October 29, 2017
Pastor Robert McCarty
Preaching Texts: John 8: 31-36
Grace and Peace to you in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
We live in an age of milestones and a time when we like to celebrate and reflect on milestones.
I say this about milestones in a year when I turned fifty. Which means ten of my lifetimes takes us back to the reformation. If you can picture 10 of us up here, a little over or a little younger than fifty, creating a chain of generations back. Another way of looking at it, my ancestor Timothy McCarty was born in 1750. He is 7 generations back and about halfway to Luther, so it would take 13 or 14 generations connected to him to get me to Luther’s time period.
My first recognition of that connection in my life to these life changing events of our faith was my confirmation in 1983. I was confirmed on Reformation Sunday, about two weeks before the 500th anniversary of the birth of Martin Luther on November 10, 1483. One of the gifts I received was a plate bock from a commemorative stamp put out by the US Postal Service. Or, this summer I went to a yard sale up in Pennsylvania, and I found a blue plate for $1 sold by Fortress Publishing house. The plate celebrated the 450th anniversary of the Reformation with the dates 1517 to 1967, the year of my birth. Ten of my lifetimes get us back to Luther or 14 generations.
Anyone who is close to my age would remember celebrating two big moments. Our country celebrated two national parties in my lifetime. One goes back forty-eight years; the other goes back forty years or 240 years.
The first national celebration occurred when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. I was two years old at the time. I don’t remember it, but I know I was alive on July 20, 1969. You know how we have events that everyone remembers where they were at the time. Where were you when you heard JFK was shot or where were you when you heard about the Challenger explosion. The moon walk is one of the most positive events that engendered that response, “I remember where I was when….” A whole nation gathered around their televisions sets. Actually they say that 600 million people around the world watched the moonwalk. Even people in the U.S. who did not have TV sets, they watched with neighbors, or they rented rooms at a nearby hotel so they could see it for themselves. Six hundred million people around the world—1 in 5, 20 percent of people alive at the time—they watched a grainy black and white images of “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” In a way, Neil Armstrong on the moon completed John F. Kennedy’s legacy to our nation.
The moon landing was an incredible scientific and technological accomplishment for our nation. It was inspirational affirmation of the power to dream. Those were good moments that we like to remember. And celebrate. I imagine we will in some way, shape, or form commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Moon landing in two years. Maybe they will rebroadcast it on television so that another generation can watch.
The second national celebration happened when our nation had its bicentennial in 1976. I had just completed third grade, and we had units in 3rd grade where Friday afternoon we would go to a different classroom and work on a project that would teach us about colonial life or our nation’s heritage. I remember Mrs. Keller’s project. Mrs. Keller was my teacher. Rather than focussing on men, she focused on colonial women and keeping a homestead. She had pictures of butter churns and other household items from the colonial period. But before she showed us her pictures and samples, she poured a cup of whipping cream into a glass jar, and screwed on a lid. Then we passed the jar around the circle and took turns shaking the cream until it turned into butter. Then we ate the butter we made on crackers. Third grade and food, I remember that.
Remember. These events help form us as a community, actually as a nation made up of numerous separate communities. I remember July 4th 1976, sitting on the street in Fleetwood Pennsylvania and watching antique cars. I am sure the parade had marching bands and fire trucks, but what I remember is the antique cars. But of course we were not celebrating antique cars or firetrucks. We were celebrating the declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson, and the American Flag designed by Betsy Ross, and the War of Independence led by George Washington. And since I lived in Pennsylvania, we also celebrated Benjamin Franklin who is to Philadelphia what Jefferson is to Virginia. The bicentennial marked a nation remembering how freedom formed us, why these leaders formed a new country and what a great thing that was/is. But if we believe we have always been free, we become like those who listen to Jesus and believe that they have never been slaves to anyone.
Our gospel lesson reminds us, that Jesus teaching about being made free, has a lot to do with things forgotten. The gospel writer John quietly makes a point in this exchange between Jesus and some Jewish faithful that had believed in him. That while these people living had never been slaves, their ancestors were once slaves in the land of Egypt and that God had called on them to remember. The story of Exodus in scripture, the practice of the passover celebration, even the keeping of the sabbath, all of these moments of faith connect to a remembrance that we were once slaves in the land of Egypt. I guess there are some things we want to forget, and in forgetting we think that we heal the pain. But what gets lost in the forgetting is the importance of remembering. You too need to realize that you have not always been free. Two hundred forty-one years of independence is truly just a small blip of time in the great chronicles of history. And freedom once won by others can be lost. We have forgotten the names of many people who have helped make our nation free.
Peter Lebo is one of the forgotten names that I hold onto from the founding of our country. Maybe I’ve told you this story before. The activities bus for school would drop me off at the church and I would walk through the cemetery to get to our house. And I would find the path through the line of trees by looking for the grave marker of Peter Lebo. Peter Lebo had a flag holder next to his grave that marked him as a revolutionary war soldier, and every memorial day they would place a crisp new American flag in his holder. I have imprinted in me the name of a random 1776 soldier who was connected to the church in which I grew up. He is connected to my freedom as an American and as a faithful believer in Jesus.
You have people that helped raise you in the faith and who helped raised your grandparents in the faith, who are as much a part of your celebration of the freedom as our celebration of the reformation. And frankly at some point in our lives of faith we are connected to martyrs who died for the faith. Freedom and Reformation goes back to Luther, but it also goes back to countless faithful who dreamed of a future and now rest from their labors. We make an all inclusive celebration of All Saints day which is November 1. Actually, originally, All Saints Day stood as a festival day for unknown unnamed martyrs who died for Christ Jesus but did not get a festival day for themselves. Like a religious tomb of the unknown soldier.
Perhaps as we remember Apollo 11 that landed on the moon, it is worth dreaming and reaching for the heavens. Already, people are dreaming of placing colonies on Mars. And some have already volunteered to go just to see if it might be possible.
Reformation, likewise, is not just about the past. It is also about the future. The reformation is about freeing people yet to be born from a life of sin. The reformation is about sharing with people—ordinary people yet to be born and forgotten—the gifts of the church, that even Martin Luther inherited as tools of freedom. Just like you today, those people have baptism to drown out their sinful life and rise up to new life. Reformation is people and baptism. Just like you today, people not yet baptized, have holy scripture to place in their hearts, on their tongues and lips and in their ears. (We have scripture to) teach our minds a common language of faith and freedom. Reformation is people and scripture. Just like you today, people not yet born, have the Apostles Creed which connects people today and of the future and of the past, with a common confession of what is true and God who can be counted on as true. Reformation connects people, a whole lot of people, by a simple creed of faith. The gift of faith includes the fellowship of faith that teaches people the dream of freedom. And the tools of freedom include Holy Communion, the sacrament of the table that both conveys forgiveness and a life of true freedom in the kingdom.
Because of the Reformation we believe that the most important milestones are the ones ahead of us marking where we are heading. And we believe that we are to use these tools of freedom, these gifts of freedom and faith, liberally to bring about and restore life and to grant forgiveness to people who have not yet perished. To say “yes God loves you,” that “you have a place in his household forever,” and that “God deeply desires that you be free that you to be free indeed.”