Monday, October 16, 2017

October 15, 2017 The Reformation - Making Your Voice Heard

This morning I begin a brief series of messages based on the Protestant Reformation.  Really, you might ask.  Sounds kind of boring to me.  I assure you it is not.  Speaking about the Reformation is much, much more than simply offering a dry history lesson, as it continues to so profoundly influence us after 500 years, and there are more than a few ways in which it has shaped and molded how we live today.  In fact, most of the time we live our lives without any idea \of just how profoundly the Reformation shaped our world and our lives.  In terms of our lives, here are a few of the ways the Reformation has made a difference to us – if you brought your Bible to church today, you can thank the Reformation. Because you have a Bible you can read every day and because you can read it in English, you can thank the Reformation. If you believe the Bible is the source of our authority, you can thank the Reformation.  If you believe you are justified by grace and not by works, that you do not have to earn your salvation, you can thank the Reformation.  If you believe that all people are equal in the eyes of God, you can thank the Reformation.  If you believe that we are all ministers in some way – that is, if you believe in what we call the priesthood of all believers – you can thank the Reformation.  If you believe faith is more about the heart than about the head, that is, that faith is more about the heart than it is reason and intellect, you can thank the Reformation.  The fact you are in this church this morning, you can thank the Reformation.  If you like to read, you can thank the Reformation, as it stimulated publishing in a tremendous way and brought about what we might call the earliest forms of social media.  If you believe it is your right to make a point, that you have an opinion that not only can, but should, be heard, and if you believe it is your right to question authority, you can thank the Reformation, and it is that point we will particularly focus upon this morning.

In the most basic sense, the Protestant Reformation was a movement that led to the second major schism, or division, in the church.  For the first millennium of the church there was one church, with only a few minor exceptions.  The Catholic Church (the word catholic means universal) was the sole church until 1054, when the first major schism in the church took place, dividing the church into two branches –the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox churches.  The Reformation brought the second major schism and formed the Protestant churches, that is, those churches that are not Catholic or Orthodox.
I should add an important note at this point, and that is that I am not anti-Catholic.  I mention this because it can be difficult to speak or write about the Reformation without sounding, in some ways, anti-Catholic.  My family has strong ties to the Catholic Church, as my mother’s family was Irish Catholic.  Though they were not regular churchgoers, their Catholic roots were, nonetheless, strong throughout the family.  Even though my mother’s side of the family were Catholic, I grew up not understanding much about the Catholic Church, and it took a lot of time to gain a more detailed knowledge of their theology and understanding of how and why the Catholic Church operates and thinks the way that it does.  As Protestants, we often hold to some erroneous information about the Catholic Church, and I will try and cover some of that in the next few weeks, if possible.
October 31st is recognized as the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, as that was the day when a priest by the name of Martin Luther nailed what became known as his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany.  I guess today Luther would tweet his 95 Theses, which seems far less dramatic, doesn’t it?  There is an inherent drama in taking a piece of parchment, walking up to the big wooden doors of a church, and nailing that parchment to the door.  Somehow, hitting a button on your phone just doesn’t have the gravitas! 

The official title of the 95 theses was disputation on the power and efficacy of indulgences out of love and zeal for truth and the desire to bring it to light.  That’s not very catchy, is it?  That’s like calling Star Wars by the title the possibilities of future space travel in light of Einstein’s theory of relativity and its presupposed efficacy for the inhabitants of the known and unknown universe.  That wouldn’t get a line at the movie theater on December 15th, would it?

The 95 Theses were what we might call today “talking points,” points of contention Luther had with some of the Church’s practices, specifically the practice of what were called indulgences.  An indulgence was the granting of forgiveness based upon what was considered to be a surplus of righteousness of the saints. Indulgences assumed that a person gained entrance to heaven as a result of their good works.  If we imagine salvation as being on a scale of 1 to 100, the entrance to heaven might require, say, a score of 75.  A saint, for example, might have a score of 95, which means there are 20 points in excess that could be used by someone who might be 5 points short.  An indulgence could be purchased to gain the extra 5 points needed.  Obviously, this was a formula for financial abuse to take place, which did happen, not to mention the fact that no one would know where anyone was on the scale of righteousness, if such a scale existed.  Indulgences, though, were an entrenched practice in the church and their sale helped to finance the building of St. Peter’s basilica in Rome.

The title of the message today is Making Your Voice Heard, which Martin Luther certainly did, and his example of speaking out has become foundational to our culture.  For our Scripture text we will turn to the book of Acts, where we find a story about the disciples Peter and John, when they taken before the Sanhedrin after healing a man who was unable to walk.

Acts 4:13-21 –

13 When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.
14 But since they could see the man who had been healed standing there with them, there was nothing they could say.
15 So they ordered them to withdraw from the Sanhedrin and then conferred together.
16 “What are we going to do with these men?” they asked. “Everyone living in Jerusalem knows they have performed a notable sign, and we cannot deny it.
17 But to stop this thing from spreading any further among the people, we must warn them to speak no longer to anyone in this name.”
18 Then they called them in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus.
19 But Peter and John replied, “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges!
20 As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.”
21 After further threats they let them go. They could not decide how to punish them, because all the people were praising God for what had happened.

I have two points to share with you today, the first of which is –

1.  There are many who want us to go along, to be quiet, and to accept things the way that they are.

It is hard for us to fathom what a gift it is that we have the freedom to express our opinions, our thoughts, and our beliefs.  Martin Luther, like many people throughout history and even today, did not enjoy that gift.  In fact, Luther was, for a time, under the threat of death because of his beliefs.  If not for the protection of one individual, Luther would most certainly have been put to death.

In 1521, Luther was taken before the Holy Roman Emperor and leaders of the church to answer a charge of heresy.  He was confronted, in that most intimidating of surroundings, with these questions – Martin, how can you assume that you are the only one to understand Scripture?  Would you put your judgment above that of so many famous men and claim that you know more than they all?  I ask you, Martin, answer candidly…do you repudiate your books and the errors they contain?  Luther gave his response, which ended with these words, I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither safe nor right.  God help me, here I stand.  Amen.
(Word of God Across the Ages, Bill J. Leonard, p. 34)

The world of power often works on threats and intimidation.  That’s why Luther was brought in to face the emperor and the other powerful leaders, by himself.  That’s why Peter and John were brought before the Sanhedrin and threatened, and told to speak no longer to anyone about Jesus.  The apostles were often threatened, and not only threatened but beaten and jailed, and only because they dared to speak up about what they believed.  Power is often threatened by those who are willing to speak up and not be silent, but we are gifted by God with the freedom to speak our minds!  Martin Luther actually changed the spelling of his last name from Luder to Luther, which comes from the Greek word eleutheros, which means free or freed.  Martin Luther King, Jr’s. father changed his name and his son’s name from Michael to Martin in honor of Luther, and the name change become prophetic for Dr. King and his willingness to speaking out.  Because of the Reformation we are Protestants – protestors.  Protesting, and raising our voices has become more suspect these days, unfortunately, and we often feel uncomfortable with raising our voices in dissent.  To raise doubt in our minds about raising our voices is how people prevent needed change from taking place.  But if we don’t raise our voices, how will injustice ever stop?  How will things ever get better? 

Imagine how different the world would be had Abraham Lincoln not signed the Emancipation Proclamation.  Imagine if he had listened to any advisors who might have encouraged him to remain quiet, to go along with the status quo, and to protect what masqueraded as commerce.  Imagine the difference in the world if those opposed to slavery had not raised their voices.  Imagine how different the world would be if Rosa Parks had given up her seat on the bus.  Imagine how different the world would be had Martin Luther King, Jr. not spoken up and spoken out.  Imagine the impoverishment of our world without his great I Have A Dream speech. Imagine if women had not raised their voices and declared their God-given right to have a voice and a vote.  Imagine if women in business and industry and Hollywood had not raised their voices to declare it is time for harassment and abuse to stop.

There are many people who would like us to remain quiet and not upset the status quo.  Just be quiet and go along with things.  Don’t rock the boat.  That’s just the way things are, just accept it and live with it.  Those are a few of the things we are told in an effort to keep us silent about the injustices of the world.  That’s one of the ways in which people such as Harvey Weinstein manage to get away with abuse and harassment for so long.  For women to stand up and say no more abuse and harassment takes a great deal of courage.  For Martin Luther to stand up and raise his voice to the Holy Roman Emperor and all the powerful figures of his world took an immense amount of courage. 
To raise our voices is not just a privilege; it is a necessity.  We who are blessed must become the voices for and the champions of those who are the powerless and those who are the victims of injustice.

2.  Don’t fear the backlash.

Fear.  That word always haunts us, shapes us, and controls us.  Fear whispers in our ears and tells us don’t risk what you have.  Don’t put your livelihood at risk.  Don’t put your family in a difficult situation.  You’ve got yours; let others get theirs on their own.

Martin Luther was not the first to feel the fear that would seek to derail him from his mission.  Abraham must have felt fear in leaving his home to set off to a land that God would show him.  Moses was fearful about facing Pharaoh in order to issue a challenge to let God’s people go. Peter felt fear after stepping out of the boat and onto the sea.  But each of them also conquered their fear.  The disciples, who huddled together in the upper room after the crucifixion, courageously left that room to proclaim the message of Jesus in spite of the backlash, the resistance, and the persecution they faced.  In spite of arrest, imprisonment, and physical attacks they persevered.

Jesus certainly faced a great deal of backlash, but it never kept him from his mission and it never rendered him silent.  Jesus was followed constantly naysayers, opponents, and accusers, yet he never, even for a moment, strayed from his mission.  He was not afraid to challenge the powers of his day and he had strong words for those who preyed upon others and perpetuated injustice.  He offered grace and forgiveness in spite of those who claimed he had not the authority to do so.  He spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well, even though his own disciples were troubled by his doing so.  He challenged the crowd of accusers who brought to him the woman caught in adultery, and stood in bold love and grace as they one by one dropped the stones they had intended to use upon her.  He entered the Temple, casting out the moneychangers and others who made a mockery of that holy place.  He stood without fear or doubt before Pilate, Herod, and the Sanhedrin as they unjustly arrested and accused him, as they beat him, and as they crucified him.  And on the cross there was no fear and no bitterness, only love and forgiveness.

I received an interesting piece of mail some weeks ago.  I could tell by the envelope it was one that was not fan mail and that it was probably anonymous, as it was marked Personal and Confidential:  To be opened only by the addressee.  I knew it was not a gift certificate to a nice dinner in that envelope.  After enough years you learn to recognize certain types of correspondence.  When I opened the envelope I found it contained no letter, only one item – one of my columns from the Sentinel-News.  Written across the newsprint were some harsh words – garbage, unpatriotic, un-American, and other such comments.  My first instinct about anonymous mail has always been to throw it away and forget about it, but I did not throw this piece of mail away.  Instead, I went and purchased a frame, put it in the frame, and hung it on the basement wall of our home, beside my desk.  I did so not because I enjoy seeing and being reminded that some people will not like what we have to say, but to remind me that what others think should not silence us.

I am unashamedly a child of God and a follower of Jesus.  I believe that all people are children of God, born in his image, and granted the same freedoms as any other person.  I believe in the right of our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world to worship in freedom and that they should be able to do so without fear of persecution.  I believe that those governments who desire to punish, persecute, and silence believers are wrong and ought to be called to account, especially by those of us who enjoy the freedom to worship without fear of repercussion.

There are people in our world – in our community – who need a champion.  There are people who need us to speak up and speak out.  But there are also people who will not like it when we do, but we must follow the example of Jesus, who inspired many across the centuries – like Martin Luther – to speak out and to follow the lead of the Spirit.  Never be afraid to make your voice heard.

Monday, October 09, 2017

October 8, 2017 - Hope

Last Sunday I mentioned that I would this week begin a brief series of messages based on the Protestant Reformation.  October 31st is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, which was an historical event of immense importance.  After the events of the past week in Las Vegas, however, I decided to delay that series of messages by one week.  The violence inflicted upon so many people leaves us, once again, wondering what is happening to our country.  In spite of the fact that many good things take place, I think that many of us have this disturbing feeling that something deeply wrong is happening to our culture.  Wherever people stand in terms of political, social, and religious beliefs, I believe everyone feels this sense of unease.

How many of you listen to less news today than you did a year or two ago?  And how many of you, if you listen to less news, do so because it seems as though the news gets continually worse?  I heard part of a radio program recently about the psychological effects of hearing such a steady drumbeat of bad news, and I believe it makes a valid point.  But it seems more and more that the bad news is inescapable.  We receive a constant diet of news that makes us very uneasy about the present and the future.  What will happen with North Korea?  Is war inevitable?  What about the ever-present tensions in the Middle East?  What will happen with the economy?  It’s working very well for some, but not all.  Not everyone is benefitting from the stock market boom.  Will the opioid epidemic end, or continue to grow?  The list of bad news can go on and on.  There are so many concerns looming large these days it is easy to feel very hopeless about what is ahead.  As people worry about the large events happening in the world there are also those on an individual level – what is going to happen to my family?  What kind of future will my children face?  Is there any way to find some measure of certainty in a world that seems to grow more and more uncertain?

Political campaigns consistently promise hope but fewer and fewer people seem to have hope.  In 1999, 85% of Americans said they were hopeful about their own future and 68% said they were hopeful for the future of the world.  About ten year later only 69% were hopeful for their own future and only 51% were hopeful about the future of the world (from a CNN opinion poll).  It’s probably dropped even more since then.  In one poll, taken earlier this year, only 36% of people felt hopeful about the future.

Considering this continual assault on our sense of hope, I felt moved to offer a message about hope, titled, simply, Hope.  The Scripture text comes from Paul’s letter to the church at Rome, where, among other theological matters, he writes about hope.  This particular passage might not be one that is overly familiar to many, but it is, nonetheless, a very significant passage.  In these verses Paul writes with the same sense of troubled spirit that many of us feel today.   He writes of how the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God (verse 21) and of how the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time (verse 22).

Follow along with me, please, as I read Romans 8:18-25 –

18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.
19 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed.
20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope
21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.
22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.
23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.
24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have?
25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

Of the many affirmations we can make about hope, the first I will offer this morning is this –

1.  Hope is an affirmation of belief in God’s promise of the future. 

Hope, we must note, is much more than wishful thinking.  Wishful thinking is to say something such as I hope the Steelers win the Super Bowl this year.  I hope UK wins the NCAA this year.  I hope UofL doesn’t win anything this year.

If you’re a golfer you understand hope.  I am not a very good golfer.  I may have 17 terrible holes – and usually do – and on the 18th hole I may hit my only good shot, and I think, I believe I’m starting to get the hang of this.  That is wishful thinking!

What would you consider to be the essentials of life?  What are the absolute, essential requirements in order for people to live?  There are the tangibles, such as food, water, shelter, and clothing, but there are also intangibles as well, and one of those is hope.  Where would we be without hope?  Hope has empowered people since the beginning of time.  Hope is a belief in the promises of God for the future, and those promises have for millennia compelled people to move forward.

Abraham was told he would be the father of a great nation.  Though he never saw that hope fulfilled in his lifetime it was a hope that carried him forward in faith.  That promise seemed threatened when his descendents became captives in Egypt, but they continued to have the hope of the Promised Land.  For centuries they endured slavery in Egypt, but they had hope in the promise of the future that one day they would not only have freedom but a home as well.  That hope is what enabled them to endure through the many years of struggle and despair.  Moses was called to lead his people out of captivity in Egypt and to the Promised Land.  He never stepped foot into the Promised Land but the hope that his people would enter the land carried him forward.

Job, a towering figure when it comes to hope – perhaps the greatest example of hope in the entire Bible – clung to the promise that God was with him and had not turned against him.  I read several passages of Scripture regularly, and one of them is Job 13:15, which says though he slay me, yet will I hope in him.  Nothing could cause Job to lose hope, not even his friends who came to him and encouraged him to give up.  They saw no reason for hope, but Job did.

The early church had hope for a future free of persecution.  As the mighty Roman Empire put many to death in horrific ways – as fodder for the animals and the gladiators in the Coliseum, as human torches lighting Nero’s gardens at night, and in countless other types of persecution – instead of losing hope their hope grew and with it grew the church.

When Paul writes of hope he is writing from very deep experience.  It’s not an academic treatise; it’s real life.  Paul suffered in so many ways, as he details in II Corinthians 11:23-28 – I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. 24 Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, 26 I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. 27 I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. 28 Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. In spite of what he suffered, Paul was able to write in Romans 5:5 that hope does not disappoint.  After all of his trials, Paul was eventually imprisoned in Rome, where he was eventually executed.  Paul was a person who really understood hope.  In the midst of his greatest trial – awaiting his execution – he writes the letter to the Philippians and they are beautiful words; they are words of hope.

I believe the first – and perhaps most important – lesson of uncertainty and difficulty is that God can use that uncertainty and difficulty to bring transformation to our lives.  How many of you, looking back on difficult times, have said, I would never want to relive that experience, but having survived it, I can now look back and see how God brought something good and something positive from those circumstances.  That is a triumph of hope, and is one of the great gifts of hope – even our most difficult times can become moments of transformation.

Our circumstances often dictate how we feel about life, and circumstances will often dictate fear and anxiety, but Paul, amazingly, was not controlled by his circumstances in such a way. Paul’s circumstances were anything but hopeful.  When he was in prison, when his execution was close at hand, he wrote these amazing words – I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am (Philippians 4:11).  Paul’s hope was built not in changing external circumstances but upon an unchanging God who is an anchor of hope to carry us through the most difficult of circumstances.

Verse 18 of today’s Scripture text says I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.  It is Paul, who had such a strong sense of hope, saying to us, It’s going to be better!  Don’t quit!  Don’t give up!  Hold always to hope!

2. Hope is what allows one to look at the terrible circumstances of the world and say things can be better. 

Hope is what allows us to face our struggles, to look them straight in the eye, and say I can do this; this is possible; the Spirit of God will provide the strength to endure and His promise of a better future is true.

Verse 21 says, that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

Victor Frankel learned that hope.  He was a prisoner in Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II, at the entrance of which was a sign bearing the words abandon all hope ye who enter here.  Those words are the inscription Dante uses in his classic The Inferno as the sign at the entrance of Hell, an apt inscription for Auschwitz.  Victor Frankel lost everything in that concentration camp.  Every possession was taken from him, and he suffered from cold, hunger, brutality, and the constant fear of death.  While in the camp he lost his father, mother, brother, and his wife. 

He later wrote of one of his darkest moments.  He was digging in a cold, icy trench, and at that moment felt the hopelessness of imminent death, I sensed my spirit piercing through the enveloping gloom.  I felt it transcend that hopeless, meaningless world, and from somewhere I heard a victorious “yes” in answer to my question of the existence of an ultimate purpose.

At that moment a light was lit in a distant farmhouse, and upon seeing that light, hope was kindled in him, and his words at that moment were et lux in tenebris lucentand the light shineth in the darkness.  John 1:5 says the light shines in the darkness.  Hope is the light that shines in the darkness of life.  It is a light that illumines this life.

Hope, then, is not just about the future, but is also about the present, which leads me to my final point this morning –

3. Hope becomes something that moves us to make a difference in this world and in this life. 

Christians have sometimes been accused over the years of concentrating so much on eternal life that the problems of this life are overlooked.  But genuine hope never forgets this world.  In fact, C. S. Lewis says that it is when Christians have most thought of the next world that they have worked to improve this world.
(Mere Christianity, p. 118)

Having hope for the present and the future, searching for certainty, is not just a pie in the sky attitude.  It does not mean we should ignore difficult circumstances and the call to help others in the midst of their difficulties.  Hope changes things in this life.  Hope does not ask people to simply endure this life while they are awaiting the next.  A hope that sees something beyond this life sees how things should be, and when we see how things should be we work to make them that way.  People need hope not just for the future; they need hope now!  That is why the church has stood with the hopeless, the homeless, the outcast, the downtrodden, and the victims of injustice.  That’s why most of the great social movements in history have come out of the church; because the church saw how things could be and should be, and they worked to make it so.  It is what compels our church to move out into our community and to work to improve the lives of others through the ministries of Operation Care, Awake Ministries, Arriba Ninos, God’s Kitchen, the Diersen Center, and many more.

Yes, where would we be without hope?  Hope for the present, hope for the future, and hope that compels us to make a difference in this troubled world.

A few years before the end of my tenure in my previous congregation I was asked to serve as the chaplain for the local nursing home.  I was pleased to be able to do so and twice a week I went to the nursing home to visit with the residents.  One afternoon I walked into a room and asked one of the residents are you doing all right today?  It was really more of a rhetorical question, because in my mind she had no reason to be doing all right.  At that point in time she had been a resident of the nursing home for ten years, her eyesight was almost completely gone, and she was rarely able to get out of bed.  Those are not good circumstances, but you know how she answered my question that day?  Of course, I’m doing all right; why wouldn’t I be?  I could have given her a list of reasons why I thought she shouldn’t be doing all right, but her perspective was very different. 

I often think of her answer to my question.  One any given day I can provide a list of reasons why I may not be doing all right.  And some of those reasons might be pretty good ones, but I also know my focus is better served by asking what can I learn through this experience rather than by asking why me?  It’s not wrong to ask why me, but the transformation, brought about by hope, is more important than the answer to why.

May hope live in us always.

Monday, October 02, 2017

October 1, 2017 I Love the Church Because...It Brings Change

This week we conclude the series of messages titled I Love the Church Because…  This week’s message is I Love the Church Because…It Brings Change.

We will soon begin another series of messages, and once again, I am asking for your input.  Is there a passage in the Bible that has always puzzled you?  A passage you have struggled to understand?  A passage that has troubled you?  If so, I would like to know.  Send me the passage(s) you would like to better understand, would like to have help interpreting, or like to serve as the text for a Sunday morning message.  I will compile all the responses and put together a series of messages based upon them.  But there are a couple of caveats.  First, I may not be able to get to all of them, depending upon the number of responses.  Second, I can’t guarantee my message will fully answer your question(s), put your mind at ease, or be an explanation with which you agree.  Having added those qualifications, I look forward to your responses.

Beginning next week we will have a short series of messages based on an historical event that took place 500 years ago this month.  Would anyone like to take a guess what that event was?  It was the Protestant Reformation.  The Protestant Reformation was one of the most significant events in the history of Western society, and its effects continue to influence us to this day.  The song the choir sang this morning, for example, was made possible by the Reformation.  The title Grace Alone is one that very strongly echoes the Reformation claim of what is called sola fide – faith alone.  Salvation is granted to us not on the basis of works, but by faith – and grace.  If you have ever said I guess it was just meant to be, you are reflecting the theology of John Calvin, one of the most important and influential characters not only of the Reformation but of all of Christian history.  And though I’m not wandering this morning into the controversy over whether or not one should stand for the Pledge of Allegiance and the Star-Spangled Banner, I will say that our right to protest and our tendency to protest are also products of the Reformation.  We are Protestants, a name that derives from the word protest, which was what Martin Luther did when he nailed the 95 Theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany, which is now recognized as the beginning of the Reformation.
In thinking about the message for this morning, I must once again admit there is some measure of irony in the title.  The church brings change?  Really?  Aren’t churches quite often resistant to change and even more often defenders of the status quo? 
Well, yes.  Kind of.  Sometimes.  If that seems like a strange answer, allow me to explain.  The church has what we might call a dual life.  The church is an institution, and as institutions have a tendency to do, it sometimes does resist change and seeks to preserve the status quo.  To deny this reality would be an exercise in sticking one’s head in the sand and ignoring reality.  The church is, however, much more than an institution.  The church is a living body – the body of Christ – and as such it specializes in bringing change to the lives of millions of people.  The church is a spiritual entity whose goal is to bring transformation to our lives, and as we sometimes resist change as much as an institution, the Holy Spirit works through the church to bring change and transformation to our lives.
The Scriptures are full of examples of changed lives, and one of my favorite stories of that change is found in the story of Zacchaeus.  Follow along with me as I read the story, from Luke’s gospel.

Luke 19:1-10 –

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through.
A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy.
He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd.
So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.
When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.”
So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.
All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”
But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”
Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.
10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

Let’s talk first about –

1.  Change often happens slowly, but it does happen.

I have no idea the way in which I am perceived by people – and many times, honestly, I don’t want to know.  I would imagine that people generally see me as someone who is fairly outgoing and talkative, but that is not my nature and is certainly not how I was when I was younger.  I was a very shy and quiet kid, and when I began in ministry I found the public side of it to be very difficult.  Preaching, especially, was very unnerving for me.  When I was an associate at a church in Anderson County I would preach once a month on Sunday evening and a few Sunday mornings each year.  Each time I preached I would be so unbelievably nervous.  If you go to the Keystone Class room they have a pulpit identical to the one at the church in Anderson County where I served.  It is big.  Very big.  It’s very wide and provided a safe, secure cover for me.  I stood behind that pulpit for security and would never dare to move from behind it.  I held on to it so hard that there are probably still some of my fingerprints pressed into the wood.  And the idea that I would step out from behind that pulpit and walking around on the platform as I spoke?  Never, ever!  Obviously, somewhere along the way I changed, but it was not overnight, I can assure you.

I find the story of Zacchaeus fascinating for many reasons, one of which is the very immediate way in which Zacchaeus’ life was changed, and in that way, Zacchaeus was an anomaly.  I have been in church all my life, so I never had that dramatic, Road to Damascus kind of change.  I have minister friends who are former atheists, and some have stories of God reaching out to touch their lives in a very dramatic way. Many of us see change come in small doses, one tiny increment at a time, over a long period of time.  Stories of dramatic change are exciting, but perhaps most change comes over time, like the smoothing of rock or the hollowing out of a cave by the slow, steady drip of water.  It is amazing to walk through a cave and see what that slow, steady drip of water can do. 
For Zacchaeus, however, change was almost immediate.  Jesus comes to his town – Jericho – and invites himself into Zacchaeus’ home.  Zacchaeus welcomes Jesus and in a few moments experiences a complete transformation in his life, to the point that he volunteers to give half of his possessions to the poor and he promises to pay back four times to anyone he has defrauded (his business, as a tax collector, we should note, was built on fraud, so he was probably bankrupting himself).  Notice the action words in the story that demonstrate the immediacy of the change – Zacchaeus, come down immediately.  I must stay at your house today.  So he came down at once (verses 5-6).  Look, Lord!  Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor (verse 8).  Today salvation has come to this house (verse 9).

If you grow frustrated at the seeming lack of change in your life, or the slow pace of change, remember this – you are not the person you were a year ago, or five years ago, or more.  Change does happen, even if it isn’t always as fast as we desire it to be.  Over the years, I have rebaptized a lot of people.  There are a variety of reasons why people ask to be rebaptized, but the number one reason, in my experience, is this – someone will say to me, I understand it so much more than I did when I was baptized the first time.  Well, you should!  I don’t mean that in a judgmental way, but we should know more about our faith now than we did a year, or five years, or ten years ago.

2.  We want change, and we don’t want change, but change is coming.

How often do you say, I wish I could change?  Or, how often do you say, I don’t want to change?  I know that sound contradictory, but we have a conflicted relationship with change, as we sometimes want to change, and sometimes resist change.

I have never attended any kind of class reunion.  I’ve not been interested in a high school class reunion and every time one of the landmark reunions (10, 20, etc. years) of college come along I am unable to attend.  Attending a reunion is an example of our struggle with change.  We want people to say, you know, you haven’t changed a bit!  You still have all your hair and your hair is the same color, and wow, look at that leisure suit – it still fits!  At the same time, however, we hope someone will also say, wow, you have really changed!  You’re not the slacker you were back in the day.  Look at what a hardworking, successful person you turned out to be.  You sure have changed!

We have a similar struggle with change in churches, as we recognize that some things must change while simultaneously resisting change.  The difficulty is, one person’s necessary change becomes another person’s dig-your-heels-in and fight change every step of the way moment.  We’ve all been on both sides of that argument, sometimes advocating for change and sometimes hoping and pleading change doesn’t come.

I think that sometimes our problem is that we don’t know how to tell the difference between what does not need to change and what does need to change.  Churches get into arguments about change all the time, and much of the time those arguments are about things that just simply do not matter, such as music, or worship style.  There is absolutely nothing in the Scriptures telling us whether or not we should have traditional or contemporary worship.  Nothing.  But how much time and energy and emotion have been expended on that argument?  Far too much, that’s for sure!  When we engage in conflict over such an argument we are only arguing over personal preference.

People are looking for something that will bring change to their lives, they are looking for something that will bring them hope, something that will help them get through each day and the struggles that come their way, and if a church can’t do better than to offer them a particular kind of music, that is a sad commentary on the state of churches.

Zacchaeus was looking for something, obviously.  Maybe it was just because Jesus had reached a level of celebrity and Zacchaeus wanted to get a glimpse of him, but I think it was something much deeper.  Zacchaeus was obviously desperate to see Jesus, and when Jesus said he would come to his home, Zacchaeus was thrilled, but others were not.

I find it very interesting that people complained about Jesus going to the home of Zacchaeus.  What did they say when Jesus went?  Verse 7 says this – the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.  What would we do without the people who wag their tongues about everything and everyone they don’t like?  Wouldn’t you think they would be happy that Jesus was going to the home of Zacchaeus?  People should have been thrilled!  Shouldn’t they have been pleased with the visit because they saw the opportunity that Jesus could bring change to the life of Zacchaeus.  But maybe the people of Jericho were more content to complain about Zacchaeus than they wanted to see people his life changed and transformed.  Zacchaeus wasn’t a popular person in Jericho, as he had cheated a lot of people.  They wanted to see him get what he had rightfully coming to him; they did not want to see him change and received grace from Jesus.

Here is what is interesting as well – Jesus did not wait for an invitation from Zacchaeus.  No, Jesus invited himself to Zacchaeus’ home.  We could say that Zacchaeus gave him the opportunity because he was so anxious to see Jesus, but Jesus just invited himself and waltzed right in to Zacchaeus’ home.  He didn’t ask if it was convenient or if Zacchaeus had anything else going on that day.  No, here is what he said – Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.  Notice the urgency in what Jesus says – immediately, must, today.  Jesus was communicating a great sense of urgency – I’m coming today Zacchaeus.  Change is coming, and it’s coming today. 

3.  What needs to change in your life?

While I admire the amazing change that came over Zacchaeus, I am also a bit troubled by it, because I don’t know that I could ever allow that level of change to come to my life.  Could you?

C. S. Lewis is one of my favorite writers and he was a fascinating figure.  Coming out of a background of atheism he was converted and became one of the great Christian thinkers not only of the 20th century but, I think, of all Christian history.  In his book, Mere Christianity, he writes this – Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself (page 174).

I think that when Jesus invites himself into the home of Zacchaeus that is a way of demonstrating what God intends to do with each of us – he intends to move into us.  Jesus got hold of Zacchaeus and changed him.  He wants to do the same thing to us as well.  Imagine what it means for the God of the universe, the creator of all things, to move into our lives!

We have two trees in front of our house, although I couldn’t tell you what kind of trees they are.  They both have green leaves (obviously, I’m not an arborist) and one of them, in the fall, is ablaze with bright red leaves.  When I look at pictures from eight years ago, when we moved into our house, I am amazed at the growth in those trees, even though I can’t see the growth taking place on a daily or weekly basis.  Know this – God is always working in your life to bring about the needed changes.  You might not see it, or realize it, or perceive it, but God is always there at work.  And though we may not always welcome change, God is working to bring the change to our lives that we need!