Sermon – October 30, 2016 – Reformation

Reformation 2016

The Usual Suspects

Included in just about everyone’s top 10 list of favorite films has to be the movie Casablanca., starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. It is set in a North African town during World War II – a town managed by the Vichy French who were sympathizers with the Nazis. American expatriate Rick Blaine runs an establishment called Rick’s Café Americano, a venue for music, drinks, a little gambling, along with intrigue and conspiracies and secrets. One critic gushed that the film’s vaunted place in the annals of movie history will be the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. I’ll leave you to see the movie, but even if you haven’t seen that you’ve heard some of the iconic lines from the film that have become part of our vernacular. “Play it, Sam.” Or, when Capt. Renault, the Vichy French head of police walks in and discovers an illicit card game, he cries, “I’m shocked! Shocked, that there is gambling in this establishment. Of course, there are the Bogisms, “Here’s looking at you, kid.” and, of course, “We’ll always have Paris.”

My favorite is near the end of the film when the resistance leader Victor Laszlo is being smuggled out on an airplane. The Nazi Maj. Strauss arrives on the scene and demands that Capt. Renault stop that plane. Capt. Renaud refuses as Rick, the reluctant hero, stands by with a pistol to ensure that the plane takes off safely. Maj. Strasser goes for the phone to call in his troops to stop the escape, refusing Rick’s directive to hang up the phone. As Maj. Strasser tries to complete his call, Rick is forced to shoot him. Moments later the police arrive and Capt. Renault, whose sympathies have now shifted to the Allied cause, tells his policeman, “Maj. Strasser has been shot……… Round up the usual suspects.”

Round up the usual suspects.

Today is Reformation Sunday, an annual festival in the church year when we celebrate the emergence of the protesting church, the Protestant church, and in particular our own Lutheran heritage. It is often been our practice on this day to round up the usual suspects where we remember that it was the objectionable sale of indulgences that help to set the reformers off; we remember Martin Luther’s challenge to the church outlined in his 95 theses nailed to the Wittenberg church door; we recalled Luther in the fond terms and remember his struggle and perseverance. We enthusiastically revisit our conviction that we are saved by grace through faith and we might even recite the solas, Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, Sola Scriptura, By Faith Alone, Grace Alone, Scripture Alone. That is all well and good, I suppose, to remember these historic events and to give thanks for the courage and sacrifice that it took to raise the challenge, but we need to be careful that we don’t just hang them like ornaments on a Reformation Festival tree. That leads to a sort of Lutheran triumphalism that is neither historically accurate or presently healthy.

We recall these things most authentically in the context of why. What was the fuss. What was the problem. And that has everything to do with human sin. This is the point of the sermon where I can almost hear you tell yourselves, “well here it is. He always promised us that 45 minutes sermon on sin.” Seriously, the fundamental fire that sparked Reformation was the question of how we sinful people can encounter a merciful God. How the wrath of God, God’s righteous anger, is mitigated to mercy. The question tormented Luther and caused St. Paul fits. It was the reason for the system of indulgences where people could essentially buy their way out of the consequences of sin. It was the theological objection the reformers sought to engage with the Roman church. It was the power invested in the priesthood to mediate this transaction of God’s forgiveness. And it was the dissatisfaction heretofore of any understanding or practice that could bring the reassurance and peace of forgiveness. It was a struggle with its roots in sin.

What we celebrate today is biblical and theological and not just historical Luther did not discover grace Scriptures, but his path took him to a reclamation of that core character of God expressed in our readings today. Long before St. Paul, Jeremiah declared in God’s stead that because God could, God would forgive our iniquity and remember our sins no more. As Paul proclaimed that that grace is ours through the same merciful God now revealed in the person of Jesus Christ, that word incubated and burst forth by its sheer proclamation. Human sin is slavery, Jesus said, but it is not the last word and that the truth of God’s forgiving grace will set us free and make us new. That claim of God’s unmerited grace in Christ is now the starting and ending point across the span of nearly all Christian denominations. Tomorrow, Pope Francis will join the Bishop of Sweden as the church begins a year-long observance of the Reformation in anticipation of its 500th anniversary next year. While we still have differences on how we do things, the church, led by this core conviction, finds common ground to do the work of the gospel and not be bogged down by historical differences. Francis calls it ‘walking ecumenism.” And I don’t just mean the Roman Catholic Church, but we have made vast strides in our ecumenical relationships across the board. It is this biblical and theological conviction that calls us and binds us and leads us.

And we are set free. That is what Luther saw, that is what the reformers sought, that’s what all of us who confess Christ year for, and the promise is answered in God’s unconditional love and mercy.

And what that freedom does is draw us closer to God and to one another. This is a very present power in our time as it has always been. Again, to be justified is to be put right, made acceptable, put in proper alignment. And as that work is completed by God, we are set free to be in relationship with each other. This Romans text was the subject of our last adult Bible study on Wednesday night, where our video leader, Professor Walter Taylor shared the observations of James Dunn and Alan Suggate “One could not be just before God without being just to one’s neighbor, . . .It is impossible to be just, acceptable before God, while at the same time being unjust towards one’s neighbor . . . It is not possible to have justification without justice.” That was part of Luther’s motives, was it not, to bring this justifying word to the people living in terror of their salvation under the system of indulgences, purgatory and law?

Because God has justified us in the cross of Christ, we are freed from being preoccupied by our own eternal well being. God has taken care of that. As Silvio Minke has written, “Free from the exaggerated concern to construct our own acceptance, we have both hands free for the other.”

It is this understanding that we realize the church is ever in reform, always called back to our center, always compelled to reclaim and proclaim this message of hope and forgiveness, new life and freedom, always, then called to step into the gaps and shadows and fear of our present circumstances to bring this hope to bear in our time and place.

All of the historical artifacts of the Reformation are mere ornaments on a tree unless they are cast in the context of God’s radical and merciful forgiveness in Christ, the truth that truly sets us free.

In the face of sin and death, injustice and division, let’s instead round up the real actors in this drama, the usual suspects then, of our church’s history, and of its future. God’s boundless mercy, unconditional forgiveness, and new life and hope that are ours through the cross of Christ, these the same yesterday, today and forever. Now, that sounds like “the beginning of a beautiful relationship.” Thanks be to God. Amen