On the Road: Practicing Reformation

October 29, 2017
Reverend Meghan K. Gage-Finn

Luke 3:21-22; Luke 24:36-53

There is nothing quite like coming into the pulpit on this historic day with the opportunity to be the final preacher to offer a sermon on the Reformation, the 8th Sunday in a row with preaching on the same theme! I am sure you are wondering, as I am, after the wise, insightful, and well-crafted sermons my colleagues have offered over the past many weeks, is there anything left to say?

Today Christians the world over celebrate the 500th Anniversary of Martin Luther’s enterprising and hugely consequential nailing of the 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany, his tangible hope at bringing about renewal of the church from within, which set in motion the Protestant Reformation. For Christian Nerdom, today is like the Super Bowl, the World Cup, both the Summer and Winter Olympics, and the Academy Awards, all rolled into one. But if we are really honest, we are not that cool and today is actually more akin to the Jeopardy Tournament of Champions, the NPR Weekend Puzzler, The Scripps National Spelling Bee and a Scrabble competition, all in one fell swoop.

A moment such as this is almost too big to get our arms around, especially as it may feel like we are tagging along as a plus-one to a Lutheran party. Really, our Presbyterian roots are in the Swiss Reformation, which began in 1519, the impetus of which was the preaching of Ulrich Zwingli. The Swiss Reformation further took hold through the work and writings of French lawyer John Calvin, who was only 8 years old 500 years ago. He didn’t really come onto the scene in Geneva until 1541. So we have to wait just another 24 years and our big anniversary day will come!

500th Anniversary or not, it does feel like Reformation is all around, and not just in the sermons this fall. Something is stirring in our society and institutions, in our global awareness and in our willingness to find ourselves and God in the push and pull of privilege and justice, dominance and collaboration, hatred and hope, indifference and intentionality. The beginning of the 16th century was not unlike the landscape of today: an upheaval of political, religious, and cultural mores.

As you’ve heard and seen and experienced, Westminster has been in its own state of reforming these last few years. As Sarah noted earlier this month, we find ourselves in this moment of a new beginning in the life of the church, in the life of our community, while marking our past and celebrating our future as a congregation.

And our place in this moment may not be too far off from where the disciples found themselves on the Road to Emmaus. Theirs is a state of chaos and disruption, but also one of impending change. They have just experienced the death of Jesus, as he predicted, but are confounded by the story the women tell them of an empty tomb. They can’t go back to the way things were, but they are not exactly sure what the future looks like. But in their disrupted state, they choose not to stay, not to stand still.

It is interesting to me that they start in one place in the midst of change, Jerusalem, and as they journey to Emmaus, God intercedes and interacts with them along the way. They return to the place where they started, but wholly new and with new eyes and comprehension. They are on unfamiliar ground, even as they walk a familiar path. The disciples surely knew well this road they walked, for Emmaus wasn’t even 7 miles from Jerusalem. They must have gone back and forth many times before. Despite the commotion and disruption, God is leading them as a people on the move and God comes among them to comfort them in the form of the stranger turned Jesus. As they walk, God is re-forming them, even as they have been reformed by the experiences of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. These two followers who have witnessed the events of Jesus’ handing over to the authorities, his crucifixion, and victory over death, are confused, perplexed and bewildered, but he opens their minds to see and understand in new ways and they begin again- full of joy and expectation.

Scholar Fred Craddock describes the disciples’ experience as this: “[Their] movement is by walking slowly and hopelessly from Jerusalem to Emmaus, and then hastily and hopefully from Emmaus to Jerusalem.”[1] We, too, have been displaced and disoriented by the physical changes around us and the waiting through Creative Time as we anticipate the conclusion of construction. We have been moving around, hasty and hopeful, and perhaps some days slowly and disheartened, staying in the same place in many ways, but not standing still. We, too, have been trudging the same familiar path between Westminster and Central Lutheran, or here and Knox Presbyterian Church! Like the disciples, our walk has felt like new terrain because our context has changed, but even in our re-forming, we have remained rooted in the same place. Many of us have experienced other re-forming Emmaus Roads, on the repeated walk between home and the hospital room of a loved one, maintaining our daily routines while yearning for a child, or putting one foot in front of the other for one job interview after the next. And these journeys don’t always end with joy and expectation.

The Road to Emmaus story reminds us that re-forming doesn’t just happen once, but rather God intrudes and mediates again and again. And it reminds us the re-forming can happen without having to go very far to find it. Being re-formed is not marked by a single, revolutionary act of spreading new ideas that are celebrated half a millennium later, it happens in the everyday walks and wonders and habits of life. And it needs to be practiced.

In writing on Christian practices, Miroslav Volf and Dorothy Bass define them as those practices that, “together constitute a way of life abundant…[they are the] things that Christian people do together over time to address fundamental human needs in response to and in the light of God’s active presence for the life of the world.”[2]

Jesus breaks bread with the gathered faithful, as David reminded us in his sermon last week. The bread is shared and their eyes are opened to him. It is in this practice of fellowship and the simple sharing of a meal that God’s profound incarnate love for the world is once again made known. And in today’s place on the Road to Emmaus, the two have brought along the other disciples and their companions in community, telling them of their encounter with Jesus. Together they partake of food again, giving to Jesus a piece of broiled fish. These are the things followers of Jesus did to establish and practice a new way of life together. Professor Scott Schauf comments that, “Teaching, fellowship, eating together, and prayer have been common Christian practices for ages. The middle two of these may be especially significant — fellowship (koinonia) and eating together, mundane as they seem, are not activities we just happen to do but are essential acts of Christian life.”[3]

Additionally, the Reformation continues to teach us that our access and connection to words of faith matters. Our third graders were given their Bibles a few moments ago, an annual milestone for students in this grade, but it is new for them to receive them on Reformation Sunday, rather than in the spring at the end of third grade. Carmel offered them a bag of tools so that they might practice and use their Bibles, form and reform their faith on the Word of God. The Protestant Reformation was centered on putting the Bible into the hands of the people and redistributing the power away from the rule of the few. It sought to make God accessible and relational. German peasants were empowered by Luther’s assertion of the priesthood of all believers, and they were able to practice their faith in real and meaningful ways for the first time ever. Together they found a way of abundant life in light of God’s active presence in the world. And that is what we hope for our 3rd Graders today.

The Reformation also continues to teach us that what we say to one another about our faith, and who is included in welcome, is a fundamental human need. Brennan reminded us two weeks ago that this is what the Reformation watchwords of grace alone mean. In the practice of communicating and meditating on the story of God’s love for the world, community is reformed and widened as God’s love is made known to all. Some 25 times in this whole story of the journey from the tomb to the disciples’ joyful return to Jerusalem, we hear references to speaking, telling, remembering, and talking. May our 3rd Graders speak, tell, remember and share the Good News they now hold in their hands, even as we serve that Gospel alongside them and help them to know and follow Christ.

For the past several months I have been blessed to work with a small group of lay leaders who have been taking a deeper look at our Westminster Covenant of Membership, at how it speaks as a living document. This is the three paragraph promise new members are asked to affirm as part of joining Westminster, either as an adult or as a high school confirmation student. Westminster is unique in having its own Membership Covenant and the current version is a revised iteration of one that has been in place since the 1930s. The context for considering an update to the Membership Covenant is that in my ministry meeting with and welcoming new members in recent years, more and more I have been hearing from individuals, “I feel so strongly about being part of this community. This is where I belong, but I still have doubts in my faith, questions I am still asking. The Covenant feels declarative and fixed,” they say. One of our youth shared a couple of weeks ago, in reading the Covenant again after Confirmation Sunday last month, that in a new light she only now felt the full weight of the words and what she had agreed to.

In the past few years, it was starting to feel like the Covenant was how our old spaces could seem- imposing, powerful, fixed, and certain. In working toward an updated Covenant, the desire is that the language will mirror our new spaces- open, inclusive, personal, and dynamic. We hope to do on paper and in promise what the new building does in light and glass and open space- create an accessible way to participate in this community of faith, to provide a wide welcome to experience God’s grace through Jesus Christ.

Much of the current language was carried forward into the proposed new Covenant; nearly ¾ remains the same. And to put your concerns at ease, the commitment to find one’s “definite place of usefulness” lives on in the new Covenant! One of the additions I am most excited about is the closing phrase, “Acknowledging that all that we have is a gift from our Creator, and responding to God’s grace and love, I will be a faithful steward and will contribute, as I am able, my gifts and resources to Westminster and to the Holy Spirit that sustains us.” Our current Covenant doesn’t include this concept that we might contribute to the sustaining work of the Holy Spirit in the world. It is a radical theological notion, not just a phrase tucked at the end of the Covenant to wrap things up nicely.

Theologian Michael Welker, in his book God the Spirit, stresses the public nature of the Spirit, noting that “the Spirit coming upon one is not something a person can voluntarily bring about.”[4]

Jesus didn’t voluntarily bring about the Spirit at his baptism, but because of it, he is forever changed and a community of faith and followers finds its inception. Welker further makes this point, that God’s Spirit forms and restores community in ways that cannot be initiated absent from the power of the Spirit, nor can they be created without a willingness to be shaped as the Spirit will shape. The coming of the Holy Spirit does not cause a private change in an individual or group of people, he says, but rather a public change, a change in identity, authorization and empowerment.[5] This power creates space, creates relationships, and it creates, I might add, an environment in which reformation can take place. The Holy Spirit is creating public change all around us, and we are a part of that movement. The Spirit of God rests on and abides with those on whom the Spirit chooses to descend, and those touched are called to promise and practice the reforming of communities through justice, mercy, and knowledge of God.[6] We can promise together as a community of faith to contribute to this work of the Holy Spirit that sustains us all.

I am grateful to Elder Andrea Knoll for her leadership in this process, and especially to our Elders and senior high youth who honestly and thoughtfully shared their perspectives on the current and proposed new language.

At their meeting on Thursday evening, the members of the Session discussed the proposed New Covenant and I am pleased to say that they approved a new version. We will make it available to you soon and we will begin using it in November with our fall new members.

Today we celebrate the Protestant Reformation because we find ourselves, as it was 500 years ago, beginning. The Road to Emmaus story and the events that follow come at the end of Luke’s Gospel, but for the disciples, for all of us, the story is just beginning.

Our Third Graders begin new practices today and in moments we will welcome young Sylvia into the faith through baptism. This marks a beginning for Sylvia and her family and for all of us as we welcome her into the faith. And in less than three months construction will end, and we will continue our parallel practices of moving and remaining, going out and being in this place, practicing and re-forming, as we respond to God’s active presence for the life of the world. Just as the disciples were on the Road to Emmaus, we are witnesses to these things. God has blessed us as

God blessed them and like the disciples we are sent and we stay, but we can never be the same people, for we are re-formed, and full of joy!

Thanks be to God!

Amen.

Pastoral Prayer ~10:30 am Worship

David Shinn

O Holy Triune God, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. Through the ages, you have walked alongside the church from the beginning in the upper room to the rise of empires, and from the schism to the Reformation. We the Protestants churches, heirs to the great legacies of grace alone, faith alone, and scripture alone, stand shoulder to shoulder with all believers in ecumenical and interfaith relationships for the next 500 years. On this Reformation Sunday, we give you our praise for the promise of hope and reconciliation that no barriers of human origin can divide the truth of your gospel, the salvation of your faith, and deliverance of your grace. Lead us ever forward to your holy imagination, racial reconciliation, and unity in your love. As we pray O Lord, be with our world fractured with strife, warfare and environmental devastations. Renew our minds to know when one of us is hurt, all of us hurt. Strengthen our commitment to peace and justice. Free us from our greed for profits at the cost of our beautiful creation.

Break our hearts as your heart breaks for the refugees, for the children and women who suffered cruelty beyond our imagination. On this day, we pray for our community. For the families who are walking in hospice care. May your peace surround them in this sacred time. For the families who are grieving, cover them with your comforting presence.

For all who are facing upcoming surgery, grant them healing and strength. For those who are recovering from prior surgeries, treatments, and procedures feed them with the mercy of your love

Pour out your grace for all who walk with uncertainties in their lives with employment transitions, with mental illness, and with life changes.

May your love, endless in bountiful ways, infuse our hearts with courage and wisdom.

By your endless gifts, lead us O God, this church to press on forward to build bridges, make roads, and connections with all here in this community, in our city, and in our world again and again.

And now, let us all pray the prayer that Jesus has taught us all to pray, Our Father…

[1] Fred Craddock, Luke: Interpretation: A Biblical Commentary for Preaching and Teaching (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1990), 285.

[2] Miroslav Volf and Dorothy Bass, Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian Life (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2002), 3.

[3] Scott Schauf, 2014. “Commentary on Acts 2:42-47.” Working Preacher, May 11. Accessed August 23, 2017.  http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2043.

[4] Michael Welker and John F. Hoffmeyer, God the Spirit, 1st English-language ed (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994), 74.

[5] Ibid., 74-76.

[6] Ibid., 109.

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