This morning I’d like us to think about what it feels like to be outside of the circle; what it feels like to be disconnected from other people and events. Being outside of the circle is a scary place to be. It’s as if we’re watching everything happen right in front of our eyes but we are not a part of it. It’s as if some invisible force is keeping us from joining other people and activities. If we have ever been in that place in our lives, we know what a scary and lonely place it can be. When we find ourselves feeling left out and alone, it’s sometimes difficult to know what to do about it.

     For me, the time in my life when I felt most outside of the circle was when I was a teenager. Perhaps you can relate! At age twelve my parents were divorced. I found my church pulling away from my family. This left two of my circles of relationship broken. Two years later I also moved twice within a short period of time. Once to another part of the city. Second, to another city altogether. By the time I reached tenth grade just about every circle I knew had been broken. I found myself in a new city and new school, in a new neighborhood with a new step father. I also felt like I had no need for church either since I felt like it had rejected me. Needless to say I wasn’t a very happy teenager!

     I remember the first day I got on the bus to go to school. The tape player was blaring heavy metal music. I could detect the faint smell of marijuana drifting from the back of the bus. Mind you, I had never smelled marijuana before But I was certain that this is what it smelled like. Later, I learned my suspicions were confirmed! I remember sitting toward the front of the bus, thinking to myself that if I survived to the end of the day, it would be a miracle!

     Being outside of the circle is a scary and lonely place to be. I believe it is the deepest desire of every human being to be inside of the circle, to feel connected to other people and activities. We find this sense of connectedness in many different places: our spouses and significant others. Our family, co-workers and schoolmates. Our friends and neighbors. Community organizations and the Church. It’s important we have a place where we belong. Being outside of the circle for long periods of time has a way of wearing at our souls. I believe it can cause a great deal of damage, hurt and pain in our lives.

     For me, I finally found a sense of connectedness, the feeling of being inside the circle, in a place where I least expected to find it: The Church. Because you know as well as I do, the Church has a reputation of being a place that makes people feel like they’re outside of the circle. I have heard many stories of people who felt unwelcomed in church for one reason or another.

     But this is not the way the Church is supposed to be! In fact, the church is supposed to be an open circle where all people feel loved and embraced by God and by a caring community of believers. This is what we’re trying to accomplish at Abiding Savior. I think we’re doing a pretty god job of it.

     Fortunately for me as a teenager I found the kind of open circle Abiding Savior is in another church: Berkeley Hills Lutheran Church in Pittsburgh, PA. I believe that church saved my life. It made me feel like I was inside the circle. I knew I was a part of something bigger than myself. I will always give thanks for that caring community of believers.

     I came to know Berkeley Hills through its pastor, James Bennett. He was the pastor who performed my mom and step-father’s wedding ceremony. I remember liking him immediately. I decided to start attending church every once in a while. One day, I was invited by another teen at the church to attend the youth group. At the time I was a little short on friends so I decided to give it a try. It was one of the best decisions I ever made in my life. I found in that youth group a very caring and accepting community. From the moment I stepped into the room I felt like I was a part of things. The circle was wide open. This group gave me the fondest memories from my teenage years. They helped me through some pretty difficult times.

     When the Church is at its best, it should be exactly like that youth group: an open circle that makes people feel a part of it from the moment they walk in the door. This is something that doesn’t come naturally to a church. It has to be worked on and nurtured. We must continually ask ourselves what we can do to ensure that people feel like Abiding Savior is an open circle, a place where they feel welcome and accepted, where they can be nurtured in their relationship with God.

     Today is Reformation Sunday, For those of you who do not come from a Lutheran background, this day might seem like a bit of a mystery. Many congregations use this day to give thanks for their Lutheran heritage, more specifically for the founder of the church, Martin Luther. If I were to tell his complete story we would be here for a very long time! In a nutshell, the core of Luther’s faith journey has a great deal to do with open and closed circles. And as such, there is much we can learn from him to ensure that our congregation is an open circle where all feel welcomed and loved by God and by us.

     Luther’s circle journey began when he was a monk in the Catholic Church. The Church of his time made people feel like God was a closed circle. In fact, the circle had a high wall around it with barbed wire on top! The only people who could really approach God were the priests. The people saw God as distant and mysterious and above all…angry; more willing to condemn than save, more willing to punish than redeem. Worship services were in Latin. Most people could not understand them. The Bible was also in Latin so they had no access to the Scriptures themselves. The people had to rely on what the priest told them the Bible said. Not surprisingly, the whole system became very corrupt.

     At the heart of this closed circle was the practice known as the selling of indulgences. What an indulgence was is a slip of paper you purchased from the church which forgave you of your sins. It also helped to shorten your time or your loved one’s time in purgatory. Purgatory was the place the people of Luther’s time believed you went after you died. It was there that you were purified until you were ready to go to heaven.

     I know it sounds crazy but this is the way the church operated. The Church made money off of people’s fears. They led them to believe that God was not forgiving but was looking for an excuse to send them straight to hell. Not surprisingly, the Church became very rich through the practice of selling indulgences.

     Luther…being a monk…was a product of this system. Tormented by the thought that God truly hated him he tried desperately to work harder and harder in order to earn God’s love and forgiveness. One day Luther was reading Romans 3 and saw it with new eyes. It literally changed his life and would later transform the face of Christianity. This passage is from our second lesson: “We consider that a person is treated as righteous by faith, apart from what is accomplished under the Law.” [CEB]

     This verse, and those which surround it, were a revelation to Luther. He finally realized that God was the most open circle of all, far more willing to forgive, save and redeem than the Church had led him to believe.

     This began Luther’s crusade to reform the Church which started on October 31, 1517. He nailed 95 Theses (challenging church scholars to a debate) on the front doors of the church at Wittenburg (community bulletin board). These theses attacked the practice of selling indulgences and challenged the Church to reform itself. They set off a debate and controversy that would last for years which eventually resulted in Luther being excommunicated from the Catholic Church. His reforms continued and grew, establishing a Church that now has a profound effect on many other denominations even though they might not be aware of it Luther came to realize that the only way we experience God’s love is through faith. There is nothing we can do to earn God’s love. It is an open circle offered to all who say “I believe.”

     Friends in Christ, this is one of the reasons why your pastor is a Lutheran. I believe that Luther got it right. He came to understand that the Church, when it’s at its very best, is an open circle which invites all people into a relationship with God. Luther accomplished this in his day by doing away with the practice of selling indulgences. He translated the Bible into German so people could read it for themselves. He wrote hymns for congregational singing that were based on the popular folk tunes of his day. Furthermore the worship service was done in German rather than in Latin so everyone could hear and participate.

     Perhaps the most valuable thing we can learn this Reformation Sunday is the need to continue to Reform the Church so that it may remain an open circle where all people feel welcomed and embraced by God and by us. This is why we constantly refine and reevaluate  what we do at Abiding Savior. We take the time to look at our ministries, our worship and our outreach into the community. The goal is that everything we do as a congregation will invite people into the circle where they can experience the love and grace of God I think we do this pretty well, but there is always room for improvement!

     In closing…on this Reformation Day, it is my hope and prayer that we, in the spirit of our founder Martin Luther, will do everything we can to make sure Abiding Savior is an open circle, where all people can hear the good news that God loves them and will find a place of caring and community for themselves and their families. AMEN

Copyright ©2019 by David Eck