Sermon – October 29, 2017 – Reformation

Reformation 2017

John 8:31-36 + Romans 3:19-28


Today is a big day! Today we remember that, 500 years ago, a young professor named Martin Luther posted 95 complaints against the corruption and oppression he saw within the church that he loved. Despite persecution, Luther continued to insist that God’s love for the world could not be bought and that salvation was a gift of God’s grace that could not be earned. Reflecting on and moved by the same scripture we read today Luther boldly proclaimed the Gift of the cross— that justification before God does not come from perfect obedience to the law but through the perfection of Christ’s sacrifice given for us. We all fall short of the glory of God but God continues to reach God’s hand out to us, offering us relationship, healing, and new life. We are free indeed. The world was forever changed by Luther’s movement and we still feel it’s effects today.

Luther’s intent in the Reformation was to make Christ accessible to all of God’s people, to empower people to know God by removing any barriers, especially those created by human institutions such as the Church.[1] Luther sought to highlight the freedom we have in Christ, freedom to live into and share Christ’s gifts in each of our contexts. When we commemorate the Reformation, we do not do so as a pep rally or by touting Luther’s german heritage—instead, we seek to do as Luther and the reformers did, point to Christ.

Still today, we hold onto the reformation sprit that calls us to focus on what’s true about Jesus and God: that we are made free by the truth of God’s Word in Christ, that we are not a product of our own works, but marked by God’s grace forever. Focusing on this truth, we are free to reform, free to make clearer the way to the cross for others, and free to live a new life defined by God’s love—not our own shortcomings. We are free indeed and, just as God is still speaking, we are still reforming. This is our rally cry. This is should be our calling card.

So, how are we doing?  How are we living into this reformation mission? Have we harnessed the liberating reformation spirit in our churches today? Are we proclaiming Christ through our mission and work in the world? What does it mean to be a Lutheran in our own 21st century context? If we want to get an idea of how Lutherans are perceived, we must look no further than the modern printing press that is the internet. So, I did just that, reaching out to google to ask “Who are Lutherans?” Here’s what I found:

Garrison Keillor, hotdish, lutefisk, beer, brats, coffee, potlucks, not offending anyone, Minnesota “nice”, “Lutheran is small, dying congregations – unwilling to bind together with the other church two blocks away because of a feud 50 years ago between the Norwegians and the Swedes”, sitting in the back of the sanctuary, against change, Lutheran services can only be 60 minutes, crisis comes about when hymnals are changed, donuts are in the church budget, jello cookbooks, feeling guilty, Ole and lena jokes, a joke about communion bread being too spicy, people get who angry when others take their seat at church, and finally “if you forget to put water in the baptismal font but not the coffee pot…you are lutheran.”

Is this really what it means to be Lutheran? No. This list of “lutheran characteristics” has little, if anything, to do with the faith in Christ that Martin Luther and the reformers advocated for. Instead, it is a list complied of watered down cultural markers for midwesterners of Western-European descent. Now, I am a proud Minnesotan and have a deep appreciation for my family’s scandi-wegian-american heritage. I have seen this kind of language dismissed as a joke and shared with good intentions; however, dismissing this as a joke is to ignore the power that words have in identity. These words indicate that our identity, as Lutherans, is in very specific cultural markers… ones that not all Lutherans share, identity that is not even shared without our own congregation.

This is not only inconsistent to tenants of Lutheran faith but is in direct conflict with our call as people in Christ. Over-stating or over-relying on this identity weakens our identity in Christ. When we claim one dominate culture as at the end all we cheapen Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. We are doing the very thing that Luther advocated against: we are clouding the view of the cross for others, especially those who do not identity with the dominant culture that is portrayed. What this internet search tells me is that we must shift our identity and do a better job at telling our story. What does it look like, to proclaim Christ instead of culture?

For Luther that meant expanding access to God’s grace beyond Rome. Luther translated the bible from Latin into German so that a wider range of followers could hear the freedom found in God’s word (making the path to Christ clearer). He wrote materials for families to expand their faith in Christ in their own homes so that parents could share the love of God with their children (making the path to Christ clearer). Many other reformers have done the same in the past 500 years, many of whom we may never hear about and in countries and cultures we wouldn’t think to look. 500 years later, what does it look like for us to proclaim Christ instead of culture?

Unfortunately I cannot answer that for you. In many ways this is a question that we each need to do the hard work of answering for ourselves. Just as Luther empowered people to take a hold of their own faith, we too are asked to spend time in intention, reading our individual contexts and gifts, and wondering how we might best point to Christ with our own lives. This requires constant discernment, always asking, “who is our neighbor and what do they need?” Just like the reformation, this work is never done and the action it leads to is always changing.

Do know, however, that this is not up for debate: Who we are as Lutherans has to be rooted in the way we see Christ and share Christ’s grace with others. Lutheranism is not owned by one culture, by one nation, or by one gender, identity, or race. Lutheranism is owned by everyone and anyone who finds liberation in the gospel—the good news of Christ Jesus given for us—and the grace of God made tangible for us in the sacraments. As Lutherans we should be inspired by the reformers to shout and be upset whenever we see anyone or any group being excluded from receiving these gifts. No, this isn’t about erasing one culture or another or denying our individual cultural identities. Instead, it is about setting these differences aside to make a clearer path to the cross, grace, and new life in Christ.

Lutheranism’s gift to the world is it’s theology, it’s unrelenting focus on the gift of God’s grace in Christ. This is so much more juicy and healing than jello at a potluck. Reclaiming our identity from individual cultural markers, we are sent out into the world with zeal— throwing ourselves passionately and foolishly into the world for the sake of the One whom we love so much: Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah, the Risen One, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world and raises us to new life, the one in whom we are made free.[2] This is reformation and it is Christ, not lefse or bratwurst, that will inspire and sustain us for 500 more years to come.

[1] “For true unity in the church, it is enough to agree about the teaching of the gospel and the use of the sacraments. It is not necessary that human traditions, that is, rituals or church ceremonies that have been set up by humans, should be the same everywhere (Article VII.2-4).”

[2] Inspired in part by the words of the #decolonizeLutheran movement and found in the movement’s statements of belief.