Tapping 95 Theses

Paula Northwood October 29, 2017

Readings: “Invitation,” by Mary Oliver; Habakkuk 2:2–4; Matthew 21:23–32

Five hundred years before the birth of Christ, the prophet Habakkuk wrote:

And then God answered: “Write this.
Write what you see. Write it out in big block letters
so that it can be read on the run. This vision-message is a witness
pointing to what’s coming. It aches for the coming—it can hardly wait!
And it doesn’t lie. If it seems slow in coming, wait.
It’s on its way. It will come right on time.
“Look at that person, bloated by self-importance—
full of themselves but soul-empty.
But the person who repents, who has a right heart, and stands before God through loyal and steady believing
is fully alive,
really alive.”

And from the gospel of Matthew:

And Jesus asked the religious leaders, “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors, prostitutes, refugees and the marginalized understand the realm of God more than you. For John the Baptist came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors, prostitutes, refugees and the marginalized believed him; and even after you saw the truth, you did not repent; you did not change your hearts and believe.

And, from the 95 theses that Martin Luther tapped with a nail to the Wittenberg church door, thesis number one:

When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said “Repent,” he intended that the entire life of believers should be repentance.

Will you join me in a spirit of prayer?

Soften our hearts, open our minds and fill us with your spirit. Amen.

*             *             *

October 31 marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. In 1517, a Catholic priest named Martin Luther was concerned about problems within the church, so he nailed 95 theses, or ideas for discussion, to the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany. His hope was to foster conversation about ways to improve the church he loved. This was standard procedure at the time. If you had a topic for debate, you tapped a nail through your document to the church or university door. Everyone read it and then set up the date for debate. Luther’s document was longer than most: 95 items up for debate is a lot. This provocative act of nonviolence sparked an event that now symbolizes the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

Instead of bringing about internal change at the time, Luther was excommunicated. His actions and ideas, and those of other reformers, resulted in new branches of Christianity, now known as Protestants, derived from the word “protest.” Did you realize that you are protesters? The resulting movements led by Luther, John Calvin, Huldrych Zwingli and other reformers helped renew focus on scripture, faith, grace, Christ and God’s glory. It also led to persecution, torture, death, conflict and severe fractures and divisions within the Christian church.

Of course, the Reformation didn’t happen in a day. Although we remember Luther’s posting the 95 Theses as a focal point, it was in fact part of a far larger movement of change, not only in the church but also in political, social and intellectual arenas. Luther was asking for the church as an institution to self-reflect, to look at its original intention and see the distortions and repent.

If we tap into the theme of repentance, we find throughout our sacred scriptures a call to repentance. In Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament, the word for “repentance” is תְּשׁוּבָה, teshuvah, which means turning, or turning around, or returning. This isn’t about self-flagellation or self-condemnation, but about change—a change of direction, a change of focus, a change of orientation. It’s about turning back to God, returning to your best self, turning away from the things that separate or distract you from who you are called to be.

In Greek, the language in which the New Testament was written, the word for “repent” is μετανοέω, metanoeo, which connotes not regret or feeling bad but rather change—a change of mind, a change of heart, a change of ways. It’s not about beating yourself up or punishing yourself or berating yourself. It’s about changing for the better, making a fresh start, doing things differently. It might come out of a realization that you’ve done something you shouldn’t have or not done something you should have, but it’s not primarily about looking back in regret—it’s about looking forward in hope and commitment. You can love who you are and who you are becoming. It’s not one or the other.

Every religion is subject to becoming distorted and institutionalized over time. It seems that the faiths of Abraham—Christianity, Judaism and Islam—experience a need for reform about every 500 years. When that happens, new and vigorous expressions of faith break out, new light breaks forth, new leaders emerge, new understandings and calls to faithful action occur.

Scholars think our Hebrew text from Habakkuk was written around 500 to 600 BCE. The prophet Habakkuk initiated this conversation based on his distress about God’s “inaction” in the world. He wanted to see God do something more, particularly in the area of justice for those who did evil. Habakkuk also called God’s people to repentance, to change their hearts and live in the right way, for they had grown complacent.

In her book The Great Emergence, author and religion professor Phyllis Tickle used the analogy of “The 500-Year Rummage Sale” to describe this cycle of religious change over the years. Tickle said that, historically, the church “cleans house” roughly every 500 years, holding what she calls a “giant rummage sale,” deciding what to dispose of and what to keep, making room for new things.

Looking back over 2,000 years, the time of Christ was the first rummage sale, an era Tickle calls “The Great Transformation,” when a man named Jesus sought to reform Judaism by calling for repentance. Around 500 CE we see intense dogmatization of the faith, capitalizing on the creeds created at the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE. Decisions made by Emperor Constantine resulted in the Empire (that had crucified Jesus for treason) now adopting Christianity. In the centuries that follow, we see the diminishing of the Roman Empire and the start of the time we call the Dark Ages. In this period, the church entered an era of preservation as the church spread, with monks and nuns practicing the monastic tradition in abbeys, convents and priories. Next, at the beginning of the new millennium in 1054, came “The Great Schism,” when the Christian Church split into the Eastern and Western branches that we still see today in the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches.

Then in the 1500s, “The Reformation” resulted in new branches of Christian tradition, with different understandings of how people relate to God personally through direct prayer and individual interpretation of the Bible. The resulting reformation has resulted in over 40,000 Protestant denominations, associations and sects: 40,000!

Throughout history, religious groups have often gone to battle against each other. It’s hard for us to imagine how they tortured and killed each other over perceived heresies like adult baptism, differing views of transubstantiation, access to scripture and other theological issues. In our recent history, we have seen Christians persecute Jews in Europe, Catholics and Protestants at war in Ireland, Orthodox Christian Serbs against Muslim Bosnians and, even now, Christians banning Muslims from entry into our country.

We act disgusted by such discrimination, but we know we still have our squabbles; we have them in our churches. When I was growing up it was made clear to me that Catholics were not as exemplary Christians as Mennonites were because they drank beer . . . well, that’s the only thing I could see that was different. My family rarely went to movies, but we did see one about Martin Luther and how he changed the course of history. It must have been at the 450th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. I was shocked when I found out that Martin Luther had been a Catholic priest, as had Menno Simons, the founder of the Mennonite Church. What’s all the fuss? Protestants and Catholics in my home town were not persecuting each other but they remained separate and judgmental toward one another.

Humans are a people of conflict. I don’t believe we enter this world with original sin, but we have to admit we develop selfish behaviors at an early age. We see and experience the world differently and we argue and fight even over the smallest of things. I know a couple where one is a bit more fastidious than the other. They tell a story about how one loves poppy seed bagels, and she was inadvertently leaving poppy seeds on the counter. They got into a big fight about it . . . until they started laughing and realized, really, a poppy seed? It’s so tiny! Now whenever they start to argue about neatness, one just says “poppy seed” and they stop.

If what Phyllis Tickle says is true, that every 500 years or so there are tectonic shifts in the Christian tradition, resulting in huge changes of both understanding and of practice, is the church ready for its next giant rummage sale? Are we in the midst of it?

Many of you have seen how the church has changed in your lifetime. Not so long ago, the church was the center of most families’ lives—religious and social. Everyone went to church on Sunday mornings and often evenings, too. Compare that with today when church attendance, or even affiliation, is not the norm. And yet, people who identify as “spiritual but not religious” are on the rise. God is still important, but identifying with a particular religion is not. Our understanding of science has progressed exponentially, forcing us to continue reconciling scientific and religious thought. We are culturally more diverse. We are living longer. Family units take a variety of forms. We are a global community, no longer confined to the boundaries of our physical neighborhoods. We have access to facts, data, opinions, fake news and information instantly through computers we keep in our pockets. Communication and access to news is immediate and unfiltered. Our minds are changing (for better or worse) with the way we process information. It seems our civil discourse is less civil in the society at large and even in church. How could these things not alter how we understand who we are, why we exist and where God is in our lives?

Sixteenth-century Christians confronted issues that still face us today. These questions include what it means to be a Christian and how to still co-exist with neighbors who hold fundamentally different views. Examining previous generations’ approaches can offer us a richer and deeper understanding of possible ways forward. The reformation of the church is not an end in itself: The church’s reformation is for the purpose of engaging in self-reflection that leads to positive change. “To change one’s heart” serves to set people free from a self-centered personal piety, and inspires new life, love and hope.

Mary Oliver wrote of such change in the poem read earlier:

I beg of you,
do not walk by
without pausing to attend to
this rather ridiculous performance.
It could mean something.
It could mean everything.
It could be what Rilke meant, when he wrote:
You must change your life.

Change is difficult. It feels painful especially when we did not invite it. But we find ourselves in a time of change in our world and in our church. Are we entering a new era of a religious movement? It is difficult to see it when you are in the midst of it. I think we know we need a faith that crosses human divisions, seeks common ground, engages diverse cultures and embraces social causes together. Here at Plymouth, we have held together for 160 years in spite of differences. While we may not be very racially diverse, we have in our membership all kinds of theological diversity. There are members who practice Christianity and Buddhism and others a Christian Native Spirituality. Others who are more humanist, universalist and Unitarian. There are families that combine Jewish and Christian practices in their home. We have members who happily identify as atheists and agnostic and others who are traditional Christians, even orthodox. We have members who are Republican, Democrat, Independent, Libertarian, Green Party and more, I imagine. Some of you are here for the music, others for meditation, others for the preaching, others because of our children’s programs, and even more because of our outreach and social action programs. Somehow, in our history, we have found a way to be together as one body of faith and love without falling apart!

We are living in a world where there is intense and often hostile polarization. Repentance, turning around, changing one’s heart, means stepping out of the “either/or” or the “us versus them” traps wherever we see them. Can we model to the world how to get along in the midst of difference and diversity of opinion? People often talk about churches living in harmony as if that meant with one voice. Philip Brunelle will be the first one to say that everyone singing the same note is not harmony. Harmony happens when people sing different notes, and some may even sound discordant in a complex musical piece. We need many voices to sing in harmony. We need your voice.

We have had a rough year with a great deal of change in leadership. We are grieving our losses. Yes, these are serious losses, and yet, at the same time, there are many things to celebrate. It doesn’t have to be either/or (you are either sad or happy); it can be both/and (we grieve our losses and we look to the future with hope and anticipation). We can celebrate that attendance is holding strong in the sanctuary service, with increasing attendance in the Chapel service. We have people coming forward to match new pledges and increased giving to our annual campaign. We have a new Growth Initiative Task Force starting soon. And before long we will have a Transitional Planning Task Force to examine our leadership needs going forward. We are working on a distinguished speaker series. Many people are involved in the educational and outreach programs of the church, and they are going well.

In the midst of all this change, can we see what good thing might come out of it? Can we collectively “turn our hearts” towards a time of self-reflection and new visioning? Can we ground ourselves in our purpose and those values most dear to our hearts and our congregational roots? Can we figure out what leadership model best serves our needs? What is the next chapter in our congregational life history supposed to look like and how do we get there?

Thomas Merton observed that in times of change and creativity, which prompt new behaviors and new forms of ministry, what we often need from God, and what congregations often need from their leaders, is not a quick map to the final destination, but “bread for the wilderness”—sustenance and strategies to help us find our way.

And God answered: “This vision-message is a witness
pointing to what’s coming.
It aches for the coming—it can hardly wait!
And it doesn’t lie. If it seems slow in coming, wait.
It’s on its way. It will come right on time.”

May it be so. Amen.