Sunday, October 27, 2019

"Hope in Troubled Times"

Luke 18:9-14

In late October, a lot of people are celebrating Halloween.  But in the church, many Christians are more focused on Reformation Day. 
Five hundred and two years ago, on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk and theology professor in the university town of Wittenberg, published his Ninety-Five Theses by nailing them to the door of the Castle Church.  In those days, the church door served as kind of a community bulletin board. 
The 95 Theses were in the form of an invitation to debate about traditional church doctrine and practice, that, in Luther’s mind, needed to be re-examined and reformed.  Luther was advocating for reform within the Roman Catholic church, but before it was over Luther would be excommunicated from the church and branded an outlaw by the Holy Roman Emperor.
As John Buchanan describes it, “violence ensued, wars were fought, martyrs on both sides were tortured and executed.  Luther’s followers and their churches were called ‘Lutherans’ in derision, but during the next century large portions of northern Germany, France, the Netherlands, Hungary, all the way to the Italian Alps and the Scottish Highlands, separated from Rome and organized themselves into Reformed churches.”[1]
            Five hundred plus years later, as we commemorate Luther and the Ninety-Five Theses, it’s a good time to remember that the Protestant Reformation was a development that took place slowly, over time, and that it was and is an ongoing process. 
            As a former representative of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches has written, “Luther and Calvin did not just fall from Heaven. Other people had worked the same field, and people at that time were aware of earlier reformers.” By earlier reformers, he was referring to Waldensians, Hussites, the Czech Brethren, and others.”
            So, with this in mind, I think it’s a good thing to observe “Reformation Sunday” in late October, but to focus on what Jean Calvin called “the many resurrections of the church,” which include the earlier reformers, and Luther and Calvin and Knox, and other examples of the Spirit’s reforming, rejuvenating work in the church throughout history and to our present time.

            The gospel lesson we heard today is a brief and straightforward parable Jesus told his disciples. Earlier in the 18th chapter of Luke, Jesus had told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. In this parable, a widow kept going to an un-just judge “who neither feared God nor had respect for people.” Eventually, because the widow persisted and kept coming back to the unjust judge, he said, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.”[2]
            Jesus said to his disciples, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to God’s chosen ones who cry out day and night? Will God delay long in helping them?  I tell you, God will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

            That’s the context for the parable we heard today, which Jesus told to “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and who regarded others with contempt.”
            “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.”
            But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
            Jesus said, “I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

"Nobody is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart,” wrote James Baldwin, “for his purity, by definition, is unassailable.”  
Such people clothe themselves in religion while creating hell for others. They see everything but their truest selves. They hide their vulnerabilities and practice spiritual dishonesty about their own shortcomings.
Jesus is addressing a crowd of people who “trust in themselves,” but who really can’t see themselves. They can point to the flaws in others and avoid seeing their own shortcomings and sins.
This parable gives us a window into this particular Pharisee’s mentality, through the words of his prayer. He embraces the insider-outsider politics of institutional religion. His public prayer creates a firewall between him and those who are “other.”
When Luke says Jesus’ listeners “regarded others with contempt,” the Greek word for contempt suggests treating other people as nothing.  This kind of spirituality lets people pursue their idea of holiness and morality, while they treat those they see as “other” as sinful or unworthy or without value.
As the Rev. Willie Francois III writes, this culture of false perfection betrays the truth of the gospel: “that God loves us with our scars of disobedience, markers of mistakes, and wounds of worry. Such a culture creates myriad communities of throwaways, of people perceived as disposable.
Even churches consecrate categories by which they effectively label people disposable. When we fail to see ourselves as we are, we tragically fix our eyes on others—and we live with spiritual blinders on. This derails our journey to wholeness and transformation.”[3]
            The Pharisee in the parable isn’t guilty of any of the specific things he names—but there are many other sins he wasn’t willing to name. The tax collector avoids narrating a long list of his own virtues or sins to God, but he names his condition:  he confesses that he’s a sinner, and he pleads for mercy.

We live in a tumultuous time—a time of great change and polarization and anxiety— in the world and in the church. But it isn’t the first time. 
 The Scottish reformer John Knox felt compelled to leave the British Isles after the Roman Catholic Mary Tudor rose to the English throne in 1553.  Eventually he joined a fellowship of religious refugees from across Europe who had thronged to Geneva, Switzerland.
            Geneva’s most famous resident, the French lawyer and humanist John Calvin, was himself a Geneva immigrant.  Calvin helped create an atmosphere in Geneva that was welcoming to outsiders. They established a hospital for refugees, as well as an academy for their education. Knox ministered to a congregation of English-speaking refugees.
            John Knox marveled at his time in Geneva, calling it ‘the most perfect school of Christ that ever was in the earth since the days of the apostles.’”
            Calvin’s emphasis on placing full trust in God, as opposed to any earthly ruler, aimed to infuse life in Geneva with gratitude and faith   and to ease the anxieties of a people living in an age of plague, war, and dislocation.  For Calvin and for Knox, growing in trust of God and love for God enlarged a community’s ability to respond to God’s call to love and service-- no matter where its residents came from.

Five hundred years after the Protestant Reformation, we’re living in a difficult and challenging time to be the church. 
            We need to re-learn how to love and recognize the image of God in one another.  We need to learn how to live more and more fully as beloved children of God… and become more and more fully the Beloved Community. 
And nations, like individuals and the church, struggle to look in the moral mirror.  At the Democratic National Convention, Michelle Obama said, “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.” That’s a historical fact about the White House and our national capitol building—one that’s often relegated to a footnote or simply omitted. Yet many found the statement to be controversial. The institution of slavery funded the greatness of America—and more than 150 years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, the American check still bounces.
Long ago, biblical prophets like Jeremiah expressed the national need for repentance. The nation needs mercy. For over 400 years, black people have been dehumanized in America—from the trafficking of African persons from their native lands through years of slavery, Jim Crow, Black Codes and predatory sharecropping, unchecked lynching, red-lining and residential segregation, mass incarceration, under-education, mass criminalization, and police violence.  
The church also needs mercy for the ways it supported the institution of slavery and structural racism and poverty or failed to resist them…for the Doctrine of Discovery which the ways it gave permission, even encouraged colonialization and the genocide of indigenous peoples.
Reverend Francois challenges all Americans when he says, “To change—to be redeemed—America has to actually look at itself. We have to stand squarely in front of the moral mirror, beat our chests, name our sins, and be justified.
On Reformation Sunday, we are reminded that we are justified by God’s grace, through faith.
The question of the day is:  how shall we live, in response to God’s gracious gift?  That’s where sanctification comes in. “Sanctification” is a theological word for how we grow in the Christian life, as we are taught and led further into the truth and empowered by the Holy Spirit.
            Sanctification is a life-long process, as we are gradually freed from our fears and doubts and brokenness-- to love and serve God and our neighbors as Christ does. As we grow in Christian faith, we open ourselves to be surprised and transformed by God’s word.  
            One sign of growing in the Christian life is maturing in love for and solidarity with all of God’s children-- especially with those who are poor and marginalized and those who are different…those we see as “other.”

The early Protestants believed that they were not only creating a new church-- but they were creating a new world, one that would resemble more fully God’s desire for humanity.   The original Protestant impulse was to resist powers of worldly dominion and domination, in favor of the power of God’s spirit to transform human hearts and society.  They felt a deep discomfort and discontent with the status quo.   They knew things were not right, and they set out to change the world.   
Today, we live in troubling times—a time of great change and anxiety, in the church and in the world. In 2019, the world groans under flame of wildfires and floods caused by global warming, as families are left shattered by sprays of bullets and the devastation of war, in this time of broken human relationships and extreme political partisanship and structural racism and poverty and corruption in governments. Things are not right.  But I believe God is working to do new things in our time.
I believe we are living in a prophetic time—a time of new reformation.   I believe that God is working to create a new church, in and through us.  I believe that God wants to use us as instruments of justice and reconciliation in our communities… in our nation… and in the world.
I give thanks that “we’ve come this far by faith”—that we’ve been hearing a new word from God over the past few decades about human sexuality and some of the other things that have consumed so much of our energy and focus in the church.  I give thanks that this seems to be freeing the church to focus on structural racism and poverty and other forms of injustice.  I give thanks that we have been gifted with strong and faithful and diverse leaders in our national Presbyterian church and the ecumenical and interfaith communities who are leading us to act more faithfully and more boldly. 
            I give thanks for the prophetic witness of Bishop William Barber and the Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis and other leaders of the Poor People’s Campaign around the country as they work to bring about justice for all.  I give thanks for Rabbi Alana Alpert and the Detroit Jews for Justice and their work for water justice in Detroit and their work with the Poor People’s Campaign.  I think that part of this new time of re-formation is how we’re learning to work together as ecumenical and interfaith community.
            Two weeks ago, we gathered in this sanctuary to celebrate 100 years of mission and ministry at St. John’s.  The Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson reminded us of the way things are changing in the Brief church and in our society and said we are living in a prophetic time.  The mission field is here around us, and we have work to do.
            This week, especially, we have mourned the passing and given thanks for a prophet of our times, the very Honorable Congressman Elijah Cummings, and we have been inspired by the witness of this man of faith and humility…integrity and courage and compassion.  
I was moved to hear that Congressman Cummings quoted a poem by Benjamin Mays during his very first speech on the U.S. House of Representatives floor on April 25, 1996 while noting that he recited that poem up to 20 times a day:
“I have only just a minute. Only 60 seconds in it.
 Forced upon me, can’t refuse it. Didn’t seek it, didn’t choose it.
But it’s up to me to use it. I must suffer if I lose it.
Give account if I abuse it.
Just a tiny minute, but eternity is in it.”

Elijah Cummings was living with a serious, life-threatening illness. But he was passionate about working for justice. He lived with a sense of urgency, conscious about being effective with every minute he was given.  His life can inspire and challenge us.
We are living in a time of new reformation. God is working to create a new church and a new world, and wants to use us as instruments of justice and reconciliation in the world.
So—on this Reformation Sunday and in the coming days, as we look around at the world and see things that are not right, let us be praying that we may respond to the challenges of our time with courage and hope.
   In the words of our Presbyterian “Brief Statement of Faith:” “In a broken and fearful world, the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing, to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior, to unmask idolatries in Church and culture, to hear the voices of peoples long silenced, and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.”[4]
Thanks be to God!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Guest Preacher
St. John Presbyterian Church
Detroit, Michigan
October 27, 2019

[1] John M. Buchanan, “Values Worth Fighting For,” at his blog Hold to the Good.

[2] Luke 18:1-5
[4] “A Brief Statement of Faith,” 1990. Book of Confessions of the Presbyterian Church (USA).