European Christians had been disputing differences in theology and practice for centuries when Martin Luther, five hundred years ago this Tuesday, nailed a list of 95 points that he was willing and eager to debate onto the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany. For a whole list of reasons that included political situations and economics and the development of new technologies like the printing press, this time the differences blew up quickly and violently and the smoke is just now really clearing.
The Protestant Reformation forced the Roman Catholics to make changes that they had been trying to avoid, and there was a movement called the Counter-Reformation that swept aside a lot of medieval superstitions and abuses, but did it too late and (as some would see it) not thoroughly enough. The Western branch of the Church split off into the Catholics, who recognize the authority of the pope, and Protestants, who do not. The Protestants split into various groups based on what they believe about the sacraments and how the Church should best be organized, with further complicating issues that usually have to do with nationality.
We have a window, over to your right, that is a monument to those days. At the top you can see Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the door. Below is a Scottish reformer named John Knox, over whose shoulder is the thistle that is the national flower of Scotland. Knox almost single-handedly oversaw the development of Scotland into a Protestant (and specifically Presbyterian and Calvinist) nation. Here he is shown telling off the French ambassador in 1572, when Charles IX of France ordered the massacre of over 70,000 Protestants all across France in the space of two days. On the bottom of the window is Roger Williams, exiled from Massachusetts because of being a Baptist, establishing Rhode Island as a colony that allowed freedom of conscience fifty years ahead of William Penn. (Surprising, isn’t it? – the Baptists were the ones who established the separation of church and state in this country.)
The story of the Reformation is usually told in terms of kings and popes, debates and wars, but wild changes were lived out on the local level and it was very direct and personal.. There were times that the ancestors of the United Church of Christ, the Zwinglians, went through towns smashing windows like these because they were idolatrous, graven images. There were thousands and thousands of monks and nuns who had no place to go when their convents and monasteries closed. Who knew how to handle priests who were marrying? Music was being forced into the services and the Virgin Mary was being forced out. In southwestern England, at one point, there were riots where people grabbed the clergy and forced them to say mass in Latin the old way, not because they wanted the pope back, but because they had had enough of the changes and just wanted it all to stop.
It was rough. Change happens, and we don’t always like it. Years later we may look back, though, and say we understand why it had to take place. Or maybe it will take longer than that. When did the Roman Catholics finally admit that people should understand what is being said in public prayer? December 10, 1962 – but it took ten years more to approve the translations.
When I was in tenth grade we had to memorize a long passage from “The Passing of Arthur” by Alfred Tennyson, where a dying King Arthur tells his old friend Sir Bedivere,
“The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
And God fulfills himself in many ways
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.”
Times of great change come with a sense of both loss and hopefulness. They are tiring to live through.
Moses had led the people out of Israel and through great and terrible times in the desert. By the time of his death, the rest of his generation had died, all who had ever lived in slavery and known the Pharaoh’s oppression. The entire people who survived and who would cross the Jordan into the Promised Land by that point had known no leader other than him. At the end of his life it was said,
“Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. He was unequalled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land, and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.” [Deuteronomy 34:10-12]
In the early part of his leadership, however, Moses was not the revered figure we know. This was the man who was confronted by an enslaved Hebrew back in Egypt,
“Who made you a ruler and judge over us?” [Exodus 2:14]
Moses led people like that man to freedom and then heard them shout at him,
“…you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger!” [Exodus 16:3]
He had been the right man for the right time, but eventually it was time to let go, or maybe I should say, to let his people go, because they were headed on into a place which was not to be his place. At the last, he was reminded that the story of God’s people did not begin with him and neither would it end with him.
“The Lord said to him, ‘This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, “I will give it to your descendants”; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.’ Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command.” [Deuteronomy 34:4-5]
Things don’t begin or end with us, either. We are responsible to our forebears, and we are responsible to those who come after us. We receive the gospel and we hand it on. We must do both, and be grateful when we get a glimpse of the future that God has in store – and God knows what we do not: what lies over there, in the distance across the Jordan, in the country that we have not seen nor known and where we may never set foot.
So, let me tell you a little bit about how that grand vision may unfold on the local level in our own day. We are not going to be smashing windows or changing our worship practices. Still, we’re dealing with a situation, in larger terms, similar to what happened with Luther. Technology changed in his day from handwritten manuscripts to printed books. In ours, we’ve already seen it switch from paper to screens.
So, see those speakers on the wall behind me? They were not here when the building was put up, they were added when the last organ was installed. Now that we will be changing the organ for one that works, those speakers are going to disappear. There will be new organ speakers, hidden on this side of the rafters so that they are less conspicuous. We’re also working with a different company to improve the audio sound system and we will add a speaker above the existing black speaker you see on the beam to improve the sound from our microphones. And good news, the new speaker and the existing black speaker will be painted to blend into the wood they are mounted on.
What you will notice, instead of the speakers on the front wall, will be a screen on the right, beside the front window. That will be installed after Christmas and before the new organ, which we estimate will be ready for Easter. (Remember, please that that is an estimate.) The control board for the screen will be at the back of the sanctuary and you may see it as you come in, but not when you are seated.
We will not, I repeat, not be using the projection system to run announcements or try to replace the hymnals. We will be looking for ways this new screen can enhance our worship. You might see a great painting of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea or of the Last Supper. Occasionally, there will be a sermon illustration. There could be pictures of someone’s life shown during a funeral or a memorial service. And we could project a translation while the choir sings an anthem in Latin or Swahili. We are seeking to change in a way that makes use of new possibilities.
When I think about this stuff, I honestly get nervous. It is not my native turf. But I turn for insight to people who have a better handle on it than I do. I don’t mean the techies, but historians like Phyllis Trible who, in turn, cites
“Mark Dyer, an Anglican bishop known for his wit as well as his wisdom, [who] famously observes from time to time that the only way to understand what is currently happening to us as twenty-first-century Christians in North America is first to understand that about every five hundred years the Church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale. …That is, as Bishop Dyer observes, about every five hundred years the empowered structures of institutionalized Christianity, whatever they may be at that time, become an intolerable carapace that must be shattered in order that renewal and new growth may occur.”
“…every time the incrustations of an overly established Christianity have been broken open, the faith has spread – and been spread – dramatically into new geographic and demographic areas, thereby increasing exponentially the range and depth of Christianity’s reach as a result of its time of unease and distress. Thus, for example, the birth of Protestantism not only established a new, powerful way of being Christian, but it also forced Roman Catholicism to make changes in its own structures and praxis. As a result of both those changes, Christianity was spread over far more of the earth’s territories than had ever been true in the past.”
That last part is something that, God willing, I would love to live to see happen again. Yet if it does not happen in my time, I have no doubt that it will happen in God’s time.