Posted by: smstrouse | October 30, 2016

You Say You Want a Reformation . . .

 

semper-reformanda1

A Sermon for Reformation Sunday
October 30, 2016

“The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable” is a quote attributed to, among others, President James Garfield, who seems to be following up on the words of Jesus in John’s gospel: “If you live according to my teaching, you’ll know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

I’m sure many of us have found Garfield’s additional commentary to be true. Sometimes the truth hurts or is a huge challenge to our usual way of being. Gloria Steinem’s version, “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off,” is another common response to being confronted with a different reality than the one we thought was true. Why else do we sometimes wonder whether it’s best to tell a friend or loved one the truth about something we know will be very hard to hear? Or will make them angry – maybe with us?

But this wasn’t the case with Martin Luther. He wouldn’t have agreed with either Steinem or Garfield – at least not when he had his so-called “Tower Experience.” He wrote about it later and you have the full text of his account at the bottom of thunknownis document. The story in a nutshell is that while studying Romans 1:17 (our second reading) in his study in the tower of the monastery in Wittenberg where he lived as an Augustinian monk, Luther had one of those light bulb moments. You know how that goes; a light goes on in your head and you suddenly see something in a way that you never had before and you suddenly get it, whatever “it” is. A revelation. An epiphany! An “ah hah!” moment. A blinding flash of insight that reveals – the truth.

And for Luther, that truth did set him free and it did not tick him off or make him miser-able. In fact, he’d been angry and miserable before this revelation: “I, blameless monk that I was, felt that before God I was a sinner with an extremely troubled conscience. I couldn’t be sure that God was appeased by my satisfaction. I did not love, no, rather I hated the just God who punishes sinners. In silence, if I did not blaspheme, then certainly I grumbled vehemently and got angry at God.”

His big “ah! hah!” moment was when he was set free from a way of thinking about God that was unhealthy, destructive, and wrong. Now, he could have done what many people do and stop there. Many who abandon the idea of a wrathful, vengeful, punishing deity who needs to be appeased abandon any idea of God at all. To be fair, who can blame them? A lot of terrible things have been done in the name of this idea of God.

But Luther didn’t go there. What he discovered in Romans1:17 was freedom. “All at once I felt that I had been born again and entered into paradise itself through open gates. Immediately I saw the whole of Scripture in a different light. I ran through the Scriptures from memory and found that other terms had analogous meanings, e.g., the work of God, that is, what God works in us; the power of God, by which God makes us powerful; the wisdom of God, by which God makes us wise; the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God. I exalted this sweetest word of mine, “the justice of God,” with as much love as before I had hated it with hate. This phrase of Paul was for me the very gate of paradise.”

On Reformation Sunday we don’t usually think about Luther having a spiritual awakening. We tend to focus on the shift from a belief that one’s good deeds could get you into heaven to a doctrine of justification by faith through grace. In the 16th century that was a big deal; the Church was selling indulgences so people could help loved ones get out of Purgatory more quickly. The title of Luther’s list of 95 theses was actually “A Disputation on the Power of Indulgences.”

But thing are different today. In 1999, The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification was signed by the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, which essentially ended the 500-year-old conflict at the root of the Reformaiton. And tomorrow, in anticipation of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation next year, the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church will hold an historic joint commemoration of the Reformation in Lund, Sweden.

So – times have changed. And reconciliation between Lutherans and Catholics and agreement on a doctrine is something to be celebrated. But I wouldn’t like our commemoration of the Reformation to stop there. I would like us to savor that moment of spiritual awaken-ing that caused Martin Luther to discover that his idea of who and what God was no longer made sense. And I would like us to celebrate his magnificent and joyful new awareness of the true nature of the Divine.

It’s a moment and an awareness that many of us have experienced and that, by the grace of God and our efforts, many more will experience. I often quote the late Marcus Borg, who liked to say in response to someone who said they didn’t believe in God, “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in.” When the person would describe a version of Luther’s wrathful, vengeful, punishing deity who needs to be appeased, Borg would say, “I don’t believe in that God either.” And then would begin a conversation on the true nature of God – loving, compassionate, luring us into wholeness, calling us into works of peace and justice – the God that had Luther joyfully running through the Scriptures and finding more proof of what he’d discovered: “the work of God, that is, what God works in us; the power of God, by which God makes us powerful; the wisdom of God, by which God makes us wise; the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God.”

 This was no mere intellectual exercise. Why else would he write, “I exalted this sweetest word of mine, ‘the justice of God,’ with as much love as before I had hated it with hate. This phrase was for me the very gate of paradise.” This was a liberating spiritual awakening. A re-formation of a man’s relationship with the holy truth of Divine Love.

a-new-reformation-300x163Today, many thinkers, writers, theologians are claiming that we are in the midst of a new reformation. There are at least 3 new lists of theses (which are simply items for discussion). The late Phyllis Tickle often talked about the fact that about every 500 years the Church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale. And I believe she’s right. We’re going through our religious “stuff” – doctrines, language, practices, etc. – and making decisions about what should stay, what should go, and what might still be a treasure if we just cleaned it up a little bit. The process is messy; discussions about what stays, what goes, what gets transformed are chaotic, unsettling.

Even our image or concept of who or what God is up for discussion. Not that this is some-thing new. It wasn’t even new to Luther. In ancient times, the idea of God being more than a tribal deity, one among many other tribal deities, was re-formed to a belief in one God. The idea that God is comprised of persons, including Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, was a re-formation brought about by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In recent times, we’ve had to re-examine what we think we know about God in light of what people of other religions think they know about God. Those who have declared themselves to be atheists present us with the challenge of defining what we mean when we claim to believe in a deity. Science does this also. And this is all good. We are free to wonder and question and explore.

And this is in direct line with Reformation history. We have not simply called 1-800- GOT JUNK and thrown away all of our tradition. However, we do take seriously the notion of “Ecclesia semper reformanda est” (“the church is always to be reformed”). That phrase is thrown about a lot, especially on Reformation Sunday. And it’s a great rallying cry for keeping the church up-to-date with current needs. But it doesn’t come from Luther, as many think. In fact, it isn’t from the 16th century at all. It was coined by 20th century Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth. And it’s important to understand Barth’s context.

karl_barth_briefmarkeBefore World War II, Barth was a strong critic of the rise of the Nazi party in Germany. He also criticized the many churches that went along with the Nazis, for not fulfilling their prophetic role in society. In 1917, a group of these Nazi Protestants coopted the 400th anniversary of the Reformation, in an event that endorsed German nationalism, emphasizing that Germany had a preferred place in the Protestant tradition, and legitimizing anti-Semitism. They used Luther’s admonishment to respect secular authority to justify their positions. When Hitler was named Chancellor of Germany, Barth was involved in the drafting of the Barmen Declaration opposing these churches. So “Ecclesia semper reform-anda est” is not simply a call for change for change’s sake. It is a call to look around at our own cultural context (Barth is often quoted as saying that one should preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other) and to be the church with integrity. This is the tradition in which we stand. As Luther famously said, “Here I stand; I can do no other.”

In today’s cultural context, we find ourselves taking our stand in the midst of a great number of people disaffected with the church, with clergy, and with God (or at least God as God has been defined in the past). We also find ourselves among a great number of people who imagine the Divine differently from the way we do.

We can respond to this in one of two ways. We can wring our hands and lament the good old days when churches were full and we could hold a real old-time Reformation service where we bashed Catholics and sang “A Mighty Fortress” like it was our national anthem.

Or we can enter into the spirit of “semper reformanda” with the freedom granted by the gospel. And with joyful hearts, knowing as Luther discovered in that transformational tower experience, that God is gracious and good, compassionate and healing, freeing – and challenging us to bring peace and justice and healing to the world

So let’s not talk about the God we don’t believe in. Let us share the good news of the Divine Presence in which we do live and move and have our being. There’s a Reformation going on. Here we stand. Amen

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Jeremiah 31:31-34
We read this text on Reformation Sunday because the great theological insight of Martin Luther which triggered the Reformation is that God’s gracious generosity permits forgiveness and reconciliation, even for those who do not merit such grace. God’s announcement of ‘forgiving and forgetting’ in Jeremiah is made into a deep theological claim by Luther that has become a defining affirmation for all the truth of the Gospel.

 It is written . . .
“Behold, the days are coming,” says YHWH, “when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them up out of the land of Egypt—a covenant they broke, though I was their spouse,” says YHWH.

“But this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days: I will put my law in their minds and in their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they need to teach one another, or remind one another to listen to YHWH. All of them, high and low alike, will listen to me,” says YHWH, “for I will forgive their misdeeds and will remember their sins no more.”


Romans 1:16-17
. . . in that same year, 1519, I had conceived a burning desire to understand what Paul meant in his Letter to the Romans, but thus far there had stood in my way, not the cold blood around my heart, but that one word which is in chapter one: “The justice of God is revealed in it.” I hated that word, “justice of God” . . . I, blameless monk that I was, felt that before God I was a sinner with an extremely troubled conscience. I couldn’t be sure that God was appeased by my satisfaction. I did not love, no, rather I hated the just God who punishes sinners. In silence, if I did not blaspheme, then certainly I grumbled vehemently and got angry at God . . . . I constantly badgered St. Paul about that spot in Romans 1 and anxiously wanted to know what he meant . . . I meditated night and day on those words until at last, by the mercy of God, I paid attention to their context: “The justice of God is revealed in it, as it is written: ‘The just person lives by faith.'” I began to understand that in this verse the justice of God is that by which the just person lives by a gift of God, that is by faith. I exalted this sweetest word of mine, “the justice of God,” with as much love as before I had hated it with hate. This phrase of Paul was for me the very gate of paradise.
(the full text of Martin Lutehr’s “Tower Experience” is below)

 

It is written . . .
For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is itself the very power of God, effecting the deliverance of everyone who has faith – to the Jew first, but also to the Greek. For in that gospel, God’s justice is revealed – a justice which arises from faith and has faith as its result. As it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.”

 

John 8:31-36
Since this passage constructs freedom in terms of being in a relationship marked by liberation from sin and death, it challenges us to examine the current state of our personal and social relationships. What relationships in our lives are liberative and life-affirming for us and for others? What relationships do we participate in that sustain the oppressing bondage of sin and result in death and destruction on personal, social, and even environmental levels? What can we do to transform destructive relationships in our lives and in our world into relationships that liberate instead of oppress?

 

It is written . . .
Jesus said to those who believed in him, ‘If you live according to my teaching, you are really my disciples; then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’

They answered, ‘We are descendants of Sarah and Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, “You will be set free”?’

Jesus answered them, ‘The truth of the matter is, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin. The slave does not always remain part of a household; an heir, however, is a member of that house forever. So if the Heir – the Only Begotten – makes you free, you will be free indeed.”

 

Martin Luther: The Tower Experience, 1519
An Excerpt From: Preface to the Complete Edition of Luther’s Latin Works (1545) by Dr. Martin Luther, 1483-1546 Translated by Bro. Andrew Thornton, OSB from the “Vorrede zu Band I der Opera Latina der Wittenberger Ausgabe. 1545” in vol. 4 of _Luthers Werke in Auswahl_, ed. Otto Clemen, 6th ed., (Berlin: de Gruyter. 1967). pp. 421-428.

Meanwhile in that same year, 1519, I had begun interpreting the Psalms once again. I felt confident that I was now more experienced, since I had dealt in university courses with St. Paul’s Letters to the Romans, to the Galatians, and the Letter to the Hebrews. I had conceived a burning desire to understand what Paul meant in his Letter to the Romans, but thus far there had stood in my way, not the cold blood around my heart, but that one word which is in chapter one: “The justice of God is revealed in it.” I hated that word, “justice of God,” which, by the use and custom of all my teachers, I had been taught to understand philosophically as referring to formal or active justice, as they call it, i.e., that justice by which God is just and by which he punishes sinners and the unjust.

 

But I, blameless monk that I was, felt that before God I was a sinner with an extremely troubled conscience. I couldn’t be sure that God was appeased by my satisfaction. I did not love, no, rather I hated the just God who punishes sinners. In silence, if I did not blaspheme, then certainly I grumbled vehemently and got angry at God. I said, “Isn’t it enough that we miserable sinners, lost for all eternity because of original sin, are oppressed by every kind of calamity through the Ten Commandments? Why does God heap sorrow upon sorrow through the Gospel and through the Gospel threaten us with his justice and his wrath?” This was how I was raging with wild and disturbed conscience. I constantly badgered St. Paul about that spot in Romans 1 and anxiously wanted to know what he meant.

I meditated night and day on those words until at last, by the mercy of God, I paid attention to their context: “The justice of God is revealed in it, as it is written: ‘The just person lives by faith.'” I began to understand that in this verse the justice of God is that by which the just person lives by a gift of God, that is by faith. I began to understand that this verse means that the justice of God is revealed through the Gospel, but it is a passive justice, i.e. that by which the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written: “The just person lives by faith.” All at once I felt that I had been born again and entered into paradise itself through open gates. Immediately I saw the whole of Scripture in a different light. I ran through the Scriptures from memory and found that other terms had analogous meanings, e.g., the work of God, that is, what God works in us; the power of God, by which he makes us powerful; the wisdom of God, by which he makes us wise; the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God.

I exalted this sweetest word of mine, “the justice of God,” with as much love as before I had hated it with hate. This phrase of Paul was for me the very gate of paradise. Afterward I read Augustine’s “On the Spirit and the Letter,” in which I found what I had not dared hope for. I discovered that he too interpreted “the justice of God” in a similar way, namely, as that with which God clothes us when he justifies us. Although Augustine had said it imperfectly and did not explain in detail how God imputes justice to us, still it pleased me that he taught the justice of God by which we are justified.
(c)1983 by Saint Anselm Abbey. This translation may be used freely with proper attribution. You may distribute, copy or print this text, providing you retain the author and copyright statements.

 

 

 

 

 

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