Semper Reformanda

Trinitarian Congregational Church                                                      Reformation Sunday

Anthony S. Kill                                                                                          October 29, 2017

Texts: Micah 3:5:12; Matthew 23:1-12

 

This is the Sunday we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

It was on October 31, 1517, that an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg cathedral, taking issue with the Pope on a variety of religious questions, especially concerning the nature of the church, the centrality of scripture, the autonomy of the Christian person before God, and the free and unlimited nature of God’s grace.

Now, I was an Augustinian monk myself back in the 1960’s and 1970’s.

The religious order that I belonged to, the Crosiers, followed the rule of St. Augustine.

So I’ve always felt some affinity for Father Martin.

I also grew up in a community that was mostly Missouri Synod Lutheran.

I remember as a child commiserating with my friend Billy Murphy that we were the only two Catholic families within miles.

We lived on a farm that was homesteaded by Tim McCarthy, which my folks bought from him when I was 4 years old.

I later learned that my father got the farm at a bargain price, because Tim and Louise were bound and determined to sell their half-section of land to a Catholic family when he retired and my Dad was the only Catholic to make an offer on it.

The Dahl family were my closest neighbors, and I grew up with David, Duane, and Sharon, children of Ruth and Olaf Dahl, good Norwegian Lutherans one and all.

We would get along fine all week long, except for the weekend.

They would have their Luther League and Sunday School classes, and I would have my CCD and catechism classes, and on Monday we would we would spend the whole two-mile walk home from school arguing about who was going to Heaven and who was going to Hell.

The only thing we agreed on was that we couldn’t both be right.

It couldn’t possibly be that all of us were destined for salvation.

This was in the 1950’s, before the second Vatican Council.

I remember very clearly when my cousin married a Lutheran, and my family agonized about whether we really had to shun her and cut her out of family gatherings  like the priests said we were supposed to.

It seemed very harsh and cruel, but our Missouri Synod Lutheran friends and neighbors understood it.

They had to deal with exactly the same practice and policy if one of their fold fell away from the faith, and married a Catholic.

Mrs. Dahl, by the way, was also my favorite school teacher.

She taught in the little one-room schoolhouse where I went to grade school.

I continued to correspond with her, and visit her for many decades, until her death.

Her son David became a Lutheran minister.

Her daughter Sharon married a Catholic in the 1960’s and wasn’t thrown out of the family.

In fact, she helped found a large Catholic parish in a new neighborhood in Fairbanks, Alaska when she moved there, and she was strong lay-leader in that church.

And here I stand – a Protestant minister in a Congregational church, in the Calvinist Reformed tradition.

Another Augustinian monk gone over the fence.

The Spirit truly blows wherever it wills!

I remember in my own first course in the history of the reformation, learning that Luther’s basic insights could be captured by three “solas”;  Sola scriptura, Sola gratia, and Sola fide.

 

Sola Scriptura: the scripture alone is our rule and guide for faith, and the traditions and laws of the church are subject to scripture and not its master; The church doesn’t own the Bible; the Word of the Bible owns the church.

Sola Gratia: it is by grace alone that we are saved, and not by any work or merit by which we “earn” salvation; For both Luther and Calvin, this was an absolutely central core of their theology.

And Sola Fide: it is only by our faith in God’s righteousness and power to save that we are justified.

But Father Luther also captured the spirit of an age, a political as well as a religious conviction of personal empowerment and freedom that affected far more than the life of the churches.

They transformed concepts of government, upturned the political arena and restructured economic life, not only in Germany, but throughout Europe.

The invention of the printing press and moveable type by Johann Gutenberg just decades before Luther was born transformed the speed of communication and mass media, much like the computer and internet has transformed communication and mass media in our time.

And Luther knew how to take advantage of it.

He wrote thousands of sermons and pamphlets, which were widely distributed even though it was illegal to own or distribute them.

He also translated the Bible into German, whereas before his time, only priests and scholars versed in Latin, Greek and Hebrew had direct access to the Holy Scriptures, and they alone would interpret it to the common people.

That was one of the way the Roman Catholic hierarchy kept control of the Bible and its meaning.

Now everyone could read and interpret the scripture for themselves.

Others soon translated the Bible into other languages, and the spiritual revolution that Luther started spread quickly to France, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, England and Scotland.

These new ideas accompanied the first settlers to these Massachusetts shores with our pilgrim forebears only some seventy five years after Luther’s death.

It was nothing less than a complete social and cultural revolution, the end of one era and the beginning of another.

Now all the battle cries of the Reformation need no longer be our own.

For too many centuries, Protestants defined themselves by their founders’ protests against Rome, and Roman Catholicism defined itself largely by its counter-reformation stance against everything that the sixteenth-century reformers stood for.

In our own generation, both sides have come to see that it is not faithful to the spirit of Christ or the spirit of truth to keep old wounds open and old rivalries alive.

In the late 1990’s, there was an historic gesture in Augsburg, Germany, in which representative leaders from the Lutheran Church and the Roman Catholic Church met and signed a mutual agreement that revoked the various condemnations and anathemas each denomination had hurled against the other over the centuries, and agreed that “justification by faith” need not be a doctrine of division.

But there are dimensions of the reformation that we can continue to be challenged by today, and that all Christians can be blessed and “re-formed” by.

The reformers saw themselves as restorers, leading people back to the direct and unencumbered experience of the word of God and the gracious mercy of God, without any of the obstacles or stumbling blocks that a formalized, legalistic, self-protective religious organization would place between the people and their experience of the grace of God.

The reformers wanted people to know Christ, to learn about and experience the living Word directly.

The church was not the dispenser of mercy, or the gatekeeper, or the only vessel of grace.

They believed in the priesthood of all believers.

The Christian didn’t need an intercessor or intermediary between them and Christ.

The church was the place where the word of God might be preached and presented to all people, to be received and  understood for themselves.

If we, all of us, are heirs and descendants of the Reformation, where is its genius for us?

Where is its power in our lives? How are we its perpetrators?  Or how are we not?

What forces of decorum or inertia would lull us into accepting a stagnant status quo that leaves others on the margins  unheard and unhealed, because we can’t accept their way of being in the world, or they can’t accept our ways of being church together?

What powers in our day try to claim and harness the grace and favor of God’s gifts as our special prerogative, to be distributed at our discretion to those who follow to our ways?

What about people with other cultural tastes, people for whom the poetry and music and language of their hearts is not captured in classical music or wonderful pipe organs or the great hymns of faith, but in other forms of music created fresh and new in this 21st century?

What about the next generations behind us, who never knew a world without computers and smart phones and the internet, whose ways of assembling and celebrating are not in church pews but on social media, or in arenas and even mosh pits, with large-screen multi-image video and pumping percussion rhythm  and high-amp sound?

Must they grow old and settle down and become like us before we can bring any word of God to them?

Nor am I saying that we have to become like them.

But in the language of exalting ourselves or humbling ourselves enough to become servants of the word, can we find the courage and the humility to drop our defenses, let go of some of our sacred cows, our prized traditions, and live with our discomfort long enough and faithfully enough to listen for a new word to us, a word of mission or challenge or inclusiveness, to push beyond our comfortable institutions and cultural blinders, and look for new ways to connect to other people, desperate for a saving word, a loving word of mercy and grace and acceptance and inclusion spoken in the language of their hearts?

One of the Reformation phrases that I remember best from my youth as a seminary student during the Second Vatican Council, studying Reformation history even as I watched the Roman Catholic Church undergoing a great transformation, was the concept of “semper reformanda” – the church always reforming which I chose for my sermon title.

The mid-20th century Catholic bishops borrowed this concept from the 16th Century Reformers to express the radical concept that the church is never a perfected institution, and never finished changing.

Much as we would like to settle down and say at last “Ah, this is the church I’ve always wanted.  Let’s not change a thing” or “Let’s just improve on what we’ve already got!” that is the one thing the church can never do.

This is never a finished process, never a done deal – at least not on this side of the Last Judgment.

I want to close with words from a hymn that is in your hymnals – the words are by a 20th century Methodist pastor, Kenneth L Cober:

Renew your church, our ministries restore: both to serve and adore.
Make us again as salt throughout the land, and as light from a stand.
‘Mid somber shadows of the night, where greed and hatreds spread their blight,
O send us forth with power endued,
help us, Lord, be renewed.

Amen