October 27, 2019

2019 Oct27

Reforming the Church in the 21st C.

A Sermon preached by The Rev Karen Siegfriedt on October 27, 2019


On October  31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed a copy of his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg Castle Church as a way of announcing a desired academic discussion.  This document, (written in a remarkably humble and academic tone), contained Luther’s two central ideas: that God intended believers to seek repentance; and that faith alone, and not deeds, would lead to salvation. Luther also attacked papal abuses and the corrupt practice of selling indulgences, all of which turned him against many of the teachings of the Catholic Church.


Instead of simply initiating an open, academic discussion, Martin Luther was eventually excommunicated by the pope.  It just goes to show you how threatened people can become when challenged by different ideas and beliefs! Luther’s insights (along with the invention of the printing press) eventually led to the Protestant Reformation, which was aimed at reforming the beliefs and practices of the Roman Catholic Church.  But soon, this movement extended into the economic, social, & political spheres where ambitious rulers attempted to increase their power and control at the expense of the Church. Sadly, arguments over the Reformation led to a series of wars that devastated the population of Europe.


The Protestant Reformation was the impetus behind the Pilgrims seeking religious freedom in America and provided the groundwork for freedom of thought elsewhere. This movement led to the Bible being translated into the language of the people and eventually, the establishment of the Church of England. However, the Protestant Reformation also caused great divisions among Christians of differing beliefs and practices. This disunity among followers of Christ, is a sad chapter in the history of Christianity and is deeply grieved by the Anglican Communion. In the spirit of Jesus’ prayer that “we all may be one,” the Episcopal Church is committed to entering into communion with any Christian Body who seeks “the restoration of the organic unity of the Church.” (BCP 877)


Today is Reformation Sunday, the day on which we remember the religious revolution that took place during the 16th century.  In that spirit of recollection, I would like to talk about the reformation of the Church in the 21st century. And I will use the opening collect as my text:


“Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity; and that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command; through Jesus Christ our Lord…” (BCP 235)


It is no secret that the Christian Church has been going through another reformation for the last 50 years, especially in first world countries. The Church’s influence is waning. There is an eroding confidence in religious institutions.  There is a steep decline in church membership. According to the American Family Survey from 2017, 34% of the US population identify as 'nones' ('Atheists', 'agnostics', 'nothing in particular'). This generation of ‘nones’ includes our own children and our grandchildren who have little interest in being part of a community of faith. Why do you think that is? Perhaps it is because we have forgotten our true mission to love one another as Christ loves us.


Walter Brueggemann, a famous biblical scholar believes:


“The crisis in the U.S. Church has almost nothing to do with being liberal or conservative; it has everything to do with giving up on the faith and discipline of our Christian baptism and settling for a common, generic U.S. identity that is part patriotism, part consumerism, part violence, and part affluence.”


Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest, insists that “Christianity is a lifestyle- a way of being in the world that is simple, non-violent, shared, and loving. However, we made it into an established ‘religion’ (and all that goes with that) and avoided the lifestyle change itself. One could be warlike, greedy, racist, selfish, and vain in most of Christian history, and still believe that Jesus is one’s “personal Lord and Savior.”…The world has no time for such silliness anymore. The suffering on earth is too great.”


So how do you think the Church needs to reform? When I speak of reformation, I do not mean simplistic cultural changes like modern praise music or Starbuck’s coffee in the narthex (although these changes might be appreciated by some folks). When I speak of reformation, I think of changing the emphasis and priorities of the institution to make it more authentic, more effective, more in line with the teachings and spirit of Jesus. When you reform something, you change it for the better. If you take the two parts the word reform, re- and form, you can see that it means “to shape again.”


I think the most important
emphasis of 21st C reformation
needs to be the transformation
of our minds into the mind
of Christ.


This transformation is ultimately dependent on a deep relationship with the Holy Spirit. The Church needs to focus on enkindling the Spirit of God in the lives of its people and to teach them how to move from fear-driven thoughts to generous acts of love. If we long for a different future, if we desire a world where love, justice, and peace are the operating principles, then we must change the way we think.


The words you mutter to yourself and the thoughts that you dwell on have the power to encourage or discourage, to motivate or deflate, to generate joy or generate sadness. Little by little, the conversations that you hold in the privacy of your mind are determining your destiny. Each thought can move us toward or away from our God-given potential. Maybe that is why Jesus reminded his followers to repent (i.e. to change the way they think). Until our minds are healed, we will continue to allow our thoughts and emotions (which are often fear driven) to dictate our actions. Today’s opening prayer, “to increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity so that we may love what God loves” is a good beginning in opening our minds to the mind of Christ.


Faith comes from the word to trust. In more religious terms, faith is a courageous trust in life, and by implication, trust in the source of life. Faith is one of the divine virtues that opens the door to the fullness of life. Christian faith means no longer having our norms and values shaped by the transient forces and currents of this world. Rather, Christian faith means to live in a new realm where the power to live comes from the indwelling Christ, knowing that our lives have been changed forever by his transforming love. We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.” (Madeleine L’Engle)   Faithful people reflect the light and love of Christ.  So maybe instead of reading off a list of petitions during the Prayers of the People, we ought to simply ask God to increase our faith so that we may come to love what God loves.


Hope is having confidence that no matter how bad things are today, the future is open to new possibilities. Without hope, we would be buried in despair. I recently read an article which talked about the despair among blue collar workers in America who can no longer earn enough income to sustain a middle-class existence. Instead of seeking happiness, they are simply looking for hope. Hope is an openness to the future; a future of new possibilities even in the midst of darkness, disappointment, and death. Hope seems to be in short supply today. Even among educated, middle-class Christians, cynicism, criticism, and negatively in both personal thought and public discourse have undermined the virtue of hope. Perhaps they have forgotten that our hope is in God, not a political solution.


“Most Americans still seem to be at the state of blaming either an individual or a party for our national problems. But eventually, we may come to see that beneath our political and economic symptoms, there lies a spiritual problem on the level of consciousness, on the level of the deepest stories we live by, on the level of shared virtues, values and vison for a desired future.” (Brian McLaren)  


It is a change in consciousness, a change in our thinking, that needs to be reformed. Most of the problems in our world are caused by a spiritual deficit, such as greed, prejudice, violent impulses, and scarcity. If we want our hope to increase, then we need to cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. This is the hard, spiritual work that we are called to do. For without hope, the human heart would break.


Finally, at the core of our identity as Christians, is the call to practice charity: an attitude of kindness and understanding towards others. Charity calls us to extend our love to all of humankind.  Love God and love your neighbor. Everything else in Christianity is simply a commentary on this great commandment.  “Faith, hope, & love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”(1 Cor. 13:13)


The Christian Church has gone through many reformations throughout its history, beginning with Jesus who placed compassion at the core of his teachings. He didn’t focus on dogmatics or theological orthodoxy. He didn’t promote powerful institutions or even a religion. He didn’t focus on the family or condemn homosexuality. Rather he embraced the poor, the children, the women, those on the margins, the persecuted, the foreigners, the lame, the losers, and the left behind.


Jesus showed them a love that
was so generous that their live
were transformed and their
hope restored.


He was successful in rising above the limited thinking of his day because his mind was aligned with God’s mind and his heart with God’s heart. And, so he called his disciples to repent, to change their way of thinking, and to embrace the Spirit of Christ as the way, the truth, and the life. This, I believe, needs to be the focus of our reformation.


“Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity; and that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command; through Jesus Christ our Lord…” (BCP 235)

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