October 25 Sermon

Crying, Calling, and Singing
A sermon for Reformation Sunday
Rev. Dr. Thom Bower

Jeremiah 31:31-34
In these beautiful words, God speaks through the prophet Jeremiah of a covenant not recorded externally on stone but written deep inside, on the very hearts of the people. Like previous promises, God speaks of the responsibilities that God will take on, but God also states that people have responsibilities in this covenant. Although this comes from a time some 500 years before Jesus, this promise has been read by many generations of Christians as a promise of a law of love fulfilled in Christ written on the hearts of all people. Listen now and consider those things that God has written in your heart.
The time is coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah. 32 It won’t be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt. They broke that covenant with me even though I was their husband, declares the LORD. 33 No, this is the covenant that I will make with the people of Israel after that time, declares the LORD. I will put my Instructions within them and engrave them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 34 They will no longer need to teach each other to say, “Know the LORD!” because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD; for I will forgive their wrongdoing and never again remember their sins. (Common English Bible )

There are many ways we could celebrate Reformation Day. It could be a day for telling the story of Martin Luther. It could be a day for comparing Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli, the three big figures of the 16th Century Reformation. It could be a say to lift up the many individuals who have aided us in expanding our understanding of being the church. It could be a day for remembering the numerous firsts that are part of the UCC. What I have chosen for today is to remember the heritage we in the UCC have received from the four denominations that preceded the UCC, emphasizing that heritage through hymns.
We begin with the Congregationalists, who were very early social activists.What is at the foundation of their social vision is a sense of the inherent goodness throughout God’s creation. We will hear that as we sing an Isaac Watts hymn, O God, Our Help in Ages Past (verses 1 & 3)
O God, our help in ages past,
our hope for years to come,
our shelter from the stormy blast,
and our eternal home.

Before the hills in order stood,
or earth received her frame,
from everlasting thou art God,
to endless years the same.

Those who call themselves Christian are a rather unique American religious tradition. They claim for us that what makes us Christian is not ascent to a historic creed or established tradition but rather that we behave as followers of Christ. From that tradition we sing “We Call Ourselves Disciples”. (verses 1 & 4)
We call ourselves disciples,
as pilgrims on the way.
We seek the truth in wisdom,
and beauty in each day.
As women, men, and children,
we serve, Christ’s path to clear.
In joyful expectation
we see God’s reign draw near.

We join with all disciples
to live the Word in deed,
to share the cup of water
and bread with all in need;
to work till God’s compassion
and righteousness prevail,
till all this planet’s people
know justice without fail.
In the UCC We have inherited two different German Protestant traditions: German Reformed and German Evangelical. It can be difficult to keep the two traditions distinct: both used catechisms, both placed worship at the center for their community live, both valued systematic theology. The German Reformed tradition emphasized how traditional creeds shape our individual faith and keep us aligned with the historic faith of our ancestors. This is a confessional faith, meaning it is connected both to the ancient confessions and our ability to confess what we believe. One of the best known hymns from the German Reformed tradition is “Jesus, I live to You” by Henry Harbaugh (verses 1 & 4).
Jesus, I live to you,
the loveliest and best;
my life ill be your life in me,
in your blessed love I rest.

Living or dying, Lord,
I ask but to be your own;
my life will be your life in me,
and heaven in earth be known.

Generally speaking, the German Evangelical tradition was more of a pietistic than confessional faith, meaning it was more about the practice of faith than assent to the confessions and creeds. That is an over generalization, but for today it helps us make sense of the difference. Our German Evangelical ancestors are often described as irenic in character: they desired to live at peace with their congregation, their neighbors, and their community. We hear that emphasis in the hymn “Now Thank We All Our God” (verses 1 &2).
Now thank we all our God,
with heart and hands and voices,
who wondrous things has done,
in whom this world rejoices;
who, from our mothers’ arms,
has blessed us on our way
with countless gifts of love,
and still is ours today.

O may this bounteous God
through all our life be near us,
with ever joyful hearts
and blessed peace to cheer us;
and keep us in his grace
and guide us when perplexed,
and free us from all ills
in this world and the next!

All four of these traditions would recognize the importance of Martin Luther. Our reflection hymn is a standard for reformation day. Written by Martin Luther, the first verse describes God as a castle, and goes on to describe the various ways God protects us: “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”.
A mighty fortress is our God,
a bulwark never failing,
our present helper amid the flood
of mortal ills prevailing.
For still our ancient foe
doth seek to work us woe,
with craft and power great,
and, armed with cruel hate,
on earth without an equal.

Did we in our own strength confide,
our striving would be losing,
but there is one who takes our side
the one of God’s own choosing.
You ask who that may be?
Christ Jesus, it is he
with mighty power to save
victorious o’er the grave
Christ will prevail triumphant!

And though this world with devils filled,
should threaten to undo us,
we will not fear, for God hath willed
the truth to triumph through us.
The powers of darkness grim,
we tremble not for them;
their rage we can endure,
for lo, their doom is sure:
One little word shall fell them.

God’s word above all earthly powers,
no thanks to them, abideth.
The Spirit and the gifts are ours,
through Christ, who with us sideth.
Let goods and kindred go,
this mortal life also.
The body they may kill,
God’s truth abideth still,
God’s reign endures forever.

 

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