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October 29, 2006 (Reformation Sunday)
Interim Pastor Steven Jensen
Non-Lutherans will occasionally ask me why, of all the faith expressions, I choose to be Lutheran. Following “Uncle Martin’s” sense of humor, I sometimes respond that Luther said we should sin boldly, and it’s the thing I do the best.
As a Lutheran pastor, some of the unspoken expectations for today are that we celebrate Reformation Sunday, talk about Martin Luther, and focus on Luther’s doctrine of justification, namely: “We are justified by grace through faith.”
Those who at least can identify Martin Luther as a German monk, pastor and theologian-and not confuse him with Martin Luther King, Jr.-seem to know mostly of his posting of the Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the castle church, of his challenges of the teachings of the Roman Catholic church in the 1500s, or of his ribald and often ranting “Table Talk.”
Many are not aware of Luther the man, Luther the child of God, whose spiritual journey was one of torment and darkness and anger for so many years. Listen to his own account of that struggle:
...I hated that word “righteousness of God,” which, according to the use and custom of all the teachers, I had been taught to understand philosophically regarding the formal or active righteousness, as they call it, with which God is righteous and punishes the unrighteous sinner.
Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God, and said, “As if, indeed, it is not enough, that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the Decalogue, without having God add pain to pain by the gospel and also by the gospel threatening us with his righteousness and wrath!”
Not a very romantic or holy portrait of our esteemed leader, is it? What a dark, joyless, hopeless life that must have been for him. He certainly wasn’t alone in frustration over never being able to be good enough, never being able to control his thoughts and his actions-or his tongue.
Paul, you will recall in Romans 7:19 bemoans, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”
Seneca says, “Show me anyone who is not a slave. One is a slave to lust, another to avarice, a third to ambition; all alike to fear.”
A favorite German author, Goethe, adds: “No one is more of a slave than he who thinks himself free without being so.”
Browning poetically talks of “sin which steals back softly on a soul half saved.”
Schiller, in verse proclaims “This is the very curse of evil deed, that of fresh evil it becomes the seed.”
Break free from your sin, if you can. Try it, and you will see how free you are; rather how mercifully bound and shackled. The more often one surrenders to a failing, the more difficult it becomes to do anything else.
I told you before of my dad’s struggle with alcoholism and the numerous times he promised us and himself and God that he would stop drinking, only to fail each and every time. What a toll that takes on a person and their soul, to keep trying to believe that we have the power within ourselves to change and live perfect lives.
Luther was quite familiar with John’s gospel for today. He heard the words of Jesus: “Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” But Jesus adds, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
It apparently did not compute for Luther at that time that Jesus’ coming radically changed our relationship with God, that his dying paid the price for our sin, and that his rising gave us hope of everlasting life.
It seemed that it was only after the lights came on in his belfry, as this Pauline scholar reread Romans 5, that he was able to comprehend the true meaning of the Messiah. “Therefore, since we are justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand.”
How his life changed when he was able to grasp the import of this message! That is how he gets the courage to sin boldly, trusting that we are called to be faithful, not successful. That is how he could do good works, not to earn salvation, but to celebrate it. He could happily embrace II Corinthians 3:17: “Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”
What was that life change like for him? One pastor decades ago likened it to an experience he had in Jamaica. “When at long last the day of their emancipation was breaking, the slaves in Jamaica, who had climbed to the summits of the highest hills that they might miss no moment of it, no sooner saw the sun’s rim rise above the horizon than they laughed, and wept, and sang, and danced, and threw their arms about each others’ necks, and fell upon their knees in prayer. But all alike kept crying in a kind of dazed and happy ecstasy, ‘Free! Free! Free!’”
In Origen’s “Against Celsus III,” we read of their opposite understandings of Jesus the Christ. Celsus jeered and gibed at Christ, declaring scornfully that this was the strangest of teachers; for while all others cry, “Come to me, you who are clean and worthy,” this singular Master calls, “Come to me, you who are down and beaten by life”; and so, being taken at his word by these impossible people, he is followed about by the rag tag and bobtailed of humanity trailing behind him. Origen answered devastatingly, “Yes, but he does not leave them the rag tag and bobtail of humanity; but out of material you would have thrown away as useless, he fashions men, giving them back their self-respect, enabling them to stand up on their feet and look God in the eyes. They were cowed, cringing, broken things. But the Son has made them free.”
It is important, I think, to recognize that we are not the only ones who suffer when we let sin and the Tempter take hold of us and the impact on others can adverse effect them and their understanding of God as well.
Jimmy was 8 when he was raped in a public restroom by a stranger. He was so fearful of others from that day that he became uncontrollable even with his family and had to be institutionalized in the orphanage where I was a house parent. I learned much later that Jimmy believed the man who told him it was his fault, that his looks and personality had enticed him-and so Jimmy hated himself.
This was a Lutheran home for children, so there were regular prayer and Bible stories, worship and Sunday school. Week after week we tried to create a Christian home for them. Week after week we attempted to explain at their level that no matter their circumstance, they were loved and forgiven and watched over by God.
It was my habit Sunday mornings to sit on the couch in the family room surrounded by their bedrooms and watch cartoons with the children as they woke up. They would straggle out of their rooms and lie on the floor, lean next to me on the couch, or sit on my lap. At least at that time of day, they seemed to feel comfortable with each other and with me in that special family intimacy.
Jimmy’s room was directly adjacent to the TV, and I would regularly notice him peek around the door jam and watch the others intently as they snuggled with me. Those eyes were haunting and it broke my heart to see him hold back and stay to himself. But I would smile at him and welcome him to another day that God had made.
One morning I was paying attention to the housemother braiding a girl’s hair while teaching another how to do it. The children readjusted themselves as they often did, and I felt one child replace another in my lap.
It wasn’t until a little hand came up and pulled my head to look down that I noticed it was Jimmy. He smiled and whispered, “I love you, Mr. Steve,” and leaned back in contentment to watch TV like any other member of our little family. I was unsuccessful in holding back the tears as the housemother raised her eyebrows in recognition of Jimmy’s hard fought victory.
Jimmy had heard the message of God’s love and ours for a couple of years. When that little heart decided he no longer wanted to live without it and it was worth trusting that he, too, was a child of the God of love, a life was transformed. He later told me he believed even he could be forgiven and that he wanted God to control his life, not his abuser.
Today Jimmy is married with children of his own and a supporter of the home for children. He continues to have his challenges, but he doesn’t face them alone. He is aware of the power of grace.
Each of the ohana gatherings I attend are truly spiritual events for me. For you trust me and each other with the struggles and joys of your hearts, and you tell of the intimate relationship you have with the God of love through worship and Eucharist and fellowship with brothers and sisters in Christ. You tell of the message received in your very soul that you are OK with God, that you are loved just as you are, that your purpose for existing is revealed a bit more each week, that you do not have to confront life’s challenges alone. In such exchanges you preach to me of the love of God and lift and excite my soul.
I pray that we spiritual descendents of the Great Reformer will so appreciate what it means to be justified by grace through faith, that we will be moved and empowered to invite others to live in the freedom of God’s love as well.
Copyright © 2006 Steven Jensen
Comments welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org