+ A sermon for Reformation Sunday at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on October 28, 2018 +
Text: Jeremiah 31:31:-34
Grace to you and peace from God our Creator and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
About a year and a half ago I had the opportunity to spend some time in Germany. And as any good recent graduate of a Lutheran seminary would do, I spent a couple days exploring all the famous Martin Luther sites.
And I remember how when I got to Wittenberg, where he famously posted his 95 Theses on October 31, 1517, the whole city was ramping up for the 500th anniversary of this start to the Reformation—preparing for hordes of tourists and massive celebrations. And Luther was everywhere.
On posters, in shops, in churches, everywhere.
And really, for much of the past few decades and centuries, that’s how we as Lutherans have celebrated this monumental occasion in history.
And so often we’ve allowed Reformation Sunday to become a celebration of all things Luther – a celebration of being Lutheran.
Now, while I am proud to be a Lutheran and am so thankful for the contributions of Martin Luther to my own theology, while I love “A Mighty Fortress” and am wearing my Luther socks, I feel like all too easily this type of Reformation Sunday can easily miss the point.
Because if we praise what was done 501 years ago we quickly root ourselves in the past as we focus on the work of one man, or even a group of reformers, and miss what God is doing both then and now.
If we put all our focus on celebrating Luther we can so easily gloss over his flaws—and believe me, he had a lot of flaws.
As heirs of his theology, we also have to wrestle with the immense harm that Luther did and how some of his more hateful writings have been used to justify horrific acts of anti-Semitism for the past five centuries.
And if we focus our Reformation celebration on being Lutheran, we may miss how this movement intended to reform and even unify the church in fact splintered it into countless denominational factions and instead of concord brought schism, persecution, and warfare.
But Reformation Day is still one of my favorite church celebrations and I maintain that it can still have an important purpose in the church today if it reminds us that God is still working among us to re-form the church and the world.
And really, that’s more faithful to the movement’s ideals anyway.
The Reformation was never meant to focus on one man.
The intention of Luther and the other reformers was to focus less on what humans could do and more on what God had already done and was still doing.
In a society based on fear of God and divine retribution, the reformers sought to shift away from an understanding of what humans must do to merit salvation and see how God’s immeasurable grace was already active in their lives.
They rejected the notion that we must work through a corrupted human system to reach the divine and instead wanted people to embrace the moving and active God who reaches out to everyone—to realize that we don’t need an intermediary to approach our loving Creator and every person from the lowliest peasant to the pope in Rome have equal access to God.
Luther reminded the people how God was working in their lives.
And to a people who were feeling abandoned, who did not know a loving God, Luther proclaimed that God was about to do something new in their midst.
I hear a similar message from the Prophet Jeremiah in our first reading today.
Jeremiah was preaching to a people who were mired in despair—they were living in exile, dominated by a foreign power, and feeling abandoned by their God.
The prophet declared that the people had lost sight of the covenant they had made with God—the God who liberated their people from slavery in Egypt, who created a covenant with them at Mount Sinai and gave them the commandments—teachings on how to live into and embrace the liberating love that they had received. How they could emulate that love with each other and build a community based on God’s values.
But for so much of his book, Jeremiah is reminding the people that since the covenant was established, the people had broken it in so many ways—through a foreign policy that depended on military might, through economic systems that ignored the cries of the poor, through political structures that created an elite that ruled harshly, through rivalries for power that divided the people into two kingdoms—Israel and Judah, and through a theological system that tried to restrict access to God’s teachings.
And through their rejection of God’s ways, the people had fallen victim to a domineering power and did not feel God’s love in their lives.
But after more than thirty chapters of despair, Jeremiah announces to his people the good news—that God is doing something different, something new.
Not only is God going to rescue the people from their captivity, but God is going to renew the covenant with the people.
And God is going to wipe the slate clean is going to “forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more.”
Jeremiah is announcing that God chooses to forget the sins and failings of the people so they can have a new start—a new chance to embrace the love that they have in their liberating God.
And in this renewed covenant, God’s teachings would not be written on stone like at Sinai, but they would be written on the hearts of the people – all the people – written on the organ that brings life in our body and what the Hebrew people understood as the seat of reason.
With each pulse, God’s teachings would flow through the body, every breath would declare God’s love, and every person from the least to the greatest will have equal access and equal knowledge of God.
Jeremiah is declaring to his people that though they are lost and despairing, though they feel helpless and alone, they have a God who has promised to never abandon them and a God who is doing a new thing in their sight.
Now for centuries, Christians have assumed that the prophecy that we hear from Jeremiah was fulfilled through Jesus.
And by these verses’ inclusion in the lectionary for Reformation Day, we Lutheran Christians may hear an assumption that we can see the prophecy fulfilled in the work of the reformers.
But if we look around, I think we can safely say that the day that Jeremiah is announcing must surely still be coming, because it obviously hasn’t come yet.
As much as people may claim that our country is built on so-called “Judeo-Christian values,” we still have a foreign policy that depends on new weapons and military might, an economic system that ignores the cries of the poor, political structures that create an elite class, divisions among the people at almost unprecedented levels, and so many theological rulers that seek their own power and prestige at the expense of God’s teachings.
Just in this past week we’ve seen attempted assassinations of political leaders, an attempted white supremacist attack on a Black church that still resulted in the death of two shoppers at a grocery store, and yesterday on the eve of Reformation Sunday a horrific anti-Semitic shooting during Shabbat services at a synagogue in Pittsburgh.
No, my friends, there is still a lot of work to do before we reach the day that God has promised through Jeremiah.
But the prophet is reminding his people, as he is reminding us, that our God is one who believes in new beginnings.
Our God was doing a new thing by liberating the people from slavery in Egypt and giving them the commandments at Sinai.
Our God was doing a new thing ago by bringing Jeremiah’s people out of captivity in Babylon and leading them back home in the Promised Land.
As Christians we believe that our God was doing a new thing through the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
As Lutherans we believe that our God was doing a new thing through the flawed Martin Luther and the reformation movement.
And as the people of Holy Cross, we believe that our God was doing a new thing 57 years ago here in Factoria when our congregation was formed.
But we also have to believe, to have hope, that God is not finished doing new things.
Because we also believe that our God was doing a new thing in the waters of our baptism when we were claimed as God’s own beloved child and now our lives are full of new beginnings that flow from that font.
And this morning we believe that our God was doing a new thing when we confessed our sins and heard that God has forgiven our iniquity and remembers our sin no more – that we have a new beginning steeped in God’s grace and free from sin.
This is how I have hope that our God isn’t done with us yet.
That 2600 years after Jeremiah’s words, 2000 years after Jesus’ birth, 501 years after that day in Wittenberg, and 57 years in this place, God is still doing a new thing in our midst.
That we can confidently say that the day is indeed surely coming when God will make a renewed covenant with the people and all of us will know the Lord and have God’s teachings indelibly written on our hearts.
We may not know how this reforming will happen or what it will look like, but we can trust that God will continue to work on, with, and in us until every person from the greatest to the least knows God and the teachings of God motivate our entire lives.
We are a people, a congregation, a church, that is still being reformed – a community called to repentance and forgiveness, rejection of evil and hatred, ready to proclaim the hope that we have in a God who is not done with us yet.
So now rather than rooting our identity in the past, rather than being mired in the despair of the world, rather than being trapped in our sin, we have been freed to claim the only identity that matters: beloved child of God and coworker with God who is still reforming the world around us.
We all have a new start with our God who never tired of working with us, in us, through us – and we can decide how we will respond to this unimaginable gift of love and grace.
Will we allow God’s love and teachings to flow through our bodies with each heartbeat? To be proclaimed with each breath?
Will we allow God to reform us, our congregation, our world?
Will we work with God to do a new thing in this place and in our community as we work together to end injustice and hatred?
May it be so.