50 Theses for a Still-Reforming Church

I’m no Martin Luther. I’ll be the first to say that. But today, on the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation, I set a challenge for myself. Writing is my spiritual practice, so I decided to write my own set of theses. I didn’t go for 95 of them because, honestly, I didn’t have that much to say. Instead I chose 50, one for each decade of the Reformation.

Most of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses centered on reforming the church, so that’s where I focused my own ideas. This is simply a spiritual exercise for me but one that, in the spirit of Luther, I wanted to share with others. I’d love to hear what resonates with you, and what does not. And, I’d love to hear your own theses for a church that is still being reformed.

Here they are:

Basic affirmations on church:
1. That wherever two or more are gathered in Christ’s name, he is present, and therefore Christ is present in the church.
2. That “the church” may refer to local churches, as in the case of congregations, to the “wider church, as in the case of denominations, or to the “universal church” as in the case of the entire body of Christian believers.
3. That the local church is at the heart of our faith. Without strong local churches, denominations and movements cannot hope to survive.
4. That the purpose of the local church is to equip those who would be Christ’s disciples to live out their faith through worship, formation, and encouragement.
5. That local churches possess the best understanding of their community and its needs.
On clergy:
 6. That pastors are called first and foremost to be “pastors and teachers”, capable of equipping others to understand and embody the faith.
7. That pastoral ministry is a calling that demands adequate preparation, including in-person intellectual and spiritual formation in a community of learning.
8. That pastors should be able to use wisdom from other disciplines, such as administration or marketing, but should be encouraged to develop theological and Biblical depth first.
9. That candidates for ministry should be given support, including financial support, in order that they may better prepare for their calling.
10. That seminaries should be upheld as the standard for ministerial formation, and should be invested in by local churches and the wider church.
11. That the local church deserves nothing less than well-trained ministers who are committed to serving as pastors.
12. That clergy should be the first to affirm that our calling does not make us special or unique, and that the calling of every Christian to discipleship, lay or ordained, is equally important and challenging.
On the need for the wider church:
13. That even churches with a strong congregational polity need the mutual support and fellowship of other congregations.
14. That covenantal relationships between congregations strengthen all involved, and provide a way for local churches to share resources and engage in impactful ministry and social witness.
15. That when the wider church is empowered to do ministry, in local judicatories or national denominations, the wider church exists to serve the local churches, and not vice versa.
On the administration of the wider church:
16. That wider church administrators at all levels are called to be servant leaders.
17. That these leaders should constantly discern the will of God and the spiritual needs of the people they serve.
18. That the wider church must be on guard against being so excessively influenced by corporate culture that it becomes something that is no longer church.
19. That when wider church bodies become divested from their concern about local churches, they have strayed from their mission.
20. That when the wider church experiences serious disconnection with local churches, attention must be made to repairing that relationship.
On the transparency and accountability of the wider church:
21. That given our covenantal relationships, it is fitting that wider church ministries should be financially supported primarily by local congregations.
22. That local churches should support the wider church generously.
23. That any setting of the wider church should be answerable to the congregations which support it.
24. That full transparency around financial and budgetary matters, or the stewardship of any other resources, should be considered normative.
25. That while confidentiality must and should be preserved around certain matters, a culture of secrecy must be avoided at all costs.
26. That when choosing leaders, the people of God should feel confident that a fair and transparent process was used, and that the discernment of God’s will was at the center of that process.
27. That the wider church may speak on behalf of local churches but must also be willing to listen to the will of those it represents.
On always being reformed:
28. That the “freedom of conscience” valued in Protestant traditions be upheld, along with the right of individual Christians to raise concerns or critiques.
29. That those who seek reform should be able to speak freely, without fear of intimidation or retribution.
30. That the unity of the church should be preserved, but that true unity requires space to be made for faithful dissent.
31. That debate and dialogue is not an affront to church unity, but rather a tool that may be used for communal spiritual discernment.
32. That no setting of the church should ever believe itself to be infallible, or beyond dysfunction.
33. That the spirit of continuing reformation should be nurtured, inconvenient though it may sometimes be, and be allowed to flourish in our life together.
On equipping disciples:
34. That education and formation are essential for the faithful continuation of any church tradition.
35. That a major priority of the wider church should be to support local churches as they form disciples.
36. That wider church settings should cherish the legacy of the Reformation and make available and accessible resources that will help Christians to understand their faith.
37. That the promotion of Christ’s love and grace should be more important to the wider church than the promotion of itself.
On the wider church’s mission in the world:
38: That Christ has called us to three great tasks: to love God, to love ourselves as God loves us, and to love our neighbors.
39. That this witness must be deeply rooted in our belief in Jesus Christ, and in his call to us to be disciples.
40: That the wider church is called to serve our neighbors through the generous sharing of resources.
41. That we must strive for the equality of all people without asking for assimilation.
42. That we must appreciate the beauty of diversity without appropriating what is not ours.
43. That we must be a witness for peace and justice both globally and in our own backyards.
44. That we must first mirror the justice we hope to see in the world within our own organizations.
On courage:
45: That the church is called into a future in which God is already waiting.
46. That true discipleship means that we who are the church must follow Christ into this future, and be willing to lose everything.
47. That unless we are willing to lose even our own life, the church can never hope to be reborn.
48. That if a church is truly the body of Christ, that body can live in the certain hope of resurrection.
49. That the church’s resurrection often comes in the form of reformation.
50. That God still has a use for the church, and that we are being re-formed today that we may endure for the next 500 years, and beyond.
If you’re interested in what it means to live our faith courageously, you might be interested in my next book. Courageous Faith: How to Rise and Resist in a Time of Fear, is available for pre-order now:
https://www.uccresources.com/products/courageous-faith-how-to-rise-and-resist-in-a-time-of-fear-heath

Always Being Reformed: Sermon for October 29, 2017

This is the final sermon in a four week series on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. To start at the beginning, please click here.

Over the past month we have been on a journey through the landscape of the Protestant Reformation in preparation for this Tuesday, All Hallow’s Eve. That day marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther posting his 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Church.

Portrait_of_Martin_Luther_as_an_Augustinian_MonkFor two weeks we talked about Luther, first as a young man, and then as a man who changed the course of Christianity and really the entire world. Then last week we talked about John Calvin, another key reformer. And I told you that this week I was going to talk a little about what all this meant to our own church, and our own faith tradition.

And in order to do that, I first want to turn to the Scripture we read today from the Gospel of Matthew. This is a part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, where he teaches about the heart of our faith.

Jesus talks here about “salt and light”. These were two very valuable things in Jesus day. Salt was useful for many things, not just cooking, and it was not inexpensive. And light, in these pre-electric days, was coveted too. And Jesus talked about how we are called to be the salt of the earth, and the light of the world. We are called to be valuable and useful.

You’ve heard a lot about being the light in this church. You know my affection for the song, “This Little Light of Mine”. I’ve told you before that even though we might think of it as a kids’ song, it’s really a profound testament to what it means to lead a Christian life. And it’s this passage in particular that spells out why:

Jesus says, “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

In other words, “Hide it under a bushel? No! I’m going to let it shine.” It was this very passage that spoke to some of the people responsible for our church being here.

Last week we left off with Calvin and how he started what we now called the Reformed tradition. And like the tradition that descended more closely from Luther, the Reformed tradition expanded too. Soon Reformed churches had spread to the Netherlands, some parts of Germany, and Scotland. Those Scottish Reformed folks would later call themselves “Presbyterians”, and would bring the Presbyterian Church to this country, particularly in the colonies south of New England.

But it was what was happening in England that most shaped us. England was in the midst of its own Protestant Reformation. King Henry VIII had broken away from the Pope’s authority in the 1530’s and the Church of England, or the Anglican Church, had become the official church. That may make it sound like England was a good place for Protestants, but that was only true if you were Henry’s kind of Protestant.

That was a problem for a group of Christians who had been influenced by Calvin’s ideas. They looked at the Anglican Church and they felt like Henry hadn’t gone far enough. They tried to change the church, but they met resistance and were persecuted. Some wanted to “purify” the church. They would later be called Puritans. Others believed the church was beyond repair. They were called Separatists, and they ended up having to flee from England to the Netherlands where they were building a church in exile.

MayflowerHarborYou might know the story that’s coming now. In the Netherlands some of Separatists decided to come to the New World, partially in order to find a place they could worship freely. Before their ship left their pastor, a man named John Robinson, preached a sermon to them. And in it he talked about Luther and Calvin and what we had learned about church from the Reformation.

And then he said these words, “God hath yet more light and truth to break forth from (God’s) word.” More light. The kind of light we cannot hide under a basket. These were the words that rang in the Pilgrims’ ears as they set off on a journey that would end up in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

Likewise, some Puritans who had stayed in England set off for this land too. Settling in Boston and on the north shore, they heard similar words from John Winthrop right before they landed. He said that the “eyes of the world” were upon them and, using Jesus words, that they would build here, “a city on the hill” that would be an example for the world. In many ways Boston became that city to them. It was meant to be a shining example to the world of the faith they embraced.

So, this sounds great, right? Forward-thinking, positive. Lots of light and understanding? Well, yes and no. Certainly it was more progressive than many places but. as was true in every other place where one faith reigned supreme, Massachusetts was a hard place for those who disagreed with what the people in charge said. And one of the people who kept running afoul of the more well-known ministers in the Boston area was a man named John Wheelwright.

You know Wheelwright because he was the founder of our church. His portrait is downstairs in the vestry. And like Calvin and Luther, Wheelwright really believed in the grace of God. He believed in it so much that the folks in Massachusetts thought it was a little too much. And when he called some of the other Puritan ministers out, they were done with him. They banished him to the frontiers of the most terrible place they could think of then: New Hampshire.

Wheelwright.John.AmAntiquarianSocSo that’s how our church got here. It was 1638. Only 18 years after the Pilgrims had landed at Plymouth. Only 74 years since John Calvin had died. Only 121 years after Luther posted his big ideas to the door of a church. In other words, only a couple of generations into the Reformation. This church is 379 years old. That means that we’ve been around for a lot of the 500 years of the Reformation.

And that also means that we know a lot about what it means to reform. I’m not going to go deeper into the church history here. I preached a sermon on that last April for our birthday, and there are a lot of resources available if you want to read more. But I will say that we have never been a church that was not closely tied to the Reformation and to reformation itself. It’s in our very DNA.

There’s a phrase that Reformed churches use quite a bit: “The church Reformed, and always being reformed, by the Word of God.” More simply, “Reformed and always reforming.” The church is always changing. This isn’t change for change sake, but rather purposeful change, change that comes because we are following God into what is next.

To use a UCC catchphrase, “God is still speaking…” That means that we are called to listen, to act, and something to change.

That change is sometimes not easy. John Wheelwright knew that. So did our ancestors in this congregation who decided to support American independence, to work for the abolition of slavery, and to become Open and Affirming. The surest way to make others unhappy with you is to seek to change what needs to be changed. But they did it anyway, because, like Luther, they believed that they could “do no other”.

And so that’s the challenge that we now take up. If the church is Reformed and always being reformed, where is God calling us now? What are we being asked to reform, or to re-form? How will we grow and change for the next 500 years?

The Refomation began 500 years ago, but it has never really ended. The spirit of reformation, the Holy Spirit that guided Luther and Calvin, also guided the Pilgrims and John Wheelwright. And it has guided this church for generations too. And now it guides you and me as well.

And so long as we are following that Holy Spirit into the future God is already preparing for us, we will be on the right path. God is reforming God’s church, and that means God is again and again re-forming us for the work that is left to do.

IMG_6541What remains on this anniversary is the challenge that Jesus issued so many years ago on that hillside. We may not be a city on a hill, but we are a church on the hill, and we have a lot of light in this place. We must now take the light that shines brightly around us, and share it with the world.

It’s time to move aside the bushel basket, or anything else that would dim our light, and instead share the light with the world. No longer can we keep hidden what is meant to be shared. Because the reformation continues, and we are called to be the light. It’s time to take our places in the reformation, and it’s time to let it shine.

John Calvin and the Love That Will Not Let Us Go: Sermon for October 22, 2017

This is the third sermon of four in a sermon series for the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. To begin at the beginning, please click here.

Throughout this month we’ve been talking about the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. 500 years ago, on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany. He was not the first person to ever talk about reforming the church, but his posting came at just the right moment, and they were like a spark that lit a powder keg.

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Portrait of Young Calvin

Luther is a huge figure in the story of the Protestant Reformation, and so we’ve spent the last two weeks talking about him. Today though, for the third sermon, we’re going to switch gears and talk about another early reformer named John Calvin, and how he launched a movement from which our very own church is descended.

Today’s Scripture comes from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. You’ve probably heard the words before, especially this verse: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Nothing can separate us from God’s love. I wanted to start with that today because that was what John Calvin truly believed. I also wanted to start with that, because John Calvin gets a bad rap. That’s especially true if all we remember about him is what we learned in our high school history classes about the movement he started, which is often called Calvinism.
First, who was John Calvin. Calvin was born in France, to a father who worked for the Catholic church. He was born in 1509 which means he is about a generation younger than Luther. He was only 8 when Luther posted those 95 Theses on the church door. Calvin grew up with the expectation that he would be a priest, but when he got to university, his father decided he should be a lawyer instead.

That means that, like Luther, Calvin was a law student when he started to have his spiritual transformation. Anything to avoid taking the bar, I guess.

Calvin did become a lawyer, but he kept thinking and writing about faith and the church. And he soon broke completely with the Catholic church. When his mentor, Nicholas Cop, who was also a reformer, delivered a speech that was deemed heretical, he had to flee from France. Calvin, who was a known friend, had to go into hiding and then flee too. The two ended up in Switzerland.

This is where Calvin really began his reform work. He wrote a book called The Institutes of the Christian Religion that continues to be read today. Later, in Geneva, Calvin ends up becoming a pastor to the reforming church there. In Geneva, Calvin sought to influence both church and state, and he was sometimes a divisive figure. But it’s something that he taught as a pastor that I want to bring up here, because you probably have heard of it, and if you have you probably don’t like it very much.

Calvin believed in predestination. How many of you remember reading about that in school and thinking it was an absolutely horrible idea? I did too. The way it was taught to me in school was that God decided before we were even born what we were going to do, and whether we were going to go to heaven and hell. A person could live a good and holy life, I was taught, and still be damned. I thought this was horrific.

In seminary, though, I learned what Calvin had really meant. Like Luther, Calvin was pastoring people who had been deeply traumatized by the idea that they had to work, or buy, their way into heaven. They were anxious and fearful. And so Calvin began to teach something in line with the Bible passage we read today: if God loves you, nothing you do can separate you from the love of God. In other words, there is nothing you can do to lose your salvation if God has already decided to save you. There is nothing so bad that you can do that can cause you to go to hell.

Predestination is not the same thing as God deciding your every movement. We are not pawns on a chess board whose moves are planned our in advance. Instead, predestination was meant to be an assurance to an anxious people that they could stop being afraid. To be fair, Calvin didn’t believe everyone was going to go to heaven, but he did believe that if you were asking whether or not you would, that was a good sign that you were. It sounds terrible in our present-day context, but we have to understand that it was absolutely liberating in Calvin’s time.

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Reformation Wall in Geneva.

The good news that came out of that was about grace. John Calvin, like Luther, taught that we were saved by grace alone. There was nothing so good that we could do to work our way to salvation, and there was nothing so bad we could do to work our way out.

Where I agree with Calvin is that I believe we receive God’s grace. We don’t receive it because we deserve it, because that’s not grace. We receive it because God loves us so much that God could never abandon us. Where I disagree with Calvin, and where many Reformed Christians disagree with him, is the idea that only some people receive God’s grace. I believe we all do. To put it another way, as many others have said before me, if there is a hell, I believe that God’s love means that it is empty. I believe that because I believe that grace is real.

And so the question that remained for people of faith was this: How do you respond to the grace that you have been given?

The churches that John Calvin inspired are often called “Reformed churches”. This is different from other churches of the Reformation, like the Lutheran church. Reformed churches believe that the grace of God, and our response to God’s grace, is central to what it means to be a Christian.

And so with that in mind, think about the grace you have received in your own life. Looking back, where do you see God’s love active in your life? Is there a time when you have felt God’s hand supporting you, and lifting you up? Was there ever a time when your heart was opened to a new idea that changed everything? Were you ever so broken that you didn’t know how to go on, but somehow you were able to rise again?

That’s grace. That’s God acting in this world to lift us up. And for Calvin that same grace extended beyond this world. Calvin believed God’s grace was so strong that “nothing, not even death” could ever separate us from God’s love.

This is the kind of grace that we sing about when we sing “Amazing Grace”. “Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come. ’Twas grace that brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.” There’s a reason this is such a powerful song for so many. When you’ve truly experienced grace, you are moved by lines like that in a profound way because you know that it is true.

John Calvin would begin his services with the same Psalm that we began with today, Psalm 124. “If God had not been on our side,” he would preach, “the flood would have swept us away.” We would be destroyed. But God’s grace was there for Calvin, and just as surely, it is there for us.

And so, how do we respond. Calvin believed that the only proper response to the grace of God was this: gratitude. If we know that we are loved by God, and that we have received God’s grace, what can we ever hope to do, but to say “thank you”. No other response is enough.

And so how do we say “thank you”? That’s where our own daily lives matter. We say thank you to God by how we live. We live our lives out as a thank you to God. We do the right thing, and we participate in good works, not to help ourselves, but to say thank you. We take care of our neighbors, and our world, and we work for peace and justice because we are loved by a God who wants these things for all of us.

When we live our lives in this way, as lives of gratitude and thanksgiving, everything changes. Our outlook on the world changes. Our concern changes. Our hope changes as well. We become more attuned to God’s will, and less focused on ourselves. We become joyful participants in the world, eager to say “thank you” to God with all that we do. We become God’s hands here on earth, and in every action, we praise God.

This is what John Calvin taught us: that love does not let us go. Nearly 500 years later we, his spiritual descendants, carry on. The church we are in today might not be that recognizable to him, but my hope is that the grace we know, and our response to it, might be.

Next week I’ll be talking about how we get from John Calvin to a 21st century church in Exeter, New Hampshire, and what it means that the church is still reforming, all these centuries later. For now, though, remember this: Nothing, not even death, can separate us from the love of God. God’s grace will never leave us, and God’s love will never let us go.

 

Martin Luther and the Courage to Reform: Sermon for October 15, 2017

To read the previous sermon in this series, please click here.

Last week I ended with what I think was my first ever sermon cliffhanger, cutting off right as the action was about to happen. Maybe it wasn’t as dramatic as a tv show during sweeps, but the story I’m telling takes more than one week to tell, and that was the natural midpoint.

This is the second in a four week sermon series on the Protestant Reformation. The actual Reformation took decades to unfold, but we date the anniversary back to one event that happened 500 years ago this very month on October 31, 1517. That was the day that Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg church.

And that’s what our cliffhanger was last week. Just to recap, last week’s sermon was about the young Martin Luther. We talked about how as a boy Luther was scared to death of breaking the rules. He came to see God as a scary and angry figure, as quick to punish as an irate school master. The young man grew up and became a law student, and one day he was caught in a thunderstorm that was so violent that he promised God he would become a monk if he survived.

Luther did survive, and he kept his promise and became a monk. It was in the monastery that he began to read the Bible himself, something that not many people in that day and age had a chance to do. And in the monastery Luther began trying to reconcile the God he knew in Scripture, and the grace and love of God, with what was being taught by the church of his day.

One of Luther’s greatest frustrations was the selling of indulgences. People could buy these for themselves, or for a loved one who had died. They were told that if they paid, their sins would be forgiven. You can imagine how these were abused. If you were scared to death of going to hell, church could sell you forgiveness. Or, if your mother had died, and you were worried she was stuck in purgatory, it was pretty easy to say “you know, if you really loved your mother, you’d pay a little to be sure she went to heaven”.

The church already had quite a bit of wealth, but back in Rome they were just breaking ground on a brand new cathedral, one we know today as St. Peter’s. The sale of indulgences funded that new cathedral’s construction. And so indulgence by indulgence, brick by brick, fearful believers were building a new basilica.

Martin Luther didn’t think this was right. More than that, he didn’t think it was faithful to Scripture and to who Jesus really was. And so he wrote his 95 Theses, his 95 statements about faith and the abuses he saw, and he posted it to the church door. And that’s where we left off last week.

This week we read a passage from 1 Timothy. It’s a letter from Paul, or at least someone who is speaking in Paul’s style, to another young man of faith. Timothy was a young pastor who was just learning what it meant to keep the faith and be courageous. Paul was his mentor. And the words in this letter are ones from a mentor to a timid student who is trying to figure out who they are. Timothy is told, “fight the good fight of faith”.
They are words that could have been said to the young Luther as well. He was now 34 years old, not so far removed from the timid and fearful young man he had been. And I don’t think he wanted to fight. But now he was in the fight of his life.

I use those words cautiously because I don’t like glorifying violence. But there are times when standing up for what we know as true means that others are going to want to fight against us. Being courageous does not mean wanting to fight. Being courageous means telling the truth when something is wrong, even if it means that we will have to enter a fight we’d rather not be a part of.

Luther could have stayed quietly in the monastery, keeping his new found knowledge of God’s love and grace to himself. But as he looked at what the church was doing, he knew he couldn’t be silent. And he knew that as soon as he spoke he would be in the fight of his life. He also knew that the odds were stacked against him.

But he posted the theses anyway. And after they were posted, more people kept reading them. They started to get around. And then the local bishop saw them, and he passed them on to the Pope. And the Pope was not happy, especially because they needed those indulgences Luther was railing on about to build St. Peters.

The next year, in 1518, Luther was charged with heresy. He found protection, for a few years, under a prince called Fredrick the Wise who was sympathetic to his ideas. In 1521, though, the Emperor called Luther to appear before him, and Luther had no choice. And so four years after he had posted those ideas to the church door, Luther was finally called to answer for them.

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Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms by von Warner

You might remember from your history classes an event called the “Diet of Worms”. Funny name aside, this is where Luther takes his stand in the good fight of faith. And there’s a popular version of this story, and then the more likely version. The popular one goes like this: Luther is called before the Emperor and asked to recant, and say he was wrong. Luther refuses to do so, and shouts out “Here I stand! I can do none other!”

It’s a great story. But historians tell us it might not be exactly true. That’s okay, though, because the more likely story is even more powerful. Historians say that on the first day of the Diet, Luther appeared before the council. His books and writings were laid before him, and he was asked a simple question: Did you write these?

The answer, of course, is “yes”. But Luther doesn’t say that. Instead he asks to be given time to reflect and pray. This is pretty far from “here I stand”. But the next day Luther comes back. And he’s asked again if he wrote these books. And this time he says yes. And he is asked whether he will recant. And he says no. In fact, he says this:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), 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, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.

In other words, “Here I stand…I can do none other.”

Luther’s words only convince the council that he is a threat. He is declared an outlaw and heretic, which means that anyone was allowed to kill him. And as he leaves the council he is immediately kidnapped. Fortunately, his kidnappers were sent by the friendly Frederick the Wise. They keep him safe, and they bring him to a castle in Wartburg. He grows a beard and assumes the identity of a man named “Squire George”, and goes into hiding.

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Actual photo of Martin Luther translating the Gospels from Greek.

It’s in Wartburg that Luther does what might be the most radical thing of all. He takes the New Testament, a book that your average German has never heard in the German language, and he translates it from Greek. He translates it not into the scholarly Latin which can only be read by clergy and academics, but into German. And for the first time, your average person in the pews could hear the stories of God’s love and grace for themselves, and not just as the church wants for them to hear them.

Over time Luther started to find more public support. His ideas were spreading, and he kept writing and encouraging reformation. At one point Luther encouraged all the priests, monks, and nuns to leave their cloisters. One of those nuns who leaves, Katharina, goes on to be his wife. He even becomes a father, having six children. Eventually the Emperor got distracted by other pressing issues, and Luther was left alone. He kept writing and ministering until his death in 1546. And 500 years later, we still remember his life, and his legacy.

Because of Martin Luther, you and I are here today, doing church together in a very different way. We are a member of a Protestant denomination that seeks to understand the Scriptures in light of God’s grace and love. We explore the big questions of faith together, with the church and pastor as teacher, and not tyrant. We do not believe that we are saved by our good works, but that we do good works because God’s grace has already saved us.

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Katharina Luther by Cranach the Elder

And, like Luther, we take up the call to be courageous in our faith. We fight the good fight of faith in our daily lives, not by violence or aggression, but by standing fast in what we know and believe about God. We live out our faith in this world, gratefully serving others with love, because we know already that we are loved by God.

Today we are baptizing the newest member into the faith. They are about to start a journey of their own. Today we will be making vows to support them, and to help them to grow in this faith, so that one day, they too may be courageous. The line from Christ to this font has traveled through so many spiritual ancestors who have taught us what it means to live out the faith. Martin Luther is one of them.

And so, as we come to the font again today, we remember our own baptisms. We remember a God who loves us into courage. And with Luther and all of the others, we proclaim the good news of God’s love and grace saying “here we stand…we can do none other.”

Martin Luther and the Fear of Breaking the Rules: Sermon for October 8, 2017

The following is the first sermon in a four week sermon series celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.

You don’t have to be a Christian to know who Martin Luther was. Anyone who cares about history knows that he was the man who symbolically began the Protestant Reformation when he walked to a church in Wittenberg Germany, and nailed his 95 Theses up there on the door for all to see.

Later this month, on Halloween day actually, the world will celebrate the 500th anniversary of Luther’s actions. This is a major historical event for everyone, but for Christians, and for Protestant Christians in particular, this is huge. Because Martin Luther lived, and spoke, and acted with courage, the shape of Christianity looks very different than it did back then.

Martin Luther changed the world. He was a mighty figure whose reputation has grown over the centuries. And I love reading about Martin Luther, because his life is so inspiring to me. But what really made me love Luther, what really drew me in, was learning about Martin Luther, the child and the young man. Because every great person who changes the world is first a young person, and what happens to them in those earliest years is what makes them who they are.

This morning we read the story of the Ten Commandments as our Scripture. I’ve preached about the Ten Commandments and what they mean for us today many times, so I’m not going to do that today. But I did want us to read them because they symbolize something that was important in young Martin Luther’s life: rules.

Martin knew that the world had rules. God had rules. The church had rules. His school had rules. And he was deathly afraid of breaking any of them. Part of the reason why was a system that had been set up at his school. Throughout the week one of the boys in his class would be chosen to observe all the other boys in secret. You never knew who it was, or when they were near you.

If a boy broke a rule and the boy who was the observer saw it, he would write it down. At the end of the week the observer would turn in his list of rule breakers to the headmaster. And the headmaster, armed with this intel, would then beat each boy for the rules he had broken.

Can you imagine being a boy in that class? Can you imagine young Martin on Fridays, unsure what the teacher did or did not know? Can you imagine him wondering if he would be beaten that day, and how bad the beating would be?

51WbSZBr3gL._SY346_Over 400 years later the field of psychology would come into its own, and would tell us that we form our earliest images of God based on the adults who are in authority around us when we are children. Our parents and our teachers, for instance. Erik Erikson, the famed psychologist, would go on to write a book called “Young Man Luther” all about Martin as a boy and a young man. He wanted to figure out what had made Martin into a man willing to face down the powers of the church. And this story is one he retold.

The same Martin who as a boy had been so scared and anxious about rule breaking and punishment at school grew up to be a young man who was scared and anxious about rule breaking and punishment when it came to his relationship with God. Martin became consumed with fear that he was going to be punished by an angry God who had been marking down his every mistake.

And his church didn’t help. The church of his day emphasized God’s wrath and punishment, and capitalized on it. The fear of hell drove people to engage in elaborate forms of penance. Churches even sold “indulgences”, payments you could make to the church in order to be forgiven for your sin. The church knew that they could market to the fear of good people in order to fund their own coffers.

And unlike today, there was no other church. If you were a German in the 1500’s, you were a Catholic because that’s all there was. You couldn’t go down the street to the church on the next block. The Catholic church was your one connection to God, and to heaven.

It’s important to stop here and note too that this was a very different world from ours, and a very different Catholic Church than the one that we know today. Corruption has existed in every denomination at one time or another. The fact the Catholic church was the only game in town made it easier for bad practices to flourish. You may have heard the phrase “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”? That’s what happened here. People just thought it was normal.

One of the outcomes of the Protestant reformation was that Catholicism had its own reformation where many of these practices were changed. It’s important that when we talk about what happened 500 years ago we make every attempt not to malign our Catholic siblings, or their faith, nor that we believe we who are Protestants are above corruption.

That said, this was the church that Martin Luther knew. And it was the church that was there for him when another fearful event happened in his life. Martin had grown up into a bright young man, and he had begun to study the law. He was well on his way to being a lawyer when one day in 1505, when he was about 22 years old, he was caught walking in a terrible thunderstorm.

The storm was so bad, with lightning crashing all around him, that he thought for sure that he was going to die. In his absolute terror, Martin calls out to God, and he makes a promise: God, if you save me, I will become a monk. He survives. And Martin is good to his word. He leaves school and he joins the monastery, and he begins to study to be a monk and a priest.

It was fear that got Martin into the monastery, but it is the monastery that teaches Martin that maybe he didn’t quite understand God. One thing that you have to realize about Martin’s time is that everything you knew about God and Scripture and the church was taught to you by the clergy. The printing press had just come into being about 75 years prior, and its spread was slow. Moreover, even if you could read, most books weren’t in German. The Bible in particular was written in Latin. Only the most scholarly of Germans, like the monks, could have even read it.

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Martin Luther as an Augustinian monk.

But here was Martin, finally getting to read it. And, as he read the Gospels, as he read Paul’s letters, as he read of a God who loved God’s people, it didn’t quite square with what he had always been told about God. Here in the Bible was a story about a God who is not waiting to punish us at the end of our lives like a school master at the of the week. Here is a God who loves us, and who loves us so much that God gives us the grace of forgiveness.

Martin’s whole life he had been taught that the only way he could be saved from eternal punishment was by his works. If only he was good enough, if only he worked hard enough, if only he bought enough indulgences, took on enough penance, then maybe…maybe…God would save him from punishment. But now he saw that this wasn’t who God really was.

Twelve years after that day in the thunderstorm, twelve years of learning and unlearning so much, Martin Luther walked through the town of Wittenberg towards the church in town. At about two in the afternoon he reached the doors of the church, and posted his 95 Theses. Legend says he “nailed” them to the door, but that makes it sound a little more dramatic than it probably actually was. In actuality the church door was a lot like a well-read bulletin board of a few decades ago. Maybe even like a Facebook page today. If someone had something they wanted to share, something they wanted others to discuss, it was not uncommon for them to tack it to the door of the church for others to see.

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The doors of the Wittenberg church as they look today.

That’s not to say, though, that what Martin did that day was not courageous. The 95 Theses are really just 95 statements about who God was, and what that meant for the church. Martin knew that in the eyes of the church they would make him a heretic, and perhaps even cost him his life. But Martin had come to understand God’s love and God’s grace, and he felt compelled to share it with others, and to reform his church, even if it meant his whole life was about to change. And once it was done, there was no going back.

Next week we’ll talk about what happened next, and how it changed everything…and still changes everything even for us today…