October 26, 2003
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings

Mark 10:46-52

They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

Ephesians 2:1-10

You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

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Sermon: Godfather of Grace

If BB King can be called the Godfather of the Blues, and Mahalia Jackson the Godfather - or Godmother- of Gospel, then I think it must be only fitting and proper that we call Martin Luther the Godfather of Grace. Now that’s not to say that that BB King invented the Blues, or that Mahalia Jackson invented Gospel, or that Martin Luther invented Grace – but it does mean that at a critical time to a critical audience, they brought a song, an insight, a spirit, that touched a nerve and satisfied a need and spread slow but sure around through the culture, around the world, even down the corridors of time.

Our opening hymn this morning was probably the opening hymn of many Protestant churches around the world because today is traditionally Reformation Sunday. On October 31st, 1517, a 34 year old Augustinian Monk (who had originally trained to be lawyer) posted 95 theses in Latin on the doors of the castle-church at Wittenberg. The subject was the abuse of indulgences, and the author invited a public discussion of the issues. He chose the eve of All Saints’ Day (Nov. 1), because this was a popular feast that attracted professors, students, and people from all over to the church, which was filled with precious relics. But Martin Luther got no discussion from his colleagues – instead he got an inquisition and an excommunication and the beginning of a revolution that put his name in the books as the author not just of an idea, but of an era, an epoch, a turning point in the history of western civilization.

I’d like to point out that Martin Luther also wrote the second hymn we sang today – a Christmas hymn as you probably noticed. Now it’s a little early for Christmas – I don’t believe Santa has arrived, even at the Mall – but it’s the only other hymn in our book written by Luther. The first and third verses together really give a good feeling of the emotional and spiritual hunger that Luther felt in himself and sensed in others, and the resolution to that hunger that Luther proclaimed as the core message of the gospel and the central theme of the faith.

The key words in the first verse are good, glad, and joy – as in good news, glad tidings, great joy. This is what Luther was longing for in his faith, but instead he was being served a diet of negative news, terrible tidings, great guilt – it was pay up or burn in hell, or may just get a bad tan in purgatory, but heaven was pretty much out of reach except through an elaborate and often changing system of indulgences that was controlled and manipulated by the church hierarchy – indulgences that were to the construction schedule of the Vatican what Fannie Mae is to the home buyers of America – a steady source of cash and credit.

Luther throws off the yoke of this system of credits and debits and with it the middle management team of Popes and bishops. Luther sees God acting directly to give the gift of grace. This is clearly expressed in the third verse: “This is the Christ, God’s Son most high, who hears your sad and bitter cry; he will himself your Savior be, and from all sin will set you free.”

One of the key Bible verses of the Reformation was in our second lesson this morning: For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God. This idea was obviously put on its head by the system of indulgences that the church of Luther’s day suffered under. But it is also put on its head in our day when the words get switched around and faith replaces grace as the key of salvation.

It is easy to see how this could happen because we have Bible stories like the first lesson we read this morning where the man who is blind comes to Jesus and asks for his sight to be restored – to which Jesus says: “Go; your faith has made you well.”

But there is a difference between being saved by faith and being saved by grace through faith. Imagine if you had been in that accident on the Staten Island Ferry last week and were thrown into the water injured and without the strength to swim to safety. And then, suddenly, someone on shore threw you a ring buoy at the end of a life line and all you had to do was reach out and grab it to be saved from drowning – all you had to do was to trust and hold on. The throwing of the ring buoy – that’s grace; the trust to grab hold – that’s faith.

But that’s not even a good example. The better example would be if someone jumped in the water, held out their hand and you took hold, and then they swam you to shore – then they went back for another person until in exhaustion they themselves drowned. The gospel story is not about God staying in the safety of heaven and throwing down a line so we can climb up – but about God coming down out of heaven to be among us on earth and suffering the consequences – As Luther wrote: From heaven above to Earth I come.

And of course the other part of my illustration that is lacking is the assumption of self-awareness of danger that you or I would be in if we had been thrown injured from that ferry accident. Many who Jesus says are in dire spiritual circumstances are not aware at all of the danger - they are feeling quite content, quite secure, quite safe and saved. They view God’s rescue, God’s grace, as an attack, an attempt to undermine their security and destroy their privilege; they turn on the Savior and accuse him of crimes and kill him by means of the cross.

In spite of all that, God acts to save and that is the abundance, the full measure, of grace that is poured out for us. Our faith is in no measure equal to it – but thank God it does not have to be.

This is the insight Luther came to and shared with a spiritually hungry world – there is no math that can calculate the greatness of God’s grace. The adequacy or inadequacy of our faith and our works of mercy are not of the same nature and God never puts them on a balance scale for a judgment of condemnation or salvation.

This insight was a breath of fresh air to many who were feeling suffocated by the burden of guilt and the heavy handed demands of the church. It also opened the door for a process of renewal that calls the church in every generation to self-examination and reformation.

Luther knew that although Christ began the church and God sustains the church, it is human hands and hearts like yours and mine that shape the church and form its life in every time and age. And human hands and hearts make mistakes, we go off the path, we lose sight of the original and higher purpose. We require reform on a regular basis – we constantly have to go back to the source, the scriptures, and calibrate our compass and reset our course.

We have the self confidence to do this because our confidence is not based in ourselves or even in our faith, but in God’s grace. As Luther trusted in God 486 years ago when he nailed his 95 theses to the church door, today we trust in God to help us see our mistakes, reform our ways, and use this great church and this gifted congregation for his loving purposes of grace and salvation.

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