Sermon for Reformation Sunday ~ Oct 26, 2014
Being Good for Nothing
Bishop Greg Mohr
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
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
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.”
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
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
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
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
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 ….
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
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
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
John declares, “We love, because God first loved us.” It is a gift – gospel – a
freely given gift. Thanks be to God.