Tag Archives: The Church Reformed and Always Reforming

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.)

 

Open

A Sermon for 6 September 2015

A reading from Romans 12:1-5. Listen for God’s word to us.

“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.

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

We’re finally at it: the fourth of our four weeks on section F of the Book of Order. Presbyterian Foundational Principles. Foundation #4 is not quite as long as Foundation # 3 – the Calling of the Church. Remember Foundation #1 is God’s mission. Foundation #2 is Jesus Christ is the Head of the Church. And just to be sure every aspect of the Trinity has a part, listen to Foundation #4.

“(F-1.04) Openness to the Guidance of the Holy Spirit. Point 1: Continuity and Change. The presbyterian form of government set forth in the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is grounded in Scripture and built around the marks of the true Church.” You remember from two weeks ago, I hope. That we believe the marks of the true Church are the unity of the Church in Christ, the holiness of the Church as set apart, the catholicity or universality of the Church, and the a-pos-to-lic-ity of the Church: our being sent out on a mission into the world. So, “the presbyterian form of government set forth in the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is grounded in Scripture and built around (these) marks of the true Church. It is in all things subject to the Lord of the Church. In the power of the Spirit, Jesus Christ draws worshiping communities and individual believers into the sovereign activity of the triune God at all times and places. As the Church seeks reform and fresh direction, it looks to Jesus Christ who goes ahead of us and calls us to follow him. United with Christ in the power of the Spirit, the Church seeks (as Romans 12 reads) “not [to] be conformed to this world, but [to] be transformed by the renewing of [our] minds, so that [we] may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2). Point 2: Ecumenicity: The presbyterian system of government in the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is established in light of Scripture but is not regarded as essential for the existence of the Christian Church nor required of all Christians. Point 3: Unity in Diversity: (Galatians 3 reads) “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:27–29). The unity of believers in Christ is reflected in the rich diversity of the Church’s membership. In Christ, by the power of the Spirit, God unites persons through baptism regardless of race, ethnicity, age, sex, disability, geography, or theological conviction. There is therefore no place in the life of the Church for discrimination against any person. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) shall guarantee full participation and representation in its worship, governance, and emerging life to all persons or groups within its membership. No member shall be denied participation or representation for any reason other than those stated in this Constitution. Point 4: Openness: In Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all creation, the Church seeks a new openness to God’s mission in the world. In Christ, the triune God tends the least among us, suffers the curse of human sinfulness, raises up a new humanity, and promises a new future for all creation. In Christ, Church members share with all humanity the realities of creatureliness, sinfulness, brokenness, and suffering, as well as the future toward which God is drawing (us). The mission of God pertains not only to the Church but also to people everywhere and to all creation. As (we) participate in God’s mission, (we,) the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) seek: a new openness to the sovereign activity of God in the Church and in the world, to a more radical obedience to Christ, and to a more joyous celebration in worship and work; a new openness in (our) own membership, becoming in fact as well as in faith a community of women and men of all ages, races, ethnicities, and worldly conditions, made one in Christ by the power of the Spirit, as a visible sign of the new humanity; a new openness to see both the possibilities and perils of its institutional forms in order to ensure the faithfulness and usefulness of these forms to God’s activity in the world; and a new openness to God’s continuing reformation of the Church ecumenical, that (we) might be more effective in (our) mission.” (PCUSA Book of Order, 2015-2017; F-1.04).

If you’ve been Presbyterian for any length of time, perhaps Foundation #4 seems a bit shocking. Openness???!!! To the Holy Spirit???!!! Classically these have NOT been the things for which Presbyterians have been known. Back in Divinity School, which was an ecumenical setting, all my friends used to chide me that as a Presbyterian I was one of the FROZEN CHOSEN! And frozen had nothing to do with being from Wisconsin. For years, we Presbyterians have been known in lots of church circles as being very serious, stodgy, head-driven types who emotionally are frozen; stuck in our intricate theologies. Cold: not on fire like say rowdy Pentecostals who worship full of great zip and zest. And, even though Presbyterian’s big contributions to the Christian effort are fabulous confessional statements and carefully-constructed systematic theologies, we have not been known for elaborate doctrines of the Spirit. We’ve been even more overlooked when it comes to being a people ready to be blown where God wills by the winds of the Holy Spirit. Our historic reputation is more than unfortunate as one of the hallmarks of our Reformed Theological Faith – the basis of what Presbyterians always have believed is: “Ecclesia reformata, simper reformanda” – “The church reformed, always reforming,” according to the Word of God in the power of the Spirit” (Book of Order, F-2.02). . . . Presbyterian Foundation #4: Openness to the Guidance of the Holy Spirit challenges us to trust in a living God. We are asked to put all of our faith, all of our hope, all of our assurance in a God STILL at work in the world. A God ready to transform us as we look to a Lord and Savior who: “goes ahead of us and calls us to follow him” (F-1.0401).

If you ask me, this foundation is HARDWORK! At least it is for many of us. Openness to the Guidance of the Holy Spirit implies a few things. First: it implies that we just might not be there quite yet. Incomplete. Imperfect. Unfinished. Who of us wants to be open to that?! Aren’t we always in a race in this society to be done? At the end – like those who have to peek to see how a good book ends instead of sitting back to enjoy how it all will unfold. . . . Some of us have lived a long time – a very long time. The Church has been around for a much longer time! And don’t you just feel weary some days? Haven’t we been open long enough? Haven’t we tried long enough? Must we continuously exist in this place of not quite yet being finished? . . . Though something in us just might want to cruise-control down the road on auto pilot. Being as we know. Doing as we’ve always done. Not having to face the grief that can come over that which ends before something new grows. One commentator has written that “if you’re a part of a vibrant congregation, (then) your church is in a constant state of transition.” And this is a good, welcomed thing! (Jan Edmiston, achurchforstarvingartists.com, “Rethinking Church Staffs,” 3 Sept. 2015). Openness to the guidance of the Holy Spirit means a humble life of constant listening. Constant self-examination. Continual learning. Endless letting go. Openness can be really hard work!

And it’s not just about extra effort; this call to openness. It can be more than a little scary too! . . . You may know already that I grew up in the woods along Lake Michigan. In the winter when I was a child, my sister and I loved to haul out ice skates, tromp back through the snow, and see if the ice on the swamp was ready. I still can remember that old red coat of mine and the thick woolly socks. Gliding free over the ice was such a delight! It felt so amazing! Have you ever done it? The speed, the grace, the freedom of flying from one spot to the next way faster than any of us ever could walk. But you know what? Before those fabulous moments, I fell down – a lot! It was the risk I had to take if I wanted to skate. An older sister of mine once fell so hard she broke her leg – badly! Fortunately, I only bruised my knees a lot. . . . You know how when you’re just starting out – learning something new: be it ice skating, or driving a car, or maybe even trying to figure out how to relate to someone else in a little healthier way? Risk always is involved. We’re going to fall every now and again. But as the old saying goes: “Success consists of getting back up once more than we fall down.” Dust ourselves off and try again. No need to fear. Just accept that try and try again is a part of the process. . . . Being open to something new might scare us right out of our minds! But maybe that’s what God intends as a first step in having our minds transformed – renewed that we “may discern what is the will of God” in this situation and that instance and the next opportunity too (Rom. 12:2).

It’s exactly why we need to be open to the Holy Spirit – the wisdom that guides us into God’s desired future. . . . One commentator has written: “If a free flow of air is needed to make a fire, likewise a free flow of the Spirit is needed to form a church with a ‘burning center and porous borders.’” The commentator continues: “Without the Spirit, we will not only have conformist churches, we also will have churches suffering from respiratory failures. If churches are not inspired by the Spirit, then eventually they will expire” (Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 3, Eleazar S. Fernandez, p. 378). And so: Come, Holy Spirit! Come and fill this place! Come and fill us with your surprising power! Come and lead us where God would have us go! . . . Remembering that it’s about continuity – staying in line with what has gone before – AND, as Foundation #4, point 1 states: CHANGE – being drawn deeper “into the sovereign activity of the triune God” . . . through reform, through fresh direction, through following Jesus Christ who “goes ahead of us.” He’s our leader not only so we know which way to go. He’s our leader because the living God sends him before us still to make a way for us to walk too. It’s as if Christ says: “this is the path. Walk on it!” We’ll be sustained by the Spirit. We’ll be given the courage needed. We’ll find ourselves standing one foot in line with the past and the other stepping forward to what yet will be.

This is our sure footing. Our foundation: God’s mission. With Jesus Christ as our Head, the Church called and continually open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Thanks be to God for this solid ground upon which the Church of Jesus Christ forever shall stand!

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

© Copyright JMN – 2015  (All rights reserved.)