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Archive for November 2012

My Original Reformation Sermon for 2012

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Reformation Sunday, 2012

Christ Lutheran Church in El Cerrito, CA

The Continuing Reformation

I just read a book that argued that the early Luther was part of a Catholic Reformation and then became a heretic by splitting the church, while the Catholic Church continued its reformation without him. Harm Klueting, who wrote this book had been a Lutheran pastor, who turned Catholic, after his wife had become a Carmelite nun six years before. Never mind that a more secular and worldly papacy never existed than at Luther’s time and it excommunicated Luther, which split the church. Luther may have provoked the schism, but it was initiated by Pope Leo X. Those in the Catholic Church of Luther’s day like the Medici Pope Leo, who fought against the Gospel as if it were a heresy, I submit, really split the church. One thing Harm Klueting did have right, Luther brought about a renewal movement, which to an extent – even reformed the Catholic Church.

Much is made of the religious wars that followed the Reformation and they were indeed a sorry affair. But before and during the Reformation, the popes started one war after another by playing off the French King Francis against the Emperor Charles V and using armies to expand the territories it ruled. Pope Julius II fought the bloody battle of Ravenna on Easter Day, April 11, 1512. The Patriarchy of Rome and the Papal States, a territory that ran from the city of Rome all the way to the north of Italy, were only taken away from the power of the Popes in 1860, when our American Civil War began and we were decimating the Indians in the West and driving those we didn’t kill onto the reservations. I was just at a conference last weekend where the European American Lutheran Association met with the Indian American, Alaskan Native Lutheran Association on a reservation in Minnesota.

Back in Italy, after the popes had lost their Papal States, they declared themselves to be the prisoners of the Vatican, which continued until the recent Pope John Paul II. They hoped that a Catholic army from France of Austria would liberate their territory from Italy once again. But Garibaldi, Mazzini, and King Victor Emanuel won the day and tried to circumscribe the Roman Catholic Papacy to the spiritual realm without having civil rule over the city of Rome and its Papal States. Luther had maintained that position over three years before.

Martin Luther was very radical in his day and we have domesticated him and made him a jolly-good fellow, just like one of us. Ah, but he wasn’t. He stood up for his free conscience to serve Christ in truth even before the Emperor and the Pope. Let’s face it, you and I stay pretty much in our comfort zones and we would not have followed, but rather condemned Luther. We would not have followed Christ way back in his day either. Who would follow someone who said we had to take up our cross, let the Roman occupation put that cross squarely on our shoulder blades, which really meant to carry the instrument of your own torture and death to the site where the powers and principalities were going to do it to you. Thus, we have to be KYRIE Christians: Lord, have mercy upon us! We have no place to stand, but on the mercy and grace of God.

When Luther was excommunicated by Pope Leo X and declared an outlaw by Emperor Charles V – that meant he was as free as a bird for anyone to kill, the people who followed him no longer dared to call themselves Martinists or Lutherans. His name had become too dangerous. They now called themselves New Believers as opposed to Old Believers.

Luther was no paragon of virtue and he did not pretend to be. He did not want followers to name themselves Lutherans after him. He said,

People [should] call themselves not Lutherans, but Christians. Who is this Luther? My teaching is not my own, nor have I been crucified for anyone. Why should it happen to me, miserable stinking bag of worms that I am, that the children of Christ should be called by my insignificant name? I am not anybody’s master, nor do I wish to be. With the one church I have in common the teaching of Christ who alone is our master.[1]

In one place he comically referred to himself as mouse dirt:

For as soon as the Word of God rises up inside you, the devil will track you down and afflict you. [This will] make a real doctor of you, by making you suffer such devilish assaults, [that it] will teach you to look for and love God’s word. For I myself (if I, mouse dirt that I am, might mingle myself with pepper) have a great deal to thank the papists for, because they beat, belted, pressed, and frightened me so…that they made a rather good theologian out of me.[2]

Still all those around Luther said, “The Word of God and Luther’s teaching will remain to eternity!” Just listen to how he describes faith:

Faith is a divine work in us. It changes us and makes us to be born anew of God (John 1). It kills the old Adam [and Eve] and makes altogether different people, in heart and spirit and mind and powers, and it brings with it the Holy Spirit.

Oh, it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith. And so it is impossible for it not to do good works incessantly. It does not ask whether there are good works to do, but before the question rises, it has already done them, and is always at the doing of them.

[Whoever] does not [do] these works is a faithless [person]. He [or she] gropes and looks about after faith and good works and knows neither what faith is nor what good works are, though [they] talk and talk, with many words about faith and good works.

Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that a [person] would stake his [or her] life on it a thousand times. This confidence in God’s grace and knowledge of it makes [people] glad and bold and happy in dealing with God and all [God’s] creatures.

And this is the work of the Holy Spirit in faith. Hence a [person] is ready and glad, without compulsion, to do good to everyone, to serve everyone, to suffer everything, in love and praise to God, who has shown him this grace[,who has shown her this grace].

And thus it is impossible to separate works from faith, quite as impossible as to separate burning and shining from fire. Beware, therefore, of your own false notions and of the idle talkers, who would be wise enough to make decisions about faith and good works, and yet are the greatest fools.

Therefore, pray to God to work faith in you. Else you will remain forever without faith, whatever you think or do.[3]

Yes faith is a living, busy, active, mighty thing. According to Luther it is a solid trust in God that allows God to work through us. “Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace,” so sure and certain that a person would stake his or her life on it – which, of course, Luther did, only that the protection of his prince, Frederick the Wise, prevented him from becoming a martyr.

Early on, the pope could have had Luther burnt at the stake, but they were playing politics at that crucial time, when they were trying to get Frederick the Wise of Ernestine Saxony elected the emperor over Charles V from the House of Hapsburg. The concern of the popes for political power overrode their religious concerns.

But what kind of a church burns people at the stake for heresy? That it was against the will of the Holy Spirit to burn a heretic at the stake was one of Luther’s statements that the pope declared heretical! What kind of a faith gets a person crucified for blasphemy? The Church would employ the civil government for the purpose and the Sanhedrin of Jesus’ day solicited the Romans. Burning a person at the stake is clearly the act of a bankrupt church, a bankrupt faith.

But we Lutherans today are not out front on justice issues, not like the Quakers have been or the Unitarians even. I thought that perhaps it was because Luther wrote about two kinds of righteousness that perhaps divided it and allowed our concern for justice to be overcome. I reread his pamphlet under the title of that name and found just the opposite. He argued that the spiritual righteousness of Christ in us was the source of our hunger and thirst for justice in our lives. Spiritual freedom is not an alternative to social, political, and outward freedom, but its source in freedom from sin as well as freedom for love and service of our neighbor.

In “Two Kinds of Righteousness” Luther wrote,

Through faith in Christ, therefore Christ’s righteousness becomes our righteousness and all that [Christ] has becomes ours; or rather, [Christ] himself becomes ours.[4]

Yes, the righteousness shall live by faith. The just shall live by faith. The righteousness of Christ

is an infinite righteousness and one that swallows up all sins in a moment, for it is impossible that sin should exist in Christ; on the contrary, [a person] who trusts in Christ exists in Christ; he [or she] is one with Christ, having the same righteousness as {Christ]. It is impossible that sin should remain [in such a person]. This righteousness is primary; it is the basis, the cause, the source of all our own actual righteousness.[5]

Luther always has justice proceed from Christian love. Faith becomes active in love and love hungers and thirsts for justice. Righteousness and justice was not separated in those days. Today righteousness usually revolves around personal and individual morality, which is very important, but justice and fairness involved in the systems we live in is crucial as well. Jesus Christ cannot be separated from the Kingdom of Heaven that he proclaimed. The Kingdom of Heaven will ultimately judge every earthly kingdom and that goes for our democracy as well. You cannot pour new wine into old wineskins: we have to devise fair and more just systems for the new persons who follow Christ.

So, really our sleepy Lutheran churches, which don’t work at the forefront of justice issues, do not follow Luther. Luther would have been a potato too hot for us to handle. Imagine a monk, who was ordained a priest marrying a run-a-way nun? Then they modeled a pastor’s family that gave refuge to students and hid away people that the government was hunting down to arrest. Carlstadt, Luther’s enemy, got into trouble in the Peasants’ War. Luther hid him and negotiated his safe passage to Switzerland.

Let’s jump to our time: A pastor in Pittsburg used Saul Alinski methods to help the workers in the steel mills that were closing down there. They put dead fish into the bank’s safe deposit boxes to make the point that what the banks were doing stank. The Lutheran bishop defrocked and excommunicated him for it. What do you think would happen to Luther in the Lutheran Church today? More to the point, what would happen to Christ?

Luther was very much a Christ-figure and Christ worked through him. But he had many failings and he was the first to say: “Follow Christ and his teachings, because you will be able to find real faults in me.” He was too harsh in his polemics. He gave back as good as he got. When the pope had his books burned, he burned their books as well as the canon law on December 10, 1520 undermining the two church court systems and the legislation of the papacy, which, according to Luther, did not belong with the proclamation of the Gospel. Luther was also too apocalyptic, when he named the pope the anti-Christ, not realizing that God could still bring about a gradual reformation of the Catholic Church, too. We Lutheran believe, however, that it still has a long way to go.

The church, however, always has to be ready to continue reforming itself in head and members. That goes for our Lutheran church, too. Because of the Internet, we stand in a very opportune place in that regard. The invention of the printing press was crucial for the great Reformation. It could be that the invention of the book played a role in the transition from the scrolls that are still used in the synagogue by Judaism. Of course, it was really Christ, but “Bible” is merely the word for “book” in Greek. The prolific Luther really used the printing press. More than a million of his pamphlets were in the homes of the people when his translation of the New Testament and then the whole Bible in German became available off the presses.  I hope that the invention of the Internet will provide the possibility of another wonderful Christian renewal.

Let me return to the sinful side of Luther. Luther taught that we are sinners and saints at one and the same time. Luther himself could be exhibit A for this teaching. In that sinner and saint tension, he sometimes went down into his sin instead of going up into a greater maturity in Christ. He condemned the peasants in their war, where the overwhelming violence was really perpetrated upon them. He blamed the victims, not realizing that his overturning the religious order of his day and replacing it with a new religious order should have included a new social and political order with a greater approximation of justice. Somehow he remained too socially and politically backward for that. Also when he became old he wrote some real anti-Semitic pieces that the NAZI’s republished ten years before they rounded up the Jews. His was not a racial and social Darwinist anti-Semitism, but a religious one. Even though in his younger days he wrote a conciliatory pamphlet called, “That Jesus Christ was Born a Jew,” in his old age some Jewish slander of Mary really having had Jesus as an illegitimate child, made him go off the deep end. “Burn down their synagogues!” he declared. And writing, which passes through time forever, was used for genocidal purposes. Never in his writings did he say to kill Jews, however.

At the time when he wrote “smite, stab, slay” the rebellious peasants, they really had the upper hand and they seemed to have won the day. But Luther’s pamphlet was published when they were defeated and the nobility with their mercenaries took their awful revenge on them.

Luther had his historical limitations as great a theologian and reformer as he was. We have our limitations as well. The rich people of our society and the CEO’s have overtaken the medieval nobility, who may have had incomes of 100 to 200 times that of the burghers and peasants. Today our rich people and CEO’s can make 400 to 1,000 times the income of ordinary workers. After slavery, the South found a way to use Jim Crow Laws to enslave Americans of African Descent again, and today in privatized prisons and the prison-industrial complex, they are being enslaved and used for unpaid labor again. We need to become anti-racist Lutherans.

Weekend last, our European American Lutheran Association met with the American Indian, Alaskan Native Lutheran Association in a reservation in Minnesota. What an enrichment to hear Native Americans speaking Navajo, Lakota, Jibwey, Cherokee, and other Native American languages. We like to forget the genocide we have perpetrated on them and the wretched way we have cut them off from their whole way of life and continue to control them through the reservation system. Our White European culture needs to stop destroying other cultures and languages, but affirm them and help them come and stay alive. We have 22 Native American Lutheran congregations! What a wonderful thing! I did not bring up our sorry history to give us guilt feelings, but to encourage us, so that we might together struggle for a more humane and just future, which includes their contribution.

You can see that we need another reformation of the church and you can see that you and I like Luther before us, have to take a deeper commitment to Jesus Christ our Lord, because that will ensure that we are on the way, full of truth, to a life pleasing to God. Yes, the just shall live by their faith and faith is a living, busy, active and mighty thing. It makes us come alive to God and die to sin. Yes, faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, upon which we stake our lives, put our bodies on the line. It makes us glad and bold and happy before God and all God’s creatures, rejoicing even in the faith that brings social, political, and even environmental renewal! Amen.


[2] Philip and Peter Krey, Luther’s Spirituality, (New York: Paulist Press, 2007), p. 123.

[3] Martin Luther, Commentary on Romans, Trans. J. Theodore Mueller (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1954), xvii.

[4] Timothy Lull, ed., Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), p. 156.

[5] Ibid.

Written by peterkrey

November 27, 2012 at 11:25 am

Philosophers’ Carnival

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Jason Zarri is hosting the Philosophers’ Carnival. He has also entered Notes on Timothy Williamson’s Lecture on Logic as Scientific Theories for the carnival. Check it out: Philosophers’ Carnival.

Written by peterkrey

November 10, 2012 at 6:18 pm

From Greedy Takers to Self-Denying Givers: a Sermon for Shepherd by the Sea, Gualala, California November 11, 2012

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Shepherd by the Sea, Gualala, California

November 11, 2012

1 Kings 17:8-16 Psalm 146 Hebrews 9: 24-28 Mark 12:38-44

From Greedy Takers to Self-Denying Givers

The lessons for today are about stewardship.    The secular principle of psychology goes: self-realization by self-acceptance. That can keep a person quite self-absorbed. The Christian principle goes: self-acceptance for the sake of self-giving. Our self-acceptance becomes possible, because as unlovable and unacceptable as we are, God in Christ has loved and accepted us and given us all things in heaven and earth as spiritual gifts and blessings. What we therefore receive from God, as givers, we share with others. With that a circulation of grace continues that brings life, the life of Christ to our church, our community, our society, our whole country and world.

Look at our first story! King Ahab had brought the fertility worship of Baal into Israel. With that an angry Elijah prophesied three years of drought and famine in the land. Probably to escape the hand of Ahab, he fled to Sarephath, a village just south of Sidon, where God had commanded a widow to nourish him.

I wrote a children’s song about the story. It’s called, “God Will Provide.”

God Will Provide

Elijah met the widow

of Zarephath

Picking up sticks

upon her path.

“Bring me some water,”

Elijah said,

“and don’t forget

to bake some bread.”

“The little I’ve left

will make one bread;

Then my son and I

will soon be dead.”

“Have some faith

and put God first

and God will fill

your hunger and thirst.”

“Your flour and oil

will never run out,

that’s what sharing

is all about.”

Selfish people

never have enough,

and those who share

have more to spare.

Those with a lot,

will always want more.

Those with a little

will help the poor.

Seek ye first

the Kingdom Above

and God will provide you

with food of love.

The food of love

Will never run out

Because that’s what

Sharing’s all about!

The Widow of Zarephath was much like the widow who offered her two mites in the temple. A little flour and oil is all she had and the prophet wanted her to give it to him, requiring her to have faith, because he promised that God would see to it that her flour and oil would never run out. Death by starvation was staring her in the face and what was harder for her than her own death, was that of her son. Giving is the test of our faith. It is a tangible way to see if our faith is real or not.

The surprising outcome of her giving was not only being sustained throughout the drought and famine, but her son suddenly died and Elijah resuscitated him and turned the utter tragedy of her life into joyful motherhood once again.

Giving is healthy self-denial and dying to oneself makes the wonder of life and the fullness of God’s grace and glory become revealed to us in the law of love that includes the very least, the least of these.

How else can you explain the way Jesus sees the widow throwing in two mites and showing that she gave more than all the wealthy and bountiful offerings pouring into the treasury of the temple? God’s blessings are involved and because of them, a little becomes a lot and a lot can become a little. The background of power and prestige can make what appears to be giving into taking, so we should not be fooled by appearances. What the rich gave was no sacrifice at all, while the widow did not know where her next meal was coming from. In those days kings provided for widows because they had no property or income and were reduced to begging and gathering sticks like the widow of Sarephath. She really gave more than the widow Jesus pointed out, because she gave the prophet her last meal, which separated her and her son from starvation.

Jesus gave us even more, as Hebrews points out. He gave his life in his once and for all sacrifice. Like Luther says, he purchased us not with silver and gold or money, but with his own precious blood. God had to look at us, who are so angry and ungrateful and ask, “What do you want, blood?” And in our sinful and selfish way, we said, “Yes.” Then Jesus went to the cross and shed his blood for us, so that we might start coming alive to God and alive to our neighbors and those in need and continue God’s circulation of grace, which brings sustainability. The food of love never runs out. We share and the deeper our faith goes, the more our faith increases, the more we can give and share and in consequence, receive God’s blessings.

Our Psalm says, “Don’t put your trust in rulers; in mortals, in whom there is no help.” The systems and policies that administrations put into place are important, but the real flow of the circulation of grace in our lives depends upon our faith in God.

For example, one grain of corn placed and planted into the ground, dies. Notice that it is sacrificed because it is not eaten. Out of it a ten foot plant grows with six to eight ears of corn that can be husked with many hundreds of kernels of corn on each ear. Jesus would say, “Those who have ears to hear, let them hear!”

So whether we take the outcome of the Obama and Romney campaigns as good news or bad news, the really good news is the outcome of the campaign of our Lord Jesus Christ. But we also know that systems are important and bring with them a great deal of injustice, so greater approximations of justice are called for. The Gospel of Jesus Christ makes clear that widows, orphans, strangers, and the poor need to be protected from the voracious, who try to swallow up their houses. I wonder about reverse mortgages, sometimes. We should be wary, because the elderly are vulnerable.

What God requires of us is to become people who deny ourselves and die to ourselves in order to become givers and not takers.

Jesus was also comparing the joyful sacrifice of the widow with the voracious appetite of the greedy hypocritical scribes. I would like to point to other people and call them greedy, but then I do a double-take and look at myself. Why does my heart sink and why do I get perturbed when a beggar approaches me? I give him a dollar. Then I’ll turn around and pay fifty to sixty dollars on a meal for my wife and me at a restaurant.

When I give, it is so hard on me and I measure it so carefully. When I use money for myself, I often don’t even consider the limit. I’ll put thousands into the stock market, where I’ve lost them, thinking they would make me more money. If I had only given it away, I’d have some real treasure in heaven.

Selfish people never have enough. We always want more. When we can deny ourselves, we can share and even have more to spare.

I know a woman who was on welfare, back when I ministered in Coney Island. Without pay, she would clean the whole church and then decorate the altar so that everyone could see how much she loved the church. Her son worked for the telephone company, was in the union, and received a high salary. He would come to his mother for help when his money ran out. I kid you not!

So let’s hear Jesus out. For it we have to identify with the scribes. Although I want to, it would be hard for me to identify with that poor widow, in any case. The scribes were different because they could read and write, while the common people in those days couldn’t. They were professional and had more knowledge and power and they used it to their own advantage. Our self-interest is naturally stronger than our concern for other folks and helping them. So like with us, their greed went unchecked. Acting religiously, they were devouring widow’s houses.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. I remember in Coney Island in the Eighties, in the time under Ronald Reagan, Mario Cuomo, and Mayor Koch, how homelessness suddenly spread from the Bowery, where it had been notoriously contained for a long time, yes, now spread throughout the whole city and then throughout all the cities of America. That was when homelessness began. Here’s one reason: There were many S.R.O.’s in Manhattan and the other boroughs. Single room occupancies, where large numbers of the poor lived. The owners of these buildings wanted to convert them into condominiums. They dumped all the people into the street, renovated, and sold each apartment, which had been a rental, for hundreds of thousands of dollars, charging a monthly maintenance fee almost as high as the previous rent. Their real estate now brought in mega-bucks, but the homes of millions of people were devoured in that greed. Mayor Koch blamed the churches for being so hard hearted that we did not take in the homeless! Meanwhile their policies were sending countless people into the street.

Then we watched hurricane Katrina take out almost all the houses of the great City of New Orleans. Just a little later, the deluge of greed from Wall Street infected what used to be called, “real estate.” Everyone wanted equity income on their houses and were speculating by flipping them for profit and the banks were putting questionable mortgages into speculative derivatives and millions of houses went under water. Being “under water” was not a figure of speech for New Orleans, but being under water was just as real for the millions of people, who have been losing their homes by foreclosures each year since the Wall Street debacle.

It is our greed that has devoured all those houses across our country. We learned to live with the inhumane condition of homelessness. What goes around comes around. From homelessness going across the country, it has gone to the disaster in New Orleans, to the millions who have lost their homes in this great recession, to the new disasters now striking us in lower Manhattan, Statin Island, and the New Jersey shore. When we’re under one blanket, it’s not right to pull it over ourselves and expose other to the cold.

Perhaps unchecked human greed and selfishness can be compared with the fertility religion of Baal that Elijah fought, where parents would commit human sacrifice of their children to assure them of prosperity. Because of his protest, Elijah had to leave Israel quickly to escape the wrath of Ahab.

Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. The voracious appetite of our greed needs to be checked by self-denial and dying to ourselves so that we come alive to God and alive to the love and sharing and giving of the new life in Christ. Our conversion, because of God’s acceptance of us, changes us from takers into givers.

Giving is really a test of our faith. In baptism, not our house, but we ourselves go under water, in self-denial, in dying to ourselves, dying to greed and all the other vices and sins, so that God lifts us up out of the water into our new selves, into a wonderful world filled with love and compassion, sharing and self-giving. Then grace will abound even on a deeper level than just giving money.

Money, of course, can really be our secret god that we believe in and cling to for dear life. What we discover is that it robs us of our life and of the human value of our lives. When we cling to and trust in the one true God, then we check our greed, we deny ourselves, we die to ourselves, and to sin, our separation from God, who even gave his only Son, so that we would not perish but have everlasting and abundant life.

After baptism we find ourselves in our new selves and we enter the wonderful new world that Jesus proclaimed, where sharing and self-giving become the new order of the day, where the first come last and the last come first. This new world becomes filled by grace and truth. The grace of God begins circulating amongst us, and we come alive receiving a world full of God’s gifts and blessings. And new houses will be built first for the poor and needy and then the millions in the middle class, who have lost them. Homelessness will recede until it becomes contained in the Bowery once more and everyone will figure out how addictions and insanity can be healed to bring shelters to them as well. The greed for the almighty dollar will decrease and faith in God will increase, because everyone will experience the self-giving and sharing that real faith brings. Then widows and orphans, the poor and the strangers in our land will lead us further into the life of giving and sharing that mark the children of God. Amen.