poor believers paying this money. As poor as the Jewish people who journeyed to the Temple in Jerusalem and paid three times what they should have to change their money. But they were good people, willing to pay the price to be faithful. Willing to pay into this corrupt system because they didn’t think there was any other way.

And so the young monk wrote a list of things he thought were wrong. And he posted them in a town called Wittenberg. And Christian faith would never be the same. We Protestants are spiritual descendants from Martin Luther. But his reforms shaped even what the Catholic Church has since become. Because Luther, like Christ, had the courage to stand up to the ones who had corrupted the faith, to turn their world upside down, and to reclaim what was good in the name of God.

They didn’t kill Luther, though they tried. But he paid heavily. He was excommunicated and thrown out of the faith. But when he was asked to recant, he couldn’t. He said only, “Here I stand. I can do no other.”

Jesus and Luther were cut from the same cloth. And the people around them thought they were heretics. Thought they were anti-faith. Thought they were misguided at best, and downright sinful at worst. And yet, in the end, they ushered in new faith, and new life. We wouldn’t be Christians without Christ, of course. But we also wouldn’t be the Christians we are without Luther.

But being an alternative religious voice doesn’t always make you popular. That doesn’t always mean that you have the most people who agree with you. It often makes you a bit of a target. Churches that stand up against what they see as being against the true message of Christ often incur the wrath of others who say they’re not really Christian. They’re getting it all wrong. They’re out in left field.

But they’ve said that in the past about others. And they’ve been wrong.

I’ve been thinking about what the church has become, especially in our North American context. I’ve been thinking about what people think being a Christian means in America. As the division and rhetoric picks up in this country, the dominant images of Christianity are often becoming less and less flattering. The voices that speak the loudest, the ones who stand in front of the Temple changing money and demanding payment, are often not kind ones or compassionate ones or ones that tell you much at all about the love of Christ.

They may not speak for us, but they’re what people think of when they think of what it means to be Christian. And whether we realize it or not, they’re the ones who may be stopping people from feeling like they’d ever have a place in our temple.

One Sunday about five years ago I was preaching down South at a church that was a lot like ours. It was a welcoming place. Warm, ready to embrace the stranger, slow to judge. The service ended and I processed out into the narthex. And there was a young woman, about 18 or 19, sitting there waiting to talk to me.

She was a student at a very fundamentalist Bible college down the road. Her father was a preacher, but that brand of Christianity wasn’t working for her anymore. The faith she was a member of was so strict that she could have been thrown out for drinking a beer. And if the people at her college had found out who she really was deep down, she would have been thrown out for that too.

She had been so wounded by the faith. So wounded by those who sat at the doors of the Temple and told her the price she would have to pay to enter, a price that would mean denying who she was, that when she came to this church that would have totally welcomed her, she sat out in the narthex. Because she didn’t know she had a place in the sanctuary. It broke my heart.

But the saddest thing is, she came a lot further than a lot of people do. I wonder if there were good Jewish people in Jesus day who were never able to go to the Temple and worship because they just couldn’t pay the price. I wonder how many good Catholics in Luther’s day lay awake at night afraid because they couldn’t buy their way into heaven. And I wonder how many of our neighbors want to walk through the doors of a place that would love them as they are?

We say we will welcome everyone who walks into our doors. And I believe that’s true. But how will we welcome the ones who would never dare to do that on their own. How do we welcome those who have grown accustomed to a representation of Christianity that has come to be defined not so much by the face of Christ, but by the faces of modern day moneychangers at the front of the Temple? The ones who would distort Christ’s message of love for something so different?

We are a welcoming place, that is for sure. But when I meet people in this area, and they find out I’m the pastor, I still get all sorts of questions . And they’re not because you have been doing anything wrong. They’re because the voices of faith they have heard the loudest in our culture cause them to have to wonder. Here are some real questions I’ve heard about us:

Would I be welcome in your church if I drink alcohol? If f I believe women are not inferior to men? If I think maybe the world was not created in six 24 hour days? Would I be welcome if I like to read Harry Potter? If my kids can’t sit quietly for an hour? Would I be welcome if my daughter is gay? If I’m a recovering alcoholic? If on some days, I doubt?

You and I hear these questions and we think “of course”. Of course you would. But they don’t know that. And their questions are reflective of just how far some have to come to walk through the doors of our church.

You might say, “We’re not that kind of church!” And we’re not. But here’s the thing. They think we’re that kind of church. Not because of anything you’ve been doing wrong, but because they think every church is that kind of church.

Because if all they’ve ever seen standing in front of the Temple, standing between them and God, are the faces of the moneychangers and the sacrifice sellers, the faces of the ones who twist faith into something different than it is, the ones who go on the evening news preaching hatred instead of Christ, can you blame them?

So what is at the front of your temple? Because if we are all members of Christ’s body, then we are all part of his temple. When people come to know you at the most sacred places, what do they see first? Do they see a religion as they’ve always seen it done before? Or do they see grace, and a Christ who would sweep away what doesn’t matter and replace it with a new creation?

There are people outside of these doors who belong here. Who would be loved here. Who would be welcome. And we know that. But they don’t. So when you go back into the world this week, how can you tell them about the Christ you know? How can you lead them into the temple, past what doesn’t matter, and into what does? Don’t take for granted that they know what kind of Christian you are. Show them.

We who are the “frozen chosen”, we don’t like to talk about our faith or our religion much. I get that. But when we aren’t talking, others still are. And they’re the voices your neighbors, who may love to be here, are hearing. So this week, think of one way you can represent the Christ you know in your life to those who might need to know there’s a place for them here. I’m not saying go door to door handing out Bibles. I’m saying a simple word of welcome may mean as much to someone who needs it as Jesus turning over tables may have meant to those who had been standing outside the temple, waiting for a new day to come.

And so, this Lent, decide where you are going to stand. Will it be idly by as Jesus turns over the tables of religion at its worst? Or will it be with Christ, who is turning us into something new? I know where I’m going to stand. I hope you will stand with me. As Martin Luther said better, “Here I stand. I can do none other.” Amen.