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One Truth: A Sermon for Reformation Day
October 26, 2015, 11:17 am
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Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.

Today we celebrate a festival called “Reformation.” We remember an event almost 500 years ago, in which the Catholic priest, monk, and professor Martin Luther brought his soul searching and Biblical study into a discussion within the religious and academic community. He challenged the way things were in the church of his place and time. Many others came after him. This led to the eventual breaking away from the one church of the West, the Roman Catholic Church, into a number of different churches.

All the religious conversations, theological writings, changes, political shuffling, and schisms of the 1500s are part of what we call The Reformation. It was a period of change and new developments that set the stage for the religious landscape in which we live today in which there are hundreds of different denominations.

While we talk about The Reformation as a period in history, reformation isn’t a once and done event.

Throughout every generation of the faithful, there is questioning and adapting in the process of meeting God at work in the world and the community. Scripture records drastic changes that force a reforming of the community’s understanding of God and God’s work.

Remember the Old Testament’s stories of the rise of the kingdom, which celebrated God’s promise to secure David’s line on the throne forever. This whole understanding of God at work was tested when the Israelites were conquered, the temple destroyed, and the leaders brought away into exile. The community had to reform into a new way of understanding God’s power and promises, as well as a new way to worship.

In the Gospels, Jesus pushes against expectations of how God is present, how God’s laws apply, for whom God acts, and how God saves. The community had to reform to accept Jesus the suffering one as the awaited triumphant messiah.

By the later New Testament, at the very beginning of the Church, Paul and Peter are confronted with God’s push towards including nonJews among the chosen people, and the community goes through a very difficult period of reformation as they figure out who is allowed in.

Reformation is the change that comes about in the community of believers when their images of God and their ways of worship are no longer sufficient to address their current reality. Reformation- change- can be difficult, as it’s a birthing process, a growing process, and sometimes the outcome isn’t so clear from the beginning. It can also be a destructive process, whenever people think they have arrived at the one answer, the one truth, and come to view others as enemies, who at best, are ignorant or deluded, and at worst, are agents of evil, spreading lies.

Our triumphant celebrations of the Reformation can fall into the destructive if we raise up Luther or our denomination as the only ones who have made it to the truth. As if we have gotten it all right and everyone else is lost and wrong.

Our bulletin celebrates today with a statue of Martin Luther and this powerful verse from the Gospel, “the truth will make you free.” Now, when Jesus stands before Pilate, Pilate asks, “what is truth?” I think we need to ask the same. The thing is, we all seem to think we know what the truth is.

The whole Reformation might be summed up by describing it as a search for the truth. The bloodly outcome of that search for truth points to the fact that we never got there.

Because you can’t claim the truth- you can’t contain it in a book, as if our Book of Concord held the truth, or even as if the Bible was the truth.

Jesus is the truth. We hear this explicitly in John 14:6, Jesus declares, “I am the way and the truth and the life.” The truth is the incarnate, crucified and resurrected one- and that God- that Jesus- isn’t going to be owned and pinned down by one sect or another.

Jesus is the truth that will set us free- free from internal struggles to attain holiness, free from the need to judge others, free from the interChristian fights to claim possession of the truth.

Today, as we near 500 years since the Reformation, the truth that sets us free from our Lutheran brand loyalty, free to witness to the world as the one Christian Church, is the crucified one.

When we look at Jesus on the cross, we are confronted by truth that clearly shows us ourselves. Our betrayal, power struggles, and need to direct hate and violence on to another – are all right there, pinning Jesus to the cross. Our need to make ourselves feel better by pouring hatred onto another, an outsider, an easy target is the truth Jesus shows us- the truth Jesus chooses to be crushed under and claimed by.
This crucified Jesus, with truth shining right on to us, is the salvation that will lead us out of the division of the Reformation. We can see clearly Martin Luther’s failure to grasp the fullness of God as he name calls the Pope or the Anabaptists. We can see clearly our failure when our differences in practice and belief form negative stereotypes or destroy our ability to work, worship, or pray together.

When Dave and I were talking about the upcoming 500 year commemoration of the Reformation, he reminded me that our language shapes our reality. It’s time to start talking about our shared identity as Christians first, and our tradition second, so that we can better work, learn, and worship together as Christians from the Roman Catholic background and Christians from the Lutheran background, Christians from the Baptist Tradition or the Methodist Tradition. We are one body, one Church, because the Truth to whom we cling is bigger than all the truths of our particular denomination’s teaching and practice.

Us Christians from the Lutheran tradition and from the Roman Catholic tradition have been working together in dialog since 1967 on a formal level through the Lutheran-Roman Catholic Commission on Unity. Together, we’ve published a number of documents that explore all those ideas and practices that once drove us apart, and have come to an increased appreciation for each other. We’ve had to listen deeply to each other, to discover how our different language points to the same truth. The latest document, “From Conflict to Communion,” helps us from these divided traditions to come together towards unity, with the possibility for a common commemoration of the Reformation that celebrates how God has been present within both churches, rather than trumpeting one or the other as the true church while the other is in error. We confess one holy apostolic catholic (little c, as in worldwide) church- and though we may never become one Church in shared organizational structure or practice, we remember that we are one in Jesus.
We are at the brink of a new Reformation, during which the unity of the Church is more necessary than ever. The Western and Northern spheres of the globe are expressing an increasing sense of the irrelevance of the Church. The world is staggering under violence committed by those claiming possession of the truth. Our culture seems intent on growing the church only by building a new worship center every time a disagreement ruptures a community. Will we show the world the face of a Christianity that is divided and consumed by arguments, or will Jesus hold us together as one, with the diversity of our practice contributing to the depth and richness of the face of Christ we show together?

Truth isn’t a set of facts to cling to. Faith isn’t about agreeing to a set of beliefs, as if you could tick off a list of ideas to which you assent, and you’d be good. Faith is about trust and relationship. Faith sometimes is the desperate reach of a floundering person drowning, hoping beyond hope that something might be there to catch him. The truth faith needs is a person. Jesus Christ is the embodied truth, the person who acts for you and in you to create faith, and to be the faithful one to whom you can cling, through change, through suffering, and into life and freedom.


Breaking Assumptions, Loving Beyond: A sermon on Acts 10:44–48
May 13, 2012, 6:11 am
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Our daughter, Laila, is almost 11 months old. Every once in a while, I scroll through photos of her, on our computer. I watch as she transforms from screaming freshly born baby on the weighing scale with arms and legs extended, to her first smiles, easy to come as she woke in the morning, to being able to sit and pick up objects, to her first tastes of food, and now with her growing independence as she scoots across the floor. I wonder how much we’ve already shaped her life, by what we’ve exposed her to, by what we’ve encouraged her to do or not do. Will she be a musician but not an artist, since she sings with her daddy, but we’ve yet to give her a crayon? Will she feel safe in the wide openness of the Dakota plains, but claustrophobic in the woods of my homeland? Will she call snacktime lunch and roll her eyes when her daddy tries to call dinner lunch? Will she fear people of different skin tones and cultures, because her community is fairly homogeneous and white?


We all are shaped by our communities, taught to expect one thing and not another, taught to welcome one person and not another. We are formed by our experiences, learning what to avoid and what to touch. The voices of those we listen to on TV or radio shape our own thoughts. Teachers guide us towards the correct answer. 


Every day, we pick up messages and signals that form us into who we are: people with expectations about how the world works, what and who is valued, and how we are to interact with others. We combine all of this, without conscious effort, into our worldview, which directs how we act and react in our daily lives. The thing is, we don’t often question all these things which have formed our assumptions. It’s become who we are, and often supported by those around us. 


The people whose stories are recorded in the Bible were much like us in this respect: they were imbued with their culture. The book of Acts tells of Jesus’ disciples as they encounter the Holy Spirit and witness the spread of the good news of God’s love shown through Jesus. 


Today, we hear the closing scene of a story in which Peter, one of Jesus’ closest disciples, was pushed beyond his comfort and expectations. Peter, like Jesus and all the other disciples, was a Jew. He saw himself as part of a small group of people who believed in the one true God, lived a Godly life, and followed God’s commands. People who were not part of this group were to be avoided, because they had a polluting influence on those who were called to be pure before God. 


One day, while Peter was praying, he had a vision in which God called him to eat meats that God had commanded should not be eaten. Peter is faithful to what the Bible says and to God’s commandments, so he declares that he will not eat. But, God is doing a new thing, and declaring what was once unclean, clean. God calls Peter to eat. This is Peter’s preparation for the work God is doing among the people of the world, work God wants Peter to be a part of. 



There is a non-Jewish man, named Cornelius, who has been seeking to know and serve God. God answers his prayers by sending Peter to him. Peter enters the home of this Gentile, a person he had always thought God would want him to avoid. Peter proclaims the good news about Jesus to Cornelius and all his family. 


Peter had probably never expected God to send him to an outsider, to teach about God’s work through Jesus. Even Jesus’ unexpected welcoming of outsiders hadn’t prepared him to do this work himself. But it’s what happens next that really surprises him. 


Suddenly, while Peter’s trying to teach, there is evidence that the Holy Spirit is already at work among these outsiders. Cornelius and his household begin speaking in tongues and praising God, common practices for those who were filled with God the Holy Spirit. 


Now, Peter hasn’t come to Cornelius’ home alone. He’s accompanied by those the text names as “circumcised believers.” That adjective underscores the division between them and the “Gentiles:” Cornelius and his household. Circumcision was a sign between God and God’s people, and a commandment of God that all men were to follow. It was a practice that repulsed the Gentiles. The question of whether every man who chose to follow Jesus would also have to follow God’s command to be circumcised caused great division and debate in the early church. 


In this scene from Acts, expectations are being shattered and worldviews shaken! God has shown Godself to be active among people who have not followed correct practice, have not followed God’s law, and do not belong to the right group. Not only Peter, but all the circumcised believers with him, are forced to realize that God might work in ways they have not been prepared to accept. Peter, perhaps better prepared than the others from his “eat this forbidden food” vision from God, quickly responds with rejoicing, gets on board with God in this act of welcoming outsiders, and calls for water to baptize these Gentiles who have already received the gift of the Holy Spirit. 


On this day when we at Trinity celebrate young ones receiving communion for the first time and Wyatt being confirmed, I hear a caution from Acts. We have tried to teach these young people some basic Christian teachings, so that they would know what is true, and how God works in our world. We have done this in good faith, wanting to prepare them to receive the sacraments rightly, and live Godly lives. Yet I fear that we can be too zealous to pass on the faith, too eager to form our children, and hold too tightly onto the power of determining correct practice, so that we do not prepare them and ourselves for the beautiful and overwhelming grace of God. God gifts life and love in places and ways and to people we would not expect, beyond the boundaries we have drawn. 




Peter, and the other circumcised believers, thought they understood how God acts in our world. They were surprised with the beautiful reality that God breaks out of the boxes we place around God. God works where we do not expect. God acts outside of our control. God’s love is always wider, forgiveness always more abundant, and life more powerful than we imagine. Peter and the other circumcised believers were pushed out of their comfort zone and met God working where they had been sure God would never be.


We have soaked up prejudices that need to be wiped away. Throughout our lives, we may find that much of what we think we know needs to be edited and adjusted to match the reality in which we live. God may need to break open our expectations, and confront us with our cultural assumptions. God is often at work in ways we cannot see because we cannot accept that God might be giving life, love, and forgiveness to those outside our communities. 


<<  Graduates, you are about to enter a new phase in your life. You are about to leave the education system you have known. Some of you will be leaving the community you have known. What comes next will be different. You may meet people, learn things, and have experiences that uncover the assumptions you have about the world. It can be scary to leave what you have always known. It can be scary to think that what you’ve always thought was true about the world might not be. God walks with you through this new adventure. In all your sifting and sorting of experiences and education, God is with you, to give you strength to test assumptions.>>


Of all that we tell ourselves about our identity and our place in the world, there is one thing that will always be true. God loves you. You have worth in God’s eyes. It’s not easy to see proof of this beautiful truth. In fact, the world around us, and even the communities closest to us, can often bear messages of our lack of worth, our brokenness, our imperfection. That is why we need Christian community, and why we need to be in church, where we receive the sacraments. 


This community is called to be a place where the promise of God’s loving and life-giving presence is declared so often that it becomes our central mark. The one message about ourselves and our world that will always be true is God’s love. This love has been freely given, proved by Jesus, in his willingness to suffer, in his death and resurrection. This one truth, and our intention to be formed by it, is the reason we gather around the sacraments of baptism and communion. There we hear, taste, smell, and feel God’s promises. There we receive life, love, and forgiveness from the very hand of God. This community is shaped by these central gifts of God. 


My prayer for my daughter, and for each of you, is that you continue to grow into your identity as a beloved child of God. Through baptism, you are set free from the world’s judgements and welcomed into God’s community on the merit of Jesus’ righteousness. You are loved by a God who loves with reckless abandon, loving beyond expectation and past all boundaries.