Preparing to preach on Reformation Sunday I found this sermon I preached a few years ago. Our readings that year included both John 8:31-36 and Luke 18:9-14
When my friend, (let’s call her Jane for the purposes of this sermon), when Jane was a baby she had a pale green receiving blanket. It was soft to the touch, with a two-inch band of satin around the edge. It kept Jane safe and warm and as she grew her fondness for that blanket grew. In time it became her very own security blanket and heaven help you if you were the one trying to settle her and you couldn’t find her blanket. As Jane learned to talk, for some reason that old green blanket earned the nick-name “Nuggie”. If Jane was upset or fussing, she would holler for her Nuggie and the entire household would scramble to find it. Jane dragged Nuggie everywhere she went and it often got very dirty. We learned very quickly to launder Nuggie long after Jane had settled down for the night. One of us would sneak into her room and gently ease Nuggie from her grasp and quickly toss it into the washing machine, hoping against hope that she wouldn’t wake until we retrieved it from the dryer and tucked it safely back in her crib. Jane was particularly fond rubbing the satin over her cheek and over the years the satin edge became worn and frayed. Whenever life wasn’t going her way, or she was not feeling well, or she was tired, or if she was frightened, Jane would scream, for her Nuggie. Only after her Nuggie was firmly in place and she had comforted herself with the soft satin, would order be restored.
Standing here, smack dab in the middle of a Reformation of epic proportions, it feels to me like someone is trying to steal my Nuggie. Semper Reformanda — Always Reforming. Change, change, change. Sometimes I just want the security of that old time religion. I want to feel the comfort, the security that I once felt in the church. All this reforming is wearing me out. I’m tired of thinking. I’m tired of reforming my ideas. I’m tired of learning new things. I’m tired of all the questioning. I’m tired of all the questions. I want some answers. Sometimes I just want that Mighty Fortress to keep me safe. Sometimes I just want that Almighty Father to say, “There, there dear it’s all going to be all right!”
I knew were I stood in the old days. I was a wicked sinner. Heck, I was in bondage to sin and could not free myself. But I knew that Jesus was willing to die for me and save me from all my sins. I knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that even though I was a sinner, I was a forgiven sinner, simule justus et pecator. By the grace of God, I was both saint and sinner. Justified by God’s amazing grace. Thanks to the redeeming blood of the Lamb of God who washes away all my sin. Jesus died for me. Jesus saved me. And Jesus wants me for a sunbeam. Give me Jesus. Give me Jesus! I want my nuggie!
But in the words of dear old Martin Luther,“ Here I stand, for I can do no other.” Smack dab in the middle of a reformation, trying to follow Jesus. Jesus, who said that everything could be summed up in two commandments: “Love God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength and with all your mind, and love your neighbour as you love yourself.” If only Jesus had left our minds out of the equation. If only we could switch off our minds and stop this constant quest for truth. But then Jesus did say, “you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” So, how can we keep from asking: “Free from what?”
In Luther’s day, people were scared, really scared. People were afraid of what people have always been afraid of. Humans are after all the only creatures created by God with the knowledge that we are going to die. Back then people weren’t as insolated from death as we are today. Death was everywhere. Why even the common cold could kill you and don’t forget the Black Death or The Plague. People dying all around so is it any wonder that people were obsessed with death and all the questions that go along with dying; not the least of which was wanting to know what happens when you dye? It’s also not surprising that the church, being made up of humans, was also obsessed with death. The institution was designed around death. Of course being made up of humans, the church was just like any other institution, in that it was prone to corruption. Holy Mother Rome just couldn’t help helping herself by selling “get out of hell cards” in the form of indulgences. So, as part of his reformation of the church, Martin Luther proclaimed the truth that was in him. No longer did they have to worry about paying the price for their mistakes. As the church reformed it proclaimed the truth about God’s grace and sure enough the truth set the children of God free. Justified by grace. Trusting not in the doctrines and dogmas of the institutional church, the children of God were free to live and worship God without fear of eternal damnation. Free to love God with all our hearts, with all our strength, with all our minds and love our neighbours as we love ourselves.
If only our minds had been left out of the equation. For once again we stand smack dab in the midst of reformation. Our minds have been working overtime, and are quest for the truth has taken us up into the heavens. We’ve split the atom, and we hold the power to destroy the planet. People are afraid. We may not have given into our worst fears and pushed the buttons that will bring on Armageddon, but all our technological advances have imperiled the planet and if climate change doesn’t destroy us, pollution, or toxic waste just might. And then there’s the ever-constant threat of terrorism. And what about the economy, it might go right down the tube and then where will we be. And then there’s cancer, or a pandemic or killer bees. We’re all going to die. So, be afraid, be very afraid. Who will save us from what lies ahead? We long for the security of a happy ending. We all want our Nuggies.
The trouble is we’ve come along way from the easy answers of the past and our Nuggies are pretty frayed around the edges and there’s not much satin to comfort us. So much of the security that our faith used to offer us has been taken away from us. Science has taught us that the cosmos is so much more than we’d ever imagined. So, the myths and stories that once soothed us no longer comfort us. Biblical scholarship has exploded and the volumes of information about the writing of the scriptures, the historical Jesus and the early Christians has left us wondering about the authority of scripture. Psychology, biology, medicine, anthropology, sociology, and even our methodologies have left us questioning what we once held as gospel truth. We are the most highly educated people who have ever lived on the planet and we are living smack dab in the middle of the information age. Added to all the information at our disposal is the complicating fact that our neighbours are closer to us than they have ever been. Luther never met a Hindu, a Sikh, a Buddhist, a Muslim, or I dare say an atheist or an agnostic, but you and I have.
So, standing here in the midst of all this what are we to do? What is the church to do? How are we supposed to love God in the midst of all this? Well, one thing we must not do is ignore the truth. Not if we are going to continue to follow Jesus. Jesus said, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” It seems to me, that standing here, longing for the security of the familiar, what we could all do with is a little freedom from fear. We don’t need to be afraid of the truth. The truth will set us free. It’s time for us to take a page out of Luther’s book and like Luther we need to proclaim the truth that is in us.
I can’t think of a better place for the church to begin than with Jesus. It’s time to let the truth about Jesus, set Jesus free from the church’s dogma and doctrines about Jesus. The church may not be selling indulgences, but over the years the church has reduced the power of the Jesus experience to that of a worn out nuggie that isn’t really capable of providing much comfort to those of us who are trying to love God with all our minds. It’s time for the church to proclaim the truth about Jesus; the truth that we have been able to distill peering trough the misty lenses of history. There’s no need to be afraid of what we find there. For the overwhelming evidence provided by the best biblical scholarship gives us a glimpse of a Jesus who can lead us beyond our fears into freedom. In Jesus we can see a new way of being human if we begin not with our fears, but with the words handed down to us by our ancestors in faith.
If we look to the words of the Gospel according to John, we hear Jesus calling to us through the centuries insisting that he has come that we might have life and have it abundantly. Embracing that truth we can see in Jesus the beginning of a new consciousness in human life.
In Jesus we can see a human life that sees beyond the traditional boundaries erected to ward off our fear of death. In Jesus we can see a man on a mission to life our vision, to empower us to embrace a reality that we never before even knew existed, enabling us to walk into this new way of being in the world. In Jesus we can see the beginnings of a new truth; a truth that empowers us to step beyond religion and to grow into human maturity, a truth that empowers us to leave our security blankets behind. In Christ we can find a way to recognize that the world is so large that differences can be embraced and honoured. In Christ we can step beyond tribal boundaries into a new and fuller sense of what it means to be human; a way of being human that recognizes that there is neither Jew nor Greek, Jew nor gentile, male nor female, slave nor free.
In Christ our consciousness can be expanded to see the inherent worth in all God’s many peoples. In Jesus we can see a man who crossed boundaries; boundaries that separated one tribe from another, one gender from another. In Jesus we see a man who calls us to step beyond our fears knowing that we cannot be fully human and reject those who are different. In Jesus we hear the call to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us; we hear the call to do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.
We know that that those people who knew Jesus saw in him a person in whom God was truly present. In Jesus they saw a human so free from fear that divinity seemed to flow through him. Jesus had no fear of death and his freedom from free allowed him to love fully. Jesus love was so complete that not even death could put an end to it. In Jesus they say that death could become a doorway into life. In Jesus they saw that one dies every time one has the courage to give one’s self away. In Jesus we see someone who is fully human and who is not bound by the fears that seem to bind us: free from the fears that cause us to band together into tribes; free from the fears that engender prejudices in us, free from the fears that cause us to hoard our treasures or that engender greed in us.
The truth of our common humanity engenders a kind of courage that allows us to love recklessly. Jesus calls us through the echoes of time and lives on in the Christ who empowers us to live in freedom as the truth of our common humanity frees us from the fear of the other. In Jesus we can see a reversal of the human value system that was dedicated to survival and self-preservation. Jesus lifted up the downcast and humbled those who trusted in their own power. Jesus valued equally the contributions of those who had laboured only one hour and those who had toiled through the heat of the day. Jesus proclaimed that half-breed heretic Samaritans, when they obeyed the first law of the Torah and showed compassion to those in need, were more the children of Abraham than were the priest and the Levite who passed by without showing compassion. Knowing this, how can we fail to see this same rule of compassion expressed in all the religions of the world; for compassion lies at the heart of all religion?
Jesus expanded our understanding of what it means to love by including our enemies and the objects of our prejudice and scorn. Jesus entered humanity so deeply, possessed his own being so significantly, gave his life and his love away so freely, expanded the boundaries of his existence so totally that he became the human channel through which the reality of God was able to flow into human history. That is what people meant when they said, “God was in Christ.” This was the experience that forced them to describe his entrance into life through a miraculous birth. Their experience of Jesus was so powerful that he could not be bound by death in the tomb.
The power of the Jesus experience continued in the resurrection. People experienced in Jesus the in-breaking of the reign of God. In Jesus his followers saw the fulfillment of the scriptures, in Jesus they saw the Christ, the saviour who proclaimed the love of God in words and deeds of grace. In Jesus they saw the love of God played out in a life of grace and the truth of that love set them free.
In Christ we too can experience the love of God and be empowered to embody the grace of God, to a world in need of freedom. Today, in the midst of this reformation, the church stands at the crossroads. We can cling to the old rugged cross; while we hole up hear in our mighty fortress or we can proclaim the truth as it has been revealed to us, in the life, death and resurrection of Christ Jesus.
It’s a daunting task to stand with Jesus, and from time to time we will get tired and let fear overtake us. These days when I have to do something that really frightens me, I sometimes rub my own cheek, remembering the security that a well worn nuggie once brought to a little friend and if I’m really worried, I hum in my head. I hum the words of today’s scripture hymn; the words of the apostle Paul,
Neither death nor life,
nor angels, nor rulers,
nor trials in the present,
nor any trial to come,
neither height, nor depth,
nor all of creation
can ever separate us
from the love of God
poured out in Christ Jesus our Lord.
(ELW#622 “Neither Death nor Life” by Marty Haugen)
We are not alone. We live and breathe and have our being in God. And in God all will be well. Semper Reformanda Always reforming. Secure in the knowledge that: Nothing, nothing can separate us from the love of God. That’s grace. And that grace dear sisters and brothers is the power to move beyond all our fears. May this truth set us free to be all that God created us to be!
An excellent sermon. I especially like the paragraphs that start with the following. “In Jesus we can see a human life that sees beyond the traditional boundaries …” His life is the foundation that gives me the assurance to explore beyond dogmas and doctrines. Although I must say, there are one or more doctrines that are of foundational importance to me. I hope you don’t mind me putting it on my facebook page.
Hey John: good to hear from you!!! Remember, foundations are meant to be built upon! Feel free to spread the Word! Shalom
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