Sermon for Reformation Sunday (Lectionary 30A)
Sunday, October 25, 2020
Trinity Lutheran Church, Worcester, Massachusetts
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
The question that inspired the Reformation, was the question on Martin Luther’s mind, that was both simple and profound: “Have I done enough to appease/to turn away God’s wrath?” That was the question Martin Luther wrestled with as an earnest young monk – whether he had done enough to earn God’s love and escape God’s punishment.
How Martin Luther’s context shaped his theology and teaching is always important for us to remember. Life was not easy in 16th century Germany. While we are experiencing a pandemic today that may or may not have claimed the life of someone you know, in Luther’s day plagues and war and the harshness of life forced people to live with the reality of untimely and early death all the time (Martin & Katie Luther, for example, saw two of their own newborn children die before their very eyes). Life was hard, so it wasn’t difficult to believe in a harsh, demanding, and punishing God.
The breakthrough for Martin Luther that fueled the Reformation, were scriptures proclaiming God’s love revealed in Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ, Martin Luther was led away from a belief in God that desired to punish sinners, and instead into faith in a God ready to live with, and die for, God’s own children. Received through faith, meaning trusting that this was so, Luther escaped the view of a punishing God, and was invited into life with a loving, forgiving, reconciling, redeeming, and healing God in the person of Jesus Christ.
Even today, some belief in a wrathful God ready to punish. Just a couple weeks ago, in a conversation with a friend, he said if he set foot in a church he was sure the church would come crumbling down. Perhaps you’ve heard the same thing from people in your life? Unfortunately, that’s the modern day example of Martin Luther’s initial fear of a punishing God – that the purpose of God is to be some heavenly referee, ready to blow a whistle, throw a penalty flag, and administer punishment.
We see this fear of a vengeful God in a variety of ways. Some wonder whether the coronavirus is judgment sent by God to punish us? Frequently in response to hurricanes, earthquakes, or other natural disasters people wonder if the disasters are punishment sent by God. In personal tragedies – illness, job loss, death in a family – again it’s not uncommon for people to question whether the personal pain is some sort of punishment for a known, or unknown, sin committed in their life.
As Lutherans, guided by the Reformation teachings of Martin Luther, we would say if there was any need for punishment for sin including the punishment of death, then Jesus Christ on the cross took upon himself the punishment and death. By taking all human sin upon himself on the cross, Jesus Christ reveals God’s willingness to forgive, to reconcile, to restore humanity with God. The revelation of Jesus Christ reveals that God is not waiting to punish us, but that God has already forgiven us, reconciled us, and called us into life!
Brothers and sisters in Christ, it is for this reason, that on this commemoration of the Reformation in the year of our Lord 2020 …I am not afraid of a wrathful God ready to smite us.Because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, I cannot believe in a vengeful God of punishment ready to crush sinners.
Rather, I confess to you my brothers and sisters, I am more afraid of human wrath. Living as an American in the United States today, I am afraid of the wrath and violence so present in our society, boiling just beneath the surface, bubbling up in disturbing ways, and erupting in deadly explosions:
- You don’t have to look very far on social media, the internet, or televisions shows, to see human wrath and violence flowing in all directions – I’m not talking about one party or another, but people across the political spectrum, across ideologies and persuasions, adding to deadly cross currents of violence and wrath ripping apart the fabric of society.
- With an election just days away, a sobering number of people fear not only a contested election, but the likelihood of violence as a result. This coming just weeks after a plot was discovered to kidnap and murder the governor of Michigan!
- We have come through months of attention to the reality of wrath focused upon black and brown bodies killed at higher rates by law enforcement officers than white bodies … of black and brown bodies dying at higher rates from Covid than white bodies … of black and brown bodies experiencing poverty and hunger at higher rates that white bodies … all of this caused by wrath and violence of racial hierarchy and racial supremacy.
- Do you know that before the pandemic, a friend told me his friends back in Hong Kong, as they considered moving out of that city because of the harsher measures by Beijing, were deciding not to come to the United States because they didn’t want their children killed in a school shooting.
No, I’m not afraid of God’s wrath. I’m afraid of human wrath – of our addiction to violence; of our love of guns; that we have made politics a blood sport; that we cast suspicions on one another and dismiss the real pain in each other’s lives; that we are systematically doing untold violence upon our planet and atmosphere that will affect human life for generations.
Steeped in Reformation theology – I cannot see this human violence as a reflection of a violent and wrathful God. Instead the wrath that threatens to devour us arises from our sin and brokenness. This wrath and violence not a reflection of God, but a reflection of the ways we have turned from God, and away from God’s word.
In today’s Gospel reading, the Word of God, Jesus Christ, was asked what was the greatest commandment. Jesus responded that love was the greatest commandment. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40).
Jesus, and God’s Law, and the prophets – all call us to love! In our First Reading, from Leviticus this morning (Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18), we heard the specific ways God calls us to love one another:
- We are called to just judgement and justice of our neighbor
- To refuse to profit by the blood of a neighbor
- To remove hate and vengeance and grudges from our hearts
- (in the verses omitted from our reading) leaving part of the harvest for the poor, respecting the neighbor’s property, paying workers in a timely fashion, not taking vengeance or bearing a grudge.
But again the problem. It’s not that we don’t know we are supposed to love one another. We know that. It just seems so increasingly difficult and impossible to do so.
Last week I called a friend to catch up.
My friend was diagnosed with blood cancer several years ago which forced him onto disability leave and finally to an early retirement. While he was blessed to survive the blood cancer, he has suffered a series of ongoing side effects from the disease including a loss of energy and diminished eye sight.
As we were talking about his condition, and the reality of the world we live in, I asked him where he found his hope. He replied without hesitation, that he found his hope in the knowledge and awareness that he is loved. This was actually remarkable to hear, because for much of his life he struggled with accepting love, he wondered if anyone would ever love him.
In the face of human wrath, isn’t this where finally we find our hope today? Our hope is found in the same place Martin Luther found his hope which lead to the Reformation: God’s love for us, and for the world, announced in Jesus Christ.
That as a first action, while we are still mired in our sin and shame, God first pours out upon us the healing balm of God’s love in Jesus Christ. And, recognizing that we are loved by God as a complete gift of grace, so too do we recognize others, those we would consider our enemies, are also love and forgiven by God as a complete gift of grace! Isn’t our hope found in the reality, that both we and our enemies are loved by the same grace, forgiveness and mercy of God?
In the end, Martin Luther had it wrong about God’s wrath. God wasn’t a vengeful, wrathful, punishing God after all. In Jesus Christ, God was revealed as a God of healing and salvation. What if our hope today is found in the recognition that we have it wrong about each other?
Instead of seeing each other see as violent enemies ready to do us harm whom we have to defeat/renounce/reject …What if instead, alive in Christ, we recognized each other as fellow broken sinners loved and forgiven by God? What if we took seriously that our neighbors, those whom perhaps we disagree with the most, and whom we cannot stand, are also God’s beloved children worthy of the forgiveness of God, to whom we are called to welcome/receive/and respect?
Today, along with Martin Luther, we are called to find our hope in the Messiah, Jesus Christ, and God’s love for the world announced in Christ. In Jesus Christ, we experience a savior who gave himself away for the life of the world, and who fills us with this same sacrificial spirit of life and service. Today we find our hope, and our salvation, in the announcement of the Messiah’s life, death, and resurrection that we are loved, that our neighbors are loved, that our enemies are loved by God.
With Jesus Christ as our salvation and hope, with love leading the way, Jesus Christ calls us out of the cycle of violence. Jesus turns us from our wrath, and leads us to forgiveness, mercy, and love. Our hope today is not that we have this ability ourselves, that we can muster the strength within us to overcome our sin.
Our hope, is that washed in water and word, and fed with bread and cup, the Holy Spirit works power and faith in us, to join us to the life and mind of Christ. United with Christ with all our hearts, with all our souls, and with all our minds through faith, we are formed, and reformed, and reformed again over and over as the church, as the body of Christ in the world, bringing healing, hope, and peace to all.
With this faith and hope, as a people loved, and as a people of love, we then go into the world with good cheer and hope. Knowing who we are, and whose we are as God’s beloved children, we find our hope in love. In Christ’s love first given us, we live in hope as people of justice, and fairness, and mercy, and kindness, and healing.
Indeed may it be so.