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“500 Years of the Reformation: Repentance or Celebration?”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“500 Years of the Reformation: Repentance or Celebration?”
(Romans 3: 19-28; John 8: 31-36)
Reformation Sunday (October 29, 2017)

Happy 500th Anniversary of the Reformation!

Five hundred years ago, on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther is said to have nailed 95 theses onto the Castle Church doors in Wittenberg, Germany.  Herr Doktor Luther wanted to debate a number of critical points with the church.  The powers-that-be were none too pleased with his audacious thoughts and brazen manner and thus the events of the Reformation began to unfold.

Perhaps you have noticed today’s sermon title, “500 Years of the Reformation: Repentance or Celebration?”  I have been wondering: do we repent for the past 500 years or do we celebrate them?

I must confess that all the Reformation events leading up to today have not caught my fancy.  I’m not sure why.   Holy Trinity has sponsored no trips to Wittenberg; we have no cutouts with Martin Luther and his wife Katie through which you can stick your heads and put the picture on Facebook.

Now, to be sure, I have a certain fondness for things German.  I am married to a lovely German.  I have traveled to all the requisite “holy sites of Lutheranism” and paid my due homage.  Our boys and even our dog Cisco are fluent in Luther’s mother language—and their mother’s, and our younger son, Caspar, lives and works in Hamburg, Germany.  So, I am not exactly turning my back on the Lutheran heritage.

One of my guesses why I am not exactly euphoric over all the Reformation howling has to do with how I—and I imagine many of you—grew up.  We Lutherans gathered in the biggest space available which, in Wheeling, West Virginia, meant a school gymnasium; we had the requisite mass choir with timpani and brass; we invited the most famous out-of-town preacher we could get to deliver an anti-Catholic/pro-Lutheran stemwinder that brought us all to a fevered pitch.  The first hymn, like this morning, was “A Mighty Fortress.”  Goose bumps formed, tears trickled, and we sang louder than we should have.

We, of course, celebrated that Luther had called the people of God to cherish that particular Pauline theological doctrine proclaiming there is not a darn thing we can do to save ourselves and that our salvation is a glorious gift from God.  There were other things we celebrated as well like Luther translating the Bible into a language people could actually understand and his gutsy stand against the church’s sale of indulgences, those “get out of hell free cards” for deceased grandma and grandpa that also helped underwrite the church’s ambitious building projects in Rome.

For sure, Martin Luther was a man of prodigious talents and, for that, we give thanks and I suppose God excuses our excessive merriment this morning.

But on those Reformation days of yore when some of us were kids, I never remember repenting. Do you?  Some of you may be scratching your head, “What was to repent?”

Remember when Suzanna Mueller announced to her good Lutheran parents that she was marrying Bronco Zaleski who attended St. Michael’s Roman Catholic Church?  They were madly in love but both sides of the aisle were devastated.  The wedding was the tensest thing you ever did see as good Catholics smugly went up for Communion and pious Lutherans sat in their pews scowling…Sad.

Pure and simple, we dare not celebrate the division of Christ’s church. If we do, we are complicit in the continued crucifixion of Christ’s body on the cross!  Whenever the church is divided, we must lament the tragic part our own antagonism plays in damaging the proclamation of God’s goodness.

It seems we are getting better though.  We have found it within ourselves, by God’s grace of course, to listen to what Roman Catholics think and believe and they have been listening to us as well.  We have spent far more time seeking our commonalities and much less time lambasting one another’s differences; and, remarkably, the one holy catholic and apostolic church appears to be slowly mending.

We have come a long way.  In a few days, Lutherans of the Metropolitan New York Synod will cram into St. John the Divine for the 500th Observance of the Reformation.  My hope is that we will both repent and celebrate.  If there is a scent of triumphalism, my hunch and hope is that it will surface as we give thanks that many Christian denominations are desperately seeking how to break down the ancient barriers that have for far too long hampered our proclamation of God’s grace; we will also pray mightily that we may sing one gorgeous melody infused with the unique and lovely sounds of all our varied and rich traditions.

I experienced this glorious melody a few years ago when I attended Mass with my Roman Catholic sister-in-law and the priest of her tiny village church in Rotenburg, Germany, encouraged me, a Lutheran pastor, to come forward to receive the body and blood of Christ; it was a breathtaking moment.  Roman Catholics rejoice similarly when they come here and are welcomed to join us in receiving the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation.

500 years after Luther, we repent for all those times when we have acted in ways that have gotten in God’s way.   And, 500 years later, we also celebrate all that is bringing our Christian family closer together.  The last thing the world needs today is Christians squabbling with one another.  We need to rise above our differences and proclaim God’s love to all the groaning world.

We deck our church in red today because, like in every age, God never forsakes the church.  And that calls for a celebration!  And so, I say, “Happy 500th Reformation Day!”