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. 2 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. 3 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. 4 For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5 so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. 6 We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7 ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8 the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness. 9 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.
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