500th Anniversary of the Reformation
by Pastor Sarah Stadler
On October 31, 1517, Roman Catholic monk Martin Luther challenged the Roman Catholic Church in their practice of selling indulgences to the peasants of Germany.
These indulgences were meant to confirm the release of their dead relatives and sometimes their living loved ones from purgatory, a space between this world and the afterlife, at least in the Roman Catholic tradition. We may be well familiar with Luther’s theological concerns: the very existence of purgatory, the ability of a piece of paper to release someone from it, the idea that anything we do can ensure our salvation. In scripture, Luther had discovered a God who loves us fully and who saves us simply because God loves us. When Martin Luther wrote and posted his 95 theses against indulgences, he was not simply calling out the theological implications of indulgences but their social, ethical, and political implications as well. In medieval Germany, by far the largest portion of the population were peasants, people who struggled mightily to feed themselves and their families, people mostly uneducated. John Tetzel, the primary marketer of indulgences, targeted the German peasants in order to raise funds to build the basilica in Rome. Tetzel compelled people who possessed very little to give what they had in exchange for what seemed to Luther to be a false assurance of release from purgatory for people they loved. The manipulation of the peasants was not only theologically suspect; it was socially, ethically, and politically dubious. Tetzel manipulated their vulnerability, their lack of education, their inability to read scripture for themselves or even understand the liturgy of worship because both scripture and liturgy were only spoken and written in Latin. When Luther challenged the sale of indulgences, he challenged the exploitation of a vulnerable group of people. He was one who could see and understand what was going on and determined that he could not idly stand by and watch it happen. He spoke truth to power, and because he did, the world changed. In the 21st century United States, we can hardly grasp the power of the church as an institution in sixteenth-century Germany. Luther literally risked his life to challenge the church. But he challenged it anyway.
Today, on this 500th anniversary of the Reformation, I echo the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, a man named for the reformer of our church. On November 5, 1967, just shy of 50 years ago, Dr. King spoke to people who lived in a very different time and place than that of Dr. Luther. Yet Dr. King and Dr. Luther both spoke truth to power because of their faith in a God who loves humanity fully. Dr. King preached to the people of Ebeneezer Church: “I say to you this morning that if you have never found something so dear and so precious to you that you will die for it, then you aren’t fit to live. You may be thirty-eight years old, as I happen to be, and one day, some great opportunity stands before you and calls upon you to stand up for some great principle, some great issue, some great cause. And you refuse to do it because you are afraid. You refuse to do it because you want to live longer. You’re afraid that you will lose your job or you are afraid that you will be criticized or that you will lose your popularity, or you’re afraid that somebody will stab you or shoot at you or bomb your house. So you refuse to take the stand. Well, you may go on and live until you are ninety, but you are just as dead at thirty-eight as you would be at ninety. And the cessation of breathing in your life is but the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit. You died when you refused to stand up for justice.”
Luther stood up for justice when he sought to end the exploitation of Germany’s most vulnerable people by the church. And standing up for justice—which often looks like caring for those who are vulnerable and empowering marginalized people that they might embrace their agency—is what I invite all of us to do today and every day. We don’t have to be radical, be offensive, or be flashy. I invite us to be who we are, children of God, and allow our identity as children of God to free us to do the things we feel we must do, the things we have to do, the things the Spirit begs us to do. The ways we stand up for justice can be small and yet significant to the person who is impacted by them. Whether we advocate for a child who is in danger or lobby Congress for the passage of a particular law, whether we alter our lifestyle to better steward the earth or invite our friends and family to walk in the CROPWalk, we are standing up for justice. Whether we help a refugee family acclimate to Phoenix culture or donate money to organizations that work for justice in a particular realm, whether we work within ourselves to uncover our own prejudices and biases or simply even change our language—remember how we were working on no longer utilizing adjectives as nouns?, we are standing up for justice. When Martin Luther came before the Diet of Worms, basically a religious court, he was told to recant his writing, writing that indicted the Roman Catholic Church but also declared the good news of God’s grace. But Luther didn’t recant. Instead, he declared: Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason, my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience would be neither right nor safe. God help me. Here I stand, I can do no other.
God, help me, Luther said. Here I stand, I can do no other.
What do you stand for? What is the Spirit of God calling you to stand for? 500 years later, our world is no less broken or sinful, and we still have the opportunity, the call, the imperative to stand.
If you would like to respond to that call to stand for justice, I invite you to come forward, to take a piece of paper and a pen, to write an action that you will take in the next week or month, an action in which you will stand up for something the Spirit is calling you to do. Then, I invite you to take a nail and a hammer and to hammer that thesis into the door, a door already full of Luther’s 95 theses.
My conscience, like Luther’s, is captive to the Word of God. To stand for justice, for me, is not primarily a social, political, or even ethical act. To stand for justice is a theological act. I stand for justice because that’s what the Spirit of God compels me to do. Moses, Isaiah, Micah, Amos, Jesus call out to us from scripture to stand for justice. Even the law of God, in both the Old Testament and New, calls the people to justice. The law about observing the Sabbath, number three of the top ten commandments, requires rest not just for family members but for those most vulnerable: slaves, animals, and even once every seven years, the land.
Cornel West, a theologian and activist from Princeton, wrote: Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public. For me, to stand for justice is to love, to love God’s whole people and God’s whole creation. Here I stand, I can do no other.