10/29/2017 0 Comments
Romans 3: 19-26
The black preaching robe: Do you have any idea what the significance of this is, what a long journey it was to arrive at the point where many ministers chose to wear the black preaching robe in place of the white alb? You see the preaching robe was the dress of academics, and to wear it in the pulpit was to acknowledge that the Word required study, disciplined prayerful study. I, Martin Luther, was a teacher, a professor at Wittenberg University, and it was in the preparation of my lectures on scripture that I understood what Paul in his Letter to the Romans meant: we are justified not by our good works but by faith. Faith alone. And because that knowledge came from study, your clergy until recently always wore the academic black robe, never the priestly white alb, which was considered papist rot, the stinking excrement of Rome.
Strong language, yes, very strong language. And I used it, with no regret, I might add. I threw insult at my enemies, because to me civility meant nothing; you could be civil and yet be in gross error. But understand this: my anger and insult were always on behalf of the Gospel, which my study called me to defend. I continuously asked Rome and its representatives to show me where my ideas were wrong. Show me, I said, where Jesus said you can buy your salvation through the purchase of indulgences. Show me where the Bible says that you are saved by your works. But my opponents never did. They talked to me of authority, the authority of the Church, which meant the authority of the Pope. And what of scripture? I asked. The Pope decides such matters, I was told. And so on April 18, 1521 at the Diet of Worms I stood before those gathered and said: “Unless I am shown by the testimony of scriptures that I am wrong, for I do not believe in councils or Popes, I cannot and will not recant. My conscience is captive to the Word of God, and to act against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand; I can do no other, so help me God.”
But I am getting ahead of myself. Let me begin when I determined to become a monk. I was supposed to become a lawyer in deference to my father, who worked hard as a miner and wanted a better life for his children. Even in the 16th century there was what you call today upward mobility. And so I began the study of law. But late one afternoon, walking home, I suddenly found myself caught in a storm, a terrible storm with thunder crashing and pounding, and lightening, flashing, sending shafts of terror through the sky and into my heart. Falling to the ground, I prayed, “St. Anne, save me, and I will become a monk. Well, I was saved and so I had to keep my promise. I did become a monk, much to the anger and disappointment of my father. anger become a monk.” Do not you know the third commandment? he asked. Honor thy father and mother! Yes, of course, I knew it, but sometimes obedience takes a different path. I reminded him that even Jesus Christ disappointed his parents. Jesus came, as it says in Matthew’s Gospel, to place enmity between a mother and her daughter and a father and his son. No, it was not easy between my father and me, and I am not sure he ever really forgave me for becoming a monk---though to his credit he did come to my ordination and he did hear me preach many times.
I was a good monk, striving to be the perfect monk. Fastidious with every little vow, every little rule, every little mistake and sin: If I spilled a glass of milk, I confessed my careless; if I forgot to have a candle ready for Mass, I confessed my sloth. If I omitted to shave because I thought my beard lighter than my Brothers, I confessed my conceit and arrogance. I was trying to be perfect, yet the other monks ridiculed me. Oh, there goes Martin with his overzealous conscience. He thinks he can buy God’s love and approval with his perfectionism. And I tried. I tried to get God’s approval, but all I felt was God’s judgment against me. How can I get a gracious God? How can I find a God who truly loves and forgives me? Those were the questions that tortured and consumed me, that sent me into fits of trembling anxiety---for what I saw before me were the gates of hell with its cruel, devouring flames.
I imagine you have a hard time understanding that fear, because you no longer live in the same religious world I inhabited. Most of you, I suspect, have no fear of hell; you do not fear God. The world you inhabit is one in which God is often viewed with benign indifference, if God is believed in at all. In your world most people are not seeking a gracious God; they seek for any kind of God they can find. As I said then and I will repeat now: God is whatever you find yourself clinging to; God is what you most fervently trust in. And from where I stand, looking forward these 500 years, it looks to me as if your world places its ultimate trust in stocks and bonds and armies and bombs and insurance policies. But in my day there was no insurance; certainly no insurance against hell.
Hell was no metaphor, not a clever way of speaking about one’s separation or alienation from God. No, hell was a real place with real flames and real torture. And because I so fervently believed in hell, I began to hate the God who would put me there. “Martin,” my spiritual adviser. Staupitz, said, “It is not God who is angry with you, but you who are angry with God.” And he was right. I was angry with God who threatened me daily with hell’s unquenchable flames.
In the midst of my spiritual agony, something else was happening. The Pope wanted to build a great cathedral in Rome, a place in honor of St. Peter, a sacred home for all the Pope’s relics---the teeth of this saint or that one, the robe which Mary wore, splattered with the blood of her son, two hairs of Jesus Christ. Oh, the list went on and on, and though Jesus only called 12 disciples my calculations showed that with all the different cathedrals claiming to have this or that part of a disciple’s body, there must have been at least 28 disciples. When I pointed this out to one of the bishops, he told me to keep my opinions to myself. But your Lordship, I insisted, this is not an opinion. Just look at the facts. Surely, this is an error. “The Church,” he sternly reminded me, “does not make errors.”
Well, as bad as that was, it was nothing compared to what that papist vermin, John Tetzel, said and did when he arrived at the marketplace in Jutterborg in 1517. That ecclesiastical worm had the gall to say that he saved more souls than St. Peter himself---all because of the indulgences he was authorized to sell. Carrying sealed envelopes with pieces of paper neatly tucked inside, Tetzel held them up for all to see. This is God’s great gift to you, he said. For every one of these you buy, a sin will be remitted. There is not a sin so big that it cannot be wiped out with one of these precious sheets. And, he continued, do you know what else I have been empowered by the Pope to do? These indulgences are not only for the sins you have already committed, but they will also work for the sins you have not yet committed. “When a coin into the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs!”
So full of wrath was I that I wanted to beat his face in, but restraining myself I challenged him, “You are not worth more than the rotting excrement in the Pope’s bowels.” Yes, that is what I said, and do you know what that swine Tetzel responded, “And from whose bowels do you think these indulgences come? Shaking with disbelief, I took one in my hand and read the name: The Holy Father, Pope Leo X. Maybe I had no right to expect perfection from the Pope; after all, he was human, but certainly I had a right not to expect such utter and complete corruption. Willingfully misleading people: the Pope as well as Tetzel knew that indulgences were impotent against sin. For them it was not about truth or salvation, but about money and power and fame, for Leo wanted to be remembered as the Pope who built St. Peter’s in Rome. He needed money for that endeavor and the sale of indulgences would bring in the needed income.
That day in the marketplace was my Rubicon; I crossed something then, and the revolution that came to be called the Reformation exploded. In response to Tetzel, I tacked my 95 Theses to the door of the Palace Church in Wittenberg. These were points to be debated. This is what professors commonly did. They posted their ideas to be considered and then debated. And so the debate began. I debated men far more subltle in intellect than Tetzel; Cajetan, for example, the cardinal of San Sisto and the general of the Dominican Order, was the papal legate and Rome’s highest representative in Germany. He was a formidable opponent, and I think it gave him great pleasure as a Dominican to go against me, an Augustinian monk. There was a competitive spirit between the two orders, and he would have liked to have proven me wrong. “All you have to do, Martin,” he said, “is confess your errors, retract your words, and do not return like a dog to its vomit.” And what about your vomit?” I asked. “ Will you always return to it?” “I give you six months, Martin”, he said, “to roast yourself.” It will take more time than that, I said.
Two years later on an evening at the Elster Gate in Wittenberg the bull of excommunication from Pope Leo X came. I stood before a great roaring fire, whose flames devoured the books of canon law. “This bull,” I said, holding it up before the crowds, “comes from the hand of the Pope, the man whom you know to be head of the Church. Well, he may still be the head, like a fish who is the head of a cat’s dinner, eyes without sight, clutched to a stick of sucked bones. God has told me there can be no dealings between this cat’s dinner and me. As for this bull, it will roast.” And I burned it before the cheering crowds.
So long ago it was, a journey hard to make, hard for me and hard for the Church. The map of Europe was forever changed, and the changes were drawn in blood. Things happened that I never could have foreseen, and now I look out upon a religious landscape I cannot even recognize. The churches you now call Protestant, I wonder---what is it they are protesting against? In my day we knew. We knew our enemy. We knew that Rome was the stinking carcass of an age that was decaying. Let people read the Bible, we said, let them hear the Word in their own tongue. And so I translated the Bible from Latin into German in 11 weeks, while hiding in the Wartburg Castle. Let the people read and decide. Decide, your neck is at stake.
You see, for us everything was at stake, our lives, our souls. How quaint that must sound today when so many look to nothing more than this world for their ultimate satisfaction. Perhaps that is why many churches are so empty. People are too busy in the world to want anything beyond the world. They will settle for a small bucket of happiness. It isn’t too much they want; it is too little. I wanted a gracious God who in Jesus Christ would save. Save from what, for what. For me it was salvation from hell for eternal life. History happens, and life moves on, and beliefs do change, and so as I said 500 years ago, I will say today. “You have to do your own believing as you have to do your own dying. So what is it you truly believe? What really matters to you? The questions are before you. Will you bother to struggle toward an answer?
About Our Pastor:
I am very happy to be here at the First Church of Christ, Congregational in Unionville, CT. I arrived here in July, 2017, and have been warmly received. This is a wonderful church community. I have been an ordained minister for over three decades now, and I consider it a great privilege and challenge to be called to serve. Before coming to Unionville I served churches on Long Island, Middletown, CT and then ten years in New Haven, Center Church on the Green. My home is in Middletown, where I live with my husband, Donald Oliver, who is a professor of molecular biology at Wesleyan University. We have four grown children, two boys and two girls and three granddaughters, the youngest born on October 3, 2017!