Sermon – October 25, 2020 – Reformation

Formed and Re-formed

                Ever since it was published in 2012, The Great Emergence by Phyllis Tickle has been the preacher’s best friend, especially on Reformation Sunday.  In it, the late scholar and theologian demonstrates how the Church tends to go through a time of great change and renewal—a reformation, if you will—about every five hundred years or so.  And when the storm dies down, the Church that emerges on the other side looks very different than it did before.  New forms of theology and ecclesiology—that’s just a fancy way of saying how we think about God and how we think about the Church God calls into being—new forms have taken shape and taken root, in the minds and hearts of God’s people and in the ways we put our faith into practice.

                The last time we went through one of these cataclysms was in the Protestant Reformation of the early sixteenth century, the one whose leaders we remember and honor today: Martin Luther, of course, but others as well: Calvin and Knox and Zwingli and so many others….  The list could go on and on of the ones who saw a religious system that no longer seemed to do what it was supposed to do, the ones who dared dream of a different way of knowing and serving God.

                Now, if you are at all good at math, and maybe even if you aren’t, you may have noticed that it has been roughly five hundred years since Martin Luther nailed those ninety-five theses to the door in Wittenberg.  And that means that, well, the Church is due for another seismic shift.

                From the time Tickle’s book appeared, and even before, it was clear to those of us who grew up in the church that the Church of now and the Church of our youth isn’t the same.  In the part of the country where I grew up, in the mid-‘50s through the early ‘70s, it was rare for me to come across someone who didn’t go to church most Sundays, who didn’t share at least some knowledge of the Bible and who Jesus was and what we were supposed to do as “good people.”  I hardly ever encountered those who held other faiths as dear as I held my own Christianity.   There was a “cultural consensus” that God was a given and Church was important.  But even then, things were changing, and new norms were emerging. 

                For a long time, nostalgia for that time would capture those of us inside the Church’s walls and keep us from thinking effectively about how to minister in these new times, how to be the Church in places we had never really known.  And while we wished for a return to what we saw as a golden age, many others decided that the Church was a relic—and an irrelevant and out-of-touch one at that.  They left churches in droves… or never bothered to enter  one in the first place.  Only gradually did those of us on the inside wake up and begin to dream new dreams of what God might be calling God’s people to do and be.

                Until recently, those dreams were often pretty tame, focused more on how to simply get people through our doors for existing programs than on thinking through how to really meet people where they were in this particular time and place.  We were content to settle for putting on a new coat of paint when maybe what we needed to do was a full-scale remodel.

                Then, suddenly, with the arrival of a global pandemic on our doorstep, we were forced in almost an instant to rethink everything about the way we do Church, the way we are the Church.  If, as one of the great Reformed Catechisms instructs us, the chief end of humankind is to glorify God and enjoy God forever, how do we do that when we cannot physically come together for worship?  What does it mean to be the Church when we are “scattered like grain on the hillsides,” as the ancient church manual, the Didache, puts it?  How do we care for the sick when their numbers threaten to overwhelm us?  How do we feed the hungry and console the brokenhearted and visit the prisoner and do all those things Jesus asks us to when we are not even allowed to enter the places where they are?  How do we, as the Church, do the things we have always done, the things God calls us to do, in these strange new days of social distancing when we cannot even see one another’s faces, obscured as they are by the masks so necessary to keep one another safe and slow the spread of this invisible enemy? 

                Friends, it is hard to let go of the way things were, even when we can see the imperfections—change is always hard and unsettling, even when it is for the best.  We long to return to the familiar.  Who doesn’t?  After all, it’s comfortable.  It doesn’t demand too much of us.  We know what to do and when to do it.  But here is the truth: the comfortable and the familiar may not shape us into the persons God wants us to be, the persons God seeks to use, right here and right now.

That’s why I believe that we are being invited to think through new theology and new ecclesiology in these days.  We are wrestling with the questions of what God is doing in our world and what God wants us to do in response, not only as individuals, but as God’s people in this broken and battered world.  God is at work, reforming God’s Church once more.

                And here is some good news: by God’s grace, we are meeting the challenges with creativity.  A few months ago, who would have imagined we could or would gather for worship  on Zoom or Facebook Live or another online format, week after week?  Who would have imagined that our congregations might come to include not just those in our immediate geographic area but also those across the country and around the globe as they found a church that felt like home to them thanks to the Internet?  Who would have imagined the ways that musicians would respond, with choirs drawn from multiple congregations—each singer alone and yet part of a greater whole through the use of technology?

                And now some congregations have begun to cautiously gather again, in parking lots and in sanctuaries where everyone keeps a safe space apart.  We have begun to figure out how we can praise God together when we cannot safely sing together.  We are finding ways to give when the weekly reminder of a passed offering plate has to be set aside so that we can protect one another.  We are finding new ways to pray together and to be there for one another.  We are navigating the logistics to continue to carry out the Church’s work of feeding the hungry, of caring for the marginalized, of being with those who need a companion on the way—even when we cannot physically be together.

                Of course, at this point, it’s not clear what the final result of this time of rethinking and wrestling will be.  Some innovations will last, while others will fade away when we are on the other side of all of this.  But, friends, do not doubt that we are engaged in serious and lasting work, even here and even now.

                And there is something more.  Even as the forms around us change, some things don’t  and never will.  The text we read this morning from Jeremiah talks about that.  The prophet writes about how Israel had forgotten God’s covenant and God’s law, writes about how they had placed their trust in other things to save them.  But God doesn’t give up on them, just because they were in need of a good shaking up, a reformation, if you will.  Instead, God promises a new covenant, a new law, one written on their hearts so that they will never forget it again.  God wants to refashion, reform, them from the core of their being outward, because God’s compassion and God’s faithfulness will never fail.  We can confidently place ourselves in God’s hands, knowing that no matter how unsettling the changes to come may be, we are held by the One whose love for us is trustworthy and true.

                And God’s new law, God’s new covenant—what of that?  Do you remember how Jesus himself summed that up when he was asked about it?  There are only two things we need to remember, he says, to fulfill all the Law and the Prophets.  The first is to love God with every part of our being—to love the God who knows us completely, inside and out, and loves us anyway.  And the second, Jesus says, is simply this: to love our neighbor as fiercely as we love ourselves.  Those two things are inextricably bound together; they cannot be separated.  As Martin Luther taught us, God needs nothing from us, because God is all-sufficient; the only way we can love and serve God is by loving and serving our neighbor.

                You may remember that the one who asked Jesus to sum up the Law and the Prophets also asked him the question that we are always being asked to answer, too: Who is my neighbor? 

                We are in the midst of a contentious election season.  And have you noticed how many of the political ads urge us to put ourselves first, no matter the cost to others?  Have you noticed how they try to divide us from each other?  Have you noticed the politicians who promise to be our savior, even as they stoke our fears?  Have you noticed how often they want us to turn our backs on our neighbors—the ones we are called to love and to serve?  Use your vote to make sure you get yours, they suggest, and never mind about anyone else.

But Jesus shows us a different way.  When he encounters a Samaritan woman at a well, he offers her living water and restores her to her community (John 4).  When he looks up in a tree and sees a despised Jewish tax collector, a collaborator with the hated Romans, he calls him down and goes to his house for dinner (Luke 19:1-10).  Even when a Roman centurion comes asking help for his servant, Jesus doesn’t turn him away but offers healing instead (Matthew 8:5-13).  He blesses children (Mark 10:13-16).  He touches lepers (Matthew 8:1-4).  Over and over, Jesus shows us: our neighbor is anyone who needs us.  We are to use our lives—our time, our talent, our resources—our vote?—to love and serve all God’s children, wherever they may be.

To love God, and to love our neighbor—no matter what else changes, those two things don’t.   When we hold fast to God’s own faithfulness to us and to all God has made, we don’t need to be afraid of being re-formed and refashioned in these days of change and challenge.  We don’t need to be afraid of the ones God has given us as neighbors, wherever they may be.  Trusting God and bound together by God’s own love, we will find the energy, the intelligence, the imagination, the love we need to be God’s people, to be God’s Church, in bold new ways. 

Thanks be to God for this indescribable gift of love that forms and reforms us, now and always.  Amen.