Dear Brothers and Sisters:
Hope you all had a Happy All Hallow’s Eve! Yesterday was the day Luther stuck the 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, unleashing the world’s greatest meme. The Reformation reminds me of many of the social movements happening today—many which are the release of anger at entrenched systems of profit and oppression. This anniversary marks a time of increasing unease and fury, of greater despair and deeper anger than many years we’ve seen in a while. Interesting that Luther’s theses hammered away at for-profit religion: “Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better deed than he who buys indulgences…Christians are to be taught that he who sees a needy man and passes him by, yet gives his money for indulgences, does not buy papal indulgences, but God’s wrath.” Greta Thunberg turned down an environmental prize this week: “The climate movement does not need any more awards...The gap between what the science says …. (and) the politics that run the Nordic countries is gigantic. And there are still no signs whatsoever of the changes required.”
Look out for indulgences—they were originally meant to augment the merits awarded from the infinite treasury of heaven to cover the debts of sinners on earth. The first of the 95 Theses rejected this idea of faith as a form of banking and accounting, and rather started with the mystery of repentance. Repentance in the New Testament really means turning around or turning away—making a change of life and direction. Sometimes we can’t make that change on our own. The fundamental change, away from the curdling of our selves to growth in God can only be done by God’s grace. So we celebrate that God does come to us to change us.
We call people that God has changed saints. In the Lutheran tradition we do not hold that some people are holier than others—all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, we say. There are people whose lives we hold up as exemplary, but we should never believe that any person is flawless or perfect. People are often shocked that their heroes and idols have sides that are not merely bad, but awful. Lutherans would be shocked if people did not have awful sides as well as good ones. Mr. Rogers, for example is a genuinely shocking example of goodness, but even he struggled with worker’s rights and had to evolve on his views of sexual orientation. We work our way toward saintliness throughout our lives, and we don’t get there till after death.
This Sunday we celebrate the saints—All Saints. We remember the people we love who have died, and we lift them up in prayer to God. And we will ask God to help us as we walk toward sainthood. We get to turn and walk towards the cross, and through the gates of death to eternal life. This is a powerful Sunday, when the bonds of the world lose their power over us, and the grace of God takes over. Hope you can make it.
I was thinking about grace this week, that catchall word that we now throw around like a fireman throws candy in a parade. I was thinking about the beauty of grace, which is both the world’s creation and its redemption, both its beginning and its transformation. I was thinking about what grace means for us, the door that appears when we can’t find a way out, the invitation that appears without warning in our locked and bolted rooms. I was thinking, not as much as I should have been thinking, about a nondescript, unremarkable man from Galilee, who walked unseen from a tomb and somehow remains with us in all his strange power, power that comes without violence or intimidation, but with a love that overcomes all his enemies and binds all people into one, despite their own enmities and systems and ideologies. Love is the message of the Reformation, and it means that all the scaffolding we build to climb to God, the torture chambers we endure to prove our worth to God, the spiritual calisthenics we perform to allow ourselves the presumption of speaking to God, are worthless because God has come to us, wherever we are, a locked room, or encircled by despair, or even in the pride of our own strength and intelligence, and has come to speak the words we long to hear but cannot say to ourselves: that God’s love transforms us. That it is written on our hearts, that we can’t prove to God we’re worth it, which is just another way of proving to ourselves that God is worth it. I was thinking of those things, but then I thought of a poem by E.E. Cummings which you may have run across in English 101, or high school, the one that goes like this:
2 Timothy 3:14–4:5
I first heard the story of Jacob and the angel, or God, or the mysterious stranger for the first time in Kansas, when we got U2’s The Joshua Tree in the mail and my dad put it on the CD player for the first time. That album starts with a sound that might be twilight or might be sunrise and builds and layers around wails and grunts and guitar until you realize that you’re waking up, that it is sunrise—until you get to the song Bullet the Blue Sky. It’s a seriously scary song, especially if you’re a boy listening to it for the first time, scary because the music sounds hopeless and cruel and includes words about bullets and lyrics about government corruption and fleeing into the arms of America. It also includes this line, “Jacob wrestled the angel, and the angel was overcome.” Bullet the Blue Sky is a song about the violence in Central America, violence that was in part facilitated and encouraged by the US government, that forced people to flee their homes and search for shelter today. The song ends with a man meant to be Ronald Reagan paying bribes while fighter jets rip holes in the sky, rain driving through the gaping wound, driving the women and children into the arms of America. If anyone has wrestled with God, I suppose it is the people huddling and fleeing from the war jets, the bombs, and men armed with impunity. Jacob wrestled the angel, and the angel was overcome. When we see what happens in the world, I wonder if we don’t sometimes want to go out by the river at night and wait for God, just so we can get our hands on him, look him in the eye, and hear what he has to say.
Habbakuk 1: 1-4, 2:1-4
Psalm 37: 1-9
2 Timothy 1:1-14
If you knew for certain that tomorrow the world was ending, what would you do? Would you buy a ticket to fly, hope against hope to ring the doorbell of a long-lost lover, just to see his face and confess your love before the world ended – would you make plans to get something off your chest? Would you take your kids the most beautiful spot within a few hours drive, to see the sun go down one last time, to laugh and hold one another? Maybe you’d go on a bender and spend all your money on pleasure – because the world’s ending anyway.
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Amos 6:1a, 4-7
1 Timothy 6:6-19
What do you love about money? Some people love that money can get them things—jewelry, houses, boilers. Some people love that money can give them power, because if they can use their money to give things to people, the people might do things they want them to do. Money and its use give us labor, in every form, from the empowering to the degrading. Other people, like me, love that money can give them security: a place to live, food, perhaps enough for retirement, if you’re lucky enough to have some golden years, without passing any debt on to your children. What do you love about money? And, of course, there is the side of those who don’t have enough money, and the way that lack feels. Is that loving money too much? And how does it feel to consider, as it is written in the first letter to Timothy, that this love that we have for money, each of us in our way, is the root of all kinds of evil?
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Psalm 150 (Choir Anthem)
Let me just start with a question: Does Jesus mean what he says? Just raise your hand. Ok—here’s another question. Do you think Jesus wants you to hate your mom? Just raise your hand. Does Jesus want you to hate your mom? He says so—“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” Says it right there. Luke 14:26. When I preach, I assume that Jesus means what he says, because if he doesn’t, it would mean that we’re all pretty much wasting our time here, although the music is generally worth your time. And there were pancakes earlier, too, so maybe it’s not so bad, spending the morning hearing good music and eating pancakes. But you probably didn’t count on these words from Jesus. I’ve been thinking about them for days, and I’m still not ready to hear them.
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Do you know how to pray? Do you pray every day? Do you feel that when you pray somebody listens, somebody hears you? I am continually surprised, although I should not be, that most people I encounter don’t seem to pray, don’t seem to take prayer seriously. You can say what you want about the disciples, but it’s clear that they want to draw closer to God, and so they ask Jesus to teach them how to pray. And I think that desire is on some of our hearts, too—we just wish we knew how to pray.
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
Well, it has happened again—it seems like we’ve all made it through another 4th of July with all of our toes and fingers still attached to our hands and feet, and with both eyeballs firmly stuck in their sockets. Our bodies seem as whole, more or less, as before the war zone that is our neighborhood for one night of the year. Can the same be said about our body politic as our bodies? It’s hard to say which appendages of democracy will still work after this car crash is over. What about the body of Christ? Well, at least we know that the body of Christ, as the disciples saw it, is a wounded body, a riven side, marked hands, showing up unbidden in hidden rooms, in disguise on the road, and in the sunrise as tired men look back the beach. The body of Christ is known by the words it speaks: Peace be with you, let me explain the scriptures and break the bread, have some breakfast, do you love me? I suppose that is true of the church, which we say is also the body of Christ. It is also known by what it preaches and what it practices: peace be with you, let’s study the Scriptures together, here’s some food, can we love each other? Isn’t that a question for our times: can we love each other?
Third Sunday after Pentecost
1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21;
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
It’s always easy to follow Jesus when Jesus is doing what you think he ought to do. When he’s healing the sick and sticking it to the man, when the crowds hang on his every word, when he’s traveling the countryside and casting out demons as the possessed writhe, when he’s winning the debates with the learned and the famous—that’s often when we squint carefully at the texts and say, “Yeah. I’m a follower of Jesus. I’m right there with him. I’m proud to stand next to him.”
Our Saviour's Atonement Lutheran Church (ELCA)
178 Bennett Avenue,
New York, NY 10040
one block west of Broadway
at 189th Street
We are within walking distance of both the 1 and A trains as well as the M4, M100, and Bx7 bus lines.