Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Reformation Sunday Sermon at Emanuel Lutheran Church

Hi folks! What follows is a rough manuscript of a sermon I delivered at my home congregation of Emanuel Lutheran Church in Manchester, CT this past Sunday. It's primarily on the appointment Gospel story for Reformation Day, John 8: 31 - 36 and also relates to Emanuel's stewardship campaign for the year. I'd love to hear what you think!

If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed! If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed! What a timely Gospel message for this morning, for the celebration of Reformation Sunday here at Emanuel. One reason Jesus’s message to us is so timely is because in recent years, and perhaps especially in recent weeks, the concept of freedom has become so confused. The concept of freedom, especially in America, is used rhetorically for all sorts of causes. When they shut the government down Washington many politicians were talking about freedom simply meaning freedom from taxes, government regulations and our new healthcare laws. On the other side of the political spectrum, freedom frequently means predominately freedom from want or freedom from injustice. Going back a few years, at the height of the American occupation of Iraq, if you were someone critical of our country’s foreign policy you may remember hearing the retort “freedom isn’t free.”

While all those concepts of freedom may have some elements of truth, some I think more than others, my sisters and brothers I propose to you this day that the Christian concept of freedom, that the concept of freedom which Jesus’s shares with us in today’s Gospel message is something much deeper than all that. Freedom in Christ means being able to remember, both to confess and rejoice about our past and present, and through God’s act of liberating love in Christ thereby be freed to move boldly forward into life in community with Christ and one another. Let me repeat that... freedom in Christ means being able to remember, both to confess and rejoice about our past and present, and through God’s act of liberating love in Christ thereby be freed to move boldly forward into life in community with Christ and one another.

Jesus’s Gospel message about freedom is also important today because that’s exactly what we do on Reformation Day, we look back in order to move forward. Ya know, to be honest, I wasn’t much into Reformation Day until recently... as a kid, perhaps because I was never very good about paying attention in Sunday School, I remember vaguely knowing that the day had something to do with church history, and that either my mom would make me wear my one red dress sweater, which was really hot and scratchy, or when I got older I’d outright forget to wear a red shirt and be teased about it. As I got older, and eventually went to seminary, all the singing a Mighty Fortress is Our God and Lutheran pep rally sort of stuff just didn’t seem to recognize our entire past, it seemed a little too triumphant and therefore just didn’t seem genuine. It was only in fact when thinking about today’s Gospel message while preparing for this sermon, when I realized that God’s act of liberating love in Christ frees us to both confess and celebrate the past, that my feelings about Reformation Day changed.

Confession is important, not because we want to feel guilty about everything, but rather because in naming those negative aspects of our collective and individual pasts, we’re reminded that God lovingly and freely liberates us from such things. As a Church in general, and as Lutherans specifically, we do have sins to recognize as part of imperfect history. The violent anti-semitic writings of Luther, even the very last sermon he gave before his death that argued all Jewish folks should be removed from the country, were used extensively to gin up Christian support for the sinful and horrific policies under Hitler in Nazi Germany. Speaking about the Church as a whole, the immense violence of the crusades, the apathy or outright hostility of many white Christians during the time of slavery, the support of western imperialism and colonialism through “missionary activities” that formed the beginnings of the ecumenical movement, the apathy or outright hostility of many churches during the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and the lack of bold action from many churches in the early days of the AIDs crisis are only a few of our collective historic sins.

In our own time, we have some parts of the Church’s continued attack on the rights of women and girls and a glaring heteronormativity that prevents many from boldly embracing the rich diversity of folks across the human gender spectrum. I’ll never forget wearing my collar on the subway in New York last year while on internship, when a young man came up to me and immediately said “don’t worry father, I’m not a sodomite.” The very first thing he and many folks, especially young people, think today when they see a Christian isn’t about worshipping or praying or God’s love, but rather that wow... there’s someone that simply doesn’t like gay people. In our own faith community of Emanuel, let us recognize that while we’ve done great work on many of the issues I’ve just listed, including our embrace of the Reconciling in Christ program and our longtime support of the Manchester Area Network on AIDS, its certainly not the same thing at the same level but we do have our own baggage... like most churches, at least in the Western world, we face a decline in budget and attendance numbers. We’ve also faced years of difficult staff turnovers, and currently a period of careful discernment our beloved music program, just to name a few I know. My sisters and brothers, let’s boldly put that out there, name it, confess it, and just simply recognize that we have some healing to do. And doing that, my sisters and brothers, is okay.

For on this day of looking back and moving forward, we also have a heck of a lot of good things to celebrate as a Church and as a congregation... While I could name a bunch of these things on a macro-level, I figured I could zoom down a bit here, and just tell a couple stories of how the amazing ministry that takes place at Emanuel Lutheran has helped me over years. I’ll tell two quick stories, one kind of serious and then one a little bit funny just to lighten up the mood…

Back during high school, during my freshman year shortly after I was confirmed just like you four folks are today, I was battling a fairly serious case of depression and social anxiety disorder, although I didn’t know what to call it at the time. Eventually after seeing a show on MTV about depression, I realized that probably what I had and I asked my mom for help. Unfortunately, partially because of the poor healthcare system in this country, I wasn’t able to get into a therapist or psychiatrist for months, and thus things only got worse. By the time Christmas break came around, I left school that day and told my parents I could never go back… my social anxiety had gotten so extreme in that place. I didn’t return to school that year until mid-February… I had my classwork brought home, eventually began seeing a therapist and psychiatrist, but it was really was the support of the community at Emanuel that turned me around.

The first time I left my house during that period for a place besides the doctors office was to come see the pastor at Emanuel. In conversation with him we decided it would be a good idea to call a couple of my buddies from confirmation and schedule a time to hang out in order to help me begin socializing again. I was nervous as heck going over my friends’ house that night, but it was the major turning point in my recover… it was the first time I was able to talk about what I was experiencing with my peers, and it was the first time I had a chance to have fun in a really long time. We went to the church league basketball game together the next night and I never really looked back and I was shortly thereafter return to school. That’s just one story of amazing ministry, of amazing community here at Emanuel Lutheran.

Now for a sillier one. I mentioned earlier that I wasn’t particularly good at paying attention in Sunday school, but as might of the folks here today know from first hand experience, that was an understatement. Some of my friends and I probably even made a few of our Sunday School teachers cry over the years. Let me first mention, boy I’m very sorry about all that! Things got so bad at one point, probably when we were around ten, that we actually needed to have a meeting with the pastor and our parents about whether we could even continue in Sunday School at Emanuel. The only thing I remember from that day is yelling out that I didn’t believe anything in the Bible obviously because no one in the Bible had last names! I was even a quick thinker back then… But here’s the really funny part… out of that Sunday School class came three seminarians, five counselors at Camp Calumet, and a bunch of other great folks doing all sorts of ministries according to their callings. Wow, that’s absolutely amazing! If you need any indication about how the ministries called to participate in and the investments you’re making today might impact others in the long term, then this is probably a really great example.

... And those stories are just three of the things from my own life folks, and I haven’t even physically been around here for most of the past decade! I can only imagine all the amazing stories y’all have as well about how our congregation has supported you and our neighbors over the years, and how its ministered to our surrounding communities, and even our larger world.

We may not be perfect, but when remember, when we confess and celebrate on day like Reformation Sunday, we can also look forward in a bold, vibrant future together. And furthermore, we can look to such a future knowing the profoundly good news that whats important is not really about what we’re doing at all, but rather its about the amazing works of liberating love God is doing, and will continue to do in Christ. Let’s just think about some of those amazing things in the short-term... we have a new pope who has gone out of his way to wash the feet of Muslim girl, has said who is he to judge people no matter who they love and has refocused the church on economic justice. We have a great new presiding Bishop, Elizabeth Eaton, a great new synod Bishop, Jim Hazelwood and in our own local congregation, we have a great new associate pastor, Kathy Reed, who I’ve heard from a bunch of folks is doing some truly amazing work.

And the opportunities we have for ministry are immense... we live in a part of the country where 75% of folks don’t belong to any particular faith community. Well I say what an amazing opportunity we have to go out there to share that Good News that we know through Christ with them! We as wider Church I believe are really starting to finally get it... we are reforming once again as we did 500 years ago to reach new generations of folks who are asking new sorts of questions but who are seeking the same answers... the good news of God’s liberating act in Christ. Amidst chaotic times and great change, my sisters and brothers, we have a God of Change, who is and always will be at work, supporting us, guiding us and bearing us peace. In Christ, God promises to be a God not just of the past, but of the future, a God of freedom, a God of liberating love that is always at work. And, God is a God who keeps Her promises. Amen.

God's peace,
Dustin

Dustin is currently in his final year of a Masters of Divinity program at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, having recently completed a year as Vicar at the Lutheran Office for World Community and Saint Peter's Church in New York City. While seeking ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, his focus is on the intersection between worship, service and justice in de-centralized faith communities unencumbered by a traditional church building. In his free time, Dustin likes playing frisbee, hiking and pretending to know how to sing.

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