Matthew 22:34-40, Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17
Martin Luther was a professor — a professor of Holy Scripture at the University of Wittenberg. On October 31, 1517, he attached (or nailed) a protest, of sorts, to the door of the castle church. He objected to a practice designed to raise funds for the church — which was struggling financially. The practice was the selling of indulgences. He wanted to start a discussion — among theologians —because he was deeply disturbed by the practice. Historian Owen Chadwick wrote, “It is evident that the writer’s heart is engaged as well as his head.” He went on to suggest that Luther expected the pope to agree with him, that the practice had issues. He, perhaps unwittingly, launched the Reformation. Chadwick noted that the time was ripe for such a reformation. The Christian Church of the Western Hemisphere was changed. The Protest (Protestant) denominations emerged. And, in response, the Roman Catholic Church itself was reformed.
The Reformation was 500 years ago. About 500 years before that, the church underwent change. Another historian, Williston Walker, wrote that famine and economic hardship launched a new religious fervor. “It was characterized by a strong sense of ‘other-worldliness’, of the misery of earth and the blessedness of heaven.” This piety cherished relics and pilgrimages. This was the era of the crusades.
Go back another 600 years and you find stories of Christianity spreading to new lands, particularly to Ireland because of the work of St. Patrick. In Ireland, a new form of monasticism took place that undergirded a missionary zeal.
Over and over the pattern repeats every 500 to 700 years. We can look back to the days of Jesus and before. Phyllis Tickle (who died in 2015) was one of the leading voices in what has been called the “emergent — or emerging- church movement.” Looking back at church history she said that it appears that there is a reformation, a transformation, every 500 to 700 years. The church is, or, more appropriately, God’s people are, remade, recreated.
When I started learning about the Reformation and the rise of Protestant-ism, I was taught the phrase that the church is reformed and always reforming. I found that phrase in a slightly different format this week. The church is reformed and always being reformed. It’s not a big difference. But, when we say that the church is always reforming it sounds like something we do, something for which we are responsible. And we know that change is no easy thing — particularly in the church! Major church fights have erupted over the color of walls or carpets. I met a mediator who worked with one church that was at war over silverware! Others have fought about landscaping. And, of course, there are battles over the form of worship and the music of worship. “We’ve never done it that way before,” is a common, familiar complaint. (If there’s one thing I appreciate about this congregation, it’s that I don’t hear that from folks here!)
Tickle and others from the emergent church movement suggested that we’re in the midst of one of those periods of the church being re-made. That’s why I chose the “being reformed” phrase instead of “reforming.” “Being reformed” might invite us to remember that this work is initiated by God. Our last hymn uses imagery from Isaiah and Jeremiah. Isaiah 64:8 says “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.” Jeremiah 18:6 says, “Can I not do with you O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.”
The church, Tickle wrote, periodically has to clean out its attic — or sanctuary! It has a rummage sale. Or, again, God periodically sweeps through and cleans things out. The church is called to reexamine what it believes and how it interacts with the world around it. It is called to look at the traditions that sometimes become little more than clutter that obscures what and who we are to be. I think it’s the learning channel that has, or had, a program about hoarders. Think about the way the church slips into the role of hoarding. We have our treasured traditions. Churches find it hard to let go of things because we remember who gave them. Our memories tie us to the past which sometimes carries such weight we can’t move into the future.
So, God sets things in motion. God starts the rummage sale.
In the book, The Great Emergence, Tickle noted that the Reformation is often referred to as the Great Reformation. She also said that the addition of the word “great” is relatively recent. It may be that the word ends up tying us to the past in a way that prevents us from moving forward. I did have someone tell me, once, that God spoke during the Reformation, bringing about Protestant Church. But, since then, God has been silent. The last word we have, the last word we need, therefore, can be found in the writings of those reformers from 500 years ago.
God quit speaking? What in the Biblical witness would make us think that God had said all there was to say? ..that the world is/was no longer in need of God’s redeeming, loving, hope-filled word?
We don’t live in the 16th century. The issues that confronted the church in those days are not the same as the ones we confront. Now, I don’t mean that there are no similarities. But the context is different. The changes in our own culture are challenging us. Old ways of doing things no longer work well. Our assumptions are often faulty. And the church has, in many cases, so fully aligned itself with power that we have lost the ability to see and respond to God’s concern for the outsider, for the poor, for the maligned, for those who are denied justice.
I read a reflection from a pastor who said that churches are shrinking because the message the world hears has little to do with the message of the gospel. A Pharisee asked Jesus, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said, You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
“Love God. Love neighbor.” “Love God. Love neighbor.” “Love God. Love neighbor.” That was Jesus’ message. It was a message he lived. He reached out to the despised — tax collectors and sinners. His inner circle of disciples included some of those despised. Women were among his supporters and he not only accepted their support, he treated them as those worthy of theological discussion. His ministry reached beyond the borders of his nation and his faith community. He healed the daughter of a Roman official. He made a Samaritan an example of faith.
It is such a simple message. Yet, it is a message that gets lost again and again and again. Luther objected to the practices of the church that sought the institution’s wealth and ignored the plight of the poor. Practices and attitudes that were founded on good intent had, through the years, developed a life of their own and become a means of oppression instead. The church needed God’s cleansing, God’s reformation.
It is no easy thing. Tickle wrote: “When Christians despair of the upheavals and re-formation that have been the history of our faith— when the faithful resist, as so many do just now, the presence of another time of reconfiguration with its inevitable pain — we all would do well to remember that, not only are we in the hinge of a five-hundred year period, but we are also the direct product of one. We need, as well, to gauge our pain against the patterns and gains of each of the previous hinge times through which we have already passed. It is especially important to remember that no standing form of organized Christian faith has ever been destroyed by one of our semi-millennial eruptions. Instead, each simply has lost hegemony or pride of place to the new and not-yet-organized form that was birthing.”
In other words, someday, our descendants in the faith will look back and see that we were being reformed, reshaped by God for the times in which we live. It is not that God is absent. It is not that God is angrily destroying what we have become. God is shaking things up so that we may more clearly see what it means to be God’s people in this world. God is shaking things up so that we may find new ways of loving God and loving neighbor. It couldn’t have been easy to live through that last Reformation. We have some glimpses of the turmoil. Luther didn’t intend to start a new denomination — but after the Roman Catholic Church’s response, he did — over time.
I often think about the fact that my seminary training was for a church instruction that no longer exists. Friday I was at a Sacred Boundaries workshop, one required by the denomination. The workshop is a response to the “sins” of clergy sexual misconduct and financial misconduct. I remembered advice, in seminary, from a professor who warned against sexual misconduct. “Never meet someone without the secretary in the building. And have a buzzer installed so that you can call the secretary if things get out of hand.”
“Secretary? What secretary?” I asked myself in my first church. The church could barely afford a pastor. I wasn’t serving in the institution she had expected us to encounter. That church institution is continuing to disappear. The norms of 50 years ago are not the norms of today. One church complained that we didn’t have the children and youth that the church had once had. I asked, “How many children did you have?” Having 3, 4 or more children was a norm. Many white middle class families today have 1 or 2. That was a reality in that congregation. It made the population smaller. A different world. Somehow, I don’t think it will work for the church to declare that we only accept families that have 3 or more children — so that we have a good sized children and youth program! Even the largest congregations have seen diminished youth programs.
It is not easy. But Psalm 90 reminds us. “God, you have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.” Our home is with God, in God. If God remodels, it is still our home.
D.H. Lawrence wrote:
All that matters is to be at one with the living God, to be a creature in the house of the God of life. Like a cat asleep on a chair at peace, in peace, and at one with the master of the house, with the mistress, at home, at home in the house of the living, sleeping on the hearth, and yawning before the fire.
Sleeping on the hearth of the living world, yawning at home before the fire of life, feeling the presence of the living God like a great reassurance, a deep calm in the heart, a presence as of the master sitting at the board in his own and greater being, in the house of life.
The upheaval tells us: we are being reformed. It is the act of love that God bestows on us.
I Thessalonians 1:1-10
“There are no atheists in foxholes.” Mark’s Sandlin’s response to this cliché is, “Really? There are atheists in church and you honestly think there are no atheists in foxholes? Look, I get that the point is supposed to be that when faced with death we all turn to God. However, not only is that simply not true for everyone when faced with death, it is really bad logic. In foxholes there are a whole bunch of people trying to stay alive and they pretty much don’t care what the other person believes about God. They just want to stay alive.”
“I get the point is supposed to be that when faced with death we all turn to God,” Sandlin said. I grew up hearing this cliché in public discourse. Maybe it’s not as prevalent today because our world is increasingly secular. This statement comes from a time when the majority of Americans were connected, in some way, with the Christian Church. So, the assumption was that when confronted by death, those who had wandered away from the faith felt the need to turn back.
Now, I can’t speak to the cliché’s validity in times gone by, but we don’t live in the world of my childhood. Many have lived their entire lives with little or no exposure to the world of faith. There was the young woman in my daughter’s high school who asked the librarian, at Christmas time, “Who are these three wise men?” About twenty years ago, those of us who plan worship were told that we could no longer assume that people in the pews would know the prayers and songs that many of us learned in childhood: the Lord’s Prayer, the Doxology, or Gloria Patri. At the same, for many, exposure to faith has left them scarred, with little interest in exploring or pursuing a relationship with God. The God they encountered through the church was judgmental. Some are so angry with God or the idea of God, that it becomes impossible to expect that, even faced with death, God would be sought.
Yet, there is an underlying message in this cliché. “You have to believe in God, at the right time, in order to be saved. You have to reach out to God or God will reject you.” It morphs into that works righteousness that so often permeates our approach to faith. “Do the work of believing so that God will notice you and save you.”
It’s tempting to assert that those facing death have had every chance, in their lives, to hear the good news and accept it and be saved. That’s often the message of the church. “It’s your responsibility. Make the right, the good choice to believe so that you will have eternal life.” It reminds me of a joke “credit card” a clergy friend had. It was the Heaven Express Card. The motto, written on the card, was “Don’t leave earth without it.” So, the church’s message is, no matter what you’ve heard from us, you had better accept God.
Isn’t it nice that we have no responsibility for conveying God’s love and mercy in ways that others can hear it? So, it doesn’t matter if what people have heard is that God hates them, or God isn’t concerned about their plight or the injustices they face, they had better get right with God. It’s their responsibility. It excuses us, as God’s people, from digging into the mess of human lives and being present in that mess — being Christ to those who suffer. We seek, instead, a sound bite faith, a linguistic formula that has been named, by Christianity, as a sign of faith.
The cliché does not acknowledge the modern reality that many, many in our own society have no real contact with the gospel. It does not acknowledge the reality that some in our society have heard such a corrupted gospel that they have no interest in encountering God.
“There are no atheists in foxholes.” The focus of that statement is on death. What will happen to you when you die? Are you going to heaven or hell?
I struggle with the idea that people should be frightened into faith. But, isn’t that sort of the message of the cliché? When terrified, people will find faith? I’ve told this story before of an elder who spoke to a class of teenagers, once, after one teen’s father was critically injured. “If you died today, would you go to heaven or hell?!” he thundered. “I think this was a good man, but you can’t tell if he was right with God. Get right with God so that you won’t end up in hell.”
At least he didn’t add, “And don’t forget, God is love.” There wasn’t much love in his message. There was lots of fear. I’m guessing the faith he had encountered led him to a faith based on fear, not awe/fear, but terror. And he shared that terror with teens. How often does the church claim to be speaking of God’s love, God’s love which triumphs over death, but, in reality, it speaks terror? Believe in God’s love or God’s going to send you to hell!
God is always seeking us. That’s a persistent Biblical message. God calls. God invites. God answers rejection with further invitation. That pattern is established in the Old Testament — the Hebrew Scriptures—and continues in the New. The gospel of Luke includes that wonderful story of the Father with two sons, the story we call the prodigal son. Both sons treat their father with disdain, shaming him in the community. But the father, adding to his public shame, reaches out to each to offer reconciliation and forgiveness. Jesus, through the gospel writer, gives us a glimpse of God whose love is so deep and so profound that it crosses every human boundary of expectation to offer reconciliation. When we call it the parable of the prodigal son, we focus on what the son did to reclaim his father’s acceptance. Scholar Andrew Bailey said that we miss the point. Yes, the son returned. But it was the father who ran to meet him — and offered him full reconciliation. This is not works righteousness where the son earned his way back into his father’s favor. He actually returned to be a paid servant. The father restored him to son-ship.
And God’s reconciliation is not merely a promise of life after death, it is a present gift and reality that invites us into God’s work in transforming a world that knows too much death, too much pain, too much condemnation. The letter to the Thessalonians opens with Paul’s celebration of their faith which was evident even in the midst of persecutions —evident in that they became examples of faith in a hostile world.
The church is always in danger of proclaiming a heavenly faith that is of no earthly good. Such a message empties the incarnation of its good news. Yes, there is in the life of Jesus a promise of life ever death. At the same time, that is not a “someday” promise, but a promise that death has already been overcome and that we have already begun to live that resurrection life — even in this world.
Sandlin’s reflection on this cliché began with an interesting statement, “There are atheists in church.” Really? Atheists? Call out the theological police! We’ve been invaded!
Yet, maybe, when we read the story of the Sadducees encounter with Jesus, we see the problem of having a church based on certainty. The Sadducees were confident in their theology. Their theology, derived from a portion of what we know as the Hebrew Scriptures, had declared that there was no resurrection. So, they challenged Jesus, creating a scenario, that in their minds, illustrated the absurdity of the notion of resurrection. Their theology had become, in some ways, a prison that isolated them from the people around them. They didn’t really tolerate questions. They approached Jesus to prove a point — their point. When the church quits encountering the world, except to declare what God’s truth is as we understand it, we are in danger of missing important elements of God’s word to us. Voices that question — not to prove a point, but to deepen awareness and grow — are a needed part of faith. Maybe, to an extent, we all need to be “atheists,” those who question, those who challenge assumptions and cliches, those who seek the faith that can speak to the pain, suffering and injustice that surround us.
Scholars say that, in this encounter, Jesus is not focused on what the resurrection is like. He emphasized God who is concerned with the living — that is, with the world which all inhabit.
“There are no atheists in foxholes.” It’s not a helpful cliché. It invites a works righteousness approach to faith —that one has to believe in a certain way to be saved. It assumes a knowledge of what is required to be accepted by God and given the gift of eternal life, a knowledge that we don’t fully have. It does little to speak to what faith should be about in this world so beloved by God. It can become an excuse for the church not doing what it should be doing — proclaiming the God of the living who seeks all, and loves all in foxholes, in hospital beds, in hurricane and wildfire devastated regions, in neighborhoods that live in fear and with ongoing violence. The promise of resurrection calls us into the midst of all the worlds death places and death attitudes to be Christ’s presence.