Psalm 46: 1 – 11
1 God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
3 though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
5 God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
God will help it when the morning dawns.
6 The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
7 The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.
8 Come, behold the works of the Lord;
see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
9 He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.
10 “Be still, and know that I am God!
I am exalted among the nations,
I am exalted in the earth.”
11 The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.
Martin Luther was not a calm monk. He had squashed his father’s dreams of having a lawyer in the family at the age of 22 when, in the midst of a thunderstorm, a bolt of lightning struck him to the ground and he was overcome with emotion as he cried out, “Saint Anne, help, I will be a monk.” And so, two weeks later, with nary a word to his family, he entered the Augustinian monastery. The Augustinians were not, shall we say, a light order. Perhaps Martin Luther thought, “If I will be a monk I will not be a light monk.” He took the vows of chastity, poverty and obedience and throughout the day there were prayers to be said, not just at 6:00 and 9:00, midday, nuns, vespers and complines, but also one you had to wake up for in the middle of the night. If you got behind on prayers you could try to make them up later, which meant that Martin Luther was at times saving up his prayers for the whole week, trying to get them done in 24 hours without eating or sleeping. Being a monk was not good for his health.
Martin began as a novice, with much menial labor. They wore the same cassock all year round, so it was hot in summer and terribly cold in winter. Fasting and prayer consumed his life, even as he continued his studies, but even with all of these physical burdens making his body as miserable as possible, for some reason his soul was still not at peace. The monks, like all medieval Catholics, knew grace through sacraments, especially the sacrament of confession. He and his fellow monks would go to their confessors, confess their sins and receive penance and the promise that their sins were forgiven. But Luther, when he confessed he confessed for hours detailing every minute sin that had crossed his day; pity his poor confessor who no sooner had they finished confessing was flagged down once more for a sin that might have been forgotten along the way.
Martin Luther was consumed with fear that he would forget a sin, something he would do wrong and then lay in judgment. As one biographer put it, “Luther seems to have almost luxuriated in feelings of guilt as if driving them to their extreme he could experience a heightened devotional state of self hatred that would bring him as close as possible to God.” At one point the confessor sent him away saying, “If Luther expected Christ to forgive him he should come back when he had something that really needed to be forgiven, like murder or adultery.” And yet, this didn’t sit well with him; his conscience afflicted him. He was not a monk at ease in the world and with his God.
At the same time his soul was in these turmoils, something wasn’t quite right with the church. The medieval Catholic Church covered all of Europe with the mantle of Christendom with the Pope holding the keys to the kingdom, and as in all institutions there had been corruptions over time, but when Luther went on a trip with a delegation to Rome he was overwhelmed. What he thought would be a trip that would show the devotion of God instead showed him something else: the deep brokenness of the institution to which he had pledged obedience.
And also, within the church, it was assumed that even for the best of us there would be some time following death spent in this little state between heaven and hell of purgatory. And as the church held the power to welcome people into heaven, there were some things you could do to reduce your time. Perhaps, if you felt so moved, to see an icon, make a pilgrimage or if, perhaps, you would like to purchase something, purchase an indulgence that would be beneficial for your soul or for the soul of your dear loved one who was even now gnashing their teeth in the midst of their pain. These funds of indulgences had wide interests, funding both the churches and monasteries of the times, intertwined with the business owners of the day and, of course, funding the great basilica in Rome that was in the midst of construction. As one of the crudest salesman of such indulgences would cry, “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings the soul from purgatory springs.”
So here is Martin Luther, living the life that is supposed to be holy, in the midst of the church that was supposed to bring people to the Holy and he was unsettled because something was profoundly wrong and no one seemed to be saying it. And so, as an academic, he thought it seemed like something to write about. He put some words on paper, ninety-five theses, an invitation to a public discussion at Wittenberg, encouraging those who could not be present to debate in absence in writing. And so these ninety-five theses challenged indulgences, but even more, what is the power of the Pope and the church and what is the nature of forgiveness and deep within them, what is the nature of faith? And I know you’re saying, “I don’t usually go to something called “theses” for my page-turning reading.” But this mere idea settles the greatest powers of this world: the financial interests of churches and empires, the powers of salvation and who would hold them and more, what is the relationship with Jesus of a believer? Does it need to be through the church or through their whole life lived in repentance?
And so the story goes that he took these words, these ninety-five theses, and nailed them to the door of the church in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517, five hundred years ago this month. And, of course, there are the scholars who say that maybe he didn’t nail them, maybe he used a pot of glue. But no matter how they got out there word traveled quickly, translated into German and printed in Latin; in two months they were all over Germany before making their way across seas and oceans, even all of the way to Rome. Luther kept writing with the printing press as the new technology of the time and Luther knew how to use it well with thoughts that were convicting, with language that was at times coarse, salty, verging on insulting. And so it became printed and reprinted as it became clear that he was not headed for a revision of the church, not for a purification of the church, but a split in the church.
As his writing continued his thoughts coalesced until it became clear his head would be wanted soon as a heretic and at that time his convictions and writings did not get tamer, they got bolder until finally he was called before the Diet of Worms, and yes this sounds gross. Diet was the word for assembly and Worms was the place, but I still have trouble saying it with a completely straight face. At the monumental Diet of Worms, Martin Luther appeared before those who were invested with the authority of the church and the collection of his writings were placed before them and he was told by those in the authority of the church that he must revoke his heresy. If he would deny the words he had written then perhaps a different sentence might be found. After a day of conversation he asked for the night to pray on it. And so, for that night, he prayed and he consulted and he went back to the Scriptures over and over again. He was called back the next day, framed with the same questions. Again he tried to parry, to say, “If you can show me where I’m wrong, if you can show me how I’ve gone astray using Scripture, then of course,” until finally they pressed and pressed and he ended by saying, “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything for it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me?” And tradition tells us that perhaps he also ended with this famous phrase, “Here I stand, I can do no other. So help me God.”And with those words his lot was cast. He managed to flee with his life, but just barely.
What I love is that this is part of our church’s story and tradition, that as we look back these 500 years and towards the 500 years to come we have as our legacy our reformation past: those who, convicted by Scripture, said that the institution must serve the Holy but the Holy is not the institution, and that courage would change the powers of this world.
We will be talking about the Reformation throughout this month and first I want to let it be known that the Roman Catholic Church today is not like the Roman Catholic Church in Martin Luther’s day. We’re not going to go picketing our brothers and sisters in Christ this week; they have been changed by the counter-Reformation and constant transformation as well. And I also want to say that our Reformation heritage is not perfect. Reformation is not just about rebuking the institutions that have failed but building something back up that is bound to have its own sinfulness in the mix. And so the same Luther whose courage I sing this morning is also the Luther whose anti-Semitism has profound effects on his time and on all the times to come, the same Luther who I lifted up also sided with the princes against the peasants for the death of scores. We are not a tradition with canonized saints but even our heroes may sometimes humble us with our humanity as I am often humbled by my own.
But as we look back to all the stories that lead to our Protestant Reformation, the stores lead us back here to these moments of courage and conviction inspired by faith because what they tell us is who we are and who God has called us to be, that the theology is not something we do on our own but how we understand God echoes through every part of our society and our world and that we have the voice and the power to change. The Reformation is not over for we are always responding to the grace of God, reading Scripture with the Holy Spirit, praying that new light and truth might emerge. God is still speaking to us. And the questions of our children, by whom I am certain Cristina is being peppered down the hall, we are still reforming, still seeking to become the church that God envisioned. As we study the Bible and hold those passages in the light of the world we are still reforming, seeing the ways we are broken and called to respond. In our conversation and exploration we are still reforming, finding the ways that the symbols the reformers cast aside might be used and finding in the midst how we are called to be a voice in the world.
For I look at our world and the national religions that one might say, “Y’all, we need some reformation.” Because there is nothing faithful in saying that the people who are rich are good people and the people who are poor are lazy. “I do not recognize this God you worship. Need some reformation.” Today there are many who think that kneeling before a flag is more of a moral outrage than the people struggling for food, water and power. In the wake of disaster, how can I recognize that as being the voice of God? We need some reformation. Any time we confuse greed with goodness, competition with consecration, power with piety or wealth with worthiness, we need some reformation. As we look to God for a rubber stamp rather than a radical transformation, as we put our faith in weapons as the most powerful things in this world, as we try to build our own fortresses rather than relying on the God who breaks the bow and shatters the spear, we need some reformation. And in all that Luther is testifying to, to a God whose grace cannot be earned for all of our good works fall short, how often do I wake in the night thinking that the whole world relies on me, thinking that my good works could save me or maybe us, the whole world? How often do I think that it is not God who is in control of the world but the powers of evil or brokenness or sin? And so I would say it’s not just others, but I need some reformation.
Today we celebrate Communion, one of those sacraments that the reformers would have had an excellent debate about, how we understand the real presence of Christ in this meal. I would like to tell you my favorite thing about Martin Luther and Communion. In the medieval church they celebrated with bread and wine but the people would only receive the bread; the wine was saved for the clergy. And Martin Luther, inviting, would say in a way that people could understand that if Communion is God’s grace then it is for all. If Communion is a sacrament where we know God then how can we say that some is only for a few?
And so today, as we gather before this bread and this cup, we continue the tradition of expanding Communion, to say that God’s grace reaches all the way, even to where we sit, to connect us to the Holy and to one another.
For on the night he was betrayed Jesus took the bread and giving thanks for it he broke it and gave it to them saying, “Take and eat. This is my body which is broken for you. As often as you eat of it do so in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup and giving thanks for it gave it to them saying, “Take and drink. This is the cup of the new covenant sealed in my blood. As often as you drink of it do so in remembrance of me.”
Ministering to you in the name and presence of Jesus Christ we offer you this bread and this cup: the bread of life, the cup of the new covenant. Come for all is ready.
Will you be with me in a spirit of prayer? Holy God, we give you thanks that you meet us here. Help us to be your transformed and transforming people. Amen.
© Copyright. Lisa Horst Clark. 2017. All rights reserved.