May 21st, Again and Again: We are Reformed, with Kally Elliott
A Part of the Series:
May 21st, Again and Again…We are Reformed, with Kally Elliott.
In her book, The Great Emergence, church historian Phyllis Tickle makes the claim that every 500 years or so, the church goes through a giant rummage sale. Here in Bend. I think they’re called garage sales or yard sales. In a church I pastored in New York, they called it a white elephant sale.
Lately, people have gotten all fancy and they’ve started to started referring to these sales as Pop-Up shops, as if they can trick you into thinking they are not selling their old junk.
But no matter where you are, the goal is the same to get rid of the odds and ends; the shoes that don’t fit the shirts that you’ve outgrown, the furniture that’s gone out of style, the stuff that you’ve left unused and piling up in your house or in your church for way too long.
It’s not that what you are trying to sell is actual junk.
It’s just stuff that isn’t useful to you anymore. So you clear it out to make room for the new. Phyllis Tickle says if you look through the seasons of Christian, then you’ll find that every 500 years or so the church does this.
It goes through a rummage sale, a season when traditions and the way that we’ve always done it, that doctrine that we’ve given up, trying to believe the rules that we’ve followed, the committees that were so important, all of that, all of those things they’re sorted through and those that no longer feed the soul of the people get culled, set out for others to rifle through and choose for themselves.
The first church rummage sale happened in 590 bc, shortly after the Roman Empire fell, putting the church at risk as the dark ages crept upon Europe. Recognizing this risk, Pope Gregory the Great is attributed with saving Christianity as he moved the great Christian documents into monasteries and convents, keeping them safe and forming the great libraries of Europe.
500 years after that, around 1517 is when a monk named Martin Luther decides he’s got a few issues with the Catholic Church, 95 to be exact, and he decides to take action by nailing the 95 ways he would like to see the church change on to a church door at Wittenberg, Germany.
It’s kind of like that email that you’ve always wanted to send the pastoral staff at church. But since they didn’t have email at in Martin Luther’s time, a church door worked as well. Luther is the guy that we hear about most often in reference to this time in church history, otherwise known as the Great Reformation. But around the same time, others were also speaking out against the Catholic Church. And over the next decade or so, the Protestant church emerged five hundred years later, or if I did my math correctly, five hundred in two years and four months, to be exact, from when Luther nailed his complaints to the church door.
We are sent home from church, from work, from school, from life as we know it, as covid-19 has its way with the world, everything changes and the church is no exception.
This time. It wasn’t just a rummage sale. It was an everything must go sale. If you’ve heard of that book, The Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo.
Well, we Marie Kondo’ed the heck out of the church, not being given the privilege of time to carefully sort through our stuff and decide what is worth keeping and what can be put up for sale to make room for the new. Nope.
One Sunday we were meeting like respectable people in real close with our hair and our teeth brushed, and the next we were wearing pajamas cuddled on the couch with our dog and our coffee.
And if I’m honest, I don’t hate wearing my pajamas, drinking my coffee and cuddling with Hazel, my dog, on the couch for church.
And here we are a year later.
Some might even say that the hardships of this last year have made us more creative, innovative, even perhaps more faithful.
We’re still meeting, we’re still worshiping together virtually, but together we’re still working on projects and caring for our community, in some ways this year has been a gift to the church a year to find out what is important, what is worth keeping.
What can we do without? We have proven that we are more than our building, more than our countless meetings and Bible studies, more than our worship services.
We, you and me and our community, we are the church.
Through each church rummage sale, God has been faithful. The church has emerged from each rummage sale more imaginative and dedicated and life giving.
I like Tickle’s metaphor of the rummage sale, but I wonder if the idea of a rummage sale really gets to the heart of what has happened to the people of God every 500 years.
Or if it just scratches the surface, because while the world changes, as empires fall, as theology is tested, as technology advances, as disease threaten, this affects the people, the heart and the soul of the church as well as the world changes, so do we.
And as we can’t stay the same, neither can our beliefs, our way of seeing the world and each other, the way we practice and live our beliefs, the God we follow stays the same.
But the way we see this, God changes.
In the words of Carl baat, we are always being reformed by the work of God’s spirit.
The question is, will we dig in our heels stubbornly refusing to be changed or will we be reformed willingly and even perhaps with a bit of excitement in our gospel passage this morning, we are told of a few people, some Greeks who are seeking out Jesus.
Specifically, they want to see Jesus, we don’t know why these Greeks want to see Jesus, people sought out Jesus for many reasons, as they still do today.
But to see in the gospel of John is to believe seeing is believing. And from the beginning of his ministry, Jesus has always invited people to come and see. But if to see is to believe. Why doesn’t Jesus grant this wish to these Greeks?
Doesn’t he want them to believe in him? Isn’t that the goal of Christianity, to believe in Jesus so that we might be saved?
But the Gospel doesn’t tell us if these Greeks ever got to see Jesus. And even if they did, I guarantee it did not go as they expected for almost as soon as we are informed of their presence, they disappear from view, giving way to the enigmatic words out of Jesus’s mouth, which immediately follow.
The hour has come for the son of man to be glorified very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls onto the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.
What an incredibly odd thing to say, I mean, with the crowds pressing in and a thousand different human needs demanding to be recognized.
How strange these words must have sounded, even to his disciples who had been with Jesus for some time now and to an extent had come to expect the unexpected, but this was more, much more.
Perhaps it took a moment for his meaning to sink in and then it did. He’s talking about his own death. But this couldn’t be. It just couldn’t be true.
Everyone was saying he was the one, the Messiah, the one who come to save the Jewish people, he’d he’d be a king and a mighty one at that, like David before him or even Moses leading his people to freedom.
And if they were honest, the disciples who had given up everything to follow Jesus had actually envisioned themselves as, you know, taking up their own thrones to govern the 12 tribes of Israel, their deepest desires met, their most desperate dreams come true.
But now now Jesus tells them that he’s going to lay down his life.
All they had given up. For this. From his own mouth, it was about to be over. How it must have felt to have this terrible truth come crashing down into their consciousness.
And in a spontaneous burst of panic, some thoughts of self-preservation probably crossed their minds.
Jesus, what about us?
But Jesus had already thought of that and his next words clarify this in a flash, just in case there could be any misunderstanding.
Whoever serves me must follow me. Wherever I am, there, my servant will also be. Can you even imagine being there? Perhaps you can. And perhaps you can, because you hear his words speaking across time. He meant them. And he means us, not only is he saying that he is going to die, but to follow him means we will have to go with him. We, too, will have to die.
Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies. Well, this was not what they had signed up for. This was so much more than they than they ever bargained for. And if we can bring ourselves to hear this word, perhaps it’s much more than we ever bargained for to.
Back when going to church was a thing. What made you get up and. Put on real clothes on a Sunday morning. Get in your car and go to church, was it for a sense of community?
What makes you log on to church now? Are you here for an inspirational message after a tough week?
Why? Why do you even bother with church?
I mean, don’t you have a thousand other things you could be doing on a Sunday morning? Church must be at least somewhat important to you if you’re here now, so what are you hoping you’ll find here on some deeper level?
Are you like the Greeks in the gospel passage wanting to see. Jesus.
I grew up going to church pretty much every single Sunday, and though I had many mentors in the church who helped me to grow and see in new ways, much of what I was taught in church was what to believe when in doubt the correct answer is, Jesus, you will always get that gold star in Sunday school if your answer is Jesus. And for a time that worked for me, church, Jesus worked for me. But then something happened.
It always does. Life handed me the hardest thing I had ever faced, and I had a choice, actually, I had lots of choices to make each one an opportunity to choose a path of love or a path of fear.
And the path of love was always the most difficult to choose.
It meant clinging to a Jesus whose invitation to follow meant dying to resentment and blame and self-righteousness.
And it looked it looked a lot like sleepless nights and years of therapy, apologizing for what was mine, learning to forgive every single day, feeling the fear.
But also feeling the Jesus who clung to me. I was given more than I could handle. Don’t be fooled by people who love bumper sticker theology, saying God will not give you more than you can handle, that is not in the Bible.
The verse they are referring to and their bumper sticker theology is about God’s faithfulness in temptation and God is faithful.
But sometimes life is really, really hard and painful and it is more than we can handle by ourselves.
But that is when we begin to see and believe in a new way. Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, we still go to Jesus. But we see Jesus in a new way. We understand his call to us and what it means to follow and to die and to live in a new way.
It’s more than a simple rummage sale. It’s an it’s even more than an everything must go clearance to die to the old and rise with the new. We have to let it all go.
There’s a story in the Gospels about a rich young man who goes looking for Jesus to learn what one thing he must still do to inherit eternal life.
This guy, he he knows his commandments, all the commandments like 600 and something commandments. And he has studied and he’s kept each one of them his entire life. No doubt he expects to be told of a duty that he has to perform. Very good work. Maybe he’s overlooked or a gift he must make.
And instead, he’s told to do the one thing he cannot bring himself to do. Jesus says give it all away.
All of it. Let it go. It’s not what you see, but how you see. It’s not what you believe, but how you live. I’ve heard the story about that year, the building, the sanctuary of First Presbyterian Church band was struck by lightning and then how each Sunday after you as a congregation put up a huge tent in the parking lot and you hauled out instruments and speakers and chairs.
And every single time I hear this story, you tell it with a.
Wistfulness and pride, you tell me how robustly you sang and how you were free in your worship, how getting out of your normal brought you together, binding you as a community and as family.
Your sanctuary had literally been struck by lightning. I mean, come on, how often does that happen?
Pieces of it falling to the ground dead.
But you all you rose from those ashes, creating something more beautiful and life giving. Through the death of your worship space, you were transformed to new life.
This kind of thing, it doesn’t just happen in church, it happens in life all the time in our lives. Maybe it’s your marriage or your relationship with your partner.
Maybe it just feels like it’s over. Like it’d be easier to just bury yourself in anger. But what would it look like to choose the way of love, what might you have to die to so that you and your partner might flourish?
Or perhaps you’ve always been one of those super achievers, you know, the perfectionist of sorts. But lately, that’s not working for you. And you find that it’s really hurting relationships as you hold others to your impossible standards. What might you have to die to so that you can be free to fail? What would choosing the path of love look like for you? Ramdas says death said death is like finally taking off the two small shoes we’ve been wearing our entire lives.
Jesus said those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. Transformation happens when you’re frustrated, angry, scared, hurting, and you’re doing the same old thing and suddenly you realize you have a choice to do it differently.
We have that opportunity now, covid has changed everything for us, the pandemic was and is more than a simple rummage sale. It is the Everything Must Go sale.
We have that opportunity now. covid has changed everything for us. The pandemic was is more than a simple rummage sale. It is the everything must go sale. And we don’t have to go back to what, once?
In fact, we can’t go back to what was whether that be keeping up an active social calendar to feed our egos or maintaining the grind at work, or even maybe especially going back to church as it was friends.
I hope and pray that church, as we once knew it, is dead, not because I didn’t love what was, but because only if the church, as we once knew it has died, will we find new life, new ways of seeing a deeper belief and more faithful living. I don’t know exactly what this will look like, but I think we are already getting glimpses through the creative ways that we’ve engaged our community and cared for and walked alongside each other through this pandemic, even as we remained physically distant.
As we learn to see Jesus in new ways, we will not be given a new piece of information to know or another tradition to follow or obligation to perform.
But we will be called to follow him into a whole new life to be lived. Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it can only be a single seed, but if it dies, it bears much fruit.