Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46
I’d like to begin this morning with a few quotes:
- “You are not only responsible for what you say, but also for what you do not say.”
- “Peace if possible, truth at all costs.”
- “For in the true nature of things, if we rightly consider, every green tree is far more glorious than if it were made of gold and silver.”
- “When schools flourish, all flourishes.”[i]
These are not quotes from leftists or progressives or liberals this week on Facebook; they are from today’s man of the hour: Martin Luther. Today is Reformation Sunday for many within the Protestant tradition—however, Episcopalians do not officially observe Reformation Sunday. As one Episcopal priest has said,
“For the most part we downplay our tradition’s roots in the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. When we blow our own horns (which we do rather too often) we usually mention something about the via media, seeking (or following) a middle road between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. In fact, among contemporary US Episcopalians, the word “Protestant” may even be something of a negative. We want to distinguish ourselves from those low-church folks who emphasize sola scriptura.”[ii]
But we are in fact Protestants – until 1964 the only official name used for our church was “The Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America.” You will see that name on our sign in front of the church. Anglicanism came out of the reform movement, albeit down a different branch than Lutherans or Presbyterians. Like those denominations, our church stems from a break with the Roman Catholic Church, and a desire to reform the operation and theology of the church.
This Tuesday will be the 500th anniversary of the event that sparked the Protestant Reformation: Luther sent his Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences to the Archbishop of Mainz, his Roman Catholic bishop. With this declaration, this scholarly monk lit the fuse on what was arguably the greatest revolution within Christianity.
Luther was born in 1483 in Eisleben, in what is now central Germany, but then was part of the Holy Roman Empire. Luther’s father wanted his oldest son to become a lawyer; but from the earliest days, seemed to have a great interest in God and the faith. In 1505, after receiving what he saw as a sign from God in the form of a bolt of lightning, he entered an Augustinian monastery.
He continued his studies, and became a professor of biblical studies. This career choice led him to what became his life’s work: He began to question the theology and practices of the Roman Catholic Church. As an Augustinian, he was heavily influenced by the writings of that early church philosopher. Augustine wrote in the late 4th and early 5th centuries (less than 100 years after the Constantine first recognized Christianity, making it lawful.) “Augustine emphasized the primacy of the Bible rather than Church officials as the ultimate religious authority. He also believed that humans could not reach salvation by their own acts, but that only God could bestow salvation by his divine grace.”[iii] These principles would become the basis of Luther’s theology and, later, of Protestantism.
And so, on that fateful day 499 years and 363 days ago, he began asking questions in a very public way. Of course the image we have is of Luther posting his 95 theses on the door of the Cathedral, figuratively and literally hammering at the church. This is overly dramatic—scholars say he probably didn’t nail his document to the doors. And most scholars are quick to say this was more of an academic challenge than a declaration of war. But still, he shook things up.
Luther’s primary objection to the practices of the Roman Catholic Church on his time was about the selling of indulgences, or payments by sinners for absolution of their sins. The Church was trying to raise funds to build St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Luther said, “Why does not the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of St. Peter with his own money rather than that of poor believers?” Within four years, Luther was excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church. In response, Luther said, “Here I stand. God help me. I can do no other.”
From the vantage point of 500 years, it is remarkable to see what ensued from this bold stand. Certainly, reform was in the air; someone else might have been the spark if Luther had not been. But it was Luther’s Augustinian emphasis on salvation through grace, not works, as well as on the primacy of scripture that provided a focus for that reformation. Naming the faults and problems of an institution is the easy part; offering something to reform into is much more difficult. Luther had an ear for what God was saying to the Church—and he found a way to amplify that voice for the good of God’s people.
Incidentally, as I did my research for this sermon, I began to realize this is only one side of the story. The story of Luther is told somewhat differently in Roman Catholic circles. I went to catholic.com and read their entry on Luther, and learned that Luther’s Theses can also be seen as “a covert attack on the whole penitential system of the Church [that] struck at the very root of ecclesiastical authority.”[iv] Luther is presented there as a man deeply scarred by a difficult childhood who became an extremist full of revolutionary agitation. After his excommunication this website tells us, “he became the victim of an interior struggle that made him writhe in the throes of racking anxiety, distressing doubts and agonizing reproaches of conscience.”[v]
So who exactly was this man—saint or sinner? Well, like all of us, he was probably both. And I think no one knew that better than Luther himself. In the face of that truth about himself, and all of us, he proclaimed the invaluable gift of grace given to us not because of what we do, but simply because we belong to God.
So perhaps that is our first takeaway from a remembrance of Luther: God loves us all, and offers salvation to us all, not because we have racked up enough points on our heavenly scorecards, but only through God’s grace itself. No matter who you are, you are worthy of salvation.
That’s a lesson I find I need to recall on a very regular basis. I am my own harshest critic. Far too often I find myself mired in doubt, afraid that I haven’t done enough for others, that I haven’t worked hard enough at love, that I am too self-centered. Can you relate to that? Well, some or all of that may be true—I often get things wrong. But it doesn’t matter! Luther reminds us that God’s love is not conditional; as hard as we may find it to believe, God loves and treasures each of us. So believe it!
Equally important to our way of worshipping and learning about God was Luther’s focus on scripture and his insistence that it be available to all in their own language. Remember that, in Luther’s time, scripture was primarily available in Latin only, a dead language that relatively few people could comprehend. By keeping scripture and liturgy in a mysterious foreign tongue the Church could tame the gospel—there was far less fear that the Holy Spirit might break through and touch the hearts and minds of the people with new ideas, or questions about the status quo.
But Luther knew the ability of the scriptures to guide us into a deep and life-changing relationship with God, in particular with God the Son. Luther believed steadfastly in the power of the scriptures to lead us to a closer relationship with Christ and his teachings. He had a great focus on the Bible, and in the years after he was excommunicated he concentrated his work on translating the scriptures into German, his native tongue.
I know I take for granted the gift of God’s Holy Word. And not just that it is so readily available to me, in my language, but also that it has been available in this way for centuries, thus giving so many the opportunity to learn and love it, and also to wrestle with the Word and its message for each generation and place. There was an explosion of theological thinking after Luther’s time, due to the availability of scripture as well as the invention of the printing press only a few decades before Luther’s birth. This proliferation of thought has served to open more and more hearts to the message of Christ. I am grateful to Luther for his part in that revolution.
In this morning’s gospel reading, we hear Matthew’s proclamation of the great commandments of God—“You shall love the Lord your God with all you heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” These pillars of faith have remained constant throughout the life of Christendom. And yet, how often do we stray from these simple guidelines? These proclamations take a minute to memorize and a lifetime to fulfill.
As I think about Luther, and about the Church today, and about myself, I realize that we are always in need of reformation. Thanks be to God, our beloved Episcopal Church is open to change: our recent history, especially our struggles over opening the priesthood to all, give proof to our openness to reformation—to the idea that God is doing a new thing in our midst. And just yesterday, at our Diocesan Convention in Springfield, our bishop declared the Diocese of Western Massachusetts to be, “the home of fearless followers of Jesus, who know grace is amazing, the Holy Spirit is wild and free, life is abundant, all creation is holy, and we are defined by Jesus’ mission of Mercy, Compassion and Hope.”[vi] That understanding of ourselves speaks to an understanding that God is not finished with us yet! (There are copies of the Bishop’s Address to the Convention at the back of the church, if you’d like to read more.)
As a church, we must always be open to a call back to the simple center of our faith that we heard in the gospel this morning. We must be willing to be reformed again and again, hearing the voice of God in whatever form it takes, and examining our own words and actions in light of those revelations.
And perhaps even more importantly, each of us must be open to change. When I was younger, I dreamed about the day that I would be an adult—when I would become my true self. Of course, what I have learned is that I am still in the process of becoming –of reforming. And I hope I will always be.
In fact, I believe God calls each of us to change, even as we recognize God as our constant. Today’s psalm notes that, “Before the mountains were brought forth, or the land and the earth were born, from age to age you are our God.” We can dare to grow—which of course, means trying things, and getting it wrong, and trying again—because we know that God will be there through it all, no matter what.
Thanks be to God for the witness of Martin Luther, for this lesson and so many more. Thanks for the gifts of faith that he sparked. May we always be open to re-forming ourselves and our church, confident that God holds us and loves us, no matter what. To quote that famous Luther hymn we just sang (we didn’t even touch on Luther’s hymnody – that is a whole other sermon!):
The Spirit and the gifts are ours through him who with us sideth;
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still,
his kingdom is forever.[vii] Amen.
[ii] Grieser, Jonathan. https://gracerector.wordpress.com/tag/reformation-day/, accessed 10/26/2017.
[iii] http://www.history.com/topics/martin-luther-and-the-95-theses, accessed 10/26/2017.
[iv] https://www.catholic.com/encyclopedia/martin-luther, accessed 10/27/2017.
[vii] Luther, Martin, “A mighty fortress is our God,” translated by Frederic Henry Hedge and based on Psalm 46. The Hymnal 1982, New York:The Church Hymnal Corporation. #687.