REFORMATION SUNDAY | Ps 46; Rom 3:19-28; Jn 8:31-36
I’ve been teaching spiritual direction for more than fifteen years, now. Most of my students arrive on their first day thinking they’ll learn a set of skills, then they’ll go forth and use those skills. And…they’re not wrong, but the skills they discover they have to master are very different than they suppose. Sure, there are listening skills, and there are discernment tools, as you would expect, but the number one skill that spiritual directors have to master is the ability to sink into the Presence of God, to make a real and conscious connection with God, and to hold that connection throughout the session.
And that’s…about…it. Anything more than that tips the balance of the session away from real, effective, transformational spiritual guidance into a cheap substitute that involves advice and “fixing.” Put it this way: If I, as a spiritual director, think of myself as the actor in a spiritual direction session, I will do a pretty poor job of it. If I’m lucky, I won’t hurt anybody, but nothing truly transformational is going to happen, either. On the other hand…if I can get myself out of the way—if I can “empty my own boat” as Chuang Tzu put it—set aside any ideas or plans or strategies, if I can just connect with God and hold that connection…I will see miracles, pretty much every day.
The number one skill in spiritual direction isn’t anything that the spiritual director himself or herself DOES, but getting ourselves out of the way so that God can show up and actually DO THE WORK.
This requires a shift in thinking. It requires my students setting aside their previously held notions and relying on God in a way that many of them have not had to practice before. This is exactly the kind of shift in thinking that led to the Reformation, and it is the kind of change that we celebrate on Reformation Sunday.
Reformation is all about change. People have this idea that the Christian tradition is some monolithic structure that has been the same since Jesus poured the bubbly at Cana. But in fact, the whole of our tradition has been an evolution, a series of change after change after change that started out being an obscure middle Eastern sect of Judaism, and ended up here, with us, today/tonight.
Among those changes? Just what we think salvation is, and what it means. For instance, we in the West used to think salvation meant the rescue of our souls from the wrath of an angry God. Yet that right there is a considerable change from Jesus’ day, and even from the teaching of the early church. It is, in fact, a terrible distortion of our earlier teaching.
The mainline churches in the last couple decades have begun to rediscover a much older salvation theory, called “Christus Victor,” which arose in the patristic period—in the 2nd century and just after. This theory tells us that far from being angry at us, God loves us and is active in the world, working to save us from every tyrant—both inside and outside of us, spiritual and political, including the greatest tyrant of all: death.
It's easy for progressive Christians to get on board with liberation from tyranny—whether it is the tyranny of governments, the tyranny of greedy corporations, the tyranny of poverty, of racism, of discrimination of any kind. The idea that God is working in the world to deliver us from every sort of tyranny is a much healthier image of God, and a much more helpful notion of salvation altogether. It is something we can get behind, something we want to help with, something we want to participate in.
The problem is that for much of the mainline church, we’ve become functional atheists. We might think of God as watching us and loving us, but if anything is ever going to get done on the ground, we’ve got to roll up our sleeves and do it ourselves.
It’s good to get involved—it’s what we’re called to do. But when we have the idea that it is wholly and completely up to US to do it…well, the problem with this is creeping arrogance and inevitable burnout.
I’d like to suggest we may need a little bit of reformation in our thinking.
Luther provided a "timeout" for the church of his day. He asked them to stop and reflect on the way it was doing things, the way it was treating people. Nailing the 93 Theses was not a declaration of independence from Rome, it was an invitation to discernment. It was saying, “Let’s meet and discuss whether the way we’re doing things is in line with the Gospel.”
What was Luther on about? Was there tyranny in the old system Roman system? Absolutely. Luther’s call was received—not quite in the way that he’d hoped—but nevertheless, he began a process of discernment with the church in northern Germany. Christians there—from the clergy to the laity—all took a good hard look at the church’s structure, its practices, and its teachings. They looked at every aspect of their faith and asked, “Is this in alignment Good News as we find it in scripture? Is this the authentic will of God?”
And, thanks be to God, the church under Luther changed course. It reformed.
It's dangerous to think that the Reformation was complete with the Augsburg Confession or the Heidelberg Catechism. Far from it. To be a Reformed Church—and we are—is to also be a REFORMING church. We need always to be able to pause, to “be still and know that God is God,” to reflect and discern, to ask, “Is this in line with the good news as we hear it in Scripture? Is this congruent the word of God? Is this the will of God for this people in this place and time?”
Right doctrine is not a destination—certainly not one the church has ever reached. Right doctrine is a journey, and we are still on that journey.
And in our own stumbling way, we’re getting it. Our churches have carefully discerned that the will of God for us is to stand in solidarity with the poor, the oppressed, the outcast and the immigrant and the stranger. This is congruent with the good news we have received in scripture.
The motto of the United Church of Christ is, “God is still speaking.” And I believe that what we need to hear from the Spirit right now is this: The fight against tyranny is MY fight, says the Lord of Hosts. I will do it with you or without you, and I will prevail with you or without you. This is not your fight this fight alone. This fight is MINE, says the Lord of Hosts.
It is not your fight to win, for you will not see the end of it. That does not relieve you of the responsibility to do your part, but it does relieve you of the obligation to see it through in your lifetime. That is not realistic and you will burn out if you try it. This is MY battle, says the Lord of Hosts. If you try to do this under your own power, you will fail. If you try to see this through to the end, you will fall down and die from exhaustion. This is my battle, says the Lord of Hosts.
I applaud my students for wanting to do the work of spiritual guidance. It takes a lot of courage. It takes an even greater amount of courage to enter a session with no agenda, no plan, no answers, armed only with an intimate connection with God and a willingness to get out of the way, trusting that if they do, God will show up and God will do the work.
But this is true all ministry, not just spiritual direction. It is true of justice work, it is true of pastoral ministry, it is true of activism. It is also true of your ministry, whatever that ministry is. You may have been called to it, but it is God’s work first and foremost. It is God who will make it succeed. It is God who will bring it to completion. If we try to do it on our own, we will do a poor job of it. If we try to do it under our own steam, we will burn out. We can help, and we should help, but first and foremost, this is God’s work, and it is God’s responsibility to show up and get it done.
Our greatest asset isn't courage or cleverness or determination or ferocity or tenacity—our greatest asset is a vulnerable, honest, and intimate connection with God. Our greatest responsibility is a willingness to show up, but then to get out of the way. Our greatest calling is to trust that if we CAN get ourselves out of the way, God will show up in power and we will see miracles, we will see transformation, we will see tyrants topple from their thrones. Liberation will happen before our very eyes, no matter what kind of ministry we do.
We all need a little Reformation now and then—in the wider church, the local congregation, the domestic church, and our own personal lives. And in every case, we do our reforming work best when we keep our eyes on Jesus, leaning on the Spirit, and trusting God to do the work of God.
Let us pray...
Jesus, you promised that if we would just continue in your word, we will truly be your disciples, and the truth will free us from every tyranny. But it is easy of us to lose sight of your word. We get attached to forms and doctrines, ideas and rituals, and we lose sight of the dancing Spirit, ever at play and ever at work in the world. Help us to keep our eyes on you, help us to stay open to the constantly changing Spirit, help us to rely on God alone, and not on our own cleverness or our own strength. For the work of salvation, the work of justice, the work of liberation is God’s work. Thank you for giving us a part, and thank you…for only giving us a part. For it is a great work, and more than we can achieve by ourselves. Help us to be still and know that God is God. The Lord of hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our stronghold. Amen.