Reformed and Reforming Sermon 2022
Come, Holy Spirit, come. Come as wind and blow away every shred of cowardice. Blow away the selfish attitudes that cloud our vision. Blow away our resistance to embracing the newness of life offered in you. Amen.
When all looked lost, the prophet Isaiah said that God promises a new day. Thus says the Lord,
Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? Isaiah 43:19
That’s how God rolls, always doing new things, letting something new unfold that will make things better. We saw it in Isaiah’s time and in Jesus’ time. And even in our own lives.
Martin Luther’s Courage
One of the times it happened in our faith was 505 years ago, when a man named Martin Luther propelled the protestant reformation. This was long before blogging or tweeting, so on October 31, 1517, Luther nailed 95 statements or discussion points to the door of a church. He believed that the church had gotten off course and strayed far from scripture. For example, the catholic church sold indulgences or a chance to buy your way into heaven. Luther said, no. Salvation comes by grace through faith. He had 94 other points to make about how to right the ship.
One little monk against the entire tradition and influence of the church. His life was threatened, and he was excommunicated and told to recant, but he said his conscience wouldn’t allow that, so he famously said, “Here I stand. I can do no other.”
So, Luther became part of a courageous protest movement. The word Protestant comes from the root of protest. He raised his voice, trying to steer Christianity in a better direction. He did a lot of good things. Here are some fun facts. Life Magazine named him the third most influential person of all time. In addition to starting the Protestant reformation, where there are now lots of churches to choose from, he planted the seeds for public education. His translation of the Bible into German increased literacy and made the printing press popular. Because people read the Bible, they saw opportunities for liberation from an oppressive government. He wrote a lot of beautiful hymns. He emphasized the Holy Spirit and a sense of spontaneity to faith. He wrote over 100 books averaging 700 pages. And many hymns, including A Mighty Fortress is our God.
He had his quirks and failures. He was always terrified the devil would get him. He swore like a sailor. And he was intolerant of other religions. Some of his writings helped fuel the antisemitism of the Nazi movement hundreds of years later.
On reformation Sunday, we don’t venerate Martin Luther and the reformers. Rather, we thank the Spirit that moves through people to make things new. To refresh, reinvigorate, and reform.
Reformed and Reforming
One of the slogans of the reformation movement was, “The church is reformed and always reforming.” It’s not that different from the idea of our UCC slogan, “God is still speaking.” It’s not all been said and done; we’ve got work to do.
Our expressions of faith are always flawed, and we need continual course correction. It is like steering a sailboat or a car. You don’t just point it in the right direction and take your hand off the wheel. You are making constant corrections to stay on course. So, it is with the church. We aim to follow Christ but must continually adjust to get to that place we want to be.
The late theologian Phyllis Tickle wrote a book about how, every 500 years or so, Christianity has gone through a major transition. She compares it to a rummage sale. You replace some forms of spirituality that aren’t working well and find something that suits you better. It’s been 500 years since Luther, so we are due for another great transformation. She wonders what a postmodern church will evolve into. In the future, things can and will be different. New forms and ways of being church are evolving.
Even our church, since COVID has gone through quite a few changes. We try to adapt.
Christianity under attack
Sometimes I worry that what’s emerging is an unsavory application of faith on a larger scale.
I saw a video where the creator said Christianity is under attack in America–by the people who most loudly declare themselves as Christians yet actively work against everything X talked about. I couldn’t trace down the original creator, but there were lines such as:
Right now, the loudest Christians are those who are most rejecting the teachings of Christ. They act as if the Bible consists of Leviticus and Revelation duct taped to the entire Left Behind series. Jesus, if you go by the book was a peaceful, non-violent protester against the establishment who spent time with lepers, hookers and criminals. He was anti-hoarding of wealth. Never once did anything anti-gay. He never mentioned abortion. Never called the poor lazy. Most likely he was a dark-skinned, anti-slut shaming Jew. The problem is some people think Jesus talking to a snake is a literal fact but Jesus saying love your enemies is all metaphorical…
A new reformation is needed. We’re due. We need the Pentecost wind to blow through again and reshape us.
Good vs. Bad religion
I once heard the preacher Dr. Frank Thomas say that a spiritual asks if you’ve got good religion—a powerful force that gives you hope in hard times and elevates you to be a better person. It knows that faith can make you more courageous, generous, compassionate, forgiving, and ethical at its best. He said that the song asks about good religion because Lord knows there is enough bad religion out there.
Good versus bad religion
So, in honor of Luther’s list, I’ve come up with a few things to help guide us toward good rather than bad religion. You can make your list. Here are discussion points to get things started:
Bad religion has been used to justify every horrible thing human beings have done to one another. From the crusades to the inquisition to the holocaust, people have convinced themselves that they were doing God’s will.
Bad religion acts as if there is a line dividing good and evil by making it about the good us and the bad “them.” Good religion realizes that the line between good and evil is not one that divides one group from another, but it is a line that runs right down the middle of each of us.
When people cherry-pick a few verses from scripture to warrant intolerance and meanness, it’s bad religion. Good religion always has an eye on the whole of Jesus’ teachings about love and non-judgment, forgiveness, non-violence, peacemaking.
Bad religion aims at division. In the past it supported slavery and the KKK. Today White Nationalists invoke the same tropes and racist dog whistles. Good religion remembers Galatians 3 that says in Christ there is no longer male nor female, slave or free, Jew or Gentile, but all are one…
Bad religion tends toward authoritarianism, placing absolute power in the hands of single individuals who control the beliefs and practices of everybody else. Good religion steers toward egalitarianism believing in what the book of Hebrews calls, “The priesthood of all believers.” A key principle of congregationalism where it’s everybody in the church deciding how we will be.
Bad religion finds ways to make women second place and abuse the LGBTQ+ community. Good religion knows that everyone is created in the image of God and a person of sacred worth.
Bad religion pretends that doubt is the opposite of faith. Good religion realizes, as Fredrick Buechner said, “Doubt is the ants in the pants of faith. It keeps it alive and moving.” Jesus told us the greatest commandment is to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. Good religion knows you don’t turn off your brain just because you are a believer.
Bad religion is so tied to tradition that things can never change, it sees itself as never needing reform, so it excommunicates people who challenge what’s happening. Good religion says we are reformed and always in need of reforming. Good religion is adaptive. It realizes that God is still speaking.
Jaroslav Pelikan said tradition is the living faith of the dead. Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. We hold on to things too long. The point is to have a tradition that roots us, so we aren’t just tumbleweeds blowing about with every fad but have a core that guides us, preventing us from learning from the wisdom of our forebearers in faith. But every once in a while, the old dead stuff on the tree has to be cut off to make room for new growth. The church should always be adaptive.
Bad religion induces shame and guilt. It leaves you bad, and everyone is sour-faced as if the aim in life is to pursue joylessness and to project disdain and approval. Good religion liberates us from shame and guilt by proclaiming forgiveness and the spirit’s ability to help us do better.
Bad religion obsesses with the keys to finding “God’s favor” and material prosperity. Good religion knows you already have God’s favor, but your material wealth is not God’s primary interest; becoming a decent human being is what God is all about.
Bad religion is selfish and individualistic. It worries about my soul, my salvation, and my prayers and couldn’t give a hoot about anybody else. Good religion is about helping one another on the journey of faith so that we can make a positive difference in the world.
Bad religion has worship that is all about entertainment and performance. Good religion remembers that worship is the work of the people, and it’s about what we all bring and put into it that God is looking for.
Bad religion delights in fire and brimstone. It uses fear as a primary motivator.
Bad religion is about escaping earth to go to heaven, evoking the saying, “Some people are so heavenly bound they are no earthly good.” Good religion sees Jesus coming back daily in the faces of the least and lost. It aims to bring a little slice of heaven here on earth.
Bad religion plays it safe and tries not to make any waves. It acts like it should avoid justice issues because someone might get upset. Good religion knows that we have obligations to pursue justice and fairness for all. Micah says God requires us to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. It’s not just about our souls; it’s about the conditions people live in today.
Don’t just have religion. Aim for good religion! That’s what we’re doing at Bay Shore Church.
A wind is blowing
Don’t you worry about all that bad stuff! We turn to Isaiah, who says God is making all things new. There is a wind, a Pentecost wind, that blows through the church. To paraphrase Springsteen. There’s a twister coming that blows away everything that ain’t got the faith to stand its ground. Blows away the meanness. Blows away the hostility. Blows away the fads and selfishness. And leaves something beautiful that gives life, hope, energy, and community.
I’ve seen and felt the good of religion. How people rise to their best selves. How people are compassionate and generous, and just. How they show up for each other. How they sacrifice to help someone else. How they pray and support. How they admit they don’t have all the answers but keep on trying. There is so much good about it. So much good we find here. So, let’s do all that we can because the Lord knows we need places like Bay Shore, where we aim to reform ourselves into the best forms of religion we can get.