Sermon (throwback): Reformation Day
I’m a week late, but here’s the sermon I preached last weekend for Reformation Sunday. You can click the play button above to listen and/or read the manuscript below. I hope you enjoy:)
Happy Reformation Day! The church is dressed in red because she is in full Holy Spirit mode. The Reformation, with all of its flaws, marked a huge shift in human consciousness that was bigger than any one person, namely our brother Martin Luther.
There are two main pitfalls that I need to avoid today (and I ask for God’s help)...
It’s so easy to turn Reformation Day into an us-vs-them thing. To turn our joy (which is genuine; we are proud to be Lutherans, and that’s okay) into otherizing. Bashing the Pope is fun, I’ve played that game before, having grown up in the RC church and rebelling against it later in life. But this is a twisted version of the Gospel. The fact is, Luther’s theses cut far deeper than just the Pope. They cut to the heart of not just every Christian but every human being.
The second pitfall is to toss Luther into the outer darkness for his transgressions. Just the other day, in a Zoom meeting with other Lutheran pastors, one said that he had no place for Luther at all on account of his antisemitic remarks (we’ll get into this a little bit more in a minute). He just tossed Luther to the historical scrap heap. And I get it. I could totally be forgiven for doing this. But I think it does us all a disservice. I believe that, instead of scrapping Luther, we can lovingly examine his life and his heart and learn a lot about ourselves.
One of Luther’s main contributions to the world - and he made a lot - is his concept of simil justus et peccator. In my short time today, this is what I’ll focus on. The Latin here translates in English to something like one who is simultaneously saint and sinner. I remember when I first learned about Lutheran theology; this concept struck me as something absolutely true about the human condition. You and I are 100% sinner and 100% saint 100% of the time. We’re not 60-40 on a bad day or 20-80 on a good day.
To explain more deeply, I’ll use myself as an example here; maybe you’ll be able to relate...
Left to my own devices... I am a fumbling, broken, and wounded human. I cannot reach a pinnacle of wholeness. I cannot live a perfectly just life. My fleshy human heart is just too complex for that. I think I know what is right and what is wrong. But for some reason, the things I do that I think are the most right are often the most harmful to myself and others. I flub things up on the regular. And I’ve been at the business end of other people’s flubs and aggressions. I’ve also received accolades and gathered privileges that I feel I don’t deserve, which creates crazy impostor syndrome. My wounds run deep. Sure, I do okay. But there are a lot of things in my soul left to be healed and redeemed.
Does any of this sound familiar in your own experience?
This is the “sinner” side of me. Sin is not just about being naughty. It’s about not feeling whole. It’s about being wounded by self and others. It’s about internal and external conflict, and it is universal.
Now let’s talk about the 100% saint part... I am 100% saint. Not because of the things I do. I am a saint because God has been chasing me down, loving me back to life, and resurrecting me from the dead since I breathed my first breath. If you reflect on your own life, you might see the same thing has happened to you.
Saints are not bastions of perfection. Their lives were deeply flawed. They are saints because they were captured and redeemed by God’s unending unconditional love in the midst of their messiness.
This is what makes us saints...
Not our best behavior.
But God’s love for us that knows no bounds.
Without God, I am totally in the sinner category. Now, there’s an important distinction here. We need to think in terms of uppercase-S Sin. Sin is a great word, and I think we should revive it. Sin signifies separation from God. It’s not that religious people are good, and non-religious people are bad. Some of the best people I know do not go to church and do not cognitively believe in G-O-D. Luther’s point is we are all good and bad, and a lot of that depends on how you define good and bad. What this boils down to is wholeness. If I try to derive my wholeness - or, as Luther put it, my righteousness - from my own means, all I have are the things I do (and, the flip side of that coin, the things I fail to do). I’m left as my own judge. And I can see that, yes, I have some good things I’ve done in one column. And some bad things I’ve done in another column. But then there are all these other columns that are a bit more messy. Did I meet my highest potential in life? Was I self-centered sometimes? Did I deserve that big break or not? This is life alone without a loving God who stands outside of me and judges me as... Whole. And beloved.
This is life (as Luther put it) as a sinner. Again, NOT NECESSARILY A BAD PERSON. Just in a state of separation from the divine Source of wholeness, forgiveness, and mercy.
Question... How many of you grew up believing in a God who punishes and rewards?
Even if you or your family carried this belief, the wider culture in the US, especially since the 1960s, has been an increasingly secular one where heaven and hell are things of fantasies. We have rationalized the transcendent away. We have explored outer space and have observed no sky daddy up there looking down on us.
All we have now is the self.
This seems like a good thing! We’re freed from this nagging deity who once bugged us and judged us. But as practical theologian Andy Root (Luther Seminary) so profoundly says,
“In our modern secular world, the self is both the guilt-ridden defendant and the gavel-pounding judge.”
Do you feel this dynamic inside your own experience? Do you feel yourself blaming yourself for the ways you’ve fallen short? And do you feel yourself JUSTIFYING yourself against, well... Yourself?
This is a life of separation (pssst: ‘Sin’). Even while God has been ripped out of the sky, there is still an accusing voice at the seat of our souls. This is the accuser, or in Hebrew, Satan.
Satan is far worse than the cute little red guy with a poker. The Accuser is a Satanized god who appears like God but is, in fact, an obstacle to it. It is a false god that creates a false self and a false reality.
Luther knew this accuser well. He was an abused child who grew up with a brutal father who wanted him to be a lawyer. When Luther returned to law school from visiting home, he was struck by lightning on horseback. Secularism in his day was not an option. The transcendent was woven into the fabric of life. The forest was where demons lurked, and the Eucharist was like holy medicine to rid people of these evil spirits. It was not the self who judged; it was God, the sky deity. This lightning strike was a sign from God to Luther that he was living a wayward life. So, like any of us would do, he entered the Augustinian order (pause). And this Satanized God followed him there. Year after year, Luther trembled at the thought of God. See, even though he was in the monastery, he was still a sinner in this sense. He was still trying to do it himself and live up to this damning god’s demands. Even though he believed in g-o-d, he was still in a life of separation (Sin).
Until, one fated day, he read Romans 3. He’d read this passage many times before, but for some reason, this time, it hit him like a lightning bolt. But this lightning bolt had the reverse effect than the one that hit him on his horse. It brought grace instead of judgment.
“...since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,...”
We cannot earn our saintliness. We can only accept it. Our saintliness is not a reward for good behavior. It is a gift of undeserved love.
When we are trapped in a life based on separation from God, life is really (really) hard. The burden is heavy, and the yoke bears down on us. Again, today, this leads us on an inward spiral of depression. Augustine defined Sin with the Latin phrase curvatus in se (curved in on ourselves).
In ancient days, we projected this separation onto a tyrannical deity in the sky and received the Eucharist as medicine. Today, the judge and defendant are within us, and we (thank God) have therapy and medication to help us deal. But the ailment at the seat of the human soul remains the same: separation from a loving God who frees us from judgment and gives wholeness freely where it is not deserved.
Now, even though the gospel frees us, it doesn’t mean the false god doesn’t still echo in our hearts. Case in point, Luther, who was tracked down and enraptured by a loving God, dealt with his shadow his entire life. Three years before his death, Luther wrote one of the most despicable antisemitic treatises known to man, titled On the Jews and Their Lies, that fueled the holocaust centuries later. This stain remains on Luther’s name even today.
The Accuser clung on to him his whole life just as it clings to us. This is why faith and the church must continually be reformed. Because it continually falls into sin and separation just like any human institution.
This same Sin fuels much violence in the world today as the body count steadily increases in Israel, Palestine, and elsewhere in the world as I speak. Thousands are brutally killed and have the stain of human blood on their hands all because of a false god of accusation and projected violence.
Just like the religious elite who confronted Jesus, we are slaves to Sin and cannot free ourselves from this tyrannical god.
But here’s the good news... The tyrannical accusing god is not real. The only true God is a God of love who entered flesh in Jesus and surrendered to the evil that we projected from our illusory separation from our loving Father. He surrendered to it, died to it, and rose from it to show that evil ultimately holds no true power over us. In Jesus, God follows us into our self-dug graves and loves us back to life.
We cannot make ourselves whole. We can only submit to the in-breaking love that fuels the cosmos and is the basis of all reality. We are resurrected anew in this love. And we come here on Sunday to remember this.
So, again, happy Reformation Day.
I’m grateful for Brother Luther that I now stand before you and proclaim
that you have been made whole
in the midst of your messy life
on account of a love for you
that knows no bounds.
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