|"Luther Before the Diet of Worms" Anton von Werner (1843-1915)|
I tried really hard to come up with a new twist for a Reformation Sunday sermon this year, but darned if I could think of anything. If I were the campus chaplain of a university, I guess I’d be using Luther’s example to incite the students to acts of civil disobedience in protest of the corruption and abuse of power of this current administration. Unfortunately, I’m the pastor of a bedroom community parish on the outskirts of Philadelphia, and I have to find something meaningful to say to a congregation of folks who are mostly older in age and just trying to get by day-to-day. All I could come up with is this generic Reformation Sermon[i]. I hope it’s enough.
So what are we celebrating on Reformation Sunday? What and who is this festival about? Reformation Sunday is the Sunday on our liturgical calendar which falls on or immediately before October 31. It was on Halloween in 1517 that Martin Luther is said to have nailed his 95 Theses[ii] to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany—thereby defying the power of the Roman Catholic Church and sending the metaphoric fecal matter on a collision course with the fan. Western civilization took a sudden and shocking lurch when an insignificant religious accused the most powerful machine of the Middle Ages of both ignoring its duty to preach the Gospel and systematically abusing the poor.
So who was Martin Luther? The pugnacious founder of Protestantism was the son of a copper miner who hoped he’d gain some upward mobility (not an easy trick in the feudal Middle Ages!) by sending his son to law school. It is said that, while journeying home from school on a break, Luther was caught in the mother of all electrical storms. This scared the crap out of him and, being a medieval man, he feared for his immortal soul and promised to appease God’s wrath by becoming a monk should he survive the storm.
To Luther’s credit, he was a pretty first-class monk. He was even ordained as a priest. Nevertheless, he was deeply troubled by the state of his immortal soul. Baptism, it seemed, didn’t do it for him. The dogma of his day told him that the little dip he had in the font when he was an infant only removed original sin—the sin inherited by being human. Personally, I have no problem with the idea of original sin. After all, if you’re born on the beach, you’re going to get sandy. If you’re born on planet Earth, you’re going to be a screw-up. We all inherit it. It’s just who we are. Luther’s problem—and the problem with the doctrine as it was taught to him—was that original sin could be forgiven, but what happens when you sin again? Luther went crazy trying to work off his debt to God. He knew he was captive to sinful thoughts and desires. If the truth is supposed to make us free, an honest self-appraisal only made Martin Luther more enslaved to despair and guilt. He could only conclude that God must be one rotten bastard for demanding righteousness and knowing full well we couldn’t achieve it.
Luther’s superior thought he could help the anxious monk by sending him on a diplomatic mission to Rome. This only made Luther more despondent when he saw the complete corruption of the Holy See. It is said he called Rome a “sewer” and noted that the Church put up with every kind of vice and greed while Pope Julius II concerned himself with building projects and acquiring real estate. Still fearing God’s wrath, the disillusioned monk nevertheless persisted in his Biblical studies and became a professor of Old Testament at the University of Wittenberg.
It was in the study of scripture that Luther found his freedom. In reading St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans he came across these words:
For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” (Romans 8:28)
This was the truth and freedom he’d been looking for. No one gets it right. Everyone is a screw-up. God loves us anyway, forgives us, and came to share all of our pain on the cross. Then he rose on Easter so we would know this broken life isn’t all there is. Holding on to this faith is what gets us through this crappy and uncaring world and directs our path while we’re in it. We can’t earn God’s favor. God just gives it to us out of love. Our kind and compassionate deeds don’t buy us God’s love—they’re our response to having it.
Yet just as Luther was getting all cozy with the concept of God’s loving grace, the Roman Church was drumming up capital for the completion of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome by selling “Get-Out-of-Hell-Free” cards called indulgences.[iii] The sale of indulgences got Luther hopping mad for several reasons. First, because the “good work” of buying God’s forgiveness flew in the face of scriptural teaching. Second, those who purchased the things could easily grow complacent in their faith. Third, the sale of indulgences were a sin against charity in that they denied the grace of God and the suffering of Christ and preyed mostly on the poor and uneducated.
I consider it must’ve been a pretty big decision for Luther to protest against the abuse of the indulgence racket. Standing up to the Church in the sixteenth century could get one tied to the stake and roasted like a marshmallow. Luther risked his life to proclaim the truth of scripture. Many of his followers were martyred for supporting him.
So what does a Reformation Sunday celebration mean? Let’s not just put red paraments on the altar and sing “A Mighty Fortress” out of nostalgia for an event that happened over 500 years ago. Let’s draw some inspiration from Luther and respond to God’s loving grace. Let’s free ourselves from our own preoccupation with ourselves and start loving God and our neighbor out of gratitude for the love we were shown on the cross. Let’s spend, as Luther did, some time with the scriptures so that law might be written on our hearts. And let’s believe that the world can be changed, that power can be confronted, and justice and mercy can abound in this world as well as in the next.
Thanks for visiting!
[i] The texts used for this peculiarly Lutheran celebration are Jeremiah 31:31-34, Romans 3:19-28, and John 8:312-36
[ii] Luther called this document The Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences. It is now considered somewhat doubtful that Luther did the nailing himself.
[iii] You probably don’t need to know all the background on this, but in case you’re interested, it went down like this: The Church had been selling forgiveness for some time in various ways. In 1517, however, Pope Leo X was trying to finish the building of St. Peter’s so he sold an archbishopric to a slimy German named Albert for 10,000 gold ducats. Albert borrowed the money from the Imperial bankers, and paid them back by having a master salesman, John Tetzel the Inquisitor of Poland, go about selling the indulgences to German peasants. Luther’s sovereign, Duke Frederic the Wise of Saxony, forbade Tetzel from hocking his forgiveness coupons in his domain because he, Frederic, was doing a Taylor Swift concert business by selling peeks at his own collection of holy relics. Luther eventually convinced Frederic that both buying the indulgence coupons and genuflecting in front of relics wouldn’t get anyone any closer to God. To his credit, Fredric got out of the relic business and protected Luther after Luther was declared an outlaw.