First Presbyterian Church
May 7, 2017
a sermon for Scottish Reformation Sunday
As a young pastor and one who spends much of my time in ministry with the young people of the church, I hear, and even have, a lot of skepticism about a topic or event in the church where we say ‘well, we do this because it is tradition’ I immediately have many questions-
who decided it was tradition?
how many times has it been done before?
Why was it first done, and are we doing it for the same reason now?
what about it makes it important enough to be a tradition?
could it still be tradition and good if we changed it in some ways?
who will it (upset and why) if we change a tradition
and who might we reach and include if we did change it?
And often, if I ask these questions out loud I get responses about respecting the past or the history of the church. Which, for me leads to a whole other set of questions-
the past of the church includes
women as property or second class citizens,
the forced conversion of native people and Indian schools in the US that separated innumerable children from their families and forced them to give up their culture, language and homes
institutionalized practice that means people who are vulnerable in culture because of their race, gender, sexual identity, age, education level, mental or physical ability or language are further made vulnerable because the church says they are not worthy of being leaders or included at all in the church.
But our history also includes
moves toward equality for all people,
education for those who didn’t previously have access to education,
food, water and shelter for those who lack them,
the attempt to create good relationships between people of very different cultural, language, or religious backgrounds,
civil rights activism that makes our nation safer and more equal a place to live for all people.
and the eventual inclusion of peoples previously excluded from leadership in the church.
As well as the story and witness of Jesus Christ and those who knew him best. The only thing that really distinguishes us from other social or civic groups.
So in the end the core questions become which part of history am I supposed to respect, and which am I supposed to ignore or repent? And what makes something a tradition and worthy of staying a tradition? This is a fundamental question that people in the church have asked for a long time, and because it comes often from young voices or from those not primarily in leadership in the
church this is a concern that often gets disregarded as pollyanna, or shortsighted, or rabble rousing, or unaware. But these questions are also the voice of our heritage, and of the very reformers from whom we take our name as Reformed Christians.
Now it might sound, with this beginning that I am most worried in today’s sermon about the opportunity to change the church, and throwing tradition out the window. And that is not the case. In fact I believe that both Jesus in today’s text in John and the Scottish Reformation and the Scots Confession have things to tell us that would encourage us both to hold tradition and to be skeptical of it.
First when we read the story and John we hear a story about sheep, and pastures, gates and thieves. Not necessarily very relatable in our time, but when we pair it with the 23rd Psalm, familiar words in the Old Testament, we see that this language would have been very traditional in Jesus's time and faith community. Just as we read these familiar words with different images than we are accustomed to with the children this morning, images that make scripture more real to our lives and realities, so Jesus even more changed what the scripture had to say to those he ministers to. Making it more real and relevant to them.
In the preceding passage to this one Jesus is speaking to the Pharisees and to those who are his biggest denouncers, so here when he uses the vernacular of their faith tradition speaking of himself as the shepherd in the gate he's using the language they can understand because it is traditional. However he's using it in a new way. Naming himself the shepherd and the gate and saying that there are those who will try and come into his sheep pen from other ways to mislead and harm the sheep. And that he has the shepherd will protect those who are in the fold. Revolutionary language to ears who know that God alone is the shepherd and who are hearing this from a man they suspect believes he is the messiah, he is basically saying so.
In Christian tradition the story and the further text about sheep and Jesus in the following verses are used some of the main scriptural a witness to the fact that Jesus Christ is the only way to be in God's kingdom. That is the traditional interpretation. However much of the scholarly work that I read this week in preparation for the Sermon indicates that perhaps that is a hasty and possibly even problematic way to interpret what Jesus says here. Multiple commentators I read speak of Jesus’ words here as being emphatic yes, but emphatic that those who have come before were false prophets and leaders, and that he is the true one who has come at this point. That his words here and the place they come from does not necessarily indicate that he is saying he is the only one, that comes from other parts of Jesus’ words, but instead that he is the only one right then speaking this truth and living God’s way. The thieves and the bandits in the Story might even be speaking about those Pharisees themselves from the previous chapter.
Whether this other way of interpreting this text works for you or not, it speaks to the idea that even our understanding of particular scriptures changes over time, the way that we understand scripture must respond to the world that we live in, even as we use it as the primary guide toward what God needs and wants us to be and do. for much of our history as a church we did not have other faiths or Christian traditions as serious companions in the world or even as people in large numbers to interact with and now that we live in a world dominated by multiple religions and ways of being in each faith community as well as ready access to one another it is important to take what we learn about one another as God’s children in the world and apply that to how we understand what Jesus has to say to us, and apply Jesus words to how we engage with those communities. As our tradition distinctly calls us to engage the world even as we strive to allow our faith to make us, and thereby the world, new, different, and better because of what God means in our lives and what we do in the name of our faith in the world. Not throwing away tradition, or God’s Word, keeping the blessings of belief that Jesus as our God, guide and friend, but understanding that the way we read together must be dynamic and able to respond to the needs of all of God’s people. When we share and are lovingly critical of one another's understanding of things, we open space for the spirit of God to change us, to open us to who God is in the world and in our lives in new ways.
And that is exactly how we come to celebrate the Scottish Reformation. A group of people who in the midst of great turmoil in the church and the world, knew what they believed in what God called them to say about their faith, even in the face of death and jail for saying it. This reformation happened at a time when much was in upheaval and the world and the church as they knew it was changing. The opening lines say “We confess and acknowledge one God alone, to whom alone we must cleave, whom alone we must serve, whom only we must worship, and in whom alone we put our trust.”
Lofty words, and formal sounding and possibly stuffy to our modern and postmodern ears, but at the time revolutionary and confrontational words. Even here with this confession that has been in one form or another a part of our Presbyterian heritage since its writing in 1560- but it was written as an affirmation of faith yes, it parallels the structure and content of the Apostle’s creed, but it also was a refutation of the rule of the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots and the ongoing battles between her and the parliament of the time over what the state religion should be. It includes many things which we as Calvinists and Presbyterians still hold true today-
that from God alone comes salvation,
that Good Works do not determine our salvation but are a grateful response to the grace we cannot earn, but have in Jesus,
that the Church in the world is God’s and that we are sinners, unable to save ourselves no matter how hard we try.
But as a text it also includes things that we no longer believe-
that women who preach and lead the sacraments are evil and working for satan (at least I hope you don’t believe that),
that Jewish people are satan followers and not a part of God’s family,
that the Catholic church is corrupt and evil
and that all churches that either do not baptize infants, or in which a pastor does not personally examine everyone who comes to comunion ahead of time for their worthiness are not a part of God’s true church,
and that leaders- kings and other civil leadership, are ordained by God, and to be followed unquestioningly-
certainly not things we believe in our time and place.
This is why it is good to remember another legacy that comes to us from the time of our heritage with the Scots Confession, that we are a Reformed and always Reforming people- which in its original meaning did not mean we were always changing or throwing out tradition, but instead that we were in a constant state of self examination for what the Spirit was guiding us to do, and in fact, in its origins the cultural assumption of the re-formation was that we would return to the root of our faith, and most likely to older ways of being and living faith if we were doing this reformation well. As a fundamental part of our traditions, it means we are, or should be, always ready to change, but to do so always with God’s guidance and the voice of history as a part of how we choose to change. This Reforming tradition should probably make us all uncomfortable, just as Jesus’ words and actions often should...if we return to his guidance we hear both that he is the shepherd and the gate who will give us abundant life, but also that he has sheep in other pastures that we don’t know about, that he calls us to carry his yoke which will be light and good, but that any time we do not feed, clothe, visit, or care for one of our siblings in the world we have done so to him as well. An uncomfortable balance, we are loved but called, cared for but always meant to care for one another.
The heritage of being a follower of this Jesus, and the heritage of our Scottish roots and Reformation faith mean that we should probably always be a bit intimidated by what it means to be God’s child, that we should know that we are God’s while also knowing we fall far short of deserving that distinction, that we will inevitably get things wrong and so we must repent and try a different path when we do, and that our lives are in God’s hands to protect as a shepherd, to guide as a community within the pasture, and to lead as the one who knows where we are going.
Our reliance on scripture gives us a story to tell and a path to lead us, our history with the confessions, at it best, show us both the goodness and truth of our tradition and, at our worst, the ways that history, culture and human fallibility can lead us astray- they give us both hope and humility, and the two together make us who we are as Presbyterians, Reformed Christians, and God’s people in our particular history and context.
Both Scripture and Confessions guide us toward what story we will have to tell next, and give us the opportunity to tell it in new Confessions rooted in tradition, scripture and the guidance of God. We do not know where that will lead us, but we do know its re-formation of us as a people will be ours and God’s journey to take together. So let us continue to follow the Shepherd down this path, and see what adventures of faith it might take us on, as it took our predecessors in faith on theirs.