When Martin Luther posted his ninety-five points for public debate on the door of the Schlosskirche at Wittenberg on this day, October 31, 482 years ago, he was not the first to insist that the church needed reform. In England 125 years before Luther, another priest, John Wycliffe, had raised similar issues at Oxford University. Some say Francis of Assisi in the thirteenth century was the first of the reformers of the medieval church. Others point to earlier examples. Luther was not the first, nor will he be the last. The fact is the church must be under constant reform.
Because the church—in Scripture, worship and tradition—is the bearer of the truth of God, she will never fulfill the message she bears. There will always be a gap between what she declares and what she does. And because the church must always live in a particular time and place, she must always understand and address the questions that confront each generation, bringing to bear God’s truth on the questions of the day.
This sermon is not about the reformations of the past it is about the reformation of the church in the future.
What is the future into which the church is moving?
Because of the nature of my responsibilities here at this Cathedral, I wonder about this question a great deal. Here are some of the features of the future on my list. They are not in any order nor is this my entire list. And you will be relieved to know that there are not ninety-five points I am going to raise this morning. I offer my list to impel you or anyone who will hear or read this sermon on the Internet to look at your list of the questions that perplex us about the future, which the church must address if she is to continue God’s commission.
I worry about the fate of children and youth. My first sermon here over two years ago included this concern. Columbine High School and all the other horrors in the last two years in our schools, I must tell you in all candor, does not surprise me. I have seen among our children and young people a growing sense of alienation that is beyond the usual feelings of teenagers. I attribute this new situation, which has developed right under our noses to two factors—nihilism and neglect.
Recently I read a message from “Generation X.” It is contained in a book published just last year by a graduate student of Harvey Cox, the Harvard scholar of American religion. It is entitled Virtual Faith: The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X. The author, Tom Beaudoin, grew up in a middle-class family, was an altar boy and member of a rock band. He is now working on his Ph.D. at Boston University. He writes about growing up in America in the 1980s and 1990s. After a lengthy analysis of youth culture, especially the movies and music aimed at our kids today, Beaudoin attempts to explain tattooing, the grunge look, increase in violence against self and others. And here is what he says: “When a generation bears the weight of so many failures—including AIDS, divorce, abuse, poor schools … teen suicide, outrageous educational and living expenses, failure of government and religious institutions, national debt, high taxes, environmental devastation, drugs, parents who need to be parented … premature loss of childhood—how can suffering not be an important part of one’s identity?”
Are our children and young people on your list of the questions that perplex us and which the church must address?
Another question on my list does not have a simple single word or phrase to describe it. But as I recount its realties in our lives, you will recognize it.
James Gleick has just published a book whose title says it all: Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything. Does this sound real? Gleick writes: “What is true is that we are awash in things, in information, in news, in the old rubble and the shinny new toys of our complex civilization…. The wave patterns of all these facts and choices flow and crash about us at a heightened frequency. We live in a buzz. We wish to live intensely and we wonder about the consequences.”
Several times during Gleick’s book I remembered a newspaper story I read several years ago about man who led police on wild car chase through three states and stopped only when the car ran out of gas. When the police caught him, and just before they took him away for a psychiatric examination, they asked him why he was speeding for over 300 miles. The man replied that a voice told him that if he let the speedometer drop below sixty miles an hour he would blow up.
Gleick’s book has also reminded me of a novel published three years ago by Milan Kinder. One of his characters observes: “When things happen too fast, nobody can be certain about anything about anything at all, not even about himself.” “The degree of speed is directly proportional to the intensity of forgetting. ” “Our period is given over to the demon of speed, and that is the reason it so easily forgets its own self.” “Our period is obsessed with the desire to forget, and it is to fulfill that desire that it gives over to the demon of speed.”
Are there some essential qualities of our basic humanity, such as memory, self-reflection, self-understanding, that are just slipping away and we feel helpless? Is there some connection between reductionism—the modern idea that we are nothing but a highly evolved accident of cells, fluids and impulses—and the desire not to remember who we are? What other aspects of life today are undermining our basic human dignity? However it is described, a concern that will only increase in the future is the fundamental question of the status of what it means to be a human being and whether that status is related to a belief that we really were created in the image of God and share God’s attributes.
My list about the future into which the church is moving continues. The gap between rich and poor has been steadily growing wider in the world for thirty years now. The environment. It has been estimated that the resources needed for the entire world to have the same standard of living of the United States today would require three times more natural resources than the earth has. If we are moving into a global economy, is it also time to move to a global sense of justice? Genetic information and manipulation. The capacity to map the entire human genome of any person is predicted to happen this coming spring. The persistence of prejudice based on race, gender, religion, ethnicity, orientation operates just beneath the surface of our public and private lives and when it surfaces it is increasingly violent.
What questions about the future are on your list?
Now, here is where this sermon explicitly merges with the Bible readings you heard earlier.
These readings are not subtle. They do not require interpretation, only restatement.
That passage from Micah is an indictment of religious leaders; it is even in the legal language of the day. The Lord brings the indictment. The charge is that the religious leaders preach peace when there are burning issues to address. The punishment is that they will become ineffectual as leaders, without vision. Jesus is just as blunt in today’s gospel. The religious leaders obsess on the privileges of position and the minutiae of ecclesiastical issues and will not lift a finger to provide relief to the real problems people face.
The reform of the church lies today where it has always been—in addressing the large, complex, fundamental questions of the day as the bearer of God’s truth.
Writing from the perspective of the middle of this century, Thomas Merton made this enduring observation: “The big problem that confronts Christianity is not Christ’s enemies.” “The real religious problem exists in the souls of those of us who in their hearts believe in God, and who recognize their obligation to love and serve Him—yet do not!”
Writing from her perspective at the end of this century, Jane Goodall, who has spent over thirty-five professional years studying the natural behavior of chimpanzees in the Gombe reserve in Tanzania, published her spiritual memoir last week and calls it Reason for Hope. She declares: “We will have to evolve, all of us, from ordinary, everyday human beings—into saints.” (A timely reminder on this Eve of All Hollows!)
You and I are the church, the bearers of God’s truth in our generations. Look around you and look at yourself, this is it. Just as God chose the least likely people in the past, so today God continues to prove that his truth is not ours but God’s, by continuing to choose the least likely people today to be God’s presence in the world. As Paul wrote to another congregation in today’s epistle: “When you received the word of God … you accepted it not as human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is at work in you.”
The reform of the church in the future lies in identifying and embracing the large issues of the day, reminding ordinary women and men that each of us is called and equipped by God and proclaiming and acting as if she is the bearer of God’s truth.
The reform of the church is never finished.