Sermon for Sunday, 30 October 2016
The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Tomorrow is the 499th anniversary of the day a priest named Martin Luther posted 95 theological complaints on the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany. This means that tomorrow begins the 500th year of what we now call theReformation—not a single day, or a single event, but an ongoing movement within the Body of Christ, a movement that has given birth to many theological reforms, to the translation of the Bible into the languages of the people, and to the formation of countless new Christian church bodies. A few of these new church bodies bear the name of that rebellious German priest, calling themselves “Lutherans.”
You may not have noticed, but for some folks—this is kind of a big deal.
It’s such a big deal that in 1999, at the close of the millennium, an American news source listed the three most influential people of the last thousand years as Johannes Gutenberg (for inventing the printing press), Isaac Newton (for discovering gravity) and Martin Luther, for using Gutenberg’s printing press to disseminate his radical, church-reforming ideas. (Of course, Luther also used Newton’s ideas about gravity, especially when he decided to use a hammer and nails to make sure his 95 complaints didn’t fall off the church door!)
This 500th Reformation anniversary is such a big deal that our Bishop Munib Younan is in Sweden with Pope Francis right now, preparing to offer a common prayer and a shared blessing—the first time in history that a Pope has commemorated the Reformation.
This Reformation anniversary is such a big deal that Lutheran churches across the globe are spending the year with the writings of Luther, biographies of Luther, movies about Luther, and even purchasing special edition plastic PlayMobil figurines of Luther.
In this same anniversary spirit, I was describing big ideas I had for gathering our Redeemer community together this year for a special study of Luther’s Small Catechism, when a friend interrupted my monologue to say, “Honestly, Carrie, why should I care? I mean, really? Why is this something I should spend my time doing or thinking about?”
Ouch! Ironically, my friend didn’t know it, but in a way, he was echoing the Small Catechism, in which Luther follows each theological point with the question, “But what does this mean? Was bedeutet dass?”
What does this Reformation anniversary mean?
Why should we care?
Why should anyone care?
Perhaps we Lutherans need to step away from the church door for a moment.
Perhaps we need to get our heads out of the 16th century for a moment.
After all, why should we celebrate an historic division in the church, when we can walk around the corner to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and see how the real-life drama of a divided Body of Christ plays out today in Jerusalem?
Why should we commemorate the 500th anniversary of a European intellectual movement, when we’re living in a place and among a people commemorating 50years of military occupation?
Why should we care about “Luther 2017” at all, if (as a Catholic theologian recently said to reporter about the Common Prayer in Lund) the Reformation was all just a “huge misunderstanding?”
A few days ago, I posed these very questions to another friend. I complained to her how I was struggling to come up with what to say in this sermon, struggling with why the Reformation matters in this time, and in this place. And she said to me:
“Well, I don’t know why others should care, but the Reformation matters to me because of that famous motto: ‘Ecclesia semper reformanda est. The church always reforming.’ I take comfort in that, because I’ve not always been happy with the church’s positions (or church people), but I knew that things were still reforming. There is always still hope for the future.”
Can we just take a moment to give thanks for friends? Praise the Lord! Thanks be to God for the Holy Spirit who puts wise people in our lives! Amen!
Dear sisters and brothers in Christ, I decided I can’t tell you why you should care about the Reformation this morning, or why you should care tomorrow at our fussy and pompous ecumenical Reformation service, or for that matter why you should care for the rest of this 500th anniversary year.
But I can tell you why I care. I can tell you why it matters to me that the Church of Jesus Christ is both reformed and reforming.
I can tell you that the Reformation emphasis on Scripture matters to me. When I was 13 years old my pastor told me to memorize Matthew chapters 5, 6, and 7 for Confirmation class—which I tried to do. Sadly, I did not win the class prize for successfully memorizing the entire Sermon on the Mount, but still today I have these words (along with many others) written on my heart: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:23-25) I can thank Martin Luther that I first read those words in my own language, and that I was encouraged by my pastor to interpret them for myself and for my own life. Today, in the context of Israel and Palestine, it is this Word that guides my feet to walk the way of peace, justice, and love, even for enemies and persecutors.
Reformation theology matters to me, because of the way Luther emphasized the grace of God. As it is written in Romans: “For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.” (Romans 3:22-24). And again: “For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” (Romans 3:28) This emphasis on salvation by grace apart from works matters to me because it has saved lives—lives of people like my friend Ray, who had been weighed down for decades with worry that God would never forgive him for things he did as a soldier during war. It matters because he needed to hear that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. It matters because at age 80, Ray heard that the grace and forgiveness of Jesus Christ makes him free.
The ongoing Reformation of theology and church policy matters to me, because a few years ago I was honored to preside over the marriage of two women who had been both faithful church members and partners for 38 years. I was able, with the full blessing of my denomination, to assure them that God saw their four decades of faithfulness to one another as good and holy.
Indeed, the ongoing Reformation of the church matters to me because forty years ago, not only could these church members not have been married, but I, as a woman, could not have been ordained, and could not have been the one to marry anyone!
Dear friends, I can tell you that the richness and diversity of the Reformation movement matters to me because it means that even if we disagree about what I just said from this pulpit, today, we can all be together in this room—Lutheran, Presbyterian, non-denominational, evangelical, Dutch Reformed, Anglican, Mennonite, and Catholic—because we are one body. We are one body, free to worship and pray together, because we are saved not by our uniformity, not by our ecclesiology, not by theology, not by our social statements, and certainly not by Martin Luther.
Because of the bold witness of the Reformers, we know we are saved by Word alone, Grace alone, and Faith alone—always and only set free by the cross of Christ and his resurrection.
And if the Son sets us free, we are free indeed! Amen!
This is the truth that mattered so much to Martin Luther he would not allow the failings and fallibility of a human-run organization like the church to stand in its way.
This is the truth that motivates Bishop Younan and Pope Francis to stand up to many critics—both Lutheran and Catholic—in order to boldly move our churches towards the unity and reconciliation for which our Lord Jesus prayed.
This truth, the Good News of freedom in Christ—and the many ways Luther’s reforms have helped that Good News reach more people—is why this Reformation anniversary matters to me. It’s why I hope it matters to you!
It’s why I hope you will join us tomorrow at 4:30 pm, in the main sanctuary here at Lutheran Church of the Redeemer Jerusalem, where we will be praying in solidarity with Bishop Munib and Pope Francis—and the first woman Lutheran Archbishop of Sweden, Antje Jackelen. We will pray for refugees. For the hungry. For nations at war. For the protection of creation. For the liberation of the oppressed. And for the future of the church!
We will pray for the ongoing re-formation of the Body of Christ—so that the world may know that they are loved, that they are forgiven, and that they are free indeed.
May the peace of Christ which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.