Four hundred and ninety-nine years ago a German priest and scholar of theology got sufficiently riled up with the injustice he saw in the Church to write out his complaints and post them for public comment in a way that changed the course of western history.
I took a class last spring – History of the Western Christian Tradition – that was my first introduction to Martin Luther and his Ninety-Five Theses. Had heard of them, of course, but hadn’t actually read them.
Gen-Xer that I am, I couldn’t help thinking how very similar they are to a string of linked sentences on Twitter. Was the University chapel door the sixteenth-century version of social media? Perhaps so. Luther’s theses – written in Latin, of course – were soon translated into the vernacular and circulated widely, thanks to the recently-developed printing press and, as we say, one thing led to another.
It was of course more complicated than that. I wrote a short paper on it, several months ago, that I can’t figure out where I filed – so I am telling this story from memory with all the imperfection that implies. There are lots of places you can go look it up, if you are more interested in facts than stories.
There was another story circulating in the news today, about how Pope Francis had made an ecumenical visit to the Lutheran World Federation in observance of the beginning of the 500th anniversary year of the Protestant Reformation. It’s a powerful symbolic gesture; a good story. What we do with that story? It remains to be seen.
I have a soft spot in my heart for both rebels and reformers. I had a conversation the other day with a colleague whose call has led them away from the institutional process into a vibrant lay community ministry which is taking an exciting turn that’s not my story to tell. We talked about transforming the world, doing the work of ministry – and the challenges and benefits of doing that outside the institutional system versus within it.
I have written before that I am an institutionalist. I believe in creating systems that endure – and also in transforming the systems as we inherit them into systems that will adapt and endure long beyond our time. Even, perhaps, adapting by taking forms we cannot now imagine and do not recognize.
I am sure that the historical Martin Luther would raise his eyebrows, at least, at some of the things that contemporary Unitarian Universalism says and does in the name of liberal religion. There are countless generations between us, each new wave of reformers building on the foundations laid before them – and rearranging the bricks into a new structure for a new time.
We contemporary UUs disavow and discard our Christian heritage at our own peril. By neglecting reflection on the errors and excesses of our history, we risk repeating them at their worst. I think about that a lot, and about that line from Leonard Cohen:
There is a crack, a crack in everything:
That’s where the light gets in.
I want to say, don’t be afraid of breaking things. Sometimes things need to break first, so that the pieces may be used for something better. But I would be preaching to myself.