Thinking for Yourself
October 29, 2017
Ephesians 2:8-9; Galatians 3:25-28
500 years ago, Martin Luther penned 95 Theses to the front door of the Church in Wittenberg in what turned out to be a moment that changed epochs. At the time, we only had one church in the West, the Roman Catholic Church.
And the Vatican needed to raise money to build St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. So someone, undoubtedly a member of the finance committee, decided that they would open a new futures market, this one in the after-life. You could pay to have sins expunged from your record in this life, sparing you a whole lot of grief on the other-side.
The Church sold quite a few of these “indulgences at the time”, evidenced by the size and wonder of St. Peter’s today.
But, the concept of the church selling “indulgences” went over at the time pretty much like Kendall Jenner’s Pepsi ad during the height of the Black Lives Matter protest, where sharing a Pepsi miraculously brought together Protesters and Police. Critics said it was somewhere between “bad taste” and “just plain stupid”.
Luther was a lowly Professor who taught at a dinky college in Northern Germany, as far from the center of sophisticated power in Rome as you could get and still be within the bounds of civilization. Luther had the temerity to call out the obvious corruption of the Church, raising money for marble floors on the backs of poor, guilt ridden peasants across Europe.
The Church has always had plenty of corrupt leaders and embarrassing spectacles. But they had this official teaching that the Holy Spirit guided the leadership of the church and that ultimately the teaching and the doctrine of the Church was infallible. They used to say that the acorns of ideas that were given in the bible later bloomed into the mature Oak trees of the faith as theologians developed them through the guidance of the Spirit.
Luther pointed out that the Church was no different from any other human institution, that it was subject to the same limitations that we all are, and that nothing we do is exempt from scrutiny, so that the Church should always be in the posture of Reforming itself. Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda secundum verbi Dei (“the church is Reformed and always [in need of] being reformed according to the Word of God”)
This was 1517 and it is hard to remember this but Europe at that time was almost entirely illiterate. When Rome fell in 550, learning went to zero in just a generation or two. For the next thousand years, people lived in what we would later call the Dark Ages and it was not at all uncommon for even Kings and Queens to be illiterate.
That is why we have stained glass windows in churches. They tell the stories of the bible for people who could no longer read the story for themselves.
Not surprisingly during this period the Pope became more and more like the Wizard of Oz, an ordinary Mayor from Kansas that manipulated steam and sound to appear more omniscient and omnipotent than he really was.
Luther came to critique the whole system of penance that had developed during the Dark Ages and he did it by using the Bible which he could read in Greek. His seminal teaching came from the two scriptures that we read today that we are saved by Grace through faith alone.
And he encouraged everyone to read the Bible for themselves by translating it from Greek into German. Like so many things that move history forward, Luther’s great idea was accompanied by a technological revolution at the same time, the invention of the printing press.
For the first time, it became possible to mass produce books rather than copy them one by one. And the very first book produced was the Bible in German and I believe that it has been a best seller ever since.
Luther embodied the most noble sentiment of creative protest, the freedom of conscience. After he made his critique of the Church he declared, “Here I stand, I can do no other”. It was one of the first cries of the Modern era for the right to make up one’s own mind in light of the evidence rather than simply accept the claim to truth by the Church or the State.
It was the plaintive cry of individual conscience for a space to be free and it made the way for so many other noble protest movements like the authors of the Declaration of Independence when they penned the words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident. That all people are born with certain inalienable rights, that among them are the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”
Luther called a lot of the practices of the Church into question, juxtaposing the simple teaching of Jesus that you could do by reading the bible in German with the elaborate theology of the Medieval period.
Do Priests need to be celibate or can they get married? And later generations would go on to ask, Can women be priests? And generations after that, Can gays and lesbians be priests?
Is the eucharist literal or more of a symbol?
For that matter, how much do we really have to adhere to the confessions of yesteryear? The Virgin Birth? the Trinity?
Fundamentally implied in all those questions is the broader question, what is the authority of the Church? Can the Church tell us what to think or does the Church fundamentally have to limit itself to posing good questions for each of us to answer for ourselves?
The Protestants that came after Luther all said, each congregation must decide for themselves what is true and there is no single truth. Each of us must follow our own conscience, for better and worse.
But think about how many great strides forward have been made by people who followed the courage of their convictions.
I think this week of Fannie Lou Hammer, born in 1917, she was the 13th of 20 children to a poor sharecropper family in Montgomery County Mississippi. Like so many black children from her generation, she had to drop out of school at 10 and pick cotton to support her family.
She taught herself to read and write and was made a foreman on the plantation where she worked. She paid the bills and took care of all the payroll.
A few years later, she organized her town to vote. Back then the south was segregated so all African-Americans lived in shanty towns outside the white cities.
The plantation owner fired her for organizing blacks to vote in the 50’s. But she was so effective that she registered people in surrounding counties. Unfortunately, the white Democratic party wouldn’t recognize the black votes in their primary, so at the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City in 1964, there were two delegations from Mississippi, one white and one black.
Lyndon Johnson was going to run with Hubert Humphrey and they tried to make political promises to the African-American delegation in exchange for them letting the white delegation be officially recognized.
At the time, the eyes of the country were fixated on Fanny Lou Hammer, when she got up to address the Democratic Convention and address the nation, as the voice of the future speaking to the segregated past. It was on national TV. She spoke as an uneducated, poor, rural woman of color, a woman who believed in herself, with moral purpose addressing the conscience of our nation.
She described discrimination, police brutality, death threats, and then said, “All of this is on account we want to register [sic], to become first-class citizens, and if we are not seated now, I question America. Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives be threatened daily because we want to live as decent human beings — Is this America?”
She turned to Hubert Humphrey, who had tried to talk the black delegation out of pressing their case, noting that if he recognized them, he’d probably not have enough votes to actually become the Vice-President because our country wasn’t ready for equality just yet.
“Do you mean to tell me that your position is more important than four hundred thousand black people's lives? Senator Humphrey, I know lots of people in Mississippi who have lost their jobs trying to register to vote. I had to leave the plantation where I worked in Sunflower County, Mississippi. Now if you lose this job of Vice-President because you do what is right, because you help black people be recognized as equal, everything will be all right. God will take care of you. But if you take [the nomination] this way, why, you will never be able to do any good for civil rights, for poor people, for peace, or any of those things you talk about. Senator Humphrey, I'm going to pray to Jesus for you.”
The next day the headlines across our country read, “I’m going to pray to Jesus for you”. The Civil Rights movement would not have happened were it not for brave women like Fannie Lou Hammer who spoke eloquently from her own conscience to the country and moved the cause of freedom forward.
I couldn’t help but think of her this week as so many women around our country awoke to take themselves seriously and demand a workplace free of sexual harassment, plain and simple. And when the times are right, we actually can and do change dramatically for the better. That is how history is made.
Luther was right that we are saved by grace through faith alone. We just get to channel redemption, making our own history, after we stop and look back to reflect on it
I think of Patrick Meehan back in the 70’s. His brother used to confide him all of his concerns about his son Kevin because Kevin was probably gay and artistic, so completely different from any of the men in the Meehan family. Today Patrick says, “our conversations about Kevin were mostly filled with stigma, guilt, shame. We didn’t know what we didn’t know back then and the world was just beginning to be defined by AID’s. It didn’t look promising.”
Kevin’s father was involved in a tragic accident and died when he was about 12 going on 13. The family all gathered at Kevin’s grandfather’s house in the days after his father died. They couldn’t reach his mother. She hadn’t been heard from in a while and wouldn’t be heard from for a long while more. She suffered from mental illness. And there were several days following his father’s death that were just a frightening and confusing blur.
At the reception, after the funeral, the Aunts and Uncles and the Grandparents were standing numb together and the subject came up of what would become of young Kevin. As it turns out, young Kevin could overhear their conversation as he walked right by them.
There was a silence. I’m sure young Kevin was filled with all of the self-doubt and anxiety that every adolescent feels, he probably more than most.
His Uncle Patrick said, “He can live with me”… Looking back on that day and looking back on his life, Kevin says “It was the sureness in his voice, the unreflective acceptance in his voice” that was so powerful. And Uncle Patrick did not know what he was getting into, adopting a young teenage nephew. In a moment, he just did the right thing, like Moses when he said to God, “Here I am. Send me.”
How Patrick changed. He rose to the occasion. He accepted his nephew and didn’t try to impose the “Meehan Way” on the boy. He let him become himself. He became Kevin’s advocate. He gave him confidence.
Kevin grew up, developed his career, became enormously talented in his life. He married. He and his partner adopted two children. And today, when Kevin tells his story about his big public career, he has this piece about his Uncle Patrick who he now calls Dad, and he says “It’s all about grace”.
And you know that too. It is all about picking up the broken pieces of the world around you. Making a choice and acting in faith, infused by grace, taking the redemptive way, the way of healing. Sometimes it is hard to even say why you do what you do, but you just know it is the right thing and you know that because you feel blessed to be alive and you know that you are blessing other people, even in a complex and difficult situation.
I hope you stumble into the grace zone in your life. I hope you have the freedom to follow your conscience and do the right thing when competing opinions around you sound like a cacophony of alternative advice.
And may God give you the grace to never sell yourself short… the grace to risk something big for something good… the grace to remember that the world is now too dangerous for anything but the truth and too small for anything but love. Amen.