October 27, 2013
Reformation Day sermon
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be faithful and fruitful in your sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
When I was young, I loved fairy tales. They managed to stoke my imagination with fantastic beasts and heroic people, while at the same time offering the comfort of predictability. No matter how bad things get in a fairy tale, you always know it’s going to end—say it with me—“happily ever after.”
I liked having that assurance when I was young, but as I grow older, I find myself less and less comfortable just leaving things at “happily ever after.” I mean, when I was young, “happiness” was to be found in a chocolate chip cookie, and “forever” was the length of time until my next birthday, so “happily ever after” was totally within the scope of my imagination. But it turns out that real life is a lot messier, more heart-breaking, more glorious, more full of change, than “happily ever after” makes room for.
Today is Reformation Sunday, and to celebrate, we’ve broken away from our regularly scheduled lectionary in favor of readings that talk about grace and new covenants and freedom, and we’ve all worn red, and we’ve gathered to celebrate just how really awesome Lutheranism is. (And it is!) But when I went to type out “Happy Reformation Day!” at the beginning of my sermon manuscript, I struggled. Because as much as I love Lutheranism and our Reformation heritage—and boy do I—wishing you a “Happy Reformation Day” just felt weird. It felt like I was tacking a little “happily ever after!” sign to the end of a story that not only hasn’t ended, but isn’t all happy.
Martin Luther and the other Reformers did what needed to be done when they named the deep corruption of the church, a church they wanted desperately to fix, to make better. But it turned out that the Roman church was so deeply set in its ways, and so turned in on itself, that it wasn’t open to reform.
So even the “Reformation” isn’t quite the right word. It glosses over what actually happened: a fracture. In a way that caused a lot of grief and sadness and anger and violence, the Reformation was also a rending. A division in the Body of Christ.
So to be honest, writing the words “Happy Reformation Day!” felt a little like wishing someone a happy divorce.
You may be thinking to yourself that maybe the intern could have chosen a different Sunday to rain on the Reformation parade. You might even be wondering where I get the gumption to take on the much-beloved “happily ever after” version of the Reformation at all, you know, the one where Martin Luther throws down with the Pope and hammers manifestos about God’s grace to doors and finally makes an epic “Here I stand” speech and maybe Rome wasn’t too happy, but by gum, the Lutherans lived happily ever after.
By way of an answer, I’d like to introduce you to Marty.
Marty appeared in our office this week; I don’t know where from. Pr. Tom put him on my desk to, as he said, provide inspiration. Marty, as you can see, is a handsomely chiseled toy figurine with a portrait of Martin Luther’s face stuck on it.
Marty pretty much embodies why I feel compelled to talk with you today about the flaws of having ONLY a “happily-ever-after” version of the story. Because if that’s the only version of the story we have, it can end up looking a lot like Marty: powerful, beautiful, but frankly, a little disturbing.
This was brought home to me in this week’s intern bible study, where we paused in our progress though the lands of the bible and took a look at 8 women who influenced the course of the Reformation. As we were talking, one of the members of our group said, “I don’t get it. How could Germany go from this place where the Reformation could happen to the country that had the Holocaust?”
As a scholar, it is physically impossible for me not to answer this question to the best of my ability, an answer which included admitting that the Third Reich used Martin Luther’s writings, some of which are really hateful toward Jews, to promote their platform of genocide.
None of us, not even Martin Luther, are heroes. None of us belong to stories that end with a perfect “happily ever after.” Even the most brilliant, most pious, most shining Christian doesn’t live outside of the reality of Sin.
This was the message that Jesus was trying to get across to the group of Jews he’s talking to in this morning’s gospel text. But they don’t want to hear it. “We’re children of Abraham, and have never been slaves to anyone,” they say to Jesus, somewhat huffily. “What are you talking about with this, “the truth will make you free” nonsense? We’ve always been free!”
Ok, talk about living inside your own “happily ever after.” As Abraham’s children, these Jews belonged to a people who had been enslaved in Egypt, exiled to Babylon, and who were, in the very moment that they were talking to Jesus, under the control of the Roman government.
Because they had only one story about who they were and where they came from, the Jews had trapped themselves into a place where there was no room in them to hear the word of truth that actually would make them free. In the minds of this group of Jews, they were God’s chosen people. They didn’t want to hear Jesus tell them that they were just like everyone else: slaves of sin, and people who desperately needed the Son of the household to set them free.
You know, the other thing I don’t like about wishing you a “Happy Reformation Day” is that that makes it sounds like the Reformation was something that happened in the past, instead of something still going on. But it is! We inherited a tradition of taking a hard look at the way things are, and praying that God purifies us where we are corrupt, and directs us where we are in error.
If we make it sound like the Reformation is history, then we risk becoming like those Jews. If we start believing that we got it right once for all 500 years ago, then we risk this place, this body of believers, becoming a place built on our reputation instead of God’s. We become a place full of people who don’t need the freedom Jesus offered, because there’s no sin in here.
But you all know what happens to a happily-ever-after built on everyone being perfect. Sooner or later, I, or Pr. Tom, or one of the other people in this room will disappoint you. We will hurt each other. And it will be devastating, because this is church, and we were so busy buying into a story of “happily ever after” that we didn’t see it coming.
In a recent interview, a Lutheran pastor named Nadia Bolz-Weber talked about the welcome brunch at her church, where she tells people: “I’m glad you love it here, but at some point, I will disappoint you or the church will let you down. Please decide on this side of that happening if, after it happens, you will stick around. Because if you leave, you will miss the way that God’s grace comes in and fills the cracks of our brokenness. And it’s too beautiful to miss. Don’t miss it.”
Nadia’s talk about grace between cracks reminds me of a Japanese art called Kintsugi.
This is what it looks like. And artist takes a broken piece of ceramic and puts the shards back together with resin mixed with powdered gold. The piece often ends up looking more beautiful, and more precious, than it did before. It’s so beautiful, in fact, that rumor has it that people used to break their bowls on purpose, just so they could be mended like this.
What if we let our “happily ever afters” get broken into pieces? What if we admitted to the world that we’re not Christians because we’re good people, but that we’re Christians because God has picked up the shards of our brokenness and knit them back together with grace? What if we dared to believe that that’s a more beautiful story than the one we’ve been telling ourselves?
It would be—it is a rather remarkable way of being faithful to our tradition of reform.
Twenty years ago, it let the ELCA declare to the Jewish community that we are sorry for what was done to Jews during the Holocaust, using in part the writings of Martin Luther and the complicit silence of the Lutheran church.
This week, it led the leaders of the Lutheran World Federation to meet with Pope Francis, where they gave thanks for 50 years of dialogue, and where the Pope voiced his hopes for what he called “our journey toward full communion”—that is, a vision of a Eucharistic table where all have been drawn along God’s golden threads of grace into unity, and where the only thing broken is the bread that we share.
Celebrating the Reformation not only with the image of Martin Luther with a hammer in his hand, but with a vision of the incredible reach of God’s grace, grace is sufficient to reach our deepest shames and address our most tragic truths, to convict us, comfort us, purify us, and direct us—it may not be happy, but by God, it is holy.
Holy Reformation Day, everyone.