Sermon: Reformation Sunday

October 28, 2012

What are you doing here in a Lutheran Church? Some of you will say you were “cradle Lutherans,” or that you were “born Lutheran.” Others “married Lutheran.” Others of you simply stumbled in because the church building was conveniently located, or the worship services were at a good time for you, or a friend invited you, or any number of other reasons. Lots of factors might have led you through the doors; what matters is how what you experience in here affects your life when you walk out the doors.

You might be interested to know that Luther himself never considered himself Lutheran. He never wanted to break from the Roman Catholic Church. He only wanted to reform it. Initially, when people called Luther and his followers “Lutheran,” it was meant as a slam. When Luther was asked about this he would respond, “Do not call yourselves ‘Lutheran.’ Did Martin Luther hang on the cross for you? No. Call yourselves ‘Christian,’ for it is Christ who died to save you.” He and his followers were excommunicated, but they always considered themselves part of the one true Church.

But if that makes it sound like Luther and his followers were innocent in the schism, don’t think that for a minute. Dr. Luther was hardly what we’d call an ecumenical bridge-builder. He was harsh and vocal with his feelings for those who disagreed with him. He equated the Pope with everything from a pig to the Anti-Christ. Most terrifyingly, Luther owes an unfathomably deep apology to the Jews who paid the price for his horrific document entitled On the Jews and Their Lies in which he described a “final solution” for how Christians might deal with Jews. Later, this document was the blueprint for some of the activities of the Third Reich. So why is it, exactly, that we associate ourselves with this hostile man?

Luther wrote prolifically—condemning the church for its misuse of the Gospel, but also calling all people to return to the Word of God instead of relying on the Church for spiritual and moral guidance. He taught and wrote hymns, and preached. He plumbed the Scriptures to obtain truth, highlighting how we are saved by God’s grace and mercy, instead of our own capacity for right conduct and thinking. He translated the Bible from Greek and Hebrew into German, the language of the common people. That’s why Lutherans honor (and maybe even go a little over the top into reverence sometimes) the man whose name we bear.

But the truth is, Martin Luther wasn’t always considered a force to be reckoned with. He did not seek out the life of a leader. In fact, when he was called by the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V to defend his writings in the city of Worms in 1521, the Pope’s envoy was certain that no one as uncharismatic and stupid as Luther appeared to be could possibly have written the incendiary and erudite books he was in trouble for writing.

But this homely, rude mouse was indeed the one that roared. And at the conclusion of his hearing in Worms, when he was asked to take back his criticisms of the church, his response concluded with the now-famous line: “My conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant, for to go against one’s conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me. Amen.”

We celebrate what happened next, calling it The Reformation of the church. It sounds so innocent. But for the people of that time, it must have been terrifying. The Reformation was not a peaceful movement. It spawned class warfare and bloodshed in several countries.

People who’d always known what to expect from their church and their position in society were suddenly in entirely new territory. Peasants were revolting against land-owners, the nobility was violently putting down such revolts, Roman catholics were burning Lutheran preachers at the stake, and Lutherans were lashing out against priests and anything that looked remotely Catholic.

Besides this religious and social unrest, all of Europe was dealing with the catastrophic effects of the plague, which wiped out whole villages with infection. And there was a constant threat of invasion from the Ottoman Empire. In the midst of all that I can easily imagine people everywhere, whispering under their breath, “We will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea, though it waters roar and foam; though the mountains tremble with its tumult.”

And I know some of you are praying that psalm now too. I know many of you feel anxious about the coming election in our country. Both Republicans and Democrats I know have expressed the fear that if the other party wins, it will be disastrous for our nation and for the world. Many of the fears sound reasonable to me, but as I told you last week, I’m a worrier. We do fear that “the nations” will be “in an uproar” and that “the kingdoms” will “totter.” Please revisit Psalm 46 in the week ahead, and maybe even sing Luther’s setting of it–particularly the last verse–with heartfelt sincerity: “Were they to take our house, goods, honor, child, or spouse, though life be wrenched away, they cannot win the day. God’s kingdom’s ours forever.”

The Reformation was not a complete triumph, but a traumatic event for many people. Today’s political situation may be similar. It’s all because of what Paul expresses so clearly in today’s reading from Romans—a passage Luther celebrated often in his ministry—”all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” To make matters worse, all will keep sinning and keep falling short. Sometimes we forget that our ultimate hope rests not in our successes but in what appears to be God’s great failure on the cross. It looks like the end, but God redeemed that failure (and all failures) by making sure that it was only a new beginning. Don’t be afraid, this week or ever. The cross is not the end of the story. Though life be wrenched away, they cannot win the day. You belong to God. This world belongs to God. Every failure is an opportunity for God’s grace to creep in. This is not Luther’s doing, nor the work of a Lutheran church. It is not the work of the Republican party or the Democratic party. It is not your doing. Loving, forgiving, saving, and redeeming you and the whole wide world is God’s doing.

So in that truth, we are set free—free to risk, to dare, to love, to live, to work, to dream, to struggle, and even to fail…all in hope. Do not give up. God promises to transform all that burdens us, all the endings, even the cross, to bring about new life. Keep the faith, keep the word, keep on trying and failing. God promises to keep hold of us and to use us in ways we cannot imagine.

I want to leave you with this poem, by Dawna Markovia:

I will not die an unlived life.
I will not live in fear
of falling or catching fire.
I choose to inhabit my days,
to allow my living to open me,
to make me less afraid,
more accessible,
to loosen my heart
until it becomes a wing,
a torch, a promise.
I choose to risk my significance;
to live so that which came to me as seed
goes to the next as blossom
and that which came to me as blossom,
goes on as fruit.
fully alive~

About Trinity Lutheran Church

A congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) located in Madison, Wisconsin.
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