Each year, at this time, we celebrate a holiday on October 31st and it is… well its not just Halloween. On the eve of All Saints’ Day (which we’ll celebrate next Sunday), we commemorate Reformation Day. It marks the anniversary of a beginning of a reform movement within the larger church, when Martin Luther posted 95 thesis (or suggestions for reform)… and this action, because of so many other events happening in that turbulent moment in history, began a seismic time of change in the church. Some people believe that right now, 500 years later, we’re in another time like that…
You’ve noticed. Think of someone in your life (maybe you) who isn’t finding relevance or value in church participation. What do they say about that? What is it exactly that they are opting out of? How does this make you feel?
Christian author Phyllis Tickle noticed that every 500 years or so, it seems like God has (or God’s people have?) a big rummage sale: A lot of things that the church used to see as central are no longer needed and are “put out on tables in the driveway” in order to make room for a new day. Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther nailed 95 Theses to the front door of the church. Five hundred years before that, the Great Schism happened, and the Church split into East (Constantinople) and West (Rome). Five hundred years before that, the monastic movement brought new life to the Church; and 500 years before that, it was JESUS.
So, here’s a big question: What if the changes in attendance and priorities aren’t about the church failing or society going bad; what if God is simply doing something new?
If that was true, if this is another moment of Reformation, then this is a terribly exciting time to be church. It’s a time to turn off the auto-pilot button and be curious. It’s time to listen and learn together. What is God up to? Churches that are curious and connected to God, each other, and the neighborhood are the churches that are vital. Life-giving. Even life-changing.
The prophet Jeremiah imagined a future time—that there would come a time when the law of the Lord would be inside people, written on their hearts/minds… God and people would be intimately connected. From the least to the greatest, all would know God because God forgives and remembers their sin no more.
When I interview confirmation students, this is what they think God is about… God is mercy. God is forgiveness. God is love.
But… God is also mystery. There’s a lot of things we’re not really sure about and there are not lots of places to explore our questions… but we do have ideas about God’s actions.
We also wonder about what God requires of us. On one hand, we imagine that God expects us to live lives of serving others, and we love that baptismal promise “to work for justice and peace in all the earth,” starting in our own schools and work places… on the other hand, we know how we fall short. In Confirmation class this week, the topic was about how we are both sinners and saints. Not like 50% one and 50% the other. Not 80%-20%. But we are 100% both… paradoxically, total sinner, by that we mean we’re capable of horrible things & even if we seem like pretty good people, we fall short either because of what we do or what we don’t do…
But we are also 100% saint (before we die even, before the church declares us saints) because of what God has done for us, because of how God sees us. As Paul wrote to the Romans, “We see that people are acceptable to God because they have faith, and not because of any good works.” This was an insight that completely changed Martin Luther—who struggled for his whole early life with the sense that he could never be good enough for a judging, holy God, and finally realized that the gift was that God makes the first move, God is mercy, God is compassion.
Because of God’s deep, abiding love, because of God’s choice for us, we are freed to be salt, to be light… to finally be actually free.
As Jesus invites, “If you continue in my word, your are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
Now, depending on our own personal histories, perhaps we would say to Jesus with the Pharisees in the story in John… “Um, Jesus, we don’t really need you… we’ve always been free.”
That’s very ironic coming from the Pharisees, since the story of Moses leading the people out of slavery is absolutely a key part of their community history…
And, if we dig a little deeper, slavery is absolutely a key part of our stories. Whether that’s the reality of slavery that has made the U.S. what it is today, or if it’s more mental or metaphorical kinds of slavery (addictions or misplaced loyalties)… we all have experienced being enslaved to something or someone, we all have a need for freedom.
Think of it… there are so many times when we don’t feel free… even here, even now…
But Jesus invites us through all the changes and chances of life, to follow, to get on board, to continue in Christ’s word, to know real truth, to actually be free.
When have you been really free?
Have you ever? Have you ever known deep in your gut that there is enough, God has provided more than enough, and it’s just about the will/faith to believe it?
It’s kind of like in one of the old adventure movies where someone has to take a step out into the dark abyss on pure faith and… there, a step appears.
Here’s the thing… if this is a time of great Reformation once again, that means there are no experts anymore about exactly what we need to do next. What the most faithful next step would be, what exactly God intends for us to do…
But the good news is this. God equips, inspires, and calls us to go out together where there aren’t any experts anymore.
God’s abundance isn’t just in what we have, but in what we can do for each other, and in every part of our life together, we have the freedom to set things down or take things up, praying that God’s Spirit in the middle of us will help us know together the opportune, “just right” times for laying down certain things and taking up others. Some days, we get to joyfully witness people like Will, Erin, Noah, Emma, and LeighAnna Affirming their Baptism, and new members joining in this ministry, by their actions saying that we are one in this faith adventure. Other days, we may be less certain about what we have to celebrate together…
But one of my colleagues wrote this: “If I was an author, the title of my book would be Trust How God Works. God comes to us in God’s Word. Jesus sneaks in and forgives us in the bread and wine. The Spirit blows new life into us in the waters of baptism.”
And because God does all this, it may be that we find ourselves being salt—salt that seasons the whole batch of dough. We might find ourselves glimpsed as light—for those who need hope in the midst of fear, grief, and despair.
If Jesus makes you free, you will be free indeed. Free to gather together, free to live fully, free to serve, free to advocate, free to transform the world.
In just a moment, we’ll sing together… calling out again God’s vision of Christ as Tree of Life. For now, let it be our prayer:
Christ, you lead and we shall follow, stumbling those our steps may be;
one with you in joy and sorrow, we the river, you the sea.
Light of life beyond conceiving, mighty Spirit of our Lord;
Give new strength to our believing, give us faith to live your word.