Encouraged by Faithfulness

Sermon preached for Reformation/Commitment Sunday at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.

Ps 145 

I will lift you up high, my God, the true king.

I will bless your name forever and always.

I will bless you every day.

I will praise your name forever and always.

The Lord is great and so worthy of praise!

God’s greatness can’t be grasped.

One generation will praise your works to the next one,

proclaiming your mighty acts.

They will talk all about[b] the glorious splendor of your majesty;

I will contemplate your wondrous works.

They will speak of the power of your awesome deeds;

I will declare your great accomplishments.

They will rave in celebration of your abundant goodness;

they will shout joyfully about your righteousness:

“The Lord is merciful and compassionate,

very patient, and full of faithful love.

 The Lord is good to everyone and everything;

God’s compassion extends, to all his handiwork!”

 All that you have made gives thanks to you, Lord;

all your faithful ones bless you!

 

Romans 1:1-12

From Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for God’s good news. God promised this good news about his Son ahead of time through his prophets in the holy scriptures. His Son was descended from David. He was publicly identified as God’s Son with power through his resurrection from the dead, which was based on the Spirit of holiness. This Son is Jesus Christ our Lord. Through him we have received God’s grace and our appointment to be apostles. This was to bring all Gentiles to faithful obedience for his name’s sake. You who are called by Jesus Christ are also included among these Gentiles.

To those in Rome who are dearly loved by God and called to be God’s people.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

First of all, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because the news about your faithfulness is being spread throughout the whole world. I serve God in my spirit by preaching the good news about God’s Son, and God is my witness that I continually mention you in all my prayers. I’m always asking that somehow, by God’s will, I might succeed in visiting you at last. I really want to see you to pass along some spiritual gift to you so that you can be strengthened. What I mean is that we can mutually encourage each other while I am with you. We can be encouraged by the faithfulness we find in each other, both your faithfulness and mine.

***

This week a random post on Facebook gave me the great gift of reminding me how much I love a capella music. There are lots of reasons why I do—the sheer strength and beauty of the human voice, the creativity of arrangers who work without instruments, the team focus of the artists. But one of the main reasons I love a capella music is because, for reasons I do not know, a capella artists really love mashups.

And I love me a good mashup.

A mashup, if you don’t know, is pretty much what it sounds like—two or more songs mixed up together. Mostly they’re just plain fun—listening for the clever tricks the artists use to make one song flow in and out of another. They can also be really poignant, with each song illuminating something not immediately obvious in another. I used to be a big fan of the Sing-Off, an a capella singing contest in the mold of American Idol, and one of the groups on it did a mash up of Kelly Clarkson’s Since U Been Gone with Cee Lo Green’s Forget You. Both are break-up songs, but they paint a very different picture of the people in the relationship. Both songs have a pretty high cheese factor, so the mashup is pretty fun and cheesy too, but it also makes you think about the competing stories people tell about the way relationships end. The mashup tells a fuller story than either song does by itself.

Even more beautifully, when I was in seminary my choir director made an arrangement of Mumford and Sons’ I Will Wait for You with Of the Father’s Love Begotten. We sang it for the first Sunday of Advent, and it was breathtaking. Of the Father’s Love is a beautiful text, and highly theological—it tells in classical language our historic conception of the personhood of Christ. That’s good to hear, and good to sing, but on its own it can be a bit opaque. Mumford and Sons’ I Will Wait, on the other hand, is a deeply personal song, full of longing for healing and a new day. But, on its own, it has nothing particularly to do with Christ. Intermingling the two songs opened new possibilities for both—it added a human element to the theological language, and gave the longing an object in Christ. We had to practice the song a bunch—partially because it was hard, but also because people kept crying in the middle of it.

My trip down mashup memory lane has a point, I promise. I was thinking about our service today, and wondering how I was going to make this double-purpose day anything but a Frankenstein’s monster—although that would have been seasonally appropriate. Today we celebrate two important days in the life of the Church—Commitment Sunday, when we offer our pledges of financial support to the church for the following year, and Reformation Sunday, when we remember our history as the descendants of a theological revolution that gave birth to a new way of being the church. I’ve known this day was coming for a while, and I couldn’t figure out how I was going to smash the two celebrations together in any meaningful way.

I thought at first about just skipping Reformation Sunday this year—but A) I’m too much of a history nerd for that, and B) today marks the kick-off for the quincentenial year for the Reformation—next year, October 31, 2017 will mark 500 years since Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral. I couldn’t just let that pass. And—this is either a promise or a threat, depending on how you feel about early modern history—we’ll be marking the occasion through the whole year, celebrating our heritage and what it means for us now.

But let’s get back to mashups. What happens if we think about Commitment and Reformation Sunday as a mashup? If we mix them together, what can each tell us about the other?

Let’s start with our first song: Reformation Sunday. (We’ll need a catchier title before our song goes to the radio.) Reformation Sunday is typically framed as a celebration of history and heritage—a deep dive back five hundred years in time, to when the pope held sway over Europe and men had really pointy beards. On Reformation Sunday we tell the story of the faithful men and women who dared to push back against an institution as big and powerful as the medieval Catholic church, claiming their faith as their own. We talk about what makes Protestant theology distinctive—about how Luther claimed (or reclaimed) the idea of salvation by God’s grace alone—that we do not earn God’s love and yet receive it freely. We talk about my buddy John Calvin here, who pushed the Reformation even further and ended up founding the Reformed tradition that we as Presbyterians inherited. Sometimes we talk about our Scottish heritage, about John Knox and the polity of shared leadership that shapes how we function as a church. If we’re feeling really ambitious, we might trace the history of the reformation further, into America and around the globe.

It’s a day to look back, to see where we’ve been, the people and ideas that have brought us to today. It’s also a day to recognize that what we believe about God, about faith and scripture, have been powerfully shaped by real people at real moments in history—that when you hang around a Presbyterian church for a while, your vision adjusts to a Reformed perspective on things. I’m committed to reformed theology and worship. I have found it to be a healthy and authentic way of approaching my own religious life. But I also find it helpful to remember that it is a perspective with a past, not something dropped directly out of the heavens. Remembering the history of my faith keeps me humble. It reminds me that I need to be open to the work of the Spirit as much as I listen to the voices of my tradition.

There is a tendency on Reformation Sunday to turn our history into a bit of a museum piece, something to stand around and admire. It’s tempting to look back with rose-colored glasses to a time when Protestants were literally willing to die for their faith. (It is less often observed that they were also more than glad to kill for it.) And while, as I said, I’m a history nerd and would be more than happy to stand up here and give you a history lecture this morning, there’s got to be more to it.

And that brings us to our second song for this mashup, Commitment Sunday (again, we need to work on these titles). In some ways, Commitment Sunday feels like the polar opposite. Where Reformation Sunday looks back to the past, Commitment Sunday looks forward to the future. When we put our pledges in the plate today, we are basically saying that we’re sticking with this faith thing for another year. We’re investing in the vision of God’s church for another year. We planning on another year’s worth of ministry and mission. We’re providing for our future life together.

If I were preaching only on what Commitment Sunday means for the church, I might try to paint a picture of who we want to be a year from now. I might describe what our dreams are for the next year, and even more broadly, what we are promised God’s kingdom will look like, and how our ministries help us reflect that more fully. I might think through the various events in the life of this church that your pledges today will make happen—providing music for our worship services, and supplies for Vacation Bible School, sending our youth to Montreat, supporting Presbyterian missions here and around the world, and providing a place for community groups to meet. I might wonder how each of us might contribute this vision beyond our financial support—how we plan to show up for our church in the year ahead.

So, basically, we have two songs to sing today: a song of the past, and a song of the future. Reformation, and Commitment. On their own, they’re both pretty good songs. Useful. Faithful.

But what happens if we make a mashup? What happens if we mix them all up and sing them both together?

What we get is a church that’s reformed and always reforming, to use the old Protestant motto. A church that remembers who it’s been, remembers God’s faithfulness in the past, remembers with gratitude the contributions of all those who have built it into what it is today, but also a church that’s looking to the future, open to the work of the spirit, open to where God might take it in the future. What we get is a church that remembers its old commitments—it’s age-old commitments to love God and neighbor—and is also recommitted to doing so in the future. We get a church that is, to use a motto off our coffee mugs, rooted and reaching. We get a church with its feet on the ground and its head in the heavens. We get a church that, of all things, looks a lot like Paul’s vision for the church in Rome.

You didn’t think I’d forgotten about today’s scripture, did you?

I’ve gone rogue today, leaving the lectionary behind in favor of a couple of texts that speak our Reformation/Commitment Sunday mashup. In a way, they form a mini-mashup themselves—an ancient Israelite song and an early Christian letter playing off each other. Both the psalm and Paul’s letter to the Romans root themselves in their knowledge of God, a knowledge based in memory of God’s faithfulness. Psalm 45 remembers how God is “merciful and compassionate, very patient, and full of faithful love,” while Paul tells the story of Christ, descendant of David, whose death and resurrection form the foundation of our faith.

But neither author is content to be merely a historian. Our psalmist proclaims that she will bless the Lord’s name forever—and teach her faith to the next generation. Paul describes his hope that he can visit the church in Rome sometime, and share in their ministry. He’s heard about them—how faithful they are, how passionate, how committed to Christ. He’s excited about this church—a church that knows its roots and has a vision for the future. And he wants to contribute something too—a spiritual gift of his own.

And then, in one of my favorite moment’s in Paul’s letters, he catches himself—more than just contribute something, he wants to be a partner in their ministry. In a rare and lovely moment of humility, Paul says “What I mean is that we can mutually encourage each other while I am with you. We can be encouraged by the faithfulness we find in each other, both your faithfulness and mine.”

And isn’t that the best mashup of all? That this thing we’re doing together—remembering our past and looking to our future—is the work of you and me together? When we put our pledges in the plate, we are agreeing to combine our resources—to give up what belonged to “me” so that it can belong to “us,” so that we can do ministry together. The ministry we do in 2017 will be a mashup of all our resources, our gifts, our passions, our memories, our hopes. And it’s going to be beautiful.

Beautiful because there’s one more voice to add to our mashup: the voice of the Spirit, singing harmony to our melodies, keeping us in time, making the tunes flow in and out of each other. Along with our commitments of money we make a commitment of trust: that we trust God is working in Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church, and that what we do here, in worship and in service, glorifies God.

As we put our pledges in the plate today, I hope you will be encouraged by the faithfulness of the folks in your pew, the folks in this sanctuary. I hope you will be encouraged by the way that—despite whatever challenges might come our way next year—you are worshipping and working beside folks who have dedicated their time and money to provide you with a church to call home, just as you do the same for them.

Be encouraged by their faithfulness. Be encouraged by your own. And most of all, be encouraged by God’s faithfulness, God who has never left our side, from generation to generation, world without end.

Amen.

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