October 25, 2020
Like last Sunday, this morning’s gospel passage comes from the part of Matthew’s gospel that takes place after Jesus arrives in Jerusalem… and before his arrest. During this time, Matthew tells us stories of Jesus’ teaching at the Temple and being confronted by the different religious authorities while he is there. Last week, we saw the teaming of the Pharisees and the Herodians trying to trap Jesus over the question of taxes. After them the Sadducees showed up with a trick question about the resurrection which they were sure would trip him up. Now the Pharisees give it one more shot. So I invite you to listen for the Word of God as it speaks to you this morning.
READ Matthew 22:34-46
Today is Reformation Sunday… the Sunday when we remind ourselves of our Reformed roots and traditions. It is also the Sunday when I like to bring up the phrase “Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda secundum verbum Dei”… which, for all you non-Latin speakers out there (like myself), means “the church reformed always reforming according to the Word of God”. This phrase is probably as close as we get to having a self-defining motto in the Presbyterian church.
I like that for us here at Parkway, Reformation Sunday follows Commitment Sunday. Last Sunday, I took the opportunity to talk a lot about this institution of ours and the commitment that is needed to keep the institutional part of our ministry together going. As I said, when it comes to those institutional matters, I like to take the practical approach because that’s pretty much what’s needed to do that part of our work together day to day… week after week… year after year. This Sunday I get to talk more about the giving to God the things that are God’s… or the “why” of our being the church. Why is it important that this institution continues to exist? Why is it important that we all make a commitment… not just that financial commitment… but that commitment to each other… to our relationships with one another… to our common call to the faith that we share… to being the Body of Christ in the world today?
So let’s talk a bit about that unofficial motto of the Reformed Theological tradition… talk about that first part… “the church reformed always reforming”. Because not only does this speak to our past… when our theological ancestors dared to believe that they could stand against the Roman Catholic Church and cure it of its institutional ills brought on by too much political power and wealth among other things… but this part also speaks to our present… and to our future as well.
Whenever and wherever the church is… the church proclaims the good news of the living God. The church works together to interpret that good news for its time and its circumstances… joining with the Holy Spirit in continuing the ministry begun with Christ himself. The reason… or the “why”… behind the church never changes. We are the church called by God through grace. We are to love as God in Christ loves us. Through our fidelity to God… as this passage from Matthew teaches… we are also to love and serve our neighbor by spreading into the world through both word and deed that same grace that called us into being.
In a nutshell… that is the “why” of our existence as the church. Everything that we do as Christ’s church ought to connect back to that “why” in some way. And to me… to me that is why the commitment we make to this institution… to this congregation… to one another is so important. I often tell my daughter that what I like most about the work that I do… is that I get to stand up and remind people to love one another. I get to stand up and somehow in some way speak a word of love into the world. For me… that is the reason the church is necessary… that is why the church must continue to exist in our world… to speak that truth of love. That is God’s truth that needs to be said time and time again… as our souls our choking on lies and conspiracies… as our hearts are being blackened by all the pollution caused by apathy, self-centeredness, outright hatred and disdain for one another… as we pull into ourselves and away from community… where else is the truthful word of love spoken into the world that surrounds us? Without God’s love what are we? Without our love for God what are we? This passage always makes me want to read from 1 John… “Whoever does not love abides in death. All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them. We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”
To be a church… to be a community that uses the tools of ministry it has been given… we have to keep this the main thing. “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” That’s it. Everything has to connect to that truth. And that truth is worthy of our commitment. Grace… mercy… forgiveness… the Kingdom of God… the Kingdom of Heaven… the purpose of our discipleship… all these connect to and illuminate this greatest and first commandment. All else is secondary. This is the “why” behind Parkway Presbyterian. Anything else we might come up with… or any other motivation we might have for being pales in comparison.
Now… the “how” of Parkway and every other church changes, because humanity changes… because the times change. The “how” is our attempt at enacting this greatest and first commandment upon which hang all the law and the prophets. And saints, here is the thing about the “how”… the “how” of being the church is always flawed and limited. In the best of times, we may pine for the good old days. I know that in these Covid times… I’m doing a lot of pining for the good old days when we could simply be together as a congregation without worrying so much about catching a deadly virus from one another. I don’t mind sharing with you that taking that Covid test this week wasn’t pleasant. Still… that’s the “how” of it all. We get to make mistakes and hopefully learn from those mistakes and try to do better next time… making all new mistakes to learn from. To be “the church reformed always reforming”… it frees us from what I will call today the tyranny of the “how”. That the church has to do things this way or reach a preconceived notion of perfection… or it is not the church. I’m sure we can easily think of examples of the tyranny of the “how” that we’ve experienced over the years. “We’ve never done it that way before” is the battle cry. To be the church always reforming means you have to do things the way they’ve never been done before. Again… look at the moment that we are in… the “how” must change. Those congregations who have refused to change their “how” in some way… those are the congregations that we get to read about in the news where people are now literally dying from not changing how they do church. People have been spiritually dying under the tyranny of the “how” for years… but now it has become literal. But now… now as the tools and the methods of the institutional has become so limited because of the virus… now is the time for you to each rise to the moment as individual Christians… to grow in your own faith… challenge yourself and reach out to challenge us all to become better disciples so that the church when it is able to come together again will be stronger in its love for God… more committed to its neighbors.
So mere maintenance of the institution nor the preservation of a certain moment in time are not an option for a church reformed and always reforming. Yet, reform is more than fixing the errors of the past… or the present… reform is believing that the great potter is still working this clay. I have faith in the Spirit that inspires us as we reform and reform our structures so that the ministry to which we are called can bring glory to God… and not just to the glory of our own sentimentality about the past… or to the glory of a particular individual… or to the glory of the metrics of success.
We know that if we lose sight of the “why” of the church’s existence… we will get more and more wrapped up in our own ability… good or bad… to enact the “how”… we will be sent down a dangerous path that leads to all manner of self-deceptive practices that distract us from the first thing. The intentions of the initial reformers who gave life to “Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda” were not to glorify themselves or to create a church in their own charismatic images… but to help the church regain and refocus its faith… to get back to that greatest and first commandment… and the second that is like it.
Which is why the later half of our unofficial motto is so important… the church reformed, always reforming… according to the Word of God. Scripture is the ever challenging rule by which we measure ourselves.
I always like to remind us how at the time of the Reformation, an invention came along that changed the world. The printing press. As part of the Reformation… and with the help of the printing press… another change was happening. The Bible was being translated into the language of the people. For the first time, scripture was being put into the hands of the people. The Reformers had high ideals and envisioned a priesthood of all believers… congregations filled with adept Christians of mature faith governed and guided by the living Word they could hold in their hands… that they could reference easily. Educated in the scriptures… in the history… in the literature and the theologies… in the principles and moral structures… means we are better at asking the scriptures new questions relevant to our own circumstance and time… allowing the scripture to lead us to answers that may then lead to more reform. The scriptures ground us… and at the same time they empower us… they set us free to bring God’s truth into the world… to speak God’s love… to love our neighbor as ourselves. During this time that we are separated from one another… now is a great time for each of us to crack open that Word that is so available to us… to have the Word of God challenge us and to keep us connected to our faith… to ground us in these times… to make us disciples according to the Word of God.
This unofficial motto of ours is dangerous, because it is never fully satisfied. Reformed always reforming… not for reform’s sake alone, but through our never satisfied hunger to know and love God more. Think of it this way… it is impossible to love the Lord our God with all our mind and at the same time limit that mind… so as not to upset those answers and understandings that came before. Just as it is impossible to love the Lord our God with all our heart and at the same time be told who is and who is not our neighbor… who are those we are to love with a reconciling love in a way that is safe, properly sanctioned and without controversy.
On this Reformation Sunday… as winter comes and this virus continues to keep us apart from one another… on this Reformation Sunday as we have started voting and our political divisions will soon reach their peak… on this Reformation Sunday as we continue to wonder into the chaos what really matters… what is going to be the center of my being… God’s Word stands… “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Amen.