A reflection by Rev. Dr. Thom Bower
for October 29 2017, Reformation Sunday
based on Jeremiah 31:31-34 and John 8:31-36
We belong to a church that is reformed and reforming. We believe that justice and faithfulness, science and art, religion and society cooperate through God’s guidance. We believe that God is inviting us into a future where the church discerns God’s call more clearly, using tools such as prayer, worship, scripture, theology, congregational relationships, history, and hope.
This week we remember 500 years ago Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk and ethics professor at a small German university, made a list of things he wanted to talk about. 95 items, 95 topics, 95 theses, 95 disputes, 95 things Luther had been thinking about and wanted to discuss with someone, or even debate publicly. He chose to post his list on a church door, because at the time the church door was the public bulletin board: it was where you posted announcements of marriages and births, want ads for breeding livestock, and help wanted ads. He chose the day – October 31st – because a lot of people would be coming to church on the 1st, on All Saint’s Day, and so a lot of people would be reading the notices on the door.
Martin knew that among the items he was posting were some hot-button topics – especially how the church was making its income and how it was spending its resources. (You see, the church has always had issues with how money should be spent.) He was criticizing a practice called indulgences. Basically, the belief was that to get into heaven a person had to have enough merit – usually from good works, but also acts of charity, acts of devotion. If you did not have enough merit, then those who loved you could add to your account by doing additional good acts.
And one of the acts the church encouraged was giving money to the church. So the pope authorized selling indulgences, selling merits of grace, and the pope designated the money raised by selling these indulgences would fund new chapel being built at the Vatican. (You see, the church has always had unusual ideas of how to raise money.) Martin saw this as the church lying about salvation. Martin thought there was a better way to be the church. God’s grace is not something that can be bought, God’s grace is not something that can be worked for, God’s grace is a gift from God – no more, no less, and certainly not controlled by any human being.
But if you are a pope, if you are an archbishop, and one of the priests begins to criticize how the church is making money, one of the priests begins to question the church’s teaching on how God offers grace through the church, then you need to bring that priest into alignment with the church. (You see, church leaders have always been criticized for their decisions.) But Martin refused to concede he was wrong and the church was right. He protested the church was controlling people’s ability to access God’s grace. He protested the church was misleading people away from God’s grace. He was convinced there was a better way to be the church.
And so the church began to divide. Some agreed with Luther: God’s grace is delivered, received, acted upon differently than the Catholic church had been teaching. There’s a better way to be the church by emphasizing grace, and one of those things should be that we worship in the same language we use in our homes, in our workplaces, in the tavern. (You see, some church people have always gone to the bar.) Others dug into their Catholic teaching and explained why the heritage they had received was accurate, truthful, faithful. The church as the beginning of God’s realm on earth needs to be something different from the rest of the world. Our special language may be strange in your home but it unites the church around the world.
In France, John Calvin, another man who was working in the church not as a priest but as a lawyer, suggested a different way of being church – because he had a different idea of how God’s grace was working in the world. God has already chosen who will go to Heaven, and those who God has selected are prosperous in this life. When Calvin had to leave France, he went to Geneva and worked with a government who tried to make laws based on faith, laws based on how to live as though we are all selected by God, laws that were idealistic and difficult to fulfill.
Also in France, a Spanish priest by the name of Ignatius Loyola began teaching that the imagination is an important tool for understanding God at work in the world, an important tool for being the church. Those who work for God’s reign should do all they can to make sure God’s realm is happening here on earth. Loyola’s followers became known as Jesuits, teachers and law makers and doctors and chemists and artists bringing God’s realm into every facet of human experience.
In Zurich Switzerland Urlich Zwingli also said the church can be something different than it has been. Zwingli spoke out about corrupt church leaders, advocated that priests should be allowed to marry, taught that paintings and statues and other images in worship distracted from focusing on God’s word, and wrote a new communion liturgy moving the focus of Christ’s presence from the changing of bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus to finding Christ’s presence among the people gathered together to celebrate.
Henry VIII – not a priest but a king, the king of England – decided to challenge the church’s rules on marriage, not because he thought there was a better way to be church but because he wanted to divorce his wife. He thought it would be best if the king were also the highest church authority, and so he made himself the head of the Church of England. (You see, there have always been people in the church who feel they should be in charge of everything.) Henry separated the Church of England from the Catholic Church. His daughter Mary would return England to Catholic practices, and his other daughter Elizabeth would reinstate the Church of England. Queen Elizabeth did not want faith or religion to divide her country, so she made new worship books and new worship orders to blend Catholic and Protestant ideas. She demanded everyone conform to these practices as a demonstration of their dedication to being English.
But this English Reformation has another reform to consider. Some English people said their commitment to Christ was greater than their commitment to their nation. They said they had a different idea of how to be the church. They said it was wrong for some portion of the church to interpret God’s word for them, wrong for some portion of the church to discern what to pray and how to worship and even how to serve in their community. Those responsibilities, those practices belonged within the congregation. They could not conform to these English laws of prayer books and worship order, nor could they stay in the Church of England and remain faithful. Church leaders and politicians called them nonconforming separatists; they called themselves Congregationalists and later, as they departed England for a place where they could be more faithful, they called themselves Pilgrims.
There’s some of the big events of the first 100 years of the Protestant Reformation. Of course there are many more details. And we have 400 more years to acknowledge, to review, to examine. Not all of it is glorious. Not all of it is meritorious. Not all of it is heroic. There are portions of which we should not be proud, because they have done the opposite of Christ’s reign, done the opposite of living as God’s people, done the opposite of upholding integrity and dignity and grace.
But there are also practices that exemplify pursuing God’s reign, people who demonstrate tremendous courage and wisdom and insight, places where God’s activity has been evident and continues to be encountered – all because someone keeps having an idea of how to be the church in a better way; someone challenges the current practices of being the church so that we may re-examine our values and our faith and just why we are doing all of this; someone reminds us that it has not always been this way and does not always have to be this way, that God’s promise may be in something new, that God’s grace can be encountered in another way which refreshes and energizes and builds up, that as God’s people we need courage to seek and follow God along a path where we are not in control but where we are responsible and in ways that call us to be God’s people together.
This week we mark that 500 years ago a new way of being church was introduced. It was not the first time the church tried something new, and we continue to try new things because God’s grace is made available to us each and every day so that all of creation – including the church, including ourselves – may be restored, transformed, and reformed to better offer God’s love. Amen.
Continue to call us, God, to testify to your great acts in our time. Let us draw upon the history of your church to better understand how the church serves the world today. From Peter and the disciples, from Paul and other letter writers, from the Didache and other Christian writings, may we receive testaments of your living presence in the life of Jesus and the resurrected Christ.
May the centuries of witnesses help us find authentic ways to be faithful in this era of humanity’s history. May our testimony be consistent with that of our faith ancestors and also relevant to our peers and to our grandchildren’s generation. May we honor you by continuing to reform your church with new visions of what it means to be the church together.
While we proclaim all people are made in your image, holy creator, we find ourselves struggling with how to respond as your called people to others who profess some are less human because of the color of their skin or the ethnicity of their parents, that they are malformed because of whom they love or their economic class, that because their ideological or theological worldview is different their humanity is somehow distorted. As your people, help us celebrate the differences you have created within us, and help us mine those differences for the greater blessings of understanding you and your work more broadly.
One of the sources of our connection to you, Loving God, is the experience of healing. As we pray for those whom we love who have cancers and other disease, may we take part in the healing of all persons who suffer from diseases. As we pray for our elder members whose lives are shaped by aging, may we increase our care for all the elders of our culture. As we pray for the mental health of specified individuals, may we find resources to better the mental health of us all. As we pray for the spiritual growth of some, may we find ways to integrate spiritual growth into our own daily lives and into the common practices of our society.
We continue to pray for those who have encountered the groanings of your creation. Why beloved God, why does your glorious creation also hold such threats to life? Teach us how to work more cohesively with natural orders. Show us how to use our intellect and science to live in greater harmony with what you have created. Teach us wisdom for our roles as stewards made in your image.
As we review religious heritage today, may we encounter you Lord in the responses of our ancestors to your presence in their times. May we also see you in our own times in new ways. May we understand patterns of humanity so we may better access your spirit; may we better understand the complexities of economics, politics, and social events in which your people have responded so that we may better respond faithfully today.
We are thankful for leaders in the church, pastors and priests and professors and teachers, doctors and nurses and counsellors, politicians and social workers. We are thankful for lay leaders who often take time away from families and recreation to serve in your name: presidents, moderators; members of councils and consistories; treasurers and evangelists; trustees and building stewards; teachers and missionaries; and oh so many more titles and duties which keep your church being the church. May we discover new ways of being the church in your name, sharing your grace with the world, testifying to your presence in all moments of our lives, through Christ our savior and our guide. Amen.