Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling picture
October 31, 2021

23rd Sunday after Pentecost (Reformation) Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling

Mark 12:28-34

A few weeks ago, it struck my funny bone that our website said “Masks Required” for worship on October 31st.  Secretly, I was hoping that you would all show up with full Halloween masks.

You might not be surprised to learn that, even as a kid, I liked to dress up.  We had a box called “the Halloween box, in the basement, which we dragged out all year long.  It had leftover clothing, wigs, hats, masks, old costume jewelry.  Eventually, I became a theater kid in middle school and high school.  There was something about putting on another outfit, another persona, that probably made me feel safer.  The real me was sometimes really hard.

The costume let me relax a little.  Maybe it just made pretending more honest.

We all get pretty good at pretending. We curate the masks we wear when we’re with our family, or with friends, or at work.  We present ourselves as more secure than how we usually feel.  We present as more centered.

I’m not being critical of those masks, because in many ways they are often the selves we want to grow into.  They are the people that we would like to become if we could grow up, or figure out our baggage, or stop tripping over our past, or running into the roadblocks that are set up in front of many of us.

Most Sunday mornings, I dress up as a pastor because I determined to try to be one.

Franciscan priest Richard Rohr said this week in his devotion that there’s really only one thing we have to know about ourselves.  One starting point. We are beloved children of God.  That’s the garment we are provided; the mask that is the gift.

You are loved.  Period.  Exclamation point.

Father Rohr notes that the summary of the law begins with God reminding the people that they had been chosen.  They had already been picked for the team.  Before you learned the rules of the game; before they were presented as a light to the nations, before you had it figured out; even before you were good.  God simply chose them.

God chooses us.

To me, that’s still the most propound Reformation insight.  By grace you have been saved, not by works of the law.  Most people still can’t do this religious math.  Most assume that religion is a point system of tasks or beliefs that you have to do or believe in order to be part of the team.  The more points you have, the more chance you get the prize at the end.

Original sin is our inability to do God’s math.  We simply can’t believe how God’s calculation works.  Chosen before birth; chosen before baptism; chosen before learning the summary of the law.

I’m stunned by the number of times those who are dying–faithful and tender saints, some even pastors–who say, “Well, I did my best.  I hope it was good enough.”  At the threshold of life, we’re worried that we weren’t good enough.

Maybe I’ll say it, too.  There’s always this nagging voice, “You could have done better.”  Which can be a good voice to listen to, if it’s not an identity-making voice.

Father Feela, priest at Lumen Christi Catholic Church down the street, and I recorded a session for confirmation class this week.  A Catholic and a Lutheran ask each other questions.  I’m really so grateful to have such a wonderful relationship with the priest in our neighborhood.  He told the confirmation class that he shares the principles and values of the Reformation.  Sharing those values are part of what it means to be in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. It makes today feel less like some big Lutheran pride celebration, but a shared commitment to the radical and liberating grace of God that takes shape in our hearts through faith.  One of the questions he asked me is what difference I thought does Christianity really makes in the world.

I talked about love.  We’re a people that try to act like love can really be the primary principle that organizes our personal lives and our social world.  Love isn’t a warm fuzzy feeling.  It’s an act.  It’s the mask we choose to wear.  Loving God and loving the neighbor is more than just quick easy summary of the law that can stump the critics.  It is our identity and our mission.  You are loved.  Love one another.

I went on to say that it feels kind of counter cultural right now to be loving, or kind, or understanding, or slow to judge. Maybe it’s because the world right now seems so rude, and so willing to cast others away, or circle the wagons, or ignore massive suffering, a world where some have three vaccines, and millions don’t have access to even one.  Maybe we’re just exhausted by the pandemic, compassion fatigue.  It’s hard to love.  It doesn’t come naturally.  It’s this daily, moment-by-moment, baptismal choice.  Love God.  Love the neighbor.

I read Pope Francis’ address to the square in Rome this week.

He said, “the beauty of faith in Jesus Christ cannot be grasped on the basis of so many commandments or of a moral vision developed in many layers which can make us forget the original fruitfulness of love nourished by prayer from which peace and joyful witness flow.”

Nor, he said, can “the life of the Spirit … be suffocated by a bureaucracy that prevents access to the grace of the Spirit, the initiator of conversion of the heart.” “Therefore,” he said in conclusion, “we have the huge responsibility of proclaiming Christ crucified and risen, enlivened by the breath of the Spirit of love. For it is this Love alone that possesses the power to attract and change the human heart.”[1]

Maybe our Halloween-Reformation-Pandemic mask is love.  We put it on, not because we fully understand it or can figure it out, but because we want to become it.  We want to swim in it. We want to be part of it, the the image of Christ, the sign of the cross, coming up from the water:  “You are by beloved child.”

You are beloved.  Your neighbor is beloved.  The earth is beloved.  The cosmos is beloved.  God is beloved.

This is most certainly true.

[1] Pope Francis, October 27, 2021, Daily Audience, “Love Alone Attracts and Changes the Human Heart.”