HOMILY FOR MORNING PRAYER: February 18, 2014 – Commemorating Martin Luther, Reformer of the Church

Homily for the Feast of Martin Luther

Diaconal Minister Jan M. Cherry

John 9:18-41

Today is the day on at least Methodist, Episcopalian and Lutheran calendars on which we honor the life of Martin Luther, who died on this day in 1546. Contrary to what you may be thinking, I did not volunteer to do this homily today for that reason.  Today is the one day of the month that I spend entirely at the offices of the Church council of Greater Seattle, sitting in meetings, and thinking about the ecumenical work with which that agency is involved, and therefore I have the great privilege to stop on the way down and worship with all of you.

So I find myself thinking about the text we just heard, and the fact that it is the 468th anniversary of the death of a man many consider the founder of my denomination, my community of faith.  He is certainly an important in my own journey of faith.

As I have shared with some of you before, I grew up in the Lutheran Church and for the first 40 years of my life I confess that my thoughts about Luther were a bit,….biased, I guess you could say.  After all, he single handedly began the reformation of the Roman Catholic Church, right?  Just sprang up at the right time, took that unusual step of nailing those 95 theses to the church door, of all places, and voila! people listened, well, some people listened, and history was changed.  Right?

Now, that is not really what I was taught, but I can say it was the viewpoint of many in the pews and the pulpits of the congregations in which I grew up. It’s how I would have simply explained the story.

Let’s be clear on this, I am not denigrating the amazing voice and brain that Luther brought to the church of his day, I am thankful for it every day; his work shapes my understanding of faith. However, my understanding has been broadened by the gift of the School of Theology and Ministry, and the ecumenical journey upon which I did not know I had embarked in September of 2002 when I began my studies here.

One of my mentors along this journey has been Pastor Dennis Andersen, who now serves in Portland.  His email address is “satis est” which is found in the 7th article of the Augsburg Confession.  It is Latin for “it is enough.” He understands those words as being the base from which he does his own ecumenical work, and I have found that it undergirds mine.  The Augsburg Confessions are important to Lutherans; they give us a foundation from which our faith evolves.  This Article entitled “Concerning the Church” states: “It is also taught at all times there must be and remain one holy, Christian church. It is the assembly of believers among whom the gospel is purely preached and the holy sacraments are administered according to the gospel.  For this is enough for the true unity of the Christian church that there the gospel is preached harmoniously according to a pure understanding and the sacraments are administered in conformity with the divine Word. It is not necessary for the true unity of the Christian church that uniform ceremonies instituted by human beings be observed everywhere.” (The Book of Concord, Augsburg Confession. Emphasis mine.)

Those words underline my entire understanding of ecumenical work, and my entire diaconal ministry. “It is enough”, what a wonderful word, what a glorious gift!  It is enough that we preach the gospel and administer the sacraments.  Notice, it does not say that we have to understand those two things in the same way, though the church has spent an inordinate amount of rhetoric and spilled blood in that pursuit.

These words free me up to recognize Christ in the midst of many myriad assemblies.  It is enough that the word is preached and the sacraments administered. We can recognize members of the Body of Christ through those liturgical actions.

Isn’t that what is being said in this text?  Isn’t Jesus saying to the Pharisees, the questioners: it is enough that the blind can see? Do we have to be able to explain it?   Do we have to define it?  Isn’t it clear that only one coming from God could do this thing?

We hang on to our treasured confessions and creeds, we work hard to define in words what we experience and believe to be true about God and about Christ.  And this is important work, it is why you have all gathered here at this school to learn, to think, to deepen your understandings of your own personal faith, your call from God to be in service to the world and your faith as shaped and experienced within your own denominational, faith community context.

But, for me, this place opened my eyes to the beauty of the words used by others, to the depth of understanding and the amazing wideness of God’s mercy in this world.  I can find plenty of people with whom to argue the tenets of faith.  Each of our faith traditions have people who stand firmly within the walls built by their experiences and expressions of faith.  We have folks within the Lutheran fellowship who strongly abhor ecumenical work, unless it is defined as “you folks listening to us, because we are right.”  There are people within the Lutheran Church who use “satis est” to explain why we should NOT be in conversation with others. I know you can identify folks like this within your own communities, right?

I listen to the Pharisees in our reading, frightened men. Who perhaps see the status quo changing, who do not see Jesus as following what was expected of the Messiah, who see their lives being impacted and their understandings being overthrown. I see people in the pews of my little congregation, who are fearful of the future, fearful that the congregation will not survive, and are now, very hesitantly, responding to our pastor’s loving, gentle call to step out from those walls, and to begin to think of new ways in which to do ministry.

Today I am thankful for the life of Martin Luther, a Reformer and Renewer of the Church. Today I am thankful for those who eyes are opened, who can see Jesus in the face and assembly of all.  Today I am thankful for you.  This is most certainly true.

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HOMILY from MORNING PRAYER: February 11, 2014

John 8:1-11

Questions abound! Questions about law and justice. Questions about Jesus’ authority. Even questions about the origin of this passage, which was added later than the rest of John, perhaps even as late as the 4th c. C.E. But there’s no question that the passage serves the pattern of John’s Jesus bringing life from the face of death.  To let that pattern unfold, we have to imitate Jesus and focus on something larger than the woman’s alleged sin.  Without ignoring the details, we could easily go off the rails unless we ask a few of our own questions.

Why is this story here? It seems significant that whoever added this story put it where they did for a reason.  In the passage just before this one, the chief priests and Pharisees have just questioned the Temple police about why they didn’t arrest Jesus.  Jesus’ wealthy and influential friend, Nicodemus, offered a weak-as-water defense in the form of a rather passive question that went something like, “Surely, our law does not judge a person unless we hear from them first to know what they are doing, does it?” The authorities answer Nicodemus’ question with yet another question and so do not answer him directly, but the reading we just heard seems to answer, “If not the Law, then the system…apparently, yes, it does.”  

There was no question at all about the woman’s “guilt.”  But here is where we have to pay attention because the woman’s guilt or innocence can become a distraction.  The scribes and Pharisees have theological and political questions about Jesus, and so they bring him a “no-win” test.   They present the woman to him with a barbed question: “We have a law and according to that law she should be stoned to death. What do you say?” But wait—if they caught her in adultery, where was the man who is also guilty under Mosaic law? How in the world did they “catch” her unless they were walking around Jerusalem peeking in people’s houses? Clearly, it’s a set-up.  They think they have caught him in a “no-win” situation—they could get him no matter what he did or said. If he chooses stoning the woman according to Mosaic Law, they could condemn him before Pilate because the death penalty was only allowed for the Roman government and not permitted to Jewish authorities. But if he chose to spurn Mosaic Law and set her free, they could readily discredit him with the people.

Instead of either of these, Jesus responded by testing the law; by questioning the system itself.  Jesus used the system to plant the seeds of change such that everyone “wins” and he stops the questioning with one statement: “Let the person among you who is without sin throw the first stone at her.” And when the self-convicted sinners slink away, Jesus and the woman are left alone.  Jesus has only two questions left: “Where did they go? Has no one condemned you?”  He does not ask whether she is actually guilty. He does not ask her to make any promises about the future.  He has no more questions for the woman.  Sandra Schneider, on the other hand, asks a number of questions of this passage:

“Did Jesus thereby undermine the moral authority of the law or only threaten its self-righteous guardians whose own behavior could not withstand his quiet challenge? Was Jesus’ preference for the one who had broken the law rather than the law’s enforcement, was his compassionate gaze into the heart of the frightened, suffering, marginalized woman rather than clinical examination and exposure of her behavior — was all this sign of his own moral weakness, vacillation about doctrine, ambiguity about evil? Or was it the manifestation of the God he called his parent, the God slow to anger and abounding in kindness and compassion even in the face of Israel’s infidelity? Has anyone, down through history, taken Jesus’ behavior in this episode as permission from Jesus to commit adultery?[1]

Jesus ends all the questioning with his final statement: “I don’t condemn you…Go on your way—but from now on, don’t sin anymore.” If we are to adopt the pattern  of Jesus’ life into our own, to seek to bring life from the face of death, we have to imitate Jesus and focus on something larger than sin—to “return again and again to the gospel,” Schneider writes, “so as to pattern our own lives and ministries ever more closely on the life and ministry of Jesus who never encouraged condemnation, marginalization or humiliation of the other, even of someone who seems to be a ‘sinner’,” and I would add that we must remember that we, too, are sinners in need of the same compassion. ” If we can learn to be compassionately present to our beautifully flawed, awesomely imperfect and sinful selves, then and only then can we can be compassionately present to the same sinful others.  That’s the pattern of love. No question.

~ The Rev. John Forman


[1] Sandra Schneider:  “Goal of public humiliation is protection of status quo” National Catholic Reporter

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