Hearts Bending Toward Love

1 Thessalonians 2: 1-8            Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III Matthew 22: 34-46   October 29, 2017

 “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Prayer:  O God of our ancestors, God of the reformers, and our God, we worship you.  May your Spirit of reformation continue in us as we hear your word.  Amen.

The story goes that on October 31st, 1517, five hundred years ago this coming Tuesday,  German Catholic Monk Martin Luther went to the church cathedral in Wittenberg, Germany, and vigorously nailed his 95 theses on the church door intentionally trying to ignite a powder keg that would start the Protestant Reformation, Christianity’s most famous of all schisms.  Actually, that sounds more dramatic than it probably was.   Luther likely came to the church, matter-of-factly posted his document on the door as an invitation for all the Catholic church leaders to come and discuss these statements with him.  And if they couldn’t attend, they were to correspond by letter.  Like good postings, the document listed all the topics to be discussed at the gathering.

Legend has it that no one showed up to debate the issues with him, but little did Luther know that others would follow-up and read the document, and with the advent of the printing press,  300 copies would be made very quickly, and lo and behold, the powder keg ignited!

The first two of the theses contained Luther’s central ideas, that  God intended believers to seek repentance,  and that faith alone, and not works or deeds, would lead to salvation.  The other 93 theses, a number of them directly criticizing the Pope’s practice of collecting indulgences, supported first two theses.  Simply put, in old Catholic doctrine an indulgence is a payment you could make for the remission of sins, even in the after-death world of purgatory.  The practice was widely abused in Luther’s day, unjustly saddling the poor with heavy burdens.  In fact, thesis number 86 asks, “Again: Why does not the pope, whose wealth is today greater than the riches of the richest, build just this one church of St. Peter with his own money, rather than with the money of poor believers [acquired from indulgences] (https://www.christian-history.org/95-theses.html, retrieved October 27, 2017)?  Luther was saying, “Answer that!”  And you thought we had problems!  Wow!

The Reformation was truly a ground-breaking event because many Protestant ideas came from it.  Ideas such as Jesus Christ is the Head of the Church, not the Pope.  Only scripture is the central authority and guide for life, not church doctrine.  As Paul says in Ephesians, “4There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, 5one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all (Ephesians 4: 4-6).

Martin Luther wanted to debate the issues plaguing the church.  But, what happened was a major push to reform it.  And, since then, instead of the universal church reforming, new churches got started.   Truly, one of the four historical pillars of our own United Church of Christ is the German Reformed Church, a direct ancestor church of the Protestant Reformation.

What the Reformation helped us realize though, is that the church is always in a reforming process.  I wish that the word “reformed” didn’t have the “ed” on the end of it… and had “...ing” on it because we are always in need of God’s power to re-shape and re-form us into becoming the church God wants and needs us to be.  We are always needing to be the Church that pleases God, first and foremost.

In my mind, the reforming Church that pleases God is the Church that is filled with people whose hearts are bending toward Love, specifically, the Law of Love.  The three great loves… love of God, love of neighbor, and the love of self.  Similar to the 95 theses, The more we reform our ways and practice those three great loves, the more we see that all other laws make sense in light of those first two, meaning that all lesser laws are to meet the standard that these two set.  In any give situation, even the uncomfortable ones, the law of love is to influence our hearts causing us to share love with others.

Take for example, the conductor on the cable car as it approached a crowded stop in San Francisco.  The car slowed down, and the conductor leaned from the platform and called out, “Six only!  There’s room for six only!”  The cable car stopped.  He counted six passengers, rang the bell, and then, as the cable car moved off, he called out

sincerely to those left behind: “I’m so sorry, there’s plenty of room in my heart for you—but this cable car is full.”  And everyone standing there left behind smiled and waved.  Somehow, that loving comment made the fact that they were left behind a little more palatable (adapted from The Friendship Book of Francis Gay, 1977, “Friday—August 5” [Pseudonym of Herbert Leslie Gee (1901–1977) http://www.quotegarden.com/kindness.html, retrieved October 27, 2017). The law of love is to influence our hearts.

Pushing the idea further, the church that is filled with people whose hearts are bending toward love is also the church that realizes that love is the highest form of justice.   That’s what the late American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said (http://www.mit.edu/~jrising/webres/love_justice.pdf, retrieved October 27, 2017).  When we see or know of unjust situations, hearts bending toward love encourages us not to be silent about the injustice, but to speak out, calling attention to it, calling for reformation.

 I think deep down that’s what’s happening at the heart of the “#Me, too” movement on social media.  It’s not just calling attention to the huge nationwide injustice of how women are treated, not just in the entertainment world, but also in the wider world in varieties of settings, it’s also giving voice, I think, to the love of and the need for healthy, loving human relationships.  Not relationships that are without love dominated by powerful people.  Such relationships are abusive.  Harvey Weinstein, take note!  The “Me, too” movement I think at its core is calling for deep and pervasive reformation toward responsible, healthy loving human relationships.  Hearts bending toward love as the highest form of justice demands this change.  Now.

 The Church, I think, is God’s instrument in the world that puts into practice love that demands justice, and love that reshapes and reforms us.

To do this, the Church always has to be in process of reforming.  Here we are in the church.  The Church is us.  Let us continue to find ways to reform our hearts, bending them toward the love of God, of our neighbors, and ourselves. May God, our great Redeemer guide us as we love.

And, I think God is pleased.  Amen.