I can recall a few times in my life when I looked around and discovered that I was either a) lost or b) in a situation that suddenly grabbed my attention. If you were to ask me for a play by play of how these things happened, I could have told you. Every decision made sense based on the one previous. The problem was that a) I had no clear exit strategy and b) anyone looking at the series of decisions could have deduced it would end badly.
It is easy to spot these train wrecks as other people are setting themselves up. Not so easy to spot them in ourselves. I, in fact, may argue that I know exactly what I am doing right before I hit a turn going much too fast or run out of track going full speed.
This happens to faith communities as well. It rarely begins with bad intentions. People might need hope and encouragement in an economically difficult environment and turn to faith. After a few years, economic success (or health, or general well-being) becomes acquainted with faith. Which is bad news for ‘the poor’ because if they were faithful. . .
One of the wonderful things about having a canon (a rule) to live by is its ability to draw us back to where we need to be. For Christians and Jews this is Scripture. We may veer off for generations sometimes, but there will be a point at which something will happen, someone with a voice will speak up, or a challenge to the status quo is made and things will break. Then they can be rebuilt.
The problem with groups veering too far away from their purpose is that it can attract people interested more in the “side show” than the main attraction. In churches it might be “church growth”, the music program, goods (coffee and donuts) and services (what do you offer), or a theological emphasis. It may be strict doctrine, a particular hermeneutic, reason, the Spirit, social agendas, or political concerns.
People with good intentions (and some not so good) can take the best meaning of us on trips we never intended to take — in which case we can end up a) lost — as in not knowing where we are or b) in a situation that suddenly grabs our attention.
Christianity has cycled through this process many times. Since American Christianity is so splintered it is usually happening somewhere to some group. My tradition has been struggling with a specific understanding of how to interpret Scripture and an over-emphasis on reason for a while now. And we are not the only ones.
October 31 is Reformation Day. It is remembered as the day that Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the doors of the Castle Church at Wittenberg in 1517. It was famous for its inventory of 5,005 relics (which may itself have been a distraction).
It was the sale of indulgences that attracted Luther’s attention. One can trace the events that led up to the need for fundraising to restore St. Peter’s in Rome. Each step can be explained. What may not have been anticipated was the enthusiasm and excesses that developed and went unchecked.
Luther sent a letter along with this list to Archbishop Albert of Hohenzollern (or Mainz or Brandenburg) challenging the sale of indulgences. Of course it was going to end badly for him. He got in the way of the money and power. His point should be heeded when we veer off our purpose. It is not always what is done or said but rather what is not said or done because of the current project.
Here is an excerpt of the letter (translation from The Reformation, Hillerbrand, ed.):
“There is sold . . . under the protection of your illustrious name the papal indulgence for the building of St. Peter’s in Rome. . . I am greatly concerned about the false notion existing among the common people which has become a cause of public boast. These unfortunate souls seemingly believe they are assured of their salvation as soon as they purchase a letter of indulgence. . . Furthermore, this grace of indulgence is said to be so powerful that no sin is too large to be forgiven, even in the impossible case when someone had — to use their words — assaulted the Mother of God. How is it possible that the indulgence preachers convey security and fearlessness to the people through false fables and futile promises about indulgences? They do no contribute to salvation of the soul. . . Therefore works of piety and charity are infinitely more valuable than indulgences and yet are [not preached]. They must silently give way to the more important preaching of indulgences.”
Thank you, Martin Luther, for your courage. Anathemas and excommunication followed. Are we paying attention?