Sermon for ML 403 Preaching Lab
Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago
1 December 2015
Jeremiah 31.31-34 (Reformation Day)
[With thanks to fellow ML 403 student Analyse Triolo for the recording!]
When I was handed the little slip of paper for my final preaching text, I honestly anticipated what feast or festival I would be given with a bit of dread. After all, we’ve heard a sermon on an Old Testament text for the feast day of a New Testament apostle. And just two weeks ago, we heard three sermons on good old triumphalistic Christ the King Sunday. So not to be disappointed, I got… Reformation Day. I mean, really, what could a Lutheran seminarian possibly have to preach about the Reformation to a room full of the same?
We all know the story of the Reformation. So instead, journey with me on my research for my Religious Heritage paper, about 450 years beyond the time of Luther, to a lesser known but no less important era of our shared ecclesiastical history.
Still some two decades before the dawn of the ELCA, our sisters and brothers in The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod had just elected a new president (their equivalent of a presiding bishop), Jacob Preus. That same year, the seminary in St. Louis had also just chosen John Tietjen as its new president. But these two men could not have been more different.
Preus represented the old guard—what we might today call a fundamentalist. For his part, Preus was simply trying to hold together a church body with a fraught and fragile history, insisting that what they’ve always believed could still hold true and be counted on. But his view also thought of Lutheranism as a box: You either agree with us or you don’t. You’re either in or you’re out.
But trouble was brewing at the seminary in St. Louis. With the support of President Tietjen, the faculty began to rattle the box. They dared to suggest that the old way might not be the only way or the best way for a changing context. Thinking outside the box, they suggested that Lutheranism was instead a platform. As God’s word cannot be contained, neither can its proclamation.
The faculty of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis—and later Seminex—spoke against a system that tried to contain God’s word within an outmoded framework, privileging the old guard at the expense of those who sought to reform it.
When we gather every October 31st to commemorate the Reformation, we remember another group of reformers that likewise spoke against a system that tried to contain God’s word for a select, privileged few. Isn’t that interesting how church history tends to repeat itself?
The church of Luther’s day, as we know, tried to make salvation a commodity that could be boxed and bought. But Luther and the reformers knew that that’s not how grace works. Grace, they insisted, is freely available to all because it cannot be contained.
And surprise of surprises, this is a problem even older than church history itself. We see the same dilemma unfolding in our reading from Jeremiah this afternoon. The exile was one of the most earth-shattering events in the history of ancient Israel and spanned much of the prophet’s career. When the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem, they didn’t just take captives. They also destroyed and looted the Temple—the one place where the Jewish people thought God could be contained.
And this is the audience to which Jeremiah speaks his prophetic word. Talk about a challenge in pastoral care! And right smack-dab in the middle of the book comes our reading today: a vision of God’s new covenant and promise of restoration. Of course, Israel’s history of disobedience is nothing new, and in a way, neither is the certainty of God’s clear intent to forgive, no matter how many times God’s people mess up.
But there is also a sense that this “new covenant” is going to be different: It will “not be like” the old covenant, “no longer” will it be how it was in the past. The people thought God could only be found within their now destroyed temple, but God comes to them in a new, surprising way.
Jeremiah prophesies that not only can God’s word of grace not be contained, but that it comes when and how the people least expect it: the law will be written not on stone tablets but on their hearts, and this new covenant will include all people, not just the people of Israel. It disrupts their expectations of a neatly confined God with limited interests.
And so Jeremiah prophesies to us: In the moments that it feels like God is not where we have to come expect, we can look to the heritage of our tradition and our ancestors in faith for the confidence that God comes in quite different ways beyond our comfortable expectations and presuppositions. As we hear this word of reformation in the midst of the Advent season, I’m also reminded of the hymn text: “Unexpected and mysterious is the gentle word of grace.”
Lest we get too full of ourselves and our ELCA Lutheran pride on Reformation Day, we might do best to remind ourselves that God’s word is not limited to the Seminex movement either, nor is it limited to the pages of the Book of Concord. But as God’s word in Jeremiah is for all people, so then it must be able to speak always afresh to new contexts.
The logo that was designed for Seminex, after the faculty and student majority had no choice but to leave, depicts a chopped down, dead tree stump. But emerging from that stump is a new shoot of leaves. New life out of dead matter. That’s the message of the gospel. For the people of Jeremiah’s day, it meant God emerging from beyond the confines and rubble of a destroyed temple. Some time later in the history of salvation, it meant an empty tomb in a garden while it was still dark.
The good news today and every day is that God’s word of grace is always surprising and always being made new and manifested in unexpected and disarming ways. It can’t be boxed in—not in a temple, not in a sealed tomb, not in this chapel, not in doctrine or dogma made by humans. And for that, thanks be to God.