Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Good News

Psalm 146
January 15, 2017
Eight years ago, on the Sunday prior to inauguration day, I preached a sermon entitled “Inaugurating Hope.” I was, I confess, tempted to call this morning’s homily “Inaugurating Fear.”
But then I recalled that on that Sunday in January, 2009, I noted the same Psalm we recited together moments ago, with its timeless reminder that the plans of princes and presidents are, like those of all mortals, as fleeting as breath. We did not elect a messiah in November, 2008, nor in November, 2016. We did not elect a savior or, even, a ruler.
Indeed, last fall we elected a frail and broken human being to the office of chief executive; just as this nation has done 44 times before. So, no matter whom you voted for, whom you longed for, whom you feared, or whom you loathed, hear this good news: 
“Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them.”
There is more than enough fearfulness in our current context, but there is also more than more than enough good news.
As I have noted and will continue to note throughout this 500th anniversary year of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, we are living through a period of rapid and fundamental change whose breadth, depth, and speed would have shocked Martin Luther. The week which sees the peaceful transfer of power in the country that proudly calls itself the world oldest democracy is the perfect time to acknowledge that political systems around the world are in turmoil and flux, and democracy is threatened on many fronts.
When voting rights are under assault in dozens of states, big money dominates our politics at all levels, and voters reject one party’s nominee for president because they don’t trust her while electing a man whose own ethics are, at the very least, highly questionable, it’s not difficult to see why many feel that democracy is also threatened right here at home.
The news from across the river this week has been almost uniformly ugly – even tawdry. It is also deeply troubling. I cannot see any of it as good, and it portends a challenging season to come. To the extent possible, I do not make that assessment as a proud liberal, but rather as a committed citizen. The state of the nation’s politics is not good.
I could point the finger at particular contemporary politicians, but, instead, let’s point back a ways – a long ways – and place some blame on Martin Luther, himself. For, you see, there was always a shadow side to the impulses given voice and power through the Reformation. As Texas writer Jonathan Malesic noted for Religion Dispatches this week,
The sovereignty of individual conscience, awakened by Reformation-era distrust of knowledge experts backed by political power, was an essential component of the revolutions that created modern democracy. But that same sovereignty [of individual conscience] now threatens to fracture our democratic polity. Seemingly every sphere of knowledge expertise—science, the news media, and even the national intelligence services—is currently distrusted by those on the political right. They have ridden that distrust to power on every level of government.[1]
In other words, if you say that “God alone is Lord of the conscience,” you may just open the door to the inevitable argument that one perspective is as valid as another no matter the foundation or lack thereof, no matter what powerful institution supports any particular perspective on any given matter.
Nevertheless, even though Reformation impulses have their shadow sides, the good news remains: we have in those same impulses great resources for the present time; those resources also provide guidance to the church in its contemporary circumstance. In other words, we have what we need to do the work to which we are called, and that is very good news, indeed.
Let’s take a look. In fact, let’s start with that foundational principle of Presbyterian polity, articulated prior to the founding general assembly of our predecessor denomination way back in 1788: “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men [sic] which are in anything contrary to his [sic] Word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship.”
That principle led our Presbyterian forebears to proclaim abiding support of religious freedom, and to the separation of church and state. It also led them to place deep faith in the power of people to make decisions through processes that guaranteed protection to minority voices while assuring that the majority will govern the body.
All of that, it seems to me, continues to make good sense. But notice the appeal is not merely to individual human conscience, but, rather, to God. Thus it matters deeply how we understand the Divine.
Having begun with Psalm 146, let’s return to that text. What is the nature of the God in whom we are to put our trust? The psalmist proclaims that God is the one
who keeps faith for ever;
   who executes justice for the oppressed;
   who gives food to the hungry.
who sets the prisoners free;
   who opens the eyes of the blind.
who lifts up those who are bowed down;
   who loves the righteous.
who watches over the strangers;
   and upholds the orphan and the widow.
If that is the God who is the lord of individual conscience then justice, human freedom, liberation, and well-being seem to be God’s priorities. In the gospels, we see these priorities made flesh in the person of Jesus. As we contemporary Presbyterians confess in our Brief Statement of Faith, this “Jesus proclaimed the reign of God: preaching good news to the poor and release to the captives, teaching by word and deed and blessing the children, healing the sick and binding up the brokenhearted, eating with outcasts, forgiving sinners, and calling all to repent and believe the gospel.”
The church is called to give flesh to that same calling in its own time. This side of the beloved community, the reign of God is always incomplete, thus the prophetic role of the church, in every time and place, is to call political leaders to account when their policies or behaviors do note advance the cause of justice, freedom, liberation, and human well-being. The prophetic role of the church is the resist all that stands against that cause, and to stand in solidarity with those who are victims of injustice, whose well-being is under threat.
This prophetic role is not merely that of critic. We are not the ones who simply complain about the plumbing in, oh, I don’t know, places like Flint, perhaps. We are the ones charged with calling for justice to roll down like a mighty water. We are not called to complain about the flatness of the bread, but rather to be its leaven. We are not called to note the darkness and be bitter, but rather to be a light in the darkness.
In other words, we are called to give voice to a vision of hope, and to call power to bear upon that vision. We are not called to complain about the leader’s lack of vision; we are called to provide the vision for where there is no vision the people perish.
We have some difficult days ahead of us, but we have, also, a great gift to offer: the gift of love. For what else is our ultimate calling as followers of Jesus than to offer to the world our love?
I find the confluence of Inauguration Day and the King Day holiday instructive. In the days just before we witness the transfer of American power, we celebrate our finest critic of that power. Dr. King understood well the difficult weave of power, justice, and love. As he said toward the end of his life, “What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”
Followers of Jesus in every moment are called to exercise just such power as we work to do justice, to make peace, to welcome the stranger and care for the least of these our neighbors, to bind up the broken, to comfort the brokenhearted, and to love one another always.
This remains our calling, and our present circumstance demands renewed vigor and focus such that we recognize in this moment the kairos time of God’s eternal hope, that we give that hope voice and substance, and that, hearts filled with God’s hope, we lift every voice and sing.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The True Kirk

John 10: 5, 27-28
The Scotts Confession, from chapter 18
January 8, 2017
Ah, those Scotsmen of the 1500s knew how to talk about their opponents, eh? The “horrible harlot, the church malignant” – now that’s a confession of the faith a true Scot can get behind!
Sometimes it’s fun to step into the way-back machine! And pretty soon I will have said this often enough that almost everyone here will recognize the way-back machine as the context for much that we talk about together this year. But the year has barely begun, so it’s still necessary and worth saying: 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the beginning of what we now call the Protestant Reformation in western Europe.
The Scots Confession, written in part by John Knox – the father of Presbyterian tradition – and ratified by the Scottish Parliament in 1560, emerged in the midst of the ongoing Reformation.
We are a church, not a college history class. Why, you rightly ask, do these roadside historical markers from Europe of the 16th century matter to us North American Christians of the 21st century?
As Oxford historian Diarmaid MacCulloch writes in the introduction to his magisterial history of the Reformation, “American life is fired by a continuing energy of Protestant religious practice derived from the sixteenth century. So the Reformation, particularly in its English Protestant form, has created the ideology dominant in the world’s one remaining superpower.”[1]
At a moment when everything in American life – including that foundational ideological impulse – is unsettled, it’s critical to understand how we got here. I don’t know if it’s true that those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it, but I do believe that if we don’t know how we arrived where we are then we’ll make lousy decisions concerning where we want to go from this point.
Life in Western Europe 500 years ago was far more unsettled – and far more dangerous – than 21st-century American life. While it was not quite Hobbesian, it was often nasty, brutish, and short. Life expectancy at birth in 1500s Europe was about 30 years. If you avoided war, disease, and giving birth, you’d probably make it to about 70. That was, of course, a big if. Infant mortality, maternal mortality, widespread disease were the norm.
In that context, how to get to heaven was a pressing existential concern. After all, when so many lives were cut so short and the work for those who lived longer than their life expectancy at birth was usually harsh and often brutal, it’s not difficult to imagine that human beings longed for something more than what this mortal coil had to offer.
The church offered salvation – eternal life beyond the sickness and strife of this one. It also claimed for itself the role of gate keeper. That is to say, the church proclaimed as an essential tenet of the faith that the church itself was the only way to the eternal salvation promised by the faith. Clever marketing under the guise of theological conviction? Perhaps.
When your eternal salvation was your key concern and receiving it depended upon your church membership, it was crucial to be part of the true church and not some false and pale facsimile. Thus the various reformers – from Luther to Calvin, Zwingli to Knox, Anabaptists to Moravians – as well as the counter-reforming Roman Catholic bishops and popes – all made claims to the truth of their own ideas about church.
Often, in their claims, they cited Jesus’ words from the gospel of John: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” If, as both scripture and the church had proclaimed, the church of Jesus Christ is the body of Christ in the world, then the true church was the true body, and true believers would follow faithfully.
Ah, but what is truth?
The various reformations and counter-reformations pointed to various practices and beliefs to stake their various claims to truth, but for those who led what came to be called the Reformed Church – in whose line we stand – church discipline and right administration was a consistent through-line. It is not the sole or even central tenet of Reformed faith, but it has always been a significant part of the tradition.
We Presbyterians often joke about our preoccupation with being “decent and in order in all things,” but the underlying truth is that we value order in the life of the church. The original impulse toward church order arose in response to widespread corruption in church leadership, but it also reflected a fundamental conviction about the nature of human life and the reality of God.
In Calvin’s famous phrase, the Reformers believed in the total depravity of human kind and the grace of God. Orderly structures in the church are necessary because absent them human beings will, in their depravity, pursue narrow self-interests over the best interest of the community.
We may not like old John’s word choice these days, but truth still lingers in them. We speak more often now of human brokenness than we do of depravity, and we celebrate the belief that our brokenness is not the whole story of who we are.
Nevertheless, we hold on to the necessity of ecclesiastical discipline and order because we still recognize the danger of unchecked power within any human system. It’s not like no human beings prior to the Reformation understood this, but the reformers’ emphasis on the universality of human brokenness and the logical necessity of checks on human power stood in stark contract to an ecclesiastical system with an infallible pope and a political system that rested upon the divine right of kings.
You can see where that led, right?
Today, five centuries into the whole reformation enterprise, we face a different set of concerns.
The global wars and genocides of the past century have raised a new set of existential concerns as well. In place of a deep desire for eternal life in the face of limited expectations for long life or the inescapable drudgery of brutal toil, today we experience a widespread desire for deeper meaning in the face of the capriciousness of life lived with expectations of much longer spans and far great human freedom. When meaning is the deepest concern, what practices and convictions should shape our faith lives and communities? What implications would such practices and beliefs have for other systems – political, social, economic ones?
Reformation – or whatever we come to call this season of profound and global change – does not mean throwing out everything. It was no accident that we focused on church order on a day when we elected, ordained, and installed elders to lead this congregation. Even if you believe more in original blessing than in original sin, that doesn’t mean that any one of us is perfect, that any one of us is immune from temptation, that any one of us is infallible.
Whatever we are, a people who long for connection and for love, and for our voices to be heard. Let us lift our voices and express those longings in prayer.

[1] Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation (New York: Penguin, 2003) xxii.

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Always Being Reformed

Micah 6:6-8; Genesis 1 & 2, selected verses
Jan. 1, 2017
The secular calendar reads New Years Day, so Happy New Year to one and all. Let’s hope it’s a good one!
The liturgical calendar turned more than a month ago, and it begins anew in the weeks prior to Christmas with a season of waiting, of preparing, of longing, and of expectation.
So, this morning, as we walk through the gate of the secular calendar’s new year, I want to pause for a moment and cast a gaze back before looking ahead. I tend to do that every year as the calendar winds down – writing a Christmas letter to family and friends, pondering the perennial question of “resolutions,” and so on.
But this year I’m looking a bit further back. OK, way further back. Five hundred years back, in fact.
This year – 2017 – marks the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. More accurately, come October 31, 2017, we will mark the 500th anniversary of the 95 Theses that Martin Luther sent, on October 31, 1517, to the Bishop of Mainz. That thoroughly academic disputation about the selling of indulgences launched what we now call the Reformation. Though it’s worth noting that, as Oxford historian Diarmaid MacCulloch put it, “there were very many different Reformations.”
We Presbyterians stand in the line of one particular stream of that broad river of reform that swept across western Europe in the fifteen hundreds.
Why should any of this matter to us beyond idle historical curiosity?
Well, as Anglican Bishop Mark Dyer observed early in the present century, “about every 500 years the church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale.” The late Phyllis Tickle, in her landmark book, The Great Emergence, wrote, “Like every ‘new season,’ this one we recognize as the Great Emergence affects every part of our lives. In its totality, it interfaces with, and is the context for, everything we do socially, culturally, intellectually, politically, economically.”[1]
Looking back 500 years it’s easy to see that in Luther’s time political relationships across Europe were changing dramatically as early democratic impulses threated the stability of monarchies. Entire economies were transforming as mercantilism eclipsed feudalism. These changes were driven and enabled, in part, by radical advances in communication technology and the resulting freer exchange of information and ideas begun when Mainz native Johannes Gutenberg began fiddling around with moveable type in the mid-1400s.
In other words, everything was changing – and at an unprecedented pace.
It doesn’t take much imagination to see that we are living through a similar season.
Rather than moveable type, with the advent of the internet we have moveable digits, and ideas can travel around the globe almost as fast as light. You don’t have to look very hard to find economic theorist speculating about the collapse of capitalism in the face of globalism, and you really don’t have to look very far at all to find current events that call into question the political structures we have come to accept as fixed and permanent right here in the United States.
In other words, everything is changing – and at a pace that would have shocked Martin Luther.
So, what’s next? God only knows. And, hey, if the process theologians shape our thinking here, God doesn’t know either. I’m going to leave that thought aside – not because I dismiss process theology (which I don’t) but rather because whether you understand God as ruling is sovereign omniscience or not, we have no way of knowing. Thus our response to “what’s next” can either be to toss up our hands and await our unknowable fate, or to engage the present moment with the firm conviction that we can shape the moment yet to come.
I believe the roll of the church is to engage the present in faith, trusting that God is calling us to shape the moment yet to come, and to shape it in particular ways.
In fact, I believe that the church is already doing this in all kinds of ways that future historians will gather under some catch-all name like the Reformation, or, perhaps the Great Emergence.
The historian MacCulloch’s observation about “many Reformations” is profoundly helpful here. If we are, as I and many others believe, living through another Reformation time, it is helpful to understand that the first one wasn’t a single moment, a single event, a single congregation. The first Reformation was not accomplished on October 31, 1517, in Wittenberg, and the current Reformation will not happen in a single time and place either.
This brings me to an announcement of some news that a few of you have already heard. No, I’m not announcing 95 new theses!
The news is this: Martin and I have been awarded a grant from the Louisville Institute to conduct research for a proposed film documenting communities in the United States where the reformation is happening. During this 500th-anniversary year, Martin and I will spend some time in a half-dozen or so worshipping communities talking with folks about what shapes their work and worship, and interviewing scholars, theologians, and activists who are exploring and articulating various visions of what’ next.
What’s in this for you? Well, in part, we’ve been working on the edges of this movement of the Holy Spirit for many years now, and we may be being called to engage it more directly. Whether or not we discern that intention, we are living through this sea-change together, and we have both the opportunity and the responsibility to engage it thoughtfully.
So I want to spend a few minutes this morning engaging an initial question about first principles. The guiding principles of the stream of the Reformation in which we stand are captured in a few simple statements: scripture alone, faith alone, grace alone. Or Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, because everything sounds better in Latin. In other words, scripture and not the Roman Catholic church, is the highest authority; our faith and not our good works makes us right with God; and God’s grace not anything we do saves us.
Standing in the line of John Calvin, we add his great watchwords: we are the church Reformed and always being reformed.
I chose the readings this morning, from Genesis and Micah, because I believe they point to principles that ought to guide what’s next for the faith. The creation stories of Genesis tell us that human beings are made in the image and likeness of the Creator, and thus, for me, this principle emerges: if each human being bears within the image and likeness of God then our worshipping communities ought to center on practices of faith and life that honor that in every single human being.
Micah 6:8 articulates the general principles that ought to shape those practices of faith and life: do justice; love kindness; walk humbly with God.
Those are my starting points. What others would you suggest?
In looking at what other worshipping communities are doing, what questions would you ask of them?
One of my convictions, as we engage this project during the coming year, is that the work of reformation begins at table and is, in a profound way, centered there. Thus it is good and right and appropriate that we begin the year together at table.

[1] Phyllis Tickle, The Great Emergence (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2008) 14. Tickle cites Bishop Dyer and is the source for the paraphrase of his observation.