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What Kind of Love Is This?

What Kind of Love Is This?

2 Samuel 13:1-22

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

19 November 2017



    We may have reached a significant turning point in American culture. In recent weeks, multiple public figures have been accused of sexual harassment, abuse, and rape. Women and men of all ages have been sharing their personal stories under the hashtag #MeToo about the times they were victimized.

    I was having beers the other week with the Dean of the Episcopal cathedral and he said that Christianity needs to confess our complicity in developing a culture of misogyny. Reflecting on this conversation, I realized I needed to say something from this pulpit.

    So, I've set aside the sermon I had planned for today and am going to preach a different one. Five years ago, during a series we did on King David in the Hebrew Scriptures, I preached on the story of the Rape of Tamar. That sermon speaks to this cultural moment, so I have adapted it for reuse today.

    Hear now the story of Tamar's Rape as recorded in the book of 2 Samuel:


David's son Absalom had a beautiful sister whose name was Tamar; and David's son Amnon fell in love with her. Amnon was so tormented that he made himself ill because of his sister Tamar, for she was a virgin and it seemed impossible to Amnon to do anything to her. But Amnon had a friend whose name was Jonadab, the son of David's brother Shimeah; and Jonadab was a very crafty man. He said to him, "O son of the king, why are you so haggard morning after morning? Will you not tell me?" Amnon said to him, "I love Tamar, my brother Absalom's sister." Jonadab said to him, "Lie down on your bed, and pretend to be ill; and when your father comes to see you, say to him, 'Let my sister Tamar come and give me something to eat, and prepare the food in my sight, so that I may see it and eat it from her hand.'"


So Amnon lay down, and pretended to be ill; and when the king came to see him, Amnon said to the king, "Please let my sister Tamar come and make a couple of cakes in my sight, so that I may eat from her hand." Then David sent home to Tamar, saying, "Go to your brother Amnon's house, and prepare food for him." So Tamar went to her brother Amnon's house, where he was lying down. She took dough, kneaded it, made cakes in his sight, and baked the cakes. Then she took the pan and set them out before him, but he refused to eat. Amnon said, "Send out everyone from me." So everyone went out from him. Then Amnon said to Tamar, "Bring the food into the chamber, so that I may eat from your hand." So Tamar took the cakes she had made, and brought them into the chamber to Amnon her brother. But when she brought them near him to eat, he took hold of her, and said to her, "Come, lie with me, my sister."


She answered him, "No, my brother, do not force me; for such a thing is not done in Israel; do not do anything so vile! As for me, where could I carry my shame? And as for you, you would be as one of the scoundrels in Israel. Now therefore, I beg you, speak to the king; for he will not withhold me from you." But he would not listen to her; and being stronger than she, he forced her and lay with her.


Then Amnon was seized with a very great loathing for her; indeed, his loathing was even greater than the lust he had felt for her. Amnon said to her, "Get out!" But she said to him, "No, my brother; for this wrong in sending me away is greater than the other that you did to me." But he would not listen to her. He called the young man who served him and said, "Put this woman out of my presence, and bolt the door after her." So his servant put her out, and bolted the door after her.


But Tamar put ashes on her head, and tore the long robe that she was wearing; she put her hand on her head, and went away, crying aloud as she went. Her brother Absalom said to her, "Has Amnon your brother been with you? Be quiet for now, my sister; he is your brother; do not take this to heart." So Tamar remained, a desolate woman, in her brother Absalom's house.


When King David heard of all these things, he became very angry, but he would not punish his son Amnon, because he loved him, for he was his firstborn. But Absalom spoke to Amnon neither good nor bad; for Absalom hated Amnon, because he had raped his sister Tamar.



    At the close of this terrifying story, we are told that despite being angry, David does not punish his son Amnon "because he loved him." Scholar Eugene Peterson asks directly, "What kind of love is this?" For the story does not tell us that David loved his daughter Tamar or that he took any compassion upon her. The Bible indicates that she lived out the rest of her life as a "desolate woman." "David's 'love'," and Eugene Peterson puts that word in quotes, "is a mask for injustice."

    The story opens with Amnon expressing his love for Tamar. And we are shocked that the word isn't lust or obsession or even the more neutral desire. The word is "love." We are told that Amnon loves Tamar, before he rapes her, hates her, and abandons her to desolation.

    Indeed, we must ask, "What kind of love is this?"



    Rape, abuse, sexual assault, and domestic violence are features of our contemporary life. 1/3 of women and 1 out of every 6 men have been victims of sexual violence. 60% of women experience unwanted sexual attention or harassment in the workplace.

    Disturbingly, the perpetrators of these crimes often mask their actions with the word "love." Just like Amnon did in this story. We can say unequivocally that love should never involve violence. Love should never involve abuse. Love should never mean engaging in sex when you don't want to. Love does not objectify you or depersonalize you. Love is not about power or control for one party and obedience or submission for the other party. Love never ignores your desires, your pleasure, your health and well-being.

    Unfortunately, religion, including Christianity, has historically been guilty of fostering an environment where these abuses could occur. Christianity taught women to obey their husbands and to submit. It taught women that their pleasures and desires were secondary, maybe even sinful. It encouraged women to be silent, and more than one woman has heard a religious leader tell her that her experience of abuse or violence was "her cross to bear." Which is about as distorted and incorrect a reading of the cross of Jesus Christ as could ever be offered.

    Christianity has done much the same with children. Too often children are taught that their obedience to authority is a requirement for eternal salvation. Children are not taught to appreciate, value, and understand their own bodies. They are denied comprehensive sex education by religious leaders. They are not taught to think critically.

    People were also often victims of a theological distortion of the concept of sacrifice. Rather than focusing on Jesus' empowering life, which was supposed to invite us all into the kingdom of God to experience a new and abundant life, theology and spirituality too often focused on the sacrifice of Jesus and said that we should model that rather than Jesus' full life. If people, particularly women and children, found themselves the victims of abuse, then they were (and sometimes still are) consoled that this was their sacrifice that made them more Christ-like.

    Men too are victims of this culture. Our culture has created a distorted image of masculinity which tells men that if they admit to times when they were victims, then they are less of a man. Our culture has reinforced images of masculinity that emphasize control, domination, and sexual power. Many boys grow up in our culture thinking that a "real man" can make others perform for his sexual pleasure.

    Christianity has helped to reinforce these wider cultural notions and has contributed to them. Historically the mainstream faith did not develop a healthy approach to sex. Christianity also focused too often on obedience to a set of rules and dogmas, instead of living a whole and abundant life.

    We must quit contributing to the problem with a theology that distorts the good news of Jesus Christ. Too often what has passed for "love" is not true love. So, what is?


St. Irenaeus, one of the most ancient of the church fathers, wrote, "For the glory of God is a humanity fully alive." The goal of the Christian church ought to be this – helping people to be more fully alive. True love leads to fuller life. True love saves us.

Theologian Monica Coleman writes that our goals for salvation must include "survival, quality of life, and wholeness." Rebecca Parker and Rita Nakashima-Brock write that we must "create places of hospitality for human flourishing" and learn "how to be present, how to choose life." A saving love is committed to justice and growing relationships of care. Theologian Catherine Keller writes that we need a powerful love that "resist[s] the forces of destruction, empower[s] the powerless, and embolden[s] the meek."

True love is patient; it is kind; it is joyful and hopeful. It is fun and enjoyable. It is pleasurable, for everyone involved. It enriches our life and makes us better people. It works for justice and nurtures the hurting.

Saving love responds powerfully to the problems of rape, abuse, sexual assault, and domestic violence in our society. Saving love insists that all Christian teaching and practice be life-giving and add to human flourishing. Saving love provides care and healing for those who have been victimized. Saving love is what we need and what God desires of us.

Ironically, the model for this saving love is in this very story. Tamar is, throughout the story, a model of care and compassion. She comes to her sick brother to nurse him. She prepares a meal for him. Her actions are hospitable and generous. She stands up for herself; speaks up for herself -- demands her rights and her dignity. And when she is wronged, she speaks powerfully for justice and righteousness. She proclaims her violation aloud.

Neither David nor Amnon demonstrate anything like genuine love. Tamar is caring, generous, hospitable, nourishing, justice-seeking, and life-affirming. She contributes to human flourishing. We don't need to ask of Tamar, "What kind of love is this?" Because we recognize immediately that what she models is true love -- the kind that saves us.


As the people of God, let us commit to resisting the forces of destruction, empowering the powerless, and emboldening the meek. Let us create places of hospitality for human flourishing. Let us set as our goals survival, quality of life, and wholeness. And let us take Tamar as our model, so that our sister will be desolate no more. Let her love become the model so that others in our time and in the future before us might be saved.


Let us love as Tamar taught us, and together we will bring glory to God through a humanity that is fully alive.

Where Charity & Love Prevail

Where Charity and Love Prevail

Romans 14:13-22a

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

5 November 2017



    Our current church is the heir of four different congregations; one of those was St. John's Evangelical Church, which was formed in south Omaha in 1895 by a group of German immigrants. One of the more intriguing passages in our church history books is about St. John's:


During World War I, the church was called "The Kaiser's Church" . . . . Although individuals of the congregation were not subjected to harm, one of the pastors had to kiss the American flag or suffer a beating.


    I am unable to locate any further information on this episode, though you can discover general information about the anti-German sentiments in Omaha during World War I. An article in last year's Omaha World-Herald said, "While fighting to make the world safe for democracy, Nebraskans nearly lost it at home."
    In Omaha Germans were a majority of the population at the time, but they were still discriminated against. Even after the war, laws were passed to enforce English-only against the Germans. St. John's bravely continued to hold worship in the German language until 1935.

    I have thought often in recent months of this episode from our history as the rhetoric and violence against immigrants and refugees has increased.


    In the early 19th century, following the Napoleonic Wars in Europe, thousands of Germans immigrated to the Midwest. The more traditional among them formed the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod while the more liberal created the Evangelical Synod of North America. The UCC's short history book describes these immigrants as "free-thinking rationalists, who placed their hope in science, education, and culture." Our St. John's Evangelical Church was part of this Evangelical Synod of North America.

    This last week was historically significant for these liberal Evangelicals. Not only was it the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, it was also the 200th anniversary of the Prussian Union. On Reformation Day 1817 King Frederick William III united the Lutheran and Reformed churches in his dominion, bringing together this historic division in Protestant Christianity. Our liberal Evangelical predecessors were part of this historic, ecumenical movement.


    When the Reformation broke apart the European church, for the first time a great diversity of religious belief and practice began to coexist. This, of course, caused tension and ultimately violence, as war and persecution resulted. But this experience with diversity ultimately changed religious faith.

    Diarmaid MacCulloch, in his magisterial history of the Reformation, writes that "It is possible to argue that the most significant contribution of the two Reformation centuries to Christianity was the theory and practice of toleration, although it would also be possible to argue that the contribution was inadvertent and reluctant."

    We have tried to be honest in our commemoration of this historic event. While honoring the high points, we have not neglected the dark side. The most troubling aspect of Martin Luther's own life was his rabid anti-Semitism, expressed in writing near the end of his life. Earlier this year Fred Nielsen borrowed this volume from the collected writings of Luther, which Fred had donated to this church from his own father's pastoral library. After reading Luther's work against the Jews, Fred sent me a message, "Not good, not good at all. We knew that already, of course, but to actually read it."

    MacCulloch stated simply, "Luther's writing of 1543 is a blueprint for the Nazis' Kristallnact of 1938."

    Fortunately Luther's anti-Semitism did not go unchallenged even in his lifetime. Andreas Osiander, the Protestant pastor in Nuremberg, wrote against anti-Semitism. And the major Lutheran bodies have since faced this despicable part of their heritage, confessed their sin, and sought reconciliation.


    Through a long and troubled history, we have learned toleration, pluralism, and inclusion. We have even come to understand that more is expected of us than mere tolerance; hospitality toward others is an expression of God's love.

    Of course that's what Paul was preaching at the birth of the church. In Romans he wrote that we should not pass judgment on one another but should "pursue what makes for peace, and for mutual upbuilding."

    Fortunately, we don't have to earn God's grace. For if we had to earn it, then our biases, our racism, and our exclusion of others would likely get in the way of our salvation. Instead, God's grace is more powerful than our sin. Sin and death and racism were defeated when Jesus Christ was raised from the dead and ushered in a new humanity in a new creation.

    Yet, the powers-that-be continue to challenge the way of God in this world. They continue to sow darkness, doubt, and injury. They divide, exclude, and violently oppress. The Risen One stands to rebuke them. This is not the way of God. It is the way of sin. It is the path to hell.

    We will not be thwarted by their failed philosophies and false doctrines, because we share in the power of the Risen One. We too have been raised with Christ.

Let us make it our habit then to

include the outcast

    liberate the oppressed

    seek justice for the poor

    heal the suffering

    give of ourselves with humility

    be compassionate toward all in a

    community based upon forgiveness and reconciliation

    and be the instruments of God's peace in a world of violence.


That's the Good News. Thanks be to God.

Entertaining Doubt

Entertaining Doubt

Matthew 11:2-5

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

29 October 2017



    "Our identity as the United Church of Christ lies in our doubt of the adequacy of any human containers of the Word of God. We doubt that the depths of God's Revelation in Jesus Christ have been fully explored." In her insightful book The Evolution of a UCC Style, church historian Randi Jones Walker gives this explanation of the essential identity of our denomination. We have no common theology, no shared worship style, no unique structure. Instead, we are the people who for the last few centuries have been willing to entertain critical questions about our belief and practice.

    How did this come to be? And how is this our heritage from the Reformation?

    For it is a surprising heritage. Martin Luther, John Calvin, Huldrich Zwingli, and others of the early Reformers weren't promoting doubt. They believed they had found the truth and were defending their concept of the truth against their theological and ecclesiastical opponents. They even fought with each other.

    And what was an intellectual disagreement ended up with a century of European bloodshed and violence that lingered across the centuries as Christians of various stripes warred with one another and against Jews and Muslims and nonbelievers in defense of right doctrine.

    This is why worldwide religious bodies chose to call this 500th anniversary of the Reformation a "commemoration" and not a "celebration." While we do have much to honor from our religious heritage, we also have those things for which we must lament, confess, and repent. Which is why this 500th anniversary has been ecumenical and interfaith. Here in Omaha today the community-wide worship service will be held in a Roman Catholic church.

    Protestants and Catholics have spent decades in dialogue and conversation in an effort to find agreement and compromise so that we can restore the unity of God's church.


    We in the United Church of Christ are unique in that our predecessor bodies draw from all the various strains of the Protestant Reformation. We have connections to Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli. To the Radical Reformers and the English Reformers and even the early Unitarians. Which makes us a diverse, and often difficult, group of people.

    And one whose defining and surprising Reformation inheritance is the entertainment of doubt.

    When Luther challenged the authority of the church and state and defended his scholarly reading of the Bible, his challenge had consequences even he did fully foresee. By raising doubts about church doctrine, he opened the door for further questions, further criticism, further doubts about authority.

    And over the centuries that attitude developed into its own liberal style, which took particular root in Colonial America where our traditions were nurtured.

    In 1749 Lemuel Briant preached at West Church in Boston and the sermon caused controversy within our Congregational ancestors. Briant's role in history is magnified by the fact that he was the pastor of John Adams, our second President and one of the intellectuals who helped to develop American democracy.

    In that 1749 sermon, Briant defended the divine right of private judgment, what would be called the "liberty of Conscience." Traditionalists believed in upholding right doctrine, while a new wave of Congregational ministers were defending conscience. Both claimed scripture and the theological tradition in their defense.

    If we believe, as Protestant long have, that the Reformation is an ongoing event, that the church is always reformed and always reforming, then these 18th century American developments are the ongoing work of God begun with Luther's protests.

    These 18th century American reformers laid out their doctrine for how we Christians should engage our reasoning in order to live moral, faithful lives. The historian Amy Kittelstrom summarizes them.


The first rule was for Christians to acknowledge that they are not yet in possession of truth. Call it humility, call it partiality, call it fallibility, it is objectively true from a Reformation Christian perspective that no one can claim to possess the whole truth any more than they can claim to be free of sin. Therefore all must continue to seek more truth.


    In the 21st century many liberal Christians ignore the doctrine of sin, without realizing that liberal Christianity was born of the doctrine of sin. Because we are flawed, biased, sinful creatures, we can never possess the full truth and must always hold our beliefs with humility and skepticism and respect those who disagree with us.

    From this traditional theological understanding, the American Reformers developed two more rules to help us in our pursuit of truth. The second rule was that "critical thinking [is] necessary to discern between doctrines." Kittelstrom describes this rule: "Truth-seekers must be open-minded, honest, and sincere. They resist appeals to authority, tradition, or superstition, thinking for themselves and being both candid about what they think and willing to consider all claims."

    She explains that for our religious ancestors, critical thinking was not only a right of the human conscious, but a religious obligation. We were failing in our Christian life if we didn't engage the world with our reason.

    The third rule was to "consider the effect of a doctrine as indicative of its degree of validity." This idea would come to full philosophical flower in the 19th century in pragmatic philosophy when William James would contend that the truth of an idea could be established by if it worked.

For those early Americans this was a test of religious doctrines. If a doctrine harmed people or society, particularly if it sapped our moral agency, then the doctrine should be rejected. The good and the right is what would elevate us and lead to better lives.

These three rules characterized the liberal style, as our 18th century ancestors were the first people to use this word to describe themselves. And these ideas, rooted in the theology of the Reformation but given new flower in North America, had a lasting impact.

John Adams, according to historian Kittelstrom, "believed that the truth could be known in full to no human being, and that humility and open-mindedness as well as sincerity and candor were therefore fundamental characteristics of piety." And he carried these religious doctrines into the founding of the nation.


What developed in America, then, was a working out of some of the ideas of the Protestant Reformation to define a new style that entertained doubt. According to Kittelstrom, "once one becomes a liberal of any type, one becomes a critic, actively scrutinizing every possible article of belief or value 'objectively,' with an impartial eye and a mind buoyed by the reference point of perfect divine truth."

This is not the legacy that Martin Luther intended when he posted the 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg. But this is how that legacy has developed here, in the United States, in the United Church of Christ.

Our right, but also our sacred duty and faithful obligation, is to think clearly, openly, critically, for there is yet more light and truth to be revealed to us by our Stillspeaking God.

Let Us Pray

Let Us Pray

1 Thessalonians 5:13b-25

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

8 October 2017


    Peter Beskendorf was known as the master barber of Wittenberg. In the early 16th century that is. And his most famous client was none other than Martin Luther himself. As more than one writer I read this week pointed out, because Luther had a price on his head, Beskendorf was clearly in a position to capitalize on it, since he regularly took a razor to Luther's neck.

    But Beskendorf and Luther became friends, chatting away as one often does while getting one's hair cut or face shaved. We even have a humorous poem Luther wrote for Peter after one of their conversations about the devil.

    Their most influential conversation occurred when Peter the Barber asked Luther "for a simple way to pray that an ordinary man could use." So, Luther wrote a 34 page book entitled A Simple Way to Pray and dedicated it to his "good friend."

    Now, Peter's story, unfortunately, doesn't end well. Soon after he received this book from Luther, Peter was hanging out with his son-in-law and they apparently got very drunk. When the son-in-law, who was a veteran, bragged that he had survived battle because he was impervious to wounds, Peter stabbed him to test his claim. And the son-in-law died.

    Luther and other influential customers of the barber interceded on his behalf. He was spared the death penalty and instead exiled, though he lost everything.

    But the book dedicated to Peter, A Simple Way to Pray had a lasting influence upon Christian devotion.



    The conservative British historian Paul Johnson in his enjoyable book A History of Christianity wrote that "Luther evangelized by concentrating on a few comparatively simple messages which he drove home with endless repetition and furious energy." Johnson points out that beginning in 1517 Luther wrote 100 books and many of them sold widely.

    One of those topics Luther focused on was prayer. Johnson writes that Luther stressed prayer as "the true alternative to mechanical Christianity." And that Luther's emphasis on prayer was "the most powerful single element of Luther's positive appeal to lay-folk of all classes and well outside Germany."

    In the midst of our remembering the transformational teachings of the Reformation, I believe it is important for us to also celebrate how the spiritual and devotional practices of individual Christians changed and what we in the 21st century can learn about our own spirituality.

    Luther had been a monk, of course, and had a robust personal prayer practice—he supposedly prayed three hours a day. But he didn't think this sort of prayer life was required. In fact, he advocated for prayer as part of the household, performed together as a family in the morning and the evening and around the table before meals. This followed from Luther's theological belief that ordinary life was sacred—that work and family and marriage and parenting were holy endeavors that connected you to God.

    In his Short Catechism he encouraged people to "joyfully go to your work, singing a hymn." And in A Simple Way to Pray he told his barber "It may well be that you may have some tasks which are as good or better than prayer." He went on to explain how work itself is a form of prayer for the Christian because a Christian is trying to honor God in his work.


    In her essay "Martin Luther on Prayer in Life" Mary Jane Haemig discusses how for Luther prayer is "real conversation with God" that "is embedded in the life of every Christian." As we go about our ordinary lives and our work, we are cooperating with God in shaping the world. She writes, "Luther thought all needs—however mundane, repetitive, and everyday—could and should be brought to God."

    For example, in his explanation of the line from the Lord's Prayer "give us today our daily bread," Luther wrote:


Everything included in the necessities and nourishment for our bodies, such as food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, farm, fields, livestock, money, property, an upright spouse, upright children, upright members of the household, upright and faithful rulers, good government, good weather, peace, health, decency, honor, good friends, faithful neighbors, and the like.


All of those are included in that petition from the Lord's Prayer--"give us today our daily bread." All of those are the sorts of things we should be talking about with God.

    And for Luther prayer was not fancy or formal. He encouraged us to express our longing and to do so with "bold and honest talk." Haemig writes, "Prayer is an opportunity to be honest and authentic about our needs and our lives."

    Luther thought people didn't take enough advantage of the opportunity of prayer, especially when they were in anguish. He thought more people would find consolation and encouragement if they spilled their needs to God, reflected on the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord's Prayer, and read the Psalms and scriptures.

    Luther's view of prayer was connected to what he believed about God. Haemig writes, "For Luther, prayer reveals what kind of God we have—a God who hears prayer." A generous, gracious God who loves us and set us free from our sins is a God who wants to listen to us and respond to our concerns. We have a loving relationship with the "power that rules the universe" so why wouldn't we take advantage of that?


    These ideas were transformative in people's spiritual lives 500 years ago, popularizing a revolution that forever changed the world. I find these ideas on prayer to be helpful still.

    Our connection to the One who created the universe is through the simple, intimate act of praying. Which isn't formal or fancy. It's blunt, honest conversation and includes the ordinary activities of our lives, when those are done for the glory of God.

No one's prayer is more worthy or important to God than anyone else's.

    Prayer isn't just talk. Prayer draws us into a cooperative exchange with God as together we shape the world.

    And we worship a loving and generous God—a God who hears our prayers and wants to talk with us.

    "Prayer is an opportunity to be honest and authentic about our needs and our lives."

    With this encouragement, let us pray.

Amazing Grace

Amazing Grace

Ephesians 2:1-10

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

24 September 2017



    According to Timothy Wengert, one of the leading Luther scholars of our time whom I had the good fortune to meet a couple of years ago when he was in Omaha, "the heart of [Martin] Luther's concern [in posting the 95 Theses that launched the Reformation was]: bad preaching and theology and what it does to the faithful."

    Luther wanted to "instruct, admonish, and comfort laypeople whom he thought misled by the bad theology of the indulgence preachers."


    So, the Pope wanted to build a new, bigger, and better St. Peter's basilica at the Vatican in Rome. And he did a pretty good job. I think St. Peter's is the most beautiful room I've ever entered. But every time, I am reminded that its construction led to centuries of schism in the Christian church.

For the fundraising campaign the pope decided to offer indulgences. By the early 16th century indulgences had become a way for people to buy themselves or their family members out of some time in purgatory. Now, that's not what they had originally been, and Luther would point that out, but that's what they had become.

    Consequently, special indulgence preachers were appointed, including one who worked in the region near Martin Luther. That preacher was named Johann Tetzel. And according to all the bad press Tetzel's received the last 500 years, he was a piece of work, using all sorts of questionable theology and methods to entice people into buying an indulgence. According to Luther, Tetzel proclaimed that "as soon as a coin thrown into the money chest clinks, a soul flies out of purgatory."

    It was primarily Tetzel's bad preaching that angered Martin Luther. He had already begun to question the theology of indulgences and to research their historical meaning. Luther was among that new generation of scholars who employed new research methods—in his case an historical examination of old documents—to arrive at the truth.

    What he discovered was that the current approach to indulgences violated traditional theology. So, bad, deceptive preaching and bad theology.

    He also didn't care much about fundraising for St. Peter's. He advised giving money to your local poor instead. That was not likely to endear him to Rome.

    Luther was angry. But he was also a good academic. And part of academic practice at that time was to call for a public debate and you did that by posting theses. Which is what Luther did on October 31, 1517. He posted on the church door at Wittenberg his 95 theses, disputing the theology of indulgences and the bad preaching of Tetzel.    


And the rest is history. World altering history, which is why we are commemorating its 500th anniversary this autumn.

But Luther's action was not itself the moment of schism when Protestants broke away from the Roman Catholic Church. The actual Reformation was a many decades process that of course ended in a century of war and violence. Which is why this world-wide event is being called a commemoration and not a celebration.

Nor did the 95 Theses express all the elements we might now consider essential to Protestant or even Lutheran theology. Luther wasn't even questioning papal authority directly at this point. As Timothy Wengert writes, Luther's concern was primarily pastoral. And his concerns in 1517 were very focused on the saving grace of God.


Thesis number 36 says, "Any truly remorseful Christian has a right to full remission of guilt and penalty, even without indulgence letters." People didn't need to spend money to experience the grace of God. The indulgence preachers were promoting a "mutilated grace"—a grace that you needed to earn, purchase even. But that's not grace.

God's grace is freely given to us. That's what makes it grace. That it is the free love of God offered to us for our salvation.

The winter after he launched the controversy, Luther preached a sermon in which he more fully explained his view of God's grace. That sermon was printed and sold and was the primary vehicle for spreading Luther's message to the masses. It also happens to be the very first best seller in the history of the printed word. Oh, the day when a sermon might be a best seller!

Here's what Luther proclaimed:


It is a tremendous error when people imagine that they can make satisfaction for their sins, which God instead always forgives gratis out of immeasurable grace while desiring nothing for this grace except that one live well from then on.


    There is nothing we can do to earn God's grace. We do not need to buy it. It is freely given by a good and loving God. And once it is received, grace should call us to lead good and faithful lives.

    This last point was Luther's other main objection to the selling of indulgences. Luther was worried that people might come to believe that all they had to do was give a little money. Give a little money so that you could avoid the difficult work of developing Christian character. The difficult work of eliminating sin from your life.

    God has forgiven you but if you want to experience the fullness of life, then you must let God's grace work to transform you into a new and better person.

    In thesis 44 he wrote "love grows through works of love and a person is made better; but through indulgences one is not made better." Luther thought indulgences were for lazy people, but that a true believer will show the works of love that result from true contrition for sins.

    So bad theology and deceptive preaching were leading the people astray and away from both God's grace and the true work of Christian discipleship.

    Luther expected the theologians and the magisterium to embrace his arguments, but they did not. And soon the larger debates erupted over scripture and authority and ministry and communion and all the many disagreements that divided European Christendom for the last half-millennium.



    Five hundred years later, when indulgences and the fundraising for St. Peter's basilica are no longer our issues, we remain concerned with how to live a good and abundant life, with how God's grace saves us.

    In our worship series this fall, we are being guided by the idea that the church is always reformed and always reforming. God is still at work in us and through us, speaking and guiding us to a fuller understanding.

    And so this week I didn't only review the old history, I also turned to contemporary theologians, influenced by this tradition, for their thoughts on grace in the 21st century.

    In her book The Grace of Sophia the theologian Grace Ji-Sun Kim develops a theology rooted in the experience of Korean women living as immigrants in North America. She is troubled by systemic evils of sexism and racism and marginalization that have robbed these women of the opportunity to live full and thriving lives. Like Luther she is concerned about bad, harmful theology.

    And so she turns to the grace of God which she says is "an experiential reality" that heals and strengthens our ordinary lives. God's grace is not simply forgiveness of our sins, but it heals us and empowers us. It heals the broken body and soul but also gives strength to confront injustice. She writes that grace is "the unconditional love that is poured into the wounded lives of hurting women" enabling self-worth and transformation.

    In his book From Sin to Amazing Grace theologian Patrick Cheng wants to recover grace for queer people long marginalized and harmed by the Christian church. Grace, he writes, is "a free gift from God that reunites us with God." He adds, "God's superabundant grace can be described as an outpouring of love that is obscenely promiscuous!"

    Cheng agrees with Luther and Bonhoeffer that grace demands something of us—our transformation. "Grace requires us to cooperate with God," Cheng writes. Grace is God's work through Jesus to bring us into the fullness of life. And so grace connects us intimately with other people. It gives us courage to live honestly and with integrity. And the willingness to challenge injustice.

    Grace teaches us to transgress the false boundaries and divisions that society has a tendency to erect. It affirms our intrinsic value and our interdependence on one another. And grace "delights in multiplicities, intersections, and interstitial places."


    And so these contemporary teachers of the Christian faith remind us to be concerned about what is good for people. To avoid what harms and misleads and deceives us. And instead to proclaim what saves us, what makes us better.

God desires us to live abundantly. Therefore God has freely given us the power that can transform our lives by forgiving our sins, growing our love, healing our wounds, and empowering us. We cannot buy it, we cannot earn it, it is simply ours, if we but receive it. This is good news. This is Amazing Grace.


O, how sweet the sound

For it saved a wretch like me,

I once was lost, but now am found,

Was blind but now I see.