Sunday in Wittenberg

While much of the sight-seeing and even relationship-building we have participated in during this trip could be replicated in the future, Sunday worship was an experience we likely will not have the opportunity to repeat in our lifetimes.

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Group members have described what happened on Sunday morning as “Lutheran Woodstock” (keep in mind, most group members were born long after Woodstock!). We caught the train from Leipzig to Wittenberg, and then made our way into a large open field on the banks of the Elbe River, with the towers of Wittenberg’s churches and university in the background. Sunday was a beautiful, sunny, hot (88 degrees!) day.

Earlier blog posts have mentioned the marvelous hospitality our hosts have demonstrated. We saw this hospitality again on Sunday, not only from our host families who provided food, blankets, umbrellas, etc. for us to use, but also in the attention to detail that was invested by Kirchentag and Reformation 2017 planning staff as they prepared this worship service for 300,000 people in Wittenberg, a town of 50,000.

Rev. Martin Henker, the superintendent of the Leipzig district (the church body to whom our Minneapolis Area Synod relates, so his position is analogous to a synod bishop) told me that nothing like this has been planned for this area before, but it was felt that in the Reformation’s 500th anniversary year, this culmination worship service could happen nowhere other than Wittenberg. Preparing for all these guests included reseeding the entire area last fall with a grass that is stands up well to heavy foot traffic. All along the walking route from the train station to the field (and back again when we left), volunteers were handing out free bottles of water and holding large signs with clear instructions on how to get to the various entrances and transportation options. Temporary stairways, ramps, and walking paths had all been installed, ready for any kind of weather. And my goodness, I have never seen so many and such nice porta-potties in my life! A phrase from the prayer of the day described the gathered worshippers as “exhausted by the abundance we have experienced” in these Kirchentag days, and that sums it up well on so many different levels!

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What really surprised me on Sunday was the realization that I had gone in assuming this liturgy would be a kind of “Reformation Sunday on steroids” – a service heavy on nostalgia, as we often do such services in the United States. But this liturgy, in the heart of Lutherland, was not nostalgic. There was no “if only we could go back to an imagined golden era of the past,” no “rah-rah, Lutherans are the best.”

Our preacher was Anglican: Archbishop Thabo Magkoba, from South Africa. No one was in 16th century costumes. We sang in Latin, Greek, and German, Hebrew and English. We did not sing “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” Music included Mendelssohn and jazz, music especially composed for this event as well as familiar favorites from the American South and the United Kingdom, Bach chorales and hymns from contemporary German composers. The offering went to support “Mediterranean Hope,” a Protestant ministry in Italy serving on the front lines of welcoming, supporting, and advocating for refugees who have made the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean Sea. All of these aspects of the service undercut any notions that our gathering was primarily about something that happened 500 years ago, or about a man named Martin Luther, or about having a pep rally for our team.

Worship was about our Triune God in whose name we had gathered. It was about the gathered community on a field outside Wittenberg 500 years after the beginning of the Reformation, and the ways in which German history and South African history might give us insight into living out our faith in the “narcissistic, nationalistic, dangerously rambling” times in which we now live. “Martin Luther made it safe to want to belong to something bigger than ourselves,” Archbishop Magkoba said, and that something is a shared life in joyful service to our neighbor. We are mirrors of God’s love to the world, and “we are challenged to bless others with this love, to see them, and to journey with them despite our fears and in the midst of the brokenness around us.”

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One of the guiding questions for the events of this “Reformation Summer” is, “Can I be farsighted by looking back?” In other words, what aspects of looking back help us to have clear vision for the future? This question has challenged me as a person of faith and as a pastoral leader as I’ve engaged in conversation with other group members and with our German hosts. I am grateful for the ways in which this question has been embodied in many of our activities in these days together, including in Sunday worship.

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