Sunday, October 25, 2015

Sermon: ... and Always Being Reformed

Grace Presbyterian Church
October 25, 2015, Reformation Sunday
Jeremiah 31:31-34; Romans 3:19-26; Psalm 46

…and Always Being Reformed

October 31 (this coming Saturday) marks the 498th anniversary of Martin Luther’s nailing of his so-called “ninety-five theses” to the door of the cathedral of Wittemburg, Germany, an event considered seminal in the Lutheran Reformation. That date, or the Sunday before it, has been frequently observed over the centuries as a special day in many Protestant churches – not quite a full feast day, but one significant enough to inspire a sermon at the minimum.
One has to point out that October 31,while observed fairly widely as Reformation Day, is significant in the Lutheran tradition specifically. Though we moderns are prone to speak of “the Reformation” as if it were a single monolithic event, in fact the impulse of reformation broke out in multiple parts of Europe at various times over at least a couple of centuries. The insert in your bulletin points to an early movement, well before Luther’s initial act, spearheaded by the Bohemian Jan Hus, who staked his position on scripture as ultimate authority in the church, ahead of any priest or bishop or pope, and lost his life for it.
As Presbyterians, our branch of the Reformation is seated primarily in the work of John Calvin, a French-born scholastic who became a principal leader of churches in cities such as Strasbourg and especially Geneva, and Calvin’s pupil John Knox, who brought Calvin’s teaching to his native Scotland. Calvin’s efforts are perhaps noteworthy as much for what he did not succeed in implanting in those churches as for what he did. For example, if it had been up to Calvin, the churches of Geneva under his leadership would have practiced communion on a much more frequent basis, even as often as the church was gathered in worship – that would be weekly, at minimum – like the churches under Luther’s leadership. The elders of Geneva were not persuaded to go along with that innovation.
While the churches that emerged from these varied traditions of reformation grew in sometimes strikingly different directions, one trait they held in common was a focus on the primacy of the reading and proclaiming of scripture in the church’s worship. This focus was taken to a greater extreme by Calvin than by most other reformers, as Calvin sought to cut back other elements of worship in favor of scripture and preaching. For example, while the text of our first hymn this morning is attributed to Calvin, he would have been horrified to hear it sung in worship; to him the only texts suitable for singing in worship were texts from scripture, particularly from Psalms, the biblical songbook. That practice is represented by this morning’s other three hymns, which are all psalm settings. Clearly that tradition has continued and become widespread, as witness the final hymn in this service: a psalm adaption from modern-day Indonesia! But Calvin would still have been troubled; these hymns have harmonies and accompaniments, and are accompanied by piano and/or organ, which Calvin distrusted as too much a distraction from the scriptural text.
One goal that the various reformers shared in general was a desire to facilitate the proclamation of the Word, as noted above, by making the Word available in the languages of the people, rather than in the fine but no longer spoken language of Latin, and to make scripture available for all to read. Even as far back as the 1300s, the English pastor John Wycliffe met his violent end at least in part for translating the Bible into English.
Suffice to say that our modern Presbyterian churches are quite different from anything Calvin or Knox would have recognized. On the other hand, Calvin might well have anticipated such change. One of his most famous quotes, after all, described the church (in Latin): reformata, et semper reformanda. Reformed, and always reforming – or better, always being reformed. The church is, under the moving of the Spirit and the Lordship of Christ, is not static, but always growing towards the mark, towards God’s design for us.
I get it; that’s not the way we tend to think of the church. An awful lot of churches these days are trying to go backwards. You know what I mean. The church wants to go back to the days when the pews were full. Back to the time when everybody went to church, even if over half of them were only there under social pressure. Back to the time when we Christians had all the influence, even if that influence turned out to be pretty damaging to our witness. All the dreams, all the hopes of that church are directed backwards.
But Calvin and other reformers saw that this isn’t how the church works. God had no interest in glory days or the church existing merely to be at the top of the social ladder.
The vision offered by the prophet Jeremiah, in the short passage we have heard today, points to a vision – a dream, one might even say – that goes far beyond even the most fervent yearnings of any of the reformers with their vernacular preaching and translations. “The days are surely coming;” the prophet says that the Lord says “the days are surely coming” – but is clearly not here yet in Jeremiah’s day. “The days are surely coming…when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.”
That last sentence gives a clue to the state of Jeremiah’s people. He writes to a people already divided, and not just divided but conquered (Israel) or soon to be conquered (Judah). The two kingdoms were weak, their people living demoralized or even in despair, and quite distant from any relationship with the God who had covenanted with them so many years before. The promise of a “new covenant” was hardly new, but Jeremiah insists this covenant will be different, not like the covenant of the past, with their ancestors. Jeremiah can’t resist getting in a dig at his people, reminding them that they, not God, had broken that covenant, but then goes on to describe the difference in this “new covenant.”
It turns out that the difference is not in content. It isn’t a list of new laws or new promises. Rather, this new covenant will not be one carved into stone tablets or scribbled onto scrolls or any other document. No; this is a covenant in flesh and spirit, one that God will “write…on their hearts.” The covenant will be so intimate, so direct, that there will be no need for tablets or documents.
Or for teachers or preachers, for that matter. “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…” I will be quite out of a job. All of us preachers, Sunday school teachers, elders…quite superfluous, when God’s word resides in each of us, written on our hearts. And to be clear, like so much of what scripture teaches us, this isn’t a “me” thing; their hearts, them, their, they…the pronouns are all plural. This writing of the law is a unifier, bringing God’s people together; we will be God’s people, all of us, together.
I don’t think it’s too hard to figure out that we’re not there yet. If anything, our world is more fractious and divided than Jeremiah’s, and our proliferation of churches and denominations (seriously, how many different kinds of Presbyterians are there any more?) point to the degree that we are well short of having God’s law written within us.
Yet we do not despair, not if we’re doing this right. We continue to teach and support one another, studying the scriptures until they really do reside in our hearts. We encourage one another. We live in the kind of service Jesus showed us how to do, and commanded us to do. And we do it a certain way because we are inheritors of a particular heritage. We inherit a tradition that says scripture matters, profoundly, above the power of any preacher. We inherit a tradition that insists that the church is of its people, governed by those selected by its members (we call them “the session”), and that the pastor is never the “boss” telling members what to do. We inherit a tradition of an educated clergy, a mandate to serve and to bear witness, to teach one another and encourage one another, to proclaim a gospel of grace, mercy, forgiveness, and love, the one that Jesus lived.
Those are very much ideas of reformation; Luther’s great breakthrough was the realization of the words of Ephesians – “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God” – did much to set him on his course. By no means should we presume to have any kind of exclusive grasp on this gospel, by no means. But it is our heritage.
For grace, for love, and even for being Presbyterian, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns: “I Greet Thee, Who My Sure Redeemer Art” (PH 457); “God Is Our Refuge and Our Strength” (PH 191); “When In the Night I Meditate” (PH 165); “Hallelujah! Sing Praise to Your Creator” (GtG 18)


Sunday, October 18, 2015

Sermon: The Inevitable, Necessary Stewardship Sermon

Grace Presbyterian Church
October 18, 2015; Ordinary 29B
2 Corinthians 9:6-15; Mark 12:38-44

The Inevitable, Necessary Stewardship Sermon

It is one of those things for a new pastor. You know it’s coming. It’s inevitable. It doesn’t quite fall into the category of “things they didn’t teach you in seminary,” but it’s close.
It’s stewardship time! Woohoo!
In all seriousness, this is nobody’s idea of fun. Nobody, except possibly certain folks who gravitate to public radio or television, likes to ask for money. I certainly don’t. I’m quite sure Lois would rather not have to go through this. We’d really rather be able to go on about things and not have to go through the whole business of pledge cards and all that.
I’d certainly rather not have to conjure up a “stewardship sermon” out of scripture that really doesn’t want to be used that way. While in the Old Testament, or at least much of it, the people of Israel did have an established Temple that certainly required financial maintenance, in the New Testament there wasn’t really a “church” out there that was in need of a financial plan. By the time Paul and his contemporaries are helping the body of Christ spread across Asia Minor and into southeastern Europe, there are a handful of “house churches,” meeting primarily in the homes of some of its members, without the overhead of a modern church building. When money was required, for care for the poor or sometimes for taking care of a visiting teacher like Paul or others, it was collected.
That’s the kind of collection going on as Paul writes to the Christ-following community in Corinth in today’s epistle reading. Paul is trying to gather up funds for the believers at Jerusalem (who had fallen on hard times), and he begins the chapter by telling the Corinthians about the generosity of the Christians in Macedonia, who despite their own hardships had given with great generosity towards this collection. We do that kind of collection on occasion; we have, you might have noticed, been seeking contributions for the purchase of new hymnals for the sanctuary, and on occasion we collect goods for individuals served by the various ministries in which we participate.
But as far as regular budgets go, that’s obviously not how this church, and most modern churches in the US, work. We have a building. It’s a good building. There are some repairs needed, as most of us can see. There are regular expenses for things like electricity and water, keeping the grass from getting too long, having materials for study, and so forth. The choir needs music. Committees need funds to varying degrees to carry out their work. Staff people need to be paid, even me. And to be certain that we can meet those obligations, we ask that our members commit to giving as we are able to do.
Paul’s verses sound quite uplifiting; “God loves a cheerful giver” … “God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance” …  You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity” … really, some great stuff there. And Jesus’s comments about the widow also are pretty effective at encouraging us, those of us who are not blessed with great material wealth, that our generosity matters, and that our generosity will be rewarded.
It all sounds so good, doesn’t it?
But there’s also a very disturbing and dismaying aspect to verses and stories like these, of which we are reminded in the verses before Jesus points out the widow to us. Teaching in the Temple, during the last week of his life, Jesus calls his disciples’ attentions to the scribes. It’s pretty unlikely that Jesus means to sweep every single scribe into this condemnation, as only a few verses before he has had a much more encouraging encounter with one of their number, but he’s had enough bad experiences with the scribes that he’s drawn some sharp and critical observations about them.
One of the behaviors Jesus calls out involves the very kind of people he observes in the later verses of our reading today. First of all Jesus disdains their propensity for seeking attention and flattery, for claiming the best seats at the table and generally being quite impressed with their own authority and power. But amidst this is an accusation that might catch us off guard: “They devour widows’ houses…”.  We don’t have an absolute fix on just what kind of action Jesus is condemning here; it might be the practice of “Corban” that was mentioned earlier in this gospel (declaring resources that might support such a person as “dedicated to God”), or it might be the exploitation of widows by traveling teachers who make themselves guests in those widows’ homes and consume their limited resources. Whatever it is, Jesus calls it out, and puts forward the declaration that for their excesses “Whatever it is, Jesus calls it out, and puts forward the declaration that for their excesses “They will receive the greater condemnation.”
It’s not hard to find modern descendents of those scribes – in fact, if you’re of my generation it’s hard not to. It’s pretty easy to draw a line between these scribes and their modern descendents, if you’ve grown up in and lived in the age of the televangelist. I know some of you, maybe a lot of you, remember the likes of the Bakkers, the Swaggarts, and so many more who became infamous for extracting sums of money from the widows of our own day, persons on fixed incomes giving large chunks of those fixed incomes to those televised preachers. Frankly, any preacher of my generation trembles at preaching from these verses just because of that ugly abuse for which they’ve been used before.
So to some degree a stewardship drive, in which we ask you at least in part for your money, needs to be accompanied by a pledge by those charged to lead the church – from me and other staff members through the session and committee chairs – that we will not be exploiters of what you pledge and give. We must commit to you that what you give will be used wisely, prayerfully, and with no other goal than the support of this church in its ongoing call to do Christ’s work in God’s world.
Even with this past hanging over today’s scripture, we can’t just dismiss the widow in the Temple as some kind of dupe. We don’t know her individual story; were it not for Jesus’s description we wouldn’t necessarily even know that she was giving everything she had. We’ve never heard of her before, and we never hear of her again.
But for all of the mystery about this woman, one thing we can know is that she is the opposite of the protagonist of last week’s sermon. Remember him? The so-called “rich young ruler,” who came asking Jesus what he needed to do to inherit eternal life only to go away sorrowing because Jesus told him to sell it all and follow? He was too attached to his possessions to follow. He was plenty willing to give his actions – remember how he declared he had kept the law since his youth? His wealth, though…another matter entirely. He had to hold on, to keep control of his stuff.
Our widow, though? No such fear. To borrow a slang term from modern poker, the widow has chosen to go “all in.” A player whose chips are limited might choose to push them “all in” when a hand demands it. The widow has little else to fall back on; she chooses to commit it all in the Temple.
We do not ask for all your money. We do, however, ask for all of you. We need not just your money – though we do need that – but we do need your time. We need your gifts of talent, your ability to teach or sing or give or lead or anything you can do. We need you, and we need all that you have to offer.
Yes, fill out those pledge cards and turn them in. But that’s only a first step.
For commitments large and small, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns: “God of the Fertile Fields” (GtG 714); “As Those of Old Their Firstfruits Brought” (PH 414), “We Give Thee But Thine Own” (PH 428), “God, Whose Giving Knows No Ending” (PH 422)

Again, from the indispensible

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Sermon: Last and First

Grace Presbyterian Church
October 11, 2015, Ordinary 28B
Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31

Last and First

So, did you hear about the Apocalypse this week?
No, I’m not kidding.
As has happened a number of times in the last few years, another obscure religious group came out of the woodwork with a prediction about the end of the world – in this case, this past Wednesday. In this case, the group was something called the eBible Fellowship, based in Philadelphia, and they put forth in pamphlet and video form (and an interview in the British newspaper The Guardian) that the world would face its end on Wednesday, although curiously, the leader of that group said he planned to go about his week as normal. It’s entirely possible, I suppose, that the whole thing was done tongue-in-cheek, but the group leader – while admitting that the October 7 prediction was clearly incorrect – still professes that the end will happen “soon.”
Since I don’t normally start putting my sermon in print until Thursday anyway, I don’t suppose this latest predicted demise affected my week that much either. But it did put me in mind of how often some group or preacher out there is coming forth with this day or that day for the end of the world. Perhaps most famously in recent years, the radio preacher Harold Camping got caught in error for having predicted the end of the world on May 21, 2011. Such fevered predictions date back to at least the nineteenth century in this country, when sometime preacher William Miller predicted that the world would end in 1843. These predictions, of course, seem rather ill-advised in the face of Jesus’s own words, in Mark 13:32: “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the son, but only the Father.” And yet the predictions keep coming.
It seems at least in part that there are some people who insist on having “insider information.” They wish to claim secret knowledge, things that are not available to everybody, but are only revealed to or discernible by a select few, those who “read the Bible in your special ways,” and are obsessed with reading meanings into symbols and turning metaphors into lead-pipe cinch predictions. As the result of this obsession, these would-be scholars are bound and determined to put themselves first, ahead of their fellow followers of Jesus Christ, as if by their interpretation they are earning greater favor with God.
You see, there’s more than one way to put yourself first. Today’s reading from Mark focuses on another, or actually two other such ways of privileging oneself that get wrapped into one. Sometimes you hear the main character of this story called the “rich young ruler,” but Mark’s description doesn’t mention anything about his age or any kind of rule; the only description we get is that “he had many possessions.”
He asks Jesus what he must do to “inherit” – to κληρονομεω – eternal life. This is a rather interesting request; not how to “get,” or how to “earn,” or “to be blessed with” or any other construction we could imagine, but “to receive as an heir.” In that sense Jesus’s answer seems a little odd; after first engaging in some questioning about what it means to call Jesus “good,” he recites some of the familiar commandments, mostly from the “second half” of the Ten Commandments. It’s a list of things to do – or more precisely, in this case, not to do, with one exception. And in some ways it might seem like a low hurdle to surmount, but by this reference Jesus brings all of the law into play.
In that regard we might be surprised to hear the man proclaim that he has “kept all these since my youth,” but in Jewish thought of this time this wasn’t that shocking a thing to say; such devotion to keeping the law was the very animating premise of that group known as the Pharisees that has popped up on occasion in our journey through Mark. And you’ll also notice that Jesus doesn’t particularly seem to consider the claim that outlandish; no “oh, please, you cannot possibly have kept the Law that well” or any such retort. Jesus reacts, in fact, according to verse 21, with love. Jesus sees into this man and loves him.  As the author of Hebrews writes, we don’t turn for our salvation to a savior who doesn’t understand our needs and temptations and afflictions; we turn to Jesus, the “great high priest,” who knows all the temptations we’ve ever known. Jesus is not insensitive or unaware of the condition of this man’s heart.
But that love requires a hard answer, an answer that cuts right to the heart of what the man was lacking despite all his keeping of the law. And when he heard Jesus’s words, “he was shocked and went away grieving,” with those possessions weighing on his mind.
Now let’s be clear; this is not a story that is meant to be a blanket condemnation of rich people. Jesus loved the man, but he knew that the man’s attraction to his possessions – not the possessions themselves – were standing in the way of the man’s ability and willingness to follow Jesus. But the man wasn’t the only one shocked by Jesus’s words. Verse 24 describes the disciples as being “perplexed” by Jesus’s words, and verse 26 says they were “greatly astounded” at what Jesus says. You see, Jesus is having to teach his disciples yet again that human standards for status or power or influence simply don’t count for anything in the kingdom of God. The disciples, and probably most of Jesus’s audience, actually does assume that the man’s wealth probably did indicate that he was destined for eternal life. Jesus says that’s not enough, and that it may well get in the way.
Just as Jesus has had to challenge his disciples to welcome “the least of these” – children, the poor, those without any status in society, now Jesus has to get his disciples to understand that the rich and powerful are not deserving just by dint of their wealth.
We read later in the New Testament, in 1 Timothy 6:10, that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.” It seems, however, that it isn’t just those who have money who love it. We see it enough in our own time; we see so many who are besotted with rich people. I’m sure I’m not the only person here who remembers the TV show Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, am I? We envy the rich, we want to take after the rich, we want to be approved of by the rich. Sometimes we even want to make the rich president.
But again, wealth or the attraction to it isn’t the only possible impediment out there, not the only thing the desire for which can impede our readiness to follow Jesus. I’ve already suggested that our desire to have special status or special knowledge can lead people astray. What about the desire for pleasure? Or the desire for comfort? The desire for strength or physical prowess, maybe (or should I not dare mention that in a town so taken with a particular sport that trades on that physical prowess so readily)? The desire for control, or power over others?
None of these things, except possibly that controlling others part, are particularly evil in and of themselves. But if our desire for them becomes an impediment to following Jesus at any cost, they are to us what possessions were to this man.
Even as Jesus says that “for God nothing is impossible,” it seems that good old Peter is starting to get concerned about just how hard it seems to be to enter the kingdom of God. After all, Jesus says plainly in Mark 10:24, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!” Not just for the rich guy, but for anybody. Peter, knowing that at least he walked away from family and a decent fishing business to follow Jesus, begins to wonder out loud if it was all for nothing. Jesus provides a strange reassurance – a promise of blessing both for the now and for eternity, but a promise “with persecutions” – the world will not receive you kindly if you follow Jesus. And then the final blow: “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
So, what of all our striving? Many who are first shall be last. The ones who accumulate and hoard the most shall be last. The one who dies with the most toys…shall be last. The one who claws and fights and gouges his way to the top against all those “losers”…shall be last. The one who crows about his or her own power or beauty or prowess…last. And the last shall be first.
But who are we? Are we willing to lose it all, whatever “it” is, for the sake of following Jesus? Or are we still trying to get to the top, to have it all, to know more than the next person or to have special status in some way? Are we too busy trying to be first to follow?
Dear Lord, deliver us.
Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns: “Eternal God of Time” (N.P.); “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise” (PH 265); “Lord, You Have Come to the Lakeshore” (PH 377); “O Jesus, I Have Promised” (PH 388)

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