Micah 6:6-8; Genesis 1 & 2, selected verses
The secular calendar reads New Years Day, so Happy New Year
to one and all. Let’s hope it’s a good one!
The liturgical calendar turned more than a month ago, and it
begins anew in the weeks prior to Christmas with a season of waiting, of
preparing, of longing, and of expectation.
So, this morning, as we walk through the gate of the secular
calendar’s new year, I want to pause for a moment and cast a gaze back before
looking ahead. I tend to do that every year as the calendar winds down –
writing a Christmas letter to family and friends, pondering the perennial
question of “resolutions,” and so on.
But this year I’m looking a bit further back. OK, way
further back. Five hundred years back, in fact.
This year – 2017 – marks the 500th
the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. More accurately, come October 31,
2017, we will mark the 500th
anniversary of the 95 Theses that
Martin Luther sent, on October 31, 1517, to the Bishop of Mainz. That
thoroughly academic disputation about the selling of indulgences launched what
we now call the Reformation. Though it’s worth noting that, as Oxford historian
Diarmaid MacCulloch put it, “there were very many different Reformations.”
We Presbyterians stand in the line of one particular stream
of that broad river of reform that swept across western Europe in the fifteen
Why should any of this matter to us beyond idle historical
Well, as Anglican Bishop Mark Dyer observed early in the
present century, “about every 500 years the church feels compelled to hold a
giant rummage sale.” The late Phyllis Tickle, in her landmark book, The Great Emergence
, wrote, “Like every
‘new season,’ this one we recognize as the Great Emergence affects every part
of our lives. In its totality, it interfaces with, and is the context for,
everything we do socially, culturally, intellectually, politically, economically.”
Looking back 500 years it’s easy to see that in Luther’s
time political relationships across Europe were changing dramatically as early
democratic impulses threated the stability of monarchies. Entire economies were
transforming as mercantilism eclipsed feudalism. These changes were driven and
enabled, in part, by radical advances in communication technology and the
resulting freer exchange of information and ideas begun when Mainz native
Johannes Gutenberg began fiddling around with moveable type in the mid-1400s.
In other words, everything was changing – and at an
It doesn’t take much imagination to see that we are living
through a similar season.
Rather than moveable type, with the advent of the internet
we have moveable digits, and ideas can travel around the globe almost as fast
as light. You don’t have to look very hard to find economic theorist
speculating about the collapse of capitalism in the face of globalism, and you
really don’t have to look very far at all to find current events that call into
question the political structures we have come to accept as fixed and permanent
right here in the United States.
In other words, everything is changing – and at a pace that
would have shocked Martin Luther.
So, what’s next? God only knows. And, hey, if the process
theologians shape our thinking here, God doesn’t know either. I’m going to
leave that thought aside – not because I dismiss process theology (which I
don’t) but rather because whether you understand God as ruling is sovereign
omniscience or not, we have no way of knowing. Thus our response to “what’s
next” can either be to toss up our hands and await our unknowable fate, or to
engage the present moment with the firm conviction that we can shape the moment
yet to come.
I believe the roll of the church is to engage the present in
faith, trusting that God is calling us to shape the moment yet to come, and to
shape it in particular ways.
In fact, I believe that the church is already doing this in
all kinds of ways that future historians will gather under some catch-all name
like the Reformation, or, perhaps the Great Emergence.
The historian MacCulloch’s observation about “many
Reformations” is profoundly helpful here. If we are, as I and many others
believe, living through another Reformation time, it is helpful to understand
that the first one wasn’t a single moment, a single event, a single
congregation. The first Reformation was not accomplished on October 31, 1517,
in Wittenberg, and the current Reformation will not happen in a single time and
This brings me to an announcement of some news that a few of
you have already heard. No, I’m not announcing 95 new theses!
The news is this: Martin and I have been awarded a grant
from the Louisville Institute to conduct research for a proposed film
documenting communities in the United States where the reformation is
happening. During this 500th
-anniversary year, Martin and I will
spend some time in a half-dozen or so worshipping communities talking with
folks about what shapes their work and worship, and interviewing scholars,
theologians, and activists who are exploring and articulating various visions
of what’ next.
What’s in this for you? Well, in part, we’ve been working on
the edges of this movement of the Holy Spirit for many years now, and we may be
being called to engage it more directly. Whether or not we discern that
intention, we are living through this sea-change together, and we have both the
opportunity and the responsibility to engage it thoughtfully.
So I want to spend a few minutes this morning engaging an
initial question about first principles. The guiding principles of the stream
of the Reformation in which we stand are captured in a few simple statements:
scripture alone, faith alone, grace alone. Or Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, because everything
sounds better in Latin. In other words, scripture and not the Roman Catholic
church, is the highest authority; our faith and not our good works makes us
right with God; and God’s grace not anything we do saves us.
Standing in the line of John Calvin, we add his
great watchwords: we are the church Reformed and always being reformed.
I chose the readings this morning, from Genesis and
Micah, because I believe they point to principles that ought to guide what’s
next for the faith. The creation stories of Genesis tell us that human beings
are made in the image and likeness of the Creator, and thus, for me, this
principle emerges: if each human being bears within the image and likeness of
God then our worshipping communities ought to center on practices of faith and
life that honor that in every single human being.
Micah 6:8 articulates the general principles that
ought to shape those practices of faith and life: do justice; love kindness;
walk humbly with God.
Those are my starting points. What others would you
In looking at what other worshipping communities
are doing, what questions would you ask of them?
One of my convictions, as we engage this project during the
coming year, is that the work of reformation begins at table and is, in a
profound way, centered there. Thus it is good and right and appropriate that we
begin the year together at table.