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Always Reforming

Sunday, October 27, 2019. Rev. Annamarie Groenenboom, preaching.
Scripture Readings: Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16; Luke 18:9-14

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Five Hundred and Two years ago, a smart and spiritually questioning Catholic monk by the name of Martin Luther nailed a list of 95 questions and complaints against the Roman Catholic Church onto a church door in Wittenburg, Germany. He wasn’t expecting his action to be a big deal.  He certainly wasn’t expecting it to change the course of church history.  But as Luther nailed what came to be known as the 95 Theses onto the church door, he started the Protestant Reformation.  From this Reformation, the Reformed tradition was born and from that tradition came Lewinsville.

This isn’t a normal Sunday. We celebrate the Reformation and all those important theologians and leaders that came before us in our cloud of witnesses: Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, and so many more.  We celebrate Reformation Sunday every year as a way to remind ourselves that the church perseveres and that the Reformation has never come to an end.  A catch phrase of the Reformed tradition is that the Reformed Church is always Reforming. The reformed church is always continually evaluating, learning, and questioning.

I cannot think of a better parable for this Reformation Sunday than the parable that Jesus tells us today.  In this parable we have two main characters: a Pharisee and Tax Collector.  They are both similar in that they are both Jewish and both religious enough to go to the Temple for prayer.  But, the similarities pretty much stop there.

The Pharisee was someone who was part of the in crowd at the Temple.  He was a worship leader in the community, an example of piety and kept all of the laws from the Bible.  On the other hand, the tax collector was someone who was looked down on.  He was separate from the others and seen as worse than any other sinner.  This person was part of the Jewish community yet chose to work for the Romans, their enemy.  He would have been seen as someone who turned his back on his community.  And at this time in history, the tax collection system was not like it is today.  Tax Collectors would often collect way more money than necessary from people and then keep the extra money for themselves.  If we were at the Temple worshipping that day, we would probably look at these two people and think that God favored the Pharisee.

But if we look closely at each of their prayers, we will see the point Jesus is trying to make. The Pharisee’s prayer is a prayer of thanksgiving.  If he was here today, his prayer might sound something like this: “Dear God, thank you for not making me like other people: my next door-neighbor who is sleeping in instead of attending worship, my co-worker in the other political party who doesn’t understand your will for our nation, the Houston Astros fan down the street.  I’m here on Sundays, pledge faithfully, and serve on several important church committees.  Thanks for making me so great, God.”  But this prayer of thanksgiving isn’t actually about God. It’s a prayer all about the Pharisee.  It’s a prayer thanking God for making him so awesome.

And then we turn to the tax collector who is standing far off on his own, looking down, beating his chest.  His prayer is simple and to the point, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”  This prayer is known throughout many Christian traditions as the Jesus Prayer.  It’s often chanted over and over again as a spiritual practice.  This prayer is so powerful because it puts all of the emphasis on God’s mercy, grace, and forgiveness.  It’s a humbling prayer that shows complete reliance on God and recognition that as a sinner, we are powerless.  The tax collector’s prayer professes a belief that we, sinners, must fully rely on God’s mercy, love, and grace for forgiveness and healing.

While the tax collector and Pharisee have many differences, the biggest thing in common that they both have is the need for reformation.  The Pharisee, while he does all the right things in his life, is completely self-righteous.  He lacks the complete humility needed to recognize the need for God’s mercy.  And, instead of engaging with and offering compassion to those around him, like the tax collector, the Pharisee looks down upon them.  He keeps his head in the sky and his focus on himself.

The tax collector humbly recognizes his need for mercy and forgiveness in his life.  His life has been filled with cheating people out of their livelihoods, hurting others, and working against the community.  He too needs reformation in his life.

When looking at this parable, we realize that like the tax collector and the Pharisee, we are deeply flawed humans in need of reformation.  Similar to how the reformed church is always reforming, we too as individuals in relationship with God and each other, are always reforming. This reformation involves continual need for and reliance on God’s love and grace and the humility and willingness to accept the reform that the Holy Spirit is working in us.

Reforming is easier said than done, but our texts for today have laid out for us some things that we need in order to open us up for the reforming work of the Holy Spirit. First, we need humility. In our parable, Jesus states that the tax collector went home justified because of his humility. The tax collector recognized his sins and asked God for help.  He was open to God working in his life because of his humility in that moment.  Like the tax collector, we need humility to recognize the ways our lives need reforming.

We see from Psalm 91 that we need trust. Trust is the firm belief in the reliability, truth, and strength of someone.  We need to trust in God’s faithfulness to us. And trust that God’s grace is more than enough for each of us. We trust that God’s promises to us will hold true.

Finally, we see that we need faith that God is actually working in our lives. Reformation takes hard work especially if someone is going through a difficult time.  Reforming may seem like an impossible task.  But, we are not alone in this task; God is there with us doing the work.

It’s no secret that I love the Protestant Reformation and all of the writings, theology, and traditions that come from it.  But the reason I love it so much is because of the stories of the reformers.  And one of my favorites is the life of Martin Luther who I mentioned earlier.  When Luther was young, he studied to become a lawyer, but after a near death experience during a thunderstorm, Luther felt a call to become a Catholic Monk. Luther was the best monk he could be and even took a mission trip to Rome. Back then, the church put a lot of emphasis on a concept called “works righteousness” meaning that in order to gain righteousness before God, a person had to do good and worthy works.  Despite trying his hardest, Luther felt like he could do nothing right.  He was in spiritual turmoil and terrified of God’s wrath.  He knew that deep down nothing he could do would ever be able to justify him before God.

After years of contemplation, prayer, and feeling disenchanted with the church, Luther read a verse from Romans while preparing to teach a lecture.  It said, “the just will live by faith.”  While dwelling on this and other scripture passages, Luther finally realized that it’s not his own actions that will justify him. But his faith alone through God’s grace that will justify him before God.  He then nailed his 95 Theses to the church door and the rest is history.  Luther started the Protestant Reformation and went through his own personal reformation too. Through that whole time, he was humble while standing up for what he believed in, trusted in God even when he was excommunicated from the church, and had faith that God was working through him and others even during the darkest moments of his life.

Now I realize, many of us may not go through what Luther went through in his life.  We may not be a Pharisee or a tax collector.  But we have all experienced and will continue to experience times when we need reformation.  We have all experienced times when we have felt a need for change.  This may be uncomfortable, but reformation is good and like the reformed church, we never stop reforming ourselves with the help of Jesus Christ.  Amen.