Rev. Dr. Gerald Hobbs
Reformation Sunday 2017. Why are we making something of this classical Protestant festival, today, when it has not been the practice of this congregation in earlier years? Indeed, as many of you know, I have been a professor of church history specializing in the Reformation period, and yet I have actively discouraged the practice of other churches of turning the last Sunday of October into a celebration of Protestantism.
So why today? Well, we could say that it is because this week is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther hammering a set of 95 debating points on the college door of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany, where he was a young and popular professor of theology. It has been traditionally a time for trotting out souvenir memorabilia, liked this 19th C. music box statue, as IF it were “feel-good” moment. Do I see some of you shrug: So??
On the other hand, it is a celebration of world Christian communion. This week hundreds of churches, and many millions of Christians throughout the world will join this celebration. More important still than numbers, this year that remarkable leader, Pope Francis has led the Roman Catholic Church to join Protestants in an act of thanksgiving for the life and work of Luther! I was privileged to be in Wittenberg, Germany the first week of July this year, when Reformed churches (that’s us), joined Roman Catholics, Lutherans and Methodists in signing a common statement on the Faith, that has left behind for good, the quarrels of 500 years ago that were perpetuated, and trotted out as battle banners for so many centuries. So today is no longer a Protestant occasion for sticking it to the Catholics: Thank God!
Well, then, what is today about? After puzzling this question for so many years as a teacher at VST, I think I found an answer in a New Testament Scripture, as Lynne McNaughton and I were leading our Spiritual Heritage pilgrimages. It lies in a verse near the end of the epistle to the Hebrews, a verse Gale read for us just now. “Remember your leaders, those who spoke the Word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. JESUS CHRIST is the same: yesterday, today and forever.”
Let us ask that God’s Spirit guide our hearing and our thinking on this ancient injunction.
Guide my speaking and our hearing, that we may grow in understanding as we find new insights into your Word for our community of faith.
The unknown author of the epistle to the Hebrews, undoubtedly a leader of the Church late in the 1st century, has three things to enjoin upon the communities to whom he or she writes, and a concluding assurance, which acts as a benediction.
In the first place, the author calls on these little, threatened communities of the second generation of Christians, not to forget those who had brought the faith to them. A community needs its memory. For the recent past, each of our congregations has its memory-keepers. They may occasionally seem tedious as they say too often (as it seems), “I remember when….”, but we are generally grateful to those who help us reach back, beyond our short memories of the past decade. That splendid theologian, Charles Schultz, cartoonist of decades of Peanuts, knew this. He once drew Sally, Charlie Brown’s little sister, sitting in puzzlement with a blank sheet before her, trying to write an assignment entitled “Church History”. The minutes tick by, the frames slide along, until she is suddenly inspired: “Church History: she writes: our pastor was born in 1961.”
We need to realize that our congregation has a story that is not confined to this generation; nor if I may name a particular United Church memory lapse, did it only begin in 1925. Our story is centuries old. It extends back in space through Asian, African and European communities, in time through millenia to the eastern Mediterranean, to the century of Jesus and his disciples, yes, but much further yet. The leaders who brought the faith to us were also ancient Jews like David, Miriam, Abraham. Visionary prophets like the Isaiah whose imagination was gripped by a world yet-to-come, where God would one day take away the shroud of hangs over all life. Poets like the unknown author of the psalm we just recited, who call upon us to continue the telling of the story to the new generations yet to come.
This is why we read most weeks more Scripture lessons than the preacher will speak on; this is why in our liturgy of the eucharist or holy communion, we evoke through images pieces of the story: this is our story, the ancestors in the faith. And the author to the Hebrews knows that we need to remember our past, and carry it with us as a living story into our future, a living story that need not imprison us, but rather give us the insight to make intelligent new decisions. This was the wisdom of the American philosopher George Santayana, who wrote in lines that have been oft repeated, not always accurately, it is “those who do not remember their past, (who) are condemned to repeat it.”
The second injunction builds on the first. Remember your leaders who brought you the faith; and consider the outcome of their lives. Don’t just remember, reflect. And here, as you knew I would, I come to moments like commemoration of the Protestant Reformation. It is unworthy of us to set up monuments that are a permanent reminder of our Christian past – like the one in Worms, Germany, of which this Luther figure is a miniature – and bow our heads unthinkingly before them, as if they are some sort of Christian idol. Which is of course what they can and sometimes, indeed all too often, do become. Just as it is wrong to retell our stories without reflecting upon them. Which is what good preaching is intended to be. We have pew Bibles to help this process, so that even if – God forbid! – the preacher manages to miss the point, our own silent reflection makes us obedient to the apostle’s injunction. It is this that enables us, helped in our reading and thinking by God’s Spirit, to escape old traps, old idolatries, such as that perpetuated by your Irish Protestant ancestors in the Orange Lodges, who continued to retell with delight, with fervour, without understanding, tales of the 17th C. where Protestants battled Roman Catholics, and engaged in acts of mutual destruction. These tales, retold without inspired reflection, helped bring Ireland to the terrible Troubles of forty years ago.
It is so also with Martin Luther, whose stance five hundred years ago against an abusive and power-mad Church is celebrated this year. Even if as seems now probable he may not actually have nailed his theses for debate on the door of the Castle church! Luther was a mortal, as we are. He shared many of the values and prejudices of his age. He was manifestly at times deeply neurotic, and his fears of an angry God drove him into a monastery. He held grudges much longer than was justified, so that this intransigeance split the Protestant movement into factions that began the process of giving us different denominations. German peasants, on strike, in mass demonstrations for social justice, ignored his initially friendly advice and turned to violence against the wealthy monasteries that were their grasping landlords, Luther, offended, lashed out, urging the princes to kill the lot of them, and this the princes, who didn’t even need this advice, did so with savagery. And yes, alas, he shared the visceral dislike of Jews so widespread in his culture, so that in old age, tormented by fears, he wrote terrible booklets, repeating all the ancient lies his ancestors unthinkingly believed and passed on from generation to generation. Luther of course did not invent Hitler, as is sometimes said. But unreflecting idolatry of the man and repetition of his almost senile ravings, encouraged some German Lutherans to accept Hitler’s programme to exterminate the Jews.
So the Apostle wisely calls on the church to remember older generations, and to reflect on the outcome of their lives. But, you may have noticed, there is a third injunction from the apostle, and it is the vital complement to the first two. “Remember…. Reflect …. And Imitate their faith”. Believers in every age are summoned to retell the stories, to know their own heritage, to reflect critically upon that heritage; and to imitate the faith of those who bought to us the faith. Not, please notice, to imitate, to repeat their prejudices and human mistakes; but to take their faith as a model for our own day, our own living.
Thus when we wish to commemorate Luther and the Protestant Reformation of his generation, we look to the spiritual dynamic, to the source of his energy, to his faith. I shall name a couple of these. He was a man of the Scriptures. His spiritual director sent him there, to find the resolution to his neurotic fears of an angry God whom he admitted in a moment of candour, he hated.. There, reading systematically through the Psalms, he discovered the God who is full of compassion and mercy and overflowing in love. Luther also discovered there the God who hates religion, because all religion tends to fall into patterns of behavior that are meant to manipulate God, to earn God’s favour and so furnish a happy life here and a place in heaven. When Luther speaks of “grace”, he means nothing less than the essential generosity of our Maker, who reaches out and welcomes home, simply because God is God, and acts out of that infinite generosity.
In the Scriptures Luther found the Jesus who is for us the coming of our creator into the mess of human life, the chaos of history, to be God-with-us, even as a mewling infant in a stable, and to the end as our Maker nailed to an unjust cross. It is by the faithfulness of this Jesus, as Saint Paul says in the Romans passage that Gale read, that we are able to live.
Let me name one thing more of Luther’s faith. He found his way through his study of the Bible. And Luther himself inherited from his older contemporary Erasmus, the profound conviction that the Scriptures must be set in the language of the people in every generation, so that the simplest, the outcasts, everyone, might read and encounter Jesus, hear there for themselves him speaking the words of eternal life.
Imitate the faith of our ancestors. As we remember Luther today, we will honour rightly our heritage from the Reformation, not by doing things in exactly the same manner they did, but by holding to these insights from their faith. Yes, and by seeking new wisdom to guide our congregation and our church as we find our way into the future, confident, in the last benediction of our text, that there we will find “ Jesus Christ, who is the same, yesterday, today and forever”.
Thanks be to God.