by Michelle Magee
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be pleasing before you, O God, our rock and our redeemer.
On this eve of Reformation day, I remember a Reformation celebration I attended a few years ago. I was in Argentina, studying at seminary and participating in what we call here my "Ministry in Context" congregation. I also had recently acquired my first alb, after months of borrowing my pastor-supervisor's spare. A seamstress branching out into her own business had measured me and I specified how I wanted the collar, and Velcro instead of buttons-- and now it was done, it was mine. The combined Reformation worship service for all the Lutheran churches in the area was to be held outside of the city limits of Buenos Aires. This meant taking two buses and transporting my alb with me. (By the way, if you've never transported an alb on public transportation, I recommend it for a learning and comical experience- just the looks you get are worth it.) I knew from attending one of these Reformation services before that all the pastors and seminarians processed in, vested, and I was excited to be a part of it this time.
When we gathered in the basement area before the service, however, the seminarian from the U.S. who was interning at another Lutheran congregation in Greater Buenos Aires, had no alb. Her supervisor, and anyone else who might have done so, failed to instruct her to bring it. She was out of the loop and therefore left without vestments for the day. Don't you have a spare? Someone asked my supervisor. Yes, Michelle uses it, he said, and looked at me. In argentinian, where you hint more than you say, this meant, or at least I interpreted, well take it off and give it to her. No, this is MY alb, I said. I wasn't surprised when he answered that he wasn't aware I had my own- I had seen the look in his eyes on a previous Sunday when I told him I was using my new alb, the look that meant he wasn't listening to me even as he said "oh how nice." No, really, it is mine, I said now. -meaning, no way are you going to strip me of my role and my importance in this rite and give it to someone else. If they had failed to notify her to bring an alb, that was their problem, or hers, but certainly not mine.
That day, my friends, I failed to love my neighbor as myself, and failed to love God with all my heart, soul, and mind. I could have given that intern my alb, but I chose not to. But don't think I take full blame for the situation. There was a structure in which I felt I needed to be visible that day to show my worthiness. I felt excluded enough from my "MIC" parish, and ignored enough by my supervisor, to be so desperate to be included that day. There was a lack of communication in the church system that meant not only that intern was without an alb, but the pastor designated to preach that day understood the service to start an hour later than it did and so arrived just in time to see her colleague ascend to the pulpit instead. Church leaders weren't talking to each other, weren't listening to each other's needs, on various levels. There was a lack of love of neighbor pervading several aspects of that institution known as the Lutheran church.
In case you suspect I am trying to demonize that denomination in Argentina, let me explicitly say that I tell this story the way Nathan told David the story about the rich man who stole a lamb from his poor neighbor. The finger is pointed not just out but in. Our sin. We are far from the kind of lovers we were created to be by God who is love. Individually and as an institution.
But before I go on about that, let's return to Matthew. The Pharisees ask a pivotal question, the question we might say. What is the greatest commandment? What is the most important thing to do? What is the center, the meaning of life? Well maybe they weren't taking it that far. Maybe they were just trying to trick Jesus into picking one commandment, when in their view all were equal.
Then they would be able to be content that Jesus was wrong and they were right. In any case, Jesus, as usual, has a both/and kind of answer. Not just one commandment, but two. And not separated out from other commandments but connected to them. The first, undeniably central to the Israelite identity, is the second part of the Sh'ma: hear O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is One. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind. And then Jesus says, and a second is like it. These are two sides of the same coin. Inseparable. Love your neighbor as yourself. This one comes from the center of the Levitical code about justice, also central to Israelite identity. And then he makes sure he is clear- these may be the greatest two commandments, one really, in two ways- but all the commandments are connected to them somehow.
With this double centerpiece, all the rest hang on them, like a woven tapestry. And not just the law, but also the prophets. Jesus is saying in effect that the key piece of the entire Hebrew tradition is this: to love God and love neighbor. Love is to be our guiding principle. Back in the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus had commanded love of both neighbor and enemy, he based it on God sending sun and rain to all. God's loving care in providing is our model. It's only natural that as God's creatures, created in God's image that we should also love like that. So for Jesus the great love of God gives us this life-center of love in two ways, toward God and toward each other.
Being this is Reformation eve day, I got to thinking then about our old friend Martin Luther. Couldn't we say that in a way, he was trying to better love God and neighbor by trying to reform the church institution? He saw people being taken advantage of when they were told that coins would erase their sins, and he sought to stop it. He also found that the center of the Bible message was grace. He saw a loving God giving gifts, granting forgiveness. Not a stern, condemning God demanding pay and penance. Because he was loved by the God of love, he couldn't just keep that revelation for himself. He chose to share it, tried to bring the church institution back to its center in God's love. But we know how the story goes- the institution resisted, and Martin wasn't always very loving to his adversaries, who were his colleagues in the church.
Loving our neighbor isn't easy. Perhaps even less so when "neighbor" means "colleague." As church leaders it's easy to preach, and I think we mostly do our best to love our congregations. But I have witnessed that professionals in the church far too often forget this principle of love for their fellow church professionals. Synod offices that don't return phone calls to pastors. Conference meetings where we're more interested in judging each other's theology than accompanying one another in ministry. All the miscommunication and powerplay that goes on in church institution, Lutheran or not, North American or South American.
I'm not only talking about individual interactions but also institutional practices and processes. I know of several seniors entering the Assignment process with fear and trepidation, as I also have just come through it myself. Where will they send me? Why isn't there more clarity about this process? What do those Bishops really do in that little room, that determines the next portion of our lives? I know it is a complicated process, with many factors to take into account, but I wonder if a little more love and respect from the institution couldn't be shown also to first-call seminary graduates, for example.
And so my question for us today is, to what extent does our church institution allow for and facilitate love of God and neighbor? Is that our central principle, not only outwardly but inwardly? I think in some ways, yes. But we have to be honest and say there are ways that no, love isn't our central guiding principle. And that is where today there is still room for Reform in our church, the church of the reformation.
As we seek to re-center ourselves on the principle of love evoked by both Jesus and Luther, we can remember love of neighbor means also love of colleague. As leaders, or leaders-to-be in the church- we fail to love God and neighbor when we go along with the common practices of poor communication, competition, and powerplay within our institution. We do love God and neighbor when we seek to truly be present for and accompany one another in ministry, giving up our symbolic alb to a colleague if necessary. Loving God and neighbor also means seeking institutional reform wherever processes and practices of the institution have lost their true center. God makes that possible. May the God of love who fills us with love guide us in our individual lives, and as the church, to truly love God and neighbor, amen.
Matthew 22: 34-46