Tag Archives: reformation

Reformation 500 – The Next 500 years for Lutherans, Protestants and the Church

This year is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s famous act of nailing his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg on October 31st.

This act is considered by many as the beginning of the Reformation.

For Lutherans, Martin Luther’s particular witness to the gospel of Christ forms the basis of our confession and understanding of the Christian faith.

So as Reformation 500 approaches this year, Lutherans all over the world are commemorating the anniversary (as opposed to celebrating) and we are trying to include brothers and sisters of other denominations, particularly Roman Catholic, where possible.

As I attended the National Convention of the denomination in which I serve, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, we have been asked to consider what the next 500 years will bring for Lutherans, and all Christians.

This question has been rumbling around in my mind for a long time and in a renewed way this 500th anniversary year.

This is not an easy question to answer. It is deeply related to the biggest struggles of European and North American churches, most notably it relates to our experience of decline. Before getting to what I think the next 500 years will hold for us, the issue of delcine needs to be addressed.

Humans have this habit of thinking that what just happened will continue happening indefinitely. We, in this North American context of Lutheranism and wider Christianity, have been experiencing churches that are dropping in membership and attendance, budgets that are getting bigger while giving is shrinking and the average age of those still in the pews and contributing is getting older. And because this is our most recent experience we assume that the future holds more of the same.

But this is actually a really poor prediction model.

Let me put it in different terms.

50 years ago, the same kind of convention that I attended for my denomination would have looked like this: The-American-Lutheran-Church-Constituting-Convention_2-18-13

Now imagine going to someone standing in that crowd and telling them that in a mere 50 years, that the 3 or 4 Lutheran bodies that each look like the above picture will be merged together and look like this when they gather:

19800617_10159029420640541_3990159967040986153_o
Photo Credit – https://www.facebook.com/CanadianLutherans/

Thousands reduced to less than 200.

Those people back in the 50s and 60s would have laughed and laughed and laughed… But this is where we are now. So what would make people today laugh and laugh and laugh… not a prediction of more of the same. But perhaps a predication that churches will be filled once again… filled with a new spirit and new vitality that we would have never dreamed or imagined. It won’t be the 50s again, but it will be something unexpected and new.

You see, we also have to think back 100 years to gain perspective. Much of North American Christianity looked similar to where we are now. There were some large and thriving groups, but lots of small communities barely able too keep up buildings, barely able to pay pastors, barely able to fund seminaries or missionaries or wider church structures. Many church groups were marginal to larger society and many churches didn’t make it and were lost to history.

But think about it, society was in a time of great transition. Conflict was the story of global politics (WW1), immigration was high (settling the western part of the continent), new technologies were changing the way people lived (electricity, telephones, automobiles, modern medicine etc…). And it remained messy for nearly the entire first half of the 20th century.

But this chaotic situation eventually led to many, many people seeking a truth greater than themselves, finding solace in the promises of a God who was in control when the world seemed ready to end, finding comfort in faith despite the rapid pace of new technology constantly changing the world.

We don’t have to think about our current world situation very long to see the similarities, to see that our political and economic world which once seemed to provide a stability for people to live their lives on, is turning into an instability that is only going to get worse before it gets better.

Most predications that I hear about the next 500 or 50 or 5 years tell us that decline will simply continue indefinitely and we are just going to have to accept that.

I don’t.

I don’t think that the antidote to decline is to simply be better sales people for church with flashiest and shiniest features to entice largest slice of a shrinking pie of interested people into church.

I think the church is about to be one of the few places of hope that many people will have to turn to in our increasingly chaotic world. I think that some political leader may just push that red button (and no it will not be like an apocalypse movie) or some aspect of climate change will be pushed over the edge, or some hacker will decide that it is time to empty everyone’s bank account… or most likely I think that through difficult struggle and resistance the average people of the world – who are sick of living under systems that privilege a small few – will decide this is not acceptable anymore.

And a paired down church will have to be ready. Ready to welcome the masses who have no where else to turn for hope. The masses who no longer rely on the invisible forces of the world (governments, international organizations, corporations and civil society) to care for them.

Over the coming years and decades, as most church leaders anticipate more decline, the world is going to surprise us. The world is going to surprise us by needing what the church has to offer.

Let me offer and example.

In 2015,  the National Church Council of the denomination that I serve in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada wanted to challenge our church body to 4 different ways of commemorating Reformation 500. We were encouraged to raise $500,000 for the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), to provide 500 scholarships for students in Jordan and the Holy Land, to plant 500,000 trees and to sponsor 500 refugees.

As the story goes, the intial idea was the above with one fewer zero on each number. But a particular council member said, “let’s slap a zero on these challenges.”

Of course the council did not expect us to meet those goals, but swinging for the upper deck was better than just going for a base hit.

Two years later, we have raised 150,000 for the LWF (3 times the pre “slap a zero on it goal”), we have provided 160 scholarships (3 times the original goal), and we have planted 80,000 trees (almost two times the original goal.

But here is where it gets interesting.

Since 2015, and with several months to go before Oct 31, we have sponsored 540 refugees exceeding the “slap a zero on it” goal and more than 10 times the original goal!

How did we do that?

Well just a couple months after our 2015 national convention, the body of a young Syrian boy named Alan Kurdi washed up on a beach in Turkey. A boy who had been denied entrance to Canada. A boy whose tragic death mobilized the world. 

So did we meet our “slap a zero on it goal” because we are a church of expert refugee sponsors? Hardly.

But rather the world needed what we had to offer. Which was communities small enough to care for families who needed help, but large enough to mobilize enough money, furniture, and volunteers to settle newcomers in our commmnities.

All we needed to do was let our anxieties about decline die just long enough to see that God was bringing about tangible new life through us. God is using us for real resurrection.

It is in this intersecting place that a declining church meets a world in need of hope.

The decline of North American churches in the past few decades is not a never ending trend. But I do think God is using this time to help us shed our baggage. God is letting us struggle so that we can get all the wrong fixes and solutions to decline out of our system. So that we can try trendy music and flashy tech and hip pastors. So we can try to reincarnate the knitting groups and service clubs and curling bonspiels of the past. So that we can get all the complaining and shaming of our family, friends and neighbours over with. So that we can see that nothing we come up with will be the solution to our problems.

God is letting us experience decline long enough to finally die to our memories and nostalgia of the glory days and realize that the only thing the church ever had was the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection. All we ever were at our best are communities grounded in Christ’s new life given for us.

To be honest, I think in many ways the next 500 years for Lutherans and for North American Christianity will look a lot like the last 500. We will continue to be communities where the gospel is preached and where the sacraments are administered. Sometimes we will be strong in number and power. Other times we will be weak and marginalized. But in the end, neither of those realities matter.

That God is answering all the sin and death in the world with resurrection and new life proclaimed in churches just like us does.

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Reformation Four Nine-Nine

John 8:31–36

Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 33They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”

34Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.

Sermon

So confirmands, today you are lucky enough to share this day with the 499th anniversary of the reformation. Now don’t worry if you aren’t entirely sure what “The Reformation” is all about, your parents and families probably aren’t entirely sure either. But today, as you affirm your faith in front the congregation you are standing on the shoulders of a community of people that have gone before you for almost 500 years – The Lutheran community (and Anglican one for some). And Lutherans and Anglicans are just one part of a larger Christian family that has been around for 200 years.

Now the words and promises that you will hear today have already been spoken and made to you in your baptism. But you probably don’t remember your baptism, so we remind you of those promises again today, when you are at an age when you will remember. So you can hear and remember the promises that God has made just to you.

And those promises are the same ones that the reformation was all about.

Reform. Change. Reformation. Change for the better.

Our world talks about change and reform a lot. Political reform, economic reform, environmental reform, social reform – you name it, we are talking about changing it. When we listen to the message around us and to what we as individuals want, change and reform are common themes.

The call for reform and change is not just for change’s sake. The desire for reform comes from a deep need within ourselves. A need to make things better, to make things right. We desire a better life, better circumstances. And at the same time the scariest thing about reform and change, is the fear of loss.

As Lutherans we stand on change, we try to embrace ongoing reform. There are 87 million of us in the world, nearly 3 times the population of Canada. And today, the Lutherans around the world remember that big Reformation from where we began and started.

Four hundred and ninety-nine years ago on October 31st, 1517. A young monk, priest and university lecturer, published 95 theses about change, about religious reform. Martin Luther hoped that his ideas could be discussed by friends and colleagues in a civil manner. Instead, Luther’s writing expressed the growing dissent among the people and pushed into the light issues that had been simmering for decades, which hit Christianity in Europe like a hurricane.

For you see, Luther hit a chord. He connected to that deep desire for change. He identified the issues of oppression in the church and of abuse by the clergy. People were tired of being exploited by the church who made them fear death, hell and purgatory nor did they not want to be continually controlled by the nobility who made them fear soldiers and prisons. As Luther identified these issues, he diagnosed the illness that existed in medieval church.

Figuring out he problem is the easy part though. We are good at diagnosing our problems and knowing that we need and want something different. Luther looked around and saw the suffering of the people and he saw the need for reform.

When we look around at ourselves, we see problems too. We long for change. Here we see a shrinking church membership and at the same time an aging membership. We have heard about financial short comings. And many of us are tired as we give more of ourselves to the church, of our time our money, and of our energy.

And so while Identifying the problem is the easy part, actual Reformation is hard.

When the followers of the Jesus are faced with the prospect of freedom, they balk at the idea. They know their problems too. They struggle under the government of the Romans. And they struggle under the religious rule by the temple priests. But when change and freedom stares them in the face, they would rather stick to what they know. They would rather be oppressed by the Romans and the Jerusalem Temple.

When Luther began proposing reforms to the Church of his day, they were rejected. Even though the Vatican was in debt because of never ending wars and had been bankrupted by the enormous building project of St. Peter’s Basilica, they wanted to stay on the same path rather than actually change.

And the difficulties that christianity faces today in North America are so frightening to some, that congregations are deciding simply to slowly die. To make sure all the surviving members are cared for in the last years of their lives. It is easier and safer to stay the same, even when we can clearly see the problems around us.

And so here we stand. On this Reformation Sunday, on this Sunday of change, we know that we have a problem, we know that we need to reform too.

As Jesus talks to his followers today he reminds them of two simple realities. The truth will make you free. The Son will make you free.

It is the same truth that Luther discovered, the truth that prompted him to begin writing about change in the church.

And it is the same truth that will carry our congregation and our larger Christian family through our problems.

Jesus will set us free.

The reality of our need for change, our desire for reform, is that we cannot do it on our own and and we cannot get it right. As St. Paul writes in Romans, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”.  We know that things could be different, we know that life could be better, but we also know that no matter how hard we try, we cannot keep from hurting others or being hurt, or from causing others to suffer or suffering ourselves, from causing grief or being grieved, or from killing or dying.

And while most people would give up in the face of this news. Luther heard something different. Luther heard the promise that Jesus makes:

So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed

We are all sinners, and we all fall short. Yet, God’s promise is in Christ. As Jesus comes  into our world, as Jesus joins us in falling short and being unable to make things better, Jesus offers freedom.

The Reformation started with this idea, that we cannot really change things, but instead, God is doing the changing. Even though we sin, and fall short, even though we cannot change our world to be the place we know it could be, God is there loving and caring for us. Christ is there, living with, dying and rising again with us.

And God’s grand plan for changing the world, began in the smallest way. A baby born in a stable. A baby like no other. A baby that was divine and human. But God wasn’t done there. God’s next reform was to the idea God loved some and not others, and that God’s love was for those who could earn it. As Jesus preached and taught, he told people, he tells us, that God’s love is for all people. And finally God’s biggest change was in the shape of the cross. On Good Friday, Jesus endured death, yet the surprise of Easter morning was God’s undoing of death’s power over life, God had made a new promise that new life will go on.

It is on these changes and reforms, these promises by God that the Reformation began. And it is on the shoulders of the Reformation that we stand. As Lutherans, we have been given a gift. A gift that came at great cost, a gift that came out of division, conflict and strife. A gift that reminds us that the most important thing the church can do is tell people of God’s love.

And by God’s love, we are set free. We are set free from sin and death. We are set free from our own failures and fears.

Reformation Sunday is about remembering what happened 499 years ago, about remembering and commemorating where we came from. But it also about the reformation that is happening now. The Reformation and transformation that God has been up to this whole time – God has been changing the world, changing us by setting us free.

Amen. 

A Reformation Sermon for Canada and the Ottawa Shooting

John 8:31–36

36So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed. (Read the whole passage here)

Sermon

This week our nation has endured great tragedy.

On Monday two soldiers were run down with a car, and one of the them, Patrice Vincent died of his injuries. And then on Wednesday we all heard the news come over the radio, tv or internet. There had been a shooting on Parliament hill, a solider had been killed at the National War Memorial, and then there were shots fired inside Parliament. Security officials and police locked down Ottawa for hours as the rest of us waited to hear if there was going to be more… more gunmen, more bullets, more violence, more chaos.

In the days following, we learned just how dangerous this situation was. We learned that shots were fired just outside of the rooms where many of the members of our federal government were meeting. We learned that the gunman had passed by dozens of bystanders and had easily gained access to heart of Canadian democracy and government.

And since then, all Canadians have been shaken to some degree. And we have already seen the beginnings of over-reaction to this incident. We have heard our political leaders declare that our enemies will be punished and that our resolve to defend our freedoms will not be shaken. We have seen increased security measures across the country. We have even seen vandalism of a mosque in Cold Lake, Alberta.

As we are left to sort out what to make of these events, it is perhaps appropriate that today we gather on Reformation Sunday. Reformation Sunday is the day we set aside each year as Lutherans to remembers our 500 year history, and where we came from. We remember the catholic monk Martin Luther, whom we are named after, standing up against the injustices of the pope and the church – the selling of salvation, the abuses by church leaders, the exploration of the faithful. We remember that our faith and our beliefs are important. Important enough to die for, important enough to defend.

But on Reformation Sunday we also remember the division that change caused. We remember that people did die because of Martin Luther’s actions. We remember the between 125,000 to 250,000 people that died in the peasants war that resulted. We remember that after Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door the church in Wittenberg, Christianity was split from 2 denominations (Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox) into as many as 25,000 today. And these divisions have been caused violence, chaos, oppression, abuse, suffering and death for 500 years.

Reformation Sunday is day of two realities. Of promise, hope and freedom, contrasted by division, conflict and oppression.

Today, you might notice the red parents that adorn the chancel area. Red is one of the 5 liturgical colours, but it is only used a handful of Sundays each year. Red is the colour we use to symbolize the Holy Spirit. The changing, transforming, reforming work of the holy spirit among us. Red is used on Pentecost when we celebrate the Holy Spirit coming to the disciples, and today Red is for Reformation. However, as Canadians, we might take some liturgical and theological license and think that Red reminds us of our national colour and of the the reality of tragedy, fear and death in our midst. And lastly, Red is used to remember martyrs in the church.

And while the gunman may or may not have considered himself a martyr, we have discovered that Cpl. Nathan Cirillo is in fact the martyr this week, the one who died for principles and for a cause.

Even still, as we are left to make sense of tragedy, Canadians have discovered signs of courage and honour this week. Even as the events of Wednesday unfolded, we saw our news broadcasters deliver calm, respectful, accurate reports of the events, rather than sensationalism. And then the courage of Sergeant at Arms Kevin Vickers was revealed, recounting his dramatic actions that ended the danger and prevented more violence. Then there are the residents of Cold Lake who showed up to clean, repair and show support for the mosque that was vandalized only hours earlier. Then there was the political cartoon from Halifax that captured the emotions of a nation, as it depicted one of the bronze world war one statues on top the of the tomb of the unknown soldier stepping down to Nathan Cirilo below, where only the recognizable feet and argyle socks of his uniform could be seen. It was as if those soldiers from a hundred years ago was saying, “You belong here with us.”

And overwhelmingly, the rhetoric since Wednesday has been for Canadians to remember who we are. To remind us not to lose ourselves to grief and fear, to remember that we are a nation of peace and openness, that our values are about tolerance and freedom.

It was been a week of mixed emotions, of conflicting experiences, of hard-to-make- sense of events. And fittingly, Reformation Sunday is about that too. About the conflicting experiences of division, conflict and war that accompanied the Reformation, as well as the striving for justice, the proclamation of grace and mercy, the hope we have in God’s promises.

God’s promises like we hear Jesus utter today, promises like,

“So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”

And if there is anything to remember today it is that.

Even as Canada struggles with tragedy and celebrates the heroism born out of it. Even as Reformation Sunday demands that we recall the both the gospel proclamation of Martin Luther and the reformers, the bold declaration of grace through faith alone, that there is nothing we can do to earn God’s love and that this belief is important enough to stand up for contrasted with the division, conflict, violence and suffering caused by the reformation. Even as these realities both this week and 500 years old sit with us, ultimately today is not about those things. Today is about what each Sunday is about for Christians.

Today is firstly about Christ. Today is about God and God’s mighty deeds among God’s people. Today is a reminder we simply cannot save ourselves on our own.

Just as in today’s Gospel readings the Jews said that as descendants of Abraham they were slaves to no one (even though they had been slaves to the Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians and now Romans). Just as Martin Luther declared that he and we we were not slaves to law and freed by God’s grace (even though he was threatened by the Pope and others). Just as Canadians declare that we will not loose ourselves to fear, to revenge, and hate.

We are still slaves to all of those things. We are slaves to enemiy nations. We are slaves to the law. We are slaves to fear, fear of the other, fear for our safety, fear of losing power.

No matter what our leaders declare, no matter the bravery we display, the sacrifices we make, the peace we try to uphold. We simply cannot save ourselves. We simply cannot free ourselves.

We are slaves to sin, slaves to suffering, slaves to death, and there is nothing we can do about it.

And that is why today is ultimately about Christ.

Today is about the promise that God gives to slaves. To those enslaved by sin, those enslaved by suffering, to those enslaved by death. Today, is about the promise that God gives to us. The promise that despite our condition, despite our slavery, that God is showing us mercy, God is giving us grace, God is making us free. Free in the son.

And this promise of freedom comes to us first in baptism. In baptism where we drown and die to sin, and where we rise to new life in Christ.

So perhaps it is fitting today, that we are going to extra lengths to celebrate those promises of baptism, because confirmation is really about baptism, about these young people in our midst recognizing their baptism, recognizing the promises made to them in water and word, made by God.

And just perhaps it is a powerful act of defiance against violence, against oppression, against fear for us to bless and support our confirmands. Perhaps it is beautiful act of hope that not only do we welcome again these young people into the Body of Christ, but we pass on this church, this faith, these promises to them. Even while we are slaves to sin, to suffering and most of all to death, we pass on our hope for the future to these young confirmands. A future promised by God in the midst of slavery. A future given by grace and mercy, even though we are dead. A future found with New Life in Christ.

Amen.