When I began thinking about the date for my final sermon at Westminster, which is today, it didn’t take me long to settle on Reformation Sunday. It may be an obscure date for many of you, but I’ve always appreciated this annual chance to look back at where we once were, to help us understand where we are and what may lie ahead.
We are the church, and the church has been around a long time –more than 2000 years. Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg 506 years ago, in 1517, the date often cited as the start of the Protestant Reformation. The Presbyterian Church formally began in this land in 1706, which means that Westminster has been around for more than half the life of our denomination.
One reason for the sustainability and vitality of the Christian Church is its ability to adapt, like a healthy ecosystem. When circumstances have challenged the church, it has had to change – sometimes quickly, as with the covid pandemic – but usually the church transforms more gradually, finding its way, sometimes reluctantly, even kicking and screaming, with God’s help, through difficult times.
Twenty-some years ago I was in Cuba with a Westminster group. We were walking through the scruffy trees and tumbled-down buildings of the Presbyterian Church’s camp on the island. It was early in the first decade of this century, right after the end of the 1990’s, the período especial, the “special period” following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Cuba’s economy had been in free-fall for more than a decade and it showed everywhere, including the camp. It was bleak. No running water. No electricity. No resources. Not much hope.
As I walked through the camp I came upon a hand-lettered sign tacked to a tree: Habrá tiempos mejores, it said, pero este es nuestro tiempo. “There will be better times, but this is our time.”
It was only one sentence, but like Luther’s theses, those words signaled a recognition of hard times and a willingness to face them, trusting in God to bring needed change eventually.
There was nothing sudden about the Reformation. Theological streams of change were flowing through Roman Catholicism long before John Calvin and Martin Luther, whose hymns we sing in our service today.
In the late 12th century Peter Waldo began preaching a return to the gospel basics of caring for those who were poor and destitute in Lyon, France. If parents have kids looking for Waldo, he’s in 14th century France. He was declared a heretic, and his followers were massacred by Catholic kings, but the Waldensians are still around.
There were others. Catholic priests John Wycliffe in 14th century England and Jan Hus a hundred years later in Bohemia both preached a new openness to the words of scripture. Wycliffe translated the Bible into common languages. Hus spoke against the corruption of the church. They, too, were declared heretics by Rome – Jan Hus was burned at the stake (which the Pope apologized in 1999) – but the seeds they planted would germinate and come to full bloom in the Reformation of the 16th century. Ironically, 500 years later, now, some of their “heresies” are now at the heart of Catholicism – ministry with those who are poor, for instance, or reading the Bible in local languages.
In the Reformation and in other times when the church has gone through change, those on the leading edge have often been animated by returning to the Bible. That was the genius of the Protestant Reformers. They wanted to arrive at a more focused, simple core of what it means to be the people of God. To do that they peeled back layers of ecclesiastical accretions and peered into the biblical texts themselves to find the heart of God’s desire for humankind. Sola Scriptura, they declared. Scripture alone. They wanted to rebuild the faith from the ground up.
Today’s gospel lesson offers a window into competing religious claims in the time of Jesus, and how he responded to them. The Pharisees and Sadducees disagreed on key issues, and each group wanted to leverage the popularity of Jesus. They, and that pesky lawyer, peppered him with questions to help their own cause while also hoping to entrap him by his response. They asked about working on the Sabbath, about divorce, about obeying Rome – and, in today’s passage, they asked about the law. Centuries later the Reformers would return to pursue essentially the same line as they challenged the Church.
“Teacher,” they say to Jesus, “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
That’s the compelling question for people of faith in every age: What matters most to God? What is our core religious teaching? Every attempt at reforming or challenging or changing the church, and ourselves as followers of Jesus, arises out of that single question.
Jesus offers the answer, straight out of the Hebrew scriptures: “To love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind…and to love your neighbor as yourself.”
Those words underlie the Charge and Benediction I’ve offered at the end of worship at Westminster since I began serving among you. Go forth into the world in peace…Hold fast to that which is good…Render to no person evil for evil…Love and serve the Lord, rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit. That’s a summary of the admonition from Jesus to love God and love neighbor. Everything else in our faith flows from the commandment to love.
Presbyterians relish an old phrase in Latin: ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda, the church reformed and always being reformed. Across the ages, the church has had to ask itself again and again the question put to Jesus: What is the greatest commandment? What matters most to God? In its answer – if honest and faithful – the church has either reformed itself or been reformed.
Change in the Church has usually come in response to shifting realities in which Christian faith finds itself. Sometimes forces outside the church – economic pressures, war, political unrest – have pushed the church in new directions. And sometimes forces inside the church – new theologies, challenges to power, new understandings of God’s call – have also brought transformation to the church.
In her book The Great Emergence, Phyllis Trible says the church goes through regular cycles of change, seasons of transformation which she likens to “rummage sales,” when the church sorts out its accumulated stuff – theology, doctrine, liturgy, practice – and clears away all that is extraneous to the gospel in order to reclaim the core of its faith.
The Reformation was such a time, and it resulted in enormous change for the Christian Church – an epic rummage sale. Five hundred years earlier, the Great Schism of the year 1054, when Christianity split between Eastern Orthodoxy and Western Catholicism, was another such major change in the Church. The Reformation and the Great Schism both took place in times of serious social and political upheaval. The impact on the church in those times was transformation – whether the church wanted to change or not.
The world today is similarly roiled and roiling, this time by vast inequalities, international conflicts, powerful technologies, competing political values, global economic systems, massive migration, climate change, cultural hostilities, and religious struggles. Like other times in history, this is the kind of context – right now – in which the Church will have to adapt to sustain its life and witness.
A different kind of Christianity may emerge in response to the realities of life in the 21st century. Today there’s a struggle between clashing views of the direction of the church. Divisions in Christianity today fall along lines beyond denominational affiliation. We see that in the tensions between those clinging to a narrow and restrictive faith – increasingly linked to Christian nationalism in our country – and those trying to center their faith on the gospel mandate for inclusion and justice.
Westminster finds itself in the latter part of the church, trying to center our faith on inclusion and justice. Our congregation is pursuing a Christianity that practices respect for people of diverse faith traditions. We’re willing to work with them and others of goodwill to pursue systemic change for those on the receiving end of the cruelties of history and economy and culture. As we seek to live out the teaching of Jesus, we’re focused in this congregation on building community that welcomes, and listens and learns, that seeks to heal and offer refuge from a world that feels as if it’s flying apart.
Those commitments place us in a church growing into something new – or maybe it’s a rediscovery of something old – as old as the gospel itself.
We don’t proclaim a faith that excludes others; I came that all may have life and have it in abundance, Jesus says. (John 10:10)
We don’t understand God’s grace as being withheld until we meet some religious test; Judge not lest you be judged, Jesus says. (Matthew 7:1)
We don’t expect to find Christ in those who are successful and powerful and privileged in the world’s eyes; As you did it to one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me, Jesus says. (Matthew 25:40)
I consider myself a hopeful Christian universalist. I follow Jesus, and trust my salvation comes from him, but I hope and expect God’s love is bigger and wider and deeper than I could imagine. Some may call that perspective heretical, and that’s alright; from history we know that heresies often lead the church in faithful new directions, especially in challenging times.
Habrá tiempos mejores, pero este es nuestro tiempo. There will be better times, but this is our time.
Westminster, this is your time. You are the church. Love and serve the Lord, rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Thanks be to God.