Ordinary Saints and Re-Forming Truths

(This is a sermon I gave at Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in Atlanta, Georgia on Reformation Sunday, 2022)

John 8:31-36

31Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 33They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”
34Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”

Ordinary Saints and Re-Forming Truths

Greetings, Beloved!

My name is Pastor Tim Brown, and I serve the ELCA as the Director of Congregational Stewardship, though I live just up the road from you all in Raleigh, North Carolina with my wife and two crazy boys.  It’s my honor to bring you blessings and greetings from Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, and all the churchwide staff.  In my work in congregations, Lutheran Disaster Relief, Lutheran World Hunger, and the many missions that you all support here with your good work I have seen lives changed.

You’d helped make that happen. You make that happen. Thank you.

Before I was the Director of Congregational Stewardship, though, I was a parish pastor both in Raleigh and before that in Chicago, where I had a couple opportunities to meet your Mark, back when we were young and full of dreams.  And Pr. Jenny and I served together for a while on the ELCA coaching board.

That’s all to say, though it’s my first time in worship here at Redeemer, I know parts of you.

And I wonder if some of you might know a bit about me, not through my work at churchwide, but rather through some of my writing.  In the past few years, I’ve come upon this habit of researching and writing a bit about the saints of the church, both formal and informal, and have put my findings in a few places on the interwebs, and I know Mark sometimes shares those posts on the Book of Face, which is always kind of fun for a writer.

And I love that I’m here both on Reformation Sunday and on your Consecration Sunday because it kind of brings two of my passions together, that of stewardship and the saints, because Reformation is nothing if not a moment in time when some rag tag saints of the church tried to steward their life and words and treasures and gifts a bit differently in response to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Afterall, what is saint other than someone who tried to steward their life in a memorable way?

You know, every year on Reformation Sunday we get this text from Saint John, the most spiritual of the Gospel writers which is why when he is depicted, he’s often shown as having an eagle hovering over him, indicating “high spiritual flight.” His Jesus is philosophical, cerebral, and so it’s no wonder that Jesus offers this thought-provoking little tidbit for our Reformation Sunday talking about the Christ making us free.

What does it mean to be free in Christ?  What kind of knowledge can make you free, what kind of truth can make you free?

Saint Janis of the Joplins reminds us that, “Freedom’s just another word for, nothing left to lose…”

She might be right about that, Beloved.

But what’s the truth behind that freedom?

Our own Blessed Martin Luther might suggest that freedom comes from trusting in the word alone, by grace alone, through faith alone. His Reformation movement was founded upon this idea. But what word, what faith?  And grace? 

Beloved, let me tell you a deep truth I’ve learned from my life: the only way I understand grace is by having experienced it, otherwise it just confuses me to have such overwhelming love envelope all my blessings and my faults…

And here’s the thing, something that we often forget: things after the Reformation were not suddenly better and peaceful.  The Peasant’s Revolt, the Thirty Years War, the Reformers themselves fought amongst each other and argued and bickered…they may have been free from Papal authority, but they certainly didn’t always behave in a way that embodied the grace to which they clung.

You know, that’s one of the things I like the most about studying the saints and their beautiful attempts to steward their lives: the deeper you dive the more you find out that they are nowhere near perfect.

Saint Francis of Assisi actually tried to have himself martyred in the Crusades, having a bit of a death wish because he thought it would bring him glory.

Saint Mother Teresa had faith-crippling doubt where she wondered if God was real at all even as she served God in the poorest of the poor places.

And our own Blessed Martin Luther got so crabby and crotchety in his old age that he turned to prejudice rather than performative grace in some of his writings, writings that the Lutheran Church has disavowed forcefully.

Saints are not perfect. They live their faith in their best moments, and when they fail, they rely on the same grace everyone does…this is no more evident in Blessed Luther’s dying words where he uttered, “We are beggars; this is true.”

May none of us be remembered for our worst deeds, Beloved…

But back to that original question I posed, that one at the very beginning where I wondered where these saints gained the gumption to live into the freedom of Christ; what is this great truth they leaned upon? A truth worthy of lifting up on a Reformation Sunday?

In thinking about this I want to mention another saint, a lesser-known saint, but one I know deeply and dearly, Saint Ladye of the Brown’s, or as I called her, “Grandma.”

My grandmother, whose actual name was Ladye…a strong southern name, having been born and raised in Florida, was the first person who truly taught me stewardship.

By the way, a bit about this saint, and lest you think I have some rosy view of her: she was not perfect.  She was delightful and fun at parties and she shortened her life in many deliciously ill-advised ways, having a love for Manhattans and a 2-pack a day habit since she was 16 that she never abandoned until a year before her death when she cut it back to 1 pack a day as a kind of experiment in longevity.

She lived to 83, and relished her moments, especially serving as the church secretary where she never met a bit of gossip she didn’t relish.

She was not perfect…

When I came home from college with a tattoo I said, “Grandma, you want to see my tattoo?!” and with a cigarette in one hand and a Manhattan in the other she took a drag and said, “I don’t know why anyone would do that to their body…”

But when she died.

When she died and we were cleaning out the house that she and my grandfather had bought in 1948 for $10,000 in Miami Springs, Florida with the help of a GI Loan, I found her writing desk in her room, a desk that now sits in my parent’s spare bedroom.

And on that desk, I found her checkbook, and thumbing through those pages I found that she had pre-written, for months, checks to the many people and charities that she loved dearly: her church, Lutheran World Hunger, Smile Train, and yes, her children and grandchildren…just a little to us.

But she had pre-written these things because, Beloved, where her treasure was…well, it was also where her heart was.

And I remember a truth about her, something she told me and my brothers every time she saw us: “I love you for who you are.”  And she said this to me without fail, even in those times when I didn’t really love myself, those times in middle school where I would find pictures of myself and literally burn them in the bathroom because I didn’t like what I looked like, and I was sure I liked who I was.

And she said the same to my brothers, and most everyone she met and knew.  She was not perfect, but she knew that she was perfectly loved, and loved others with that perfection. That gave her the gumption to be free, to live freely in that love and grace.

And that’s no small thing, Beloved.  How many of us walk around with guarded hearts? Guarded heads? Guarded feelings? Guarded gifts?

The Gospel of the God known in Jesus Christ makes us free, friends. And not free because of military might, and not free because of supreme power, but free because, well, as the now sainted bald and beautiful…and there is no other way than bald and beautiful…the Reverend William Sloane Coffin, pastor of Riverside Church in New York City said, free because in Christ we live in the shadow of “powerless love rather than loveless power.”

And at the heart of it, that is what I think I take most when thinking about the Reformation, a movement which continues today as Blessed Martin Luther found a perfect love in the scriptures that took his breath away to the extent that he thought there was nothing else more wonderful in the world.

And it is this truth, Beloved, this truth that I think makes us free.  As one of my Theology professors at Valparaiso University put it, and this is I think the freeing truth:

“God loves you, for Christ’s sake, and will not let you go.”

In fact, I think God would rather die, very literally as we see in Jesus, than have you believe otherwise.

Which is why we sing, “I love to tell the story of unseen things above, of Jesus and his glory, of Jesus and his love, I love to tell the story because I know it’s true, it satisfies my longing as nothing else will do…

And it is that love, that grace that can only be known by being felt, Beloved, that freeing truth that keeps forming me, and re-forming me, and re-forming me.

That is a word.  That is a grace. That is a re-forming faith worth clinging to, by God, on the Reformation and every single reforming day afterward.


The Hinge of November

November is a “hinge time” in the life of the world.

The Celts knew this. As the bonfires they used to celebrate All Hallow’s Eve smoldered, they prepared themselves for the encroaching shadows as the sun turned in early.

They hung their herbs in the house to scent the place and prepare for winter meals, and began to bolt their windows against the wind. They’d unpack the candles they had made from the fat of the Fall slaughter, and would begin to do the hard work of nesting in.

They knew that November marked the hinge between Fall and Winter, between light and shadows, between dying and sleep, and they embraced it the way that you embrace that necessary fallow time we all encounter in our lives.

It’s good to realize that some times in our lives will just be fallow. Embrace the rest. Use the reserves. And remember that this time has a beginning and an ending, like all things in life, with rebirth on the far side.

And it feels like a very large hinge time in these days.

Stories Inspire

Today the church remembers an obscure saint, St. Willibrord of Utrecht, Missionary to Frisia.

Willibrord (b. 658) was raised in Ireland where he was ordained a priest in 688.

He was heavily influenced by the Northumbrian monk, Egbert, who told fantastical stories of his travels and work. Willibrord was enamored with these tales, and wanted in on the action. At Egbert’s invitation, Willibrord dedicated himself to exploration and missionary work.

He sailed to Utrecht in Frisia (the Netherlands) where he set up the first official see of the Roman Catholic church in that land (well, the Pope founded it, but gave Willibrord permission to do what he was doing: running it). Willibrord set to work founding schools, parishes, and monasteries. He was consecrated as Bishop by Pope Sergius I in 695, and did much to plant the church in the Netherlands.

In his old age he retired to a monastery he founded in what is now Luxembourg, and died there on this day in 739.

St. Willibrord is a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, that stories inspire. Hearing Egbert’s tales enticed him to explore the world! The faith is full of inspiring stories, and telling them in such a way that they’re heard as the wonderful tales and testimonies they are should inspire exploration, not entrench people in trite moralisms, stilted orthodoxy, or make the faithful fearful of what’s on the other side of any fence.

A lovely historical development: as one so inspired by stories, he now has so many stories about him shared throughout the Netherlands. These tales of his accomplishments are richly embellished and fantastical, ensuring that this one so moved by stories is the subject of many moving stories himself.

-historical pieces from Pfatteicher’s New Book of Festivals & Commemorations

-also, it should be noted that I will probably look like this old Irish saint when I become an old Irish saint…