“Protest and Grace”
October 30, 2011
This morning we mark Reformation Sunday. This is the Sunday closest to October 31, the day on which, in 1517 the German monk, Martin Luther, nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the castle church at Wittenberg. This door was often used as a kind of public bulletin board—kind of like the kiosks down on Iowa Avenue. While dissention had been brewing within the Roman Catholic Church for some time, it is this act and this day that many look back upon as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.
Reformation Sunday invites us to reflect on what it means to be Protestant Christians nearly 500 years after the beginning of the Reformation, to consider what we are and who we are.
We can start with that name—Protestant and, of course, we can discover its root in the word “protest.”
2011 has been a year of protest, of uprising. From the Arab Spring to the Wall Street Autumn, voices are being raised, and in many places lives are being put on the line, so that something new might spring forth.
The “No” of Protestantism is important because it contains the divine and human protest against any absolute claim made for a relative reality. One of the great leaders of the Reformation, John Calvin, reminded us that the human mind is a factory of idols. There is a human tendency to make just about anything sacred—even though it is not God.
So we saw this past week clergy carrying a golden calf in Occupy protests in New York, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. This was a reminder that the protests are not against corporations or against the rich. They are against the idolatrous human tendency to see oneself, rather than God, as a “master of the universe.” They are against the idolatrous human tendency to seek wealth without concern for the rest of society.
Protestants have always been willing to question authority—whether that authority is claimed by the church or the state or the economy or, yes, even the academy. Protestantism places healthy restraints on the human tendency to deify any system or people. When the state, the church, the economy or anything else seeks to be absolute, we say: “No!”
God alone is absolute, infinite, unconditioned—and therefore anything—anything—that is less than God and claims for itself our ultimate loyalty must be protested against.
But Protestantism has a “yes” as well as a “no”—the unrighteous are made righteous, the sinner is justified. Again, even the word “protest” suggests this, as its first meaning is “to state positively, to affirm solemnly.” As a result, at our best, we are always looking for new ways of being faithful people in changing times.
Out of the Protestant Reformation came key Western values—social reform, individual religious conviction, hard work, and the rejection of corruption, hypocrisy, and empty ritual.
It is grace—the unmerited love that God freely offers to us—not our own goodness, that carries us, that equips us for our lives and our labor. As one translations of Luther’s hymn reminds us “Did we in our own strength confide, our struggle would be senseless.” All of our struggles, all of our protests, all our occupations—to care for one another, for better relationships in our families, to fight hunger and poverty, to establish justice and peace—all of our struggles make sense because of God’s grace.
In baptizing Gavin this morning, we made that grace visible.
The Protestant Reformers considered the sacraments of Communion and Baptism to be “visual sermons.” That is to say, while I talk about the grace of God, these sacraments show the grace of God in concrete, physical ways.
The water of baptism is a powerful sign of the ways of God in our lives.
Here in Iowa City we are well aware of the power of water to change things. Our community and the University still continue to recover from the flood three years ago. Buildings have been and will be torn down. One of the fortuitous results of the flood was a revival of life downtown as the School of Music was brought across the river and into the mall.
Water carries with it the power of life and death. When it is withheld long enough, plants and trees wither and perish. When it returns after a drought, flora and fauna alike find new life.
The water of baptism shows us the power of God at work: giving life, loving us, changing us.
Baptisms always grab and keep our attention and I’m glad that you were watching closely this morning when the baptism of Gavin made visible two realities:
God loves us as we are.
And because God loves us as we are, God does not leave us as we are.
In the United Church of Christ we understand baptism as the seal of God’s covenant with the people. We see in the baptism of infants a sign that grace comes by divine, not human, initiative. And baptism remains a strong expression of the grace of God. Each time we baptize an infant, we announce the good news that God chooses us long before we are capable of a response of faith.
Here is a sign that we are God’s, not because of our goodness but because of God’s great love and mercy for us. We are God’s not because we have accepted God but because God has accepted us. We do not earn God’s love and forgiveness as children or adults—it is always a gift.
Before we do anything, God loves us and calls us.
And because this is God’s love, it means that we are not left as we are. This love means change in our lives; it means change in who we are. Looking for something to compare the change that baptism shows, Paul likened it to dying and rising again.
Whatever our age, when we respond to the love of God that comes to us, we become new people. We are part of a new creation. We change, not by the work that we do, but by God working in us.
The water of baptism helps us to see who we have been all along: children of God, loved as we are but not left as we are.
The Reformers recovered this ancient truth. They announced God's fidelity to the new covenant in Jesus Christ to a church that had almost forgotten it.
God is always shaking us up, calling us to new commitments in the world, new depth in our worship, new honesty and equality in our dealings with each other.
Reformation Sunday gives us not only a chance to sing “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” but also the opportunity to think about how God might still be at work in the church and the world, challenging us, reshaping us, and shining new light upon us from ancient scripture.
A choir director once told me about the musical “trick” that Luther used in composing that classic Reformation hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” A couple of measures before the end of the hymn, Luther shifts from a major to a minor chord. As we sing this hymn, that shift induces a sense of foreboding, a feeling that all is not right.
Normally a composer would then stay in this minor key—and we would continue to feel uneasy. But Luther doesn't continue in this minor mode. He quickly turns it around so that we end up with a sense that “everything will be O.K.”—that, as the final words tell us: “God’s kingdom is forever.”
Luther’s hymn speaks of the mighty power of the living God that will overcome all the evil that fills this world. It speaks the word of faith in an uncertain time. Which is why it still speaks to us when we to sing it today.
We ask: “Will everything be O.K.?”
And we start to realize: we won’t be saved by our goodness.
We won't be saved by all church programs, no matter how wonderful they are.
We won't be saved by what we believe.
We won’t be saved by our occupations—in every sense of that word.
We will only be saved—made whole, restored to health—by the grace of God through faith.
As we have for over 150 years, this congregation continues to discover new life as we look for the living Christ among us, calling us out beyond ourselves. We're finding new life as we discover once more that God is faithful and forgiving.
Where do you fit into this new reformation? Where do you want to fit into what God is doing among us—how do you want to be a part of it all?
Will everything be O.K.? We can never be certain. It often seems like the world and our city is set in a minor key—we are fearful in the present, worried about the future. But in faith we can recall that God is faithful and keeps promises. In faith we can recall that God has made a new covenant with us in Jesus Christ, writing a law of love and forgiveness on our hearts. In faith we can see all our protests held in the larger context of God’s grace. And so in faith we can sing of God who is our fortress, whose reign of creative love will last forever.