John 8:31-36; Jeremiah 31:31-34
by Pastor Sarah Stadler
In the early 1500s in Germany, the Roman Catholic priest and professor Martin Luther, after reading and studying scripture in its original languages, after countless hours of prayer, after searching his soul, protested the exploitation of the common people of Germany by the church. He called out for theological reform, for an end to the church’s abuse of power, for deeper study and reflection on scripture made accessible to the German peasants. Luther commandeered local drinking songs to use as hymn tunes, translated the Bible into German, and gathered seminary students around his kitchen table for lively theological conversation and meals prepared by his wife Katie, formerly a Roman Catholic nun. 500 years ago, a Roman Catholic priest and professor did not leave the church. He did not intend to split the existing church. He did not intend to start a church named after him. Luther did what he felt the Spirit of God was calling him to do. Because he loved the church and loved God, he was willing to sacrifice his career, let go of a good reputation, and even risk his life for the sake of the gracious God he served. Martin Luther, reformer of the church, courageously followed the call of the Spirit.
We Lutherans, we were born in reformation, yet we shy away from reform.
Reform is not going back to the way things used to be; we go where the Spirit leads. We who remain in the church, I suspect, yearn for large congregations with large Sunday schools, like the church of yesteryear. That’s what we pray for. But honestly, a large congregation, while it solves problems of money and sustainability for the structure of the church, does not by itself mean that a congregation has followed the call of the Spirit. The church of Luther’s day was huge; everyone attended. Yet the church of Luther’s day was corrupt.
Reform is not critique or blame leveled at the church from outside the church; reform comes from the inside, by people faithfully praying, studying, serving, and discerning the call of the Spirit. Here’s something we Lutherans may forget when telling the story of Reformation. Luther was Roman Catholic. There’s a reason when we go to Roman Catholic congregations today that their worship services are so similar to our traditional service! When congregations began to adopt a ‘Lutheran’ identity, they kept many of the life-giving aspects of the Roman Catholic tradition. And while the Roman Catholic Church at first quite vehemently resisted Luther’s reform efforts, decades later, the Roman Catholic Church began its own reform from within.
Reform is not random or needless change; the Spirit directs our reform. While I personally am comfortable with those first two aspects of reform, this last one makes my insides quiver…because, as Jesus says in the gospel of John, the Spirit blows where it wills. The Spirit cannot be controlled by us, and it’s scary as a church leader to let go of my own expectations and follow the Spirit. There is a reform story, though, that soothes me, a story of God’s people following the call of the Spirit, and coincidentally, it is Grace’s story.
As Fran Fry will tell you, the Spirit has always blown strongly here at Grace. From the very beginning, the people of Grace followed the call of the Spirit. In 1911, Lutherans from California decided that a Lutheran church was needed in Arizona. None as yet existed, so they gathered themselves together, got a pastor, and worshiped for the first time on February 22, 1914, just a few blocks from our current location. As Phoenix grew from a small town to a large city, Grace also grew and, in 1928, relocated here to 1124 N 3rd Street which, people complained, would be too far on the outskirts of Phoenix for people to come! However, membership swelled, and Grace founded other congregations by splitting Grace’s membership in half time and time again creating Faith Lutheran Church, Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church, Hope Lutheran Church, among others. As the suburban areas of Phoenix grew, the downtown area dwindled in resident numbers. In the late 1980s, the construction of the last mile of 1-10 through downtown devastated this neighborhood, and Hance Park was constructed right over the 1-10 tunnel. With their neighborhood changing all around them, the people of Grace decided to serve a free pancake breakfast on a Sunday morning in order to get to know their neighbors. At that very first pancake breakfast, Grace welcomed a family living in one of the historic neighborhoods along with many folks who called Hance Park home. Though unexpected, the faithful people of Grace looked around and said: well, I guess we’ll be serving a pancake breakfast once a month. Ten years later, when Pastor Roger came to Grace, the breakfast expanded along with the outreach ministries that still continue, including heat respite where Grace was the first organization in the city to step up and provide cool space for the community during the summer. Around the same time, Grace entered into partnership with ASU and the College of Nursing to establish the Breaking the Cycle clinic, later renamed NP Healthcare-Grace, a free clinic providing family planning care to women without health insurance and also opportunities for nursing students to learn. Because of the type of care provided, NP Healthcare-Grace was the first partnership of its kind anywhere in the country. Today, The Trunk Space occupies that space, a music collaborative that produces shows for young and sometimes inexperienced musicians, a way we welcome young people onto our campus. Welcoming other young artists, a few years ago we decided to commission a mural on the west exterior wall of Hope Hall from Cyphers: the Center for Urban Arts and allow Cyphers to use our wall as classroom space for young graffiti artists. In so many moments, the people of Grace have followed the call of the Spirit. This coming Saturday, we begin the Grace Buddies program, providing care for children in the foster care system. Again, the Spirit has blown through this place. At first, we were reluctant to consider such a ministry, but now, by the Spirit’s leading, we have a solid foundation of volunteers and training, a clean and fun space and a plan for how to best care for the children who will come.
We Lutherans were born in reformation, and I give thanks to God that the Spirit leads us to life-giving ministry here! Purchasing this land and building a church building, founding new congregations, serving an experimental pancake breakfast, all these things that the people of Grace before us did were new things. They didn’t know how to do them. They didn’t do them perfectly. They weren’t sure when they started them that they would work. And we still don’t. We’ve tried so many different things. Some of them have failed—remember Interrobang? Community Organizing? Natural Church Development? And a whole list of other things. Some of the ministries we’ve tried were useful for a time but are no longer so. Some of the ministries we’ve tried have given us and our community life and have profoundly shaped us.
The Spirit is as active now as She was in the time of Martin Luther, calling God’s faithful people to do that which brings life to God’s people and God’s whole creation. Because the Spirit is the One who directs all that we do, we get to move forward confident that God will make clear what God calls us to do…because the Spirit of God is surely calling us even now: to forgive, to love, to create, to try new things for the sake of a church that will look very different in the future than the church of 2018. We need not worry about failing because we will inevitably fail at some things. But the things of the Spirit, those will grow and blossom if we simply have the courage to put one foot in front of the other and trust in the Spirit of God. By God’s grace, Luther reformed the church. By God’s grace, we are in the city for good!