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Reformation in Crisis

For the proclamation of the Word on Reformation Sunday, we had a very special zoom-edition Reformation play from the Lord's Players. Video and script below.

Pastor Serena:

Hi everyone! Wow! I can’t believe that I am on a zoom call with so many amazing leaders in the church! Thank you all for being here today!

All: (“Happy to be here.” / “Of course!” / “It is my pleasure.” / “Zoom is pretty amazing, huh?”)

Pastor Serena:

Wow! Thank you, but, umm, let’s remember to speak one at a time, and mute ourselves if there’s any background noise, OK? Thanks!

Well, the reason I invited you all to this call is to ask your advice. You see, I’m really struggling with my sermon for our Reformation Sunday celebration. It’s the same readings we hear every year: The promise of a new covenant from the prophet Jeremiah; the call to “be still and know that I am God” in the midst of chaos from Psalm 46; Paul’s teaching to the Roman church about justification by grace through faith; and Jesus’s assurance in the gospel of John that his disciples” will know the truth and the truth will make us free.”

Martin Luther:

I don’t see what the problem could be. Those are foundational texts of the church. Plenty of law and gospel to work with. Not to mention, you have a whole week to prepare. I preached an average of one sermon every two days, so with seven days to work on it, I don’t know what you’re complaining about. Pastors this century! I tell you…

Katie Luther:

Martin, dear, you promised you wouldn’t insult your respected colleagues on this call! I’m sure the good pastor has a particular reason for her struggles. We should listen first, to find out what that is.

Pastor Serena:

Well, thank you Frau Luther. Yes – there is a particular challenge that I am facing this year.

You see, this has been a year unlike any other in the lifetime of our congregation. This past March, a pandemic virtually shut down the world! Our country has lost more than 200,000 people, with many times more affected through grief, illness, or job loss.

Even those who have not lost someone close to us are still grieving the loss of stability and normalcy. Efforts to protect against the virus have changed almost every aspect of our lives. We can only gather in small groups, once a month, for worship, and we can’t share meals or even hugs. At the same time, I know that most of us are lucky in the protections available to us.

Desmond Tutu:

If I may interject, that is an important point.

As a leader in the global south, I see firsthand how the poor and vulnerable around the world are more vulnerable to both the virus and the secondary consequences. Myself and 87 other Nobel Peace Laureates and world leaders issued a statement in May that “COVID-19 has exposed and exacerbated pre-existing inequalities in our world. The virus, restrictions placed on the majority of the world’s population, and the aftermath will have a devastating impact on the most vulnerable.”[1]

While I recognize the direct challenges faced by your congregation, Pastor Serena, I hope you will not neglect your care for the global church in this crisis.

Pastor Serena:

I hear your concern, Archbishop. This crisis should be calling us all into deeper compassion and care for our neighbors near and far, but that’s part of the challenge I am struggling with. It seems that compassion has lost ground to anger and accusation in this time of stress.

Everything – even the pandemic that impacts all of us - has become politicized. We are focused more on defending our respective sides than paying attention to other peoples’ pain.

And I can understand why. People are feeling anxious, frustrated, and exhausted. We don’t have the mental and emotional resources to think self-critically or to seek to deepen our understanding of other people’s perspectives. We’re too focused on processing our own trauma.

It’s a difficult context in which to call people to Reformation.

Johann VonStaupitz:

But why is reformation your goal? I have seen first-hand the profound and disruptive consequences of pushing too hard for change, especially in a time of social upheaval.

I was Martin’s supervisor in the Augustinian order when he was wrestling with his conscience, and I counselled him to trust the sacraments and the teachings of the church. He was so tormented by the fear that he had not done enough, but I fear that in focusing on grace alone he went too far in the other direction. He lost the necessity of good works.

His teaching tore the church apart, and what good did that do? He may have found peace for himself, but he started a war. And I cannot help but wonder about the consequences of his rejection of a religion of works. Perhaps if the churches that his Reformation spawned had not rejected the essential need for good works in salvation, things would be better now.

Martin Luther:

Johann, you were always a good friend, even when we disagreed, but you are wrong about this. Reformation brings conflict, but when there are core problems in the church or in the world, that conflict is necessary.

When I was called to renounce my writings, my life was on the line. The power of both the church and the state called on me to bow to their authority. I did not respond without careful thought. I spent the night in prayer and consultation, but in the end, I could not give way for the sake of safety or peace. As I said at the time,

“Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason …, I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. Here I stand, I can do no other. May God help me.”

We serve not human authorities, but God, and faithfulness to God’s truth must take priority. Surely Pastor Serena should not violate her conscience simply in order to preserve the peace.

Katie Luther:

Indeed not, and there are other considerations, as well. Johann has pointed to the violence and schism that attended the Reformation, but it also brought freedom to so many.

My own story is just one example. Were it not for Martin’s convictions, and his willingness to face risk in the service of conscience, I would have remained trapped in the Convent to which I was sent by my family at age five – forced to live a life of virtual captivity, and with my God-given gifts as a mother, business manager, and partner in the Reformation suppressed.

The willingness to defy authority and push back against the oppression of those without power – like the poor peasants whom Martin pastored, and who motivated him to speak out against indulgences - is as much a part of the story of the Reformation as the theology of salvation by grace through faith.

Martin Luther:

Yes indeed! I may be known as a bit of a hot head, but my motives were pastoral. When people are being hurt by a teaching or a practice of the church, Reformation is needed!

Johann VonStaupitz:

I know the depth of your pastoral heart, Martin. But why not make space for difference without division?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

At times that might be possible, but context matters. There is no point in talking about “the right way” to engage in conflict without reference to specific circumstances.

I have certainly called for commitment to unity. In my book, Life Together, I laid out my understanding of our call to live together in Christian community, but that presumes the complete integration of faith into daily life. The reality of the world is that this rarely happens, and then we are challenged to identify the ethical course of action in a sinful world, which sometimes means not only conflict, but actions that we would abhor in other circumstances.

Ultimately, the context is where ethical decisions are made. As I wrote, “when the ethical is conceived without reference to any local or temporal relation, without reference to the question of its warrant of authority, without reference to the concrete, then life falls apart… the ethical is destroyed by its being detached from its concrete relations.”[2]

Martin Luther:

I never thought of it that way. I tend to be an absolutist when it comes to theology: Grace Alone, Scripture Alone, Christ Alone. But I did express a related argument in the creation of my German Mass. I created a form of worship for the churches of the Reformation to give them a centering liturgy. But I never wanted that liturgy to become untouchable. Worship needs to meet the needs of the people, not the other way around.

I supposed the same principle applies to the way we are called to live out our faith. Our practices must serve the purpose of building faith. If they don’t do that, then change. We must not prioritize the form over the effect.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

Exactly, we need to consider the impact of our faith in the actual circumstances of our lives. Just as you never meant to create a new denomination, Dr. Luther, it was never my goal to spilt from the established church in Germany in the lead-up to the second World War. But myself and other leaders of the Confessing Church found that we had no option. We had to be faithful to God, not to human leaders.

Not only that, but given the genocide that we witnessed, we had to do more than object. In my early days as a pastor I never could have imagined participating in an assassination attempt, but the alternative was to stand by while innocent millions were slaughtered. Even if it damned my soul forever, the murder of one murderous man was the lesser of two evils.

Karl Barth:

I was also a member of the Confessing Church, and I think it is important to make it clear that the importance of weighing the specific situations does NOT mean that all truth is relative.

I drafted the Barmen Declaration, which was the response of the Confessing Church to the corruption of the German Church by the Nazi Party. The central claim of that declaration was that the only source of revelation is the Word of God in Christ Jesus. Any effort of human authorities to demand our loyalty or to impose their will over the church of Christ must be rejected.

Pastor Serena:

That brings me back to the challenge of preaching these texts in my context, Dr. Barth. I want my sermon to be about the revelation of God to God’s people, AND I want it to speak to this current moment that we are in. How do I do that without being accused of being too “political”?

Karl Barth:

My advice to preachers has always been to “preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.” They don’t have equal authority, but the authority of scripture has to be applied to the realities of the day.

Pastor Serena:

I think my challenge is that people these days don’t agree about what the realities of the day really are. We listen to different news sources – we are reading different newspapers, so to speak – and thus we have wildly different views about what is really going on.

In all honesty, Jesus’s promise from this gospel feels like a slap in the face. “You will know the truth and the truth will make you free….” What happens when the truth is up for debate?

Desmond Tutu:

I believe that my experience in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa is relevant to your question.

The Commission was created as a tool to help heal the deep, violent wounds of my county, South Africa, in the wake of apartheid. The Commission heard evidence of horrific war crimes, but It was unlike the tribunals that prosecute such offenses. We did not hand out punishments. In most cases, there was amnesty for those who told their stories. The goal was truth without retribution, truth separated from the context of winners and losers.

We understood that we were ALL losers in the violence and conflict that had destroyed so many lives. So, we committed to making space for truth as a means of healing. The point was not to prove one’s own innocence, or the rightness of one’s side. The point was to heal the broken bonds of our humanity.

In South Africa we have a belief called ubuntu. This word means “my humanity is bound up with your humanity. I cannot be whole until we are all whole.” When we understand this connection, we can face the truth of how we have been hurt, without wanting vengeance; we can face the truth of how we have hurt others, without wanting to defend ourselves.

This is the truth that heals. This is the truth that Christ promises will set us free, because it is the truth that bonds us together in our shared identity, made in the image of God.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

I was not familiar with the idea of ubuntu, but it reflects my sense of ethical responsibility as a Christian. We cannot disconnect our well-being from the well-being of others. My own safety is not worth protecting if others are being harmed.

Pastor Serena:

I think you are right, Archbishop Tutu, and Dr. Bonhoeffer. Recognizing our inter-dependence may very well be the Reformation that the 21st Century American church needs. In our context, we tend to read scripture as though it was written to us as individuals. But what if the understanding of ubuntu re-shaped our life together in the church? What if we were to hear all of these readings with an understanding of our identity as the body of Christ – inseparably linked to each other?

Katie Luther:

Well, the reading from Jeremiah is certainly written to the people as a whole. God’s covenant is not with individuals, and the promise is for a transformation that they will all share.

Desmond Tutu:

Of course, the promise is not for the immediate end of all conflict. Remember that Psalm 46 calls us to be still and know God in the midst of the nations in uproar, but the promise is that God’s action is for peace.

Martin Luther:

And the reading from Romans assures us that there is “no distinction.” We all fall short, but the gift of grace draws us all into faith, through no merit of our own.

Karl Barth

Yes. The truth that Jesus promises in the gospel is not about my truth, vs. your truth. We are made free as we are all drawn to Christ as disciples and submit to his truth, expressed in his word.

Pastor Serena:

Wow! Thank you all so much. Not only do I have a good idea for my sermon now, I also recognize how connected we are all – across our very different circumstances. I and my congregation are part of the same mission that all of you have given your lives to over the centuries: the mission of witnessing to the grace of Christ with commitment and reverence, even if that witness means calling for Reformation!


Thanks Be To God!

[1] [2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995, p. 268.


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