Text: Psalm 107:1-9, 33-37
There have been two times in my life when, out of intense fear, I sought a deal with God. The first was on a Russian Aeroflot flight from Moscow to Vladivostok going to adopt Nora. Not sure the plane would survive takeoff, I prayed feverishly making all kinds of deals with God, while frantically rubbing my prayer beads. Once the plane reached altitude and it was obvious that I had survived takeoff, I spent the next eight and a half hours (yes, it is an eight and half hour flight from Moscow to Vladivostok) of that flight making deal after deal. God if you let me land safely in Vladivostok, then…God if you let me land safely in Vladivostok, then… Over and over I repeated this phrase making my deal with God. The second time I did this, well…I will save that one for another sermon.
I was reminded of my deal-making with God when I reread the story of how Martin Luther entered a monastery and from there became one of the great leaders in the Protestant Reformation. As the story goes, in July of 1505, at age 22, Luther—the son of a copper miner—was caught in a horrific thunderstorm. Afraid that he was going to die, he screamed out a vow, “Save me, St. Anna, and I shall become a monk.” St. Anna was the mother of the Virgin Mary and the patron saint of miners. Just days later, on July 17th, Luther entered the Augustinian Monastery at Erfurt, Germany.
The decision to enter the monastery was a difficult one for young Luther. He knew that he would greatly disappoint his parents (which he did) who wanted him to become a lawyer, but he also knew that one must keep a promise made to God. Beyond that, however, he also had strong internal reasons to join the monastery. He was haunted by insecurity about his salvation. He was deeply distressed by his sins and lived in terrible and constant fear of God’s angry judgment. A monastery, he must have thought, would be the perfect place to find assurance. And although Luther did everything a devout and conscientious Augustinian friar should do, he did not find in the monastery the peace of mind he was seeking.
In 1508, Luther was sent by his superior to Wittenberg, a town in the part of Germany called Saxony, to pursue a doctoral degree and to teach at the newly-established university there. He also became assistant pastor at the Castle Church, a post he held for the rest of his life. In the course of his preaching and studying scripture, especially his studies of the Psalms and the book of Romans, he became convinced that salvation was found only through the love and grace of God; not by good works as taught by the church. For the first time in his life he found comfort in his religion. He began to lecture about this new understanding of salvation and grace in his classes and preach about it in his parish, drawing sharp criticism from the Catholic Church.
In 1517, Luther was drawn into a theological controversy for which we know him best: the sale of indulgences by the Roman Catholic Church. Indulgences were certificates sold by the Catholic Church that promised people release from works of penance for absolved sins, both in life and in purgatory. In opposition to this practice, the young theologian and pastor drafted a series of ninety-five statements or theses discussing the indulgences, good works, repentance, and other topics; and invited interested scholars to debate with him. Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses on the door of the Castle Church. His doing so was not an act of defiance of provocation as is sometimes thought. Since the Castle Church faced Wittenberg’s main thoroughfare, the church door functioned as a public bulletin board and was, therefore, the logical place for posting important notices. Luther intended the Ninety-five Theses to initiate an academic discussion, not serve as the agenda for a major reform of the Catholic Church. However, that is exactly what happened.
Luther’s Protestant views were condemned as heretical by Pope Leo X in 1520. The following year he was summoned to either renounce or reaffirm them at the Diet of Worms on April 17, 1521. When he appeared before the assembly, he was presented with a table filled with copies of his writings. Asked if he still believed what these works taught, he requested time to think about his answer. Granted an extension, Luther prayed, consulted with friends and mediators, and presented himself before the assembly the next day. When the counselor put the same question to Luther the next day, the reformer apologized for the harsh tone of many of his writings, but said that he could not reject the majority of them or the teachings in them. Luther respectfully but boldly stated, “Unless I am convinced by proofs from Scriptures or by plain and clear reasons and arguments, I can and will not retract, for it is neither safe nor wise to do anything against conscience. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.” Three years after posting the Ninety-five Theses he was excommunicated by the pope and declared a heretic and outlaw. This was the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.
Martin Luther’s story is a powerful one, and it is important for us to be reminded of it on this Reformation Sunday. His historical, political, and religious significance cannot be overstated. The reformation he began changed the world. And yet, the historical, political, and religious dimensions of his story are not what draw me to his story. It is, rather, his own spiritual wrestling to understand God’s love and grace for his own life. It is his spiritual courage to believe that, warts and all, God loves us. It is his trust and faith that God’s steadfast love is bigger than humanity’s insecurities and fears. What moves me about his story was his willingness to risk everything to stand for his faith convictions. For me, this is the power and witness of Martin Luther’s life. He was, by far, not a perfect man. His strong anti-Semitic views represent the worst of humanity—of his humanity. There is no defense for him, other than God’s grace, in how he treated the Jews of his day. For sure, this would become his own sin for which he would stand in need of God’s grace.
You may remember that earlier I said it was in reading the Psalms and the book of Romans that Luther came to the affirmation that God’s love and grace cannot be bought, but rather is gift and a grace from God alone. When I read Psalm 107, I imagined Luther, the young scholar and pastor, reading the words of the Psalmist.
O give thanks to God, for God is good; God’s steadfast love endures forever. Let the redeemed of God say so, those redeemed from trouble and gathered in from the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south.
Some wandered in the desert wastes, finding no way to an inhabited town; hungry and thirsty, their soul fainted within them. Then they cried to God in their trouble, and God delivered them from their distress…Let them thank God for God’s steadfast love, for God’s wonderful works to humankind. For God satisfies the thirsty, and the hungry God fills with good things.
This and other scriptures like it were what turned Luther’s attention to God’s love and grace. It was such knowledge that led him to post those Ninety-five Theses on the church door, challenging the church’s abuse of its power and influence. And it was such action that led to a reformation that would change the world. Luther’s life reminds us that often our most authentic expressions of faith are born out of our own struggle to understand and accept God’s unconditional and steadfast love. His life also reminds us that it is when we dare to wrestle with what it means to be loved by God, in the fullness of our humanity, that we have the potential for reforming the world—both individually and collectively.
Reforming the church in every generation begins with the affirmation that God’s love is not a commodity that we can buy, or even earn. Rather it is a grace, and it is for all people—especially for us sinners. On this Reformation Sunday, I close with Luther’s words to his friends who often wrote him seeking advice. “If you are a preacher of mercy, do not preach an imaginary [mercy] but the true mercy. If the mercy is true, you must therefore bear the true, not an imaginary sin. God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong, but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world.” God’s steadfast love endures forever.