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WHAT We Believe
Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18
How many of you heard that reading from Leviticus and thought – “Yeah, let’s get those Bible thumpers to read that part, see if they want to use the Bible as an instruction manual then?” It’s very tempting to hear it that way, with this instruction to act with justice, the call to be “partial to the poor and not defer to the great” is right in my wheelhouse. It’s what I think best describes a “Christian” attitude…real “Christian” values.
But that’s just this part. This is Leviticus, after all, so if we were go just a few verses before this one, in chapter 18, we’d get the passages about the sexual boundaries of the ancient Hebrews, and some verses that we’d be less enthusiastic about. Both these remarkable instructions that seem so connected to the social justice message we put forth AND the passages that speak, for many Christians, directly to the issue of LGBTQ inclusion in the church are found sentences from one another. So, if the Bible is the source of what we believe, this begs the question – what do we believe?
The Reformation was an historic phenomenon that we like to place in the hands of Martin Luther, but which, in reality, started long before him and continued on, sometimes to his shock, in directions he did not intend nor want. Perhaps Luther was the final tug that let the genie out of the bottle, but the winds of change were blowing without him. Certainly many of his theological assertions, his treatises, as they were called, helped to shape the movement that became known as the “protestors”, the Protestants. Chief among Luther’s pushback against the church, the only church at that time, the Catholic church, was his idea that they were practicing things, in his opinion, that either went against scripture or could not be justified by scripture. Luther thought that scripture ought to be the deciding force in our faith practices, but the Catholic church held scripture and tradition as equal pillars in their constructions.
So, Luther asserted what he called sola scriptura, in Latin, meaning that scripture alone should be the source of theological truth. Combined with Luther’s desire to print the Bible in the common tongue of German and the technological breakthrough of the printing press, this new method spread like a virus, infecting all of society, allowing people to question what they had not questioned, to claim what they had not claimed and the result was much chaos and turmoil, not only in the church, but in history itself. Once the splintering began, it could hardly be stopped. It hasn’t stopped yet, for think of how many different churches we have just within a few miles radius of here, all shaped by reading their Bibles and coming to different conclusions. Some of us give more weight to one portion of Leviticus than another. Others do the exact opposite. What we believe – all of us reading from the same book – is a tricky proposition. The idea that there is a religion called Christianity is a misnomer – there are Christianities, all of which share perhaps only one thing in common. Jesus. But who he is, what he was, what he means, what he symbolizes or embodies…all different answers to the same questions.
This is what reforming is all about. The Reformation as a whole brought incredible change to the western, European world. It enacted massive change politically, economically, socially and theologically. It was the purveyor of the longest war in European history, the 30 years war, which devastated and reshaped Europe, Catholics killing Protestants and vice-versa. Just the church being the church, right? And Luther’s assertion of individualism, an assertion I don’t think he completely understood the ramifications of, lies at the roots of the American revolution and the place we all find ourselves today, where we still struggle to make an argument that we are not just a massive collection of individuals, but instead are all dependent, to some degree, on the common good…we are all connected and intertwined, a concept that lies at the foundation of our scriptures.
When you read Leviticus, which is a code meant for the priestly class of the ancient Jews, you get the sense immediately that the rules are shaping the good of the whole, not speaking of an individual’s rights. We can, and ought, to critique the ways that the writers of Leviticus wish to shape the culture, but we ought to be able to see that they are laying the groundwork for a common good, for a collective ethos. We have, to some degree, always lived our lives here in the so-called “modern era” with the tension between what we believe as individuals and what we believe as a whole. The post-modern critique has come along to challenge that, though in different ways than the Reformation did. Because, my friends, the genie is still out of the bottle. We are still part of a church that is reformed and reforming, because the only way that reformation doesn’t just become another dogma, is if we never stop reforming. If God is still-speaking, then God is always still-speaking and our task is not to capture what God is speaking and write it down in stone and make it doctrine, but rather to attune our ears to God’s voice.
Here in the next chapter of the reforming, I believe that we have entered what Harvey Cox calls the “Age of the Spirit”, wherein we will measure what we know of God, what we believe, on the presence of, the action of, our witness of, the Holy Spirit, guiding us to reshape the church in the direction of a God we know…and don’t know. So, here’s our chance. What words do we speak to the more calcified parts of our church? What needs to change? What complaints do we have to nail to the door? In what ways, Fellowship, do we think the church needs to change – both “the Church”, with a big capital “C” and our church, right here?
HOW We Believe
Jesus makes it pretty simple. Well, the instructions are pretty simple. But so are the instructions for tying a bow tie – just 4 easy steps in little pictures, loop here, fold there, and I can’t do it. Neither does this simple instruction – “…love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind…and…love your neighbor as yourself”, help a lot, either. I mean this is just one line in scripture…there are a lot more lines in there, and some of them don’t seem to have anything to do with loving your neighbor! So, if we’re “sola scripturing”, Luther, what happens when scriptures disagree? What happens when the words we read conflict with our own hearts?
It is, after all, love that is supposed to guide us, right? If there is one unifying description of God amongst virtually every sect of Christianity, it is that God is love. But then the question is…what is love? Is love that thing you do where everything is OK, because love means never having to say you’re sorry? Or is love some kind of sternness, the “tough love” that spanks while it says, “This hurts me more than it hurts you?”
It is going to be no secret that I suggest to you this morning that the way we will find our path in this new “Age of the Spirit”, the way that we will seek direction and make connection is by honing our sense of love…but no just any love. No, I think that we will have to listen to scripture here and find the kind of love that Paul speaks of…a love that is often evoked at weddings but which has a much more potent place in our discipleship…
Love is patient, love is kind, it isn’t jealous, it doesn’t brag, it isn’t arrogant, it isn’t rude, it doesn’t seek its own advantage, it isn’t irritable, it doesn’t keep a record of complaints, it isn’t happy with injustice, but it is happy with the truth. Love puts up with all things, trusts in all things, hopes for all things, endures all things.
I don’t know about you, but that’s a love I have to learn. My love is pretty impatient, and likes to brag. And irritability? Yikes. My love tends to keep score and does NOT put up with all things…in fact, it puts up with relatively few things. So, I have some work to do. And so do we all, for whatever it is that we call salvation, whatever this thing is that we call the “kin-dom”, it is here and not here, present and not present, pressed against our palms in one moment and slipping through our fingers the next. For we are always reformed and reforming, otherwise we are seeking something besides the kin-dom. And that, my friends, is precisely where the Spirit resides – those “in between”places where we discern more than know, we trust more than feeling certain, we hope in a future more than securing one. So, you have written down what you might say to the Church – even to this church – and we’ve placed those, rather than nail them, on this door in the sanctuary. So, let’s see – what are your grievances?
– read grievances from door —
One of the other “solas” that Luther put forth was sola fide, or “by faith alone.” This is, of course, part of an ancient battle among theologians about salvation and how that all works, but it is also about how we make our way through life. It is about how we can participate in a moral life when we are surrounded by immorality, and how the presence of sin – of deviation from what God would have us do and be – can be mediated by knowing, rather by trusting, that God’s love for us is without exceptions. For just like you cannot love your neighbor without first loving yourself, you cannot extend grace to anyone else without first accepting it for yourself. “Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong, but let your trust in Christ be stronger,” Luther once wrote to a friend.
The age of the Spirit will mean a shift from authority to trust. Rather than exchanging one authority, the Church, with another, the Bible, let us move into a different process all together, for the absolute voice won’t help us go where we need to go. This is not moral relativism, my friends, it is the humility to understand that none of us possesses the truth, for we cannot possess it, only God can. And our job is not to be protectors of the truth, it is to be agents of God’s love, without exceptions.
All of this leaves us in a place in the 21st century – 500 years after Luther – engaged in the same thing that Paul told the church in Philippi – working out our own salvation with fear and trembling….learning and re-learning what it means to love and practicing that love to the best of our ability. It is a dicey proposition, like driving down an unfamiliar road in the dark with our headlights illuminating only 15 feet in front of us. It’s hard to know what to expect… seems harder each day lately…and it’s scary, but if we drive with care and deliberation, if we help one another and try not to shoulder the burdens of life all on our own, even if we can only see a few feet in front of us…we can drive all the way home like that.
This the the life of faith – not perfection, not absolute truth, but a slow walk in the same direction, trusting in God. We are reformed…may we keep reforming. Amen.