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A Sermon for Wittenberg. June 28, 2014.

June 28, 2014

I am always getting turned around – always getting lost (as my wife will gladly confirm), relying on my phone’s GPS. This is tricky overseas, so I have to do things the old-fashioned way and find ways to orient myself. Wittenberg is certainly easier to get accustomed to than larger cities, but for a person like me, it still takes a while, and for the first day we were here I kept getting turned around. But all I need to do when I get turned around is find the tower of the Schlosskirche and the two towers of the Stadtkirche. Once those two landmarks are identified, it’s easy to figure out both where you are and the direction in which to go.

We gather tonight for worship in Luther’s city, where the Holy Spirit turned the church around and reoriented it. And this, as Luther knew so well, was much needed! The church in the west had lost track of the Gospel, turning it in many ways into another Law to keep people in bondage and captivity, left to fear for their fate with the idea that God would judge them on the basis of their works – and if that was the case, surely most would not make the cut. It is perhaps no wonder that in his 95 Theses that launched the reformation, Luther began by asserting that the entire Christian life is meant to be one of repentance – repentance, which doesn’t mean to feel badly about something, but to turn around, to reorient your life, and to move in a new direction.

Luther’s rediscovery of the gospel, so to speak, was driven by God’s Word in the scriptures, particularly in passages like the one set before us in Romans 6 today. Here we find words dripping with grace and calling us to faith, reminding us that we are not under the law, but under grace. We are free, finally and fully and forever! There is, Luther discovered, nothing to fear any longer.

In our own lives we forget this, of course, and need to repent, to turn around, to find a landmark to direct us. For Luther, and for us, this is always and only the cross of Jesus Christ, as made clear in the bottom panel of Lucas Cranach the Elder’s altarpiece in the Stadtkirche, depicting Luther, hand resting on a Bible, pointing to Christ crucified as the beginning and the end of the gospel. Paul wrote to the Romans that the wages of sin is death, and in the cross the wages have been collected, once and for all. You are free, free to keep your eye on the cross and orient your life in faith.

Oddly, though, Paul also says in this passage that we are now slaves, not to the law but to righteousness. What kind of freedom is that, that enslaves us anew? The kind that enables us to become humans in the fullest sense, creatures dependent upon God and concerned to care for one another. For, having received life and forgiveness from God, we are set free from being concerned about ourselves and our destiny and can instead turn our attention to our neighbors and their needs.

Just as in Wittenberg the two churches orient our place and direction, so too does God give us twin signposts to direct our life and faith. The first is the cross, in which we find freedom; the second is our neighbor, to whom our works of love are properly directed. By grace we know that this is not a call to heroic discipleship in which we always get things right – that would be nothing but more law – but a call to caring for each other in small, everyday ways. Jesus tells us that it’s as simple as sharing a cup of cold water with someone who is thirsty. The life of faith really is that simple. For Luther, this meant abandoning the holiness of the monastery, embracing instead human life in its simple fullness, finding true vocation in the milking of cows, the changing of diapers, the companionship of marriage and the consolation of his fellow travelers with the promises of Jesus.

For us, it remains just as simple. Many of you no doubt know the story of the starfish, adapted from a tale told by Loren Eiseley:

While walking along a beach, an elderly gentleman saw someone in the distance leaning down, picking something up and throwing it into the ocean. As he got closer, he noticed that the figure was that of a young man, picking up starfish one by one and tossing each one gently back into the water. He came closer still and called out, “Good morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing?” The young man paused, looked up, and replied “Throwing starfish into the ocean.” The old man smiled, and said, “I must ask, then, why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?” To this, the young man replied, “The sun is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them in, they’ll die.” Upon hearing this, the elderly observer commented, “But, young man, do you not realize that there are miles and miles of beach and there are starfish all along every mile? You can’t possibly make a difference!” The young man listened politely. Then he bent down, picked up another starfish, threw it into the back into the ocean past the breaking waves and said, “It made a difference for that one.”

One starfish at a time, one cup of cold water at a time. We don’t have to save the whole world – Jesus has already done so. We are, therefore, as Luther wrote in 1520, perfectly free lords of all, subject to none AND perfectly free servants of of all, subject to all. In the cross of Christ the wages of sin have been paid and the power of death and the devil defeated. You are free! In your neighbor, your purpose is found, as the Spirit binds you together in works of love.

When you find yourself lost, confused, turned around – well, repent! Turn around! Look up and find the twin landmarks God has given you – the cross of Christ and your neighbor. Find in the one your freedom, and in the other your purpose. Where are you? In God’s grace, given to you by Christ. Where are you going? Toward your neighbor, in loving service, in the name of Jesus Christ who has set you free forever.


From → Sabbatical 2014

  1. Zebrosky permalink

    Thank you Pastor Dave! As always, your message is so meaningful.

    We miss you and all of the family.

  2. Shirley Hyssong permalink

    An excellent message. The last part of the message about questions is always ones I ask without answers so far. Miss you and your vibrant soul. A whole month has passed so quickly.

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