Remembering the Reformation
Preacher: Jeff Barrell
The lessons for this Sunday can be found at this link.
You might have noticed that today is the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, a rather obscure date on our liturgical calendar. However, in the Lutheran church, where I was confirmed, the last Sunday in October is celebrated as Reformation Sunday. This acknowledges that on Oct 31st, 1517 an Augustine monk named Martin Luther posted his ninety-five theses on a church door near the castle in the Saxon capital of Wittenberg. This was a pivotal event that was followed by a succession of religious, political, economic, and cultural upheavals that we call the Reformation. Luther’s challenge to the religion of his day is still with us today in our worship service and our personal relationship with God. To appreciate this change, let’s imagine life 500 years ago in a small German town.
The Gospel at that time was only 1,500 years old, still a compelling story of Jesus and his resurrection. Today’s Gospel reading was available only in a few books, written in Latin or Greek. The priests had access and the ability to read these texts, and verbally shared these stories with a mostly illiterate populous. After the Roman Empire fell, the Catholic Church played a vital role in preserving the books, art, and culture of western civilization. The Roman army was gone, but the hierarchy remained in place. Most lords and kings were subservient to God and the Church. Priests were the educated class in most villages; their responsibility was to offer guidance and advice, as well as administer the seven sacraments: baptism, confirmation, matrimony, eucharist, penance, and last rites. Life must have been incredibly difficult then. People died from infections, disease, childbirth, accidents, invading armies. A poor harvest would be followed by a lean, difficult winter. Several generations prior to 1500, the bubonic plague killed about one third of people in Europe. With death so commonplace, it is believed that society became more violent as the mass mortality rate cheapened life and thus increased warfare, crime, revolt, and persecution. The Church held society together with its message of love and compassion, and obedience to God. Worship service was a very different experience. The parishioners would file into the sanctuary, which was elaborately furnished with paintings, icons, and sculptures. While standing, they watched the priests perform a complex ritual in Latin, complete with incense and choral chants. Since few people spoke Latin, this ritual must have been mysterious and curious. The service would include eucharist, but shared only amongst the priests, except on Easter. Hard to understand how people connect to God in such a worship service. Perhaps they felt the priest was pleasing God on their behalf – and that was the problem.
I may speculate that most priests in the 1500s did not share today’s Gospel reading about the Pharisee and tax collector. One can easily swap the priest for the Pharisee and the people for the tax collector. Now I don’t mean to suggest that all priests in 1500s were corrupt or complacent – there were many good people dedicating their lives to serving God and his people. But the priest’s position of power lends itself toward corruption and led them to think they were more pious, better than the common man. Since the priests took confessions, they knew what sins and bad behavior their parishioners were up to.
In the late 1400s, France, Spain, and England began to consolidate under large kingdoms, while Germany remained as fragmented groups of scattered fiefdoms. In 1450, Gutenberg developed a printing press with movable type, which became an important technology for change. This invention was slow to spread across Germany, but sometime early 1500, Wittenberg received its press. In 1506, or 11 years before Luther posted his theses, work began in Rome on replacing the church in St Peter’s square with a new, over the top, basilica designed by the best architects of the era, such as Bramante, Michelangelo, Giacomo, and Bernini. This Basilica would contain the largest dome ever conceived and a scale beyond anything at the time. This project would take 120 years to complete, overseen by 21 different popes. Such an undertaking was extremely expensive and the church went on a major capital campaign. The kingdoms in France, Spain, and England were powerful enough to negotiate with the pope, but the small fiefdoms in Germany became profit centers.
The Church of this day had various methods for raising revenue. One could pay to view holy relics, such as the finger or tooth of a saint or a thorn from Jesus’ crucifixion crown. Another source of funds was indulgences, a word almost synonymous with corruption, but it didn’t start that way. As penitence for sins, parishioners were asked to perform “good works”, not unlike doing community service for minor civil crimes. Since the Church already does “good works”, such as caring for the poor, it follows that a donation to the Church is doing “good works”. It’s not hard to see where this will lead. The Church then leveraged this “good works” idea to hastening your deceased loved ones through Purgatory and into heaven by doing “good works” on their behalf. The priests were the middlemen between God and man and this position of power began to be exploitive.
In this environment, Luther came of age as a lawyer. While traveling alone, he took shelter from a horrific lightening storm. Luther made an oath that if he survived this storm, he would become a monk and serve God. Luther struggled for several years with his faith. Despite doing all the rituals, rosaries, and pilgrimages, he questioned whether it really mattered. I imagine his search for assurance and certainty is not unlike today. God is all powerful, yet invisible and abstract. Did God create Man in his likeness or vice-versa? If God is all powerful, then why must we struggle so? Luther likened his struggles to Jacob’s night-long fight with the angel at Jabbok brook. In Luther’s struggles, which occasionally touched on despair, he found grace to probe even deeper until empty of all certainty, he found God’s mercy and grace. His so-called ‘Tower Experience” was based upon Paul’s letter to Romans: “the righteous shall live by faith.” In this brief passage, Luther realized that God’s grace is offered to us, despite our sins and shortcomings, through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. God’s grace cannot be purchased, but is freely offered to us if we just open our hearts. The paradox is that while we attempt and fail to live according to God’s commandments, he will still accept us while we have faith in his promise. Luther was a man of paradox: how can we be sinners and accepted by God? If God will accept righteous and sinners alike, why not choose the sinner’s path?
I believe what Luther is telling us that we should try to live righteous lives, but God accepts that nobody is perfect. Like I told Allistair yesterday, as we worked on the footing for the arbor, “God doesn’t demand perfection, but he expects us to do our best.” Another analogy is that every family, friends, and parish (including this one) have one or more quirky members that always do something annoying or irritating. But if their heart is right and their intentions are good, we still love them despite their shortcomings. This is Luther’s insight – we need not feel guilt or shame for who we are or for our misdeeds, rather we should acknowledge our faults, confess our sins, and try to improve our lives. As for “good works,” these are a result of our faith not the path to it.
This message is mainstream nowadays, but was a radical departure in Luther’s day. His message that God’s grace cannot be purchased, but is freely offered will not build St Peter’s basilica. Luther’s ninety-five theses were an open challenge to indulgences and the pope’s absolute authority. His theses and other writings were published by the printing press and spread throughout Wittenberg and Germany. Luther tapped into the building resentment that was common throughout Germany. The rest is history as the cliché goes. Luther did not intend to create a seprate religion; he wanted to reform the existing Church, but the Church was too entrenched for change. When the pope excommunicated Luther, he went underground and translated the Bible into German. The Church called them protestants, based on the word protest. Worship service was transformed in both Catholic and protestant religions. Services were performed in native language and parishioners celebrated Eucharist with bread and wine. Now that people were reading the bible, the priests were compelled to explain and educate the parish. Seats were installed and a pulpit was erected where sermons educated the parish on the bible texts. More importantly, people developed a more personal relationship with God which continues today.
Just like the saying that “all politics are local.” we can also say that “all religion is local.” Each of us needs to find our own way to salvation. We cannot hire this out, the priest cannot speak to God on our behalf. This means we have to own this and individually work out our faith. It’s easy to come to worship service on Sunday, drop a check in the plate, and feel that you are doing your part. This sounds a bit like the Pharisee in our Gospel reading this morning. Jesus suggests that we need to humble ourselves, acknowledge our shortcomings, and seek understanding. Luther did not accept the religious practices of his day. He said, “Everyone must do his own believing as he will have to do his own dying.” No corporate religion, whether Catholic, Episcopal, or Lutheran has the magic formula or secret process to salvation. These religions provide a framework for worship and an environment that encourages us to flesh out our faith in a community of faith. The framework is just a starting point; the hard part is to resolve the many paradoxes and conundrums with an invisible, abstract God. Luther struggled with this for several years, but we have a community of faith to help us resolve our doubts and questions.
Looking forward, ever wonder what our Church will look like in 100 years? What reforms are in store for the future? Are we losing a generation, who are growing up without a religion or faith community? It is said the current generation is spiritual, but not religious. I’m not sure what that means, except that they are not in this parish or another one this morning. Perhaps we don’t need God as much today, than say the 16th century. That generation lived with fear of death from infections, disease, crop failure. Contrast their lives with ours, 500 years later in Massachusetts. Many, but not all of us, live comfortably with fresh water, year-round fruits & vegetables, leisure time, and safe working conditions. We don’t see death like they did 500 years ago. Plus, our youth have many choices how to spend their time and energy. What gods do we worship today? Years ago, before Mark became our rector, he said that the gods we worship are proportional to the time, resources, and energy we devote (not his exact words, but close). As our world evolves socially and technologically, our faith must evolve with it will become irrelevant.
This is the challenge for us today. Change is the only constant and our faith and worship must evolve with the times. How do we do this? Turns out this Parish offers several opportunities for building our faith. For starters, Mark is hosting a Saturday morning discussion on Anglicans. (I hope this was not in response to my sermon on Luther). We also have fellowship groups, which offer an evening of bible study, reflection, and sharing ideas. We have a sermon group, which is open to lay preachers and non-preachers. This group studies bible readings and how they apply to current times and how to share this message in the pulpit. But beyond these meetups, each of us needs time out of our busy lives to internalize our faith, resolve the paradoxes that come with an abstract God, and challenge the status quo. All religion is local. It starts with God’s relationship to each of us, then connects to others in our families, this parish, the community, and the world. Amen.