A sermon (somewhat redacted for this blog) that was preached on Sunday, November 6 at St. Julian’s Episcopal Church in Douglasville, GA. The lesson was Luke 20:27-38.
The Christian tradition teaches God has gifted humanity with great freedom. We have agency (sometimes referred to as free will), but agency does not necessarily translate into control (Gen 1:27-29; Gen 2:16-17). Rules, laws, and boundaries are created, but as any parent, or grandparent, or citizen knows, control of the situation is oftentimes an illusion, a farce, a wicked game that demands loss. Ironically, with the various experiences of loss, we find ourselves not only like broken containers – emptied; yet full – full of grace: A grace not dependent upon ourselves, our faculties, or our resources, but a grace utterly dependent upon God. It is at those times when we begin anew, and create out of the chaos new ideas, new evolutions of the Spirit that point us to transcendence, yet include what is important here and now (Gen. 1:1).
The fallacy of the Sadducees’ question was that their hearts were in the wrong place (Luke 20:27). Jesus saw right through their questioning. They were more concerned with the technicalities of the Law of Moses instead of the Spirit of the law. These technicalities led to a morbid sense of the finality of death; yet as Jesus pointed out, “God is the God not of the dead, but of the living” (Luke 20:38).
The Christian Church is a church that honors death, and allows those who must mourn to mourn. Mourners are gifted with prayers, liturgies, rituals, and an intentional community to walk alongside. These are technicalities that do indeed help, but at the end of the day God has the final say. When the noise of loss finally settles, and silence starts to stir, one gets the feeling of utter abandonment (Luke 22:42; Matt 27:46). It is with this feeling of loneliness where; ironically, God is closest to us. The Scriptures reveal that, “Weeping may spend the night, but joy comes in the morning,” but those of us who understand significant loss oftentimes pray not for joy, but for relief (Psalm 30). When we find ourselves on the opposite end of grief, there is a childish temptation to give advice to those who mourn thinking your good word, deed, or even intentionality will be enough to stop the pain. This way of thinking reveals an ignorance of the self instead of the other. Any family, church, or society that does not let the mournful grieve, will be hindering the griever more than helping. Again, it goes back to God – not us. Just about the time we think we cannot take more, our empty and cracked container, our broken heart begins to be filled once again. Relief seems to come from outside ourselves and a sense of peace beyond our understanding is graced upon us (Phil 4:7). “I am with you always,” Jesus said, “even until the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). Hope, grace, gratefulness, and yes – maybe even joy – start to return once our sense of God has been restored, or better, deepened through our experiences of grief and loss.
Last Monday, the Church marked its 499th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. This gradual and grace filled re-formation released the stranglehold of the status quo built around the illusion that the Church was “too big to fail.” The Episcopal Church’s theology is rooted in this protest, and is forever thankful for the reforming work of John Calvin, Martin Luther, and Thomas Cranmer – to name a few. Because the Protestant Reformation was such a fulcrum in world history, it is little surprise that another movement within the Church did not get the same historical attention; however, both contributed heavily and influenced all manner of life that brought about a Renaissance of art, culture, religion, economics, science, philosophy, and politics. The beautiful nation we live in today finds its roots firmly planted in this time period history labels, The Renaissance. But what is this other movement that does not get much play? Historians have labeled it the Counter-Reformation. The Counter-Reformation was a Roman Catholic response to the protesting Protestants, and the Counter-Reformation can be summed up with the phrase, “an inward turn” or as some like to say, “an inward move” (Carter Lindberg, The European Reformations, 336).
Carter Lindberg, in his book, The European Reformations sums it up this way, “What unites the various forms of Counter-Reformation spirituality can be said…to be the stress on the individual’s relation to God,…whose first object was not to ‘reform the Church’…but to order their own lives to the doing of God’s will and the bringing of the benefit to their neighbor. It was exacting, in that it demanded continuous heroic effort at prayer and self-control and self-improvement and good works.”
So how is the Roman Catholic Counter Reformation different from the Protestant one? Luther was more concerned with re-forming the theology of the Church. That was his starting point – if you will. The Roman Catholics put their emphasis on moral and ethical renewal. There was a desire to live a more devout life (Lindberg, 336). What branched out of this movement within Catholicism was a deeper look at the individual lives of the saints, as opposed to grouping them all together. Ignatius of Loyola, John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila all became extremely popular during this time (Ibid.). Also, the Counter-Reformation way of thinking eventually influenced Roman Catholics in this country within the 20th century. This movement, at the quarter of the last century, was called the Catholic Workers Movement, which emphasized the sanctity of the family, and how a healthy, working family is the basic building block towards a great society.
With all this in mind, let’s take a look at intentionality. Luther and the Protestants said intentionality begins with having the right theology. The Counter-Reformers said, ‘no,’ it begins with morals, ethics, and character because the individual has been baptized into Christ’s Church. To put it in philosophical terms: Each group was trying to describe the starting point for the good life. Catholics said the good life was lived out ritualistically through the sacraments of the Church that by their very nature teach us how to live. Reformers put more of an emphasis on faith and belief. Anglicans, with the help of Thomas Cranmer’s, Book of Common Prayer (1549) split the difference: Because of our turn to God through faith (i.e. Baptism), we participate in the Body of Christ through intentional acts of prayer, worship, and meditation that assist us in learning how to love God, self, and neighbor. Without the intentionality of living a life of faith through the rituals of the Church, and bearing witness to Christ through their actions, one was considered lost, one had forgotten God. Put another way, one was not living out the good life because it was a life stripped of intentionality.
With all this history in mind, I believe the Church at its very best models for society what it means to limit itself for the greater good. Within these limitations freedom is found, humility is remembered, and dignity is experienced. The Church can remind us to focus on what matters, mainly the eternal; otherwise, we’re like the Sadducees who got too caught up in the anxiousness of processes, speculation, and hearsay. “God is the God not of the dead, but of the living,” reminds us that a life of faith requires getting comfortable with loss, wanderings, and doubt, but when a life of intentionality is lived out, the good life also remembers resurrection, and teaches it to others through one’s own intentional actions. The very best evangelism a Christian can perform is through their actions, their morality, their character, and their faith. This is what both the Reformation and Counter-Reformation can teach us. Put this all in a biblical phrase from Matthew’s Gospel, “You will know them by their fruits” (Matt 7:16).
On Tuesday, our nation will elect its next president. On Tuesday evening, many in our nation will experience profound loss and grief. On Wednesday morning, Christians have the opportunity to show others what a grace filled faith full of intentionality looks like by answering the call to walk alongside our fellow countrymen as they grieve and heal. Put another way, make up your minds now to, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and to weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). Give one another space. Grant each other grace; and may Lady Julian of Norwich’s famous maxim that all shall be well start in our minds, and with time, love, and care reveal its truth within our hearts.