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.

Facing the Giant (sermon 6/21/2015)

This Sunday's Old Testament Lesson is the familiar story of David and Goliath, an ancient version of the mismatch seen here. The story of David's faith in the face of what would seem to be insurmountable odds could be a very good point of departure for a Sunday when we both recognize recent graduates, as well as receive new members into Active Membership in the congregation. The text is found in 1 Samuel 17:32-49:

David said to Saul, “Let no one’s heart fail because of him; your servant will go and fight with this Philistine.” Saul said to David, “You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him; for you are just a boy, and he has been a warrior from his youth.” But David said to Saul, “Your servant used to keep sheep for his father; and whenever a lion or a bear came, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after it and struck it down, rescuing the lamb from its mouth; and if it turned against me, I would catch it by the jaw, strike it down, and kill it. Your servant has killed both lions and bears; and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, since he has defied the armies of the living God.” David said, “The Lord, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine.” So Saul said to David, “Go, and may the Lord be with you!” Saul clothed David with his armor; he put a bronze helmet on his head and clothed him with a coat of mail. David strapped Saul’s sword over the armor, and he tried in vain to walk, for he was not used to them. Then David said to Saul, “I cannot walk with these; for I am not used to them.” So David removed them.

Then he took his staff in his hand, and chose five smooth stones from the wadi, and put them in his shepherd’s bag, in the pouch; his sling was in his hand, and he drew near to the Philistine. The Philistine came on and drew near to David, with his shield-bearer in front of him. When the Philistine looked and saw David, he disdained him, for he was only a youth, ruddy and handsome in appearance. The Philistine said to David, “Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?” And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. The Philistine said to David, “Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the field.” But David said to the Philistine, “You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This very day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head; and I will give the dead bodies of the Philistine army this very day to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the earth, so that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the Lord does not save by sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s and he will give you into our hand.”

When the Philistine drew nearer to meet David, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet the Philistine. David put his hand in his bag, took out a stone, slung it, and struck the Philistine on his forehead; the stone sank into his forehead, and he fell face down on the ground.  – 1 Samuel 17:32-49

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He’d been looking forward to this trip for a while – he and his extended family were all going whitewater rafting together in Colorado. But they were all relatively young and adventurous and in pretty good shape, so they decided they didn’t want to just ride down the rapids while the guides did all the paddling; they took one of the trips where they were doing some of the real work, too. In order to be in the proper position to do that, he would have to straddle the pontoon of the raft with one leg inside and the other dipped into the water. It all started out fine in the gentle water, but after a while they got into the whitewater, and in a moment of not paying enough attention, he got bounced out of the raft and into the rapids. After some intense moments of panic as he got washed considerably further downriver than the raft, he managed to get himself safely to shore. But the shoreline there was steep and treacherous, so he climbed up to the higher ground and found himself coming out onto a nice, rolling green pasture. He figured he thought he could walk down to the point where the river came out of the ravine, but no sooner did he start out than he came over the crest of a little rise in the pasture and discovered that he was face to face with a huge black bull, the biggest one he’d ever seen, standing right in his path. Not really knowing anything about bulls, or what makes them mad, but he had to decide: should he try to sneak around this beast without trying to make it mad; or should he go back down over the hillside and take his chances with the steep shoreline of the ravine?

Well, David Lose, the preacher and writer who actually experienced that story when he was a very young man chose to head away from the giant bull in his path, and go back down over the hillside to get away from it. In today’s Old Testament lesson, though, another David, an even younger David, took the other course. Not only didn’t he shy away from the giant Goliath, or try to avoid him altogether, he actually stepped out and directly confronted him, confident that God would help him. Life can be this way for us, too. We’ll often find ourselves at some kind of crossroads, having to make a choice like this one – face the giant or find a way to turn away from it? In most cases, we aren’t even sure which choice we make will be the safest one, and often enough, we won’t be able to retrace our steps and choose again if it turns out we made the wrong choice – accepting a new job, or starting or ending a relationship, which doctor do I trust, should I have the surgery or not; there are endless examples of it. All that we know is that whoever we are, we’re going to find ourselves from time to time at that kind of crossroads. Do we face the giant, or do we turn away from it? Which path is the best?

We’re all facing a giant this morning. It’s an old giant; one we’ve seen all too many times before; one that we just can’t seem to get past. When Dylan Roof went into that Bible study at the Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston and killed nine of them just because they were black, the giant of racism rose up in front of all us again, taunting us all just as much as Goliath taunted David. This giant, the evil, the sin, of racism and racist violence has been standing right there in front of us for almost 400 years in this country, without taking a single break.

This tragedy in Charleston isn’t ultimately a question of gun control, although that’s a big part of it. And it isn’t just a societal attitude of a cheapening of life in general either, although that’s part of it, too. This is specifically a problem of the demeaning and devaluing of the lives of a particular group of people, over against the lives of those in another group. It’s someone saying “Your lives don’t matter as much as mine.”

In the midst of this tragedy, we can tackle legitimate related issues, like demanding that the Confederate battle flag, that disgusting symbol of hatred and racism and bigotry and violence, finally be removed from any public place of honor. But we can’t let the side issues distract us from the main issue, the real giant. And we can’t take on an air of superiority, as if racism is only a problem in those states where you automatically get grits with your breakfast order whether you want them or not. This giant is everywhere. It’s in the South. It’s in the North. It’s right here, in our own midst. Every single one of us, you and me, carry racial prejudice within us, and whenever that racial prejudice uses some kind of power to harm or obstruct or impose injustice or inequality against others, that’s racism, and we’re caught up in it whether we do it directly ourselves or if others do it on our behalf and we’re just the beneficiaries of it.

Maybe the biggest problem is that too many of us really can’t even see this giant, or we want to pretend that he isn’t real. Oh sure, that giant used to be a problem in the past, but that’s all ancient history, and that these kinds of tragedies like Charleston are exceptions to the rule, they’re just unfortunate “accidents.” We’re all “post-racial;” we live in a color-blind society now. Nonsense.

So this morning, our hearts break, and we reach out to offer our love, and our condolences to all those whose live have been affected by this latest evil act of racism.

But even more than that, we have to ask ourselves, what can we do? How can we fight this giant? I mean, it’s certainly a good and a nice gesture to share prayers and statements of outrage or solidarity on our Facebook pages, and things like that, but in the end, what can we do about this kind of problem? In our Book of Confessions, the Confession of 1967 calls out the evil and sin of racism. And our new Belhar Confession calls out both individual and systemic, institutional racism, and points out that we are commanded by God to take whatever steps are necessary to end that racism, and to be actively involved in acts of racial reconciliation; to seek forgiveness and make amends for what we’ve allowed to happen in the past. So how can we do that? It’s a serious question, and one that we can’t answer this morning, but we need to answer it. What can we be doing, what should we be doing – here, in our own community – to help fight racism, and to help bring about racial reconciliation?

This is baccalaureate Sunday. Graduates, you’ll have to face this giant; in fact, you already are. Those of us who came before you have fought it to some extent, and we’ve made some progress against it, but not nearly enough. I pray with all my might that you’ll make more progress in killing it than we have. Just remember that the most success against this giant, the deepest wounds that it’s suffered, have been at the hands of those people who battled against it as a matter of their Christian faith. Those people who unabashedly called out racism as an offense, an evil, a sin against God. Those people who have called out racism in all of its forms, individual, institutional, direct and indirect, as incompatible with the kingdom of God. The biggest successes have been achieved by those people who placed their faith, and their trust in the God who empowered young David to succeed against Goliath – the God who has the power to calm the storm and the waves of the sea, and even the whitewater in Colorado. With that God’s help, we can beat this giant – it can’t be beat if we just try to take the easier looking path to avoid the giant, or if we close our eyes and pretend he isn’t there. But it can be beat.

Friends, let’s face this giant. And let’s beat it.

Thanks be to God.