When I got unexpectedly ill and had to take my sick leave on very inconvenient Sundays, it made it difficult for me to use my vacation at the most convenient time over the summer. But for me, this is a good thing, because I have wanted for some time to attend an event in October, which will require that I take some of the vacation time that I still have.
The event is Yale Divinity School’s Reformation 500 Conference. As the name indicates, it is Yale’s observance of the 500th Anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation—a movement which is generally said to have begun on October 31, 1517 in Wittenberg, Germany, when Martin Luther—an Augustinian monk—nailed to the castle church door a list of grievances against Roman Catholic practice.
Though I did not attend Yale Divinity School, I wish to attend its observance of this anniversary because of one of the speakers.
Nearly everyone knows of the rôle Lech Wałęsa played in bringing down communism in Poland, and the similar rôle Václav Havel played in Czechoslovakia. But few Americans are familiar with the name László Tőkés, the man who did the same thing in the last Eastern European communist régime to fall. This is especially sad for people in our own church, because Mr. Tőkés is not only a pastor, but would be part of the UCC if he were pastor of an American church.
|László Tőkés being informed of
his eviction by the Securitate
That’s because the Hungarian Reformed Church in the United States is part of the United Church of Christ, and there are nearly a million members of this church in Romania—virtually all of them part of the large Hungarian-speaking community of Transylvania. László Tőkés was a young pastor of the Reformed congregation in Temesvár (Timișoara) when the Iron Curtain fell elsewhere in Europe. Having given a television interview in Hungary in which he spoke openly about human rights, Rev. Tőkés was being by forced by Nicolae Ceaușescu’s repressive security forces to leave his church in December 1989. It was at this time that his parishioners surrounded his home in peaceful protest. Because this was occurring right in the middle of the city, they were joined by thousands of other local citizens—both Hungarian- and Romanian-speaking—who tried to prevent Rev. Tőkés’ removal. The violent repression of this peaceful protest was the spark that started the revolution that brought down this last and most repressive régime.
László Tőkés went on to become vice president of the European Parliament, and though I have met members of his staff, I have never met him personally. But since he will be one of the featured speakers at Yale’s Reformation 500 Conference, I am looking forward to finally hearing him speak in just a few weeks. I am also honored to have been invited to a breakfast in his honor at a Hungarian Reformed parsonage the following morning in Fairfield, Connecticut.
After I return, we’ll observe Reformation Sunday in our own church at 9 & 11 AM on October 29, and then with others in the community at All Saints Lutheran on Bailey Cove Road at 5:00 that same evening. As we observe this important anniversary, it’s important that we not do so as a celebration of our differences with our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers, but as an acknowledgment of how one person’s courage can change the world, and how “reformation” is an ongoing process. John Calvin once wrote that “by refusing to acknowledge any church save one that is perfect, we leave no church at all,” and this is an important part of what it means to belong to the United Church of Christ. We do not believe our own church is perfect, but that God is continually at work in us—both as a faith family and as individuals—bringing about something new.
When we observe Reformation Sunday this year, let’s all wear red, for red is the color of the Holy Spirit’s fire and God’s renewal of the church. We are no less in need of renewal and reformation now than the church was in 1517. As long as people are called together in faithful community, God will continue to make us hear new things, hidden things that we have not known [Isa. 48:6]. This is what we in the UCC mean when we proclaim that God is still speaking.