Message for Reformation, Year C (10/30/2022)
Is everybody ready? Then show me what you’ve got:
Hey, hey, whaddya say? Luther won’t recant today!
Go Martin, hey, hey, go Martin!
When I say, “Book of,” you say, “Concord”! Book of…
Gimme a G! G!
Gimme an R! R!
Gimme an A! A!
Gimme a C! C!
Gimme an E! E!
What’s that spell? Grace!
Yes! Great job, everyone. We nailed it.
It’s a longstanding and beloved custom in our tradition to set aside October 31st, or the nearest Sunday, as a festival of the Reformation, marking the date in 1517 when, according to legend, Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 Theses, or points of debate, to the castle church door in Wittenberg. His courage to confront the religious establishment of his day sparked a movement that would change the faith forever. And, since Reformation is a celebration of our particular theological heritage – one that did not develop without significant controversy and struggle – we might be tempted to turn this festival into Lutheran Spirit Sunday, a kind of religious pep rally complete with a mascot, a fight song – “A mighty fortress is our God” – and, of course, the home team clad in all red.
Go Big Red! Go Big Red! Go Big Red!
It’s gratifying to be part of something bigger than yourself, to lay claim to an important chapter in history and cheer the accomplishments of your tradition’s heroes. If there’s ever a day to be proud to be a humble Lutheran, Reformation Sunday is it, right?
If that doesn’t sit quite right with you, then you’re on to something. Reformation is certainly a reason to celebrate, but not by showering Martin Luther and his contemporaries with praise, while ignoring their flaws. Reformation is a reason to celebrate, but not by looking down our noses at the Roman Catholic Church or any other religious tradition. Reformation is a reason to celebrate, but not by concluding that Lutherans have already learned everything we need to learn, and stood for everything we need to stand for. It’s not a day for unreserved and uncritical loyalty and self-congratulation.
But, if Reformation isn’t Lutheran Spirit Sunday, then what exactly are we celebrating? Let me insist that Reformation is an occasion to reflect on just that – the re-formation of the church in Luther’s day, yes, and in every age. The events of 16th-century Europe were remarkable, but they were a chapter in the ongoing story of God and God’s beloved people, not the end. No, the Spirit, like a potter, is always shaping and reshaping this lump of clay, the communion of saints, into something beautiful, both for our sake and that we might be a blessing to the world God so loves. Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda – the reformed church is always being reformed. Now that’s a reason to celebrate!
What’s more, that’s a reason to trust that God still has a word to proclaim to us. “You will know the truth,” Jesus promises his followers in our Gospel from John today, “and the truth will make you free.” But, to borrow the words of none other than Pontius Pilate, “What is truth?” I wonder if we’ve sometimes gotten stuck in the past, if we’ve settled for the truths of our forebears, because we’ve been reluctant to ask that same question in our time. What is the truth of the gospel in 21st-century America? How is the Son, full of grace and truth, making us free today?
We could ask similar questions of the other texts assigned for Reformation Sunday. From Jeremiah: What law is God writing on our hearts these days? What is most central, most vital to our lives of faith? From Psalm 46: How is God “a very present help” in these troubling times? “The nations rage, and the kingdoms shake,” to be sure, but how is God at work to “make war to cease in all the world,” and what is our part in that peacemaking? From Romans: How is God’s grace a gift to us who may no longer be preoccupied with judgment and condemnation, but rather meaning and purpose? How can faith in a gracious God ground and guide us “at the present time”?
We return to the word of God week after week because we trust the truths we find there to be timeless. But, on Reformation Sunday, we’re reminded that God’s truths are also timely. “The word of God is living and active,” after all, so we expect it to leap off the page to live in us and act upon us – to reform us – here and now.
These days, there’s a great deal of uncertainty swirling around Christian communities. Religious institutions of all kinds, like other voluntary associations, are in a time of steady decline in the global North and West. Since a smaller and smaller percentage of people affiliate with any religious tradition, let alone a particular congregation, churches can no longer assume that we’ll grow, or even remain stable over time, no matter how welcoming our people or how vibrant our ministries.
Peace Lutheran Church Council met this summer to celebrate their leadership over these last stressful years, but also to take a bird’s eye view of American Christianity in order to discern our congregation’s place in it. Facing the fact of institutional decline, we discussed how we might yet be called to live as people of God on 3rd and Pioneer in downtown Puyallup. One leader reflected on the present state of affairs in a way that has stayed with me. Let me paraphrase what she said: Next year, we’ll celebrate our 125th anniversary as a congregation. Given the current trends, the truth is that we may not celebrate our 225th. But, that truth gives us the freedom to be bolder and more creative in ministry without fretting about our survival; to take more risks for the sake of our neighbors; to live by faith, not fear.
I think Martin Luther and the reformers would agree.
Friends, how do you imagine that the great Potter might be at work to reshape the people of God this Reformation and in the time to come? What beautiful thing will the Spirit create, and for what beautiful purpose? And, how will you be a part of that thing that is so much bigger than yourself, and yet cannot come to be without you?
 David Lose, Making Sense of Scripture: Big Questions About the Book of Faith, 155.
 Hebrews 4:12.
 Ellen Aronson.
Liturgy © 2022 Augsburg Fortress. All rights reserved. Used by permission under OneLicense # A-706920.
“A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”; text: Martin Luther, 1483-1546; tr. Lutheran Book of Worship; music: Martin Luther, 1483-1546; text © 1978 Lutheran Book of Worship, admin. Augsburg Fortress. All rights reserved. Used by permission under OneLicense # A-706920.
“The Church of Christ, in Every Age”; text: Fred Pratt Green, 1903-2000; music: William Knapp, 1698-1768; text © 1971 Hope Publishing Company. All rights reserved. Used by permission under OneLicense # A-706920.
“Founded on Faith” Text and music © 2017 Paul D. Weber, admin. Augsburg Fortress, admin. Augsburg Fortress. All rights reserved. Used by permission under OneLicense # A-706920.