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.

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.

Not-so-blind Bartimeus

(sermon 10/25/15 – Reformation Sunday)

blind

They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way. – Mark 10:46-52

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There are few things that are more inherently human than wanting to be part of some “in” group or another. It must go back to our very origins. I can imagine bands of cavemen splitting up into gangs. Of course, it probably started out for security, but it probably didn’t take long for it to evolve into something more. Maybe this group formed because it wore saber-toothed tiger skins, which was way cooler than the regular old grizzly bear skins that gang in the next valley over wore. I’m sure it started that long ago, and we’re obviously still doing it today. The thing about being part of an “in” group, though, is that it can only work by defining someone as “out” of it. By definition, it has to be exclusive; it has to tightly control who’s excluded. And this is never more obvious than when it comes to religion. I mean sure, it’s a big thing in the business world or in social settings to be part of the in crowd, but with religion, when you’re out of the club, it’s God who’s excluding you, or so the reasoning goes, anyway.

I think this is an important part of what we can see in today’s gospel reading. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, and as he’s on his way people are thronging all around him – he’s a celebrity. No doubt, some of them are wanting some favor from him, and some of them are following along to see what’s really going to happen once he reaches Jerusalem. A lot of them, no doubt, are just gathered around him to be part of his “in” group, and soak up a little bit of fame-by-association. Jesus groupies. Others maybe wanting to say “Well, I was following Jesus before it was popular,” kind of Jesus-hipsters. Whatever the reason, they all want to be part of Jesus’ “in” group.

And then, as they’re walking along, Bartimaeus has the audacity, the social inappropriateness, to challenge that. He’s blind, which surely, the conventional religious wisdom of the day would say, meant that God was punishing him for some terrible sin in his life, and obviously had no business being around this obviously holy man of God. And he didn’t do the decent thing and be quiet; he just kept on yelling for Jesus’ attention. It probably came as a bit of a surprise to the crowd when Jesus stopped and told them to call him over. So the crowd parts and probably with a bit of condescension they told Bartimaeus, this must be your lucky day, Jesus says he want to see you. So Mark tells us that Bartmaeus threw off his cloak, jumped up, and apparently with the help of some of the people in the crowd, made his way to Jesus.

By the way, what’s up with the cloak? I mean, here’s a blind beggar, and he throws off his cloak in the middle of a big crowd. How’s he ever going to find it again? Couldn’t he have just held onto it when he went over to Jesus? It’s an odd detail, but Mark, who never seems to have been overly wordy in his whole gospel, thinks it’s an important detail to tell. I don’t know.

In any case, Jesus tells Bartimaeus that his faith has made him well. But what faith is that? Jesus didn’t grill Bartimaeus on his theology. He didn’t ask him about Covenant Theology versus Arminianism; he never once asked Bartimaeus what he thought about predestination. He didn’t ask him for a written statement of faith about the Trinity or the Incarnation. As far as that goes, Bartimaeus probably never would have considered Jesus as God in the flesh; he kept calling him Son of David – the term Jews used to refer to the coming messiah that they understood was just a human and only a human, instead of the more divine Son of God or Son of Man.

It seems that the only faith that Bartimaeus expressed was a faith that Jesus actually *could* help him, and that Jesus would actually *want* to do so. Him, an apparent sinner. And that he’d want to help him despite the conventional religious wisdom of all the people who had attached themselves to him and identified with him, who considered Bartimaeus an outsider.

Bartimaeus was a Reformer. He challenged the established religious assumptions of the crowd.

On Reformation Sunday, we tend to focus on the history of the 16th-century European church – the one strand of global Christianity that we happen to be part of. But the Reformation didn’t start with Martin Luther sticking his tongue out at the Pope. It’s really an ongoing process that goes back at least as far back as the ancient Hebrew prophets, and going through Jesus himself, and Bartimaeus. Each step of the way, it involved a calling of the religious establishment to a greater understanding of God’s ways than they’d held to date. This reformed and reforming way of understand God, and us, and the relationship between us, wound its way through those stuffy 16th– century men and it’s kept on going. We see it in Reverend Henry Fowler and the other abolitionists. We see it in Harry Emerson Fosdick and the professors of Auburn Seminary and the other champions of the Modernist-Fundamentalist Controversy. We see it in Margaret Towner, the first female ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church; we see it in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Eugene Carson Blake and the other Christian voices of the Civil Rights movement; we see it in Desmond Tutu and Allan Boesak, the primary author of the Belhar Confession, who fought against apartheid in South Africa in society and the church, and who are both now working for the further broadening of the church’s acceptance. And we see it in Pope Francis, who excoriated his own synod of bishops this past week for their “cold hearts” and “sticking [their] heads in the sand,” refusing to see the new directions that Christ is calling the church. And that ongoing reforming spirit will continue on, long after us. In fact, the only time the church is in danger is when people want to try to preserve it, unchanged, as if it were in a glass case, and it’s just as dangerous whether the case was built in 1660 or 1960.

So much of the church’s energy has been spent in trying to draw lines and build fences, trying to define who was in, and who was out, based on all sorts of tests. A key battleground of the Reformation was where the ultimate authority in the faith could be found – in the Pope and other human leaders of the earthly church, or in the scriptures rightly interpreted. In either case, that authority would be used in order to tightly define who was an insider and who was an outsider in the church. As we see in today’s gospel lesson, Bartimaeus wouldn’t have put up with any of it. He had a simple faith that Jesus could and would accept him and help him. And Jesus did just that, probably to the consternation of those gathered around him.

I’ve talked about how it can help us to draw meaning out of a passage of scripture by putting ourselves in various places in the story; seeing it through the eyes of various characters, and this is a great story to do that exercise with. I suppose it could be unsettling to us, challenging news, if we imagine this story, if we place ourselves within it, as one of the people gathered around Jesus, and walking along the road with him – as if we’re one of the Jesus-groupies. And there really is an important message for us there, to always be alert to the voice of God, and the spirit of reformation, and Christ’s calling those of us gathered around him to clear a path and to welcome the others, the outsiders, into the circle of his embrace. That’s an important point, but if we aren’t careful, that can turn into just another sermon that beats people over the shoulders for something that maybe we’re doing wrong, or we need to do better. There isn’t a lot of grace in a message like that. It becomes just another thing on our to-do list. That’s just more bad news.

Maybe that has to be. The great preacher and writer Frederick Buechner once wrote that the gospel has to be bad news before it can be good news, and that’s our bad news in this text. But the story doesn’t end there; there is good news, very good news for us, too – and we see when we experience this story from where Bartimaeus is sitting. And we should be able to do that easily because in reality, we are, you know; or at least, at some point in the whole history of the church, we have been there. Realize that every single one of us here today has at least one, and maybe more, inherent characteristics that the established church has at one time or another used to exclude us from Christ’s Church, and that it used to marginalize us into lesser, incomplete members, even after it grudgingly opened its membership to us. Every single one of us.

That’s really something to think about. Every one of us is here today as a result of the church having to go through a difficult adjustment of hearing Jesus’ command to allow us to draw near to him against their original instincts. Each of us is here as a result of the continual, ongoing reformation of the church, evolving to be more and more an illustration of the wideness of God’s love and acceptance of us. Even while today we recognize our traditions and history, *that’s* what this day is really a celebration of. It isn’t just about Zwingli and Hus and Luther and Calvin and Knox and a bunch of other dead white guys. It’s about the Church Universal, reformed and always being reformed consistent with the truths of scripture that are revealed more and more deeply to us over time. This is a day to be happy and thankful that in Christ’s eyes, as long as we have the kind of faith seen in Bartimaeus, there really is no “in” and “out,” there’s only “in,” no matter what anyone else says. That seems to be Jesus’ message in this story. And that was something that Bartimaeus saw perfectly well.

Thanks be to God.

Reformation Takeaways (sermon 10/27/14)

 

ReformationsdenkmalGenf1

 

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 31:31-34

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Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed. – John 8:31-36

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During the runup to the recent Scottish vote for independence, comedian John Oliver said that most Americans only know Scotland as being “the birthplace of Shrek, and that accent you think you can do, but actually can’t.” Well this Sunday morning in Presbyterian churches all around the country, a lot of people will be trying out their imitation Scottish accents to try to sound like John Knox, the Scottish Reformer and father of Presbyterianism. And a lot of us will feature bagpipes in our services, and a lot of others will deck the sanctuary out in tartan[plaid paraments, and in some way, regardless of our actual ethnic heritage, maybe we’ll all pretend we’re at least a little bit Scottish in honor of the roots of our Presbyterian tradition.

And a lot of us will hear sermons about the origins of the Reformation, and Luther, and Zwingli, and Calvin, and other great reformers. We’ll discuss some Reformation history during the Forum hour, but today’s sermon isn’t going to be a history lesson. Instead, I want to talk about some of the reasons the Reformation is still important to us today.

One of the truly great, lasting things to come out of the Reformation was emphasis on the idea, captured in the catchphrase, “the Church, reformed and always being reformed according to the Word of God.” The idea that in every time, every place, the Church is to be renewed, refreshed, in accordance with the way people in those times, places, and cultures understand and interpret God’s truth found in the scriptures. This was a relatively new way of thinking: rather than the Church being some permanent unchanging thing that we’re all supposed to circle around and guard, and protect from any outside pressures to ever change, the Reformation said that the Church *had* to change over time. Through this new understanding of the Church and the faith, especially in our Reformed/Presbyterian tradition, this means that the church is to grow, and change, and evolve, with the guidance of God’s Spirit, in ways that the original Reformers might never have dreamt of – *could* never have dreamt of, or frankly, even agreed with. But that was the magic, the beauty of this way of understanding the church that these dead old white guys devised. It’s a simple, beautiful truth: that as time progresses, human knowledge and ways of understanding changes; and those changes will cause us to see and understand God’s truth in different ways. Our understanding of the faith cannot be forever bound by the historical, scientific, and cultural understanding of 16th-century Western Europe, or anywhere else, for that matter. So it’s actually a bit ironic, when we hear voices within the church who would demand that in order to be “true” Presbyterians, we have to swear allegiance to the theology as expressed in, say, the Westminster Confession of 1664; or that we can’t find new understandings of scripture based on our own current knowledge base and cultural location. By digging their heels into the sand that way, those people are actually denying, refusing to accept one of the absolute key, fundamental essential tenets of our Reformed tradition that they claim to be fighting to uphold.

That’s a great legacy of the Protestant Reformation, this new way of understanding the Church as a “living” institution that can, and needs to, change and evolve over time in order to truly carry out the mission Christ established it for. But beyond the big change this meant for the church, what does the Protestant Reformation matter to us today? I mean really, what’s it matter to us? Five hundred years ago, a bunch of people were arguing, and even killing each other, over fine points of theology. What difference, if anything, does it make to us today as we go about our day-to-day lives?

Well, I think there are a couple of things that became re-emphasized during the Reformation that still speak directly to us, and the way we understand ourselves, and you can hear those things in the two Lectionary texts we heard today.

The first of these things has to do with the idea of sin – that we all sin, and that makes us all slaves to sin, as Jesus says in today’s gospel passage. We don’t generally like that word, sin, so much these days. It’s an old fashioned word from another place and time, and I think sometimes we get a little embarrassed and uncomfortable talking about it. In our liturgies, we’ll sometimes avoid using the word, replacing it with more modern, acceptable words like “failings,”, “shortcomings,” “brokenness.” But uncomfortable or no, sin – our sin – still exists, and we’re still slave to it. There’s a scene in the movie “Glory,” where Matthew Broderick, who’s playing Robert Gould Shaw, the commanding officer of one of the first African-American regiments in the Civil War, is having a conversation with Denzel Washington, who’s playing one of the privates in Shaw’s regiment. The two men are talking about the evil of racism that’s still structurally, systemically a part of the country, and will still be regardless of the outcome of the war. And how, at the end of the war, Shaw, the son of wealth and privilege in Massachussetts, will go back to that life of privilege, but nothing much will really change for African Americans. At one point, Broderick just says, “It stinks, I suppose.” And Washington answers, “Yeah, it stinks bad – and we all covered up in it; ain’t nobody clean.” I always thought that was one of the greatest, simplest ways of stating the Reformed understanding of sin; the understanding that Jesus teaches in this gospel passage. Whether it’s through our own direct actions – our direct sins – of not loving each other as we should, in all the ways that plays out – or whether it’s through the more systemic sin we unavoidably take part in – buying products based on prices only made possible by paying slave wages to factory workers somewhere in the Two-Thirds World. No matter even if we try to do good things – we try to volunteer time and tithe finances and be as compassionate as we can; no matter if we buy Fair Exchange coffee and tea, or whatever, we still end up being complicit in multiples ways in sin. We can never really, totally escape being part of – slave to – sin. We’re all dirty; ain’t none of us clean, and even though we’ll occasionally brush off that thought, deep down in our own hearts, we know that’s true.

That fact, in and of itself, wasn’t anything new to come out of the Reformation. But what those Reformers did re-emphasize, contrary to many of the teachings of the established church at the time, is that there’s absolutely nothing that we can do to extricate ourselves from that. Even if we wear ourselves out trying, we can’t work, or buy, our own way out of sin and into God’s favor. That’s just as true today as it was in 1517.

Well, if that Reformation takeaway is a bit of a downer, the second point, which you can hear in the passage from Jeremiah, makes up for it. In that passage, we hear the absolutely incomprehensible depth of God’s love for us. That even though the ancient Israelites – and by extension, all of us – have broken the covenant God made with us, God still says “I will forgive their wickedness and remember their sin no more.” Did you catch that? God, despite knowing better, will remember our sin no more. It’s what the great preacher David Lose called God’s “intentional amnesia.” God chooses to regard us as if we were perfect and blameless, in spite of the reality.

That is indeed very good news for us. In that scene from “Glory,” after Denzel Washington’s character says we’re all dirty, ain’t none of us clean, he thinks for a second and wistfully says, “It would sure be nice to get clean, though.” We can probably all identify with that at times. Those times when we just feel completely at odds with life, when everything just seems wrong, out of sync, and we just want to feel clean and right and realigned with God and the universe. In this passage from Jeremiah, God says not only that we can, but that in fact, that we already are. We just need to recognize it. This re-emphasis on the grace that God pours over us is one of the great takeaways of the Reformation that still affects the way we live, every day.

But that can be hard news for us to accept. For many of us, it just doesn’t sound fair, for God to act in the way we heard, to just forgive and forget our sins in spite of ourselves. We want to craft a God who operates by our own human understanding of fairness and justice. But we just don’t find that here at all. What we find time and again in the scriptures is a God who knows that we’re slaves to sin – both the kind of sins we can do something about, and the kind of sin that we can’t – and who chooses to extend this gift of complete forgiveness and reconciliation. It’s a gift so big and so great that it’s hard to even accept it sometimes, because we don’t think we deserve it. And of course, we don’t – but that’s exactly the point.

Thanks be to God.