Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
Every few hundred years the Church feels compelled to hold a giant yard sale. At least that’s how the Rt. Rev. Mark Dyer famously put it. While bishop of Bethlehem in the early 1990’s, Dyer wrote: “Christianity has had five significant yard sales. Each one … to do with … the temptation to domesticate God’s vision … when God seeks transformation.”
More recently, theologians and church historians have used 500-year cycles to mark the periods in which the Church has undergone the most profound change, observing that with each major transition some things remain, and some are let go.
Today happens to be Reformation Sunday and the year 2020 finds us roughly 500 years past the start of the Protestant Reformation (1517) – initiated when people like Martin Luther and John Calvin pushed back on some of the abuses of the Church at that time, which happened about 500 years after the Great Schism between the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic branches of the Church (1054), which took place around 500 years after reforms under Pope Gregory the Great (540-590), which came approximately 500 years after the birth of the Church on Pentecost. So if the 500-year theory is correct, we’re right on schedule for another massive transformation across the Christian Church.
In fact, big changes had begun well before we ever encountered COVID-19 and congregations around the globe had to pivot to online worship. Consider, for instance, the shift that had already taken place since the 1940’s and 1950’s when regular church attendance was far more common in American cities like ours. What challenges has that brought the Church? What opportunities has it offered to reevaluate our purpose apart from societal expectations? Or consider over the last few decades massive growth in the global Church at the same time the influence of Christianity is shrinking in the West. What might the Holy Spirit be saying through those kinds of dynamics? Meanwhile this year a global pandemic and ongoing protests against racial injustice are waking some of us up in new ways to the degree to which the Church is transforming and needing to be transformed.
So what aspects of long-held traditions should we cling to as we make our way through this unsettling time and what should we be hauling to the curb for that metaphorical yard sale?
While external factors may be accelerating the rate of change right now, we can actually look to one of the founding principles of the last of the great Church rummage sales for direction on how to proceed. Because one of the central tenets of the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago was sola Scriptura – looking to Scripture alone – as our guide. The Church’s authority is the Bible, our Reformed faith teaches, not ecclesiastical traditions or variable human opinions. We are “reformed and always being reformed” according to the Word of God.
Our texts for this morning remind us of the tremendous gifts of God’s Word. In Psalm 19 we heard God’s law celebrated as perfect, sure, clear, pure, and enduring, as a source of wisdom, enlightenment, joy, and refreshment. “More to be desired … than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey, and the drippings of the honeycomb.” (Psalm 19:7-10) And in our New Testament reading, we were reminded of the value of being steeped in the Word of God across one’s lifetime: “continue in what you have learned and firmly believed… how from childhood you have known the sacred writings…All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” (2 Timothy 3:14-16)
To be fair, even holding such a valuable library – this Book full of books - in our hands, it can be a tricky business sometimes to determine exactly what God is trying to say to us. This is because the Word of God always comes packaged in human words. I’ve long appreciated the way one of our Presbyterian confessions explains this:
“The Scriptures, given under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, are nevertheless words of human beings, conditioned by the language, thought forms, and literary fashions of the places and times at which they were written. They reflect views of life, history, and the cosmos which were then current. The church, therefore, has an obligation to approach the Scriptures with literary and historical understanding.”
Still, there are plenty of messages that come through loudly and clearly, don’t they, no matter the original context in which biblical authors composed the words on the page?
Throughout both testaments, Old and New, we read of God’s creative power, God’s steadfast love, and God’s abundant mercy. In biblical books written hundreds of years apart we find God deeply invested in those far too many human cultures have considered last and least: the poor and the powerless; slaves and prostitutes; refugees and immigrants. The one big story told across all of the smaller stories is a story of God regularly confronting abuses of power and working through the most unlikely heroes and heroines to accomplish God’s purposes for the earth. It’s a story of God demanding justice and righteousness from God’s people. It’s a story of God battling – and defeating - evil and oppression. It’s a story of God bringing life from death.
The biblical story continues even beyond words written down by human authors long ago because we have been given not only the Word of God in Scripture, but the living Word, the Word made flesh, Jesus himself. And we believe, as that same confession puts it, that “God will continue to speak through the Scriptures in a changing world and in every form of human culture.”
We read the Bible together regularly because we need frequent reminders that this is the God we worship, and the God we worship has work for us to do. We steep ourselves in Scripture because we who are formed by God’s Word in worship should be standing under that Word everywhere else too - in our work lives, at home with our families, and out in our communities… as we make decisions about how to spend our money, as we respond to enormous challenges both locally and globally, and yes - with a high stakes election just over a week away - as we fill out our ballots. We should be asking ourselves always: what have I learned in Scripture that can inform my choices here? What difference should it make, as I approach this decision, that I’ve been formed and transformed by the Word of God? We steep ourselves in Scripture not as an abstract exercise, but because what we learn in these pages should be shaping every aspect of our lives.
What’s become clearer to me in recent years is that it matters a great deal who’s helping us interpret Scripture too. Whose voices are we hearing to help us better understand God’s Word? Because, for better or for worse, we all approach the Bible with preconceptions coming out of respective backgrounds. Every reading of Scripture is in a sense an interpretation, so it will help us become more fully formed by the text if we’re able to see it through more than a single lens.
This is one of the reasons I’m so excited about our Session’s new commitment to bringing in preachers of color to speak to us more often. We who have largely been exposed to white preachers have so much to learn from Black preachers, for instance, and from Latinx preachers, and from Asian and Indigenous preachers, and their respective insights into this Book of books.
Too often the Church has tried to domesticate God’s vision when God actually wants our transformation. And every 500 years doesn’t seem too often to do a major house cleaning, does it? So let’s not be afraid to take a good long look both at our internal traditions and at our calling as God’s people in the world. Where are we being asked to step up and engage more fully, and what are we being invited to haul out to the curb?
Because it’s yard sale time again, Church. In this strange season we’re living through right now, there’s far too much at stake not to clean house, looking to Scripture as our guide and allowing ourselves to be formed, reformed, and transformed according to God’s Word.
 As cited in https://episcopalchurch.org/library/article/rip-former-bethlehem-bishop-mark-dyer-dies-84
 See for instance Phyllis Tickle, The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why.
 https://www.presbyterianmission.org/what-we-believe/ecclesia-reformata/ “The Confession of 1967,” section 9.29, in The Book of Confessions, PC(USA)
 “the Confession of 1967” section 9.29.