Again & Again: We are being Reformed

Jeremiah 31:31-34 | Psalm 119:9-16 | Hebrews 5:5-10 | John 12:20-33

In this week’s Lenten devotional from Sanctified Art, our theme is “Again & Again, We Are Reformed.” When I hear the word reformed, I tend to think of Reformed Judaism or the Protestant Reformation. So when I was reading and studying this week, the word transformation kept coming to mind and being used almost interchangeably with reformation. For both of these words, there is change. Transformation gets more air time, and this makes sense because it is the dramatic and thorough change in appearance or form–what we see or notice. When I was doing a search on these words, the usage of transform has increased exponentially since the 1950s:

Interestingly to me, reform has a different history of usage and has dropped out of favor, unlike its counterpart transform.

In the late 1990s, reform was at a peak, but then it went through a decline. I would pose the question: Does this reflect a truth about ourselves that we would rather not face? Because “to reform” means more than “to transform.” I might drastically change my appearance, and that would be a transformation you would all notice and comment upon, but I could fundamentally remain the same person. To be reformed, however, is to make changes to improve something. We don’t generally think of people as reformed but of systems, institutions, policies, government, and the like. During Lent, however, it is a good time to think about how again and again we are being reformed, how we are being improved by our dependence upon God, our relationship with God, and our life in faith. During Lent, at the end (we hope!) of a pandemic, it may also be a good time to think about how we as a church are being reformed.

It could very well be too soon. We are, after all, still in the midst of a pandemic. We wouldn’t be wearing masks together if things were the same as they had been before covid-time. It takes perspective, and usually hindsight, to look back and see all the ways we have been changed and hopefully for the better.

I watched a lecture by Dr. Rodger Nishioka, given at Montreat Conference Center in North Carolina at the end of 2013. He’s a tenured seminary professor and proud Presbyterian, speaking of his church with love and wit like we do of The Episcopal Church. He references Phyllis Tickle’s 2012 book The Great Emergence, where her thesis is that the Church has a rummage sale every 500 years. What do we do at a rummage sale? Get rid of our old stuff, extra baggage. Dr. Nishioka said it’s not like a church rummage sale, where we get together and swap our stuff! In her book and his lecture, you can hit the peaks of the 500 year-marks: 590, the fall of Rome; 1054, the Great Schism of East (Orthodox) and West (Roman Catholic); and 1517, the Protestant Reformation. That brings us to the 2000s, the 21st century. We’re in another “rummage sale period,” Dr. Nishioka and Phyllis Tickle propose.

And in these periods, people are prone to think that the Church is going to die, they wonder if it can survive.

From our perspective we can look back and see how the changes that happened in the past, the reformation that occurred, resulted in a Church that emerged, yes, different, but also stronger, more faithful. Interestingly, it’s not just Christianity that is looking at these patterns. Some folks within Judaism and Islam are also looking at their history and patterns. We share with our Abrahamic siblings the core belief that the Almighty is faithful, through trouble, trial, and tribulation. It’s our responsibility to determine how we are being faithful. We can begin by discerning how God is revealing God’s faithfulness.

Again, it’s easier to look farther into history with our historical lens and evaluate everything from a distance to see how the arc bends toward the benefit of the greater good. I say it’s easier because we already have everything sorted out for us. We have the books with headings and subheadings. We have summaries and statues and epithets pointing us toward who’s who.

In our media barrage of information these days, with 24/7 news headlines, we’re getting daily summaries of what is important, critical, life-threatening. We have “influencers” guiding us toward what will best help us transform our lives into what we think it should be, what everyone else thinks it should be so we can appear to have our stuff together. Five hundred years from now, what do you think the archivists will be preserving? What do you think the historians will be teaching? What do you think the theologians will be discussing?

Will they note the ways we held onto tradition, keeping the vestments and liturgy of our ancestors? Or will the threads that tie us to the past and our tradition be part of the fabric, maybe even the part that holds us together and keeps us strong like interfacing, while the ways we wrestle and challenge and emerge reformed reveal our true colors of the time, the shape we take as we move forward?

In the gospel lesson today, we are told some Greeks wanted to see Jesus. They went to Philip. Philip, I guess, leaves the Greeks and goes to Andrew, sharing with him that even these Gentiles wish to see Jesus. News is spreading! Jesus is here! Even the Greeks have heard about Jesus. And here is Jesus, in Jerusalem after a triumphal entry, of sorts. We’ll get more next week about Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem, beginning the week of his Passion. But today we get more expectation, anticipation, and hope. There’s so much going on in their lives, and Jesus is stirring the hearts of all who encounter him in person or in story.

About five hundred years before the fall of Rome, Jesus walked the earth. Goods and power were being monetized and valued over human life. Systems of oppression and domination secured those in power, those who had the power to make changes. Violence was a way of life. Some tables needed to be turned.

Two thousand years later, goods and power are being monetized and valued over human life. Systems of oppression and domination secure those in power, those who have the power to make changes. Violence is a way of life. Some tables need to be turned or at least set out for a great rummage sale so we can get rid of all that binds us.

And it scares us. We’ll make things change and look beautiful on the outside all day long, but reformation means that something we’re clutching for dear life–even if it’s the devil we know–we’ve got to let go. We have to pluck the seed and let it fall to the earth so that it can die, decay, and be born anew.

We haven’t done ourselves a service in trying to make everything beautiful all the time, romanticizing or whitewashing the past (in more ways than one). Life and death go hand in hand. Jesus in all his humanity and divinity knew this, and we, like the disciples and apostles, try to understand. Jesus wasn’t of this world in that his priorities were never aligned with the powers and systems of the world in which he walked. Jesus’s economy of grace defied the emperor’s coin. God’s love for the world–for the orphan, the widow, the stranger, the lost, the sinner–defied all oppression, seeking only liberation, not domination. The Love Jesus embodied, while capable of receiving the pain, torture, and violence of humanity, never inflicted harm on another. Maybe Jesus is talking about his own body when he talks about the grain of wheat, and maybe he’s also talking to us about all the potential we have to embody if we let go of that which we cling to so tightly but inhibits us from experiencing liberation, life, and love more fully.

As God inscribed on the hearts of our ancestors, “I will be their God, and they shall be my people,” (I’m sure it’s in English! LOL!), we have the opportunity to reveal to our future how we live into the reformed lives God makes possible through Christ for us. With the power of the Holy Spirit, think of all that has and is being done in this century. Think of marriage rights for our siblings. Think of how hard folks are advocating for BIPOC lives, immigrant lives, women’s rights, trans rights, human rights . . . how hard folks are working to dismantle White Supremacy. Think on how tightly others are clinging to that which perpetuates objectification, monetization, oppression, and violence. This week we give ear to our Asian American/Pacific Islander folks, after the terrorism in Atlanta. When good work is being done, adversaries in the powers and principalities will surface to cling tight and fast and keep us bound, keep us from everlasting life.

If we can let go of all the barriers that we have built around our hearts, we might actually discover who it is God has created us to be. If we can share our experiences of grace, healing, restoration, and reformation without shame or manipulation, maybe we can help others to see how God is already at work in their lives. If we can look in our circles around us and see where God is calling us here in our communities to make a difference, maybe we will not succumb to temptations of grandeur or comparison. If we continue to encourage one another to discern and put into use our gifts and lean into the wonder, awe, and mystery of God, maybe we can let go of pretense and unrealistic expectations and be together mutually empowered and authentically present.

Our world is changing so fast that we may not need 500 years between cycles going forward. Who knows?! But right now, we can accept responsibility and hold ourselves accountable for being people of God. We can reach out to one another and to others, sharing a loaf of homemade bread and sharing how we are fed by the Bread of Life. This is the Church we are called to be, the people of God we are called to be, and we don’t need future historians to tell us that. It’s already written on our hearts. 

Written on our Hearts by Lauren Wright Pittman, inspired by Jeremiah 31:31-34. @sanctifiedart | #Lent2021

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