Grace and peace from God our Creator, hope in our Redeemer Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you, always.
One of the particularities of life together at the Belfry that I enjoy especially is our good fortune to gather for worship on Wednesdays. Yesterday was Reformation Day (officially) and today is All Saints Day (officially) and tomorrow is All Souls Day (officially) and our friends who worship on Sundays had to rearrange those two or three to fit on either last Sunday or this coming Sunday or some combination therein, or maybe even skip one. But we, dear Belfry Lutherpalians extraordinaire, we get to co-celebrate all of it, today.
We get to see the beautiful overlap and influence of these days on each other. We get to sit right in the thick of the paradoxes of life and death, old and new, past and future, saint and sinner, orthodoxy and heresy, retention and reformation. What luck!
I bet someone has mentioned this to you in the past several months, but: this year is the 500th Anniversary of Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation. It’s finally here! I’m not going to rattle off that information all the time, anymore. And that’s great. What’s even greater is that we are now officially, as of today, in the second 500 years of reformation. Think of the possibilities!
In the past 500 years, people have made sweeping changes in the Church that bears Luther’s name—we know that we are saved by God’s grace and not by our own works; the Bible has been translated into every language on the planet, and probably Klingon, because, nerds; people other than cisgender heterosexual white men serve as clergy (though of course we’re still working on the enforcement of that); celibacy is no longer considered the highest Christian calling (though of course we’re still working out our sexual ethics); we pray and confess directly to God, without the requirement of a priest; our liturgies are in the language of our hearts (though sometimes full of fancy church words).
And that is just the beginning! What will we do with our next 500 years, dear ones!? Where will we go? What will we do? Who will we be? Ugh, that’s so thrilling.
It’s important to me that we think about it this way—looking forward to our next 500 years—because our last 500 years have not been all sunshine and rainbows. The Church as an institution has been responsible for centuries of oppression, and has held back progress in the public sphere in a number of ways. We do not get to give ourselves a pat on the back without also acknowledging our faults. We are, after all, simultaneously saints and sinners.
Our gospel story for today underscores this. Jesus says, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31-32). And the people listening to him are confused because they think they already are free. I can just see their confused faces. “Uh, we are not enslaved,” they reply, ish. And they’re right. They are not enslaved in the way that they think Jesus must mean.
But they are not free of their own sin. They are not free of the temptations of the world to hold power over one another, to control every little thing that happens, to be sure that they do not end up losing everything they have. They are not free of the systems in which they participate as members of their society. They are not free of the little voice in the back of their heads that says, “you deserve to be at the top of the food chain forever.” They are not free of the history of their people, for better and for worse. They are not as free as they believe.
When we hear this, in the United States of America in 2017, we may feel much like these friends of Jesus. “Uh, we are not enslaved.” We are not. And. We may not be entirely free, either. We are not, by our own power, free of the sin that so easily entangles us. We are not, by our own power, free of all the things we have done and the things we have left undone. We can, if we’re not careful, let this very fact trap us further. Or, as Jesus tells us and Martin Luther reminds us, the truth will make us free. The truth is that we are saved by grace through faith.
Yes, there will be real, human consequences for our actions. We will get in trouble. We will have to apologize to one another. We will have to practice humility. But in the midst of all this mess we are making, we are still beloved of God. You, precious creation, are known and claimed by the one who created you.
There is nothing that renders that untrue. Nothing you do—or fail to do—separates you from the love of God in Jesus the Christ. 500 years of Reformation hasn’t changed that, nor will 500 more.
For as far back as anyone can remember, the truth has set us free. As far ahead as anyone can dream, the truth will set us free. Which brings us to the saints. As they lived, they were beloved of God. Tonight, we are bittersweetly remembering them.
This practice, on days like today, alerts us that we have entered into a thin place. “There are places where the veil between worlds becomes thin. It’s not that God is somehow more present in [these] places, as if God could be more there than elsewhere; rather, something in [these] places and times invites us to be more present to the God who is always with us.”
Look at the beautiful ofrenda Leo set up for us back there, and look at the things that remind us of the saints who have gone before us. We get to look at those faces and recognize each other in them. My family is over there, and you can probably see my face in my grandma’s face.
As I look at all the photos gathered there, I wonder about the stories that you hold close to your heart about the people in them. And the objects you brought to remember them with, I wonder why you brought those things, and what they mean to you and meant to your loved ones.
These moments, here together in remembrance, these are so holy. This is the communion of saints. The generations that precede us show us what it means to be humans, to be members of our families, to be people of faith, perhaps.
We carry our histories in our hearts; we wear them on our bodies; we hear them in our songs and in our laughter and in our tears; we eat them when we cook our family recipes; we embody them when we maintain our family traditions. These people, smiling up at us from the table—or radiating from within our memories—they raised us in faith, shaped us in doubt and discovery. As we live into our present realities, we go about the lives they dreamed we’d lead. The examples set for us by generations of our families are combined together with the generations of all the saints, back to those who walked with Jesus, those who were descended of Abraham.
Jesus told his friends, ages ago, to continue in his word. To keep telling the stories about the truths they knew. To keep gathering for meals, and to remember him when they did. As we gather at these tables today, we are bringing our whole histories and our entire futures together in one beautiful, thin place. We look back, we look around, we look forward. God is with us, and the saints are with us, in each and every place.
Thanks be to God!