The king said to Daniel, ‘May your God, whom you faithfully serve, deliver you!’

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Reformation Sermon

Lutherans: Smart-alecks For Christ.

Grace and Peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. And Might I add, happy reformation day. The one day of the year when even the proudest Norwegian might have just a little bit of German in them. And why shouldn't they. Reformation day is the day that we can proclaim boldly those words that Martin Luther made famous: Here I stand, I can do no other. And on this day we have been given brilliant texts to communicate this occasion. Each of them contain a beacon of light for the people who they were written for. It starts in Jeremiah 31, which is one of my favorite texts in all of scripture. No longer shall you turn to your brother and say, 'Know the Lord' for all shall know me" From the least of them to the greatest. For I shall make a new covenant with them. I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more. Just a great verse. 500 years before Jesus we hear these words of forgiveness and new covenant.

And then there's Psalm 46, "God is our refuge and strength. An ever present help in our times of trouble. Though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea... we shall not fear." These words of comfort came from captive Jews, who had to believe in the hope of the future, believe in a God who was big enough to follow them to Babylon. These words formed their sense of freedom in the face of captivity.

And of course we have these great words from Romans chapter 3, words that Martin Luther used time and again, "Since all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is Christ Jesus." This becomes the center point of martin Luther's argument against the catholic church and the selling of indulgences. Because he starts using these words "Solo Gracia" by grace alone we can be saved. There is nothing we can do to earn it. It's all what God does for us.

And of course these words from John, chapter 8. This discourse between the Jews and Jesus. They say they have never known slavery, because they are children of Abraham. Really? And Jesus says, "all who sin are slaves to sin. But the knowledge of the truth of God will set them free. These are all great texts, and each of them deserves their own sermon. And, put together, they are really a sermon of themselves, so, we could just sing A Might Fortress and go home.

But these texts have so much to offer us, and what I want to get across to you today, is that the Reformation ought to be as alive today as it was nearly 500 years ago. As we said with the Kids, we should be asking the questions. We should be working on our tradition. We should be forming it around these wonderful texts that have been past down to us.

I want to tell you my favorite story of the reformation that you've probably never heard. Do you remember a man by the name of John Tetzel? Tetzel, like pretzel with a "T" He was the man who was hired by the catholic church to go from town to town selling indulgences. He would go into the town square and talk to the crowds. He was known for two things. First, he would scare people. He would take his hand, and put it over an open flame. And he would talk about the evils of hell, and how there your flesh would burn, and he would put his hand into the flame and burn his own flesh. And the putrid smell of burning flesh would permeate the air and the people there would react out of fear for what he would tell them next. Tetzel's second famous thing was the catch phrase, "When a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs."

This meant that if you gave money to the church, you would receive an indulgence that would move a loved one from purgatory to heaven. This one of the biggest offenses that Martin Luther was against. He would use things like we have here in Romans 3, and he would say, "No, no, no ,no. There's nothing you can do to earn it, it's a gift. A gift is free! There is nothing you can do to earn salvation, it is given to you. Well, anyway this man, John Tetzel goes around selling indulgences, as the Reformation is building. And Martin Luther keeps writing, and Gutenberg invents the printing press- you learned all of this in eighth grade history- right? Gutenberg starts printing Luther's works, and the documents proliferate German culture, and Luther translates the bible into German- the language of the people- for the first time. People can read it for the first time. And people start asking questions for the first time. And you get this rise of what I like to call, "Lutheran Smart-aleck" and they start showing up to John Tetzel's organized activities. And they start heckling him at his rallies, and booing him. And one man even goes up to Tetzel and asks, "can I buy an indulgence for a sin that I haven't committed yet? And Tetzel sells it to him. And later that day, the man and his friends jump Tetzel and beat him up. When Tetzel goes to press charges, the man shows up with his indulgence, signed by Tetzel himself on the same day saying that he is forgiven of his sin, and the man walks away a scot-free. This is what I mean by Lutheran smart-alecks. A couple of us are descendents of them.

So, things don't go well for John Tetzel. As the protest reformation grows and swells to an overwhelming amount of support, the catholic church has not choice but to scapegoat John Tetzel. They start blaming him for everything and they say, "it was all his idea, that not really our theology, what we meant was something closer to this, but John Tetzel, he did that all on his own, that wasn't done out of our jurisdiction, he was doing his own thing. And they excommunicate him. And they hid him deep in a monetary, away from the public eye, and his health starts to fade very quickly. And he's on his death bed- and on his death bed, John Tetzel receives a letter from Martin Luther. We don't know the contents of that letter, but if it's anything like everything else he wrote, it probably mentioned Romans chapter 3. He imagine it said, "John, don't you know that by grace that you have been saved, and there is nothing you can do to earn it. Don't you know that this is the gift given to you. Don't you know that this idea that you go to purgatory for your sins- that's bogus- don't you know that God gives you the gift of salvation and there is nothing you can do to earn it.

We do know the last line of that letter. Martin Luther writes, "I know that [this movement] has another father." Which is his way of saying that I know that you're not to blame, I know that you got scapegoated. You are forgiven. Tetzel died shortly after receiving this letter from Luther.

And I promise you he didn't spend a single day in purgatory. And it wasn't because he bought anything.

I love that story because it shows a Martin Luther who lives what he preaches. It tells a story of a guy who went out of his way to love his neighbor.

See, Luther has this idea of sin. He says sin is the heart curved in on itself. Luther says that sin is when we receive this gift of god and we try to horde it, we try to keep it, and hide God from the world. the heart is not meant to be curved in on itself, it is meant to be open. And when your heart is facing out, Luther says, your neighbors will see it and know it, and the will see in you God's grace that fills your life.

Luther says, now that we have nothing to do- we ought to love our neighbor. Now that we know there is nothing we should do or can do to earn salvation, we ought to turn our attention onto our neighbors and share with them the story that has been given us.

When I was 15 and 16, I started hanging out with these Christian friends. We would meet for bible studies at lunch, and after school. We got together to read Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which made little sense to any of us. But we tried it, all the same. And I started to realize that every time that we started to talk about salvation that I was sort of at odds with the group, and I realized that they were all Baptist or non-denoms and I was Lutheran. And we would talk about infant baptism, and they would say, how can you believe that you can be saved before you have faith, and you're just sprinkling water, you're not even dunking. And then one day they said, Daniel we're worried about you. Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal lord and savior? can you tell me about the time that you converted, and you came to Jesus? And I became really worried about my own salvation. I felt like I was speaking a different language.

And one day I came in and said, "I have recently been confirmed in the Lutheran church and there's a scripture passage that I would like to share with you and it's Ephesians 2: 8-10, it is by grace that we have been saved through faith, and not of works, so that no one can boast."

And would you believe it, one guy said to me, "I think you've got that backwards, I'm pretty sure that it is by faith that we have been saved through grace." So I said, "let's look it up."

Ephesians is clear, "by grace you have been saved," It ain't backwards. That's the way it is. God saves us before we do anything.  That's the point. That's the central narrative of Christ's life, death and resurrection.

A few days later this question came up again. We were at my house, it was around one or two in the morning. "Daniel, when were you saved? When do you come to Jesus."

I said, "Guys, I don't know what to tell you. I'm Lutheran. I didn't come to Jesus, Jesus came to me." Some of that Lutheran smart-aleck quality shining through there.

And I don't mean to make light of anyone else's faith, all I can do is tell my own story.

Jesus Christ came to me. I didn't go to him. That's the beauty of Lutheran theology that has been passed down to us for 500 years.

And I can tell you this. Of that group of guys, most of them went to seminary. And each of them, in turn, called me to say, "I just got a hold of Martin Luther's Basic Theological Works... I just read Freedom of a Christian for the first time... I just read Babylonian Captivity.... I just read Martin Luther's commentaries on Galatians... I just read his sermon on Ephesians, and I understand better Lutheran theology.

And I'm not saying that any of those guys converted to Lutheranism, but I am telling you this:

500 years later, Luther is the only theologian that you cannot do without if you are going to study theology. Luther is indispensable because of Solo Gracia, the idea that we are saved before we do anything.

And I want to say to you that I think our society needs more of that. I think we live in a meritocracy. What we think we earn is stuff that has been given to us by God. We live in a society that we think we earned it, whatever we have we earned using our own gumption and hard work. And I'm here to tell you Romans 3 and Ephesians 2, there is nothing we can do to earn the only gift that matters. I think our world could use a little more of that. So I want you to take your bulletins home with you to equip you in these conversations. The John text today says, "the truth will set you free"
If you need to have a conversation with someone, have it. You can say, I just want you to know, these are the texts I look to when I build my theology.

Just remember the difference that all of these writings made to the people they were written for.
Just as Jeremiah and the Psalmists were freeing to the Hebrews in captivity, and just as

Paul's writings were freeing to the Ephesians and the Romans, and just as

Luther's writings were freeing for John Tetzel, myself, and my friends,

who will your writings be freeing for? What will your good news look like?

When we continue to tell the story, others can find freedom in our truth. And that is the calling that we have as Lutherans. Because, let's be honest-  we are the reformers, we are the ones who are called to be smart-alecks, to ask the tough questions.

And we know this: God's grace isn't just for keeping- it's for sharing