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“The Truth Will Make You Free”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“The Truth Will Make You Free”
John 8: 31-36
500th Commemoration of the Reformation
October 29, 2017
Bach Vespers (Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott)

Please let me say to you, “Happy 500th Anniversary of the Reformation.”

And, while I am at it, please excuse any Lutherans sitting near you who sang “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” a bit too rambunctiously for your taste.  We simply cannot help ourselves as we ruminate on our fearless leader, Herr Doktor Martin Luther.  We love his vigor against Pope Leo X; we adore his courage, standing before Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and proclaiming, “I cannot do otherwise. Here I stand. May God help me, Amen;” we revere his towering intellect, translating the Bible into the German vernacular.  Forgive us, please, at least tonight, for being a bit more boisterous than is typical for us pokerfaced Lutherans as we cheer for our guy, the fellow who turned the world upside down.

We Lutherans, by the way, have gotten into hot water over the years, making claims about Luther similar to those who stood before Jesus and said, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone.”  We have sung grandiose things at worship as our choir just did; were you paying attention to what they sang: “Long live Luther, long live Melanchthon!  Long live you luminaries of this land!”—and I am told the uncensored version actually has something, that the sopranos sang, about giving honor to the Elector Frederick the Wise—that can’t possibly be Psalm 119 as it states in our bulletin, can it?

On his best days, Luther would censure us for raising our beer steins too high in his honor.  It was he, after all, who warned: “People should not call themselves Lutherans, but Christians…How did I, poor stinking bag of maggots that I am, come to the point where people call the children of Christ by my evil name?”

Oh, the dangers of this 500th observance of the Reformation.  I don’t need to tell you the other side of Luther, the outrageous and bombastic, arrogant and horrid side.  Think of the tragic fault lines between Lutheran and Roman Catholic; think of the ecclesiastic squabbles that have led to horrific wars.  You have likely experienced similar family brawls, all because we claim to bear a greater truth than someone else.

And there is the other abhorrent part, Luther’s anti-Semitism.  Some of Luther’s writings on the Jewish people are so vile that our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America declared in 1994: “Lutherans feel a special burden because of certain elements in the legacy of the reformer Martin Luther and the catastrophes, including the Holocaust of the twentieth century, suffered by Jews in places where the Lutheran churches were strongly represented.”

If we are honest about the Reformation and, believe it or not, if we are true to Luther, we must tell the truth because, after all, we proclaim truth-telling will make us all free.  And the truth is that Luther was human, very much so.

A few months ago, I attended a lecture by the Luther scholar Thomas Kaufmann who teaches at the University of Göttingen in Germany.  One participant was particularly exasperated by Luther’s anti-Semitism.  Professor Kaufmann simply said, “Say goodbye to Luther the hero!”

In our apologies for Luther’s anti-Semitism, our Lutheran church also noted: “Luther proclaimed a gospel for people as we really are, bidding us to trust a grace sufficient to reach our deepest shames and address the most tragic truths.”

That’s the good side of Luther, the truth that proclaims that all our heroes—including us!—are clay-feeted. We can be breathtakingly courageous and remarkably brilliant one day and pathetically cowardly and disgustingly offensive the next.

The Lutheran legacy we celebrate on this 500th anniversary of the Reformation is that God never gives up on us.  As he so often did, Luther said it best, “God can carve the rotten wood and ride the lame horse.”

One of my favorite books is Graham Greene’s “The Power and the Glory.”  It is about “a seedy little half-baked, cowardly, adulterous, whiskey priest in revolutionary Mexico.”   Frederick Buechner writes: “Every life he touches is somehow brought a little more to life by his presence, making him a saint in a way, not a saint in the sense of a plaster saint, of a haloed saint, but a saint in the sense of a person as mixed up as the rest of us through whom, nonetheless, God’s grace was able to work.”

Luther was like the whisky priest as, by the way, is the church on earth and as are we all.  The wonder is that God makes music through scoundrels and vagabonds, ragamuffins and jailbirds, Luther and Bach, and, yes, you and me. Our music-making, each in our own way, is as wondrous and brilliant as Luther’s “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott.”  For that alone, it is well worth celebrating this 500th observance of the Reformation.  As we lift our beer steins high, let us give glory to God alone on this 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

“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!”