Tuesday, October 31, 2017, is the 500th anniversary of the event we call the beginning of the Reformation. Itâ€™s only 5 years and three days from today. And so, while visiting Lutheran Scandinavia and not-so-Lutheran Rome this summer, I suggested that Nancy MacLeod chair the event committee; that the Design Committee commission a â€śtextileâ€ť to hand at the â€śotherâ€ť Saint Peterâ€™s and that Tracy Christiansen provide the catering (Kathy Burt has already done the Costco shopping). But thereâ€™s a problem: what the â€śeventâ€ť was, is or even should be. Thatâ€™s the problem with this sermon too. Here are just a few of the issues.
The big one of course, is the Roman Catholics. Theyâ€™re not exactly keen on â€ścelebratingâ€ť the Reformation. Some of us Lutherans who, for the past 50 or so years, have been working with them on reconciliation are not so keen on this either, although I get the impression that some German Lutherans would love to rub a â€śReformation celebrationâ€ť into the face of a German pope. And then there is, of course, the perception among many Lutherans and not-a-few Roman Catholics that much of the work of reconciliation is being systematically undone.
Thereâ€™s also the dirty little secret, at least it was a secret in America, that more and more people, 20% of Americans according to an October 9th Pew Research poll, consider themselves neither Catholic nor Protestant but â€śnone of the above.â€ť Finally, there is a remarkable phenomenon, evident everywhere but most recently uncovered as our synod adopted and began implementing our new Claimed, Gathered, Sent Strategic Plan and stirred up controversy with one of its strategic, namely to â€śshare a clear, concise, compelling message of the Lutheran identity through a variety of methods and medias.â€ť â€śLutheran identity?â€ť some are exclaiming. â€śWhy would we want to communicate that?â€ť
Surging indifference, mounting isolationism and an intensifying identity crisis; reformation, retrenchment or reconciliation? OMG! What are we going to do?
What are we going to do? Thatâ€™s the way a lot of Christians are responding to the current climate; not only about reconciliation and reformation, but about the future of the Church. Some feel responsible. Some feel guilty. Some rail against secularization.
Some look for enemies. Some revert to and tighten old practices. Some point fingers and seek to fix blame.
But our confessional Lutheran theology knows what to do when blame and guilt, retrenchment and anger are the result of such questions. Our response to times like these and questions like â€śwhat shall we doâ€ť is disarmingly simple. Our response is that weâ€™re asking the wrong question.
The right question, sisters and brothers, in times like these and amidst fears like ours is not â€śwhat shall we do?â€ť but rather â€śwhat is God doing?â€ť That question keeps God in the equation. That question is the product of our Lutheran understanding of Scripture, tradition and life as experiences of God speaking Law and Gospel, judgment and Promise, to us. Itâ€™s because we know how to frame the proper question â€” the one that keeps God in the equation â€” that defines what we mean by â€śLutheranâ€ť identity.
What is God doing with growing indifference, mounting isolationism and intensifying identity crises? As I read the Scriptures, study the
tradition and assess our current situation, Iâ€™m sure I know the answer. God is reforming the Church, the city and the world. As I read the Scriptures, study the tradition and assess our current situation that seems to fit Godâ€™s pattern.
â€śWhat is God doing?â€ť Thatâ€™s the question the people of Judah pose to the prophet Jeremiah. The people, from the king and the priests to the common people in the streets, were in a panic. They were paralyzed. Some stopped going to the Temple. Some sought and then worshipped other gods. Their leaders tried to be stricter, to revive the old ways and the old rules. On top of all this, they were surrounded and under siege by the mightiest empire the world had every known, the empire of the Babylonians. They asked, â€śWhat shall we do?â€ť and the entire Book of the prophet Jeremiah â€“ his preaching, his call, his trials and tribulations â€” his whole life forced them to change their question and allowed him to give this answer. What is God doing? God is making â€śa new covenantâ€¦ not like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt â€” a covenant that they brokeâ€¦â€ť A new covenant,
says the LORD, â€śI will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my peopleâ€¦they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.â€ť
What is God doing? Note again Jeremiahâ€™s answer: Coming to all, from the least to the greatest. Forgiving all, from the blamers to the guilty. Embracing all in order to be their God. Making a covenant, that is, making a promise again and again and again, until everyone hears it and everyone gets it and none are afraid and all are free. What do we call those things that God is doing? We call them â€śthe Gospel;â€ť reforming their faith, their city and their world then; reforming our church, our city and our world today. That is Godâ€™s pattern. Asking the right question and seeing Godâ€™s pattern, that is the heart of Lutheran theology. These are our tools for assessing our Church, our city and our world. This is the â€śtruthâ€ť that, according to Jesus, â€śsets all free.â€ť
When the proper question is â€śwhat is God doing,â€™ what shall we do? Pay attention. Listen. Assess the situation. Try to experience the refining work of God at work in the tumult and turmoil of our times and our world. Listen for Godâ€™s judgment on the structures and boundaries and systems that need to be changed.
But listen harder, pay attention closer, experience more deeply the Good News of God â€” the Gospel that is forgiveness and reconciliation; the Gospel that is for the least as well as the greatest; the Gospel that says God is your God and God is for all. Like Jeremiah before him, Jesus calls this â€śthe new covenantâ€ť in his blood.
Now thatâ€™s an event worth celebrating. Thatâ€™s an event for the whole people of God.