A Reformation for the American Church

TWENTY-THIRD SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Deuteronomy 6:1-9

Psalm 119:1-8

Hebrews 9:11-14

Mark 12:28-34

Prayer of the Day: Almighty God, you have taught us in your Son that love fulfills the law. Inspire us to love you with all our heart, our soul, our mind, and our strength, and teach us how to love our neighbor as ourselves, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” Deuteronomy 6:4.

“One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “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 second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’” Mark 12:28-31.

For us protestants, this Sunday has been set aside for celebrating the Reformation. It is a tradition I have dutifully observed throughout my ministry, though in more recent years I have done so with less enthusiasm. Part of the reason for this has to do with the lectionary texts appointed for the day.[1] None of them seem apropos.[2] Indeed, the Reformation of the sixteenth century and the issues it addressed seem far removed from today’s realities. Martin Luther confronted a culture in which fear of an angry god itching to damn sinners to hell hung thick over the minds of common people. He spoke out against a church whose power permeated every level of society and which exploited this fear to enrich itself and enhance its power. By contrast, today’s church in the United States is in institutional decline, fragmented and marginal at best. So, too, the fear of eternal damnation is increasingly rare. The last person I met in my ministry who feared going to hell was over ninety years old and that was over a decade ago. While I am sure the fear of hellfire is very much alive in certain demographic enclaves, it doesn’t rate anywhere near the top of the list of worries troubling the general public. Some of my colleagues lament this state of things. But I don’t share that sentiment. After all, the whole point of the Reformation was to free people from the terror of damnation and to find “a gracious God.” If people no longer live in fear of an angry, vindictive God, one major objective of the reformers has been met and for that we should rejoice.

That said, nature abhors a vacuum. The reformers may successfully have toppled one distorted image of God from its ecclesiastical pedestal. But while God is one, idols are many. There are always false gods waiting in the wings to occupy whatever space we give them. It seems to me that we modern, secular folk have given plenty of empty space to a variety of gods that have lost no time in occupying it.

At this writing, I have learned of yet one more mass shooting, an occurrence that is now as American as apple pie and baseball. This afternoon, two people were killed and at least four others injured, including a police officer, after a shooter opened fire in a mall in Boise, Idaho. This is just one more chapter in our country’s love affair with firearms and our deep societal conviction that our lives, freedoms and security depend on having guns at our disposal. Just as the medieval church exploited the common people’s fear of eternal damnation to enrich itself, so the gun industry, through its NRA mouthpiece, is exploiting the paranoia of “big government,” racist fears of “replacement” and outsized fear of crime to bolster its profits. No matter that a few thousand inocents, including children, are sacrificed to the almighty bottom line. All false gods finally require a blood sacrifice. I address this issue more fully in my post, Our Real Problem with Gun Violence-It’s as American as Apple Pie and as Addictive as Crack Cocaine. Suffice to say that Martin Luther’s definition of a “god” as that “from which we are to expect all good and to which we are to take refuge in all distress, so that to have a God is nothing else than to trust and believe Him from the [whole] heart…” puts the lie to our cult of gun worship.  

So, too, the false gods of nation, blood, race and soil are rearing their ugly heads, not only in our own country but around the world. This form of idolatry is more than adequately addressed in the Lutheran World Federation’s fine collection of essays in Resisting Exclusion: Global Theological Responses to Populism. As near as I can tell, this document and the issues it raises have been largely ignored by the Lutheran Churches in this country. I cannot help but believe that this is in part due to the symbiosis of Christianity with American nationalism to such an extent that it seldom occurs to us that these two might be in conflict or even different one from the other. How else can we explain solid church members with MAGA hats cheering deportations that split families, clapping with glee at a president who ridicules disabled people and marching at the forefront of a racist mob vandalizing the United States Capital Building while proclaiming “Jesus is my Savior”? How can anyone formed by Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan spout slogans like “America First”?

The above idolatries are not threats from an alien pagan culture. They are, sad to say, very much at home in many of our congregations. The kind of reformation the American church needs is a return to the great commandment: that God is the one who revealed God’s self by liberating a people from slavery and calling that people to a life of radical freedom from hierarchical systems valuing human beings as commodities. God is the one who throughout the Hebrew Scriptures identifies with the orphan, the widow, the poor, the alien and the vulnerable. God is the one who forsook violence at the dawn of history and in the fulness of time overcame human evil through suffering love and forgiveness. This God graciously embraces all of the human family and offers us a different way to be human exemplified by Jesus of Nazareth and enabled by the Spirit poured out upon his followers

The church of Jesus Christ is one, holy, catholic and apostolic. It trumps all other loyalties to nation, family and ethnic group. We believe water is thicker than blood and that our identity is defined primarily by our baptism into Jesus Christ. White supremacy, whether it goes under slogans like “America First” or conspiracy memes like “replacement theory” or under the guise of aberrant forms of Christianity needs to be named and denounced by every pastor, bishop and deacon for what it is-a heretical rejection of the biblical teaching that there is but one human family of common ancestry bearing collectively and individually the image of its Maker.

If salvation by grace through faith means anything anymore, it means liberation from the enslaving lies that keep us in perpetual fear and keep in place the systems of oppression that imprison so many of us living under fear, want and oppression. It means recognizing that the two great commandments Jesus invokes are actually one. There is no way to love God than to love your neighbor. There is no way to serve God other than serving your neighbor. Your neighbor is on both sides of every border and the duty of neighborliness knows no distinction of nation, race, party, religion or no religion. If you can’t see the face of Jesus in your neighbor-even the one who is hostile-you have not really seen him at all.

Here is a poem by D.H. Laurance illustrating that the call to love one’s neighbor is no idealistic sentiment and that obedience to that command is no easy thing.

Love They Neighbor

I love my neighbor

but

are these things my neighbours?

these two-legged things that walk and talk

and eat and cachinnate, and even seem to smile

seem to smile, ye gods!

Am I told that these things are my neighbours?

All I can say then is Nay! nay! nay! nay! nay!

Source: The Complete Poems of D.H. Lawrence, (edited by V. de Sola Pinto & F.W. Roberts; pub. by Viking Penguin, Inc.) D.H. Lawrence (1885-1935) was an English writer and poet. His collected works represent reflections upon the dehumanizing effects of modernity and industrialization. Lawrence’s writing also explores issues such as sexuality and the power of instinct. His novels include Sons and LoversThe RainbowWomen in Love, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Lawrence also wrote almost eight hundred poems. Most of them, like the above, were relatively short. Lawrence’s opinions and his frank narratives involving sexual themes earned him many enemies. He endured persecution and censorship throughout his life. His opinions were often misrepresented and his work dismissed as pornography. Following his death, however, his work gained critical acclaim and appreciation in the literary world. You can read more about D.H. Lawrence and sample more of his work at the Poetry Foundation website.


[1] Jeremiah 31:31-34

Psalm 46

Romans 3:19-28

John 8:31-36

[2] Reading these lessons through the lens of the Reformation superimposes on the biblical texts a polemic foreign to them, thereby distorting their meaning. In addition to twisting their meaning, placing these readings into the context of the Reformation perpetuates divisions within the Body of Christ we have been attempting to heal for more than half a century. Moreover, Paul’s words disparaging the law as a means of salvation paired with Jeremiah’s promise of a “new” covenant and Jesus’ brief interchange with the “Jews,” all taken out of their larger context, lend credence to the heresy of “supersessionism,” the mistaken belief that Christianity is God’s replacement of Judaism.

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