Reformation Sunday (27-10-2019)

Read Jeremiah 31:27-34

The 500-Yearly Church Garage Sale

The lesson from Jeremiah appointed for Reformation Day provides hope in a time of immense change. In most small congregations of the Uniting Church, you may hear expressed common threads of anxiety and fear because of decline in attendance, membership and giving. 

Our society – indeed the world – along with almost everything else we know, is changing at lightning pace, a reality that is simultaneously invigorating and terrifying. You may remember Alvin Tofler’s book in 1970, Future Shock, which described the distressing effects upon people living in a fast-changing world. And now 50 years later, the pace of change has only increased.  

I wonder whether we good church folk more fear the loss of Christ’s message and our ability to communicate it in a world that won’t sit still, or the loss of the institutions/vessels our forebears have created to contain, shape, and manage that message.

Retired Anglican Bishop the Rt. Rev. Mark Dyer, says that about every 500 years the Church feels compelled to hold a giant garage sale. History suggests that it takes about this long for the church to undergo a major ‘house-cleaning’ of the institutional trappings it has amassed and treasured. 

The first such event was the move from the time before Christ, about the time of Jeremiah’s writing, to the birth of Jesus, followed about 500 years later by the fall of Rome and the rise of monasticism. The third great house cleaning came with the schism between Eastern (Orthodox) and Western Christianity (Roman Catholicism), with the next giant clean-out coming with the advent of Martin Luther and the reformation.

Reformer Martin Luther (center) works closely with several colleagues in translating the first German-language edition of the Bible. The edition appeared in 1532, 15 years after Luther’s challenge to the practice of selling indulgences led to the Protestant Reformation. At right are Johann Burgenhagen (standing), a pastor, and Caspar Cruciger, who edited many of Luther’s writings. Engraving by J.C. Buttre. Religion News Service file photo

It is now a couple years past the 500 year mark since the  Reformation, that last great garage sale (or in Ocean Grove’s terminology, the last “Recycled Treasure Sale”), meaning we’re living through another time of great change. The difference this time is that we’re in an age where information technology and social media are making it possible to share and, one hopes, understand this experience in a new way. We have a choice to make: shall we be fearful and hide behind crumbling edifices, hanging on for dear life to what we have, or shall we be hopeful and look with excitement for what God is doing in this time and place?

The prophet Jeremiah also stood at the crossroads of one of these great 500-year periods of change:  the divided kingdom, the fall of Solomon’s temple, and the Babylonian captivity (and we think we have it bad!), making his words of even greater import today.

In many places Reformation Sunday is a day to look back to our heritage, to recall the work of those who have gone before us, to treasure that which has been bequeathed to us.  It is indeed good to do this, but why?  We celebrate this way, not to solidify our desire to maintain the gift that has been given, but to value the courage and faithfulness of those who did NOT simply maintain that which had been given to them, but who made the changes demanded by their time.  Luther, Wesley, Knox, Calvin, et al were all agents of radical change, i.e. re-formation of the church. What an irony that many who observe this Reformation Day will be those who, in contrast to the reformers they revere, would live in the past and resist any change to the existing structures!

When my children were still at home, we often played board games, and while playing a long game of Monopoly, I was struck by my daughter’s propensity to stay in jail, rather than use her ‘get out of jail free’ card. When I asked her about it she said “It’s safe in here!” 

It is fear of what’s ‘out there’  that keeps us hiding, clinging to the rummage of the past, when we could be ‘out there’ exploring, trusting in God’s guidance and care, and, yes, even failing once in a while.

If nothing else, this Sunday should be a day to be unbound from fear of the future and to celebrate freedom in God’s steadfastness across the ages. Sure, the ‘clothes’ the Church must wear are changing with the times, and may we resist, wedded to our old comfortable attire; however, whilst the clothes change, the fabric of faith is seamless and timeless. The pattern of God’s covenant is not printed on the surface, but rather embedded in the heart; the very centre of what it means to be alive, moving and breathing. God forgives and remembers no more, says Jeremiah. In Christ we know this truth, and it sets us free from the limits imposed by our human fearfulness.

Our churches are not about buildings and steeples or programs and initiatives or even liturgy and music. We, as fallen and redeemed sinner/saints, are the Church. We are the living, breathing Body of Christ. And yes, sometimes we stumble and gasp for air and on our better days sometimes we run with endurance, but it’s not about us; it’s all about God.

I learned a new word this week: ‘adiaphora’. Adiaphora are matters not regarded as essential to faith, but nevertheless permissible for Christians, and it includes most of what we do in church: all the ritual, the ecclesiastical rules and regulations, how we worship, et al. The argument over what is essential and what is mere adiaphora was right at the centre of the Reformation. It isn’t uncommon for church members to confuse adiaphora with that which is essential, and over the years, much of the stress and the wasted time and energy of church meetings and politics has been over adiaphora . 

So let’s make this time of vacancy, this time of transition, into a time of transformation. Don’t be afraid to put some of the adiaphora of this congregation into the next great ‘recycled treasure sale.’ Make some space for the Holy Spirit to dance and move and breathe. Throw open the windows, sweep out the corners, and make space for new folks and new expressions of God’s amazing grace and steadfast faith. As Jeremiah has reminded us, “the days ARE surely coming, says the Lord.”

An open, virtual door to the world