by Louise Westfall
My dad used to write his sermons on Saturday afternoon while listening to the Met opera broadcast on the radio. I think he got tired of us kids joking about the fat lady singing, so he finally took us to one. There before our eyes and ears was the passion, revenge, love and tragedy of Tosca and her doomed lover Cavaradossi. Thus began my own devotion to the art, with annual trips to the Metropolitan Opera. Until the pandemic of course. Recently the Met announced it was canceling the entire 2020-21 season. “Social distancing and grand opera cannot go together,” concluded its general manager. But lo and behold, this traditional and highbrow institution has decided that that this is the perfect time for a reboot–to do things differently, to address its elitist, sexist, and white supremacist image and reconsider its place within larger societal changes, particularly a nationwide reckoning over racial injustice. Over the past six months, the Met has chosen three Black composers to join its collaborative commissioning program with Lincoln Center Theater. They’ve signed contracts with women guest conductors (a rarity) and will open the 2021-2022 season with the Met’s very first work by a Black composer ever presented: Fire Shut Up in My Bones. [from an article in the NY Times by Anthony Tommasini, September 29, 2020]
I belabor this example to say that the reformation of institutions is necessary for health and long-term thriving. The pandemic didn’t create the Met’s malaise; it made it impossible to ignore.
Never should we imagine that the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century cemented the Church for all time. Changes were made then that created the “Reformed Tradition” which we have inherited, but the need for change is continual. Even before pandemic, we bemoaned the diminishing role of religion in American’s lives, church membership decline, the absence of millennials and Gen Z-ers in worship and in leadership positions. Some reformation happened dramatically: between March 8 and 15, for example, a whole lot of Presbyterian preachers became televangelists, as our Stated Clark likes to say. But I wonder if we could take this moment to consider the ways God wants to reform the church beyond the particular demands of Covid-19. Recently the Presbytery of Denver issued a draft set of guidelines for congregations “ready to reimagine their ministry.” The guidelines particularly address shared collaborative efforts such as mergers, new worshiping communities, nesting a new congregation within an existing one, and repurposing buildings. The introduction struck me as significant: As a Presbytery we are called to be communities of change–to support, imagine, discern, prophesy, and tell the truth. God makes rivers in the desert; through prayerful and thoughtful discernment we discover where to find them and how to use them in service to God’s Kin-dom.
Does all this change lead to chaos? Well, no. A lot of reformation occurs by re-claiming the essential parts of the past, freed from some cultural expectations, irrelevancies, and institutional lard. Our morning text provides an example of this. Here the religious leaders again put Jesus to the test, trying to discredit him as an imposter and a fraud. Jesus responds with the oldest, most traditional answer in the book…but with a new frame. A reading from the good news according to Matthew, in the 22nd chapter, verses 34-46. Listen for God’s Word to the Church…semper reformata, semper reformanda: Reformed and always being reformed. [Matthew 22:34-46]
What's the best way to live? Love. What does faith require? Love. What is the church's one foundation in every time and place? Love. How does reformation happen? Love. What power rules this world? Love.
Here in this text Jesus forever links the two great commandments: love of God, which is demonstrated by loving human brothers and sisters; and love of others, which is created from the love of God. They can’t be separated; those who love God love one another. We love, because God first loved us. And going further, Jesus links these most important laws with his own identity as Messiah, the “Son of David” who surpasses this revered ancestor to rule over all. Jesus didn’t fit the expectations of messiah as a warrior-king, mighty in battle to ensure his authority and maintain his power. No, Jesus demonstrated love as active commitment to the health and well-being of others, ahead of mere self-interest. He expanded the scope of love beyond the religious insiders to include the stranger, the outcast, even the enemy. He taught forgiveness and restoration. His willingness to go all the way to the cross was not about appeasing a vengeful God, but a declaration of love that knows no limits; a sacrifice from which life emerged, resurrected, whole. In his earthly ministry, Jesus seemed less concerned about the people learning new rules than about bearing fruits of love. His most frequent invitation was simply “Follow me.”
Friends, at the heart of reformation is the church’s willingness to answer “yes.”
Are we ready, Central? Are we prepared to re-imagine our ministries and mission by following Jesus and loving as he loved? Are we open to the Spirit’s reformation amid pandemic practices and the struggle for racial justice? How about through the voices of the young people who have just completed a year-long confirmation journey?
These remarkable youth have been supported in their journey by adult mentors and prayer partners, teachers, youth director–and all of you. Some have chosen to confirm their faith while others said they weren’t ready. (We’ll celebrate them all and the commitments they have made in an online worship service next month) The thing that struck me as they read their statements was the primacy of love throughout every one, evidenced in phrases such as “We love God by loving others” “We’re made by God but we’re all flawed, so we have to help one another.” “The Bible is important not because of its words, but because it helps us experience Jesus as a role model of kindness and compassion.” “The Church is a community of people walking together.” “It’s people to be with, to share my doubts and know I’m not alone.” “Mission trips and volunteer service have developed my gifts of patience and kindness; in loving kids so that even our different languages aren’t a barrier.” Yeah, they passed the test.
What’s the best way to live? Love. What does faith require? Love. What is the church’s one foundation in every time and place? Love. How does reformation happen? Love. What power rules this world? Love.
To the many names we attribute to Jesus, please add this one: Reformer. In the exam called life, following Jesus will remind us again and again of what is essential. His clear-eyed gaze burns away the deadwood of self-importance, idolatry, institutional paralysis, nostalgia, and a longing for “the way we’ve always done it.” We will find ourselves doing the things Jesus did; loving the people he did; prizing the things he prized. Reforming our lives together–this beloved community called “church”–until we begin to resemble the kin-dom on earth as it is in heaven, a dynamic, multi-generational, interconnected organization filled with the Spirit’s power to love.
I’ve heard–and felt!–so much anxiety around the upcoming election. Our nation is deeply divided, openly hostile to one another, and infected by dis-ease. I have been praying daily for an outcome of healing and reconciliation, and find myself singing the words of our opening hymn a lot: We will not fear for God has willed the truth to triumph through us.
We will not fear: no matter who sits in the White House or in the halls of Congress or on the bench of the Supreme Court.
We will not fear, dear friends, because love will have the last word. Love will overcome. Love is the beginning, and love is the end. And in between, Jesus the Reformer shows us how it’s done.
Thanks be to God. Amen.