Tuesday, October 29, 2013

“A Great Tradition” - October 27, 2013

Texts: Joshua 3:7-17, Romans 3:19-28
Reformation Sunday 


In 1521, Martin Luther stood before the Holy Roman Emperor and other leaders of church and state to answer charges of heresy.  Johann von Eck, the brilliant Catholic theologian, confronted him:

Martin, how can you assume that you are the only one to understand scripture?  Would you put your judgment above that of many famous men and claim that you know more than they all?  Martin, answer candidly…do you repudiate your books and the errors they contain?
And suddenly the words were pouring forth from Luther’s lips:
Unless I am convinced by scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the word of God.  I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither safe nor right.  God help me, here I stand.  Amen.
Today is Reformation Sunday.  On October 31, 1517 Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg.  At the time, he wanted to spur conversation, to bring about renewal within the Roman Catholic church, but that act began what came to be known as the Protestant Reformation.  This is something most of us learned in history class somewhere, but why is it a big deal, and why would Baptists be interested in a day to remember and celebrate the Reformation?

Maybe we need to begin with what Reformation Sunday is not.  Reformation Sunday is not a day for Protestants to feel superior to our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters.  Luther protested practices and beliefs of the Church in his day, but he wasn’t the only one, and in the years following, there was a Reformation within the Catholic church.

We are observing Reformation Sunday because the Church is always in need of Reformation, and we need to be reminded of that.  In every age, the Church needs to hold itself up to the demands of the gospel and the needs of its culture and follow in new directions as God may lead.

Now, we are in our fall stewardship season.  Our theme is, “It’s a Great Day.”  A great day to be alive, a great day to be the church, a great day filled with possibility.  Last Sunday, we had our Great Day of Service, and it really was just a marvelous morning as we worked together to serve others – newcomers working alongside 50-year members, college students working alongside seniors, children making visits and singing and working on blankets, everybody making a contribution and enjoying being together.  Our service – the way we use our gifts and abilities and time – is a part of stewardship.

The question for today is, what does the Reformation have to do with stewardship? 

Well, this time of year we encourage folks to make commitments to support our church for the year ahead – to give financially to support our mission of worship and service and education and outreach and compassion.  We are asked to support our church, and that raises the question for us, just what kind of a church are we asked to support?  Just what kind of church are we?  These are not trivial questions, and they relate to stewardship.  We are not only stewards of our resources; we are stewards of a heritage, stewards of a tradition. 

Will Campbell died earlier this year at age 88.  He was a wonderful author and a self-described “bootleg Baptist preacher.”  If you remember the comic strip “Kudzu,” Campbell was the inspiration for the character Rev. Will B. Dunn.

He was raised a Southern Baptist in Mississippi and went to Yale Divinity School.  He returned to pastor a Southern Baptist church in Mississippi but found the going pretty tough.  His views on racial equality didn’t sit very well with folks.  He wound up becoming the chaplain at Ole Miss but was fired there, amid death threats, because he supported integration.  So he went to work for the National Council of Churches on a project to encourage minority voting and desegregation in the South.

Will Campbell helped escort the students who integrated the Little Rock Central High School and was the only white clergyperson present for the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership conference.  His ministry had become one of fighting bigotry, but one day he had a revelation from God that he himself was bigoted – he was bigoted against bigots - and in the years that followed he became kind of an informal chaplain to rednecks and Klan members.  He visited James Earl Ray in prison – the man who had shot his friend Martin Luther King.  So by now pretty well everybody hated him.

Many years ago when I was at Virginia Tech, the Campus Ministers Association had Will Campbell come and make a presentation on campus, and beforehand several of us had supper with him.  One woman asked him what he thought of the institutional church, which was kind of like throwing him a hanging curve ball—you just knew he was going to hit it hard.  But this is what he said: “The church is OK.  I don’t have any problem with the church.  Once you accept that the church is inherently evil, then, yeah, the church is OK.”

That raised a few eyebrows, as you might imagine, so he went on to explain what he meant by that.  The Church was an institution and like all institutions, he said, at some point the purpose of the institution becomes the perpetuation of the institution.  So instead of changing lives or ministering to people in need or fighting injustice or educating in the faith or building God’s kingdom, the main purpose of the Church becomes the Church’s survival - and that self-centeredness is sinful.  Will Campbell would sometimes say things for shock value, but I had to agree.  It is easy for the Church to lose sight of its purpose.

And that is why we are observing Reformation Day, to remind us of our purpose.  To remind us that the church is ever in need of reformation.  To call us to a renewed faithfulness. 

Our Old Testament lesson is the story of Joshua leading the people in to the Promised Land.  Moses had led them this far--he could see the Promised Land--but he didn’t make it there himself.  For that task, God had called Joshua.

Just as Moses had parted the waters and the Israelites had crossed the Red Sea on dry land into the wilderness, now they crossed on dry land through the Jordan River and into the Promised Land. 

The Israelites crossing the Jordan into the Promised Land is a witness to faith.  Taking over leadership after Moses couldn’t have been easy.  Moses left some pretty big sandals to fill.  But Joshua listened to God and trusted in God’s promise.

It wasn’t just Joshua.  The priests walked into the Jordan River carrying the Ark of the Covenant, and when the soles of their feet touched the water, the waters were held back.  They stood in the middle of the Jordan on dry ground while the people passed through, and in doing that they demonstrated faith.

And then the people showed faith.  The waters may have rolled back, but this wasn’t something that you saw just every day.  There was good reason for apprehension.  But they had faith in God.

Joshua leading the people to the Promised Land is a story of faith to move forward, faith to move on, even through deep waters, to the new places God leads us.  And that is no small thing, because it is so much easier to just stay where we have been.  Who knows what dangers may lurk on the other side of the river?  Who knows what difficulty we may encounter in crossing over?  And you know, it’s really not so bad here in the wilderness, and we are accustomed to it. 

Joshua and the Israelites had faith to move forward.  Enough faith to take a risk.  Remember, it was only after walking into the swirling waters that God held the waters back.

As Martin Luther reminds us, it all comes down to faith.  Sola fide was the byword of the Reformation.  Salvation is sola fide, by faith alone.   

Luther’s disagreement with the Church of his day had mostly to do with the belief that salvation depended not simply upon faith, but upon one’s merit.  Most people did not have enough goodness to make it to heaven on their own and had to spend time in purgatory, being refined by fire – pretty much literally.  But fortunately there were Saints of the Church who had excess merit—more goodness than they needed.  One could receive some of that excess merit for making a pilgrimage to a shrine or for particular acts of charity.  This was called an indulgence.

In time, indulgences were sold.  The Indulgence Sellers preached a fire and brimstone sermon, got the people worked up, and then offered a way out.  You could purchase indulgences.  “When a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs” was the jingle of the day.  An indulgence could be applied to one’s own account, as it were, or used to help free a loved one, maybe grandma or grandpa, from purgatory.

Maybe it was just a coincidence, but Indulgence Selling really took off as the Church was financing a new St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.  (See, the Reformation really was about stewardship.)

Martin Luther lived in this kind of religious climate.  He struggled all his life with bouts of depression; he questioned his salvation; he struggled with the medieval conception of Christ as a cold and calculating judge.  He feared the wrath and damnation of God - until he began to really study the scriptures.  He read Romans and discovered that “the just shall live by faith” and “a person is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”  Luther wrote: “I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely faith…I felt that I was altogether born again, and had entered paradise itself through open gates.”

Luther went on to translate the Bible into German, and the Luther Bible is to the German-speaking world what the King James is to the English-speaking world.  He was an ex-priest who married an ex-nun and together they had 6 children, and if that’s not Reformation then I don’t know what is.

Baptists did not descend from Martin Luther.  We came out of the Separatist movement in England sometime later and were part of the radical wing of the reformation.  (Maybe you didn’t know that Baptists are radicals, but we have been, from the very beginning!)  We have a spiritual kinship with Anabaptists who were part of the Reformation on the European continent – people like Christian Fankhuaser, my grandfather 14 generations or so back, in Switzerland.

He was persecuted for his faith – by other Protestants – because he didn’t baptize his children as infants.  He built a secret hiding place in the barn to hide from the authorities before he was finally arrested, imprisoned for a couple of years, and finally deported.  Our family had the great opportunity to visit that barn and hiding place – the barn and house are all one big structure - a few years ago.  The house was built in 1608, and something like my 13th cousin Simon and his wife Regula live there today, descendants of one of Christian’s sons who was not an Anabaptist and was allowed to keep the family farm.

The Baptists do not trace our history directly to Martin Luther, but we certainly share a reformation heritage.  Luther called the church to live by faith.  He taught the responsibility of each believer to read and interpret scripture as led by God’s spirit, and this is one of our core beliefs.

But more than any particular belief or doctrine or practice, it is important to remember our Reformation heritage because we need that same kind of spirit today.  The Church is continually in need of reformation.

When the Church has been at its best, it has been open to the leading of God, open to new directions and new ministries and new understandings.  It has lived out the conviction that “the just shall live by faith.”  It has been willing to “cross the Jordan,” to take risks, and to move on to the new places God leads us.

You know what?  This describes perfectly where we are today.  We are at a kind of crossroads, and the meaning and purpose of the Church in today’s world is very much in a state of flux.  

There are those who see the Church as a quaint throwback to a bygone era, if they even give the church a second thought.  Others see the Church as a bastion against reason and common sense – opposed to science, opposed to progress, opposed to rational thought.  Some see the Church as helping to promote the incivility and intolerance that is so rampant in our world, rather than helping to build community and bring reconciliation. 

The fastest growing group in this country terms of religious adherence is the Nones – those who claim no religious affiliation.  Increasingly, people describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”  That can mean a lot of things, some of which are very positive, but it is largely a reaction against the kind of self-centeredness and empire-building and accumulation of power and focus on self-preservation that Martin Luther and the Swiss Anabaptists and Will Campbell all protested in their own way.

This is a time of change, maybe even a time of upheaval, but also a time of great opportunity.  The Good News is: the Church has faced challenging times before.  This is nothing new.  And God continues to use fallible human beings - the church  to bring wholeness and healing and justice and community and reconciliation and salvation.  We know this.  We have experienced it.

We don’t know exactly what the church will look like – this church or the wider church – in 10 or 20 or 50 or 100 years.  But we are heirs to a great tradition able to change and innovate and follow God’s Spirit in new ways, in exciting ways, in life-giving ways.  And in the end, the just shall live – not by our intelligence or hard work or strategic planning or accumulated power – but by faith.  Amen.