Tuesday is the day—the quincentenary, the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation—182,500 days after another Tuesday, another October 31st, the year 1517, when Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the door of the church at Wittenberg, Germany. This week Protestant, and even Catholic traditions are marking the day, and asking about its significance.
It is a day to commemorate. Remember. Consider, but not to celebrate, I suspect. What could we possibly find to celebrate about a split, a divorce, a tearing in two. Yet, it is a day to commemorate, an important marker. Our churches, Catholic and Protestant, Orthodox and Free, and religions throughout the world are becoming more attentive to our need to be together—because we belong together, because we are one human family, and because our survival as a species is dependent on us knowing this, remembering this.
That Tuesday, 500 years ago, Luther posted a long-list of complaints to a church that he loved, a church that had lost its way, neglected its purpose to shape and bless and lead, to draw people to God and to one another. Indulgences were Luther’s primary concern—an arcane notion for us today, but a big deal then—a way of selling forgiveness and of funding the building account. St. Peter’s was not going to build itself, after all.
And a thirty-three year-old[i] priest, professor, composer, and monk decided he had had enough. So he started a conversation that took on a life of its own, and changed the course of history.
Somewhere, somehow, leaders develop a sense of trust. They develop a sense that there is ultimate meaning, that life is trustworthy enough to act on what you believe.
And somewhere, somehow, leaders develop a sense of agency—the idea that they can make a difference, that they among so many others, might change something for the better.
How do you imagine that happens?
Some 2000 years ago, another 30-something decided to speak up as well, decided to make a difference. In another time when the faith had lost its way.
Somewhere, somehow, he developed a sense of trust—that there is ultimate meaning, that life is trustworthy. Somewhere, somehow, he developed a sense of agency—that he could make a difference—even when the odds were stacked against him.
Which commandment in the law is the greatest? It was a trick question, of course. It was a trap. The right answer was that all the commandments are equally important. To single out one, to suggest there was a hierarchy would put him against the tradition. It would impeach him. The question, it seems, like many today, had little interest in seeking truth, and much interest in shifting the balance of power.
Yet Jesus answers: the Shema is most important. Hear, O Israel, Love the Lord your God with all of you. That is the heart of religion, the heart of Good News. And you can’t do that without the second: loving your neighbor. So not just one, but two, and not just two, but all. Because these two sum it all up. These two are the heart of true religion. These two are what you have not done in your hunt for power and control, in your quest to build monuments to yourselves, to enrich yourselves, to twist and misshape to your benefit what is for all.
And then Jesus goes and posts his own 95 theses. Well—close enough. Seven Woes. It’s not in today’s reading, but they may be familiar to you. Woe to you Pharisees. Woe to you scribes. You hypocrites.
True power does not belong to you. It belongs to God and to the people in whom God lives and moves—the Canaanite woman, the blind, the children, the poor, the crowds—to all the people. This is where God lives. True religion lives where people are helped and blessed, where we understand that we are one, where the fullness of humanity mixes with the fullness of God—where sight is restored, the sick are healed and weapons of war become tools to feed and bless and love.
And how we need leaders who will help us remember, who will raise questions, who will make a difference. We’ve talked a lot about how we seem to go through cycles in history. Our institutions—all of our institutions—religious, political, economic, scientific and technical—they all ebb and flow in their effectiveness. They are all susceptible to manipulation, to appropriation.
And today, just as 500 years ago, just as 2000 years ago, they are being questioned and strained and challenged. Few of them are working well, serving the people as they were and are created to do. We know this. We see it play out in government and private enterprise. We certainly feel it within the church. We have our own theses—complaints for what is and shouldn’t be, what isn’t and could be.
I’ll confess to a degree of frustration, even a sense of helplessness. All these years, all this work, and answers for today aren’t obvious and certainly not simple. I don’t have a quick fix. Do you? I don’t know how to help us regain momentum. Do you? Yet this generation is searching. And the next behind us. There is no shortage of desire for meaning, of hunger for something authentic and lasting and life-giving. And with all the technological innovation, with all the social media, the search for communities of belonging is perhaps as great as it has ever been. The work of the church is not finished. The hunger for God has not dissipated. The need to mend this world of ours is profound.
About 26,000 Sundays have passed since the last Reformation. It’s well over four times that since Jesus, the Word, spoke the Christian church into being. I figure I’ve been to church well over 2000 Sundays over my lifetime. What is the impact of this kind of behavior? What kind of a difference does it make, do you suppose? Is there a cumulative effect of some sort? Are we living in a way that the leaders we need are being formed with a deep sense of trust—that there is ultimate meaning, that life is trustworthy? Are we shaping our lives and our institution so that leaders are being formed with a sense of agency, of power, of possibility?
We have a story to be told, a story of God in the mix, of a Spirit making all things new. Let this story be told by our actions. Let this story be told in our listening to others, to the next generations, to their needs, hungers, and dreams of the world. Let this story be told through acts of courage and self-giving, through lives that trust the God who stood with Moses looking over a land and a promise, even as Moses’ work would end never entering it. Let this story be told through acts of faith and courage and sacrifice that give ourselves to a future here and now in lives that reveal such a deep care of others, that like Paul to the Thessalonians, we share our very selves, that, like Jesus, we offer ourselves for a future that may look different than our past, that the greatest among us truly is the one who serves. Let our story be told in lives that new winds and new ways blow, in the Spirit of this age and of all time.
[i] Luther was born November 10, 1483.