"Formation and Reformation," by Zachary and Claire Helton
Updated: Oct 27, 2020
You can watch this sermon at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SCz5TF5-lP4, or listen at https://soundcloud.com/user-921468329/formation-and-reformation-by-zachary-and-claire-helton.
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to hurt, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; There’s a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; There’s a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away; a time to tear, and a time to mend; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; There’s a time to love, and a time to hate; a time to fight, and a time for peace. For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven. This is one of our sacred writings, Thanks be to God.
“None of us are totally grown… but we are moving through that process and are open to all stages that must occur for that goal of fulfillment to be obtained.” -Don Nixon, Northminster’s first minister on staff “We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it. The process is not yet finished, but it is going on. This is not the end, but the road.” -Martin Luther, father of the Protestant Reformation CLAIRE: In 1988, gathered around a coffee table in Monroe, LA… ZACH: In 1517, at the front door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany… CLAIRE: …a small tribe of twenty or thirty church renegades shared a vision of a free church. ZACH: …a renegade monk had written a list of demands that the church be set free. CLAIRE: Fed up with the oppressive fears and politics that grow from institutionalized religion, they dreamed of a place where God’s grace was not dependent on what appeased or displeased a powerful and privileged few, but where that grace rather rested on the unconditional love for all that was embodied in Jesus Christ. It was a perennial dream, much older than they were. ZACH: It was a dream shared by Martin Luther as his hammer came down on the nail holding his protests immovably in place before the church. For all of Luther’s blind spots (and there were many!), his dream of a church free from exploitation and shame sparked the refining fire responsible for the tradition we practice today. It was the advent of what would become the Protestant Reformation. CLAIRE: And as they gathered, that coffee table transformed into a communion altar. It was the Advent of what would become Northminster Church. ZACH: There is a pattern written into the DNA of this universe, and it goes like this: Things form, they fade, they reform. It’s the often-misunderstood reality behind the idea of reincarnation or resurrection. Form, fade, reform. Whether we’re talking about a wave, a tree, a person, a church, or a nation, this is the arc they must follow. To resist this pattern is to suffer. CLAIRE: Yet many do resist. They try to cling to a familiar form, even when that form is no longer serving its purpose or is even falling apart in their hands. This was the mistake the Church made in Luther’s time, and unless we remain vigilant, it could easily become ours as well. Today is Covenant Sunday, the day when we remember the story of our formation… ZACH: …but today is also Reformation Sunday, the day when we remember the story of our reformation. The two, together, remind us not only of our story so far, but of the nature of the story to come. Form, fade, reform. CLAIRE: A few months after that first meeting, in February of 1989, this community that would become Northminster voted, officially, to form a church and adopt a covenant. They decided to adopt as their own the covenant of our denominational partner, The Alliance of Baptists. ZACH: The next morning, a few hours after Luther had gone home, an incredulous priest read the biting words that had been nailed to his church’s front door. CLAIRE: Northminster’s covenant read: The grace of God is making of us a fellowship to embody and express the Spirit of Christ. Therefore, we covenant together to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength - to love each other as we love ourselves. We further commit ourselves to the following… ZACH: Luther’s document read: Out of love for the truth, and from desire to illuminate it, I intend to defend the following… CLAIRE: We commit ourselves to the freedom of the individual, led by God's Spirit within the family of faith, to read and interpret the Scriptures, relying on the historical understanding by the church and on the best methods of modern biblical study. ZACH: Priests can help us understand the will of God’s Spirit, but they act ignorantly and wickedly when they play on our guilt and fear to line their own pockets. CLAIRE: We commit ourselves to the freedom of the local church under the authority of Jesus Christ to shape its own life and mission, call its own leadership, and ordain whom it perceives as gifted for ministry, male or female. ZACH: The church claims authority reserved only for Christ. Clergy must not claim that the cross emblazoned on the papal coat of arms is equal in authority to the cross of Christ. This is greed and avarice, and it is a blasphemy for which they must answer. CLAIRE: We commit ourselves to the larger body of Jesus Christ, expressed in various Christian traditions, and to cooperate with believers everywhere in giving full expression to the Gospel. ZACH: The Gospel of God’s grace and glory is the true and most holy treasure of the church, but to you it is most odious, for it would make the last to be first and you to be last. The Gospel is a net that fishes for people of wealth, yet you have turned it into a net that fishes for the wealth of the people. CLAIRE: We commit ourselves to the servant role of leadership within the church, following the model of our Servant Lord, and to full partnership of all of God's people in mission and ministry. ZACH: To fund your mission and ministry, you demand the money that should be given to the poor. I tell you, it would be better for St. Peter’s Basilica to be burned to ash than for it to be built from the flesh and bones of the sheep entrusted to your care. Why does the pope, whose wealth is greater than any on earth, not build St. Peter’s with his own stores rather than the money of those poor believers he is called to serve? CLAIRE: We commit ourselves to theological education in congregations, colleges, and seminaries characterized by reverence for biblical authority and respect for open inquiry and responsible scholarship. ZACH: Tell me, is it responsible to create institutions in which people can purchase pride and arrogance, thinking it is salvation? You take mystery and sanctification and mark it with a price tag. You create works for people to distract them from the true work to which they are called: works of love! CLAIRE: We commit ourselves to the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ as revealed in the Gospels, and the call of God to all people to repentance and faith, reconciliation and hope, social and economic justice. ZACH: When our Lord called us to “repent,” he was calling us to bear the fruit of repentance, not giving clergy a way to profit, unjustly, from our guilt. You must not preach a false gospel of security in money. Christians must be exhorted to endeavor to follow Christ through the cross, through death, through all hell, and through them hope with confidence to enter heaven. CLAIRE: We commit ourselves to the principle of a free church in a free state and to the opposition to any effort by either church or state to use the other for its own purposes. ZACH: Love grows only by the free choice to engage in works of love. Humanity does not become any better by means of coercion or commandment. CLAIRE: Amen. ZACH: Amen. These words were the seeds which, planted in the soil of that moment, grew into the many limbed form that is the protestant church. CLAIRE: In the Alliance’s covenant were the seeds which, planted in the soil of that moment, grew into the progressive, creative formation that is Northminster Church. ZACH: We celebrate both of those stories, the seeds which were planted, the formations that grew, and the fruit they bore. But, here’s where we often make the mistake. Nothing is fixed. Everything is part of the pattern. Form. Fade. Reform. God knows that the church that grew from Luther’s movement was necessary, but not perfect. It, too, has consistently wilted and fallen apart and it has needed constant reformation. Those spiritual seeds he planted needed to be planted again and again in the ever-changing soil of the present moment to grow new formations and bear new fruit. CLAIRE: The same is true of us. It is telling that the Alliance of Baptists from whom we adopted our covenant is, after 33 years, letting that covenant go. They’re working to re-form a new one, one that reflects who they need to be here and now. They’re re-planting those seeds in the new soil of this moment. ZACH: It requires vigilance and courage to know when it is time to let go of the form and allow it to reform. A few months back, knowing the Alliance was making this move, I was curious as to whether our covenant was still a full enough reflection of who we are, whether it still guides us in who we want to be. So, I took stock. I interviewed a number of people, individually and together, and asked them to tell me stories about Northminster – about times they felt most alive, most like they were doing what they were meant to do. It was my hope that, in these stories, I might be able to look beyond our form and see the seeds from which it grew. I was surprised at how clearly those seeds presented themselves. After a few weeks, the following six themes, common to all of the stories, rose to the surface: CLAIRE: We will be defined by inclusion and acceptance. We are not mediators of God’s grace, but will celebrate God’s image as it is uniquely revealed in persons of every gender, sexual orientation, religious tradition, race, and so on. With openness and compassion, we will respect each one’s dignity, and offer a sanctuary of grace and healing. ZACH: We will be defined by the way we care for our community. We do our best to meet one another’s needs, especially in times of crisis. Disagreements that inevitably happen when we worship under one roof are nothing more than opportunities to learn deeper understanding and grace. CLAIRE: We will be defined by our recognition of the priesthood of all believers. Every member is a minister, with opportunities and expectations to lead in the work of worship, in ministry, and at every level of church leadership. ZACH: We will be defined by our spirit of freedom. As long as we live in a culture of injustice and shame, we will be bold in preaching and acting for justice, even when it sets us apart or gets us into trouble. We stand for freedom from religious oppression, and freedom to bring our full selves honestly into this community. CLAIRE: We will be defined by our cultivation of creativity and artistry. Taking no artistic form off the table, we embrace our God-given imagination in expressing our faith musically, visually, and theatrically. ZACH: We will be defined by our embrace of newness. The Spirit is constantly calling us to new creation, and in that endless creativity, we find life. These were the themes of our story, the seeds from which we have grown. The question now, of course, is this: CLAIRE: Letting go of the form, which will fade, what do these seeds look like planted in the soil of this moment? What is it that we are being invited to re-form into? And, will we have the courage to do it? ZACH: Can we borrow courage from the stories of our founders, or from the stories of our ancestors like Martin Luther? Can we move forward in the pattern with the faith that there is new life awaiting us through death? That there is a new form after we let go of this one? CLAIRE: Formation and reformation. Whether we’re talking about a wave, a tree, a person, a church, or a nation, this is the pattern. They form and they reform. To resist this pattern is to suffer. ZACH: On this Sunday that is at once Formation Sunday and Reformation Sunday, may we find the faith to surrender to the pattern, and the freedom to imagine what might come next. Amen. CLAIRE: Amen.
Invitation to Respond
On paper, or with someone in the room, reflect on one or more of these questions:
· On what level did you engage this pattern of form, fade, reform? Personally? As a church? As a part of the nation?
· How does thinking in terms of that perennial pattern make you feel in your body? What would happen if you let go of all fear for fading or reforming? How would you live?
· What are the implications for you now? For us now?
Feel free to share your thoughts in the live chat, or to continue the conversation in the “Narthex” chat after the service.