Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
It’s Reformation Sunday 2020. The church is decked out in red. A Mighty Fortress is our featured hymn. But there is no timpani drum, no brass band, no trumpet this year. The church is mostly empty this morning. Like you, I’m at home, as is the lector, and assisting minister. As you listen to each of us lead worship there is silence in the sanctuary on this festival day. Plans included the rite of confirmation, a well-deserved milestone moment celebrating the faith life of one our special youth. But like everything this year, our plans have changed. Sam was folding his laundry here at my house Thursday night when he got a phone call. A co-worker tested positive for the virus. So now we’re quarantined due to possible exposure to Covid-19. Graciously, Natalie and her family agreed. Confirmation will be rescheduled.
Reformation is not only our theme today. It is our lived reality. Pandemic, upheaval, awakening, and record-breaking events are daily news. This year gives a new perspective on Martin Luther and the reformers. Living through a Reformation is much different than celebrating one from a safe distance of 500 years. The future promised them nothing. They could not say whether or when they might be arrested, attacked, or killed. Every day could prove to be their last. Yet they met such grave uncertainty with faith. Faith was their compass in the storm.
There is a storm today. The Reformation brought dramatic religious, political, economic and cultural change that upended people’s lives. Today’s Reformation includes all of these and one more—ecological change. In 2020 Reformation is literally reshaping the landscape. Three of the largest wildfires in Colorado history occurred this year and two are still burning. Snow is falling today over the Northern Rockies providing relief to communities throughout the State. The Cameron Peak fire burned to within 15 miles of our family home in Fort Collins. Fire still threatens Sky Ranch Lutheran camp, the YMCA of the Rockies, Rocky Mountain National Park, and much of the rest of my childhood stomping grounds. Smoke covers the cities along the front range like a thick fog. It’s difficult to see and hard to breath. Two air purifiers work to make sleeping easier for my mom. Now she has two reasons—the smoke and Covid—to feel unsafe going outside.
There is a storm today. In 2020 Reformation threatens cherished institutions of democracy, the constitution and the balance of powers. Political parties are hardening into tribes and go to war. Each calls the other evil. In 2020 Reformation is proving we need a new economic yardstick. Endless growth in GDP is not good economics if the result is planetary death. True prosperity will be achieved when every person has access to life’s essentials in ways the planet can sustain. In 2020 Reformation is giving breathe to those who could not breathe. People of color, women, native American, LGBTQ, and gender queer people are finding that their voices can be heard, and their suffering can finally be seen when it is video streamed through a cell phone. In 2020 Reformation is seeing that children are children are children regardless of their religion, or whether they live in affluent zip codes or poor zip codes, whether they are in war zones or refugee camps. The storm is upon us in 2020, both threatening and promising. Like Martin Luther and the reformers before us, faith must be our compass if we are not to be overwhelmed and undone.
Yet, when we are fearful, anxious, and uncertain faith is most difficult. The faithful way forward is counter-cultural, unexpected, appears foolish, even sentimental in the midst of life’s storms. Yet faith has proven itself trustworthy. Faith reliably leads to healing, reconciliation, flourishing, and shared abundance.
Jesus demonstrated this faith throughout his life but especially in his last days before death on the cross. In our gospel today, it’s the Pharisees turn to play gotcha with Jesus. The Sadducees, Scribes and Herodians all struck out. ‘Teacher’, they ask, ‘Which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ (Matthew 22:36). Jewish scholar’s painstaking careful reading of the Hebrew bible resulted in a list of 613 commandments. Citing any one of them as the greatest would be cause for controversy and trouble.
It all boils down to this, Jesus said: love God and love people. Loving people is a measure of your love of God. Jesus combined the famous Shema from the book of Deuteronomy and the Golden Rule from Leviticus. My Jewish friend has a mezuzah nailed beside every door in his home, each containing 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 is, ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ (Leviticus 19:18).
Love. That’s it. Sounds too easy. To navigate the stormy conflicts of worldwide Reformation faith must again be our compass. Faith in love must be our guide. Specifically, faith in loving our neighbor will pave the path from chaos to salvation. It’s that simple. It’s that amazing.
Yet even such simple advice proves confusing. We tend to think of love as a feeling. “A spontaneous and free-flowing feeling that arises out of our own enjoyment, our own sense of kinship and affinity. We don’t think of it as discipline, as practice, as exercise, as effort. We fall in love. We insist that love is blind, that it happens at first sight, that it breaks our hearts, and that its course never runs smooth. We talk and think about love as if we have little power or agency in its presence.” (Debi Thomas, The Greatest Commandments, Journey with Jesus, 10/18/20).
Yet for Jesus, love is not only something that just happens to you. It’s a commandment. Have faith in love. Just do it. To love as Jesus loved is to stand in the presence our enemies, and desire what is best for them. To love as Jesus commands is to weep with those who weep. “To laugh with those who laugh. To touch the untouchables, feed the hungry, welcome the children, release the captives, forgive the sinners, confront the oppressors, comfort the oppressed, wash each other’s feet, hold each other close, and tell each other the truth” (Thomas). To love as Jesus loves is to guide each other home through the storm because love is the difference between Reformation and decimation.
Of course, the only way to have and to possess such love is to be continually filled with it to overflowing through the grace of God. By faith alone, by grace alone, through the Word alone the Spirit leads us through the storm of Reformation just as our ancestors were led. In the words of one who’s lived it, Martin Luther, “If they take our house, goods, fame, child, or spouse, though life be wrenched away, they cannot win the day. The kingdom’s ours forever!”
God’s love is beyond human love, but this does not mean it lacks feeling.
Being Christian is “about participating in God’s passion. This is what we are called to. So, ultimately, being Christian is about loving God and changing the world. It’s as simple and challenging as that, and it is the way of life.” (Marcus Borg)
I close with a prayer written by the North African bishop, St. Augustine, some 1,600 years ago: “O God, from whom to be turned is to fall, toward whom to be turned is to rise, and in whom to stand is to abide forever. Grant us in all our duties your help, in all our perplexities your guidance, in all our dangers your protection, and in all our sorrows your peace. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, our Body, and our Blood, our Life and our Nourishment. Amen.