Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Reformation can cause chaos

Jeremiah 31:31-34; Romans 3:19-28; John 8:31-36

2500 years ago, the Jewish world was thrown into chaos when the Babylonian army conquered the kingdom of Judah and then Jerusalem and transported most of the population into exile. Jeremiah had warned and warned about dire events about to happen if the people didn’t repent and return to obeying the Lord.

Once in exile, Jeremiah gave some comforting words as well, such as these in our first reading. God’s Law is written on our hearts, so if we turn first to God, all the rest will fall into place. The promise of a new, renewed covenant will result in a faithful people, and a loving relationship between God and God’s people. In the midst of exile and chaos, God’s people heard an encouraging word.

2000 years ago, Jesus renewed the covenant in an entirely new way by telling his listeners over and over again that believing in him led to new life. Their relationship with God did not depend upon the rituals they practiced, but in giving God their hearts, by trusting in Jesus. We don’t know how many people had already come to believe in Jesus before he died, but after his death and resurrection, Luke reports thousands at a time came to faith. In the synagogues and in the Roman Empire, chaos emerged, along with persecutions and dissension.

Perhaps 20 - 25 years after Jesus died and was raised – probably in the years 55 to 56 – Paul wrote this letter to the Romans. In it he reinforces what he perceived as Jesus’ key message. No one will be made right with God by doing the right things or performing perfect religious practices. We are made right with God only through God’s gift of grace through our faith in Jesus. Paul reinforced the message, and in various ways encouraged the believers who found themselves in the midst of uncertain chaos.

500 years ago, the Christian world was thrown into chaos. Father Martin Luther had begun actually reading his Bible and discerned that some of the church’s teachings were inconsistent with what he was reading.

Some of Luther’s key objections were:

- the sale of indulgences – paying for forgiveness of sins

- the requirement that clergy be celibate

- the practice of offering only bread at Holy Communion

- the Scriptures only available in Latin, and kept in the church, so only priests could read it

- the authority of the Pope

Others, like Johannes Hus and John Wycliffe, had tried to reform the church, and been killed for their faith-filled efforts. What made the difference for Luther was Gutenberg’s moveable type printing press, which made Luther’s writings available to the common person. Within days Luther’s articles were in print throughout Europe. And, of course, chaos ensued.

Parishioners responded by leaving what is now called the Roman Catholic Church and a separate church body was formed. As other theologians and scholars, like Zwingli and Calvin, got involved in the reform movement, they had many differences with each other as well, which is why we have so many denominations within Protestantism.

The 1500s were a chaotic, uncertain time in the Church with a Capital “C.” There were wars between Protestant groups and with the Roman Catholics. The various denominations wrote hateful things about each other, refusing to accept each others’ theologies and practices as equally valid. In the midst of the chaos, God’s message of love and grace was still heard and spread abroad. Luther clung to the promises of God to be with him always, and daily reminded himself that he had been baptized. Therefore all would be well, no matter what.

Some of those hateful messages have only been erased in recent years. For example, the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification was signed ten years ago by Catholics and Lutherans. This was a major accomplishment, that we were able to find agreement on a key element of Reformation faith: We are justified by grace through our faith in Jesus Christ. We are made right with God because God loves and forgives us, and we know this through the life death and resurrection of Jesus.

Fast-forward to present day Hope Evangelical Lutheran Church in Citrus Springs, FL. You may or may not have observed that the last several months have seemed somewhat chaotic at Hope as well. I have been asked to share with you some comments I made at the last finance committee meeting.

· Income is down, and spending is up.

· Full-time pastors cost significantly more than part-time or interim pastors. Even before people left Hope, the income was not enough to fully support this extra expense, and we were taking money from the cash reserves. We continue to draw down those reserves.

· Cash reserves are finite, and shrinking.

· Spending has been pared to the basic essentials, including utilities.

· Attendance and membership is down, because a number of families have left, for a variety of reasons.

· Some people have returned, who had been inactive for years.

· A few families have joined in participation, if not in membership.

· Most people agree Hope needs a full-time pastor in order to grow and minister the way God is calling us to do.

· New programs are in place, or are beginning: monthly healing service; evening adult Bible study; additional Sunday morning studies; we have learned and come to enjoy new liturgical settings in worship; Jason and Catherine have joined the staff and continue to bless us with their musical gifts; the booth at Dunnellon First Saturday event draws repeat visitors asking for prayers as well as new visitors each month; adult leaders are trying to pull together a youth group; the pastors at Hope, Good Shepherd and St. Timothy are working to see what we can do together, beyond the Women of the ELCA invitational gatherings.

· We love to eat, and a lot of people stay for fellowship after worship, and a good number participate in Round Robin dinners.

· We have begun to do intentional stewardship campaigns, to increase giving as a response to God’s goodness, and as a sign of our trust in God to provide whatever we need. Today, the Stewardship committee hopes you will come back tonight at 5 for a pot luck supper to celebrate the end of the financial campaign.

· We have begun to be more intentional about evangelism: advertising more events; being present in Dunnellon; offering points of entry like VBS, the Pet Blessing and Trunk or Treat.

· When we focus on mission, people and money will come, but it must be in that order. Let me say that again. When we focus on mission, the people and the money will – yes, will! – come.

· One of those missions is already happening. Yesterday was our first pick up of food for Angel Food Ministries. That ministry will bring people into our building, will help feed hungry people, will demonstrate our willingness to serve in the community, will give people looking for ways to volunteer an opportunity to do so, and will share the good news of Jesus Christ in a very tangible way.

· We have a visioning process, called GPS-4-Hope, in place to help us gain focus. We continue to ask “what is our mission in this time and this place?” As part of that process, we want to know what you think Hope does well. In your bulletin, you’ll find a Post-it® or two. Please take a moment to write on the note some things we do well. After worship, please put them on the GPS-4-Hope board in the narthex.

With the uncertainty some folks at Hope are experiencing, we can look to the Scriptures and to God for the same reassurances our forebears in the faith have relied upon. God has not and will never abandon us. We have been called for God’s purposes in this time and in this place. We are called to put our focus on mission and trust that the money will come. It won’t be instantaneous, but it will come.

In the meantime, we are called to trust in God to provide whatever we need, even if that means digging deeper than we thought was possible into our pockets to support the ministries of Hope. In that way we will learn even more to put our trust in God.

When Jeremiah, Jesus, Paul, and Luther and the other reformers began to turn the world upside down with their insights, it made their world chaotic, but they stuck to the message: God loves you enough to live and die for you, and this is a free gift. Today, in our chaotic, scary world, the same message holds true.

It’s a message that is different from many of our Christian sisters and brothers. Lutherans read all of Scripture this way: the gift of grace is free and available to all who ask for it. There is nothing we can do to earn it, and it can’t be taken away from us.

Two weeks ago, I invited you to pray about your financial commitment to the mission and ministries of Hope. Now is the time to fill them out and turn them in. If your circumstances change, you can always change your commitment, so please turn one in as you consider all the good ministry Hope does, for, with, and through you.

Remember to fill in your Post-it with a couple things we do well here.

Your challenge for this week is this: As you consider the good news of God’s love and forgiveness, given freely to all of us, watch for an opportunity to share it with someone this week. I can promise you that if you pray for God to give you the opportunity, you will have at least one. And, God will put the right words in your mouth, and help the person you are talking with to hear them.

Please pray with me: Holy and Gracious God, we try hard to trust in you, in good times and scary, chaotic times. Forgive us when we struggle and fail to trust. Continue to pour out your blessings on us, now and always. In Jesus’ name, amen