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.


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.


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…

Jesus the Rule Breaker: Sermon for August 21, 2016

Luke 13:10-17
13:10 Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath.

13:11 And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight.

13:12 When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”

13:13 When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.

13:14 But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.”

13:15 But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water?

13:16 And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?”

13:17 When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

As a child I was a huge rules follower. I liked having them all laid out for me. I knew exactly what I could do, and exactly what I couldn’t. This made life very simple. Don’t run in the hallways of school. Don’t cut in line. Don’t take what isn’t yours.

Following rules, especially rules made for our own protection, is generally a good idea. These were the kind of rules I encountered as a kid, and so I thought all rules were like that. You didn’t run down the hall, because you didn’t want to get hurt. You didn’t cut in line or take what wasn’t yours because it wasn’t fair.

But one day I started to realize that sometimes rules could be wrong. And that was a problem.

One day in sixth grade I came to school and started hearing that our social studies teacher had instituted new rules. If you had blue eyes, you got to sit at the front of the classroom. If you had brown eyes you had to sit at the back. If you had blue eyes you didn’t have to do all the homework. If you had brown you had to do extra.

All day I kept hearing about these rules and by the time I went to social studies class at the end of the day, I was ready. Before the bell even rang I cornered the teacher. I was a shy kid, so this was unusual for me. “This isn’t right,” I said to her. “You can’t do that.” The Supreme Court may have been mentioned.

“Oh yes I can do that,” she said. “Because I’m the teacher and I make the rules.” She sent me to the back of the class where for the next hour I fumed.

Now, you may have figured out by now that the teacher was recreating a classic experiment, one that divided children on eye color, as a way to talk about discrimination. She was trying to show us, in a less-than-perfect way, what it felt like to live under an unfair system of rules.

I’ve never forgotten that day, and the frustration that I felt. And since then, I’ve known in a real way that rules aren’t always perfect, or even good.

Today’s story reflects that well. Jesus is approached by a woman who was bent over, and unable to stand. She’d been that way for 18 years. And Jesus sees her and he calls out to her and says, “you are healed!” And right away she stands up straight, and praises God.

jesus-healing-the-woman-with-a-disabling-spiritSo, amazing, right? Except here’s the problem. Jesus did it on the Sabbath. And so the leader of the synagogue, the guy who was in charge, yells at Jesus and he says “look, there are six days a week you could have healed her, but you know the rules…no healing on the Sabbath”.

To be fair, those were indeed the rules. They were right there in the Ten Commandments. Everyone knew them. No one questioned them. Jesus broke the rules, no argument.

But Jesus shoots back at him, “You’re a hypocrite. You’ll give your donkey water on the Sabbath, but I can’t heal this woman? It’s been 18 years…she’s a child of God…shouldn’t she be healed?”

Jesus’ disciples rejoiced but the others, the Bible says, were “put to shame”. That fact didn’t help Jesus later on. They didn’t forget that he had violated one of the most fundamental of laws and humiliated the religious authorities in the process.

I still like rules a lot. Especially when things are confusing. They often set good boundaries and are good guides. But rules are not the same as God’s will for us. I learned that in 6th grade. And from that day forward I decided that there were times when rules had to be broken.

Growing up in the South I learned that many others had discovered the same thing. Breaking rules, rules that were codified in law, became the catalyst for change as people sat at lunch counters, or refused to sit at the back of the bus, or resisted any of Jim Crow’s other rules.

Because they broke those rules, the school where I learned that lesson, one that for decades had educated only white children, became integrated.

But something else bothered me that day. And it had to do with the fact I had brown eyes, and not blue ones.

You see, it was easy for me to call that system unfair. It directly impacted me. It meant I had to sit at the back of the class and do what the blue eyed didn’t. And so, in a real way, I was fighting for myself.

But afterwards I wondered…what would have happened had I had blue eyes?

I thought about that a lot. Would I have done the same thing? I hope so. But I don’t know.

I thought about that a lot in years to come whenever I read history. Would I have been a part of the resistance that hid Jewish neighbors in Germany in the late 30’s, or would I have kept myself safe and looked the other way?

Had I lived in the antebellum South would I have worked on the Underground Railroad or stood against slavery, or would I have signed up for the Confederacy like my great-great grandfathers had? After all, slavery was a law they’d known their whole lives, one that was even preached from Southern pulpits as God’s will.

I hope I would have done the right thing. But I can’t be sure. None of us can.

But we can remember this: sometimes the rules need to be changed. Not because we rule this world, but because God does. God’s rules come from a place of justice and love, and so they will always trump our own.

This isn’t the only time in the Gospels where Jesus breaks the law. It turns out that Jesus is kind of a rule breaker. In this case he’s doing it to save a life, even though in the end his rule breaking cost him his own. Jesus was a threat because he challenged the way things had always been done. More than anything, this is what got Jesus killed in the end.

Jesus reminds us that sometimes the way we have always done things, the way we are doing things now, might no longer work. At best it can put up obstacles. At worst, it can keep others from living full lives. Had Jesus not healed that woman that day, she would not have had the life God intended for her. He had to break a law in order to fulfill God’s higher law.

Now, don’t hear me saying that you should leave the sanctuary today and go break the law.

But, I am saying to look around and see the ways that the unwritten laws of our world might be keeping God’s love for us from breaking in more fully.

How are we walling ourselves off to God’s grace? How are we keeping God’s healing from others? How are we so tied to the way we’ve always done things that we are afraid to see a new path.

Those are the places to push a little. But beware. That kind of pushing will always cause backlash.

You may know that. Maybe you’ve tried to do something new before, and you’ve run into opinions that may as well have been the law. You’ve tried something new at work. Done things a different way. Or maybe you have just started to think about what you believed in a new way. And maybe that backlash came not just from the outside, but from within yourself?

I get that. We often have clear ideas of what is right and wrong. But then we find our old framework doesn’t work as well anymore. We meet new people. We are forced to reexamine. It’s hard and yet, like Jesus breaking the Sabbath, we find that sometimes it’s right. And so we take a risk, and we step out in faith, and we find God is there waiting.

That is what courage looks like. And that’s the kind of courage that our faith can give to us.

When I look at the people I respect the most, whose spiritual journeys are the most remarkable, I find that at some point or another this happened. They broke laws, many self-imposed, in order to live into a higher law.

Look only at relatively recent history. Nelson Mandela, Susan B. Anthony, Martin Luther King, Harvey Milk, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the list goes on.

They must have been terrified, and yet, some sort of faith compelled them to break the rules that they had always known. Faith doesn’t mean being not being afraid. Faith doesn’t mean being comfortable. But faith means trusting just enough that God is with you, and God is leading you to new things and new understandings.

If Jesus is God-with-us, and if Jesus is the best example of the life we are called to live, then by our very faith we all have permission to break a few rules, and maybe in the process we can also break the chains that have bound us for too long. Amen?

Journey Through Lent: Day 23

figtreeWhen I was about six, I think I thought God had a big version of my first grade teachers chart. I probably envisioned God making that crucial judgement between the happy face and unhappy face at the end of each day for each of us. And like those rules on the classroom wall, I wanted to do just enough to know I was safe. If I could only have a list of God’s minimum happy face requirements, I’d be all set.

As we grow older, of course, it takes more than a chart to help us make the right choices. There are more variables, more responsibilities, more nuance. What is age appropriate at six, is not so reliable when we are even a few years old. And by the time we get to adulthood, the chart feels like a cute memory of a simpler time. Life in the real world requires more than charts.

Which is why curious that sometimes our spiritual thinking stays on the same level. Most of us appreciate that life is a nuanced thing, with each of us called to a different path in life, and different challenges. And yet sometimes we think tend to judge our choices in life based on a sort of easy criteria. Do I get a happy face? Or a sad face?

If God had a chart, most of us, on most days, would probably see ourselves getting smiley faces. We don’t hurt other people. We don’t steal. We aren’t blatantly unkind. We try to be good. Most days, we rest assured that we are good enough people. That we have done enough to stay in the positive. And by contrast, we probably think we know who gets the sad faces. And we know the minimum we need to do to not end up like them. That gives us conscience. That eases our mind at night when we sleep. We can go to bed saying, “I’m not a bad person.”

And you’re not. But what we sometimes don’t understand is that that old way of looking at things, that childhood worldview where we do just enough good things or too many bad things, doesn’t work after a certain point. Just like our grade school teachers put them away after we grew old enough, old spiritual life demands something more than them as well. At the end of the day, God doesn’t stand in front of a chart with all our names, deciding who gets sad faces. Which is not to say that God just gives us easy grace, and happy faces either.

But it is to say this. At the end of the day, God throws the chart away and calls us to something better. At the end of the day, God calls us to do the same thing Jesus called us to do in Galilee. God calls us to turn away from what distracts us, and repent. But more than that, God calls us to something more.

God wants more than the bare minimum. God wants us to strive for more than just a minor mark of approval, or meeting the letter of the law. God wants us to be honest, and God wants to actually have a relationship with us, to know us.

That’s what Lent is about. It’s about turning away from sin, repenting, and deciding to be in relationship with God. It’s not about getting our ticket punched by doing what we have to do. It’s not about following a long list of rules because we have to. It’s not about God as the big grader in the sky who tells us whether we pass or fail. It’s about God who loves us so much, that God doesn’t want us to be separate anymore.

That’s what sin is, after all. It’s our separation from God. We sin not so much when we break one in a long list of rules, but instead we sin when our will begins to differ from God’s, and we wander off on our own paths. In Lent we are called to repentance. And repentance is about turning around, and going back to God’s path and trying not to stray from it again. It’s not something we can do by reciting some words on Sunday and hoping for the best. It’s something we do by deciding our faith will not be peripheral to the rest of our life. Instead, it will be the lens through which we view the rest of our life.