Sermon: Every 500 Years, Something Happens
Every 500 Years, Something Happens
October 28, 2017
© The Rev. Joseph M Cherry
The best stories in life happen with a phrase like “It was just supposed to be….”
It was just supposed to be a new sink in the bathroom.
It was just supposed to be new front tires.
It was just supposed to be a three-hour tour…
I’m sure for Father Martin, the 95 Theses he put on the Cathedral door in Wittenberg were just supposed to be…a mild corrective.
It turns out, it was a revolution.
I have been waiting with great anticipation for this morning. The history nerd in me could not WAIT to preach on the Sunday closest to the 500th anniversary of the Protestant reformation to the most protesting of Protestants there are, the Unitarian Universalists.
There were so many angles, ways in which we could talk about today! So many books read, so many thoughts… It was supposed to be so much fun.
And what I got instead was a log-jam of ideas, and if I explored them all with you from the pulpit, we’d be here until Tuesday, or at least I would be here. I’m sure by then you would’ve all left, and rightly so.
Father Martin Luther was a force to be reckoned with. His was an amazing intellect, and he used his position as a professor and theologian to help transform the town of Wittenberg Germany from a tiny backwater town to Germany’s center of intellectual intrigue and publishing.
When Luther arrived, there was one printing press in Wittenberg, and it was silent. In using his popularity, and his concept of creating a “Brand” of Luther, by insisting on consistent typeface and visual markers that would mark to book sellers that what they were pedaling were books written by him, Luther was almost single handedly able to lift Wittenberg to prominence.
And so of course, the town loved him. And the university loved him. And he had great influence.
So when he posted these 95 ideas that the Catholic Church could use to improve themselves, it got a lot of attention.
He had academic, theological and commercial power. And he thought he could use it to improve the Catholic Church, and institution to which he had dedicated his life.
Like a certain teacher 1,500 years before him, Jesus of Nazareth, he sought not to create a revolution, but merely to improve the faith he was already practicing.
For Jesus and for Martin, their teachings were just supposed to be…a corrective nudge for an institution and a faith that they loved.
It was their followers, those who appointed these men to a Greatness, that created the revolution. Yes, both men were teachers, but it seems they were interested in improving their religious orders, not to replace them.
It would be impossible to state all the ways in which the Protestant Reformation has affected humanity in an hour, let alone in a sermon. While the phrase “a complete game changer” is accurate, it is not nearly large enough to contain all that has happened.
So instead of attempting to describe the entire tapestry of all that has happened, I will chose just one thread.
The thread that leads to us, here today, in this Sanctuary, and even that can’t be done with a real sense of depth and detail.
Father Martin questioned the Catholic Church, and in doing so, challenged the standing order, the Pope and all the ways of the church.
One of the consequences of this action was that there was no long one, singular understanding of the phrase “the church.” Because now there would be many churches, many understandings and many Christianities.
As an aside, my computer really did not like the word “Christianities” and kept trying to spell check it.
Before Luther, there had been only one whole and apostolic catholic church in Europe. There was the Pope, a Prince not of geography always, but of people’s souls. After Luther, that would crumble.
A mere 14 years after Luther posts his theses, King Henry VIII, who carries the title of Defender of the Faith as granted to him by the Pope himself, denies Papal authority. Henry was granted his title in 1521 by Pope Leo the X, because Henry had written a brilliant attack on Luther as a heretic.
This demonstrates that in just 4 years since the posting of the 95 theses, Luther’s work had created such a revolution that Pope Leo felt it necessary to reward the King of England with a title for Henry’s defense of the Catholic church.
Ten years later, Henry would abandon the Catholic church himself, in search of a male heir. It’s a fascinating and complicated story, involving Henry having married his brother’s widow. Catherine of Aragon, whose parents had united Spain, did not give Henry a son. Catherine gave birth to a daughter, Mary.
Nice phrase, isn’t it? Give Henry a son.
So Henry fell in love with another woman, Anne Boleyn, and because the Pope would not grant a divorce to Henry, Henry created the Church of England, putting himself in directly authority. The Church of England, a Protestant church fully under control of the monarch, granted the monarch a divorce. Of course, Anne gave birth to Elizabeth.
Anne also failed to give Henry a son. (Are you noticing a pattern here?)
Henry’s third wife gave him a male heir, Edward the 6th. Edward died young and his two sisters became queen after his death, in somewhat rapid succession.
When Edward was 9, Henry died, and Edward was crowned. He was England’s first monarch raised as a Protestant. He reigned from 1547 until his death in 1553, a mere six years. Edward died without reaching adulthood and left no male heir.
Which made his eldest sister, Mary, daughter of Henry and the devout Catholic Catherine of Aragon, Queen. On his deathbed, Edward tried to remove Mary from the line of succession, because he feared her devotion to Catholicism. He tried to appoint Lady Jane Grey as Queen, because she was a Protestant and cousin. Lady Jane is known as the Nine Day Queen, because Mary assembled an army in East Anglia and deposed her.
Queen Mary the 1st was determined to return England to the bosom of the Catholic Church.
Mary’s efforts to return England to Catholicism were so severe that she earned the nickname Bloody Mary. In her brief 5 year reign, she burned 280 Protestant leaders at the stake, and numerous other monstrosities.
Because Henry’s marriage to her mother, Anne Boleyn had been annulled, Elizabeth was considered by many to be an illegitimate child. Using this concept, on her own deathbed, Queen Mary tried to prevent her half-sister from becoming Queen, in part because she knew that Elizabeth was never Catholic and would return England to the Protestant church, the Church of England.
Don’t worry, our story is about to emerge form all of this, I promise.
The thing is, it would be easy to dismiss this conflict from Henry through Elizabeth as trivial, but it is not.
In accordance with the laws of the time, England was in faith the same faith as their King or Queen. This meant so much more than just who got to do communion.
It meant, in a very real way that is hard for us to fully grock as modern people, it meant that if you were Catholic, if you died when Henry, Edward or Elizabeth were monarch, you would be denied entrance into Heaven and you would be going to Hell. That if you were a Protestant during Mary’s reign and you died, you too would be facing an eternity in Hell.
During Elizabeth’s long, 44 year reign, the Protestant Reformation continued, pretty much unabated. During her reign, she wrote a series of 7 or so laws directly addressing the peaceful practice of religion. Elizabeth the 1st was more interested in calm and peace than she was in theology, as monarch.
The Protestant Reformation isn’t about peace, it’s about theological purity.
And now, finally, we enter the picture, our thread in this tapestry separates from the rest of the cloth to be seen.
On the very edge of the Nottingham forest of Robin Hood fame, stands a small village called Scrooby. In Scrooby there is a church, called St. Wilfred’s church. This is where our Pilgrim ancestor’s met each other, among them was a young man named William Brewster. He later became the first Governor of the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts.
Upon their meeting, and their own desires to purify the Church of England, they left the church, and meet in the Stables of the Royal Post Master, William Brewster.
They began to study the work of John Brown, and were known as Brownists and separatists. John Brown was the first cousin of Lord Burleigh, exchequer, treasurer and close confidant of Queen Elizabeth. Their pastor was Richard Clifton, and he the one who took the Separatists, known to us as the Puritans, to Holland in 1608.
Clifton died in Holland, but his congregation, fearing the influence of Dutch Life on their children, immigrated to the New World in 1620.
From there I’m sure you’re familiar with the story.
What each of these people did was to ask “How can I make the practice of my relationship with God more authentic?”
Jesus asked this.
Martin Luther asked this.
The Brownists in Scrooby asked this.
Or as we might ask it today “How can I make my spiritual life more meaningful and authentic?”
Each of you has a notecard and a writing instrument. I’m want you to ask this question of Unitarian Universalism.
What corrective question or statement do you have for us and the way we practice our faith? I don’t mean just locally, here in the Society, but for us as a whole faith of 1,100 churches and some 250,000 people.
When you have a question or suggestion, please place your notecard in the basket. You may chose to or not to put your name card.
(After it’s done.)
I look forward to reading these cards.
I know one thing for certain about these cards, without even yet having read a single one.
I know that we are carrying on the sacred tradition of engaging with our theology. This sacred tradition that has carried our theological ancestors over 2,000 years from Judaism to Catholicism to Anglicanism and Puritanism to our own understanding of the deep worth of each person and the rejection of the teaching of an Angry God who punishes us with the reality of threat of Hell.
Sometimes our faith is dismissed as the Church of Do What you Wanna, but in truth, we are the church that believes that we do what we MUST. We do what our mind and heart, in conversation, require us to do.
This leads us to action in many causes of social justice.