Tagged with Reformation @500


Matthew 22:34-46

Jesus is teaching in Jerusalem.  He is responding to question after question. People keep coming, the text tells us, to test him. They ask Jesus about taxes. They ask him about resurrection. They ask him about the commandments. In each case, Jesus responds wisely, revealing religious truth while sidestepping political land mines. Finally Jesus turns the tables, and begins to ask his own questions. What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he? How could he be the son of David, when David calls him Lord?

Suddenly the conversation dwindles. No one knows what to say. Everyone is afraid of getting it wrong, of looking like a fool. From that day on, the gospel writer tells us, no one dares to ask Jesus any more questions.

What a tragedy.

Reading the gospels, we learn that questions are essential if we want to learn about God. Much of Jesus’ teaching is in response to questions from the crowd.  And when he is asked a question, he rarely gives a straight answer. Sometimes he tells a story. Most often, he asks a question in return.  In our gospels, Jesus asks 307 questions. Questions are his favorite way of teaching.

Today we mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. But that’s not quite right. The reformation was a complex social movement that lasted for hundreds of years and across many nations.  What we’re marking today is the anniversary of the date when the German monk Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral. In this document, as you may know, Luther outlined his disagreements with the Roman Church’s teachings surrounding indulgences.

Interestingly, among Luther’s 95 theses, 8 are technically not “theses” at all. They are questions. Luther says, “The unbridled preaching of indulgences makes it difficult even for learned men to rescue the reverence which is due the pope from slander or from the shrewd questions of the laity.” and then he proceeds to list 8 shrewd questions, including this one: “Why does not the pope empty purgatory for the sake of holy love and the dire need of the souls that are there if he redeems an infinite number of souls for the sake of miserable money with which to build a church?”

Luther concludes his famous document by asserting that Christians must follow Christ at all costs, even if it means endangering themselves by going against the church.  Nothing is more important, he says,  than being honest about our beliefs and staying true to our conscience.

In the years since Luther’s actions, countless Christians have agreed with the idea that the church is in need of reform.  We have questioned church teaching and practice. We have refused to endorse any teaching we do not believe to be true. We have separated from one another again, and again, and again, forming new movements and denominations to better embody our understanding of what it means to faithfully follow Christ.

The Protestant branches of the global Christian church which emerged from the Reformation have become known for our robust skepticism.  The theologian Paul Tillich calls it the Protestant Principal.  According to Tillich: “The heart of Protestantism asserts itself and says, “NO!” whenever a person, institution, or movement claims that its values are God’s values, its truth God’s truth, its action, God’s action.” In other words: no one ever gets it exactly right. Protestants are always looking for a way to improve.

The tradition we stand in as part of this congregation, the United Church of Christ, fully embraces this Protestant Principle. We claim among our ancestors of faith those pilgrims on the Mayflower who were willing to travel across an ocean to practice as they felt led. As they travelled, they carried with them these words: “I am verily persuaded the Lord hath more truth yet to break forth out of His Holy Word.”

In other words, our forebearers were clear that the Reformation will never be over. Why stop now? Our hearts, our churches, our communities, our nations are still marked by imperfection.  In the UCC, we like to call ourselves “reformed and reforming.” It’s a process that never ends.

There is, of course, a danger in all of this. We could get too fascinated by our own clever questions and ideas and fail to honor the wisdom of others. We could get self-centered, and fail to work with others towards the Glory of God. I have concerns for our branch of the church in both of these areas. But when I have concerns, those concerns lead back to the same place. We are reformed, and we still need reforming.

Occasionally, when I meet with someone here at church, they hesitatingly reveal to me that they’re not so sure about this whole faith thing. I don’t know about Jesus, you tell me. I’m not certain about God. Other times, I hear questions you have about the church, because the church here or elsewhere has failed you, or because it mystifies you.

We may feel uncertain about sharing these kinds of questions with one another, or with God, but questions are never the problem. God is strong enough to withstand all of our questions.  The church becomes better because our questions. Questions do not signal disrespect, or blasphemy. To ask a question is to show how much we long to really understand, and to more deeply trust in both God and our Christian community. Questions are a gift, in our individual journeys of faith, and in the journey of the church. Jesus loved questions.

So, I wonder: what questions do you have today?  What questions do you have for God, or the church? How do you believe that we need to be reformed today: as individuals, or communities?

We read aloud the youth suggestions and came up with a few more:

  • Why are we afraid to ask questions when that is how we learn?
  • Let’s rejoice throughout the realm that You, Holy One, are still speaking. May all eyes be open to this.
  • Why do some church leaders support flawed politicians for political agendas?
  • How can we work toward being united with other Christian sects rather than being more separated?
  • How can we speak and act with both power and humility?
  • How can the church effectively spread dialogue and asking of questions to heal the rifts in our society?
  • How long, O God, must we wait for good to overcome evil in our country, in all places rent by violence?
  • O God, continue to show us your way through this wilderness time for our nation. Will we ever reach the “promised land” or will it always be just over the horizon?
  • How can we help faith communities be instruments of connectedness rather than divisiveness (as they have too often been)?
  • How do we confront racism effectively?
  • May all remain open to the changes occurring in our own church
  • We need more love and tolerance int he world. I ask why I was so fortunate to be born in this wonderful country with food, love, and safety at home while others were born in war torn areas without basic necessities.
  • How can we be more effective in bridging the divisions that exist in our community and our world while simultaneously staying true to our own values and consciences?
  • How do we really deal with poverty around the world?
  • There is a need for a new reformation of the world, remembering that God loves us and that all people should believe in love and forgiveness! How can we in prayer ask God to reform the world?
  • Loud protests — not just against, but in word and action, demonstrate what we are FOR.


Scripture in Song

This sermon was offered by Polly Jenkins Man on October 22nd, 2017.

Matthew 22:15-22

A man was being challenged by members of the establishment who were ardent defenders of the faith. Attempting to trap him with well-rehearsed questions, they were eager to discount his teachings and perhaps even find a way to arrest him. He was becoming too popular: they noticed that more and more people were following him, being led astray by what these men regarded as heretical ideas.  Their power and influence, even their livelihood was threatened.

A familiar gospel story; the Pharisees confront Jesus. Actually no, it isn’t.  The event I just described occurred in Leipzig, Germany, almost 500 years ago. Germany’s master debater, Johann Eck, a Dominican friar with some other theologians, invited Martin Luther to discuss the doctrine of free will and grace.

But it does have the familiar ring of the gospel passage. It’s a timeless story of a radical, an innovator coming up against an establishment that is terrified of losing its power and influence.  Jesus, a master debater himself, was able to wiggle out of the Pharisees’ grip with a brilliant object lesson.   “See this coin”, he said, “whose image is on it?” “ The emperor’s,” they replied,  “All right then, give it to the emperor since it his.”  “But give to God those things that are God’s.”

How long do you think it took before the Pharisees, scratching their heads as they walked away, figured out that giving to God what was God’s, meant giving that which bears God’s image, that is, themselves, him, us and all children of God.   Scholars of the Torah, they knew very well what Jesus meant: “God made humankind in God’s image, male and female God created them”.

However, the debate between Luther and Eck took a slightly different turn. Like Jesus, Luther was challenged to defend his belief. Yet, unlike Jesus, he could not find a way to satisfy his listeners and stand by his conviction at the same time.  In the end, he stood by his conviction: scripture, he declared, is the only true authority for Christians; not popes, councils or theologians. The head of the church is Christ, No one occupies his primary position.

Sola scriptura, scripture alone, became the watchword of the new movement.  All anyone needs; all wisdom, instruction, words of promise, solace and hope; God’s love and God’s anger, all are in the words of the Bible.

It was a lovely idea…and a huge problem, because very few people could read. And even fewer, Greek and Latin the languages of the New Testament and the church.

Education in reading and writing was available only to priests, monks and scholars, which had been true since earliest times, yet, even then, church leaders sensed that it was important for the laity to have direct access to the Biblical story.  Which is why, as early as the 2nd century, there began to appear frescoes on the walls of the catacombs, later Byzantine mosaics, then reliefs and statues, culminating with the flowering of the great art of the Gothic cathedrals.

These amazing buildings, are like Scripture in Stone.  Figures carved into the façade tell the stories of both testaments, saints and prophets marching up and over the arch, covering every inch. Inside the cathedral, stained glass windows glow with  figures of the patriarchs and matriarchs, and  stories from the gospel. People learned all this as they entered for Mass and stood through the service.  Visual instruction.

But then, along comes reformation theology with its desire to distance itself from all popery, of anything that smacked of connection to the Roman church.  Reformers began to remove   art, which, they viewed as distractions from the power of the Word.

Yet here was another problem for Luther.  His translation of the New Testament into German would suffice to fill the teaching gap for those who could read, what about all the others?

And so he went the next step.   In addition to everything else that he was: monk, theologian, preacher, translator and reformer; he was a fine musician, who sensed that music could reach a place in people’s hearts and minds that words alone could not.  He began a mission to bring more music into the church; with congregational singing and by giving the pipe organ a central role in worship.  Those two changes opened up the field for the great composers who would follow. Someone once said, “If there had been no Luther, we would not have Bach!”

The Roman church did have music, although not for the crowd. Priests, monks and a choir sang the Mass. Giovanni Palestrina was a Renaissance musician and composer who wrote for them. His setting of Psalm 42, the motet “ Sicut cervus ” expresses the longing of the soul for God as a deer longs for flowing streams. To get a sense of this music, I ask you now to visualize our choir as 16th century monks while we sing a brief excerpt from his motet.

(Choir sings the excerpt of “Sicut Cervus”)

Luther had always been fond of church music.  Now he wanted to expand its role. A pioneer once again, he believed that if everyone could sing the words, then the Word would become integrated into people’s hearts, would become part of them.

He began to write hymns, often setting them to familiar folk tunes, even drinking songs. Jim is playing two variations this morning on one of Luther’s hymns: the prelude and the offertory; and every hymn in today’s service is a Luther hymn. Still though, was the old problem:  many who couldn’t read words, let alone music.  So what does he do? He calls the congregation together during the week to learn the hymns. He’d sing a line, the congregation would sing it back.  That’s exactly what we would have done this morning, if we were in a 16th century reformed church. Lauren would have sung one line, we’d repeat it back, and so on through the whole hymn.  Luther was the father of congregational singing. Thank you, Martin Luther! It’s where the Protestant byword “the priesthood of all believers” received its fullest expression.   Scripture in Song.

He was a man before his time because it is now well known how music affects us. Science has proven what music lovers already know: listening to music can improve your mood by lowering the stress hormone cortisol.

Music also stimulates the brain hormone oxytocin   I call it the love or the bonding hormone because it’s the chemical released when mothers give birth… it’s better than any happiness drug. (fun fact: females usually have more than males)

A swab of a chorister’s mouth immediately after a 2 hour rehearsal showed a significantly higher amount of endorphins than a sample taken just before they sang. This neurotransmitter is part of the pleasure-reward system.  It’s the brain chemical responsible for the feel-good states obtained from runner’s high, sex, and eating chocolate.  I mean, seriously, isn’t that a great reason to join the choir?

Serotonin also weighs in here.  Our senior choir rehearses every Wednesday at 7:45 pm and we get home about 9:30. Many of us are tired at the end of a long day. Can we really get up and go again? But we do because we know that after an hour and a half of singing we could almost fly home. That’s serotonin, better than therapy, cheaper and whole lot more fun. Convinced yet?

Music reaches into our hearts and souls, lifting our mood when we sing and even when we just listen.

More than all of that, though, is the power of music to heal. It’s apparent in the psalms,which were originally always sung and in many reform traditions, still are.   Psalm 96, “O Sing to the Lord a new song” is a song of joy, praising God’s glory.   There are so many like that.  And just as many about despair and sorrow, when the psalmist pleads to God to rescue him.  Think of Psalm 22.    David cries out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me ..trouble is near and there is no one to help”… then, ultimately, at the end, he is reassured, remembering that God has rescued him in the past.  God heard him when he cried out to him.

I like to think that it was in the sound of his voice and the music of his harp that seeped into his despair and gave him hope.

As it did for Michael Gruenbaum in 1943, a prisoner in Terezin, a German Nazi camp in occupied Czechoslovakia.  “There wasn’t much good in Terezin, he said, “it was a pretty miserable existence. 33,000 died there and another 800,000 were shipped to death camps elsewhere.” When Gruenbaum was 12 years old in the camp, those prisoners performed a childrens opera which ends with the chorus, “We’ve won a victory over the tyrant mean, sound trumpets, beat your drum and show us your esteem” Sounds a lot like a psalm.  75 years later Gruenbaum reflects, ‘We were free singing.’

The power to heal…after Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head by an assassin, she began the brave and long journey to heal her body.  But speech wouldn’t come. One day a guitarist came to sing to her.  Before long, Giffords began to sing along, the tune and the words. A woman who had not yet uttered any recognizable word.  Music had reached in to a place where nothing else had, and healing began in earnest.

What is that place? Where is it? In our heart, our brain, our tendons or nerves which vibrate like a strings of a harp?  Or is it in our soul, a spirit which resonates with the Spirit planted deep within us by none other than God, attuned to the joy and the hope that is part and parcel of being made in the divine image.

Thanks be to God.


Matthew 22:1-14

There are few stranger texts in our bible than the parable Jesus offers in the gospel of Matthew this morning. No one would want to teach this story in Sunday School. One commentator even wrote, “I’m not sure this parable is conducive to a Christian sermon at all.” So, I urge you to lower your expectations as we try to make some sense out of it.

Jesus tells us: the kingdom of heaven is like a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. The king sends out invitations to the banquet. However, no one wants to come. So, the king sends word again, letting the guests know that there is a great menu, with lots of meat. Still, everyone has something better to do than show up at the wedding.

This story already sounds strange. Why would anyone ignore a royal invitation, especially when it’s offered twice? But wait – there’s more. Some of the folks who don’t want to come to the party are so angry — about being invited — that they abuse and kill the people sent out to invite them. The king, in turn, is enraged, and sends an army to kill and burn the whole city.

Now many of us know that wedding planning can be stressful. Family dynamics; financial challenges; people don’t always RSVP. But this case seems extreme. Every single guest has refused to attend. People have been murdered. The King has destroyed one of his own cities. One might wonder if the couple might decide to have a private family ceremony, or even elope.

But no. The King is still in search of guests. He decides to invite anyone who can be found on the street, good or bad. Finally, he has what he has wanted all along: a hall full of people. Unfortunately, someone at the wedding mars the perfection of the evening by committing a fashion faux pas. Having received a last minute invitation, he shows up at the wedding without a wedding robe. The king is so insulted by this that he has the man bound, and thrown into the outer darkness, where, apparently, there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Jesus concludes the parable by saying, “for many are called, but few are chosen.”

Yikes. I have so many questions. If we imagine that the king in this parable is God, as most commentators do, why is this wedding so important to her? What kind of anger management issues led to her destroying a town? Why did she send someone to eternal punishment for simply wearing the wrong outfit? What did Jesus think that this parable could tell us about the kingdom of God? And what on earth does his last comment mean: “For many are called, but few are chosen”?

The idea of being chosen by God is a theme that runs throughout our religious tradition. Our Jewish ancestors in faith have sometimes understood themselves to be chosen by God for a special fate. Augustine and Aquinas both believed that God had specific plans for us. Being chosen also became an important theological issue during the reformation, thanks largely to the writings of Calvin.

You remember John Calvin: that French philosopher and lawyer turned preacher and theologian. Fleeing religious persecution, he ended up in Geneva. He preached a lot of very long sermons without notes. He outlawed the use of instruments. And he shared some ideas about being chosen by God that went farther than anyone had ever gone before.

Calvin believed that we are all inherently sinful, as a result of the sins of the first humans. We are, to use his language, totally depraved; every part of our lives is touched by sin. And it gets worse: we have no ability to recover from our state of sinfulness by ourselves. Rather, God plans for the saving of people through Jesus, and the availability of irresistible grace. Unfortunately, not everyone gets to participate in this salvation plan. God, in God’s wisdom, has chosen, or predestined, some of us for a glorious fate, while everyone else is destined for damnation. There’s nothing anyone can do about what camp they have been assigned to.

Before you all pack up and decide to go home, because of the bizarre things we find in our Christian tradition, let me suggest some mitigating factors to help us cope with both the parable and Calvin’s theology: human experience, and human error.

Let’s begin with the parable. You may know that the gospel of Matthew was produced by a community of Jesus followers 50 or 60 years after the death of Jesus – that’s two or three generations. During the time between Jesus’ death and the recording of the gospel, the people in the Matthean community did not had a pleasant run of it.

They believed that God was calling all Jewish believers to a magnificent renewal of faith, through the teachings and resurrection of Jesus. God was like a King, who graciously invites everyone to come to a magnificent banquet. However, lots of people did not show up when they were invited. Friends, and family, and members of the synagogue, did not want to join in the Jesus movement. Some of them were downright rude.  A few were violent towards these Jesus-following Jewish people.

Therefore, when the Temple of Jerusalem was destroyed in the year 70,  the Matthean community wondered whether God was responding to the Jews who had not begun to follow Jesus. And, still wanting their movement to grow, they reached out beyond the Jewish community and welcomed in anyone who would come: anyone off the street, no matter what their background.

This story is designed to comfort the Matthean community: to give them a sense that God is on their side. But the story turns at the end. It ends with a warning: you have been invited to God’s great feast, and you have had the good sense to show up. Still, make sure that you follow the host’s rules if you want to stay. Do not be complacent

Human experience, and human error: the Matthean community puts words in Jesus’ mouth that will explain their struggle. In the process, they make the mistake of condemning those family and friends who are faithful in a different way: something I think Jesus never would have encouraged.

What about Calvin? I am far from an expert on Calvin or his time. But let me offer a theory. Calvin lived in a world in which heaven and hell were an assumed part of the worldview. Everyone knew that they existed and that people were divided after death into to one or the other, saved or damned.

What Calvin does is try to explain how God is present in this preconceived understanding of the universe. He says, God is so powerful, that it’s impossible that this does not happen exactly the way that God intends it to. Choosing gets done, and so God must be doing the choosing.

Human experience, and human error. Calvin’s experience in the church taught him what he believed about heaven, and hell, and salvation, and damnation. And therefore, he made an error: he created a theological explanation for the mechanism by which people arrived in these places which makes no sense if we believe in a loving God.

None of us are free from the biases that our experiences produce. None of us are free from error. But let’s see if we can imagine differently how God calls and chooses people. Let’s start, by putting what we know about God in the center of the story, which means, what we know about love.

I like the idea of God as a host. God is our host at every communion meal. What kind of host would God be? I’m not sure I see God as someone who creates a VIP guest list and sends out engraved invitations and hires a celebrity chef. I’m guessing God is more of a potluck kind of person. You know, someone who sees a friend or a stranger while running errands and says, “come on over.” Someone who is so generous with their invitations that the crowd gets big, and it’s always an unexpected mix of people.

I’m not sure God’s house is always clean. Someone who’s focused on loving doesn’t always get around to dusting. No one minds, though. There’s always something delicious to eat in the potluck. There’s always a good story to hear. And most importantly, there’s a down home feeling that gets inside you and makes you want to smile. After dinner, the music starts. It’s a pick-up band, most nights. Sometimes a truly magnificent artist knocks everyone’s socks off.

God doesn’t ask much of people who show up. Come as you are, bring what you have. The only thing God asks is that everyone who comes tries to let down our hair, and tell the real truth, and have a good time, and love one another. We can stay all night. We can stay forever.

God, you are such a big mystery, and life is so complicated, that we get really confused about what you’re up to in this world. Whenever we are unsure, help us get back to essentials. Help us get back to love. Amen.

God is God

Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45
Exodus 16:2-15

The psalmist proclaims this morning that God brought the people Israel up out of slavery in Egypt with joy and with singing. However, when we meet those same Israelites in our second reading from the book of Exodus, their mood is not quite so cheery.  At this stage in their story, the jubilation of a miraculous escape has faded.

Now the Israelites are on a seemingly endless journey, out in the middle of nowhere, without enough to eat or drink. They are tired. They are hungry. They are afraid.  So, they do what humans do everywhere when we find ourselves in a bind: they turn to their leaders and complain. “If only we had died…in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

In other words: this is awful, and we blame you.

Moses and Aaron aren’t too thrilled to be on the receiving end of these complaints.  It seems a little hard to be blamed for helping people escape from slavery. And Moses and Aaron didn’t come up with the idea of escaping from Pharaoh by themselves. In fact, neither of them really wanted anything to do with the whole Exodus project. They simply gave in to God’s insistent instructions.

So, Moses and Aaron do what humans do everywhere when we find ourselves blamed for unfortunate events: they pass the buck. They tell the people, “What are we, that you complain against us? Your complaining is not against us but against the Lord.”

In other words: God’s the one who’s really in charge around here. Look to God, if you want things to change.

We began our series on the Reformation two weeks ago talking about the pre-reformers, John Wycliffe and Jan Hus. Then, last week, we spent a little time with Martin Luther, who started the Reformation proper with his indignation over the church practice of indulgences. This week, we turn our attention to yet another famous reformer, a Frenchman named John Calvin.

Calvin began his professional life as a humanist philosopher and lawyer. In the early 1530s, he experienced a conversion, and turned his life over to God. The newly Christian Calvin found himself in sympathy with those in Paris who were urging reform and renewal in the church. Eventually Calvin’s beliefs became so dangerous in France that he fled to Switzerland. There he wrote his famous Institutes of the Christian Faith, a book of systematic theology. He established himself as a pastor and a city leader in Geneva.

Calvin is famous today for many things. One of them is his preaching. While he was in Geneva, Calvin preached more than two thousand sermons, sometimes preaching seven times a week. Each sermon lasted for more than an hour and he did not use notes.  This guy had a lot to say, and he was methodical about sharing it. Calvin seems to have worked his way slowly through biblical books as he preached, so that he gave two hundred sermons on Deuteronomy – in sequence – over the course of a year. I wonder how that would go over here.

But today, what I want to highlight most about Calvin is not his amazing preaching record, but his theological emphasis on what he called the Sovereignty of God.

What does it mean to believe in the Sovereignty of God? It doesn’t seem too UCC, does it — the Sovereignty of God? (more…)

Selling Salvation

I Corinthians 1:18-24
John 3:13-17

This fall, on the 500th anniversary of the reformation, we are revisiting history to ask what it might have to teach us about our faith and life today.  And if we ask what issue is at the heart of the reformation– what was the biggest point of debate that divided the church –  what would you say? What were you taught in history class? Often, the reformation is considered to be the result of the selling of indulgences.

The long road that led us to the sale of indulgences starts with a simple question: how do we heal our relationship with God when we have damaged it? Or, to use different language, what should we do when we realize that we have sinned? In Catholic tradition, which is our heritage as western Christians, we recover from sin in three steps: contrition, confession, and satisfaction.  This is not so different from how many non-Catholics and even non-Christians understand the process of setting things right after doing something wrong. Contrition: First, we realize and regret that we’ve done something wrong. Confession: Then, we admit to God and others what we’ve done. Satisfaction: Finally, we attempt to “right the wrong,” either directly or indirectly. Contrition, confession, and satisfaction.

Indulgences are one way of solving the “satisfaction” part of the equation. If we feel badly about what we’ve done, we want to make up for it. And if we believe in hell or purgatory, as nearly all medieval Christians did, we want to avoid suffering in them. But what can we do to achieve satisfaction? And how will we know if we’ve done enough?

In response to these questions, the church developed a system to quantify how much satisfaction was required in each circumstance, and in what ways one could earn it. When people followed the church’s guidance, they received an indulgence, a promise of release from the punishment of sin, issued by a bishop or by the Pope. At first, indulgences were offered to those who had done something significant to make up for their sins: for example, going on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, or building a cathedral, or fighting in a crusade.

Soon believers to begin to wonder: instead of going to all the trouble of a pilgrimage, a building project, or a war: couldn’t I just pay to make things right?  As it turns out, the church had plenty of use for Christians’ money, and so the sale of indulgences began in the 12th century. It proved popular, and it grew. Then, as the papacy weakened, secular governments increasingly demanded a cut of the pie, too. Governments would only allow the sale of indulgences if they got as much as two-thirds of the sale returned to their own bank accounts. Guilt, it turned out, was profitable for many.

From the beginning, however, there were questions about indulgences. Something didn’t seem quite right about the church or the state benefiting financially. Then, you had to consider the needs of the poor — what about those who couldn’t afford to pay? And why should a bishop or a pope have the final say in where a person ended up after death?  Martin Luther’s arguments on this topic were the ones that really caught fire. He wrote:

“Ask, for example: Why does not the pope liberate everyone from Purgatory for the sake of love (a most holy thing) and because of the supreme necessity of their souls? This would be morally the best of reasons. Meanwhile he redeems innumerable souls for money, a most perishable thing, with which to build St. Peter’s church, a very minor purpose.”

Ultimately, Luther came to believe not only that the sale of indulgences was a racket, but more importantly, that salvation is free. Contrition and confession are necessary in a life of faith, but not satisfaction. God’s forgiveness and grace is a gift we can never earn by through works or money. It is instead, against all logic, freely given.

It is because of the Reformation that at the beginning of worship in this community, when we have an opportunity to confess to God anything that we may have done against God or against God’s will for the world, we are immediately assured of God’s forgiveness –without any service or payment.

How could Luther be so sure? Why would God give us something so precious in return for so little? Can it really be possible that God is willing to reconcile with us after our most grievous sins, simply because we repent and confess them? (more…)

Family Feud

Matthew 18:15-20

Today is Covenanting Sunday, when we start up new programs, when we call back those who vacation from church in the summer, when we remember our Covenant to keep one another company along the journey of our faith.  As we gather together today, we hear a piece of scripture from the gospel of Matthew that comes from a whole section in which Jesus gives instructions to his followers about how to live in community.  There’s all kinds of great advice in this section for us to consider, like: Treat one another as children of God; avoid doing what would cause other people to stumble; care for those who are most vulnerable; and forgive one another without limit. Great advice, if sometimes difficult to follow.

In among all this great advice is one much more specific piece of instruction, which we heard this morning. It explains what to do if someone has sinned against you. This piece of scripture is often repeated to help us figure out how to deal with conflict as Christians.  If someone sins against you,  go directly to the person who caused your injury. Talk with them. If, after a frank discussion, the person will not listen, then take someone with you, and try again. If the issue is still not resolved, bring it to the church as a whole. And if even consultation with the whole church will not resolve the conflic, then the person must be separated from you, and from the church, become an outsider.

It’s remarkable just how good Jesus’ advice is. He told us two thousand years ago not to triangulate; and we’re still trying to learn that lesson. He knew that people can’t solve conflicts without talking directly and honestly with one another. The rest of his advice is good, too. When we can’t solve a problem one-on-one, bringing in some helpers makes sense. And he is wise to point out that sometimes we still have to set a limit and fundamentally change our relationship with someone because of the way they have treated us.  Jesus knows what he’s talking about.

But here’s the rub: Jesus’ instructions tell us what to do if someone sins against us.  But there’s at least two sides to every story. When we get into a conflict with someone, how do we really know who is sinning? Or who is sinning more? When push comes to shove, which side of the argument should the church be on?

500 years ago, the church founded in the name of Jesus Christ got into a fight. A massive, no-holds-barred, down-and-dirty brawl. It started simply enough: with disagreements about theology and church practice. For years, across Europe, folks raised concerns about the selling of God’s forgiveness through the sale of indulgences.  People questioned the hierarchy of the church, the system of priests, bishops, and pope. People debated the relative importance of scripture and tradition as a source of authority in the church. People argued about the liturgy and the sacraments, and whether ordinary people had enough access to holy things.

These issues are important. But as with most conflicts, this one became explosive not so much because of the issues themselves, but because of how the issues were dealt with.  Take, for example, the first prominent instance of Reformation thinking, back in the 15th century.

An Oxford seminary professor named John Wycliffe produced writings that criticized the church extensively. His ideas inspired Jan Hus, a priest and University dean in Prague, who proceeded to preach regularly on the failings of the church and its leadership. If you read up on them, you may find that you agree with their ideas; or not. What I want to highlight is not so much what they said, but how the church responded to them. After their Bishops failed to reign them in, they were both declared heretics at the churchwide Council of Constance. Then, Jan Hus, who had been guaranteed safe conduct to the Council, was burned at the stake. And John Wycliffe, who had already died, was exhumed in order to be burned as well. His writings were also destroyed.

As you can imagine, church reformers did not respond well to these actions. Leaders of Bohemia and Moravia sent a letter to the Council at Constance denouncing the execution of Jan Hus. In response, a Council leader sent letters back threatening to drown all followers of Hus and Wycliffe. Violence broke out across the region, leading to 15 years of war between the people in what is now the Czech republic and their rulers, who were loyal to the church institution.

This was just the beginning. A prelude to the conflict of the Reformation itself. Because, it seems, no one learned a lesson from those events.  The church continued with its existing policies. In fact, Pope Sixtus IV expanded the sale of indulgences, so they could be applied not only to the living, but also to the dead.  Meanwhile, church reformers were energized by the ideas of both men, and by Wycliffe’s efforts to translate the bible into English. A hundred years after Hus and Wycliffe, a monk named Martin Luther took up their arguments.  This time, with the help of the printing press, a revolution began.

You may wonder why we are spending time on the reformation this fall, apart from the fact that it’s an anniversary year. Surely, enough has changed now that this history doesn’t have much to do with us. But I am struck by just how many issues of the Reformation we are still dealing with. What should the relationship be between religion and politics? How does new media change the world? And what is the Christian faith really about?

Beyond the issues which began it, the Reformation is also a case study in conflict.  Through the course of the conflict, we see failures on every side to recognize who the church is called to be.

Standing where we are now in history, and as part of a Reform church tradition, we may describe the Reformation as a conflict between a corrupt Roman Catholic Church and a brave band of ideologically pure reformers. But it’s important to remember that the reformers were an integral part of the Roman Catholic Church themselves. They were priests, and monks, and everyday churchgoers. What happened 500 years ago was a family feud. It was a conflict within the church, which became a conflict within nations, which became an international conflict.

Probably, everyone felt that they were in the right.  If they looked to Jesus’ instructions, I’m sure they felt that someone had sinned against them! Someone was speaking blasphemy, or leading believers astray, or suggesting radical redistribution of property, or threatening political overthrow.  So it was only right that when a conversation of letters and councils failed to solve the issue, these members of the church resorted to separating from one another: with denunciations, and excommunications, and new church formations, and international relocations, and war.

But Jesus’ three great sentences about how to deal with a conflict don’t stand alone. They’re part of a broader message, even if you only read the chapter they are located in.

Jesus asks us to be honest about our disagreements, and to deal with them directly. If necessary, he tells us, we may separate from one another. Separation, however, is different from escalation, and it is different than violence. In the church, in our nation, in our world, Jesus calls us to treat one another as children of God; to avoid doing what would cause other people to stumble; to care for those who are most vulnerable; to forgive one another without limit. And wherever two or three gather in God’s name, as Jesus tells us at the end of the passage, God is with them: whether they are on what we choose to call “our side” or not.

This is a provocative message.  It goes against all of our instincts. How can we simultaneously denounce anyone’s ideas and actions, as fundamentally dangerous to the sanctity of the church, or to the common good, or even to our own personal safety – and yet still keep in mind that this person is a child of God, worthy of care and forgiveness?

Try, for a moment, to imagine a person in today’s world towards whom you have a righteous anger. Hold in your mind a person who you believe has spoken or acted in a way that defies God, endangers community, or maybe even threatens your welfare or the welfare of those you love.  This person may never listen to your truth, no matter how many witnesses you bring along with you. You may need to separate yourself, protect yourself against, this person, and their actions.  And yet, try to hold in your mind at the same time, the idea that God loves them, and includes them in God’s embrace, even when you cannot.

The Reformation, as it splintered the western church, made important changes that opened up the Christian faith to so many. Many conflicts today also have noble ends: for example, to release our country from the bondage of white supremacy, anti-semitism, homophobia. Jesus calls us to struggle on towards love and justice. And Jesus also call us to keep in mind that we are fundamentally one with our enemies.  Our welfare depends on one another.  We belong to each other, across divisions of church, politics, ideology, and geography.  Despite our division, God is drawing us together, towards a future unity that we cannot yet imagine. Thanks be to God.