Today was a special, special day. I had the opportunity on Reformation Sunday – a major festival in the Lutheran world – to deliver my first sermon! Many friends were there, the congregation was supportive as always, the whole experience is something I’ll never forget. If you’re curious, audio of the sermon is here along with text, so listen or read, pick your poison. Enjoy!
In 1995 alternative rock group The Smashing Pumpkins released their album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. The album debuted #1 on the Billboard top 200, going on to sell over 5 million copies in the US alone. The hit single from this album, Bullet With Butterfly Wings, went on to win a Grammy award for best performance. That song prominently features these sad, sad lyrics:
Despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a cage,
Then someone will say what is lost can never be saved,
Despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a cage.
Billy Corgan, lead singer of the Smashing Pumpkins, describes the album as being “based on the human condition of mortal sorrow.” There must be something in our culture that makes us feel trapped, unable to escape our cage.
Today we celebrate Reformation Sunday, and the leader of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther, all those years ago.
Luther knew of rage, and for much of his youth it was directed inward. First it was a rage of not living up to expectations – his father wanted him to be a lawyer, and paid good money for Luther’s education to follow this path. Later his was a rage of more expectations, expectations he thought were from God.
Luther, living in a monastery at the time, worried much about sin, and that he may have committed it. Luther was trying to save himself, through good works, and would apologize to God through confession whenever he failed. Often Luther would awake the head monk in the middle of the night to confess. At times Luther was so obsessed with his sins he would practice self-flagellation, or whipping himself as punishment. Painful stuff.
So why all this extreme behavior? Because Luther believed that if he passed away without confessing all his sins that eternal damnation would await. A cage of impending hell, that’s quite a cage to be holed up in.
Fortunately, after deeply studying the bible, Luther had an ahh-haa moment…
Theologian Gerhard Forde summarizes the insight from this moment like this, saying:
What shall I do to be saved? The answer is shocking. Nothing! Just be still, stop talking, and listen for once in your life…Listen to what God the Almighty, creator and redeemer is saying to the world, and to you, in the death and resurrection of his Son! Listen and believe!”
And with this new understanding of grace and salvation the personal reformation of Martin Luther had begun. Luther, now aware of this grace, and free from the rage he experienced in mind and body, set about to share this message with others. It wasn’t widely accepted or appreciated by the church at the time, so he wrote and posted the ninety-five theses on the door of the Wittenberg cathedral in 1517.
Luther, a man of the people, encouraged those around him to spend time each day studying the bible and in prayer. He also challenged the Catholic church on their use of indulgences – that’s where people would pay the church to forgive sin. By this understanding people would also pay the church to avoid hell. For Luther, as is for us, we are free through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Our cages have already been opened, our self-rage washed in grace. Salvation is ours, just believe, nothing else.
The gospel reading from John today connects with Luther’s ahh-haa moment too. In the gospel reading Jesus speaks to a crowd, telling them to remain faithful to his teachings. “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” Jesus reminds us. There are no modifiers here, no works to do for salvation, only a simple equation: believe, know the truth, be free.”
Reformation isn’t something stuck in the past with Jesus 2,000 years ago or with Martin Luther 500 years ago. Reformation can be here, and now, and personal.
I was raised in a Pentecostal church, which taught Christianity a bit differently than what we understand as Lutherans. Our Pentecostal brothers and sisters in Christ believe in the speaking of tongues as a gift of the Holy Spirit, and also emphasize public faith healings. It made for a dynamic way to experience church as a kid. But Pentecostals, at least in the 1980s, were also largely known for something else: preaching about the ills of homosexuality. I distinctly remember the pastors of my youth speaking about AIDS being a punishment from God for a sinful lifestyle. It never made much sense to me at the time, I mean, where was this God of love we were taught about in Sunday School? This disconnect, between an angry, punishing God and a God of love is a large reason I walked away from any form of Christianity for many years.
My personal reformation towards something new began in college. By chance I went to a Lutheran university, and was blessed to date, and then marry, a good Lutheran girl (hi Kathi!)
As part of our engagement we went church shopping, with a goal of finding a faith community that worked for each of us. At some point the Lutheran concept of being saint AND sinner, that both reside in us at all times started making sense. When I stumbled on a good explanation of Lutheran grace, that God forgives, always, and salvation is ours, always, I was hooked for good.
It was also during this time that a few guys from my college fraternity would take the 45 minute drive each year to Notre Dame University. Their goal? To nail Martin Luther’s 95 thesis to the door of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart. It a silly thing to do, for sure, but I took away another message: reform is still happening in our world today.
Our Lutheran denomination, the ELCA, has engaged in reform of this sort, and in some very specific ways. We believe that God calls all to be in community together as a people of faith. We believe God can call anyone to lead our congregations, be they black or white, male or female, gay or straight. From the pulpits to the pews, *All* are welcome. This, for me, brought me out from the Christian cage of my youth, away from a God of judgment to a God of love.
While I was freed from this cage, and happily embraced our Lutheran community at St. Michael, God wasn’t done with me yet.
Two years ago I thought I had it all, a loving family, a great church, a roof over my head, the stability of a good paying job. I had recently been promoted at work, was now managing a team of employees, and stayed busy climbing the corporate ladder. Our goal was clear, upper management told me, do whatever it takes to increase profits. Nothing else matters.
In this cage, more works brought more money. In this cage, people were only as important as the revenue they represent. My rage this time came out as a dark clinical depression. Deep down I knew, despite the values corporate America was asking me to embrace, that relationships, that people, really do matter.
Then one night, from a hotel room in Chicago, my personal ahh-haa came. I was busily typing away at the keyboard, preparing for a sales presentation the next day. The topic? How to increase profits. I decided to take a break, and listened to a favorite sermon from Pastor Weiss on the internet. The sermon, from Easter day 2012, is a retelling of the garden of Eden, and has the theme but you don’t need points.
We’re caught up in accumulating points and have lost our way, so the story goes. Instead, our role on earth is simple, we are to dance with our Creator, dance with creation, dance with each other, and be in deep relationship with the world.
Hearing this, from a hotel room in Chicago, while working on a presentation all about collecting points – points with big dollar signs attached to them – brought tears streaming down my face. But you don’t need points! I remember shouting at my laptop. My personal reformation, and release from the cage, had evolved yet again. Since then I walked away from a career in collecting points, have decided to pursue ordained ministry, begun seminary classes, and have dived even more into the life of the church at St. Michael. This moment – of yelling at a laptop But you Don’t need points! – is a large reason I’m standing here today.
So what about you? What cages, what rages do you need to be released from? Is it a cage of self-loathing? A rage of broken relationships? A cage of longing for more, but not knowing how?
Know the truth, Jesus reminds us, and be free. Amen.