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.
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