Friday, November 2, 2012

Luther Nailed It

Sermon preached October 28, 2012

Text: Mark 10:46-52

Lutherans. We want to be careful what we say about Lutherans because we are surrounded by them. I used to tell Methodists in Minnesota that it would do their hearts good to visit Dallas because there were big United Methodist Churches on all the major corners and you really had to look hard to find a Lutheran church.
Lutheranism, because of where its stream of Christianity became prominent, has come to be identified with being Scandinavian or German, and these are cultures that are not usually known for demonstrative emotional expression. A lot of Lutheran humor depends on that.

You know you are a Lutheran if:
• You hear something funny during a sermon and smile as loudly as you can
• Your church library has three Jello cookbooks
• All your casserole dishes have your name printed on masking tape on the bottoms.

How do we know Adam was a Lutheran? Who else could stand beside a naked woman and be tempted by a piece of fruit?
It says something about the strength of Scandinavian Lutheran culture that most such humor fits Upper Midwest United Methodists pretty well.
Today is Reformation Sunday, not typically a big deal within The United Methodist Church. Maybe it is one way we try to distinguish ourselves from Lutherans. Maybe we don’t mark this day so much because we United Methodists are really step children of the Reformation – second generation. The Anglican Church from which John Wesley came was already a reformed church. The roots of the Evangelical and United Brethren Churches were in the Reformed Church in Germany. Still - no Luther, no us. When Luther nailed his Ninty-five theses to the church door in Wittenberg in 1517 he started a wave, a movement that reverberated throughout Christianity.
The Ninty-five Theses themselves were not that striking. The official title of that brief work was “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” – and reading them one is not necessarily deeply moved in faith. What began as a small ripple soon became a tidal wave, as Luther followed his thinking about the meaning of Christian faith in more radical directions. Luther argued that Christians are dramatically free yet also subject to the work of love (“Freedom of a Christian,” 1520, Dillenberger, p. 53). One does works of love not to gain God’s approval, not to chalk up points for the heaven board, but out of love for the God who already loves (68). Here’s the remarkable part of that. I don’t do good for others because it earns me points with God. God already loves me, so I am free to love without trying to figure out how many brownie points I may be earning.
Luther wrote movingly about the experience of faith, in many places, including in his “Preface to the Epistle of Paul to the Romans.” Faith is a living, unshakable confidence, a belief in the grace of God so assured that a [person] would die a thousand deaths for its sake (Dillenberger, 24). Faith is contrasted to belief which Luther saw as “an idea without a corresponding experience in the depths of the heart” (23).
Perhaps it was words such as these that John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist stream of Christianity, heard on night in May 1738. In the evening, I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sin, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death. (Outler, p. 66)
Luther got some important things right about Christian faith. We might say, Luther nailed it when it came to some critical issues about what it means to be Christian. He is where we shift from history to the story of our lives.
Luther nailed it about the importance of grace. I love Frederick Buechner’s discussion of grace (Wishful Thinking). Grace is something you can never get but can only be given. There’s no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about any more than you can deserve good looks or bring about your own birth. A good sleep is grace and so are good dreams. Most tears are grace. The smell of rain is grace. Somebody loving you is grace. Loving somebody is grace…. A crucial eccentricity of the Christian faith is the assertion that people are saved by grace. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do. The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.
At the heart of Christian faith is grace. It is grace found in stories like that of a blind beggar named Bartimaeus. Bartimaeus sits by the side of the road. He lives at the margins of his society. People find him easy to ignore. He cries out for mercy – a term meaning loving kindness, grace. He is not arguing that he is owed something. His life is difficult. He hopes Jesus will touch him with some kindness, compassion, love. He is crying out for it. Jesus does not disappoint. “What do you want me to do for you?” “Let me see again.” “Go, your faith has made you well.” A gift is accepted in trust – faith. It heals, grace working through faith. Bartimaeus follows Jesus.
That kind of grace is at the heart of Christian faith and life. God’s love you. The party wouldn’t be complete without you. Can you see your life in this way? You are a gift, and it is a gift to be able to see this.
Luther nailed it not only in identifying grace as at the heart of Christian faith, but also in asserting that we have an on-going need for grace. Even as we seek to follow Jesus, we lose our way sometimes. At the end of the Bartimaeus story, we read, “Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.” A happy ending. But if we follow the story in Mark’s gospel, we later read this: “All of them deserted him and fled.” There is even an interesting detail found only in Mark. A certain young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked. This is sheer speculation, but might this be Bartimaeus? Once he threw off his cloak to get to Jesus, and now he casts it aside to get away?
We can lose our way on the journey with Jesus. We can forget some of the lessons of love. We can neglect important spiritual practices that help us develop in faith, hope and love. We have a life-long need of grace. God’s love is always both creative, presenting us opportunities for being loving, caring, compassionate, for creating beauty and goodness and justice, and responsive, meeting us where we are, even if we have lost our way again.
Luther nailed it in starting a reformation that continues to seek to be reforming. Just about fifty years ago, one of the great theologians of the twentieth century, H. Richard Niebuhr, whose brother Reinhold was also one of the great theologians of the twentieth century, H. Richard Niebuhr published an article entitled “Reformation – Continuing Imperative.” In the article he wrote “I still believe reformation is a permanent movement” (The Responsibility of the Church for Society, 143). Luther understood that forms of Christian faith and life can become stultifying, stifling, dead. If that was true in the 1500s, it was true in 1960 when Niebuhr wrote about reformation as a permanent movement, and it is true today. What Niebuhr wrote fifty years ago still makes sense. I do not believe that we can meet in our day the need the church was founded to meet by becoming more orthodox or more liberal, more biblical or more liturgical. I look for a resymbolization of the message and the life of faith in the One God. (144) It is our task as the church in the twenty-first century to find ways to say meaningfully to our day and time what those around Jesus said to Bartimaeus: “Take heart, he is calling you.” That the number of those who claim no religious affiliation is growing in our country says that we have not yet figured out the next wave of Christian reformation.
We stand within the ripples of the Spirit initiated by Martin Luther. The heart of our faith is grace. Our lives are a gift and to see them as such is also a gift. We, too, hear the words spoken to us, “take heart.”
The call of Jesus to us to take heart, the call of God’s love in Jesus Christ, never goes away, no matter how lost we become or how blinded we become. God’s gracious love is a responsive love, responsive to us where we are.
God’s gracious love, responsive and creative, opens us again and again to the new. We need to find new ways to tell the old, old story. We need to find new ways to keep fresh the traditional spiritual disciplines. God’s gracious love is always creating anew. In our lives we are born again and again and again. In our church, we are reformed and always reforming.
Luther nailed it. May our hearts be strangely warmed, and our church be reformed – again and again and again. Amen.

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