I’m going to share a secret with all of you….we live in a fear based culture. Are you shocked? No? Well fear is everywhere (Ebola anyone?) and we know that fear can also be a great motivator. Fear can make us prudent and propel us to make good and healthy changes. Fear helps us to remember that we should wash our hands more often or that we should wear our seatbelts. We teach our children to not walk into on-coming traffic, or to not get into a car with someone they don’t know. A little bit of fear can be correcting and provide healthy boundaries. But unfortunately, for humans, if a little bit is good, than we assume that a lot must be better! So our fear spirals out of control until, ironically, fear controls everything that we do. Fear can have power in our lives that changes our thoughts and behaviors and tells us a false story of who we are in the world.
So what are some of our collective fears? Loneliness, disease, financial struggles, unworthiness, war, death, messing up, rejection, etc. While we tend to think that the things we are afraid of are unique, they are universal aren’t they? We put up a façade to try and mask our fears from others, for “fear” of being seen as unstable, irrational or needy. What are some ways that culture tells us to respond to these fears? Buy more, do more, pretend more, dress in a certain way, food, alcohol, excessive exercise, be a certain shape or size, look a prescribed way, make sure you have enough for yourself, drive a certain car, live in a certain house, etc. The story that fear tells us is that we are alone, we don’t measure up, we must try harder and we must be who others want us to be.
This story of fear obviously isn’t new in the history of humanity. Fear has written stories of wars, words of hurt, self centered decisions, prejudice, and labeling. Fear can override every other emotion in us and cause us to act in a way that is not consistent with whom we actually are. So the question arises, what are we to do with the very real presence of fear in our lives? Fear is probably not going away.
This is the core of what a monk named Martin Luther wrestled with his whole life. He knew the story of fear by heart. He was terrified by the thought that he was not and would never be good enough for God to love him. He was terrified that God did see into his heart and knew that he was a fraud, a deviant, a nothing, a worm. Martin was terrified of his inability to control all of his thoughts, words and deeds. He was terrified that his own shortcomings, lack of knowledge, inabilities separated him from God and that there would never be enough self-flagellation, penance, or prayers to put him in right relationship with God. I know that Martin was not and still is not alone in his terror.
So Luther searched. He searched for anything that might relieve him of this terror and how he could make himself right with God. We tend to think this day as the pivotal moment of church reformation and all about Luther nailing 95 things that ticked him off about the Roman Church. But that event was actually not at all pivotal in Luther’s life or what the reformation was about. The Reformation was not about institutional church. It was about so much more than anything human or earthly. Luther’s pivotal moment came while reading Romans 1:17, which in my Lutheran Study Bible is under the heading “The Power of the Gospel.” Paul writes “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.”
Those words in Romans at first deepened Luther’s terror as he fixated on the “righteousness of God,” and knew he fell short. He even wrote that this passage made him angry at God, as it made God a bully in his mind, just hanging out waiting to condemn us the second we mess up. But then he was struck by the phrase: “the one who is righteous will live by faith.” Luther had what he called a conversion moment (so yes, as a Lutheran we can have conversion stories!) and he realized that faith had nothing to do with him at all-it was a gift from God. Righteousness, being in right relationship with God, had nothing to do with him at all-it was a gift from God. Salvation had nothing to do with him at all-it was a gift from God through God’s son Jesus Christ. None of this was about Luther-it was all about God. It was a story of love and freedom that God had begun at the beginning of time and was continuing to write in Luther and in us all.
This freed Luther from his fear. It allowed the power of the good news of the love of God to transform him, to reform him and allow him to live his life fully in the promises of God. This is the heart of Luther’s reformation. He had this amazing story of good news that fear has no real power in our lives because God freely gives with love the promises of righteousness, grace, mercy and eternal life no matter what we do or say, and he couldn’t keep it to himself. He was freed in his life to do what mattered without fear of the possible worldly consequences of bucking the system, because he had this truth of the promises of God that are more powerful than any earthly promise or truth.
Today we, too, are recipients of this rich story of freedom, promises and transformation. Reformation Sunday is not about how the institutional church changed 500 years ago or about how the institutional church should change now. But it IS about how God is everyday reforming us-the people of God who are the living church in the world-making us new, and calling us to be free to do what matters in the world, without fear. This is the tapestry of God’s story of freedom, mercy, love and desire for relationship with us that weaves through time to all of those who have heard the story and are rooted in the story. The story of God’s grace wove its way through Luther’s life and is weaving its way into our lives and the lives of everyone today and the days to come. This story has power to transform our lives to free us do what matters.
Arianna is affirming her belief in these promises today and she is proclaiming that she is free to live in God’s story as a beloved child of God. She is affirming that this power of God’s love and grace transforms her life everyday and for the rest of her life. The verse she chose for today is Joshua 1:9, “I hereby command you: Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed; for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” Wherever her life takes her, God’s story of love and grace are a part of her story forever.
This is what reformation means. Do not fear, do what matters, God is with you always creating you new. How will you live your life free from fear and transformed by the power of God’s promises? How does your story and God’s story weave together in a way that, like Luther, you can’t keep this transformation to yourself but need to let everyone know that God created us in God’s image, God loves us no matter what we do or say, that God meets us in our fear and says I will never leave you and God will transform us each and every day? There is power in this story: power to transform our fears into hope, power to transform me, you and all of creation for the sake of God’s love being revealed to all. Amen