500 Year celebration of the Reformation, Stewardship Dedication Sunday
October 29, 2017
Deuteronomy 6:1-9, Romans 1:16-17
This past summer, Tim and I had the incredible privilege of travelling to Switzerland and to Italy. We picked these two countries because we have friends in both places that we wanted to visit. Our hosts in Switzerland, Jiri and Barbara are a retired minister and a school teacher. Barbara, in good clergy spouse form is also a church organist. I think it is fair to say that our only goal was to enjoy our friends and see what we could see. We had both read guidebooks and looked at travel videos, but ultimately decided to go with the flow. As our hosts had dedicated their lives to the church the flow was touring a lot of churches (and other wonderful places!) We visited a lot of churches and attended not less than three worship services while we were there, one that involved crashing a wedding, one on a boat, all conducted in German.
All of the churches that we visited were celebrating the 500th year of the Reformation. Here are just a few of the displays that we saw. (power point photos) I’ve always known that our two denominations are part of the Reformed tradition, but being 500 years and thousands of miles away from this event had reduced my interest. Yes, I took the reformed theology class in Seminary and can explain the bullet points of the theology, but didn’t understand the incredible impact of this historical event until my visit to Switzerland.
After our 10 day visit with our Swiss friends, we took a train south to Italy. After a visit to our friend’s farm, we were on our own and realized that in the limited time we had, we could probably only pull off two cities, so we picked Florence and Rome. Tim as a history teacher was interested in the art and museums and I was interested in the churchy stuff. Fairly early on in Florence, I found myself appalled with the oppressive nature of religion. It became clear to me in visiting numerous churches, galleries and museums that religion had been used to severely oppress the people and to keep the rich in power. This was best displayed in the Vatican and in St. Peter’s Basilica. I want to bookmark this opinion for a minute, because I don’t want to take away from anyone’s religious experience who might feel moved by these incredible places. I just want to acknowledge that for me, I felt the same way I felt when I visited Versailles in France…no wonder that was a revolution and monarchs lost their heads!
(Vatican photos) Just imagine travelling down from a country reveling in the Reformation to this opulence. I walked around the Vatican and St. Peters Basilica stunned by the lavishness. If you have not been there, it is hard to imagine the scale of this house of worship…the marble, the granite, the gold, the statuary, the priceless artwork, the sheer size of it all. While I stood there, I thought “Well I see how the reformation happened!”
Again, I want to pause and acknowledge the vision and vast nature of the Basilica and its religious meaning to Catholics and non-Catholics alike. However, like many things of beauty, it was built on corruption and oppression. The basilica was funded through the sale of indulgences. At that time, Leo X was the Pope in Rome, He was a member of the high-living de Medici family. He gave out bishoprics to his favorite relatives and tapped the Vatican treasury to support his extravagant lifestyle. When the money ran out, he made use of a new fundraising scheme—selling the forgiveness of sins. For a fee, bereaved relatives could get a deceased loved one out of Purgatory. At the right price, they could also save up for their own future sins—sort of like a spiritual IRA. Indulgences, they called them.
Indulgences were sold by travelling preachers. There was one named Johann Tetzel who was a Dominican monk and a popular preacher. Tetzel was named commissioner of indulgences for Germany. He was like a travelling salesman, going through the towns and villages with his pitch for forgiveness of sins, cheap at any price. He even had a theme song: “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings/ The soul from Purgatory springs.”
Of course, like any other kind of revolution, many factors led to the reformation. Sermons were being given in Latin, a language that the common person did not understand, so most people knew nothing of the Bible. The sacraments were celebrated out of the site of the common person who could also not partake. They only knew that the bread and cup changed to the body and blood of Christ when they heard the bell ring. Like Leo X selling church posts to relatives and friends to increase his own wealth, other church leaders were selling influential posts. Clergy were untrained, and told the people different things about the faith, none of them based on the Bible.
Among other reformers was a priest named Martin Luther. When faced with the traveling indulgence show in Wittenberg, Luther wrote his 95 theses, detailing his opposition to the sale of indulgences, and nailed them on the church door, which was essentially the community bulletin board—on Oct. 31, 1517. That act ignited the Lutheran Reformation. Because of the changing times, and translating the Bible into the common language of the people and the invention of the printing press; because other leaders in other places were disturbed by the same things, the reformation spread like wildfire.
The Reformation was an incredible struggle. People were tortured, burned at the stake, and imprisoned. Wars were fought, lives laid down, the same kinds of things that happen today when the people fight against oppression.
The biggest theological shift we gained in the Reformation is that God belongs directly to the people. Instead of having to go to God through a priest, you go to God directly. Instead of gaining heaven through any ritual that you must perform, you already belong because of the grace and love of God. You learn about God through reading scripture for yourself. You practice faith in a community of other saints. God doesn’t reside in special people, God resides in each and every one of us. We who are reformed don’t have alters or tabernacles. We don’t need a church building and we don’t need clergy. We don’t need bishops or popes, or people to tell us what God thinks. Simply put, the theology of the reformation is that your faith in Christ is all that you need to be a Christian. And, our faith as Christians is practiced in community with other Christ followers.
The shift is to personal responsibility for the practice of faith in a community of other followers. Both of our denominations point to the ongoing reformation in our midst. For the Presbyterians, we say that we are “Reformed and Always Reforming.” For the Congregationalists, we say that “God is still speaking.” What God is doing in our world isn’t limited to the final breath of the book of Revelations. What God is doing in the world emerges every day as we practice faith together, as we pray and study together, as we listen to the voices within and outside of these walls. It is each of our responsibility to practice the Shema that we read in Deuteronomy 6 as handed to us by our Jewish Ancestors to “Love the Lord our God with all of our hearts and all of our soul and all of our might” and to meditate on this command all day long. It is each of our personal responsibility as Christians to put our faith in Christ as the letter to the Romans reminds us where there is no distinction between “Jew and Greek” offering the implication that the love of God has no boundaries. It is each of our personal responsibility to show up for one another in the community of faith if we truly believe that God resides in every person and that we can hear God’s voice in one another. It is each of our personal responsibility in community to “redistribute the goods” by sharing our abundance of time and talent with one another in this community both within and without of these walls.
As the church, we re-teach the faith to the following generations fresh in the context in which we live. In these times, when the gap between the rich and the poor widens dramatically, when we are led by a nationalistic and protectionist government wanting to close our borders, and when some named Christian want to peddle the message that God is blessing the rich with wealth, we stand instead for hope. We like the reformers who came before us still cock our ears to the still speaking God, to the wind of the Spirit, that will blow new life, new dreams and new visions, as we live into the truth set before us. We stand by faith in grace to love, to serve and to witness to hope.