(This is not your typical sermon – ‘Katie Luther’, also known as Katharina von Bora, talks about the Reformation.)
Greetings, good people of the Bay Area! And may God’s peace and grace be with you, always!
Ah, so another year has passed, and we commemorate how my good husband Martin, quite by accident, by the way, started a firestorm that shook up all of Europe – just by nailing 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in our town, Wittenberg. Those theses dealt with corruption within the church, especially the misuse of indulgences. And we think about this man, who did not only change the church forever, but had such an impact in so many ways: education, music, sociology, economy, you name it!
Why, many of the things we take for granted today, like a public school system, equality for all people, and family values, have their beginning in the Reformation. The world as we knew it was turned upside down.
And what was the world we knew? Well, let me give you a simplified answer: first of all, people were afraid of God and of God’s judgment. It was assumed that human beings are steeped deeply in sin, and that they have to try very hard in this life, so that they have a chance of skipping a few years in purgatory and maybe get to heaven. Everything we did in this life here on earth was driven by this fear.
And then: everything was pre-ordained. You were born a peasant? Too bad! That’s what God wants for you, to remain a part of your class. There was always the comfort of a life in heaven after the trials of this life. And it was very hard for people to work their way up and out of peasantry. Although Martin’s father, Hans, is a good example of someone working very hard and diligently to climb the social ladder – Hans, a peasant, started working in the silver mines and eventually became a supervisor. So he became quite a wealthy man, and even could afford to send his oldest, Martin, to school. This was a privilege in our days. Who knows what would have happened if Martin had not had the chance to get an education? But someone climbing the social ladder – this was rare in those days.
You were born into the upper class? Good for you! Then you had a chance of a relatively good and comfortable life here on earth, with influence and power. To a certain degree, this was even true for women.
It was also noble people only who could rise in the hierarchy of the church. Many a bishop’s hat was bought by a noble family for one of their sons. It was a little different in monasteries and convents. Those places were filled with members of the petty nobility – like me. I come from an impoverished noble family, the von Boras, no good prospects for a politically favorable marriage, a useless mouth to feed, so I was sent to the convent. And that happened in many families of the petty nobility: that some children, boys and girls, those, who had no prospects of becoming useful to their families through marriage or service to an overlord, were given to the service of the Lord. Not the worst life, I have to admit, compared to the often squalid conditions the peasants and day laborers in towns and cities had to endure. But not the most desirable life, either.
No free choices. A life full of rules and strict regulations. Ora et labora – pray and work! A life pretty much devoid of joy. As I said, everything was pre-ordained, and everyone had to submit to their fate.
Now I have to say that it was assumed that monks or nuns had a much better chance of skipping some years in purgatory and get to heaven, since they lead such a holy life with much prayer and religious rituals – works for the Lord! For our fear of God’s judgment and hell was strong, and this fear pretty much influenced all we did. And members of religious orders would accumulate special merits in heaven, because we had the special task and power of interceding on behalf of all those damned simple souls, the regular folks – folks like you.
Ah, and then came Martin Luther! He talked about God’s grace instead of fear and horror! He talked about the redemptive power of Christ’s death on the cross. He talked about the freedom and the responsibilities of every believer, everyone who is baptized. He talked about the misconception that some, like monks, nuns, and priests, lead holier lives than others, no: everyone has their purpose in the kingdom of God and has been given special talents for the glory of God and to serve their neighbor.
Procreation and family life, which by-and-large were seen as a consequence of human sinfulness, Martin lifted up as God-willed and God-ordained. He contested that celibacy was a holier state than marriage and family life. And he taught that everyone – everyone – who is baptized is a saint, called to saintly living, and that sainthood is not something reserved for a few very pious people. But then everyone is a sinner as well, but that’s for another sermon.
Can you imagine what these ideas did to the people of our times? Freedom, saintly living, the priesthood of all believers – this was not only a reformation, it was a revolution! And as some of you might know, the peasants became so excited by Martin’s teachings that they tried to shed their yoke and violently rose up against the princes. Which was something Martin did not intend, and, sadly, he empowered the princes to strike back with all their might – which led to the violent death of 50,000 peasants, maybe 100,000. This admittedly wasn’t one of Martin’s shining moments, but a moment, which showed that he was merely human and as such a sinner himself.
But some more subtle yet powerful changes were set in motion. New wine had to be poured into new wine skins, these new ideas had to find an expression in the life of church and society. Family life, all of a sudden, became a respectable and desirable status. The woman within the household had a more honorable role than in the medieval ages – a woman was not just seen as a temptress and sinful being, bearing the sin of Eve, but as a saint in her own way – in caring for her husband and bearing and raising the children. And, if I may say so, I served as a role model for that – Martin called me the ‘Morning Star of Wittenberg’, because I was the first one up in our sizable household, taking care, not only of the house and the family, but the students who had room and board in our house, the cattle, the fields just outside of the city walls, brewing beer, cooking food, and: reading the Holy Bible and teaching it to our children. Oh, and I was quite a skilled singer as well.
Martin also half-jokingly called me ‘my dear Mr. Katie’ – ‘mein lieber Herr Kӓthe’ – because he respected me in ways only men were respected back in the day. So it was an honor for me to be called ‘Mr. Katie’, believe it or not.
Martin wanted everyone to read the Holy Bible for themselves – he wanted everyone to discover the treasures of God’s word for themselves – that’s why he translated the Bible into German. But then, because most people were illitereate, everyone had to be taught to read: rich and poor, men and women, boys and girls, nobles and peasants alike. That’s how Sunday school got started – a school for the working children and adults to learn how to read and write. Give people education, and you give them power. This is still the case today – I heard of this amazing young maiden, Malala Yousafzai, who advocates for girls’ education, was almost assassinated by the Taliban, and says, ‘Nothing is scarier to those people than a girl with an education.’
And: every occupation now was respected as something God established for the good of all society. The cobbler, the barber, the milkmaid, the housewife – every kind of work is a calling and ought to be done for the glory of God and the good of the neighbor. Everyone’s special talents thus were lifted up by the teachings of Martin.
So the reformation has given more power to the people. Everyone is a beloved and forgiven child of God, equipped to do God’s will and work here on earth. Everyone can talk directly to God in prayer. Everyone is a saint.
And this includes you, good people of the Bay Area! YOU are forgiven and beloved children of God, redeemed by the saving power of Christ’s death on the cross. YOU are equipped to do God’s will and God’s work wherever you are, be it as a singer, a manager, a caregiver, a parent, a grandparent, a teacher, a mechanic, an accountant, a scientist, a physician, a retiree – you name it. YOU are the chosen people of God, endowed with talents and the responsibility to love and serve God and your neighbor – wherever you are. YOU are the saints of God, called into the priesthood of all believers. Everyone has a role and a purpose, and none is worth more than another.
And so, as God’s priesthood today, we can continue the reformation of church and world, which Martin Luther started almost 500 years ago. God is still working in this world. Working through your hands. Thanks and praise be to God for that! Amen