Reformation Then, Reformation Now

(sermon 10/27/19 – Reformation Sunday)

church being rebuilt

Luke 18:9-14

Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’

But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’

I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

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So this is Reformation Sunday. All around the country today, Mainline Protestant churches will do things to observe and celebrate the Protestant Reformation that gave birth to them. The Reformation actually started at least as far back as the 1300s, and really came to a head in the 1500s. In all sorts of different ways, congregations will pay our respect to our theological roots. And for the most part, that’s very  good thing. It’s important and can even be fun to remember where we’ve come from. It’s sort of like getting a theological Ancestry DNA report, without even having to spit in a vial.

The whole thing runs off the rails, though, if celebrating our roots turns into us having a feeling that we, and we alone, have this whole religion thing figured out, once and for all; that we’ve managed to tap into the heart and mind of God better than anyone else – that Jesus loves everyone, but we’re his favorites, as one T shirt puts it – and because of that, we’ve got to defend against any change or challenge to what was handed down to us from those theological ancestors. It runs off the rails when we start to believe that we’re so much better than all the other riffraff who think and believe somewhat differently than we do. That’s happened a lot throughout our history, and it’s caused an awful lot of misunderstanding and harm, spiritual, emotional, and even physical. It’s also an attitude that’s in direct contradiction to a core principle of the Reformation, and the Reformed tradition, that we want to honor. Setting aside some of the stylistic bluster common to theological writing of that time, one of John Calvin’s core theological principles, and one that we still maintain, is that we as individuals, and especially we as the Church, are flawed, and that we can, and often do, err. We can get things wrong. We can just flat-out blow it. We can get full of ourselves. We can cling too tightly to tradition. We can allow ourselves to get caught up in internal politics and power plays, and have all kinds of motivations other than the one we should have. We, the church, can be and often are, terribly, horribly dysfunctional. That was the kind of Church that the Reformers were standing up against, even while they were smart enough to recognize that a reformed church could, and probably would, end up falling into that same trap. Because of that, they cautioned us to always be humble in our words, our truth-claims, and our actions, because none of us really understand the heart and mind of God perfectly; and to recognize that in order to avoid that trap, we’d have to engage in what John Calvin called the “continual resurrecting of the Church.”

In practice, though, we, the church, have often forgotten or ignored that warning. Sometimes I wonder if we forget it more often than we remember it. Much of the time, we, the church, can act as self-righteous as the Pharisee in today’s gospel text. We offer up thanks to God that we aren’t like those other poor slobs who aren’t as good or enlightened or even as “religious” as we are. Of course, the irony in this story that Jesus tells is that God was ultimately more pleased with the humility and sincerity of the so-called “bad person” in the story – the outsider; the one the supposedly good religious people looked down on; the one who didn’t really have much time for what they saw was the hypocritical, self-righteous nonsense of organized religion, but who still felt drawn to show up there and encounter God in humility, in simplicity, and in truth.

This same story replays itself literally millions of times every single day. How often have you heard someone call themselves “spiritual but not religious”? Or who grew up loving being part of some faith tradition, and they still long for a connection with the good parts of that tradition, but they’ve been burned too badly by its ugly side? How many times have we encountered good people who are just fed up with all the extraneous negative BS of organized, institutional religion, and with good reason?

I can’t tell you how many people I’ve heard, and how many articles I’ve read, all talking about those people on the periphery, and saying that we’ve got to find a way to reach them, to speak their language, to find a way to communicate that resonates with them, and that’s all very true. But ultimately, a lot of these speakers and writers end up giving these people a patronizing pat on the head, just considering them a problem for us to fix. They’re poor, misguided, unenlightened people who would really “get it,” if we only explained ourselves to them in a better way. Surely, if we just found a better way to make our case to them, they’d see that they should want to change themselves. If we could only get the tax collector to see they should really be more like the Pharisee; that *they* should become more like *us*.

But what if it’s actually the other way around? What if God hasn’t brought the “insiders” and the “outliers” together for us to solve their problems, but for them to solve ours? Or at least, for us to come together to help each other?

I honestly wonder if these people who we’d think of as the outliers, the ones spiritually hanging out on the edges, and sometimes completely outside of, the institutional church, might actually be more the real spiritual heirs of the Reformers than most of us on the “inside” are. They’re the ones who are most vocally calling out the same missteps, the same hypocrisy, the same corruption, the same sin within the institutional church that those Reformers did. The only difference is that now, the institution is “Us” instead of some over-there “Them.”

So when a person is really seeking an authentic spiritual connection with God, including doing that as part of a shared journey of mutual support with others, they have two basic choices. They can stay on the outside, or at least on the periphery of the institutional church, trying to benefit from its good while rejecting and calling out its bad as only a so-called “outsider” can. Or they can join in and be a part of the institution, for all of its good and bad, saying “Yes, there’s a lot of dysfunctional, counterproductive crap in the institutional church – but you know, there’s a lot of dysfunctional, counterproductive crap in me, too; and maybe together, the church can help me, and I can help the church, and we can both be at least a little less dysfunctional than we were to begin with.”

So which of those approaches is best? Which is more pleasing to God? As an official of the institutional church, I might be expected to say that the second option is really the best. But honestly, in the spirit of humility that the Reformers called for, I can’t categorically say which of them is better for everyone. I don’t live in another person’s skin. I don’t know the depths of their heart, or the experiences that have shaped them and gotten them to this day, or what, based on all of that, they may or may not be capable of in the way they find and experience God and a sense of sacred community. So I honor both approaches, out of the very Reformed doctrine that God, and God alone, is the Lord of our personal conscience.

And I believe that for the church to honor and live out its Reformation roots, we have to hold space for people regardless of which of those two paths they feel to be right for them at the moment. We have to be a place of welcome and acceptance and support for people wherever they find themselves on the spiritual spectrum. We need to hear and learn something from them, and hopefully, they’ll hear and learn something from us, and we’ll both be better off for it. That’s what we need to do if we’re going to really be a church that honors the real significance of the Reformation – to be a church that doesn’t just remember its past, but also remembers that we’re supposed to be “the church reformed, and always being reformed according to the Word of God,” and that God has drawn all of us in our own particular dysfunction and weirdness together for some mutually beneficial reason. And honestly, being that kind of people – being that kind of church – shouldn’t be too hard for us, as long as we recognize that, when we think about today’s gospel text, and the story Jesus told, we’re all the tax collector – all of us. But as long as we have the same kind of humility and sincerity that they had, God’s OK with that.

Thanks be to God.

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