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Sermon for Reformation/Reconciliation Mass

Oct 24, 2013

Sermon for the Reformation/Reconciliation Mass at The General Theological Seminary, New York City

Sisters and Brothers in Christ: I am so grateful to Dean Dunkle, friends here at General Theological Seminary, those who have been planning this liturgy especially Pastor Jared Stahler of our synod’s Worship Committee, Dr. Tom Schmidt and the lovely group of musicians, and all who are leading this assembly in worship today. It is good to be with you and I look forward to ever-increasing partnerships between this community and the Metropolitan New York Synod. I preach in the Name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Lutherans have a well-founded reputation for making a big deal about Reformation Day. So we seized the opportunity to gather here at General for a Lutheran High Mass for Reformation Day. Most people call it Halloween, but not us. We even have provision for it to be transferred to the Sunday before—this coming Sunday—just to be sure we get it in every year. And, even more troubling to me, we have a worldwide reputation for this. Several years ago, Lois and I had occasion to worship on October 31 at Evensong at Salisbury Cathedral. We were actually there to pay homage to Susan Howatch—one of our favorite authors—but loved worshiping with Anglican sisters and brothers on Reformation Day. The dean preached a fine homily, and after the Office, I greeted him, told him I was a Lutheran bishop, and that I found his sermon compelling. "You should have preached," he said, to which I quickly responded, "No, thank you."

Frankly, I don’t like Reformation Day. I much prefer re-focusing on Reconciliation. The danger Lutherans face in marking Reformation without Reconciliation is we so often pat ourselves on the back that we come dangerously close to dislocating our shoulders. Since it was decided to mark Reformation/Reconciliation today, I’ve thought back over listening to Reformation Day sermons for over 60 years and preaching nearly 40 years of them. I find them, often—including when I’ve preached them—to be exercises in self-aggrandizement.

Let me give a few examples of the type of sermons I have heard and preached.

One type is the psychological-existential-biographical sermon. The content of this type of Reformation sermon often focuses on Martin Luther and explores the various aspects of his personality and many of his personal issues, such as: his rather strained relationship with his father; his existential angst focusing on his fear of God the angry judge; his fear of death; his guilty conscience; his struggles with depression; his battles with the demonic; and so on. This type of sermon can be rather entertaining. Luther was certainly a colorful person. The most obvious problem is that it is too Luther-centered and often not enough Christ-centered.

The second type is the historical-sociological-ecclesiological sermon. It usually focuses on the events and trends of the Reformation age: the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church with its teaching and preaching and selling of indulgences, using the catchy sales pitch ditty, "When the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs." They often focus on superstitions and lack of literacy among many church-folk, including the parish priests of that day. Or they might look at the implications of the invention of the printing press and moveable type or the growing nationalism in Germany as key factors in shaping the Reformation, which they were. Or, they explore the increasing antagonism towards Rome and the elaborate building of St. Peter’s Basilica. Honest preachers might focus on the darker, more crotchety and embarrassing side of Luther, speaking of his anti-Semitism; in his less enlightened moments, he advocated the burning of Jewish synagogues and books, and the expulsion of Jews from Germany. This kind of preaching can also explore Luther’s alliances with the nobility and his counsel to them during the Peasants’ Revolt to kill and destroy the peasants.

That provides the historical, sociological and ecclesiological setting of the Reformation, and it can be informative, sometimes fun and on occasion even helpful. But one of the problems is that we become so preoccupied with analyzing the archives that the sermon no longer is a sermon but an academic lecture.

The third type is the theological-biblical-practical sermon. This type points to Luther’s most significant contribution to Christianity, that created a Copernican revolution in the world of theology, a contribution to which I am personally committed to claiming and reclaiming. It’s called The Theology of the Cross and I commend it to you.

The predominant scholastic theology of the day was what Luther called the "Theology of Glory." And it was by no means restricted to his day. The basic premise is what you can hear in all kinds of TV commercials, political campaigns speeches, and much of the rhetoric of the evangelical right: God rewards human beings but only when they deserve it by doing their very best, by working their hardest, by achieving their greatest goals—only then would God stoop down and reward them with grace.

Luther turned that on its head proclaiming a "Theology of the Cross." Since this is a seminary, I commend to you two books by Canadian Reformed theologian, Douglas John Hall: The Cross in Our Context and a recent collection of essays, Waiting for Gospel. Perhaps we can talk more about these recommendations later, but suffice it to say that Luther’s premise was this: we can do nothing to deserve God’s grace. But, at our very lowest, when we’ve failed, sinned, doubted, and struggled, and feel farthest away from God, God in the incarnate and crucified Christ is with us to forgive, love and accept us unconditionally. God in Christ removed and still removes the burden of our sins from us and takes them on by dying on the cross. Luther’s theological discovery was, and still is, a refreshing way of reading Scripture. He felt oppressed by the condemning, law-oriented words of the Bible because, as he said, lex semper accusat, "the Law always accuses." Then he began to read Scriptures in such a way as to awaken him to all of God’s promises, to realize the powerful message of Gospel: that God’s lavish love for us in Christ is unconditional, immeasurable, eternal. I suspect that, once you find this compelling theology of the cross to be true, you will discover that you are a closet Lutheran and you’re not very deep in the closet. It all comes down to one word: Gospel. That’s what I continue to be waiting for, what I believe all of you are waiting for, what the world is waiting for:

It’s what St. Paul was writing about in today’s reading from Romans. No one can ever be made right with God simply by meeting criteria or doing good things. The more we know about what God wants of us, the clearer it becomes that we aren’t able to achieve that. We try and try to be what we think God wants us to be, but we sink more deeply in failure and frustration. And when we do that, God in Christ reaches out to us, and lifts us up. God says to us, "I accept you and declare you ‘Not Guilty’ for the sake of Jesus Christ."

I know what you’re thinking because I think it, too, every day. It’s too easy. There’s got to be more to it than that. There has to be more. But there isn’t. God’s gift is wonderful: Your sins—all of them—are forgiven. You already are OK in God’s sight. And be sure to note this and note it well: It’s no-strings-attached-radical gospel. Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, all are justified by God’s grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.

That’s breathtaking. God justifies all who cannot justify themselves, which means everyone, because that’s what God does. We remember not how much we have sinned but rather how much God has forgiven us.

Let me say it one more time, dear ones, sisters and brothers: My deepest sorrow is that we so easily forget the new life that is ours, we so readily lose touch with God’s grace. So I am grateful for this day, this community, this celebration. It summons to the surface of my soul once again awareness of the grace of God’s love for the one Church, for the whole world, and for each of us. God is our God and we are God’s people, gifted with grace and love.

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Bishop Robert Alan Rimbo



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