Date: October 29, 2017
Preaching: The Rev. Donna M.L. Pritchard
Scripture: 2 Corinthians 4:7-18
Do you like puzzles? It is a particular way of playing – putting puzzles together. It means you have to try things out, and it includes trial and error. Puzzling requires imagination and creativity, while it implies ambiguity and the subsequent series of successes as well as failures. Puzzle play also means re-forming, changing the old to discover the new. That process of dismantling what we have and taking it apart can be painful. For some, it feels like nothing more than destruction, as things we formerly created begin to change. And change of any kind is not always easy. It is not always neat and seldom is it simple. In the history of the world, change has often led to unrest, arguments, even to war.
When the Commission on a Way Forward met in Berlin recently, we had the opportunity to travel to Wittenberg, Germany, the site where it all happened, where 500 years ago Martin Luther, a Roman Catholic monk, looked at the state of his church and compiled a list of 95 things he felt needed to change. Luther wrote down 95 theses and mailed them to the archbishop, not knowing he was about to launch the Protestant Reformation.
In studying Paul’s letter to the Romans, Luther had latched onto Paul’s statement that “a person is justified by faith, apart from works of the law.” Luther’s conviction about the truth of that statement, and his subsequent theology of sola fide – faith alone – expressed his trust in the unconditional nature of God’s love. That same conviction led him to preach against what he saw as abuses of the Church’s power, things like the selling of “indulgences”, kind of “get-out-of-hell-free” cards. For a fee, laity could have their sins forgiven. And it worked for past sins you regretted, and you could also pay ahead – sort of a lay-away for future sins!
Together with other “alone” statements – Christ alone, Grace alone, Scripture alone – Luther lit the fuse and the Reformation took off like wildfire in 1517, leading to church services with understandable sermons preached in the local language; and Holy Communion with bread and wine served to all; and eventually, even to the Bible being translated into German and made available for all to read.
Reformation causes disruption. It often requires a dismantling of what “is” in order to make possible what “can be”. I think of a beautiful Monarch butterfly. We all know it didn’t start out life that beautifully. It took some disruption, some reformation to go from crawling to flight, and that very disruption becomes a part of the solution for new life.
When the Psalmist suggests The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone, and when that passage is used in relation to Jesus’ own death and resurrection, it makes me wonder if perhaps the solution – the re-formation we seek will be found in that which has been rejected itself. Martin Luther found his cornerstone in Paul’s understanding of the priesthood of all believers. And on May 24, 1738, John Wesley stumbled upon his cornerstone when he heard Luther’s preface to the book of Romans read in an Aldersgate Street Bible study.
Suddenly, Wesley said, I felt my heart strangely warmed… as he found that same cornerstone of God’s unconditional love, a pure gift given through faith alone. And the rest – as they say – is history for us: Wesley’s development of classes and societies, small groups formed for spiritual growth and accountability; theological discussions which morphed into “holy conferences” where questions of what to teach and what to do continue to be asked; theological differences which have managed until now to lives side by side using Wesley’s oft-repeated injunction: If your heart is as my heart, if you love God and all humanity, I ask no more; if your heart is as my heart, give me your hand.
Many of us have found similar cornerstones in the theology of full inclusion and the insistence on God’s unconditional love lived out in justice for all of creation – people and planet alike. Yet still the question confronts us… how will we deal with change, how can we welcome the disruptions of reformation in our time? In the quickly and dramatically changing world which Luther faced in 1517, and which we face even more so in 2017, church business as usual will no longer cut it. Our future will not look the same as our past.
So is it possible for us to view change as part of a life-giving, renewing process, even when it feels as if the bridges have broken apart and we are not certain how we will get from “here” to “there”? I believe it is possible. And I believe we are called to risk the crossing, to re-make the bridge, to create a church, a world and our own lives that are bigger than they are right now.
Because I also believe reformation is always happening. And reformation is always possible when we return to the cornerstone of God’s love. St Paul reminds us of the treasure we share – our connection with God and with the world God loves. And then he goes on to point out we carry this treasure in jars of clay, in something that is fragile, vulnerable, and easily broken. The challenge for us is to remain more attached to the content – God’s Gospel of love and justice – than we are to the container – the Church as we know it.
It helps to be reminded that if the container is at risk, the treasure is still strong…
We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed
Perplexed but not in despair
Persecuted, but not abandoned
Struck down, but not destroyed…
Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.
The clay jar may fall away, but the treasure will remain through every instance and every moment of reformation, every day. Thanks be to God! Amen.