A Humble, Self-Critical Church

Proper 25A-23- Reformation

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Kari and I visited Wittenberg, Germany, this summer. It was the birthplace of the Protestant Reformation. On All Saint’s eve, October 31st, 1517, Martin Luther is said to have nailed 95 theses to the doors of Castle Church. He called for a debate on stewardship. More to the point, he called out the church’s manipulation of the poor, fearmongering, and abuse of money being done to build St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

Driving from Berlin, I was surprised to discover how far the historic town is from the main roads. It’s a small place even today. The old city is laid out along two parallel cobblestone streets each about a mile long—or less!  Yet, 500 years ago, changes to the church, to worship, to culture, to commerce, to faith in daily life, including an explosion in increased literacy rates among both boys and girls, wrang out from that tiny town. The impact of the earthquake that was the Reformation can be mapped by historians rippling out from the epicenter in Wittenberg, and in concentric circles surrounding anywhere else in Europe and throughout the world that Lutheranism and/or other protestors (otherwise known as Protestants) took root. (Joseph Henrich, The WEIRDest People in the World, 2020, p. 33)

Of course, such profound change comes with unintended consequences.  The Reformation cast long shadows in Western history that we are only now beginning to name.  The legacy of colonialism, white supremacy, manifest destiny, antisemitism, and Christian nationalism, and ecological destruction are the sins of our forefathers and mothers which we must face squarely. A Reforming church is also a self-critical church. It is a self-correcting church, a repenting church that can learn and respond to the promptings of a Loving God. This is the legacy of Lutheranism that I am most proud of.

Martin Luther famously translated the bible into vernacular German. He wrote the large and small catechism as a guide to parents which he said, ‘are the priests and bishops of their household.’ He encouraged people to read the Psalms, which he said “might as well be called a little Bible. In it is comprehended most beautifully and briefly everything that is in the entire Bible. It is really a fine enchiridion or handbook. In fact, I have a notion that the Holy Spirit wanted to take the trouble [herself] to compile a short Bible and book of examples of all Christendom or all saints, so that anyone who could not read the whole Bible would here have anyway almost an entire summary of it, comprised in one little book” (LW 35:254).

“By this Luther obviously did not mean that the Psalms teach Christian beliefs, since they were all written before the time of Christ.  Rather, Luther was referring to the fact that the Psalms explore the highs and lows of the life of faith.  They sing with joy and trust from the mountaintop moments and cry out with pain “out of the depths (Ps. 130:1).  The Psalms weep with those who suffer, laugh with those who celebrate, and teach all of us about the long journey of faith” (Introduction to the Psalms, Lutheran Study Bible).

Likewise, our reading from Matthew is often called the ‘gospel in miniature,’ and/or, ‘The Great Commandment.’  It comes from Jesus’ last days. Jesus is teaching in the temple. This time, it’s the Pharisees turn to play gotcha with Jesus.  The Sadducees, Scribes, and Herodians all struck out. After this none will dare to approach him with any more questions.

“Teacher,” they ask, ‘which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ (Matthew 22:36). A careful, painstaking review of scripture by Jewish scholars had resulted in a list of 613 commandments. Citing any one of them as the greatest would be cause for controversy.  Jesus answer surprised them. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind… and your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37, 39b

Jesus combined the famous Shema with the Golden Rule.  My Jewish friend has a mezuzah nailed beside every door in his house, each containing a small printed copy of the Shema—Deuteronomy 6:4—‘Hear O Israel the Lord is our God…You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”  The Golden Rule, ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ (Leviticus 19:18) is more familiar to Christians, although we are, perhaps, surprised that it is found in the book of Leviticus!

Love God, love people.  Sounds simple, but we notice, Jesus didn’t say how we are to go about it. There’s no instruction manual. Instead, Jesus showed us what it means to love God and neighbor – for example—in talking to a Samaritan women at the well; or in dismissing an angry mob and pronouncing forgiveness to a women caught in adultery; feeding the five thousand, eating with hopeless no-gooders, touching lepers, attending to the widow, and of course, by going to the cross, rising, and proclaiming to friends who betrayed him, ‘shalom, peace be with you.’

For Jesus, loving God and neighbor are equal, synonymous, and inseparable.  To love God is to love our neighbor (NIB, Matthew, p. 426). To do one is to do the other, and to neglect one is to lose them both –or as theologian Dorothy Day once put it, “[You] really only love God as much as [you] love the person [you] love the least.”

Returning to the Psalms for confirmation of this teaching we read—Happy are they who delight in the Torah of the Lord. “They are like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that | do not wither; (Psalm 1:3). Living in love we become rooted in grace wherever we go so that we may sing with joy and trust from the mountaintop and cry out with pain from out the depths. We weep with those who suffer, laugh with those who celebrate with an open, curious heart throughout all our lifelong days.

This Reformation Day, if there is one thing in your faith life you might try to shift, or to change, consider this: the church is not a noun but a verb. Church is something we are called and equipped to be and to do. There isn’t some magic number we need to hit or program we need to have to do the things God is calling us to do right now. We already have everything we need to be church to one another and to our neighbor.  Being church is infinitely scalable. Wherever two or three are gathered, Christ is there, in the midst of us, teaching us to love and serve and to disciple one another. This is how we are living sanctuary whether we are talking or listening, or feeding, or worshipping, or singing, or tutoring, or studying, or praying, or peacemaking, or striving for justice, or whatever it is that we do in Jesus’ name.  May God strengthen you and keep you. May God’s face shine upon you with grace and mercy and give you peace. Amen.