Monday, October 30, 2017

Our Message, Our Mission, Our Song: Sermon for the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation

One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour. 

But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.
About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.
When morning came, the magistrates sent the police, saying, “Let those men go.” And the jailer reported the message to Paul, saying, “The magistrates sent word to let you go; therefore come out now and go in peace.” But Paul replied, “They have beaten us in public, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and now are they going to discharge us in secret? Certainly not! Let them come and take us out themselves.” The police reported these words to the magistrates, and they were afraid when they heard that they were Roman citizens; so they came and apologized to them. And they took them out and asked them to leave the city. After leaving the prison they went to Lydia’s home; and when they had seen and encouraged the brothers and sisters there, they departed.

-Acts 16:16-40 (NRSV)

Martin Luther, attributed to Frederick Kemmelmeyer
I was 31. 

But at the time
I felt like I was 21. 

I was energetic. 

I was becoming “woke.” 
(I was sure of it). 

I was finding meaning as a pastor and a community member 
here in Bridgeport. 

And, in general, I felt really alive!

Like, more than ever. 

After some years of preaching here 
before that, elsewhere, in Nebraska;

preaching about God’s Reign of Love, 
where the first shall be last and the last shall be first, 
and a world where all people are able to eat—
alongside the Good News that there is nothing in all of creation that can ever separate you from the Love of God in Christ Jesus, 

after a few years of preaching all of that, 
I was invited to join with some friends 
in speaking this message 
in a different sort of way.

I was invited, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel used to say, 
to pray with my feet

It was October. 

And the 494th Anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation. 

It was a really big deal. 

It was, also, incidentally, in Chicago,
the time of the Mortgage Bankers Association Convention. 

Here in Chicago, 
We were living in the midst of the foreclosure crisis.


We had been hit really hard. 

Houses were boarded up everywhere. 

And many of those houses still
To this day
line the neighborhoods and the Boulevards. 


In response, 

we were all to be a part of a direct action, 

It was gonna be beautiful.

We were gonna be joined by individuals and leaders of all faiths.  
A cloud of witness, 
Going to testify. 

We would disrupt the Mortgage Bankers Convention 
like the disciples speaking tongues in the towns quare at Pentecost! 

And we would make clear that people deserve homes 
and NOT to be made homeless
simply because they are people.

And people need a place to eat and to sleep. 
Simply because they are people. 
Because they are human. 
Because they are God’s good creation and God’s creation deserves to be honored in all its forms. 

We would make clear that to profit off the poor is detestable. And sinful. Just like Luther did at the Reformation! 

The situation was dire. 

And in response, we would testify. 

We would place ourselves in the middle of the business of these bankers, 

And we would proclaim an alternative message,
a message of Good News about what could be
if those in power would somehow come to share and to give. 

Good News of another Way. 
A way that made the last first, and cared for the poor, 
just like Jesus had always preached about. 

We prayed,
with fervor and with faith, 
that they would hear the Good News and respond accordingly. 

It’s the day of.

In the morning, we went down to the Hyatt Regency. Bob came. He brought his Sousaphone. A bunch of you were there. 

And we all took our positions.

We were ready to be heard! 

We were loud. 

We were dramatic. 

The imagery and the people, everything and everyone were spectacular and energetic and amazing!



Despite our good faith and good works, 

our message seemed to have fallen on unlistening ears. 

It turns out that the Mortgage Bankers actually weren’t in the mood to hear us. 

They didn’t wanna hear about another Way. 

Pastor Drew in Song at the Action,
Photo by Robert Pitts
They didn’t wanna see us begging at their door like Lazarus. 

The Hyatt also was not converted.  

And so, as we suspected might happen, 

After some minutes, after some time of testimony and song,
some church right then and there,  

Sixteen of us in total. 

Will, Drew, Shani, Lev, Saquib, Marissa… and so on. 

One after the other. 

Even in our arrest, 
Our bodies contained by people we did not know, 
Even in that moment of bondage, 
in the tradition of Paul and Silas, 

something beautiful happened 
Something magical, 
Something of a miracle 

Because as soon as we were in the truck, 

Drew, who years later would become Pr. Drew, 
And who before that would become Vicar here, 

As soon as we were in the truck, 

to sing. 

We were afraid, most of us. 

We were shaken. 

We were roughed up. 

We were in shock. 

In pain. 

Bruises and cuts from being carried away. 

All of that. 

But in the midst of it. 

As soon as we were in the truck,

Drew began to sing. 


In the midst of all the unfreedom, 

In the midst of all of it, 

We still had a song. 

In the midst of all of it, 
we could sing. 

And even when they would divide us, 
Even when they put us in separate cells, 
with baloney sandwiches, 
And two hand-wraps of TP, 

And even when they turned the heat down, way, way, way too low so that it was freezing, 

Even then, separated and segregated from one another, 

We weren’t alone. 

We weren’t alone because we had a song. 
And we sang it. 

We sang in the squad. 

We sang through the air ducts in the jail cells.

We sang in the cold and it kept us warm and it kept us united. 

We Shall Not, We Shall Not Be Moved. We sang.

Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Us Around. We sang. 

O Freedom! O Freedom! O Freedom over me. 

A Mighty Fortress, it could have been--Amazing Grace or Thy Strong Word. 

It wasn’t the words. Per se. 

It’s that, in our hearts, there was this song. 

We were locked up. 

But we had Good News. We had a vision. 

And we were connected in a Way, and in a mission 

That our jailers, sadly, 
might never understand. 

We had a message. We had a mission. And we had a song
that not even concrete and steel could keep us from sharing. 
We had a message. We had a mission. And we had a song.

Martyrdom of John Huss
I hope it’s become clear 

In this season of roots and reformers 

As we’ve looked all sorts of parents in the faith…

I hope it’s become clear, that even though Luther’s protest
was planet-changing. 

The reason his acts could change the planet. 

Was because Luther wasn’t the first. And Luther wasn’t alone. 

By God’s hand, Luther “changed everything” because others first carried the song that became Luther’s own. 

And others kept passing it along, far after Luther’s death. 

Amen? Amen. 

About 600 years ago, there was a guy named John Huss. 

Huss was a Czech priest and professor and rector.
And a whole bunch of other things.

And 600 years ago, (100 years before Luther), Huss was getting into a ton of trouble. 

You see, among other things, 600 years ago, 
Huss accused the Pope (and sometimes popes—yet another story)

of “extreme ignorance and incompetence,” 
He accused the pope(s) of “love of money.” “Of greed!” 
Of “practicing the exact opposite of what Jesus taught!”

Huss accused the church of abusing the poor. 
And so some of the poor gathered around him. 

Huss also claimed that Christ alone was the head of the church!

And to rebel against an erring or abusing pope is to obey Christ.

Papal disobedience is Divine Obedience!

And he even hinted at,
he gave a foretaste, 
of what Luther would later make explicit: 

He hinted that justification before God, 
God’s love of us, 
is not earned, but rather it’s given freely by God to us—that is, by grace, (it is a gift of God for the people that God loves), 
not because we do good stuff or for any other reason, 
but because God loves us—God is love, and that’s what God does. 

There’s nothing you can do to make God love you more,
And there’s nothing you can do to make God love you less. 
God loves you and there is nothing that can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus. 

That’s how we sometimes say it around here.

Amen? Amen. 

So now: 
The question isn’t whether God loves us, 
but, rather, instead, What’re we gonna do about it? 

This is what John Huss spoke about 600 years ago. 

And so, 
like Paul and Silas, who also threatened the profit margins of the powerful of their time,

John Huss spoke up and spoke out,
And the ones who stood to profit got mad. 

In 1415 the Church leaders condemned Huss as a heretic 
and burned him at the stake. 

According to legend, 
As he was being martyred, 

John Huss (whose name in Czech is John Goose)  
said these famous words: 

"They will roast a goose now,” he said,
“but after a hundred years they will hear a swan sing, 
and him they will endure."

They roast this goose today. 
A hundred years they will hear a swan sing, and him they will not be able to shut up!

Huss was martyred in 1415.

Luther Nailing 95 Theses, by Julius Hubner
Just over 100 years later, 

A young monk named Luther couldn’t get this song of his head. 

Or out of his heart. 

It was 1517. 

Abusive and oppressive, the Church hadn’t changed much. 
Blessing the horrors of the Crusades 
and the evils of Colonization,
building cathedrals of Gold while sucking the poor dry to the bone, scaring them with images of hell and torment, 
taking advantage of them through terror and fear…

The leadership of the Church of his time, Luther would later claim, 
had become Anti-Christ, Anti-Christian, 
exercising oppressive violence and power 
rather than preaching and living 
liberating love.  

The Church remained in “Babylonian Captivity” he wrote, 
Grace, God’s Gift, was locked away, 
God’s dove was caged and sold and bought. 

Holy Love was buried in the catacombs, 
Locked up by the churchmen—all men, and all corrupt, 
far from the reach of the common and the poor. 

But Luther, 
Through conversion, 
Through the reading of scripture, 
And much prayer, 

Luther, by grace, in a land of ugly ducklings 
(if you’ll have it),
Luther… became a Swan. 

The song of Grace, of Love, 
of the lifting up of the poor, 
out of the oppressors’ hand
Was placed in his heart. 

And he knew the song was not just for him. 

He knew the song must and would once again move people to reclaim Jesus and the story of his love.  

To rediscover grace. 

To know truth! And to be set free! 

And so, in an act of grace and miracles and really, really, really good timing, 

The same song that Paul and Silas had sung in prison, 
the same song that lived in John Huss 
and Bartolome de las Casas, 
the same song to which Julian of Norwich danced 
and Catherine of Siena dreamed… 

That same song returned. 
In Luther’s heart.

It burned like a fire.

And so Luther sang it. 

And the fire spread! 

And the song swelled far beyond the Wittenberg Castle Church door! 

October 31, 1517, 
Legend has it that Luther nailed the 95 Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences to that Wittenberg Castle Church door. 

The song was again uncaged. 

And people began to sing it. 

One day they would sing in every language. 

And they would sing in every culture and every melody that they could dream of. 

They would sing: God loves you always. 
They would sing: There’s nothing you can do to make God love you more and nothing you can do to make God love you less. There is nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus. 

They would sing: God loves you. 
They would sing: Care for the poor. 

This is the holy imperative. 

They would sing and sing and whenever is was sung it was also controversial. 
Luther picked up the melody from the saints who came before him, all heard the melody of the future (as Rubem Alves used to say), and by faith, they learned to dance to it. 

I’m grateful that they did. 

As a side note, as history unfolded, and art sprung up from the Reformation, as you can see in an example printed on the front of your bulletin today, Luther would often be portrayed in art standing with a swan. 

Sometimes the swan itself became the symbol of Reformation, 

as a sort of sign of the “fulfillment” of Huss’ prophecy. 

Reformation 2017, First Lutheran Church of the Trinity, Chicago
Photo by Claudia Hajdas (Ben Huey as Martin Luther)
Today Siblings in Christ, 

God continues to give us a song. 

It’s simple. 

It’s been a round a while. 

And somehow it’s still new. 

And when it is sung in the depths of our hearts, 
and when it’s lived in our bones, 
And when it’s prayed with our feet 
and our souls 
and our hearts and our minds and our limbs. 

When we sing that old old song of God’s grace and God’s love, 

When we speak it with joy, 
and invite every neighbor to come and sing, 

Still today, it seems to me, whole choirs can begin to swell all around us, 

Because when it’s sung, 

It’s a song of Truth. 

And when it’s a song of Truth, 

It’s a song that sets us free. 

There’s nothing you can do to make God love you more. 
There’s nothing you can do to make God love you less. 

God loves you. Period. 
Care for the poor. 

Grow in the Spirit. Love as Christ Loves us. And participate in God’s liberating work of justice and peace. 

This is our message. This is our mission. 

And this is our Reformation Song. 

May we sing it with the fervor of a thousand reformers. 

Never divided. 

May we sing it for 500 years. 

And 500 years to come.