Always Reforming

Here we are, on Reformation Sunday in the Anglican church with an Anglo-Catholic-Lutheran pastor/priest! That’s quite a combination, don’t you think? Not sure if I’m the right person to preach today, so I’m going to enlist the help of all the Lutherans here. What does Reformation Sunday mean to you? Why do we celebrate it? How has your church marked this day in the past? And what about Anglicans? Was there an Anglican Reformation in the 16th century? (Yes)

In the past month we watched the movie Luther with our Confirmation students and interested parishioners. The movie gave a fairly good account of the turmoil in the 16th century and the religious and social, cultural and political forces that lead to Martin Luther’s rise and his bold stance against Rome. Luther sparked a heated debate with his questions, some of which we don’t seem to get so worked up about today. But in the 16th century, when the church had absolute power and control over people’s lives, Luther’s questions and analyses caused a firestorm: were people to seek salvation for their souls through blindly obeying the Church  or by freely to reading the Scriptures for themselves and to find their salvation through faith in Christ Jesus? Did their hope for heaven come simply from being a card-carrying Catholic or through a direct relationship with their risen Lord? Sadly polemics and politics fostered a growing animosity between Rome and the Reformers.

Many of Luther’s concerns voiced in his 95 Theses in 1517 remained unaddressed for a good 400 years. Finally, in the mid-20th century the RC Church conceded that Luther was right on quite a few points. The Second Vatican Council (1960’s) implemented changes that Martin Luther would have wholeheartedly approved of today. Luther is rightly credited for being the father of religious freedom, from which now stems our ability to see God at work even in other faith traditions.

One important dictum that Rome embraced at Vatican II is: Ecclesia semper reformanda est which is Latin for “the church must always be reformed.” It refers to the conviction that the church must continually re-examine itself in order to remain faithful to the Gospel in doctrine, worship and practice, so as to speak Good News into every time and place.

Thankfully, much has happened in the past 100 years to recover and renew the bonds between church traditions. We can see this locally, regionally and globally. The Lutheran-Anglican Full Communion Covenant, which makes our local partnership possible, the various bi-lateral ecumenical dialogues, the meaningful celebrations last year of the 500th Anniversary. We’re finally burying our ecclesial hatchets. and recognize Christ’s presence and witness in one another – finally.

But remember the Latin phrase I just used: Ecclesia semper reformanda est “the church must always be reformed.” The church must continually re-examine itself in order to remain faithful to the Gospel in doctrine, worship and practice, so as to be able to speak into human dilemmas in every time and space. And so while Martin Luther’s hotly debated questions have finally found some common answers, new questions and challenges have emerged, both inside and outside the church, some of them with a vengeance similar to Luther’s time.

This was evident in Rome – again – in the past month, where an extensive Synod on Youth and Vocations took place. For three solid weeks bishops, priests and religious, young delegates male and female, spoke boldly and loudly about today’s salient questions: the massive migrations of peoples leading to poverty and exploitation, the brutal forms of global violence and animosity which seem to have no end, increasingly hurting and killing innocent people; the challenging realities of LGBTQ people and the churches’ response; the role of women and visible minorities in church and society; secularization, religious pluralism and the church; the fallout from the global clerical sexual abuse crisis, resulting in massive breakdown of trust in and credibility of organized religion; the need for accountability of bishops and all spiritual leaders, and the questionable value of enforced celibacy; racism and colonialism, climate change and eco-injustice hurting Indigenous peoples everywhere the most; the revolution of global communications and social media (akin to the invention of the printing press in Luther’s time), the economic, social and cultural pressures on our youth who feel unequipped and in serious need of solid guidance; the exodus from organized religion by the young (and some old too), the pressing need for the church to listen more than to teach … and on and on and on …

The young delegates minced no words and left no stone unturned – their voices, with the thunder reminiscent of Martin Luther himself, spelled urgency on all fronts. Their list of grievances and challenges, both internal and external to the church, are different than in the 16th century. Yet their list almost sounds like a new version of Luther’s 95 theses.

The youth in Rome pressed the need for substantial reform inside the church in order to meet the challenges of the new world order, in order to make the Gospel sound anew, fresh and inviting, capable to speak to the human heart today once again. Many of these challenges are shared among all Christian traditions. Some observers have already called this moment in history as ripe for another Reformation – hopefully one that will not lead to further fracturing of the Body of Christ.

How would Martin Luther speak into the challenges and crises of our day, and how the Church needs to respond? In two ways. First, Luther would go to the Scriptures as his primary tool for assessing life and seeking God’s guidance. How does the Holy Word of God summon us to address our modern-day challenges and questions? Second, Luther would be unafraid to speak boldly about sin. Addressing the prevalence of sin in each of our hearts remains an essential part of Lutheran witness – that’s why Lutheran worship begins with Confession.

But speaking of sin is kind of a hard sell these days. We hear often that it is no longer fashionable or relevant to speak of sin, that the word/concept is outdated. Naming things sinful today is considered offensive and off-putting (and so it should, right? Was it ever otherwise?). But without an honest reckoning with the reality of sin (what it is, what it isn’t, what to do about it), we become, subtly but surely, less honest with the truth. Without the courage to name and own sin, especially as defined by God’s Holy Word and Christ’s witness, as we hear again in today’s words from Paul’s letter to the Romans and from John’s Gospel, we risk making a mockery of the Gospel. Without the humility and honesty to name sin, we cannot be set free by God’s saving action in Christ Jesus.

Luther argued that sin was a pervasive condition expressed in our daily failure to love God and neighbour rightly, to which we add today a failure to love and treasure creation. Sin cuts through every quality of our being. But Luther also knew that the all-pervasive, subtle yet cruel selfishness that drives every one of us cannot be quantified into a grocery list of wrongful actions.

Sin is much deeper than a grocery list, and we can do nothing to make it better; only God can in Christ Jesus. God does not parcel out mercy to the qualified; because none of us qualify, none of us. God pours out forgiveness on the needy – and that’s all of us. For Luther, there was no compromising this good news.

We receive Christ’s mercy freely, but not cheaply. Being called to account is never easy but it is worth the struggle, so that we may know the power of Christ’s cross and the fullness of His love. There is forgiveness and new life for the taking 24/7. This assurance is what Lutherans, faithful to Luther’s discovery in his personal struggle, can still offer to the church and the world today. And this is why, on this 501st Reformation Sunday, the prayer we prayed earlier in our service today is so important, so relevant and so necessary. The words apply to each of us personally and to our beloved church family in the whole world. In light of today’s massive challenges and crises in both church and world, let us pray this prayer together:

Gracious God,
we pray for your holy catholic church
which includes all of us.
Fill us with all truth and peace.
Where we are corrupt, purify us;
where we are in error, correct us;
where we are amiss, reform us:
where we are right, strengthen us;
where we are in need, provide for us;
where we are divided, reunite …
AMEN

Homily preached on October 28, 2018 — Reformation Sunday.
Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 46, Romans 3:19-28, John 8:31-36

Prairie Encounters

Thank you for reading this reflection. For private comments, use the Contact Form below; for public comments scroll down further and use the space below “Leave a Reply.”

Advertisements

Messing Up

I had it all planned out. With Scripture suggestions from the Season of Creation, I have spent four September Sundays preaching on creation. This would then nicely lead into Thanksgiving (this weekend) at which time we would all give thanks to God with a deeper understanding and a firmer commitment to the healing and restoration of the earth. So now we returned to the regular Lectionary.

And that’s where the “trouble” came in. The readings seem so far removed from the spirit of our Thanksgiving weekend. Rather, today’s Gospel (Mark 10:2-16) is kind of a painful whack around the ears! Commentaries galore cautioned the preacher, such as: “How to preach on Jesus’ words when divorce is so prevalent today?” “Do not use the text as a whip to punish divorced people.”  “These texts have been used to keep victims in abusive marriages, so preacher beware.” These thoughts, and more, probably go through our heads too as we hear Jesus’ words today. In the midst of this world, our world, full of broken relationships, I/we gather courage … and … take time to seek and to find Good News in these words of Jesus on this Thanksgiving weekend.

Divorce. The very mention of the word wrings our hearts and wrenches our stomachs. The breaking up of what God intends to be “one flesh” (as Genesis and Jesus tell us) rips through all of our lives. We have all seen and touched the pain – if not in our own situation, we have seen that pain in loved ones whose lives seem permanently scarred by marriage break-up. The private experience of divorce between two people affects the whole community. Because divorce is more than just a marriage break-up. Divorce is merely the public recognition of a private reality that precedes its necessity. Behind the legal process lies the alienation and separation of a woman and a man. Behind the legal term lies the pain of having lost confidence, dignity and respect.

Often unhealthy behaviours of abuse and betrayal, power and control violate marriage vows long before divorce is pending. Far too many women are uttering MeToo right now when it comes to domestic violence, sexual harassment and abuse. Other times a growing apart between spouses creeps in, driven by over-focusing on individual self-fulfillment or just plain boredom. We stop loving, and the “one flesh” is hard to find. Even if we never seek divorce, every marriage risks falling prey to a daily flatness and drudgery… far from the “one flesh”-union that spells fulfillment for each partner. Even when enjoying a healthy, loving marriage chances are very big that we experience the pain of break-up in other ways with those close to us.

Whether we call it divorce or break-up, we are all prone to get burnt in relationships. We invest ourselves in another, giving and receiving closeness and friendship. But even the best of friendships are tainted with the pain of separation and betrayal, rejection and alienation. Husband or wife, parent or child, friend or foe, none of us are safe. Within our parish community, within our own selves and even with God, separation hurts and scars. As today’s account from Genesis (2:18—24) reminds us, it is not good for us to live alone. It is not good for us live cut off from the human community, cut off even from God.

It is that reality, the sin of human alienation, that Jesus addresses here. It is that reality, as much as the law on divorce, that is judged as not part of God’s intent at creation. The Pharisees come to Jesus, wanting to test him. We too are all ears to hear the answer. Like the Pharisees, we get caught in living our religion, and our relationships, as if keeping a balance sheet. If we keep the religious laws, we will earn God’s grace. If we keep the minimum rules of getting along, our marriage will last. Jesus does not buy into that system.

Jesus confronts us with both the sinfulness of all separation and with the glorious grace of God’s reconciliation. Legalizing divorce does not take away its sinful character, nor does it alter God’s original intent of joining man and woman into one flesh. Legalizing divorce does not make any broken relationship right, nor does it take away God’s forgiving and healing action toward us. We suffer from hardness of heart, but God is still the God of forgiving and healing love.

It is not our job to pass judgment on others, nor to bury ourselves in guilt and shame over our sin. It is our job to face our own hardness of heart. We try to be God, in our own life or in someone else’s life – and our heart hardens. We presume, with the Pharisees, that we can earn our way into heaven by keeping religious laws – and our heart cuts itself off from compassion and understanding. We seek only our own gain – and our heart grows cold to the pain we inflict on others. We are obsessed with hiding our woundedness – and our heart buries itself in the illusion of perfection and false humility. We help sustain a culture that promotes individualism and self-gratification – we help grow the collective hardness of heart. We help sustain religious attitudes and practices that exclude the sense of community – we collude with the sin of failing one another when our marriage feels adrift. One’s marriage is such a private affair, we think. Before we know it, our “non-interfering”, and our inability to seek help grows hardness of heart wherever we turn. We may not call every break in relationship a divorce. But every time we find ourselves alone, without support, cut off from our partner, alienated from community, we experience the pain of divorce. That is why it is not good for us to be alone.

Jesus levels the playing field. As men and women we are free to enter relationships. Once committed, we are equally responsible to grow in God’s love toward one another. Jesus urges us to take the sanctity of relationships, especially marriage, very seriously. Creation may be broken and fallen from God’s original intent. Our culture may be adrift in how to support lasting relationships. But these are not reasons for despair, or for ignoring Jesus’ answer. Jesus asks us to be responsible for the quality of every relationship in which we find ourselves. As a community of faith we are called to account for the measure of support we offer one another.

Children know that it is not good to be alone. Children do not hide their need for love. Children are ready to forgive and reconcile, often long before adults are. Children reach out without shame. In the middle of his serious conversation with the Pharisees, Jesus takes the child into his arms. In a society where children had no rights or social status, Jesus models before our eyes God’s kingdom of right relation. No matter how painful the separation, or how big the fight, children continue to reach and ask to be held in loving care. No matter how foolish our questions, how fearful our doubts, how great our shame, God gently reaches out to us and nudges us toward right relation with one another. That loving power of God in and through Jesus is infinitely greater than any of our sinful separations can ever be.

Jesus draws attention to this realization by welcoming children. Following the lead of today’s Gospel, here is a story about children: Jenna had to do a project for science class. She decided to build a model of the world. So she took a rubber ball for her globe carefully cut construction paper in the shape of all the continents, and glued them on to the ball. When she finished, she set the project on the table and went outside to play.

About this time, her little sister Sally came into the room and began to play with the globe. She took Africa and tore it off; she began to chew on China; and she took a crayon and coloured all over Europe. Just then, her older sister Jenna came back in. When Jenna saw what had happened, she screamed at Sally: “Sally, look what you’ve done. You’ve ruined everything. I hate you!” … Well, Sally was utterly crushed. She ran away in tears and hid in the closet. But when Jenna realized what she had done, she found her little sister, threw her arms around her and hugged her close, saying: “Sally, you’ve messed up my world, but I still love you.”

You mess up my world, and you mess up relationships, but I still love you, and I continue to create you in my image, male and female, called into one flesh… – says the Lord our God… What a beautiful message on this weekend after all: Happy Thanksgiving!

Homily preached on Thanksgiving Sunday, October 7, 2018
Genesis 2:18-14, Mark 10:2-16

Prairie Encounters

Thank you for reading this reflection. For private comments, use the Contact Form below; for public comments scroll down further and use the space below “Leave a Reply.”

Barriers or Boundaries

Barriers and boundaries
unjust or necessary, demeaning or holy;
which is which I ask gleaning and boldly.

When do barriers need to be broken
and when are boundaries not to be token?

Barriers obstructing,
boundaries fostering;
do barriers always demean
where boundaries protect,
or do barriers also protect
where boundaries defect?
Do barriers serve a noble purpose
where boundaries fail to pose?
While barriers can pose as boundaries
belittling and dehumanizing,
boundaries can pose as barriers
honouring, carrying and concealing.

So how to know and honour
a barrier for one while a boundary for another?
Can a boundary well-intentioned and needed
be a barrier for another so hard to be heeded?

Do barriers feed on fear
while boundaries thrive on being near?
Boundaries open discovery, health and trust
where barriers parade in threat, stealth and disgust.
Barriers build great hiding places
where boundaries reflect open faces.
Boundaries encourage respect and honour,
a precious anointing by a kiss from the Holy,
where barriers inflict and disguise,
an insidious curse not worth the glory.

Boundaries bounce like a smiley wave
dancing a circle of safety and trust.
Prickly barriers block, resistant to change,
keeping out the new and unknown is a must.

And if confused about boundaries and barriers
track the energy stirred in your heart
and you will know which one is doing its part 🙂
Boundaries4

Prairie Encounters

Thank you for reading this reflection. For private comments, use the Contact Form below; for public comments scroll down further and use the space below “Leave a Reply.”