In the Grasp of the Unconditional God

(sermon 10/28/18 – Reformation Sunday)

Reformation Sunday 2018

Jeremiah 31:27-34

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of humans and the seed of animals. And just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the Lord. In those days they shall no longer say: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge. The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”

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Today, in Protestant churches across the country, congregations will observe Reformation Sunday, when we recognize the great theological movement that changed the face of Western religion, society, and culture. We do that every year on this particular Sunday, the last Sunday in October, because that’s the closest Sunday to the anniversary of Martin Luther having out his period equivalent of a tweetstorm, nailing his “95 Theses” to the door of the church in Wittenberg. Of course, the Reformation started long before that. Before Luther was Jan Hus, and before him was John Wycliff, and long before any of them was some poor peasant who didn’t like something the Pope had decreed and asked why he had the authority to decree it, and someone answered “He can do it because he’s the Pope!” and the person answered “Well I didn’t vote for him!” and that was the match that lit the fire that eventually became the Protestant Reformation.

Maybe more than anything, the Reformation might be seen as the theological revolution of grace – the understanding that our salvation is entirely the work of God, and that there’s nothing, nothing, that we do to earn that salvation. This grace means that God has called and chosen each of us, directly, which means that God’s favor is not mediated to us through any religious leader. None of them has the authority to grant, or withhold, God’s forgiveness, or God’s salvation, to us. It’s what we call “the priesthood of all believers;” that we definitely value learning and in-depth study to become a spiritual leader, but their charge doesn’t include being that kind of arbiter of God’s acceptance or rejection.

The Reformation’s focus on grace could be seen as the rejection of the conditional God – that *if* we do something, *then* God will forgive us, accept us, save us. That *if* we carried out all the requirements of the “sacramental system” established by the church, and did this, that, and any number of other items on some priestly checklist, then we’d be saved, and we wouldn’t spend eternity in hell. Mind you, after the Reformation, we Protestants didn’t waste any time setting up our own sets of requirements, our own checklists – *if* we accept the statements of the right creed; *if* we believe the right thing about Jesus’ nature and the mechanics of how salvation through him works, *if* we believe just the right thing about the Trinity, or *if* we recite the “sinner’s prayer,” then God will accept us. But at its core, the revolutionary theological foundation of the Protestant Reformation said a resounding “NO!!!” to all of those things. God’s love, mercy, forgiveness, and salvation is not a conditional thing. We do not worship a conditional, “transactional” God. We worship a God of grace.

Today, we celebrate two related things – a baptism, and receiving members into our congregation. And the way we understand both of these things is tied very strongly to this theological revolution.

To us, baptism is a sacrament given to us by this unconditional God that we worship – it isn’t a sign of us doing something that makes God happy, and as a result of that, God will give in and stop being angry with us and will forgive us and save us. It isn’t the spiritual equivalent of an economic transaction. To us, baptism is a sign and seal of the covenant that God, completely independently of our words and actions, long before we ever were aware that we needed God, long before we were ever born, chose to make between us. In baptism, when we profess our faith, we are simply acknowledging that we recognize the existence of that covenant, and out of gratitude for it we want to profess it publicly, and live in gratitude for it.

And membership in a congregation is also a very Reformed concept. Before the Protestant Reformation, if you were born within the boundaries of a particular church parish, you were considered a member of that parish, and under the authority of that parish priest, and that bishop, and ultimately, the Pope. In the wake of the Reformation, we understood that being a part of a particular congregation is something that a believer chooses to do – it’s an intentional act, and in and of itself, it becomes a statement of faith as we commit to be part of a community of faith, part of an extended family united in Christ.

The Reformation began a new thing in the world. It began a new thing for all of us – the way we understand God, and ourselves, and the relationship between the two of us. It was also a resurgence in the theological understanding that we were supposed to work for the betterment of the society that we lived within. That while we weren’t doing good things to try to earn our salvation, out of gratitude for God’s grace, we are called to continually work to heal the broken areas of our world. With God’s help, to help create that “new thing” that God is ushering into our existence. To bring God’s love, and peace, and justice to more people. To heal wounds, and to respect one another, to value each and every human being, despite any differences; standing up for their dignity as having been created in God’s image and worthy of our love and care. All of them, without exceptions.

Let’s especially remember that part of the meaning of the Reformation today, at the end of what has truly been a week of hell and agony, ranging from the domestic terrorism of pipe bombs to the racist murders in JTown to the xenophobic mass murders at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. As we honor the great Reformers who came before us, let’s also remember that we’re called to be “the Church reformed, and always being reformed.” We’re called to be reformers, too. Is it possible, given the news, that God is calling us to especially emphasize that last aspect of the Reformation? Can we commit, out of gratitude to God, to stand up to the kind of hate-filled rhetoric that spawns tragedies and near-tragedies like the ones this week? Can each of us say enough is enough, and commit to never spew that kind of hate, even in moments of anger or frustration? Can each of us commit to calling that kind of hate out as the dangerous, ungodly evil that it is, wherever we hear it, as soon as we hear it, and no matter who it is that said it? Can we commit to using our faith, and the courage and strength that the Holy Spirit infuses within each and every one of us – no matter whether we’re liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, because first and foremost, we’re all under the banner of Christian – to stand up and say no more. We choose welcome. We choose love. We choose to be our brother’s keeper, and our sister’s, and the keeper of all those who identify somewhere else on the gender spectrum, too. We choose to be the face of Christ, the hand of Christ, the feet of Christ, and the love of Christ; and because we’re in the grasp of this unconditional God, we also choose to love unconditionally and to literally say, for Christ’s sake, stop the hate speech and the violence.

Amen.

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Ubuntu

(sermon 10/7/18 – World Communion Sunday)

ubuntu

Luke 22:14-30

When the hour came, Jesus took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. He said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.”Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.

But see, the one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table.For the Son of Man is going as it has been determined, but woe to that one by whom he is betrayed!” Then they began to ask one another, which one of them it could be who would do this. A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. But he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. “You are those who have stood by me in my trials; and I confer on you, just as my Father has conferred on me, a kingdom, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

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Presbyterian. Baptist. Methodist. Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopalian, and on and on and on. All the different traditions, branches, and denominations under this one umbrella we call “Christian.” One often-cited source identifies 33,000 of them worldwide.  Other people scoff at that number, disputing that group’s methodology, saying that the real number is really only about a third of that, but 11,000 is still an awfully big number. And today, World Communion Sunday, this observance that first started at Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh in the 1930s, is the day we especially set aside to proclaim and profess the unity that all 33,000, or 11,000, or however many groups there are, have through profession of faith in our common Lord Jesus Christ.

On one level, it’s nonsense, of course, since anyone with two eyes and three brain cells can see that Christians and Christian groups exhibit all kinds of characteristics, some wonderful and some atrocious, but unity doesn’t even seem to make it into the list of the top ten. In fact, we can’t even get out of the month of October, which starts with celebrating our unity today, without recognizing Reformation Sunday on the 28th, which, while we’re thankful for much of its theological progress, precipitated one of the two largest splits in church history. Some days it seems like we Christians can find a way to disagree about anything, from atonement theory to the dual nature of Christ’s personhood to the meaning of baptism to the color of the sanctuary carpet. I’ve wondered if in retrospect, Jesus wishes he’d have said “Wherever two or more are gathered in my name, there will be an argument.”

So on one level, the idea behind World Communion Sunday might seem a little silly, if not downright hypocritical.

But still, on another level, it’s a very good and important thing. Good because it reminds us of the hope that we’ve all been called to through Christ. Good because it reminds us of the unity that Christ wants us to have, not necessarily in every thing, but in the important things: in doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God. In loving God with all our heart, mind, and strength; and loving others as we love ourselves.

And it’s good because it reminds us that this unity that we, the church, are supposed to exhibit is meant to illustrate to others the kind of unity and connectedness that God has designed us all for. It’s a reminder to the church, the world, and ourselves, that it’s absolutely impossible to be truly human as an individual. We’re wired within our DNA to be connected with, to be in relationship with, to understand and be in unity with, others. Given the news of the past 48 hours or so, and the divisiveness, and the pain and suffering and disconnectedness and separation being felt by so many people this morning, I can’t think of a more timely, and important, and good thing for us to celebrate and call for in church and world. The message of World Communion Sunday, and Communion in general,  is this message of hope that, even if we proclaim it imperfectly, we need to proclaim it louder than ever, and to model it in our own lives.

The Zulu term Ubuntu captures what I think is at the heart of what World Communion Sunday is all about. Literally, the term translates as “I am because we are,” and as a concept, it refers to the belief in a universal bond of sharing and connectedness that unites all of humanity. A big part of the gospel that we believe and that we’re called to proclaim is this very same idea.

The playwright Del Shores has written several plays; they’re all insanely funny, wildly irreverent, and always carry a deep message. In one of his plays, there’s a character named Benny, a wild, brash, over-the top young man who had suffered terrible bullying, abuse, and brutality growing up in a strict fundamentalist church. He carries a lot of bitterness and resentment about that, and he spews a lot of it in one scene – but after some reflection, he gets philosophical and makes a profound, deeply theological observation – that everyone, the good and the bad, even those who had hurt him so badly, were all like individual bits of colored glass in a big stained glass window; all interconnected, all needing one another for support; and that the light of God shines through each one of them to tell us something that God wants us to know, and to make the world what it is. Everyone.

One of the hymns we sang last week captured this idea too, in a particularly Christian sense. For everyone born, a place at the Table. Woman and man; young and old; just and unjust; abuser/abused. Everyone.

This faith, this Table, this sacrament, proclaims that by God’s design and through Christ who strengthens us and reconciles us, we are to lift up one another. To share in one another’s lives, to bear one another’s burdens, to rejoice with one another in our joys, to mourn with one another in our mourning – and most importantly, even recognizing our differences –  even sometimes profound differences – to celebrate the new life that we all have in common through our one common Lord,  Jesus Christ.

Thanks be to God.