Here is the Sermon I preached this past Sunday in Lancaster, OH, that I will mention this Sunday in my Pastor's column. This past Sunday in Lutheran churches was Reformation Day. I was invited to preach for my old Lutheran friends there.
The readings were different than the ones we had in the Catholic Church.
First Reading Isaiah 2:2-4
In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
Many peoples shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.
Second Reading: Ephesians 4:1-6
I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.
Holy Gospel: St. John 15:1-5
1I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.
Late one night several months ago I was trolling the television, when I happened upon one of those old John Wayne westerns.
Growing up in my home in suburban New York I never watched westerns . . . that is, unless my father was there. Then we ALWAYS watched westerns.. If both my father and I were watching TV and a western came on,. a battle would ensue which would make the “shoot-em-ups” in the western pale by comparison.
In memory of my dad, I decided to watch this western for a while. I was only a few minutes into the movie, when John Wayne uttered that line, “This town just ain’t big enough for the two of us!”
I laughed out loud when I heard it,
because I had just been thinking about our battles over watching movies. “The town nothing,” I thought, “the living room wasn’t big enough for the two of US back then.”
Nowadays, however, in our media saturated homes, this is no longer a problem. We have broadcast TV, cable TV, satellite TV, Apple TV, plus video games plus the computer.
When it comes to TV, tolerating our differences is no longer an issue.
If only that were true in other areas of our lives.
For, turn on that TV and you can see
the war with Isis, the civil war in Syria, and standoff between Israel and Palestine which never seems to end.
It is easy to forget that once the Palestinians and Israelis were on the verge of a peace treaty.. However, they could not agree to share Jerusalem. That town was literally not big enough for the two of them.
That same TV has brought us images of violence from Europe, where reactions against the flood of refugees from the middle east evokes the horror of the 1930s when in a whole continent there was no room for the Jews.
And the recent political cycle has brought squarely into focus groups of people in our own country who live in fear; simply because for many OUR whole country just isn’t big enough for THEM anymore.
And yet no matter how bad things get in the world, we would like to believe that there IS one place where such division has no hold – and that is the Church.
We sang that of that belief just a few minutes ago in the classic Hymn the Church’s One Foundation:“Elect from every nation, yet one o’er all the earth
Her Charter of Salvation One Lord, one Faith one birth
One Holy Name she blesses partakes one holy food,
And to one hope she presses with every grace endued.”
We will proclaim that belief in just a few minutes when we say “I believe in the Holy Catholic Church”, i.e. a church that is universal and embraces all. And yet, we gather here today to remember an event which took place 499 years ago tomorrow.
We all know the story: A German monk named Martin Luther posted a list of propositions on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg.
These 95 Theses were meant to bring theologians together to debate a then-new practice in the Church – the selling of indulgences; whereby the ancient custom of doing penance to atone for sin in this life, became a “get out of jail free” card used to remit all punishment for sin in the life to come.
What it incited instead was a firestorm,
where Luther’s criticism of indulgences came to be seen as an attack on the papacy itself (which is understandable, seeing Pope Leo X was building St. Peter’s in Rome with the money collected from the sale of those indulgences!)
And it led, not just to a split between theologians but to a war which lasted for thirty years
in which millions died – and whole cities were destroyed.
Reformation Day Still provokes conflict – even within the Roman Catholic Church! With a reform-minded Pope Francis traveling to Sweden to celebrate the Reformation, and his conservative opponents howling in opposition, demanding to know why an event
which divided Christendom and destroyed Europe is worthy of celebration.
Perhaps we can begin to answer them
by remembering that the Scriptures we read this morning were written at times of conflict; The book of the prophet Isaiah was written at a time
when the Kingdom of David had split into a northern kingdom called Israel and a southern called Judah, and they were not friends.
The epistle to the Ephesians was written at a time when the early Christian movement was split over just how Jewish the Christian Church should be.
And the Gospel of John was written at a time
when the Christians for which it was originally written had split from the larger Jewish community, and were divided still further by that division.
We remember this however not as some ancient story of human conflict. But because these readings say something to that conflict which makes their message to us not old news but good news.For Jesus isn’t just speaking to his disciples in this morning’s Gospel; he is speaking to John’s divided community who first read it. And he is speaking to them about of all things agriculture, about pruning vines and bearing fruit – not very relevant to us, but it should be;. Because we focus on our fruits; The size of our houses and bank accounts proclaim the prosperity of our families. The size of our congregations and church programs announce our abilities as pastors. The size of our armies and weapons define our identity as nations.
Our fruits defines us; they tell us who we are; but it also does something else – they tell us who we are not;
We are wealthy and not poor – like them.
We are lively and dynamic, and not a dying church - like them.
We are great and powerful and not a second-rate nation – like them.
Focusing on our fruits, which inevitably vary,
divides us and our world into us and them.
Jesus will have none of that – and thus reminds them that the only way any branch can bear fruit is because it is attached to the one vine – the vine which gives life to all.
“I am that vine” Jesus proclaims to his friends,
in both the first century as well as in the 21st;
he does it again and again, even in today’s short gospel, precisely because we forget it again and again.
The Christians in Ephesus who first read the letter we hear from in today’s second reading obviously forgot. And we know this because after the author pleads with them to treat one another with humility and gentleness and patience
he tells them why – because despite all their differences: “There is one Body and one Spirit . . . one Lord, one faith one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”
It isn’t that somehow being nice to each other will MAKE them one;They are to be nice to each other because they ARE one. Their gentleness, humility and patience are their fruits.
They reveal who they truly are, because they reveal whose they are. They belong to Christ, the true vine –and thus to the God and Father of us all. “And don’t you forget it”, he might have added – because we always do; The divisions which tore us apart in the 16th century are the fruit of that forgetfulness.
39. And yet in the midst of all the name-calling and bloodshed which resulted from that forgetfulness,
We dare not forget WHY 499 years ago, Luther walked up to the doors of the Castle Church in Wittenberg and posted those theses;
He was afraid that the sale of indulgences revealed that we had forgotten that our faith can never be rooted in an indulgence we bought, no matter how sincere,
A contribution we make, no matter how generous
A work we do, no matter how pious.
They may be good - they may be bad - but they are fruit, they are not the vine.
Our faith is rooted in Christ – Christ ALONE!
Luther thundered again and again;
Scripture proclaims him,
faith believes in him
and all grace flows from him.
. . . . and we might add, all true unity is found in him.
That is why we celebrate Reformation Day 499 years later.
It is why the Lutheran world rejoices
And the Catholic world joins in
Why the pope travels to Sweden
and I come here
We celebrate because we are always forgetting;
that before the pope proclaimed Luther a heretic, before Luther branded the Pope the Antichrist, before differences over theology tore us apart
We were, are one body, one Spirit because
despite differences over what we believe,
we are baptized! and thus draw the life of our faith from that one life-giving vine.
So much in our relationship as Lutherans and Roman Catholics has been affected by that forgetfulness –
For so long we have believed that if we just talk enough, serve enough, gather together enough, pray enough, we will somehow achieve again the unity we have lost.
And thus we forget what Jesus wanted his disciples to remember, and John wanted his Church to remember,
what Ephesians proclaimed to a church in the first century
and Luther proclaims to us all.
That our unity isn’t something we achieve –
like one of those Works Luther was always railing against simply because it is not something we have lost:
It is something we have forgotten.
It is written into the Spiritual DNA of the Church
Every bit as much as being a part of a family is written into our Biological DNA.
For even though I and my father may have fought way back when in Suburban New York - and not just over our TV preferences, I could never erase the bond of family. I could only forget it. Or at least try to.
So imagine what could happen if we remembered.
What if the Pope’s trip to Sweden caused us to remember that though we have been separate churches for the last 500 years were one Church for the 1,500 years before?
What if our celebrations this year caused us to remember that before we were Romans or Lutherans or Presbyterians or whatever, we are Christians, called to make visible in our actions the unity established by God’s grace and calling?
What if the 500th anniversary of the Reformation finally caused us all to remember that unity in Christ that doesn’t mean we can’t have differences, arguments and even fights – I mean we do!
It is why I can preach but not celebrate the Eucharist in a Lutheran Church;
it is why you can worship but not commune in a Catholic Church. These differences are part of our history they are part of who we are.
But they are not WHO we are – and most importantly not whose we are – We are Christ’s; Christ’s alone.
And so what if all of us – at least enough of us – remembered?
We would then realize that our unity is not something to be achieved, but lived, that our differences divide, but do not define us.
We would see ourselves not as enemies trapped in a world growing ever smaller out of fear but
as brothers and sisters united in a common family; universal family; a CATHOLIC family
where there is room enough for all.
When our differences are finally seen in that context who knows what solutions we might then find to them?
But find them we would, and we would join our voices to that of the prophet Isaiah who in the face of the division and the destruction of his country knew the day would come when his people would, “beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks”.
They would stop fighting. And worship together in the Lord’s house.
They would have to – they could never truly be divided.
Because they were God’s people.
And so are we.
And today,though Pope Leo X is probably rolling in his grave to hear me say it,
we give thanks to God
for Marin Luther;
for the Reformation;
for reminding us yet again – for the 499th time - At the very least!
That we are baptized; we belong to Christ and Christ alone, and all of us are called to bear the fruit which comes from that unity . . . and to do it together.