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"Reformation 500th" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - October 29, 2017

posted Oct 30, 2017, 1:09 PM by Plymouth Church UCC

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Recently the New York Times reported on something many of us see in youth we know: the rising rates of anxiety.  


It affects people like Jake, one of the teenagers the Times interviewed.  Jake’s anxiety hit him in his junior year.  As a bright student, high school involved three AP classes, competing athletically, and traveling with his model UN club.  It seemed like a lot, but “he’d never really failed at anything.”  And yet fear of failing ate at him, at first motivating him to push himself and then immobilizing him with stomach pains, headaches, and a crippling fear.  His mother described it, “[he] ran 150 miles per hour into a brick wall.”  


The Times article went on to describe Jake’s path to healing as well as that of several other teenagers; read it if you’re interested.  But this morning I just want us to notice this reality of anxiety in our culture.  It’s not just overwhelmed teenagers but many of us, of all ages, who struggle with stress and worry and anxiety: jobs, relationships, finances, change, and the possibility of war.  And sometimes the only way we can find to deal with it is through unhealthy and addictive behaviors.  


Think of moments when you’ve felt that anxiety; that sensation of running 150 miles per hour into a brick wall.  Or moments when people you love have felt that kind of anxiety.


And I ask you to do so because we can’t understand the Reformation without getting in touch with our anxieties and their’s.  Historians often speak of the role of the printing press in the Reformation, and it undoubtedly played a role, but anxiety played a far more important role; and in fact, I don’t think we can understand the Reformation without knowing the anxiety.  Martin Luther’s most profound spiritual insights came as a way to deal with the anxieties in his heart and those of his neighbors.  Indeed, we could think of the Reformation as a profound theological reflection on anxiety.  

Anxieties during Luther’s time centered around questions of heaven and hell.  This can seem very different than the anxieties of our own age.  But behind the big letter words of heaven and hell lay concerns we know in our own hearts: judgment and merit.  Ideas about judgment and merit powered the incredible intellectual and spiritual revolution of the Reformation.


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The concerns about heaven and hell can be seen in the art of Luther’s age, peices like Hieronymus Bosch’s famous, “The Last Judgment.”  In Bosch’s graphic painting demons and bizarre creatures torture ‘the wicked’ with all sorts of devilish devices.  And such were the fears in Luther’s heart, fears of damnation.  


The fear of hell could become so real that people felt themselves endangered even before death.  Luther often described fighting demonic powers, defending himself by prayer and singing.  But sometimes his battle with the devil became so real that he resorted to physical means of defense. Early on, while sequestered at the Wartburg Castle, Luther felt the devil in the room with him while he sat writing at his desk.  Grabbing his inkwell, he spun around and threw it at the wall.   


While that story is largely legend, it speaks to the anxiety in Luther’s heart: the very real sense of damnation and the almost tangible awareness of the demonic.  Luther and his neighbors worried intensely about being judged by God, found inferior, and sent to some awful place.  


And so religious leaders started selling “indulgences,” essentially a get-out-of-hell licence.  The licence would absolve the bearer of any consequences for sins.  It offered a way for people to deal with their anxiety, but it only increased the anxiety for those too poor to afford the indulgence.  How could they merit salvation?


We know the power of these anxieties about judgment and merit in our own day.  Maybe not judgment about hell, but certainly judgments about success, social status, merit, making it.  


Martin Luther developed three key ideas to the Reformation, ideas which touched directly on the anxiety he felt in his heart: total depravity, salvation by grace alone, and the priesthood of all believers.  Each of these ideas can be problematic, but I want to look with you at them in terms of how they helped Luther face his anxiety and how they might help us too.


No Reformation idea needs reframing more than the idea of total depravity.  It remains controversial today, if only because it sounds so dour to call everyone depraved.  Luther didn’t mean that everyone was the worst of the worst.  But rather that sin is real and has an effect on everything we do.  


We normally think of depravity as some big sin: Harvey Weinstein.  But Luther had in mind all the small moments we sin.  Things that never make the headlines, like things that get stolen from church.  One recent theft here particularly bothered me.  After the renovation of the church, we put a plunger in each of the six new bathrooms.  But last month, when the daycare let me know about a clogged toilet, I had trouble find any plungers; we were down to one plunger.  Which means that five people took used plungers from the church.  Who steals a used plunger?  Total depravity.  


We can get a better idea of what Luther meant by total depravity if we relabeled it as “no one is perfect.”  Paul spoke to this same issue when he wrote his Letter to the Romans.  Some in the church thought they were better than others, closer to God, perfect even, without sin.  And so Paul made the point, “For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  


This insight matters to me.  When I feel bad for something I’ve done wrong, it helps to remember that I’m not the only one.  And when someone else hurts me, it helps to remember nobody's perfect, including me.


Much of the push of anxiety comes from the need to pretend to be perfect.  Much of Luther’s anxiety came from his early attempts to be perfect so he could get into heaven.  And much of Jake’s anxiety came from his attempts to be perfect so he could get into the college of his dreams.  And for both, the quest for perfection led to a crushing anxiety.  So, relish in Luther’s insight: we’re not perfect and we can stop pretending we are.  


No one’s perfect, Paul said to the Romans.  And in the very next breath he added, “[We] are now justified by [God’s] grace as a gift.” Luther would rediscover this theological insight: salvation doesn’t come from something we do, we don’t earn God’s love, but instead it comes as a gift, a grace, an undeserved surprise.


We need this insight too.  Because it comes as counter-cultural wisdom to our society.  We live in a nation so focused on merit, entitlement, and notions of who deserves what that we’ve coined a new term: meritocracy.  We tell ourselves that our success is built on our own merit, our own effort.  And explicitly and implicitly we act as if people are poor or face challenges because they didn’t try hard enough.


The idea that we can “do” things to merit our status underlies our division of the world into saints and sinners: the saints earn their place, the sinners failed to do so.  But the world can never be so neatly divided.  


A few days ago I took a couple of youth to Pathfinders to do a service project.  Some youth who go to Pathfinders’ Middle School had broken windows; in a moment of rage they had taken rocks and thrown them into windows.  This had happened more than once.  So our project involved collecting the rocks.


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Afterwards, Julie Bock from Pathfinders told us more about the situation.  She described one of youth who broke a window.  On a nice day in September, a 13-year old girl had sat outside to eat her lunch, taking off her shoes and setting them beside her.  A boy in her class ran by and teasingly snagged the shoes.  A chase ensued; the girl became increasingly enraged, and by the time she had chased the boy completed around the building, she yelled, “I’m done.”  With that, she picked up a rock and hurled it into a window, shattering it.


Too often we end our stories of teens and trouble there, writing it off as another story of a teen who deserved the trouble she got herself into.  But Julie worked to understand what motivated the youth, to figure out why she became so distraught.  


The shoes the girl wore that day belonged to her brother, a brother killed during the summer.  The girl wore the shoes to feel close to him.  And when the boy took them, all her grief at the taking of her brother bubbled over into rage.


When Paul and Luther speak of salvation through grace they mean something like the grace this teenage girl found in Julie.  The grace that sees more than what we do right or what we do wrong; the grace that sees the full context of our lives; the love that sees beyond both our best moments and our worst ones.  To be seen that way is a gift, one that frees us from shame and the fear of failure.


God’s grace, Luther said, doesn’t come because we’ve earned it, not because we’ve done something right.  But rather God’s grace comes because we need it, needing that love just like a teenager grieving her brother needs compassion.  Not earned, but grace freely given.


The idea that nobody’s perfect and that all need God’s grace undercut the hierarchies of Luther’s day.  I want to make this clear: the idea that everyone messes up is profoundly equalizing.  As is the idea that no one can earn special rank.  Both ideas put everyone on the same foundation, equal before God and each other.


The Reformation shook hierarchies: in the church, it shook the hierarchy of popes, bishops, priests, and people; and in politics, it shook the hierarchy of king, noble, merchant, and peasant.  


Within the realm of church, Luther articulated the idea of equality as everyone being called to ministry, a priesthood of all believers.  He drew on passages like that of Peter’s First Letter, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.”  


Luther’s concepts hold together: don’t worry about being perfect, don’t think about earning love, and now that those worries don’t hold you back, do something.  


Too often we think of “ministry” as something an ordained person does.  I once met with a visitor to our church who loved the congregation, but found it very jarring to have lay people read scripture and offer prayers.  He said to me, “That’s what a minister is supposed to do.”  Exactly, and in our tradition, we’re all ministers, all called to do holy work in whatever way we can.  


Tony Robinson once explained this helpfully as, “Every Christian has the capacity to know and experience God directly and to be a mediator of God’s grace to his or her neighbors and to the world.”


The three key concepts of the Reformation work together.  First to relieve our anxiety.  We don’t have to be perfect.  We don’t have to do it on our own.  And then to ask a question: without worrying about perfection and without worrying about earning God’s love, what then do we want to do with our life?  Who do we want to be without anxiety ruling our hearts?  Who do we want to be in the freedom of God’s grace and love?


Alleluia and Amen.



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Sources:

  • Denizet-Lewis, Benoit, “Why Are More American Teenagers Than Ever Suffering From Severe Anxiety?” New York Times Magazine, Oct. 11, 2017

  • Still Speaking Writers Group, “A Study Guide For the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation,” UCC Resources.

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