The Plague and the Printing Press to the Pandemic and the Internet: Always Reforming!

Semper Reformanda, Always Reforming! This tired old phrase is trotted out each Reformation Sunday by preachers like myself to encourage our listeners to embrace the need for the reformation of the Church to continue. However, appealing it may sound, Semper Reformanda, to be always reforming, is not a task which is often embraced by the Church. Take for example preachers: we who are called to earnestly exhort our listeners to be about the task of reforming the Church, we preachers, we all too often fail to reform our own preaching, especially when it comes to Reformation Sunday. A quick review of some of my sermons and my colleagues sermons  written for this occasion, reveal a tendency to narrow our focus upon the story, or the legend, perhaps dare I say it, myth that on October 31, 1517, the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg and launched, “THE Reformation.” We proclaim the central thesis of Dr. Luther’s theology, that we are justified not by church rules or doctrine, but rather, we are saved by the grace of God, by faith in Christ, then we all sing a few verses of the good doctor’s “A Mighty Fortress” and give thanks that we have been set free from the errors of the Church’s past and move quickly onto next week’s celebration of All Saints. Alas, our annual, protestant reformation rituals, are in and of themselves designed to free us from the burden of always reforming! So, on this Reformation Sunday, I would like to embrace the Reformation tradition of preaching a loud “semper reformanda” by giving thanks that on this Reformation Sunday, the church’s pandemic predicament makes it impossible for the church to do anything but reform. In the words of the wise Dr. Luther, “Here we stand. For we can do no other.”

Here I stand in an empty sanctuary, for we can do no other! Ten months ago, this sanctuary was effectively shut down and I have been leading worship from my home to your home. Remaining physically distant is what LOVE-ing our neighbour looks like in 2020. So, here I stand!  Alone, preaching into the camera on my phone, trusting that the miracles of technology will bring us together. What I wouldn’t give to see this sanctuary filled with your smiling faces. I miss you all and my longing for the traditions of old is only accentuated by the reality that we are headed into what promises to be a long, dark, and difficult winter. There is no end in sight. So, we must content ourselves with our hopes and dreams of a vaccine to cure what ails us. Or do we?

I know that many of us are blessed with the wherewithal to hunker down in our homes and sit this winter out, as we wait for the scientists to do their magic. If you’re watching this on a screen, you like me are among the wealthiest people on the planet and while we are not immune to COVID, we are insulated in ways that the poor, the dispossessed, the oppressed, and the homeless can only dream of. So, if we are careful, follow all the rules, and forgo some the pleasures we used to take for granted, we stand a pretty good chance of survival. Well today on this strange Reformation Sunday, I am here as your preacher, to proclaim that survival is not enough. I want us to consider the possibility, indeed the hope that we can do so much more than simply survive this pandemic. I stand here today to encourage us all to consider the hope which comes from semper reformanda; the hope found when we truly engage in the process of always reforming.

I believe that our Lutheran heritage will stand us in good stead if we manage to shift our gaze from the legend of Martin Luther’s mythical nailing of his 95 Theses upon the doors of the Church, to focus our attention upon the all too real events which took place in Luther’s actual life some ten years after his initial challenge to reform. So, let’s shift our gaze some ten years beyond the legendary events of 1517 to the summer of 1527, when the plague came knocking on all the doors of the people of Wittenberg. The black plague, unlike COVID-19, was an epidemic not a pandemic. One of the basic differences between an epidemic and a pandemic is that it is possible to travel your way out of an epidemic to find some place where the plague is not. For even though, the epidemic known as The Black Death, covered most of Europe, killing over 25% of the population, it was possible for people to escape the cities and towns ravaged by the plague. Indeed, Martin Luther’s wealthy patrons urged him to leave Wittenberg for the relative safety of a country estate. Luther refused, insisting that his calling as a pastor, required him to exercise his love for his neighbours by remaining in the city to minister to the needs of the sick and the dying.

As summer turned to autumn, Luther despaired for the safety of his pregnant wife Katy, Luther’s infant son, became ill. Indecently, it is said that Luther’s dire worries about the lives of his wife, son, and unborn child provided the impetus for the words of the reformation hymn “A Mighty Fortress.”  Luther could have safely sat out the ravages which the plague visited on Wittenberg, but he chose instead to engage the circumstances in which he and his neighbours found themselves. He did so not just by staying put, Luther used the latest technology available to reach out beyond himself and those he cared about to address and engage the reality in which his whole world was languishing.

Just ten years earlier, Luther’s 95 Thesis had travelled the length and breadth of Europe thanks to the ability of the newly invented printing press to produce new-fangled ways of communicating information, ideas, and even the Bible itself. The world went from scribes hand producing one Bible a year, to printing presses which could produce a Bible in a day. The printing press’ impact on the daily lives of millions was astounding.

The exponential increase of the availability of books radically changed the power dynamic of the Church. But it was the printing of short tracts which radically changed the political impact of theologians in the town square. In addition to changing the Church, Martin Luther’s embrace of this new technology changed the world. During the depths of the plague’s ravaging of Wittenberg, Luther took advantage of the power of the printing press to produce a short tract in the newest format, that was all the rage of the day. It was known in German as “flugschriften” “flying writings” in English we would say, “flyer.” These new-fangled fliers functioned as the “twitter” feeds of the Reformation.

On the subject of the plague Luther wrote this: “Now if a deadly epidemic strikes, we should stay where we are, make our preparations, and take courage in the fact that we are mutually bound together (as previously indicated) so that we cannot desert one another or flee from one another … Use medicine; (wrote Luther) take potions which can help you; fumigate house, yard, and street; shun persons and places wherever your neighbour does not need your presence or has recovered, and act like a man who wants to help put out the burning city. What else is the epidemic but a fire which instead of consuming wood and straw devours life and body? … I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine, and take it.

I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others, and so cause their death as a result of my negligence …

(Luther wrote) If the people in a city were to show themselves bold in their faith when a neighbour’s need so demands, and cautious when no emergency exists, and if everyone would help ward off contagion as best he can, then the death toll would indeed be moderate. But if some are too panicky and desert their neighbors in their plight, and if some are so foolish as not to take precautions but aggravate the contagion, then the devil has a heyday and many will die … ” [1]

While references to the devil may not sit well today, I dare say Luther’s flyer is as prescient today, perhaps even more so than the millions of tweets which we are bombarded with every minute of every day. Back in April, when we were learning to live in lock-down, Bill Gates the creator of Microsoft and one of the world’s gazillionaires, was interviewed about the lasting effects of this pandemic. Gates pointed to the reality that in a matter of weeks the world embraced technologies which under normal circumstances would have taken at least fifteen years for us to embrace. Well I remember April like it was yesterday, and I can tell you that those first few weeks of lock-down saw churches all over Christendom and indeed temples and mosques all over the planet, scrambling to embrace newfangled technologies to get the Word out. I suspect that just like the church, many of you also found yourself on screens and devices, waving at loved ones, meeting with work colleagues, or even raising a glass to toast with a Happy Birthday greeting. Scrambling to get worship services online became the bane of my existence. Martin Luther himself, who was famous for his ability to swear, would have blushed at my language as I struggled to navigate new technology. Faith leaders all over the planet continue to swap stories with one another about of the horrors of trying to render and upload videos. I know we’ll all be able to laugh about this someday, but until then, let me warn you not to expect good pastoral care whilst your pastor is fighting with her computer. My point is, this pandemic as horrendous as it is, has revealed some difficult truths which will forever change the world, particularly the Church. For the foreseeable future, our sanctuaries will remain empty, and we will rely more and more upon technology to enable us to continue to be LOVE in the world. The sad truth is, in-person worship, just like the status quo before COVID, was not working. The Church was dying and those of us who remain in the Church refused to change our ways, believing somehow if we just did it better and flasher, happier and clappier, we might just be able to attract the lost generations who have long since deserted our sanctuaries.

The good news dear friends, is that the current crisis invites us into a liminal space, a thin place if you will; a place where the veil between the everyday status quo and the sacred extra-ordinary falls away and we can see things that we were once hidden from us. Today, the Church stands on the precipice of a new era. Like Luther of old, who inspired centuries of cries for semper reformanda – to always be reforming, we today have the opportunity to reform the church in ways which will speak to generations to come. But just like Luther, who used the printing press as a means to proclaim a reformed theology, we too must embrace the internet, not to proclaim the status quo theology that wasn’t working anyway, but to proclaim a reformed theology.

Tinkering on the surface and learning new technologies will not save the church. The power of the Luther’s call for reformation came from new ways of understanding Creation itself, together with new ways of understanding what it means to be human. If our reformation today is to have any power at all, it will require the church and all who sail in her, not to rely upon Luther’s way of understanding reality. We cannot simply move the deck chairs on this titanic which the church has become and expect the church not to sink.

There are gaping holes in the hull which we ignore at our peril. We must have the courage to build upon Luther’s insights as together, we learn new ways to express new understandings of what it means to be human here and now in Creation today. We must dare to learn to understand reality in ways which would have dumbfounded and possibly even offended Luther himself.

So, here I stand, in 2020, in the midst of a world-wide pandemic, for I can do no other, but to proclaim the need to be always reforming. For the church can do no other. We cannot go back to the way things were, any more than Luther himself could go back to life before he discovered his freedom as a Christian. Whether we like it or not, our world has changed and continues to change. The church has changed, being LOVE in the world has changed too, and it must continue to change. Just imagine the wonders we shall be able to embrace to help us to LOVE our neighbour!

These are exciting times and they are also terrifying times. But each and every day, we are free to embrace possibilities which once seemed unthinkable as we embrace new ways to be LOVE in the world. Now more than ever we need one another, so that together we can empower greater LOVE! We dear friends, we are richly blessed. Let us take courage from the blessings of our great heritage, let us seek wisdom from the blessings of heritages unlike our own, and let us be inspired by the ingenious insights of scientists,  philosophers, theologians, poets and artists so that we can learn new ways to embody the LOVE our world so desperately needs so that we can heal the wounds of Creation. Semper Reformanda! Always be reforming! Thanks be to all that is Holy. Amen.

[1] From Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 43: Devotional Writings II, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald and Helmut T. Lehmann, Luther’s Works (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999, c1968), 43:119-138.)

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