I think I was maybe in third grade, in Sunday School, one Sunday morning, and I misbehaved. Frankly, I have no memory of what I might have been doing. But I have always remembered the exchange with my teacher that followed:
“How can you act like that, much less in God’s house? Don’t you know that God sees everything you do?” “Everything?!” “Everything- and not just here; God sees everything- God knows what you’re doing, ALL the time!” “Everything? All the time?!?”
And I’ll let you all ponder where a 9-year-old goes with that… But it stuck with me: God knows, God sees, God remembers… I’m not sure that’s a great lesson for a third grader, much less for anyone else… But it wasn’t and isn’t not an uncommon understanding of how God works- watching, counting every sin, and waiting, just waiting to hold you and me accountable for them ALL.
That was certainly the existential issue faced by one German monk, by the name of Martin Luther…
And what I find absolutely fascinating is that all of Luther’s work- his prolific writings- his translation of the Scripture into the German language (actually, had Luther done nothing else, we would remember him- his choice of words, phrases and idioms actually created the German language spoken today), his hymns, sermons- work that reshaped the world as it existed, came out of an incredibly personal struggle of faith- when he started, he wasn’t trying to change the world- he was trying to figure out how his relationship with God was supposed to work- it wasn’t- instead of loving God, he was terrified.
He was sure that God was watching- that God was holding him accountable for all of his sins, and he was sure that because of them, he was going to be condemned- go to hell.
All of the things that were supposed to comfort him, draw him to God- confession, penance, becoming a monk and then a priest- pilgrimage- none of them were working- had never worked for him… He was miserable- made those around him miserable.
He would keep his abbot, Johan von Staupitz, in the confessional for hours, trying to remember every one of his sins so they could be forgiven. Once, after a four-hour session, he came back five minutes later: “I forgot something…” And Staupitz is alleged to have said, “Martin, leave the monastery, go home and kill your mother. Then come back and we’ll have something to talk about…”
And it was in his work as a teacher of the Bible- a professor at the University at Wittenberg, that he rediscovered the true nature of God- for the people of his day- and the rest, as they say, is history…
What was it Luther rediscovered? I say rediscovered because he certainly didn’t invent it. It was something that the founder of his order, St. Augustine had rediscovered and had used in his day 1000 years earlier. Something that St. Paul had learned- something that Jesus had taught.
We find it in our reading from Jeremiah today: it’s the promise of a new covenant with God’s people- not like the old covenant, God says, when he led them out of Egypt, a covenant they broke… But a new one, where God’s law (the promise of God’s eternal presence- that’s what the Law was all about) was “written within them- on their hearts,” and God promises to “remember their sin no more…”
Why did it make such a difference? And why is it a lesson that continues to be needed almost 500 years after Luther began the conversation in his day?
Luther saw those words as the promise we have in the New Covenant- with Jesus… And for him, it started with Psalm 22, verse one: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me…” We know those words, too- they’re the words of Jesus from the cross- words of agony- of desperation… We see the very son of God- God become a human being, dying a terrible death- Luther called him “the wreck on a cross…”
And for the very first time, Luther identified with Jesus- “I know that feeling of abandonment, of isolation, I’ve lived it all my life…” For the very first time, Luther saw God identifying with him- and all humankind- Jesus knowing what it meant to be human- what it meant to live and die, heartbroken and afraid; Luther seeing the incredible love of God offered in Jesus on the cross.
He found it best said in Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 3: “For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus… Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works proscribed by the law…”
Not one of us left on our own could come close to living in God’s glory- not one of us is close to the perfection needed to approach God.
But in spite of that, God forgives you and me- accepts you and me, and makes us his adopted children, because, in Jesus, his life, death and resurrection, God’s love overpowers everything that might come between us- anything that might separate God from his children. God remembers our sin no more: God forgets them- or, as our title says, “God is forgetful,” not in an absentminded sort of way; God deliberately forgets them because of Jesus!
Luther was stunned by the enormity of God’s love- the fact that there was nothing that could be done to earn God’s favor, for in Jesus, that favor was already there! How could anyone presume to add to it?
And the response called forth by this love was not an endless life of trying to make sure that you were doing everything possible to obey God’s rules- doing all the right things in order to earn God’s love- trying to do anything you could to stay out of God’s way, God’s anger.
Instead, it was a life of love and faithfulness- a life of trusting in Jesus for everything we need, and the strength to share Jesus’ love with others who are searching for what it means to know meaning, love, and acceptance. It is a life that is lived knowing and trusting in the presence of God!
In good times, there is the presence of God- and in the worst times- of separation, suffering, anguish- even death, there is the presence of God in Christ, holding you, loving you forever! Luther came to call that the “Theology of the Cross:” the identification of God- the presence of God with his people in Christ through even death itself.
Luther wrote that when he grasped what it was Jesus had done for him- for you and for me- “that it was as though the gates of heaven had been opened up for him…” Amazing how God can get a hold of you when you read the Bible.
After he came to terms with the fact that God accepted him in the cross and resurrection of Jesus, Martin learned to accept himself. He stopped trying to make himself acceptable to God because at last he knew he couldn’t and God loved him anyway.
Luther accepted, if you will, the paradox of Christian life: that while we are God’s people, redeemed by Christ, we are still human, and as humans, we never get life completely right; we continue to be sinners… He called it “Simul Justus et Peccator,” or, “simultaneously saint and sinner…” There is tension, and there always will be, until Christ returns, between God’s Kingdom, and the Kingdom of this World- and we need to remember it!
It means our world is virtually never black and white, but is instead, varying shades of grays… Luther said, “even the giving of a cup of cool water to one dying of thirst is polluted by your thumb in it…” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a pastor, and theologian serving in Germany wrote that he was under no illusions when he agreed to be part of the July 20th plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler: murder was sinful, regardless of who was murdered. But it was less sinful than letting Hitler’s madness and mayhem continue. So Bonhoeffer wrote, “Sin boldly, and trust in God’s grace all the more…”
On a very practical basis, this understanding of tension can be enormously helpful as we live in the world: never assume that you have the only “sinless” option; there is no such thing… And given that, put the most charitable construction you can on what someone who disagrees with you says! It might be helpful for those who purport to represent us in Washington, who are running for office, for example, to study a little of Martin Luther.
For his part, Luther stopped beating himself up for being such a sinner. And he began to stop living for himself and started living for God- and for the people around him.
Now, Luther could say he loved God- he was able to be real about his relationship with God.
He couldn’t be terrified of a God who knew everything about him- all his deepest and darkest secrets- and loved and accepted him anyway. This is a God to love, to worship, to serve with every fiber of his being. This is a God for us all!
This is a God with whom I need to be in constant contact- in my quiet time- in the hustle and bustle of daily life.
This is a God in whom I want to learn- grow- belong to- through all my life. This is the God I want our children to know and love as they grow in their baptisms- as they take as their own the promises made in those baptisms.
This is the God I want you to know and love- to grow in relationship with! We will walk with you as you learn to read scripture- learn new ways to pray- and you will see your relationship blossom and flourish- see your life transformed- and then see this relationship put to work in the world!
Martin Luther couldn’t help but share what he had learned and experienced- both with the faculty at Wittenberg and with the people he pastored at the Wittenberg Town Church. There was no way he could continue preaching the accepted doctrines and norms of the church, even though there was a thousand-year-old tradition of doing so.
So Luther wrote out his arguments in Latin- a total of 95 of them, and posted them on the University Bulletin Board- the Town Church Door on the Eve of All Hallows- October 31st, 1517- 499 years ago.
Almost immediately, they were taken down, translated into German, printed, and passed around from town to town, and what we call the Reformation was on its way.
You and I share a remarkable heritage- we call ourselves Lutheran Christians because one monk was trying to, in the words of St. Paul, “work out his salvation in fear and trembling.”
And God led him to the truth of the Good News- that in Jesus, God’s love can never be earned- it is a free gift, given in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, to be received by faith. The truth that God forgets; that God remembers our sin no more… That truth set Brother Martin free from his bondage and fear, and to his being used by God in extraordinary ways…
As you and I continue to proclaim the Good News in our time and place, my prayer is that we remain centered on Jesus and his love for us and for our world- that like Luther we allow nothing to distract us from living and sharing our Risen Lord.
I pray that God would continue using us in the never-ending process of the Reformation of Christ’s Church.
And I give thanks, this day- Thanks that God chooses to forget my sins. And thanks be to God for the life and witness of Martin Luther- my brother and yours in Jesus’ Name! Amen