Joel 2: 23-32; Luke 18: 9-14
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
October 27, 2013 – Reformation/Reconciliation Sunday
Earlier this week, I was driving on Main St. with the intention of doing an errand. As I was trying to find parking, and driving around the block, I saw a young man holding a large sign, as big as a sail for a small boat. He was standing on the sidewalk near the green on Delaware Avenue. His sign read on one side, “Turn to Jesus, not ‘churches’”, with ‘churches’ in quotes; the other side read “Come to the Living Jesus – ‘churches’ are a joke”.
Now I have to admit my heart stung a bit at the words “‘churches’ are a joke”. It’s my first week on the job, and everything is new. I feel as though I am making my way out of a cocoon into the world. And I am a curious person. After all, maybe he could be part of some post-emergent group, a get-back-to-the-original-Jesus movement, ‘spiritual but not religious’. So I walked over to where he was standing.
Hardly anyone was stopping to engage him in conversation. Most people just walked on by or crossed the street. I greeted him and asked him what his message was. He told me that Jesus cannot be found in the church, that churches are corrupting the message of Jesus by instituting a system of salvation, and by that he meant the prayer by which we must admit that Jesus is our personal Lord and Savior. He told me that all that is necessary is to spend time alone reading the New Testament and the words of Jesus, that Jesus is alive, is real, and that Jesus wants our hearts.
Now some of that I could get with. Yes, the Church with a big ‘C’ has done much over the centuries to warp Jesus’ message of love, compassion, forgiveness, and justice. Many people have left church because they have been hurt or some would say because of the apparent hypocrisy of its members. But I also wanted to present another point of view to him, because like any human being who knows with all certainty that they are right, he was generalizing.
So I stuck my foot in it and introduced myself as “Reverend” Cynthia Robinson (something I rarely ever do), pastor at the New Ark United Church of Christ down on Main Street. Go ahead: shake your head and groan, put your face in your palms, roll your eyes. I told him that the church saved my life, a particular church that he knew nothing about; a group of people who showed me who Jesus is and that he loves not only me but everyone unconditionally.
Then he started in on me like any reformer would. The church cannot save you; only Jesus can. You have no authority over anyone. By your own words you have condemned yourself. Only Jesus can save. I tried to engage him around community, that the church is a community where we come to know the living Jesus. I asked him if he had community—friends, people he studied the Bible with. He shook his head ‘no’, telling me that there was no one who sponsored him, that he travels the country and the world, telling people about the living Jesus. After a time he at least shared his first name with me: Abraham.
After we had parted ways, and I was driving down S. College Ave. I saw another young man holding another similar large sign. Of course Abraham does not work alone. Like any good follower of Jesus, he has a compatriot, someone with whom to share the difficult yet joyful path of discipleship. And maybe a network of some kind printing the tracts he was handing out.
After some research on the internet, I learned that Abraham is part of a family of eight, the Woronieckis, who travel the world sharing their message of sola scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia, solus Christus and soli Deo Gloria: Scripture alone, faith alone, grace alone, Christ alone, and glory to God alone. Though my friend Abraham would probably not use these terms, like Martin Luther before him, only these can save, only these have the power to transform a human life. And so thus began the Great Reformation roughly 500 years ago.
Many scholars are declaring that every five hundred years or so, not only Christianity but the western world goes through what Anglican bishop Mark Dyer calls a giant rummage sale—tectonic shifts in politics, culture, economics, society, and religious belief, practices, and organization. In 1517 it was the Great Reformation; 1051, the Great Schism between eastern and western Christianity; roughly 500 years before that, the Fall of Rome, the papacy of Gregory the Great and the Benedictine Rule of monastic life; and then the Great Transformation, when we moved from before Christ into the common era. The time we are living through now is being called by some as the Great Emergence.
Author and Anglican Phyllis Tickle writes that every time there has been a gigantic shift in thinking and organization of western Christianity and civilization, there has been a central question: by what authority do we live? At the heart of Luther’s reformation it was the Bible. The Bible, not the Church, not the priests, was the authority in a Christian’s life.
In today’s world the Bible no longer holds such pride of place. In fact there are accepted practices in the Bible that we now have deemed unacceptable: slavery, the inequality of women and children, the exclusion and denigration of love between same-gender persons. The dominant Christian, primarily white voice in this country will no longer be the majority in a few short decades. We are a nation, we are a world of many voices, many understandings of how to navigate this ocean of tremendous diversity in which we are all one. And most of the time, we tend to think our way, our view is right.
In this morning’s gospel lesson, Jesus tells a story to us, about us, who trust in ourselves more than we trust God’s saving grace. We cannot receive the over-abundant pouring-out from God that the prophet Joel describes if our heads are upright with solely our own sense of what is righteous. When we are bowed in humility, trusting not only our own understanding but relying on God’s grace, it is then that we are drenched in God’s love, soaked in God’s gift of self-acceptance, and we can be filled to overflowing with compassion for every sister and brother, every creature on this mystery-suffused earth. It may not be sola scriptura anymore, but we do not live solely for ourselves. If the only answer we have now to the question ‘By whose authority do we live?’ is “Not solely my own, not solely our own”, we may be, maybe, not far from the kingdom.
And so relying on God’s grace, what are your hopes and dreams for this church, for the Church, for the world, as we wait and see and work through this Great Emergence that we are living through? What about church do you want to see into the future? What do you think needs to be left on the table at the giant rummage sale? What do you celebrate about the church right now as it is? What would be the 95 tweets of the New Ark United Church of Christ? To put things into perspective, Luther’s 95 theses were actually a notice to the Church regarding what needed to be discussed, the beginning of a conversation that has lasted almost 500 years. So let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
To get you started, I asked a few people these questions and I heard these responses:
• Should we grow larger?
• We need new energy.
• How can we be authentic and trust each other?
• More opportunities for outreach.
• How can we resolve the question and come to understand what is the role of children in church?
• Wouldn’t it be nice to not have to beg for CE teachers every week?
(The following is from the children and the congregation gathered this morning, 10/27/13):
Why do I love my church (from the children):
1. The people.
2. God is here.
3. Because my Mom loves to come here.
5. Youth group.
And the congregation's responses to the questions above, including "Why do I love my church?"
1. That we care for the Earth.
2. We use inclusive language.
3. Make sure our hearts are in the right place.
4. We are not only for ourselves, but for our community.
5. We are a voice for justice.
6. Love our neighbors, which means everyone.
7. Love that we share ideas.
8. We need energy to do new things.
9. Our church is a place for spiritual growth.
10. Music is very important.
11. We support each other and the youth.
12. We explore questions, not always rushing to answers.
13. We're a family.
14. The congregation is the village in which we raise our children.
15. We want to grow with young families.
16. Build bridges with differences.
17. Live God's extravagant welcome.
18. We teach Our Whole Lives curriculum.
19. God is still speaking.
20. There have been times when we have not supported each other as we could have. We can always improve.
21. Walk the walk - we try to practice what we preach.
22. Important that we communicate clearly with one another.
23. Be authentic.
24. People feel truly cared about.
25. Do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God. (Micah 6: 8)
Above all, let us remember that whatever we do, we do so in covenant with one another and with God. And so I’d like conclude with some words taken from scripture that are part of the United Church of Christ’s inclusive order for marriage:
“Be merciful in all your ways, kind in heart, and humble in mind. Accept life, and be most patient and tolerant with one another. Forgive as freely as God has forgiven you. And, above everything else, be truly loving. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, remembering that as members of one body you are called to live in harmony, and never forget to be thankful for what God has done for you.”
And may God’s people say: Amen.