Sermon – October 28, 2018 – Reformation & 75th Anniversary Celebration


I have come to understand that I most often see my prayers answered in my rearview mirror. Looking back, I can more clearly and recognize the hand of God once I am through something. Unless we are completely blind, today we look back in our rearview mirror and perceive the work of the Holy Spirit and the call of Christ weaving in and out of 75 years of ministry and mission at St. Matthew Lutheran Church.

Those folks who began meeting at a local funeral home more than 75 years ago had no idea how things would turn out. They felt called to start a new Lutheran Church in Urbana and begin to meet and pray and organize and to plan.

They launched that dream on Reformation day in 1943 and today, Reformation Day 2018 we celebrate the fruits of their faithfulness, their vision and their holy labor. Over these decades we have gathered thousands of times, baptized hundreds of babies children and adults, met Christ at this table, buried our beloved dead, married and celebrated and learned and taught, fought and forgave, risked and dared new things, welcomed strangers who became partners in ministry. We’ve raised new pastors and sent them out and welcomed retired pastors when their work was finished.  We built a new church, and then another. We’ve taken the church outside the walls and served our neighbors in one form or another from New Guinea to New Orleans, all the while trusting that the Spirit would lead us and abide with us through all things.

So, first, today we give thanks. We give thanks for the saints on whose shoulders we stand. We give thanks for the generosity of members who caught this vision from generation to generation and helped to build this congregation as a vital mission outpost of the gospel in East Urbana. Give thanks for the parents who honored their baptismal vows to bring their children to this place, to instruct them in the faith and send them prayerfully and confidently out into their own adult lives. We give thanks for pastors, councilmembers, parish nurses, Sunday school teachers, singers and ringers, musicians and cooks and mentors. For Stephen ministers and lectors, for the altar guild, for choir directors and bandleaders, for artists and craftsmen and architects and for all who brought their gifts into this community to lift up and sustain us. We give thanks for the shoulders we cried on, the hands we held, the hope that was inspired in our despair, for the encouragement of the community whenever we needed it, for the timely word of grace. We give thanks for those who led and those who followed, for those who labored over momentous decisions and for those who held this community in their prayers decade after decade.  And we give thanks for all our brothers and sisters who now rest from their labors who have been gathered into eternity.

Today we celebrate the Reformation as we remember our own founding day. And we tried to capture that historic connection in this banner.  Regardless of the time or place or flavor of the Lutheran expression over these centuries, one symbol of our faith held in common was the Luther Rose, the crest Luther employed that spoke of his conviction of God’s work and Christ’s presence in all things.  In celebration of this anniversary, we have integrated into that symbols the signs and marks of our own identity.  The White Rose includes the chapel altar cloth, made from the linen that our member Julia Zvilius bore out of Lithuanian as they fled the Red Army during World War 2. It now bears a cross embroidered by Mary Sandwell.  Look closely and you will see part of a baptismal gown, a flower from the bee garden, detail from our funeral pall made by member Nolie Bentley.  The green is from vegetables from Sola Gratia Farm, the Center cross is relief from a leather boot representing our ministry outside our walls. The Red Heart includes the color from a farm onion skin, a Reformation banner and a prayer shawl,  and a tractor, attesting to our mission and sacramental ministries. The blue background includes patterns from our quilting ministry, an Advent stole, a dear family blanket, and the blue sky over our church.  The gold band captures the tinsel from our Easter and Christmas celebrations, glint from a hand bell, another prayer shawl and the gold relief from the Magi’s gifts carried by the children in our Christmas programs. All of these speaking to the diversity of our community expressed in the unity of the church.   It is a beautiful thing.

We give thanks for the stewardship of the mission that was placed in our hands and that is reflected in this artwork and in our history. But we need to be clear that the chief gift we bear is not is our music, not the farm, not our New Orleans mission, not the programs, not our building or grounds.  The chief gift we have to share is the conviction under the gospel that everyone matters and that Christ made that profound and eternal claim with his life, death and resurrection.

We have to be clear that the mission, that these ministries reflected here were undergirded by the gifts that the Reformation movement raised up in the fellowship of believers worldwide. Again, and again, and again we revisit this gift that we first understand as people of Christ, that we are freed from the law in a constant struggle to prove ourselves and are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.  We are stewards of the gift, of the hope, of that gospel good news. It is that which sets free us and our neighbors and all who encountered this Galilean. With all that we have been responsible for as stewards this is the most important, the gospel of Jesus Christ. Let me share with you some words from Nadia Bolz Weber, my current favorite Lutheran pastor. She says, “The Gospel is not an if-then proposition.   . . . . The Gospel is a because, because, because, because proposition.  Because God is our creator and because we rebel against the idea of being created beings and insist on trying to be God for ourselves and because God will not play by our rules and because in the fullness of time when God had had quite enough of all of that God became human in Jesus Christ to show us who God really is and because when God came to God’s own and we received him not, and because God would not be deterred, God went so far as to hang from the cross we built and did not even lift a finger to condemn but said forgive them they know not what they are doing, and because Jesus Christ defeated even death and the grave and rose on the 3rd day and because we all sin and fall short and are forever turned in on ourselves and forget that we belong to God and that none of our success guarantees this and none of our failures exclude this, and because God loves God’s creation God refuses for our sin and brokenness and inability to always do the right things to be the last word, because God came to save and not to judge and thereforetherefore you are saved by grace as a gift and not by the works of the law and this truth will set you free like no self-help plan or healthy living or social justice work “shoulds” can ever do.”

And let me say this in the wake of the despicable events of the past few weeks—the murders yesterday of eleven Jewish worshippers at prayer and the attempted murders of a dozen others who oppose the President.   This is freedom for.  This freedom frees our tongues, our hearts and our actions from ideologies affirmed by hatred, violence and division.  These ideologies are an affront to God and our neighbors and they bear evil fruit.. The gospel of God’s loving grace for all people is the transcendent and authoritative power in our lives and all other things must give way to that.  So in that freedom we vow to pursue ends that accomplish reconciliation, healing and peace.  And knowing that God’s heart breaks for the victims of these crimes, we lift up our prayers for healing of the families and wounded, for the healing of our country, and for God’s powerful love to bring us together. This, too, is our ministry. This, too, this is the same gift that we have to share and bear for a troubled world, today no less than in 1943 or 501 years ago when the Lutheran movement began.

And because that is our gift and responsibility, we look back with gratitude, but only briefly as we turn our gaze to the future of this congregation, it’s ministry and mission, and its call to love and serve the neighbor.  What next?

A glance in our rear view mirror fills our hearts with thanksgiving and encouragement and satisfaction and love, but the chief function of the past is to show us that a road has been laid, a way prepared and that from here we take our first steps again into this future.. The good news is, as it has always been, that God in Christ goes before us, leading, loving and directing our steps so that this word of grace will continue to go forth, that this church will continue to be an outpost of hope and mission for this community and the world, and that those whom we raise now upon our shoulders will be equipped, encouraged and prepared for the next 75 years.  Thanks be to God.