Sermon Preached Reformation Day at Montview Presbyterian:
I don't know how you spend COVIDTIDE, perhaps you learned Italian, or how to bake bread. Maybe you improved yourself physically or spiritually. And if so, good for you! I myself watched an INORDINATE amount of television. I’d like to be able to say it was all PBS specials and Masterpiece Theater but I’ll confess to you that I watched 12 seasons of Grey’s Anatomy, a survivalist reality show called ALONE, and a whole lot of movies I’d already seen more than once.
I think I watched certain movies because I often needed a good cry and there are scenes from movies that, no matter how many times I watch them I can’t keep from shedding tears all over again.
Art can do this – excavate a buried thing inside of us and hold it up until our eyes adjust to the bright truth of it.
One of those was the movie The Mission. Set in the 18th century – Robert DeNiro plays a seemingly irredeemable mercenary and slave trader in South America who kills his own brother in a fit of jealousy and says to a Jesuit priest that he is beyond saving –that for him, redemption is not possible. Yet the priest gives him penance anyway – to carry a large net full of the trappings of his past – armor, weapons, gold, and walk with it on his back for miles….carried up steep cliffs and waterfalls. An easy metaphor for the dead weight of his own shame. After an exhausting, painful journey, when DiNero finally hoists himself to the top he is cut free from the net by someone who had every right to instead cut his throat, and as the contents fall down the cliff, he collapses into sobs. And so do I.
Why do I consistently cry at scenes in movies that show the catharsis of mercy and forgiveness? Because the road we’re on is too long, and the cliffs we must climb in life are too steep to keep carrying our garbage in a ratty net behind us. Especially when grace and mercy and forgiveness are just within our reach.
And yet Lord to whom do we go for grace and mercy and forgiveness?
Where can we ever lay down the burdens of our own errors and shortcomings or must we carry them in a ratty net behind us and pretend everything is still ok.
Well, the medieval church knew that we humans carry around the weight of our failures and they very astutely realized there was a lot of money to be made from the anxiety we have about the things we have done and the things we have failed to do.
So, by the 16th century, the church had slipped into some pretty bogus practices, one being the “selling of indulgences”. Indulgences were little “get out of sin free” cards the church would distribute at a certain cost. Don’t laugh. This was fundraising genius – I mean, not for nothing but it did pay for St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Well, when Martin Luther had enough of this and other such nonsense, he made a list of greivences, 95 of them to be exact, and he walked over to his local church in Wittenburg Germany, and he nailed them to the door. It was October 31, 1517; 504 years ago today - the start of what would be known as the Protestant Reformation.
There is a lot to celebrate when it comes to the Reformation - yet what do the texts assigned for Reformation Day talk about? Sin. What we get in our readings is not a victory parade for the Protestant Reformation, but a lot of talk about sin and law.
All sin and fall short of the glory of God
and all who sin are slaves to sin
and that through the law comes knowledge of sin.
Sin, sin, sin.
A word so often weaponized against so many of us. A word used by the priggish to label the Hester Pryns of the world. A word connoting the naughty things some people do in secret – the things for which they should feel deep shame. A word for those who have fallen for siren’s songs, and taken what is not yours and felt pleasures that good people know better than to indulge – you who have eaten the Turkish delight that the White Witch offered.
No wonder we often recoil from the word, or misuse is as something only “those” people indulge in. After all, Christianity pawned off as nothing more than a sin management program is what was sold to so many of us. As if Jesus came to earth to hand human beings a moral elimination diet.
But Martin Luther had a way of talking about sin that makes a whole lot more sense to me now. To him, sin was bigger than simple immorality. Sin was more than the big bad things others do that we can feel superior for NOT doing. Sin, according to Luther, is the self being curved in on self without a thought for God or the neighbor. In that case, It can be alcoholism or it can be passive aggression. It can be the ways I manipulate others to get what I want, or it can be adultery, it can be embezzling funds or it can be that feeling of superiority when I am helping others. British writer Fracis Spufford describes sin as the HPFTU the human propensity to *mess* things up except the word mess doesn't start with the letter F if you get my meaning. Sin is the fact that my ideals and values are never enough to make me always do what I should, feel what I should, think what I should.
And the Law is anything that reveals those “shoulds” to me. The “shoulds” in our lives are the things that make us see how far off the mark we are.
And feeling convicted by the Law looks like every feminist who in secret hates her body and every televangelist who’s really addicted to porn and every social worker who doesn’t actually look into the eyes of the homeless man they pass every day on the corner. They all know what the Law can do to us. How cruel the distance is between our ideal self and out actual self can feel. And that feeling of not ever really hitting the mark, whatever mark that is, is the feeling of the Law convicting you.
Martin Luther knew what it felt like for the Law to convict him, accuse him, leave him with nowhere to rest. And what really sparked the Protestant Reformation is the fact that feeling this way, Luther read a passage from Romans where Paul says, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift.
And so he no longer accepted what the church had for so long taught: that we are saved by fulfilling all the “shoulds” and in so doing, bridging for ourselves the gap between our ideal self and our actual self. The medieval church had pawned off Law as Gospel and Luther dared to know the difference and then he became a preacher of Grace and that changed the world. This isn’t just a medieval thing – what passes for preaching in most settings, liberal or conservative is some version of “here’s the problem and here’s what you should be doing about it” which I have never in my life heard as “good news”
So, in celebration of Reformation Sunday I would like to offer us a field guide for spotting the difference between Law and Gospel:
You can tell the Law because it is almost always and if-then proposition – If you follow all the rules in the Bible then God will love you and you will be happy. If you lose 20 pounds then you will be worthy to be loved. If you live a perfectly righteous Green eco lifestyle then you will be worthy of taking up space in the planet. If you never have a racist or sexist or homophobic thought then you will be worthy of calling other people out on their racism and sexism and homophobia. The Law is always conditional and never anything anyone can do perfectly. When we treat Law as if it will save us- as if it is Gospel there can never be flourishing. Under the Law there are only 2 options: pride and despair. When fulfilling the “shoulds” is the only thing that determines our worthiness we are either prideful about our ability to follow the rules compared to others or we despair at our inability to perfectly do anything. Either way, it’s still bondage.
And that’s why the Gospel is different. The Gospel is not an if-then proposition. It’s more Wizard of Oz than that. The Gospel is a because because because because proposition. Because God is our creator and because we rebel against the idea of being created beings and insist on trying to be God for ourselves and because God will not play by our rules and because in the fullness of time when God had had quite enough of all of that God became human in Jesus Christ to show us who God really is and because God would not be deterred God went so far as to hang from the cross we built and did not even lift a finger to condemn but said forgive them they know not what they are doing and because Jesus Christ defeated even death and the grave and rose on the 3rd day and because we all sin and fall short and are forever turned in on ourselves and forget that we belong to God and that none of our success guarantee this and none of our failures exclude this and because God loves God’s creation God refuses for our sin and brokenness and inability to always do the right things to be the last word because God came to save and not to judge therefore…therefore you are saved by grace as a gift and not by the works of the law and this truth will set you free like no self-help can do.
And yes, the road we’re on is too long, and the cliffs we must climb in life are too steep to keep carrying our garbage in a ratty net behind us. Especially when grace and mercy and forgiveness are always ours and always just within reach. Amen.
About The Corners
If you’d like to support my work and get more content and engagement with me and other subscribers here, you can subscribe to The Corners using the button below. You will have access to essays, conversation threads, Q & A, and all the archives. If you’d like access to all the content here but a paid subscription isn’t for you, no problem, we give them free to absolutely anyone who emails us at email@example.com! This is for everyone.
“Of course God loves the lost, the disobedient, the fearful.
“Who else is there?”
—Street, quoted in The Epistle to the Arkansans
The imagery of the man carrying the heavy net behind him was so resonant to me. In an era of public and private self-flagellation with public notes app apologies and private hand wringing over past wrongs, we need a different, more effective answer to our feelings of shame and guilt over who we’ve been and what we’ve done wrong. We can’t wait for other people to cut us free, we’ve already been cut free, and lugging around those heavy nets full of garbage isn’t doing us any good. It feels tricky, to allow ourselves to recognize we’re already forgiven even while people are still angry with us. There’s a paradox in there somewhere. I’ll be mulling over this one for a while. Thank you.