There is a Reformation Sunday meme I shared on the church Facebook page. It reads: “Coffee first reached Europe in 1515. Martin Luther sparked the Reformation in 1517.” Tag line: “Beware a caffeinated pastor.” To be inclusive of our Anglican friends I wonder if they would argue that’s why the English Reformation happened first because Thomas Cranmer already had access to Earl Grey tea.
This is the fun thing about memes. They are a visual medium that use few words. They can convey an idea instantly and are easy to share. For the 500th anniversary of the Reformation I helped organize a talk with art historian Catherine Ingersoll titled “Birth of the Meme: Arguing in Images during the Reformation.” In the talk she compared Luther and the Reformer’s innovative use of the printing press for getting across theological ideas on a single handbill. This new technology allowed theologians to produce woodcut images and letter type. Many of the people they were trying to reach were illiterate and didn’t have access to books, but many could afford a handbill and would have seen them displayed in public places.
Examples of woodcuts depicted opponents as half animal/half human, monsters, and devils. These handbills were so offensive no doubt they contributed to the reason it has taken a couple hundred more years before we as Lutherans and Roman Catholics were able to craft a joint declaration on justification. You have a summary of the doctrine in your bulletin insert which you can read at your leisure. A very brief summary of the doctrine of justification could be summed up in the following two oversimplified points: 1) Catholics and Lutherans together said, “Friends?”; 2) Lutherans and Catholics together saying, “We’re basically saying the same thing: Jesus saves through grace. Faith is a free gift.”
We might wonder, if we’ve reached agreement, is it really worth revisiting Reformation artwork, especially on a day we are wanting to emphasize unity? Rather than diving into the old arguments, we should direct our attention to the fact that Luther and the Reformers were on the cutting edge of new media. They quickly adapted the printing press to their own ends. And meanwhile the owners of the printing presses became rich from the instant success of their presses. In that sense it’s not so different from today. People like Luther create the content, meanwhile the owners of the presses, the Mark Zuckerbergs, become rich.
There may be plenty to be critical about concerning social media and the rise of new technology, but we shouldn’t forget that the Reformer after whom our denomination was named was at the forefront of it all. He never shied away from the most controversial of topics and insulting of images. In fact he used them to his advantage in order to wrest power away from an empire and make space for new expressions of faith. It wasn’t just about winning points and one-upping opponents, but fighting for the heart of the gospel.
Heart of the Gospel
This brings us to where we are today fighting for the heart of the gospel. And this is a fight that unites us with all those who seek the truth Jesus talks about in our gospel reading today. He says “the truth will set you free.” Jesus is pointing to himself as the source of that truth. While Jesus does not change, the way in which we articulate the heart of the gospel changes just like it did in Luther’s day. He was criticized for wanting to proclaim the gospel in vernacular German. He was criticized for saying faith and salvation through Christ were not controlled by the church. Everyday people could read and interpret scripture. These are democratic ideals we hold up in the church today across denominations.
Today on Reformation Sunday Jesus asks questions back upon us. Are we up for the task of reimagining the heart of the gospel? Too often we fall back on the same questions, “How do we attract families and younger people in the church?” Jesus is flipping this question on its head, asking us: Are we ready for a gospel that both comforts us, soothes our pain and mourning, and is also calling us into question? Are we ready to proclaim a gospel awakening the world and flips the powerful on their heads? Because Jesus is ready. Jesus is calling us to be justified by faith apart from works. Jesus is already leading us forward in grace. It is this same faith that invites us to believe our salvation is in Christ and that we don’t have to worry about what the rest of the world thinks about us.
Imagine what a world abiding in the heart of the gospel looks like: the Word of God is dwelling in the neighbourhood, being there for those who are convalescing, those who are weary and sick, the widows, the widowers, the orphans, the trans teens, the homeless folks camping in public parks, our children struggling with school, wondering whether they have a future.
Story: palliative care
A story about what the heart of the gospel feels like. There are a local doctor and nurse who are going mobile on Victoria streets, offering palliative care to the homeless. An excerpt from this CBC news story, which is on the News tab of the church web-site: “Katie Leahy, a registered nurse in Victoria, says she was able to help a homeless man on the street before he died of cancer. ‘He was having a lot of trouble with pain,’ she recounted. ‘He had no way of getting his medications, so I brought them to him with my bike.’ She learned a couple of days later that he’d passed away.”
These are acts of compassion, touching the wounds of the sick, being there for people as they are dying. These are acts that get at the heart of the gospel. And they aren’t splashy stories. These aren’t stories that get people rich and famous. They are human stories, rooted in grace and love.
Along similar lines I think the younger and older folks share more in common than we sometimes think. Just as I hear concerns among older folks of needing help, needing cared for, checked in, I hear similar requests from people in their thirties and forties. People who aren’t sure if they’re much longer for the world, even if in some ways they’re in the prime of their life. The weight of low wages, expensive housing, and the climate crisis are weighing on folks. I know one person in their mid-thirties who routinely jokes about if a tsunami comes he wouldn’t run away, but would just turn toward it and let him wash him away. This is someone with a good job with benefits, in a relationship, in relatively good health, has a church home, sees a therapist to manage mental health, but who as a queer person of colour lives on the margins and never feels safe or secure. I think a lot of seniors can empathize with these kinds of fears.
Story: Care of Creation
Another story about the heart of the gospel. This weekend Greta Thunberg was leading a climate crisis in Vancouver. In some ways BC is at the centre of the climate movement in Canada. It’s not a surprise really when you think about the coastline, rising water levels, and all of us who live near water. And all the Indigenous voices who have been opposing pipelines and talking about climate for years. And here was Greta Thunberg together with other students, calling our government to account. And now that we have a minority government, it’s not about singling out one party, but holding all our political leaders, and all of us to account. We also think about the provincial government cutting old growth forests.
All this mixed with the challenges of thousands of people without good paying jobs. We think about them and their families who cannot make ends meet. Who are forced to move from logging towns and start life over somewhere else. They may hold a mortgage for a house that is either significantly devalued or no one will buy. These are times for great courage, working together, finding solutions that will require sacrifices from us all.
I think about the kind of courage it takes for a group of children, in part inspired by Greta Thunberg, who are suing the Canadian government for climate negligence. As hard as the decline of the economy is affecting real people, these kids are wondering whether the earth will be inhabitable for them and future generations.
Care of creation is about our Indigenous neighbours continuing their traditional hunting and fishing as the Arctic melts at an alarming rate. About communities in Northern BC and the Territories, impacting some of our own families members living there.
It’s also about local jobs that depend on eco-tourism like whale watching, as people from around the world stop in the port at Victoria to shop downtown, visit Bouchard Gardens, and all those things. It’s about our children who work as firefighters in the summer. Their safety and people’s homes around BC and Alberta when wildfires burn. In these ways care of creation isn’t an elitist concern. It’s not just a scientific concern, although it’s based in science, but rather it’s about all the different ways we are connected together. This is one idea of how we are reinterpreting the heart of the gospel. How we are imagining ourselves into a living Reformation.
I don’t think people come to church because of issues or causes. They come to hear a living gospel. A gospel of empathy and care for one another. And that’s one thing we’ve heard through our listening sessions. The care and concern we have for one another, for tending to one another’s needs, being there when someone is in hospital, lonely, sick, hurting. Whatever we discern to be the church’s priorities for the coming years, together we living into this deepening of God’s love for us, for our love for one another.
For me this Reformation Sunday our listening sessions has impressed upon me the need for us to re-imagine through grace the ways in which we are connected as the body of Christ. We’ve heard people’s yearning to be cared for. We’ve also heard folks on the margins in our neighbourhoods yearning to be cared for. These are not two different things, but rather we are connected. As Christians, as Lutherans, we are called to comfort one another, to care for one another, and at the same time we are sent out proclaiming an embodied gospel of grace on the streets, meeting people where they are at in the world. Built up in grace and love, depending on our ability, we are sent out to serve.
Wrapping up, let us build one another up. Let us reimagine the heart of the gospel. Let us continue sharing memes, remembering they connect us to Martin Luther’s very legacy. Rather than shy away from technology and the world, may the Spirit fill us with new energy and imagination to communicate the love of Jesus Christ. A gospel rooted in grace, Jesus’ freely given love for each one of us. Amen.