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Reforming and Returning to the Heart of the Matter: Sunday, October 29, 2023

The Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost:
Deuteronomy 34:1-12
Matthew 22:34-46

For many Lutherans and other Protestant Christians October 31st — or the Sunday closest to it — is marked as Reformation Day, as that day is considered to have been the official start of Martin Luther’s public activity in calling for reforms within the Church.

Anglicanism doesn’t seem to officially mark this day (and some Protestants might not love that, at least to some extent, we still mark other days like All Souls’ Day on November 2nd, with which some are uncomfortable), but we do share the experience of our Church (or, the Church from which we grew), the Church of England, having gone through a time of reforming around the same time. And Lutheran and wider European lines of Reformation thought had an impact on our tradition and the development of the Book of Common Prayer. Its architect, Thomas Cranmer, was married to Margarete, niece of Andreas Osiander, a Lutheran theologian, and reformer. The Prayer Book weaves together influences from Germany, Switzerland, France, along with Rome. And all of that in what we now consider beautiful, poetic Shakespearian English, which sounds fancy and foreign to us these days. But back then, compared to Latin, it was the common tongue.

We all probably have an idea for what reformation is. When new leadership is raised up (or imposed) on an organization, and they lead everyone through a process of visioning, that’s a reformation. They might scale back on certain projects that aren’t crucial, or have gone out of control. They might trim staff; so it can be painful. There are reformations in music: when rock music got big and complicated in arenas and stadiums in the ’70s, The Ramones came off the street, playing three simple chords in small clubs and basements. In the ’80s when rock music was mired in sexism, hairspray, and Beverly Hills luxury, bands from rainy Seattle played simpler, sadder music about how life is tough. Until that became the popular thing, and a bunch of them got rich and moved to Beverly Hills. So staying true to oneself is a difficult thing.

There’s a saying, in Latin, ironically: “Ecclesia semper reformanda est: The church must always be reformed.” It gets associated with a famous 20th century Christian thinker, Karl Barth, attributed to St. Augustine back in the 4th or 5th century. And in the late 20th century it also got taken up by those involved and invested in that reformation movement within the Roman Church, the Second Vatican Council. Interestingly, the pope who instigated the Council, John XXIII, is commemorated in our Anglican green service book. (I’ve heard it said that we actually commemorated him a bit before the Catholics did.)

There’s something pretty bold… and important… and balanced… in saying that we believe in a Church that is “one, holy, catholic, apostolic” AND ‘in need of reform.’ We hold those two realities together. One can love something while still seeing its imperfections. (To not see the imperfections is probably a sign of infatuation, not love.) It’s a very different thing than ‘I’ve found the perfect, unblemished, true Church, and now I don’t have to worry about anything, and can turn my brain off.’ The church that is always reforming has for it exemplars in no less than Jesus, John the Baptist, and the Hebrew prophets, who were especially critical of the people who were most sure of themselves. Or those whose comfort and smugness blinded them from actual human beings.

Jesus’s life and ministry was an example of a reform movement. In how he lived, interacted with people, healed, and taught, he’s showing what the heart of the Jewish tradition had been wanting and trying to express for hundreds or thousands of years. And that’s what’s at the core of the question Jesus is posed: If we were to distil things and bring them back to their most basic essence, what is most important? And he says: (citing Deuteronomy chapter 6) love God with your heart, soul, and mind, and (citing Leviticus chapter 19) love your neighbour as yourself.

He’s not just making things up. This isn’t a new teaching. But, like our Prayer Book and the Reformation that birthed it, he’s done some searching, sifting, and re-presenting. He’s woven together different strands, in a way that’s vital and makes sense. And he’s not throwing everything else out; he says that everything else hangs on these two commandments. They flow from them. A little later, St. Paul will even drop the first part, when he writes to the Galatian church: “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.'”

To be reformed and reforming is to continually come back and develop the wisdom to recognize and remember what’s really important. What’s at the heart of your life (your faith, your vocation). And Jesus identifies it as love. Everything else we say hangs on and is interpreted through love.

Moses — in that bittersweet story of his goal and his death; seeing, but not entering the the Promised Land — experiences a reformation sort of moment. He’s reminded of what this long, 40-year journey has been all about. Who is this God who loves you, and calls for your response of love? It’s the God who freed those who were enslaved. It’s the God whose nature demands true freedom and flourishing. And the laws that this newly-freed community have received are about ensuring that people live as neighbours: respecting rather than objectifying and oppressing the other.

There’s something sad — as I said, bittersweet — about that Moses story. We feel like he misses out, after putting up with a lot of complaining over 40 years. But there’s something true about the story: He achieved his goal of bringing the people to the Promised Land. And the life of faith, and the work of being constantly reformed, is not about reaching some perfect, ideal state. But about always being drawn forward, into God’s mystery, and God’s future. We are always called beyond ourselves, and out of our comfort zones. The issues arise when we get too comfortable; too complacent. Think of how differently things would be in that same Promised Land if, rather than staking the question was not “whose is this really” or “who is the true chosen people,” but instead, “how can my actions [or our actions] honour the God who frees those who are enslaved?” And, “am I loving my neighbour as myself?” It is a fundamental shift of how this world operates.

And on a much smaller scale, we are each confronted, every day with the possibility of reformation. Stretched thin by so many demands… tired by too much work… anxious from costs spiralling out of control… besieged by doubts and self-doubt, the opportunity to re-form is there before us, even before we put our feet down from the bed. In my life as a Christian, is love at the heart of who I am, and what I’m doing? Are all our many activities and commitments hanging on and flowing from love of God and love of neighbour? If we’re exhausted, or confused, or our heads spinning, we return to that question, to be re-formed for mission, and we might find that everything makes a bit more sense through that lens of love.

© 2023 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter