This morning, I had the opportunity to preach a “Reformation Day” sermon in Mars Hill University’s Chapel. People who know something about my preaching will recognize that I’ve used, yet again, a Raymond Carver poem, the description of an emblematic dream I once had, and a version of the brief blessing I often pronounced when I had the privilege of baptizing someone.
A little over three years ago, I came to Mars Hill to teach. I was 58 years old, recovering from aggressive cancer treatment and feeling uncertain, as I still do, about how near or distant is the end of my life.
I was also asking questions about what I had been doing with my life, about who I was, who I am, and who I am becoming and about the shape of my response to God’s call in this season. Among those questions were, and are: Did it matter that I gave close to forty years of my life to the whirlwind of church life? And, if it mattered—most days, not all, but most, I trust it did—how did it matter?
Here’s what I think: to whatever extent my work helped people to discover that they are set free by love, for love, and to love, it mattered. To whatever degree, people experienced God’s vast, intimate, transcendent, personal, mysterious, and merciful love for them, it mattered. In whatever ways the assurance of God’s love liberated them to love themselves, their neighbors, strangers, enemies, the marginalized, and creation, it mattered. As best I know now, freedom by love, for love, and to love, is what ministry and church are about. In fact, it is, what life itself is all about: to be free to be loved and to love. For me, that’s another way to say that life is all about Jesus.
In almost four decades of local church ministry, I probably didn’t see it all, but I came close. I had deacons who were members of the Ku Klux Klan; visited, late at night, an older couple, both armed with pistols, raging at each other; buried people whose loneliness and despair caused them to end their lives; stood at the bedside of a three year old boy slowly dying of cancer; listened to a small congregation argue about whether or not to cut down an already dead oak tree in the churchyard; refereed a fight between two women after a Christmas Eve service, a fight which included hair-pulling, name-calling, and throwing hot coffee on each other in the Fellowship Hall; and shed tears, more times than I can count, with people who finally found the courage to admit their doubts, fears, and failures.
I marveled at the tender mercy and passion for justice I saw. I watched volunteers who spent more time and energy than they thought they could give to
feed the homeless and work to end the conditions which keep them on the streets;
visit men and women behind bars;
tell Bible stories to other people’s children and to get covered with the glitter and glue of their handcrafts;
provide medical and dental care for people on the margins;
listen to teenagers whose parents couldn’t for whatever reason, hear them;
take an elderly folks to doctors’ appointments or to the grocery store; and
provide shelter for women whose homes were not safe.
In the church, I’ve seen beautiful compassion but also ugly condemnation, experienced unexpected forgiveness but also unrelenting criticism, and seen extraordinary love but also extreme fear.
I know, from bitter disappointment, how churches can get it wrong: how we can take what Tony Campolo once called “adventures in missing the point,” and how we can frustrate, rather than encourage, people in their attempts to follow Jesus. There are too many people who’ve been let-down or shut-down by the church, who’ve been left-out or worn-out by it.
But I also know, from firsthand experience, that congregations can be what Jesus dreamed his followers would be: the salt of the earth and the light the world; communities where love rules and compassion flows, and bands of people whose joy and hope draw people to life as God means it to be.
Doctors, nurses, and their patients know that hospitals sometimes get in the way of healing; that’s why theirs are the most credible voices in the healthcare debate. Educators and their students know the ways that institutionalized teaching interferes with learning; that’s why true innovation in education comes from the classroom more than it comes from legislatures. Responsible lawyers and their clients are keenly aware of how the justice system is often neither systematic nor just, and that’s why meaningful criminal justice reform hinges on listening to their stories more than on abstract policies devised by theorists or tough-on-crime regimes cooked up by ambitious politicians.
And, people who have given their lives to the church know better than anyone else where it “sins and falls short of the glory of God.” That’s why it was a church insider—the monk and scripture scholar Martin Luther—who ignited what we now call the Protestant Reformation.
500 years ago today, on All Hallows’ Eve, 1517, he nailed a document to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg, Germany. In those days, the church doors were like a community bulletin board or a blog or a Twitter feed or a Facebook Page; on them, people posted announcements, aired grievances, expressed opinions, and called for public debate.
Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses were a collection of provocative charges he made against the church: it was, he said, mired up in corruption: greedy, power-mad, and remote from the lives of ordinary people. Just as Luther pointed out the shortcomings of the church, it’s important not to overlook this magisterial reformer’s glaring flaws, among them a virulent anti-Semitism and a willingness to provide his blessing to the “powers that be” in their bloody suppression of the Peasants’ Revolt.
He was especially irate about the sale of indulgences which Joan Acocella called, “a kind of late-medieval get out of jail free card used by the church to make money.” People who bought indulgences secured for themselves or for someone they named “a reduction in the amount of time the person’s soul had to spend in Purgatory. . . . The more time off, the more it cost.” (“How Martin Luther Changed the World,” New Yorker, October 30, 2017). The Church had turned the free grace of God into a commercial enterprise.
Luther didn’t intend to shatter the Roman Catholic Church into pieces which couldn’t be put together again. He had hoped for repentance, renewal, and reform. Instead, he became the charismatic and controversial leader of a breakaway church. His protest became “Protestantism.”
With an array of leaders, a cacophony of discordant voices, and often at the price of bloodshed, the Reformation spread across Europe and the British Isles. It sought to reclaim grace as a sheer gift of God’s unconditional love; to put the Bible into the language and hands of common people; and to renew an understanding of faith, as not merely or mainly the affirmation of ideas and doctrines, but as radical and adventurous trust in God.
In his 1961 book, The Spirit of Protestantism, Robert McAfee Brown said: “There has not been a moment in the church’s life when it has not stood in need of reformation, redirection, and renewal at the hand of God” (p. 21). Here’s the reformation, redirection, and renewal I believe the church needs in our time and place: we must do whatever it takes to make certain that love–just and merciful love, love of the kind we see and hear in Jesus—is its truest character, its highest aspiration, and its deepest commitment. “Faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”
In his Letter to the Galatians, the apostle Paul reminded his friends of the gift of freedom: that freedom is Christ’s gift to us: “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. . . For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” By love and with love, Jesus sets us free to love.
God wants us all to be free; many of us aren’t. Some of us feel caught, cramped, confined, and constricted. Backed into a corner. Trapped. Locked-in. Locked-out.
Maybe we’re enslaved by expectations—those that others have of us; but, if we’re honest with ourselves, it’s our expectations of ourselves that ensnare us even more: the expectation that we’ll never fail, that we’ll be able to answer every question, and that we’ll find a way to solve every problem. We expect, in other words, that we’ll have enough energy, wisdom, and goodness to qualify us as god of our own little worlds.
Maybe you’re in a prison of addiction. An experiment—a one-time thing—became a habit which became an iron cage. A risk has, over time, become a disease. An impulse became a decision—and then a series of decisions—and then a pattern, and now a compulsion.
Some of us are shackled by our guilt, immobilized by our regret, frozen by shame, and mastered by anxiety.
And there’s the fear of death: the dread that our lives will be taken from us before we have ever begun to live them.
God wants us to be free; and it is love, love made tangible, audible, tactile, and nearby in the love we have for each other which sets us free.
For God’s sake, for the sake of love, and for the sake of the church’s integrity and vitality, we need to protest anything which muffles the good news about God revealed in Jesus: Judgment is not God’s last word; mercy is. Guilt is not final; grace is. Fear is not what God wants for us; love is.
We must protest anything about the church which keeps it from helping us to be free—free to become the people God made us to be and dreams we will be; free to enjoy the good and abundant gifts of creation, and free to love everyone and all things. Among those things I believe we must protest are racism, sexism, homophobia, nationalism, patriarchy, paternalism, classism, and violence of every kind. We make these protests, not for something as frothy and ephemeral as being politically correct, but because Jesus has shown us that any way of life that demeans, distorts, and diminishes the dignity and worth of another human being is not his way; it is not the way of love.
In my dream, the old man was dressed in once-elegant but now slightly-shabby clothes. He was in a wheelchair. He had a hard time holding his head up. His dark eyes had a faraway look to them, as if he were straining to see a place he had longed to call home but at which he had not yet arrived.
The other people in the room were mostly younger than he, people he had worked with or helped across the years.
A meeting was breaking up, one of thousands of meetings he’d attended across the more-than-five decades of his working life. He’d been in meetings when it would have been better from him to talk, laugh, and cry with friends; or to walk, when he could still walk, hand-in-hand with his beloved beside a mountain stream; or to sit quietly by a roaring fire, listening to Miles Davis and letting his soul breathe-in the rhythms of grace.
Instead, he had spent still another evening in yet another meeting. Suddenly, or so it seemed to everyone in the room, even to him, hot tears began to stream down his cheeks. He tried to wipe them away, but doing so only called more attention to his distress.
“Are you alright? In pain? Do you need for us to call a doctor?” He tried to answer, but, for a few awkward moments, no words would come, only soft, troubled moaning. Finally, he managed to choke out the last words he would ever speak: “All I ever wanted was to be loved.”
In waking life, I knew that old man pretty well. He never quite managed to experience the simple joy of opening his heart to love or of giving his heart fully to the people around him. It wasn’t their fault; people genuinely cared from him. The fault was his: no one could love him for who he was, because he wouldn’t let anyone know who he really was. Only at the end was he able to say the truth about himself, the truth about all of us: “All I ever wanted was to be loved.”
In his last book of poems, A New Path to the Waterfall, Raymond Carver wrestled with his own mortality. This brief poem concludes the book:
And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved,
To feel myself beloved on the earth.
God wants you, me, and everyone to feel beloved.
So we protest everything that interferes with our hearing and feeling this affirmation: You are a child of God, and God takes great delight in you. God is giving you everything you need to live the life God is calling you to live.