Friday, July 16, 2010

Lutheran version of sermon: “A Unitarian and a Lutheran Walk into a Bar”

So, tomorrow I am going to be preaching a shortened version of this sermon along with my friend Christina Leone at UUCA
What follows is the version we preached at St. John's about a month ago.

“A Unitarian and a Lutheran Walk into a Bar”

St. John’s (Chris’s Intro)- Greetings brothers and sisters.
It is my pleasure to introduce Christina Leone, the intern minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Annapolis. During my time here at St. John’s Christina has been a sounding board about being a religious leader, a peer in ministry, and a friend. Despite our theological differences we have found commonalities as well. This sermon is the result of this ongoing conversation.
Today I will be representing Martin Luther, whose name our tradition still carries. Martin was a Roman Catholic monk in the 16th century who faced controversial practices within his faith, such as the selling of indulgences, which we demonstrated in the Youth Sermon, as well as teachings that obscured God’s grace. As he learned Greek and Hebrew, the original languages of the Bible, he became convinced that the word of God must be translated into a language people understood. Eventually he was declared a heretic and started a reform movement that focused on the Bible, allowed ministers to marry, and worked to eliminate corruption in the church.

St. John’s (Christina’s Intro)- Good morning. I am Christina Leone, as Vicar Chris mentioned. I bring greetings from my church in Annapolis. In this sermon I will play the part of Francis David, the 16th century Polish reformer who spent some time as a Catholic, a Lutheran minister, a Calvinist bishop, and finally, a Unitarian minister. As a Unitarian he eventually came to serve in the court of the Transylvanian King John Sigismund during a time of religious upheaval. There were debates over what the official religion of Transylvania should be, and Francis David convinced King John, rather than declaring one official religion and persecuting those who did not follow it, to instead issue an Edict of Toleration that permitted freedom of thought and belief across the land. Unfortunately King John only lived a few more years and was succeeded by a less open-minded king who imprisoned David for his faith and his teachings. My people look to Francis David as one of the earliest teachers of our beliefs… the belief in a unified God as opposed to the Trinity, as well as the importance of freedom, reason, and tolerance.

Francis David and Martin Luther lived around the same time, though Luther was about 30 years older than David, and this sermon is the fictional account of what might have happened if they met in a bar in 1540. The majority of this sermon conversation is made up, our dream about what they might have said to each other had they been able to look past their differences, but some of the dialogue Vicar Chris and I have come up with is actually taken directly from their speeches or writings. We have tried to be faithful to their theologies and situations while also taking some liberties with what this conversation might have looked like. I invite you to imagine the time and place that David and Luther inhabited, the problems they encountered and the solutions they imagined. How might this glimpse into our religious histories inform your faith and life today?

D- Hey, aren’t you Martin Luther?

L- Why yes, I am. Why do you ask, were you one of my students?

D- Well I was… I mean, I never attended your lectures but I was a big fan… for a while. I even became a pastor of your teachings, but then I kind of came to a different conclusion…

L- How do you mean?

D- Well first I joined up with the Reformed Church.

L- Darn Calvinists!

D- Yeah, that didn’t last long. Then after doing much study of the Gospel and much prayer and reflection, I came to join with the Unitarians.
L- Uh! Unitarians?! You mean you do not believe in the Trinity of God? I know that God is three-personed, and I know that God is with us! You’re a heretic!!

D- Those are pretty strong words coming from you. Weren’t you called a heretic at the Diet of Worms?

L- Hmmm… Well there is that. I guess I was one of the originals, wasn’t I?

D- Yeah, I gotta give you credit for that.

L- But, you know, I was simply defending the faith from its corruption by the Church in Rome. I was protecting those things which have been professed from the beginning—including a Triune God.
D- Professed from the beginning? I’m not so sure about that. There has been disagreement from the beginning. And just because a group of people say its so, doesn’t mean it’s the Truth. I know that God is with us.

L- The only Truth is the word of God. Sola scriptura. The Word alone. As it says at the end of the Holy Gospel according to Matthew, “Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the earth, Baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

D- hmmm… I agree. Whatever the Holy Scriptures tell us about Christ, I reverently embrace. And that’s why I’m a Unitarian. In the gospel of mark chapter 10 Jesus asks the young man, “Why do you call me Good? No one is good, except God alone.”
L- Hmmm….
D- Hmmm….
L- You really are convinced by scripture.

D- Convinced? I know that God is with us. After my tolerant King died and was replaced by one without tolerance for differing religious viewpoints, I was charged with religious innovation. I was convicted, in fact, of preaching a change we could believe in. But my opponents saw it differently, and before I was sentenced to life in prison, I told them, “No lightning, no cross, no sword of the Pope nor the face of death most visible, no power whatever, can stay the progress of Truth.”

L- Sounds familiar. I, too, am convinced. … I know that God is with us. When the Church in Rome confronted me with all my writings and asked me to throw them all to the fire, I told them, “Unless I am convinced by scripture and plain reason, not councils and popes, for they contradict one another, my conscience is captive to the word of God. I could not recant what I proclaimed, for to go against my conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other. God Help Me. Amen.”

D- Sounds like we’re going to have to agree to disagree. For it is my belief that we need not think alike to love alike.

L- When love is lost, faith and the Holy Spirit are lost as well. Christ calls us to love our neighbor and our enemies.
D- Its possible even here, between you and I that God is with us… Bartender, another round on me for my friend here. We’re just getting into the heart of things.

L- The heart of things!! The heart is the people. It is my most fervent belief that the people must have access to the word of God in their own language, so that they will not be deceived. For the people’s heart to be full, it must be filled with the Word of God, and not that which is mediated by the vile trappings and false words of foolish priests and corrupt officials.

D-Yes. Without the ability to look for themselves into the word of God people can easily be convinced of false teachings by those in power who abuse religion to maintain their own power.

L-If the people are to be liberated, they must know the word of God in their own tongue. For it is the very Word of God which kills them and makes them alive again.

D- Liberated!! Indeed, the people must be liberated from the corruption of false teachers, from being forced by others to claim a belief in something that goes against their personal conscience. In the end it doesn’t work. No one shall compel them for their souls would not be satisfied. Faith is the gift of God.

L- Faith!! Yes, the people must have faith. Without faith, people cannot recognize the grace of God. Being forced to believe something would make faith—make trust in God’s goodness—into a work—and faith is never about works! Faith is not something brought about by the emotionalism of dogs such as Tetzel, who convinced the average peasant that they must buy salvation for their loved ones. Faith is not bought with gold or silver, neither is it bought by the sweat of our brows as those who claim that works of the law are required for God to love them. No, it is by faith that we are confronted by God’s “yes” to us—God’s gracious love! For God is with us.

D-So we are in agreement. Faith cannot be forced! What kinds of laws do you mean? What laws do others believe are required?

L-All those religious works—those empty prayers—those pilgrimages to far off lands instead of turning to your neighbor right next to you. For, all the works of monks, all their—Nay—for I was a monk myself—all my prayers lobbed to the heights of heaven did not have the same power as changing a single one of my son’s diapers. Fatherhood, I found, is more holy than monkhood. Those! Those are the laws that I call empty. Laws that are performed out of a sense of obligation and not for the sake of others.

D- Holy diaper changing! Luther! The power of life lived for God and neighbor is a powerful thing. Faith in its holiest expression!

L-Holiness—holiness they yell in Rome, but holiness is found in the home, in the works of butchers and mothers and tailors.

D- Oh my!

L-For all of those are vocations—jobs that God has called us to. God calls all people to their tasks, not only pastors. It is through that calling that we as God’s people can respond.

D- Butchers and mothers and tailors, eh? I am with you there. God’s love is for all people, not just the chosen leaders in any church. It is the calling of the people to respond to God’s love faithfully, in how they live their lives. In their jobs, in their families, and in the streets! For God is with us.


D- Because of my conviction, responding faithfully means to stand up and be true to my conscience and the Word of God in the face of forces that would wish to silence me… Forces like religious intolerance, powerful institutions, and those among us whose hearts have been hardened against hearing the cry of the people.

L-Yes, that is our holy calling Fransis, to stand against powers and principalities for the sake of God’s love.

D-Yes Martin! Stand firm and continue to be faithful to those whom the Reformation of God’s church has been entrusted.

L-Imagine, Francis, what the world could look like if this Reformation takes hold and continues for centuries to come! Barring the coming of Christ, of course, may He Return Swiftly, what might the world look like at the turn of the millennium if God is with us?

D- Ha! 500 more years? Look at the signs of the times! The end is near, Martin, we’ve waited 1500 years for the coming of our Lord. I’m sure He’s coming soon. But I’ll go with your pessimistic hypothetical situation for a moment. Think, if you really succeed with your Reformation, followers of your movement might have more to do with YOU than the piety of Christ, they might even call themselves LUTHERans!

L- Perish the thought. Then again… your people do no better. Your followers in 500 years might not even all be Christians!

D- Impossible! Well… even if that’s so… At least there won’t be women in the pulpit!

L- Amen! Cheers to that.

D- But even with these unforeseen changes, would our people still be faithful? Would God continue to stand on the side of all people who fight for truth, conscience, and love?

L- God willing, even then God is with us.

Christina- (Christina- So here we are, 470 years after this fictional conversation might have taken place, and indeed many things have changed. Today, I’m lucky if anyone has ever even heard of my religion. Most folks assume Unitarian Universalists are a “new age” religion. One that was “made up” about 50 years ago… But that’s not so… We have deep roots. And we honor the faith of our religious fathers.

When I think of Francis David, I see a man inspired by Martin Luther, I see a man inspired by the Word of God. I see a man convinced of the necessity of rationality, I see a man determined, in his words “to defend another person’s right to be wrong.”

I see a man whose commitment to religious freedom and tolerance ultimately got him imprisoned until death. I see a man who was deeply committed to his faith… so committed, in fact, he aligned himself with different traditions in order to find what was most authentic to his conscience.

I see the faces of my congregation in Annapolis in the legacy of Francis David.
I see Francis in the commitment to tolerance within my tradition.
I see Francis in the theist and the atheist sitting beside each other in the pews, or engaging in heartfelt discussion, agreeing to disagree.
I see Francis in the democratic process by which our faith is organized.
I see Francis in the commitment of Unitarian Universalists to speak out against injustice, to work to end racism, to fight for marriage equality, and to engage in interfaith dialogue, even though it is not the easy or popular thing to do.
I see Francis in my people, and I see Francis here, in this room, as we engage together across traditions and faiths.

Many Lutherans, when they think of Martin Luther, think of his death mask in Germany—a capturing of the reformer’s face and hands upon his death. To some that is his legacy—a man from the past who we can, in effect, idolize.
I do not see dear Martin that way.
No. I see a man humble enough to change his mind about the most central thing in his life, his faith.
I see a man both convicted and convinced by the Word of God—a man shaken by the death and by the new life that he experienced upon recognizing that the thrust of God’s righteousness is that God’s for us, not against us. God is with us!
I see a man caught up by this gracious yes to us—a man transformed by this experience and willing to spread this good news about God’s amazing grace by all means necessary.
I see a man so in love with the Word of God that he can not help but bring it to the people—a man who translated the bible so everyone could read it—a man putting the theology that saved his soul to the music of bar tunes and other popular music of his day so that that theology would spread.

And I see that man here today! I see the faith of our spiritual Father Martin Luther here today!
When I see Uriah playing music that both sings to the soul of today and speaks a word of hope for tomorrow. I see Martin. I see the faith of our fathers. And I know God is with us!
When I see Doris, Garry, Mr. McCreedy, and the Cottrells sitting around a plastic fold-up-table opening up the word of God. I see Martin. I see the faith of our fathers. And I know God is with us!
When the entire assembly speaks St. John’s mission statement, “Spreading the Gospel, Sharing the Spirit, and Serving our Community.” I see Martin. I see the faith of our fathers. And I know God is with us!
When I see our newest members reveling in the righteousness that God has given them. I see Martin. I see the faith of our fathers. And I know God is with us!
When I see lives changed by the power of the Gospel. When I see the effects of our faith. I see Martin. I see the faith of our fathers. And I know God is with us!
On this father’s day I see the faith of our fathers. Holy faith. We will be true to thee till death. Faith of our fathers, living still. In spite of dungeon, fire and sword. O how our hearts beat high with joy—whenever we hear that glorious word!” Amen and Alleluia.
Faith of our Fathers… hymn number X in the African American Heritage Hymnal. Hymn number X, Faith of our Fathers.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Sermon: Loving neighbor is a how question, not a who question

Loving neighbor is a how question, not a who question

As some of you may know the final match of the World Cup will be going on this afternoon. Spain will be playing the Netherlands. And some people are very excited to know who will win. Some people are so excited in fact, that they are looking everywhere for predictions about who is going to win. In fact an Octopus in Germany has predicted that the Spanish will beat the Dutch.
In Singapore a Parakeet made different predictions. It predicted that the Dutch soccer team will beat the Spanish.
I have a slightly different prediction to make today.
I predict that this afternoon there will be a Spaniard and a Dutchman traveling by boat hoping to make it to the last match of the World Cup in South Africa. The boat will strike a rock, and slowly began to sink.
The Spaniard will say, “I’ll call the Spanish embassy, they’ll send someone to help us.”
“No,” the Dutchman will reply, “I’ll call the Dutch embassy. They’ll get someone right out here to help us.”
And so it will go, both men refusing to allow the other one to call on their country to save the boat. And it will sink. And they will die.
When the wreckage is explored it will be said, “if only they had cared less about who was going to save them and more about how they were going to be saved.”

You may remember that during Lent I preached a sermon about Jesus’ injunction, “blessed be those who suffer.” And, when discussing suffering I suggested God takes the mournful question mark behind the word how? and straightens it up and makes it into an exclamation point behind the word who!
Today, however, I would suggest, when confronted with a command to love our neighbor we must ask how questions, not who questions. When confronted with a command to love our neighbor, we must ask how questions, not who questions.
Let us pray:
Lord, please anoint the preacher’s lips, that his words might be true and well heard. Lord, please anoint the assembly, that their meditations might be faithful and their responses right.--Amen.

Today, Jesus is asked the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus, responds with his own question, “What does it say in scripture? How do you read our tradition?” He is, in a sense, asking the lawyer, “Why do you ask that question?”
The Lawyer’s response is not unusual, he thinks back to the second verse of the Jewish morning and evening prayer known as the Shema, “Here o Israel the Lord our God, the Lord, is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”
To which he adds from Leviticus, “You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
And that could have ended the discussion right there. Jesus answers, “yup. So go on and love God with your whole self and love your neighbor as yourself.”

But, the Lawyer insists upon asking the who question.
“Who,” he asks, “is my neighbor?”
“Who,” he asks, “must I love as myself?”
“Who,” he asks, “must I love to gain eternal life?”
But Jesus takes this question about eternal life—this who question—and takes it out of the abstract—he solidifies, “love your neighbor as yourself,” in story.
After all, “Once upon a time,” is a more effective instructor than, “thou shalt not,” or even, “thou shalt.”
He takes this lofty concept and lowers it onto a road—the Road from Jerusalem to Jericho.
This road was infamous.
This road was known as “the bloody path” for at least 500 years by the time Jesus placed his parable there.
This road was where the last king of Judah watched his sons be slaughtered by the Babylonians before they blinded him and bore him away to Babylon.
This road, in 17 miles, goes down 3,300 feet.
This road winds and twists, gets narrow, and is an easy place from which to ambush someone.
This road, was a dangerous road and a deadly place to ponder earning eternal life.

For that matter Jesus answers the “who question” very clearly and very concretely. “Who must I love to inherit eternal life?”
Who? The bloody carcass of a man mangled on a dangerous road—he is your neighbor.
Who? A man stripped naked, so you can’t tell if he’s your kin or not—he is your neighbor.
Who? A man without any means to repay you—he is your neighbor.
Acting merciful in the midst of death and danger—that’s how Jesus answers the eternal life question and the who question. When you can’t even tell who it is you’re helping and you help them anyway—that’s when you know you’re loving your neighbor.

But he doesn’t stop there.
He then turns to those who ask the who question,
and shows how the who question leaves men stranded and dying on deadly roads.
The Priest asked the who question, “Who is that there, is he dead? Who is he? Is he Israelite? Who will ambush me if I try to help him?”
He then decides that he’ll go to the other side to be on the “safe side.”
The Levite asks the same questions—the who questions. And he too decides to go to the other side in order to be on the “safe side.”
Then—to add insult to injury—the man who helps the injured man—the man who doesn’t ask the who question—is a Samaritan!

Now, that might not strike us as odd… after all we know this story as “The Parable of the Good Samaritan.” But at that time, and at that place, there was no such thing as a good Samaritan.
I could tell you all the historical reasons for Samaritans being considered bad news to 1st century Jews—but I think the startling nature of Jesus’ story can be made in another way—by placing him into our present social and historical context—by sticking him here and now.
In Palestine Jesus’ story would be titled “The Good Israeli.”
At ground Zero, where the World Trade Center once stood, the story’s title would be “The Good Terrorist.”
Amongst Crips the story would be entitled, “The Good Blood.”
To the Cleveland Cavaliers… the story would be entitled, “LeBron James.”

The hero of Jesus’ story—the one that doesn’t ask who—is a Samaritan.
And this Samaritan asks a different question, he asks how. “How am I going to help this man?”
And his actions answer this question loudly. He becomes personally involved. He personally binds up wounds, he gives of his oil and his wine, he puts the wounded man on—as scripture emphasizes, “his own beast” and gives of his own monies.
When confronted by someone broken by the conflicts and snares of this world—by banditry and by pain—he did not ask who is that? Is that person worth helping?
He asked, “How can I help him? What resources do I have, or do I know of, that can help that person!”
And once Jesus finished up his parable, he asked another question of the Lawyer. Because you see the Lawyer was busy asking who is my neighbor. So Jesus asked a different question—“Which of these three was neighborly to the man who fell among the robbers? Which one was neighborly to his neighbor?”
Sheepishly the Lawyer must admit, “the one showing mercy on him.” Jesus isn’t concerned with who the neighbor is—he’s concerned with how we treat the neighbor. He is concerned with showing mercy in the midst of death and danger!

And so, I would like to make another prediction about this afternoon.
This afternoon there will be a Spaniard and a Dutchman traveling by boat hoping to make it to the last match of the World Cup in South Africa. The boat will strike a rock, and slowly began to sink.
And they will make a call to the coast of South Africa, and the only people they can get a hold of will be a Uruguayan and a German.
And they will say, “I don’t know if you want to help us. After all our soccer teams beat your soccer teams.”
And to this the Uruguayan and the German will respond, “We don’t care who you are. All we care about is how we can save your life!”
And with that they will rush to the scene and save the day. Because when confronted with a command to love our neighbor, we must ask how questions, not who questions. A+A