The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC, Fort Collins, Colorado
29 October 2023
A story in today’s Washington Post caught my eye on this Reformation Sunday. It details the recent Synod of the Roman Catholic Church, which for the first time included women and lay delegates as voting members. Issues like the possibility of blessing unions (not marriage) of same-sex Catholic couples and possibly having women serve as deacons were at least talked about. In criticizing more progressive German clergy who are already blessing same-sex unions, one Polish archbishop said that they were advocating reforms that “draw profusely from Protestant theology and the language of modern politics.” As we weigh what our sisters and brothers struggled with during this Synod, it’s a good time for us, too, to be considering what it means to be church. It is important for us as a congregation to be aware of what sort of new reformation may be upon us, even today.
When most of us think of the Reformation, we think of the Augustinian priest Martin Luther in 1517 nailing his 95 theses on the door of the church in Wittenburg, stating his objections to abuses of power by the church in Rome. And it was a momentous step.
Do you think Luther knew what he was doing? Do you think he thought it would cause a schism in the western church? Did he know that it would spark a Counter-reformation in the Roman Catholic Church? Do you think he knew that it would result in the many wars of religion in Europe that would claim millions of lives and extend for nearly 200 years? I suspect that he did not. He certainly didn’t anticipate that the 1517 Reformation would spawn further reformations across Europe, with Calvinists, Anabaptists, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Unitarians, and others.
The Reformation was not – is not – monolithic. It happened in different ways in different places and in different times. And it is difficult to overemphasize the critical importance of it as a hinge in European history. It essentially put the final nail in the coffin of the Late Middle Ages and ushered in the Early Modern period.
Nothing in the church would ever be the same…except the things that are. You probably know some shifts in Protestant faith that come straight from Luther: two sacraments (baptism and communion) instead of seven. A different way of looking at communion: Transubstantiation (meaning that the communion elements literally became the body and blood of Christ) was disavowed. The reliance on scripture as wholly adequate source of authority, rather than papal pronouncement. Married clergy. Direct access to God, rather than needing the intermediary of a priest. And salvation that is a gift of grace based on faith alone, rather than relying on good works as a means of trying to earn merit.
Luther paraphrased the psalm we heard this morning, such that “God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in times of trouble” became “a might fortress is our God.”
This psalm was important to the Reformers, as it became more obvious that their heterodox views meant not just risking their own lives but that they could be used to incite violence and civil war.
Hear these words of the psalmist as you think of the war in Israel and Gaza:
“He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.
‘Be still, and know that I am God!
I am exalted among the nations,
I am exalted in the earth.’
The LORD of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.”
It is not the intention of our God or Jesus to use violence, but to secure peace, to break weapons, to call us to be still.
One of the questions that someone in the congregation asked during the Instant Sermon over the summer concerned what the church of the future would look like. And since none of us received that crystal ball we were hoping for, the best we can do is rely of God’s grace and guidance going forward.
Some things that we Protestants do go right back past 1517. Worship is still the central mission of every church, though of course it has morphed over time. We still baptize infants (though other Protestants don’t) and we celebrate communion. I suspect that the church of the future will continue to do those things, as well as to have potluck suppers.
One of the great ideas from our tradition is that we are not only Reformed, but reforming. It rests on a Latin phrase, Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda est. The church is reformed and is always reforming.
Reformed and reforming. You do know what that implies, don’t you? It’s the C-word…change! Most of us think that change is fine and necessary, but when asked if WE want to change, it’s a different story.
I want to acknowledge that change is incredibly difficult, especially when everything in your life seems to be changing and it can be embittering when the one thing you think is really stable – your church – starts to change.
One of the things you may not be fully aware of is how dramatically the pandemic accelerated change in American Christianity. Because we invested in great livestreaming capability, a sizable portion of our congregation is worshiping from home. Last Sunday, more that 70 screens were viewed during our two services, so it’s likely that we had about 95 worshipers who aren’t physically in the sanctuary. (We’re glad you’re in the virtual balcony, but we are still adjusting to so many of our folks being online and not in the pews.) We’ve seen the closure of the American Baptist Church and Abyssinian Christian Church in Fort Collins. Our own denomination has seen a 50% membership decline since the 1980s. Fewer people are entering seminary to prepare for parish ministry, because there are fewer congregations who can afford even one full-time clergyperson. This year, 12 people comprised the incoming Master of Divinity class at Iliff. When I started at Iliff in 1996, the incoming class was 60: five times as large.
One of my favorite Roman Catholic writers, Fr. Richard Rohr, reflects, “In North America and much of Europe, we are witnessing a dramatic increase in ‘nones,’ people who don’t identify with a particular faith tradition. While I ache for those who have been wounded by religion and no longer feel at home in church, the dissatisfaction within Christianity has sparked some necessary and healthy changes. Episcopal Bishop Mark Dyer…aptly called these recurring periods of upheaval giant ‘rummage sales’ in which the church rids itself of what is no longer needed and rediscovers treasures it had forgotten…. This is a difficult and frightening task, which is why we only seem to do it every 500 years or so! If we look at church history, we can see the pattern.”
What Rohr is referring to is the great rummage sale of the Reformation in 1517, the great schism between the eastern and western branches of Christianity in 1054, and the rise of monasticism in the sixth century. And we’re in the midst of another 500-year rummage sale.
So, today we find the church in Europe and North America in a stage of decline, ready for reformation. The funny thing about reformations is that nobody knows exactly where they will lead.
Sometimes in the UCC, we seem to think that if we just work harder, if we just do one more social justice project, if we just expand our program offerings, it will turn things around. And to be honest, we’ve been pretty good at holding back the flood here at Plymouth. But even if, like Hans Brinker, we keep our finger in the dyke to hold back the torrent, the dam isn’t going to hold forever. American Christianity, mainline Protestantism, the UCC, and even Plymouth will look very different in 20 years, even if none of us knows quite how.
The key to successful reformation is to get rid of the bathwater and have the wisdom to hold fast to the baby and not throw her out, too. The 1517 Reformation threw out plenty of bathwater, and there was some baby that got tossed out as well, and we’ve re-adopted some of those things. For instance, when I was growing up in a New England Congregational church, the only vestments clergy wore were academic robes, never a stole around their shoulders and certainly not a cassock alb, like I’m wearing right now. We adopted those gradually as an acknowledgement of our ecumenism. I never saw liturgical colors growing up. Today, I see gifts in monasticism. And I am deeply informed by mysticism and contemplative Christian spirituality, which also went by the wayside. Thankfully, we’ve retrieved some of that tradition.
I’m not aware of anyone who can tell just what the future of Christianity is going to look like. That can be scary, because we know it will be different, yet we’re not quite sure how. Part of our task in the coming years is to identify the baby and preserve it carefully, even as we drain the bathwater and let it go. It’s a matter both of embracing change while also conserving the best pieces of our tradition that are central to who we are as Christians.
Always reforming means that we have to embrace change and ride the wave. It also means that we need to spend time doing deep, thoughtful discernment with God about where we are being led to change and why. I pray that we have the grace to listen to the God who is still speaking and calling us to be the church.
May it be so. Amen.