Over the past five weeks we have met here on Sunday nights and had a crash course in American history and tracked the story of religion in America. We have made many discoveries and had some great discussions. One of things we have been reminded of, is that the original puritans who ventured across the ocean did so, seeking religious liberty. They were seeking the ability to worship without persecution. Convinced that the Church of England was hopelessly corrupt, Protestant reformers known as Pilgrims broke with the church, left England and establish a colony in present-day Plymouth, Mass. The pilgrims strove to establish the purist community they could, in order to fully please God and be rewarded.
Religious scholar Scot Prethero commented, that “The Puritan experiment of saying, "We're going to do something totally new'' starts out with this impulse of giving authority back to the individual” The Catholics are saying, "OK, the Pope will tell you how to read the Bible. The Pope will tell you how to be a Christian.'' And Protestants say, "No, no, no, no, no! Pope? That's not the Pope's job. We can read the Bible for ourselves. We will see how God tells us how to be.''
That's the Protestant imagination that's inside these Puritans who are coming over. It's a rebellious notion. But it's also a dangerous notion. I mean, how are you going to set up a society where everybody is reading the key document? If everybody can read the Bible for themselves, how are you going hold society together?
Since the beginning, that has been the great question, how do you form a society where you have freedom of thought and yet you have basic fundamental values that hold you together, like the motto of the United States that was established in 1776, e pluribus unum, out of many, one. Furthermore, what happens when those values are tested, or no longer valued? Throughout history societies have lost their moral compass and God has sent prophets to remind His people who they are and who God is,
The prophet Jeremiah is a facing a population of people that has been disobedient to God and the believe they have been severely punished for it, by losing their city to the Babylonians and becoming refugees. They believe God has abandoned them, and they believe it was of their own doing. And now the prophet has to figure out how to preach hope to people in despair, without hope for a future. Jeremiah says God is willing to try again, and will create a new covenant, and his law will be on the hearts of each person.
It is not enough for God restore the people to the land, they must be changed themselves. Here God promises to heal them from the inside out. God will change not only their outward circumstances, but their very hearts.
You have to be in a rainy day, the game was cancelled, I have the flu, sort of mood when you read Jeremiah. You have to be a certain mood about the state of the world to really appreciate what Jeremiah is getting at. And that basic mood is a feeling of weariness – The people look around at the state of the world and all they is sin and the results of living in a sinful society and they really see more evil than good and they don’t have much hope for things to get better. They are a weary people. It’s at that point and only at this point that Jeremiah’s words can be heard and he proclaims a new covenant, and new relationship that says to the people, you will know God again. God will not forsake his people.
Now, hold that thought, and time travel with me a few centuries to the next prophetic voice, which is Jesus’ words found in the Gospel of John where upon he is speaking to potential disciples… people who are leaders in the synagogues, God’s faithful people, and Jesus looks at the people and observes that they are slaves – and the leaders in the synagogue look around and think, “I’m not enslaved,” and Jesus says, “look again.” He says, “If you abide and remain in my word,” Jesus told them, “you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” But they not understand. “What do you mean you will free us?” We’re descendants of Abraham. We are not slaves to anyone so how can you free us?
Jesus goes on to say, “Very truly I tell you everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the Son has a place there forever. So, if the Son makes you free, you will be free, you are already free, indeed.”
Jesus wants them to see and understand if you are do not abide and remain in the word of God, then you are abiding and remaining in something or someone else. And if you are follower of someone or something else, then you are a slave to it. Think of all the things we worship besides Jesus. We are followers of greed, lust, pride, shame, gluttony, anger.
As another pastor has written, “If you do not sense your own captivity, your own brokenness, your own sense of slavery, then you are not going to [be able to] fully hold the gospel and that freedom [that comes from it]” (David Lose, www.workingpreacher.org).
So, remember – prophet #1, Jeremiah tells people who are enslaved by sin and fear God that God will intercede and create a new covenant and that they will know God again. And then God sends Jesus, who tells his potential disciples that if they want to be free from sin they should abide in his Word. – Are you seeing a pattern?
And now we time jump another few centuries again, to only 500 years ago, and another prophet, who had no desire to be prophetic, but felt that the sin of the church had enslaved the church to sin. Martin Luther was an Augustinian monk, a priest and a scholar. He was also terrified. Like most of the people of his age, he believed that the deck was stacked against him. Life was short and brutal and over it all was a stern, judgmental God, an angry, fearsome God. At the end there was a hell of eternal torment. A person’s only hope was to make some kind of peace with that angry God. Life for many people, Martin Luther among them, was an unhappy struggle to be good enough and to do enough good to persuade God to be less angry and perhaps assign your soul to heaven after an appropriate time in purgatory. The church held the keys. Luther was consumed with trying to please God—“to get to a gracious God,” he put it. He prayed and fasted and went on pilgrimages, even inflicted pain on himself by flagellation, did a pilgrimage to Rome to reinforce his faith and trust in God, and climbed up the long staircase on his knees. Nothing worked.
It was in his monk’s cell, at his desk, preparing a series of lectures on Paul’s Letter to the Romans that the moment of understanding happened. “Therefore, since we are justified by faith,” Paul had written centuries before, “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to the grace in which we stand.” Luther said it was as if the truth in all its fullness burst upon him and the gates of paradise flew open.
The church, Luther’s church, had it all backwards. You don’t have to persuade God to be gracious by praying, by attending masses, by going to confession, by fasting and self-flagellating. God is already gracious. You don’t have to persuade God to be loving. God already loves. God is love. God sent the only begotten son not to condemn, but to save because of love.
That simple realization shook the foundation not only of the medieval church but all of society. God is good. God is merciful and kind. People don’t have to live in fear, dreading the end of life. Instead people who know the good news can live in peace with God, in gratitude and in joy. Luther’s new faith, and new church built on it, were not full of guilt and fear, but confidence and joy.
The Reformation represented a new way of thinking about God and what it meant to be a faithful person. Luther was free of sin, not by his own doing, but by God’s grace.
Again and again throughout history, God has spoken and tried move us away from whatever holds us back from keeping Christ at the center.
That bring us to today, 500 years after Luther, 2000 years after Jesus spoke these words, 3000 years after Jeremiah promised a new covenant – where are we today?
In the year of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, churches in the United States are closing before new theses can be posted on their doors. Many within the mainline Protestant church are mourning the foreseen death of the institution that has given shape to their sense of common life, a grounding center in our society for generations.
American Christianity is in trouble. We are in a Jeremiah state of mind.
One writer defines the problem this way, “The mainline church suffers from its affiliation with the broader cultural trends of Christian exclusivism, threatened by its own lack of integrity and openness to reform. Facing the decline of young-adult participation, the church’s future lies nonetheless in the hands of millennials, more than one third of whom identify as non-religious. According to the Pew Research Center, rises in the category of “Nones” are not limited to any demographic category; people across racial, socioeconomic, and regional lines have shed religious labels or never inherited them. On the other hand, studies show that the need for “soulful community” is clearly present with the sense of isolation reported by young adults, exacerbated by endless mobility and political turmoil. She concludes, yet with only two in ten millennials claiming church attendance as important, the institution needs to check its privilege, examine its relevance to “outsiders,” and reconnect with its spiritual practices.
To be clear, while millennials are forging new paths of spiritual engagement still yearn for a tradition, for tradition offers resilience in the face of tragedy and loss. So, we stand a paradox between the two values: tradition and reformation. We have been here before.
Today we sit upon the 500th anniversary of the reformation. A day Martin Luther implored change in the church, lest they lose their way. I’m certain he had no idea the ways in which the church has continue to reform itself since then. I don’t know if he thought the church would die, but I do believe he felt it had lost its soul. Jesus looked out at potential disciples and saw that they were slaves to sin. Jeremiah cried out to his people and sees that they have broken the covenant God made with them. What is the church today to do? Trust. Abide. Follow.
1God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
2Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
3though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
5God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns.
6The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts.
7The Lord of hosts is with us.
10“Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.”
11The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.