The Times They Are A’Changin’: God’s Call to Reformation
About 13 years ago, my wife and I drove up to Duluth, MN for a concert. Bob Dylan and Paul Simon, together, outside, in a park right on the shore of Lake Superior. Beautiful venue, great concert. Bob Dylan was the closing act of the two. Duluth is his hometown, so when he came on stage, he pointed and said, “I grew up on that hill over there. It’s good to be home.” Then he launched into his first song, and that was the last time he spoke to the audience until almost near the end of his set. He said, “I’ve got a feeling that this next song is just as relevant now as when I wrote it.” And then he started the intro to the song we just heard, The Times They Are A’Changin.’
Oh the times, they are a changin’. No kidding, Bob. The world around us, the thoughts, ideas, perceptions, the ways in which people relate to each other, the way information is distributed…we are living in a time that is vastly different from even just 20 years ago.
Yes, there is no doubt that the world is changing. In her book The Great Emergence, Phyllis Tickle’s theory is that every 500 years, there comes a gigantic shift in the way the world, and particularly religion, experiences reality. 500 years ago was the Protestant Reformation. 500 years before that was the great schism between the eastern and western Christian churches. 500 years before that was the fall of the Roman Empire and the beginning of the Dark Ages in Europe. And 500 years before that was the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. She senses that right now, we are in an age of transition, a time of shifting, a period of changing priorities and perspectives. It’s a time that she is calling “The Great Emergence.”
During our Wednesday Lenten services, we’re exploring the theme, “Listen, God is Calling!” Each week we’re exploring a different aspect of that call, through the lens of Scripture and in conversation with a pop song from the last 40 years. Last week we looked at God’s call to justice through the lens of the Bruce Hornsby and the Range song The Way It Is. Today, we listen for God’s call to reformation.
What are we emerging from? How are we being reformed, literally re-formed, formed again? How are we being transformed? Where is this emergence taking us as a society, as a church, as the people of God?
We’re Lutherans. Reformation is something we ought to get. It’s part of our DNA, part of our religious heritage, part of our tradition. When Martin Luther translated the Bible from Latin into German, he did so because he believed in the importance of the people being able to hear and read the gospel in their own language. We remember his contribution to theology, his insistence that we are saved by grace through faith, but just as important in many ways was his idea that you and I, the everyday common folks, should be able to experience the Word of God in our own context. That we ALL are part of the body of Christ, that we ALL serve as “little Christs” to one another, that we ALL make up a priesthood of all believers, not just the folks who wear the funny collars and go to seminary.
We now live in a world that is suspicious of the church, and of institutions in general. We live in a world that is divided, that is divisive. We live in a world where technology has both made communication more accessible and has made relationships more distant. We live in a world where people no longer just belong to the church that their parents did, or practice the same faith. It’s no longer enough to build a church and wait for people to come in. We live in a world where truth is questioned, where everything is relative, where folks claim to be spiritual but not religious, where the church is increasingly seen as an irrelevant dinosaur that is hopelessly behind the times and out of touch with the world’s needs.
It doesn’t have to be that way. It shouldn’t be that way. The world may have changed, but the fundamental needs of people have not. And we, as people of faith, as those who follow Christ, we have what the world so desperately needs. The good news of the gospel has not changed. Our need for that good news has not changed. The brokenness of humanity, our broken relationships, our struggles with the powers of sin and pain and death, those things have not changed. Our need for grounding, our need for roots, our need for connection, our need for self-actualization, our need to be provided for physically…none of that has changed.
What has changed is what it looks like. What has changed is how those needs manifest themselves.
And so as the church, we also must change.
And that shouldn’t be scary for us, especially for those of us whose religious heritage is defined by reformation, by change. It’s not the gospel that’s changing, it’s not God’s Word or God’s message for us or God’s presence with us that changes, but rather it’s how we are taking that message to the world, it’s how we are following Christ to where Christ is at work, it’s how we respond to the new and different ways in which God is calling us to perceive God’s work in the world around us.
“I am about to do a new thing,” God says in our reading from Isaiah. “Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”
What are the new things we are being called to be a part of? What is it that’s springing forth in the lives we see around us? How are we being called not just to “go to church,” but to do church, to be church, to climb out of that fishbowl and actively engage the world? This call to reformation isn’t a call to change just for the sake of change. Just because something is new doesn’t mean it’s automatically better or right, but by the same token, just because something is older doesn’t mean it’s automatically better or right, either. Theologian Jaraslov Pelikan once wrote that traditionalism is the dead faith of the living, but tradition is the living faith of the dead. Tradition helps keep us grounded, but when it ceases to be a tool for God’s mission and becomes a god unto itself simply for the sake of tradition, then it has lost its purpose. On the flip side of the coin, change helps us experience God in new ways and engage the world with fresh ideas, but change for the sake of change can also become its own god and lose its moorings, lose its foundation. We use words like “traditional” and “contemporary” as though they are at odds with one another, as though in order to be one way you cannot possibly be another way. It’s really our vocabulary and our orientation that needs to change. We can’t afford to spend time and energy arguing over styles or terminology, wanting things either the way we knew them when we were younger or changing just so that we can be more comfortable and fresh. Our focus must be outward. How does doing what we do serve the needs of the world around us? Are there things that we do that need to change in order to better meet those needs? Are there things that need to remain the same to best meet those needs? Are there things that have changed over time that need to change back to the way they once were to best meet those needs? How can we best proclaim the gospel through our words and our actions in a language people will hear and understand and respond to?
When I was in New Orleans in 2009 with our church youth for the National Youth Gathering, a street musician who I had befriended during our time there played a special thank you song for our group. It was actually another Bob Dylan song called Forever Young, a beautiful blessing. Before he sang it to us, he told us thanks for our time there, and for the work we had done both in service projects but also in bridge-building and healing post-Katrina through our loving attitudes. He said, “too often, church folk come to this city just to tell us we’re all going to hell. You guys came to help, you came to be with us and not against us—I’ve learned more about Jesus by watching you 37,000 Lutheran kids this week than from any fire and brimstone preacher I ever heard.”
And then he played his song for us, and for that moment we WERE the church, we were at worship, and God’s blessing was on that song as it became a hymn there on that street corner in the French Quarter.
This kind of stuff doesn’t just happen, it doesn’t occur in a vacuum. I’m not a fan of when people try to box things into nice neat steps or progressions, because very seldom does real life happen in that way. Life is generally messier than that. However, in our Lenten series this year, I sensed a sort of progression as I was putting things together. First was our call to repentance. We look in the mirror, we are honest with ourselves when it comes to our own brokenness. Then we examined God’s call to reconciliation, a re-joining of human relationships and our relationship with God that can only truly happen if we’ve been honest about the hurt and brokenness that we’ve been a part of and caused. Our next call from God that we looked at, the call to unity, is a recognition that we are all different, but united in a common call and mission from the God we love and serve. True unity cannot happen without repentance and reconciliation. Last week was God’s call to justice, which we as a church cannot follow without Christian unity and without recognizing our unity as humankind. And it is that call to justice, that call to help meet the deepest needs of a changing world, that brings us to God’s call to reformation. Our call to be re-formed, to be formed again as the church, to take the shape in which God is molding us to be God’s hands and feet in a world whose needs are the same, but for whom the way we engage those needs must be different.
We are living in exciting times! God is doing a new thing, re-shaping us for mission. Some things may look exactly the same, some things may look radically different, but when we step back and take a look at the overall shape of the church, something will become very apparent.
If we’re the ones who have done the shaping, the church will look just like us. It will be in our image, the way we want it, to serve our own needs.
If God’s the one who’s done the shaping, the church will look like the cross. It will be in the image of Jesus giving of himself in sacrificial love for the sake of the other.
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church