What Kind of Church Are We Anyway:
What it Means to be Protestant.
The first in a three part sermon series on our community’s identity.
So I was having one of those moments yesterday where I couldn’t REMEMBER
The details of something I WANTED to remember.
You ever have those moments?
In this case its this story I’m about to share
And I can’t remember for the life of me who told it to me in the first place.
Its entirely possible one of you shared it with me after a long sermon one day
If so, I’m sorry for not giving you proper attribution.
I think its more likely to have been shared by one of the preacher-scholars
I’ve read and admired over the years.
The story is about a guest preacher at a small church in the countryside
And it’s a holiday, like Memorial Day weekend
And so many of the regulars aren’t there
They’re visiting the big city to see family and take in a Barbeque.
So the preacher is there for 30 people instead of the typical 50.
But the preacher, who knew all of this, didn’t want to shortchange the good folk
Who’d make the effort to get up, put on their Sunday shoes and hats
And make their way to the church, in some instances
Fifteen or twenty minutes from their family farmsteads, you know.
So he put a little extra into that sermon.
The illustration was particularly funny and winsome.
The three points were particularly on point. He added a fourth, just to be sure.
It was linear and understandable and comprehensive.
Who knew a sermon could be like that, right?
And so he got there and he helped the congregation
proceed through its typical order of worship
Call to Worship,
Prayer of Confession
Hymn, Scripture, and time to preach.
And preach he did. A bit longer than normal for him, maybe 25 minutes.
The service ended and he gave the blessing and went to the front door
To greet the congregation as they left.
Towards the end, he shook the hand of a farmer
Who thanked him for being there and leading them in worship
And then he said, You know, pastor, just one thing, though.
When I’m only feeding a couple of cows
I don’t make them eat ALL the food in the trough.
There is something a bit preposterous about suggesting
That one sermon could cover what it means to be protestant.
Which you might expect to get, if you read the sermon title in the bulletin.
We’ve just completed a ten week sermon series that we called
A Plan for Following Jesus: Faithful Living in Hard Times
A Ten-Point plan for living the Christian Life.
This wasn’t a new plan, something we dreamed up.
It is something that is a part of us, as a church,
It is in our DNA
Since we’ve been sharing this charge in one form or another for decades.
And we share it with Christians all over the world
Those who want to remind themselves that the faith is meant to come alive
In what we say and do and who we are, every day of our lives.
And, if we’re honest,
it just is helpful to have some practical suggestions along the way
even if it will be the responsibility of each of us to put them into practice.
But what we didn’t include was any conversation about how we learn those practices.
What it is we DO to teach them to one another,
to put them into practice,
to REMEMBER them when would be helpful for us to REMEMBER them.
And the answer is: we learn them in church.
In an essay she wrote in The Huffington Post,
Tara Woodard-Lehman asked the question “Do you really need church?”[i]
She described having a conversation with someone
Who said that he GOT why people would want to “be spiritual” and
Why they would focus on “helping people” and everything
But “Why bother with church?
I don’t get that part. Do you think you really need it?”
He noted that a lot of what churches do are available elsewhere:
There are community service projects for service and book clubs for community.
You can even find places to have potlucks. Deviled eggs and jello salads aplenty.
Tara listened, and concluded that he had a point.
If the Church is ONLY what he described,
(a glorified community center or service provider)
it’s a wonder anyone shows up.
Why not just hit the Bagel shop, take another Yoga Class,
Buy more U2 tickets, volunteer at the soup kitchen every so often?
So, she asked, Why Bother with Church at All?
And to her, the answer was about her memory.
“I have a really bad memory.
…I have a terrible memory.
Especially when it comes to remembering who I am as a child of God.
Especially when it comes to remembering what God has done,
and continues to do, in and through Jesus Christ.
I forget who I am.
I forget who God is.
I forget God’s epic story of Redemption and Liberation
and Renewal and Beauty and Hope.
I forget. A lot.
On top of that, there are a gazillion other demands and voices
that are vying for my attention all the freaking time. Her words, not mine.
So I admit it. I get tired. And I get distracted. And more often than not, I forget.
I need Church, because Church reminds me of everything that’s important.
And when I say Church, I’m not talking about a building. I mean the people.
I’m referring to the organic, collective, flesh and blood Body of Christ.
I’m talking about the beautiful but undeniably imperfect community of people
who help me remember who I am, and to Whom I belong,
over and over again.
But don’t get me wrong.
I still love piping hot Sunday morning bagels.
Preferably with veggie cream cheese.
But more than that, I need to be fed by the Bread of Life.
I still practice yoga and I’m enormously grateful for its presence in my life.
But it’s no replacement for hearing God’s Story, read and proclaimed,
week after week.
I absolutely love the adrenaline-pumping-bass-thumping-heart-pulsing intensity
of a good rock concert.
For me, it really can be a transcendent experience.
But I still sing the old hymns of the Church
that have sustained followers of Jesus for generations.
Seriously. Please don’t misunderstand me.
[Do] I need Church? You better believe it.
I need Church for many reasons, but mostly because I have a really bad memory.
If you do too, maybe I’ll see you some Sunday morning.
I’ll even treat you to a bagel after the service. Just remind me.”
The heart of what we are doing, as we do Church in the 21st Century
Is that we are gathering to help shape our lives
in the way of God through Jesus Christ. That’s why we are here.
Church is the context within which we learn a plan for following Jesus
And help each other live it out.
And there are literally thousands of different churches out there that seek to do that.
Roman Catholic parishes.
Places with names like “Serve Church” or “The River”.
Mega Churches. Mini Churches.
about ten different types of “Presbyterian Churches” of one form or another
in a five mile radius of this spot.
I thought it might be good for us to spend a few weeks reflecting about
What is particular about this church, our church.
What makes us us, beyond all of you, the people who make up the church?
What is the remembering that we’re trying to accomplish, together?
Many of you drove past dozens of churches to get here this morning.
Why would anyone do that?
We all know that, in order for any community to thrive,
We need to be in the business of inviting our neighbors and friends
to come join us.
What will you say to them when they ask what kind of church we are?
–Will you describe your quirky pastor, his slipping glasses and melodious voice?
–Will you tell about growing up here, how they loved you when you needed love
And stood by you when you needed a friend?
–Will you share our theological position on the issues of the day
Which can be summed up with a beautifully pithy tagline
We are community minded; loving and serving?
What will you say to them?
What is your “elevator speech”, your thirty second explanation
That has to not, at the same time,
give them the whole trough to eat in one sitting.
That’s not all that easy.
Maybe we could attend to some of the broad themes that make us us
And that might help you with this task of sharing
who we are with those you know who might want to know.
Because in some sense the longevity of our community
Is bound up in our sharing what is good and beautiful and true about us with others.
So that they might choose to come join us,
Although, we Presbyterians might assert that God chose them
But that’s a joke to explain in a later sermon.
This church is a Protestant Church, a congregation of the Presbyterian Church (USA)
A Christian community, seeking to follow God on the way of Jesus.
Rather than start with the broadest point:
that we are part of a worldwide body of believers who follow Christ
Lets start a bit more narrow. That we are a Protestant Church.
What does it mean to be Protestant, and why in the world does that matter today?
Some of you, who are big into these things
Might have noticed that next month is the 500th anniversary
of the start of the Protestant Reformation in the Christian Church.
We mark that date from the day that Martin Luther, the Augustinian Monk
And professor of moral theology at the University of Wittenberg
Walked up to All Saint’s church and nailed a copy of his ninety-five theses
To the front door.
October 31st, 1517.
Five Hundred years ago, next month.
It was revolutionary. It was a protest (thus the name, protestant),
Against abuses in the church.
Luther, focused on the testimony of scripture
And looking at passages such as these from John and Ephesians
Stressed the redeeming, liberating, awesome power of our God
To save us and renew us and empower us to be a force for Good in the world.
Luther looked at everyday people,
Who were working their tail off to do good, be good
And who were worried about whether it was enough
Whether they were doing enough
So that they would be ok.
Would God come through for them?
And Luther read John:
“For God so loved the world that God gave the only Son,
so that everyone who believes in him may not parish
but may have eternal life.
Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world
But in order that the world might be saved through him.”
And he read Ephesians:
“By grace you have been saved through faith;
this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—
not as the result of works, so that no one may boast.”
And Luther said, to these people deeply concerned
about whether they were doing enough, being GOOD enough,
Luther said: Look! Look at what it says!
Its not what you do, or say, or how much you give
Its what GOD is doing, and God has done it for you already.
“We are what God has made us: created in Christ Jesus for Doing Good.”
And with that, the Protestant Church was born.
It helped that the printing press was just invented,
And with that mass production of printed material
Along with mass literacy was possible.
People could, actually, look for themselves what it says in Ephesians and John.
And we Protestants started emphasizing the importance of that
Of education so that people could read and think and participate
In a system that had, up to then, only been available for a select few.
But the heart of what makes Protestants Protestant
Is this assertion that God is so much bigger than all of our attempts
To get on God’s good side.
And more than that
That God is so much bigger than all of our failures, too
Our mistakes and our stumbles
Whether they’re minor or huge.
That God can, and does, take all of them
Redeems all of them
And still, nevertheless,
Still welcomes us home with a prodigal, overflowing, amazing love.
The Protestant Reformation was meant to calm the soul,
to allay a fear that we’re not good enough for God,
that God wouldn’t possibly love me,
that my failures as a human being mean that God chose someone else.
Instead, we say that God is love.
And that THAT God loves us, as we are, as God made us
And that there aint nothing in heaven or on earth
That can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Amen? Amen.
That message is for you. And for everyone else, too.
So when you work on your elevator speech about The Kirk of Kansas City
That is part of it: we claim to serve a God who is the one who makes things right
And that our efforts to be better people,
To follow God on the path of Jesus
You know, by going into the world in Peace
And having courage
And holding fast to the good
And returning not evil for evil and all of that
Isn’t because of some cosmic scoreboard we’re keeping an eye on
To see if we can earn enough points so that God will love us
It is because we know we are already loved
And that floors us
And we know no other response but to serve the God
Who shows us that love.
THAT is what it means to be protestant.
Sure, there were many other details along the way.
–There are the five solas:
Sola Scriptura, Sola Fidea, Sola Gratia, Sola Christus, Sola deo Gloria
Scripture Alone. Faith Alone. Grace alone. Christ alone. All only for God’s glory.
–There’s the bit about the priesthood of all believers.
–The question about grace and law.
–What is going on at communion, oh that was a big one
And whether there are seven sacraments or two.
–There’s the ordination of women to the ministries of the church
(though not all Protestants have gotten that memo, unfortunately)
and more recently the welcome of LGBTQ leaders in the church
(and, same comment about THAT memo getting lost as well).
But lets not worry ourselves with serving too much of the meal today.
For today, it is ENOUGH for us to remember that
What it means to be protestant is to claim that God first loves us
That it is God, and God’s grace, that saves us,
And nothing else.
The truth of the matter is that five hundred years is a long time.
The protestant reformation was caught up, as many things are, unfortunately,
in geopolitical struggles.
There were horrible wars
as rulers chose sides and led poor soldiers into battle because of it.
Often that is as much, or more, about the nationalistic fervor
Than about the theology behind our churches.
Even so, to this day there are often deep concerns about being sure that
What we do isn’t “too catholic”.
I’ve heard that refrain a few times.
But that’s really no longer too much of a concern.
Roman Catholics and Protestants have fought, and reconciled
And while we still have many differences, there is much that makes us
More like Friendly siblings than disgruntled cousins today.
There are concentrated efforts ongoing to bridge the gaps between major divisions
In the Christian family, and that’s a good thing, it seems to me.
There are many good and faithful reasons why people choose
To be part of the Orthodox tradition, say, with its mystery and pageantry
Which paints for the a worldly experience of God
Or part of the Roman Catholic tradition,
With a long and noble tradition of social justice for the poor.
But for US, our faith is rooted in the protestant vision of a world where God is the one
Who welcomes us, redeems us, empowers us, and saves us.
We participate in that, through worship and ritual and prayer, through faith.
But it is God that is doing it.
It is even God who REMINDS us of God’s love, when we need it
From time to time.
Everything we do is an effort to recognize that this is about God, not about us.
A reminder of who made us, who loves us, who sets us free.
So, my dear friends,
May we celebrate God’s amazing grace in our lives
As we go about a conscious act of remembering
God’s many many good gifts to us.
And when we remember, may that inspire us to be the sort of church
That seeks to be community minded
Focused on building a family here
And attending to the community around this place
Through our acts of service and love.
May it be so.
Image: Door of Castle Church (Schlosskirche), the common name of All Saints Church, Wittenberg. Image found at https://pixabay.com/en/luther-wittenberg-castle-church-1821498/. Information about Castle Church is found at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/All_Saints%27_Church,_Wittenberg
The notion that Luther nailed a copy of the Disputation on the door of the church is keeping in customary practice of the day, rather than on definitive evidence of it happening. Luther enclosed the original in a letter to the Archbishop of Mainz, Albert of Brandenberg.