Standing Outside Graceland, A sermon for Reformation Day/Sunday

Many people idolized Elvis Presley. One of his biggest fans is Dennis Wise, a man who even had his face and hairline changed through plastic surgery to look more like Elvis. He has performed more than 10,000 shows as an Elvis impersonator. He has every album Elvis ever recorded and pictures by the thousands. Notably, his devotion is extreme as he has some leaves from Elvis’s Memphis home known as Graceland.

However, Wise says, “I never got to meet Elvis Presley. I saw him on the stage four times. Once I tried to run up to the stage and once I stood on the wall of Graceland and tried to see him. For 12 hours I stood there trying to get a glimpse of him. But he had so many people around him that I could never get close.” 1  

Imagine that, standing outside Graceland and never seeing the king.

Martin Lutheran as a young monk in a convent at Erfurt, Germany did everything he’d been taught to do and believe that would lead him into a relationship with God. He knew God as harsh and demanding and Martin needed to make himself worthy. He fasted. He prayed. He deprived himself of sleep. He read the Latin translation of the Bible seeking hope. He even resorted to self-flagellation and lying outside in freezing weather all in an effort to attain righteousness and heaven. There was no joy in his faith, instead a tremendous fear of hell. By his own account, Luther was a wretched man.

Martin Luther was standing outside God’s Graceland unable to see or experience the King of Kings. But God could see him and that changed the entire Christian world. Luther’s eyes were opened to this truth regarding salvation: God does it. . .God does it. . . God does it! Faith in Christ’s death and resurrection is what puts a person right with God.

Christian faith is not about what we can do for God but what God has already done for us. What Luther saw in 1513 when reading the books of Romans finally opened the gates of Graceland for him and changed Christianity forever.  During Luther’s century the Roman church, the only church of that age, was basically teaching that God was passive and humanity had to be active. God waited while human beings had to scurry around seeking God’s favor. But in Luther’s moment of enlightenment he knew, he finally knew, that God was active and we are passive.  Salvation is all about what God has done in Christ.

Salvation is a churchy word that needs some unpacking. Here are other words that help open it up to a fuller understanding.  Salvation is:

  • Forgiveness
  • Restoration
  • Rescue
  • A Pronouncement of worthiness
  • Resurrection to new beginnings, over and over and over
  • Entering into Graceland where there are smiles, dancing with God, and a mission to PLEASE God not APPEASE God

Here is one student’s entering into Graceland story.

A student from Hannibal LaGrange University in Missouri told the story in 2010 about what happened in her final exam in a course taught by the vice president of collegiate affairs, the assistant to the president. The young lady was Denise Banderman. The story appeared back then in the web-based subscription of Christianity Today. This is her story:

“In the spring of 2002, I left work early so I could have study time before my final exam in the Youth Ministry class at Hannibal-LaGrange College in Missouri. The teacher came in and said he would review with us before the test. Most of his review came right from the study guide, but there were some things he was reviewing that I had never heard. He said those things were in the book and we were responsible for everything in the book. We couldn’t argue with that. Finally, it was time to take the test.

“‘Leave them face down on the desk until everyone has one, and I’ll tell you to start,” our professor, Dr. Tom Hufty, instructed.

“When we turned them over, to my astonishment every answer on the test was filled in. My name was even written on the exam in red ink. The bottom of the last page said: ‘This is the end of the exam. All the answers on your test are correct. You will receive an A on the final exam. The reason you passed the test is because the creator of the test took it for you. All the work you did in preparation for this test did not help you get the A. You have just experienced grace.’”2

Dr. Hufty then went around the room and asked each student individually, “What is your grade? Do you deserve this grade? How much did all your studying for this exam help you achieve your final grade?  Then he finished his ultimate lesson for his Christian students by saying, “Some things you learn from lecture, some things from research and some things only by experience. You have experienced grace.  When your name is written in God’s book of life it will be because God put it there, not by anything you did.”

Have you entered God’s Graceland? In my youth, I stood outside Graceland, because I did not understand grace. I could parrot the words, Jesus died for my sins, but I still thought I had to be “good” to be saved. My mother grew up not allowed to play cards. Christians did not do that since cards were the devil’s game. Other people still hear the message that good Christians don’t do certain things.  For instance, certain movies are bad, or heaven forbid there should not be dancing. Far too many Christians do not understand the most essential aspect of our faith. They hear the law instead of the good news. They hear about restrictions instead of the joy of serving God.

I once read of two young women waiting on a bench for a bus. One of them was reading, and the other, a stranger to her, asked her what the book was about. “It’s a book about Christianity,” she cheerfully responded.

The questioner’s quick retort was, “Oh, Christians, they are such evil people.” Wow! Does that not give you a start? Christians who get the most publicity in our world are those who judge and condemn and the result is that folks outside the church do not hear love, only hate. Or love couched in, first you have to change type language.

Ken Medema was the speaker at the annual assembly of representatives from the Lutheran congregations in my state. He is a blind singer, songwriter, and pianist. His was a remarkable presentation of storytelling and song. The highlight for me was this. He told of being the featured speaker at a large church in New England for their Sunday service. He had composed a hymn for them that fit their formal style of worship. He then played it for us. It was quite lovely and indeed it could have come from a hymnal of the 1950s. Having arrived the day before Ken was invited by the youth group to the dance they were having that Saturday night. He accepted and thought how nice it would be for him to sit and listen to the kids having a good time.

Ken then explained to us that he had been raised in a fairly restrictive Christian congregation with many rules for what was acceptable behavior for a Christian. No dancing was among those restrictions. The evening of the dance he was enjoying the music and listening to all the happy voices of the kids. As a blind man, his sense of hearing was quite good so when a person approached him he could tell by her voice it was a somewhat nervous girl. “Would you like to dance with me?” she asked. Immediately Ken protested and in a rambling way told her that he grew up Christian Reformed and dancing was not allowed and he had never danced he told her he could not possibly dance with her. Nevertheless, the girl responded, “Yeah, but do you want to dance with me? Come on, you may like it?” She pulled his arm encouragingly and before he knew it she was leading him out to the dance floor.

Ken loved it. He absolutely loved it. He felt so expressive and free. It was exhilarating. That night back in his hotel room he wrote a new song for the congregation to hear the next morning.  It was not formal in the least yet so moving and perfect.

She asked me to dance and I’d never tried dancing before

I had visions of everyone laughing me right off the floor.

No, I protested, I just wouldn’t be any good.

She gently insisted and finally I told her I would.

Unforgettable.  She was a fresh breath of spring on my cold winter’s day.

Unforgettable. She taught this singer to sing in a whole new way.

He asked me to dance and I’d never tried dancing before.

I had visions of saints and angels laughing me right off the floor.

No I protested it just wouldn’t be any good.

He gently persisted and finally I told him I would.

And it was unforgettable.

 He was the coming of spring on my cold winter’s day.

Unforgettable. He taught this singer to sing in a whole new way.

The coming of spring, on a cold winter’s day.

Taught me to sing, in a brand new way. 3

Can you see Luther as a monk behind cloistered convent walls, dancing? He tried so hard and for so long to be what he had been taught that God wanted. And finally he realized the truth. He was loved by God.  Christ’s stamp of approval was on his forehead.

He made an unforgettable entrance into Graceland.

1 www.RayStedman.org  The Incredible Hope

2 https://www.wyomingnews.com/rocketminer/opinion/columnists/is-something-more-valuable-to-you-than-the-truth/article

3 I sang the song when I delivered this sermon but the lyrics certainly speak for themselves. I looked online for a recording of this song and finally found it here. https://m.facebook.com/watch/?extid=SEO—-&v=302864373972294&_rdr

You can find the recording on Ken’s album, “Yesterday’s a Sign.”

Preachers are welcome to borrow from this sermon. I would like to hear in the comments if you found it useful, please. Thank you and blessings in preaching!

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