Text: Matthew 22:34-46
A couple of weeks ago my work took me to Germany. We have a small detachment of staff that I check in on, as they operate a Navy program that affords individuals returning from year-long deployments some time to decompress and prepare for their reintegration with their families and life at home. Anyways, I will admit I was excited….I was going to get one day to myself to explore Germany. So I took it as an opportunity to make my pilgrimage to the homeland – the country where the Reformation started. I wanted to see how Germans were celebrating the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation.
And the Germans are certainly doing just that! As I walked around in a nearby city I checked out a couple of the Protestant churches…and there – everywhere – were Martin Luther tributes: Martin Luther books, keepsakes, the Lutheran Rose symbol in all shapes and sizes…even Martin Luther bobbleheads. And all for sale. In the church.
Maybe you find this ironic. For those that can recall why the Reformation happened 500 years ago, it was because Martin Luther was calling out the selling of things in the church that were tied to one’s faith – their salvation specifically. Here we are 500 years later, observing and celebrating….by selling things in the church as a way of showing your “Lutheran/Reformation pride.”
I think if Luther saw this, he’d be rolling over in his grave.
I think Anniversaries are rarely about the past, but more about observing the present. So I’m going to forego the history lesson on Martin Luther and naming what his contribution was so long ago. Instead, I want to ask you this question: “Here we are, 500 years later, and are we any better off today?” Are we any more tuned into a right relationship with God today than folks were so long ago?
The cynic in me says, “not so much.” Take my little experience in Germany, for instance. And if we look at our gospel lesson today – which, isn’t even the appointed gospel for Reformation Sunday, in case you were paying attention – are we any better than the Pharisees and other Jewish folks of Jesus’ day? Or, is it that we simply don’t “get it”: we spend a lot of time actually testing Jesus because at the end of the day, it can’t be as simple as the Gospel, right?
A couple weeks ago, a young Navy officer came into my office. He had been dating this girl off and on for awhile now, and apparently the relationship was “complicated” because neither really knew where they stood with each other, and they had a big fight about it. They hadn’t talked in a couple months, but it was apparent this girl meant a lot to him, but he was afraid to ask for more. “Honestly Chaps, sometimes I think: why wouldn’t she want me? I’ve been pretty successful in life, I’m pretty adventurous, and while I’m not a model, I’m not a bad looking guy. But maybe that’s my ego speaking…I’m just kidding myself.” I waited for a second and replied, “It could be your ego….or, could it be that you’re afraid that you ARE all those things, the complete package, a total catch….and yet she still might not love you the way you love her. You might be all those things, and it still might not be enough.”
The look he gave me in return told me I probably hit pretty close to the truth.
You might not be enough. The commandment in today’s text is simple: love God and love your neighbor. And as I’ve gotten to know some of you here, I know you do that. In fact, you do it really well: you’re devoted to this church, you help out your friends and fellow church folks, and even lend a hand to a needy person and make a donation to a cause. You’re a pretty good church and you’re all pretty good folks. In fact, you’re probably a real catch for any pastor looking for a call out there. And yet, all that might not be enough. There are challenges facing you in the future, some unique to your community, and some the same as other congregations are facing in times where people just don’t seem to be too interested in church and even God these days, perhaps. In fact, even calling a pastor might not be enough.
But the heart of the Reformation we celebrate this morning is the notion that no matter if we’re successful or a failure, no matter how attractive or unattractive, no matter how hard working or lazy we are, and even if we are the total package or not,, “we are justified by Grace through faith alone.” It is the truth that “for God so loved the world that God sent God’s only Son” so that we might know our standing with God is never in doubt. Us….sometimes good, but often forgetful, inattentive, lazy, prideful, and lacking faith. God.Loves.Us. Full stop, unconditionally, with or without any of our own merit. That is what Luther discovered so long ago, and it completely changed the trajectory of his life.
So what does that mean for us today, 500 years later?
I coached wrestling at Augsburg College, a small ELCA Lutheran college in Minneapolis, MN. They’re long-standing motto is “Pursuit of Excellence.” Note it is not the “Achievement of Excellence.” The result wasn’t as important as the commitment to things that are worthwhile. At Augsburg, it’s not about the championships, the All-Americans, or the wins and losses. It’s about the dedication to making yourself the best possible person you can be, which is something that carries on well beyond a wrestling mat or a 7 minute match.
Perhaps that is what the Reformation means for us today. “Love God and Love neighbor” isn’t a one-time achievement so much as a life-long pursuit. It’s not some end state we’re trying to reach, but rather something we dedicate ourselves to each and every day. For you, St. Timothy, what does it mean to be a community of faith that dedicates itself to the lifelong pursuit of loving God and neighbor together?
I’ll leave you with that question to ponder. Just remember: success or failure isn’t the point. Not 500 years ago, not today, not tomorrow, and not even 500 years from now…..the point is and always has been what God has done for us in Christ so that we might know our standing with God is never in doubt. So pursue away! Amen.