Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Roots of Reformation

Based on a sermon preached by Jack Cabaness at the Katonah Presbyterian Church on June 18, 2017. This sermon is the first in a series on the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.

Martin Luther nailing the 95 Theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenburg, Germany on October 31, 2017. The church door was actually the equivalent of a university bulletin board.

Today we begin our summer sermon series on the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. I’m interested in this series not only because I’m captivated by church history but also because I know that many of us in this congregation have Roman Catholic backgrounds; more than a few of us are still technically Roman Catholic even after worshipping at KPC for years. More than once someone at KPC has come up to me and said, “I’m sorry, Father, I won’t be able to make it to mass this Sunday!” I mention this not to put anyone on the spot, but simply to note in a light-hearted way how deeply ingrained our religious habits can be.
When I’m a guest in a Roman Catholic service, and it’s time to say the Lord’s Prayer, I do remember to say “trespasses” instead of “debts.” But the thing that I always forget is that the Roman Catholic version of the Lord’s Prayer is shorter than the Protestant versions, and when the entire congregation has finished saying “deliver us from evil,” mine is the only voice adding: “For thine is …”
Over the course of this summer, we will have fun observing the light-hearted differences and commonalities between us, and we’ll examine deeper issues as well. As we mark the anniversary, do we celebrate it or do we commemorate it? On the one hand, there are many things to celebrate. The Presbyterian Church (USA) wouldn’t exist without the Protestant Reformation, at least not as we know it. There are many things in our heritage about which we should be grateful. Yet we are also acutely aware that the reformations of the sixteenth century led to persecution, executions, long-lasting wars, and continual divisions in the body of Christ, and for this reason many voices suggest that commemoration is the better approach.
For many of us these divisions are not just sad but interesting chapters in a history text book, they are sad and tragic chapters that have played themselves out in our own families. Perhaps your parents or grandparents were ostracized because they married “outside the faith.” Perhaps you’ve been ostracized because you no longer worship in the church of your childhood. I have childhood memories of fundamentalist Protestant preachers and my own grandmother telling me that my Roman Catholic friends, with whom I grew up in El Paso, Texas, would be going to hell; and many of you who grew up Roman Catholic in the years before Vatican II likewise have memories of priests and nuns telling you that your Protestant friends would be going to hell. Sadly, we got to be very good at condemning each other.
This is why I’m grateful for the voice of Martin Luther reverberating across history calling the entire church to repent--not just Catholics, not just Protestants, but all of us. The church in 1517 needed to repent. And the church in 2017 needs to repent. In the first of his 95 theses, or propositions for debate, that Martin Luther nailed to the church door in Wittenburg, Germany, he wrote, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” At the time he had no idea that he would one day be regarded as the founder of a separate church or movement; in his mind he was simply calling the entire church as he knew it to repentance.
Some scholars wonder whether Martin Luther literally nailed the theses to the church door. They wonder whether that is more legend that fact. At any rate, the act of nailing a list of theses to the church door may or may not have been as radical as it sounds because the church door really functioned as a kind of university bulletin board, much like the Katonah Village Improvement Society bulletin board near the train station. It wasn’t the act of nailing the theses to the church door that was so radical; it was what Luther was saying in those theses! Originally, Luther only intended to debate his university colleagues in Wittenburg, but thanks to the relatively recent invention of the printing press, Luther’s ideas spread like wildfire and the German Reformation was under way.
There were three specific issues facing the church in Luther’s time that prompted his call for repentance. The first issue was the lack of education among the parish priests. Many of them did not understand the Latin of the Mass that they recited every day. Many of the parishioners tended to view what the priest said in largely magical terms anyway—for instance, the phrase “hocus pocus” comes from that point in the Mass when the priest would say hoc est corpus meum (“this is my body.”)
But the lack of education among the clergy also meant that basic Christian doctrine was not being communicated either. After the invention of the printing press, many of the laity began reading for themselves. For example, in Geneva in 1536, just prior to the city turning Protestant, members of the congregation were known to interrupt preachers, challenging what was said on the basis the of the parishioner’s own readings in the Bible and shouting the preachers down when they could not respond to the parishioner’s satisfaction.
A second issue facing the church at this time was widespread concubinage. The local priests were required to be celibate, but many of them lived openly with women and simply paid an annual fine to the bishop, which the bishop was only too happy to receive. Rodrigo Borgia, after he had become Pope Alexander VI, made his illegitimate son a cardinal and put him in charge of the papal armies. How many things are wrong in that one sentence?! If you watched the Borgias miniseries on Showtime, you might be familiar with much of that story. Reform-minded people across the church grew increasingly dismayed at a church that taught one set of practices as official doctrine but lived out a very different set of practices in reality.
A third issue, and one that particularly incensed Martin Luther, was the selling of indulgences. An indulgence was a way of reducing the amount of time that a deceased person had to spend in Purgatory in exchange for a fee. The selling of indulgences had helped to fund some of the Crusades a few centuries earlier, and they helped to fund the building of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Indulgence preachers like Johan Tetzel would go around and try to convince people to buy indulgences. Tetzel is said to have come up with the jingle,
as soon as the coin in the coffer rings,                                                                                                     the soul from Purgatory springs
It rhymes in German, too. And Tetzel was not above using emotional manipulation. He would lay on the guilt, saying such things as “for only a few coins, you can alleviate the suffering of your loved one in Purgatory. Are you really going to pass up such an opportunity?”
The Selling of Indulgences

In addition to the growing, widespread church-wide concern about all three of these issues, the Humanist movement was growing and helping to sow the seeds of reform. A humanist was a student of the humanities, a group of subjects that included rhetoric, moral philosophy or ethics, history, and poetry. They looked to the past for sources of truth and goodness. They read the classics in Greek and Latin, and they wanted to read the Scriptures in the original Hebrew and Greek. One of their rallying cries was “ad fontes”--back to the sources. One of the humanists was Desiderius Erasmus. Some of said that Erasmus laid the egg that Luther hatched. Erasmus and others began to question many of the traditional teachings of the church based upon their new reading of the Scriptures in Hebrew and Greek.
Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536)
Erasmus was a leading Humanist reformer who remained within the Roman Catholic Church, and who would later debate Martin Luther on such topics as the Freedom of the Will.

For example, in today’s gospel passage from Matthew, where Jesus says, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” Jerome’s Latin Vulgate had said “Do Penance.” Erasmus and others realized that a better translation of the Greek word metanoite was repent. Instead of undergirding an elaborate church system of penance and indulgences, Jesus in the Gospels was simply calling us to repent, to stop taking our lives down one direction, to turn around, and begin taking our lives in a new direction. That was why Martin Luther began his 95 Theses with a call for repentance. Repentance is something that a believer is always called to do during his or her lifetime. It is not dependent upon whether or not your survivors buy an indulgence after you die. In the rest of the 95 Theses, Luther goes on to question the power of the pope to extend indulgences to souls in purgatory, especially when salvation is really a gift given by a righteous God.
In a nutshell, these were many of the factors leading up to the Reformation.
What are the roots of reformation in our own time? Just as the printing press helped Reformation ideals spread like wildfire 500 years ago, the internet has utterly transformed our communications and the ways that we connect or fail to connect with one another.
In our gospel reading this morning Jesus said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is drawing near.” Repent, and change the direction of your life, Jesus said, because God is doing a new thing.
I believe, and so many others believe, that God is doing a new thing in our lifetimes. It’s difficult to describe with precision because we are alive while it’s happening. We don’t have the benefit of the hindsight of history yet.
The late religion journalist and author Phyllis Tickle once said that every 500 years or so the church conducts a giant rummage sale. Of course, this congregation puts on a giant rummage sale every year! But in Tickle’s analogy every 500 years or so the worldwide church decides which of its essential beliefs and practices it will hold onto and which ones it will discard and put up for sale. If the last great Rummage Sale was the Protestant Reformation, then we are due for another one.
Tickle says we are entering a new era of "The Emergent Church," a religious movement that crosses denominational boundaries and traditions, seeks common ground, engages diverse cultures, embraces social causes, seeks to live out Christ's call to serve others, and takes place mostly outside church buildings. Is this an apt description of the church of the future?
We will ponder that and many other questions throughout the summer. Behind me are some of the church's most treasured possessions that I believe we will always cling to. The Bible on the lectern reminds the church that God is still speaking. The baptismal font reminds us that even in the midst of dizzying changes that God claims us in the waters of baptism and reminds us that we belong to God. The communion table reminds us that God feeds us and gives us the spiritual nourishment we require. These are some of the many things we will hold onto.
We might accidentally sale a communion tablecloth during Rummage, but we're not getting rid of the table! There will always be a reminder of how God cares for and nourishes each one of us.
As we decide what we keep or what we discard during this giant church-wide Rummage sale, the most important question for us is to keep asking ourselves what our mission is. Many bloggers and preachers have said that the church is currently facing its "Kodak Moment." The Kodak company ran into trouble because they believed that their mission was to make film. And nowadays few people buy film. But making film wasn't really their true mission. Their true mission was to preserve images and make memories, whether that was through film or the digital camera technology (that they actually invented!) but were too slow to embrace.
The most essential message of Christianity will always be resurrection and renewal. Jesus said, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is drawing near." Let's go, boldly and faithfully, where God leads us.
All glory and praise be to our God. Amen.
Bass, Diana Butler. A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story. New York: HarperCollins, 2009.
Hillerbrand, Hans J., editor. The Protestant Reformation. Revised Edition. New York: Harper Perennial, 1968, 2009.
Sunshine, Glenn S. The Reformation for Armchair Theologians. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2005.

Tickle, Phyllis. The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2008, 2012.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Safety Pins and Sermons

In my sermon on Sunday, November 13th, which can be heard here, I mentioned that after the Brexit vote last summer, many people began wearing safety pins to indicate that they were safe persons for any threatened minority or immigrant to approach.

In the sermon I also promised to offer some additional reflections about wearing the safety pin, and there has certainly been a lot of vigorous debate about wearing the pins. There are some voices that suggest that wearing the pin is too simplistic of a gesture, and there have been voices of warning that people intending to do harm might even wear the pin as a false promise of safety. There have been posts by white nationalist groups announcing their decision to wear safety pins.

On the other hand, there have been other voices saying that at least wearing the pin is a step beyond paralysis.

To me the most pressing work ahead is making sure that the most vulnerable among us feel safe. We should stand in solidarity with any who are fearful, and we should have honest and brave dialogue about the best way to move forward.

One of the most helpful considerations I've heard is that if you choose to wear a safety pin, make sure that you have a plan of action for de-escalating a tense situation. Also, don't selectively decide which vulnerable minority you are going to try to protect. You should be prepared to help everyone.

In the words of a popular blog post that is getting shared a lot these days:

Know what the pin means. It is a sign that you are a safe person. A marginalized person who is being harassed will look to you to help keep them safe. By wearing the safety pin you make a public pledge to be a walking, talking safe space for the marginalized. All of the marginalized. You don't get to pick and choose. You can't protect GSM people but ignore the Muslim woman who needs help. You can't stand for Black people who are dealing with racial slurs but ignore the disabled person who is dealing with a physical attack.
Marie-Shirine Yener did an excellent comic on how to de-escalate a situation in public. The comic itself speaks specifically to anti-Muslim violence but the skills are transferable to other situations.

 My hope is that the safety pin debate will lead to constructive dialogue about what it means to be a helpful ally. As I said in my sermon on Sunday, "now more than ever is a time for seeking first to understand, and then to be understood."

Monday, September 19, 2016

Move Your Stake

From a sermon by Jack Cabaness
Katonah Presbyterian Church
September 18, 2016

Originally titled: "The Faith of Abraham"
Text: Genesis 15:1-6

The late Fred Craddock was a wonderful preacher and storyteller. One story in particular that has stuck with me is a story that he told about his childhood. Fred recalls:

When I was a boy, once I was taken out of the house and to the backyard and was allowed to lie on the grass and chew the tender stems of grass. You know how you do on a summer evening, just lie there, chew the tender grass, and look up at the sky.

And my father said to me, "Son, how far can you think?

I said, "What?"

He said, "How far can you think?"

"Well, I don't know what you mean."

"Just think as far as you can think up toward the stars."

I screwed my imagination down, and I said, "I'm thinking ... I'm thinking ... I'm thinking."

He said, "Think as far as you can think."

"I'm thinking as far as I can think."

He said, "Well, drive down a stake out there now. In your mind, drive down a stake. Have you driven down the stake? That's how far you can think.

I said, "Yes, sir."

He said, "Now what's on the other side of your stake?"

I said, "Well, there's more sky."

He said, "Move your stake."

And we spent the evening moving my stake out there. It was a crazy thing to do, but I will never thank him enough for doing it. (as quoted in Fred B. Craddock, Craddock Stories)

There are times in the life of faith when we are called to "move our stake." That’s what happened to Abraham in today’s reading. When we first encounter Abraham in Genesis chapter 12, a voice comes out of nowhere and tells 75-year-old Abram to leave behind the only home he has ever known and to journey forward to a land that God will show him. God promises to make of Abraham a great nation, and that all of the families of the earth will be blessed through him.

And Abraham and his wife Sarah do exactly what they were told. They pack up and leave their old lives behind. As we read Abraham’s story in Genesis chapters 12, 13, and 14, we learn of their adventures in and out of Egypt, and we also watch how Abraham and Sarah grow even older and continue to remain childless, even though God has promised to make of them a great nation.

And even apart from God’s outlandish promise, there is the question of legacy. Without a chosen heir, how can they have any legacy at all? For people of Abraham’s time, no matter how much prosperity or land you might store up, unless you have offspring who will continue to work the land and care for you as you age, your legacy and prosperity become as fleeting as crops that wither in a season.

When Abraham cries out to God, “O Lord God what will you give me! You have given me no offspring!” he is in pain. He is questioning his faith, doubting God's care for him, wondering if Sarah and he would ever have a child of their own. This is a moment of despair. 

God listens, and then he tells Abraham to look at the night sky and move his stake. Specifically, God says, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” And Abraham believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness. (Genesis 15:5-6)

What do we mean when we say that Abraham believed the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness? What do we mean when we talk about Abraham’s faith? What do we mean when we talk about our faith?

The sixteenth century Reformer John Calvin once wrote that we shall possess a right definition of faith if we call it a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit. (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.2.7)

John Calvin (1509-1564)

I’ve always loved how Calvin refuses to mince words … we shall possess a right definition of faith! as opposed to a wrong or a misguided or incomplete definition.

But I love even more what Calvin actually had to say about faith. Faith is a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence—God’s goodness--toward us. It’s not a highly specialized knowledge of theological minutia about God …It’s a firm and certain knowledge of God’s goodness toward us.

And Calvin goes on to say that it is revealed to our minds, and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit. There is both a head aspect of faith and a heart aspect of faith. These are two sides of the same coin.

Regarding the head side of the coin, what we actually believe about God—the content of our faith—is important. Just because God is a big mystery doesn’t mean that we can’t say anything at all. One of my favorite theology professors Doug Ottati would often tell us not to appeal to mystery at the top of the third inning. Play your nine innings of theological baseball. Say what you do know, namely, that in spite of everything and even in the face of seemingly contradictory evidence, God is good, all the time, all the time, God is good.

Faith is a firm and certain knowledge of God’s goodness to us. The content of faith is important, and sometimes it’s necessary to challenge someone regarding the content of faith.

Rodger Nishioka is a Presbyterian seminary professor with years of experience in youth ministry. He recalls attending a worship service in a church when the youth group was reporting back about a recent mission trip to Mexico. One young woman was describing their experiences, and she reflected on the poverty that they had witnessed in Mexico, and she said, “God must love us more, because he has given us so many more blessings.”

Rodger was shocked. He realized that this was one of those times when it was necessary to challenge someone’s speech about God. If the content of your faith only enables you to see God’s goodness to you and not to others, then it’s time to move your stake.

Go back and read the stories of the Bible again. Read what Old Testament prophets like Joel and Amos had to say about greed and riches and poverty, and think twice before you say that God must love rich people more.

Thus, the head aspect of faith enables us to speak convincingly about God’s goodness toward us and others. There is also the heart aspect of faith, which is the aspect that enables us to trust. In the words of one preacher, this aspect of faith is perhaps best expressed as a verb and not so much as a noun. In other words, we might say, “I faith sometimes. I wish I could faith more often. And I am working toward faithing in God in all that I do.” (from Martin Copenhaver, Living Faith While Holding Doubts)

There’s a poignant scene in J. D. Vance’s haunting and moving memoir Hillbilly Elegy. J. D. writes honestly about his mother’s struggle with addiction, and being raised by his grandparents, who had a complicated relationship to each other and to the rest of the family. One day J.D. asked his grandmother, whom he called Mamaw, “Mamaw, Does God love us?” She hung her head, gave him a hug, and began to cry.

The question wounded Mamaw because the Christian faith stood at the center of their lives, especially hers. She knew that this wasn’t a head knowledge question about God’s love; this was a heart question about God’s love for them: Given all that has happened to us, does God really love us after all?

The remarkable thing about the story of Abraham is that even after his nighttime astronomy session with the Lord, Abraham and Sarah continued childless for many more years.
When it came to trusting in God, Abraham and Sarah were always being challenged to move their stake a little more, to trust a little deeper.

J.D. Vance had this to say about his grandmother:

The theology she taught was unsophisticated, but it provided a message I needed to hear. To coast through life was to squander my God-given talent, so I had to work hard. I had to take care of my family because Christian duty demanded it. I needed to forgive, not just for my mother’s sake but for my own. I should never despair, for God had a plan. (from J. D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy)

When the New Testament author of the Book of Hebrews reflects on the heroes of our faith, he writes about Abraham and Sarah and all the heroes of the faith, saying, “All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them.”

The writer James Michener recounted that medieval pilgrims who traveled the long road from France to the Cathedral of Saint James in Spain would, as they neared the end of their demanding journey, strain their eyes toward the horizon, hoping to see the towers of the long-sought cathedral in the distance. The first one to see would shout, “My joy!” (Michener, Iberia)

The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, a pilgrimage site since the Middle Ages and the reputed burial place of St. James the Great, one of Jesus' Apostles.

With our heads, we believe that God is good to us.

With our hearts, we trust that the same God who has brought us this far will carry us on to the end of our journey, and, in the meantime, we take one step at a time, putting one foot in front of the other, anticipating that moment when at long last one of us will shout for all to hear: My joy! My joy!

All glory and praise be to our God. Amen.