A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
October 29, 2017: Reformation Sunday
Deuteronomy 34:1-9, Ephesians 2:1-9, Matthew 22:34-46
Christians and the Church have a really epic way of missing the point. That’s why this thing called the Protestant Reformation happened in the first place. The Reformation began 500 years ago because the Church missed the point by imagining that one could buy their way into heaven. Forget serving the poor; forget forgiving your neighbor; forget prayer and study and worship—if you had enough money, you could buy your way into heaven and the way into heaven for all of your friends and relatives who may have met a fiery end. You actually received a slip of paper when you paid your money; the paper was called an indulgence and you could wave it at your neighbors and coworkers and friends to show them that your eternal future was secure. And the church sold a lot of this paper. The Catholic monk Martin Luther called foul on this and many other church practices, and he proposed reforms that resulted in Presbyterian and Lutheran and Baptist and Episcopal and Methodist and Mennonite and Nondenominational churches all over the world.
Now if the church had taken the money from indulgences and done something worthwhile with it—say like feeding the hungry or creating a social safety net—we might be able to look past the bad theology. But the church took the money and built St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and lined the pockets of the Italian nobility. As a for-profit business, the Church was superior in every way. But as an organization that claimed to be built on the radical and generous teachings of Jesus Christ? Not so much. Of course the Catholic church has reformed over the centuries; without it we would not have some of the most beautiful and enduring art and architecture and humanities of all time. But the point is still the same: Christians and the Church often miss the point.
I saw this in real life when I started on the path to becoming a Presbyterian pastor in 2008. 2008 was a particularly terrible year, especially if you had a home or business or retirement wrapped up in Lehman Brothers or Washington Mutual. October 24, 2008 was called “Bloody Friday” because the world’s stock exchanges experienced the worst declines in their history. 2008 was also a particularly rough year for mainline Christian churches. It was widely published that nearly 4,000 churches closed their doors in 2008—an historic drop like the one in the stock market. Some thought the two events were related, and they might be; if you have less income or less financial security, giving to the church is usually the first thing to go. But money wasn’t the only problem. That year, in 2008, there were roughly 5 Presbyterian pastors for every Presbyterian church in the United States—and I don’t need to tell you that there are only a handful of churches that need 5 pastors. This is the world inside and outside the church that I was walking in to.
At the first meeting with the committee that would walk me through the process to becoming a pastor, I was told that in addition to earning a Master’s Degree in seminary, I should probably also work for a business or finance degree. The reason, I was told, is that I would likely have to find work outside the church to support my work inside the church, like one does for a hobby. That is, if there was even a church to be had—they were sure I probably won’t find a church to pastor. They told me that ministers usually carry debt their whole lives and experience divorce rates higher than the average American. Now I don’t have a marketing or advertising degree, but if that wasn’t the worst pitch as to why I should become a part of this thing called the Presbyterian Church, I don’t know what is. No other organization on earth will lead with how they are dying, with how you’ll have to shop at several different stores because this store doesn’t have everything you need. And this narrative continued for nearly four years: the church is dying, abandon ship, find something else to do. There was so little talk about Jesus, about faith, about resurrection. This continued until I went to that committee in July of 2012 and told them that I had been called to pastor a church in Enid, Oklahoma.
Now in 2017, the outlook for the church isn’t much different. Instead of five pastors for every church, there are seven. Something like 80% of Protestant churches in America are either stagnant or rapidly declining. Many committees that oversee pastors in formation are still spinning this narrative that there is no work, that there are no churches, that there is no, well, hope. And they’re missing the point big time, and its for the same reason the church turned to selling indulgences 500 years ago.
You see, I and many of my colleagues became pastors not for an abundance of wealth or an abundance of connections; we didn’t become pastors so that our names would be well-known or because we thought it would be an easy way of life. I became a pastor because I had this random encounter with Jesus one day. Like the woman at the well, Jesus knew everything about me and still loved me. Like Bartemeus, my eyes were blind to God, and Jesus opened them. Like Peter, I was good at being faithful but also really good at turning and running when times got tough, but Jesus forgave me. This Jesus met me where I was and called me to follow. So I answered. I didn’t answer in order to become famous, I answered so I could tell you week after week and year after year how much you are loved; I didn’t answer to get rich, but to experience with you the riches of God’s blessings. I didn’t answer because I had faith in my ability to preach well or teach well or run this place as if it is a for-profit business; I answered because I have faith in God, and in God’s ability to take something as meaningless and lowly as dust and breath life into it. I answered the call because I believe God and will raise the dead.
It is in this that we so often miss the point as people of faith: are we trying to stand by our own power and ingenuity and intelligence, or are we trying to stand on God’s power and grace and mercy? Are we putting our faith in ourselves or in the God who created the heavens and the earth? Indulgences speak for themselves. An indulgence is fraud and a lack of faith in God. An indulgence looks really good if you don’t believe in God’s power. It’s the same with TV preachers selling miracle spring water and prayer towels and special hats and shirts—they are nothing but snake-oil salesmen preying on people’s cravings for hope. Its the same with churches that preach a warm and fuzzy Gospel—Jesus didn’t die an rise to make you feel good…he died and rose to break the strangle-hold death had on your neck. Its the same with leaders in the church turning away people who are answering God’s call; its the same with Christians who think they can live and say and do one thing within these walls and then go out and act completely different. Do we place our faith and trust in ourselves or in God? Putting faith and trust in our ability to get things done, to change the world, to make a difference, is not wrong, but it can only get us just so far. With faith and trust in God, though, who raised Jesus from the dead, anything is possible. With faith and trust in God, we will never miss the point.
On this Reformation day with 500 years behind us, and with hopefully 500 years and more to come, how do we avoid missing the point? What is the point?
Jesus tells us that the point is Love. Jesus references the Old Testament books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus and calls his followers to all-out love of God and all-out love of neighbor. In this way, we could call Jesus good and orthodox—nothing he says here is very radical, especially since it all comes from the holy texts of his faith. But it made the religious authorities unhappy, authorities who will later wrongly condemn him to death and execute him. To love God and love neighbor is radical to them. It is radical because Jesus does not specify how one is to love God. It is radical because Jesus does not say anything about whether or not the neighbor is worthy of love. In a culture that was so dependent on social structure, religious self-righteousness, and financial stratification, Jesus was calling for a total revolution. It was this revolution that got him in so much trouble, but his message still rings in our ears today: love is the point.
When we let love lead, it is clear that so many things are out of our control. We don’t have control over what other people believe, we don’t have control over what they wear or how they talk or where they worship, we don’t have control over their politics or their ideologies or even their biases. We love them, and we leave the rest to God. That is what it means to place your faith and trust in God: you do what you can and you leave we rest to God. We can stop saying who is in and who is out of church and society; we can stop saying that the church is dying—we worship a risen Lord, don’t we? We can stop wasting time in trying to earn God’s love—we already have it, way more than we can imagine. We can stop clinging to fear of those we don’t know or understand; we can stop trying to control and exert power over everything, we can stop imagining that any of us are better or more created in God’s image than anyone else. We love, and we leave the rest to God. And our faith teaches us that that is best place to put everything; God promises us in the end that peace and justice, love and compassion, abundance and fulfillment will reign supreme. It might not be like that right now, but we must never forget that Easter only came after Good Friday.
So, my friends, on this Reformation Day the good news of the Gospel is that even though we miss the point, and sometimes we miss it in totally epic ways, we have been forgiven and pointed to a new way of life. The past is behind us and the future is ours to claim. Let’s continually be about the work of reformation, so that God can transform who and what we are. Let’s be about the work of love—let’s give up fear, let’s give up despair, let’s give up our preconceived notions about God and each other, and let’s give up hatred. Let’s be about the work of showing God to the world instead of just telling the world about God—let’s act more than we speak. Let’s stop thinking that big churches equal faithful churches—Jesus didn’t call us to be big, he called us to take up a cross and follow. Let’s be about the work of worship and prayer and singing and baptism and communion and sharing meals together—the things we are good at. Let’s remember that we do not walk alone, whether the path be straight and level or winding and bumpy. Let’s stop being so negative—the world is not ending, the church is not ending, God is not dead, and Jesus is not just sitting in heaven twiddling his thumbs. Let’s be about the work of looking for Jesus in the world, because when we find him, we’ll find our neighbors and we’ll see just how and where God calls us to love.
And let’s be about the work of seeing in each other the sacred and eternal image of God. Yes, we are separated by our politics and our ideologies and our biases—in time, God will heal those separations. We are so much more than all of that. Let’s remember that we were all scooped up from the same dust of the earth, we were all filled with the same breath of life, and we were all given the same love and grace. The work of reformation begins in each one of our hearts, and with God’s help there will be no end to how far and wide, high and deep, God’s love will touch and change the world through us. That’s the point. And it always has been. Amen.