The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ reform sermon. It’s his attempt to remind the people to focus not so much on the old rule-book understanding of the Bible. It’s his way of saying, let’s look at the big picture. You have heard it said, “love your friends and hate your enemies. But I say to you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” This is a tall order and yet it is central to God’s overarching plan. You see in the old days when they were at war, it was practical to love your friends. Not just like them but to really love your friends. That meant looking out for them and making sure that they were healthy and safe. Listen to them. Hold them fast when they are hurting. Support them and protect them from foes hear and far.
Now this “hate your enemies” thing was probably a reference in scripture to a specific instance in a war-time situation. But the problem was that it became universalized so that the Biblical understanding of the world became one where there are insiders and outsiders. If there are always enemies out there, then we are never safe. We can never even imagine paradise. Jesus wants us to be better than that. If we are to truly survive as a people we need to transform our enemies in to friends. That’s harder work and it’s the kind of reform that Jesus was about.
I love the scripture about God changing the divine mind in Genesis. It gives me hope that we can call on God’s compassion as we seek to be better examples of faithful living.
We know that rivers of reform have flowed through the Christian church. Some of them were very good. Some of them were not so good. Let me take you through just a short survey of the reforms the church has witnessed over the years. Each one of these tried to redefine what it meant to be the church.
The early churches were house churches each with their own flavor, priorities, rituals and culture. They even had different scriptures. But as the church grew, they had trouble dealing with the inherent differences of each community. Some felt that they needed unity. So the power brokers sought out the best scriptures, the best practices, the most popular forms of Christianity and Canonized them, which was great if you were on the right side of orthodoxy. But if you were on the wrong side, like the Gnostics and the churches with women in leadership and the churches that preferred Thomas’ Gospel or Judas’ Gospel to that of John, you were deemed heretics.
In the year 350, the Roman Emperor Constantine embraced Christianity—well, he made Christianity legal and used it to win some battles. It transformed Christianity from a fringe movement that was suspicious of the military and anyone who would call himself King, to one that marched in lock step with the Empire. This form of Christianity still exists today in some places.
When the Roman Empire fell a few hundred years later, the Christians needed to find a new sense of identity. This is when the monastic movement began and people devoted themselves to a common community and a removal from the influence of the world which had forsaken them.
A few hundred years later, the Eastern and Western churches split from each other. The Eastern Church retained a more mystical belief system while the Western church was all about the rules. In the early 11th century, Anselm came up with the theology of Substitutionary Atonement which the Western church embraced. Paradise changed from something we built in this world to something we received after death. This is also around the time that the Crucifix appeared for the first time in Christian art, depicting a dead Jesus. The crusades followed, fueled by a belief system that said you needed to kill or be killed for God’s glory. We still have shades of this, too.
In the 1300’s the printing press brought the scriptures into people’s hands for the first time. Wycliffe and others translated and printed the Bible and people began to see that there might need to be some changes. By the time Martin Luther nailed his theses to the church door in the early 1500’s the reforms were already under way. The first Baptist churches formed in the 1500’s, insisting on believer’s baptism and a refusal to fight in the military. Other protesting groups separated themselves from the mother church resulting in what we call the Protestant Reformation. Remember that this all happened as Columbus began invading the Americas bringing back inconvenient stories of the complexity of the world.
The American Revolution, founded on principles of religious liberty, squandered that birthright as they subjugated the Native peoples in their quest for expansion. The Civil War was in part a religious war in that it was fought in part over how one defined a human being, slave or free. The industrial revolution, the suffrage movement, the holocaust and the reforms that resulted from it, the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, these are all reforms that have defined and influenced our lives
Phyllis Tickle wrote a book entitled, “A Rummage Sale Every 500 Years”. She traced the history of the church for the last two millennia and discovered that major shifts happened every 500 years. She thinks that we’re in for a new shift. The Religious right has lost its grip on the cultural consciousness. There is increasing suspicion about church institutions, let alone denominations (the power brokers of the last century). Maybe it’s time for another garage sale—where you get rid of the things you don’t find useful and rediscover things that have been tucked away for too long. Phyllis Tickle says that after each one of these “garage sales”, what emerges is a more vital form of Christianity with more depth and range. I wonder what this will look like.
Rivers of reform are a constant presence, if not an obvious presence. I learned back in Geology class that meandering streams carve out rivers for a time within a flood plane. They will exist for decades, even centuries. Cities will be built around them, whole civilizations. But one day, inevitably, a rain will come that is so strong that the levies won’t hold. The engineers cannot stop it. The course of the river will change and a new more powerful river will cut its path. It will cause devastation and then we will adjust once again and look at the landscape with new eyes.
Think about God’s plan as that flood that comes every few hundred years, to right the wrongs of the past. When Martin Luther King said that the long arc of history bends toward justice, he was saying that God is the most powerful stream. Like Amos bellowed, Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
The streams and the rivers of our world are changing. The question is, will we be on the right stream or will we be swept away in the tide? Now, I have trouble with the image of God as a destructive power, so I won’t push this metaphor too far, but we can’t deny that there is a self-correcting force in nature. And maybe in God’s wisdom, that force was made so we might pay attention to our actions and make the right decisions so that we and our descendants might live.
You know for each reform there is an equal and powerful counter-reform.
When the Re-imagining Conference happened a few decades back, several churches initiated wonderful reforms. But people also lost their jobs because of their participation in such an event that was deemed heretical.
When the Catholic liberation theologians called upon the people to rise up against powers of injustice, Pope John Paul II silenced the loudest and most creative voices. Over his 25 years of leadership, one by one, liberationist cardinals and archbishops were replaced by more conservative ones. Now there are a scarce few balancing voices of descent amongst the church hierarchy.
When the Episcopal Church and now the ELCA have voted to more publicly welcome the LGBT community, their dissenters are forming their own denominations in protest. This is a page out of the Baptist playbook. Reacting to decisions by a few small congregations, the voices of intolerance have ramped up the movement to exclude dangerous churches like ours. The Southern Baptist Convention already officially excludes not only LGBT-friendly churches, but also churches that ordain women.
Then there is the liturgical reform that has taken place over the past few decades. You know what I’m talking about. It’s the churches that have done market surveys to find the key to church growth—as if that is the only reason churches exist. They realized that churches need lots of space. The churches shouldn’t look too churchy or sound too churchy. Get rid of the organ. Get rid of the pews and replace them with stadium seating for the “show.” Get rid of the hymnbooks. Project things on the wall, get people to lift up their heads. To maximize the growth opportunities, make sure there is a big enough space—so what if it looks like a big box store, folks spend more time there than in church, so they’ll feel right at home. And make sure there’s enough parking, that you give the people what they want and that you keep the message positive.
Now some of those things are good (especially the parking part), and yet we find people moving back to buildings that look like churches. They find that the seven-eleven songs didn’t fit with them, and that their kids didn’t like the aging baby-boomer music.
Many churches like us have made reforms in their liturgical life. A few decades ago, we changed our version of the Lord’s Prayer to include “our Mother” in addition to “our Father”. We use inclusive language to honor the complexity of our lives. Current reforms show an openness of churches to do things we have been doing for years, like being welcoming and Affirming of all people, like celebrating women in leadership, like removing the flag from the sanctuary so that we are clear which God we follow. The so-called “emergent churches” are discovering social justice as a religious priority, we we welcome and yet wonder why this seems so radical.
On the national front, we give thanks for the long overdue reform that will come as the President signs the Matthew Shepherd act, finally making sexual orientation a category for hate crimes. We hope for the day when health care gets reformed.
Reform happens, as it should. And as it happens, there are always casualties. The question we need to ask is, are we on God’s side? What reforms would God want? But that’s not the only question. The other question is that when we make reforms, do we care about those on the other side of the aisle? Do we care that their world-view and even their faith is shaken to the core? Do we care that their life’s meaning now needs to be readjusted? Love your enemies, said Jesus. Don’t just tolerate them. Love them. If there is one more handful of faithful people, God, will you change your mind again?
We know that God wants reforms that bend toward justice, inclusion and peace. Our task is not only to help steer the boat on the waves of reform that God desires. But also to care for those swept aside by such a river. That’s how we live when we join God in imagining paradise.
Last night as was putting this sermon and myself to bed, I flipped on the TV and landed on the movie, “Milk”. After recognizing several scenes of my old San Francisco stomping grounds, I watched how Harvey Milk really tried to not only win the battles, but make the victories last by never giving up on his opponents. He called on people to come out of the closet, making sure that people knew that the so-called enemy was someone they loved, ate with, worked with, was a member of their family. If they lost a vote, Harvey called on people not to wallow in despair, but to get out on the street and organize anew the next morning.
My friends, may we embrace the rivers of reform that bring us closer to God’s ideal of a more just, peaceful compassionate and merciful world. As the rivers of reform join the rivers of mercy and vision, may they lead us to reconsider our place in the world, and our posture with one another. May we embrace the dignity of all and support each other as we guide our boats down the river that flows by and to and through paradise. May that always be our goal in this life and the next.