Reformation 500: A call to practice curiosity

Written for Reformation Day at Emory University +October 26, 2017

Readings: Jeremiah 31:31-34 and John 8:31-36

[A video of this sermon is available here via the Candler School of Theology at Emory]

As we gather today to remember the story of the European Reformation, we have a number of options for a place to begin. Once upon a time an Englishman named John Wycliffe declared that the Bible — not the Pope — was the best source for knowledge of God, and he translated the Bible into the common tongue of his people. Once upon a time a Bohemian named John Huss declared that the people were being exploited by the church through the system of indulgences. Once upon a time a German named Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, and suddenly mass communication was possible — even when the writings were suppressed.

But since we are calling this year the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we should probably begin like this:

Once upon a time, a German monk felt trapped. Trapped, he would say, by his own sin. Trapped, we might diagnose, by his own anxiety and by certain problems with the church of his day. He spent his days in confession and his nights in penance, putting all his energy into justifying himself before God, making himself righteous, and avoiding eternal damnation. He lived in fear, and he almost hated the God he feared so deeply.

Driven by some mix of that anxiety and dedication to his faith and his call to teach, Luther poured over the scriptures. And as he studied and studied, so the story goes, Luther came to a realization: he could not possibly make himself righteous in God’s eyes; but he also didn’t have to. God had chosen to justify Luther — and all those who believed — through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. That was God’s work, not Luther’s, not any human’s. That was God’s gift.

It was there in Romans: “Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith” (Rom. 3:24-25).

It was there in Galatians: “We know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (Gal. 2:16).

It was there in the Gospels: “They who have believed and have been baptized shall be saved” (Mark 16:16).

That great, liberating message was threaded throughout the scriptures (sidebar: yes, it’s in the Old Testament too). But that message was not being heard over the Church’s — or at least some priests’ — emphasis on things like penance, purgatory, hell, and indulgences.

And that was another of Luther’s great epiphanies: it wasn’t Luther who was trapped; the problem was much bigger. Scripture was trapped. The grace of God was trapped. The gospel was trapped. Trapped behind false teachings and abusive, greedy preachers — at least that’s what Luther thought.

Thinking the church would like to see the error of her ways so that she could correct the mistakes and sound the gospel more clearly, Luther nailed 95 theses, 95 arguments, to the door of his church — and soon the Gospel good news was set free over Europe.

One of the Reformation’s central statements of faith is that if people read the scriptures — like Luther read the scriptures — then they cannot possibly miss the truth of God’s will and God’s grace. The law and gospel ring free and clear in those writings and in faithful preaching — and all the false teachings will be swept away by its power. Our annual Reformation Day readings reminds us of that belief:

Today’s reading from the book of Jeremiah seems to promise a clear, direct, and personal understanding of both the will of God and the love of God. “I will put my law within them [says the Lord], and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest…for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”

And we who are Christian confess that Jesus of Nazareth was the fulfillment of that ancient promise, believing that by some holy, graceful mystery, Jesus brings us into that intimate knowledge of God; believing Jesus when he said to his followers: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

We read these passages every year on Reformation Day because they point us back to that core Reformation belief: If we can just read the scriptures and just hear the word of God preached in faithfulness to the teachings of the Bible, then we will know God. Then we will know God’s will and God’s great love and forgiveness.1

And yet — Luther’s story of feeling like the Word of God is trapped or confused by the language of scripture or the teachings of one preacher versus another or by our own internal shame or anxiety — that story is still familiar.

Because we look back on the history of the Reformation and we see that things were not so clear and easy once the scriptures were translated and set free. My Reformation professor liked to call 16th-century Europe “the hermeneutical wild west”2 — because as soon as people felt freed to read and interpret the scriptures themselves, there were as many church factions as there were people with strong opinions. We know the Roman Catholic church did not agree with Luther’s interpretation of the scriptures; Luther struggled with other thinkers within his own Evangelical movement; the Anabaptists popped up quickly with their own, even more radical interpretation, and they were persecuted by Catholics and Lutherans alike. This splintering continues today; I remember hearing from a Candler admissions representative that they received applications to the M.Div. program from a brand-new denomination just about every year.

We look back and see that even with all Martin Luther’s world-changing and soul-changing epiphanies, all his intense study of scripture, Luther’s thoughts were still bound by some of the the more heinous teachings of the Church. Lutherans today are still repenting of his terrible anti-Jewish writings, wondering how this liberator of the gospel could also write something so painfully contrary to the heart of our Jewish savior.

We look around us at the arguments that tear at the unity of the Church today. Arguments about who can be ordained or even allowed in the doors of the church; arguments about who is welcomed to the Communion table; arguments about whether Christian hands are permitted to commit violence or bake a cake for a same-sex couple or join together with people of different faiths for prayer. And each side of each of these arguments can open their Bibles and point and read and defend their position.

We look within ourselves — and this may be the most trying task of all. We struggle with our own doubt and confusion. We struggle to differentiate our own opinions and upbringing from the revelation of God. We feel, embedded with us, messages of shame and guilt and unworthiness — messages that run contrary to God’s love and forgiveness, we know, but still we can’t quite shake them.

So, looking back and looking around and looking within, we recognize that God’s Word is always competing against the other messages written on our hearts and in our communities and in our culture. Messages that cloud and confuse and maybe you, like me, sometimes find yourself praying:

Dear Lord, is it really possible for us to know you? “For now we see in a mirror, dimly,” and some days that mirror is so smudged and foggy that we wonder if we are really seeing you at all or just some combination of other people’s fingerprints and our own reflection (1 Cor. 13:12).

And yet every year we (of certain traditions) gather and look back at this thing called the Reformation. We read these same Bible lessons, promising us that God is writing on our own hearts, that we shall know the truth, and the truth will set us free. And it is a day for us to take a breath and receive anew that great gift of faith: the faith that God is speaking to us even through the debate and the questions and the doubt.

Yes, the Reformation was imperfect. Yes, it — like the Christians that brought it to life — was simultaneously righteous and sinful. It fractured the Western Church, and the factions that splintered off spoke hatred and committed violence against one another. It continued the Church’s horrible history of spewing poisonous words against the Jewish people. (I have noted these things already, but some corporate sins need repeated public confession.)

And yet we can hold all that in hand and still remember how the Reformation did help the gospel ring more clearly again. We put Luther’s face and a big “500” on our church calendars and our children’s coloring books and our coffee mugs because we want to remember and celebrate how the good news of God’s grace seemed to pour out anew over 16th-century Europe. We want to remember and celebrate how so many people heard for the first time that most powerful Word of God given to us, embodied, in Jesus Christ: “For it is by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8). We want to remember how those people, our ancestors in the faith, felt liberated from their paralyzing fear of God’s judgment and liberated for loving God and loving neighbor.

And by remembering that history, we hope for ourselves. We hope with the confidence of that memory; we hope with the confidence of what God has done for our ancestors in the faith. We hope that God will do again for us what God has done over and over throughout history. We hope that the Word of God will pour over us too, that God will write the message more clearly on our hearts and on our communities and on our culture.

So let’s begin telling the story of the Reformation again.

Once upon a time an anxious, imperfect German monk dared to be curious. He dared to question the teachings and traditions that everyone seemed to take for granted. He dared to read the scriptures with fresh eyes and an open heart. He dared to jump into the debates and confusion. He dared to believe that his questions and thoughts were, just maybe, the prompting of the Holy Spirit.

I think that such curiosity is what we need today in order to hear God’s Word more clearly.

Too often we approach confusion about God’s Word with fear. Fear maybe like the young Luther felt: fear of messing up, of doing something wrong, of believing something wrong, and so maybe putting ourselves outside of God’s grace (as if that were possible). And fear can make us freeze and hide, and keep us from sharing the gospel or serving our neighbor. Fear can make us defensive, so we cling tightly to what we believe and refuse to hear other opinions, perhaps missing opportunities to hear a new word from God. Fear is, I think, what is behind today’s shouting matches and Facebook wars and silent glares at Thanksgiving dinners. It’s not a new phenomenon, but, dear Lord, does it feel especially strong right now.

But in the Bible visits from God’s messengers often began with the command, “Do not fear.” Do not fear, but hear what God is saying.

So what if, instead, we approached all that confusion about God’s Word with curiosity? If we let ourselves wonder at different opinions. If we asked to hear about the experiences of our neighbors, if we asked the question, “What’s it like to be you? What do you think and believe?”: in our congregations and in our families; and also of our neighbors on “that side” of town, or living in the Penthouse, or locked up in prison; of our neighbors living around the world. What if we listened, openly and curiously, to those experiences and then returned to the scriptures and to our faith tradition and listened for what the Spirit was saying to us? After all, the assurance of God’s grace sets us free to do such daring things.

I’m going to tell you a story I heard, like, third-hand from Bishop Julian Gordy and then imagine my own ending for it, so I hope that’s okay.

An Ethiopian pastor took his seat on a plane, settling in next to a nice European-American woman who started the customary small talk. When she found out that he was a pastor, she brimmed with excitement about meeting not only an African person, but an African person who was a Christian. Her curiosity was set on fire. She asked him excitedly, “When did your people hear the good news about Jesus?” The pastor responded as politely as possible, “In the first century, madam.”

Imagine what that woman’s ears may have been opened to hear through that conversation. She could hear the story of the Ethiopian eunuch who heard the word of God so clearly that he begged to be baptized, and she might feel a new sense of connection to that ancient character. She could be disconnected from the false story (told far too often in my culture) of a God working through the white people to save the world — and instead reconnected to God’s story of a dark-skinned messiah and a Holy Spirit that spoke in every tongue and to all nations and through all nations. That one moment of curiosity on an airplane could be a like a boulder dropped into a lake, the water rippling out in all sorts of directions.

God is still speaking. God is speaking to us through the scriptures, through our neighbors, through our own hearts. If we are curious to follow the Spirit weaving through all those things, it will help us to join in what God is doing to continue the work of the Reformation in us: to write again and again, more and more clearly, the Word of God on our hearts and in our world. To unleash the power of the Gospel for us today.

Speak to us, Lord: help our world to know you; help those in need to hear your good news and believe; help each of us to trust that your grace has set us free to be curious. Amen.

1. [In his lecture on the question “Did the Reformation Fail?” given October 26, 2017 at Emory University as part of the Reformation Day events, Bishop H. Julian Gordy (Southeastern Synod of the ELCA) noted that Luther believed that the Bible should still be interpreted by and in the church. However, the idea that individuals could read and interpret the scriptures themselves was one of the fruits of the Reformation, and it clearly holds sway in our time. (I always think of the bumper-sticker-like phrase, “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.”)]

2. [Paul C. H. Lim, Vanderbilt Divinity School.]


God Crosses Our Lines

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 23rd Sunday after Pentecost + October 23, 2016

Readings: Jeremiah 14:7-10,19-22; Psalm 84:1-7; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14

I’ve mentioned The Church of Another Chance many times before in sermons here: it is the church my friend Pastor Scott leads in the Davidson County jail system. When I attend worship there, the part of the service that moves me the most and stays with me for weeks and even months afterward is the time of prayer. The group shares the things we are thankful for; we share our current struggles or the struggles of people we love; when the people are ready to be really vulnerable with one another, we sometimes hear stories of childhood trauma. Often men cry while those around them say, “It’s okay, take your time.”

This prayer time may even become a time of public confession. One day an older man stood up; he looked around the room, making eye contact with many of the young men in matching orange jumpsuits before speaking. “I used to be you,” he said. “I got locked up for the first time when I was 19. I’m 64 now; I been in and out of places like this my whole life. I just keep doing the same dumb things. I get out, and I swear, Things are gonna be different this time. And I try, but then my friends are like, ‘Hey just come have one drink with us,’ and then that turns into other stuff, and then I’m dealing again…and then I’m right back here. Again.”

I prayed silently in my head: Lord, thank you that I am on the path I’m on. Thank you that I didn’t get caught up in that kind of world.

The man continued “So I just want to say to you young guys: don’t be stupid like I was. Don’t do what I did. Get your head right, change your thinking, change your behavior. Stay outta here. You got your whole life ahead of you. And I just want to say, pray for me; it’s hard to change.”

So which of us — me, the pastor; or him, the inmate — went away from that worship service justified by God?

It’s easy for us to miss the shock of Jesus’s parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector, easy for us to miss the wide reach of its meanings. We’re quick to think we’ve got the message: Proud, hypocritical Pharisee = bad; humble, repentant tax collector = good. Don’t be a proud hypocrite. Admit you’re a sinner. Got it.

 But if we could hear this parable with first-century Jewish ears, it wouldn’t be so easy to stomach. With our 21st-century Christian ears we are used to hearing stories where Pharisees are the hypocrites in need of Jesus’s correction, and we are used to hearing about how Jesus hung out with tax collectors. We even carry the tradition that one of our scriptures (the Gospel of Matthew) was written by a former tax-collector. We’re comfortable with those characters.

But Jesus’s original audience would have carried the opposite assumptions. They may have heard nothing wrong with the Pharisee’s prayer of thanks that he walked the righteous path. After all, the Pharisees were righteous members of the community, religious leaders, and they were probably admired by most Jews. Why shouldn’t the Pharisee give thanks for the life-path he was on, glancing over to the tax collector and whispering, “There, but for the grace of God, go I”?[1]

Tax collectors, on the other hand, were far more despised than IRS agents. They collected taxes, but they did not go to an Israeli government. A tax collector’s job was to “take money from the local population and funnel it [into the treasuries] of the invading empire.”[2] They were betrayers of their own people; they were selfish survivors with no backbone and no sense of duty to the community.

In their daily lives Jesus’s listeners probably would have seen the Pharisee and the tax collector as representing the two opposite ends of the religious-ethical spectrum: the Pharisee represented righteous people who held tightly to the laws and traditions of their ancestors, given to them by God; the tax collector represented the people who become puppets of the pagan foreign rulers. But in this parable Jesus made the tax collector the role model. Jesus ripped apart the way his listeners saw the world; he ripped apart their ideas of where God stood in relation to their world.

What would Jesus rip apart today?

Often times we stand in a place similar to that of Jesus’s first listeners. We draw lines to help us make sense of this big, crazy world. And as we do so, we draw lines to categorize people: these are the ones we should try to be like; these are the ones whose behavior we should criticize. These are the ones who should teach us; these are the ones we should mistrust. Then we tell stories to prove why those lines exists, and we retell them enough that they feel natural and undeniable. And then when we meet someone from the other side of one of those lines, we think we already know their story. We might whisper, like the Pharisee, “Thank God I am not like that tax collector over there,” and, like the people listening to Jesus, everyone around us might nod in agreement, “Yes, thank God.” Because, of course, that tax collector is on the other side of the line.

Churches are often places where these lines and stories are affirmed and even sanctified as if they were given to us by God. For example consider the ways many U.S. churches have reinforced the lines between white and black Americans throughout our history. In the 1800s Christians quoted the Bible to prove that slavery was part of the divine plan. They preached from texts like the cursing of Noah’s son, Ham, and his descendants (Gen. 9:20-27), saying that these descendants were the people with dark skin, and their God-given curse was slavery. During the Civil Rights protests of the 1960s, Christians again turned to this Bible story, and they paired it with the story of the Tower of Babel and the dividing of peoples there (Gen. 11:1-9), saying that these stories proved that segregation was instituted by God.[3]

These are fairly strong, dramatic examples, that might feel distant to many of us, but I’m sure you can think of other ways that you have experienced churches upholding the lines we draw in society. And because God is perfect, we assume that God must be a little more present on the “good” side of our lines; we think that if we are looking for God, we ought to look mostly at the people who are closest to perfect.

The problem is that — according to this parable — God seems to ignore all our lines. Actually, God transgresses the common way of seeing the world throughout the Gospel of Luke, and throughout the Bible’s stories. God doesn’t often take side with the perfect and exalted people. God shows up most clearly among the suffering, the outcast, the weak, and even the despised. God chose the tiny little nation of Israel; God chose the youngest, smallest son to become King David; God sent prophets on behalf of the poor; God’s Son was conceived in the womb of a young, poor, unmarried woman; Jesus made a name for himself by healing the sick, eating with the most despised of sinners, and standing up on behalf of the needy. The New Testament itself was written by and for a group of people who suffered often, facing hardships, ridicule, and even persecution as members of this new religious sect.

So maybe, if we are looking for God among the “most perfect,” the most exalted people and places, we are missing most of what God is doing and saying today. Maybe we need to be listening to the experiences of the suffering, the outcast, the weak, and the despised — for their benefit, yes, but also for our own as people of the God who ignores our lines and sees only people in need of grace.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer provides one powerful example of the transformation that can occur when we hear the gospel with the help of those who suffer. Many of you are familiar with the story of Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor who stood up to the Nazi regime in the 1930s and 40s. He was eventually arrested and then killed at the Flossenburg concentration camp just two weeks before U.S. soldiers liberated the camp.

In his earlier days Bonhoeffer was not nearly so radical. At the age of 24, already holding a doctorate in theology but too young to be ordained as a pastor, Bonhoeffer came to New York to continue his studies. While there he actively attended Abyssinian Baptist Church, an African-American congregation in Harlem. Forming relationships with African-Americans, Bonhoeffer came to understand the suffering caused by racism from the point of view of those who experienced it. And Bonhoeffer came to understand the gospel from the point of view of that suffering. He grew familiar with the writings of the Black theology and the Harlem Renaissance, writings like those of Countee Cullen, a poet who connected Christ on the cross with the all-too familiar image of the black man on the lynching tree, writing:

How Calvary in Palestine,

Extending down to me and mine,

Was but the first leaf in a line

Of trees on which a Man should swing

World without end, in suffering

For all men’s healing, let me sing.[4]

From the African-American preacher at Abyssinian Baptist Bonhoeffer heard the message that the gospel loses its meaning if it is “disconnected from a suffering world.”[5] The gospel offered essential spiritual comfort, yes, and it also demanded that Christians work to relieve physical, economic, and political suffering.

African-American churchgoers, preachers, and writers had a tremendous impact not only on Bonhoeffer’s own religious views, but also on his later fight against the Nazis. Perhaps when Bonhoeffer saw the Nazi party targeting the Jews, Roma, African-Germans, people with disabilities, and others, he heard echoes of the suffering already familiar to him from his time among African-Americans. We know that he had a clear sense of what the gospel demanded of him in response to their suffering.

We, too, may hear the gospel in new and powerful ways when we are willing to step over our lines, to lay down the stories we tell about other people, and to listen without assuming we know better, or we know where God stands. We need to listen with humility, “for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

[1] Amy-Jill Levine, The Misunderstood Jew, (New York: HarperOne, 2006 ), 40. Referencing Timothy A. Friedrichsen, “The Temple, A Pharisee, a Tax Collector, and the Kingdom of God: Rereading a Jesus Parable (Luke 18:10-14a),” Journal of Biblical Literature 124.1 (2005): 89-119 (94).

[2] Levine, 38.

[3] Lucinda Borkett-Jones, “Why white US Christians are repenting for the Chruch’s role in racism,” Christianity Today, 26 June 2015, referencing Stephen Haynes. Available online Accessed 22 October 2016.

[4] Countee Cullen, “The Black Christ,” The Black Christ and Other Poems, (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1929), 69. Available online Accessed 22 October 2016.

[5] Alan Bean, “The African-American roots of Bonhoeffer’s Christianity,” Baptist News, 30 October 2015. Available online Accessed 22 October 2016.