The new presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Elizabeth Eaton, wrote a humorous story in the Lutheran magazine that just came out. She writes, “A first-call candidate assigned to the Northeastern Ohio Synod came to me about an interesting encounter she had with a waitress. The waitress admired our candidate’s Luther Rose pendant and asked what it was. “It’s Lutheran,” replied the candidate. “Where’s Lutheran?” asked the waitress.
She said they chuckled that the waitress imagined a place of beauty and mystery called Lutheran and were also a little rueful that she had never heard of Lutheran before.
Growing up where I did in rural Minnesota, Lutherans were by far in the majority. In my little town of 700 people there were three Lutheran churches in town plus three more in different directions out in the country. So it was quite a shift for me when I moved to other parts of the country where people didn’t automatically know what a Lutheran was or were even still shocked to see a female pastor or failed to recognize what I was when I wore my collar. I remember when I was on internship, I was still single, it was a Sunday I had worn a nice outfit and my clergy collar. After church a family invited me to go to lunch with them and as we were escorted to our seats we passed a table with a couple really handsome, smart-looking fellows who looked to be around my age. Like I said, I was still single, so I flashed a little smile as I passed their table and as I walked by I heard one of the guys say to the other one – “did you see her? That nun was flirting with you.”
I didn’t go back and explain to him the error he had made – that I was not a nun – but I did begin to realize that the language I had been speaking my whole life – the language of Lutheranism – was one that not everyone spoke. And over time I began to realize that even within the Lutheran church sometimes we can all get a little confused about our fundamental beliefs and what sets us apart from other denominations when we hear so many other theologies from various sources all the time.
So what does set us apart as Lutherans?
I’ll tell you right now what is particularly awesome about being Lutheran. It actually has nothing to do with us or Martin Luther but it has everything to do with God. It is God’s ridiculous, extravagant notion of grace.
There was a news story I heard earlier this week that illustrated grace perfectly: Jessica Eaves was shopping in Guthrie, Okla., earlier this month when her wallet was taken. She spotted the man she suspected of taking it in a nearby aisle and wondered what to do next.
“As I saw him, a scripture came to me from the Gospel of Luke, which basically says ‘If someone should take your cloak, you should give them your shirt as well.”
The passage inspired her next actions. She approached the man and said she would like her wallet back now but if he came with her to the front she would pay for his groceries. And that is exactly what she did.
Was that what the man deserved? Most likely we would say he deserved punishment for taking what wasn’t his – but instead of calling the police, the woman decided to bless him and give him a gift.
That is grace right there.
And God’s grace is receiving God’s love and forgiveness – but not because we deserve it. While we believe that it is important to do good works and to give generously and to forgive others we also believe that it isn’t any of those things that earns salvation for us. We can do nothing to earn God’s love – it is a complete gift.
We need God’s presence in our lives to bring about any good or blessing from us. That’s why we confess every week, “we are by nature sinful and unclean, and that we have sinned against Thee by thought, word and deed.” We are confessing that we are as Luther said – in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. Lutherans believe that all that could ever be done to achieve our salvation was done on the cross by Jesus.
That is why for the Lutheran – the language we hear much of the time throughout the Christian church about accepting Jesus and deciding to follow Jesus should strike us as not quite right. Lutheran theology focuses on God’s activity, not ours.
For example, while someone from another denomination might say something like “I accepted Jesus into my heart” the Lutheran would say, “Jesus came into my heart”. While others might say, “I have decided to live like a believer,” the Lutheran would say, “Jesus love compels me to follow him.” Others might say, “I was saved when I answered an altar call when I was twelve years old.” Lutherans would say, “Jesus saved me when he died on the cross.” Do you see the difference? Other denominations like to put the emphasis on what human beings can do to get to God but for Lutherans, it’s all about what God has done and still does to get to us or perhaps more appropriately, stay with us.
Even being able to say “I Believe” is a gift – Martin Luther wrote in the small catechism – “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.”
This is why we promote that babies be baptized and that one doesn’t have to have grown up or be able to believe anything in particular before they are baptized. God’s saving work that happens through baptism happens regardless of what we are able to believe or not. It’s all a gift.
And it makes complete sense when you think about it. I mean, when my children were born, I didn’t think to myself, “now okay – when Owen and Jesse can accept me as their mother and start doing the things I tell them to do, then I’m going to love them unconditionally and forgive them for the bad things they do and give them the gift of being their parent” – no, from the moment I heard their cries, from the moment I felt them move, from the moment they were even a possibility Chad and I whispered to each other, I loved them and knew I would give them everything I ever could. That is what a parent does. My love is not based on what they will do for me now or someday. It wouldn’t actually be love if I felt that way. And if we are made in God’s image, then is it really so strange to think that God would do the same for us? God gifts us with love and mercy and kindness – God does not wait for us to deserve it or ask for it.
Reformation Sunday is not a day that we celebrate Lutherans – because what is particularly awesome is not Lutheranism or Martin Luther or any of us – it is what God has done and continues to do.
A Blessed Reformation Day to all of you!