Prince, Michael Jackson, and Martin Luther: Reformation Sunday 2019

John 8:31-36

“… and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 

I was dreaming when I wrote this; forgive me if it goes astray. 

But when I woke up this morning, could’ve sworn it was Reformation Day.

Well, my friends, here we are for another year — celebrating the five hundred second anniversary, as it were, of the Protestant Reformation, started by Martin Luther, whose name we bear whenever we refer to ourselves as Lutherans. Luther: the monk, scholar, and pioneer who utilized the technology of his day (namely, the printing press) in order to get his ideas out there and to change the course of history as we know it. 

Today, I also want to talk about faith and technology and pioneering and reformation via another pioneer who used the technology of his day: the artist, as it were, formerly known as Prince. 

Whether or not you were alive and aware of pop music in 1982 doesn’t matter, because unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past thirty years, you know this little clip of music. [Click here to listen.]

That drum machine. That blast of sound. It’s iconic. And it’s also musically groundbreaking in ways that I didn’t quite realize until this week. 

No, this isn’t a setup to a joke about partying like it’s 1517. 

All of this information comes from a little podcast called Switched on Pop, which I highly recommend. This week’s guest was Anil Dash, who usually appears on a tech podcast called Function. This week, however, he joined Switched on Pop to talk about his Prince fandom.

You see, that blast of sound and those drums didn’t just come out of nowhere. Prince was fond of using drum machines, at least in part because he didn’t have to worry about contacting actual drummers while he was working in the studio at 3AM. In 1982, before the release of “1999,” he had one called the Linn Machine 1, or LM1. It was created by Roger Linn in the 1970s in order to produce “the most faithful sound” — in other words, it was supposed to mimic actual drums. 

It’s what Prince did with it, however, that made both it and the song groundbreaking. He turned the knobs of the LM1 too far intentionally — much further than the inventor, Linn, intended. The result, as you can hear on the track “1999,” wasn’t the sound of real drums — it was the sound of otherworldly drums. You might even call them futuristic.

From there, Prince added an Oberheim synthesizer and also cranked it up further than anyone else was doing at the time. His goal: to stretch his audience. To be innovative. To figure out what was possible. The result, you’ve already heard: the song “1999.” It was his breakout, iconic single, and one that expanded his audience and launched him to the iconic status that he has today. The song even had a revival naturally, as the new millennium approached almost twenty years ago.

The freedom Prince had with music was based on his knowledge of music and his willingness to take what he was given and innovate. He pushed and expanded and changed the face of music.

“… and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 

Someone else heard the song “1999” when it was first released in September 1982. That person, naturally, was Michael Jackson. At the time, he was working on a track called “Starlight,” which was a synthy, soft rock song. Now, you’ve probably never heard a Michael Jackson song called “Starlight,” unless you’re as big a pop music nerd as me. Well, there’s a reason you’ve never heard it. 

You see, when Jackson heard the wall of sound in Prince’s new song, his competitive edge hit him. He also wanted something that sounded like a wall of sound, something iconic, that would make history and help change music forever. The result of this musing, you also know — you may have even heard it recently, as it’s a Halloween mainstay.

[Click here to listen.]

And all of this came from pushing boundaries far past what was originally intended, to include more sounds, louder sounds, bigger sounds. It was, in its own right, a kind of musical reformation that would shape pop music for the rest of the 1980s and beyond. 

My friend Kimble, a UCC pastor, describes theology in different traditions like a stereo. The Presbyterians turn up the knob on God’s sovereignty, while the Episcopalians might turn that one down a bit and turn up sacramental theology. Well, my friends, Martin Luther takes the “grace” knob and turns it way further than anyone had before 1517, and he changed the course of history. He rejected the idea that the clergy nor the institution of the church was the sole arbiter of grace, and he really rejected the idea of the church selling indulgences, or the forgiveness of sin for a price. And so, that fed up monk wrote a little document called the Ninety Five Theses, and depending on whom you ask, he either nailed it to the door of a church or mailed it to the church authorities, but either way, the rest is history. 

Now, this is not to denigrate our Catholic neighbors, of whom we have many. It’s not to denigrate the members of your families who may be Catholic. Christians of all types have tended to take that “truth shall make you free” passage and use it to feel smug, but that’s not the intention. Luther, before all hell broke loose, didn’t intend to create a new church with his 95 Theses, and everything he was saying was originally in an attempt to reform the church he loved so much. Nothing he said was actually all that contrary to Catholic theology; in his view, he was simply calling them back to what he understood the Catholic faith to be. 

Or, as I like to put it when someone tells me they’re Catholic after finding out I’m a Lutheran: “Ah, well, what’s a little damage to a door five hundred years ago between friends?” 

The gist of what Luther wanted to get across wasn’t so much Lutheran as it was just Christian, even if he did crank grace knob all the way up to eleven: the Gospel is a story about God, and salvation is an act of God. By grace we are saved, through faith. 

If Prince produced a wall of sound that hits your ears, Martin Luther produced a wall of grace that hits your heart. He cranked that knob up further than anyone intended, except for Christ himself. 

There is nothing you can do to earn God’s love; you can only live in response to it. 

“… and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

Just before that line, when Jesus says “If you continue in my word,” it’s important to note two things: first, that the word translated “continue” is really “abide,” and that when Jesus refers to the “word,” he’s not talking about the Bible since, you know, the New Testament didn’t exist just yet. When the writer of John pens this line in the eighth chapter of the Gospel, he’s calling back to the first chapter: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). What Jesus is saying is “abide in me,” live in me, and I will make you free indeed.

My friends, on this five hundred second anniversary of the Reformation, I want to posit this: that, just like art, and music, and science, and our own lives, faith and theology are dynamic, not static. A healthy faith is always growing, changing, re-forming, discovering new things, all while holding to the core truths that set us free. After all, in music, basic music theory isn’t going anywhere, but in the right hands, some amazing things can happen that would blow the socks off Mozart himself. 

The color for Reformation Sunday is red with the Holy Spirit’s dove logo for a reason, you know: that the Holy Spirit, wild, untamed, creative, is always doing a new thing. The same Holy Spirit that first whispered in Luther’s ear to turn that grace knob all the way up is here today, whispering in our ears, too, if we know how to listen. And while we may have changed some things since 1517 that Luther did not intend and would not recognize, the creator of both faith and music, wild and untamed, is unsurprised. 

“… and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

The truth is that we are saved by grace, by God. Set free from having to earn God’s love, we are free to play, to create, to fail, to learn, to experiment, to grow. And that’s exactly what we’ll be doing in the next year as we undertake the synod’s Forward program and look not with fear, but with, creativity at our future. And the Holy Spirit will be there, too.

It’s Reformation Sunday, folks. So turn it up. Amen.

One in Ten

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Our Savior’s people on God’s Work, Our Hands Sunday: as Lutherans, we do good not because we must, but because we’re grateful. 

Luke 17:11-19

I have to confess something to you. I don’t usually like Christian movies. 

Why? Lots of reasons: for one thing, I often find them to be a little too simple and sweet; they’re like eating a cupcake with lots of icing when I want a meal. 

The other reason is because of this line that we find at the end of the Gospel passage: “Your faith has made you well.” 

How often are these movies about someone in the moving having great faith and finding their problems solved by God?

“But Pastor,” you may say, “You literally just said it’s right there in the Bible!” 

Yes, yes it is. “Your faith has made you well.” 

So that’s it, isn’t it? If we have enough faith, God will solve our problems, just like Jesus did for the grateful leper who comes back to praise him. 

But as you might imagine, this ain’t no sweet Christian movie. It’s a complex story. And we’ve got a few minutes, so while we’re here, we might as well talk about it. 

It begins:

“On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee.” 

“Samaria” is already a warning sign. Good Jews did not go near Samaria. That’s where “those people” lived. The first readers of Luke would’ve leaned forward at the mention of “Samaria.” Samaria was a whole other nation, and a hated one. Jesus is going near the border. 

We talk a lot about Samaria and how the people were despised, and about how the Jewish folks of the day regarded them as those who have it all wrong. We say this, and we compare it to the hatreds of our own day, but I don’t think we take it seriously. You see, we don’t personally have anything against Samaritans. I’ve never met one, myself. And the groups of people we hate, well, they’re clearly different than the people we find in the Bible. They’re harmful, and dumb, and they really have it all wrong. Jesus would understand, right?

In Luke, Jesus spends most of his time setting his face towards Jerusalem, towards the cross. Gradually, he gets closer and closer to Jerusalem, though he takes a bit of a circuitous route. You’ve got to wonder if the Son of God has a busted GPS. 

Hence, going by Samaria. He shouldn’t have had to, but he did.

Here, on the way to his destiny and going by the place where the hated people live, ten lepers cry out: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 

They keep their distance, Luke says. They don’t want Jesus to just walk quickly away from them, which would be well within his rights; not only were they unclean, but on a practical level, no one wants leprosy. 

Jesus instructs them to go and show themselves to the priests, and Luke says that as they went, they were made clean. 

This could be a nice, simple, sweet story, one where Jesus directs people to go and rejoin the community by going to the priests who will declare them clean. Except that it isn’t that kind of story.

One of them didn’t go to the priests. He didn’t because he couldn’t. He was a Samaritan. He was one of those people. The priests wouldn’t welcome someone who was both leper and Samaritan who dared to approach a Jewish priest. Strike one, strike two, strike three, sit down.

He couldn’t go to the priests so he came back to Jesus, seeing that he was healed and made clean. He came back praising God with a loud voice. He came back grateful. He fell at Jesus feet and thanked him. 

Luke adds: “And he was a Samaritan.” 

And that’s when Jesus said it, the line that echoes back through the centuries and gets into our theology and gets us into all kinds of trouble: “Your faith has made you well.” 

Does faith make sick people well? Maybe. But then I suppose we’ve got a lot of explaining to do. In my own life and as a pastor, I’ve known plenty of people with faith far greater than my own who have not been made well, but who have died of illnesses and injuries of all kinds. Christian movies can be a nice escape for us, because they put us into a world where faith is simple. But the truth is that faith is rarely simple. 

“Your faith has made you well.” 

Does Jesus really mean that the Samaritan leper’s faith healed him? 

You might have already guessed this, but the answer in the text is no, for a few reasons: first, the nine ungrateful lepers, the faithless ones, are also healed. 

But the text says what it says, right? “Your faith has made you well?” Some translations even say “your faith has healed you.” 

Well, Luke originally wrote in Greek, and Greek is a funny thing. “Healed” is one translation, “well” is another, but I think here, the best word is “whole.” 

“Your faith has made you whole.” 

Theeeeere you go. Is that even different? Goodness yes. 

You see, as Lutherans, we believe that faith is a gift from God. If you believe that you’re earning your way into heaven by being here, I hate to disappoint you, but we believe that salvation is an act of God, not a reward for good behavior. If you’re waiting for an excuse to not go to church, well, here it is: you’re fine even if you don’t. When we declared you beloved at your baptism, we were just saying what God already knew: you’re beloved beyond measure. God’s not keeping score anymore. God has claimed you and healed you. You have been made clean. If all you want is a healing and a ticket to heaven, you can leave now.

But this is what I love about Lutherans: you know that. And you still come back every Sunday morning. As if that weren’t enough, you show up on Sunday nights to teach and take care of kids and serve food at Financial Peace University. You show up in the middle of the week to fix things around here that need fixing. You show up at Sok’s Bar to sing and be grateful and enjoy one another’s company. You keep coming back, all the time, not because you must, but because you may. 

Because you’re grateful. Not because your own faith has healed you, but because your faith has made you whole. Because this community makes you feel whole. Because Jesus makes you feel whole. 

The pastor of a church in Atlanta that is 90% LGBTQ, Beth LaRocca-Pitts, once preached on this text when it happened to fall on Pride Sunday in October in Atlanta. “One in ten,” she mused. She added, “I can’t help but think of something else that occurs in about one in every ten people.” Of course, she meant being LGBTQ. She went on to celebrate them, her congregation full of the one in ten. (1) The one who turned back and praised God with a loud voice because not only had he been healed, he had been made whole. 

I’ve never forgotten that sermon. 

I have never served a congregation that was 90% LGBTQ. But I do serve a congregation that is full of the one in ten.

As you may have noticed, practically nobody in New England is all that religious. The usual story, as you know, is “I was raised [fill in the blank, usually Catholic], but these days, I’m spiritual, but not religious.” 

According to Pew Research, 45% of our neighbors in Massachusetts seldom or never attend religious services, while 33% say they rarely do. In my experience, a lot of those 33% actually belong with the 45%. 

And yet, here you are. 

Your faith has made you whole. 

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not condemning anyone who’s happily sleeping in right now. Many Sundays, I wish I was doing the same. Don’t forget — all ten who met Jesus were healed, even the ones who never saw him again. But I’ve got a congregation filled with the one who came back to praise God with a loud voice. 

No, it’s not a simple story. This story, as good as it makes us feel, is no usual Christian movie where someone with a lot of faith gets healed because they have a lot of faith. It’s a story about how Jesus throws out healing like he’s made of it, because he is. 

And then one guy comes back to Jesus in gratitude, and he is made whole by his own gratitude, by realizing where his healing came from, by being thankful. 

You’ve already begun practicing gratitude by showing up today. Keep it going. What are you grateful for? Who are you grateful for? 

I’ll start: I’m grateful for you. You make my soul whole by showing up, Sunday after Sunday, week after week. I’m the pastor of the one in ten, and I could not be more grateful. 

Our story isn’t a saccharine movie. It’s much more complicated with a few more beers and probably a lot more cussing, but it’s got just as much Jesus, just as much healing, just as much wholeness. 

And for that, I’m grateful. Amen.

1. That church is St. Mark United Methodist Church, Atlanta.

Mustard Seeds: Get It?

Actual mustard seeds, as seen at children’s Sunday school on Sunday at Our Savior’s.

Luke 17:5-10

When I was in college, for the first two years, my coach was a very Bill Belichick type character: highly successful, wicked smart about strategy and the game in general, all with the cuddliness of a Brillo pad. He wasn’t the kind of guy you wanted to trifle with, and if you played for him, you’d better do your best. 

When someone hit a home run, we weren’t to lose our minds. We were to come out of the dugout calmly and deliver our fist bumps and high fives. Why?

Because we weren’t supposed to act like home runs were rare, or in any way a surprise. 

No, we do this all the time. If success is routine, you don’t lose your mind when all you did was your job. 

Makes sense now why I, someone with no previous NFL loyalties, so quickly became a Patriots fan, don’t it?

This morning, Jesus essentially says a similar thing at the end of the passage. Those who do what they’re supposed to don’t expect congratulations. So yeah, you guessed it: Jesus’ message is, essentially, Do your job.

There’s also this thing about mustard seeds. 

You may be familiar with the parable of the mustard seed. Starts as a little seed, grows into big tree, birds come and nest in its branches, etc. This isn’t that, but it’s close. Jesus really loved mustard seeds for some reason. I think it’s this: there’s a truth about mustard seeds that we miss because, well, we’re not first century Middle Eastern farmers. 

Mustard seeds were tiny, which also means that they can hide in a bag of other seeds. Mustard bushes aren’t the kind that farmers planted in nice rows. They’re the kind of seeds that spring up in the middle of a field, tossed out by some unsuspecting sower. It’s not the nice story of a planting that we might imagine — it’s one of a sudden tree that provides shelter — and food, since nearly the entire plant is edible. It’s a sudden tree that gives itself for the life of the world around it.

Get it? 

We often think that it’s our job to have faith. We think that what Jesus is telling us here is that if we could muster even a little faith, we could do great things. DO YOUR JOB – have faith. 

But everything gets in the way, and faith becomes hard to muster. More than anything, I wish I could take you all to my seminary for just a day, to go undercover and listen to what pastors sound like when no one else is around. What you would encounter is probably not what you’d expect, unless you’re friends with a lot of pastors. What you’d encounter is a bunch of people just like you: punchy, funny, just a little bit irreverent, and really, no more faithful than you are. What you’d encounter is just a bunch of people who are doing the best they can, and sometimes that’s not enough. 

The world feels like it’s in chaos, but then again, it often does, doesn’t it? 

I can hardly think of a time when I looked around and thought, “Wow, everything in the world is really peaceful and going really well.” I mean, maybe when I was a child, but then again, I was a child. It’s easy to think the world is a great place when your parents make your food and pay the bills and keep you from doing dumb things.

Once, when I was a teenager, I asked a pastor how to keep faith. You see, I was having a hard time maintaining my faith and my emotions around it. I would get stressed or sad and just not feel the passionate faith that I thought Christians were supposed to feel. To me, faith was something that I was supposed to maintain. This pastor replied, “Are you asking how do you keep the fire from going out? You just don’t let it.” 

For him, faith was an act of will. Do your job.

Little did he know, I would grow up and become a pastor and realize that that was terrible advice. 

For Lutherans, faith is a gift. It’s not something you feel and it’s not something you earn. It’s something you have even when you really feel like you don’t. It’s a mustard seed that pops up when you least expect it, giving shade and food and new life. When you’re just going about life, like any other sower, doing your job, scattering seed, faith is a little thing you throw out by accident that can start growing unexpectedly. 

Faith like a mustard seed: small, sneaky, and prone to start growing just about anywhere. 

Get it?

So what Jesus is saying here, I think, is don’t act like it’s a big deal when you manage to do the right thing or have faith. Faith and good works are acts of God, popping up everywhere, sometimes when we least expect it. 

Today we’re celebrating our work on September 8, when we served our neighbors via distributing batteries and cleaning the food pantry. Though it took a lot of planning, in the end, it did feel to me a little like a mustard tree springing up out of nowhere. Though we knew what was going to happen, I think we were also plenty surprised along the way: by the reactions of our neighbors, and by how good we all felt at the end despite a day of hard work. 

So let’s continue to get out there and do our jobs. But remember: faith is a gift, and a surprising one at that. So if you’re feeling like you just can’t keep that fire going, let go and let faith surprise you, like a mustard tree that pops up out of nowhere. I think you’ll be glad you did, because God, for one, always gets the job done.

Get it? Amen.