Back to Basics

+ A sermon for Reformation Day/Lectionary 31B at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on October 31, 2021 +

Text: Mark 12:28-34


“Lutherans, the church of your childhood is dead.”

That’s the first line of a Facebook post[1] written by a Lutheran pastor which was circulating among clergy this week.
“We will never again feel those feelings, have those experiences,” they continue, “We’ve had them, they’ve shaped us, but they’re done now. The Lutheran church as we know it now is dying.”

Now, I imagine some of us felt a bit of shock and discomfort as I read those words.
I know I did when I first read the post on Facebook.
But I think the abruptness of their writing is part of the point.
And I think that once we get past the initial shock, the post isn’t really saying anything we don’t already know deep inside ourselves.
A truth we’ve started to realize but maybe aren’t even comfortable articulating it yet.

Now I admit, this may seem like a strange way to start a Reformation Day sermon, right?
A day when, traditionally, we dress our church and ourselves in bold and exciting red as we celebrate our Lutheran heritage and the work of Reformation over half a millennium.
But 504 years after the start of the Reformation, I think we know that our place in society is rapidly changing, and it may feel like everything we know is going away.
All our certainties, all our plans, all our traditions aren’t as solid a foundation as they once seemed.
And those changes have only been accelerated by the past 18 months of pandemic.
I know I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, whether it’s the changing ways that we gather together, a shift in how we view the world, or the reality of declining membership, I don’t know if things will ever look the same way they once did—not just at Holy Cross, but throughout the whole Church.

 “But God is doing a new thing,” this pastor continues in their post, “building communities of grace, creating a Lutheranism beyond our dreaming. I don’t yet know what it will look like, although I have seen glimpses. It’s beautiful. It will give you, me, us, new life.”
As easy it would be to approach the seismic shifts in our church and our society with fear and despair, my fellow heirs of the Reformation, perhaps we can approach what is happening next with the spirit of the Reformers.
Willing to follow Christ into the unknown.
Willing to change what is not working any more for the sake of the gospel. Willing to build something new to better love and serve our God.

It’s times like these in which I take comfort in remembering that the author of Mark was speaking to a community whose whole world had been upended.
Most scholars agree that this gospel was written around 70 CE, either during or right after the war with the Romans in which the Empire destroyed the Temple and left Jerusalem in ruins.
Which means that when today’s gospel lesson was written, the location in which it took place possibly didn’t even exist anymore.
Everything these early Christians knew was gone.
Their sense of certainty, their centuries of religious heritage, their national identity were all crumbling around them, and they were trying to figure out the way forward.
And so, it’s helpful to remind myself that it is to this community who were reeling from all this dramatic and traumatic change that Mark writes his gospel message about the steadfast love of God made known to us through Jesus, including the passage we heard this morning.

After his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Jesus is in the Temple and has been teaching and heatedly debating with the religious authorities.
And then we hear a scribe come and ask Jesus a question, “Which commandment is the first of all?”
Unlike the others, he doesn’t seem to be trying to trap Jesus in a dangerous debate, but rather asks him an honest question.
‘Of all the teachings God has given us, which is the most important?’
Perhaps even, ‘What is at the heart of truly following God?’

Jesus replies with a familiar answer. “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.”
The scribe and everyone listening would have known this commandment very well; Jesus is quoting scripture—the sixth chapter of Deuteronomy.
The first part, “Hear, O Israel,” is known as the Shema and is recited by faithful Jews every day.
The second part is the first of the Ten Commandments.

But even though the scribe asked for the greatest commandment, Jesus isn’t finished, and he offers another one: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.”
Again, this second teaching is nothing new and again, he is quoting scripture.
This is drawn from a section of the Law in Leviticus which instructs the people about caring for the most vulnerable among them.
It defines the love of neighbor not as a passive, purely emotional feeling where we simply have good feelings about the people around us, but rather “love your neighbor as yourself” means the institution of God’s justice in the land.
And not just for those neighbors we like, those people who look like us, think like us, vote like us, even worship like us.
This commandment calls us to an active, intentional love that protects our hungry neighbors and our poor neighbors, our sick neighbors and our foreign neighbors, our neighbors who labor and our neighbors who are oppressed.

Neither of these are new teachings; they’re basic tenants of the faith and the scribe is very familiar with both of them.
Jesus is drawing on the rich heritage of which he is a part to reveal how these ancient words are still speaking.
And by naming both of these two commandments as the greatest, Jesus is telling the scribe that this is the core of what religion is all about—loving God with all of our being and loving our neighbor as ourselves.
That love is at the center of our faith.
And that these two commandments are inextricably linked—that you cannot love God without loving your neighbor and loving your neighbor is loving God.

The scribe agrees with Jesus’ response and says that keeping these two commandments “is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
That is to say it’s much more important than all of their religious traditions and practices which have been passed down for generations.
Which is a rather remarkable thing to say considering they’re in the Temple, the very center of their religious traditions and practices.
But Jesus responds, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
It’s a reminder to those people in Jerusalem that day, it’s a reminder to the original audience of Mark’s gospel, it’s a reminder to us 2000 years later that our religion is not dependent on a building, that our faith is not defined by our past, that all our traditions, all our trappings, all our practices are intended help us to live out these two greatest commandments more faithfully—to love God with all that we are and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

I wonder what would happen if we asked people on the streets what they thought church was all about.
What kind of responses would we get?
I’m afraid that if we did that, we’d hear what gets reflected in politics and the media—that church is about exclusion and hypocrisy.
That Christianity is anti-science and anti-LGBTQIA.
That, sure, we have social programs and do good work, but at our core we mostly care about regulating peoples’ bodies, regulating healthcare, regulating our idea of morality.

I wonder what would happen if we asked people in the pews the same question: What is church about?
How would they respond?
Would it be about our past glory days?
Would it be about the building?
Would it be about our hymns and traditions?

Well, today we hear Jesus’ answer to the same question.
Religion not about rules and regulations, it’s not about institutions, it’s not about what happened 50, 500, or even 5000 years ago.
At its core, it’s about love.
It’s about dwelling in the life-changing, all-encompassing, ever-living love of God that has been freely and lavishly given to each and every one of us and then using that love to reshape the world in its image.

Today we commemorate the events that started on this date 504 years ago when a German monk hoped to invite debate about what church was about, what it meant to truly follow God, and ended up sparking a world-changing movement.
Local Lutheran travel writer Rick Steves likes to say that, at its core, Luther’s Reformation was about a simplification of church.
That it was about lightening the load by letting go of rules and traditions and whatever wasn’t necessary and going back to the basics of what it means to follow God.
And I think that’s what Jesus is saying today too—that the heart of our faith is these two commandments.
That by living into these teachings, we experience the Kingdom of God here and now and bring it closer to reality throughout the earth.
That the love of God and the love of neighbor is the rich soil our faith is rooted in.
That the Church is built upon the foundation of these two greatest commandments and in Christ, God made flesh, who came among us to show us how to use our whole lives, to re-shape our whole society, in pursuit of these fundamental teachings.

And on this day when we celebrate our Lutheran heritage, we heirs of the Reformation have a unique and powerful message for how we can do exactly that.
One of the core tenants of Lutheran theology is that, in Christ, we have been freed to love God and freed to love our neighbor as ourselves.
Freed because we have confidence that we do not do these things in order to earn God’s love or favor, but because we have received such a gift of grace, such a gift of embrace, such a gift of love that we cannot do otherwise than share that love with the whole world.
We get to live into these two greatest commandments not because we’re trying to earn our way into heaven, but because we have been given a small foretaste of the heavenly feast and we have no better response than to create with Christ a world where all people experience that same justice-rooted love and live into the Kingdom of God come near.
We choose to live our lives loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves not because we must, but because it is in those commandments that we experience a portion of God’s abundant life.

So, on this Reformation Day, a day when it’s so easy to idealize and celebrate the triumph of the gospel five centuries ago, I think we are invited to not just look back at our past, but boldly to gaze into the future.
To ask ourselves how Christ’s transformational gospel will speak to the changing challenges that lay ahead.
To see where the teachings of our Lutheran tradition continue to speak to a changing world.
To not fear the death of the church that we have known, but to eagerly anticipate and work towards the church that God is inviting us to re-create, re-imagine, re-form rooted in the good soil of those two greatest commandments—to love our God with all that we have and to love our neighbors with the justice we all deserve.

Because no matter how much the world is changing around us, not matter the uncertainty of what may lie ahead, when we get back to the basics of our faith, we find the unimaginable love of God waiting for us, ready to embrace us, to envelope us, and to carry us into what God is doing next.


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