Pastor's Sermons

Sermon for Reformation Sunday ~ Oct 26, 2014

 

Being Good for Nothing

by Bishop Greg Mohr

Appointed Texts:

Jeremiah 31:31-34

Romans 3:19-28

John 8:31-36

Today is Reformation Sunday, a day to remember and celebrate an important event in the life of the church and, in particular, in the life of the Lutheran church. Technically, Reformation Day occurs on October 31st of every year, but we celebrate it at church on the Sunday on or before the actual date. 

 

October 31st a day we remember a young man by the name of Martin Luther who called the church to a life of reformation.  Luther challenged some of the religious practices of the day; he said that something is wrong here; we have lost our way. For Martin Luther, a major obsession of his and of the church at that time, was how to make oneself worthy before God; how to make oneself acceptable and right and justified before God.  The underlying question was, “How could God love me, a sinner?”

 

Okay, class.  It is time for a history lesson:

(a) Martin Luther was not a black civil rights leader in the US during 1960s.

He was born …..  when? ....1483 in Germany

 

(b) A major event occurred 497 years ago on the 31st of October (1517) in Wittenberg, Germany.  Any ideas?

 

On October 31, 1517, at the age of 34, Martin Luther posted the famous 95 theses or statements, questioning a certain practice in the church.  He wrote it in Latin, since that was the scholarly language of the day.  However, since it was so newsworthy – and because it affected the pocketbooks of the people – translations were quickly made into German and they spread like wildfire.  And yes, Luther posted it on the town bulletin board – which just happened to be the door of the church.

 

(c) By 1521, Luther had written “The Small Catechism.”  (How many of you had to memorize all or part of the SC?)

 

(d) By 1530, the Lutherans were called before the Emperor to give an account of their theology. The famous document presented was called “The Augsburg Confession.” The date of June 25, 1530, technically is the official birth date of the Lutheran Church. The key article in that Augsburg Confession is #4: we are justified by grace through faith.

           

Remember the story from Scriptures where a young man asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” That was basically Luther’s question growing up and during his life as a monk. He struggled, he lived in guilt, he tried valiantly to become acceptable to God; yet in his heart he knew he could never be worthy.

 

But then Luther studied these words from the book of Romans: “For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”

 

That was a turning point for Martin Luther. A new world opened up for him; a new life began.  We cannot make ourselves worthy before God. We live by grace. God declares us righteous; declares us justified. It is a gift from God.

 

Rather than living lives trying to get God to accept you, Luther understood that God has already accepted us and we thereby live our lives in joyful response to the gospel. Christ has set us free. We live by God’s grace – and not by threat or fear. Our goodness does not earn God’s favour. Rather, I suppose we can humourously say, we can be good for nothing!

 

Justified by God’s grace through faith. Those words have become the central statement of Lutheran theology and identity. (The other two Lutheran catchphrases are: “There’s a pot-luck luncheon next Sunday” and “We’ve never done it that way before.”)

 

But seriously, the central statement of Lutheran theology is that we are “Justified by God’s grace through faith.”  We can quote it, debate it, and enshrine it in church constitutions and bylaws, but as well-known theologian Robert Kysar states, “The truth is that justification by grace is not an idea. It is a way of life.” (New Proc 05)

 

Kysar argues that this statement is such a radical concept that we do not easily accommodate it into our daily lives. He writes, “Most of us have been soaked for years in the fluids of accomplishment, work, and goodness. Before we had a religious thought in our tiny brains, our parents were telling us that if we were good girls or boys we would be rewarded. If we were ‘naughty,’ there would, however, be no dessert, no television, and so on.”

 

“In the workplace,” he continues, “the atmosphere is saturated by the accomplishment ethic – we accomplish things because we work hard, or that you can always pull yourself up by your bootstraps.  Imagine a boss who tells you that you cannot get promoted by working hard and accomplishing the company’s goals. (Instead), promotions will be done by grace!” (New Proc 05)

 

Wouldn’t that set off a firestorm of protest? In fact, that’s the kind of talk that got Jesus killed.

 

Remember that parable he told about the workers in the vineyard? It was one of the texts you would have heard in church a few weeks ago. The owner of the vineyard is concerned; a storm is coming.  The harvest has to get done today. He goes to the village square at dawn and hires some workers.  “I’ll pay you whatever is right.”

 

At 9, he needs more workers. “I’ll pay you whatever is right.” At noon, then again at 3 in the afternoon, he goes to the village square and hires some more workers – those who have slept in because they partied too hard the night before; those who just didn’t have the work ethic that the 6 am workers had.  “I’ll pay you whatever is right,” he tells them.

 

But there is still more work to be done. Back to the village square. A handful of men stand around.  “Why are you just standing here?” the owner of the vineyard calls out. “Because no one has hired us,” they say. “Well get in the truck. We’ve got work to do. I’ll pay you whatever is right.”

 

At the end of the day, those who worked only one hour came forward to receive their wage. Lo and behold, if they did not receive a denarius.

 

Now class, do you know what a denarius is? Yes, George, that’s correct.  A denarius was a silver coin and it was a day’s wage. It was “enough to live on.” Well, all those other workers began thinking,  “Let’s see. They got a day’s wage for one hour of work – a hundred to hundred fifty dollars. That means I’ll get . . . .” and their eyes started spinning.

 

But when they came to collect their wages, those who worked 3 hours, those who worked 6, those who worked 9 and those who worked all 12 hours toiling in the hot sun, received exactly the same wage as those who worked only one hour. Predictably, this caused an uproar. “It’s not fair. It’s not right.”

 

And the owner of the vineyard replies, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?  Or are you envious because I am generous?”

 

This is a parable about the kingdom of God. It is a reminder to us – to us who have been here faithfully over the years, toiling in our churches, striving to work hard for the kingdom, loving and serving our Lord; it is a reminder that God’s grace knows no limits. It is not about how many hours one works; it’s not about who started first; it’s not about who is more worthy. It is ALL about God’s grace. We have no special claim on heaven or on God’s grace.

 

But this parable speaks to us in other ways as well. Jesus is challenging our culture that is based upon acquisitiveness (the acquiring of things) in order to determine our worth, value or identify.  Jesus points us time and time again to that which is most valuable, that which should be of most worth in our lives.

 

He also chastises us for thinking that our comfortable lives are a sign of God’s good blessing, as if somehow we are of more worth than one who is caught in a cycle of poverty, famine, or war.

 

At a National Youth Gathering a few years back, the guest speaker laid it out there for the youth. He said there are 3 premises that we need to remember:

 

(1) The Gospel is always astonishing. If it’s not, then we’re reading it wrong.

(2) The gospel is never fair – because it is about grace.

(3) God always acts first.

 

The guest speaker explored this Parable of the Vineyard and challenged the youth to consider "how much is enough in the kingdom of God?" Referring to the denarius that each worker received in that parable, the speaker said, "One measure is enough; no need for more, no need for less.”

 

"It is a strange message for us to hear,” he said, “for you and I have been surrounded all our life with the message that more is better!"

 

Yet such a gospel-economy has implications for our world today. It calls us to examine what truly is a living wage in our expensive world; it calls us to question the multi-million dollar bonuses paid to financial executives            when their companies failed during a global recession. It challenges our consumptive lifestyle, of always wanting more, and it challenges the ways by which we determine who is more important, more worthy. It calls us to work towards a society that makes sure the most vulnerable among us are cared for, and housed, and nourished.

 

In your families, in your church, in your own sense of identity, remember who it is who has welcomed and accepted you; remember who it is who has forgiven you; remember who it is who values you – not because of how hard you work, how successful you are, how many promotions you get, or what grades you achieve.

 

But rather, this gracious God accepts you out of love and grace and mercy. “It is not fair!” you say.  You’re right; it is not fair. Thank God it is not fair! If it were fair, we would not have a hope in ….

 

Justification by grace through faith is so foreign to our way of being. We have a hard time grasping this concept of grace, and learning a way of life takes time and perseverance. 

 

For that reason, we are never done preaching and teaching justification by grace. We need to hear it over and over again. We need to be reminded over and over again of who we are as children of God.  We are justified. We are saved. We are free. We are graced. We are forgiven. We are loved by God. 

 

And because we are justified, saved, free, graced, forgiven and loved, we begin to live like it. It becomes our present reality. “Hmmm. I didn’t know I was so good at this grace thing until God said so. I didn’t know I was up to the task of forgiving so much until God said I was.” 

 

Saint and sinner we may be, but because of who we are in Christ, we live as saints – as ones chosen and set apart by God for service to others. I’ve said it countless times before but I’ll say it again: God looks at us through the cross. God looks at you and looks at me and sees the cross. “Hey!  You’re a saint,” says God. “You’re justified, set right. Interesting how that happened . . . for Christ’s sake.”

 

Such a statement speaks of our relationship with God; about our being “made right” with God. But implied in that statement is this issue of our relationship with others: We are justified . . . but for what purpose?  God’s grace is given . . . but just to you?  Faith there is . . . but is it just for your own benefit? Luther always had his social ethic completely interwoven with the theological: God’s grace frees us to love the neighbour.

 

Justified by God’s grace through faith.  As a young man, Luther started off by seeking to do good works in order to earn God’s favour. But the Gospel turned his world upside down. God has done it all. We are set free for a life of love and service, for Jesus’ sake.

           

As 1st John declares, “We love, because God first loved us.” It is a gift – gospel – a freely given gift.  Thanks be to God.

Click here for sermon archives.