One Little Word
In my last parish we had what we billed as “the world’s largest rummage sale. In actuality, it was probably “Solon’s largest rummage sale.” Or maybe even just “The largest rummage sale in the neighborhood north of Rt. 422.” In any event, it was a pretty big sale. ALL the Sunday school rooms were filled with cast-off items. The social hall, the narthex, and even the sanctuary were all filled with used things. We had one Sunday School room devoted entirely to Halloween costumes. Freddy Krueger was there along with ax and chain-saw murderers of various ilk. There were six Satans, a scattering of skeletons, a wagonload of witches, and a host of hobgoblins.
Our sale had been going at a pretty good clip when a woman we had never seen walked up to the check out table and said, “I’d like to buy Sunday School Room #4.” We said, “What do you mean you’d like to buy Sunday School Room #4?” She said, “I want to buy all the Halloween costumes there I’ll pay $250.” I said, “That must be a pretty big party.” What she said next surprised me. She said, “No. We don’t do Halloween. And neither should the church. All the things there are of the devil. Our mission is to defeat Satan to pave the way for the second coming of our Lord.” We thanked her as she plucked down $250 in cold cash and proceeded to haul away the malicious masks presumably to be burned in a fire symbolic of the ones which would torment people for eternity if they ever wore them.
This coming Thursday is both Halloween and Reformation and those of you familiar with my preaching will know this is a favorite time for me to remind all of us that, here in the Lutheran Church, we celebrate Halloween’s connection with the sacred, not the profane. That is, we claim the original meaning of All Hallow’s Eve as that time when the church encouraged people to mock and make fun of all those forces which Christ has conquered: sin, death, and the devil. Put a plastic gravestone in your front yard. The grave is not the final destination for us. Wear a devil’s mask. Satan has been defeated. As we sang in the second verse of Luther’s premier hymn, “A Mighty Fortress,” Though hordes of devils fill the land all threat’ning to devour us, we tremble not, unmoved we stand; they cannot over pow’r us. Let this world’s rage, in fierce war engage. In battle we’ll engage. He is doomed to fail; God’s judgment must prevail! One little word subdues him.
One little word subdues him. A word. The word of God Here is a quote attributed to Martin Luther which, if he didn’t say it, he should have. It goes this way: “ The Bible is the manger in which the Word of God is laid.” The Bible is the manger in which the word of God is laid. It tells us two things. The Bible is not the word of God. It tells us that Jesus is the word of God. As our gospel writer John put it, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” That is, the very essence of God, the very promise that out of nothing there will be something, that ethereal thing that gives life and breath to all there is suddenly and quietly – in the wail of a newborn fresh from his mother’s womb who has taken his first gulp of air – that “word” became flesh and dwelt among us. And that word is Jesus.
And so it is this word – this Jesus – who makes something out of you. Makes something out of me. It is this Jesus who gives us breath, who gives us spirit. It is this Jesus who gives us an eternal life which doesn’t begin at death, but begins the very moment water is poured on our heads at baptism in the name of the triune God, and begins the moment hands are laid on our head, a cross marked on our forehead, we become sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. Eternal life begins then.
“One little word subdues him,” Luther sang. In popular mythology sunlight kills vampires and water kills wicked witches. Kryptonite kills Superman. Luther said that the thing that kills the devil is the Word. To Luther the devil was a very real thing. He even once threw a bottle of ink at it. You can visit the splotch on the wall even today. Today we may or may not think of the devil in those same medieval anthropomorphic ways as did Luther, but all of us recognize the existence of evil. Injustice is evil. Racism is evil. Gun violence is evil. Crime is evil. And, you know, we nice Christians like to say that it is not people themselves who are evil, but rather the things they do. However, I struggle with that one when I come across people who are so corrupt and filled with the sin of pride that they grind even their friends under their feet. I confess to sometimes thinking that such people, themselves, are the embodiment of evil and I find it hard to pray for them. I fantasize about throwing a bottle of ink at them! I confess that sin to you!
But, if we are to be a reformed people, the reformation -- the re-form-ation --must begin with our own hearts first. That’s why we began today’s service with a confession of sin. We confess that we have turned from God and given ourselves into the power of sin. We say out loud that we have sinned by what we have done and what we have failed to do. At the end, I pronounced your forgiveness of sins. Oh, there was a time when people had to pay to get that pronouncement. They had to literally pay money for forgiveness. And, if they paid more money, they could buy forgiveness for dead Uncle Fred who had quite a sordid history. But Luther protested that. And he protested the power of the pope. And he protested the corruption of the church. And so we protestants – we Protestants – when we hear the pastor pronounce forgiveness at the end of the confession, no longer believe that God’s grace and promise of eternal life is mediated by the church. Rather, we hear those words of forgiveness as coming from Christ himself – absolving us from sin and welcoming us into God’s never-ending kingdom.
Oh, the Catholics themselves stopped pay-to-play salvation a long time ago and we have now been on the same page for quite awhile. So, the Reformation now has evolved from freeing ourselves from oppressive thoughts and institutions, to freeing others from oppressive forces. Luther once said that as Christians we are simultaneously free from all things and, at the same time, bound in service to all persons. We are free from sin, deth, and the embodiment of evil – and that makes us free to help others who are in bondage to systematic oppression.
It was St. Paul who told us that we are justified by grace alone and that we grasp this by faith alone. Luther only reminded us of this fact, this good news. I searched diligently for the author of the quote I am about to give, but will need to give it to you without attribution. It goes this way: “For Lutherans, their central doctrine of justification is empty if it is not connected directly to justice. I think that means that you and I, on Reformation Sunday, can’t just go around wearing red, waving streamers, singing A Mighty Fortress, and patting ourselves on the back because we have been justified and leaving it there. I got mine now you go get yours.
No. Justification needs to lead to justice. Because God has made me free, I am free to help the homeless, the hungry, the refugee, and all those who are excluded because of the color of their skin or their sexual preferences. No, if we truly want to get rid of all that is satanic in our world we don’t go about purchasing an entire Sunday School room for $250 and destroying costumes and masks. We volunteer. We vote. We contribute. We protest. After all. We’re protestants. And what to protestants do? They protest! We still have reforming to do. Let’s become good protest-ants!
Text: Romans 3:19-28