Sermon for October 27th, 2019
Matthew 10:26-31 (NT, page 10)
26 “So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. 27 What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. 28 Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30 And even the hairs of your head are all counted. 31 So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.
52 And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”
John Knox, the Thundering Scot
One of my favorite fictional Scotsmen is Groundskeeper Willie from the animated TV Show, The Simpsons. His character embodies a lot of the stereotypes we have about people from Scotland:
One of my favorite actual, real, historical Scotsmen was this guy:
The Rev. Gordon Scott Bowie was the pastor of University Presbyterian Church here in El Paso for 25 years. He was my mentor and friend, and seven years ago in this very room, as I knelt on these steps, he placed his hands upon my head said the prayer of ordination when I became a Presbyterian minister.
Rev. Bowie fit the Scottish stereotype in many ways -- he is legendary among Presbyterian pastors in this part of the country for standing up in the middle of a Presbytery meeting (all the pastors and church leaders in West Texas) and loudly telling the Presbytery Executive (the closest thing we have to a Bishop) that he could "go piss up a rope!" He was not a man to mince words.
When I think of John Knox, the 16th century Scottish reformer who almost single-handedly gave birth to the Presbyterian church, I imagine him in my mind to be a lot like Gordon Bowie.
John Knox is one of two Reformers who is often pictured with a sword in hand (the other is Ulrich Zwingli--I will likely preach on his life next year).
The reason for the sword is that Knox began his career not as a preacher, but as a bodyguard for a preacher. George Wishart (the man in the picture who isn't holding a sword), was an early voice in Scotland preaching against the wealth and power of the Catholic church, and demanding that it reform. Knox, who was at the time an ordained Catholic priest, went to hear Wishart preach in his hometown. He was moved by Wishart's words, renounced Catholicism, and offered his services to Wishart as a bodyguard, accompanying him everywhere he went with a large and imposing Scottish Broadsword.
Ultimately, however, Knox failed as a bodyguard. Wishart was arrested, tried, and convicted of heresy, then burned at the stake, becoming an early martyr for the Protestant cause. This had a profound impact on Knox, who put down his sword and picked up his Bible, preaching wherever he could, and wielding words as a far more effective weapon.
Before too long, he too was arrested, and forced into slavery on a galley ship, where he was chained to a bench and forced to row for hours on end each day.
Knox's captors on the slave ship were Catholic, and at one point they tried to force all the slaves to kiss a statue of the Virgin Mary. Knox, who viewed statues (and the veneration of Mary) as idolatry, seized the statue, tossed it overboard, and said, "Let Our Lady now save herself. She is light enough, let her learn to swim."
As a galley slave Knox contracted an illness and was near to the point of death, when a fellow slave lifted him up from the bench just high enough to see the coastline of his native Scotland. When Knox saw the spires of the cathedral at St. Andrews, he swore to his friend that he would not die until he might proclaim God's glory in that place. Whether through miraculous providence, or sheer Scottish stubbornness, Knox recovered.
After two years he was finally released from the slave ship. From here his life took several twists and turns, some of which I shared with you two weeks ago in the sermon on his contemporary, Anne Locke. I'll fast forward through that and pick up the story again in Geneva, Switzerland, where Knox studied under John Calvin, and pastored a congregation of Scottish and English exiles. This is that church:
It's right next to Calvin's church, St. Pierre's:
And it's still an active, worshipping, Presbyterian Congregation today:
While Knox was pastoring this congregation, preaching three times a day, with sermons averaging two hours each, he managed to still find enough time to get married, father two sons, and produce (with others) a new translation of the Bible, called (appropriately enough) the Geneva Bible, which was:
- The first English Bible to be translated directly and completely from the Hebrew and Greek texts
- The first Bible to have verse numbers
- The first annotated "study Bible"
- The Bible quoted by Shakespeare in all his plays.
There is a famous wall in Geneva which pays tribute to Knox and the other 16th century reformers:
On that wall is a panel which depicts Knox preaching:
But that's not him preaching to his congregation in Geneva. It's actually a scene from later in his story--the part of his story that intertwines with my own.
In 1559, several influential Lords back home in Scotland wrote to Knox in Geneva, begging him to come back and bring the Reformed faith to their country. This was a dangerous proposition. Scotland was under the control of a Catholic Queen Regent, Mary of Guise. Eight days after Knox arrived back in Scotland, the Queen Regent issued a proclamation outlawing all Protestant ministers.
In response, the next day John Knox marched into the city of Perth, and into the pulpit of St. John's church, where he preached a fiery sermon condemning her, and the idolatry of the Catholic church. Riots broke out in the streets of Perth, and Mary of Guise marched with her army to Perth to restore order and root out the Protestants. Her army was met by over 3,000 supporters of John Knox. She was vastly outnumbered, and quickly arranged a "truce."
This is St. John's church, and the pulpit where Knox preached the sermon that launched the Reformation (and the Presbyterian movement) in Scotland.
The church was built by the Lords of Perth, the Ruthven family (my Scottish ancestors), who were no doubt in attendance that day, and were among the first to pledge support to John Knox and the Reformation. In his autobiography, Knox refers to one of my ancestors, Patrick Ruthven, as "a stout and discreet man in the cause of God." Another one of my ancestors, William Ruthven, was at John Knox's side on his deathbed. The famous picture on the reformation wall (and on your bulletins) is Knox preaching to the assembled "Lords of the Congregation." Several of my family members are listed as being among them.
The struggles between Knox and the Lords of the Congregation and Mary of Guise (and later her daughter Mary Queen of Scots) continued for many years, with wins and losses (and loss of life) on both sides. But gradually, the reformation took hold in Scotland, and today, the Presbyterian church is the official church of Scotland. When my ancestors migrated to America along with many people of Scottish descent, they brought their Presbyterianism with them. The first pilgrims who came to America on the Mayflower brought with them a copy of the Geneva Bible.
John Knox wrote an eight volume history of the Reformation in Scotland. He became the pastor of St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh, the largest and most influential congregation in Scotland. He even got his wish and preached several times at St. Andrew's Cathedral, the church that gave him hope as a slave on the galley ship.
He continued to preach into his old age, until just a few months before he died, when the voice that once shook nations was barely a whisper. Those who heard him preach his last sermons said that the fire was gone from his voice, but not from his eyes, which still burned with determination when he turned in his sermon to matters affecting his country and his people.
It should be pretty obvious by now, I suppose, why John Knox is such an important figure for me--everything from my family connections in Scotland right down to my own ordination under the hands of a more recent "thundering Scot."
But perhaps you might be wondering why John Knox--or any of this 16th century Scottish fanfare, for that matter--holds any meaning for you? Today, Protestants are no longer at war with Catholics. And very few people in El Paso today give much thought to people, places and events half a millennium away on another continent. So why is any of this important?
All of us stand in a tradition. Yours may or may not be Scottish, or Presbyterian. But no matter who you are, you stand in a long line of people who came before you--people with beliefs, spiritual practices, stories of faith and sacrifice. Some of those people may be closer--parents, grandparents, teachers, pastors or mentors. Some may be distant--ancestors who brought your family here from another place long ago.
It is good and right for us to recognize and give thanks for those who prepared the way for us. It is good and necessary for us to understand that we are part of a larger story, one that begins long before us, and that will continue long after us.
And yet...we honor people like John Wycliffe, Anne Locke, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and John Knox, precisely because they challenged their traditions, broke away from the practices of their ancestors, and led their communities in a new direction. There is a time for this, too. All of us stand in a tradition, but we should never let ourselves become chained to it, enslaved by it.
When it comes to religious belief, I have observed two different kinds of people in our culture today:
Some cling so tightly to their cherished traditions, beliefs, buildings, and practices, that they reject any change or progress at all. This is the surest way to kill the thing you love. Anything that ceases to grow or evolve will eventually die. Or it will become a museum, a lifeless memorial to the way things used to be.
But the opposite extreme is equally troubling. It's those who, when confronted with something unpleasant or problematic in their religious traditions or beliefs, chuck everything out the window and abandon their faith, their heritage, and all that connects them to the wider story. I believe this makes for shallow, disconnected people, who struggle to find meaning and purpose in the world.
The 16th century reformers we celebrate today took what I consider to be a more responsible course. They changed the very things they loved most in order to preserve the best and truest aspects of those things. In doing this, they were following in the footsteps of Jesus of Nazareth, who changed and reimagined the Jewish faith of his ancestors in order to preserve and carry forward what was most important in it.
I leave you with this: What tradition do you stand in? What larger story are you part of? And what sacrifices, what bold changes are you willing to make in your life, in your community, in order to carry that story forward, to preserve it, to improve it, and to make it something worth passing on to your children and your children's children?
May the courage and zeal of the Reformers burn in our hearts today as intensely as it did 500 years ago in theirs, and may the world be blessed through the work of God's people.