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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Reformation Anniversary 10/27/2019

The story goes that it was around 2 o’clock in the afternoon, on October 31, 1517, the eve of All Saints Day, that Martin Luther with hammer in hand, approached the church door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany and posted his 95 Theses protesting what he saw as abuses in the Catholic Church. Most notable of the abuses was raising money for building projects with the sale of indulgences, indulgences being pieces of paper said to take time off of one’s stay in purgatory thus bringing one closer to enjoying eternity in heaven.

Luther’s posting of the theses is the stuff of legend; it’s a highlight of every Luther movie that’s ever been made even though no one really knows if it happened just that way. Be that as it may, here’s what is known: Luther did write the 95 Theses and…the door of the Castle Church did serve as something of a bulletin board for statements like Luther’s so…it’s not a stretch to say that it did happen just that way.

But…none of that is really the point anyway. What is also known is that, however Luther originally posted the theses, they were soon printed and distributed all over Europe thus making a household name out of an obscure Augustinian monk from an undistinguished university in Germany, a name that continues to appear high on any list of the most influential people of all time. When you read biographies of Luther or histories of that time, it all really is quite amazing. It’s especially amazing that things weren’t nipped in the bud early on with Luther either caving in to political and church pressure calling on him to withdraw his protest or with Luther being burned at the stake as a heretic which is what happened to others who had rattled the cages of the church hierarchy.

What is also known is that here we are 502 years after the posting of the 95 Theses and 149 years after the founding of this church. Here we are, a group of people who call ourselves Lutherans observing Reformation Sunday. From what I could find, such observances have occurred since the mid-1500’s but it wasn’t until 1717, the 200th anniversary of Luther’s posting, that either October 31st or the Sunday before that became the official date for Reformation observances.

Some of you may remember a time when Reformation Day was a day for Catholic bashing. I don’t, but it may have happened when I was a kid and I just wasn’t paying attention. I don’t think it happens anymore, I hope not anyway, as many branches of Lutheranism, including the ELCA have come to greater mutual understanding of at least some theological issues that have divided Lutherans and Catholics and the Catholic Church has acknowledged that Luther was right about at least some of what he criticized.

There are still significant differences but we are closer than we once were so that in recent years there have been questions about the appropriateness of observing Reformation Day with the feeling of some being that it just serves to keep the wound open. There is the option to have today just be the 20th Sunday after Pentecost but my guess is that as is the case here, in most Lutheran churches today you would find red paraments and people singing A Mighty Fortress and I think that’s OK.

Luther was far from perfect; some of what he wrote, some of his name calling and vitriol toward anyone who disagreed with him is downright embarrassing. What he said about the Jews is more than embarrassing, it’s inexcusable. In that respect though, he serves as a reminder that God works through flawed people which should be a source of hope for any of us who might be less than perfect.

Maybe the most important thing to remember about Luther is that while he played a number of different roles during his life, first and foremost he was a student and teacher of the Bible. His doctorate was in Holy Scripture, scripture being one of his solas; grace, faith and…scripture as our new banner reminds us. With that in mind, perhaps the best way to observe Reformation Sunday is to focus on scripture, to preach the gospel. I think Luther would approve of that, so that’s what I’m going to do using, as I said earlier, the gospel appointed for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost rather than the Reformation Day gospel.

The gospel for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost is another of Jesus’ parables, this time the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. It’s not the gospel for Reformation Day but it could be as it provides a pretty good illustration of Luther’s theology. As was the case last week, in an introductory verse Luke provides something of an explanation before he has Jesus tell the parable, that introduction being, “He told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”

With that, Jesus presents two characters: first, a Pharisee, who, for those hearing this, would immediately be understood as an upright, righteous member of the religious establishment. The second character was a tax collector, someone who would evoke negative feelings as tax collectors were widely hated by the general population, seen as working for the Roman government, using their position to gouge money from fellow countrymen.

It’s a parable and with parables the tendency is to identify with one character or the other. What we know though, is that Jesus has flipped things here as he often does. Even though Jesus’ original audience would have first thought of the Pharisee as a good guy and the tax collector as a bad guy, we know that’s not the case. With Luke’s introduction we know about and are put off by the Pharisee’s self righteousness: “Thank God I’m not like all these other people.” Because of that, despite the bad reputation of tax collectors, we are drawn to this one who acknowledges his sinfulness.

Still, we have to remember that based on outward appearances, the Pharisee is not sinful and the tax collector is. The Pharisee does all the right things; he fulfills his religious obligations by going to the temple to worship and pray, he observes the prescribed fasts and offers a tenth of his income as a tithe. He even gives thanks to God even if it is thanks for making him so good! Based on outward appearances though, a pastor might be tempted to say, “If only I had a whole congregation like this guy!” On the other hand, a pastor might also think, “There is a too good to be true element here.”

The preacher of Ecclesiastes writes about a “righteous man who perishes in his own righteousness” and the Pharisee of this parable might be the poster child for that verse. He prays to God, that’s true, but the word most frequently used in his prayer is “I”: I have done all this. He reminds God of all he has done trying to make sure God will recognize how good he is. In reality though, he has no need for God because…it’s all about him and it’s all about his desire to be seen as better than others. The words of his so called prayer are all about exalting himself and being happy to condemn others.

The tax collector on the other hand, never uses the word “I”: he recognizes that there is nothing about him or his outward life that he can proudly offer to God. He’s a sinner and he knows it. His only hope is in the grace of God, and there’s your Lutheran, Reformation Sunday connection. “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” The tax collector calls on God knowing that his only hope lies in God’s mercy and grace. Apart from that, he’s got nothing. The tax collector then, is all about God. The Pharisee is all about himself,

I found references to this parable in some of the Luther writings that I have. While he doesn’t say so, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that at different times in his life he could have identified with each of these characters. In his life as a monk, he was like the Pharisee. He did all the right things; he studied and worked and worshiped; he said the right prayers at the right times. Unlike the Pharisee though, despite all he did, he never felt like he did enough and never could do enough to satisfy God. Despite outward appearances that might have made it look otherwise, he knew he was still a sinner. With that recognition, Luther was like the tax collector, seeing himself totally dependent on the grace of God.

One of Luther’s great insights was realizing that faith in himself was futile; if his relationship with God depended on him, if God’s acceptance depended on him, he was doomed. He knew he couldn’t do enough to earn his way and that no one else could either. His only hope was faith in a gracious God, who doesn’t demand that we earn our way, but only that we acknowledge that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves and that we have faith that what needs to be done to free us and restore our relationship has been done in and through Jesus Christ. We then respond to that gift of grace as we love and serve God and care for others.

That is the gospel message that Luther preached and taught, a message that always has been or at least always should be at the center of Lutheran preaching. The message isn’t new but there is perhaps no better way to honor Martin Luther and to observe Reformation Sunday than to proclaim it again.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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