Sermon Archives

Sunday, October 29, 2017
Proper 25 (Year A)
The Reverend Areeta Bridgemohan, Curate
Grace Alone

Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly,
To venture on wider seas where storms will show us your mastery;
Where losing sight of land, we shall find the stars.
We ask you to push back the horizons of our hopes;
And to push us forward into the future
In strength, courage, hope, and love,
For Jesus sake. Amen.[1]

Today is Reformation Sunday – and today we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

Tradition holds that on October 31st 1517, an Augustinian monk and Roman Catholic priest with a doctorate in theology, nailed 95 theses to a door of All Saints Church in the small German town of Wittenburg. His name was Martin Luther.

His action set in motion a revolution against the power of the Catholic Church in Europe, sparking civil unrest, theological and liturgical innovation, and a counter-reformation (featuring amongst other things, the Inquisition).

Luther was disgusted by the practices of the church and felt that the medieval institution had wandered far from the faith as put forth by scripture.

The last straw was a capital campaign gone awry.

Johann Teztel, an unscrupulous friar who made scandalous claims to help his sales, was sent to Germany to raise money on behalf of the pope for a capital campaign to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The church’s main fundraising strategy was to sell indulgences.

Indulgences were sold by the church to reduce the amount of punishment for sin after death for yourself or a loved one in the painful process of purification called Purgatory.

Teztel’s enthusiastically marketed papal indulgences, claiming that indulgences: “would make the sinner cleaner than when coming out of baptism” or “cleaner than Adam before the Fall”[2] There was also a jingle: “as soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs!”[3]

Luther was outraged. He sent a letter to the Archbishop of Mainz and Magdeburg and included a copy of his “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences”, famously known as the 95 Theses.

In it Luther expressed his outrage at the church’s abuse of authority and claim on what is ultimately God’s forgiveness. He pointed to the exploitation that stood at the heart of the sale of indulgences.

He tried to call the church back to mission. He argued that if it was true that the pope is able to free souls from purgatory, the pope ought to use that power, not for something materialistic like building a fancy church, but simply out of love and freely (thesis 82). Furthermore, he argued that the pope should give his money to poor from whom the sellers of indulgences wring their last coins and he ought to do this even if it required the sale of St Peter’s Basilica (thesis 51)[4]

The theses were quickly translated from Latin into German, printed and widely copied, thanks to the invention of the printing press. They kindled a fire in the hearts of Germans who were already resentful of the local and the Roman Catholic authorities.

The conditions that led to the Reformation give us a glimpse into the distortions that are part of the history of this all too human institution: the church.

It shows us that our institutions reflect our own brokenness. Our tendency to desire more and bigger at the expense of God’s call to mission in the world. Our desire for growth, for profit, for image, for reputation. Our fears, our unmet needs, our untended wounds that injure others.

In the fallout of the Reformation, as Christian communities splintered and fragmented, and vicious attacks against one another began to take place, we see just how capable we are of straying from Jesus’ desire for his community of disciples.

And yet God is faithful in God’s promise to not leave us in that state of brokenness. The Spirit throws us into unknown territories giving us the opportunity to strip down to the essentials where we can see God and our call anew.

This is exactly what Jesus does in our Gospel passage today. He distills the law down to its essentials: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” And: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” (Matt 22:37-39)

Then he continues with a thought that seems like a non-sequitur. Jesus clarifies that even David is subject to the Messiah. David who represents not only a Golden Age in Israel’s history, but also the Jewish nation under one king. Nothing comes above God.

The Reformation sought to strip Christianity of all the accumulated junk that had built up and created staleness – to reveal the treasure beneath. The Reformers sought to return to the essentials of the Christian faith which they summarized in the three “solas” – sola fide, sola scriptura, sola gratia. Faith alone, scripture alone, grace alone.

And those essentials anchor us when all we have left are broken dreams, disappointed hopes and we find ourselves lost in the wilderness. God continues to offer us grace.

Perhaps that is a valuable lesson we can learn from history: we are good at getting ourselves into a mess. And the Holy Spirit, our faithful companion on the wilderness road, gently reminds us that God won’t leave us there.

God doesn’t leave us there because we deserve better. God doesn’t leave us there because of who God is.

We don’t have to buy anything to obtain grace. We don’t have to be beautiful or smart or productive or rich to receive grace. We don’t have to excel or meet social expectations or even personal standards to receive grace. We don’t have to be perfect to receive grace.

We don’t have to be anything other than who we are: beloved children of God.

Fr. Gregory Boyle tells a wonderful story from his early days as a Roman Catholic Jesuit priest.[5] He currently lives in L.A. and is known for his work with gang members, helping them integrate into society through social purpose enterprises, like Homeboy Industries.

Early in his priesthood, Father Boyle was sent to Bolivia and asked to go up a mountain and celebrate communion with a community that had not been visited by a priest in 10 years.

It was a Quechua community of indigenous people who made their living by harvesting flowers and selling them at the market, carrying piles of blossoms on their backs all the way down the mountain.

On the long ride to the village, he realizes that he has forgotten his missal. He’s a new priest and can’t yet do the liturgy from memory in English, much less in Spanish, even less in Quechua. So he grabs a Bible and cobbles together some words. When the time comes, he says he’s “like someone who’s been in a major car accident.”[6] He can’t remember a thing.

In front of hundreds of villagers who have been waiting a decade to celebrate communion, he mumbles some words and randomly lifts the bread and the cup whenever he runs out of something to say.

As if that wasn’t enough, through a series of mishaps, he ends up stranded on the mountain, alone, without his ride back into town.

Here is what he says:

“I am alone at the top of this mountain, stuck, not only without a ride, but with stultifying humiliation. I am convinced that a worse priest has never visited this place or walked this earth.

With my backpack snug on my shoulder and my spirit deflated, I begin to make the long walk down the mountain and back to town. But before I leave the makeshift soccer field that had been our cathedral, an old Quechua campesino, seemingly out of nowhere, makes his way to me.

He appears ancient, but I suspect his body has been weathered by work and the burden of [his] life. As he nears me, I see he is wearing tethered wool pants, with a white buttoned shirt, greatly frayed at the collar. He has a rope for a belt. His suit coat is coarse and worn. He has a fedora, toughened by the years. He is wearing sandals, and his feet are caked with Bolivian mud. Any place that a human face can have wrinkles and creases, he has them. He is at least a foot shorter than I am, and he stands right in front of me and says… “Tatai, gracias por haber venido.” (Father, thanks for coming.)

I think of something to say, but nothing comes to me. Which is just as well, because before I can speak, the old campesino reaches into the pockets of his suit coat and retrieves two fistfuls of multicolored rose petals. He’s on the tips of his toes and gestures that I might assist with the inclination of my head. And so he drops the petals over my head, and I’m without words. He digs into his pockets again and again, and the stores of red, pink, and yellow rose petals seem infinite. I just stand there and let him do this, staring at my own sandals, now moistened with my tears, covered with rose petals. Finally, he takes his leave and I’m left there, alone, with only the bright aroma of roses.”[7]

God is so delighted in us, that even when we’re convinced that we’ve failed, that we haven’t done enough, that we aren’t good enough, that we’ll never be enough, God wants to shower us with rose petals. This is grace. And the gift of grace will never leave us the same as we were when it found us.

Know that you have the gift of God’s love, and so you have enough. You are enough. Trust in grace alone. Just stand still, and let rose petals fall over your head. Amen.

[1] Excerpted from a "Prayer Manual" of the 1960's

[2] Gonzalez, J. L. (1987). A History of Christian Thought: From the Protestant Reformation to the twentieth century (Vol. 3). Abingdon Press., p 27.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Gonzalez, J. L. (1987). A History of Christian Thought: From the Protestant Reformation to the twentieth century (Vol. 3). Abingdon Press., p 28.

[5] This story was borrowed from Fr. Greg Boyle’s book “Tattoos on the Heart” and inspired by a sermon preached by the Rev’d Sarah Godbehere on October 15, 2017.

[6] Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion (New York: Free Press, 2010), 37.

[7] Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion (New York: Free Press, 2010), 37-38.