Sermon for Reformation Sunday 2017
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem
The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith
29 October 2017
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
|Reformation Procession in Jerusalem 2014 (ELCJHL)|
On the last day of our vacation in Prague, I decided to take one more walk around the city before heading to the airport. A long early morning walk had been my habit each day of our week away, as the weather was just stunning, and the others in my family are late sleepers. As I stepped out into the crisp autumn air, I plugged in my earphones, tuned into a podcast, and happily set off through the Old Town.
Because I had walked this particular path for six days already, I was feeling quite at home. The same musicians were on the St. Charles Bridge, playing the same songs. The same artists were there, selling the same tacky watercolors. “I wonder if anyone thinks I’m a local!” I thought smugly to myself, silently judging the more “obvious” tourists. In fact, I was feeling so comfortable that when I reached the other side of the river, I decided to take a different route home. And why not? Prague felt like my city now, and there was still plenty of time before our flight back to Jerusalem.
And then, everything was fine, until it wasn’t.
I looked up and realized I had no idea where I was. I took a left turn, and then a right. Then another left, and another right. I studied the street signs, but of course they were in Czech, so that didn’t help at all. I kept on walking, hoping a building or a statue or even a tree would look familiar. I certainly didn’t feel or look like a local anymore! I was mostly looking desperate. Thirty minutes passed, then an hour. Our flight time back to Jerusalem was fast approaching.
Well, I started to get a little panicked, so I walked faster. At one point, as I ran across a busy street that looked far too similar to the one I crossed 15 minutes before, the heel of my boot caught in the train track and I fell face first in front of a line of stopped cars.
I picked myself up and brushed myself off as gracefully as I could, but there was no denying the truth now: I was lost. Utterly, completely, lost.
|St Charles Bridge, Prague|
Since there was no more denying this painful truth, I finally stopped walking. I pulled my earphones out of my ears and stared down at my cell phone. Of course, to save money on the trip, I had not purchased a Czech SIM card, so I had no way to call for help. But I stared at the useless device in my hand anyway, as if willing something to happen.
And then, a miracle happened! Two bars appeared at the top of the screen. I had WiFi! But from where? When I looked around I saw I was standing in front of a fancy hotel, which was inadvertently sharing its signal with me. It was just a flicker of a signal, but to me that internet connection felt like manna from heaven! It was a light, shining in the darkness!
Now connected, I clicked on “Maps”, and as the image filled the screen, I saw that I was not only lost, I was on the wrong side of the river. How is it even possible to cross a river without noticing? And why did I not think to check if I had a WiFi signal earlier?! Those are great questions, but it didn’t matter now: By the grace of God (in the form of Google maps!) I was headed home. I was lost, but now I am found.
“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 3:23-25)
Dear friends in Christ, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a gift for the lost. God’s grace is Good News for those on the wrong side of the river, with no map, and no way to call home. The mercy of God is a free gift for those who have gone astray, for those who are too filled with pride to ask for help, for those who have no idea what to do next, for those who have nothing to offer in return.
In other words: Every. Single. One of us.
Let me say it again: The Gospel of Jesus Christ is a gift for the lost.
This maybe seem an obvious statement, perhaps not radical enough or important enough for a sermon on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation! And yet, 500 years after our brother Martin Luther took a stand, proclaiming to all who would listen that salvation is not for sale, we still find it difficult to receive God’s free gift of grace. Five hundred years after the Bible was translated into our mother tongues, so all believers could read “we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law” (Romans 3:28), we still want to try it our way. We still want to earn our own righteousness. We still want to justify ourselves.
We still want to find our own way home.
Things have changed a bit since the day Brother Luther nailed his 95 complaints on the door of the Wittenberg church, of course.
Five hundred years ago, Johan Tetzel was selling indulgences, promising Christians they could purchase a fast-track out of purgatory and into heaven for their deceased loved ones.
Today, preachers are selling us the path to health, wealth, and true love, if only we will donate to their mega-church ministry and fund the personal pastoral airplane.
Five hundred years ago, Luther put himself through much bodily suffering, trying to deserve God’s love through extreme diets and long hours of prayer.
Today, we try to earn righteousness through a vegan diet, or exercise, or by joining a political movement. We may not have specific worries about climbing a ladder to heaven, but we climb the ladder of acceptability every day by achieving success in our careers, or perfecting our appearances, or curating our social media presence.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ is a gift for the lost, and yet Christians today still live as if we aren’t lost at all. We act as if we already have a map, so we don’t need to be found. We act as if we have no need of God’s free gift, because we have the means to pay for it ourselves.
This pride and self-righteousness is the most expensive indulgence of all. It costs us the freedom and liberation of the Gospel. It costs us time spent hiding our true selves. It costs us the peace of knowing that although all have fallen short, all can rest easy because our lives are in the hands of the One who says “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28) And it costs the people of the world much suffering, for those who do not know they are loved cannot love their neighbor, much less God.
Dear friends, five hundred years ago, a faithful monk named Martin Luther went searching for the core of the Gospel message, and he didn’t find it in a cathedral. He didn’t find it in the institutional church. He found it in the Word of God, especially Romans chapter 3 verse 28: “For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” This Gospel message became a motto of the Reformation movement in the 16th century.
But the Reformation of the church was not a single event. It did not happen on one day in 1517. The Reformation was and is an ongoing work of the Holy Spirit. Thanks be to God, that Spirit is still stirring up trouble among us today! Ecclesia semper reformanda est: the church is always being reformed!
The truth is, the message of the Reformation is still critically relevant for the world today. So many people, both inside and outside the church, need to hear that we have been made right with God, not through anything we did or could possibly do, but through the self-emptying love of Jesus. So many still need to hear the truth about God, for this truth sets us free.
We really can’t know the fullness of God’s grace if we’re still trying to hold everything together.
Earlier this week, I was delighted to read a poem by the Rev. Laura Martin, a Facebook friend and a pastor in Virginia. I have no idea if she wrote this with the Reformation in mind (Actually, who does anything with the Reformation in mind, except for Lutheran pastors?!) but to me, it captures the essence of what I hope this Reformation commemoration will be about. She writes:
“Sometimes the strongest thing
You can do is
Come apart like the
Seed giving itself up in the dirt
Like the rain changing to torrent
Like the sand letting go in a storm.
Maybe this is how you discover
Where you belong,
And what has always
Hear that again: Sometimes the strongest thing you can do is come apart.
Sometimes the most authentic thing you can do is stop and admit you are lost.
Sometimes the most faithful thing you can do is say to Jesus, “I am weak, but you are strong. I've got nothing for this. Come quickly!”
On this 500th anniversary of the Reformation, what I hope the world hears from we who are Christians in the Reformation tradition is this:
We are lost!
And--equally important--God’s answer to a lost and broken humanity is the free gift of grace, poured out from the cross.
It’s a scandal that God’s answer to our weakness is God’s own weakness.
It’s a mystery why God chose to save a suffering world through God’s own suffering.
And yet, that foolishness is our power. That scandal is our wisdom.
The cross is our joy, and our hope, and our way home.
Dear friends in Christ, on Tuesday afternoon at 4:30 pm, the Lutherans and other evangelical Christians will gather in the main sanctuary at Redeemer for a big festive worship service. You will see representatives of every church in Jerusalem at this event: Syrian Orthodox, Catholics, Armenians, Ethiopians, sisters in habits and brothers in robes and believers of every stripe.
And you will see at least 25 clergy from our Protestant traditions, processing solemnly to the front of the church while singing “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”
We will look like we know what we’re doing!
We will look like we have it all together!
We will look like we know the way.
But if it were up to me (and it’s not) I would love to see us do it a little different for this 500th anniversary. I would love to see us tell the truth in that procession.
I would love to see the words “I’m lost” printed on all our fancy robes. The color of the day is red, so maybe we could write it in red! I’d like to see the bishops and pastors and deacons wearing the truth, in big letters, for all to see:
“I am lost. I need the gift of grace.”
“I am broken. I need the healing that comes through the cross.”
“I am lonely. I need the solidarity and friendship of the Body of Christ.”
“I have fallen short! And I am loved.”
What better witness could there be to the world, as we begin the next 500 years in the story of the ever-reforming church, than to admit we are lost?
What better way to honor the free gift of grace given by God, than to open our hands to receive it?
It won’t go exactly that way on Tuesday.
But believe me, our Lord knows our failings! Jesus knows we fall short, even in this. And still, he will be there.
Still, Jesus comes to us, lost as we are:
In, with, and under the bread and the wine,
Through water and the Word,
Freely, abundantly, mercifully, poured out for all the lost.
The free gift of grace, leading us home. Thanks be to God.