Do you believe that mere mortals can achieve great things?
I remember when I was a young child and would watch others and be fascinated by what they did. To me, much of what adults did was mysterious and mythical. Yet through time, I began to learn and grow and gain the abilities that gave me such awe when I was a child. Now other things put me in that same state of awe. The thing that brings me to that place most often is the power that all people have to do great things. Given the right time and place, we all have the potential to do great and wonderful things and rise beyond ourselves.
While I am the first to remind us of the broken state of humanity, there is within each of us a great compassion and desire to do the right thing. We can see some of these great things when we take the difficult path of doing what is right over what is easy. Although, I also believe that we have an essential need to be connected and help those who cannot help themselves.
Even with this need, I know some who fight the urge to help others or try to legitimize reasons for not reaching out. I believe that it is the way we act outwardly that affects our inner self and connects us to the world around us. Through this connection, we begin to see and struggle with things greater than ourselves and begin to understand how God has his hand in all aspects of life.
As we hold compassion for each other, we begin to see parts of people we never knew existed. A whole new world is opened for us, and new people are brought into it. When Christ went to sit with the "outcast," he was ridiculed for it, but Jesus shows through his many parables how the "outcasts" are crucial in the witness and story of Christ. If we follow Christ's lead, we have a responsibility to our community and our world to give back.
Unfortunately, as humans, we are stuck within the realm of imperfection, and though we try to overcome it, our ignorance often gets in the way of the good that can be done. However, we still try, and maybe that is the most important thing we can do. I remember in one of my psychology classes the professor stood up and described the what he called the "spiral of self," where we begin to place ourselves before others, and soon we enter into a self-loathing and depression over our state of being. Once we break the "spiral of self," only then can we open ourselves up to who we really are.
I have to say, I find that very interesting and true. Whether it is an individual, a church, or even a denomination, when the focus is always inward, the individual or other body become stagnant, withdrawn, and disconnected from the world and the good it holds. It is hard to see the good because of the preoccupation with how everything impacts you and your life. By opening up to the world, you can begin to see the awe and wonder that is there.
To be in the perfect state of awe is probably the most wonderful place to be in this world. Being struck by the awesome power that surrounds us is incredible. As the leaves change and the fall colors come to their fullness, I am forever amazed at how life is ever changing and powerful. When we look beyond ourselves we can open up this potential and start to see this power more fully.
On Sunday, we will come to the 500th celebration of the Reformation. Like most celebrations or holy days in the church, Reformation Sunday is a time to reflect and understand our tradition and how the stories and understandings from the past hold true today. Moreover, we have to think about how the actions of those in the past shape and mold our future.
What many people do not know or realize was that the Reformation was as much a political action as it was a spiritual one, with people beginning to see and become frustrated with the Vatican’s abuse of power. While there were many abuses, one practice that exemplified the problems was the selling of indulgences, to essentially let people buy their way into heaven. As a result, part of the Reformation focused on the relationship between church and state. They realized from a study of history that when church and state are closely aligned, the ultimate result is tyranny and other injustices. There are many examples of this in both ancient and modern culture, both within the Christian and Non-Christian world.
It is important to note that the reformers were not anti-government nor anarchists; rather, they believed that the role of the church was to keep a check on governments, but not be the government. In the establishment of America, we know, based on the First Amendment, that there was a strong attempt to say that religion and government had to stay separate and that neither would control the other.
There are many things that are unique in American culture because of this law. First, we are one of the few countries that does not have a state religion. In fact, many European countries have laws of tolerance, but still have an officially recognized church. Interestingly, most European churches and many churches in other parts of the world are supported not by pledges and donations, but by tax allocations from the government.
Some Christian social scholars like Martin Marty suggest that is how the American church has been able to get so strong, as well maintain its membership, whereas the European churches regularly struggle for attendance. These scholars point to the spiritual act that happens when people give directly. By making a financial commitment, they make a spiritual one, thinking about how to give and support the broader ministry. Financial independence also allows the church to speak to the truth they see, even if they are not in agreement with the government.
In addition to the individual commitment fostered by the separation, the church also can hold government responsible and suspect. Whether the administration in power is conservative or liberal, the church's role in relation to the government is to hold it accountable for its actions and speak to the justice and well-being for the greater society. This is important, because it requires us to continually adjust to and understand the world.
Moreover, we are called to be active, not passive, in our lives and community. We live out our faith by building up both the church and society, in the way that we care for others and struggle for truth. For the reformers, this direct relationship was crucial, and a key to spiritual connectedness and faith development. For us today, the challenge is how we stay faithful in our giving and action to build up the message of God.
This past summer I had to make a hard choice: to continue to live with my dysfunctional esophagus or try to figure out a better way. I chose to take a different way. It was not easy as many of you reading this know, but after having the surgery and the doctors telling me what they found, it really was the right choice. Especially with the complications that arose, my strong health going into the procedure really paid off for a strong recovery that seems to be going well. Though I am still not where I need to be to come back to work full time, I should get there in a few weeks.
Going into the surgery, I knew that no matter how clear any surgery would be, pain and complications would follow. And they have; a leak and a collapsed lung set me back a bit, but that is why I took the entire month of October off. Now that I am mending at home, with a minor thorn in my side, I am building back my strength, and should be on track to preach again starting Sunday, November 4.
For a lot of reasons, I was cut off from news while I was in the hospital. Hospitals are one of the few places where you have to be selfish and focus on the step-by-step recovery needed to get out, so added worry is never good. Unfortunately, this meant that I did not learn of all of the disasters and tragedies until coming home. Hearing about the shootings and fires, on top of the hurricanes that happened before I went on medical leave, has really made me think and wonder how do we approach a world that seems so chaotic!
For me, there are two very important things that we need to understand about the chaos that is happening in the world today. First, is the understanding that we live in an imperfect world. If there is any real take away from the story of Adam and Eve, it is that they chose to leave paradise and perfection by not accepting the edicts of God. This choice thrust them into a world that was not stable. It was a world that included pain, fear, hate, destruction, and death. But even though they were cast into this imperfect world, God did not abandon them.
The second and probably most important thing we need to remember about the chaos of the world today is the truth that God is with us. In the midst of anything that happens within this life, we are not alone, but God is there. Many scholars, myself included, point to the book of Genesis as making the point that in the midst of a crazy, violent, changing world, God is not only very present, but is constantly trying to guide us to a better way, giving us hope and direction for a better life.
There is a lot to fear in this world, but we have to make a choice: do we live into the fear or do we live into life? I remember a pastor from the inner-city of Chicago once talked about doing ministry with a group of rival gang members. As he spoke, he told us about the fear, but he also told us about the comfort he had, knowing that God was using him and that if he let his actions be guided by God, not his fear, he would be able to make a difference. And he did, negotiating a truce between those two gangs.
In the midst of disasters like fires, hurricanes, and so on, it is really hard to see God, because unlike violence, we don’t have anyone to blame, and often we turn to God as the one to blame. But the fact that is so true is that it is not God who causes disasters, it is this imperfect world that is always in a cycle of creation, destruction, and re-creation. As people, our difficulty is seeing the re-creation that comes from the destruction, because often the destruction is so overwhelming. But again, we have a choice of what we live for: are we going to live for what was, or do we live for what will be?
As people of faith, we are called to live, no matter what comes our way. We do live in an uncertain and changing world, with people who are not always stable and who make threats. But we have to make a very real choice: do we live into our fear, or do we live the life God calls us to live? This is the choice, and this is the call.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen