as preached at the First Parish Church, Ashby, October 29, 2017
It is rare to celebrate the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of something. We celebrated the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of this congregation a few weeks back. Were you there for the ecumenical camp meeting? It was a memorable affair. The sun, bright and hot, the bandstand filled with representatives of the diversity of the local faith community; I said a few words about Unitarian Universalism. I shared with the gathering the sentiments of our Universalists ancestors who believed that a loving God does not punish his or her creations with eternal damnation. And I offered a blessing for Ashby’s next two hundred and fifty years. Members from our congregation collaborated with the congregationalist church across the street in a moving performance of bluegrass gospel. There were prayers and hymns to Mary by Father Jeremy St. Martin, the local Catholic priest. The local pentecostal church closed the event with an electrified praise band.
However rare it is to have a two hundred and fiftieth anniversary, it is even rarer to have a five hundredth anniversary. And, yet, here we are, marking the five hundredth anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Today we fill our pulpit with talk of a religious revolution. Thousands, no tens of thousands, no perhaps even hundreds of thousands of sanctuaries contain, this Sunday, similar words.
As we think about the Protestant Reformation, it is worthwhile to cast our minds back to the sultry Sunday afternoon of the ecumenical camp meeting. In the four participating congregations, we can see four of the major strains of religion that emerged after Martin Luther posted his ninety-five theses on a castle door in Wittenberg, Germany. The Ashby Congregational Church could be taken to represent what scholars call the Magisterial Reformation. This is the mainstream of Protestantism. It finds within the Bible divine sanction for earthly authorities.
St. John the Evangelist might stand for the reforms sparked within the Roman Catholic Church as a reaction to the Magisterial Reformation. The very fact that Father St. Martin spoke and prayed in English rather than Latin should remind us that the Protestant Reformation dramatically reshaped the Catholic Church. A major complaint of Luther and many of the reformers who proceeded him was that the church did not speak to people in their own languages. Some even argue that Luther’s greatest accomplishment was translating the Bible into German.
Crossroads Community Church may symbolize the nineteenth and twentieth-century Protestant reactions to rigorous biblical criticism. These have coalesced in more recent decades into pentecostalism and Christian fundamentalism. Such congregations often take the Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura, only scripture, to the extreme and insist that the Bible contains literal truths that contemporary science and biblical scholarship have shown to be empirically untrue.
Our own First Parish Church embodies what has been called the Radical Reformation. The great Unitarian Universalist historian George Huntston Williams described the Radical Reformation as a “a radical break from the existing institutions and theologies” of its times. He claimed it was driven by a desire “to restore primitive Christianity and to prepare for the imminent advent of the Kingdom of Christ.” The radical break that the Radical Reformation represented remains familiar to many of us, even if the forces that drove it seem less so. None of us, I imagine, want to go back to the religion described in the Christian New Testament or anticipate the immediate advent of the Kingdom of God. Most of us, I suspect, are attracted to Unitarian Universalism because it proclaims theological views that are still held suspect by the larger culture. One of these is that a loving God does not offer eternal punishment.
The Magisterial Reformation, a reformed Roman Catholicism, pentecostalism, the Radical Reformation… with his apocryphal bang, bang, bang, Luther did not intend to hammer the sixteenth-century Catholic Church into separate pieces. He intended to reform it, to purge it of corrupting elements. None of his ninety-five theses called for the creation of a new church. He sought instead to repair an existing one, to help call it back to, in his view, the true theology and practice of Christianity.
Yet, Luther’s ninety-five theses broke the Catholic Church into a thousand pieces. Today there are Baptists, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Pentecostals, Anglicans, Episcopalians, Mennonites, Mormons, Unitarian Universalists, and, well, the list could go on and on to encompass another hundred, nay another two hundred, variants of Christianity and Post-Christian traditions. This mosaic of religious belief and practice could not have been imagined by Luther when he perceptively declared, “There seems to be the same difference between hell, purgatory, and heaven as between despair, uncertainty, and assurance.” Nor could have even a shadow of it passed across his eyes when he complained, “those who preach indulgences are in error.”
The great variety of found in world Christianity offers perhaps the single most important, and obvious, lesson from the Protestant Reformation. Our actions have unintended consequences. These words may appear trite. They may seem the wrong lesson to lift-up as we mark the beginning of the articulation of the five great solas of Protestant life. You might think it would be better to focus this morning’s sermon on sola scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia, Solus Christus, and Soli Deo gloria–only scripture, only faith, only grace, only Christ, and Glory to God Alone–as we remember the bang, bang, bang of Luther’s theses.
And, yet, what is more applicable to our lives, debates about the finer points of Protestant theology or considering how our choices can have unintended consequences? The later is really one of the great moral questions. Especially, when we consider the question the issue of accountability. Are you responsible if you intend good but cause harm? Are you responsible if your actions have unexpected benefits?
Think about it. We can imagine examples from the mundane, sublime, and grotesque. Ever buy a squash and scoop out the insides when you prepare to cook it? I remember doing so in a house I lived in some years back. We had a compost pile. I dutifully put the stringy squash bits, rind, and seeds in it. Next year, squash vines growing from the compost pile! Was I responsible for planting the squash?
There are entire schools of aesthetics devoted to appreciating the unexpected, unanticipated, or unintended. The great jazz artists knew this. Mile Davis, Thelonious Monk, Art Tatum… Each has been quoted as saying some variant of, “There’s no such thing as a wrong note.” “There are no mistakes in jazz.” Or “do not fear mistakes. There are none.” For these musicians, the unexpected consequence of an action was to expand the range of possibilities, to increase the amount of beauty in the world.
My favorite these jazz aphorisms comes from Herbie Hancock by way of Miles Davis. It seems that as a young musician Hancock was frustrated with his progress. He felt stuck in a rut. All of the choices he made resulted in obvious, and therefore uninteresting, melodies. So, he went to Davis for advice. Davis cryptically told him, “Don’t play the butter notes.” Which he took to mean, don’t make the choices that will result in the obvious melodies. Open yourself to unintended and see what happens. Hancock did this and, reportedly, experienced a breakthrough.
Chance and the unintended do not just haunt beauty or the compost pile, they can have dire impacts on our lives. The very term accident has gruesome connotations. A truck hits a bicyclist who is in the driver’s blind spot. An airplane breaks apart due to a defective part. A building burns after the insulation on wires fails and an electrical blaze erupts. In such situations, we struggle to explain who is responsible for dire outcomes. Sometimes, the answers are obvious and it is possible to hold an individual or entity to account. The electrical company skimped on materials for the wires. The airplane part was rushed into service even though the manufacturer knew it might not be entirely reliable. Other times it is much more difficult to discern who is responsible. Sometimes accidents, no matter how awful, are just that, accidents: black ice on the road can cause the most careful driver to lose control; a knife can slip from the hands of the most experienced chef and result in bloody injury.
We live in a world derived from the unintended consequences of Luther’s actions. Perhaps this gives him far too much credit. There is certainly a school of historical thought that the Reformation would have happened without him. Efforts to transform the Catholic church were well underway before he issued his Wittenberg theses. When she was growing up, my mother’s family belonged to the Moravian Church, a denomination founded by the followers of Jan Hus some fifty years before Luther found himself in conflict with the papal authorities. One of the professors at Starr King School for the Ministry, one of the two Unitarian Universalist seminaries, is Waldensian. This is a Christian movement that split from the Catholic Church in the twelfth-century, some four hundred years before Luther was even born.
And yet, there some truth to the great man of history theory found in Luther. At the very least, if he had not bang, bang, banged on the castle door in Wittenberg then we would be talking about some other event that precipitated the Protestant Reformation this morning. What that would be or who it would involve we cannot know.
And so, here we are, in this world created by Luther’s unintended consequences. Should he be held accountable for them? Luther himself believed that our human actions were such that whatever we did we were more likely to cause ill than good. This is at the center of his theology. He thought we humans were too prone to error, too incapable of making good choices, too thoughtless to understand the consequences of our actions to achieve salvation on our own. It was only through the grace of God, meditated through Christ, that we might earn eternal assurance and escape damnation. He believed that faith was the path to secure this grace and that only a limited number of people would find it. The rest of us were damned.
The subsequent history of Protestant Christianity could be cast as a long argument over who is to be damned and who is to be saved. Most Christians seem to agree that only some are worthy of salvation. Which is to say, only some can fully escape the unintended consequences of their actions.
Our Universalist ancestors thought different. They believed that God loved everyone. If no one could escape the unintended consequences of their actions then everyone must be loved. There are great and folksy stories about how the early Universalist theologian and evangelist Hosea Ballou explained this doctrine. Linda Stowell relates one of these tales:
Ballou was [out] riding… when he stopped for the night at a New England farmhouse. The farmer was upset. He confided to Ballou that his son was a terror who got drunk in the village every night and who fooled around with women. The farmer was afraid the son would go to hell. “All right,” said Ballou with a serious face. “We’ll find a place on the path where your son will be coming home drunk, and we’ll build a big fire, and when he comes home, we’ll grab him and throw him into it.” The farmer was shocked: “That’s my son and I love him!” Ballou said, “If you, a human and imperfect father, love your son so much that you wouldn’t throw him in the fire, then how can you possibly believe that God, the perfect father, would do so!”
The spirit of stories like this are encapsulated in the first principle of our Unitarian Universalist Association, that we believe in “the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” Whatever the consequences of our actions, each human life has worth and dignity. It really is a radical statement and one that runs counter to almost every dominant trend in our society. It suggests we question the criminal justice system, the distribution of wealth, the use of force in solving conflicts… If each human life has worth and dignity then our society needs to think about punishment, economic equality, and violence differently.
Luther would certainly have disapproved. As the leading representative of the Magisterial Reformation the one thing he did not want to do was question the earthly organization of power. And that really is, in the end, what makes us Unitarian Universalists the heirs to the Radical Reformation. We question the powers and principalities. We do not hold that governments have been divinely sanctioned or that the social order in sacrosanct.
This an uncomfortable position. To declare that all are loved, or that each human life is important, is truly an act of faith. To do so and suggest that we should question the power and principalities, the major institutions of our world, is, well, subversive. Even today, in 2017, five hundred years after the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, it remains a radical act.
Let us return to the ecumenical camp meeting. There were four churches present, all heirs in some way to the Protestant Reformation. The congregationalists, upholding the mainstream Magisterial legacy; the Catholics, with their largely English language liturgy; the pentecostals, with their particular version of sola scriptura… In a technical, theological, sense none of these traditions truly proclaim a divine universal love for all of humanity. Each argues that the path to salvation, or true religious expression, lies through them alone. In contrast, Unitarian Universalism proclaims the inherent worth and dignity of all, not all Christians, not all Americans, but all across the planet. A radical doctrine and, perhaps, an unintended consequence of Luther’s splintering bang, bang, bang.
On this Reformation Sunday, as we consider all of the unintended consequences of Luther’s Wittenberg theses, let us remember the radical love at the heart of our own faith. It remains ever subversive. We close with words attributed to our Universalist ancestor, John Murray:
Go out into the highways and by-ways.
Give the people something of your new vision.
You may possess a small light,
but uncover it, let it shine,
use it in order to bring more light and understanding
to the hearts and minds of men and women.
Give them not hell, but hope and courage;
preach the kindness and
everlasting love of God.
May it be so, Amen and Blessed Be.