Sermon – October 25, 2015 – Reformation

Reformation Sunday
John 8:31-36, Romans 3:19-28

You may have noticed that things are a bit more festive around here today.  We switched our liturgical paraments to a flashy red from ordinary green, our worship leaders paraded triumphantly into our space, and the music has a bit more fanfare than usual.  Today is a special day in the Lutheran church… it’s Reformation Day.

Now, I grew up in a Lutheran church but we never celebrated Reformation Sunday so it’s taken me a while to figure out what this celebration is all about. It’s not a day that we tout our specialness or difference.  It’s not a day that we Lutherans give ourselves a pat on the back that we can claim the guy who started it all, Martin Luther.  It’s not a pep-rally for Protestantism nor is it a day that we are free to shame our Catholic brothers and sisters.  Instead, it is an intentional returning to and remembering of the tenets of our faith.  It’s about honoring our rich history of reformation spirit.  Today is a day to celebrate God’s ongoing work of renewal within our church and within the world.  The spirit of this tradition insists that God is not done speaking to God’s beloved.  In this day and age, however, to believe in this statement requires a good amount of faith.

We’ve all heard it: the church is dying.  And if you haven’t personally thought this yourself, there is a good chance you have heard it preached in religious institutions and mainstream media alike.  There have been many studies on the decline of the church done in past years, in fact, the week I graduated with my seminary degree the Pew Institute released new research confirming fears of many, saying that religious affiliation in the United States is at an all time low.  And it’s true, some of my seminary classmates will be sent to congregations who’s attendance is so low that they will not be able to support themselves much longer.  I spent a fair number of nights during my four years in seminary worrying if I was being trained in a vocation that would soon be obsolete.  I get it.  It is hard to acknowledge that something you love is dying.  But to lament or cling too tightly to the things of the past is to forget the God that we gather to worship every Sunday.  We do not worship a dead thing, gone away, but a living breathing daring God revealed to us in Christ.  This God is not about death and neither are we.  We are a people of resurrection.  Lest we forget, we do not put our hope in new programming or in larger attendance… our hope is in Christ.

When we are faced with the reality of decreasing numbers it’s easy to fall into a trap of believing that we have somehow failed.  And when we get really down to the heart of it, our own feelings of inadequacy and failure point to a belief that our own intentions, cleverness, and actions—our good works, if you will—are what make Christ’s presence known through the church, as if Christ only shows up when our pews are filled.  So easily we fall into believing that we are the ones that dictate the work of God in Christ.  Take heart, though, because this is not a new problem.

At the heart of Martin Luther’s critique of the church of his time is this underlying idea that God’s love for us is only actualized through our own actions or good works.  As a young monk Luther tortured himself because he believed that he could never do enough to earn God’s love. No matter how stringently he followed the law in scripture, no matter how many alms he gave, or how much he prayed or punished himself it would never be enough.   At the heart of his anxiety was the idea that God’s love was something you had to earn for yourself.   It was through his study of scripture that Luther set himself on reforming the church he loved.  Luther found the idea that believers had to earn God’s love or that one’s own good works or self-righteousness could dictate salvation to be a corruption of God’s love for God’s people.  Luther clung tightly to the Words of grace he found in scripture, especially in the texts we read today from Romans and John.

When we dig into God’s Word as Luther and the reformers did close to 500 years ago, we remember what is true about God’s grace:  That we are made righteous not through our own actions but through God’s act in Jesus Christ.   There is nothing we can do to earn God’s love, it’s already been done for us on the cross.  God’s Word is pure grace.  And if we live in this way we are shown only more clearly the love of God because all of us fall short.  There is something truly liberating about this truth; this truth sets us free.  Freed from doing this work of saving ourselves, we are given the opportunity to seek out the many ways in which God continues to speak this Word of grace to our world.  And though our world may change, God’s unfailing love for God’s people will not—it is unchanging.

We may hear that the institution of the church is dying, we may see the facts, but please do not think that this means that our God’s love for the world is also dying because despite lower numbers in our pews the Gospel continues to change lives and it continues to be a message that our world so desperately needs to hear.  There is a reason that we each came to church today.  There is a reason why I chose to be a pastor despite hearing daily that my vocation may soon be obsolete and it’s because I have seen the ways in which the love and grace of God works in our world and changes people’s lives, including my own, for the better.  I have witnessed this gospel, this good news, heal and transform so many times that it brings me to tears just thinking about it.  We do not worship a dead thing, gone away.  We worship a real, living, breathing God whose love has, is, and will continue to change and heal our broken world.

If we were to look behind the headlines that assert that our beloved church is indeed dying we might see this: The same Pew Institute research that shows numbers of religious affiliation at an all time low also shows that an overwhelming majority of Americans still believe in God.  And despite numbers of religious affiliation being at an all time low an overwhelming majority of Americans say that religious organizations are good for strengthening community and that churches are important in their work to end poverty and their ability to care for the most disadvantaged.  This work and this Word does not sound obsolete to me.

Perhaps the hardest truth then, as we face a world that does not automatically affiliate itself with the church or Christianity, is to acknowledge that church may have to look differently than it has in the past.  Remember, we are freed from having to save the church ourselves but what are we freed for?  As the church we are freed to be the divine interpreters of this life-changing story; we are the story tellers of this amazing truth found in Christ.  We, the church, are in a unique opportunity to share the love of Christ through many different avenues, telling the story a million different at a million different times.  This may look differently than it has in the past—people may not immediately walk into our doors expecting to find something that they need—but we need only to look towards the reformers for inspiration.

Through the entire history of the church we have asked ourselves how we might best be agents of God’s love and grace in our world, in our own time and in our own contexts.  For Luther, this meant translating the bible into German so that, like never before, people had access to this life changing Word of God.  For Dietrich Bonhoeffer this meant risking his life and speaking harshly against the third Reich that the popular Lutheran church in Germany supported.  For Lutherans in Central America this meant continuing to advocate for the rights of the poor amidst civil war after civil war that tore apart their families and countries.   I, as a woman, would not be able to standing here preaching if it were not for a group of brave reformers that advocated the role of women in the Lutheran church.  This reformation spirit runs deep in the veins of our Lutheran tradition.  We are free to re-imagine; we are able to change and reform because the gospel message of God’s love is unchanging.

What risks might we take while leaning on the gospel?  What is this radical message of God’s love calling us to do in our church, in our communities, and in our world?  How might we be divine interpreters of this powerful, life changing Word in our own contexts?  These are tough questions and there are no easy answers.  In Christ we are not promised “easy.”  We will have to take risks and we may fail a few times.  But we can be assured that we stand on the shoulders of many strong leaders throughout our church history and that the presence of Christ will be with us through it all.  Thanks be to God.