National upheaval is stressful. Within its current comes uncertainty, change and a polarization of the populous, frequently fracturing families and friends. Conversations become dangerous as a mere word can spark a firestorm of debate and condemnation. The only true guarantee is that people will hurt one another – physically, emotionally, spiritually – and that the nation, perhaps even the world, will change.
As I write these words I am, of course, thinking about the Protestant Reformation of 1517. This Sunday is Reformation Sunday, the Sunday each year when the Church remembers the action that set into motion an upheaval that reshaped the world. On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther posted his Ninety-five Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, thereby marking the start of a movement that would divide the Roman Catholic Church and propose a new way to follow God. Luther’s action created division among families, friends and cities. It created change, uncertainty and polarization, as people and communities wrestled with the faithful way to follow God.
Luther was soon joined by other reformers – Philip Melanchthon, Ulrich Zwingli, Martin Bucer – who were succeeded by a second generation of reformers – Heinrich Bullinger, John Calvin, Katharina Schütz Zell – who were followed by a third generation and so on and so on, until today. These individuals and countless others put into motion and sustained a movement that reshaped the European continent and the globe, politically, economically and socially. On Reformation Sunday we remember these individuals; we thank God for their witness; and we seek to learn from their examples, recognizing that they, like us, were people of virtue and vice. We are part of the tradition they started.
As we gather in 21st century America, 503 years after the start of the Protestant Reformation, it is tempting to believe that the movement was inevitable. If we gave it enough time, we suppose, the Protestant Reformation would have occurred and our world would have been shaped in much the same fashion as it is today. In other words, whether it was Luther, Bucer, Calvin and Zell, or another group of people, reform would have been sparked by someone, and we would have ended up in much the same position as we are now. This way of thinking is comfortable when we are confused, overwhelmed and uncertain. However, it is not indicative of who God made each of us to be.
Today we find ourselves at a time of substantial upheaval. Familiar rhythms and institutions have been upended by pandemic, protest or pain. We pray that these upheavals lead to meaningful change, to the birth of new ways of being God’s people together that lead to the flourishing of all people and communities. However, this is not inevitable. Today we find ourselves in the midst of reform; we do not yet know what the future will be. Helping to bring about a world that looks more like God’s kingdom requires the intentional actions of every single one of us. You were specifically created by God; you were not inevitable. You are called to live into this truth.
While we remember October 31, 1517 this Sunday, and think ahead to November 3, 2020, and to the various dates that will be inevitably added to our uncertain calendar, may we also remember that every day is an opportunity to intentionally care for our neighbor and ourselves. May we celebrate this tradition while also recognizing that our actions today create the traditions of the generations that follow. Amidst uncertainty, change and a polarization of the populous, may we be grounded in the truth that our existence was not inevitable, that God is interested in all of us, and that we are already creating the world of the future. May it be full of grace, mercy and hope.