Sermons are part of a conversation between the preacher and the congregation.
You can read most of the sermons preached at Faith in the past few years here. This archive is a blog, which is duplicated on Blogger. You may add comments here or in the blog if you wish.
If you would like to see the readings planned for the next few weeks, click here.
Re-forming the church
Text: Jeremiah 31:31-34, Romans 3:19-28
It is fitting that we welcome new members to Faith on this day, Reformation Sunday. For Reformation Day—which is tomorrow, always on Halloween—is a celebration of a particular event of history, theology, and community. We who sit here today inherit the legacy of that event, when the church asked itself: What is the church, anyway, and what should it be?
This is not a new question. But the urgency of finding an answer to that question comes and goes. It has only been recently become urgent again. We are in a strange and changing time now in many ways, and certainly so in the ways of being church. It is an echo of the Reformation 500 years ago, when something was happening—no one quite knew what—with society, with politics, with transportation and commerce and communication, even with the weather (the world was emerging from a centuries long cold spell).
When anyone comes to a church, they come to at least three places at once. An historical place, a theological place, and a community.
First, we come to a long spiritual history.
This is Faith Lutheran Church in Cambridge. We share this church with others in this moment, and also with others of the past (and of the future). This church—as you have heard me say perhaps too often—is you. There is no church you come to that exists without you. And yet, Faith today is continuous with Faith of the recent and long past. Others have shared this space. We hear their voices and see the work of their hands. We sit in the pews that some carved, and we imagine their prayers rising up through the same dark peaked ceiling.
This is a Lutheran church in America, started as an immigrant church. The church in the U.S. is separate from yet part of the worldwide assembly of Lutherans.
And Lutherans everywhere are part of the Protestant tradition that includes many other denominations. Lutherans like to think of themselves as the founders of Protestantism, and that is partly so, but there were many voices of protest besides those of Luther and his buddies. And Luther himself stood on the shoulders of other brave protestors before him.
Protestants are Christians. There are other Christian churches and people who follow Jesus Christ. We think of the Roman church, but Catholics and Protestants are not the only brothers and sisters in the Christian family. And the Christian family is part of the extended family of the people of the book, which includes our cousins Jews and Muslims.
And we come to a history of ongoing reformation.
We celebrate the Reformation today. We call it The Reformation, as if there were only one. But the history of the relationship between people and God is marked by reforms. Jeremiah, the prophet who spoke to us in the first reading, lived in a time of turmoil and doubt. Defeated, occupied, and exiled, the Israelites wondered how they should consider the covenant with God: God is their God, they are God’s people. Was that still true? Had God abandoned them? Was the deal still on? And if so, how could they continue to know God?
Through the prophet Jeremiah, God promises a new covenant. But what is new is not the law but the way the law is carried. A new form of remembering and teaching it. I will put the law within them, said God. It was the same guidance made by the same God, but conveyed in a new way.
The line of our spiritual heritage twists and turns through reformers from long before Jeremiah to long after Luther. And including in our case Jesus, who like all reformers did not consider himself to be radical (I come not to abolish the law, he said). The reform of the church is always a call to repent, meaning to turn back to the basics of our relationship with God. A call to restore the trust and love and joy that comes from knowing God and knowing that we are known by God.
In doing so, reformers seem radical because the current state of affairs has become hateful and unbearable. They cannot help saying so, which makes them unpopular with some who like things the way they are. But the reformers do not intend to condemn the world as it is (I’ve come, said Jesus, not to condemn the world but to save it). Rather, they try to restate what we all knew about God all along, but had lost the words and the ways to remind us.
Second, we come to a theology of grace.
Central to the teachings of Luther, and of the Apostle Paul, and of Jesus as we understand him, and of Jeremiah and the prophets, grace is the essence of the God we worship. The notion of grace permeates the entire Bible. I forgive their iniquity, says God in Jeremiah, and remember their sin no more. God forgives us no matter what. There is nothing we can do that God will not forgive us for.
Lutherans are especially adamant about this, but it is a matter of degree, not principle. Neither Paul nor Luther invented this idea, though they did proclaim it. God is a God of constant and unremitting forgiveness. There is nothing we can do to lose God’s love. The flip side of this is there is nothing we need to do to gain it. No special action, thought, belief, or attitude. We already have it. It is God’s to give, not ours to earn. A corollary is that God’s grace applies to all people, not just us.
Which is a good thing, because Luther reminded us that we are both saints and sinners at the same time. We are generous and sour, kind and selfish, compassionate and mean. What is in us is in others; what is in others is in us. We are disallowed, as Paul writes, to boast.
And, finally, we come to a community of others.
Unlike in other times, no one is culturally required to come to church. We are here in this church because, as we pray, we hope to both be nourished here and to nourish this church. The word for church comes from a word that means called out to assemble. We are called to be here, and we are called to come out of our houses and our jobs and our own private places to assemble with other people also called. We are religious as well as spiritual. We worship together humbly, support each other with intentional respect, companions on the same quest, discovering in each other similar doubts and hopes. We share worries and joys together.
We celebrate the Reformation not because it was something new. It was not. Reformation is a habit of the church. And not because it was unexpected. The forces that led to it had been building for over a century. And not because it was radical. Luther was a Roman Catholic monk who repeatedly defended the church while attacking the way it acted.
We celebrate the Reformation because it reaffirmed that nature of the church as a work in progress. Not one church perfect for all in all times, but an adaptive and vital church that constantly listens to and returns to God.
We come here to this place that is tied to a history of other people seeking to know God; sharing a pretty well developed theology of creation, grace, and God’s presence among us; and formed into a familiar community. That tells us perhaps what the church is, but it tells us little about what it will be.
Our church partners (the Presbyterians, for example), speak of the church as reformed and always reforming. That is both a recognition that the church is always forming itself anew (not only in the official Reformation) and that the church must continue—and will continue to—change. It is easy for us to drift into patterns that seem so comfortable that we think they must be godly. We can forget that God continues to work in the life of the world. We then need prophetic voices then to help us rediscover God.
On this Reformation Sunday we can celebrate that ours is no doubt a time of reformation. We are in a time of disturbance and uncertainty. What will the church be like in our lifetimes? God only knows. It will not be the same as it was or is today. By those who are called to assemble, and with God’s help and guidance, the church will be reformed.
Thanks be to God.