I am preaching this morning at Stevens Memorial United Methodist Church in Lewisboro, NY. Here are my thoughts for this morning, the 21st Sunday after Pentecost.
Today is called Reformation Sunday. This is not a day that brings gets much attention in the United Methodist Church. From an historical standpoint, we, as United Methodists, focus on two other Sundays. The first is Heritage 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. The second is Aldersgate Day on 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 became 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. He 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 with 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 that I think would be later matched by Wesley’s experience in the Aldersgate Chapel some two hundred years later. He came to know God’s love included all, including himself. He 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.
When Luther’s 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. (1)
There are two things that I find interesting in reviewing the history of Reformation Sunday. I did not know until my preparations for this sermon that Luther’s life was in danger; I did know or understood that he was labeled a heretic or one who perverted the faith. It may be that we don’t want to be reminded that the church, in whatever denominational form it may take, does not treat well those who speak out against the church.
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.
It may be that we need another reformation in the church today. . I am reminded of the Buffalo Springfield song from 1966,
There’s somethin’ happening here,
What it is ain’t exactly clear.
There’s a man with a gun over there,
Tellin’ me I gotta beware.
I think it’s time we stop,
Hey, what’s that sound,
Everybody look what’s going down.
We look around today and we see death, destruction, and despair. We see violence in the world and in our own cities. We see people who claim that there is no God because no God would allow such events to happen.
We read of authors who claim that there can be no God because everything can be rationally explained. For these individuals, there is no need for faith because there is nothing in which to have faith. But, as the writer of Hebrews, wrote, faith is a belief in things unseen. And those who do not seek God will not see God.
We hear and see preachers who proclaim that the death, destruction, and despair that are so much a part of this world today are a sign of God’s wrath for our sins. We see people who almost joyfully welcome the death and destruction because, for them, it marks the second coming of the Lord. It almost seems that these individuals rejoice when there is another event of cataclysmic proportions. Instead of working to stop the death, destruction, and despair, these individuals say there is no hope unless we create God’s kingdom here on earth.
These individuals see the death, destruction and despair of the world as a sign that we need to lead more pious lives. And leading such pious lives can only be accomplished through an imposition of God’s law. But this is the society of the Old Testament, a society so entangled in the law that it could not grow. It was a society that could not offer hope. The priests of that time were the priests that the writer of Hebrews warns us against in today’s Epistle reading. (2)
It should be no surprise that there is a close correlation between those who cling to a view of a secular kingdom on earth with its foundation in the Old Testament and to those with conservative political attitudes that fight vehemently against calls for change in the social, economic, and political structures today. It is a world in which God was available to only a select few and it is only those few who could meet God. To think of God as involved in the affairs of the world is utterly abhorrent. In this view of the world, God is isolated from the world and the world is without God – except, of course, for those who are possessors of the privilege. It is a world in which there is no promise for tomorrow. It is a world in which one cannot grow. It is world in which there can be no hope.
People will buy the trinkets; people will buy the little scraps of cloth because those selling such things are the only ones offering hope. Yes, it is a false hope but it is the only hope that many people see today. But it is not just the sale of these modern day indulgences that threatens the church today.
We live in a culture that emphasizes personal wealth and material prosperity. We seek to put our luxuries before other people’s necessities. Remember that Job has endured almost every possible calamity that we could imagine. He lost his property, he lost his children, he lost his wife and he lost his health. All of his friends proclaimed with the certainty of true believers that these calamities were the cause of Job’s sin; their responses were the responses of the present world.
We see and hear in churches today messages that speak to our private needs and desires, not the needs of the world. We hear messages about the importance of paying one’s bills on time, not about what it means for us that God in Christ became a human being. We have to realize that Jesus promised us enough to take care of our basic needs, not grant us prosperity. We do not need messages that proclaim that wealth will gain us entry into heaven; we need to hear that it is God’s grace that opens the doors of the Kingdom.
For Job’s friends, it did not matter that Job was a righteous man; he must have done something so incomparably horrible to bring about God’s wrath. But Job would not hold to that thought; in fact, Job demanded to see God and Job demanded an explanation from God. Job went looking for God. In the end, Job comes to realize that a true understanding of God was beyond his powers. (3) It is a realization that comes from seeing and encountering God, not from some rational explanation.
Like Job, we want the answers to the questions. But we are not necessarily willing to seek God to gain the answers; if gaining the answers means giving up all that we have, we are like the rich young ruler who wanted to follow Jesus but not give up his possessions. We walk away from Jesus, perhaps to someone with a softer message.
In a world so full of death, destruction, and despair, it is quite easy to lose hope. And when you lose hope, it is quite easy to grab on to whatever comes by that looks like hope.
We are reminded that Christ came to this world to offer hope to all. But it was not a hope that comes through the present age. Any hope that is based on society’s view of the world is a hope locked into the present. It is a false hope because there cannot be a tomorrow.
A world without hope is a static world. It is a world in which things do not change. Society does not change, thoughts do not change, and churches do not change. But in Christ we see God, not as some static figure of history but as living presence. God is found in the openness of the world, not in the static, timeless world of society. Jesus changed the way we should see life.
Christ came as a servant, not as a master. He came not as a revealer of some ideological system but as one who gave Himself in such a way that He affirmed the need for human freedom and decision. He came as one who was prepared to risk His truth and His life within the openness of this world. He refused to identify Himself through an open display of power but the manner in which He lead His life.
If it were possible for the blind man on the side of the road to speak to us today, he might speak of the lack of hope that was in his life before Jesus walked by. Remember that his friends commanded him to be quiet as Jesus was approaching. But the blind man would not be quiet because he knew that Jesus was the true offer of hope. It was his faith in Jesus that enabled the blind man to see. (4)
We have a great opportunity before us today. We have the opportunity to bring back hope to a world that is quickly becoming devoid of hope. Instead of a world that is Christian in nature, we should be looking for a world in which Christians live. We cannot create a world in which our spiritual lives and secular lives are separate lives, for to do so is to create a world without God and leave God without the world. Rather than providing society with stability and unity through the imposition of some metaphysical formula or the imposition of some religious or institutional means, we should accept the responsibility to witness for Christ by pointing out his presence as He works in this world.
Instead of seeing the world as one that requires Biblical faith to fight society, we should learn to read the story of the Bible with new eyes, eyes of the blind man, and gain a new understanding of the world around us. This new vision will enable us to understand that the word “truth” in Hebrew means that which is dependable and reliable rather than that which can be rationally placed in any system of thought. God is true because God does what He says He will do. He becomes known as God not because we organize Him into a total system of understanding but because of what He has done and what He will do.
This new vision, which we gain because Jesus Christ became the high priest, allows us to see the world not in biblical revelation of God but in the living God of the present time. And when we see God as living in the present instead of the past we see God calling us to respond to the new possibilities of life, towards the new possibilities of an open community of God.
Jesus spoke of living as a servant first. He viewed others with kindness and compassion. He commanded us to do likewise. Kindness and compassion are not theoretical principles that we reflect upon and then apply to the world; kindness and compassion are the very principles that we are to live by. They are the ways that the world is reformed. Those who puff themselves up or belittle someone cannot truthfully proclaim the Gospel because they no longer live the Gospel.
The challenge for you today is to see the empty Cross, to see the empty tomb and to open your hearts to the power of the Risen Savior. The challenge is for you today to open your hearts to the power of the Holy Spirit. The challenge is one that has been given countless times before today and will be given countless times after today.
Remember when John the Baptist was arrested and was awaiting his execution, he sent his disciples to Jesus and asked if He, Jesus, was the Messiah? What was Jesus’ reply? It was, “tell him what you see, that the lame walk, the blind see, the deaf hear, and the sick are healed.” Tell him that there is hope.
And remember the women at the well? What did she say after her encounter with Jesus? Remember how she ran and told all of her friends and neighbors to come and see this man who gave her hope and forgave her of her sins.
And remember that Sunday some two thousand years ago when Mary Magdalene and the other women came to the tomb? Remember how the angel told them to go and tell the disciples what they saw, that Jesus was not in the tomb.
It has and it will always be, “go and tell others what you see.” And when you do, when you meet that challenge that is put before you today, others will see in you the Risen Christ. And when you meet the challenge, others will see that there is hope in the world, a hope found in the power of the Christ, our Lord and Savior.
(2) Hebrews 7: 23 – 28
(3) Job 42: 1 – 6, 10 – 17
(4) Mark 10: 46 – 52