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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, October 29, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  John 20:26-31
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

On October 31st, in the great country of ours, small bands of armed children race from house to house demanding protection candy.  Or at least that’s how it seems.  Alright, pops, what’s it gonna be?  Your candy of the front window?[1]

Martin Luther

When I was a kid, October 31st was all about the candy.  But going to seminary changes a guy, and what made October 31st important to me was one of those things that changed.  October 31 became about the beginning of the Reformation and the birth of Protestantism.  And all because of this guy:  Martin Luther.

Though apparently many scholars now say the story is apocryphal,[2] the legend says that on October 31, 1517, this monk did what was that time’s version of a Facebook post.  He hammered a list of criticisms of his beloved Roman Catholic Church, his 95 theses, to the chapel door of the castle in Wittenberg.

I had a church member who as disappointed to find out that these 95 theses were 95 statements.[3]  She had envisioned 95 Master’s degree length thesis manuscripts somehow hung on the chapel door.  But they are a series of statements that together make an argument for reforming some of the practices of the church – particularly the practice of selling indulgences (which makes me think of chocolate, because chocolate is an indulgence, which brings us back to Halloween – but I’ll get to the church’s practice of selling indulgences in a moment).

Luther’s 95 theses were not a list of demands nor were they a list of theological non-negotiables.  They were an argument that Luther probably wanted debated.  I’m not sure why they were numbered, but it reminds me of the practice of numbering the lines in a resolution that a deliberative body is debating so someone can make reference to a particular line.  I don’t think Luther had any inkling of separating from the Roman Catholic church when he posted them.  He wanted his church to change, not split.  He thought there were abuses being perpetrated by the church that needed to stop.  He thought that these abuses were being justified with bad theology and he wanted that theology addressed and corrected.  That’s not what happened.

There’s a wonderful article in the current issue of The New Yorker magazine about Luther that explains the specifics of Luther’s objections.  “One of the most bitterly resented abuses [and not just by Luther, but by a lot of people] of the Church at that time was the so-called indulgences, a kind of late-medieval get-out-of-jail-free card used by the Church to make money.  When a Christian purchased an indulgence from the Church, he obtained – for himself or whomever else he was trying to benefit – a reduction in the amount of time the person’s soul had to spend in Purgatory, atoning for his [or her] sins, before ascending to Heaven.  You might pay to have a special Mass said for the sinner or, less expensively, you could buy candles or new altar cloths for the church.  But, in the most common transaction, the purchaser simply paid an agreed-upon amount of money and, in return, was given a document saying that the beneficiary – the name was written in on a printed form – was forgiven x amount of time in Purgatory.…

“In Luther’s mind, the indulgence trade … brought him up against the absurdity of bargaining with God, jockeying for his [Luther certainly saw God as a “he”] favor – indeed, paying for his favor.  Why had God given his only begotten son?  And why had the son died on the cross?  Because that’s how much God loved the world.  And that alone, Luther now reasoned, was sufficient for a person to be found ‘justified,’ or worthy.  From this thought, the Ninety-five Theses were born.  Most of them were challenges to the sale of indulgences.  And out of them came what would be the two guiding principles of Luther’s theology:  sola fide and sola scriptura.”[4]

Sola fide means “only faith” or “faith alone.”  I think it’s worth noticing that the Latin fide is more like the English word “fidelity” than it is like “belief.”  This motto came from Luther’s belief that salvation comes through faith alone, not works, and definitely not through the purchasing of indulgences.  “This was not a new idea.  St. Augustine, the founder of Luther’s monastic order, laid it out in the fourth century.”[5]

There are some interesting insights into Luther’s psychology and spiritual journey in the The New Yorker article, but we won’t have time for those in today’s sermon.  Especially since I’m more interested in the second of those guiding principles, the second of those mottos of the Reformation:  sola scriptura.  Sola scriptura, “only scripture” or “scripture alone,” is “the belief that only the Bible [can] tell us the truth.  Like sola fide, this was a rejection of what, to Luther, were the lies of the Church – symbolized most of all by the indulgence market.  Indulgences brought you an abbreviation of your stay in Purgatory, but what was Purgatory?  No such thing is mentioned in the Bible.  Some people think that Dante made it up; others say Gregory the Great.  In any case, Luther decided that somebody made it up.”[6]

And if something is not in the Bible, it’s suspect.  If it’s not in the Bible, it’s potentially wrong.  The Bible is the only rule of faith.  Interpretations of the Bible, doctrines of the church, traditions – all of these are from people (from men, in Luther’s day), and therefore potentially wrong.

Guided by these convictions – sola fide and sola scriptura – “and fired by his new certainty of God’s love for him, Luther became radicalized.  He preached, he disputed.  Above all, he wrote pamphlets.  He denounced not only the indulgence trade but all the other ways in which the Church made money off Christians …  He [even] questioned the sacraments. …

“Luther at the Diet of Worms,” by Anton von Werner, painted in 1877, over 350 years after the actual event.

“Things came to a head in 1520.  By then, Luther had taken to calling the Church a brothel, and Pope Leo X the Antichrist.  Leo gave Luther sixty days to appear in Rome and answer charges of heresy.  Luther let the sixty days elapse; the Pope excommunicated him; Luther responded by publicly burning the papal order in the pit where one of Wittenberg’s hospitals burned its used rags.  [Luther helped put the “protest” in Protestant.]  Reformers had been executed for less, but Luther was by now a very popular man throughout Europe.  The authorities knew they would have serious trouble if they killed him, and the Church gave him one more chance to recant, at the upcoming diet – or congregation of officers, sacred and secular – in the cathedral city of Worms in 1521.  He went, and declared that he could not retract any of the charges he had made against the Church, because the Church could not show him, in Scripture, that any of them were false.”[7]

Like many people of faith, Luther felt he had to stand by his conscience.  It is in honor of this fidelity, this integrity that we are singing our post-sermon hymn.  The words come from an anti-slavery poem written by James Lowell in 1845.[8]

“Here I stand, I can do no other,” Luther is supposed to have said at the Diet of Worms.  He could do no other because of the principle of sola scriptura.  Scripture alone was the rule of his faith – a view very much in keeping with what we heard in today’s Gospel reading John says he wrote his gospel so that we might have faith, so that we might be able to join with Thomas in proclaiming to Jesus, you are my Lord and my God.

But there is also a danger in this principle.  Sola scriptura says that the Bible does not merely contain the Word of God, but every word of it, because of verbal inspiration, is the word of God.  Never mind that the Bible, in John’s gospel, says that Jesus is the Word of God.  And yes, this motto, this principle served as a good corrective to the notion that the Pope is infallible and that the traditions of the church have the same authority (or more authority) that the Bible.

But if we rely too heavily on this principle, the Bible moves from being a source, a touchstone to guide us into something that is worshiped.  Sola scriptura is not far from biblical inerrancy (that the Bible contains no errors) or biblical literalism (that everything in the Bible is literally true).  And once we embrace inerrancy and literalism, we are not far from treating the Bible as an idol, or as I like to call it, bibolatry.

Maybe sola scriptura has served its purpose and it’s time for a new reformation and a new motto.

If you’ve heard me preach for any length of time, you know that I’m quite taken by the notion that we are in the midst of one of the church’s quincentennial rummage sales.  The late Phyllis Tickle introduced me to this idea in her writings and a lecture I got to hear.  The notion is that every roughly 500 years, the church goes through a major reorganizing and births something new.  Two thousand years ago, it was the birth of Christianity itself.  1500 years ago, it was the birth of the monastic communities as the centers of Christian life and thought.  1,000 years ago, it was the Great Schism and the birth of the Roman Catholic Church (separating from the Orthodox Church).  500 years ago, it was the birth of Protestantism.  And here we are, on the 500th anniversary of Luther writing his 95 theses and sending them off to an archbishop (even if he didn’t nail them to the Wittenberg Chapel door).  It’s time again for something new.

What might be the new motto, a motto to replace sola scriptura?  If you don’t mind, I’m going to pause for a moment to let you think about that.

What understandings are central to your faith and your sense of what needs correction in the church of today?

As I’ve thought about this question in preparation for today’s sermon, I want a motto that expresses my understanding that God is everywhere, not just “up” in heaven.  I want a motto that reminds me that all that is dwells in God and that God infuses everything.  I want a motto that reminds me that nothing can separate us from God’s love – nothing in this life and nothing in the life to come.  I want a motto that reminds me that God’s love is radically inclusive and pro-justice.  And I had nothing … until a few days ago when Diana Butler Bass posted on Facebook (her Wittenberg Chapel door):  “New Reformation:  Sola universum.”[9]

It literally means “only the universe” or “the universe alone,” but she added in a comment to expand on her meaning:  “What if the ONLY thing we thought mattered was EVERYTHING?”

Sola universum – that works for me.  Maybe you have a motto that works for you.  Whatever our mottos, I hope they drive us, the way sola fide and sola scriptura did Luther.  Because Luther believed that only faith was necessary to receive salvation (and not things like indulgences), and because Luther believed that scripture alone was a sufficient rule of faith, he wrote his argument against the practices of the church of his day, hoping that doing so might help lead to reform.

And if I’m right, that we are in the midst of the next church rummage sale, that we are in the midst of a new reformation, what arguments do you have against the practices of the church of your day?  What do you want to see changed?

This is where you get to finish up today’s sermon.  On your announcement folder is a post-it.  I invite you to write down a thesis of your own – or more than one if you want to – about what needs to change.  And then I invite you to post them during coffee hour on our own “Wittenberg Door” in the fellowship hall.

_______________

[1] Adapted from the introduction by Noel Paul Stookey to the song “A’ Soalin’” on the album “Peter, Paul and Mary In Concert.”

[2] Joan Acocella, “How Martin Luther Changed the World,” The New Yorker, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/10/30/how-martin-luther-changed-the-world (posted for the 30 October 2017 edition; accessed on 27 October 2017).

[3] You can read an English translation of these “theses” at http://www.luther.de/en/95thesen.html.

[4] Acocella, op. cit.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] The hymn is “Once to Every Man and Nation.”  The lyrics are from “The Present Crisis,” by James Lowell, 1845.  You can read the poem at https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/present-crisis.

[9] Diana Butler Bass, Facebook post, https://www.facebook.com/Diana.Butler.Bass/posts/10155402820948500 (posted and accessed on 26 October 2017).

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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, August 20, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
On this Sunday, we celebrated Pastor Jeff’s 30th anniversary of ordained ministry.
Scriptures:  Psalm 46 and Luke 15:11-32
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

“A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” is a hymn written by Martin Luther about 500 years ago.  He wrote the lyrics in German, of course, so we sang a translation.  The original music was probably a pop song in his day, a tune he might have picked up in a tavern being sung by the crowds, a tune he repurposed for his hymn.  The original tune swung a bit more and wasn’t so squared off to sound so pomp and circumstance-y.  Still, it’s a good hymn, one that I’ve liked since I was a teenager, one that was in the running for my ordination service thirty years ago.

Martin Luther

It’s based on, rather freely, on Psalm 46.  I don’t know my Luther well enough to know why he liked this Psalm and decided to write a hymn based on it.  I do know why I like this Psalm.

Just this week, I read two different ways of analyzing the Psalm based on its form.  I won’t take you down the road of the first of these, though this is the kind of stuff theology nerds like me geek out on.  This analysis points to two points (and yes, I enjoyed writing that sentence).  The first point is the song’s refrain, that God is our refuge – the song starts with and concludes with this, and it is an anchor point in middle of the song.  The second point, the central points of the song’s two sections (as this particular analysis divides the song):  God is in the midst of the city; it will not be moved; and  be still and know that I am God.  I would summarize these two points as, “God is God and you’re not.”

The second form analysis of the Psalm sees three stanzas, each three verses long.  The first stanza “juxtaposes the steady and secure image of God as “refuge” with the image of the earth and seas in uproar.”[1]  Rolf Jacobson says, “The image of ‘earth’ shaking and ‘sea’ roaring is an image of creation itself in rebellion against God’s creative order.  This image is a reminder that the fallen condition of creation goes beyond mere human disobedience.  The fallen condition encompasses all of creation, all of nature.  Thus, the ‘law’ that the psalm names is the reality that creation itself is broken and in rebellion against the Creator.”[2]

I disagree with his assessment that creation is in a “fallen condition.”  Yes, earthquakes and floods and tsunamis happen.  Yes, disease and disability strike not just humans, but other species as well.  Yes, we are all going to die.  But I don’t see these as signs of any “fallen condition” of creation.  Rather, I see them as part of the ongoing creative energy of the universe.  This stanza’s point is that because God is a present help in trouble, even natural disaster, we do not need to be engulfed with existential angst.

Stanza two moves from nature being in an uproar to the nations being in an uproar.  I’m not reading the political into the Psalm.  The Psalm itself gets political.  I don’t know what the political threat to Israel was when this Psalm was written – Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome – and it doesn’t really matter now.  What’s important now is the witness of the Psalm – that when the nations are in an uproar, when kingdoms totter, God is still God.  And the sun will come up tomorrow.  The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Stanza three points to the power and purpose of God – and our response.  God is working out the kin-dom in our midst.  God is making wars to cease, breaking the bow and shattering the spear.  And our response – to be still.  Be still and know that God is God (and that you and I and principalities and powers of our age are not God).  The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Phyllis Tickle

I’ve preached before about how I think we are in the midst of a great church rummage sale (and, no, I’m not talking about the flea market happening next weekend).  Though she points to the Anglican Bishop Mark Dyer for the genesis of the idea, Phyllis Tickle articulated the theory most clearly for me – “that about every 500 years the church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale.”[3]  There really wasn’t a church for the first rummage sale, 2,000 years ago.  Tickle called it “The Great Transformation” and it took place when a man was recognized by his disciples as “Emmanuel, God With Us.”  Five hundred years later, the Roman Empire collapsed and the church entered an era of preservation with the advent of the monastic tradition in abbeys, convents, and priories.  Five hundred years later, the church split in “The Great Schism,” creating the Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholic Churches.  Five hundred years after that, “The Great Reformation” shook up the church once again.  And five hundred years after that … is today.

Tickle said that in each of these times, the church was wrestling with one key question:  What is authoritative?  And in each of these great rummage sales, a new authority emerges.  Obviously, for The Great Transformation, Jesus was the new authority.  I couldn’t find my copy of her book The Great Emergence this week, and I don’t remember what the new authority was that emerged from the second rummage sale, but I’m pretty sure it had something to do with monasticism.  At the Great Schism, the new authority was the bishop of Rome, or the Pope, as he’s typically known.  At the Great Reformation, the new authority was scripture.

Tickle thought that the Spirit is likely going to be the new authority in whatever this new church that’s emerging will turn out to be.  I wonder if it might be Nature.  Or some combination of Spirit and Nature.

In any event, I had no idea that I would be pastoring in the midst of a rummage sale when I answered the call to become an ordained minister.  When God’s call got through (I realize in retrospect that God had been calling my whole life, but there was too much static on the line) in 1982, we were just beginning to experience the end of Christendom.  I had no idea it was happening.  I grew up in a time when the default assumption in American society was “Christian.”  In fact, the default assumption was “Mainline Protestant.”  Yes, there were Catholics and Jews around, but the default assumption was Mainline Protestant.  All the members of the Supreme Court were either Mainline Protestants or Jews.  All the Presidents except for Kennedy were Protestants, and almost all of them Mainline Protestants.  School vacation schedules considered the church calendar as they were being designed.

And all that has disappeared during my time in ordained ministry.  This shift, along with the explosive growth of computer technology and post-modernity taking root, have contributed energy to the great church rummage sale we’re experiencing now.  And one of the reasons I’m really glad to be fulfilling my call to ordained ministry here at Niles Discovery Church is that you are a church that is willing to try new things.

If you look at each of the great rummage sales the church has had in the past 2,000 years, while something new always emerged from it, whatever used to be also remained – though smaller, often healthier because new things made the old thing into some self-examination.  I don’t know if Niles Discovery Church will emerge as part of whatever the new things is or if we will be part of the stronger, smaller, faithful continuation of Progressive Christianity.  But I do know that we will be faithful as we seek to fulfill our call as part of the body of Christ.

“30 Years and Counting,” I titled this sermon.  Perhaps a bit self-indulgent, but it you’d permit a bit of self-indulgence.  This is the fifth ministry setting I’ve had in those thirty years.  The first three were completed in under ten years.  Short ministries or long, I always learned things in each setting.

Working as a chaplain at the juvenile hall, I learned about the urgency of now and the difference I could make in a moment.  I also learned that I have to be willing to let go of long-term results.  I could plant seeds, but I would never know if they would produce fruit.  I typically didn’t even know if they would take root.  So I learned to be faithful to my calling and to leave the results to God.

At the church in Spokane where I served as Associate Pastor and then Interim Pastor, I learned how important congregational buy-in is on projects.  The bigger the project, the more important getting this buy-in is.  And that typically means slowing down so people can catch up to the leaders.

I learned about the importance of integrity when I served the church in Richland, Washington, as an Interim Pastor.

And at the church in Carnation, Washington, where I served as pastor for a decade, I learned that my leadership doesn’t matter if I’m leading in a direction the church doesn’t want to go.  I also learned how important it is for the members of a church to nurture their friendships and to create a safe space for each other.

And here in Fremont, where I’ve served for a dozen years (at Niles Congregational Church and at Niles Discovery Church, as the first merged into the second), I’ve learned how important it is for a church and a pastor to be willing to risk in order to stay faithful.  That’s where I think we’re going in the years ahead.  I think we’re going to keep stepping into risky ministries in order to stay faithful.

I picked the Parable of the Good Samaritan to be read at my ordination because it answers a profound question.  What must we do to live in the kin-dom of God?  Love God with our whole being and our neighbors as ourselves.  It really is that simple.  And it really is that risky.

Loving that radically will mean crossing boundaries – like the Samaritan crossed when he saved a Jew.  Loving that radically will mean inviting people we don’t know (like an innkeeper, say) to help us heal the brokenness in the world.  Loving that radically will mean handing over what we have to others so that all might experience wholeness and justice.

bell hooks once said, “The moment we choose to love we begin to move against domination, against oppression.  The moment we choose to love we begin to move towards freedom, to act in ways that liberate ourselves and others.”[4]

I think that is why Jesus calls us to love, to take the risks of love.  For loving builds the kin-dom of God.  And here’s a bit of good news.  We can take those risks – though the mountains should shake in the heart of the sea, though the nations are in an uproar – we can take the risks to love.  For the Lord of hosts is with us.  God is in the midst of the city.

Amen.

[1] Rolf Jacobson, “Commentary on Psalm 46,” Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1110 (accesses 19 August 2017).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Phyllis Tickle, “The Great Emergence,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/magazine/august-2008/great-emergence (posted August 2008; accessed 19 August 2017).

[4] bell hooks, quoted by Diana Butler Bass on her Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/Diana.Butler.Bass/posts/10155129096928500 (posted and accessed 26 July 2017).

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