This is a good week to be an Episcopalian. In one exciting week, we get All Saint’s Day, All Soul’s Day, and the Feast Day of Richard Hooker, our first proper Anglican theologian. We get to loudly sing about the ‘one [who] was a teacher, and one was a priest, and one was slain by a fierce wild beast.’ We sing our Alleluias to the stirring Sine Nomine by Vaughn Williams. All in all, it’s a good week to shake off whatever complacency has crept into the heart over the plodding Ordinary Time of the summer.
(Also, we have Halloween, which I believe in celebrating. What better way to emphasize unconditional divine love and grace than to freely distribute unearned candy to children you don’t know, who have dressed up in ugly and unappealing ways?)
As Episcopalians, also, we do not have Reformation Day. This is a thing that Protestants*** have on or around October 31. (Know how we have this liturgical time rule wherein feasts cannot move backwards, only forwards, and only certain feasts may eclipse a Sunday? The ELCA, bless their late-blooming-liturgical-renewal hearts, have not such a rule.) So my ELCA brothers and sisters celebrated Reformation Day this past Sunday, and since I was preaching at the church in Williams, a combo ELCA/Episcopal parish, I was asked to preach on the Reformation.
Here is what I said.
Proper 26, Ordinary Time
Matthew 23: 1-12
Reformation Sunday (ELCA recognized)
In seminary, I had a renowned Church History prof who used to refer to the Reformation as ‘The Great mistake’. This drove the lone Lutheran in my class up the wall, every time he did it. Fr. Wright would stand there, sort of looking all Mr. Burns-ish, and poor Mark would sit there, with steam visibly emerging from his ears, until finally, he flatly refused to study church history after about the middle ages with this guy. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
I was thinking about that this week. Reformation, reform is in the air right now. No matter where you look, people are calling for change, calling for something to give. We can’t go on as we have been going, something has to change, something must be different, and here is what it is….. People everywhere nailing their theses to the doors. The GOP candidates have their ideas of what needs to change. The Tea Party has their ideas of what needs to change, Occupy Wall Street–which has now spread to the streets of every major city in the country, they have their ideas of what needs to change too. And certainly, if you put all of those people in a room together, their ideas will not line up.
And within the church too, three weeks ago, at diocesan convention, we passed a resolution, evidently the first in the whole church, asking for a special convention to be called, so that we could begin to reform the entire structure of the Episcopal Church as a whole. I spent a lot of that weekend talking about committees, and constitutions, and canons, all those church-y c-words. All that really boring-sounding stuff that is also pretty important because it is the foundation of how we live in community with each other.
All of that stuff, all of it, is changing. Inside of the church, outside of the church, it’s all changing. We are beginning to discuss things that we have not discussed in generations. We are beginning to talk about things that we have not discussed maybe in the span of our lifetimes.
The theses have gone up on the door, whether we are ready for it or not.
Everything is being called into question. Everything is being challenged. Everything is being reformed.
Which poses the question–how then, do we live?
When we feel called to nail those theses to the doors of the cathedrals of the world, of the churches of our world, how does God want us to act? When people come to us, posing questions that we hadn’t considered, that make us uncomfortable, wanting to reform the things that we hold so dear and unshakeable, how does Jesus call us to respond?
The early church started out as something of a reform movement. Jesus and the disciples were Jewish, in a Jewish society. From most of what Jesus taught, he sounded like the other reforming rabbis of his time– preaching the best of the tradition, of what was already there, and trying to draw the people back to faithfulness, and what they already knew. Not trying to start something new.
But in times of crisis, people polarize pretty quickly. It was one thing to offer critique and questions during a relatively safe period in Jewish history– it’s another thing to do it during a period when Rome has wiped out Jerusalem, and sent the survivors into exile. And so eventually, what starts off as a reform movement within faithful Judaism, ended up as a different religion altogether. And the past two thousand years have been marred by some pretty excruciating history between the two.
So the gospel reading stands as a stark reminder of that history. It was Written by a community that was at war with itself and being attacked all the time by Rome, and that frustration, the hurt and betrayal seeps into the text. We’re getting that part of Matthew where it’s the clearest. There is name calling! There are insults. And standing at this end of the past two thousand years, it’s hard not to cringe, a bit.
But, like I said, let it be a reminder. A reminder of the choice that any sort of reformation poses. The choice that was there, two thousand years ago, and the choices we have again today.
Because whenever anything, is faced with questions, with protests about what they’re doing, and why they’re doing it, whenever anyone is faced with those challenges on the door, we have to make a choice. Either open our arms to it, take it in and work through it in some way, or close it out, ignore it, and shut down. That’s the choice.
The reason my old professor called the Protestant Reformation the “Great Mistake” was not that he was in favor of the pope, or in favor of selling church offices.
He lamented that the Roman Catholic Church split. He was upset that the pope couldn’t listen to Luther’s critique until well after it was too late, and instead, punished him for challenging the church’s authority. And in the ensuing years, the rift between Catholic and Protestant spread to include hundreds, if not thousands of offshoot little Protestant denominations, all because no one could sit down and talk through their problems in church.
That was the mistake. The church couldn’t listen. It made the wrong choice.
And like the frustration we see in the gospel, it helped fuel bitterness and conflict for generations.
Even though it can feel threatening at times, reform comes from love. It comes from loyalty. No one wants to fix something they don’t care about. And so our choice, in our day, cannot be one of fear. We can’t be so self- protective, so crouched over in a corner that we miss where the Spirit is trying to lead us.
Because God, somewhat shockingly, does not give up on God’s people. The same God who sent the prophets, and came down personally, still hasn’t given up on us, despite our continued attempts to be stubborn and sad. God sends us reformers, and breathes the Spirit through our stale world, again and again.
The least we can do is listen.
*** This would not include us. ‘Protestant’ indicates a church that actually went and protested the Roman Catholic church, or some aspect thereof. We, on the other hand, basically wandered away, in the dead of night, first in a huff, then slower and slower. Finally, we sulked in our corner of England, when we realized that the pope had not chased after us, armies in tow, to win us back, in the manner of a romantic comedy ending. It was traumatic for many.