Rev. Tom Sorenson, Pastor
October 27, 2002 (Reformation-Reconciliation Sunday)
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Today is what we used to call Reformation Sunday, a day for remembering and celebrating the renewal of the church in the sixteenth century our of which our Protestant tradition emerged. Today, apparently, we call it Reformation-Reconciliation Sunday. At least, thatís what itís called in the UCC desk calendar that I use as my source for the lectionary readings each week. Iím not quite sure who they think weíre supposed to be reconciling with-the Roman Catholics I suppose. Iíll have more to say about that, at least indirectly, in a bit. There is lots of reconciling we need to do. But letís start by looking at the Reformation for a minute.
The Reformation is known for, among a lot of other things, a number of slogans that came out of it and that are useful shorthand for some of its central doctrines. Maybe youíve heard some of them: sola cripture, by scripture alone; and sola fidei, by faith alone. Thereís another one that is considerably less well known, probably because it has been less well adhered to. It is: simper reformanda, always reforming. The Reformation was about renewing the church, about changing practices and beliefs that were perceived in the light of new experience and discernment not to be truly faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Some Reformers, at least, recognized that the process of renewal in the church needs to be an ongoing process. Reformation is not something that happened once nearly five hundred years ago. If we are to be truly faithful we must be continually reforming-semper reformanda.
I think a Scriptural basis for this requirement always to be reforming the church can be found in the Gospel reading for this morning. Itís one of the most famous, and most important, passages in Scripture. Itís known as the Great Commandment. It has two parts, both taken from Hebrew Scripture. The first part comes from Deuteronomy 6:5, and it is the foundational creed of Judaism. It says: You shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, and mind. The second part comes from the Leviticus passage we heard this morning: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. I want to focus this morning on the first part: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind. That may surprise some of you. We liberals generally focus on the second part as a call to do social justice. Thatís of course very important; but, you see, the second part of the Great Commandment follows from and depends on the first part. And beyond that, as people of faith, the first part is for us more important, more sweeping, more foundational than the second part. So letís look at what the commandment to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, souls, and minds, means for the slogan semper reformanda.
"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind." Whatever else that may mean, it means at least that we must love God more than anything else, our commitment must be to God more than it is to any church, any doctrine, any religious practice. We must be prepared to give up any belief, any practice, indeed any church if we perceive that our foundational loyalty to God is inconsistent with that belief, that practice, or that church. In other words, we must always be open to new Reformations, to changes, to renewal. And we must be open to these things precisely because our ultimate commitment is not to those things. It is not to a church, not to a belief, not to a practice. It is to God, Who transcends and cannot be limited to any belief, any practice, any church.
Well, OK. But do we need a new Reformation here and now? I answer that question emphatically yes we do. I actually believe that the answer to that question is always yes. I think we need a new Reformation on a lot of issues, and I think one is actually in progress. I think we see it in the way many (but tragically not all) churches now ordain women, whereas one hundred years ago very few did. We see it in the way a few denominations now ordain openly gay and lesbian people, whereas forty years ago none did. I think there is a Reformation underway in the mainline Protestant denominations that is moving us away from Biblical and creedal literalism and toward a symbolic, metaphorical understanding of the faith.
And that Reformation can take us a long way toward that new element that has been introduced into the name of this Sunday, i.e., reconciliation. Iíve told some of you this story, so Iíll those of you who have heard it to bear with me while I share it with everyone. I think it illustrates how a non-literal understanding of the faith can lead to reconciliation between different, even radically different, faith traditions.
A couple of weeks ago, during the week I took off to go to BC and Oregon, I met a woman from Algeria. She is a Moslem, now living in Vancouver, BC, where she is on leave after working the last twenty-three years for the UN refugee agency. Our mutual friend who introduced us had apparently told her a bit about me, because she was waiting to talk to me, as a professional cleric, about something that had been on her mind. As I said, sheís Moslem. Sheís a very modern, Westernized Moslem, but her Islamic faith is very important to her. She told me that she had recently been with friends in a Roman Catholic church. There, many people were praying to the Virgin Mary. My new friend told me that as she watched, she had a powerful sense of the presence of the Virgin as the powerful, peaceful, comforting presence of the feminine face of God. As she left the church, she thought: Wait a minute! Iím a Moslem! Whatís going on here? She didnít know what Islam has to say about Mary, so she went home and took her Quran off the shelf to look to see if there was anything in there about Mary. When she did, the holy book fell open to a sura, or chapter, on Mary. It turns out that the Quran speaks very favorably of Mary, something that my friend found surprising but comforting. Still, she was very puzzled by this experience. She asked me if I though she was just making all this up, if it was all just in her head, or if I thought it could be something real.
I thought: Wow! Hereís a Moslem woman asking me, a Protestant Christian pastor (from a branch of the Christian family that doesnít do Mary much), about an experience she had had of the presence of God in the image of the Virgin Mary in a Roman Catholic church that she thought had been confirmed by a passage from the Quran. So we had here a convergence of Islam, Roman Catholicism, and Protestant Christianity. And I had absolutely no difficulty telling her with complete sincerity that I was sure she was not making it up. I told her that she had had what we call a "numinous experience," that is, an unusually powerful and immediate experience of the presence of the Holy in our lives. I told her that her experience sounded authentic to me and that she should trust it and cherish it.
When I told my Presbyterian minister friend Dennis this story he said: "Thereís hope." What did he mean by that? I think he meant that there is hope that the contemporary Reformation taking place in the Christian church can lead us beyond the exclusivism, grounded in literalism, that has for so long characterized the Christian faith. You see, because I understand my Protestant Christian tradition as one authentic, genuine, symbolic expression of a limited, partial, incomplete understanding of who God is I can see that other peopleís traditions, whether that tradition be Roman Catholic Christianity, or Islam, or Judaism, or Buddhism, or any other of worldís great faith traditions, as also being authentic, genuine symbolic expressions of the only kind of knowledge we humans can have of God, that is, limited, partial, and incomplete understanding.
How do you think a Protestant Christian pastor from one hundred years ago, or for that matter a Fundamentalist pastor today, would have answered my friend? I believe he (it almost certainly would be a he) would have said: That cannot be an authentic experience of God. It cannot be because you are a Moslem. Islam is a false religion, the work of Satan and not of God. You have not accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior, and therefore you can have no authentic experience of God. Moreover, veneration of the Virgin Mary is idolatry pure and simple. It is nothing but superstition and cannot be the medium for an authentic experience of the presence of God.
Why would our hypothetical pastor have said such a hurtful thing? I think it is because his vision of what is possible with God would be limited by his literalistic understanding of Scripture. You see, Christian Scripture is full of lines like: "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life," which are profound truths that unfortunately are followed immediately by lines like: "No one comes to the father except through me." John 14:6. Or: "God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him" followed immediately by: "Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God." John 3:17-18. If you take those statements literally, and if you take them as the Word of God, then our hypothetical pastorís exclusivism is perfectly justified. Indeed, it is required.
But if, with the leading lights of what I have called the current Reformation under way in the church you do not feel compelled to take such statements literally, if you are willing to see them as statements not of God but of a particular human community writing under and responding to particular historical circumstances, then you are free from the constraints of literalism. You are free to say, as so many of us today do say: It is inconsistent with the God I worship, the God I know in my life, the God of grace and mercy, to reveal truth only to a small minority of the people who have ever lived or ever will live. And you are free to see the unwarranted arrogance of the claim that that small minority just happens to be us. You are see to see the workings of grace is vision of the presence of God given to Moslem women in the form of the Virgin Mary.
And that my friends is great good news indeed. When we are freed from the shackles of literalism we are free to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, souls, and minds. We are free to know the saving power of the love of God in Jesus Christ, to know the profound truth of the Christian faith, to feel the power of that faith in our lives, to live in the peace and the hope that the Christian faith gives us. And we are free to do that without condemning our brothers and sisters of other faiths, free from the sin of spiritual arrogance that claims to limit the limitless God to one way of being, to one way of being known. We are free to enter into spiritual communion with people of good faith from all the worldís spiritual traditions, and from all the different traditions within Christianity. We are free to enrich our own spiritual lives with insights we gain from those traditions. We are free to share our experience of the saving power of Jesus Christ without violating Christís Gospel of freedom and peace by trying to force our way of faith onto others. When we are freed from literalism, a whole new world of faith opens up to us.
This, I think, is where the Protestant principle of semper reformanda has brought us today. Where will it take us tomorrow? Thereís no way to know. The struggle for the current Reformation is not over. Much of the Christian church still does not accept it. So let us continue the peaceful struggle to keep the church ever reforming. With Godís help, new visions of faith will open to us, bringing us ever nearer to the God we know in Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God. Amen.