Visiting Wittenberg during this 500th anniversary
By Rev. Chris Heavner, Campus Pastor at Clemson University and as the ELCA Region 9 Facilitator for Campus Ministry
One of the blessings of sacramental theology is the assurance that God will be there when we get around to showing up. It is my heart’s desire to be prepared as I extend my hand for the communion bread; but it is the assurance of Christ’s promise “broken for you” which makes the exchange complete.
Visiting Wittenberg during this 500th anniversary year should in no way be compared to the gift of holy baptism or communion, but being there for a few weeks this June assured me of God’s presence and added great joy to my journey of faith. Living within a few hours of the historic towns of The Reformation, you may not understand the power of an opportunity to travel to Wittenberg, Worms, Erfurt, Eisleben and Eisenach. Allow me to be a witness to the power of such travels and thank you for the hospitality.
My earlier acknowledgement that visiting a city in central Europe can in no way be placed in parallel to the sacramental elements of water and bread and wine is an acknowledgement that it is not these places which prove so powerful – it is the way these places attract God’s faithful people from so many different stations in life. Economic diversity is limited because travel can be expensive. But assembling in Wittenberg were persons of every color and tongue; faithful from a wide variety of countries and political ideologies. My work in Wittenberg was to lead English language prayer services. While this became somewhat limiting in the persons who sat with me to pray, it lifted me out of the lack of global awareness too often present in the church where I assemble on most Sunday mornings.
The posters our ministry group distribute around Wittenberg announce the prayer services as a chance to sing A Mighty Fortress surrounding the grave of Martin Luther. One of my favorite singers was a woman of Asian heritage whose English was pretty weak and so was her ability to sing on key. But she sang with great gusto and emotion. After worship we embraced, and while we could only speak a few words to each other we knew that the events in Wittenberg in 1517 had altered the way we see the world and that this shared experience would inform the way we would continue to interact with the world.
A seminary student from Russia was at one service. We spoke before the service of the current tensions between the country issuing her passport and the country who issued mine. During the service, we prayed together for the One Kingdom where all the nations of the world are united and live in peace.
I visited with a Vicar in Schönebeck. This is the church where my dearest friend in Germany was baptized and confirmed. She has promised that I can have a role in her wedding (in the same church) if my German improves. The Vicar tried to help me understand the educational and formational process for being clergy in the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD). “Structures can be so complicated,” we confessed together. But standing in that sanctuary we knew that God was joining his work and my work. God’s will is being done; and we prayed that it would also be done through us.
The baptismal font and communion rail provide a place for God to meet us. The assurance of our sacramental worship is that God will meet us there, whenever we get around to showing up. In Wittenberg, during this Reformation Anniversary year, I experienced a world showing up and seeking the path God would have us follow in the next 500 years.
My next visit to Germany will be in March, 2018. Our student ministry group will plant a tree as part of the Luthergarten Project. When you are Wittenberg, please water it for us. And every time we water the sister tree planted in Clemson, we will offer prayers for you.