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.

The Days Are Coming (sermon 10/20/13)

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 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.    – Jeremiah 31:27-34

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He sat in the restaurant, nursing his second refill of coffee. They were supposed to meet here this day, but she was now past the point of being fashionably late. They’d actually known each other for a year, even though they’d never actually met in person. Like so many people these days, they met online; their entire relationship up to this point had been words on a computer screen, the 21st-century version of pen pals. During that time, they’d gotten to know each other pretty well, not just in a shallow, flirty way, but sharing their day-to-day lives, as well as their deepest thoughts, hopes, fears, dreams. They clicked; they connected.

And now, it was time to connect in person, to really meet face to face, without the emotional security of being behind a keyboard. So they’d made plans to meet at this little place they both knew, which was just about halfway between them.

But now, she was late. He’d actually been a bit early; he’d allowed extra time in case he hit traffic but he hadn’t, so he had even more time to sit there being nervous about the meeting. Where was she? Maybe *she’d* gotten stuck in traffic. Maybe her phone died. His emotions bounced from excitement to worry to confusion to anger and back again. At one point, during his third refill, he felt like a jackass; that this all might have been some cruel joke – some teenager making up an imaginary online person. At another point, he thought it was probably just as well if she didn’t show. He really wasn’t any great prize anyway, and she’d probably be unimpressed with him when his words became flesh.

These words that we read from the book of Jeremiah were originally written to people who were feeling stood up similar to this – but far worse, because they felt like they were being stood up not just by another person, by God; and not just for a half hour or so, but for some seventy-odd years. That’s how long the Israelites would live in slavery after the Kingdom of Judah, and the city of Jerusalem, were overrun by the Babylonians. Several generations would pass, and they still lived their lives in captivity, paying the price for the events long in their past. As Jeremiah put it, it was the parents who had eaten sour grapes, but it was the children who had a sour taste in their mouths. Or as my father might say, the parents burned their butt, but the children were sitting on the blister. They were suffering injustice, not because of anything they’d done, but because of situations beyond their control. And in the midst of all the pain and suffering in their world, they wondered – Where was God? When would God return and set all this right? Does God even exist at all?

We can feel the pain of the Israelites, their wondering where God is, if anywhere at all, because we share their humanity. We think, and feel, and bleed, just like they dd. the 2,500 years separating us haven’t changed that. Those years have actually given us more injustice to consider. Genocide, not just in ancient Judah, but in modern Judah, too, and in countless other places on every continent except Antarctica, and that’s only because there aren’t any people there. Slavery, not just in Babylon but in Birmingham and Bhopal. Military warfare, and social and economic warfare, and environmental warfare, cutting swaths of human devastation across the globe. And it isn’t just suffering on a global scale, but in our own lives, too. Trying to make life work in an age of downsizing, stagnating incomes or complete loss of incomes. Being just one major illness away from financial ruin. Suffering the consequences of things outside our control, paying the price of bad decisions made by others. *They* ate the sour grapes, and *our* teeth are set on edge. We know something of the pain and uncertainty that the Israelites were feeling, and we can wonder the same questions. Is God ever going to do anything to fix all this?

Through Jeremiah, God told the Israelites to not give up hope. As hard as it might be to believe at times, God hadn’t left them. God was with them, and in a way, was suffering through their problems right along with them. Their pain was his pain. But as bad as things seemed, God promised them, the day were surely coming, when God would renew them, and restore them, and bring them into new life. Hang in there, God said. I’m with you. Keep up hope – keep the faith.

God did keep the faith with the Israelites, eventually bringing them out of slavery. And God continues to keep the faith, not just with them, but gradually unfolding that new covenant to all people. Gradually speaking to our hearts, leading us toward that time when God will usher in that covenant in all of its fullness. That time when all the pain and brokenness and disconnect of this age, felt by the Israelites and felt by us, will finally come to an end; and when we will know and feel the reconciliation of all things; we’ll know the peace, and justice, and mercy, and most of all, the love, that God has designed and intended us all for. The days are coming, God says. Hang in there. Keep the faith.

We can do that, you know. We can keep the faith, because God has continued to speak into our lives, into our hearts. We can have hope, because those 2,500 years separating us from the Israelites in Babylon haven’t just shown us brokenness and disconnect, but also examples of great goodness – all of them signs to us from God that God is with us, and the days are coming. In those years, we’ve seen not just genocide, but also justice, and reconciliation, in countless situations. Not just slavery, but liberation, too, and freedom; freedom of body, freedom of mind,  and freedom of conscience, too. Not just devastation, but rebuilding, and reconstruction, and renewal. Not just death, but new life, and new hope, seen in the smile of every newborn child.

And most importantly, during those 2,500 years, we’ve seen that God has kept the faith with us through the birth of one child in particular, Christ himself. God literally entering our world, entering our lives; our joy becoming his joy; our sorrows becoming his sorrows; our pain becoming his pain – his life becoming the very seal and proof of God’s new covenant with the world. Seeing in him, and learning from him, what the fullness of that new covenant, that new life, will be like. The days are coming, God says – make no mistake, they are coming. So until then, have no fear. Have faith. Have hope. And try to extend that hope into the lives of others, giving them a glimpse of this new covenant, this new way of living, by loving them in the way shown and taught by Jesus himself – the one in whom God’s Word became flesh.

 The fifth cup of coffee was his breaking point. Maybe it was all a sham, or maybe she finally wised up and realized that he just wasn’t worth her time. He’d probably been kidding himself all along. So he gathered his thoughts and his things, and he started to get up out of the booth and head for the door. But just then, when he was at his lowest point, he looked up and saw her coming through the vestibule. And in that same moment, she saw him. Their eyes met, and her entire face broke out in a smile. And suddenly, everything was right in the world.

 The days are coming. Thanks be to God.