Reformation Sunday October 29, 2017
The 500th Anniversary of the Reformation
Luther Memorial Church Seattle, WA
The Rev. Julie Hutson
Jeremiah 31: 31-34 + Psalm 46 + Romans 3: 19-28
John 8: 31-36
Grace and peace to you, from God who creates us, Jesus who saves us, and the Holy Spirit who enlivens and empowers us. Amen.
This day….today….is a once in a lifetime day. Oh, we will celebrate the Reformation again and again, as we do every year, on the last Sunday in October and on Reformation Day itself, which is October 31st. But 500 years? Five….hundred….years. Let that sink in for a minute. We will only have this chance to celebrate this day once. And that day is today.
So, no pressure on the preacher, right?
While it’s likely that most of us here are at least somewhat familiar with the story, it deserves a re-cap on its 500th anniversary. A short re-telling of what we celebrate as we gather.
Martin Luther. Roman Catholic priest/scholar. He had this radical notion….actually he had more than one radical notion….that the Roman Catholic church, which he loved, was doing some things in the world that were, well, wrong. The most well known of those errors was the sale of indulgences….the people paid their money to their local church, who in turn passed it on to the Pope, who lived in pretty extravagant style. In return, the Church lessened the time they or their family members would spend in purgatory, or between this life and heaven. Luther, a Biblical scholar with a pastor’s heart, knew that there was no mention of buying one’s way out of a non-existent place. So, he wrote that down, along with 94 other problems he had with the Church, and took it and nailed it on the church door, where those coming to worship were sure to see it. It was the 14th century version of posting on your Facebook wall or maybe even tweeting out your complaints.
But, as often happens with Twitter or Facebook, the response to his 95 theses hanging there on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg Germany wasn’t quite what he’d imagined. Luther had hoped for conversation among the clergy and those in power. Conversation that might change the practices in question, or at least draw attention to them. Instead, Luther found himself on the wrong side of the Pope and a number of Cardinals and few Kings and before he knew it, he was being chased all over Germany with a price on his head.
There’s a lot more to the story and I encourage you to find out more. As one of our recent confirmation students said, “I never knew our Church was founded by a REBEL!”
It’s not easy to be a rebel, to be a reformer. To stand up and speak truth to power. It doesn’t matter whether you are twelve or fifty or eighty, standing up for what is right and just and good requires a fair amount of courage. I think it does get easier as we get older. And I say that and then I think of the youth of other courageous rebels…of other reformers. I think of another Martin, who was 34 when he stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and declared his dream of equality. Martin Luther, was also 34 when he nailed those theses to the door and a movement was sparked.
But what motivated him? What would so stir him that he would take the time to list 95 ways the church he loved and served was in error and then believe and hope that it could change?
Well, it was one radical idea. One very old, (even then), but very radical idea, written by St. Paul and coalescing in the book of Romans. That people are justified by grace through faith, which is a gift from God.
Justified by grace, through faith. Not works. Not beliefs. Not having it all together. That we are justified by grace.
That was a radical idea in a time and place when the Church and the government were operating within systems that said that the way we are justified, or the way we are proven acceptable in the eyes of God, is by what we have done to earn that place. Have we kept the laws and made good grades and said our prayers and kept the commandments….all of which are good things in and of themselves. But they are not the things that make us right before God.
So, what does it take to make us right before God? What can we do? And here is the radical answer to that question. Here is the radical response that ignited Luther’s mind and heart. We cannot do a single thing. There is nothing we can do to earn our salvation or into God’s good graces. Because God is unfair. Radically unfair. So unfair in fact, that God extends mercy and forgiveness and love and acceptance to ALL people. That is grace. Wholly unmerited and unconditional love and acceptance. Given freely to us as a gift through Jesus.
Wow. Luther was blown away by this idea as he read Romans. Can you imagine him reading what we read this morning: For there is no distinction, 23 since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24 they are now justified by grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” and then realizing that there are at least 95 ways the church that he loves and serves is getting this wrong? How fast could he hand write that out and nail it to the door? Let the conversation begin!
So, while we often focus on Luther’s beef with the 95 things the Church had gotten wrong, the truth is, and the more important aspect of this whole Reformation business is this: Luther did what he did because he was astonished by the depth of God’s grace.
And here we are….500 years later….living in a world that still grades and measures and considers and justifies us based on what we have achieved and accomplished. And God still says….no, my grace is sufficient. It’s all you will ever need.
Last week, while we were in Washington DC we saw a group monument in the US Capitol, dedicated to the women of the suffrage movement. The statue features Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Lucretia Mott…leaders….rebels….reformers. And Lucretia Mott was a Quaker preacher and reformer. But this monument is incomplete; the three women are only partially complete as they rise up from a stone slab. This is intended by the artist and by our country to symbolize the reality that the work of equality for women remains unfinished as well.
As I considered the symbolism of this monument, I was reminded that the work of the Reformation is also unfinished. If the Church got 95 things wrong in 1517, imagine how many things we’ve managed to bungle since. As an institution we’ve supported slavery, oppressed women, minorities, and the LGTBQ+ community. But look around you….the Church has also been a catalyst for change. We’ve said All Are Welcome and meant it. We’ve fought for marriage equality and racial equity and we’ve ordained women and we’ve elected one our Presiding Bishop. We stumble forward in spite of ourselves because the Holy Spirit blazes grace upon grace in our hearts and before we know it, we look in the mirror and realize… we are the reformers.
I don’t need a statue of Martin Luther or the wood carving in the narthex or his etchings in the hallway to tell me about Reformation. I don’t need his hymns, as much as I love them to tell me about being a rebel. Beloved people of God….you are the unfinished business of the work that Martin began 500 years ago. You are the faces and the words and the song of reform. With Martin and with all those who have come since and all who will follow after….we put the protest in protestant.
But we do so because, like Martin, we are astonished….absolutely awestruck….by the lengths and heights that God has gone to for our salvation. For our justification. A grace that is as long as a manger in a barn out back and a love that is as tall as a cross on a hillside and yet immeasurable.
The business of our salvation and our justification is finished. God’s got it covered. But the work of Reformation is as new today as it was 500 years ago. On this day….this one day….we will celebrate that work and we will sing and rejoice and remember the bold witness begun with a list nailed to a church door. And tomorrow, when the Reformation is 500 years and one day old….we will move forward, in faith, as God’s beloved people….justified by grace, through faith, a free gift from the God who loves us each beyond measure.
Thanks be to God and let the Reformers in this place say…AMEN!