The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller’s Sermon at Bach Vespers
at The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-Manhattan
“God Loves Misfits and Liars, Murderers and Scumbags, Scoundrels and Scalawags.”
Reformation Sunday, October 30, 2016
Jeremiah 31: 31-34
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
As most of you are aware, today is a special day in the Lutheran church: this is Reformation Sunday—hence we are decorated in red. Reformation Day actually occurs tomorrow, October 31, All Hallows Eve, when Martin Luther is reported to have banged his 95 Theses on the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. This occurred in 1517.
All manner of havoc was unleashed the day that pesky Augustinian monk announced to all the world—or at least to those coming to church the next morning, on All Saints’ Day—that he wanted to debate a few key and thorny issues with his beloved church.
Just a hammer, a few nails, and a piece of paper unleashed a ruckus like few others in the history of the world. To put it a mildly, Luther was destined for the Revolutionary Hall of Fame.
What I want to say tonight is that Martin Luther had NO INTEREST in creating a new church or even disrupting the one he loved; he certainly had no interest in having an entire Christian denomination named after him. What he did want was to dust off a few key areas of the church’s life that, to his mind, were preventing people from being touched fully by God’s magnificent love.
For many years, we Lutherans were much like those long-suffering Chicago Cub fans on an Autumn evening. Instead of singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” we took great delight in gathering on Reformation Day, beating our theological breasts like a bunch of wild Neanderthals, and singing “A Mighty Fortress” as loudly as we could, whether we could carry a tune or not—we even threw in a bit of Johann Sebastian Bach with timpani and brass just to be certain we were as rowdy as possible. What sadly occurred on those occasions was, rather than celebrating God’s love for us, we rejoiced in how much we despised our Roman Catholic neighbors. Whether we realized it or not, we pathetically reveled in the division of Christ’s body, the church, here on earth.
The Reformation principle for far too long was much like the high theology my Grandma Miller held fast to: if Roman Catholics do it, Lutherans don’t; and, conversely, of course, if Roman Catholics don’t do it, Lutherans do. Take for instance this evening’s Vesper’s liturgy: the incense, chanting, and elaborate vestments would convince my dear grandma beyond a shadow of the doubt that her grandson is destined for hell. Why? Of course, that is what Catholics do!
But that is not what the Reformation was or is about. What our tradition at its best holds up is the long-standing belief—both Jewish and Christian—that we heard in this evening’s reading from the prophet Jeremiah: God will forgive our iniquity, and remember our sin no more.
(And, by the way, remarkably, Pope Francis—our Pope by the way—will gather for worship tomorrow at the Lutheran cathedral in Lund, Sweden, as the observance of the 500th year of the Reformation begins. While there will be no Mass—further indication of the tragic brokenness of the church, it is with much delight that we behold Christ’s church mending inch-by-inch, forsaking ancient bitterness for renewed joy. God certainly knows that our tearful world desperately needs our united witness to God’s love for those who are broken and forlorn and certainly not our shabby divisions that have tarnished the church’s witness for far too long.)
That was why Luther took hammer and nail and paper to the Castle Church door: to make certain that even 499 years later, we know that God forgives all our peccadillos and remembers our depravity no more.
Martin Luther would urge us tonight: read through your Bible. It is filled with a hodgepodge of flamboyant scoundrels from beginning to end. Remember Adam and Eve—I doubt I need to tell you their sultry story. And there was Jacob who stole his brother Esau’s birthright and lied up a storm to his blind daddy Isaac. And then King David whose Psalms we have been singing with much delight this evening: old David made every modern-day politician seem like a paragon of spotless virtue with his disgusting affair with Bathsheba and his murderously vicious rampaging ways. On and on the Bible goes: Peter-you remember him, he claimed he didn’t even know Jesus even as Jesus hung dying on a cross; and Paul—he took positive delight in murdering the earliest Christians. These are but a few of the misfits who litter the Bible with muddles of mayhem.
And yet, over and over again, out of the blue, we also hear biblical messages like Jeremiah’s, “For I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” Jeremiah could easily recount the biblical litany of heroes who happened also to be liars, murders, and scumbags and yet, every time, God forgave these foul-ups and failures for their transgressions. That’s exactly how Luther urged us to read the Bible: he wanted us to proclaim from pulpits like this and with the cantata we are about to hear that no matter how dastardly the act, there is always hope for us in God’s eyes.
People often ask me, “What do Lutherans believe?” I tell them this, “We believe God loves misfits and liars, murderers and scumbags, scoundrels and scalawags.” That is why we pull out the brass and timpani tonight and let ‘er rip—because God remembers our sin no more. Amen.