Reformation

I was happy to hear this week that our knitting group – the U-Knit-arians – is going to be starting up again. My knitting needs some serious work. 

This news reminded me of one of the most astounding sermons I ever attended. My colleague began the sermon with a lovely hand-knitted shawl over her shoulders. A few minutes into the sermon, she began pulling lightly and slowly at the end of the wool… pooling out row after row…. There were groans from the congregation. She continued pulling, and pulling more… until the former shawl was nothing but a pile of loose wool at her feet. 

We in the congregation were in pain. We knew how much work it would have taken us to create something like that shawl – something of obvious beauty – and it pained us to see that work be unraveled – to be literally undone. 

Next week includes the day when many Protestant Christians celebrate the events of 16th century Europe that have come to be known as the Protestant Reformation – or simply as The Reformation. 

The reformation was no small event. It upended major alignments and systems of power. It greatly limited the domination of the Popes and the Catholic church over Western Christianity. The tumult of the Reformation was driven by many factors, but triggered by some particularly odious actions and policies of the Catholic church. 

One of the most offensive of Catholic policies itself tagged along on the coat-tails of what was a very laudable tenet. Catholic theology says that faith alone is not sufficient for salvation. Instead, it is necessary to also do good works in the world. This puts them in line with us – we say it’s not as much what you belief as what you do that matters. Of course, the Catholic emphasis on holding the right beliefs was and is still very strong. 

But something went very wrong with this very commendable view. As power has a tendency to corrupt, this good impulse was corrupted in the hands of the powerful princes of the church when they declared that an espcially good way of doing good works – and earning salvation – was by donating money to the church. 

Martin Luther, the instigator of the Reformation, was particularly vexed by one papal official who was known to say "As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul into heaven springs." 

The church had created a clever money-making scheme, made even better by the fact that these indulgences – as payment for salvation was called – were also applicable to the dead. It could thus create a never-ending revenue stream for the church! 

Well, Martin Luther was displeased and – as you probably recall – nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg Germany. Most of these were actually rather scholarly and moderate in tone, but not all. Number 85 was particularly challenging to the existing system of power: "Why does the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of St. Peter with the money of poor believers rather than with his own money?" 

Pope Leo X must have been just thrilled to hear that one. 

And so began The Reformation. It had to be painful to its proponents as well as the defenders of the Catholic Church. The radicals had to give up what they knew – they had to put up with a lot of unraveling and undoing in order to change the system. 

I think it’s interesting in a way that we refer to the The Reformation. Perhaps there is built into that language a hope that it will have been the only reformation. 

Luther became a hero. Not quite a Pope, but today, Lutheran schoolchildren hold Reformation Day pageants that re-enact scenes from the life of Martin Luther. The Reformer became the establishment. 

A later Reformation leader – John Calvin – enforced his own new power structure and brutally imposed his beliefs. It was Calvin who had the early Unitarian Michael Servetus burned at the stake for questioning the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. 

And then came the Unitarians. Think of the first and second hymns we sang today. 

We sang about a church of freedom. We sang Marion Franklin Ham’s wonderful words that we would be “free from the bonds that bind the mind to narrow thought and lifeless creed.” This would be “a freedom that reveres the past and trusts the dawning future more.” Some of my favorite words in any hymn. 

So the Unitarians were perfect and, because we had no creed, we never got stuck in our ways or created oppressive institutions that prevented continuing change, right? Wrong. 

The absence of a belief test is no guarantee of openness to continuous change and improvement. 

When the transcendentalist movement sprung up in the late 19th century with its then radical claim that we could all know the divine directly – pushing aside scripture – the Unitarian establishment was not happy. 

The transcendentalist ministers were virtually shunned by colleagues and congregations. 

It was only later – when transcendentalism in turn became part of the establishment – that we became so proud to have people like Ralph Waldo Emerson among us. 

There are two reasons I want to emphasize reformation today. 

The first is that our movement must continually endure the pain of unraveling and undoing of the things that worked for us in the past. The truth is as that great 19th century labor leader Mother Jones offered “Reformation, like education, is a journey, not a destination.” Reformation is never complete. It is an ongoing process. 

We have to recognize – as hard as it may be – that we hold among us customs and ways of being in our congregation that no longer serve us. In this congregation, we can pat ourselves on the backs for the fact that we have managed to unravel some old ways that kept us stuck in the past. 

But we no sooner commend ourselves as Martin Luther and Calvin presumably did, before we have begun to institutionalize and calcify the new order. 

That goes for us too. Even as we open and change, we find new ways to maintain a new status quo. The ways in which we do so may be invisible to us right now. The more our beautiful woven fabric emerges, the harder it becomes to contemplate unraveling and reshaping it – reforming it – in a way that better reflects our vision and better meets the world’s needs. 

How do we know when we are re-forming? We can tell that we are deeply uncomfortable – we are experiencing the feeling of loss that comes with unraveling what we have created. Discomfort is not necessarily a sign of something wrong. It can mean that we are doing the hard work of reformation. 

And second, we need to think about reformation for our own individual selves. Just like organizations, we find ourselves getting good at something – getting comfortable with a particular way of being. 

It may be the way we understand a certain kind of person. It may be what we try to learn. It may be the kinds of books we read or films we see. 

Think of any time that you have really changed – when you fell in love, learned a language or to play a musical instrument, took up a new hobby, or came to church for the first time. 

If you’re like most people, it wasn’t comfortable. You were suffering from the unraveling – disassembly and re-formation of a part of yourself. 

The end to slavery required social and personal reformations. The end to the oppression of women required social and personal reformation. The equalization of rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people has required and will continue to require social and personal reformation. The reformations to come may as yet be unknown to us. That is their nature, as comfortable, seemingly good and true structures need to come crashing down. 

We can only hold ourselves open to those changes, recognizing that reformation – whether systemic or personal - does not come without struggle or pain. We can ask ourselves when we next feel uncomfortable, is there something here that needs to be unraveled and re-formed? Is it time again to enter into that unpeaceable kingdom, as David Wagoner calls it. 

Living and growing is a journey – a journey that can be joyous and painful all at once. But without the journey, there is no life. 

We are going. Heaven knows how we will get there, but we know we will. 

We are going. Heaven knows where we are going , but we know within. 

May it be so.