One can only imagine the racket it made–a mighty pounding on the great door of the Church of All Saints in Wittenberg, Saxony. The Castle Church, as it was also called, held one of the greatest collections of holy relics– purportedly “including vials of the milk of the Virgin Mary, straws from the manger [of Jesus], and the body of one of the innocents massacred by King Herod.” [wikipedia] It was said that if a penitent believer came to the church and paid a fee called an indulgence, it would guarantee relief of their souls from purgatory.
It was in protest of this and many other practices that on All Hallows Eve, Oct. 31, 1517, Martin Luther dramatically nailed his 95 Theses on the Wittenberg church door and then followed up with a letter to the bishops. Just a couple years shy of 500 years ago this Friday.
Of course, the Protestant Reformation didn’t begin on Oct. 31, 1517, nor did it end the next year nor was Martin Luther the only one protesting and calling for reform. The Reformation had quietly yet relentlessly been building in various parts of Europe, and it took on a life of its own beyond Luther and John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli. And not only did “Protestant churches” then take shape, but the Roman Catholic Church itself underwent great reforms.
“About every 500 years,” the retired Anglican Bishop Mark Dyer observed, “the Church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale…[when] the empowered structures of institutionalized Christianity, whatever they may be at that time, become an intolerable [hard casing] that must be shattered in order that renewal and new growth may occur.” [Phyllis Tickle, The Great Emergence, p. 16] “We are living in and through one of those five-hundred-year sales,” the bishop concludes.
Historian Phyllis Tickle calls this period that we are going through The Great Emergence, and the reformation of the church is only one aspect of a much larger “re-formation” of society and the globe. You’ve probably noticed it. The rise of global militant Islam, reaching the peaceful streets of Ottawa, Canada this week. The rise of sea waters, threatening the very existence of island nations and re-drawing coastal maps, super-storms, record-breaking droughts, all part of the massive climate change. The growing, gaping disparity between the ultra-wealthy few and the increasingly restless majority poor and middle-class. The technological revolution that has literally changed the nature of global community, let alone how you communicate with your children and grandchildren. So, of course, the church–Second Congregational Church–is not and certainly won’t be your parents’ or grandparents’ church any more.
Mike Piazza, our coach from the Center for Progressive Renewal, told us about a young man in his church in Atlanta. Todd’s grandmother–his mother’s mother– died, and so he traveled to Philadelphia to join his family in mourning her death and celebrating her life. While there, he learned that his other grandmother–his father’s mother–had also just died. He e-mailed Mike, who was away from home on one of his consulting jobs, with the news, and Mike e-mailed back his condolences and support. I think he may also have tried to talk with him on the phone, but in the midst of both of their crazy circumstances, they were never able to speak more than briefly. So Mike then posted on the church’s Facebook page his concerns for Todd and asking his church community to keep him in their thoughts and prayers. Instantly, support and connection surrounded Todd, so that when he finally returned home to Atlanta, he posted on his Facebook page his thanks and appreciation that he had felt so loved and supported by his church family in his family’s time of loss. Up until that time, Todd had not seen his pastor or other members of his church family face to face, and yet he was overwhelmed by the love and support he felt from them. The church is re-forming.
And yet, what must be at the heart of the church, the church that is worth re-forming and revitalizing, are those two “great relationships,” as Marcus Borg calls them–love of God and love of neighbor. “‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ one of the Pharisees, a lawyer, asked Jesus. He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Jesus knew that the law was not about rules but about love. The reformation of the church is less about technique and technology but essentially about love, and biblical love is less about warm, fuzzy feelings but rather, as Douglas Hare puts it, “stubborn, unwavering commitment.” [cited by Kate Huey in weeklyseeds, 10/26/14] What is the setting, the orientation, of our hearts, what do we choose to do, to convey the love of God? Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran pastor of the Emergent Church movement, says that we are to love our enemies, but we don’t have to mean it. What she means is that we don’t have to “feel loving” toward our enemies, we just have to treat them lovingly. [onbeing interview with Krista Tippett] Kate Huey writes about the witness and testimony of two older women in her church who tithed to their church. Inspired by them, but a little nervous about making such a financial commitment, Kate decided to give it a try–to commit to giving a tenth of her income to the church. She found that while she did have to make some adjustments, instead of resenting her church, what she found was that her love for her church grew.
“Love God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength; and your neighbor as yourself–on these two hang all the law and the prophets,” Jesus said. “Justice is love made public,” Cornell West said. Out of the Protestant Reformation came reformers and the re-formation of the church, but scholar of church history and current trends Diana Butler Bass urges us that “it’s time to put the protest back in Protestantism.” [“A Great Awakening,” Patheos, 2011] While we in the Protestant church have enjoyed our status as a majority, that is no longer the case, and Bass urges us to “rediscover the courageous part of [our] identity too long hidden under a veneer of cultural success.” What if we were to “start a church-based movement to challenge two things[she wonders]–bad government and cruel capitalism?” The size of government isn’t the issue she says; it’s whether it’s good government or bad government. Does it work for the common good, or does it simply serve the elite? Is our capitalism based on share-holder profits alone, or might we develop a nurturing capitalism that “recognizes the diversity of our environmental, spiritual, social, communal capital as part of a universal economy of human flourishing…where financial capital is only a small part of interconnected web of capital that nurtures life for all instead of amassing resources for the few.” What if the Protestant church took on that challenge, coming out of our love of God and love of neighbor? “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets,” Jesus said.
Just as the Protestant Reformation didn’t start and end on Oct. 31, 1517, so too has this current upheaval and necessary re-formation of the church been coming for a long time, and it is further along than we may be aware. Did you know that Second Congregational Church is one of 5 churches left in the Southwest Association, one of 23 in the whole Vermont Conference,* that can currently afford a full-time pastor? Mike Piazza noted that last year our average weekly attendance was the lowest it’s been in several years. It might just be a one-time thing, he said, but two years in a row is definitely to be taken seriously. Since people don’t attend Sunday worship with the same frequency they once did, nor do they support it at the same level they once did, the number of people who consider our church “their church” must increase if we are to continue to maintain a vital and significant ministry in our community. We must commit ourselves to communicating the love of God to people in a way that they have a chance to receive it–not just in the language and music and customs that we on the “inside” find meaningful. First-time visitors must be treated as VIPs, for we not only want them but need them to help us re-form our church to better carry out God’s ministry of love and justice in the world in the 21st century. In her address at Andover Newton Theological School’s spring convocation last May, Diana Butler Bass urged the ministers and other religious leaders to “be active seekers of new connections and not to [just] wait for people to show up, especially young adults… If you keep dawdling, [she said], you die.” [News from the Hill, Annual Report 2014, p. 12] Being a disciple, after all, means being open to serious re-formation. You might even say that re-formation is at the essence of being human [Karoline Lewis, op cit.]–our bodies re-form every 7 years, we re-form when we take on a new relationship or a new job. We re-form after we lose a job or our health or a loved one.
As I talked with and listened to Mike Piazza last week and with our small group of folks who also met with him, I found my excitement and energy level rising. He was affirming of much of what we’re already doing and thinking about, but he was able to ask us questions like, “Is there a First Congregational Church in Bennington?” And when we told him there was, but that we were the only United Church of Christ in Bennington, he said, “then I was wondering why you’re holding on to the name ‘Second’. Why not, First United Church of Christ of Bennington, or something more descriptive, like Hope United Church of Christ?” Wow. Why not? What if we were Hope United Church of Christ? How might we live into that name?
“Reformation can be exciting!” writes one Lutheran minister. “It can also be exhausting. It’s exciting when you find yourself witnessing change and newness and hope…And something extraordinary comes out on the other side. But it’s exhausting when you find yourself observing, even experiencing in your own self, resistance and suspicion and rejection.” [Karoline Lewis, Dear Working Preacher, 10/26/14] I would also add to exhausting a certain level of grieving… a grieving of a necessary letting go of customs and language and music that have been so nourishing for so long. Mike Piazza says, “you can always have your way if you have enough ways.” If you’re open to a number of ways, you can always have your way.
“Love God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength; and your neighbor as yourself.” It does all come back to love. How do we reach out in love to a neighborhood and a world desperately in need of it? “Reformation is a state of being,” that Lutheran pastor says.
*[I mis-spoke on Sunday, saying we were one of 5 full-time ministries in the Conference.]
“Reformation cannot just be a looking back–by its very definition it demands a vision for the future.” [Lewis, op cit.]
As our reading from Hebrew Scripture this morning told us, the story of Moses comes to an ending on a mountaintop. After “40 years,” that is, as long as it took, a rag-tag band of slaves was at last re-formed into something like one people, and up on top of a mountain overlooking what had become for them “the Promised Land,” Moses their leader rests his eyes upon their final destination and then goes to his final rest in an unmarked and unknown grave. It is the passing of the generations. Moses led the people up until this point, but it was for a new generation to take them into the Promised Land.
We heard the story last week of the Jewish sage Choni who found a man planting a carob tree that would take 70 years to bear fruit, but he was doing it because he knew that the fruitful land he came into had been planted by his forebears. Similarly, Martin Luther was asked, if the world were to end tomorrow, what would he do? “I would plant a tree,” he replied. All of us are planting the seeds of tomorrow by what we do today. Many of us will not cross over into that Promised Land – that “new form” of the church –ourselves, but we can trust in God’s vision for the people and for the next generation to walk on, as we plant the seeds of love and hope and justice and mercy that will eventually blossom and bear fruit in a new day and time. In the company of all the saints who have gone before us, and all those who will come after us, let us go forward, rejoicing. Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark