Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Although the year 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, we shouldn’t assume that every doctrine and teaching was in place when Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church on Reformation Day, October 31st. Luther’s Small Catechism wouldn’t be published for another 12 years in 1529. And in the meantime, young men and women were struggling with the question, “What does this mean?”
We don’t know why Luther and the other early Protestant reformers chose to abandon the symbolic use of ashes on Ash Wednesday. They still instructed their followers to cross themselves and they most certainly believed in the liturgical rite of Confession and Forgiveness. In the 1500’s the Forgiveness of Sins or the Office of the Keys was considered to be just as sacramental and holy as the Lord’s Supper and baptism. We can see this in one of the most important altar paintings of the Protestant Reformation: Lucas Cranach the Elder’s altarpiece for the parish church of St. Mary’s in Wittenberg.
The altarpiece consists of four different panels. The largest panel in the middle depicts the scene of the last supper. To either side we see, two of Luther’s closest associates. On the left is Philipp Melanchthon baptizing a child, and on the right side is Johannes Bugenhagen acting as a confessor and exercising the Office of Keys. In the bottom panel, called the Predella, we see Luther preaching and presenting the crucified Christ to his followers while his other hand is placed firmly on the Bible. The altarpiece was finished in 1547, a year after Luther’s death. Lucas Cranach was a close friend with Luther, and had discussed the final work with him. Throughout the season of Lent, we will meditate on this historic altarpiece, as well as Luther’s Small Catechism.
This evening we will begin with Cranach’s image of Johannes Bugenhagen and the Office of the Keys, or what Philipp Melanchthon regarded as a possible third sacrament. Johannes Bugenhagen was a close friend of Martin Luther’s. He was actually his pastor in St. Mary’s Church in Wittenberg, and performed the wedding of Luther to Katherine von Bora. In the altar painting Johannes Bugenhagen is forgiving the sins of the penitent man and retaining the sins of the impenitent. This is suggested by the position of the keys to unlock. Interestingly, Cranach always portrays the evil one in yellow. What was the difference between these two men: the one begging for mercy, and the other walking away in with his sword under his arm in disgust? I rather suspect that for both men that their dreams had made their lives out of balance.
We all live with a dream. You may think that dreams are only words offered to high school graduates. Stick to your dreams, dream dreams, let your dreams become a reality. You may not be aware of it, but these dreams color your judgement of the past, the interpretation of the present, and your decisions for the future. Dreams have the power to change us. The dream of becoming a mother changes everything, but motherhood itself also changes with each baby. For example, consider a mother’s wardrobe. As soon as the pregnancy is confirmed the young mother heads to the mall and comes home wearing a maternity outfit. With the second baby, she squeezes into her regular clothes as long as possible. With the third child, your maternity clothes are you regular clothes.
Of course, age changes your perspective on dreams as well. Humorist Dave Barry says that the fading of dreams begins for some with the realization of old age. For him it began the first time he put on a pair of reading glasses. It’s rather like Clark Kent and Superman in reverse. “He takes off his glasses and becomes Superman; you put on your reading glasses and you become… Old Person.”
When you look back, you will discover, that almost every decision in your life was based on bringing you closer to the fulfillment of your dreams. But not all dreams are honorable and equal. Some dreams are truly God sent, while other are simply human creations. So ask yourself, what dream is driving your life?
There are men and women who are willing to pay at great cost to see their dreams fulfilled. They log in massive hours at work each week, hoping that someone will say, “You’re really doing a great job here.” Forget about the meals together with your family, the missed piano recitals and Saturday morning soccer games. That little bit of affirmation, “You’re really doing a great job here,” is an incentive. Yes, work hard and your dream might just come true.
Being a Christian doesn’t seem to change any of this, or necessarily spare you from pursuit of false dreams. In fact, it may add a whole new layer. We expect that on top of all life’s your other activities and obligations that the Church will help you find balance in a harried life.
I am reminded of the story of the man who was being tailgated by a stressed-out woman on a busy boulevard. Suddenly, the light turned yellow, just in front of him. He did the right thing, stopping at the crosswalk, even though he could have beaten the red light by accelerating through the intersection. The tailgating woman hit the roof — and the horn –and screamed in frustration as she missed her chance to get through the intersection. She was still in mid-rant when she heard a tap on her window and looked up into the face of a very serious police officer. The officer ordered her to exit her car with her hands up. He took her to the police station where she was searched, fingerprinted, photographed, and placed in a cell. After a couple of hours, a jailer approached the cell and opened the door. She was escorted back to the booking desk where the arresting officer was waiting with her personal effects. “I’m very sorry for the mistake,” he told her. “You see, I pulled up behind your car while you were blowing your horn, flipping the guy off in front of you, and cussing a blue streak at him. I noticed the ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ bumper sticker, the ‘Follow Me to Sunday School’ decal, and the chrome-plated Christian fish emblem on the trunk. So naturally, I assumed you had stolen the car.”
My friends, it doesn’t have to end that way. It is possible to enjoy every day of life, and it begins with the simple confession. “I am sorry Lord. I have let me dreams get the best of me.”
It is not easy to let go of dreams, especially those that have driven our lives. But many time we need to. We are often so obsessed with what we do not have, that we can’t see the value of what we have been given. The blessings of God are usually hidden in the plainest packages. They come wrapped in things like an evening meal at the kitchen table with someone you love, a child you see playing in the backyard while you’re doing the dishes. Dreams, you see, are fulfilled in life’s small gestures, and to be truly blessed is to discover that God loves you deeply.
That’s why the Office of the Keys, the Confession and Forgiveness of Sins was so important to the early Protestant reformers, and to us today. Like baptism and holy communion, the Reformers believed that forgiveness of sins is life-giving. They believed that publicly confessing your failings, and seeking a new beginning before others is honorable. Confessing sins secretly doesn’t demand any personal change for renewed strength, but public confession does. It may surprise you, but the Christian faith is not a religion of law and commandments to be adhered to. Nor is the Office of the Keys intended to be a moralistic application of God’s “shalls” and “shall nots.” The forgiveness of sins is really about the care of souls in their relationship to God and one another. It about unlocking the burdens of your sins, and freeing you to claim your God sent dreams again.
On Ash Wednesday, we begin our Lenten journey by looking again at our dreams and asking ourselves whether our dreams are healthy and life giving. Are they God given, or simply human creation? Confession and forgiveness is the practice that allows us to look deeply into our lives and into our dreams. It is the rite where we are cleansed and refreshed. It is where we began to receive the blessing of life that God freely offers anew.
My friends, what dreams are driving you and your life? Are they of God- or are they dreams of your own creation? Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.