A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, October 28, 2012
Hebrews 11:1-2, 32-39a GNT
Our church paraments changed to red today. And we began the service with the hymn written by Martin Luther, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” THE Reformation hymn that churches all around the globe will sing today. The fourth Sunday of October was designated as Reformation Sunday some 300 hundred years ago to commemorate the reformers who made tremendous sacrifices to bring about much-needed reform in the Church and make the Church and the Scriptures accessible to every man and woman. The red paraments symbolize the blood of the martyrs who gave their lives for the Reformation cause.
Though we often think of Martin Luther as the chief reformer, and in many ways he was, the Reformation did not begin with him. It began earlier with men like John Hus and John Wycliffe who had a passion to bring the Bible to the vernacular of common men and women. But it was Luther and his bold act of putting himself in the spotlight by nailing his 95 reformation theses to the door of the Wittenberg Church on October 31, 1517, that served as a pivotal point in what was to come to be known as the Protestant Reformation. Luther was a mere 34 years old at the time. And it is said that his original intention was not to set off a violent reaction and start a new church, but rather, to spark debate and discussion about many of the practices and abuses of the Church of his day, most notably the selling of indulgences—a type of ancient “Get Out of Jail Free” cards—that were supposed to keep or get people out of purgatory.
But in one short year Luther’s Theses had set off a firestorm and turned the Church upside down. And in three years, by 1520, Luther was described by the Pope as being “a wild boar which has invaded the Lord’s vineyard.” Forty-one of Luther’s declarations were condemned, Luther’s works were ordered to be burned, and he was given sixty days to appear in Rome and renounce his heresies. Luther had been named and condemned, and all Christians were forbidden to listen to him, to speak to him, or even look at him.1 In other words, Luther’s life was in mortal danger. Had he actually gone to Rome to appear before the Church authorities as he was commanded to do, he probably would have been killed. When he was ordered to recant his heretical views, Luther uttered that all famous quote, “Here I stand. I can do no other.”
Now, it should be noted that Martin Luther was not a perfect man. He had his faults and shortcomings. But the world owes a great debt to Luther as one who had the intellect, insight, and willingness to stand by his convictions, and thus liberating the church and making it possible for us to meet here today in the way that we do.
But as noted above, Luther was not alone in the reformation endeavor. There were many other, lesser known reformers to whom we also owe a debt of gratitude, many who gave their lives for the reformation cause. Though that passage that I read from Hebrews was written some 1300 years prior to the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, many of the words of Hebrews 11 sound as though they could have been written with the reformers in mind. When the writer of Hebrews talks about faith, we are immediately reminded of Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone. When the writer speaks of the tortures of the faithful—fire, sword, chains and imprisonment—he could have been writing about those faithful reformers who were burned at the stake because they wanted to translate the Bible into English. Or those who were beheaded for their convictions. Or those who were placed in chains and imprisoned because of their so-called “heresies.” As put by the author of Hebrews, “Others, refusing to accept freedom, died under torture” (11:35). Sometimes necessary change comes at great cost.
And so, because of those faithful reformers and their sacrifices, we can sit in our United Church today free to believe and worship as we choose. We can read and hear read the Bible in a language we can understand. We can believe as each individual heart and mind dictates without being forced to submit to some ancient creed. We can order our service of worship as we see fit. We can direct our offerings to whatever charities we are moved to support. In short, a church such as this United Church would not be possible had it not been for the sacrifices of those reformers who came before us. And that is why the Reformation matters.
But Reformation is not just about living in the past. The very nature of Reformation itself dictates that we live in the present and look to the future. It is necessary for the Church to always be in the process of reforming itself. Reformation is about constant self-examination and changing so as to improve and keep up with the times. The first Reformation was needed to pull the Church out of the Middle Ages with all its superstitions and faulty thinking. Perhaps another major Reformation is needed today to bring the thinking of the Church into the 21st century. In fact, some Church historians like Diana Butler Bass and scholars like John Shelby Spong think we are already in the midst of such a Reformation. In her recent book, Christianity after Religion, Bass states, “I believe that the United States (and not only the United States) is caught up in the throes of a spiritual awakening, a period of sustained religious and political transformation during which our ways of seeing the world, understanding ourselves, and expressing faith are being, to borrow a phrase, ‘born again.’”2 Bass goes on to say, “Phyllis Tickle, former editor of Publishers Weekly, asserts that the church is undergoing historic transformation, the sort of change that happens only once every five hundred years or so.”3 Just as in the Church of the 16th century, in the Church today there is a big disconnect between what many Christians and churches believe and new scientific knowledge and understanding. Religion, it seems, can lag behind in keeping pace with science and culture. Perhaps another reformation needed.
Also, the Church of the Reformation period was in many ways irrelevant to the lives of the people. They couldn’t understand the liturgy or the reading of the scriptures. Much theology was based on superstition. It is always a task to navigate between holding onto beliefs and practices of the past that many people know to be familiar and find to be comfortable, and reforming so as to make beliefs and liturgy relevant and meaningful and in step with modern thinking. So every now and then, we need to stop and ask ourselves, “What is the standard by which we judge what we do in the Church? How do we know if we are doing what we should be doing as a faith community?” I think part of the answer is, Are we as a church living and making relevant to our members the core teachings and way of Jesus? Are we helping our members have an experience of and get to better know the Sacred? Are we enabling people to better practice the way of compassion and justice that Jesus taught, lived, and died for? Or to paraphrase my good New York friend, who is a spiritual director, Sister Kitty Hanley, “Are we becoming more loving? Are we becoming more forgiving? Is our hunger for justice growing?” When it comes to the Church and possible change, it is important that we find ourselves being faithful to the vision of Jesus and the principles of compassion, forgiveness, and justice that he taught, and make sure that we are not merely fighting to maintain the status quo for the sake of status quo.
The Church of the Middle Ages had become stagnant and had strayed miserably from being the type of community that Jesus gathered and that continued to meet and go forth in mission in those early decades following his death. It took the Reformation to help get the Church back on track. That’s what reformation does—helps get the Church back on track. It helps the Church recalibrate. It helps assure that the Church continues to be alive and relevant. Such is why reformation matters. As such, reformation is not to be feared or shunned, but welcomed and embraced. Amen.
1William Manchester, A World Lit Only by Fire. New York: Back Bay Books, 1993, p. 158.
2Diana Butler Bass, Christianity after Religion. New York: HarperOne, 2012, P. 5.
3Ibid, p. 30.