Things They Didn’t Teach Me About Luther in Sunday School

I have been doing a lot of reading on Martin Luther lately. The book HERE I STAND is a classic biography and THE WIT OF MARTIN LUTHER gives insight to his lighter and naughtier side. But the two shocking discoveries were his encouragement to use violence against peasants in the early 16th century as well as his vehement and bold anti-semiticism. I have spent many hours grappling with these events; trying to reconcile that this is the great Luther of the Reformation. The hero. The changer and uplifter of society and religion.

As of yet I have not been able to personally reconcile these events. It is a painful chasm in once again realizing the world that history is perhaps not the same as we were brought up to believe. Here are the thoughts of Nadine E. Ridley on the same issues. This is a sermon she gave on November 20, 2005 at The King Lutheran Church in Vestal NY called “Things They Didn’t Teach Me About Luther In Sunday School”.

She tidies up the end with a happy ending which I think can work well for a Sunday sermon. But the truth may be that in reality the end is not so tidy after all….

I was also raised Lutheran, and went to Lutheran Confirmation, attended Pacific Lutheran University and a summer at St. Olaf; was even an acolyte in the Order of St. John in my youth. And yet this side of Luther is nothing that I remember ever discussed. Thank God for the internet.

“Things They Didn’t Teach Me About Luther In Sunday School”
A Sermon Preached by Nadine E. Ridley
Christ The King Lutheran Church, Vestal, NY
November 20, 2005
Romans 13:1-5

I’ve been a Lutheran all of my life and I come from a family of life-long Lutherans. My parents were active in Luther League, they served on Church Council and were members of the Adult Fellowship. In fact, in his eight-seven years of life, my grandfather served 49 of those years on Church Council.

I attended worship every Sunday until I went off to college, taught Sunday School when I was too old to attend Sunday School, and had three years of confirmation classes. I memorized Luther’s Small
Catechism, learned the books of the Bible, passed tests on what Lutherans believe. And I even took all the required Lutheran courses from well-known Lutheran scholars in seminary to make sure I really knew what being a Lutheran was all about.

I learned about Luther and the ninety-five theses, I heard about the Diet of Worms and Luther being hidden in the castle at Wartberg, I read about indulgences and learned that Luther believed we are “saved by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ.”

However, in spite of being a life-long Lutheran, in spite of three years of confirmation and ten years of Sunday School, in spite of being taught by the best Lutheran scholars in seminary, I’ve recently discovered there are some things about Luther that people rarely talk about. Well this morning we’re going to learn some of the things about Luther that you and I never learned in Sunday School.

Everybody has heroes – people we hold in high esteem, people we want to emulate, people we want to be like when we grow up. But even heroes have a side to them that’s not always heroic, that’s not 2 always their best side, that tends not to be talked about by their followers.

That’s the case with Martin Luther. Luther did do some pretty heroic things. He stood up to the pope and the princes because he believed that what they were teaching and the ways they were getting money from people was wrong. He risked his life for what he believed in – he stood before a tribunal of men ready to excommunicate him and burn him as a heretic and when they asked him to recant his writings, to say they weren’t so, he said, “It is neither safe nor honest to act against conscience. Here I stand, I can do no other. May God help me.”

He translated the Bible into a language the common people could understand. He told people they didn’t have to earn or buy their way into heaven – they were “saved by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ.” Those were heroic acts on the part of Luther and he risked his life for what he believed in.

Luther knew how worldly power could corrupt. He’d seen it firsthand. He knew how dangerous it could be when the pope meddled in politics, and he warned his friends that they could be harmed if they used force in trying to change the Catholic Church. Luther said, “We must go at this work despairing of physical force and humbly trusting God;… The more force we use, the greater our disaster.” And that is very good advice.

However, Luther didn’t always pay attention to his own advice. Let me give you a little history here. Back in Luther’s time, there was a real disparity between landowners and peasants. Landowners were in control, they made decisions about government, about where people could live or hunt for food, about the economy . They ruled the unions or guilds. They were in control and the peasants – tradesmen, farmers, shopkeepers, as well as the people who worked the land pretty much lived under the thumb of the landowners. They didn’t have a voice in government, some of the peasants were extremely poor and were virtual slaves of the landowners. There was no escaping – once a peasant, always a peasant.

Then the Reformation came along, and some changes started to occur. The peasants began to realize they didn’t have to spend their money on buying their way into heaven, they didn’t have to buy indulgences, or pay the church for certain favors or privileges. And once the peasants got a little taste of freedom, they wanted more. They weren’t happy living under the thumb of the princes or the church. They wanted freedom, they wanted food to eat, they wanted their children to have an education, they wanted a better life than what they had. And so, they started to revolt.

And revolts are hardly ever peaceful. There was violence and bloodshed and looting. They were fighting for their freedom and they were tired of the princes trying to control their lives. And here’s where I think Luther made a mistake. Instead of trying to work with the princes whom he had good relationships with and negotiate with the peasants whom he had good relationships with, Luther supported the German princes and encouraged them to use force to subdue the peasants.

In fact, he even wrote a booklet called, “Against The Murderous and Thieving Hordes of Peasants.” In that tract, he urged the government to use unrestrained violence in subduing the peasants.

Listen to what he wrote,
”If the peasant is in open rebellion, then he is outside the
law of God, for rebellion is not simply murder, but it is like
a great fire w hich attacks and lays waste a w hole land. …
Therefore let everyone who can, smite, slay, and stab,
secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more
poisonous, hurtful or devilish than a rebel. It is just as
when one must kill a mad dog. If you do not fight the
rebels, they will fight you, and the whole country with you.
These times are so extraordinary that a prince can win
heaven more easily by bloodshed than by prayer.”

The princes of Germany read Luther’s words, took them to heart,
and struck back against the peasants, and tens of thousands of them were
killed.

Did Luther’s words add fuel to the fire? Most scholars think they
did. Could Luther have spoken to stop the bloodshed and would he have
been listened to? Most likely – he had earned the trust of the peasants,
and he had connections among the princes. But Luther refused – refused
to stand up with the peasants and demand a better life for them. Refused
to confront the princes and work to find a better way to solve the
problems society was facing. And tens of thousands of people died as a
result.

Every hero has their dark side, every hero has their enemies –
real or imagined – and that w as true of Luther, as w ell.
The Jews were another group that attracted Luther’s attention.
Luther believed that the Old Testament Jews were a “stiff-necked
people” because they rejected Christ. Jews of his time couldn’t be
blamed for not accepting Christ, he thought. After all, the pope had
corrupted Christianity so much, according to Luther, that it was no
wonder the Jews rejected the teachings of the church.

So, Luther made it his mission to convert the Jews. He thought if
he did aw ay with the abuses of the church, if he approached the Jew s “in
Christ’s love,” they would see that Jesus was the Messiah and convert.
But they didn’t. And this really angered Luther. In fact, it angered him
so much that he wrote a book called, ‘On the Jews and Their Lies and
began preaching that the Jews were practicing evil, anti-Christian ways.
He called the Jewish religious leaders “a brood of vipers and children of
the devil,” and said that all Jews needed to be expelled from Germany.
“Failing this,” he said, “this is my sincere advice: First set fire to
their synagogues or schools and bury or cover w ith dirt whatever will
not burn…

Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed.

Instead, they should be lodged under a roof or in a barn like gypsies…
Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings
be taken from them.
Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach on pain of
loss of life and limb,..
Fifth, I advise that safe-conduct on the highways be abolished for
the Jews…
Sixth, I advise that borrowing money be prohibited to them, and
that all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them and put
aside for safekeeping…
Seventh, if we are afraid that they might harm us or our wives,
children – servants, cattle, etc., let us eject them forever from the
country. For, as we have heard, God’s anger with them is so intense that
gentle mercy will only tend to make them worse and worse, while sharp
mercy will reform them but little. Therefore, in any case, away with
them!”
Those are the words of Martin Luther against the Jews. Luther
didn’t invent anti-Semitism. But he practiced it, he preached it, and his
words and his teachings against the Jews had a major influence in
Germany not only in his own century but centuries later. Four centuries
after Luther wrote those words, Adolph Hitler listed Martin Luther as
one of the greatest reformers in the world. The N azi plan to create a state
church was based on the works of Luther.
In fact, the first physical violence against the Jews came on
November 10th, Luther’s birthday, the night called Krystalnacht or
Crystal Night when the Nazis killed Jews, shattered glass windows, and
destroyed hundreds of synagogues, just as Luther had proposed
centuries earlier.
The words that Luther wrote against the Jews were hateful words
and they had a devastating impact on the world.
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So what do we do now? What does this teach us? Luther was a
great reformer – there’s no denying that. Luther freed people from the
belief that they had to earn their way into heaven, he opened up the
whole idea that we are “saved by God’s grace through faith in Jesus
Christ.”
But what do we do with the hate? What do we do with the
prejudice? What do we do with the sense of self-righteousness that leads
to the death and destruction of people who are different from us?
Is what Luther said about the ways to treat the peasants and the
Jews any different than what we hear people saying about how we
should treat members of Al Quida, or Muslims, or people suspected of
being terrorists? Is what Luther said about the ways to treat the peasants
and the Jews any different than the way we treat people who are
different from us, people who practice different religions, people whose
sexual orientation is different from ours, people we don’t understand,
maybe even people in our own communities who we’re afraid of
because they’re poor, or homeless, or mentally ill, or speak a different
language, or come from a different country?
We’re all a minority group in one culture or another. I was a
minority in the ministry for a long time. I’m a minority in certain parts
of America. I’m a minority when I travel to foreign countries. Does that
mean I should be persecuted? Does that mean I should persecute others?
Jesus paid a high price for my freedom. He paid a high price so I
wouldn’t have to live a life of fear or a life of shame, or a life of thinking
I am better than someone else, or worse than someone else. He paid a
high price so I wouldn’t have to buy indulgences for my salvation off a
street corner vendor.
There’s an inner voice inside of each of us, each child of the
Reformation that is always weighing our good deeds against our bad
deeds, always comparing our virtues to our vices, always judging our
strengths against our weaknesses, and all the while we’re hoping that we
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can make ourselves right in the eyes of God. But we can’t. And God
can’t be fooled.
The grace of God can’t be bought or sold. It can’t be seized by
force or negotiated. True freedom is a gift and it’s a gift that’s not within
the power of the church or government to give.
This is the good news that Luther leaves us with. It’s the only
news that’s sufficiently good to make up for all the bad news in the
world. True freedom is ours for the asking; all we really need is the
courage to open our hearts so that we may receive this gift that God is so
willing to offer us. That’s the gift of the Reformation.
We need to be aware that there is sin and evil in the world. We
need to be aware that we will fall prey to it – that we will be tempted to
treat others unkindly, or unjustly, or with ridicule or malice. It’s part of
the human condition. And we need to fight that evil and those
temptations with all our strength, because, in the end, that’s what the
Reformation was all about. Freedom to see every person as a child of
God, made in God’s image– Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Bible-thumping
Christian, or contemplative monk, rich, poor, gay, lesbian, divorced,
married, death-row inmate or the kindest soul we know.
That’s the good news of the Reformation. Luther made some
terrible mistakes. But he also left us with the knowledge of a marvelous
gift – that true freedom is ours for the asking: all we really need is the
courage and the willingness to open our hearts to God and receive the
gift of God’s grace. Amen.

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