Happy Reformation Sunday!
This is the day when we get to celebrate all things Lutheran! We had Jerry and Donna singing for us in German. We’ll be shaking the rafters with “A Mighty Fortress.” I even posted a copy of the 95 Theses since Laure suggested it.
We like to imagine the Reformation began with us- or our tradition at least. Martin Luther lived in what is now Germany, then the Holy Roman Empire, in the 1500s. He grew up Catholic, which was pretty much the only option at the time, and studied to be a lawyer. His life course changed one night as he found himself caught in a storm, praying to St. Anne for safety, promising to take up the religious life in return. Luther became a monk, priest, doctor of theology, and professor.
He found himself caught in another kind of storm. Thunderheads of doubt, depression, and fear clouded his personal faith life. He had been taught that God demanded perfection. He saw God judging and punishing. To him, God was distant and cruel, knowing we could never be holy, and yet giving us no other option than to struggle to follow the law and do penance when we fail. The sun broke through these clouds as he studied the Bible and came to know God more fully. He discovered that his image of God was wrong. Instead of an angry judge, he discovered a God who did everything possible, everything necessary, even becoming human and dying, to make us holy and show love to us. Luther wanted to reflect this light, this gospel into the church of his day.
His attempt to do this made him a lightening rod. He questioned practices and teachings that were more tied into the political and financial structure of the church and the empire than he realized. His work incited violence. His life was threatened. In the end, he gave the church a Bible in the peoples’ language, resources for teaching the faith at home, and a divorce that would continue to break the church family into smaller and smaller pieces.
As we near the 500th anniversary of Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses, does it matter that we celebrate the Reformation or even that we call ourselves Lutherans? We live in an age in which most of my confirmation students will assume I’m talking about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when I say the name “Martin Luther.” Increasingly, people are growing up outside of the church, and even those within it become confused over all these different denominations. Even here at Cross, we’re a mix of those with historic ties to this congregation, and others who came here for various reasons, not all of them about denominational loyalty.
In our confirmation class this week, we thought together about all these different Christian denominations and why there are so many churches. In our video, there was this scene that was meant to be funny- In describing schism, or church splits, the video showed a church, and two groups of people pulling the church back and forth— my way is right, no my way— you’re wrong! we’re right! — back and forth- until finally, the church ripped and there were two new churches. The illustration was funny, but the reality is sad.
We had just read Jesus’ prayer in John, which occurs just before his arrest, trial, and death. He prays for the disciples, that they would experience the unity that God experiences. This prayer, that all may be one, was held in tension with the idea that there are some 40,000 different Christian denominations, or separate groups, today. I asked the youth to write a reflection at the end of class to answer two questions I also put to you, “What would make you start a new church? What would you say to someone who wanted to leave your church?”
We talk about church splits on this day in terms of a historical move which we celebrate. Yet there have been many splits since them, and many whose congregations have been torn apart, for reasons not so worthy of celebration. What does it mean for us that we are a church that is born out of disagreements? Luther may not have intended to start a break-away group, but he did, and since that point, us Lutherans have been splitting- and sometimes merging- but then splitting or moving to a different congregation again. Did you know that’s even how our congregation was birthed? Disagreement and anger – even judgment – were at the heart of our beginning as Cross Lutheran Church.
What have we done to the unity that Jesus intended for us?
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, our church, attempts to be a “big tent,” where people who hold a range of beliefs can be accepted. This isn’t easy. We aren’t used to being in community with those who think and practice differently- especially when it comes to something as central as faith. We aren’t used to trying to work through disagreements, or stepping aside with our dissent to allow others to act with integrity to their beliefs.
We are held together by our common conviction that Jesus is Lord. We trust that God holds us all in community through the Holy Spirit. We call ourselves Lutherans because there is some truth that God revealed to Martin Luther that still resonates with us today.
As Lutherans, we have a central expression of the Gospel that defines us. God loves you. (Ok, that’s not very unique). But that’s the heart of everything. God loves you through Jesus- Jesus who became incarnate, died, and rose- for your sake. Jesus alone has made you worthy of God’s love. You cannot make yourself worthy. You cannot make yourself holy. You cannot follow all the rules. Jesus has taken care of all of it.
This is the truth which will set you free: you are not bound to the taskmaster of the law, but you have been welcomed in the name of the Son.
It is a free, irrational, glorious gift- this grace of God- that has made you welcome in the family and kingdom of God.
We meet and experience this grace in baptism and communion, as God claims us, washes us, feeds us, and gives us life, through promise, water, wine, and bread. God comes to you. God doesn’t wait for you to move. God doesn’t need your 10% effort before God helps you along the rest of the way. It is all God. It is all grace.
Lutherans live in freedom. We trust in Jesus, and trust that Jesus is big enough, powerful enough to have freed us from sin and death. We are freed to focus on other things. Our freedom from fear of punishment leaves us free to follow Luther in shining the light of the gospel into the church and the world.
We do this by living in the radical grace, welcome, and renewing power of God.
Back in 2003, I spent an amazing and difficult summer living out of a tent and a canoe, dependent on middle and high school kids for the wood I needed to boil water to drink. My fellow guides and I were all about helping these kids meet Jesus and push against the injustice and greed in the world. But there came a night, about half-way through the summer, when I was just exhausted. When my co-guide and I weren’t seeing eye-to-eye. When I was feeling intimidated by the rather brash pastor who accompanied her youth. I think the pastor was frustrated with us. So, that night, after the youth were in their tents and we were sitting by the fire, the pastor called us out and said, “These kids are told enough about what they’re supposed to do, and how they’re supposed to behave. They’re already under enough pressure.” It was kinda like saying, “What else you got?!”
In that moment I discovered how necessary the gospel is. It’s the difference between death and life: between slowly dying as a slave, entrapped by a constant stream of “shoulds,” and living as the beloved, welcomed, daughter or son of the Creator of the cosmos, dancing to the music of God’s refrain, “I love you always.”
Embody freedom by helping others wiggle out from under the weight of all the expectations they and the world have put on them. Proclaim the freedom we have in Christ: “You are more than good enough. You are beloved. You have been made perfect in Jesus Christ- not by what you have done, but by what Christ alone has done.”
Sing out your “Might Fortress” with gusto, if that gets you excited to share the good news. All around the world, Christians will celebrate Reformation Day. Some will be remembering Luther’s famous, “Here I stand,” and others will be wearing tartan and playing bagpipes, and others actually won’t be celebrating Reformation Day, but still will be worshiping faithfully.
Celebrate our heritage. Celebrate the diversity of expression that all find a place in God’s Church. Celebrate the good news that is for you. You have a place here. God’s made room to welcome you.
Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.
My senior year of high school was one of my best. I was excited about my classes and had chosen a schedule that had a lot of freedom. I had a number of Advanced Placement classes, which meant that my classes were small and filled with my best friends. It also meant that the coursework wasn’t always that easy.
At the end of one semester, we had to compile a portfolio of our writing for our English class. One of the central pieces we had to write was an explanation of our “worldview.” I remember the question, “Describe your worldview and how it affects your life.” I had no idea what this question meant.
It means pretty much what it sounds like, “how do you see the world, what are your assumptions about the way the world works, and how does that inform your life.” It was a good question for adolescence, as we stepped away from our parents and began to create our own lives.
It’s still a good question for all of us. What do you believe, how do you interpret what you encounter, and how does what you think change the way you act. Beyond a question of seeing the world as a glass half-full or half-empty, or looking through rose-tinted glasses, it causes us to reflect on how looking through that glass affects the way we act. How do your assumptions guide your actions?
It’s a question of which Jesus wasn’t afraid. It’s at the heart of the response he gives to those intending to entrap him.
We’ve picked up the Gospel of Matthew right where we left off last week. Jesus has come into Jerusalem and the conflict between him and the other religious leaders is intensifying.
The Pharisees and Herodians have banded together to attack him with a question sweetened with flattery, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.”
With this sweetener they attempt to mask their poison. They set him up to speak his mind, hoping that he will make a mistake that will cost him either his life or his people.
“Tell us then, what you think. It is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
They attempt to trap Jesus with a question that has no right answer. It’s the kind of question most of us would attempt to avoid.
We see politicians fielding questions like this all the time. When they don’t want to answer a question, so they sidestep it and start to talk about whatever they want to talk about instead.
We do it, too. Depending on your social graces or bad experiences, many of you may have learned there are some questions you have to answer with finesse. Such as:
Do you really think you studied enough for that test?
What do you think of the sweater I knit for you?
Does this dress make me look ok?
The questioners think they’ve caught him. If Jesus says, “yes, pay your taxes,” he shows his support for the oppressive empire and their taxes, which have been especially difficult for the poorest of the community. If he says, “no,” then those who align themselves with the empire will make sure word gets back to the powerful, and he’ll be arrested or otherwise silenced.
But Jesus will not be trapped and he will not avoid the opportunity to teach. Instead, Jesus brings them into a greater investment in their own question. He asks them to show him a coin. From their own pockets or from another eager listener in the crowd, a coin is produced. He asks them to look at the coin and tell him whose name and whose image is on it. They respond that it is the emperor’s.
Finally, he gives his answer: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are Gods.”
Those who would entrap Jesus are amazed and walk away.
Reading this story, we can be left saying… “um… ok.” Another cryptic remark that baffles the crowds as much as the modern reader? I don’t think I’ve ever really gotten why they would be so amazed. I’ve always assumed there wasn’t much to his answer. Given that they just showed him a coin with the emperor’s face on it, doesn’t it seem like he’s just telling them to give their coins back to the one whose name is on it?
From other commentaries and sermons, I’ve often heard how the questioners’ ease of finding this coin with its picture of the emperor points again to their unfaithfulness. God’s law forbids having any graven image. So, I guess I’ve always thought that these religious leaders were shamed by their possession of the coin and desire to avoid paying taxes so they could keep their wealth. I can understand how that realization would lead them to walk away, but never really seen much original genius in Jesus’ response.
My reaction to Jesus’ response changed this week. I’ve moved from shrugging my shoulders at the text, to joining the crowd in looking at Jesus with amazement. This past Monday, I was blessed to be at a theological conference at which Professor Eric Barreto was speaking. He broke open this text for me in a new way. He explained that Jesus turned the questioners’ question back on them and brought them into a deeper encounter with their worldview and the place they gave to God.
They had come to Jesus to entrap him with a question, but Jesus puts the responsibility of committing to a perspective back on them. Jesus’ response forces them to identify for themselves what belongs to the emperor and what belongs to God.
Imagine the Roman emperor or any of those who fight and govern under him. The emperor is the ruler of most of the world as he knows it. The Roman Empire stretches across Europe and the Middle East, and while people trade with and know of other regions, the emperor’s worldview really is limited to the Roman Empire and his position at the center, as the power over it. So, if he were to be told of Jesus’ response, “Give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor,” he would hear Jesus encouraging the Jews to respect his power over them and pay him his taxes.
If, however, you are a good Jew and you remember and live into the psalm, “The Earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.” (Psalm 24), then you might see all things, even money and life itself as belonging to God. The confession that should be at the heart of every one of the listeners and questioners is “The Lord your God, the Lord is one, blessed be the name of his glorious kingdom for ever.” If there is only one Lord and one kingdom, then there is no other who has a higher claim.
Jesus calls his questioners hypocrites. They’re hypocrites because they say they believe one thing- to see the world as God’s, to trust God as the ultimate power- and yet they live as if it something else has ultimate power.
They are able to pull a coin out of a pocket. They carry this symbol of empire with them, every where they go. More than a symbol, it’s the currency of empire. It’s what makes the system work: a system that oppresses, that wars, that leaves some impoverished, that elevates some while crushing others- especially non-citizens- down.
The fact that they carry this coin around, their connection to the systems of empire, their concern for their own wealth, all at the same time that they profess ultimate trust in God is what makes these questioners hypocrites. They live as if they are the ones who work for their own livelihood.
Our current political climate might lead some of us to hear Jesus’ question as a foundation for a position that refuses to pay taxes today. While there have been some in the past who have sought to reject government in this way, especially attempting to avoid having their money support war, and done so on religious grounds, I don’t think we can find much support for avoiding taxes in this text. Because the way I usually hear people complain about taxes is to frame it in language of “my money”- as in, “I don’t want my money to go to… this project or government or even those people.”
As soon as the possessive pronoun comes out, we have a problem. If the words “my” or “mine” come out of your mouth, as you talk about money, you’ve lost as surely as those questioners who easily pulled a coin from their pockets. You’re living embedded in the empire. You’ve taken on the values of the world that say you own, you have power, and lost the vision of the psalmist singing, “the earth is the Lord’s…”
In the end, it really doesn’t matter how you see the world, or whether or not you’ve lived with integrity or hypocrisy. It can be hard for us rule loving, black and white moralists to accept, but God doesn’t need you to create your own righteousness. God sees you as you are. God sees your failures, God sees your hypocrisy, God sees your complicity with the forces of death. God chooses to act as if God doesn’t see. Or even more accurately, God acts because God has seen— but God acts not in punishment or judgment, God acts to change the view. God changes the lens through which God sees you.
God changes the way the world looks by stepping in to creation, putting on flesh and being born among us. Jesus on the cross pulls all the weight of empire, hypocrisy, and self-centeredness into himself. In dying and rising, Jesus unites you to himself for a freed life, while burying your sin. In baptism, you are marked with the sign through which God sees you: the sign of the cross where faithfulness was proven. God sees you through the cross of Jesus, and Jesus’ faithfulness is so blindingly bright that your sin is covered up.
You have put on Christ, you have assumed Jesus’ righteousness and that has become the lens through which God focuses on you with love. God’s view has been transformed by Jesus. Live into the joy of this new world.