Sunday, October 26
Preached by Vicar Anna C. Haugen
First Evangelical Lutheran Church, Greensburg, PA
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Today is Reformation Sunday. Four hundred and ninety-one years ago this Friday, Martin Luther nailed a list of ninety-five things he thought the church was doing wrong on the church door in Wittenburg, hoping initially only for a theological debate that might reform the church he served. The lessons for today are taken from those texts that were especially valuable to Luther in his realization that the theology of the medieval Roman Catholic church had serious problems in need of reformation. We celebrate this day as a festival of the church to remind ourselves that since the church is made up of humans who have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, it is in constant need of reformation and renewal.
There is a question in the readings today. It stands behind Jeremiah’s vision of the future, and behind Paul’s vision of what Christ has done and is doing in our midst, and behind Jesus’ rebuke of the Jews who had believed in him. The question is this: we are all sinners, so how do we get a right relationship with God?
Israel had been created and formed by God throughout its entire history, and yet by Jeremiah’s day they had strayed so far from the path God taught them that they were destroyed. God was with them in their suffering and promised to rebuild them, but Jeremiah wanted to know what was to keep them from going so far astray a second time? God’s answer was a new covenant, in which God’s commands, God’s words, weren’t just something heard during worship but were so deeply a part of the community of believers that they could never be forgotten or discarded again. Not just the rules and regulations, but knowledge of how to live a happy, healthy, whole life in community with God and with all believers. This new covenant would be given not because they earned it or deserved it, but because they needed it. This gift from God is what would save Israel from another destruction and exile.
Centuries later, the new covenant was created in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul wrote a letter to the church in Rome explaining what that meant not just for Jews but for everyone, Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. No amount of external rules and regulations can keep us safe from sin. Even though we try our hardest to make up for it by following the laws as best we can, we can’t possibly do enough good works to earn our own salvation. The good news of Christ Jesus is that God loves us anyway, and created a new covenant with us to save us. Jesus took the punishment for our sins as his own, and suffered and died so that we would not have to. As baptized children of God, we are tied to his death and resurrection, and through his sacrifice we are given freedom and grace. Christ Jesus and the Holy Spirit live within us and surround us, showing us how to life happy, healthy, whole lives in community with God and with all believers. We have nothing to boast about; it’s not our own actions or beliefs that save us but God’s actions and the faith he gives us.
It’s a wonderful thing, to be saved by God. Unfortunately, we often take that salvation for granted. We have been claimed and saved by God, but we aren’t perfect. The final destruction of sin and death won’t happen until Christ comes again to judge the living and the dead. Until that time, we are caught in between sin and salvation, unable to free ourselves from bondage to sin and yet constantly claimed and forgiven by God, renewed in faith and life. We are, in Luther’s words, both saint and sinner at the same time. Being both saint and sinner is not a comfortable thing to be. We don’t like to think of ourselves as sinners; we prefer to focus on our good deeds, on God’s love for us, and forget the bad things we do. I was participating in a bible study two years ago, when a woman said she didn’t see why we had to start every service with the confession and forgiveness—after all, she wasn’t a sinner, she was a good woman who followed the ten commandments and took care of her family and worked hard, so why should she have to confess anything?
I didn’t quite know what to say. I mean, I know that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, but at the same time I understood where she was coming from. I don’t worship other gods, I don’t take the Lord’s name in vain, I worship on Sundays, I honor my parents, I don’t kill, I don’t commit adultery, I don’t steal, I don’t lie, and I do my best never to covet anything. I’m not perfect, but it sure seems like I’ve got the major stuff covered, right? And there are a lot of people out there, many of them in this church right now, who could say the same thing. It’s so easy to start thinking like the Jews who believed in Jesus in today’s Gospel lesson. “I’m a child of God, who follows the commandments and isn’t a slave to sin. What do you mean ‘you will be made free’? What have I done that needs saving?” And yet, according to Paul, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, including me and everyone else who does their best to obey the commandments. What are we doing wrong?
Let’s start from the beginning. The first commandment says “You shall have no other gods but me.” It sounds easy enough. Who here has ever worshipped, say, Buddha? That’s easy enough to avoid. But considering that today is Reformation Sunday, let’s check out what Luther has to say. In the section on the first commandment in the Large Catechism, Luther asks this question: what does it mean to have a god? Think about it. What does it mean to have a god? Besides the obvious things like coming to church on Sundays, how does believing in God and being a Christian affect you and your daily life? According to Luther, a “god” is what we look to for all good and in which we find refuge in all need. To have a god is … to trust and believe in that one with your whole heart. And that’s the problem, the thing that makes the first commandment so very difficult to follow no matter how good we think we’re being. We may not consciously worship other gods, but it’s very easy to slip into trusting something in this world that we can see and hear and touch more than we trust God.
For me, I know I’m a smart, competent woman. The temptation for me is to put my trust in my own abilities and intelligence, instead of in God. I can think my way out of most problems: figure out what’s wrong, figure out how to fix it, and go out and do what needs to be done. I believe in God, but I also believe I can handle most things. When I need something, when I have a problem, my first instinct isn’t to turn to God for help and guidance, it’s to look for what I can do to fix it. And I never realized how little trust I had in God until I spent last summer working as a chaplain at a mental hospital. You see, the thing about mental illness severe enough to need hospitalization is that you can’t fix it. You can’t think your way through it. Even with the best medication and counseling available to them, the people in that hospital will have to struggle with their illness for the rest of their lives. There was nothing I could do to fix them, or help them fix themselves. Going there ever day, knowing I could do nothing, was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life. It forced me to realize just how much I relied on myself and how little I relied on God. As the summer went on, I had to learn to open myself to the possibility of God working in and through me and in the lives of the staff and patients at that hospital, and put my faith and trust in God instead of in myself. I could not help them. But God could.
Self-reliance is one form of idolatry that Americans are particularly prone to, but not the only one. Look at the political campaigns going on in our country right now. Both sides believe that if they are elected they can fix all the problems in America. Their ultimate trust and faith is in their ideology and political proposals. Or how about money? If there’s one thing that the marked fluctuations and economic problems of the past few weeks have proven, it’s that there are a lot of Americans who put their ultimate faith and trust in the economy instead of in God. To listen to people talk, in our community and in the national news, you would have thought the whole world was coming to an end. What will we do if our investments aren’t worth as much? What will we do if we don’t get a raise this year? What will we do if we don’t have the money to take the vacation we wanted? What will we do if we get laid off? How will we live? As a culture, our love of money and financial security has become the driving force in our lives. Let me be very clear here: being smart, or interested in politics, or having money are not the problem. The problem is when we put more trust in our abilities, politics, and money than we do in God.
The question in today’s lessons is the question for our age as well. I’ve only talked about one of the commandments today, but when you truly look at each of the commandments, at the spirit of the law and not just the letter of it, each one is just as difficult to follow. Paul was right. We are all sinners. We are all slaves to sin. If we can’t even keep the first commandment, how can we possibly make a right relationship with God and our fellow believers?
The answer is simple. We can’t. But God can. We are slaves to sin, but if the son of God makes us free then we are free indeed. God has made a new covenant with us, a new promise, to be our God and make us God’s people. Through Jesus Christ our sins have been forgiven and we have been made whole. Not because we’ve earned it—we haven’t—but because God loves us in spite of our sin and loves us no matter what we do. The God who created us and gave us every good thing in the world, the God we turn away from every day with each sin, loves us enough to die for our sake that we might be saved even though we are still sinners. This is a gift we could never earn, and we cannot pay back. The only thing we can do is rejoice, and open our hearts and minds to the presence of God in us and among us, and allow ourselves to be re-formed in God’s image and in God’s steadfast love.