“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”
Martin Luther was professor of moral theology at the University of Wittenberg, Germany. On October 31, 1517, he nailed 95 Thesis to the Wittenberg Door there which excoriated the Roman Catholic Church, the church to which he belonged, and its leadership primarily for selling indulgences. Indulgences guaranteed forgiveness of sin, a seat in church, and other privileges.
This meant that the church was disproportionately comprised of the wealthy, a state that Martin Luther could not support. The Biblical mandate is to serve the poor. He slammed the church and its Pope for its love of money, and for turning its back on the poor in deference for power and wealth.
Luther’s intent was not to cause a schism in the church, but he sought to reform the church of its corruption. It is known as “the great schism.”
“In January 1521, Pope Leo X excommunicated Luther. Three months later, Luther was called to defend his beliefs before Holy Roman Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms, where he was famously defiant. For his refusal to recant his writings, the emperor declared him an outlaw and a heretic.” (History.com)
The only blind faith Luther had was in Christ Jesus, and not in what the church had become, certainly not the government. But because his identity was in Christ Jesus, he deeply and passionately wanted the church to be better, to follow in the steps of Christ Himself.
And here we are today. 500 years later.
Our identity is in Christ Jesus alone. We were created in Him. Over the years, in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation, we proclaim the church is reformed, always to be reformed, we have craned our necks to what the Church (I’m talking about Church—be C—the worldwide church) could look like. In the process we have sinned and fallen. That’s on us. We have soared and “succeeded,” that’s God’s doing. We cannot take credit or boast, because Church is the Body of Christ, and He is the head. He is our final authority.
Let’s bring it to our level, to St. Andrew. Where we have fallen, failed, made mistakes, that’s on us. Where we have gained ground and “succeeded” in being the Body of Christ, that’s God molding us into the image of Christ. We are created in Christ Jesus, sometimes we need some help to look like Him.
And so God decides who will be in the Body of Christ to do this work. We don’t build the church, God builds the church. Any good works on our part is from the Holy Spirit drawing a response from us because of the grace of God who saves us through faith. Call and response: the call of God, the response of the people.
God builds the Church for God’s own purposes, no matter what it looks like. People come and go from churches. Ultimately that’s the work of the Holy Spirit. We say,
“Well, we didn’t have children’s Sunday school, so they didn’t come back.”
Or “I’m angry and I won’t go back.”
Or “the mission of that church is not my mission.” Or “the theology of that church is not my theology.”
The Holy Spirit is not thwarted by this, even when a church closes. The Holy Spirit in not thwarted by this and neither should we. The Holy Spirit pushes forward with perseverance, despite us, making the church into the image of Christ Jesus and not into our image. But how we try.
If there is anything I am mindful about it’s the times I bow to human needs or wants or praises or criticisms without checking my relationship with Christ. My desire is to be transformed by Him into His image and so I must ask, “How is this person in front of me trying to tell me something in Jesus Christ? Or are they? What is the motivation or intention?”
Reforming always to be reformed requires spiritual maturity. It is not for weak of spirit, to be in relationship with Christ and so with each other. Being reformed into Christ’s image requires tenacity and perseverance. So what does a transformed life in Christ look like?
“They don’t have a Sunday school for kids. I wonder if I could help with that.”
Or “I’m angry. I’m going to go talk to the person who made me angry.”
Or “God is calling me to a ministry that this church doesn’t have. Is God calling me to here to help with that, or is God calling me to another church to join in its mission? I’ll go talk with the pastor” or “I will need to find a church where my theology better fits or spiritual life here won’t be good for anyone.”
See, it’s not about us. In this place, we are about Jesus Christ. Our giving is about Jesus Christ.
I had an opportunity to be with Todd’s family yesterday for the celebration of his mother’s life. I was sitting with someone who told me about growing up in a church where the emphasis was “you’re going to hell, now put your money in the plate on your way.” Some of you have stories like that. That’s not the theology of the Presbyterian Church USA.
Generosity IS a spiritual discipline, a response to God’s amazing grace, and not to the threat of going to hell, or something bad happening to you if you cannot give. Generosity is being re-formed. Money is so important to us. God knows that.
On Thursday, Tom Hood, Larry Thorley, Frank Boka and I met to talk about the generosity of this congregation. In the three years that I’ve been here, we mark stewardship with “thank you.”
Generosity is born from a relationship with Jesus Christ. Because that’s true, we want to hear how your lives have been re-formed in Jesus Christ. If you take a look at the back of the announcements you’ll find a couple of things. The first part has questions to think about from today’s Scripture. What are grace, salvation, and faith to you? Take a look at what you think about good works, your own in particular. Do you see them as a response to God’s grace or as a way to work for salvation? And finally, what does it mean to be created in Christ Jesus?
What does being made in Christ Jesus free you for?
At the Stewardship Conference I attended I learned some good things; here are two:
First: people don’t give to a church budget, you give to a mission and a ministry. You don’t give so the mortgage is paid and the lights stay on and for staff salaries; you give to follow Christ’s command to take care of the least of these, to be called into prayer and study and worship by the Holy Spirit, to discern what it is that God desires of you. Do we pay the mortgage and the light bill so we can do these things? Of course we do, practically. Ultimately, it is about the ministry, relationship with Christ, and the transformation of our lives through Him.
Second: the pastor needs to tell the congregation what he or she gives in terms of his or her own salary. If you think that the pastor doesn’t give, then why should you? I might give you the impression that I don’t give because you don’t see me when write a check and put it in the safe place in the office because I can be forgetful on Sunday morning. However, I am changing that habit to give on Sunday mornings.
When I returned from the conference, I asked Bob Keith to give me numbers—I wanted the list of giving with no names attached to any of the numbers except for one: and that name is Palmer.
Before I get there, I want to tell you how Jesus Christ has transformed me here and why the Holy Spirit asks me to respond with something that’s really important: financial resources.
Personally, this is the most extraordinary pastoral experience I’ve ever had.
Here, I watched as God took ashes and dried out bones, in the image of the valley of dry bones in Ezekiel 37, and blew breath into them and they rose. “Laurie, go find out if there is any life there.” That was my task at first. I watched as bones rose, there was a rattling of bones, and sinews grew, and the bones stood. There is only one breath that makes bones live and it is the breath of God.
Just Friday, I heard again from a pastor colleague as we walked at Cedarkirk, “Man, Laurie, we were ready to close it down.” This is not the result of our works, that any of us can boast. This is about God’s extraordinary faithfulness and desire to have Christ’s presence here at this time, and your generous response to that call.
Here, I watched as grief turned to hope, as if Jesus yelled to the dead Lazarus, “Lazarus, come out of that tomb!” And Lazarus walked out, whole. He just needed to be unwrapped of his burial clothes.
Here, I watched a Session form, none having served before, and running the race with perseverance, learning—sometimes the hard way in three years, sometimes in disagreement and getting through disagreement—what it means to lead a congregation. I watched as this congregation was and is blessed with a Clerk of Session, Kay Reinhold, who embodies excellence in the role. It’s not an easy job, it’s time consuming.
Here, (hands from clenched to open) I watched as you let go of those who’d left and wished them well but we had the work of Jesus Christ to do in this place and in a hurting world. You cannot do ministry on a wish, but from where you really are and you do. Paul and Barnabas suffered a dispute that separated them into two different ministries. If Paul was not spared this, why would we? The question is, how to do move forward from there, and you answered the question by moving forward.
I watched as our curiosity of things theological, biblical, and spiritual grew into a beautiful Sunday morning adult class and, now, a Tuesday evening prayer study which has taken off by God’s grace and wants to continue. A praying congregation is one of the most important gifts of any congregation. A praying congregation contributes to the good health of the Body of Christ. If a Body of Christ does not pray, why are we here?
Many churches die because they have made it about themselves, what they want, often what a loud one or two members want. “Do this or that or I will leave.” Pastors call that hostage-taking which is why it behooves pastors to stay nestled inside Jesus Christ. A praying congregation stays in relationship with Jesus Christ, and we are in tune with what Christ’s wants. This is His church.
I have been renewed by the voice of the children and youth in this congregation.
I have been renewed in the care you have for each other in hard times.
I have been formed, reformed, transformed by the Holy Spirit in this place in these ways. There has been joy and there have been sleepless nights. I have been right and I have been wrong, and praise God, the Holy Spirit prevails.
These are some of the reasons why I give to this congregation. I believe in the power of God to do what God promises: God loves us unconditionally and sacrificially in His Son Jesus Christ; God sends the Spirit as our advocate and comforter and instigator.
(The rest of the sermon was explaining the Palmers giving, which I think has no place on the website, as well as lifting up the Journey to Generosity pledge card).
Everything belongs to God. Everything. 100%. All God asks is 10%. We keep 90%.