Sermon: Sunday, October 26, 2008: Reformation Sunday

Jeremiah 31:31-34  ;  Psalm 46  ;  Romans 3:19-28  ;  John 8:31-36


“Oh freedom, O freedom, O freedom is coming. Oh, yes, I know…”

Grace and peace to you, my brothers and sisters, in the name of Jesus who sets us free. Amen.

This Friday is Reformation Day, the actual day in the Lutheran church’s annual calendar when we celebrate Luther’s posting of the 95 thesis on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg 491 years ago in 1517. It is also the birthday of my friend, John Hassey, who was your guest preacher and presider last week while I was away at the historic first extraordinary ordinations in the Methodist tradition out in Baltimore, Maryland. John loves the annual Halloween parade on Halsted in Lakeview, so Jen and I are planning to take him out for dinner and the parade this Friday to kick off his birthday weekend.

Halloween parades are new to me. We didn’t have them when I was growing up in Des Moines, we just had trick-or-treating for the kids. The first Halloween parade I ever went to was in the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco in 2001. It was about a month and a half after 9/11, and I was visiting one of my best friends who’d lost a friend on United flight 93 that day. It was a raucous parade. People weren’t dressed up as fairy princesses or superheroes. They were dressed up as Osama bin Laden or President Bush or flight attendants. It wasn’t so much a parade as it was re-enactment of people’s deep fears and anxieties in public, a kind of street theater of the sub-conscious. Fights kept breaking out all around us, as the combination of fear and alcohol pushed people into anger and violence toward one another. It was terrifying.

Halloween traditions go back centuries, and are associated with the eve of All Saints Day, which we’ll celebrate next Sunday. All Hallows Eve, what we now just call Halloween, was thought of as a time when the barrier between the living and the dead was at its thinnest. When devils and spirits were able to roam the earth.

We don’t talk much about devils anymore, or the Devil, to be exact. Not in mainline Protestant churches where we’ve pretty much thrown our lot in with the Enlightenment and reason and science and all sorts of modern thinking that dismisses anything that can’t be seen and touched and measured. When talk of the Devil comes up in church we tend to get a little anxious, wondering if we’re about to witness one more example of religion gone bad – religion trying to scare us into good behavior, or frighten us into compliance, or just compel us into sloppy thinking. But today’s service is full of talk of devils and the Devil.

If you would, open your bulletin to page 9 and take a look at the top of the page. You’ll see that in the presentation of new members we’re celebrating this morning there is a section where we ask them to profess their faith using the words of the Apostle’s Creed. But before that we will ask them a series of questions:

  • Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God?
  • Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God?
  • And, do you renounce the ways of sin that draw you from God?

I have to admit, I always get uncomfortable during this part of the liturgy – which is a part of every baptism. I get uncomfortable not because I don’t believe in the devil, I do, but because I believe that concept has such a hazy meaning that as soon as I say the word I’ve lost control of meaning.

To illustrate, if I say “chair,” we all think of a chair and the word is meaningful. If I say “pumpkin,” we all think of a pumpkin and the word is meaningful. If I say “love,” we all think of our experiences of love, which are different from one another’s. Some of you will have an overwhelmingly positive association with the word, others will feel their hearts pining for something lost or broken. I have to say more about it in order to keep it meaningful. If I say “devil,” we’re all thinking of different things – or nothing at all – and I’ve lost all control of meaning.

This is especially true, I think, of these professions of faith. What do they mean? What are we asking of Brian and Libby and Christa and Tim and Henry when we ask them to renounce the Devil and all the forces that defy God? It’s important to ask this question, because to ask people to stand up and make public statements about faith, when there isn’t thought or conviction behind them, is to erode the value of words to tell the truth about who we are and what we stand for – and if the Protestant Reformation is about anything it has been about speaking truth to power and standing up for what we believe. We can’t help but hear the words of Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms presenting his defense to the representatives of the church in Rome saying,

Unless I shall be convinced by the testimonies of the Scriptures or by clear reason … I neither can nor will make any retraction, since it is neither safe nor honourable to act against conscience… Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.

So what do we mean when, in the church, we speak of the Devil?

The most useful image I’ve ever seen for helping me think about the Devil was printed on a tarot card. Tarot cards, used for telling fortunes, are full of archetypal concepts like justice, fate, strength, death and the devil. I had a friend in college who loved to give tarot card readings, and I’ve always remembered this particular card. It showed your everyday run-of-the-mill Devil – red skin, horns, a tail – holding two people captive on a leashes made of chain links. The final link in the chains was the one that went around their necks – their collars – but in the picture these links are large enough that the people could easily slip them over their heads. They are being held captive, but not truly. They remain in captivity only because they believe they have been chained up. They are held captive by a lie.

This is an extremely ancient understanding of what the Devil is. The accuser, the liar. As someone who tends not to think in personal terms, either about God or the Devil, I think of the Devil as the anthropomorphic representation of everything untrue about ourselves and the world that we are constantly being coerced into believing. The personification of all sorts of lies.

Here are a few:

  • There’s not enough to go around – so horde, cling, pinch and hide all that you can.
  • Take care of yourself first, since no one else is going to take care of you.
  • People can’t be trusted, especially outsiders. Stick to your own kind.
  • Things have always been like this, nothing ever changes.

These lies, these thoughts and feelings, fears and sentiments, get into our hearts and minds and distort our image of ourselves and the world around us. They infect our world with fear, which leads to anger and finally violence. If you can’t get with calling that the Devil’s work, surely we can call it demonic.

How then are we to respond to the fears and prejudices that pervade our culture, the “powers of the world that rebel against God… the ways of sin that draw us from God?” How do we deal with the devil?

In the epigraph to C.S. Lewis’ “The Screwtape Letters” the author quotes Martin Luther on this subject. Luther writes, “the best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.” The Screwtape Letters is an effort to do just that. In the book, Lewis presents a series of lette
rs written from a senior devil in Hell’s bureaucracy named Screwtape written to his nephew, a junior-level devil named Wormwood, instructing him on the finer points of devilry. It’s an amusing and insightful book because it presents with good humor our human foibles, our weaknesses and our tendency for self-deception. Writing about devils in the preface, Lewis states

“There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight… Readers are advised to remember that the devil is a liar. Not everything that Screwtape says should be assumed to be true even from his own angle.”

If the devil, in essence, is a liar who attempts to hold us captive with half-truths and misinformation and flat out falsehoods, then what we crave – what we need – is a source of truth reliable enough to set us free. In John’s gospel Jesus tells his followers, “if you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

Freedom is the message of the gospel and the heart of the Reformation. During a time when the church had lost its way and was teaching people to be terrified, was threatening them with images of hell if they didn’t pay up and turn over their wages so that the church could build cathedrals in Rome, Martin Luther stood up to say that the message of the gospel is God’s unconditional love and mercy. Where do you suppose he got that from? Well, it might have been hidden somewhere in the scriptures, like the passage we heard this morning from Paul’s letter to the Romans

“Since all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus… Then what is to become of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.”

Justified by grace apart from anything we think we can or must do. Justified as a gift. Love is a gift. Belonging is a gift. Membership is a gift. Inclusion is a gift. Forgiveness is a gift. It is all gift. It is all a gift. Good news for hungry people and a nation scared by specters of economic doom. All that is needed for life comes to us in the form of a gift. Don’t listen to the lies, the fears and anxieties and insecurities and preoccupations. Renounce them! Freedom is coming in the form of truth that cannot be disputed or dispelled. You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free!

Lutherans celebrate Reformation Sunday because it is, for us, a marker on the freedom trail of God’s work in the world. We are not the only ones on that path, and we don’t have all the truth. We are part of a wider Reformation, an ongoing reformation, the never-ending task of sifting through what we have received, what we have been taught, and claiming for ourselves what is true – what is liberating. The church’s abuses didn’t end when Luther confronted Rome, they continue today wherever we fail to proclaim God’s impartiality, whenever we collude with the world’s fears and anxieties about strangers and newcomers, each time we get up from the communion table where there is enough for everyone or pass the baptismal font where are all welcome and then go out into the world with hearts hardened to hunger or segregation. The work of the reformation has not ended, but the horizon is in sight. It is where the night of fears and falsehoods, with its hordes of devils filling the land, meets the new day, the sunrise, of God’s truth in the person of Jesus Christ. Freedom is coming! Amen.


“Oh freedom, O freedom, O freedom is coming. Oh, yes, I know…”

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