Tag Archives: Reformation Sunday Sermon

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.)