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October 30, 2005 (Reformation Sunday)
Intern Pastor Joshua Graber
I think when I was a kid, I loved candy more than anything else in the world. And my favorite candies were, and still are, gummy bears. I loved the sweetness, the consistency, and the many bright colors of this candy... and that there were so many in every pack. I even remember having a dream about gummy bears once. In this dream my backyard had become some type of laboratory for gummy bear development and it was full of examples of cutting edge gummy bear technology. I remember there being scientists in white lab coats that were apparently experts in gummy bear research showing me their two prized projects: one, a giant gummy bear bigger than I was; the other, a regular sized gummy bear that had all the flavor of the larger concentrated in one euphoric bite-full of experience. Then I remember I was told I could only try one of the samples, and I remember in my dream I stood there frozen unable to decide which one I wanted more.
As a kid, as you can imagine, I loved Halloween! Because Halloween was about abundance, and the greatest commodity in abundance was of course, candy!!! No more did I need to wait until pay day for my dad to buy me a candy bar. No more did I need to conceal my secret sweets intake from my mother.
Suddenly on this one night, I could come home from trick or treating and empty my bag out right in the middle of the kitchen table and see the bounty of colorfully dressed sugars and chocolates. And they were all mine! And no one seemed to care that I might eat all of them in that one night. Suddenly the only choice I had to deal with was where did I want to start.
I'm sure we all have fond memories of Halloween and that we still enjoy this holiday of abundance. And who wouldn't? But with all that candy around, why should anyone remember that tomorrow is also Reformation Day? And how can our remembrance of the "Reformation" possibly compete with such a luscious holiday as Halloween!
You kind of start to wish Luther didn't quite finish his 95 Theses on October 31st, 1517. You kind of wish he would have fallen asleep around Thesis 74 for 85, or remembered he needed to wash his alb for worship, or something that would have kept him from pinning it up on a day when the Reformation would forever have to compete with CANDY.
But the thing is--when you think about it--while Halloween and Reformation Day seem to share the date of October 31st with all the awkwardness of a blind date gone terribly wrong--The theology that came out of the reformation was actually a lot like candy for the people of Luther's time, and it can be for us as well.
We get confused and start to think theology is about books and boring lectures and sermons and that the Reformation is ridiculously uninteresting in our time and culture. But when we explore what the reformation is actually about, I think we will see it is a lot more like Halloween than we think, and the gifts that came from the theology of the Reformation are just as sweet as our favorite candies.
And with this in mind, we can be glad that Luther didn't put off pinning up those 95 Theses. Luther couldn't wait. The church he was a part of, the Roman Catholic Church, was the only church around in European society in his time, and because of this, the church had a monopoly on salvation. But like corporate monopolies today, it had become used to abusing its power at the cost of its "consumers."
Martin Luther is said to have discovered the gift of the gospel shining into this dark time; an experience that began to expose the abuses of the church and its neglect in telling the true story of a God of Love. In what is known as Luther's Tower Experience, one piece of Scripture changed his life and the world, forever. He found the absolute gift of God's Grace clearly stated in Ephesians 2: 8 "By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your doing; it is the gift of God--not the result of works."
Most of you know the story of Luther pretty well, but what can become reduced to dates and events is actually a story of one person's response to the world around him once a God of love is discovered. That is what drove Luther, not fame, not justice, but the love he knew in the gift of Jesus Christ.
Christ's love for us becoming central changed the way Luther interacted with the church he was a part of, and there was no going back. Luther had seen the damage church practices had on the people in his parishes, like the selling of indulgences in exchange for salvation and escape from purgatory. And in the 95 Thesis he announced he was ready to debate this issue with others in the Church.
He probably did not expect that this debate would lead him to take on the entire church and the worldly powers of Europe. But with Luther, the world found out it's not the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of fight in the dog. And Luther--once he had discovered the gospel--could not control the passion to share this good news with everyone. By putting Jesus Christ and the gifts of the cross first and at the center of his theology, Luther rejoiced in the realization that with a God of Mercy there was enough grace for everyone! The candy was not to be rationed! Luther found out that, in our relationship with God, everyday was supposed to be Halloween! And the good news of this rediscovered gospel could not be silenced.
But this was not the picture of God that was being taught in the Catholic Church at the time. At the time the church made a practice of scaring people into having faith, using fear of God as a way to control the masses and raise money to support the lavish lifestyles of its leaders. When Luther began proclaiming the gospel, it was crippling to this corrupt Catholic system. And it created a theological revolution that could not be stopped and continues today.
And for all of us poor sinners who hear the good news that we have access to God's mercy, directly and absolutely and abundantly, it is better than Halloween Candy! Now we know whenever we approach God, like a trick or treater approaches a door, we know that no matter what we've done, no matter how shameful we feel about ourselves, we know we will receive Mercy. We know we will meet grace in the face of Jesus Christ.
In our gospel lesson for today Jesus speaks about the religious leaders of his time, saying, "Do not do as they do for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them..They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues"(Matthew 23:3b-4,6).
This description could easily be used to describe the behaviors of the authorities of Catholicism at the time of Luther. They were refusing to dole out the candy, that they had been entrusted with, to all who knocked on the door. Instead the church added to the burdens of the people, and held their sin over their heads, refusing to lift the burden of guilt from the oppressed.
It was these heavy burdens that particularly called Luther to action. Knowing our relationship with God should be based on trust not fear, he could not allow these burdens and the idea of a oppressive God to continue to be put on the shoulders of the common believer. In many ways his reformation against the church authorities was secondary to the real reformation, which came in simply educating the people about the true nature of God found in Scripture and letting all people know this God cares about them and is present in their lives. Luther was like a candy distributor on Halloween: Delivering the good news and helping all people to discover this God for themselves. He gave the theological treats they could carry with them wherever they went in the world.
The results of Luther's candy distribution, included
If you can imagine how that would feel to have the gifts of Christ alive and a part of your lives after generations of fearing God's damnation as the primary source of your faith, you would understand the sweetness of this gift, and how the gospel continues to be the greatest treat we can receive, on Halloween and everyday!
Luther found a secret stash of the good news that the church had failed to distribute for centuries and he responded by making up for lost time and we can continue in that tradition today.
Reformation Day is not just about remembering history, it is a celebration that we need not be scared of God anymore. We can put away our tricks and enjoy the treats of the grace we are given through Jesus Christ.
God loves us, and Jesus is the greatest gift we could ever hope for--A gift that becomes a part of our lives, our living breathing relationship with a loving God. A gift that is meant to be shared and received as abundantly as candy on Halloween.
So for all you sinner/saints, for all you members of the priesthood of all believers! Happy Halloween! Happy Reformation Day! Hallelujah!
Copyright © 2005 Joshua Graber
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