Monday, October 29, 2018

The Holy Spirit Re-Forms Us Still Today

Sermon of Christ Lutheran Church, Staunton VA   
October 28, 2018
Pastor Robert McCarty

The Holy Spirit Re-FORMs Us Still Today

Preaching Texts: Jeremiah 31: 31-34   John 8: 31-36

[Paragraph added to address violence at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA.]  The Christian Church has an obligation to speak clearly against hate in God’s creation. This week our nation saw two acts of violence motivated by hate in the sending of bombs through the mail to respected political voices and even more sadly another mass murder happening in a house of worship. Apparently, that attack was not just directed at a synagogue but also directed at Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. This group, similar to Lutheran Immigrant and Refugee Services, assists people from all places and all faith backgrounds who come to make a home for themselves in America. Our Judeo-Christian scripture teaches that the foreigner in our midst deserves our care and protection. We cannot tolerate hate and need to speak up and speak against intimidation with words before it leads to intimidation with violence. God calls us to show compassion not just to the stranger but also to the foreigner in our midst.

Pray with me.  [Come Lord Jesus...]

We wear the red of reformation. That red gives us identity on this Sunday. The ELCA has two tag lines that give shape to our national identity as the Lutheran Church. “God’s Work, Our Hands.” This one may actually serve as a simple mission statement that gives identity to how we function as church. We serve. My sermon last week, my newsletter message and my annual report embrace this call to Christian service. The ELCA wants the nation and the world to recognize that God calls us into a life of compassion and service.

On this Reformation Sunday, however, the second tag line catches my attention and I share that with you. “Always being made New” comes from our recent Campaign for the ELCA. “Always being made New,” I asked Brenda to use this as the artwork for our bulletin cover. You will notice the shift in font types. From the classic serif style font with feet and ligatures to the bold and crisp “New” font. The Holy Spirit lives in constant activity of re-NEW-ing and re-FORM-ing the church and especially, our church.

“Always being made new” however, is a hard sell in a Lutheran Church. It sounds like something close to “change.” How many Lutherans does it take to change a light bulb. Two answers to this joke. How many Lutherans does it take to change a light bulb? “What Change No.” 


How many Lutherans does it take to change a lightbulb? Five. One to change the lightbulb and four to lament the loss of the lightbulb and comment on how much better old lightbulbs are than the newer ones. As far as lightbulbs, I agree with that sentiment, but so be it.

Have you ever noticed how the Lutheran Church uses the word Reformation. We have a word that describes the Holy Spirit re-form-ing us. “Re-form” describes Holy Spirit lead activity: forming, forming, forming again, re formed. Have you noticed how the Lutheran Church has taken this Holy Spirit lead verb and turned it into a dated noun that points backwards rather than forwards. We need to let go of “Reformation” as something Martin Luther did and embrace Reformation as an activity of the Holy Spirit even today. Reform is not something that has happened. Reform happens still today, even today.

“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.” That verse from Jeremiah begins our scripture reading for today. That new covenant, a new promise (and frankly a new relationship with God) begins with Christ Jesus. Christ Jesus brings to this covenant forgiveness and reconciliation, life and light, healing and hope. As we help people build this new relationship with God and with Jesus, we speak the truth of Christ and scripture when we speak in terms of forgiveness, reconciliation, life, light, healing and hope. 

It would flow nicer if I could have created alliteration in the first pairing of forgiveness and reconciliation. I have two L words: life and light. I have two H words: healing and hope. Obviously, Forgiveness and Reconciliation do not line up. I thought about Forgiveness and Freedom, because both show up in our scripture reading. When you experience freedom however, you become free from something. Freed from tyranny for example, as our American Revolutionary forefathers went through. Freedom from slavery speaks to our African American brothers and sisters and their ancestors. It also speaks to the Israelites, who try to deny it. Abraham’s children were slaves in Egypt. Freedom from tyranny, freedom from slavery, freedom from sin. Freedom is separation from that which is bad and life denying. Freedom still holds great importance in our life. But what are we are freed? This is more important. We are freed for reconciliation. While we are freed from something, we are reconciled to someone, specifically you are reconciled to God through Christ Jesus. That is much more important. God re-forms your lives as forgiven and reconciled people who do not need violence in order to survive. This truth changes lives. 

I read this week about the church response to the opioid epidemic. And I found this story about David in Missouri. David abused opioids for 24 years, went through rehab several times, 12 step programs several times, went to jail. He had a troubled youth, experienced abuse, and had a father who completed suicide. Opioids offered him an out. He was an atheist as well, an annoying one who liked to belittle Christians. But his Christian friends kept at him and he eventually gave in because they offered him (this is a quote). “live music and BBQ after church and I like to eat.” That lead to regular worship and Celebrate Recovery meetings for 6 months and new relationships. After 24 years of addiction, David hasn’t used in 8 years. Freed from addiction and reconciled to friends and to God.

David now works in recovery not-for-profits. He distributes Narcan, which is life saving medication that reverses opioid overdoses. Some Christian doctors call Narcan “grace in a syringe.” “The dead live. A sin is forgiven, The hopeless receive hope.” All three of those mantras together describe what it means to be “re-formed.” David “distributes Narcan to community organizations throughout the state and trains people how to recognize an overdose and save a life. He told Christianity Today magazine, “When a pastor or a Christian asks me, you know, ‘Why do I need this?’(my note: Narcan) I tell them, ‘Because dead people don’t get saved.’”

David’s life was re formed by the Holy Spirit and by Christ. A dramatic story of how reformation works today. Think about this, live music, and bbq and friends and Christ but has saved a multitude of additional lives in the state of Missouri. Here are the national statistics. In 2015, 47,000 people died because of opioid overdoses, but another 26,000 people lived because of someone had the syringe of Narcan handy and knew what to look for and what to do.1

Much as changed about the church over the years. Even today, whether we like it or not, we are “always being made new.” But, both before and after this newness we remain committed to life for all of the children of God. That is not just a Lutheran calling; that serves as a Christian calling that we live out with our compassion.


1 Quotes above and statistics from “Hope for America’s Opioid Epidemic is Grace in a Syringe” by Lindsay Stokes in Christianity Today, August 15, 2017. From

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Kingdom Building

Sermon of Christ Lutheran Church, Staunton VA   
October 7, 2018
Pastor Robert McCarty

Kingdom Building

Preaching Texts: Mark 10:  2-16

Every week, just about every week, I live with a gospel text and other pieces of scripture. I live with them daily. Read them, try to listen to what God wants to say. I am called to read this text as part of a community of faith. This week I have had to live with the Psalm verse “O Lord, Our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!/You whose glory is chanted above the heavens out of the mouths of infants and children.” I have lived with that psalm verse alongside of Jesus convicting us. “It is because of your hardness of heart.” With those words, Jesus convicts us. Jesus points out the brokenness of our community.

By the way, don’t be distracted by the divorce topic. Jesus addresses the Pharisees because they ask that question. But then we see the disciples hardness of heart towards children, Jesus gets indignant to them as well. 

Let the children come. Children anticipate the Kingdom of God which is not broken. Hardness of heart means more than just a failed marriage. Hardness of heart means failed communities, if not failed certainly broken communities. Discord. Unrest. Think Charlottesville last year. Or less traumatically think Lexington when the Martin Luther King Jr. parade was scheduled for the same day as the Lee Jackson parade.

I could not help but wonder how many laws lie in the scripture because of our hardness of heart. I guess most of them, people steal because of hardness of heart, a disregard for people and property. Thou shall not covet. Honor thy parents. Remember the Sabbath. All of this has to do with hardness of heart.

One might find it difficult to understand hardness of heart. We see it in others more than we see it in ourselves. Thomas Aquinas, a 12th Century Christian priest and scholar, summarized that all sin stems from self-love, placing our own selves ahead of others and of God. Yet, slowly we learn how to expand our sense of self to include others. Aquinas recognized this complication, that self-love helps us to love others as we expand our sense of who we are. Families would be one natural extensions as well as a church family or friends (another extension), and then perhaps communities or nation or God. Hardness of heart then might begin at that limit where we can no longer stretch ourselves. When we start putting boundary lines on our own sense of community. Hardness of heart begins when we start placing people outside of our limits.

So consider this. The old testament has a law about leaving the corners of your field unharvested for the poor and the widow and the foreigner in your midst. So that they can glean from the corners and have food to eat. That law set precedence for our understanding of charitable giving. Not just supporting the church with our tithe but also caring for the poor in our midst. 

Yet that law, also helped the landowner expand his sense of self. The crops on his land helped to support him, his family, including perhaps mother, brothers and sisters, but also his hired laborers were part of his sphere of concern who benefited from the land. And then because of the corners and the edges of the field, landowners out in their fields would see the gleaners coming and would or at least could treat them with compassion.

In that act of leaving the edge and corners of the field unharvested, God has the farmer expand who he cares for. Care leads to relationship, relationship leads to concern, concern leads to compassion, compassion leads to love. (Well, maybe not love. I would settle for compassion.) Through these fields, God brings into community people that the landowner might otherwise not invite. Through these fields and their edges and corners, God builds community including those whom we might be tempted to keep out. Except, we do not have such fields anymore to expand our sense of self.

Our community right now is broken. This high school name situation has hardened our heart. I have walked with both sides of the issue. And the grief on both sides is powerful, deeply felt hurt and grief. I went to one of the listening sessions over at the Gypsy Hill Park gym this summer. There I heard the language of grief and anger, and concern and compassion. At the listening session, people, even the angry ones, chose their words carefully, politely. I mentioned that I went to the prayer worship last Friday with the African American pastors of our community. That is one of my roles as pastor, to walk alongside people in the midst of their grief. I will say that the leaders offering prayers last week did an admirable job of choosing their words carefully. They set aside their pain and their rhetoric and strived to offer prayers for our civic leaders, mayor, school board, children, that everyone could say "amen” to.

Our common prayer in Staunton, as we struggle through our brokenness, don’t let us be like Charlottesville. Charlottesville was in the news again this week as the federal government arrested four men from California and charged them with inciting violence. We pray don’t let that happen here. Three people died last year in Charlottesville, one pedestrian and two police officers whose helicopter crashed.

Perhaps that imagery helps us understand Jesus’ death as a cure to the brokenness. That Jesus died so that others would not have to. Jesus died so that his blood would have power to soften our hearts. And somehow make our brokenness something other than a competition between future winners and future losers. That we together could grieve for him and hope in him.

Maybe you saw this in the news last weekend. Vanderbilt beat Tennessee State in a game of football. And after the game, the teams from both sides met at midfield to pray for Christion Abercrombie. Abercombie, a linebacker at Tennessee State collapsed with a headache and was rushed to the hospital nearby and as of Thursday was still in ICU. I showed the picture of the post game prayer at midfield to our small group prayer study on Tuesday. R-- mentioned that some teams come together before games to pray. That is what happened yesterday when Tennessee State played Austin Peay. I have seen soccer teams gather for prayer before games. 

Jesus and prayer has the power to break down the boundaries of us and them. Jesus and prayer has the power to expand our sense of self, to help recognize the humanity in all of us. Jesus and prayer has the power to soften our hearts towards one another.

Jesus sees the brokenness in the community that surrounds him. He names the problem. The Pharisees, sadly continue their journey with Jesus to the cross as adversaries. The disciples stand corrected and journey with Jesus to the cross with their hearts softened. At the cross they will abandon him, but then later have their grief turn to joy as they gather around their living Lord. And that joy of Jesus overflows into the world throughout time. You are here today because you know that joy is stronger than your grief. You are here with one another, and with Jesus, building an eternal and universal community to be a part of the kingdom of God. As that Kingdom is not broken, Jesus says “let the children come.” Let all of God’s children come.