"The Protest in Protestant"
THE PROTEST IN PROTESTANT
29By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned. 30By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. 31By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace. 32 And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— 33who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, 34quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight…39Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, 40since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.
(Hebrews 11:29-34, 39-40, NRSV)
“The Lord [has] more truth and light yet to break forth out of his holy Word” (UCC: History and Program, NY: United Church Press, 1978, p. 6). These words of hope and assurance were written in a letter by Separatist Pastor John Robinson to the portion of his church who were leaving for the New World on a ship called the Mayflower. “The Lord [has] more truth and light yet to break forth out of his holy word.” “The Lord [has] more truth and light yet to break forth out of his holy word.” In other words, we don’t know it all, but we can look to the Bible among other places for continued enlightenment. The Bible is not meant to be a book that gathers dust on a shelf. Instead, it’s meant to be of practical help, a path to better understanding, a springboard to higher ways of thinking, and better ways of loving God and others. In short, it is meant to be read.
While this concept may seem obvious to us, it was radical in the 15th and 16th centuries. Faithful churchgoers going all the way back to the first century couldn’t read the Bible in their own language, if they could read at all. Several centuries later, the Bible was in Latin, not in the vernacular of the people. A crucial spark in the Protestant Reformation occurred when the Reformers began reading the Bible to people in languages they could understand. Guttenberg’s printing press was crucial to the distribution of the Bible in languages other than Hebrew, Greek, or Latin.
Hearing and eventually reading the Bible in their own language empowered people. For the first time, they could decide for themselves what to believe about God, Christ, and the Christian way of life.
Congregationalists have always been a non-creedal people, which is why we don’t recite the Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed, or Westminster Confession. We view creeds as valuable, though dated, expressions of faith, but not as requirements for church membership. Instead of creeds, we focus on the Bible—the stories Abraham and Sarah, Moses and the Israelites, the comfort of the Psalms and the challenge of the prophets, the teachings of Christ and the insights of Paul. Like every Christian church, we have a Bible reading every Sunday. However, unlike the churches many of us grew up attending, our church does not tell people what they must believe about the Bible or anything else. Since Lori and I have spent years in formal and informal education about the Bible and theology, we do tell you what we believe. In the end though, you are the one who must decide what you believe and what you do not believe. And if you are like me, not everything is in stone, ever!
Our parent denomination, the United Church of Christ, has no hierarchy that tells us which specific candidates we should vote for or that tells us what we must accept as the one true Christian position on any given issue. This is a great personal responsibility, but it’s also a great freedom. Reformation Sunday is a good time to give thanks for this freedom. It’s one of the things I most appreciate about our denomination and our church: our freedom to gather in worship with our various beliefs and opinions. Our ability to remain open to each other’s ideas without feeling threatened can be a challenge sometimes, especially when we spill over into politics. Nevertheless, we have a great history of making room for one another.
Throughout history, the church has been reformed by people who found truth in the Bible that freed them from old ways of thinking. Throughout history, people of faith have gained insight and inspiration to reform the church, so that it might better reflect God’s grace and love.
Of course, God’s people did this for centuries before there was a church. The Israelite prophets of old made it their mission to challenge the status quo. The words of the prophets thundered into the palaces of privilege and echoed off the walls of the Temple, demanding that those who called themselves followers of God had better shape up before God shipped them out to Babylon or worse for their misdeeds. In the end though, the nations of Israel and Judah were conquered and shipped out of their homeland.
The New Testament had prophets, rabbis, and reformers too, with Jesus at the top of the list. Jesus freed people from their bondage to religious legalism and brought them his message of God’s grace and love.
Fifteen hundred years later, then Roman Catholic professor of theology, composer, priest, and monk, Martin Luther, put the protest in Protestant when he nailed his 95 theses to the Wittenberg chapel door as a challenge to the corruption he saw in some corners of the Roman Catholic hierarchy. His most famous complaint was against the sale of papal indulgences. This was a practice where people believed they were buying forgiveness for their sins and the sins of those who had already died. Johann Tetzel, a particularly corrupt priest, explained it like this:
“As soon a coin in the bowl rings,
a soul from purgatory springs.”
We should use that for next year’s stewardship campaign!
So where do the early Congregationalists fit into all of this? It all started in 1534, when the Pope refused to annul the marriage of England’s King Henry VIII to Catherine of Aragon. Henry put the protest in Protestant when he ignited the English Reformation, freeing the English Church from papal authority. Henry, being king and all, declared himself the Supreme Head of the Church of England. Some in England thought Henry had gone too far while others thought that he did not go far enough. Those in the second camp were called Non-Conformists and included our Congregational forebears who put the pure in Puritan and the separate in Separatist. (To learn more about this, join us on November 24 for our annual Pilgrim Thanksgiving Service.)
What about today, do we still put the protest in Protestant? How does God want to reform and re-form the church and the world today? What “Truth and light are yet to break forth out of [God’s] holy Word?’” In what ways can we more closely follow Jesus and his way of life? What truth would he have us know and in what ways will it set us free? Bearing in mind that most revolutionary ideas are met with resistance at first, let us pray for insight and wisdom on how and where to act.
In 2018, Lori and I, along with members of our church, put the protest into Protestant when we participated in the “March of our Lives.” It was in response to the deadliest school shooting in our nation’s history at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School where 17 students and staff were killed. The Marjory Stoneman students who organized the March for Our Lives were instrumental in changing Florida law to raise the legal rifle-owner age to 21 with a three-day wait period (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ March_ for_ Our_Lives).
What can we do to protect our nation’s school children? I commend the Manhasset Schools for taking brick and mortar steps as well as lock-down drills to help protect our children. To be sure, it is a sad commentary on violence in America. How can we protect our children from the scourge of opioids and the dangers of smoking and vaping? What can we do to protect our children from violence in the media? What can we do to protect our children from online predators? There is so much that needs to be done and I think there is more agreement on these issues than there is disagreement.
Institutions aren’t the only things that stand in need of reformation. Each of us here, as individual followers of Jesus, has the opportunity to re-form our lives as well. Where in our lives might the light of scripture and the inspiration of God’s Spirit offer us more freedom and more wholeness? Are we plagued by troubling memories that prevent us from living joyfully in the present? Are we controlled by addictive behaviors? Are we trapped in unhealthy relationships? With God’s help, the support of our loved ones, and the expertise of well-trained professionals, we can learn to take better care of ourselves, as well as the people we love.
As individuals and as a church, we want to be all that God intends. Let us continue to search for the truth and light awaiting us in the Bible. Let us worship and work together as Christ’s disciples, re-forming ourselves and reforming our world with the revolutionary love of Jesus. And let us not be afraid to put the protest into Protestantism! AMEN.
Written by Rev. Jimmy Only
October 27, 2019
The Congregational Church of Manhasset, New York (UCC)
Most merciful God, we thank you for the church, for the difference it has made in our lives and in the life of the world throughout these many centuries. We thank you for reformers who risked their lives to bring the church closer to your way of love and justice. Show us even today how we might reform our own church that we may serve you better. We know our world needs reforming, remaking, reworking as well. Inspire us to do our part that this your world might be more just and peaceful.
And now to you, O God, we lift our hearts in thanks and praise, through Jesus Christ we pray. AMEN.