Monday, October 31, 2005

Reformation day Sermon-Oct. 30

Sermon text Matthew 23:1-12, The Message Translation

It was a brisk, cool day in Wittenburg almost 500 years ago. The sullen Augustinian monk knew that the church would be full the following day for All Saints Day, when the bell tolled for all who had passed into the great hereafter during the past year. It was concerning the great “hereafter” that had our young hero in quite a stir. Out of a concern for deceased loved ones, some of Luther’s parishioners (our young hero was a professor and an assistant Priest at the Castle church at Wittenburg) had traveled a couple of counties over to buy an indulgence for them. Though Frederick the Wise, who was Luther’s prince, and George, Duke of Saxony, a neighboring Lord, had both forbidden the sale of indulgences in their lands, the guarantee of eternal salvation was enough to travel for. The church was trying to raise funds to finish St. Peter’s Bascillica in Rome, and some creative church men had revived an old controversial practice—rewarding stewardship with salvation. Indulgences could be bought from the church for loved ones who were most likely stuck in a rather lengthy pergatory—a place where our petty sins dragged us down into a period of waiting until entering heaven’s gates. Indulgences would speed along the process—our good will on earth was mirrored in the afterlife for our loved ones. Luther believed this was a mockery of the mission of the church, and it is partially because of his willingness to stand up to this erroneous idea that the church (not just the Reformed church, but the Roman Catholic Church as well) is what it is today. Through debate and political manuervering, what we now call the “Reformation” was born. Though other reform movements had existed in the church prior to Luther and his 95 theses, we recognize this as a special act that brought into clear light some of shortcomings of the Western Church.
Luther’s 95 theses, or The Disputation of Dr. Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences became an argument that Luther would not back away from, even when it meant his excommunication from a church he dearly loved. It is because he dearly loved the church that he was willing to be banished by it. The argument questioned the authority of the pope, the hierarchy of the priesthood over the laypeople of the church, and the role of human works in salvation. His accurate understanding of the book of Romans, with its emphasis on salvation by Grace through Faith, has come to be accepted by every corner of the worldwide Christian church: Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox.
What does the Reforming Spirit have in store for us now, 500 years later? Have Luther’s ideas stuck with us, and are they a sufficient corrective to the popular practice of religion? Have the errors shifted in the other direction, and are we now falling prey to the danger of works righteousness and letting the “professionals” worry about theology?
A common refrain of the Reformation was the elimination of the “middle-men” between God and the believer. This was a corrective to a church system that had placed priests as the intermediaries between God and humanity. Priests were responsible for dispensing God’s grace through the sacraments, and Priests were responsible for hearing the confessions of believers on behalf of God. Luther sideswiped these ideas about God and church by instead focusing on the priesthood of ALL believers. Later, in what is called the “radical” reformation, some churches came to do away with the priesthood and instead elect laymen to lead the congregation in prayers, preaching, and worship. They also cut all ties to the “church” at large and instead concentrated on church law and order coming from the pews of their particular church. The Baptists and Presbyterians are inheritors of this “congregational” system. Some radical churches, such as the Society of Friends, or Quakers, eliminated even the role of the preacher within the service. To this day, if you worship with the Friends, you will sit in a circle and wait for someone to stand up and address the congregation with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The Roman Catholic church was even changed by Luther’s critique of the priesthood of all believers, and now laypeople in that branch of the church have much more involvement in the worship life of the congregation.
We also hear about this “elimination of the middlemen” in today’s gospel passage. Jesus grants that the Pharisees know the law well, but he tells the crowds not to follow their example. They don’t practice what they preach, and instead load people down with minute details of the law. Jesus seems distraught at the notion that some “professionals” come between us and our God. In the second half of today’s scripture, Jesus says quite clearly, You have one teacher, and are all classmates. Don’t let the religious professionals tell you what to do—listen to God. Luther seems to draw on this critique of religion in his debates with the greatest theologians of his time. Prestiegue and power and hierarchy did not seem to be as important to Luther, who believed that all baptized Christians were baptized into the priesthood—we all have a great honor and obligation to live up to the example of Christ—not just pay a priest to do it for us.
The largest contribution of Luther and the Reformation in general was the translation of the Bible into the vernacular, the language of the people. Perhaps we cannot quite grasp what it might have been like to be a Christian in that day and age. The Bible was written in a language spoken only by priests. The entire worship service was celebrated in Latin, and the majority of the people could not understand it. Common folks were left to gaze at the stained glass windows, which told the stories of the Bible in ways they could understand.
That is not to say that the religious life of the common person was completely stale. Professional guilds competed with each other to build the biggest and most audacious “floats” for parades during patron saint’s feast days. These floats would tell the stories of the Bible in the common understanding and were traveling morality plays that communicated a grass roots version of the Bible. Waterworks guilds would vie to create the largest and best Noah’s ark and Jonah scenes, blacksmiths would use their knowledge of fire to create dazzling scenes of Jesus knocking down the gates of Hell—a story not actually in the Bible, but a popular story of the church anyway. What I’m trying to communicate is that Luther’s reforms of the church did not break into a cold, dry, lifeless church. The church was undoubtedly corrupt, but it was also the center of the culture and was quite popular, which makes the success of Luther’s reforms all the more amazing.
When Luther translated the Bible into German, people were dying to read it—literally dying to read it. Imagine the excitement and anticipation that many of us feel for the next installment of Harry Potter and multiply that by 1000. During the Reformation, as the Bible is translated into the various languages of the people, literacy rates jump very substantially. People embrace the new movement because they feel empowered and energized by being able to read the word of God for themselves. As the Word of God was made incarnate in the person of Jesus, it was also given substance in the actual words of the people during this time in history.
Those in power were always hesitant to allow the people to read the Bible for themselves. In the antebellum South, it was for the same reason. Those in power know that there is a secret in the Bible—the secret is that God is not on the side of those in power, but on the side of those who are powerless! This is a dangerous piece of information—and Luther had to deal with uprisings of peasants who were motivated by their newfound liberty in the pages of the Gospel. Likewise, slaveholders in the South were terrorized by rebellions led by the likes of Nat Turner and John Brown—people who had read the Bible and imagined that Exodus was telling their story.
Perhaps we have swung back in the other direction. The Bible doesn’t seem like much of an interesting read to most of us—instead it might seem arcane and outdated. We would rather not deal with the demands of the Christian life, instead many of us consider showing up in church a time or two a month “good enough.” We may say we believe in the priesthood of all believers, but God knows we have full time jobs that take priority.
Martin Luther takes the Christian faith out of the hands of the “paid professionals” and puts the ball in our court. We have the scriptures before us in our own language—we might benefit from the interpretation and guidance of one, such as myself, who has invested his life in the study and application of the Christian faith, but when it comes down to it, we may just prefer for him to do all the visioning, all the planning, all the nitty-gritty—after all, we pay this guy to be the Christian, right!
If my last statement to you was offensive----praise God! Here’s what you can do about it: Last week at the Movement of the Spirit worship service, many of you signed a covenant to practice a spiritual discipline in your home life. These acts of devotion that you see around the church building are ways to take some interest and dedication in your own spiritual lives. If we are truly called to be priests of our own prayer life and of our own personal relationship with Christ, we must exercise our spiritual muscles.
Through the disciplines of solitude and silence, fasting and frugality, secrecy and sacrifice, study and prayer, service and submission, worship and celebration, fellowship and confession, you take the ball that is in your court and you “play a game of one on one with God.” The spiritual disciplines are meant to help you gain insight into your own faith walk, and it is up to you to be the student. As Jesus said, we have but one Teacher, and we are all students together. One great thing about God’s classroom is that thanks to the Reformation, the exams are “open book,” and we are allowed to give and receive help and encouragement from our classmates. These spiritual disciplines are akin to us doing our “homework” so that we are able to be the best students we possibly can be.
If we want to live up to the heritage of the reformation, we will place a greater value on the opportunity we have to actually do something to benefit our spiritual lives. We have been given great gifts of education, literacy, and a transparent, lay empowering church. Don’t squander the legacy so many people died to bring about. Amen!


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