From 1980 to 2000, I was pastor of St. John’s Lutheran Church, Saint Johns, PA. Along with another former pastor of the congregation, Bill Horn, I was with St. John’s on Sunday, October 29, to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Here is the my children’s sermon and sermon for the occasion.
(With children, who join me up front) I have with me an old book that’s falling apart. It’s called “God’s Table of Grace.” I used this book when teaching children about Holy Communion.
I’d tell them that each word in the title teaches us something about Communion. The word ‘God’ tells us that Communion comes from God.”
Then we’d look at the word ‘table,’ and I’d say that two of the things we do at tables is talk and eat. So Holy Communion is talking with one another about God, and it’s sharing God’s meal with one another.
Then we’d come to the word ‘grace.” “That’s an interesting word,” I’d say. “Sometimes ‘Grace,’ is a name, but that’s not what it means here. Sometimes ‘grace’ refers to a prayer, but that’s not what it means here. ‘Grace’ has a special meaning when we connect it to Holy Communion. I wonder if anyone here today can answer the question, ‘What is grace?’ GOD’S LOVE FREELY GIVEN
When I was the pastor here, I asked that question many. I asked it during worship. . . in First Communion instruction. . . in confirmation classes. . . on retreats. . . and once in the middle of a wedding rehearsal. You just never knew when I would suddenly ask, “What is grace?’ GOD’S LOVE FREELY GIVEN
Grace matters to us because Martin Luther put such emphasis on it. Martin Luther went through some very sad times. He wanted to be right with God. But no matter what he did, he was never sure he had done enough. But through his study of the Bible, it hit him: It’s not what we do that matters. When it comes to being right with God, what counts is what God has done in Jesus. So Bible verses like this became important to Luther: “Out of sheer generosity God put us in right standing with himself. A pure gift. He got us out of the mess we’re in and restored us to where he always wanted us to be. And he did this by means of Jesus Christ.” (Romans 3, “The Message”
All that God does for us is summed up in the word “grace.” Grace is God giving to us all that we need. Because of what God does, we gather every Sunday to say, “Thank you, God, for all you have given.”
Repeat this prayer after me: “Thank you, God. Thank you for giving us life. Thank you for sending Jesus. Thank you for the gift of your Spirit. Amen.” (Children return to seats.)
Been here, done this. I’ve preached many times from this pulpit. Anyone remember the first time?
It was 1976; the occasion was the installation of William Horn as pastor of St. John’s. Bill and I were serving neighboring congregations in Minersville when he was called to be pastor of St. John’s. He extended to me the honor of preaching at his installation. The first time I preached here was his gift to me.
And the last time I preached here, I received gifts celebrating our life together as pastor and people. One gift was this cross.
On the back of the cross are the words, “Blest be the Tie that Bind.”
Ooops. It was supposed to say, “Blest be the Tie that Binds.”
It’s also inscribed “St. Johns, St. John.”
Ooops. The name of the town is St. Johns.
When the errors were discovered, an offer was made to have it corrected. But I said, “No, I like it just the way it is. It’s a good reminder that although we tried our best to be faithful to Jesus, we didn’t always get it right. Being reminded of mistakes is a good thing, a humbling thing. The cross’s imperfections make it the perfect gift.”
For the past seventeen years, I have worn this cross whenever I have preached. Week after week, I have been reminded of the gift I received of being pastor of this congregation.
There was another gift I received the last Sunday I was here. When I opened it, I blurted something like, “Somebody did their homework.”
For the gift was a pair of binoculars, a thoughtful present in light of my passion for hawkwatching. And they weren’t just any binoculars; they were Zeiss ten-power, at the time was the premiere optic for hawkwatching.
Two months later, binoculars around my neck, I stood on North Lookout at Hawk Mountain. Looking in your direction, I said, “Thank you, St. Johns. This year’s first migrating eagle is dedicated to you.”
Speaking of migrating eagles: One of the gifts I received during my years here was your enthusiastic embrace of how I united my vocation of parish pastor with my avocation of hawk watching. I did this, for example, in something called “Eagle Watch for Hunger.” You made pledges to the Hunger Appeal based on the number of southbound eagles I saw each fall. And each week I would give you an update on how many I had spotted.
Well, the last time we did one of those updates was 1999. I think it’s time for another.
Remember how this works. We do eagle flaps, and you count with me as we flap. Back then, we counted by ones. Today we’re counting by hundreds.
So everyone—arms out. Flap and count with me. One hundred, two hundred. . . . . fourteen hundred, fifteen hundred. Stop.
I don’t know the exact number, but it’s somewhere in that vicinity. But the exact number was never the most important thing, for I would end our eagle flapping by saying, “What matters most isn’t how many eagles I’ve seen, but your gifts to the hunger appeal. Thank you for your generosity.”
I took my eagle flapping ways with me to St. Paul’s, Orwigsburg. They, too, embraced it. Especially one couple, who gave me this gift. Mr. Eagle became a partner in ministry with me in encouraging support of the hunger appeal.
And there was another partner in ministry who assisted me month after month. This partner was a gift I received from Melody Hinderer. Melody was president of the congregation the year I left. In that role, there were some forms she needed me to sign as departing pastor. She told me they would be on the office desk the last time I was in the building, adding, “You’ll also find a gift from me.”
That’s how I met Beanie Baby Grace.
It was an appropriate gift, recognizing the many time I had asked, “What is grace?” And people would shout, “God’s love freely given.”
(talk to BBG) See Beanie Baby Grace, I told you they would know the answer to that question.
What’s that? – You’re right; it is good to be back here where you and I first met. I was so glad when I first saw you. At the time, neither you nor I nor Melody, had any idea of the way you would work with me in coming years. You showed up at worship on the first Sunday of each month, which people started calling Beanie Baby Grace Sunday. Most times you would sit on the pulpit as a silent witness to God’s mercy. But sometimes you and I would hold conversations.
Mmmmm?—Oh, that’s right. One year February 2 fell on a Sunday, and you talked to another beanie baby named Punxsutawney Phil. That was fun! I also recall a time you were getting ready to dive into the baptismal font. And on Christmas Eve, you sat in the creche next to the baby Jesus. You and I have had a lot of good times together, and it all started with a gift.
One day, my wife came home bearing another gift for me. This: big Beanie Baby Grace. Which allows for a visual demonstration of John 1:16 which says, “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.”
All this talk about gifts has been a trip down memory lane, and that’s been fun. But talking about gifts is also a way to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Our Reformation heritage calls us to live by the gifts of God, and to share the gifts of God. We are God’s gift-receiving, gift-giving people. We are a people deeply rooted in grace. And what is grace? God’s love freely given.
In his Small Catechism, Martin Luther speaks of the gift-giving God.
God the Father, writes Luther, “has created me together with all that exists. God has given me and still preserves my body and soul; eyes, ears, and all limbs and senses; reason and all mental faculties.
“In addition, God daily and abundantly provides shoes and clothing, food and drink, houses and farm, spouse and children…–along with all the necessities and nourishment for this. . . . life ….All this is done out of pure, fatherly, and divine goodness and mercy; without any merit or worthiness of mine at all!”
God the Son, writes Luther, “has purchased and freed me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with gold or silver but with his holy, precious blood and with his innocent suffering and death.”
God the Spirit, writes Luther, “has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith, just as he calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one common, true faith.”
So speaks Luther in the Small Catechism.
Gift upon gift, grace upon grace, freely given love upon freely given love—over and over again, God showers goodness upon us.
Because we are people of the gift, we are called to be a church ever reforming.
A reforming church is one that, while honoring the past, does not fear the future; and in the present, is courageous and risk-taking.
A reforming church is not entrenched in the way things have been, but is excited about what is yet to come.
A reforming church does not erect walls that keep others out, but builds bridges to welcome others in.
A reforming church realizes that gifts we have have received are not the work of our own hands, but the gracious work of God’s Spirit.
A reforming church does not hoard gifts received, but shares generously.
A reforming church recognizes that, over time, old customs and practices yield to new ways of living the Gospel.
A reforming church lives day by day, in the secure and certain knowledge that all things are held in God’s grace.
And what is grace?
God’s love freely given.
Thanks be to God!