Given the amount of anxiety around tweets these days, I thought we’d start here:
This weekend is the 500-year anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Let’s take a little trip through church history, shall we?
Martin Luther, who is known as the father of the Reformation was born in 1483, was a practicing monk in Germany. At that time, there was one church of the West, one Holy Catholic Church—catholic holding both meanings at this time- the Roman Catholic church headed by the pope but also Catholic as what we like to call the “big C Church.”
Now, the story goes that on Oct 31st, 1517 Martin Luther wrote up 95 objections of the church and church leadership in Rome. He insisted that there were things being done in and for the church that simply needed to change. So the story goes that in the quiet of the evening of Oct 31st, Martin Luther went to the church in Wittenberg and nailed his 95 theses to the church door. The night before one of the largest masses of the year, All Saint’s Day on Nov 1st.
Now, Luther made 95 objections to the church. Now, not many of his objections were all that sexy, but there were a few that really stood out:
The most well-known among his critiques was the sale of indulgences. The church claimed that Christians could spend less time in purgatory through the sale of an indulgence. One would do this by purchasing a letter of “indulgence” from their local parish. Essentially, you pay the church for the forgiveness of sins.
Luther, first, theologically couldn’t get behind it, but also saw it as a corrupt practice: local princes were profiting on the backs of the common folk.
And that’s Luther’s best-known critique in these theses, but there are others I’m sure you’ve heard or are familiar with.
This is also where we get “sola scriptura,” or scripture alone. The church at that time acted as a mediator between God and the people, and the Bible was only written in the Latin Vulgate. Luther argued that the people didn’t need the church or priests to mediate for God, but through scripture, God’s spirit would be revealed. But that is only possible if the people could first-hand have access to the scripture.
And these 95 theses that Luther wrote is marked as what we know as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Luther was disowned by the Catholic church. Bitterness and even wars were the results. But so were creativity, enlightenment, a mushroom of new ideas and thoughts, and our Protestant church and Protestant heritage that we share.
Luther was a reformer. He was doing the work of digging deep down and asking the harder questions and allowing the spirit to move in the not easy or convenient answers.
But what made Luther special? What set him apart? Was there some quality or special vision that he had that made him different?
Today Ron read the story of the end of Moses’ life- someone else I would classify as a reformer. He’s been leading the Israelites around in the desert in search of the promised land for 40 years. He climbed a mountain and God showed Moses the promised land. And then, Moses died. He got so close to leading the Israelites into the promised land, but the Bible says died in the land of Moab.
This is Moses: who as Israelite baby who was put in a basket in a river so he wouldn’t be murdered by Pharoah’s army.
Moses: who was rescued by Pharaoh’s own daughter and raised as her own.
Moses: who was keeping a flock heard the voice of God in a burning bush.
And Moses: who, as incompetent as he felt, stood before the most powerful leader in the world and demanded that he let the Israelite people go.
Moses was a reformer. And like Martin Luther, Moses is also set aside as one of the patriarchs of our faith. He saw the injustices in the system and used the tools available to him to follow the leading of God’s spirit. He asked the hard questions. And he went with the uneasy answers.
And we have these leaders among us that we set aside as different or out of the ordinary, for the extraordinary work that they did. This list of reformers doesn’t end with Moses or Martin Luther but goes on to include men and women like John the Baptist, Pricilla and Aquilla, Saint Stephen, Mother Theresa, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Traci Blackmon, and I’d say, even Pope Francis. And this could go on and on.
So what sets these reformers apart? What makes them special?
Now I know there are many among us who like to point out that Martin Luther wasn’t alone in the reformation. “In fact,” some of you may even say, “There were folks thirty years earlier making the same objections to the church.” I hear you. Luther is the one who gets remembered, but there are many others at this same time who were asking the same difficult questions and coming up with very similar difficult answers.
Desiderius Erasmus spoke out against the sale of indulgences just like Luther. Ulrich Zwingli, at the same time in Switzerland, was leading the Swiss reformation; Martin Bucer led reform efforts in Strasburg andnd our beloved by Presbyterians everywhere: John Calvin. He experienced a “Sudden Conversion” in 1530 and went on to lead reformation efforts in Geneva.
Martin Luther wasn’t alone; because nothing happens in a vacuum. Not one of these reformers came up with this stuff on their own.
And as I like to re-imagine history, I really like to imagine Martin Luther sitting around with some of his monk buddies over a few beers discussing the sale of indulgences.
Reformers like these guys lived and moved with a community. They were influenced by friends and family, what they knew and what they saw every day. We are all formed and shaped by our surroundings. It’s like the famous John Donne poem No Man is an Island.
No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…
We are influenced by our surroundings and sharpened by the ideas floating around in our time. And movements like the reformation aren’t an explosion that comes out of nowhere. The sound-bit cycle paints the Arab Spring as an out-of-nowhere phenomenon. But… more often than not, when these movements like the reformation are set off, it is more like the straw that broke the camel’s back. These things build and grow and gain momentum until things shift.
I think about the tectonic plates below our feet that slowly move and shift until there is so much pressure, something’s got to give.
There is this song at the end of one of the Chronicles of Narnia movies– Prince Caspian for those of you that know the stories—The song is called “The Call” by Regina Spektor and it goes:
It started out as a feeling
Which then grew into a hope
Which then turned into a quiet thought
Which then turned into a quiet word
And then that word grew louder and louder
‘Til it was a battle cry
From our lens, as we look back on history—we have the perspective where we can see these major shifts. But when you’re down in the muck of it, I’m sure it feels like they are just making it up as they go. No one’s got it figured out. But they know something’s got to shift.
But what sets these reformers apart from the thousands of others who feel what they feel.. is that these individuals cling to that feeling within them… that feeling, that hope that gut instinct and they follow it.
These reformers: they are willing to dig deep down and ask hard questions and not settle for easy answers.
Today’s gospel reading I think demonstrates this point: This text is perhaps one of my favorite texts in the Bible. The Pharisees and the Sadducees have their feathers ruffled by Jesus because he is asking hard questions and following uneasy answers. So, they send a lawyer to test Jesus while they look on from a distance. The lawyer asks, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
Jesus answers: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
You shall love God and love neighbor. And in most cases, the English is translated: “Love God… this is the first and greatest commandment and the second is like it.” But the Greek here is says something more like, “And the second is equal to it” or “the second is exactly the same thing.”
Jesus answers a singular question with a singular answer: “Loving God and loving neighbor are one in the same.” In a culture that was judgmental and hierarchical and rampant with cultural expectation and social norms to fall in place and fit in the box… sound familiar?… Jesus shifts the question and offers an uneasy answer.
Jesus asked questions of the system and offered answers that were hard to hear.
Moses asked questions of the system and offered answers that were hard to hear.
Martin Luther asked questions of the system and offered answers that were hard to hear.
They were all willing to go out on a limb as they listened to the spirit that called from within: That gut; that instinct; that calls for justice for all and draws us closer together and shines the light in the dark places in our world.
And I believe we all feel it. But letting it grow from a feeling to a hope, to a whisper, to a word to a battle cry takes courage.
To be willing to ask the hard questions of our day and be willing to wrestle with the uneasy answers. That takes courage.
All of these reformers: what makes them different wasn’t that they felt the spirit calling from within, but it was that they were willing to go out on a limb for it. They were so compelled that they were willing to put themselves out there to make changes that impacted people’s very lives.
So, church: Where do you see reformation happening today? What needs reforming today? How do we live into this tradition of asking the hard questions? What hits you in the gut? Where is the spirit moving? How will the church speak truth to injustice and hope for the hopeless in the 21st century? How might we reform our way and our world?
May you have the courage to ask the hard questions and wrestle with uneasy answers.
Thanks be to God.