“Worship and The Pursuit of Truth”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
October 28, 2018: Reformation Sunday
Each Reformation Sunday I like to reflect with you on some aspect of the Protestant Reformation of 1517. In past years we have thought together about the five pillars of Reformed theology: Scripture alone, God’s glory alone, Christ alone, faith alone, and grace alone. One year we reflected on how the Reformation started as a religious movement but quickly spread into other areas of life like art, architecture, theatre, music, and even banking and politics. Another year we thought more about the Reformed understanding of grace by looking at how Martin Luther, the father of the Reformation, could proclaim and write such beautiful things about God one day, then turn and write hateful and vitriolic things against the Jews the next, things that Adolf Hitler used to justify his programs of ethnic cleansing. Last year we took time to recognize that we don’t always get it right, and that if we want a more peaceful, a more just, a more loving world to live in, the work of reformation starts in all of us right here in the heart.
On this Reformation Sunday, though, I want to reflect with you on something different; not a theology or a doctrine, but a practice. It is a practice so basic and essential to our life as followers of Jesus that I think we might just sort of forget about it. It is a practice that comes to us almost completely unaltered from the 16thcentury, using words and elements that were written and formulated long before the King James version of the Bible was even published. It is a practice that makes the church different from all other organizations and groups and clubs. That practice is worship.
When Martin Luther and his colleagues in France, Switzerland, and Scotland sparked the Reformation, they only had on significant reform in mind. The early Reformers could not live with the Catholic church’s sale of indulgences. You’ve heard about indulgences before. They were essentially golden tickets into heaven that you could buy for yourself or for a deceased loved one if you thought there was some danger to your eternal destination or theirs. They sold like hotcakes. Indulgences were sold everywhere. In some places they were cheap, while in other places they were the equivalent to a year’s salary. It was all dependent on where the indulgence was being sold and the kind of sin you were trying to get out of. The church made a fortune, a literal fortune, from which it built St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
This is what Martin Luther went after in the early days of the Reformation. The famed 95 theses, or complaints, Luther had against the church were all about indulgences and whether or not the church or the pope had the authority to mandate and profit from such a practice. Luther questioned whether buying something from the church had any effect on your standing before God. He questioned how much power and wealth the Pope had amassed for himself, how he lived like a king instead of a shepherd. Luther even wondered if there was anything we could do to fall out of God’s grace, to which his answer was a resounding ‘no.’
The church prior to the Reformation was like the exit you take off of 412 east of I35, the exit where you were can go south to Stillwater, north to Ponca City, or you can continue east to Tulsa. If you exit to Ponca City or Stillwater, the toll is a dollar or something like that. If you continue east to Tulsa, the toll is more. Either way, whether you are exiting or continuing on, you have to pay a toll. That was the church prior to the Reformation. If you wanted to get into heaven, you had to pay a toll. If you wanted to confess your sins to a priest, you had to pay a toll. If you wanted to be one of a select few each week who received communion, you had to pay a toll. Funeral? There’s a toll. Wedding? That’s gonna cost you. You want to be remembered in the Prayers of the People during Sunday worship? You better pony up the dough.
Of course, that is a bit satirical, but it is entirely true; if you even sneezed in the church of the early 16thcentury, you had to drop some coins in the plate. On a much deeper and much more troubling level, these practices were terribly destructive. Since everything in the church had a price, and you could only access the things of the church through the clergy or the chosen few, the people came to know God as closed off, put away for those who could afford it, roped off with velvet for those on the list. If you have to pay to receive communion you internalize an image of a god who plays only if you can pay. If you have to pay for confession you internalize an image of a god who is only can only be satisfied by money. If you constantly have to go through someone else to have an audience with God, there is not much stopping you from giving up all together. If there are all these walls around God, walls that can only be overcome by your wallet, its just easier to walk away.
The Reformers couldn’t handle it. So they wrote and preached and they worked to rid the church of indulgence, and the pay-to-play stuff eventually came to an end. God was unchained and there was no longer a toll booth between God and the people. But the end to indulges meant the beginning of so much more. Now that God was wild and on the loose and accessible, the church’s worship practices had to change. For example, Pre-Reformation church architecture was built on the sole idea that we have to keep the masses away from the clergy, the unholy away from the holy. If you watched the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, the young man who played the cello during the service was sitting in an archway between the congregation and where the ceremony was happening and where the royals were sitting. This is classic of Pre-Reformation church architecture. At one time that was a wall with just little windows and screens; the congregation could barely hear and see. God had to be protected and the unholy, unwashed masses had to be kept away. As the toll-booth posture of the church was destroyed so too were these walls, and in churches like ours the walls never went back up.
There were other changes in worship, too, to accommodate free access to this big and wild God. Bibles were printed on the newly invented printing press in languages that the people could read and understand. Pulpits were brought closer to the people so that they could hear the sermon. Communion, the meal of Christ, was opened to most people. The music of the church changed. Instead of the solemn melodies and Latin of Gregorian chant, the church commissioned classical musicians to write cantatas and hymns and settings of the psalms. We still sing and play some of that music in the church today, and do you know where many of the melodies come from? Bars. Saloons. Houses of ill repute. If you want people to sing in church, use music they are familiar with. The Reformation even saw relaxed rules of attire for attending worship.
The effect of all of these changes was something glorious: God’s people could finally see a right and good and true version of God. God is about equity and justice, things that are shown at an open and welcoming communion table. God is a talker, something that is confirmed with Bibles that are easily read and sermons that can be heard. God is joy, pure, unadulterated joy, something like singing bar tunes in church. At long last, the worship practices of the church came in line with the God to whom the worship was directed. And for the first time in history, worship was something that all could participate in, a weekly practice that could have a significant impact on how people live with their neighbors and follow Jesus Christ.
The good news for us today is that worship can and does have the same effect on us. And it can have that effect on us because it helps us in our constant pursuit of truth. There is nothing more essential, more valuable, more singifcant to our life as followers of Jesus than truth. And we live in a world, like various other times in history, where truth is up for grabs. We live in a time where concrete, verifiable facts and truth are greeted with skepticism and disbelief when they do not fit a predetermined narrative, ideology, or partisan platform. We live in a time when good, thoughtful, and intelligent people are duped into believing lies about God, about their neighbors, and about the world for fear of what might happen to them if they don’t. We live in a time where truth is relative, where morals are relative, where it is OK for me to do something bad or hurtful or criminal because the guy or girl before me did it, too.
The good news is that though the world denies the truth, spins the truth, suppresses the truth, our practice of worship week after week, month after month, year after year, will help us align with God’s truth and live it. In a society that thrives on keeping women and minorities in places of inferiority, our worship tells God’s truth by opening places of leadership to men and women, people of great means and people of very little, those with strong faith and those with not very much. In a society that absolutely loves fear—fear of the other, fear of what is different, fear of change—our worship tells God’s truth that joy, not fear, is our only hope for survival. In a society that shrugs at sin and evil and darkness, our worship tells God’s truth that sin and evil and darkness is wrong and must be confessed so that God’s grace can redeem and make things new. In a world that goes to war at the slightest insult or injury, our worship tells God’s truth that if we claim to be Christ’s followers, we must be at peace with one another.
Worship and the pursuit of the truth is inextricable. Everything we do in worship has a meaning and everything we do in worship equips us to live as Christ’s people in a complex world. Worship is not just something we do because nothing else is open on Sunday; we don’t come to worship, or we shouldn’t, out of some misplaced sense of obligation. We come to worship to learn the truths of God so that we can then take those truths out with us to change the world. Because it has that power. Truth, God’s truth, has the power, like Mary the mother Jesus said, to topple tyrants from their thrones, to fill the empty with good things, to lift up the brokenhearted, to save the crushed in Spirit. Truth has the power to mend broken relationships. Truth heals wounds from trauma long-suffered. Truth redeems broken memories and pieces together shattered dreams. And according to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the truth will set us free. Isn’t that what we all want, deep down within our heart of hearts? To be free?
My brothers and sisters in Christ, today I want you to consider why you are here and what you are doing when you are here. Look around and listen. Look around and listen and think about how every song, every prayer, every element of worship is telling you something about God. Look around and listen to your brothers and sisters in faith, see that there is a place for everyone here. Look around and listen to what your heart is telling you, feel the Spirit of God moving and breathing fresh life into these weary bones. Look around and listen for God’s truth, that nothing can separate us from that love. Look around and listen because when worship is over, the real worship, the real work, begins as we go back into the world and work with God in building the kingdom. Like Moses on Mt. Sinai, like the disciples at the Transfiguration, we can’t stay on the mountain forever. We have to come down, we have to move away from the ecstasy of God’s presence, and get to work where the work is. Armed with the truth--the truth of God’s love, of God’s grace, of God’s forgiveness and mercy—there is so very much we can do. There is so very much we must do. And by God’s grace we will. Thanks be to God! Amen.