Reformation Day Sermon

Preparing for Reformation Sunday this year, I happened across this: the first Reformation Sunday sermon that I preached. It is from Reformation Sunday, 2006. While sermons tend to go stale pretty quickly after being preached this one has held up pretty well, and still speaks to me.

Disclaimer: Like all sermons, the text of the manuscript is not necessarily the same as the text preached.

The Pursuit of God

Grace and peace to you in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.

On this Reformation Sunday, I want to talk with you some about why we are here.

Not the existential question “Why are we here on the face of this earth,” but why are we here at Saint John Lutheran Church.

For many of us in this congregation, we grew up in the Lutheran church. Our parents were Lutheran, and their parents before that. We were born into and raised in the Lutheran church, and we never left.

Others in this congregation married into the Lutheran Church. You grew up in another tradition, maybe Baptist, Episcopal, or Presbyterian, and married someone who was a Lutheran. Rather than worship at two different churches, you joined your spouse at the Lutheran church.

Still others live in the community surrounding this church. You come here to worship because it is the closest church to your house, and you want to be a part of this community.

I am one of those who grew up in the Lutheran church. By that I don’t mean that my parents brought me to the Lutheran church on Sunday morning, I mean that I spent the much of my childhood inside the walls of Lutheran churches – I grew up in the church.

Many of you know my story. My Dad was a Lutheran pastor, as was my grandfather and my great-grandfather. And not just them, my great-uncle and a number of my great-great uncles were also Lutheran pastors. All told, I am the 12th Lutheran pastor in my family.
In fact, I am so Lutheran that my Episcopal friends at the seminary I attended called me “Little Luther.”
It would seem that I had little choice in being a Lutheran.

But in fact, just as you did, I did have a choice, and I continue to choose the Lutheran church; and I hope you will continue to choose the Lutheran church.

I could find the hymns that I love in the Baptist church.
I could find the liturgy that I love in the Roman Catholic or Episcopal Church.
I could find the emphasis on Scripture that I love in any number of non-denominational churches.

Yet, here I am, here we are, in Saint John Lutheran church. Why?

I can’t answer for you, but I know why I – in a world littered with different churches and different denominations – continue to choose the Lutheran tradition. And it starts for me with the story of Martin Luther.

Martin had just finished his undergraduate studies and was preparing for law school. He grew up in the church, raised by faithful parents. He went to religious schools for his entire education.
He was like many of us – a faithfully person living his life as best he could – yet not terribly committed to the church – after all, he was a college student.
It was then that he was caught just outside the forest in a fierce thunderstorm. With the rain pouring down on him, the thunder rolling overhead, and lightning flashing almost non-stop, young Martin saw no sign of shelter. So he called out to God for help, pledging to enter a monastery if God would save him from this storm.

Well, Martin did survive the storm. You can call it fate or chance, but Luther described it as God’s guidance that this young man who had big plans for a successful career as a lawyer wound up in a monastery.
In fact, Luther would say that God pursued him, leading him to a life in the church.

But it did not end there. Luther immersed himself in both the monastic and the scholastic worlds as he taught at the University of Wittenberg. He soaked in the Bible, teaching from the Old and the New Testament and preaching regularly in the Stadtkirche, the city church of Saint Mary’s.

Spending time as a monk in isolation, Brother Martin had a great deal of time to reflect on his life. In doing so, Luther realized how far he fell short of what he should be. He was very aware of his inadequacies and he failings. He was sure that he was unlovable – that even God could not love such a person.

Interior of the Castle Church,
All Saints, in Wittenberg 
But in his study of Scripture, Luther discovered something else. He discovered a God who loves us so dearly, that we are relentlessly pursued just as Luther was during that storm. He discovered a God who would send the only Son – not for the perfect people, but for the sinners. He discovered, above all else, a God and a Savior that will NEVER abandon us, that will stand by our side no matter how often we fail or how short we fall.

And Luther began to tell the world about this God. He began to talk about the God who adopts us as beloved sons and daughters in the waters of baptism, and never lets us go. He began to talk about the Christ who relentless pursues the lost sons and daughters of God into the darkest places of the world – not to scold them but to save them. He began to talk about the Spirit that transforms our lives, so that even while we continue to sin we become more and more God-like and Christ-like.

For a variety of reasons, what Luther began to say to the world got him into trouble. He was thrown out of the church. The emperor sentenced him to death and put a price on his head. So this young man, now about 35, who once had never thought about a life in the church, who thought he was unworthy of God’s love, went into hiding because of his proclamation of God’s love.

Luther went to a castle called the Wartburg, high on a mountaintop outside of the city of Eisenach. There Luther became depressed. He was sure now that God had abandoned him, that he was right to feel unworthy of God’s love.

But God’s love in Christ Jesus pursued Luther even to that mountaintop. There, once again, Luther encountered the light of Christ, creeping into even the darkest of places in his life. He dove back into the Scriptures, translating the Bible from the Latin into the German. And Luther left that mountaintop fortress even more convinced that God will never abandon those who are adopted as God’s sons and daughters in the waters of baptism.

Why do I continue to choose the Lutheran church?

Because I know that this life is often frightening, chaotic, and sad; and I need a Savior who will stand by my side especially in those dark, tragic times.

Because I know that there are times that I will fail, when sin will overpower me; and I need a Spirit that will strengthen and transform me.

Because I know that I will wander and that I will lose my way; and I need a God who loves me enough to pursue me and find me, who loves me enough to bring me home and never give up on me.

I continue to be a Lutheran because – as it did for Martin Luther – it all began here for me, in the waters of baptism, when Christ wrapped me up in his arms and God said, “You are my beloved son, and I will pursue you wherever you go, and I will never let you go.”

And that, dear friends, is reason enough and grace enough for me.