Gospel: John 8:31-36
1st Reading: Jeremiah 31:31-34
2nd Reading: Romans 3:19-28
Today we commemorate the 500th Anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Because of the reformation, we focus on God’s word in scripture as a primary way God reveals God’s self to us.
Today the word that has been jumping out at me from the scriptures is “heart.” In the reading from Jeremiah for this morning, God is going to write God’s law on the hearts of the people. And in the reading from the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells us that the greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart.
Both of these scriptures involve an ideal that God has in mind, a vision of what someday will be, a realm of peace and beauty, of community and love and belonging. It will be something we won’t even have to think about. Instead we’ll automatically know we belong to God and what we are for, which is to love. When Jesus is asked what is the greatest commandment, and he tells them to love God and neighbor, he is laying out his vision of the peaceable Kingdom, the beloved Community, a picture of heaven itself. This is a vision of balanced priorities and focus, it is a vision of selflessness and sharing, it is a vision of love and belonging.
500 years ago Dr. Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses for debate, because he saw a major way the church was not matching with the vision of love that God puts forth in these scriptures. His act began a questioning of church authority and motives. So eventually the Lutheran Church was born from this struggle and the world was changed.
However, today we are having a commemoration of the Reformation, rather than a Celebration of it, for a couple of reasons. One is that the Reformation was not all good. People used violence against one another as they began to react against the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. And Martin Luther later wrote and preached against Jewish people, not as a race, but in frustration that they didn’t convert once he had corrected the errors in the Roman Catholic Church. Later these writings were used by the Nazi Party in persecution of the Jews. In fact I only recently learned that Kristall Nacht (the night of broken glass) in which Jewish businesses throughout Germany were attacked in 1938, was carried out purposely on Martin Luther’s Birthday to make the connection between what he wrote and the Nazi’s murder of millions of Jews.
Another reason this is a Commemoration more than a Celebration is that we haven’t yet arrived at God’s vision of unity and peace. Our reality is still very, very far from the loving community that Jesus articulated. The Protestant Reformation has changed the world and the church, however God is not done with us yet. The reformation is not a one-time event, but ongoing. We are always turning away from God and God’s vision, but God is always turning us back toward God.
The problem is, we always forget is that we are the apple of God’s eye, that God made us in God’s own image, names us, claims us, redeems us. We forget how much God loves us. And we forget how much God loves our neighbor.
The heart is the symbol of love. It implies longing, connectedness, attachment, focus. I’d like to propose today that maybe the heart is the part of us that is most in the image of God. We are made in God’s image, but what does that mean. There is such variation among people, in personality and appearance. Maybe it is our hearts that are like God’s, if we would just listen to our hearts.
Our hearts, like God’s cause us to dream, to envision, to hope for what might be. God’s dream is to create a universe in harmony and peace, to create a being to relate to, to let love reign above every other value. Martin Luther had a dream, even though I don’t know that he ever articulated it that way. He dreamed of a church that took away barriers between people and God. He dreamed of a life free from fear of an authoritarian father and angry God. I don’t know that he really fully connected to this dream, until he had been excommunicated, gone through all the religious courts, the reading of his works banned, and hidden away in Wartburg Castle. It was only through the severing of all ties that he was able to fully see what might be. In other words, he couldn’t see the dream or allow himself to fully dream until he had nothing to lose. And he had lots of time which he chose to spend with God’s word in Scripture, translating it, and hearing it again as if for the first time, absorbing it, putting it into his own words, imagining how it would sound in people’s ears hearing it for the first time, seeing how completely different God’s vision was from the reality of the Roman Catholic Church and many priests at that time. He had a lot of time to dream and for his dream to connect to God’s dream. It was no longer about indulgences. And Luther began putting out one treatise after another against the hypocrisy and greed of the Church.
God gave us hearts to dream, too. When we’re invested in the current reality, it is hard to let ourselves hope for something so disturbing to our own comfort. But our hearts must dream. There has to be more than this! And not just a little more. We are assured our dreams are not in vain, that God is powerful and will bring that dream of peace and love to reality.
God gave us hearts to connect. God would not go on alone, so God created humankind to relate to, to talk with, to listen to, to co-create with. Our hearts produce a longing in us that won’t let us go on alone. We seek community. We seek communion. We need each other. Together we are the body of Christ.
God gave us hearts to break. I think of the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz. He finally gets his heart, only to have it breaking as Dorothy is leaving. Certainly God’s heart breaks. Reading the scriptures we can hear it breaking. We can hear it breaking in our Old Testament reading for this morning when God talks about the people breaking the covenant, “a covenant which they broke, though I was their husband.” It sounds like a pout, but it is an expression of a broken heart, of unrequited love, of that feeling when the reality doesn’t match the dream.
And God gave us hearts to break, as well. It’s called compassion. Our hearts break when we really let our eyes see our own brokenness and sin, and the injustice in this world. Our hearts break when death seems to win the day. The pain we feel motivates us to do something about it, so that we or someone else don’t have to go through that kind of pain again.
Jesus loved a party, so I think it’s ok to go ahead and celebrate this Reformation Day. There are certainly things to be proud of, and which do lead humanity in a good direction, namely peace and love. Let these be the hallmarks of being a Lutheran rather than the Liturgy which Martin Luther fought against establishing because he was afraid people might think it was the only way to worship God, and rather than Lutefisk and Lefse which the rest of the world is baffled about, since our denomination is not one race or ethnicity. Let love and grace be our hallmark. Let Jesus’ heart be transplanted in us.
And let us continue reforming. I think we have operated under the myth that the church was reformed 500 years ago and we’ve arrived, however Jesus is offering new life each day. Let’s be honest about where we are not matching God’s dream for us. Wouldn’t it make sense to be in constant reformation, to have a process of evaluation and accountability so we quit making the same mistakes, of building deeper relationships so that we can be honest and forthright? Wouldn’t it do us good to always be letting go of what is selfish and sinful—barriers for our neighbors to worship with us? Wouldn’t it do us good to be dying each day with Christ to our own comfort and interests and rise again to new life to serve our neighbor in love? Jesus modeled it for us, by dying and rising again. We say we believe in death and resurrection, but do we live as if we believed it? Are we willing to let go, to die with Christ so that he might raise us to new life, to that vision of the Peaceable Kingdom where love is at the center? Maybe it is time to act on our beliefs and let God reform us again and again and again.
That’s one exciting thing about these anniversaries—500 years since the Reformation began. It is a chance to look back and give thanks for the Reformers and all who have come before, to evaluate where we’ve been and where we’re going. It is a chance to listen to our hearts, the deepest longings within each of us and in our neighbors. It is a chance to dream again the dream of God and look with hope to where God is leading us. It is a chance to remember who we have been and be honest about the good and bad of it. And it is a chance to consider who we want to be and to let God shape us into what this world needs for the reforms that are yet to come.