Today is Reformation Sunday, the day when we celebrate that an injustice that was going on in the Catholic church at the time was confronted with depth, commitment and a promise that if the Catholic church would not or could not change, that people would step out of it and find another way to be Church in the world. And while I had an entire sermon planned around this, I feel that the world, once more, has stepped in and needs to take first focus. So yes, we are going to talk about what it is to be Protestants, reformed people, but we will be doing it today in the context of what is happening in our country.
You know what began the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther, a Catholic monk, was incensed at the corruption in the leadership of the Catholic church, a corruption that led to taking advantage of the poorest and most vulnerable in the church communities. Priests “sold” indulgences, which meant that they were selling “get out of purgatory and hell” cards. You had to have money to be “saved” in this model, and you had to be giving it to the church. There were other problems as well, but of the 95 theses, the injustice of selling heaven was a theme that came up again and again, the cruelty of the church towards the poor was a central motif. Martin Luther was not trying to leave the church, he was trying to change it. But the selling of indulgences was a lucrative business, and so those in charge at the time were not really interested in the major overhauls Martin Luther was suggesting. As a result, the protestant church was formed. Note the name “protestant.”
Diana Butler Bass says, “Luther and his associates were protesters rather than reformers—they stood up against the religious conventions of the day, arguing on behalf of those suffering under religious, social, and economic oppression. …In the United States, Protestantism has often been torn between the impulse to protest (the abolition movement, women’s rights movements, the Civil Rights movement) and the complacency of content by virtue of being the majority religion. After all, if you are the largest religious group in society—if you shape the culture—what do you protest? Yourself?”
And yet, that is what we are being called to do again. The racism, the hatred, the white, “our way is the only way” and “our faith is the only faith” attitudes are leading to a violence in our country against anything that is other than mainstream, white, Christian. And these attitudes are not only tearing our country apart, are not only destroying lives, are not only causing irreconcilable divisions, but are, absolutely, unchristian in every possible way. Jesus never advocated violence. I want to be clear about this. He never advocated or condoned or supported violence, even as self-defense. When his disciples defended him against the guard trying to arrest him, he healed the guard and told his disciples this was not the way. He also said, “you’ve heard it said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but I say to you, do not resist an evil doer. If someone slaps your right cheek, turn to them the other cheek as well.” He never harmed another person and he called us to behave in the same way. There is no excuse, none for shooting people in a school or a synagogue or on the street. And the hatred and racism and anti-every-other-belief system, and the sexism and heterosexism that we see being demonstrated more and more each day has to stop. Doing it in the name of God just deepens the evil. We are protestants for a reason. And we are, frankly, called to continue to be protestants, “protest-ants.” We are called to show a different way, to continue to live a radical way, and to stand up for those who do not have the power or authority that we do.
Easy to say. Hard to do.
We, like the Catholic church of 500 years ago, can become stuck. Despite our catch phrase of “reformed and always reforming,” it is easy for protestant churches to become comfortable country clubs where what goes on in the world outside is not about us. We gather together to be friends without recognizing that our call to be together is so that we are then empowered to do the work of Christ in the world: confronting injustice, healing the broken, loving the unlovable, empowering the unempowered, and seeing everyone as our brother and sister, who should have the same luxuries, experiences, gifts and lifestyles that we want and claim for ourselves.
We aren’t called to be comfortable. Our scriptures for today really point that out.
Change is hard. Standing up against injustice is hard. But frankly, I believe very deeply that a lot of the exodus we see from our churches has to do with the fact that we claim to follow a God who calls us to justice and action, and yet most of us do not act. We are comfortable being reminded that God loves us. We do not feel the need to take the next step into, “and therefore we will serve God by serving, loving and caring for all of God’s people.” That hypocrisy, I believe in my soul, is the major cause of people leaving the church. And if we cannot step forward into being the church in a real way in the world, then Protestants too will be split in half, just as the catholic church was so long ago.
God calls all of us to continue to move forward. Therefore God’s answer to Job, and Jesus’ answer to Bartimaeus did not just leave them where they were or call them to a life of ease and comfort. Even as God restored Job’s fortunes, God still did not leave Job comfortable.
Bartimaeus, too, was not allowed to just celebrate his new sight. He was called to radical change as well. He answered that call by following Jesus after he gained his sight.
I want to point out, it is not enough to comfort the afflicted. We are called to live lives and create a world that prevents situations like the Pittsburgh shooting from taking place at all. Comfort is not enough. We are called to create a world in which there is justice and people have what they need. Carl Denis wrote a poem called Editing Job that I think describes the reality of our world right now well. I am just going to post a piece of it here. He wrote:
Let Job be allowed to complain
About his treatment as long as he wants to,
For months, for decades,
And in this way secure his place forever
In the hearts of all who believe
That suffering shouldn't be silent,
That grievances ought to be aired completely,
Whether heard or not.
As for the end, if it's meant to suggest
That patience will be rewarded, I'd cut it too.
Or else I suggest at least adding a passage
Where God, after replenishing Job's possessions,
Comes to the tent where the man sits grieving
To ask his pardon. How foolish of majesty
To have assumed that Job's new family,
New wife and children and servants,
Would be an ample substitute for the old.
The reality is that when we try to offer comfort after the damage is done, it is just not enough. Those lives that died will never be replaced. The families will never be whole again. We can’t give them back that sense of a safe place of worship. We must be "protest"-ants still, actively working to change a world in which violence, hate, and fear are the new norm; where that kind of anger that cannot see the other person as a human being, as a brother or sister has become the way of life. We have to start now, and we have to start today by loving much more deeply, much more fully; by standing up for those who are without voice; by speaking with clarity and demonstrating with our lives behavior that is about love rather than hate, hope rather than fear, and compassion rather than anger. It starts with us. And it has to begin today.