Friday, October 31, 2008

A Reformation Day Sermon

....from a couple of years ago. I'm not preaching, so I thought I'd put up former sermons on Reformation and on All Saints.


Lately the word "Free!" Has been going through my mind, in exactly this way: "Free! Free!" And here’s why: It all has to do with training our dog, in this case, to walk nicely on a leash. The first week of "leash training" class, we were told that the key words for nice leash-walking were "Let’s walk," and told exactly how to hold the leash and what to do if your dog tries to get ahead of you. When the dog hears "Let’s walk", she has to learn to obey: no sniffing, no checking out the squirrels, no pulling. The idea is that the dog goes where you want to go, NOT where the dog wants to go. Inevitably, someone at that first class asked, "So what do you say when you WANT your dog to be more relaxed? – you know, not have to follow all of those rules?" – not obey you?
You guessed it! You say, "Free! Free!" Then the dog can sniff and wander and generally speaking, act like a dog.

"So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed," Jesus says to his disciples in our Gospel on this Reformation Sunday. "Free indeed!" It sounds like it should have an exclamation point at the end of it, like this is something really important, and really exciting. And it’s also no accident that this is one of the Scriptures lessons always chosen for Reformation day, for the issue of freedom was very important to Martin Luther. He desperately wanted the people of his day to know that, in Christ, they were "Free! Free!" And this issue of freedom was behind the 95 theses he posted on that church door in Wittenburg back in 1517. He posted those 95 theses primarily because he had questions about the practice of selling something called "indulgences" – basically a piece of paper you could buy that assured you or a loved one of eternal life. Luther felt that a Christian who knew that he or she was really free wouldn’t need to buy an indulgence in order to be sure about it.

Also, the same issue, the issue of freedom was behind a little tract that Luther wrote just three years later, called "The Freedom of a Christian." (For those of you in confirmation who just saw the Luther movie, this was one of the writings that Luther was asked to renounce... but he wouldn’t) Outside of the small catechism, this is probably Luther’s clearest and most important statement of what the Christian faith is all about: and he says that it is all about being free, free in Christ. In this tract, Luther asks and answers the question: What does it mean to be free?
What do you think? Does it mean that in Christ we are free to do whatever we want to ... like the dog who is "free" to wander away from her master, to sniff the ground and go wherever she wants to go? Does it mean that we don’t have to pay attention to the law any more? Does it mean that we don’t even really "have to" do acts of piety, prayer and Bible reading and worship? Luther’s answer, surprisingly, was "yes... and "no."

Luther begins this little book with two provocative statements. First he says "A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none."Think about how that must have sounded to the people of his time.Very few people thought of themselves as "free." Not a democratic society. So. This was a radical statement. And: "A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all." How can both statements be true? But Luther claims that they are, and goes on to explain – first of all that we are truly free. In other words, we don’t have to do anything ... to earn God’s love.
We don’t have to buy an indulgence to be assured a place in heaven. We don’t have to say a certain prayer, or climb a certain number of church steps in order to be forgiven, because God has already forgiven us through Jesus’ death and resurrection. That is the truth that sets us free.

It’s like the story I heard about a teacher who said to her students, on the first day of class,"First of all, I’d like you all to know that you all get ‘A’s. Now, here is the syllabus. Any questions?" That wold be a really radical thing to do – kind of dangerous – probably why you have never heard of a teacher actually saying that ... and why many people shy away from the truth of the gospel .. The truth that in Christ you are really free, in Christ each of us has already earned an ‘A’. It’s easy to become a Christian, as easy as being carried to the font as a baby. But it’s dangerous too, and that gets us to the 2nd statement that Luther made, the second truth about Christian freedom."A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all." So it’s true... we don’t have to do anything ... but we do, as servants of Christ. We serve ... we give... we love...

Luther used many analogies in his little book to describe what it means to be free and at the same time a servant. One of the illustrations that Luther uses is that of a tree, with deep roots and strong branches. If a tree is planted in good soil, it will grow strong and it will bear good fruit.No one comes up to the tree and orders it to bear good fruit. In fact, that won’t work.
We can’t make an apple tree give us good apples by demanding them. And an apple tree doesn’t Have to make apples, it just does, because it’s planted in a good place, and nurtured and fed. It’s the same with us. If our roots are in the good soil of Jesus, and faith in him, we will bear fruit, we will be servants, but not because we have to. It will be part of who we are ... not something to be proud of, or that makes us better than anyone else. But something that happens naturally.

I’d like to think about that classroom again, the classroom where all the students get ‘A’s. Now they are free – they are free from staying up all night studying and worrying about whether they will "make the grade." And now they are also free ... free to study simply because they want to learn all about astronomy, or history or biology. Now that they don’t have to worry about the score, they can study for the love of the subject. That’s being "free indeed."

Just last Friday there was a funeral here at Woodlake for a man who had served his community in a lot of ways. And one of the stories that was told about this man was this incredible story about how he had actually saved a woman from being hit by a train several years ago. He said it was one of the proudest moments of his life. And what struck me was that he didn’t think he did anything particularly heroic. He was pretty sure that anyone else would have done the same thing in his place. And he was grateful that he had the opportunity to do something like that in his life. Can you imagine? He didn’t think it was something he "had to" do? It was an opportunity he had been given. In Christ we are perfectly free, lords of all.. We don’t have to do anything. And in Christ we are perfectly dutiful, servants of all.

There’s another way to think about all this. It’s true, we don’t have to do anything. But we "get to" do things, instead. Remember when we were children and we were excited because we "got to" go skating, or help grandma with gardening, or go to visit someone. In Christ, we are children, serving our father not because we have to, but out of pure joy.Writer Gerhard Frost tells about the day his two children decided to serve his wife and him ... breakfast in bed.
They were two and four at the time, and when they proudly brought the trays in to serve their parents, the breakfast consisted of chilled burnt toast, with peanut butter; eggs, fried, and chilled, too; soggy cereal (the milk had been added too soon) and tepid tea! When the children left the room to get something they forgot, his wife whispered "you’re going to have to eat this! I can’t." And you know what. He did. He didn’t eat it as a gourmet. It wasn’t gourmet cooking.
He didn’t eat it because he was hungry. He wasn’t. He ate it because he was a father and because it was made for him; he ate it because his children had faith in him; he didn’t want to let them down. He ate it because he saw how eagerly his children served him. That’s the way it is with us as well ... with joy in our hearts we serve...And sometimes what we come up with is soggy cereal and tepid tea.But our father takes our service and makes it into something wonderful.

Friends, that’s being free indeed ... subject to none.... and servant of all.
Let’s walk.


FranIAm said...

To read this sermon, to be able to imagine your voice in my head, to really sink into what you are saying here - early in the day, feeling quiet and contemplative...this is grace indeed.

There is much to say about freedom- and you have said some important things.

As for me- I am going to print this and put it with my daily prayer books, so that I may reflect on it again and again.

Thank you.

Choralgirl said...

Wow, DIane, that's wonderful. :-)

Happy Reformation Day!

Barbara B. said...


Kathryn said...

That's one fine sermon, Diane...thank you for posting it.
But I have to say, as the proud if sometimes distracted mum of a 5 month puppy, I'd love to know what techniques, beyond the magic words, you were taught to contain an excited and pulling dog.
I know it wasn't the point, but thought you wouldnt' mind my asking...

Crimson Rambler said...

"the glorious liberty of the children of God," indeed -- thank you, Diane!

Lindy said...

I've been meaning to get back over here and comment on this. What an excellent sermon! Of course, the tension between freedom and duty appeals to my Anglican sensibilities. But, you've really out done yourself. I imagine Brother Martin would be proud. Anyway, just wanted to say that I loved this one.