The subject of marriage is a topic of conversation and is in the news a lot these days. As we move toward Election Day the subject comes up in our Sunday readings more than once. Three weeks ago our first reading was from the creation account in Genesis. It’s a story that’s been used as a kind of law that defines marriage as only one thing: a relationship between male and female: Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.
But the deeper meaning of this story is in the first sentence of that passage, which reads: 8Then the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” We humans were not created to be in isolation. God created us to be in relationship. That’s the point of the story! God is love, and out of love, created us for love of one another. As always, love is the point of God’s story! And where there is love, there is freedom.
Well, here we are on Reformation Sunday and the subject of marriage comes up again. In Jeremiah 31, God speaks of promises—or, covenant— made between two partners. Our human tendency is to make it all about us. Only, as in the Genesis story, the focus is not on human partnerships but the partnership between God and humanity. That future covenant, God says, will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord.
I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And what is the “law” that God writes on our hearts? According to Jesus, it is the law of love. Where there is love there is freedom. Our human inclination is to focus on right and wrong, which creates insiders and outsiders. But as our second reading from Romans reminds us, God is not much interested in right and wrong, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. God’s laser focus, as always, is not rules but love. Questions of right and wrong always exclude. Love always includes.
The prophet Jeremiah expands our understanding of marriage. Marriage is only between a man and a woman? Too small! says the prophet Jeremiah. Love is much bigger than that. In today’s first reading he describes God as the husband and God’s people as the wife. The New Testament describes Jesus as the bridegroom and God’s people, the Church, as the bride. You see, once again the focus is not on right and wrong, male and female, but on a relationship of expansive love. Wherever love is found, there God is found. Wherever there is love, there is freedom—including the freedom to embrace new understandings of who is included in God’s radical love.
On Reformation Sunday we remember that God is always in the process of creating something new. Out of love, for the sake of love, God is constantly creating and recreating, forming and reforming. Re-formation. Reformation.
But it’s often easier to celebrate the new thing God has done in the past or the new thing God is doing in some far-off place because it doesn’t cost us anything. We don’t have to change! For example, it’s easy for us on Reformation Sunday to celebrate our Lutheran heritage. But 500 years ago, if you were alive in Europe during that time would you have been celebrating? For those who were actually going through the process of becoming something new it was hard, it felt dangerous and it was painful!
It’s easy for us to forget that the Reformation was necessary because God’s people had wandered off the path of God’s love and fallen into a very old trap: the trap of saying there’s only one way to do things. For many hundreds of years before the Reformation there was only one way to be faithfully Christian: abide by the rules of the Roman Catholic Church. (This, in spite of the fact that there was an entire other way of doing things called the Christian Orthodox Church!)
How easily we humans whom God loves fall into this very old trap: There is only one way to do things.
It is true that God has one way of doing things. That one way is…love. But that one way of doing things has infinite variations. Where there is love there is creativity! Imagination! Remember—where there is love there is freedom, as our gospel reading proclaims today: If you continue in my word you are truly my disciples and you will know the truth and the truth will make you free. What is God’s truth? Love! What is God’s law? Love! Wherever love is found, God is present. Wherever love is present, new and creative expressions of love are possible. Questions of right and wrong are always exclusive. Love is always inclusive.
It is a mistake, however, to think that God’s ongoing work of re- formation happens only in the great movements of history, every 500 years. God’s love is constantly at work reshaping our beliefs and understanding. Much of the time it’s not in great public events but in very ordinary ways.
I can think of a couple of examples from just last Sunday. After our worship service Pr. Julia Hampton of the Seattle International Church arrived for worship and was coming up the stairs in the church entry. One of our older men was there and he looked at her, and he said, “We warmed up the pews for you.” Sometimes Reformation isn’t the stuff of history books and headline news. A lot of the time the new thing that God is doing in the world starts with ordinary acts of kindness—acts of love close to home. We recognize love as that which expands the circle and includes rather than excludes.
Then, during coffee hour I was visiting with another of our older men and he looked around at the rich diversity of people who were enjoying conversation and refreshments. He said, “You know, Pr. Scott, this place is starting to look like the neighborhood.” And then he said, “That’s always been my vision.” I said, “Thank you for that; you just made my week!” We recognize love as that which expands the circle and includes rather than excludes.
If the great Reformation movements of history, including Reformation in our own time, feel like too much for you to handle, then celebrate the small, everyday expressions of God’s love, including those in your own life.
At the same time, where God’s love is present there is never just one way of doing things. Each of us at every stage of life can ask ourselves: Where in my life is God’s re-formation—God’s ongoing Reformation—at work in me? Where have I been led to believe that there’s only one way of doing things? Where do I catch myself thinking in terms of right and wrong instead of looking for signs of God’s love? Each of us can ask ourselves, “Where might God be leading me, sometimes gently, sometimes firmly, to embrace God’s infinite, unconditional, incomprehensible, liberating love?”