What is the Reformation

Sermon from Sunday, October 30, 2016, on Romans 3:19-28.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Today, along with many other Protestant churches, not just Lutherans, we are commemorating Reformation Sunday. And so, I thought I’d begin with a question: What is the Reformation? It’s a trick question, really, because it has a ton of perfectly correct answers.

What is the reformation? It’s a historical event—brought together by the changing society of the Late Middle Ages, by Gutenberg’s printing press making mass media possible, by the German princes just looking for a reason to revolt against the Holy Roman Empire, and this monk Martin Luther throwing a match into the powder keg, changing the political face of Europe forever.

What is the reformation? It’s a theological revolution—this Martin Luther calling into question church doctrine that was accepted as fact, challenging the power of the pope, the Bishop of Rome, writing treatises, having debates, splintering the church into more pieces than he could have ever imagined.

What is the reformation for us today? Is it a historical event? Is it some conjured image of a monk nailing a piece of paper to a church door in 1517? A chance to remember and recall the last 500 years? Is the reformation to Lutherans what the fourth of July is to Americans? A day to celebrate, for revelry?

It is all that and more. Throughout the next year, as we approach the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we will have times for commemoration, times for history, times to celebrate the work that has been done, especially in the last 50 years, to build bridges and heal old wounds. Tomorrow, Pope Francis and the President of the Lutheran World Federation with lead a common prayer service in Sweden. (You can livestream it online.)

The reformation is all these things. But at the same time, it isn’t. Because if we were stripped away each and every one of those things, if we took down all of the red vestments, if we never remembered the history, or the hymns, or the great names, we would still have the reformation.

Because we would still be left with the core of the reformation, and it was in our reading from Romans this morning: For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works. It’s a radical statement that forces re-thinking and re-formation of institutions.

It was radical when Christ lived it out in his ministry: He healed the sick on the Sabbath, in direct violation of the word of God. He touched the unclean and unworthy and extended forgiveness to violators of God’s law. He overturned tables and spoke truth to the religious powers of his day, which ultimately cost him his life.

It was radical when Paul wrote it in Romans: he included all people in his message of Christ’s gospel—Gentile and Jew, women and men, slaves and free. You did not, could not, earn your way into a relationship with God. No one had a leg up on anyone else, for we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works. It didn’t matter if you were a Jew or not, it didn’t matter if you were rich or poor, a socialite or an outcast. All people had the same standing before God.

It was radical when Luther made it the cornerstone of his theology: God’s grace is freely given, not something that we earn on account of our good deeds. It is not something that the church can store up and mete out as it sees fit, because it is God’s good pleasure to justify and make righteous all people through faith.

It is radical today. We hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works. The danger in having this be the cornerstone of our theology is that we begin to know it too well. We use it as a slogan, put it on signs and t-shirts, and we forget that it is a radical statement. It becomes a tame statement that loses its potency.

Jesus said, in the gospel of John, If you are my disciples and you continue in my word, you will know the truth and the truth will make you free. Freedom here is not about personal independence or autonomy. It’s not about the ability to do whatever we want. If you continue in my word, you will be free. Freedom does not mean that one is free to do what one wants. Rather, freedom means to be bound to a relationship with God, a relationship marked by freedom from sin and death. The truth will make you free.

Two truths: First–All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. We say it every Sunday, when we begin our service with confession— “We have turned from you and given ourselves into the power of sin.” It’s another thing that’s in danger of becoming a cliché, because we say it so often and so often by rote. But it bears thinking about.

We are under the power of sin, and cannot free ourselves. It’s not only about small things that we do or don’t do, little wrongs, or even big wrongs. It’s about the orientation of our lives. We get caught in cycles of self-justification, of trying to earn our way by just doing the right things, by being the right people and we focus on ourselves instead of our neighbors. Sin is what keeps us from living our lives as God’s people. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

Second truth: We are justified by faith apart from works of the law. If sin holds us back, God sets us free. Free to be in relationship with God, unbound by fears of inadequacy, instead justified and righteous as God’s people. It is a gift from God because of God’s great and undying love for us. We are freed from the need to worry about our standing with God. We are freed from the need to try and earn God’s love. We have it. We will never lose it. If the Son makes you free, you are free indeed.

What is the reformation? It was a German priest, nailing some paper to a church door. But it is also the church today, Christians today continuing in Christ’s word and being made free. Amen.

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The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

I must begin with apologies for my lack of blogging in the past months. I am hoping to find a bit more time for writing, although future posts might be shorter than in the past.

In the meantime, I was reminded yesterday that I do write every week–in my sermons for Sunday! In the past, I have only posted sermons I felt particularly passionate about, but I will begin posting every Monday.

This week’s sermon is about the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, found in Luke 18. In it, Jesus uses two very different people to talk about our relationship with God. In my sermon, I explored what each man might be thinking about and when we might be filling one role or the other.

As always, I’d love to hear what you think!

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

One of my favorite courses in seminary was also the one that had the narrowest focus: Parables and Healings. I originally took it because it was Spring semester of my senior year, and I had heard that it wasn’t too difficult. And that it offered a final exam or a final paper. As I already about sixty pages of final papers to be writing, this was appealing.

And while it’s difficult to rank which courses have been the most useful, in terms of sermon preparation and Bible studies, Parables and Healings is certainly up there. It was taught by the retired Episcopal Bishop of Los Angeles, Dr. Borsch. And Dr. Borsch believed that the power of parables lay in the story. In its ability to draw you in, and make you consider different points of view.

So, for every single parable that we studied, we had to act it out. Sometimes, it was easy to get into the head of your assigned character. For example—I made a great older brother in the story of the prodigal son. But other times it was more difficult. Usually the difficulty wasn’t in being able to identify with a character, instead the difficulty came in realizing just how much you did identify—just not with the character you thought!

In this parable, of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, it’s good to try and consider how Jesus’ original hearers might have identified. Because we’re so used to the Pharisees being Jesus’ foils, we’re set up to assume that they’re going to be some kind of cartoon villain.

Instead of Pharisee, what if we said, ‘religious leader.’ Because that’s what they were. They weren’t priests, they were lay people, but they were the leading members of their congregations. And Jesus’ hearers would be quick to assume that the religious leader was someone you want to identify with. And this religious leader goes to the temple to pray. And he prays thanking God for his blessings, and not one thing he says is untrue. He leaves exactly as he came—righteous in the eyes of God, and of his community.

And then the Tax Collector. He’s someone working for a foreign occupying power, the Roman Empire, and generally thought to be corrupt and deceitful. Not someone you want to identify with. He doesn’t even get near the Temple. Perhaps he assumed he wouldn’t be welcomed. Or that he would be treated as an outsider. Or that the Temple was only for good people, not sinners. And he prays a penitent prayer, a desperate prayer. Nothing he says is untrue either—he is a sinner in need of God’s mercy. He leaves differently than he came—justified and righteous by God, yet still not respected by the community.

What part do you want to play in this story? That’s not too difficult a question—we want to be the Tax Collector, humble, relying on God’s mercy, given God’s righteousness. The harder question is: what part do you find yourself identifying with? What part do you live out more often?

The Pharisee isn’t a cartoon villain. He’s a religious man who does the right things. He’s an upstanding member of society. He’s trying his best to be who God wants him to be. He isn’t condemned because of any of that. But he makes one little mistake. It’s not enough for him that he’s doing ok, he can’t manage to just focus on himself in his prayer. For some reason, he needs to make himself feel better by putting someone else down.

At least I’m not like that tax collector. He’s really a terrible person, and at least I’m better than him. We may be tempted, ironically, to say, at least I’m not as bad as that Pharisee. I’m much humbler than that, I’d never say those kinds of things. Humility is a fun virtue—as soon as you think you might have it, you’ve truly lost it, and it’s certainly something you can never be proud of having.

But, I digress. As much as we may not admit it, we’re all tempted to be the Pharisee sometimes. It may not be in such a self-conscious way, and we might never admit it out loud. But sometimes we find ourselves propping ourselves up at the expense of another. For example: at my college, I was often involved with the Lutheran Student group. Occasionally, we would go to larger Christian events held on campus. I would find myself wanting to distance myself, my sense of being a Christian, from some of the more evangelical students.

I’m not like that, I would think, and it would be make me feel better about myself. The words I didn’t articulate consciously to myself were: I come from a much more open and thoughtful tradition than that. We Lutherans don’t pretend to be ignorant of science, women, or gay people. To this day, I am glad that I’m Lutheran. I certainly wouldn’t be in my current position if I was a part of that evangelical group. But why did I need to make myself feel better at their expense?

We do it a lot. Consciously and subconsciously. We create groups. We bolster our egos by comparing ourselves to others. At least I went to college, unlike that ignorant person. At least I have a fulltime job, unlike that person who can’t be bothered to try. At least I am an informed voter, unlike those people who are just being emotional and reactionary. At least, at least, at least…you can fill in the blank. “God, I thank you that I am not like other people. Really, thank you, God.” We pray this prayer all too often, and with too much justification.

But while it might change how we feel about ourselves for a few minutes, it doesn’t really change anything else. Both the Pharisee and the Tax-Collector left the temple that day righteous and justified. But only one was changed. The Pharisee left, after saying his self-centered prayer, as righteous, and self-righteous, as he had entered. But the Tax-Collector left, righteous not in his own eyes, but instead carrying the righteousness of God.

What saddens me about this parable, is that both men left without acknowledging the other. The Pharisee saw the Tax Collector, but did not acknowledge his humanity. The Tax Collector never took notice of anyone else. It saddens me, because I think the greatest possibility for them, and the greatest possibility for us, is shared recognition of the other.

Whether they’re of another nationality, another faith, another class, another political party, another race, another gender. The tendency is to turn them into an other—someone counter to myself. These divisions keep us from recognizing our shared humanity. They keep us from participating in shared prayer.

What if instead, with the tax collector, we shared the recognition that we are all sinners—but that we all belong to God. We all belong to God. When we can see others—perhaps especially those from another group or those with whom we disagree—when we can see them with more generous eyes and recognize a fellow forgiven sinner for whom Christ died, then we’ve understood this parable.

Our honest self-assessment leaves us aware of our need. But it leaves us in the hands of the God who made righteous the Tax Collector. Who continued to love the Pharisee. The God who never looks at us as other, but looks at us with generous eyes and a merciful spirit. Amen.