Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, October 31st 1517. I first saw that door on October 5th 2012. I came up to it at night, and it does have that shrine feeling to it. A silence came over me, a tear welled up: this was place, you might say, where it all began! [pause]
Actually it had begun long before, but this is a monumental scene and today we mark and commemorate this pivotal moment in our church’s history. The action of nailing up the 95 theses was only at the beginning of Martin Luther’s brave and theologically grounded public, political protests. He was only 34 years old! Standing up to the immense and dangerous powers of his day. (Ooh, I wonder what Luther would say to the powers of our day…I’m sure he’d be railing against all those who oppressed the poor and the marginalized…some even doing it from behind the thin veneer of religious piety, religious — discussion for later ;)
And Luther stood up — why? — for personal fame and fortune? To be a big hero in history? For his own glory? No, Luther stood up, spoke, and acted because his conscience was bound, He was compelled by the word of God, by these words that we read again today from Romans and John — “for we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law”…“So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”
Luther was freed by grace. And so are we.
500 years later (exactly 500 these days!), we Lutherans — even we Lutherans — can operate like we’re still bound by the letter of the law. But friends in Christ, we are freed by grace.
We go and share and stand up, and speak out and protest publicly, and serve our neighbors and the poor, and love our enemies, and take care of our own bodies and our own planet, not because we have to or because we’re supposed to, not because we’re bound by some law to do those things...but because we can’t help ourselves. This is what grace frees us to do! AMEN?!
This week I had the pleasure of hearing again from one of our premier Luther scholars in the ELCA, the Rev. Dr. Bishop Guy Erwin, who talked about the Continuing Reformation. One of the pillars of the Protestant Reformation is that it’s ongoing. Semper Reformanda. Always Reforming. And as he reflected on this ongoing reformation and what the church looks like as we move now into the next 500 years, Bp. Erwin suggested that we be a church that’s bound-at-the-center, not bound-at-the-edges.
I loved it! It reminded me of our own dearly departed Lois Hellberg who talked about church as a herd of good cattle, congregating around good water. We are bound by what we come to the center to receive, not by strict boundaries at the margins. The edges are fluid and permeable. God’s people are held together — not by a high wall or a rigid fence that defines and divides us from/apart from/even above the rest of the sorry world. No, our gates are open. God’s people are held together instead by what’s at the center: the cross, the font, the Holy Book, the healing oil, this welcome table of grace…
Bishop Erwin was suggesting that much of the past 500 years (not all, but much), has been about binding/defining ourselves as church at the edges — who’s in and who’s out. What if our re-formation continues by God binding us at the center, God leading us, freeing us, God gathering us around good water.
How does the farmer get the livestock to stay together? By building bigger walls, stricter fences, or by offering better water? Grace frees us to tear down the walls that divide us from the world. The truth makes us — locked up and set apart? — no, the truth makes us free indeed. Luther was freed by grace. And so are we.
So how do we open up our walls, our borders, our fences and gates even more? Here in this place? How do we interact with neighbors and strangers, with the world...arms wide open?
|Sunday School art from today -- |
"Luther's Seal" (by Micah)
People are free to sit down, and — get this — by grace we are free to get up and leave! There’s nothing keeping you here. It breaks my heart when I get a sense that people are serving and participating in congregations because of some holy obligation. Lutherans would never admit to “holy obligation” in those words...but sometimes, I know our actions prove otherwise, and we can still bind ourselves by the law.
Hear these words again, friends in Christ:
We are justified by faith, apart from our works, free from holy obligations, prescribed by the law. This is most certainly true.
The Mighty Fortress doesn’t mean a high wall of rules and regulations about who’s in and who’s out. The Mighty Fortress is our God, and our God is everywhere (!) — both in here and out there! Our God is saving grace, boundless love, peace, joy and forgiveness — not just for you and me, but — for this whole world! It’s easy to mis-imagine the mighty fortress, as our church fences, our ecclesiastical borders. But this new day, this new 500 years that are now before us, this new day calls us to open our borders and re-focus on the center: the Meal, the oil of healing and forgiveness, the waters of baptism, and the cross (i.e. God suffering with us in our suffering).
The Reformation continues. I’ve always thought that when the church suffers, we suffer from a lack of imagination and we suffer from our slavery to fear. But God is with us in that and Romans and John, call us back to the liberated imaginations that God has given and intended for us. Romans and John call us back from fear to freedom — freedom from worrying about what might happen if we fling wide open our doors and windows, freedom to let the Spirit move in our midst without our permission, freedom to let change unfold all around us as we stay centered and held together at this well of welcome.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, we are freed by grace, and so we go, into the next 500 years, as God’s church, to love and serve the world, to love our enemies, to welcome the outcast, feed the sick, clothe the naked, accompany the poor, and care for our own bodies and the broken body of our earth. We are freed by grace, we can’t help ourselves, thanks be to God through Jesus Christ. AMEN.