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"Silence"

I think this is the perfect text for Reformation Sunday – not because it points to grace, or the majesty of God, or the authority of scripture, or any of the other things we hold dear, but because reform is called for whenever the old frameworks no longer hold.

Two chairs with the word 'Render' above it

Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18 and Matthew 22:34-46

October 29, 2023

Dr. Todd R. Wright


Charles Campbell notes that our text begins and ends in silence. Jesus had silenced those who asked him about taxes. By the time today’s exchange ends, there will be silence again.


“And this silence is not golden. It’s the silence of the “powers that be” as they regroup and retrench. It’s the silence of wagons being circled and theologies turning into solid iron. It’s that silence that arrives when the time for words is over and something else must be done. This silence is deadly. The next time we see the religious leaders, they will be plotting to kill Jesus.”[1]


In between these stark silences are two questions. The Pharisees ask Jesus about the greatest commandment. He answers easily. The Ten Commandments and all their elaborations can be distilled into “Love the Lord your God” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.”


Then he asks them a question about the lineage of the Messiah. They answer just as easily. The Messiah is the son of David.


Both are treading well-worn ground using tools that fit comfortably in the hand. They have whittled down the scriptures revealing what is wanted, what is useful, what is the truth. They are doing what the rabbis, the psalmists, the lovers of God have done before them.


Still, while Jesus spoke without hesitation, the Pharisees probably mumbled their answer, almost whispered it, for it echoed the crowds who called Jesus the Son of David as he entered Jerusalem as well as those who had previously used that title as they sought healing.[2]


Jesus hones in on their discomfort and asks a follow-up question … a riddle really:


“How is it then that David, by the Spirit, calls [the Messiah] Lord?”’


With this riddle, Campbell says, “Jesus [threatens] the Pharisees’ nice, neat theology. The old categories simply don’t work here. A person cannot be both son and Lord to David. Something new is here, something that can’t be contained in the old frameworks. The riddle cannot be solved -- except by recognizing and following Jesus.”[3]


And the religious authorities cannot stomach that. It would force them to question everything they thought was settled. It would mean a loss of control and authority. So they don’t answer. And they don’t dare ask any more questions. Instead, they are silent. And they circle their wagons and harden their theology. They plot to kill Jesus.

 

It is a depressing response to a debate where both sides agree that God calls us to love.


As you heard in the reading from Leviticus, loving your neighbor means treating them fairly and not taking vengeance. It means not even holding a grudge! And in the sections prior, it means showing mercy by leaving gleanings in the field, so your blessings are shared with the needy.


How is it that an appeal to doing good, to building a healthy communal life, to looking out for your neighbors can generate such anger toward the one doing the appealing?

 

I’ll break the silence. I think this is the perfect text for Reformation Sunday – not because it points to grace, or the majesty of God, or the authority of scripture, or any of the other things we hold dear, but because reform is called for whenever the old frameworks no longer hold.


When Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the Wittenberg door, the carefully woven theology of the existing church fell apart. The powers that ruled the Church were threatened and sought to circle the wagons, but Luther was followed by Calvin, and Knox, and the rest. They couldn’t be silenced.


Karoline Lewis writes that reformation is not just to be celebrated by Christians in certain denominations, but that “To be church and to be a disciple, to be a member of one and to call

yourself the other, is to sign on to constant reformation.”[4]


She goes on to muse, “Reformation can be exciting! It can also be exhausting. It’s exciting when you find yourself witnessing change and newness and hope.” It is exciting to feel like you are sensing God’s truth, building the kingdom, showing the world the face of God. But it is exhausting when you find yourself experiencing in your own self, resistance and suspicion and rejection because it is your view of the world, your church, your truth that is being reformed by Christ.

 

For centuries now, we who are the heirs to the Reformation have reveled in being on the cutting edge, of leading the charge, of using the latest technology (like the printing press) better than anyone else!


But recently it feels like the church is in transition and all that seemed settled is up for grabs. We are not alone in feeling this way. Our nation is in transition. The world is in transition. We stumble between the old certainties and a new reality we cannot fully discern. In such a context, the great temptation is to circle the wagons, to harden our theology, to look to our roots, to fear the future.


But we are reformation people. “We are not bound to the old categories, the old hierarchies, the old conventions. We are people always living into the gospel’s new, unsettling riddles. We are [called to] follow Jesus, unafraid, on the way from the old that is dying to the new that is being born.”[5]


We will not be silent. Our presence here today, together, is a sign that we have heard the call to love and are committed to living into this new reality that God is creating! And if Luther and Calvin and Knox are any guides, we are to do so boldly! Amen.


[1] From “Jesus the jester and the gospel's new, unsettling riddles” by Charles Campbell, posted 7/26/13
[2] See Matthew 9:27. 12:23, 15:22, 20:29, 21:9 and 21:15
[3] From “Jesus the jester …”
[4] From her reflections on the text, “The Necessity of Re-Formation” at workingpreacher.org, 10/19/14
[5] From “Jesus the jester …”
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