Reformation Sunday, year ABC, preached 10/30/16
first reading: Jeremiah 31:31-34
second reading: Romans 3:19-28
gospel reading: John 8:31-36
What a special privilege it is to return from my trip exploring Luther in Germany, to Reformation Sunday. Part of me would love to do a sermon about the heroes of our “tribe;” or perhaps about how Luther was just plain LUCKY to get out alive.
Those would be the easy ones. Instead I’m going to do a harder thing. But this harder thing also reflects my joy in our tradition.
Sometimes in our church we have the tendency to put Martin Luther on a pedestal. We downplay the sides of him that are less than heroic, and in the United States that’s fairly easy to do. We can ignore what we don’t see.
It’s different in Germany. They live with the history of the Reformation all around them, and a history of religious hatred and Holocaust.
Luther, especially in his last few years, was extremely anti-Semitic.
When I visited the church where he preached his last sermon I learned that it was filled with anti-Semitic vitriol. It made me sad to think that the last words people heard him preach were not pointing to the love of Jesus, but to the hatred of a whole group of people.
I was reminded of how the Nazis used the worst of Luther’s writings to promote their cause, and how neo-Nazis today look to Luther’s writings as fuel for their fire. Martin Luther’s church in Wittenberg, the City Church, has a disgusting relief on one of its outside walls of a Jewish man and children with a pig, called a Judensau.
Why bring this up? It doesn’t seem very celebratory – a downer for Reformation Sunday. And it would be if that’s where the story ended. BUT IT DOESN’T.
In the true spirit of our Reformation identity – we’re not stuck there. The Reformation didn’t just happen in 1517. That’s when it STARTED.
We live lives in need of reformation every day. Our church is in need of reformation constantly. The history of the Reformation instills in us the knowledge that faith is forever growing and changing, and that the Holy Spirit is continually at work in us and the Church.
In our gospel reading today Jesus tells us, “If the son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” This means A LOT of things, and one of those things is that we have the freedom in Christ to even look at parts of our tradition and say, “No.”
Lutherans have never put Luther’s writings on the level of scripture. We have the freedom in Christ to say “NO” to the destructive parts of Luther – our worldwide Lutheran organization did this in 1983. So today we can celebrate Martin Luther, and our heritage, and also celebrate that we are not SO bound to either that we are trapped trying to make excuses for appalling behavior.
And this doesn’t just apply in our life as the Lutheran Church. This applies in our personal lives as well. We are always reforming, always being made new through Jesus and the Holy Spirit, to look at those parts of ourselves that are ugly and cast them off.
We are “free indeed” to confess our past mistakes, our sins, make reparations when possible and move forward with lessons learned, being made new through Holy Baptism and God’s grace. Freedom in the Son makes it possible for us to live with our past and to make the future better. Thanks and praise to God!
This is what the City Church in Wittenberg decided to do. While many of the Judensau in Europe were destroyed out of shame, the Wittenberg church chose to keep theirs, but not let it go unanswered. Directly below it is a memorial created by the congregation and the town to the Jews murdered in the Holocaust.
This memorial is small but profound. There are four slabs in the ground trying to push down and bury history, but history is bubbling up, refusing to be hidden. And next to this memorial in metal is a memorial in nature – a Cedar of Lebanon tree from Israel growing strong and proud.
In Jesus we can say Martin Luther is a hero of faith, and in Jesus we can say he sinned badly and needed grace just like you and me. In Jesus we can hold up Luther’s catechisms and other writings that proclaim and explain the gospel and say “yes!” while saying a resounding “no!” to others.
THIS is the way to do Reformation! This is the way to BE a Reformation Church! This is the way to BE a Reformation Christian! This is the joy of our tradition.
On this and every day, we celebrate what our gospel proclaims, that the Son makes us “free indeed.”
We are free not to be bound by past words that we now see are wrong. Not to be bound by past actions that were hurtful – as individuals and as a church. In Jesus, we have the freedom to repent and turn to love and serve our neighbor.
- I am SO glad to be part of a church that was open to the moving of the Holy Spirit 499 years ago.
- I am SO glad to be part of a church that has its ROOTS in changing to be more faithful.
- And I am SO glad to be part of a church that sees Reformation not just as a past event, but as a present reality – wonderful, refreshing and even sometimes a little scary, moving into the future.
Because the heart of it all isn’t Martin Luther or any one of us – in the midst of all the reforming, changing, growing and even anxiety is GOD, who does NOT change – as the psalm says, “our refuge and strength, a very present help in times in trouble.” God – our mighty fortress.
Thanks be to God!