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Tuesday, November 16, 2010
God of the Living
Psalm 145:1-5, 17-21; Luke 20:27-38
On All Saints Sunday we honored our church's family members who had died during the twelve months since last year's All Saints Sunday. Each person was represented visually by a red rose on the Communion table. Their names were printed in the bulletin along with a prayer of remembrance which we read out loud together. And, speaking of "out loud," after each name was spoken we shouted out, "Presente!" Like a roll-call, affirming that each departed soul was invisibly there with us, all present and accounted for and ready for duty. (We've adapted this format from the Latin American churches, who are more intimately acquainted with military comings and goings than most of us have had to be for some time.)
That bit of liturgical drama nicely embodies the affirmation of the Apostles' Creed, "I believe in... the communion of saints." If you've lost a loved one to death not too long ago, your heart is stirred and your spine strengthened by visualizing them really present and ready to go to work for God -- just as you and I and all of us must be as long as we live on this side of death.
Another vivid metaphor shows up in the Letter to the Hebrews, chapter 12. A group of athletes is running a race on some stadium's well-paved track. The stands are packed with fans, all cheering their hearts out as they watch the runners press on towards the finish line and the prizes waiting on the other side. "Let us run with patience... laying aside every hindrance... pressing on..." says the writer.
The life of faith, it seems, is a strenuous contest. Each of us, in our own day and age, had better remember that when the going gets tough, as it certainly will again and again.
That stadium crowd turns out to be all the people of faith who ran their own races in their own generations, as recorded in all the stories of the Hebrew scriptures -- and in chapter 11 of the Letter to the Hebrews. From Abraham to Moses and Joshua, to David and Solomon, through all the kings and prophets and poets and more. They lived by faith, and they died by faith.
And now, here they are, penetrating the barriers of time and space, yelling out loud as can be, "You can do it! Don't give in, and don't give up! Keep on keeping on!"
The communion of saints, we call it. The one holy catholic (worldwide) church, that spans not only all around the world but also down through all the generations.
Pie in the sky? Wishful thinking? Or gospel truth?
The Gospel story for All Saints Sunday featured Jesus facing off with some skeptics who didn't believe in anything like what I've been describing. Once you're dead, they said, you're really dead; and that's that.
But they knew that Jesus believed in it for sure. And they wanted to trip him up, to shame him in public. So they threw him a trick question. And then, true to Gospel form, he hit that fat pitch right out of the park. And the crowd went wild!
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posted by Jack Buckley at
Wednesday, November 10, 2010
The Roots and Fruits of Reformation
Psalm 119:137-144; Luke 19:1-10
On Halloween in 1517, Martin Luther posted on the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany a list of ninety-five debating points about current theology. What he did that day was significant in many ways, most of them way beyond his own expectations.
For one thing, each hammer tap on those small nails should have rung like an explosion. For in just a few years' time the monolithic power of the medieval Catholic church was irreparably shattered by the Protestant Reformation which Luther's modest proposals inspired. Our American tradition of multiple church denominations represents the religious kaleidoscope that spread quickly across the European map once Luther's ideas were condemned in Rome.
Another interesting detail is Luther's choice of All Hallows Eve for posting his announcement. I doubt he observed Halloween at all the way we do in modern times -- with ghosts and goblins and witches and all, embodying the scary side of human life and death. But he is famous for having, along with a brilliant mind and robust spirit, a lively earthy sense of humor. So I visualize him at that door holding a hammer in one hand and with the other thumbing his nose at the Devil -- and the Pope.
The next day would be All Saints (Hallows) Day. By Luther's day the church had created hierarchies for both church order and personal piety. So you had priests and bishops and cardinals, and you had baptized believers and devout souls and some folks so holy in spirit you had to call them saints. The saints who had died now had the power to intercede in heaven for the living here on earth.
One tragic effect of that doctrine was the commercialization of spiritual life. Over time, the church dispensed God's grace in exchange not only for meritorious works -- prayers, acts of contrition, good deeds -- but also for financial contributions on behalf of loved ones who had died. So in effect you could buy mercy beyond the grave for another, while buying it for yourself here and now. Which led many people to spiritual laziness and worse, all in the name of God's grace.
No wonder Martin Luther wanted to talk things over with his religious colleagues. And what better time to debate about the ins and outs of true holiness than the season of All Saints?
Not so coincidentally, the Gospel passage for Reformation Sunday featured the spiritual ne'er-do-well Zacchaeus, a notorious bad guy in his hometown of Jericho, who finds himself saved by surprise when Jesus takes the time to transform his life on the spot.
The story delights children, and the child inside each of us, with its curious little man (about five feet tall) and its funny little twists from start to finish.
Best of all, though, it's a perfect example of what turned Martin Luther all around some five hundred years ago: the roots and fruits of spiritual re-formation, the ways that real-life sainthood works in real time.
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posted by Jack Buckley at