Always Being Reformed: Sermon for October 29, 2017

This is the final sermon in a four week series on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. To start at the beginning, please click here.

Over the past month we have been on a journey through the landscape of the Protestant Reformation in preparation for this Tuesday, All Hallow’s Eve. That day marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther posting his 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Church.

Portrait_of_Martin_Luther_as_an_Augustinian_MonkFor two weeks we talked about Luther, first as a young man, and then as a man who changed the course of Christianity and really the entire world. Then last week we talked about John Calvin, another key reformer. And I told you that this week I was going to talk a little about what all this meant to our own church, and our own faith tradition.

And in order to do that, I first want to turn to the Scripture we read today from the Gospel of Matthew. This is a part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, where he teaches about the heart of our faith.

Jesus talks here about “salt and light”. These were two very valuable things in Jesus day. Salt was useful for many things, not just cooking, and it was not inexpensive. And light, in these pre-electric days, was coveted too. And Jesus talked about how we are called to be the salt of the earth, and the light of the world. We are called to be valuable and useful.

You’ve heard a lot about being the light in this church. You know my affection for the song, “This Little Light of Mine”. I’ve told you before that even though we might think of it as a kids’ song, it’s really a profound testament to what it means to lead a Christian life. And it’s this passage in particular that spells out why:

Jesus says, “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

In other words, “Hide it under a bushel? No! I’m going to let it shine.” It was this very passage that spoke to some of the people responsible for our church being here.

Last week we left off with Calvin and how he started what we now called the Reformed tradition. And like the tradition that descended more closely from Luther, the Reformed tradition expanded too. Soon Reformed churches had spread to the Netherlands, some parts of Germany, and Scotland. Those Scottish Reformed folks would later call themselves “Presbyterians”, and would bring the Presbyterian Church to this country, particularly in the colonies south of New England.

But it was what was happening in England that most shaped us. England was in the midst of its own Protestant Reformation. King Henry VIII had broken away from the Pope’s authority in the 1530’s and the Church of England, or the Anglican Church, had become the official church. That may make it sound like England was a good place for Protestants, but that was only true if you were Henry’s kind of Protestant.

That was a problem for a group of Christians who had been influenced by Calvin’s ideas. They looked at the Anglican Church and they felt like Henry hadn’t gone far enough. They tried to change the church, but they met resistance and were persecuted. Some wanted to “purify” the church. They would later be called Puritans. Others believed the church was beyond repair. They were called Separatists, and they ended up having to flee from England to the Netherlands where they were building a church in exile.

MayflowerHarborYou might know the story that’s coming now. In the Netherlands some of Separatists decided to come to the New World, partially in order to find a place they could worship freely. Before their ship left their pastor, a man named John Robinson, preached a sermon to them. And in it he talked about Luther and Calvin and what we had learned about church from the Reformation.

And then he said these words, “God hath yet more light and truth to break forth from (God’s) word.” More light. The kind of light we cannot hide under a basket. These were the words that rang in the Pilgrims’ ears as they set off on a journey that would end up in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

Likewise, some Puritans who had stayed in England set off for this land too. Settling in Boston and on the north shore, they heard similar words from John Winthrop right before they landed. He said that the “eyes of the world” were upon them and, using Jesus words, that they would build here, “a city on the hill” that would be an example for the world. In many ways Boston became that city to them. It was meant to be a shining example to the world of the faith they embraced.

So, this sounds great, right? Forward-thinking, positive. Lots of light and understanding? Well, yes and no. Certainly it was more progressive than many places but. as was true in every other place where one faith reigned supreme, Massachusetts was a hard place for those who disagreed with what the people in charge said. And one of the people who kept running afoul of the more well-known ministers in the Boston area was a man named John Wheelwright.

You know Wheelwright because he was the founder of our church. His portrait is downstairs in the vestry. And like Calvin and Luther, Wheelwright really believed in the grace of God. He believed in it so much that the folks in Massachusetts thought it was a little too much. And when he called some of the other Puritan ministers out, they were done with him. They banished him to the frontiers of the most terrible place they could think of then: New Hampshire.

Wheelwright.John.AmAntiquarianSocSo that’s how our church got here. It was 1638. Only 18 years after the Pilgrims had landed at Plymouth. Only 74 years since John Calvin had died. Only 121 years after Luther posted his big ideas to the door of a church. In other words, only a couple of generations into the Reformation. This church is 379 years old. That means that we’ve been around for a lot of the 500 years of the Reformation.

And that also means that we know a lot about what it means to reform. I’m not going to go deeper into the church history here. I preached a sermon on that last April for our birthday, and there are a lot of resources available if you want to read more. But I will say that we have never been a church that was not closely tied to the Reformation and to reformation itself. It’s in our very DNA.

There’s a phrase that Reformed churches use quite a bit: “The church Reformed, and always being reformed, by the Word of God.” More simply, “Reformed and always reforming.” The church is always changing. This isn’t change for change sake, but rather purposeful change, change that comes because we are following God into what is next.

To use a UCC catchphrase, “God is still speaking…” That means that we are called to listen, to act, and something to change.

That change is sometimes not easy. John Wheelwright knew that. So did our ancestors in this congregation who decided to support American independence, to work for the abolition of slavery, and to become Open and Affirming. The surest way to make others unhappy with you is to seek to change what needs to be changed. But they did it anyway, because, like Luther, they believed that they could “do no other”.

And so that’s the challenge that we now take up. If the church is Reformed and always being reformed, where is God calling us now? What are we being asked to reform, or to re-form? How will we grow and change for the next 500 years?

The Refomation began 500 years ago, but it has never really ended. The spirit of reformation, the Holy Spirit that guided Luther and Calvin, also guided the Pilgrims and John Wheelwright. And it has guided this church for generations too. And now it guides you and me as well.

And so long as we are following that Holy Spirit into the future God is already preparing for us, we will be on the right path. God is reforming God’s church, and that means God is again and again re-forming us for the work that is left to do.

IMG_6541What remains on this anniversary is the challenge that Jesus issued so many years ago on that hillside. We may not be a city on a hill, but we are a church on the hill, and we have a lot of light in this place. We must now take the light that shines brightly around us, and share it with the world.

It’s time to move aside the bushel basket, or anything else that would dim our light, and instead share the light with the world. No longer can we keep hidden what is meant to be shared. Because the reformation continues, and we are called to be the light. It’s time to take our places in the reformation, and it’s time to let it shine.

John Calvin and the Love That Will Not Let Us Go: Sermon for October 22, 2017

This is the third sermon of four in a sermon series for the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. To begin at the beginning, please click here.

Throughout this month we’ve been talking about the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. 500 years ago, on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany. He was not the first person to ever talk about reforming the church, but his posting came at just the right moment, and they were like a spark that lit a powder keg.

John_Calvin_-_Young

Portrait of Young Calvin

Luther is a huge figure in the story of the Protestant Reformation, and so we’ve spent the last two weeks talking about him. Today though, for the third sermon, we’re going to switch gears and talk about another early reformer named John Calvin, and how he launched a movement from which our very own church is descended.

Today’s Scripture comes from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. You’ve probably heard the words before, especially this verse: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Nothing can separate us from God’s love. I wanted to start with that today because that was what John Calvin truly believed. I also wanted to start with that, because John Calvin gets a bad rap. That’s especially true if all we remember about him is what we learned in our high school history classes about the movement he started, which is often called Calvinism.
First, who was John Calvin. Calvin was born in France, to a father who worked for the Catholic church. He was born in 1509 which means he is about a generation younger than Luther. He was only 8 when Luther posted those 95 Theses on the church door. Calvin grew up with the expectation that he would be a priest, but when he got to university, his father decided he should be a lawyer instead.

That means that, like Luther, Calvin was a law student when he started to have his spiritual transformation. Anything to avoid taking the bar, I guess.

Calvin did become a lawyer, but he kept thinking and writing about faith and the church. And he soon broke completely with the Catholic church. When his mentor, Nicholas Cop, who was also a reformer, delivered a speech that was deemed heretical, he had to flee from France. Calvin, who was a known friend, had to go into hiding and then flee too. The two ended up in Switzerland.

This is where Calvin really began his reform work. He wrote a book called The Institutes of the Christian Religion that continues to be read today. Later, in Geneva, Calvin ends up becoming a pastor to the reforming church there. In Geneva, Calvin sought to influence both church and state, and he was sometimes a divisive figure. But it’s something that he taught as a pastor that I want to bring up here, because you probably have heard of it, and if you have you probably don’t like it very much.

Calvin believed in predestination. How many of you remember reading about that in school and thinking it was an absolutely horrible idea? I did too. The way it was taught to me in school was that God decided before we were even born what we were going to do, and whether we were going to go to heaven and hell. A person could live a good and holy life, I was taught, and still be damned. I thought this was horrific.

In seminary, though, I learned what Calvin had really meant. Like Luther, Calvin was pastoring people who had been deeply traumatized by the idea that they had to work, or buy, their way into heaven. They were anxious and fearful. And so Calvin began to teach something in line with the Bible passage we read today: if God loves you, nothing you do can separate you from the love of God. In other words, there is nothing you can do to lose your salvation if God has already decided to save you. There is nothing so bad that you can do that can cause you to go to hell.

Predestination is not the same thing as God deciding your every movement. We are not pawns on a chess board whose moves are planned our in advance. Instead, predestination was meant to be an assurance to an anxious people that they could stop being afraid. To be fair, Calvin didn’t believe everyone was going to go to heaven, but he did believe that if you were asking whether or not you would, that was a good sign that you were. It sounds terrible in our present-day context, but we have to understand that it was absolutely liberating in Calvin’s time.

ReformationsdenkmalGenf1

Reformation Wall in Geneva.

The good news that came out of that was about grace. John Calvin, like Luther, taught that we were saved by grace alone. There was nothing so good that we could do to work our way to salvation, and there was nothing so bad we could do to work our way out.

Where I agree with Calvin is that I believe we receive God’s grace. We don’t receive it because we deserve it, because that’s not grace. We receive it because God loves us so much that God could never abandon us. Where I disagree with Calvin, and where many Reformed Christians disagree with him, is the idea that only some people receive God’s grace. I believe we all do. To put it another way, as many others have said before me, if there is a hell, I believe that God’s love means that it is empty. I believe that because I believe that grace is real.

And so the question that remained for people of faith was this: How do you respond to the grace that you have been given?

The churches that John Calvin inspired are often called “Reformed churches”. This is different from other churches of the Reformation, like the Lutheran church. Reformed churches believe that the grace of God, and our response to God’s grace, is central to what it means to be a Christian.

And so with that in mind, think about the grace you have received in your own life. Looking back, where do you see God’s love active in your life? Is there a time when you have felt God’s hand supporting you, and lifting you up? Was there ever a time when your heart was opened to a new idea that changed everything? Were you ever so broken that you didn’t know how to go on, but somehow you were able to rise again?

That’s grace. That’s God acting in this world to lift us up. And for Calvin that same grace extended beyond this world. Calvin believed God’s grace was so strong that “nothing, not even death” could ever separate us from God’s love.

This is the kind of grace that we sing about when we sing “Amazing Grace”. “Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come. ’Twas grace that brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.” There’s a reason this is such a powerful song for so many. When you’ve truly experienced grace, you are moved by lines like that in a profound way because you know that it is true.

John Calvin would begin his services with the same Psalm that we began with today, Psalm 124. “If God had not been on our side,” he would preach, “the flood would have swept us away.” We would be destroyed. But God’s grace was there for Calvin, and just as surely, it is there for us.

And so, how do we respond. Calvin believed that the only proper response to the grace of God was this: gratitude. If we know that we are loved by God, and that we have received God’s grace, what can we ever hope to do, but to say “thank you”. No other response is enough.

And so how do we say “thank you”? That’s where our own daily lives matter. We say thank you to God by how we live. We live our lives out as a thank you to God. We do the right thing, and we participate in good works, not to help ourselves, but to say thank you. We take care of our neighbors, and our world, and we work for peace and justice because we are loved by a God who wants these things for all of us.

When we live our lives in this way, as lives of gratitude and thanksgiving, everything changes. Our outlook on the world changes. Our concern changes. Our hope changes as well. We become more attuned to God’s will, and less focused on ourselves. We become joyful participants in the world, eager to say “thank you” to God with all that we do. We become God’s hands here on earth, and in every action, we praise God.

This is what John Calvin taught us: that love does not let us go. Nearly 500 years later we, his spiritual descendants, carry on. The church we are in today might not be that recognizable to him, but my hope is that the grace we know, and our response to it, might be.

Next week I’ll be talking about how we get from John Calvin to a 21st century church in Exeter, New Hampshire, and what it means that the church is still reforming, all these centuries later. For now, though, remember this: Nothing, not even death, can separate us from the love of God. God’s grace will never leave us, and God’s love will never let us go.