Reformation Day Oct. 29 & 30: "Always Reforming"

Reformation Day 

October 30, 2016

Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 46, Romans 3:19-28, John 8:31-36. “Always Reforming”

Holy Trinity Lutheran, Manasquan, NJ

John 8

31 Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’ 33They answered him, ‘We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, “You will be made free”?’ 34 Jesus answered them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.35The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there for ever. 36So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.

There was a Jewish holiday this week: Simchat Torah – loosely translated the “joy of the Torah”, the Hebrew scriptures, what we call the Old Testament.  On Simchat Torah the precious Torah scrolls are taken from locked cabinets.  People dance around them and rejoice in the tangible expression of God’s word among us.  The last lesson of the old year is read and the first words of Genesis begin the new year of readings. 

Soon we will also celebrate the end of the church year reading cycle on Christ the King Sunday and the beginning of the new cycle on the first Sunday in Advent.  We don’t often dance around the Bible – although that might be an interesting innovation.

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Today we asked you to bring your Bible to church.  If your Bible was a gift, lift it up.  If your Bible is older than you are, lift it up.  If it’s a red-letter Bible, lift it up.  If you received it at your confirmation, lift it up.  If it includes the names and dates of a marriage or a birth or a death, lift it up.

So why would one want a Bible in church?  Perhaps to follow the lessons as they are read.  If you come early, you can bookmark them and if it’s YOUR Bible, you can underline or comment or put a question mark by verses that stand out for further study.  One day your children or grandchildren may pick up your Bible and read your notes.  So DO write in your Bible!

It’s also good to read ahead of the lesson and find out what was going on before or after the short piece that we read in church.

For example, in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus talks about slaves to sin becoming free when they follow him.  At the beginning of chapter 8, we find the story of the woman accused of adultery who is about to be stoned.  Her accusers ask Jesus his opinion.  He says, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”  Slowly, all the men creep away and Jesus is left alone with the woman.  He offers her the words of freedom, “Neither do I condemn you.”

Then Jesus walks among the great temple lights and declares, “I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

Lengthy disputes with the religious leaders follow.  Jesus claims to be son of the Father while they claim to be sons of Abraham.  THEN comes our Gospel text.  “The truth will make you free.”  We read this every Reformation Sunday because of Martin Luther’s experience of finding life-giving freedom in God’s grace.  Then arguments continue.  And, “they picked up stones to throw at [Jesus], but [he] hid himself and went out of the temple.”  The stones meant for the woman are now directed at Jesus.  And there is significance in Jesus leaving the temple – the center of religion – and going out on the road, where in the next chapter, he will heal a man blind from birth.

Great richness comes from reading a whole chapter, or several chapters to get the drift of what’s going on. One single verse cannot offer such richness.

The Bible offers comfort, guidance…and a lot of good stories.  Most importantly, the Bible tells us the story of Jesus.  And the letters of the early Christians help us understand their struggle to make meaning of the story.  The Old Testament gives us the beginning of the story; it was the Bible Jesus knew; he told his followers to search the scriptures for there they would find him (John5:39, Luke 24:27). The psalms were his prayers; the law his guide; the promises his comfort.  Jesus quotes the Old Testament when he says that the greatest of all commandments is to love God and love neighbor.

Because in many situations it is difficult to discern what LOVE of God and neighbor really means, one cannot just pick a verse or two from the Bible and make it fit every situation.  Luther spent years studying the Bible in Greek and Latin before he could grasp the verse in Romans which we read every Reformation Sunday, “For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” 

You sure can’t read the Bible and find a verse that tells you how to vote.  But you sure CAN find principles in the words and actions of Jesus that can help you vote as a person of faith.

For many years, preachers have used Reformation Sunday to talk about Luther’s 95 theses, his brave words, “Here I stand” at the council at Worms, and his subsequent excommunication from the Roman church.  If you want to brush up on this subject, take a copy of Pastor Mary’s thoughtful and thorough presentation at the Lutheran/Roman Catholic study that concluded this past Tuesday.  It’s available at the door to the fellowship hall.  She enlightened those who attended and gained great respect among our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters.  Likewise, Father Bill and Monsignor Sean gained great respect among the Lutherans who attended. 

Jesus prayed for unity among his followers.  Most Protestant churches and some Lutheran congregations have stopped celebrating Reformation Day.  They lament the tragic schism. 

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Marking the festival of Reformation does us no good unless we commit to ongoing reform of ourselves and of our churches.  Semper reformanda – always reforming!  Today’s mark of Reformation may well be the ongoing dialogue with our brothers and sisters in the Roman church.  Tomorrow Pope Francis and Bishop Younan and the Rev. Dr. Martin Junge, represendting the Lutheran World Federation, will co-host in Lund, Sweden, the Joint Catholic/Lutheran commemoration of the year leading up to the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, Oct. 31, 1517.

This is an historic big deal!!!! smiley

The Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation have adopted five principles to guide us through the coming year.

1.      To begin conversation from the point of view of unity

2.      To be open to sharing faith

3.      To strive toward the goal of concrete, visible unity

4.      To jointly rediscover the power of the Gospel of Jesus for our time

5.      To witness together to the mercy of God in proclamation and service to the world.

The three meetings held here in town offered a place for holy and respectful argument.  Back in the 1500s, Luther was excommunicated and threatened with death for his ideas.  Today no one is excommunicated from either church for questioning and entering into dialogue about theological and practical church matters.

Luther posted his 95 theses as statements meant to begin a dialogue about indulgences.  And debate they did!  This model of conversation is sorely lacking in our public arena today.  Social media have offered us the opportunity to tweet or post or blast someone or someone’s idea without having to look him or her in the face.  Anonymous nastiness abounds.  In Luther’s day, his writings -- printed on the new, modern movable type printing presses --carried his name and were openly debated, not just denounced.

At a recent wedding at which Pastor Bob and I officiated, the vows included a promise by the couple that when they might disagree, they would hold hands to dialogue and compromise until both were comfortable with the outcome.

As people of faith, we are invited to be open to such dialogue, to conversation where, even if we disagree, we love one another.  I am saddened to see so little mutual respect in this election cycle.  My prayer is that the torn fabric of society’s ability to speak the truth in love will be reparable.  I do not lose heart because nothing is impossible with God.  Holding hands in love with those with whom we disagree is not easy, but offers a way of living in grace and in freedom.

Freedom is the promise of a loving God who calls us to hear the words and stories of our biblical tradition -- and from them live life as a dance of joy, a celebration of the Word made flesh: Jesus the Lord -- forgiver, healer, lover of souls.  Amen.

Pastor Beth Orling