Romans 3. 19-28
By grace, god saves; by grace, we save, as well!
It was a Thursday, March thirtieth, three years ago. Sherice’s brother’s daughter – our niece – shared a video on Facebook. The title was “The Happiest Countries Have Four Things in Common” and it was based on a list the United Nations have been putting together, each year, since 2012. The top three countries for 2017 were Norway, Denmark, and Iceland. (FYI: The United States, that year, was number fourteen! This year, for 2020. – pre-pandemic, pre-everything else – ‘we’ were eighteenth. But I digress …) The top three countries were number one – Norway, number two – Denmark, number three – Iceland and according to the videos, the four things they had in common were …
• at least twenty-four paid vacation days, each year
• six months maternity leave
• free college
• and universal healthcare
“One other thing they have in common,” I commented, “(dot. dot. dot.) They’re all Lutheran (exclamation mark)!” They’re all Lutheran! So, out of curiosity, I googled, “list of happiest countries, 2017” and discovered two other countries – in the top ten happiest countries in the world – that caught my attention. Finland was number five. And Sweden was number ten! Two more Lutheran countries! Four of the top five! Half of the top ten! They called it Nordic Exceptionalism. Year after year, right from the start, these five countries dominated the lists! And they were all Lutheran! Or at least, up until recently, they had been! Coïncidence? Accident? Fluke?
To be honest, I don’t know. But you can’t brush up against something for generations, for centuries, without something rubbing off. But that video made me think. And I’ve come to realize a couple things. First of all, the popular church here in the U.S. isn’t based on Lutheranism. It’s not rooted in Luther. On what he taught. In what he believed. Luther staked his life on the grace! On the charity! On the love of god! We Americans believe in choices! We believe in work! In effort! If we work long enough … If we work hard enough … If we work well enough … we can accomplish anything! Sweat of our brows! Strength of our backs! It’s branded “the Protestant Work Ethic.” It’s not generic protestant. It’s distinctly Puritan. Calvinist. It’s from a reformation movement in the next county! From the other side of the mountain! One with different assumptions. One with different expectations. Sure, it’s American. As American as baseball and apple pie. It’s, just, not Lutheran.
You see, the American church is a transactional church. Giving and taking. Buying and selling. Nothing happens until. Nothing happens unless. Nothing free. As Americans – American Christians – it’s all up to us. And we’re fixated, obsessed, with whether somebody gets something for nothing. Whether somebody – anybody – gets something – anything – they haven’t earned. Something – anything – they don’t deserve. Lutherans? Lutherans believe that’s the only way to get anything. Without earning. Without deserving. It’s a gift! It’s all a gift! Like in Norway and Denmark and Iceland and Finland and Sweden!
That’s the first thing I realized. Here in American, it’s not so much Luther as it is Zwingli and Calvin and Knox and the others. If it were Luther, things might look very different. But, then, there’s one other thing to which that video opened my eyes. Something that hadn’t dawned on me before. Something that didn’t sink in, even after thirty-seven years of ministry. Something that’s the hallmark, the trademark, of being Lutheran. Something we tend to overlook. Something we tend to forget. Something we tend to ignore. And that is … we’re chosen … called … not to love and serve god, but to love and serve each other! Let me repeat that. As Christians, as church, we aren’t here to love and serve god. We’re here to love and serve each other! To love and serve our neighbor!
God didn’t so love god, that god gave Jesus! God so love the world! God so loved creation, the cosmos! And it wasn’t because Jesus loved god so much that he embraced the cross. It was because he loved us, so much! Each of us! All of us! We aren’t here for what we can do for god. We’re here for what we can do for each other! We’re here for what we can do for them! Out there! We aren’t brought together, any given Sunday, to worship and praise god. We’re not here to sing our songs and say our prayers and read our bibles … for god’s sake! We’re here to do that all for them! For each other! We’re here to discover god’s amazing grace! That charity, that love, god has for everyone and everything! We’re here to see it! We’re here to hear it! We’re here to touch and to taste it! And then, to go from here, back to where we live our lives and live it … just … like … Jesus!
That’s the sum and substance, the essence, of what it is to be Lutheran! It’s quintessential, stereotypical Martin Luther! That is the reason we’re here! That’s the reason it happened, at all! We’re not here for god’s sake. We’re here for our neighbors’ sake! For the sake of one another. It’s not based on our earning. It’s not rooted in our deserving. It’s anchored and rooted in god’s love! It’s a gift! It’s all a gift! And our job – our privilege – is passing it on!
“God doesn’t need our good works,” Luther writes!
“God doesn’t need our good works, but our neighbors do!”
“It’s the duty of every Christian
– of every Christian, every congregation, every denomination –
to be Christ to his – to her – neighbor!”
We’re not here to construct buildings. We’re here to build up people! And that’s what makes starting over so difficult. The practices of the past. Yesterday’s priorities. But we’re no longer here to balance budgets. Or to maintain traditions. We’re here to be loved! To be loved by god! And then, to love all that god loves! We’re here to feed the hungry! We’re here to give the thirsty something to drink! We’re here to clothe the naked and make room, make a place, for the exile and the refugee! We’re here to care for the sick! To care for those, at risk of becoming sick! We’re here to claim all those our world is so willing, so able, to crumble up and toss aside. And that’s about as supernatural and otherworldly as it gets!
“The Four Things the Happiest Countries Have in Common!” That’s the name of the video. But truth is, there’s only one thing that makes all the difference … They’re Lutheran! They believe in being graced and in gracing! They believe in being loved and in loving! They believe in being gifted and in gifting! And the farthest thing from their mind is whether the one who receives has earned it or deserves it! That’s not the way god’s done it! That’s not the way god does it! And you know, that’s not the way we do it, either!