October 29, 2017
Reformation500, Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling
I was at a breakfast on Thursday morning for Interfaith Action of St. Paul. (http://interfaithaction.org) It had nothing to do with the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, a welcome distraction in this crazy year, at least for Lutheran church professionals. Interfaith Action is an organization that gathers the power of the faith community to transform the lives of those who have been left behind. Randi Roth, the executive director, told us about a Bremer Foundation study that asked 14 youth who made it out of homelessness what finally engaged them in such a way that they saw a path out of their situation. Every single one gave a similar answer: when they realized that they were truly valued in the eyes of another. In all 14 cases, it was an adult outside their family. “She took me to buy a prom dress. He helped me with my homework. She came to see my school play.” “That’s when I realized that I was worth something, and I shouldn’t be homeless.”
John would say, “You will know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.”
Suddenly, the breakfast was all about reformation. We are loved into a new life. We are valued so deeply and profoundly, we begin to imagine new worlds. No one is judged or criticized or harangued into a new future. Love is the only thing that unlocks the door.
The traditional Lutheran way of saying that is, “Grace alone. Faith Alone. Word Alone.”
In Sunday school, we sing it. “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
We live in a culture that says we really ought come up with this for ourselves. Believe in yourself. Love yourself. Have respect for yourself. And that’s a great message, except none of us are very good at doing it. The voices in our head or the messages from society that tell us that we’re wrong are too loud.
I had a friend in Atlanta who went to a church called, “The Self-Help Church.” He was an enthusiastic disciple. He had notes on his mirror that said, “I am precious.” “I’ll do better today.” “I’ll be the self I know I can be.” He had reminders that appeared on his phone, “Give yourself a compliment.” He tried to get a license plate that said, IMHOT. IT was taken. He worked really, really hard to convince himself that he was good and lovable. The volume of his notes suggested to me that he wasn’t doing that well. I found myself thinking, “God love him.” I didn’t mean that in some pejorative way, but as a friend that wanted him to know that he didn’t have to work so hard. He was loved, not because he was kind and good, precious or hot, but because he had been created in the image of God.
This was the core of Martin Luther’s struggle, too. If anyone should have felt okay about God’s love, it should have been him. He became a monk. He threw himself into the discipline of daily prayer and academic life. He studied the Scriptures day and night. He went to confession, careful to list every possible sin. He took a whip into his cell at night and beat his back so that he could suffer with Christ. He fasted. But he kept coming away from it all believing that it wasn’t enough. God was angry. The God that he knew was always angry. Always demanding more.
The story goes that he was studying scripture when suddenly he had an insight from the book of Romans that we are justified by faith, by trusting God, not by doing good or holy works. Supposedly, it happened while he was sitting on the toilet. Suddenly, it all broke free for him. God wasn’t a demanding judge. God was loving, forgiving, graceful. It was a voice outside himself, the voice of Christ, telling him, “You are my beloved.”
And the truth set him free.
There’s one problem. His insight probably didn’t come like that. Part of the work of this 500th year has been sorting out the man from the myth. Many of our favorite stories didn’t get told until years later. Most believe now that Luther’s transformation was a much more gradual process that relied on thinkers from the past and people around him, who reminded him over and over again that God was more gracious than angry. His confessor, Johann Staupitz, who listened to Luther confess once for six hours, recommended that he focus on the means of grace and salvation by the faith of Christ. The Word of God, incarnation of love, came by way of a community of people who loved him into freedom, who saw him in a way that he couldn’t yet see.
I rather like that interpretation because I wonder if that’s not a clue for the future of the Reformation. We are not a people defined by grand moments, announcing to the world that 500 years ago, we nailed it. We are not a people even that can point to our own grand, defining moments, when we, by our own reason or strength, made a decision to follow. We are not a people who chose Jesus to be our personal Lord and Savior. He chose us. We are a people who convinced that we need something outside ourselves to survive. We need the love of Christ. We are a people that in the face of hatred, and judgment, and despair, or division are convinced that love is the only way out.
Reformers say to the homeless kid, “You have value.” Reformers say to the neighbor, “I’m here for you.” Reformers are convinced that the sign of the cross is more determinative than a diagnosis or a bank account or a flag. Reformers stand in the street to say, “Black lives matter, too.” or we write on our posts, #metoo. Reformers stuff a backpack with food for a hungry kid. Reformers look on the opposite side of the political divide to say, “Christ makes us siblings, not enemies.” Reformers know that when it comes to our dying day, we are all beggars, all beholden to God’s grace.
What that homeless kid needs is what we all need: someone who values us. We need an outside Word, the Truth from the Universe, the Christ: dying, rising, setting us free.
I guess our work for the next 500 years is to continue to trust that THIS is most certainly true.