The following sermon was preached at Lord of the Mountains Lutheran Church on Sunday, November 1, 2020. The recording of the service is here. The sermon begins around the 17 minute mark. One of the blessings of this year in Colorado has been reconnecting with some long time friends who’ve walked with me over decades. As I get ready to post this sermon it strikes me as wondrous how the Spirit has moved through these relationships and years to bind these threads.
We probably wouldn’t have this past year in Colorado if not for the work of Deacon Erin Power in the Rocky Mountain Synod office. I met Erin almost 20 years ago at Outlaw Ranch. Pastor Lydia Ziauddin and I have known each other even longer. Lydia has hosted Tangled Blue concerts in churches she’s pastored on both coasts. Aimée, Lydia, Erin, and I also spent some time together in Germany for the Luther 500 Festival. And now, here in the mountains, she’s invited me to preach in the community she calls home. I’m genuinely grateful when the arc of the Spirit’s leading is so visible as it is in this photo in front of the Wartburg Castle in Germany.
One other long time friend appears in this sermon. Nate Houge is a gifted songwriter and musician, and is the master baker and co-owner at the thriving Brake Bread in St. Paul. Since Nate makes an appearance in this sermon, it’s only fitting that a playlist accompany this post. Here it is.
Thanks for listening! Here’s the sermon manuscript, given two days before the 2020 presidential election. Christ, have mercy.
1Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; 3therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 4They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. 5They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. 6They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, 7and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. 8But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. 9And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. 10Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. 11The greatest among you will be your servant. 12All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Grace and Peace to you in Christ who meets us here and in the short distances between your screen and mine… prior to seminary I made a living as a musician for over 20 years and that’s one of the ways Pastor Lydia and I first met many years ago.
I heard this really great word from a long time friend last week, a friend that I met around the same time and place as when Pastor Lydia and I met in the 90s in St. Paul, MN. His name is Nate Houge and he said this really great thing that made me chuckle: theologically speaking Lutherans are tailor made for viruses and pandemics. It made me laugh because leaving that statement as it is might just describe why the past 100 years of relative freedom from pandemics in North America has limited the spread of Lutheranism here.
Thankfully, my friend didn’t leave the statement there but continued on to describe how Lutherans know how to reform ourselves to the demands of our context and that this tradition of reform is why we have a unique perspective to give in the midst of these multiple pandemics. The paradigm he lifted up is the same paradigm I hear Jesus lifting up in our reading. It’s the tension between nostalgia and tradition.
In times of plenty the differences between these two paths may seem minuscule. Both tradition and nostalgia seem to make similar offers of belonging and community. But when experienced in a time of unrest they are a fork in the road. One can be a path into our futures while the other is only a path that loops back into the past. One is left and the other right. Though there’s much more to say here than these few moments will allow, I see real Spirit breathed tradition in the midst of a crisis as a path that welcomes all, while nostalgia shows itself to be a false tradition which in a crisis misuses authority to consolidate power within a select few.
With that frame in place lets look at what’s happening in this Gospel text. Even in the first line there’s an important detail. Jesus is speaking not only to his disciples, but to a crowd. Jesus has a large audience and decides this is the context in which he will speak truth to power and question not the tradition that he himself is part of but the practice of nostalgia as a false path within the tradition.
Jesus says to the crowd, both his long time companions and the passing Lookie-Loo’s, that they all can lean into the teachings and traditions of Moses. These traditions are not the problem. These traditions welcome. These traditions have kept the people together in hard times and will do so again, but he says the way these traditions are being observed is no longer life giving to all. Jesus is calling into question the show being put on by the select few. And honestly some of the things Jesus points out are eerily relevant today.
Now here’s the twist. And it’s a twist that we’re going to experience quite intimately over the coming weeks and months of intertwined pandemics in a presidential election. If a true Spirit led tradition does as I’ve suggested and welcomes all to the table, then the proof of that Spirit’s leading will be in the welcome of those who are walking away from years, possibly a whole life, lived in nostalgia. But it is also true that this Spirit led tradition will not embrace nostalgia; it cannot. Nostalgia is a false tradition. It’s a pyramid scheme. It’s individualistic. It’s all for one, full stop. It’s lower case law and disorder disguising as a return to normal and the good ol’ days that were only good for the chosen few.
A true Spirit led tradition upholds the Spirit and the Law while nostalgia goes against the Spirit and the Law with an originalist claim that the Law is Spiritless, inert and cannot grow beyond its original context. The originalist perspective is an exercise in nostalgia, period. And nostalgia is the anti-reformation. It’s tradition gone amuck without any vision for the future and a deeply rose colored perspective of the past. Nostalgia is the propaganda department of the Originalists Academy. It’s part of what Jesus is wresting with in his context and it’s part of what we’re wrestling with today.
As a reformer and recovering originalist, raised in the nostalgia infused waters of whiteness, midwestern work ethic and Lutheran rightness I can bear witness to the distorting power of nostalgia upon my life. But it cannot stand when confronted with the Spirit led Gospel tradition of freeing love freely given and the reformational response of love for all. Simply put the ongoing tradition of theological reform shows itself in how it serves neighbors while not embracing the nostalgia of originalism in its many forms.
Jesus, in the closing of this reading gives us the clearest example of what the true tradition of reformation is; it is service to our neighbors. It flattens the ever expanding curve of hierarchies. It bends toward justice for the least and the lost. One recent example of this bend being a commitment from our leaders and therefore us to exhaust every option in reuniting families who have been separated at our borders. Nostalgia never looks like liberty and justice for all, but tradition can and tradition must if it is to be more than an exercise in nostalgia.
Jesus tells us the greatest among us will be those who serve. Workers in the reformation tradition that spurs us on in humble service and love for recovering originalists. May we go out with renewed strength to live this example of service on this day, in this coming week, and the weeks to come as we meet Christ in our neighbors and in the midst of our assemblies, even digital assemblies. Grace and Peace to you in Christ who meets us here, Amen.