I want to preface the sermon by noting the anti-Semitism that is at work in the Gospel of John reference “the Jews.” We know Jesus was a Jew, so the way in which the gospels sometimes describe Jews as “other” or as “non-Jesus followers” is problematic. Especially the way these depictions were later used to do violence against Jewish people. We also know Martin Luther participated in anti-Semitism and these writings and remarks the church repudiates. We want to be careful not to repeat these racist tropes inadvertently. Through silence we lend credence to them and do violence to our Jewish neighbours.
Inventors of the Meme
Martin Luther and the Reformers had an urgent message to get out to Christians in Germany and beyond in the Medieval period. Part of that message included trusting in God’s grace alone. The church institution and hierarchy was not necessary to intercede on people’s behalf for salvation. Grace becomes elevated as the free gift. This was a message sorely needed for people being kept under the thumb of the church, who had to pay levies, taxes, and indulgences in order to secure their place in heaven, or ensure a loved one wouldn’t get stuck in purgatory or worse.
Luther and company couldn’t just send out an e-mail from synod office. They couldn’t share it in the weekly newsletter or on social media. And yet they were on the cutting edge of a communication revolution. The printing press with moveable type was becoming a reality. Wood cuts could be mass printed relatively inexpensively as handbills.
When we think about the Reformation we often think about lofty, thick volumes about Biblical interpretation, Luther translating the New Testament into German, the Book of Concord, and other scholarly works. However we also know not everyone could read these works or had access to them either because libraries were mostly private and books were very expensive. What was more readily available were handbills and short pamphlets that required less materials and labour.
Luther and the Reformers discovered an effective way to get complex theological messages across to people who are illiterate is through artwork and graphic design. Together with local printers they created what today we would call memes. A single, simple image with minimal text that tells a story. For example they created a woodcut depicting the pope as a donkey walking upright, with other details. This is from the same Luther, Biblical scholar and theologian. He did not see it below himself to use new technology to communicate to a broader base. Openly criticizing the pope through caricature and a kind of political cartoon, Luther and the Reformers freed people to say out loud what some people would have been thinking privately. That the church institution can be questioned and held accountable for practices that were questionable even harmful.
Luther seemed to have little remorse around getting into public debates, even heated ones, and introducing these printed memes to convey a message. Sometimes I wonder if one of our takeaways from the Reformation could be around communication. Churches that have learned this lesson tend to be more conservative and express Biblical fundamentalism. They tend to be quicker at embracing new technologies and to finding ways to make their theologies simpler and accessible to others. There is a lot to be said about the theologies and Biblical interpretation of these churches. But we can also learn from them, embracing new ways of communicating with people, including those searching for a church home.
The message of grace alone is badly needed today. Pr. Lyle and I hear from so many people hungry for a church home in which they are accepted for who they are. Sometimes we receive questions from people whether they are even allowed to attend worship at Church of the Cross. Not unlike Luther’s time, there still persist theologies that suggest church is a members only clubhouse and that certain works need to be performed to be granted entrance and salvation.
We are still unpacking Luther’s emphasis on grace he re-discovered in Romans 3. “A person is justified by faith apart from works.” People are hungry for this message of grace reinterpreted in language people can understand. The phrase “all are welcome” on its own rings hollow because every church has been saying that. It’s a bit like a restaurant claiming “a local tradition.” It doesn’t have a lot of content by itself. McDonald’s has been around forever and could claim it is a local tradition. But it doesn’t mean the food is good. People want to see whether delivery and actions are consistent with messaging.
I suggest people are yearning for evangelism in a good sense. Even though we’re often afraid of it because we’ve seen so many bad examples. Neighbours are yearning for an evangelism in which Jesus’ love for them is proclaimed. Evangelism in which God’s free gift of grace is clearly communicated. And not just using these words, but in ways that ring true.
Stories about Grace
I think about the story Lenny Duncan often shares about himself. How he felt a bit lost in life and ended up at a Lutheran church in Philadelphia. They invited him to join in holy communion through an open table, something we practice here as well. That simple act of joining in the shared meal without there being a test of whether someone belongs. We belong through God’s grace. For Lenny Duncan trusting that Jesus’ love was for him as a queer Black man was a life changing moment. And then afterwards the church showed up in ways to include his voice at the table, eventually inviting him to serve in ministry and eventually an author and public speaker, despite numerous hurdles and challenges still within the church. He remains among the most outspoken critics of church hierarchy. He emphasizes the opportunities we have to share God’s grace, especially with those people historically who have been excluded by church structures.
Isn’t this true for us as well? We too are in search of grace and belonging? Tired and weary with a pandemic that shows little signs of ending? We too are in need of gathering as the body of Christ. We are mourning the dying and deaths of loved ones. We are weary that people we love are struggling in various ways. We don’t know how to make sense of the constant barrage of news about the pandemic, about the climate, about systemic racism, that we feel overwhelmed. We need to know and trust God’s love is for us in this moment, in this place. That we are enough. Whether or not we did our exercises this week or on top of things in our lives. Trust God’s message we are enough.
I think about how many people find us because they find a message of grace whether in the church sign, on our website, through social media. Queer folks and others who are finding a church home here. And then they come to see whether our actions match our messaging. And that’s something we keep living into each day. Finding opportunities for people to experience God’s grace for them. That too is a shared grace as we grow in our understandings of God’s breadth of love and inclusion.
As we live into doing the work around anti-racism, making church spaces places where people of colour can breathe and be included in church leadership. Through grace we continue this work together.
Even when people take issue with a particular message on the sign or elsewhere, it becomes an opportunity for conversation. An opportunity for the Holy Spirit to break into our lives and break down the silos in which we often live.
I feel there was a moment of grace when as colleagues and lay people, there was an opportunity on the last day of Synod Assembly to speak up and stand up for queer colleagues in the church. There were two motions several of us spoke to and stood behind. One motion asked the national church to review their document on discipline, especially around interpretations of gender and sexuality. A second motion asked the BC Synod suspend any recent decisions around discipline until this document on discipline can be reviewed by a task force that will bring forth recommendations. Both motions passed with a significant majority vote. While I do not have the time to go into depth on these motions now, I want to extend the invitation that Pr. Lyle and I are available to meet and discuss these and other motions further one on one.
Rather than hiding our lamp under a bushel, the opportunity to discuss and vote on motions that protect people on the margins, builds a stronger church. The more dialogue we can have around expanding God’s grace the better.
What is your story of grace?
Wrapping up, what is your story of grace? Where is God meeting you today?