It would be neglectful of me, who is, among others here at St. Matthews, helping to lead our Renewal Task Force, to not talk about reform and renewal on this day we celebrate as Reformation Sunday.
This is the day we celebrate the free gift of grace for all through Jesus Christ. This is the day we celebrate that we are freed from captivity, given water on the desert journey, and offered a pathway home from exile.
We celebrate that our relationship with God is not dependent upon us; on what we do or don’t do. We celebrate that it is God, through Christ, who establishes relationship with us. It is God who saves us, not our works or our own merit, thankfully.
Today it also does us well to remember that for Luther and other reformers of his day, it wasn’t an easy process of reform – this radical theology of grace. Church and social structures changed, academics, priests, knights and peasants lost their lives, relationships were broken in Christ’s church that are now being repaired. It was a hard won reform.
Renewal and change are never easy. To think otherwise is to kid ourselves. However, we have been about this business before. We, as church, have changed in 500 years of history of reform. And we, ourselves, have changed throughout our lives as we have faced our own personal challenges and growth.
Diana Butler-Bass, author and commentator on religion and culture, writes in her new book “Grounded,” that there is a new revolution happening for people in terms of their beliefs and practices; a re-imagining of God is taking place. When Luther addressed the spiritual needs of his time, his search and the search of many around him, was for a God who loved, who did not condemn, a God who would protected them in this lifetime and in the next. Life was short and difficult for most in Luther’s time. Salvation, life after death, was incredibly important.
People are no longer interested in a God who resides apart in the heavens and in the structures and rituals that seem to support that view. Rather they are interested in a God who infuses all of life, who is present in daily experiences, in relationship, in community, in nature, and people look for various ways and help to tap into the divine presence in their lifetime. Butler Bass maintains that this is the new revolution. That, for the most part, people haven’t forgotten about God, but that they are searching for new ways into intimate relationship with God that works for them. As a result, organized religion is holding very little interest. She writes, “many people have left organized religion because they experience too great a distance between the old structures and their experience of God.”
Butler Bass also describes in her book that “in some faith communities, people are coming up with new answers and new possibilities for their own lives, in ways more empowering, satisfying, and meaningful than the established ways of engaging faith. And in all faith communities where this is happening, the spiritual thread is similar: God has moved off the mountain, and everyone is trying to figure out what that means for their lives and the life of the planet.”
So what might that look like, today, for us, when we speak of renewal?
Sometimes we need examples to be able to see outside ourselves. One such example is a movement of people, a church, grounded in the radical love of Jesus Christ, who are living out the gospel as they say, in creative ways, rooted in the needs and giftedness of their community in Southwest Detroit.
It’s a church of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and they call themselves “Grace in Action.” Believing that the early church, as recorded in the book of Acts, was more concerned with how people lived – how they lived in community, with God and with each other – more so than what they professed to believe – this church, Grace in Action, provides different ways of being together, of tapping into the divine together.
However, before they started anything, Pastor John Cummings did 250 face to face conversations with neighbourhood leaders and residents to determine where the church might meet a need within the community.
Now they meet on Sunday evenings for worship and prayer. They hold evening art classes and guitar lessons, host open mic nights for local artists and musicians, something that is important in the mainly Latino community. They see themselves not as a building, but a people, so make sure to meet in different locations, people’s homes, or cafes, or storefront spaces.
Knowing that Jesus addressed the whole human being, as a church they also address the economic and educational needs of the community around them. They run different collectives, but one of them is called “Stitching Up Detroit.” It’s a youth-run fashion design collective that provides graphic design, textile design, and screen print services for customers in the neighbourhood and beyond. Youth are trained for 3 to 6 months, after which they are able to negotiate contracts with customers. After 2 to 3 years, the students are then paid hourly as they help to train and develop the skills of younger youth.
They use the gifts of the community to help the community through creativity and the core Lutheran understanding that “God’s love is a free gift through Jesus Christ to all people, no matter who they are.”
This is just one example of a church that has taken on a great task for the kingdom. There are others. Pastor David mentioned St. Gregory’s Food Pantry the other week.
Now we can’t copy and paste these ministries for ourselves. Our context is different. And I don’t share with you these examples to have you think that we aren’t engaged in life-giving ministry here. You are. And you always have been.
However, we see and know that the social structures around us are changing. Or they have already changed. That has had a huge impact on our own structures and on how people understand and relate to church and ultimately to God.
Renewal and reform for St. Matthews might mean many things, but it will mean that it will take each and every one of you to prayerfully discern a vision of what God is already doing in the community and tap into it. Or to prayerfully discern where God is calling you to fill a need and to go there boldly, as Luther did in his own time. This kind of renewal will take all of you to proclaim the good news of God’s unconditional love for the community around you.
In order to continue that process of prayer and discernment, we are having our first renewal circle on November 15th. This is for all of you who call St. Matthews home. I urge you to be a part of the process of asking the questions that need to asked. I urge all of you to support one another, to build one another up, with your creativity, ideas and wisdom.
In all of this, we remember that there is no magic formula, no magic program that will answer all our questions about what the future holds for St. Matthews. If there were, I wish I knew it.
What I do know is that you are a gifted congregation. You are a faithful congregation. And you have a long history here in the community. A history of good ministry and proclaiming grace.
Remember in this process, you are called to be faithful, no matter what comes. Above all, and throughout all, remember and celebrate this beautiful message, this life-giving message, of grace. That God who is faithful and just, finds us. That God who is love and compassion, fills us. That God who is life and freedom, claims us as God’s own forever.
Grace means we are free. Free from fear. Free from having to be perfect. Free from death. Free – to go wherever God is calling us to go.
You have the faith muscles to do this – almost 500 years of reformation history to lean into. We can go further still and lean into our sacred story: “Now the Lord said to Abram, go forth from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”
In other words, Abram, leave all you know, leave behind the comfort and familiarity, leave behind those who know you and those you know, and go to this new place I am asking you to go, so that you will have a future – take Sarai and Lot, and go become a blessing.
Today, as we see the cross move down the aisle, as we sing songs of praise, hear our sacred story in scripture, as we pray for us and the world, commune with each other and with Christ, and as we are sent from this place – in these acts we are reminded that we do have One who is near, not some God above who seems unconcerned with the trials of our times.
This one is Jesus Christ and he came to close the gap between God and us. The temple curtain has forever been torn in two and heaven and earth have collided. This is who is the ground of our being, the source of all that is, this is our Immanuel, our God-with-us. Christ is here, where he promised to be, always with us, walking with us, into a hope and into a future to be a blessing.
Pr. Katherine Altenburg