A Sermon Preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church
October 30, 2011
Today is the day we celebrate Reformation Sunday, the day in October 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his 95 complaints to the door of the Cathedral in Wittenberg. (As an aside, looking out at the doors to our church, the Building and Grounds Committee would request that you not use nails, or masking tape, when attaching your 95 complaints to our double glass doors.)
Actually, Luther didn’t use nails either. He presented his 95 theses to the officials in Wittenberg, intending to start a conversation, not intending to found a new religious movement.
Anyhow, the church remembers that day as the day the Protestant Reformation begins. I have a Catholic friend who refers to it as the “Protestant Revolt”.
One of my professors thinks it is wrong to remember this day in worship because we shouldn’t celebrate schism in the church. And it is true that this day marks the day we separated from the Roman Catholic church. It has taken 500 years to be able to call each other brother and sister in Christ again. We still haven’t fully reconciled that relationship. Yes, we prayerfully acknowledge the brokenness of our relationships as we think back on what it means to be a part of the religious tradition that grew out of a schism. We pray to be reconcilers and not dividers.
Yet, here we are, singing A Mighty Fortress is our God, the one hymn written by Martin Luther that we can still stand to sing. And the prayer of confession this morning is from the liturgy of Martin Bucer’s church in Strassburg from the mid 16th century, language that for me, at least, is beautiful and uncomfortable in equal measure. Why then, do we pause this day to remember Martin Luther’s act of defiance, his stand for the gospel, his cry of change for the church he loved?
For one thing, I think it is good to remember from whence we came. It is good to remember that our reforming spirit is built into our very creation.
We are the church reformed and ever reforming. It doesn’t mean we are the church of what’s hip now, abandoning the past and our tradition. It means that we trust that God didn’t finish speaking to the church when the Bible was canonized.
It means we trust that God was still speaking new words to the church in 1517 and that God is still speaking to us now.
Here is the language from the Book of Order:
“The church affirms Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda secundum verbum Dei, that is, “The church reformed, always to be reformed according to the Word of God” in the power of the Spirit.” (F-2.02)
Isn’t it great that we are part of a church that talks about reforming and doing new things, but we say it in Latin, a dead language? I love that about being Presbyterian. We look back while we’re looking forward.
And so, as we navigate who we are being called to be today, almost 500 years after Martin Luther, Jean Calvin, and the other Reformers, we have to listen to their voices, to remember what it was like to speak a truth about the Gospel that was inconvenient, unpopular, and enough to get them kicked out of the church.
But we especially need to listen for God’s voice. Because we are reformed according to the Word of God.
In our scripture passage this morning Joshua is leading the people. Moses has been buried and it is time for the people to finally, finally, finally, enter the Promised Land.
But there is the matter of a wide, wide river to cross. And remember how they crossed that last big river? Moses stood there with his staff and kept the waters parted.
But Moses isn’t here anymore.
There is a new leader in town.
And God tells Joshua, “here’s the deal. You’ve got a river to cross. But we’re not going to do it the same way we did it last time. Because you’ve not been this way before. Here’s the plan.”
And so Joshua tells the people how it will go. Rather than having Joshua hold up Moses’ staff, one representative from each of the tribes is to be with the priests as they carry the Ark of the Covenant into the water. Once they are all in the water, the waters will recede, allowing them to get across. This is a more representative, a more democratic, show of God’s strength—with one person from each tribe instead of just Joshua.
And for the representatives of the 12 tribes, who were assigned to walk into a raging river with the Ark of the Covenant, they showed the people what it means to trust the God who had brought them all the way through their journey.
But you know, you just know, that someone was standing on the banks of the river saying, “that’s not how Moses would have done it.”
Because, at our core, we are ambivalent about change. No matter how much we want to head into the Promised Land, and into the new future that God is preparing for us, we seek the comfort of the familiar, of the past, of nostalgia for the way things used to be. Because we’ve not been this way before, as God tells Joshua. This is a new path we are on. There is no map to guide us because we are, in some ways, making our own map as we go.
That’s not entirely true, of course. God is going before us.
“I will be with you as I was with Moses,” God tells Joshua. So we just need to figure out how to follow God into this new future.
How do we know we are on the right path, going where God would have us go?
It doesn’t always mean to follow where everyone else is going. A few weeks ago at the Boise City Cross Country Meet, there was a crisis. The 7th and 8th graders run a 2 mile course. All went well. Then the 9th graders run a 5k, or 3.1 mile course.
Well, the leaders of the race, the fastest runners, went the wrong way. They ran the 7th and 8th grade course. And everyone followed them.
Not quite everyone. Mike and Lori Casady’s grandson Alex, a 9th grade runner at Hillside, got to the point in the course where the paths diverged. He saw that the runners ahead of him were not taking the correct path. He likely saw that the correct path was empty. And he took the correct path.
I was standing at the finish line. Joanna Dunn and I were collecting the tags from the runners as they came through the finish chutes. And when the runners started coming in 6 minutes before we were expecting them, I knew they had run the wrong race. What started out as excitement about record times turned into a realization that this race was a mess.
The runners in the middle of the pack, especially, were upset. “We were just following everyone else!”
But then, after the short course runners had finished, Alex and a few other runners came to the finish line. There was some confusion that day about what they were going to do. Did the winners actually win if they didn’t run the course?
What they eventually did was award Alex with the first place ribbon and the runners who ran the short course moved down in the results behind the kids who ran the correct race.
I keep thinking about what that decision must have been like for Alex.
Do I follow the course?
Or do I follow the crowd?
And you feel bad for the kid at the front. He didn’t want to run the wrong course. He certainly, I’m sure, didn’t want to be responsible for leading people down the wrong path.
And the kids in the middle. There are days like that, you get to your destination and realize you were following the wrong people.
You have not passed this way before, God told the people.
When you are going into uncharted waters, when you are heading out on a race course that you have not run before, you have to trust the person who set you on the journey in the first place.
Let’s think about the Reformers again for a minute. Think about what else was going on in the world at the same time as Martin Luther was taking his stand.
Gutenberg invents movable type, allowing material to be printed at a pace that changes the way information is distributed in the world.
While we know the dark ages weren’t really dark, the truth is that the beginning of the 1500’s brought forth an explosion in exploration, in art, in invention, and in thought.
Why? Why then?
Why did the Reformation happen then and not in 1200? Why not in 1700?
Edwin Friedman, in his book, “A Failure of Nerve” suggests that all of those things took place when they did because of Columbus. Before Columbus, all explorers headed East to reach the East. Which makes some sense, but it meant traveling all the way around Africa. So Columbus convinced some investment bankers, the monarchs in Spain, that if he headed West, he would reach the East.
To do this, he needed to believe that the Earth was round. Many people believed that already. But not everyone, and not everyone agreed with the size of the planet.
And he needed to sail South of the Equator, which, at the time, was presumed to be a place with no land mass and from where nobody had ever returned.
And here’s a map from the era showing how much high quality GPS he had to plan his route.
So Columbus “discovers” the Caribbean, thinking he found Asia, which you can interpret how you will. But the important thing, according to Friedman, is that Columbus made it back to Europe and broke through a barrier that had held Europeans in sway for generations—namely the idea that you couldn’t cross the Equator without falling off the planet. They had not passed this way before. And yet they made it.
Once the impossible becomes possible, then you start to wonder what else that was previously impossible might be in reach. And there are times when we need to bring that sense of adventure, that willingness to take risks back into our lives as we consider the changes that the future will bring.
You have not passed this way before, God reminds us. But when God is with us, the impossible becomes possible.
I wonder about Joshua. What was going through his mind as he instructed the tribes in his first big assignment since Moses had died.
I suspect that as strong as the lure of the Promised Land might have been, there was also that human tendency to safety, that aversion to change, that was making him want to say, “you could cross into the Promised Land if you’d like to. But some of us are going to stay here, on this side of the river, and we’ll just look at the Promised Land from across the water.”
Christopher Columbus and the other explorers could have gone for safety instead of adventure, but where would we be now?
Martin Luther and the Reformers could have stayed safely within the structures of the medieval church, but the voice of God was too strong to be ignored.
Instead of choosing the safe path, Joshua said, “Sanctify yourselves; for tomorrow the LORD will do wonders among you.”
As we consider the passage from Joshua, as we remember the willingness of the Reformers to listen to God’s voice, as we listen for God’s voice speaking today, let us remember that when we are willing to step out into a raging river, against all instincts for safety and comfort, and following God’s instructions, God will do wonders among us.
We have not passed this way before. But we are not alone. God is here, preparing the path, and guiding our steps. Amen.