“A New Reformation?"
Rev. Ron Patterson
October 30, 2022
Plymouth Congregational, UCC
Fort Collins, CO
Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4; Manifesto: A Mad Farmer’s Liberation Front by Wendell Berry
Last Sunday in my sermon I remarked casually, I think, that when I meet Jesus, I doubt he will quiz me over the basic doctrines of Reformed Protestant Christianity. I was serious about that. I happen to believe that doctrine divides and that love unites, and that serving Jesus is not so much about what I believe, but about what I am willing to do to love my neighbor. And that if my beliefs don’t lead me out that door and into a hurting world following Jesus the servant, then those beliefs don’t amount to much.
Well, today, many congregations like this one remember the Protestant Reformation, which began roughly five hundred years ago. That Reformation shattered the illusion of a unified Church, a process which has continued steadily ever since. Jesus said that he would be present wherever two or three of his followers gathered. That is true, I believe, but the problem over the years seems to have been that whenever two or three of his followers have gathered, the two disagree with one and those two go off and start their own church, a church that reflects what they think and what they believe, somehow imagining that they can get inside the mind of God.
Right now, there are hundreds of different Christian denominations in the US, thousands around the world, many of whom believe that they are right about all things Jesus and that the rest of us have it totally wrong. Let me remind you of something: the United Church of Christ, our denominational family, was formed with the idea of reuniting some of that brokenness. We have by and large failed in that call, but we have tried. We do our international mission work with the Disciples of Christ denomination. Our missionaries don’t try to convert people, they serve the needs of the people where they serve and work only when they have an invitation to serve from a local group. We share ministers with Lutherans and Presbyterians and a few others, and recently we have entered a partnership with the United Church of Canada, and we are in serious conversations with the Unitarian Universalist denomination. Our motto, “that they may all be one” is still part of our story.
Many years ago, a member of my congregation came to me and asked whether they were Protestant or Catholic? At first glance that’s a rather simple question to answer, but then one of the things that lies at the very core of our tradition is that simple answers are not always simple.
We are Protestants but we are also Catholic. We are Protestants because we are part of a group that has roots in the Protestant Reformation. We are Protestants not because we are protestors, but because we testify to some religious ideas that shape our lives. We are people who attempt to live the Jesus truth that we are called to love God, love ourselves and love our neighbors. And we are Catholic, a word that means "universal," because we share those big ideas with Christians of almost every tradition including our Roman Catholic siblings.
Permit me to dance a bit around this topic. One of the things I love most about this tradition is that we are always in a walk and conversation with a God who refuses to be boxed in by human simple mindedness. We believe in continual Reformation. We believe that the story continues.
For example, I am your preacher and a teacher, but I am not your conscience or your conduit into the mind of God. Occasionally I glimpse the mystery of God or some truth about the Holy, but my call is to share what I have glimpsed and invite you to journey with me.
So much of the wicked religious bigotry being peddled in the name of Christianity these days has its source in largely male authorities enforcing their will and power needs onto the churches they serve. As I see it, it’s often more about male ego and power and keeping woman in a subservient role. They use homophobia and transphobia and reproductive choice as manipulative tools and for fear mongering. And their congregations, often large, believing their pastors, are then co-opted by politicians to exercise power over the rest of us. That is a threat to our democracy and that could well be the undoing of our nation.
In the name of religion, these pastors and these politicians then act as if the rest of us don’t have the right to be wrong. Let me name it clearly, a religion of absolutes is not the faith of Jesus, it is not the faith of the Buddha, or of the prophet Mohammad, or of the essence of any spirituality that exists to foster love, humility, service or compassion. It is about power and repression and is in effect a form of fascism fed by hate and fear.
Let me dance a bit further into the ideas we share in this tradition. Idea one, the sovereignty of God. God is beyond all I can explain, and God is within all that we are. God is love and the complexity and simplicity of all that it means to say that. When I say too much about God, then I have played fast and loose on the slippery slope of idolatry. When I talk about God with too much confidence, I slide down that slope farther than I dare, and you need to rescue me.
Idea two, that rescue is called the priesthood of all believers. I am not your priest. I am not an authority to whom you must yield. I am one of your pastors, a shepherd and teacher, who stands with you in need of the grace of God’s love. We are priests to one another, called into a community of caring and dialogue, named Plymouth. We are called to learn together how to be faithful and how to love one another and how to serve this community and this world.
Idea three, that comes naturally to our tradition when we leave behind the idea of top-down authority: the freedom of the individual conscience. As I said a moment ago, we all have the right to be wrong. “There is yet more light and truth to break forth from God’s Holy Word,” as pastor Robinson said to the Plymouth pilgrims before they got on the boat, four hundred and one years ago. And that leads inescapably to the notion that “God is still speaking.”
So much of the racism and nationalism that plagues our nation’s past and shadows this world’s future is based on Christian triumphalism. That idea enabled the Europeans who came to this continent, to believe that the indigenous people they met here were not created in the image of God. That evil lie was used to excuse chattel slavery and Jim Crow and voter suppression and white supremacy. In the past, those ideas hid in the darkness and wore white sheets to hide identities. Today it is proudly proclaimed by people who call themselves followers of Jesus. Guns and tiki torches and dog whistle politics, gather in a witch’s brew of hate. When we say that “God is still speaking,” we call out the arrogance of those who believes that in their fear, the final word from God has been spoken.
Today we heard the words of a prophet ancient and in a moment we will hear the words of a prophet modern. The ancient prophet, Habakkuk, whose little book lies hidden in the back of the Hebrew scriptures, spoke words of challenge and judgement to the people of Judah 2800 years ago. He called out and condemned the lack of justice in the political, judicial, and economic systems of his day and he predicts with graphic detail the demise of that rotten to the core system by a God who will punish unjust leaders and bring about equity and a new way of living. And what he says is scary because what he says seems truer today than it was 2800 years ago.
And yet what he says is not without hope. Because beyond the dire situation of that time and this, good people, loving people, the people of Jesus, who long for and work for justice and equity, are promised the strength to go on in their journey of loving. They share a vision of God’s just “kindom,” a place where all God’s children are welcomed and affirmed. A place where a vision of something better has a chance and where truth prevails because it is true.
And, in the meantime? In the time between, when so much that’s ugly and small-hearted seems so strong. Listen to the words of a modern prophet, the poet Wendell Berry, listen for a word from God for your journey:
Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front by Wendell Berry
Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head....
[Please click link above to read full poem.]
These words are true, they may be trusted! Amen.