Tag Archives: Martin Luther

Always Reforming

A Sermon for 28 October 2018 – Reformation Sunday

A reading of Acts 15:1-35.  Listen for God’s word to us as we hear of one of the church’s first experiences of reformation.  Listen.

“Then certain individuals came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”  And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to discuss this question with the apostles and the elders.  So they were sent on their way by the church, and as they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, they reported the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the believers.  When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them.  But some believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees stood up and said, “It is necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses.”   6 The apostles and the elders met together to consider this matter.  After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “My brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers.  And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as God did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith God has made no distinction between them and us.  10 Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear?  11 On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”  12 The whole assembly kept silence, and listened to Barnabas and Paul as they told of all the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles.  13 After they finished speaking, James replied, “My brothers, listen to me.  14 Simeon has related how God first looked favorably on the Gentiles, to take from among them a people for God’s name.  15 This agrees with the words of the prophets, as it is written, 16 ‘After this I will return, and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen; from its ruins I will rebuild it, and I will set it up, 17 so that all other peoples may seek the Lord—even all the Gentiles over whom my name has been called.  Thus says the Lord, who has been making these things 18 known from long ago.’  19 Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, 20 but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood.  21 For in every city, for generations past, Moses has had those who proclaim him, for he has been read aloud every sabbath in the synagogues.”  22 Then the apostles and the elders, with the consent of the whole church, decided to choose men from among their members and to send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas.  They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leaders among the brothers, 23 with the following letter:  “The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the believers of Gentile origin in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings.  24 Since we have heard that certain persons who have gone out from us, though with no instructions from us, have said things to disturb you and have unsettled your minds, 25 we have decided unanimously to choose representatives and send them to you, along with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, 26 who have risked their lives for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ.  27 We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth.  28 For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials:  29 that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication.  If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well.  Farewell.”  30 So they were sent off and went down to Antioch.  When they gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter.  31 When its members read it, they rejoiced at the exhortation.  32 Judas and Silas, who were themselves prophets, said much to encourage and strengthen the believers.   33 After they had been there for some time, they were sent off in peace by the believers to those who had sent them.  35 But Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, and there, with many others, they taught and proclaimed the word of the Lord.”

This is the word of God for the people of God.  Thanks be to God!

 

We may not be incredibly familiar with this text from Acts.  It’s a great one for today, on Reformation Sunday, however, because we get a view into one of the first moments of major reform in the Church . . .

CHILD: (running into the sanctuary with papers in his hand, interrupting):  Pastor Jule!  Pastor Jule!

JULE:  Ah . . .  Ceci?  Is everything ok?  Aren’t you supposed to be quietly sitting in your pew right now?

CHILD:  But Pastor Jule, I found this outside, taped onto the door.  It’s addressed to Hillwood Presbyterian Church.  I think you need to read it!

JULE:  Ah – ok.  Thanks.  I’ll read it after worship.  Now I gotta get back to my sermon.

CHILD:  No Pastor Jule.  You’re supposed to read it NOW!  Aloud!  Read it out to everyone.

JULE:  Seriously, Ceci?  I’m supposed to be preaching right now.

CHILD:  YES, Pastor Jule!  I found it outside taped to the door, addressed to us.  I think it’s really important.  Read it out loud RIGHT NOW!

JULE:  Ok.  But if I do will you at least go sit back down?

CHILD:  Ok, Pastor Jule.  Just make sure you read the whole thing to everybody.  We need to hear what it says.

JULE:  Ah-hmm.  HPC,

Grace and peace to you in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.  It’s Reformation Sunday and I happen to know that today is the day Protestant Churches around the world celebrate that one man took a stand by posting 95 Thesis on the door to the sanctuary in Whittenburg, Germany on October 31, 1517, All Hallow’s Eve – 501 years ago this Wednesday.  He knew his fellow clergymen and congregants would be at high holy mass for All Saints’ Day the next morning on November 1st.  I realize 95 Thesis is a whole long list of protests, demands, complaints – whatever way you look at them.  But Martin Luther wasn’t just complaining about things he didn’t like about his church.  Rather, Martin Luther – and all the reformers to come after him – was undergoing a spiritual re-awakening.  He was so excited about the assurances of God’s absolute acceptance of him, which he was finding in his study of Scripture – Romans in particular.  Like Romans 3:21-26:  “But now, apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ, for all who believe.  For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God; they are now justified by God’s grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.  God did this to show God’s righteousness, because in God’s divine forbearance, God had passed over the sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time that God God’s very self is righteous and that God justifies the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:21-26).

I love these verses about God’s divine forbearance.  Because they remind me that all of us are ok.  Better than ok even:  fully loved.  Fully accepted.  Fully cherished by our God.  Every human being, not on our own accord – not even through any of our striving, but alone through the efforts of our God.  Grace makes us right with God and each other.  The free gift born of the One who is pure love.  I know we mess up over and over.  We don’t deserve the unconditional love of our God or of each other.  But that’s divine FORBEARANCE:  that patient living with another, committed no matter what to continue to love the other.  Even when we abhor and will NOT tolerate the harmful behavior undertaken by the other.  Though we continuously break the connection between God and ourselves, God is faithful still.  Thanks be to God every day, and especially on Reformation Sunday, for this marvelous GIFT!

Reformation Sunday reminds us too that continuous reform always will be a part of the church.  At least if we believe in the living God who continues to call to the church through Scripture and the presence of the Holy Spirit.  I think often of the Early Church:  what a mess!  O, I know Acts of the Apostles tells of followers of Christ initially coming together in joy and thanksgiving each day.  Together they held all things in common and distributed what they had as any had need.  They spent much time together in the temple (which might be code for they sat in lengthy committee meetings).  And “they broke bread at home as they ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people” (Acts 2:43-47).  Their joy.  Their gratitude.  Their devotion to God and each other was a witness to all the people – others looked upon them with admiration.  And they grew, and they spread, and they started having more and more problems.  Some were threatened by their new-found following of the Way.  Still others soon came to be perceived by them as a threat; because they too wanted in on the Way.  Day by day, the followers of Christ had to come together to listen to each other and for the Spirit of God in their midst.  Just as happened in the story from Acts 15.  “Openness to the Guidance of the Holy Spirit” wasn’t a foundational principle newly discovered and first recorded in the PCUSA’s recently updated FOG (Form of Government, F-1.04).  Disciples of Christ, the Church, always have had to remain open to whatever comes.  That is, at least, if they want to continue with God in their midst.

I guess that’s part of why I’m writing this letter to you, HPC – to and for us.  Because I know it’s been a very full year for us as a church.  We’ve wrestled with some tough stuff, watched beloved friends and fellow church members die, tried new ways of being together in fellowship and spiritual growth through things like Walking Group and Book Studies and Painting Parties.  We’ve worked together – remember all those called meetings earlier in the year to decide to get a loan in order to get some heat and air back in the building?!  Despite the scary price tag, we committed to continuing to be a church in this place so we can serve God by serving others in this area.  We’ve even installed a new pastor – despite the fire alarm sounding about every ten seconds during that service!  We’ve opened our doors to the wider community through Small World Yoga and Adult Children of Alcoholics and Dysfunctional Families.  And I don’t know if you even realize how busy the Trustees, Property, and Finance folk of the church have gotten.  They’ve newly transferred HPC’s investments to be handled by the PCUSA’s Foundation while beginning to get a master facility care plan in place to ensure generations to come will be able to worship and serve God by coming together in this place.  I could go on – for there’s been so much more too that the people of God have been busy doing in this place through new community partnerships like the one growing with H.G. Hill Middle School and Mending Hearts and the one steadily continuing with our largest service to the community:  Playcare.  A pre-school of almost 90 children onsite every weekday with 20 employees tending and teaching for sweet little ones to grow!  HPC, I write to you excited about it all!  Excited because I see the fingerprints of the Holy Spirit all over us all!  In renewal and in change, I’ve seen people open to listening for God’s Spirit.  In the efforts to care more compassionately for one another like through the kinds of ministries the children and teens of the church undertake today by reverse Trick-o-Treating to HPC’s homebound members and friends.  And did you know that our leaders and staff have been working hard together with input from the Renewal Team too to put together exciting ministry plans for 2019?  Not only do we plan to continue to grow our community partnerships, but we also want to create a new ministry of Creativity – maybe even invite some artists from around town to come teach a workshop or two to the wider community.  We plan to open ourselves to new ways of stewardship through a capital campaign and legacy giving that we might be good financial stewards of all we have in life and in death.  I hear plans are in the works for an overnight spiritual refreshment retreat and of course securing new technologies one of these days that will allow the church office to communicate by phone, email, and text in whatever ways work best for church members and friends.  There’s gonna be some of our favorites like Sunday Fellowship Coffee, weekly worship with wonderfully gifted vocal and instrumental musicians, Men’s Club and Women of the Church, continued pastoral care in times of need, and even the fun of Christmas Caroling to our homebound followed by a Christmas Party too.

HPC, on this Reformation Sunday, I’m reminded how dicey those initial days of the Protestant Reformation were – as dicey as the early church times we heard in Acts of the Apostles.  Martin Luther, and the other reformers, never imagined how deeply their personal spiritual awakenings would transform the whole of human history.  Like:  Martin Luther never expected to be hunted by the Pope and his beloved Church, his very life threatened for the ways he believed God’s Spirit was calling the Church into a different future.  He never wanted a house divided.  Like Christ, he wanted God’s people to know the freedom, joy, and wonder he had discovered in the love of God.  Like Christ, he wanted us all to be able to lift our voices in praise to the One who made us and justified us and grows us into more hallowed living each day.  Like Christ, Martin Luther wanted you and me to find deep connection with our God as we read for ourselves the stories of God coming in love to God’s creation again and again and again for the sake of God’s whole, renewed creation.  Like Christ, Martin Luther wanted the kind of awe-filled wonder – the joyful thanksgiving Christ’s first followers celebrated together each day!  . . .  On this 501st celebration of the Great Protestant Reformation, my prayer for this church is the same!

May God bless us all as we live each day as a blessing one to another, and even unto the entire world.

Signed:  A fellow follower of the Way.

Ceci, thank you SO much for bringing this letter to us this morning.  Indeed, it contains God’s good news to us!  So be it.  Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2018 (All rights reserved.)

 

Such a Time as This

A Sermon for 30 September 2018

A reading from Esther 7:1-10 and 9:20-23.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“So the king and Haman went in to feast with Queen Esther.  On the second day, as they were drinking wine, the king again said to Esther, “What is your petition, Queen Esther?  It shall be granted you.  And what is your request?  Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.”  Then Queen Esther answered, “If I have won your favor, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me—that is my petition—and the lives of my people—that is my request.  For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated.  If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; but no enemy can compensate for this damage to the king.”  Then King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther, “Who is he, and where is he, who has presumed to do this?”  Esther said, “A foe and enemy, this wicked Haman!”  Then Haman was terrified before the king and the queen.  The king rose from the feast in wrath and went into the palace garden, but Haman stayed to beg his life from Queen Esther, for he saw that the king had determined to destroy him.  When the king returned from the palace garden to the banquet hall, Haman had thrown himself on the couch where Esther was reclining; and the king said, “Will he even assault the queen in my presence, in my own house?”  As the words left the mouth of the king, they covered Haman’s face.  Then Harbona, one of the eunuchs in attendance on the king, said, “Look, the very gallows that Haman has prepared for Mordecai, whose word saved the king, stands at Haman’s house, fifty cubits high.”  And the king said, “Hang him on that.”  10 So they hanged Haman on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai.  Then the anger of the king abated.  . . .  Mordecai recorded these things, and sent letters to all the Jews who were in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, both near and far, 21 enjoining them that they should keep the fourteenth day of the month Adar and also the fifteenth day of the same month, year by year, 22 as the days on which the Jews gained relief from their enemies, and as the month that had been turned for them from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, days for sending gifts of food to one another and presents to the poor.  23 So the Jews adopted as a custom what they had begun to do, as Mordecai had written to them.”

This is the word of God for the people of God.  Thanks be to God!

 

Do you ever feel as if we are living in a time absolutely consumed by values unlike those of Christ?  Maybe you look at the lives of neighbors or friends and wonder:  what in the world drives them to do what they do?  Perhaps you turn to the news and think:  does anyone care any more about things like compassion, forgiveness, truth?  If ever it seems like the world around us is like foreign territory, we can give thanks for the biblical reminders that we are not alone.  Throughout the story of faith, God’s people have lived like aliens in another land.  Doing their best to be who God needed them to be, no matter where they found themselves each day.  From Abram and Sarai in Egypt, to the exiles in Babylon.  To Jesus who was a young Jewish boy hiding out as a refugee in Egypt because of the foreign king of his land.  The earliest stories of Christ’s movement remind us that Rome once fatally rejected Christ’s ways – not only killing Jesus, but later putting to death one of his most strident followers Paul, and scads of early Christians too.  If we ever wonder how to be faithful in the midst of a world that lives and moves and values things quite unlike the ways of Christ, then taking a dip back into Scripture might lend some helpful clues.

For instance, consider the life of the great Queen Esther.  Once orphaned by the death of her mother and father, young Esther was lucky enough to have a cousin who took her in.  Though we often refer to him as Uncle Mordecai, he technically was a first cousin who adopted Esther to be his own.  Orphaned children don’t always get a great shot in life.  But Esther had one thing going for her and Mordecai seized upon it.  A delight to the eyes, Esther was absolutely beautiful.  It’s a bit of a harsh story – especially in light of the current climate of #Why I Didn’t Report.  A drunken king is shamed before his kingdom when his Queen Vashti refuses to be summoned to the debauchery in order to be on display.  To save face and keep every man – as Esther 1:22 reads:  “master in his own house,” Queen Vashti is banished from ever again setting foot before the king.  Stripped of her crown, the king demands another.  It is then that Mordecai jumps into action.  His reasoning being he and his people, the Jews, are aliens in a foreign land.  Exiled by Babylonians, they eventually found themselves under Persian rule.  After years of keeping themselves alive, Mordecai figures a beguiling queen who hides her Jewish identity could come in handy someday.  Beautiful young Esther is sent to the palace.  The story goes that she favors the king’s head eunuch so, that she rises in the ranks of King Ahasuerus’s harem.  This is the point of the story when we really don’t wanna know all that Esther had to do.  Scripture merely records that it is her beauty that deeply impresses the king during the times when she went in to see him.  . . .  Though no mention is made of God in the entire book of Esther, we have to wonder if Mordecai alone is running the show, or if Yahweh the Sovereign of the Universe was busy making a way where there seemed to be none.  Esther – keeping her Jewish identity a secret – soon finds herself the new Queen of an empire stretching from India to Ethiopia!

It might be helpful for us to know that when the Northern and Southern kingdoms of Israel and Judah fell, the Assyrians took a divide-and-conquer approach to Israel – flinging their captives wide across the known world.  Some from a tribe being sent there.  Another being sent here.  Still others, all the way over there.  Years later, the Babylonians sent Judeans all together into foreign land.  All the way from Jerusalem, they mourned the destruction of their lives, their land, their Temple.  Psalm 46 poetically reminds what always eventually comes to be:  “the nations are in an uproar,” the Psalmist writes.  “The kingdoms totter . . . the earth melts” (Psalm 46:6).  Which is pretty much what happened.  The nation of Assyria rose.  The nation of Assyria fell.  The nation of Babylon rose.  The nation of Babylon fell.  The empire of Persia came to be.  And it too would see the end of its mighty rule.  . . .  Kings of empires often are inflated.  The stories of Scripture are full of leaders who are puffed up on themselves only eventually to fall.  I guess being a successful invading emperor easily could leave one feeling they can do whatever they want.  After all, if you think you’re at the top; who’s going to be around to tell you no?

The king of Persia was smart enough to know alliance matters.  When someone warns you of an internal assignation plot, you make sure the one who saved your skin is favored.  From all his time at the palace gate, old Mordecai hears that two eunuchs close to the king have grown angry enough to kill him.  Mordecai gets word to Queen Esther who in turn lets King Ahasuerus know what’s in the works.  When a new man rises to position number two next to the king, he doesn’t at all like that Mordecai refuses to bow before him.  Deciding it’s beneath him to have Mordecai alone killed; Haman, the new number two to the king, sets his sights instead on annihilating all the Jews of the empire.  . . .  Scholars believe the book of Esther is a part of Scripture to explain how the Jewish festival of Purim came to be.  According to one biblical commentator, “the purpose of the feast, actually two feasts, are to celebrate the rescue of the Jews from their wicked enemies, their escape from death that turned their ‘sorrow into gladness and . . . mourning into a holiday’ (Esther 9:22).  This liturgical feast was to be made unique by its exuberant gladness, the sharing of gifts of food with one another, and the giving of presents to the poor” (Kathleen M. O’Conner, Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 4, p. 101).  Such deliverance reminds of a brilliant quote we read this week in our new Book Group book Inspired:  Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again.  Author Rachel Held Evans writes:  “My Jewish friends like to joke that you can sum up nearly every Jewish holiday with, ‘They tried to kill us; we won; let’s eat!’” (p. 40).

None of it would have come to pass if not for the courageous Queen Esther – who was smart enough to listen to the wise sage Mordecai when it came time to look beyond her own comfort to the salvation of her entire people.  When Mordecai sends word to Esther to use her position as queen to plead for the lives of all the Jews, he’s eloquently quoted in Esther 4:14 as saying:  “For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish.  Who knows?  Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”

Perhaps we are living in a world of such challenge as followers of Christ’s way, for such a time as this.  Oh, we may not be beautiful queens of an ancient empires stretching the wide expanse of almost all the known world.  But we are a people of immense privilege living in a land of incredible wealth.  We have been gifted with positions in business and education and industries of service.  We have the pleasure of living in relatively safe neighborhoods in comfortable homes with access to just about anything we could want.  . . .  I’ll never forget the words of another wise sage when I drove her from inner city Nashville to do a minute for mission in the church I was serving in Brentwood.  As a student of Vanderbilt Divinity School who was serving on the staff at a church in subdivisions where corporate wealth was on the rise, it was common to hear fellow Div. School folk questioning if I cared at all for the plight of those in need – as if need only wears a face related to money.  On our way to Brentwood for a minute for mission by Ms. Laura, the founder of the Luke 14:12 Feeding Program of Edgehill United Methodist Church; I’ll never forget the words she spoke to me.  She said:  “Jule, those crushed by poverty need others to speak for them to those who have the power to make a difference.”  She encouraged me faithfully to follow wherever God sent me – no matter what anyone else might think.  With Mordecai, she might as well have been reminding us, saying:  “Who knows?  Perhaps we have come to our positions in life for such a time as this.”

In the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther stuck to a doctrine of divided kingdoms – the realm of God and our station in this world as separately distinct from one another.  John Calvin, the genius behind our Presbyterian thoughts and ways, believed there is no separation.  As Christians, we are in this world to make an impact.  Summarized beautifully in the Great Ends of the Church, the missional statements of the PCUSA proclaim, we are here as Christ’s Church for “the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind; (for) the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God; (for) the maintenance of divine worship; the preservation of the truth; the promotion of social righteousness; and (for) the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world” (PCUSA Book of Order 2017-2019, F-1.0304, p. 5).

Indeed, each one of us – wherever we go every week, we are needed for such a time as the one in which we find ourselves today.  . . .  Take heart, royal priesthood.  Be brave, members of the household of God.  The God of Jacob and Mordecai and Esther is with us!  We are here, now, for just such a time as this!

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit.  Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2018  (All rights reserved.)

Five Hundred Years Later

A Sermon for 29 October 2017 – Reformation Sunday

A reading from Romans 12:1-13.  Listen for God’s word to us in a message from the Apostle Paul to encourage the Christians in Rome.  Listen.

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.  Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.  For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.  For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.  We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us:  prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.  Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.  11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.  12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.  13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.”

This is the word of God for the people of God.  Thanks be to God!

Five hundred years ago, no one had heard of this church.  Five hundred years ago, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) wasn’t a glimmer in anyone’s eye.  Five hundred years ago, there wasn’t even something called the United States of America.  We forget, sometimes, how young our great country is – not yet 250 years old.  Five hundred years ago here native people lived off the land.  The Cherokees and Chickasaws and Creeks and Natchez and Shawnees and Tuskegees hunted and farmed the land under our feet.  Tennessee comes from a Cherokee name meaning Little River.  Because the native people loved the fertile Tennessee River Valley (https://m.warpaths2peacepipes.com/history-of-native-americans/history-of-tennessee-indians.htm).

Five hundred years ago Tuesday to be exact, one man half a world away from here made an important proclamation.  The wisdom writer of Ecclesiastes reminds us that “there is nothing new under the sun” (Eccles. 1:9b).  Five hundred years ago a monk of the church was wrestling with his faith, as many of us do every day today.  Though vowed to God as a monk and priest of the Church, the man wasn’t so sure he was ok in the eyes of God.  Riddled with guilt over who he knew himself to be – the ways he hadn’t done enough of the will of God, the ways he didn’t love his neighbors as if they were himself, and often times didn’t even love himself all that well.  Five hundred years ago a man, who was trying to do his best for God every day, came to a revelation.  It wasn’t exactly all of a sudden.  Martin Luther had been wrestling with God a goodly long portion of his life.  It’s part of what drove him to the monastery.  He was terrified of God and even more afraid of hell – something he was living on earth as his soul just could not rest in what he was seeing in and hearing from the Church.

Of course, the Church at the time was not Presbyterian, or Lutheran, or Anglican, or any other sort of Baptist, Methodist, or non-denominational body.  The Church in the Western world five hundred years ago was the Roman Catholic Church (that was it); with the Pope in Rome as its head and a whole host of cardinals, bishops, and priests all being financially supported by the local people.  They were the state, and the state was them – because no one yet had envisioned the experiment of separating the powers of the state from the powers of the church.  That would come later when some colonies that wanted to break from under Britain’s rule fought to forge a new nation where folks like the Cherokees and Chickasaws and Shawnees hunted and farmed and lived.  Five hundred years ago Tuesday one man, who found a fresh insight in scripture that transformed his experience of God, concluded that things had to change.  So, in protest of how things in the Church were and how he believed God wanted them instead to be; Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the chapel at the University of Wittenberg where he had become a professor of Theology.  He knew everyone would come for mass the next day on the high, holy All Saints’ Day.  He wanted to start a conversation in which he and his colleagues would dialogue about the ways things needed to change.  Fueled by the recent invention of the printing press that ensured copies of his 95 protests would be sent all over Western Europe in just two months – an act unheard of before; Martin Luther ignited a revolution whose end the world has not yet seen.

Five hundred years later, here we are.  Celebrating the doubts of a Catholic monk that propelled him deeper into realms of Christian faith.  Remembering the perseverance of a budding Theology professor who stumbled upon the Spirit’s inspiration as he prepared to teach a class on the meaning of Romans.  Something clicked in Luther like a sprung lock whose key at last is found, when he read in Romans 1:17:  “The one who is righteous will live by faith.”  . . .  Faith alone.  Scripture alone.  Grace alone would become the rally cry of all who joined Luther’s protest.  So that to this day, our own Book of Order proclaims that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) “upholds the affirmations of the Protestant Reformation.  The focus of these affirmations is God’s grace in Jesus Christ as revealed in Scripture . . . (and these affirmations) continue to guide and motivate the people of God in the life of faith” (F-2.04).  Of course, another young man would come along some 15 years after Luther’s protest to lead the steps of reform over in Geneva, Switzerland.  Born from his efforts, we embrace John Calvin and the other reformers’ theological traditions that call us to be “’the church reformed, always to be reformed according to the Word of God’ in the power of the Spirit” (F-2.02).

Five hundred years later, here we are.  About to gather after a potluck to hear the results of this congregation’s recent Church Assessment Tool.  I can’t say we particularly planned it all to end up on this 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, but thanks be to God the days are coalescing.  We are here as a faithful, little part of the body of Christ, the Church.  And for the fifty of this congregation who completed the Church Assessment Tool, you have made your mini-protestant proclamation.  Though the Vital Signs Report we received from your input sometimes seemed as weighty as Luther’s 95 Theses, the CAT Team has been working hard over the past months to prepare a presentation for you today that hopefully will be clear, uplifting, and motivating.

Nothing really is new under the sun.  The church of Jesus Christ still needs reformation – we know that.  For us in the Reformed Theological Tradition of the Protestant Reformation, we are the church.  Romans 12 states it beautifully:  “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another” (Romans 12:4-5).  It’s not some pope.  It’s not some hierarchical group of priests or bishops or pastors or session members who are put in place to be the church to make the kinds of changes that are needed.  It’s all of us.  Every one of us baptized in Christ who has vowed to be a disciple of Christ connected to this part of Christ’s body – whether by official active membership or simple presence here each week.  We are the church today for this place – for this community that surrounds this building and property.  And it will take us all working together, with God’s Spirit to guide, to lead the steps of reformation here.  . . .  I’m excited for you that you have spoken your truth through the Church Assessment Tool.  The results are going to tell you somethings you already know:  that you now are a small, family-sized congregation.  You are all over the map theologically and you are committed to remaining so.  You want to make an impact for good in this community and you want the leaders of your church to help you discern how your gifts and abilities best can be used for God’s glory.  That too is nothing new.  Nearly 2,000 years ago, Paul was reminding the Christians in Rome that we each have different God-given gifts.  And it is possible to find our way forward.  Christians across time and space have been doing so for almost two millenniums.  The future doesn’t have to be just like the past.  In fact, it can’t be, because we who are a part of this congregation today are not just like we were in the past.  Even if it heavies our hearts, your wise enough to know that!

When you see some of the charts of the presentation today, we realize you may not be entirely happy.  What church doesn’t want to be firing on all cylinders with clear direction and excess of money, members, and ministries?  I’m a part of a Leadership Excellence Training in our Presbytery right now and I think it’s ok to share with you that out of the 12 pastors and Christian educators who are a part of that training, only one of us claims to be serving a church that is growing leaps and bounds today – and it happens to be a church near neighborhoods where home growth continues to boom.  Does that mean there’s no hope for the rest of us?  No.  As a denomination we have been shrinking in the United States for the last 50 of our 200-some years.  I don’t remind us of that to paint a picture of gloom but to remind us that faithful, important ministry still goes forth from God’s work through us.  . . .  This weekend just two blocks from the designated site the White Supremist Party chose to convene their rally, sits the building of one of the churches represented in our Presbytery’s Leadership Excellence Training.  I don’t know what they finally decided to do about the rally coming into their town, but I know some from that church gathered the night before for an alternative witness.  In an interfaith, interracial witness, they prayed for peace before thousands from around the country descended upon their community.  . . .  I’ve heard another colleague of one of our churches in a shrinking county tell of a struggling first-semester college freshman of their congregation who unexpectedly received cookies, cards, and encouragement from a woman of the congregation.  That faithful act made all the difference for that young woman whose life had become too much for her to bear.  The church of Jesus Christ still is needed in this world.  There still is vital ministry to be carried out for God by this congregation.  Luther’s revolution isn’t over.  . . .

Members of the church reformed, always to be reformed according to the Word of God’ in the power of the Spirit; hear again these words from the Apostle Paul to the Christians in Rome – this time from the version of the bible called The Message.  “Love from the center of who you are; don’t fake it.  Run for dear life from evil; hold on for dear life to good.  Be good friends who love deeply; practice playing second fiddle.  Do not burn out; keep yourselves fueled and aflame.  Be alert servants of the Master, cheerfully expectant.  Do not quit in hard times; pray all the harder.  Help needy Christians; be inventive in hospitality” (Romans 12:9-13, The Message).  . . .  Who knows what they then might be saying five hundred years from now.

In the name of the life-giving father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2017  (All rights reserved.)

26 October 2014 sermon — Matthew 22:34-40

One Consistent Thing
DISCLAIMER: I believe sermons are meant to be heard. They are the word proclaimed in a live exchange between God and the preacher, and the preacher and God, and the preacher and the people, and the people and the preacher, and the people and God, and God and the people. Typically set in the context of worship and always following the reading of scripture, sermons are about listening and speaking and hearing and heeding. At the risk of stepping outside such boundaries, I share sermons here — where the reader will have to wade through a manuscript that was created to be spoken word. Even if you don’t know the sound of my voice, let yourself hear as you read. Let your mind see as you hear. Let your life be opened to whatever response you begin to hear within you.

May the Spirit Speak to you!
RevJule
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26 October 2014 – Reformation Sunday

Click here to read the scripture first: Matthew 22:34-40 (NRS)

 Here we are: Reformation Sunday 2014. 497 years after Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door to All Saints Cathedral in Wittenberg, Germany. You probably remember that he intentionally did that on October 31, 1517: All Hallows Eve – as he knew every faithful follower would be at the mass for the high holy day on November 1 in honor of All the Saints. Though he didn’t realize it at the time, as he pounded his points for discussion on that great big sanctuary door, he was beginning what became one of the most radical changes in the Christian Church of the West.

Things had come a long way since the start on Pentecost, year 33 of the Common Era. Back then, the first followers of the way had nothing but a commission and the Spirit of God pulsing through their veins. To Jerusalem, all Judea and Samaria, even to the ends of the earth they were to go as witnesses of the good news of God’s unfailing love (Acts 1:8). We can read in the New Testament all about those first tenuous years as Christ’s disciples faced various challenges. Initially, they did their best to remain faithful Jews. They would go about life as usual, but had to figure out how to reconcile this new experience they were staking their lives upon in the life, death, and resurrection of one they came to call the Christ – the long-awaited Messiah of the Jewish nation and all the world. Acts of the Apostles tells how those who remained in Jerusalem and those who went far out clashed with one another as they were working it all out: who’s in, who’s out, and how. Major change was taking place in their worldviews as they came to understand more deeply that this work of God in Christ Jesus was good news for all – not just those of direct Abraham descent.

Once the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, things got tougher. Remaining Jews and emerging Christians sought to self-define over and against each other. Tensions were high as little by little those who followed Jesus as Lord found new ways to gather – in each other’s homes at first until the state would allow buildings to be built for what we often call churches. A very different mark came to signify one’s inclusion in the group: baptism with water in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The rite of partaking together around table was key as a remembrance of the same self-giving love expected of them. Not an easy path to tread with Rome still oppressing them all.

By the end of the First Century and the beginning of the next, those wanting to join as followers of the Way underwent intense guidance. A mentor who had been at it longer was assigned to walk with each would-be convert. Sorta like an AA sponsor – one that could be called upon at all hours as the person who was seeking to give their total life to the mission of Christ their Lord felt that they might be slipping. In the early house churches, this intense period took place for about a year – or more if needed – before the seeker was allowed to be baptized and finally join the rest of the community at the table for the bread and the fruit of the vine. In those days before Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, followers of Christ’s Way literally were dying to their previous lives and putting on a totally new life in Christ. Some leaving behind families, and all of them beginning to live counter to the ways of the world in order to be a part of a new communion in Christ. Persecution was typical and commitment to this newly unfolding movement needed a serious time of preparation, not to mention daily reinforcement with one another in the morning and again at night for them successfully to be about Christ’s self-giving love for the sake of a better world. . . . It’s a long and sorted story of how we got from those early days of the church to what we had become in the West in Luther’s Sixteenth Century. Lots and lots of changes took place through the centuries – some of them for the better, some not so much – until it came time for a pretty substantial reform.

It’s important for us to remember our history – for we’re just a small part of the stream of God’s Church for the world. I know it can be hard to wrap our minds around days when the bible could not be read by anyone other than a theologically educated clergyman. I can’t imagine gathering each week for worship in those grand cathedrals of old Europe. Hopefully the architecture could speak to you of the marvelous grace of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer; because the words you’d hear there were not of your own tongue. Try keeping off Candy Crush the whole length of those services while the priest literally rattled along in a language you could not understand. Changes indeed were needed if God’s people were going to remain God’s vibrant apostles for the world – sent out to live the ways of Christ with the Holy Spirit of God pulsing through the veins of their bodies. . . . And so in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries we get bibles in the language common to the people. The first Sunday Schools for lay people to learn what was in those books. A revival of Spirit in some ways as those who worshipped faithfully every week of their lives finally came to know the good news of God’s grace for us all.

I love what one Lutheran pastor published about the Reformation this week: “On Sunday, October 26 we . . . will gather to remember that while the Reformation may have begun with Martin Luther, it certainly did not end with him. The Reformation continues in the work of (God’s) people to reshape and reform our world to be the place God originally intended it to be. This is done through worship, the study of Scripture, and prayer, certainly. But it also is done in the many ways we as the church work to reach out to a struggling world” in service; in love to those in need. The pastor goes on to write: “We welcome all people to join us in the continued reformation of the church and the world. You may not be seeking to change the world, but take an example from Martin Luther. You never know what God has in store for you” (by Derek Fossey, Pastor of Memorial Lutheran Church in Afton; on: stillwatergazette.com/2014/10/17/oct-31-also-celebrates-martin-luthers-reformation/).

Good words. Because the church of Jesus Christ has taken many shapes and so many different forms throughout the centuries. It will continue to do so in all the years to come. We cannot know today what re-forms will be needed tomorrow. How God will work to ensure that God’s church remains relevant to a world that still needs to hear. Open to the new ways God wants us to understand, and be, and put into action for the sake of the good news of Jesus the Christ. God’s church never looks the same in any place from one year to the next. But the most amazing news is that one thing remains consistent. It’s the one thing Jesus proclaimed so very long ago. As the folks came to question him about the law that was the greatest. In other words, the one thing that had to remain consistent. He told them the ancient, two-fold command he’d read about in Deuteronomy and Leviticus. The undisputable ways of God he’d come to know in the marrow of his holy bones. No matter the shape, whatever the form of God’s Church in this world. The one consistent thing is that we always be about the love of God with our whole heart, soul, and mind AND the love of our neighbors as ourselves. As long as the church of Jesus Christ keeps to these, it won’t matter one bit what we look like, where we worship, or how. Everything hangs on this one consistent thing: that we love God and neighbor as ourselves enough to let God re-form whatever might be needed to keep us loving God and neighbors each day. . . . Thanks be to God for the continuing reformation in each one of us! Thanks be to God for re-shaping us into what we need to be today for God’s sake in this world!

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2014  (All rights reserved.)