Here are my thoughts for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, Reformation Sunday. I am preaching at Dover UMC, Dover Plains, NY this Sunday.
I recently completed reading Brian McLaren’s new book, “Everything must change.” It is an interesting book and I would encourage everyone to read it. What he writes speaks volumes about the future of Christianity and the church in its various denominational forms.
McLaren is associated with the post-modern or emergent church movement of today. This is the “new” label that is applied to churches today in an effort to show the public that church is “hip” or connected with the times. I have not quite figured out what exactly post-modern or emergent churches are, except that it is somehow a new form of worship. I sometimes get the impression that if you have a coffee shop associated with the church or if the church is associated with a coffee shop, then it qualifies as an emergent church. I think that the church and Christianity is much more than that.
The problem is that we often do not know what Christianity is or what the relationship of the church to Christianity really is. When I read and reviewed (http://heartontheleft.wordpress.com/2006/06/11/it-is-no-secret/) McLaren’s previous book, “The Secret Message of Jesus”, I was initially confused. What was the secret that McLaren was trying to tell us about? After all, everything that he wrote in that book was perfectly clear to me and I could not see how the message that Jesus brought to us two thousand years ago could be considered a secret. But, and this is a big but, when you hear the message of so many preachers and ministers today, you begin to understand why the message is a secret.
The primary message of many churches today is not the message that was presented some two thousand years ago. It has been subverted, distorted and hidden. The message of the church today has no relationship to the words Christ spoke in the hills of Galilee. The message brought forth today is no longer a message of hope and promise but condemnation and exclusion.
The message of the Bible is timeless; it is neither frozen in time nor does it bend with the thoughts and processes of society. Fundamentalists see God’s word as frozen in time and its message can only be interpreted in one way. Today, when someone says that they speak for God or they know what God wants us to hear, the chances are that they are only speaking for themselves and using the message of Christ for their own self-interest and selfish goals.
The image of the public church is described in today’s Gospel message. (Luke 18: 9 – 14) You have the Pharisee who comes to the temple and prays what I call the “self prayer.” He is not asking forgiveness for what he has done but rather justification. He has no concern for anyone other than himself. On the other hand, the tax collector recognizes that he is not worthy and he seeks forgiveness. The Pharisee stands where everyone can see him; the tax collector stands in the shadows, embarrassed to be there.
I came to the conclusion many years ago that the primary threats to the church were really not the people in the shadows but, rather, those modern day Pharisees who hold their lives up as exemplary and beyond reproach. I saw and continue to see those who see the church as their own personal showcase, places where they can laud their status and power over others.
I am not alone in this view of the public church. As I noted in my blog (http://heartontheleft.wordpress.com/2007/10/13/the-lost-generation/) two weeks ago, there is a report noting the decrease in young people coming to church. They see the hypocrisy of today’s church and saying that they do not want to be a part of it. People are leaving the church because they see the hypocrisy of the church and they do not know where to find the true message.
Today is Reformation Sunday. This is not a day that gets much attention in the United Methodist Church. From an historical standpoint, United Methodists tend to focus Heritage Sunday, that Sunday in April when we honor our heritage as members of the Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren Churches and the merger of the two denominations, and Aldersgate Day (May 24th) when we celebrate John Wesley?s “heart warming experience” at the Aldersgate Chapel in London. This experience was crucial to Wesley’s own life and it is the touchstone of the Wesleyan movement.
But I think that we need to also consider today as more than simply a date on the liturgical calendar. Reformation Sunday commemorates October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther’s posted his 95 theses or propositions on the church door in Wittenberg, Germany. Even though he was a Roman Catholic priest, Luther was prompted to do this by the practice of the Roman Catholic Church in those days to sell what were known as indulgences. People bought these indulgences from church authorities in the belief that such purchases would enable them to enter heaven more easily. The money raised was used by the authorities in ways that had little to do with the work of the church.
Luther had become alarmed by this practice because, through his study of the Bible, he had come to understand that God was a God of grace and love, One who reached out to His children, One who understood their fallen humanity and forgave them. Further, God promised eternity to all who had faith in Him.
Luther came to see righteousness as a relationship with God and one that could not be accomplished by anything that we do. Yes, God does demand moral purity from us; yes, our sin does earn us everlasting condemnation. But God Himself took on the flesh and bone of humanity through Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ died on the cross so that we with faith would not be condemned. God gives all who have faith in Jesus forgiveness and everlasting life.
In his study of the Bible, Luther came to have what he called his “tower experience”; an experience similar to Wesley’s experience in the Aldersgate Chapel some two hundred years later. He came to know God’s love included all, including himself. It was the same love that we understand the taxpayer received that day in the synagogue that was the central part of today’s Gospel reading.
Luther came to know that God’s righteousness was a gift from God for all who turned away from sin and entrusted their lives to Christ. God’s love for us was the gift that we have come to call grace. It was this understanding that would lead Luther to proclaim that God’s grace cannot be bought.
The sale of indulgences could be done because many people labored under the mistaken notion that righteousness was a state of moral perfection, a status that God demanded from us but that we, individually, were unable to obtain. If we are unable to obtain the perfection that God demands of us, then there is no hope in our lives. And those without hope will eagerly grab at anything that offers hope, no matter how slim or foolish the chance may be.
Luther was labeled a heretic for this act of defiance against the church of his time. When his preaching and opposition to the sale of indulgences began to affect the bottom line, the Church went after him. He received what was known as an “imperial ban”, an agreement between the Church in Rome and the Holy Roman Empire, the confederation of principalities and nations that preceded modern day Germany that stated that Martin Luther was to be killed on sight. (From http://markdaniels.blogspot.com/2005/10/why-is-this-called-reformation-sunday.html)
I have been told many times in my life that we are to make disciples for Christ. I have to agree that we should do so but we cannot do so by force nor can we do it as a means of subversion. You cannot say to a starving man that the bread you offer is theirs only if they accept Jesus Christ as their Savior. Oh, they will say what you want to hear, but how true will that confession be? It is noted that missionaries in China would give rice to the Chinese if they would become Christians. When the rice ran out, the converts left and became known as “Rice Christians.”
The second thing that I find interesting is that the sale of indulgences has not really stopped. If you were to travel through the various religious channels that reside on cable TV today, you would find preachers selling little scraps of prayer clothes or vials of holy water that will cure your ills and enable you to solve the problems of your life. Would people be willing to do this if the church’s message was the true message of Christ?
One of the reasons for the Methodist church is that we saw early on that hunger and poverty must be overcome before one’s heart is truly open to the Holy Spirit. And that is one of the things that McLaren is writing about in his new book. If we do not focus on the things that cause poverty, hunger, sickness, and terrorism, then the message that Jesus Christ brought to us is meaningless and lost.
While there are those who see the words of the Bible frozen in time, there are others who say that the Bible is flexible in what it says. They are not willing to make the choices required of them when answering the call to be Christ’s disciples. Though the crowds that followed Him were initially large, they tended to get smaller when they heard what was asked of them. The message of Christ is demanding but the rewards are plentiful.
There are many people today who are not going to like this message. They prefer that we blame poverty, sickness, illness and terrorism on sin and say that we must impose God’s kingdom on the people of the earth. Where Jesus called for us to make disciples of the people of the earth, I think that many ministers and preachers would have us make servants of the people of the earth. Christ did not come to establish God’s kingdom here on earth; rather, He came so that those who seek God will find Him through Christ and that the gates of the heavenly kingdom will be open.
It may be that we need another reformation in the church today. It would not be difficult. The one reason that I considered McLaren’s book so important to the future of the church is that it gives people the opportunity to see how changes can be made. It does not offer magic formulas that will change the church. But it gives the people the opportunity to seek the changes that they can make.
The words that Paul wrote to Timothy that we read this morning are not sad words. Yes, it is clear from the words that Paul knows that he is at the end of his missionary journey and life. But Paul is not sad that his own journey is ending. Rather, he sees the good in what he has done and he sees that, through Timothy, the work will continue.
There are probably two ways to read today’s Old Testament reading. (Joel 2: 23 -32) There will be those who see a correlation between what Joel is writing and his prophecies and the end times of Revelation. If we read it that way, then there is no hope.
But it can also be read as an announcement that there is a message of hope from God for those who repent and change their ways. But we must listen to the true message, not the self-serving message of charlatans and false prophets. We must recognize that repentance requires change and we must change if we are to see a fulfillment of the Gospel message.
In Paul’s letter to Timothy, he speaks of being an evangelist. (2 Timothy 4: 5) To Paul, an evangelist is one who equips and encourages believers to share the Good News. That is what we are asked to do today. If we are to see a new beginning today, we must be the ones who share the Good News that the sick will be healed, the hungry fed, the homeless will find homes, the naked shall be clothed, and the oppressed shall be freed.
We are called today to begin anew. We are called today to cast aside our old ways and open our hearts so that Christ can come in and we can begin a new life. We are called today to open our hearts and let the Holy Spirit empower our lives. In doing so, we can share the Good News and have that new beginning promised to us when the Gospel message was first heard two thousand years ago. It is a message that echoes through the ages and it will be up to us to see that it is carried further.