Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
A sermon by Meighan Pritchard
Prospect United Church of Christ
Seattle, WA October 29, 2017
Theologian Phyllis Tickle notes that every 500 years or so, the Church has a rummage sale. It does a massive spring cleaning, tosses a bunch of old moth-eaten stuff, airs out the sanctuary, and tries something totally new. At the first 500-year mark, the Church had held a number of Councils to decide theological issues, and a number of groups split off. Around the 1,000-year mark, the Church split again, into Eastern Orthodox and the Western Church.
Five hundred years ago in 1517, it was time for another rummage sale. On almost this very day, Martin Luther wrote 95 theses to reform the Catholic Church. Tradition has it that he nailed these theses to the door of All Saints Church, or Schlosskirche, in Wittenberg. In attempting to reform the Catholic Church, he touched off what became the Reformation, resulting in a split of the Church into Catholics and Protestants. Protestants, of course, then split a whole bunch more times, into Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Congregationalists, Evangelicals, and on and on. And somewhere in that mix, along about 1957, the United Church of Christ was born.
Our denomination may be only 60 years old, but our roots go back to the Pilgrims, to Martin Luther, to the Catholics, to the apostles, to Jesus, to Judaism and the Hebrew scriptures. Perhaps you have heard this UCC slogan: “Our scriptures are 2,000 years old. Our thinking is not.” And no doubt you have heard that “God is still speaking.” God didn’t stop speaking and acting and changing lives when the Bible went to press.
So along comes Martin Luther, and he has a few ideas about how the Church could be more authentic. For one thing, he has a bit of a quibble over indulgences. Cardinal Albert of Mainz was passing the hat to cover the installation fee for him to become the Archbishop of Mainz. But he was basically telling people that if they paid money for an indulgence, they could reserve their seat in heaven. Luther thought this was not what the Church should be about. He said the Germans were too poor to spend their money this way. And furthermore, you can’t buy your way to heaven.
Another objection that Luther covered in his theses: The Pope assumed he had jurisdiction over souls in purgatory. Luther said, “Uh, nope, I don’t think you do.” Luther was big on studying his scripture, and he did not see anything there that would give any pope or human religious leader this kind of power.
Another theme in his theses was about how to understand sin and salvation. We don’t tend to toss those words around a lot in this congregation, but let’s just take a moment here to understand the gist. Luther said that a sinner who is focused on escaping punishment is lost. One can see how that focus might lead people to try to buy their way out of purgatory and into heaven. Luther said it didn’t work that way. You couldn’t earn your way or pay your way into heaven. Salvation comes through repentance and faith and seeking God’s forgiveness and grace.
Services in Luther’s day were in Latin, and so was all the music. Except that many of the people didn’t speak Latin. They had no idea what was being said. Luther translated hymns into German, translated the Bible into German, wrote a bunch of hymns himself. He firmly believed that people should be able to be in direct relationship with God, not mediated through a priest, but for that to happen, they had to have religious materials in their own language. Basically he said that God is still speaking—to all of us, not just the Pope and the priests.
The Pope and the priests didn’t take kindly to his ideas. He was excommunicated. But it turned out his ideas found some traction. And here we are. [For a review of the Reformation and Luther, I have relied on Margaret R. Miles, The Word Made Flesh: A History of Christian Thought (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2005), 245-55.]
Throughout the history of our faith, people have been trying to figure out the rules for being a person of faith. We see this in Leviticus, where there is rule after rule after rule. The Jews had 613 rules to live by! But if you step back and look at all these rules, you see that the general theme is to provide guidelines for living in right relationship with God and with one’s community. Here are ways to love God. Here are ways to be a good neighbor, son, daughter, parent, spouse. One rule in Leviticus 19 that we didn’t read says not to harvest your fields clear to the edge, but to leave some there so that the poor people can come through and glean the leftovers. This is one way that we love our neighbor. Another rule in this chapter says that the alien living in your midst is to be treated like a citizen. These rules were intended to be life-giving—and for many Jews who still follow them, they continue to be so.
But so many rules—it’s a lot to track. And in Jesus’ day, there were some who were so swept up in following all the rules that they forgot what the rules were for. Or what it might look like to follow the spirit of the rules—the loving God and neighbor bits—even if you didn’t follow the exact letter of the law.
This is why Jesus got into so much trouble. He kept pointing these things out. Kind of like Luther 1500 years later. Jesus kept living into a radical love of God and neighbor that went way beyond following the letter of the 613 laws. He knew those laws. He knew what they were for. He didn’t come to take those laws away; he came to show people how you really live into them. He understood which were the most important. So when the Pharisees decide to test him by asking which is the most important, he knows his stuff. He says, “‘You shall love your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” In other words, if these two laws are not at the center of all the other 600-some laws, you’re missing the point. These two are the key to everything. Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.
And that’s basically what Martin Luther said, too. Get rid of all the junk that has been layered on top of the primary message of the Bible, which is about how to love God and your neighbor. Get rid of the Pope telling you you’re going to hell if you don’t do this or that. Get rid of indulgences to buy your way into heaven. All of that misses the primary message completely. It gets bogged down in corruption and power and money. Get back to the essentials.
How do we do that? If we held our own 500-year rummage sale, what would we throw out, what do we still find life-giving, and what new way might God be speaking us into being God’s people?
John Dorhauer, general minister and president of the UCC, wrote a short book called Beyond Resistance in which he explored how the Church might be undergoing a modern-day rummage sale and reformation. He said Spirit is still moving among us, inviting us into holy relationship with God and each other. But sometimes we get stuck in the old, comfortable, familiar ways. We get scared to try something new.
But some churches and some individuals are trying new things. They worship over a meal, or at a farm. Maybe there’s no bulletin, no hymnal. Maybe a group of people gathers around a collection of objects, each person picks out one object, spends some time with it, and then shares with the group why this object has meaning to them. Could that be church? It has something to do with being fully present to each other, open to where our time together might go. Maybe this was what it was like to be part of Paul’s work with the Thessalonians: new, cutting edge, deeply spiritual, vulnerable, tender.
People sometimes say to me, “I don’t know about all this God and Jesus stuff, but I come here for the people.” And I say, keep coming. Because you’re already getting an important part of what church is all about—the people, the relationships. Be open to how the Divine—God, Spirit, Christ, whatever you call it—may be inviting you into something new, something life-giving, something loving. Something that makes your heart sing.
Yesterday I went to an all-day workshop on faith and climate change called “Love at the Crossroads.” This was a multi-faith gathering: Christians, Jews, Quakers, Muslims, Buddhists, Indigenous religions. One of our speakers said, “All of our faiths speak to love as the most powerful force on Earth.” So however we hear God speaking us into a new thing as God’s church, it will be centered in love.
Rev. Traci Blackmon, executive director of Justice and Witness Ministries of the UCC, wrote this in honor of this anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 theses:
Churches are not buildings or institutions. The Church is a living organism that is both affected and infected by human proclivities. …
We, like all communities that become institutionalized, may not always adapt to our changing context. Perhaps there are ways of being, ways of serving, ways of discipleship that need reforming. Living organisms grow and living organisms change in order to thrive in a changing world. The message of the church remains the gospel, but perhaps some of our delivery systems need an upgrade. In our case, yes we must be willing to reform the institution yet we must also be willing to consider that reformation is also a call to reform ourselves. We are the church. We are that living organism. [Traci Blackmon, “Commentary: Always a Good Day for Reformation,” October 25, 2017, http://www.ucc.org/commentary_happy_reformation.]
I will come back to more of her message in a moment.
Rick Russell shared an article with me this week that someone had sent his way. [Robert King, “Death and resurrection of an urban church,” Faith and Leadership, https://www.faithandleadership.com/death-and-resurrection-urban-church.] It was about Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, which had its own rummage sale. It cleaned out and dumped a whole lot of the programs that it had offered for years. Food pantry? There were more hungry people than ever, and their biggest issue was obesity and diabetes. The food pantry was actually contributing to the problem by handing out sugary stuff. Out went the food pantry. Children’s summer program? After nine young men died violently in nine months within a four-block radius of the church, this summer program was nixed, too. Some of those young men had attended the program, but it hadn’t given them the tools they needed to stay alive.
Instead, the church started listening to its neighbors—not for problems, but for their gifts. Who were they as people, not just as charity recipients? What did they have to offer to others, and how could the church bring them together to share their gifts? After lots of listening, lots of conversations in people’s homes, some groups began to form around people’s gifts and interests. A quilting group. A parenting group bringing older women together with teen moms. Groups on education, law, art, poetry, music, gardening, crocheting. People started connecting. “Oh, you’re a gardener, too? And you? And you?” Turns out they had 45 gardeners in a neighborhood that was a food desert. They’re thinking about starting a farmer’s market. People have found jobs, friendships, connections, encouragement to go back to school. They have built community.
The church’s abandoned Sunday school classrooms have been pressed into new ministries, too. A pottery shop, a dance studio, a small architecture firm, a youth orchestra. Their building has become a place where people come not for charity handouts, but to connect. To be seen, heard, loved, valued, accepted. To share their gifts with great joy.
We are doing some of this work. We have tenants in this building that dovetail with our interests and ministries. We are revamping our space to thrive, both for us and for the community. And in our Social and Environmental Justice Team meetings, we are discussing how to move forward.
It’s time for a rummage sale in the Church. We are constantly re-forming. Traci Blackmon has a specific invitation for us at this anniversary of the 95 theses:
In honor of the Reformation, we invite you to help us develop our own version of the 95 Theses by sharing your thoughts of one way the church needs to change, move, act, or be to continue reforming today. On October 31st, we hope to offer a complete list of your contributed thoughts and ideas online to spur dialogue and engagement in the church and the Church House. Today is always a good day for Reformation.
There is paper in your pews. Take a few minutes right now and write down one idea for how the church could re-form. Then share your idea with one or two people around you. And we might hear just a couple of the ideas as a group. I will send these ideas to the national office to be included in their new version of the 95 theses. We may put some or all of them on our Facebook page or website. Who knows where this will lead?
[Participants submitted the following responses: