Saturday, November 13, 2021

“Ever Reforming” - October 31, 2021, Reformation Sunday

Text: Psalm 46:1-7, Romans 3:19-28


I don’t know about you, but in my lifetime, church has changed.  I mean, a lot.  I grew up in a church in which women did not serve as deacons.  Or as ushers, for that matter.  I remember my mom was the chair of the pastoral search committee one time, this was back about 1981.  That basically unheard of in that church and in that particular Baptist tradition, but nobody had thought to make a rule, either written or unwritten, about a woman being in charge of finding the next pastor.

Today, over half of the students at mainline seminaries are women.  There is a long way to go, and it is especially difficult for a woman to be hired as pastor at a larger church, but there is no question that things have changed.

There was a time when “Holy, Holy, Holy” was the first hymn listed in many hymnals.  There was a certain playlist of songs you could expect on a Sunday morning that didn’t vary all that much from church to church.  Now, there is a wide variety of music, not just contemporary praise music, but world music and new hymns and Taize music, along with the gospel songs and classic hymns, and the musical repertoire of different churches can be wildly different.  Sometimes, the music in a single service can be wildly different.  

When I was growing up, churches held a certain place of prestige and influence in the community.  When I moved to Arthur, Illinois in 1992 to pastor a church there, the country club had just discontinued its practice of giving local ministers a free membership.  I’m not saying ministers should receive such community benefits, I’m just saying that the relationship between church and culture and the place the church has in the culture has changed a lot.

All of this is by way of saying that the culture is always changing, and the church is always in need of reforming, both to address the needs of the culture and to be more faithful to our calling to follow Jesus.  Throughout the history of the Christian Church, there have been groups and individuals who have led the church to be more faithful, more of the church God calls us to be.

In 1521, Martin Luther stood before the Holy Roman Emperor and leaders of church and state to answer charges of heresy.  Johann von Eck, the brilliant theologian, questioned him.  And suddenly the words were pouring forth from Luther’s lips:
Unless I am convinced by scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the word of God.  I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither safe nor right.  God help me, here I stand.  

Today is Reformation Sunday.  On this date in 1517, Martin Luther nailed 95 theses, or complaints, or critiques - to the church door in Wittenberg.  This was the community bulletin board, the social media of the day.  And in some respects it was better than our social media, because who wants to tweet out 95 tweets in a row?

Luther wanted to spur conversation, to bring about renewal within the church, but that act began what came to be known as the Protestant Reformation.  We have observed Reformation Sunday here from every once in a while, not every year, but since Sunday falls on the actual day this year, why not?

Besides that, I love history.  And I feel some personal connection to the early Reformation.  A number of years ago our family was able to visit a dairy farm in the Emmental in Switzerland.  In 1608 my forbears built the house that something like my 12th cousin and his family live in today.  The structure is a house and barn all in one.  In the early 1700’s my ancestor Christian Fankhouser lived there.  He was an Anabaptist – the Anabaptists went beyond the reforms of Luther and other Reformers.  Among other things, they believed in believer’s baptism.  They were seen as a threat to the existing order and persecuted – in that area, mostly by other Protestants.
There is a secret hiding place under the floorboards of the barn in that house where Christian Fankhouser would hide when the Tauferjagers, literally Anabaptist hunters, kind of religious conformity police, would come looking for him.  And that place has become a kind of pilgrimage site for Mennonites and other Anabaptists, who are spiritual cousins to us as Baptists.  

After a couple of years of evading the Tauferjagers - I mean, it was a long way from Bern and the authorities really didn’t want to go traipsing through the hinterlands – Christian was finally captured and arrested.  He spent time imprisoned in Trachselwald Castle, which we visited, and then in the jail in Bern, which at the time was a part of the city wall, and we saw that too.

Finally he was put on a boat with around 80 people - other Anabaptists as well as poor people who could not pay their debts.  They were to be sent to Rotterdam and then put on a ship for America.

Now, this was the enlightened early 1700’s.  Years before, Anabaptists were drowned in Zurich.   You like the water so much?  We’ll give you water.  I visited the place on the Limmat River where Felix Manz was drowned in 1527.

I thought about my ancestor Christian Fankhouser as I thought about the Reformation.  It had never occurred to me before, but all of the sentiment to deport people that we hear today – we haven’t changed that much.  I mean, Christian Fankhouser was a taxpaying citizen, from a long-established family, but it didn’t matter.  He became one of “them.”  He was an “illegal.”  It was illegal not to baptize your children.  It is easy to turn on those seen as different.

Christian didn’t make it to America.  He didn’t even make it to Rotterdam.  Most of the people on the boat grew deathly sick around Stuttgart and were let off the boat.  Those who weren’t sick were freed in Holland, where the authorities believed in religious toleration at least a little more than those in Bern.  

He lived most of his life in Alsace, now northwest France, and snuck back to the farm from time to time.  His children did not become Anabaptists, at least as far as the authorities knew, and that is the reason the farm is still in the family – otherwise it would have been confiscated.

Martin Luther began the Reformation in 1517.  The Anabaptists came about just a few years later.  The Baptists arose in the early 1600’s, and like the Anabaptists were a part of what is called the Radical Reformation.  It feels good to be a radical, doesn’t it?

The Baptists were persecuted as well, including here in this country.  In colonial times preachers were arrested for refusing to get a license from the state.  The entire congregation of the church in Kittery, Maine moved to Charleston, South Carolina to escape persecution and that became the first Baptist church in the South.

Our history and tradition is one of protecting the rights of the minority, even protecting the rights of those we vehemently disagree with – both because Jesus tells us to love our neighbors and even love our enemies, and because we remember our own experience as a minority religion.  Faith that is coerced is not real faith at all.

Martin Luther’s disagreement with the Church of his day had mostly to do with the belief that salvation depended not simply upon faith, but upon one’s merit.  Most people did not have enough goodness to make it to heaven on their own and had to spend time in purgatory, being refined by fire – pretty much literally.  But fortunately there were Saints of the Church who had excess merit—more goodness than they needed.  One could receive some of that excess merit for certain religious acts – for making a pilgrimage to a shrine or for acts of charity.  This was called an indulgence.

In time, indulgences were sold.  The Indulgence Sellers preached a fire and brimstone sermon, got the people worked up, and then offered a way out.  You could purchase an indulgence.  “When a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs” was the jingle.  An indulgence could be applied to one’s own account, as it were, or used to help free a loved one, maybe grandma or grandpa, from purgatory.  

Luther was a complicated figure: he struggled all his life with bouts of depression; he questioned his salvation; he struggled with the medieval view of Christ as a cold and calculating judge.  He feared the wrath and damnation of God - until he began to really study the scriptures.  He read Romans, particularly our scripture for this morning, and discovered that “the just shall live by faith” and “a person is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”  Luther wrote: “I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely faith…I felt that I was altogether born again, and had entered paradise itself.”

For Luther, a focus on the scriptures led to an examination of theology.  And theologically, there were a few bywords of the Reformation:

First, Faith Alone.  Salvation comes by faith, not by our own goodness.  

Closely related is Grace Alone.  Salvation is a gift of God through and through.  Our experience of faith and our living and breathing each day is a gift.  It is all grace.  Even the ability to have faith is a gift of God.  

Another Reformation theme is Scripture Alone.  The scriptures speak to us and contain the truth we need.  “Scripture Alone” means that others sources of authority do not carry the same weight as the Bible.  This is related to the idea of the priesthood of all believers – we can all interpret the scriptures for ourselves, aided by the tradition of interpretation, aided by our ability to reason and make sense of things for ourselves, and led by the Holy Spirit.  

It is possible for a long tradition to be wrong.  Many Christians long believed that the scriptures supported slavery.  Many Christians long believed that the Bible taught a secondary role for women.  Folks have used the Bible to support all sorts of things.  Luther stood against the weight of church authority and tradition and said, based on scripture, aided by reason and the Holy Spirit, “Here I stand.”
One more slogan of the Reformation – ecclesia reformandum, semper reformata.  A church “reformed and ever reforming.”

I love history, and I have talked a lot about history.  But “ever reforming” means that the Reformation isn’t over.  The church constantly needs to examine itself and follow the lead of the Spirit.

Martin Luther went on to translate the Bible into German, and the Luther Bible is to the German-speaking world what the King James is to the English-speaking world.  He was an ex-priest who married an ex-nun and together they had 6 children, and if that’s not Reformation then I’m not sure what is.

Well, what about today?  Where has this history and reforming tradition brought us?  In many ways, the church was already at a crossroads, and now after many months of a pandemic, everything feels up in the air.  

There are those who see the Church as a quaint throwback to a bygone era, if they even give the church a second thought.  Others see the Church as a bastion against reason and common sense – opposed to science, opposed to progress, opposed to rational thought.  Some see the Church as helping to promote the incivility and intolerance that is so rampant in our world, rather than helping to build community and bring reconciliation.  In many cases, we would have to say that this view of the church is accurate.

Increasingly, people describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”  That can mean a lot of things, but it can certainly be a reaction against the kind of self-centeredness and empire-building that Martin Luther, the Swiss Anabaptists, and the early Baptists all protested in their own way.

You know who else is protesting that today?  Pope Francis.  The head of the Roman Catholic Church is one of a handful of religious leaders that come to mind as working for change and renewal and maybe even “Reformation” in the church.  And the interesting thing is that today, rather than breaking apart, reformation can off mean coming together with others to share in God’s work.   

This is a time of change, but also a time of great opportunity.  Or as our stewardship theme has it, a time of challenge and possibility.  The Good News is: the Church has faced challenging times before.  And God continues to use fallible human beings - the Church - to bring wholeness and healing and justice and community and reconciliation and salvation.  We know this.  We have experienced it.

We don’t know exactly what the church will look like – this church or the wider church – in 10 or 20 or 50 or 100 years.  We’re not exactly sure what it will look like next year.  But we are heirs to a great tradition able to change and innovate and follow God’s Spirit in new ways, in exciting ways, in life-giving ways.  And in the end, as Luther and the Reformers remind us, the just shall live by faith.  Amen.

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