A Reformation Day Sermon

The hearts of Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Knox, and many others ached to convey the message of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one should boast.” Eph. 2:8–9

If you have ever worked waiting tables, you know how tough that job really is. Your memory has to be intact. You have fussy people. You have to observe etiquette. You have heavy trays to carry. It is a tough job. Most people in the service industry are dependent on tips.

What kind of a tipper are you? The IRS guessed that tips last year in America amounted to $42 billion. So how do you tip? And to whom do you give tips? The valet who drives your car, the babysitter, the person who waits on you in a restaurant? Or how about the people who do housekeeping in a hotel? Do you tip your ski instructor? Who do you tip and how much do you tip? I go into Starbucks and there is that jar sitting there. I am always thinking, “What am I supposed to do with that? I only got a cup of coffee. Do I have to tip for that?” Tipping is an obligation and an opportunity. It is an obligation to say thank you to someone, but it is also an opportunity to affirm someone and do it tangibly with money.

On October 31, 1517 Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Luther was fulfilling an obligation, but he was also taking advantage of an opportunity. He believed he had an obligation to challenge some of the teachings of the medieval Roman Catholic Church. Make no mistake: there is a difference between the Roman Catholic Church of the 16th century and the 21st century. Luther and his company were concerned that the Church of his day no longer capable of speaking to the basic crisis of human existence. It had lost the ability to speak meaningfully into the lives of people burdened by guilt and threatened by death. It had lost the ability to say something about what it is to live a Christ-like life.

The people did not have the Bible in the vernacular, so Luther translated the Bible into German. The people were dependent upon priests, many of whom were very poorly trained, to teach them the Bible. At the same time, the church accumulated huge amounts of wealth, power, and prestige. Today, if you sail the Danube, on either side of the river, you see huge vineyards for miles and miles. The Roman Catholic Church owned many of these lands in the 16th century. Yet when the people came to the Church for spiritual nourishment, they were encouraged to go on pilgrimages. When they came for spiritual healing, they were encouraged to purchase indulgences, that is, to pay money to get Aunt Susie out of purgatory and into Heaven. More pervasively, the Church taught that if you really want approval from God, you have to earn it by doing a lot of good works.

This, Luther and others noticed, was contrary to what Scripture teaches. The reformers, by contrast, taught that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, according to scripture alone, on the basis of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ alone. It wasn’t about what we have to do, but about what God has done for us in Christ, which is our justification. It was not about us completing God’s work in ourselves, but about God completing his work in us through Christ, which is our sanctification. The Reformation was born of a rediscovery of this text: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus, for good works…”

Josh got his report card the other day. He is in fifth grade. Today they don’t send report cards home. They do it electronically. Everybody can see it! Josh wasn’t proud. His grades were bad and the comments were worse. So he had a little conference with his father and said, “Dad, what do you think it is: heredity or environment?“

The environment of the 16th century was confused about grace. The hearts of Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Knox, and many others ached to convey the message of God’s grace in Jesus Christ: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one should boast.” The Protestant reformers’ hearts ached to convey to people that Christianity is not just a good story. Christianity is not extraneous to our psyches. Christianity is really a life! Jesus said, “I have come that you might have life and that more abundantly” (John 10:10). The Protestant reformers translated values, ventures. and visions into life. Isaiah 49, under the providence of God, gives us some insight. In verse 2 it says, “He made my mouth like a sharp sword … he made me a polished arrow.” The prophet goes on to say to the people of God, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” Could it be that we are part of the spiritual heritage of Israel? Could it be that we have received some semblance of truth? Could it be that we are supposed to be sharp swords and polished arrows in our culture? I think it says we are called to holy boldness. Where we stand tall for Christian principles, no matter the context, we do it under the inspiration of the Spirit and under the tutelage of the Word of God.

We know this about arrowheads: they were never mass-produced. They were always shaped, sharpened, and polished by hand. You, my friends, are being shaped, sharpened and polished by the Word of God, by the community of faith, by the history in which you find yourself, by the sense of mission you share, by the use of your resources. We are shaped, sharpened and polished. We are here on purpose, for a redemptive purpose. So we sharpen and polish our values, our ventures and our visions.

So what are your values? What values are really important to you? The problem with us is that our vices are often more visible than our values. What do we really value? We value people more than things. We value the priesthood of all believers, which means we are all responsible to live the Christian life, not just priests or preachers. We value the community of faith. We value prayer. We value the opportunity to use our resources for redemptive ends. We believe God accepts us as we are, but he does not expect us to stay that way.

We have a marvelous history of 226 years here at Sardis. The mission and values of this community of faith have permeated our surrounding culture and made a difference in the world. We’re on an important venture. We ought to be praying for the body of Christ, for our witness in Charlotte and around the world. Another venture is how we use our possessions. What a privilege to make a difference in the world as a result of how those things are used.

In the next couple of weeks we are going to focus on the operating budget for 2017. Again, another venture. Are you willing to take a step of faith or are you only going to do what you think is easy? God calls us to step out in faith. Jesus is not against possessions but he is against possessiveness.

The old proverb goes: “We carry from the ashes of the past the fire, not the ashes.” Where is the fire in this congregation, or in your life? Peter Drucker, the guru of management consulting, says: “Focus only on those things that will make a big difference if successful.” He was speaking to the fact that we are so easily focused on petty, little things when God has called us to such a greater vision.

When it comes to a vision for you and for this part of the body of Christ, we don’t tip God. Tipping God is not in our vocabulary. It is ‘all in’ or not at all. It says in Proverbs 29, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Friends, sight is a faculty, but seeing is a gift of God. If we can catch a vision of what God wants for us we will be participants in his redemptive parade.

Do we dare pray, “Lord, pour out your spirit on us? Let us be conduits of your grace. Let us be vessels of your love. Work through us, do something, even in spite of us, that will be redemptive in the context in which we find ourselves.” We are in for a terrific ride into the future. I dare to believe God has wonderful things planned for this congregation and its next pastor.

Luther loved the Bible and his beer. This is not a recommendation for your Bible study! But Luther once said: “While I was drinking beer, God reformed the church.” Luther, in other words, did not take himself or his abilities too seriously. But he did take God and his abilities seriously and he knew that God could use him. As a result we have the Protestant Reformation.

In 1935, the brilliant architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, was invited by the Kaufmann family to build a home for them in southwestern Pennsylvania. It was a beautiful setting, next to a waterfall. Wright came up with a design that involved using cantilevered steel to extend part of the house over the waterfall. Thus, the structure looked as if it was suspended in air. So it was very unique. He called the place Fallingwater. This home came to life. He saw his dream become a reality.

He believed in it, but the construction people doubted. So under the main cantilevered steel beam, the construction crew built a stone support column. When Frank Lloyd Wright saw it he was furious. In anger, he had the top layer of stone discretely removed so there was nothing between the top of the stone column and the steel beam. Just air. You know what? The beam stood, and stands to this day.

Friends, I do not know what hangs over you. I have no idea what threatens you or what burdens you are under. But I want you to know this, on the authority of the Word of God. II Corinthians 12:9 says: “My grace is sufficient for you, and my strength is made perfect in weakness.” That you can trust. Amen. ––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––

The Reverend Dr. David G. McKechnie is interim pastor of Sardis Presbyterian Church, Charlotte, North Carolina.


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