The Sky is Not Falling


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500 years ago, Martin Luther nailed his concerns to the church door, and the Protestant Reformation was off and running. This Sunday, we celebrate our heritage with Bach’s Cantata 80 “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”. For Presbyterians, the Reformation never ends. We are a church Reformed, yes, but always Reforming! With choir, orchestra, pageantry, comfort and challenge–Calvary is the place for you.

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This Week’s Sermon Was Drawn From the Following Scripture

Psalm 46

God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
God will help it when the morning dawns.
The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Come, behold the works of the Lord;
see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.
‘Be still, and know that I am God!
I am exalted among the nations,
I am exalted in the earth.’
The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.

 

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The Reformation at 500: Introduction[1]

Good morning sinners, saints and all variations in between. Seventeenth century Christian philosopher, Blaise Pascal wrote that “the world does not divide between saints and sinners, but between sinners who believe themselves to be saints and saints who know themselves to be sinners.” Such philosophical candor endures from the heart of the Reformation. Traditional lore tells us that the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s nailing his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg church. His protesting fire lives on in all who claim the Reformed tradition, and to be clear, the Presbyterian Church (USA) is a church reformed and always reforming.[2]

Marking “the end of the medieval and feudal world”[3] Martin Luther[4] pioneered the translating of scripture from scholastic Latin into the language of the people, using Gurenberg’s new-fangled printing press to spread the Word. The Reformation, writes Quinn Caldwell, is “one of the driving factors behind the massive increase in literacy over the last [five] centuries, and [instilled in Western cultures] that reading is a basic skill and right; if the Bible is the primary way to know God, then obviously people need to be able to read.”[5]

Here’s the thing about biblical literacy. Once we grasp own understanding the ministry of Jesus, we begin to expect more from our churches, our governments and ourselves. Upon learning of the egalitarian love of Jesus, slaves could to remain slaves. After studying God’s unconditional love, women and LGBT people can never be expected to sit down and accept less-than status, not ever again.

“Simul Justus et peccator” in a Ford Fairlane

One of my earliest memories of my mother teaching me about the love of Jesus was when she was driving us to town to go shopping for new school clothes. As we drove out of our little rural north Georgia community, we passed by a few houses where the African-American woman I knew only as “Mrs. Waters” lived with her family. Mrs. Waters used to watch me every now and then, and she was always made me feel good whenever I saw her. Driving our1967 Ford Fairlane, my mother stopped the car in the middle of the road, as I stood beside her on the bench seat, she talked to me. “Victor, I want to tell you something, and you need to remember this. Don’t you ever let anybody tell you that you are better than anybody else.” Okay, I thought. Why is she intense right now? “You’re not in trouble, but people will try to tell you that you’re better than Mrs. Waters’ family because you’re white. We are no better than anybody else.” Then, as she started to drive on, she stopped the car again abruptly and looked me in the eye. “We’re not any worse, either.”

Sinner & Saint: Always Both

Luther taught that all people are simul justus et peccator simultaneously righteous and sinful, and this includes Luther. His anti-Semitism, and all the unjust privilege is implied, has no place in today’s world. So we are quick to confess: the church is Reformed, but we would do well to keep on reforming since are called to constant repentance (change), since we are to stay out of God’s way, and let God be God.

Only God is God

Current day Presbyterian and Bay Area native, Anne Lammott, understands the sovereignty of God. She knows that in the Jewish tradition, God is so holy, we dare not even speak the name of God. So much more important reigns Divine Mystery than limited human knowledge. So, Anne Lammott resorted to calling God “Not Me.” Not Me—the one who is, was and will be when we are no more. The Great Not Me. Only God is God.

Prayer for Illumination

From Psalm 46, let us pray for illumination using the words the Psalmist attributes to God.

Be still and know that I AM God… Be still and know that I AM… Be still and know…  Be still…  Be…

Priesthood of All Believers

Thank you, Margaux. Did you know that Margaux is a priest? It’s true. Guess what? So are you! You are a priest. The Reformation gave us the theology called the priesthood of all believers. You have direct access to God. We are all ministers of God’s church, serving as instruments of love, compassion and peace.

“Spiritual Populism” & Democracy

Such Reformed populism gave rise to democracy, and it spread throughout Europe. Unfortunately, as with any ideal, populism can go too far, just as patriotism can go too far and lead us into the sin of nationalism.[6] Although I love this country above all other, I confess that we, as human beings, are not any “better” than anybody else, nor any worse. So, on this day, I declare that the nationalistic America First Doctrine needs a good and swift Reformed kick in the pants. You are welcome to disagree, O priests that we are!

Indulgences

Here is the most famous catalyst for Luther’s arguments against Pope Leo X. Upon entering the cloister, Luther witnessed priests instructing people to pay the church, and their sins would be forgiven—the purchasing of indulgences. Still today, wrestle with ideas of grace being bought and sold. If you want to see me have a conniption fit, just follow Lou and I as we walk through Macy’s or Bloomingdales, usually on our way to the movies or the food court, and there it is: bottles of Grace—one product with the words “Amazing Grace” right there on it. Amazing Grace is a Three-in-One shampoo, shower gel and bubble bath. Three-in-One… get it?[7] The idea of purchasing God might a little less destructive today, but it is alive and well.

Reformation for Here & Now

This world needs the church and the new[8] Reformation, as we grow into a church that not only rails against bubble bath but understands the larger picture:

  • how people are literally dying in the streets here in the wealthiest city around.
  • how cycles of poverty are normalized through the fears of “the other.”
  • how the lust for “power over” plays out in global politics.
  • how the seas are warming and hurricanes are now striking Ireland(!), turning the sky red.[9]
  • how our government is behaving like a plastic reality show.
  • how mental healthcare professionals cannot keep up with current demand.

That feeling—like the sky is closing in on us—we know that feeling. Perhaps it has been known since history began. Did you know that “according to the World Bank…those who earn $34,000 a year are in the top 1% globally.”[10] Martin Luther wrote that we should not have more money than we need to support our families. Following the example of Jesus, Luther instructed us to care for those who are in need. Don’t pass them by without doing something to help. It’s daunting, but God gives us strength to face this overwhelming world.

The Eternal Good News

The composer of Psalm 46 writes about the earth changing, the nations in uproar, kingdoms tottering and the very mountains thundering, threatening to fall into the sea, reflecting the ancient worldview[11] in which the mountains actually held up the sky. When the mountains tremble, the sky is in danger of falling. This concept is much older than Chicken Little and Henny Penny; it is inscribed in our cultural DNA. We feel like the sky is falling when we witness the suffering and corruption around us. This Psalm called to Martin Luther, and he composed “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” as a riff on Psalm 46, updating it for Reformation

Ein feste Burg

I used to think we sang “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” on the Sunday before Halloween because of the scary parts: the prince of darkness grim and devils loose in the streets. Luther’s lyrics are problematic Luther found the church in a mess, and he left on a trajectory of reform. I urge you to google Luther’s 95 Theses[12] this afternoon, and see if you might agree with me that Luther’s devils and dark princes were actually the willfully mistaken priests who sold grace to fund Pope Leo’s coffers. This hymn put the protest in Protestant, but it teaches us that the sky is not falling, thanks to the Spirit, whose Word orders the universe, who reigns in perfect peace above and in spite of all earthly powers. Our Savior dwells in the midst of the city and renews us with every morning. Our Lord loves us unconditionally, sinful saints as we are, and is the only One who can forgive us, really forgive us. And praise the Love that will never let us go. So, give thanks to God, the One who was and is and shall be evermore.

[1] A Study Guide for the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, Stillspeaking Writers Group, United Church of Christ, 2017. This sermon is inspired by this plucky resource from the UCC.

[2] Reformata semper reformanda (Latin) This motto (The church reformed and always reforming) has been adopted by the PC(USA) and other Reformed denominations to symbolize the need for constant improvement, since we are sinners doing God’s holy work in the world.

[3] Anthony Robinson, A Study Guide…, p. 3.

[4] Martin Luther (1483-1546)  Eisenban, Germany

[5] Quinn G. Caldwell, A Study Guide…

[6] Shirley Guthrie, Christian Doctrine (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), 34.

[7] The Trinity… Oy vey!

[8] Michael Redding, “Christian Transhumanism is the Next Reformation” available online at <https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/christian-transhumanism-is-the-next-reformation_us_59e40d37e4b09e31db975a6c> Do you think Redding is right?

[9] https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/10/hurricane-ophelia-tropical-storm-ireland-red-skies-fires-science-spd/

[10] Matt Laney, Stillspeaking Daily Devotional, United Church of Christ, October 29, 2017, accessed online at <http://www.ucc.org/daily_devotional_1?utm_campaign=dd_oct29_17&utm_medium=email&utm_source=unitedchurchofchrist> (October 29, 2017)

[11] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biblical_cosmology

[12] http://www.luther.de/en/95thesen.html

 

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