Reformation-Murmuration

audio version of sermon, “Reformation-Murmuration” by Martin Malina

“…you will know the truth …”[1]

I stopped there. How will we know the truth? Is ‘truth’ even possible? When we don’t believe someone – a family member, a politician, the media, a friend – when we don’t believe what they say is true, how can we believe what was written down thousands of years ago to be true? How can we believe anything?

When Jesus says these promising, affirming words to his disciples two thousand years ago – “…you will know the truth …” – I’m not sure we do.

Maybe because our post-Enlightment mind regards truth exclusively as doctrinal, contractive, individualistic and competitive rather than something more intuitive, collective and freeing in our nature.

In the post-Reformation era, we have become like chickens, scrapping and scraping only for ourselves, ruffling another person’s feathers, or another church’s, so we feel better or superior. That truth is what I have, but you don’t.

And it’s not even what Martin Luther wanted—a separate, autonomous denomination. He wanted to reform the church, not split it into what is today some 30,000 Protestant denominations worldwide.

Maybe we need to look upward. Rather than be like the chickens, maybe the birds can show us the truth. Have you heard what the birds do when they fly together?

It rhymes with Reformation … Murmuration. So, whenever you hear the word ‘reformation’ from now on, I hope you think of ‘murmuration.’. What is ‘murmuration’?

Murmuration happens when the flock of birds—specifically starlings—move like synchronized swimmers or a well-choreographed dance troupe. Like bird ballet, they fly dark flowing against the white clouds. 

And when they fly together and swirl in a repeating, coordinated ever-changing pattern they seem to be connected somehow. They twist and turn and change direction at a moment’s notice.

Wired Magazine described murmuration like this:

“Each starling in a flock is connected to every other. 

When a flock turns in unison, it’s a phase transition.

 When a neighbor moves, so do you.

At the individual level, the rules guiding this are relatively simple.

 Depending on the flock’s size and speed and its members’ flight physiologies, the large-scale pattern changes. 

What’s complicated, or at least unknown, is how criticality it is created and maintained.” 

How does the murmuration begin? Often the starlings gather as night approaches. In the twilight, the dance begins with a few birds, but gradually other starlings arrive, then more and more, until they all join together in one massive flock. Their movements create patterns, streams, circles, and trails. Suddenly they plunge downward then swoop and sail skyward. As they twist and turn in tight formation, amazingly they swirl but never collide.

“What music do they hear? Who leads them? Who taught them such grace? …Maybe God is dancing with them and that is unknown, there, and unseen.”[2]

“I know all the birds of the air, and all that moves in the field is mine.”[3]

So, to God, each starling is important to creating the murmuration. The result, however, is a whole that is greater than the sum of individual parts. It’s the story of the bible.

Recall, then:

God was saving Israel, not just Abraham.

God was saving Israel, the nation, not just Joseph, Isaac, or Jacob.

God was always saving people, not just individuals. And, in the last two thousand years,

God was saving the church, not just Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, or Henry the VIII’s marriage.

God was saving the church for all time—the people as a whole—and not just individuals of the 16th century. Nor just individuals today.

Reformation is “historical and social, and not just individual.”[4]

Martin Luther, the individual, was important in God’s story. Martin Luther inaugurated the Protestant Reformation on October 31, 1517—exactly 504 years ago today—by pinning up a sheet of paper on the large, wooden doors of the Wittenberg Castle Church in Germany. That piece of paper contained some 95 arguments against what Martin Luther believed were abuses in the religious practices and beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church at the time.

Fuelled by geo-political forces and social unrest in Europe. Power struggles between Pope and Princes, Emperor and economies — all these helped shape the course of what happened with the church, far beyond what Martin Luther was essentially all about. Because Reformation, in the end, is a movement in history and a movement of Spirit in the hearts of people continually changing and transforming, and going somewhere. Reformation was and is a gift—reforms in the 16th century were needed and good. But Reformation is also given to us as a calling—something we continue to work at and move towards. Never perfect, yet aspiring towards the vision of God.

Not negative. Not stuck, static. Not fixated, nor constricted. Not divided, autonomous nor conflicted out of some sentimental view of the past. But dynamic, transformative, unitive and flowing towards God’s vision, God’s future.

What is truth, then? Christ is the truth.[5] And Reformation, like murmuration, is participation in Christ. Each of us is a character inside of a story that is being written in cooperation with God and the rest of humanity. Christ in, and through us.

God is not ‘out there’. We don’t look at reality, we look from reality. We’re in the middle of it now; we’re a part of it. The murmuration. We are being chosen. We are being led. We are an instance in both the agony and ecstasy of God that is already happening inside you and inside of me.[6]

“You will know the truth and the truth will make you free.” This is the language of the bible. It describes what already is happening in us and around us. We already know it. And maybe now, only intuitively. But God is there. God is here.

And all you can do is say yes to it. And join in the never-ending dance.


[1] The Gospel for Reformation Day, from John 8:31-36.

[2] Jean Wise, “Mystical Murmuration” (www.healthyspirituality.org, 6 February 2014), https://healthyspirituality.org/mystical-murmuration/

[3] Psalm 50:11

[4] Richard Rohr, “Participation is the only way” Life as Participation (Daily Meditations, http://www.cac.org), 10 Sept 2021

[5] “I am the way, the truth and the life,” Jesus said. (John 14:6)

[6] Richard Rohr, “Being Instruments of God”, ibid., 5 Sept 2021

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