Dear Friends of Second Church,
This coming Sunday, we will mark Reformation Sunday at our 10:30 Worship Service — which will include a musical celebration with harpsichord, brass, strings, a boy soloist…in short, the works.
It is sure to be a great tribute on a day close to the 500th anniversary of when it is said that Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the cathedral door in Wittenberg, Saxony (the actual day is October 31st).
There are those who wonder if it happened exactly that way, with all the drama of Spielberg movie, and I admit that I don’t know.
But it’s clear that a very different way of “being the Church” emerged as a result.
Luther focused and then broadened a conversation about how we encounter God, how we understand God’s will for us, and what the world should look like in light of our faith.
Over the last 500 years, that conversation has continued, and what’s proven to be its most enduring feature are its perennial questions, rather than many of its specific answers. Those often turn out to be the testimonies of a particular place and time, with much to teach us, but also much we must respectfully, but courageously reinterpret.
To do as Luther did has proven more important for us than to think precisely as Luther thought.
The composer Gustav Mahler once said, “Tradition is not guarding the ashes, but fanning the flames.”
Along those lines, the thing about a Reformation faith is that each generation — and in a very real sense each person — is challenged to remake it anew. We have to fan those flames once again. We have to look for God in our midst and ask what God is doing now, in this place.
What are the urgent concerns of this moment, and how is it that the light of the Gospel and the love of God in Jesus Christ can transform them? What does God need the Church to see, which the world, in its brokenness, cannot? And what does that ask of us in the Church, and of all of us as the Church?
There is not one simple answer. How could there be?
Truly, it is no surprise that passionate debate has always been a part of Reformation faith.
Yet clearly, it’s not a passive way of being faithful. It never has been.
Moreover, it must not be.
That’s one of the Reformation’s most important and enduring insights.
Passivity creeps in all too easily.
The great sociologist Max Weber talked about “the routinization of charisma,” his phrase for how the great energy and insight of a movement’s founder gets translated into (and slowly depleted by) the often mundane work of maintaining an institution.
Even the Church. Even the Reformers’ churches.
The Reformers and those who came afterwards loved building institutions.
Indeed, those institutions have given us a lot to be thankful for.
The challenge of wrestling with God’s Word demanded that the first Reformers push for Bibles that people could read in their own languages. Then they saw the need to push for the broad, basic literacy that ensured the people could read for themselves. In this country, you can trace the migration of the Puritans and their descendants by following the founding of colleges across the American West.
But at a deeper level, those achievements came back to that fundamental commitment to wrestling.
Much has changed over the last 500 years. Some even say that we are at the very beginning of the next Great Reformation in Christian history, as the institution of the Church changes yet again to meet life circumstances and new social expectations that have shifted dramatically, especially in the last 50 years.
That commitment to wrestling has not changed.
From where I sit, the most vibrantly faithful, joyful, and committed of our own members today are those who live out that commitment, and the people who visit us and end up staying are those who are seeking a nurturing place to do that, too.
This tells me that, whatever the next 500 years will bring, the women and men whose lives are shaped by a Reformation faith across the generations will always share something much more fundamental than anything that might divide them.
I hope you’ll join us this Sunday to celebrate the last 500 years, and the next 500 years, and to engage for yourself in the deep wrestling that is the enduring heart of our faith.
See you in church,