Reformation Sunday can be a challenge for Lutherans. How do we say something that hasn’t been said before? What can we say that underscores the amazing reality that God loves us first, and that we are made right before God by faith – not by what we do?
It’s quite the counter-cultural thing to grasp – but I know when I finally understood it, it was like the wind had been knocked out of me. I’m still sorting it all out!
31Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 33They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?” 34Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”
Dear people of God, grace and peace and freedom to you this day from our loving God, through Christ. Amen.
That word. FREEDOM. That word carries some serious baggage for us as United States Citizens.
We tend to think of ‘freedom’ as a concept that gives us license to do whatever we want.
I think we all realize that as fun as that might sound, if it’s allowed to run rampant, it just doesn’t end well.
And so I would invite us to think about that word ‘freedom’ differently. Let’s not think of it as freedom from some human tyrannical overlord or master.
Instead – what if we think of freedom as ‘release’? Meaning, the broadest possible sense of ‘release’?
Release from rules that keep us from serving the neighbor.
Release from old stereotypes that keep us from seeing our neighbor.
Release from emotional baggage and worries that keep us from loving ourselves.
That kind of freedom is something that goes way beyond what the framers of the US Constitution had in mind.
That kind of freedom is something that eluded Luther in his early days in the monastery. His dogged pursuit of seeking forgiveness for transgressions both real and imagined drove his confessor, Johann von Staupitz, nuts. There is a story that once Luther went on for six hours, confessing every possible minute error to Staupitz. Who is observed in some places as a saint for having put up with Luther.
But that kind of transcendant freedom is what Jesus is talking about here.
It’s a difficult thing to reconcile within our American civil structure, based as it is on personal freedoms. But the freedom Jesus speaks of is one that is based on God’s love for all of creation.
It’s a freedom that opens us up to change.
There’s a saying that’s associated with the Reformation: Ecclesia semper reformanda est. The church is always reforming.
Now, we might take issue with whether this is actually happening, but I think that it’s the situation to which we aspire.
The church IS always reforming. That’s not to say, the church is always throwing out everything that came before and hitching up to every two-bit bandwagon that passes through town.
Nor is it to say that the church is clinging pathetically to a past that largely didn’t exist, along with doo-dads held perilously together with scotch tape and more clutter than any first-rate hoarder.
No. What it IS to say is that the church is a living, breathing, CHANGING organism. All organisms change in some manner. And the change that the church is constantly undergoing is largely one of relevance.
Theologian Phyllis Tickle wrote in her book “The Great Emergence” that the church undergoes a massive shift every 500 years that results in a sort of dogmatic garage sale. The first one occurred shortly after Constantine converted to Christianity and it became the religion of the empire. The second was around 1000 AD, when the great schism between the western and eastern church occurred. Then around 1500, when Luther set the Reformation in motion.
And the most recent one is in process as we speak.
This most recent one finds us at the convergence of a number of crisis situations for the church:
- A massive shift in how society operates, including the expansion of work hours from Monday-Friday to one that includes weekends
- Income challenges to many sectors of society, forcing more people to take on more than one job to make ends meet
- An odd version of “capture the flag” where churches are involved in a considerable amount of in-fighting and name-calling across theological divides and power structures
- A number of scandals across church lines that have deeply eroded the trust that churches used to carry in our society
I feel confident in stating that church as we knew it for the last 50-100 years is ceasing to exist. I’m still not sure if feel HAPPY about that – but at the same time, I see tremendous potential in the future.
When Luther stood his ground at the Diet of Worms – and boy, isn’t that the strangest word for a meeting, “diet”, and an really unfortunate match with the city where it happened! – when he stood his ground, I don’t think he was necessarily happy.
But I’d be willing to bet he was convicted. Determined. Sure beyond the shadow of a doubt that this WAS indeed where he stood, he could do no other.
And I wonder if in that moment, he realized the fundamental truth that sometimes things have to die for them to realize new life.
After all, the whole point of our faith is that we believe in resurrection. And we know that without death, there can be no resurrection.
I read a fascinating article this week written by Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, our presiding bishop with whom I’ve had the honor to work. She is deeply committed to the church and is a really funny person. She offers these thoughts around the Reformation:
This view of freedom – that freedom is the problem – is well illustrated by Robert Capon in his book, Between Noon and Three. He writes, “If we are ever to enter fully into the glorious liberty of the children of God, we are going to have to spend more time thinking about freedom than we do. The church, by and large, has a poor record of encouraging freedom. She has spent so much time inculcating in us the fear of making mistakes that she has made us like ill-taught piano students: we play our songs, but we never really hear them, because our main concern is not to make music, but to avoid some flub that will get us in trouble.” Think of the systems we have erected, promoted and been trapped in to keep us all in line. We can’t hear the music. And what heavenly music do we miss because we cannot hear? The promise of freedom. The reality that our freedom has been realized through the death and resurrection of Jesus. In our bondage, it has become all about us. Luther’s definition of sin, “the soul curved in on itself” traps us in our own echo chamber.
The soul curved in on itself traps us in our own echo chamber.
Dear friends in Christ, this is the problem in our society.
If we are curved in on the self – if we are engaged what has been called “extended navel-gazing” – then we cannot hear anything other than our own thoughts, our own echo chamber.
We curve in on ourselves because we think we are not enough for God to love us. We curve in because we are feverishly working to “be better” or “do enough” that God will love us.
Pro Tip: YOU DON’T HAVE TO DO ANYTHING. You are enough and everything just as you are.
Theologian and pastor David Lose comments that the best way to observe the Reformation is NOT to celebrate it, but rather to REPEAT it. To look for the places where change is needed, whether that’s in the community, the world, or even your own life.
Shepherd of the Hills has already taken several meaningful steps in this direction.
I wonder what our next step might be?
In the spirit of Luther’s posting of the 95 theses and inviting comment, there are Post-It Notes in the entryway and on the tables in the fellowship hall for you to post your own thesis. What needs to change? What is bothering you? What do you want to see happen? What do you want to celebrate? I invite you to write those down and stick them onto a door, ANY door you see. The kids did this already this morning so if you’re not sure what to do, ask them.
Ecclesia Semper Reformanda Est.
The church is always reforming.
I invite you to be a part of what that might look like.
And in that process, let us remember as our Psalmist claims, “God is our refuge and strength.”
Not studies, or initiatives, or programs, or anything else.
God is our refuge. And that is truly freedom, defined as release.