Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
First Congregational UCC of Manhattan, KS
A sermon for the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses
Ordinary Time, Oct. 29, 2017
There are troublemakers and then there are TROUBLEMAKERS. Martin Luther was a TROUBLEMAKER. Just a basic sketch of why we’re talking about a 16th century Catholic priest today: on Oct. 31st, 1517 Martin Luther went public with a list of 95 complaints he had against the Roman Catholic Church. Now we don’t actually know if he dramatically nailed them to the door of the church in Wittenberg but we DO know that he dropped a copy in the mail to his boss - which just goes to show that he was itching for a fight.
The content of what he said was so bold and brash that it got him into a lot of trouble. By the summer of 1520 the Pope threatened him with excommunication (being kicked out of the Church and, thusly, damned to hell). Fun fact that you may not have known: when Luther received the letter from the Pope threatening excommunication, he publically set it on fire. Why aren’t there more artistic renderings of THAT moment? I mean, wow, Martin Luther. Bold move. If there had been microphones back then, he would have dropped ALL of them.
Eventually, Luther found himself on trial. And, yes, he was excommunicated. And, no, he didn’t really say those famous words “Here I stand, I can do no other.” But he did bravely refuse to recant any of the things he had written that were considered heretical. The Holy Roman Emperor said it was fine for anyone who felt like it to kill him, so Luther went into hiding.
Luther’s story is compelling, but it’s also important to remember he was not a one- man show. Which is why it’s kind of silly that folks have been calling this the 500th anniversary of The Reformation. As if “the Reformation” is something that happened in a day.
By the time Luther wrote his 95 Theses, others had already been troubling the Church for a long time (like, probably forever). Mystics like Hildegard von Bingen and Julian of Norwich had been saying that everyone had direct access to God for centuries. John Wyclif translated the Bible into English in 1382, making it possible for laypeople to read the Bible themselves. Jan Hus, a Czech priest, was burned alive in 1415 because he claimed a lot of the same things Luther would bring up again 100 years later, including the radical claim that Christ was the head of the Church, not the Pope. And, of course, at the same time that Luther was rocking the boat in what is now Germany, reformers like Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin were making waves in Switzerland and France.
Many of the things that we take for granted about practicing Christianity are a gift to us from these reformers.
Hearing the Bible read aloud in a language we can understand. Owning a Bible on our own bookshelf at home that we can open, read, and interpret on our own anytime we’d like (okay, that one also has to do with a lot of other things like the technology of printing, but I don’t have time for all that today). The idea that God’s grace supersedes any terrible things that we might do - that we cannot buy our own salvation, or earn stickers on a chart to get saved. The radical thought that Christ is the head of the church. The sense that each of us needs to make our own journey of faith - that we can go directly to God and have a relationship with the Holy that is not mediated by any religious authority. That we are all called to be in ministry, not just those we are ordained.
500 years after Luther published his theses, many of these things seem ho-hum, but at the time they were a big deal. Many of the reforms that Luther advocated for have also been made in the Roman Catholic Church. That’s actually another reasons some historians speak of the ReformationS - the Catholic Church went through its own reformation or renewal process in 16th century and, of course, continues to reform itself today.
It would be too easy to say something like: Luther was upset and then the Protestants started doing their own thing and the Catholic Church reformed itself and then everything was great. But the Reformations were much messier than that.
All of this mess is why many pastors have been talking and talking lately about this question: what is the appropriate way to mark the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s publication of the 95 Theses? Celebration doesn’t seem quite right because, after all, the Reformations were bloody, painful, and had long-lasting repercussions that have continued to result in violence throughout the globe for centuries. It’s a little hard for me to get fired up about celebrating something that resulted in people literally being burned at the stake for heresy, you know?
And yet - there are many gifts that we have inherited as heirs to the troublemaking reformers of the past. And those should be remembered. It is right, I think, to give thanks for the courage and tenacity of those who went before us and so wanted to live faithful lives that they were willing to risk their very lives to improve Christianity. So we Remember those who went before and give thanks.
This anniversary is also a time for Repentance. Animosity between Catholics and Protestants continues in some places. As someone raised in the Protestant tradition, it makes me uncomfortable to remember the anti-Catholic things I’ve heard “good Christians” say over the years. It saddens me to know that the Church was unable to be reformed non-violently and that so many have died, both because of their beliefs and also because of all the ways ethnicity, nationalism, and race get bound up with religious identity.
It is also important to remember that Luther was far from perfect. He was a prolific writer - sermons, essays, books, translations of the Bible, hymns. And one of the things he wrote is a treatise called On the Jews and their Lies, published in 1543. I had never heard this part of the history until I was in a seminary class on the history of Jewish-Christian relations. I was horrified and disgusted to read about the violence against Jews that Luther and many of his contemporaries advocated. And I do mean violence. He said their schools and synagogues should be burned. And that Jews be put into segregated ghettos.
One of the most painful moments for me in my theological education was when I realized that the rise of Nazi Germany was not just some aberrant blip on the historical radar brought about by one deranged guy named Hitler. Instead, the Christian Church in Europe had been preaching anti-Semitism for hundreds of years. Luther’s words were used frequently in the 1920s and 30s by those in Germany advocating for the mass murder of Jewish people. It’s not just that Christians turned away from the suffering of their Jewish kindred….it’s that they frequently taught violent anti-Semitism in their churches.
Kyrie Eleison. Lord, have mercy.
As we remember the gifts of the Reformations and repent the pain caused by violence, hatred, and division, it is also right and good to renew our own commitment to reform in our own time. There is clearly not enough time to talk about all of the things wrong with the global Church today. It is frequently painful to look at the wider Church and see people preaching hate and bigotry in the name of Christ. It is even more painful to look within and see the ways we could be better followers of Jesus.
But on this 500th anniversary of Luther’s bold move, I am inspired and challenged to remember that positive change in institutions and systems only comes when faithful people are willing to ask really difficult questions and take risks. The call to renewal and reform is one that never goes away. As followers of Jesus, we are always called to stay focused on the things that really matter - loving God, and loving our neighbor as ourselves - even as we relentlessly question the details and dream of new ways to follow Christ together.
Perhaps more than anything, this anniversary calls us to hold together the tension of looking forward and back at the same time. I am reminded of the powerful imagery of the Sankofa bird - which I learned about as a guest at Black Student Union meetings at K-State. The concept of Sankofa is from what is now Ghana and the visual representation is a mythical bird. The bird’s feet are facing forward while its head is turned backwards and it carries an egg in its mouth. The idea is that in order to move forward and bring new life into the world we must also look into the past and understand both the beauty and pain of our shared past.
It seems to me this is what we are being called to do on this anniversary Sunday - to into the past and see both the gifts and the pain from the reformers while simultaneously setting our feet facing forward, carefully carrying renewal with us, dreaming dreams for what Christ’s Church might look like 500 years from now.
In closing, I invite you to join me in the Litany of Remembrance, Repentance, and Renewal printed in your bulletins:
LITANY OF REMEMBRANCE, REPENTANCE, and RENEWAL
One: As we remember Martin Luther's act of rebellion 500 years ago this week, let us also pray that we might still be open to the movement of the Spirit in our own midst. For those who went before, bravely calling institutions to account and painstakingly demanding reform,
Many: O God, we give you thanks.
One: For the times when the Church has let the human urge for power and self-preservation prevail over your will,
Many: O God, we ask forgiveness.
One: For ourselves, that we might become agents of hope and renewal in your Church.
Many: O God, we ask for courage.
One: For those in every age who bring reformation and renewal to the Church when it has become complacent,
Many: O God, we give you thanks.
One: For those instances when we have driven out those who have questioned the status quo.
Many: O God, we ask forgiveness.
One: For the Church, that we may be worthy and willing to work for renewal in all worshiping communities throughout the whole world
Many: we pray for courage in the name of the God who is Creator of all. Amen.
(Inspired by and adapted from a litany from the Covenantal Relations Ministry of the UCC, 2003)