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.”

“Here I Stand” – Sermon for March 11, 2012

John 2:13-22
2:13 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.

2:14 In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables.

2:15 Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.

2:16 He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

2:17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

2:18 The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?”

2:19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

2:20 The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?”

2:21 But he was speaking of the temple of his body.

2:22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

When most of us think about Jesus we have this certain image. We picture a loving, non-violent, peaceful man who is kind to everyone. We don’t picture someone who is angry. We don’t picture someone who knocks over tables and yells. We think that’s the exact opposite of who Jesus really is. But then we have passages like this, and we’re often not really sure what to make of them. And we have to ask ourselves, what in the world could have made Jesus so enraged? The answer is in the story.

Jesus went to Jerusalem. It was almost the Passover, and he went, along with many other people, to the Temple. The holiest site in Jerusalem. The physical center of the faith. The people who came to the Temple did two things: they made sacrifices and they paid their taxes. Giving to the Temple was not optional. It wasn’t like a Sunday morning offering. It was something you had to do to go in.

And in order to make sure all the mandatory religious activities were able to happen, this industry sprang out in the Temple. There were people who sold sheep and cows and doves for the sacrifices. And there were money changers who would convert Roman currency to Hebrew money, sometimes at rates as high as 300%. It was usury at its worst, but they had the market cornered. Every observant person would not risk not paying the rates. This is how religion had been done for a long time in Jerusalem, and no one could really question it.

Which is why they were so shaken when Jesus came and, literally, turned everything upside down. Throws animals out. Takes the tables and knocks them over. Money was probably going everywhere. And the religious leaders came to him and said, “What gives you the right to do this?”

He tells them, “you can destroy this Temple, and in 3 days I’ll raise it up again.” They think he’s crazy because the temple has been being rebuilt for years. But Jesus was talking about himself and how he knew they were about kill him, and how he would rise up again. He was telling them, though they didn’t know it, that everything was about to change, and business as usual was over.

They killed him not long after. The religious leaders knew he was a threat. If he would overturn tables and cause a scene in their Temple, what would he do next? They thought they could overturn him just as easily as he overturned those tables. Who did this son of a carpenter from some backwoods town think he was?

But he rose again. And in the new movement he started there was no room for animal sacrifices or money changers. At least not for a while.

Fast forward 15 centuries. To Germany. And to a monk named Martin. The church was trying to build a new temple, this time in Rome. It was called St. Peter’s. And they had a fundraising problem. So they started to sell these indulgences. Pay a little and your sins will be forgiven. Pay a lot and the soul of your dear departed mother or spouse will be sprung from purgatory and released to heaven.

These were poor believers paying this money. As poor as the Jewish people who journeyed to the Temple in Jerusalem and paid three times what they should have to change their money. But they were good people, willing to pay the price to be faithful. Willing to pay into this corrupt system because they didn’t think there was any other way.

And so the young monk wrote a list of things he thought were wrong. And he posted them in a town called Wittenberg. And Christian faith would never be the same. We Protestants are spiritual descendants from Martin Luther. But his reforms shaped even what the Catholic Church has since become. Because Luther, like Christ, had the courage to stand up to the ones who had corrupted the faith, to turn their world upside down, and to reclaim what was good in the name of God.

They didn’t kill Luther, though they tried. But he paid heavily. He was excommunicated and thrown out of the faith. But when he was asked to recant, he couldn’t. He said only, “Here I stand. I can do no other.”

Jesus and Luther were cut from the same cloth. And the people around them thought they were heretics. Thought they were anti-faith. Thought they were misguided at best, and downright sinful at worst. And yet, in the end, they ushered in new faith, and new life. We wouldn’t be Christians without Christ, of course. But we also wouldn’t be the Christians we are without Luther.

But being an alternative religious voice doesn’t always make you popular. That doesn’t always mean that you have the most people who agree with you. It often makes you a bit of a target. Churches that stand up against what they see as being against the true message of Christ often incur the wrath of others who say they’re not really Christian. They’re getting it all wrong. They’re out in left field.

But they’ve said that in the past about others. And they’ve been wrong.

I’ve been thinking about what the church has become, especially in our North American context. I’ve been thinking about what people think being a Christian means in America. As the division and rhetoric picks up in this country, the dominant images of Christianity are often becoming less and less flattering. The voices that speak the loudest, the ones who stand in front of the Temple changing money and demanding payment, are often not kind ones or compassionate ones or ones that tell you much at all about the love of Christ.

They may not speak for us, but they’re what people think of when they think of what it means to be Christian. And whether we realize it or not, they’re the ones who may be stopping people from feeling like they’d ever have a place in our temple.

One Sunday about five years ago I was preaching down South at a church that was a lot like ours. It was a welcoming place. Warm, ready to embrace the stranger, slow to judge. The service ended and I processed out into the narthex. And there was a young woman, about 18 or 19, sitting there waiting to talk to me.

She was a student at a very fundamentalist Bible college down the road. Her father was a preacher, but that brand of Christianity wasn’t working for her anymore. The faith she was a member of was so strict that she could have been thrown out for drinking a beer. And if the people at her college had found out who she really was deep down, she would have been thrown out for that too.

She had been so wounded by the faith. So wounded by those who sat at the doors of the Temple and told her the price she would have to pay to enter, a price that would mean denying who she was, that when she came to this church that would have totally welcomed her, she sat out in the narthex. Because she didn’t know she had a place in the sanctuary. It broke my heart.

But the saddest thing is, she came a lot further than a lot of people do. I wonder if there were good Jewish people in Jesus day who were never able to go to the Temple and worship because they just couldn’t pay the price. I wonder how many good Catholics in Luther’s day lay awake at night afraid because they couldn’t buy their way into heaven. And I wonder how many of our neighbors want to walk through the doors of a place that would love them as they are?

We say we will welcome everyone who walks into our doors. And I believe that’s true. But how will we welcome the ones who would never dare to do that on their own. How do we welcome those who have grown accustomed to a representation of Christianity that has come to be defined not so much by the face of Christ, but by the faces of modern day moneychangers at the front of the Temple? The ones who would distort Christ’s message of love for something so different?

We are a welcoming place, that is for sure. But when I meet people in this area, and they find out I’m the pastor, I still get all sorts of questions . And they’re not because you have been doing anything wrong. They’re because the voices of faith they have heard the loudest in our culture cause them to have to wonder. Here are some real questions I’ve heard about us:

Would I be welcome in your church if I drink alcohol? If f I believe women are not inferior to men? If I think maybe the world was not created in six 24 hour days? Would I be welcome if I like to read Harry Potter? If my kids can’t sit quietly for an hour? Would I be welcome if my daughter is gay? If I’m a recovering alcoholic? If on some days, I doubt?

You and I hear these questions and we think “of course”. Of course you would. But they don’t know that. And their questions are reflective of just how far some have to come to walk through the doors of our church.

You might say, “We’re not that kind of church!” And we’re not. But here’s the thing. They think we’re that kind of church. Not because of anything you’ve been doing wrong, but because they think every church is that kind of church.

Because if all they’ve ever seen standing in front of the Temple, standing between them and God, are the faces of the moneychangers and the sacrifice sellers, the faces of the ones who twist faith into something different than it is, the ones who go on the evening news preaching hatred instead of Christ, can you blame them?

So what is at the front of your temple? Because if we are all members of Christ’s body, then we are all part of his temple. When people come to know you at the most sacred places, what do they see first? Do they see a religion as they’ve always seen it done before? Or do they see grace, and a Christ who would sweep away what doesn’t matter and replace it with a new creation?

There are people outside of these doors who belong here. Who would be loved here. Who would be welcome. And we know that. But they don’t. So when you go back into the world this week, how can you tell them about the Christ you know? How can you lead them into the temple, past what doesn’t matter, and into what does? Don’t take for granted that they know what kind of Christian you are. Show them.

We who are the “frozen chosen”, we don’t like to talk about our faith or our religion much. I get that. But when we aren’t talking, others still are. And they’re the voices your neighbors, who may love to be here, are hearing. So this week, think of one way you can represent the Christ you know in your life to those who might need to know there’s a place for them here. I’m not saying go door to door handing out Bibles. I’m saying a simple word of welcome may mean as much to someone who needs it as Jesus turning over tables may have meant to those who had been standing outside the temple, waiting for a new day to come.

And so, this Lent, decide where you are going to stand. Will it be idly by as Jesus turns over the tables of religion at its worst? Or will it be with Christ, who is turning us into something new? I know where I’m going to stand. I hope you will stand with me. As Martin Luther said better, “Here I stand. I can do none other.” Amen.