Protest & Reform
In Celebration of the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation
A meditation on Jeremiah 31: 31 – 34 and Romans 12: 1 – 2
Rev. Cathy C. Hoop Grace Presbyterian Church October 29, 2017
I was in Nashville yesterday to officiate at the wedding of the daughter of a friend. The wedding was being held at Second Presbyterian, the church where I worked in children’s ministries for many years, so it felt a bit like coming home.
As we were getting ready for the wedding to begin, I noticed some activity at the front of the sanctuary. The photographer had propped open a door, and two Carolina wrens, drawn by the warmth and light on an otherwise chilly day, had flown into the worship space. They looked very sweet perched on the large white cross which is suspended over the chancel. One, startled by the notes of the organ, made a dramatic exit, but the other was left behind.
And I worried. I worried because this beautiful, light filled sanctuary, a place of worship and celebration could only bring this innocent little bird confusion and possibly death, if it could not find its way out. I also worried that its partner was outside the windows, waiting, and worrying, if birds can worry. I stress about these kinds of things – I’m one of those people, who, if it at all possible, will stop my car and get the box turtle out of the road. Yes, I break for squirrels. My sons disapprove. I break for butterflies. Don’t drive behind me.
And because I know that you are now also worried about the wren, I will tell you the end of the story. I texted a bird loving friend who goes to Second. She was headed over to the church to hang banners in celebration of Reformation Sunday. [On a side note, I loved that they were creating art for the sanctuary for Reformation Sunday, since the Reformation unintentionally led to the destruction of stained glass windows, and other irreplaceable pieces of religious art in numerous cathedrals.] She soon assured me that they were able to free the wayward bird. Hopefully its mate was waiting in a nearby tree and the pair found a great spot for dinner on a Saturday night.
Sometimes a sanctuary is not a sanctuary.
A sanctuary should be a safe place, a place of warmth and welcome and life. In the context of faith, a sanctuary is a place where we gather to combine our voices in prayer, to blend our voices in song, to explore together words which are both ancient and new. A place in which we splash water, and make a crumbly mess of fresh baked bread. A place where we remind one another that in a dark world, we are called to be light. In a fearful world, we are called to be courage. In a world of lies, we are called to be truth. In a world of hatred, we are called to be love.
Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther wanted to have a scholarly discussion; he did not intend to spark a flame that would literally cause some to be burned to death or bitterly divide the church he loved. But evidently, nailing a treatise on the door of a cathedral can be just as volatile as posting something on Facebook today. Martin’s words were reprinted, re-posted, shared. His words, though leading to powerful change, also incited violence and chaos and destruction.
He simply wanted to have a conversation. He wanted to have a conversation because he believed that grace and mercy and forgiveness cannot be bought and sold. Salvation cannot be purchased. He despaired over watching the poor use a third of their year’s wages to buy indulgences for their beloved uncle’s release from purgatory so that he could then knock at heaven’s gate. What Luther witnessed was that this oppressive system was strengthening a hell on earth, making the rich richer and the poor more deeply impoverished. What God of love would force a family to choose between buying bread for their child or paying off their grandfather’s sins? So Luther searched the scriptures. Nowhere could he find a justification for this practice.
Too bad Martin couldn’t have lived as long as Noah – if he had, he would have been able to listen to this Mary Chapin Carpenter/Don Schlitz song on his Pandora station. “I’ll take my Chances,” second stanza:
I sat alone in the dark one night
Tuning in by remote.
I found a preacher who spoke of the light,
But there was brimstone in his throat.
He’d show me the way according to him
In return for my personal check.
I flipped my channel back to CNN
And I lit another cigarette. [And I tossed out my cigarettes – live version]
I take my chances.
Yes, forgiveness doesn’t come with a debt.
I take my chances.
I take my chances ev’ry chance I get. I take my chances.
“Forgiveness doesn’t come with a debt.” Luther would have raised a stein of his favorite beer for that phraseology. “Forgiveness doesn’t come with a debt.” That was the word of truth Luther discovered in the scriptures. And so Luther, the unintentional prophet, renewed by the comforting assurance of God’s grace – a grace based solely in faith and not works – suggested that tradition should be challenged by scripture. What a vulnerable and dangerous thing to do.
This tradition of paying indulgences was uncovered for the abusive practice that it was. No one would have to pay their way into heaven – after all Jesus had already opened those doors.
Luther also argued that everyone should have access to the scriptures, translated into their own languages, and services should be conducted in the everyday language of the people. All God’s children should receive the full measure of the sacrament of communion – both the bread and the cup, rather than merely the bread alone. For all of us are worthy through the grace of God.
May we never take these reforms for granted. These transformations offered a different way of being church, a way which was more compassionate and significantly more inclusive. The church could once again welcome the kind people that Jesus liked to hang with!
The Reformation had its dark side. Reformers such as Thomas Müntzer carried the concepts of reformation beyond the walls of the church, believing that the time had come to bring about justice for the poor. His efforts ended in terrible tragedy.
But we have to wonder: what would the Biblical prophets have said about Müntzer’s vision? I believe they would have cried, “Amen!” The prophets continually reminded God’s people through the ages – and call to us today – saying “When will you remember the poor? When will you do away with economic injustices? When will you destroy cultural injustices? When will you learn to leave in peace?”
Theologian Diana Butler Bass who teaches and preaches around the question of the church’s viability in the coming age, argued in 2011 that it is time to “put the protest back in Protestantism.”
It strikes me as interesting that those who followed the teaching of the new reform movement did not come to be known as “Reformists,” rather the moniker that stuck was “Protestant.” Luther and his associates were protesters rather than reformers—they stood up against the religious conventions of the day, arguing on behalf of those suffering under religious, social, and economic oppression. These religious protesters accused the church of their day of being too rich, too political, in thrall to kings and princes, having sold its soul to the powerful. The original Protestants preached, taught, and argued for freedom—spiritual, economic, and political—and for God’s justice to be embodied in the church and the world.
It is time to put the protest back in Protestantism.
She preached that six years ago and could still preach it today. But I would also offer that protesting and reforming go hand in hand. What good does it do in the long run to keep protesting an injustice if we do not have ideas for how to right that wrong?
Luther labored for renewal, for a return to grace. He labored so that people could discover what it feels like to be washed in God’s free gift of grace. He labored so that a sanctuary could once more be a place of light in the darkness, a place of strength in a world of fear, and source of love in a world of deep despair. They struggled with where to draw the line when it comes to protesting and reforming…it is a very tricky thing. What about us? Will we only protest to a certain point and no further? Do we step back when protesting and reforming negatively affect our own comfort? Questions to live with as we seek to be people of grace.
May our protests, may our desire to be reformed and ever reforming, be always rooted in God’s Word, nourished by God’s grace, and sustained through the power of our faith. And may we never give up laboring to create a world that is a sanctuary of God’s love for all creation. Amen.
Diana Butler Bass. Read more at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/dianabutlerbass/2011/10/putting-the-protest-back-in-protestant/#lh2QDSc4VwI7vJZR.99