Reform & Transform
a reflection by Rev. Dr. Thom Bower
for October 30, 2016, Reformation Sunday
based on Jeremiah 31:31-34
Yesterday I was doing laundry. We recently replaced dryer sheets with balls of wool that are about the size of tennis balls. As far as keeping our clothes soft and static free, they seem to be working well – and since both of us are highly sensitive to chemicals we both feel better since eliminating one chemical product from our lives. The problem I have seen is these balls are impossible to find when taking the laundry out of the dryer. I was thinking yesterday, “Maybe we should find a way to implant miniature GPS trackers into the balls so they are easier to locate within the laundry basket.” It just shows what a geek I can be sometimes.
Having a holiday like Reformation Day totally dedicated to history is dangerous for someone like me. I could really indulge the geeky bookworm part of my personality. Three things hold me back. First, I know not everyone in the sanctuary is a geeky bookworm who loves history. Second, this is not open mic night where I get to just say anything I like: I have been entrusted with a responsibility to edify the church. Third, this is not a lecture hall. This is worship, and I am entrusted to deliver a sermon – not a history lesson.
But, as one reviews the 2000 or so years of church history, several themes emerge. The church has always had certain ministries. At the core have been preaching and teaching, healing and justice, singing psalms and studying scripture, the administration of resources and the ability to work with others who are different, providing sanctuary and sending out to do mission.
In the past ten years the UCC has been working with what it is calling Marks of Effective and Faithful Ministry. You will become more familiar with these qualities in the next few months, because they have been used to organize the new profile system used for pastors and congregations. You’ll be using this list to describe the kind of pastor who you desire, and you’ll be reviewing profiles of pastors who use this list to describe themselves. It is not a perfect tool, but it is intended to represent the wide diversity found in UCC congregations and among the pastors who serve them.
A second theme which emerges across two thousand years of history is that the church has been both at the forefront of social justice and the perpetuator or grave injustices. The president of my seminary started every sermon the same way: “Hello Saints!” “Hello Sinners!” That was not original with him: he was borrowing from Martin Luther, who pointed out that each of us is a combination of saint and sinner – and thus the church is a collection of saints and sinners gathered together, all seeking God’s forgiveness and grace.
As an organized religion, we have done some great injustices – and we have done some great deeds of justice going against cultural norms. Discerning how to be on the side of God’s justice has never been easy, and we continue to engage in that difficult work. I believe the UCC – as a denomination and in most of its congregations – sincerely wrestles with the issues of systemic injustice.
Where do I see Lyonsville in that work? Your history of being Open and Affirming is inspiring, and your ongoing work around providing adequate food is exciting. You could be more deliberate in being a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic congregation.
And that is another theme that pervades the two thousand years of church history. The church has always been adapting to the cultures of the people that make up the church. The ways we gather, the ways we worship, the ways sing, the ways we pray, the ways we love our neighbor: these are all culturally shaped. Culture is never static; it changes over time. Sometimes those changes are sudden and disruptive, sometimes those changes are subtle and spread across decades or generations.
During the past century, our culture has been navigating changes with increasing rapidity. That has complicated the cultural role of the church. Are we to embrace change as a sign of God’s transformative power or are we to resist change as a demonstration of God’s constancy and unchanging nature? There is not a right or wrong answer to that question, and it is a question the church has been dealing with for two thousand years. Indeed, one could argue that struggle is the very core of the Christian scriptures, was part of the ministry of Jesus, and part of the story told throughout the bible. How much can people of faith conform to their culture and still be faithful – and what should people of faith do when their faith calls them to live differently than their culture?
In what ways will our culture bend next? I wish I had a way to predict how our culture will change. If I were any good at them, I would be rich – and if I have learned anything from this election season it is that I am not good at making predictions. Nevertheless, I am able to trust that God is guiding the church to be more faithful in the future. If we continue to uphold the core works which have been at the center of the church’s life for two thousand – not to the easy answers but the complexity of ministry – then God will continue to invite us to be transformed in ways that demonstrate God’s instructions have been written on our hearts.
I have no doubt the ways we live out those divine instructions will be different in the future, because I believe God is nudging all of creation into greater alignment with God’s intended purposes. I also believe that by reviewing the faith of our ancestors we are provided with some characteristics of consistency which may inspire us to faithful living.
Being faithful is not easy. I don’t think it has ever been simplistic. I do believe, though, it is easier to be faithful when we seek to discern God’s presence with others. I also believe we are called to do that work of discerning with others as diligently and adamantly as we can, for it is in our shared life together that our faith is strongest.