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I'll Pass on the Whip

LENT 3 | Ps 19; 1Cor 1:18-25; Jn 2:13-22

In 1521, at the Diet of Worms, Martin Luther gave his famous “Here I stand—I can do no other” speech, refusing to recant his so-called “heresies” before the court of electors gathered to pass judgment on him before the Holy Roman Emperor. Not long after, Luther was “kidnapped” by friendly forces and spirited away to a castle in Wartburg where he hid out for nearly a year. And it was a good thing he did, too, because had he not, he most certainly would have been either murdered or captured and forced to stand trial in Rome as a heretic.

Luther made good use of his time at Wartburg castle, translating the Bible into German. But “while the cat is away, the mouse will play,” as the saying goes. While Luther was in hiding, his friend and fellow reformer, Andreas Karlstadt, was moving the Reformation cause forward in Wittenberg. And boy, was he moving it—and fast.

We look at Luther today, and we appreciate his boldness, his courage, even his outrageousness. It’s part of what makes him one of the most colorful and loveable figures in church history. But what we don’t often remember was his sense of caution and restraint. We forget that, among the reformers, Luther was the most conservative. Of all the reformation churches, the Lutheran church hews closer to Roman Catholic practice than any other, with the exception of the Anglican churches, which are, arguable, still catholic.

But there was none of Luther’s care or incrementalism in Karlstadt. Luther found himself, more often than not, applying the brakes to the Reformation. But with Luther gone, Karlstadt stepped on the gas—and he stepped hard. On Christmas Day, 1521, Karlstadt presided over the very first completely reformed worship service. Instead of wearing vestments, he wore street clothes. He omitted all references to the Mass being a sacrifice from the liturgy. He did not elevate the elements. Instead of whispering the words of institution—“this is my body”—he shouted them. He performed the Mass in German instead of Latin, told people not to bother with confession, and instead of distributing the bread and wine, he simply set them on a table and invited people to partake of both elements themselves.

Then, in January, under Karlstadt’s influence, the Wittenberg city council outlawed all images in the churches, and hordes of revelers sacked the churches, tearing down tapestries and smashing statues in an orgy of destruction.

When word of this reached Luther, he was so upset that he put himself at great personal risk and came out of hiding, rushing back to Wittenberg to apply the brakes, to reign Karlstadt in, to be the one voice of authority that could help their movement back slowly away from the precipice that would surely mean the Reformation’s destruction.

Many of the things Karlstadt was trying to do were good things, and many of them would become standard practice in Reformed churches—the problem was that it was too much, too quickly. And when Luther preached against the pace of reform, it was not hard to infer that he was not-so-subtly criticizing his friend. It was the beginning of the end of their friendship.

Karlstadt believed he was simply doing what Jesus did—grabbing a whip and cleansing the temple of all of its abominations. It must have been an exhilarating time. He must have thought he was doing a great thing. It must have wounded his pride beyond repair to have it brought to a screeching halt the way it was by someone who was supposed to be on his team.

It’s easy to relate to his zeal, isn’t it? Who hasn’t read this passage from John’s gospel and thought how good it would feel to go out and bust stuff up in a righteous rage once in a while? The injustices are so great, the institutions so archaic and so stubbornly inflexible, and “the system” seems so often stacked against what is so obviously right and just. Who hasn’t wanted to pick up a bullwhip and kick some seriously barbaric butt?

I’ve felt it. I imagine you have, too. And very recently we’ve seen what that looks like when there’s no voice of reason loud enough to apply the brakes, haven’t we? A mob, not unlike those that ransacked the churches in Luther’s day, battered their way into one of our nation’s holiest places and busted the place up in a fit of self-righteous wrath.

In a class on the Protestant faith that I teach at the Chaplaincy Institute, I ask my students to write a reflection on how they would reform the Christian faith. What would they pass on to the next generation, and what would they consign to the rubbish heap of history?

Sometimes, I’m delighted by the thoughtfulness of their answers—the respect, the care, especially the care for those who actually practice the faith, their needs and a sincere desire for their flourishing. But more often I’m horrified by what they would dispense with—things that seem essential and foundational to me, stripping the faith of precisely those elements that make it meaningful to me. They would leave behind a husk that would not, I fear, speak to my soul, nor to the souls of very many. Their answers often make me sad. Sometimes they make me angry. I keep it to myself. I DID ask, after all.

But I am often left with the feeling that students are gleefully dispensing with things they don’t really understand. I find that writing exercise helpful—not just for my students, but for myself. Because I notice this impulse in myself, and I need to confront myself and ask, “Is this practice or teaching that I am so eager to dispense with, is it something I really understand? Or am I just running off half-cocked?”

It’s a good question, and it’s one that often stops me up short. I grew up in a tradition that would have liked Karlstadt very much. But when I went to college, I quite by accident ended up in a tradition that was in many ways much, much more conservative than the Baptist faith I grew up in. I ended up in the Episcopal Church for about eight years. And while Episcopalians are, by-and-large, very progressive socially and politically, they are much, much more conservative than Baptists liturgically and theologically, in that they have strayed far less from Roman Catholic practice and beliefs than Baptists have.

Being in the Episcopal Church was a revelation, it was an education. It was a deep, ongoing lesson that maybe there was wisdom in NOT busting stuff up. I learned that I didn’t know half as much as I thought I did.

I learned about liturgy—that reading a prayer doesn’t make it any less heartfelt. I learned that praying the same words week-in-and-week-out didn’t automatically mean they were rote and lifeless, but that over time the words shaped me, formed me, became a part of me. I learned that when I was too tired, or too angry, or too hurt to pray, the liturgy prayed ME. It upheld me, and corrected me, and comforted me, and anchored me in a way I had not known before.

I learned about the mystery of hymnody—that ancient words had power, and that it was possible for a well-written hymn to be a sermon-in-song powerful enough to undo me and leave me weeping.

I learned about theology—that the church did not speak with one voice, but many, and that wisdom was found in the conversation and controversy, not in the easy, black-and-white answers. I learned that theological thinking meant leaning into the questions rather than seeking out the easy answers. I learned that the teachings of the faith weren’t neat and orderly, but messy and heartbreakingly human. I learned that my doubts and my struggles didn’t mark me as a failure, they placed me squarely in the center of the tradition, right along with all the other saints, sinners, martyrs and theologians who doubted and struggled even more mightily than I did.

I learned to value silence, that the spaces between the words were often more important than the words themselves. I learned that when I shut up I heard God a lot more easily. I learned that I didn’t need to be the cleverest person in the room, or the most talented. I learned that stepping back was often better than stepping forward. I learned that emptying myself of power was often more loving than seizing it. I learned that for Christ to increase, I must decrease. I learned that silence wasn’t uncomfortable, it was delicious.

I learned that what is modern, what is new and shiny, what is different and novel isn’t always the most valuable or desirable thing. I’ve learned that my opinions aren’t the pinnacle of human wisdom, nor the attitudes of our times the best. I’ve learned that the people of the past weren’t by default more stupid or misguided than we are today. I’ve learned to be cautious of “chronological snobbery.”

I’ve learned that tradition isn’t something to buck against, but something to cozy up to. I’ve learned that being the Lone Ranger is lonely. I’ve learned that when I join myself to a tradition, I become a link in a chain that connects the distant past to the distant future. I become something much more than I am by myself. I become part of a stream that flows with life, giving me life, and extending that life to others. I’ve learned to be humble before the past.

I learned that, when I didn’t quite understand what was going on, that maybe I ought to keep my mouth shut, take a step back, and figure it out before I started criticizing it.

There is a saying in pastoral ministry that is very wise: “When you start pastoring at a new church, don’t change anything for a full year.” Wow. That is so true. Because there is power in what has gone before. And that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t challenge it, or reform it, or help it to live up to its own best values—because we absolutely should. But we should do it cautiously, and we should do it with reverence. Because just maybe something that was holy to them, ought to be holy to us. And if we can’t figure out why it was holy to them, maybe we ought to figure that out before we just throw it overboard.

There’s a place for that whip, but if it’s all the same to you, I’m going to leave it in Jesus’ hand. I don’t really trust my own. It’s been wrong way too many times before. Let us pray…

God, your foolishness is wiser than human wisdom. Let not zeal for your house consume us. But instead, let us be cautious, let us be humble, let us be respectful before what is holy for others. Let us do no harm, let us be guilty of no spiritual violence. Let us leave the whip in Jesus’ hand, for only he can be trusted with it, really. Teach us, and let the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God. Amen.

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