Weekly Preaching: Reformation Sunday

October 21st, 2019

At my place, we will mark October 27 as Reformation Sunday. In preaching, we always need to lift our people out of their individualistic spirituality, and on this Sunday we think about God’s Church and its constant need to be re-formed. We are also to be attentive of the way we let ourselves be formed, which, lately, seems eerily to be a mirror image of the political ideologies of our culture. Thinking of Martin Luther (and allowing for the idea that he sparked a division in the church!), we might open the sermon or the service with a loud knock from the back door... although the risks of being corny are immense.

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Our texts are stellar. Joel 2:23-32 opens with God’s pledge that rain will pour down, shattering the drought  and that is but a sign of the even more prolific pouring out of God’s Spirit, God’s ruah, the holy breath, wind, onrushing, transforming presence. When this unfolds, the old will dream dreams, the young will see visions. Earlier in my life, we counted on the youth to dream big dreams. I wonder if some of that is lost. The aged surely have become cynical, crusty, maybe honored among themselves as “realistic.” Church is about dreaming. Preaching induces dreams and visions. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us to dream  not our private fantasies, but to share in God’s dreams, which we know from God’s past activity, from Scripture, and from an attentiveness on our part to what new thing God might be doing. Church reform begins in the dreams of God’s people.

We've seeded this in our congregation, by the way, by asking people to share their dreams for the church via mass text, in small groups, etc., and we have compiled dozens and dozens of answers. Some will find their way into sermon and service. The exercise gets people (hopefully) into a prepared mindset before they even arrive.

It’s a scary message. “The moon will turn to blood!” But change is always scary. The prophetic way is irritating to the status quo and requires much courage. Joan Chittister’s new book, The Time is Now, explains how the prophets “chose courage. They chose the expansion of the soul. They chose to stake their lives on what must be rather than stake their comfort, their security on what was.” Indeed, dreams can be squelched by fear and the drive for security. But as Scott Bader-Saye explains (in Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear), “We fear excessively when we allow the avoidance of evil to trump the pursuit of the good… Our overwhelming fears need, themselves, to be overwhelmed by bigger and better things.”

Joel’s vision is of a new, very different world. The preacher can’t slink back into talk about personal salvation. “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” — but the verb in question, yimmalet, means “will escape,” namely from the Babylonians or the latest military juggernaut scorching the earth and slaughtering the young. Hans Walter Wolff is right: “The pouring out of God’s spirit upon flesh means the establishment of new, vigorous life through God’s unreserved giving of himself to those who, in themselves, are footless and feeble.”

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2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18 is Paul’s poignant, eloquent looking back and also forward as he nears the end of his life, deploying images of a soldier, an athlete, and a laborer completing arduous tasks. His “death” is at hand; the Greek (analusis) literally is “departure,” a little wink toward the resurrection to come! I hear echoes of Luther’s titanic battle for the Word of God in all this.

Then for all of us who labor for the Word, there is a reward (not that we do it for the reward). But one’s coming, and it’s not a pot of gold or a luxury chalet in the Alps. It’s “the crown of righteousness.” Lowly servants, crowned like the orphans in Cider House Rules who were bidden goodnight by Dr. Larch with the words, “Good night you princes of Maine, you kings of New England.” I think of the emotionally riveting scene at the climax to The Return of the King, the crowning of Aragorn, who then comes and bows before the hobbits.

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Luke 18:9-14. If we think back to the Reformation, the one in the 16th century, the rediscovery of mercy, grace, and faith-over-showy works is at the heart of what sets the church back on its feet after stumbling. A vapid carelessness about holiness, the primal staple of church life in our day, is not in the vicinity of mercy, which takes sinning and holiness so very seriously. There is also to be considered human brokenness and our inability to be what we so desperately dream of being for God.

Luke 18:9-14 is one of Jesus’ most profound exposures of human spirituality gone bad. The righteous one not only trusts in himself; in his praying he is really only talking with himself! Very pious, but entirely secular if Charles Taylor’s massive tome’s theme is correct (that the “secular” is whenever we see meaning within the self instead of beyond the self, described in in A Secular Age). Luther’s Reformation project was a response to the theology of the likes of Gabriel Biel (as I remember my professor David Steinmetz explaining so carefully), whose admonition was “Do what is in you.” What is in me, in all of us, is brokenness, a shackling to sin and self, and an inability to do much at all besides scrape out a living and then die alone. The loneliness! Notice the Pharisee is “standing by himself.”

Luther’s own despair, in striving to be holy enough, to be righteous enough, is perhaps well-depicted in the shameless plea of the tax collector who cannot even raise his eyes. Humility is faith; humility is the need and reception of grace; mercy requires nothing but humility. This despairing humility is faith which stands as the answer to so many of our debates about who’s right and who’s wrong in the church, who’s worthy of the church’s blessings and who isn’t.

A cautionary word from historical reality: We need not romanticize Luther's nailing of his 95 theses to the Wittenberg door for two reasons. It's a heroic image, but it was about a grievous division in God's Church, with anti-Catholic (obviously!) overtones. How do we rightly reform without dividing and injuring brothers and sisters in the Body? Secondly, I recently I read Carlos Eire's great book Reformations. He reminds us that Luther's theses were a vicious verbal assault with ferocious accusations and name-calling, which persisted through the supposedly 'holy' Reformation.

What can we say October 27? Reformation Sunday originally appeared at James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.

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