Marked by Grace
Reformation Sunday; October 29, 2017
I have been thinking a lot about Martin Luther these days. In case you haven't heard me say it before: October 31, 2017 is the 500th anniversary of the Ninety-Five Theses that Martin Luther offered to protest the sale of indulgences. He certainly sent them to the regional bishop and to others on that day; he very likely also posted them on the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg. It was the eve of All Saints Day; on All Saints Day people particularly wanted indulgences, to buy some merit from the treasury left by the saints.
It struck me that part of what Martin must have been fighting was a medieval concept of grace. They must have thought of grace as a substance that could be distributed, the way we think of gas, electricity, and water. And just as OPPD distributes electricity and MUD distributes gas and water, the Church distributed grace. Go to Mass, buy an indulgence, look at saints' relics on All Saints Day and get yourself some grace.
But grace is not a commodity to be bought or to be distributed through spiritual plumbing; the word "grace" expresses God's attitude toward us, beautifully described in Psalm 103 (10-14):
The Lord has not dealt with us according to our sins,
Nor rewarded us according to our wickedness.
For as the heavens are high above the earth,
So is the Lord's mercy great upon the God-fearing.
As far as the east is from the west,
So far has the Lord removed our sins from us.
As a father cares for his children,
So does the Lord care for the God-fearing.
For the Lord knows whereof we are made
And remembers that we are but dust.
I told my "but dust" joke when I preached on this psalm last summer, so I won't repeat myself. But do, please, think about what that poem says about God. God, who is great and holy, indescribably pure and the source of all that is good and right; God, who is hidden only by the brightness of divine light: God knows what we are made of and remembers that we are dust. And so God is gentle with us, forgiving of us, merciful to us. We are greedy; God is generous with us. We hold grudges; God forgives us. We seek our own desires; God seeks our good and the good of all. The grace of God is not a commodity; the grace of God is what you and I know of God: that God is good to us. God knows whereof we are made and remembers that we are but dust.
The truth of God's goodness made a great impression on Martin Luther, and also on the Reformer that our style of Christian faith most honors, John Calvin. At top left is the seal of Martin Luther, which he designed and he described. I wish to call attention only to the center of the seal: a heart with a Cross superimposed on it. Martin sensed that the grace of God was expressed most clearly in the willingness of Jesus Christ to go to the Cross and he sensed that the root of Christian life was to have that Cross embossed on one's heart.
At top right is the seal of John Calvin. It is a modern adaptation of what Calvin himself designed in the 1540s and I stole it (see the Trademark symbol?) from Calvin College. It shows a heart in an outstretched hand and around it Calvin's personal motto: Cor meum tibi offero Domine, prompte et sincere. Well, he wrote in Latin, as well as in French. In English, it is, "My heart I offer you, Lord, promptly and sincerely" or, possibly, "freely and sincerely." It also expresses something profound about the Reformation's Gospel: that God is gracious to us and we, in response, offer ourselves to God. Freely and sincerely.
This week I looked through a sermon by Martin Luther on grace; it was a sermon for the early service on Christmas morning. He said something in it that resonated for me. As I thought about the Psalm's beautiful reminder – the Lord knows whereof we are made and remembers that we are but dust – I asked myself, "Do we remember that we are but dust?" Are we as gentle with ourselves and with each other as the Lord is with us?
Human beings can awfully hard on ourselves and on each other. You may catch yourself wishing a fiery death upon that thoughtless driver or wanting to see your brother-in-law embarrassed by his own foolishness. We have a particularly difficult time in the United States with each other's political opinions; although we all agree that we should be able to talk to each other and listen to each other, we also find that our thoughts get expressed with such rancor and hostility that it is hard to be gracious. Some of you spoke with me about that this week and I appreciate your thoughtfulness; I remember telling some of you that I often simply turn off the radio when the nastiness begins. It is a blessing to ride in silence. Until some *** starts riding my bumper because s/he wants me to drive more than five miles per hour over the speed limit.
See? God knows whereof we are made and remembers that we are but dust. But I have a hard time remembering. Perhaps that Mom in the minivan is harried from driving too many kids to too many practices and just wants to get home. Perhaps that dude in the oversized pickup isn't trying to be aggressive, but is slow at learning self-control. I don't know; all I know is that it is not up to me to judge someone else. They are made of dust, just as I am; the Lord remembers that and I can too.
And that was the lesson in Martin Luther's Christmas sermon: we see how gracious God has been to us and should we not be gracious to each other? I can't plead with the entire human race or even with our nation, but I can plead with you, people of God: God knows whereof we are made and remembers that we are but dust; you remember it, too.
One church I served had a cemetery and a family had a plot right next to the church parking lot. Their seven year-old son was buried there, and they would routinely decorate the plot seasonally and with memorials of stories he loved. There was a diorama of a scene from Goodnight, Moon and Easter eggs hanging from the tree; jack-o-lanterns and Christmas balls. One exasperated member of the Church said to me, "Do they have to do that?" and my reply was simply, "Yes." You may find it tacky or troublesome; people who are gracious allow each other to grieve as we need to grieve.
And to celebrate as we need to celebrate. If you want to raise your hands in joy during a hymn, then do. If you want to give the kiss of peace to a lady with warts on her face, then do. And if you want to listen to that person with a different political opinion or who is going through a sad, hard time or who wants to tell you for the fourth time how much God has blessed her, then do.
When we offer our hearts to God, as both Martin Luther and John Calvin did, that should soften our hearts to each other. We'll never get that completely right, of course. And that is why we also need to learn to be gentle with ourselves, to forgive ourselves and try to do better in our dealings with each other.
This sermon is not as profound as I would have liked to have given you, but it is what I need to hear today; perhaps you do too. God is gracious to us; in response, let us be gracious with ourselves and with each other. For God knows whereof we are made and remembers that we are but dust.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master