For a long time, many years of my ministry, it seemed like the recipe for a good Reformation Sunday sermon was to tell the story about Martin Luther again and again. And it never occurred to me to do anything else until I read an article by a well-respected Lutheran theologian last year who said, “Preachers, this Reformation Sunday, I don’t want to hear about Martin Luther. Instead, I want to hear the truth.”
And it occurred to me that he was right. I mean, the story of Martin Luther is compelling, but if you don’t already know it, or want a refresher, you can google “Martin Luther” on the internet or I’ve left some handy pamphlets in the back that you can feel free to take with you. Because this Reformation Sunday, you aren’t getting a history lesson on Martin Luther, you are getting the truth. And the first truth is a hard one that comes barreling at us out of our Gospel from Saint John where Jesus says, “Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.”
We are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. We do not like this idea very much. It goes against everything we might like to think about ourselves and about how life works. I think that is why the writing by Chad Bird that I put on the front of our bulletin this week (you can read Chad Bird’s brilliant piece on the “Deathbead Defeats: Five Failures I Hope to Achieve Before I Die” and his other great writing at: http://birdchadlouis.wordpress.com/) caught my eye – because upon first glance the failures he says he hopes to achieve sound so opposite of how we normally are told we ought to live. What does he mean he hopes to fail to follow his heart? That’s crazy! But then we read further and we recognize he is just describing our Christian walk and how we can’t use our own hearts as our guide, but rather God’s word needs to be the light to our path.
He hopes to fail at being one of whom all people speak well. What? We all want to be liked and we don’t want to be busy upsetting people, do we? But it was Jesus himself who said “woe to you when all speak well of you.” We should be upsetting some people if we are busy being about sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus upset a lot of people with his message of radical inclusion and completely undeserved love. He upset many by always placing people before protocol.
He hopes to fail to devote his life to the pursuit of happiness. He recognizes the key truth that the pursuit of our human ideal of happiness is far different from the sacred thing called joy. In addition to this piece, this author wrote another brilliant piece this week and it had to do with this idea of things that humans think will bring them happiness as opposed to what actually brings joy. It was a reflection on the new television program that just started airing on Showtime called “The Affair.” The premise of the show is that there are these two people who are in marriages that are fine but not really very exciting anymore, and they have endured the usual difficulties that come over the course of a life together, but now they have met each other and feel this immense attraction and are thinking they have found their “soul mate” and hence, the name of the show, “The affair.” There is a happiness they are pursuing and they feel like they have no control over it. Chad Bird writes, “falling in love” has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with love. No exceptions. It is not the prelude to love, nor the foundation of love, nor the ongoing nurture of love. What we term “falling in love” is stumbling into a state of emotional bliss with another person. True love, on the other hand, is the willful choice to act selflessly for another person, to commit yourself to that person, regardless of the emotional ups and downs. A man and woman who commit adultery together cannot love each other. It’s impossible. That’s like saying two people who are stabbing each other are giving life to each other. If they loved each other, they wouldn’t be harming each other through adultery, harming their spouses and children, and living a lie. Adultery begins in selfishness, continues in selfishness, and breeds yet more selfishness. It is not, and cannot be, a relationship of love. They may mouth the words, “I love you,” but what they really mean is, “You are meeting my selfish emotional needs and I am meeting yours.”
I thought the words he wrote were so strong and good and right on. It doesn’t mean that divorce is always the wrong choice – sometimes divorce is very much the right choice, but faithfulness while in that covenant of marriage, raising Godly children if you have them, remaining diligent at work, being truthful in our words, all of these things show we are pursuing God’s will and bring such greater joy than simply pursuing our own vague vision of “happiness.” God’s vision for our future is far, far greater than our own vision.
Bird next writes that he hopes to fail to believe in himself. Certainly it is important to have confidence and to do our best – but far more beautiful than confidence is humility and the recognition that however brilliant or talented or accomplished you are, you wouldn’t be much without a Creator who made you and a Savior who died for you.
And finally, Bird says he hopes he fails to be a first place winner. Maybe this is the most difficult one of all to swallow. Because we know it feels good to get the prize, to receive the honor, to gather up that promotion, and it’s very tempting to treat all those things as the most important thing. But it just isn’t. Not according to Jesus. Rather, in the eyes of Jesus we are shining the brightest when we are lifting up others. When we humble ourselves so others can receive the spotlight. When we sacrifice comforts and honors so that someone else might have such things.
I love underscoring all these failures that Bird wrote about because they illustrate very well how much we have affection for sin rather than the truth. Because all of us can resonate with wanting to follow our hearts, or wanting people to speak well of us, or wanting to pursue happiness, or wanting to believe in ourselves, or wanting to win first place. There are a thousand “buts” that rise up out of us as the knee-jerk reaction to thinking any of those things could possibly be bad or wrong. And that is sin, right there. We love it. Most days we would rather cuddle right up to it and go with the flow of what culture and our own senses tell us rather than sit with the hard truth of living the life Jesus calls us to live.
But thank goodness there is another truth which must be proclaimed on this Reformation day. There is not only the truth that we are slaves to sin. There is also the truth that we desperately need to hear. The truth about God’s great love for us. It comes through loud and clear in the first reading for this day, where after acknowledging that Israel — and, let’s be honest, all of us — shattered God’s covenant and commands, God still says, “I will forgive their wickedness and remember their sin no more.” God doesn’t just forgive but also forgets. God develops a case of intentional amnesia when it comes to our sin and regards us as if we were perfect, blameless and whole. God regards us, that is, as if we were Christ.
Now this is a beautiful truth, but not necessarily an easier truth. Because here’s the thing: as much as it hurts being justly accused, sometimes it hurts even more when we’re unjustly forgiven. This may be hard to explain at first, but maybe a story will help.
When I was in my first semester of seminary, I was taking an Old Testament class plus a few other classes and everything was going fine. I was getting good grades, I was working a lot, I was spending time with friends. I thought I was the picture perfect seminary student. But then the very last week of my first quarter, everything kind of collapsed at once. I got really sick with the flu, I had a car accident that totaled my car and left me in a cast, and my boyfriend of two years broke up with me. I was miserable. I just had this one paper left to finish before the quarter was done and I could have a few weeks off to recuperate. I knew I would be fine if I could just get this one paper done. But I would stare at the computer screen and try to work on this paper but I just couldn’t come up with any words. It didn’t occur to me to ask for an extension, because I never had before. But the hours and days were ticking by and I had to get this stupid paper in. And what did I decide to do? I plagiarized about three pages from a book – used someone else’s words to finish what I couldn’t get finished myself. And I got caught.
That was pretty much the worst feeling I had ever felt. To know I had made such a ridiculously bad decision and I had gotten caught. I was humiliated and I figured, well, that was it. I would drop out of that school. I was too ashamed to even fathom continuing on there. I wrote a letter of apology to the dean and to my advisor and said I would be dropping out.
But you know what? They asked me to reconsider. I wasn’t ready to give myself a break, to forgive myself for what I had done, but they were. What I deserved was to be kicked out, but what they gave me was another chance. And that new chance wasn’t easy – because it meant I had to walk back onto that campus and face the dean and my advisor and the professor who knew what I had done. I had to humbly begin the next quarter knowing I was anything but the picture-perfect seminarian, and live into the knowledge that I was welcome and encouraged to be there regardless.
I’ve never, ever told anyone that story before. But now that enough time has passed I can see how maybe it was the perfect lesson for the fledgling pastor I was and perhaps for all of us on Reformation day. That there are two great truths to who we are as Christians and they must both be told. That we cannot skip too quickly to the second truth of God’s great forgiveness before we admit the fullness of how true it is that we are all slaves to sin. We all make really bad choices sometimes, and oftentimes our sin is so ingrained into who we are that we don’t even realize how sinful we are…but still, we come here to this place, and we confess those things – humbly – and we don’t receive what we deserve for those things, instead, we receive forgiveness.
I’m so thankful for that grace. How about you? Brothers and sisters, as God has promised to forgive you, now forgive yourself. Whatever you have done, whatever you have said or thought, God washes the repentant heart in grace, and there is always the chance to do better moving forward. Please grant that same grace to yourself. Treat yourself and others kindly. Know you are loved and forgiven this Reformation Day and always. Thanks be to God. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.