Sunday, October 31, 2021

Sermon: "The Most Important Word", Deuteronomy 6:1-9/Mark 12:28-34 (Reformation Sunday--October 31, 2021

This sermon was preached to supplement a beautiful Reformation Sunday Worship service written by Rev. Carol Holbrook Prickett that we adapted for use in our congregation.


I frequently hear (and maybe you have, too) a criticism of religion that goes something like this: “Why should I live my life according to outdated documents written by people who lived thousands of years ago?” And I mean, it’s a fair question. Modern society faces issues that our forebearers could never have imagined—healthcare, gun violence, climate change, bodily autonomy, and many more. The world we live in today is very, very different from the world in which people first proclaimed that “the Lord our God is one”.

And yet, even as the world around us changes (and we change with it), we people of faith insist on holding tight to these ancient words. Indeed, our denomination cherishes not only the ancient words of the Bible but also the words of our constitutional Confessions—with the “newest” ones having been written in the ‘80s, they’re not QUITE ancient yet, but they could certainly be considered “historic” by now (and please note that I say this as a child of the ‘80s). As a community, we unapologetically cling to these “outdated documents”, but rarely do we stop to think about why. More often, we pick and choose the parts we like, and we do our best to pretend that the other parts don’t exist.

As “Ecclesia Reformata, Semper Reformanda”—“The Church reformed [and] always reforming”—this seems a little disingenuous. If we want a reformed Church, then why can’t we let go of these theological fossils, in all of their problematic, irrelevant glory? Shouldn’t we throw them in the trash and replace them with more “woke” or “politically correct” or (at least) less “cringeworthy” statements? What is reformation if not throwing out the old to make room for something newer and better?

This is certainly a valid point with regards to secular reformation. Think about all the societal reforms that you learned about in your high school history classes: the Scientific Revolution, the Labor Movement, Women’s Suffrage, and so on. In each of these cases, reform meant replacing old ways of thinking with completely new and heretofore inconceivable ideas. Prior to the Scientific Revolution, there was no concept of scientific discovery apart from the Church’s authority; prior to the Labor Movement, there was no such thing as a “week end” set apart from the other days of the week; prior to the Suffrage Movement, it was taken as fact that the voices of white, landowning men were the only ones that mattered. In each of these cases, reform came out of human imagination and thin air, because “better” had no precedent or reference point.

But while reformation in the secular world often depends on human novelty and ingenuity, reformation in the Church has a different source. We’re not creating something out of nothing; we already HAVE a reference point for “better”, and it has nothing to do with anything that WE’VE ever done. No era in the entire history of the Church—not even the “purity” of the first century ekklesia or “the good ol’ days” of the 1950s—has ever been without fault. Any honest theologian will admit that even the Church’s most beloved exemplars are problematic in one way or another, from St. Paul’s advocating of slavery, to Calvin’s execution of theological opponents, to Martin Luther King Jr.’s adultery, to Mother Teresa’s tendency towards colonialist racism. No matter how highly we may think of ourselves, WE cannot be the standard for “better” that our reform is grounded in.

The standard for ecclesial reform is not human in origin at all, but is no less than Godself. We consider Christ the head of the Church for good reason: he is the only perfect reference that we have to direct us in our never-ending work to reorient ourselves towards God’s kindom. When we speak of reform, we shouldn’t be referring in any way to our own ingenuity, either in the past or the present. We’re not creating something out of nothing. “Ecclesia Reformata, Semper Reformanda” is nothing more and nothing less than the vision for the world that God has held from our very creation, a vision that we are graciously invited to help create and participate in.

So why, then, should we continue to burden ourselves with these old, faulty, HUMAN documents, with their problematic language, antisemitism, exclusion, violence, and “irrelevance”? Why do we continue to turn to them year after year, decade after decade, century after century, to guide our faith when we know that our reformation must come from God alone?

We turn to these human confessions time and time again, not because we ignorantly believe them infallible, but precisely BECAUSE of their failings. They serve as an important reminder that no matter how convicted we may be, and no matter how much progress we may have made, we’re still human. We’re still products of our own environments, and we are subject to our own biases and shortsightedness. There is always more reform to be done.

Even as these ancient words remind us of the ways the Church has fallen short over the centuries, they still facilitate our reform in an important way. All of these documents, all of these words inspired by God but recorded by human hands, were meant, imperfections and all, to point away from themselves and towards the one thing upon which a perfect faith is built: Jesus the Christ. Not an impeccable statement of beliefs, not a comprehensive list of rules, not a flawless description of the kindom of heaven. Not any one person’s mortal words, but THE eternal Word.

None of the confessions were created in a vacuum, just for “funzies”; every one reflects a group of people who heard God’s voice speaking to them in their context and did their best to amplify the message that they heard. In calling our attention to the matters specific to their day, each of these confessions, in their own way, tries to lift up the holy Word above all of our biases and protestations: to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love one another as ourselves. No matter who we are, no matter what we believe, no matter what we’re facing, THIS is what’s always at the heart of the Church’s reform.

When we understand all of the Church’s history as humanity’s flawed efforts to point towards THIS Word, we realize that these human documents aren’t as irrelevant as they might seem. It’s okay that these ancient words aren’t perfect as long as we don’t pretend that they are. They remind us of how far we’ve come, and how far we’ve yet to go. They remind us how important it is not to seek inspiration for reform within ourselves, but to turn back again and again to the divine source of all that is good and all that can be made better. These imperfect words point us towards the only perfect Word, the Logos that was and is and ever shall be.

And so, let us listen to the human words of our historical confessions not with our ears, but with our spirits. Let us cherish the gifts that the past has given us. Let us recognize the ways that it exists both in beautiful harmony and jarring tension with the holiness of God’s kindom—and let us be instructed by both. Let us be a community that seeks always to be reformed not by our own ideas, but by the most important Word. Amen.

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