My Conscience is Captive
Our reading today is titled, “Cutting Away” by the poet, Patrick Cobello Hansel.
We begin on the road to Erfurt, located in the Landgravia of Thuringia in the Holy Roman Empire in the year 1505, 512 years ago. A young man was celebrating the completion of his law degree at the University of Erfurt and was visiting his parents in Saxony.
On his way home, he was caught in a terrible lightning storm. As the story goes, a lightning bolt struck the ground right next to the man and he was thrown to the ground. He was stunned.
And from being stunned he regained awareness, suddenly began praying to St. Anne – the patron saint of equestrians, poverty, and teachers – among other things. In his praying he declared, “I will become a monk!”
He would honor this promise to St. Anne fourteen days later on July 16th – making sure he had one last party with his University friends. To the disgust of his parents, he entered the Black Monastery in Erfurt on July 17th and started on the path to become a monk.
This man was Martin Luther, who would likely have gone down in history as a teacher of the law and be a footnote in the University archives – if not for that strike of lightning that stunned him and awoke him to what was, in his mind, his life’s work.
This was a common choice for people during this time – it afforded food, limitless education, security, and a divine purpose to your life’s work. But it also cut you off from your family, your inheritance, and the prospects of land ownership and increased wealth – hence his parents disgust, especially his father. And this wasn’t an easy life to choose.
As a monk, you wake up at 3am every day for your first set of prayers. You fast. You pray. You work hard to maintain the grounds of the monastery, the farms they worked, and whatever goods they made for the surrounding communities.
You listened to your abbot, you slept in a tiny cell on a floor mat made of hay, if you were lucky, and, if it was your assignment, you studied endlessly – often copying, by hand, manuscripts over and over and over. For Luther, his life as a monk saw him come face to face with a document that most people in Europe did have the privilege of reading or learning directly from: the Bible.
You weren’t allowed to read the Bible yourself – if you could read – at this time. It was the job of the clergy to interpret it for you. It was too dangerous a text to unleash on normal Christian folk. Two years after that fateful lightning strike and his entering the monastery, Martin Luther was ordained a priest after satisfactorily studying theology.
It was during these studies that he came across early Humanist writings – I’ll note that Humanism, then, did include a belief in God, but still the same goal of serving humanity – and upon reading their writings he would champion their rallying cry of “Ad Fontes!” – Back to the source!
Back to reading the Bible in its original languages! This brush with biblical humanism pushed him to get a doctorate in Theology five years later, becoming a professor in Wittenberg, and delivering lectures on a variety of texts.
Upon digging into Paul’s Letter to the Romans, Luther started to believe that salvation came through faith in God alone, not through the good works of the church. He would discover in the first chapter of Romans these words, “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.”
As he read these words, he had what would become known as the Turmerlebnis – Luther’s Tower Experience. As he became a priest for the city church in Wittenberg, he started to gather friends who were having similar experiences in reading scripture. Similar tower experiences as they studied away behind monastery doors.
It was, however, his journey into parish ministry that finally sealed the deal. I need to take note real quick that so many reformers have their moments of awakening not in the academy, but the moment they step into a congregation to serve. It’s a funny thing, there must be something happening to inspire them.
Luther came to notice, as parish priest for the city of Wittenberg, that he was getting very few requests for absolution by way of confession. Instead, he noticed, his parishoners were traveling to nearby towns to buy indulgences – documents guaranteed by Rome to reduce ones punishment in the afterlife, and, if you’re heaven bound, get you out of Purgatory quicker.
During Luther’s time, indulgences were everywhere – because Rome was having budget problems. Their coffers were emptying at an alarming rate. New, exciting, once-in-a-lifetime indulgences would be released by Rome, monks and priests, bishops, missionaries, theologians would sell them from church doorsteps and town centers like carnival callers yelling things that surely sounded like, “Step right up for the indulgence of a lifetime, only two hundred dollars! Fresh off the presses from Rome!” It might sound like I’m making light of this, but one of the more famous sellers of indulgences, Johann Tetzel, was quoted as saying, “When the money clangs in the box, the souls spring up to heaven.”
He was even rumored to sell indulgences for those who had already died. Luther did not like this. He began preaching against indulgences. He read the manuals that trained indulgence sellers and preached against those as well. And on October 31st, 1517, a letter found its way into the hands of his church superiors.
In the letter, Luther wrote out 95 theses that he hoped would be a basis for discussion around what he saw as an increasingly corrupt practice. You might be wondering when he nailed those 95 theses to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg. He never did.
Luther nailing his theses to a door is an urban legend that most historians say was merely a story to add drama to the beginning of the reformation. Instead, the reformation began with a simple, though longwinded, letter to the church hierarchy…but also, Luther was sure to send a few copies of his letter to his friends as well.
The Papacy was informed of a rebel heart in their midst, but they told the bishops and cardinals to be lenient with him and gently correct him. It is possible that the writings of Luther would’ve ended with a slap on the wrist, but the friends he gave copies of his letter to, started making more copies. And more copies. And their friends made copies.
And so on and so forth, there was this weird contraption called a printing press that was gaining popularity. And before everyone knew it, a little known priest and monk from Wittenberg was now a household name, openly challenging the pope.
Luther felt it necessary to explain, he didn’t want to challenge the pope, he merely wanted the church to examine their motivations for selling indulgences. But it was too late. Rome opened an investigation – an inquisition – into Luther.
So Luther had to distance himself from Rome, and upon receiving a Papal Bull – a direct order from the pope to recant or be excommunicated – Luther burned the document, along with books of church law and the writings of theologians that spoke against him. This was the break with Rome.
Anything else in this story is just gravy. Luther was declared a heretic after the Pope learned of his catholic book barbeque. But the princes of surrounding territories that favored Luther convinced the Emperor to let him make his case and Luther was granted safe passage to the Diet of Worms in 1521.
His journey to the Diet was a victory march. Towns, villages, and cities cheered for him, he preached at several churches, and people followed him to Worms. And when he arrived, he found all of his writings laid out before him on a table, with Catholic officials asking him, one last time, to recant.
Luther then responded, famously: “Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.”
Many stories add the phrase, “Here I stand, I can do no other,” but there is no evidence in any record of Luther ever saying those words. But even without those words, “my conscience is captive…God help me!” became a rallying cry for anyone who has sought religious freedom since.
The rest of Luther’s life was fascinating, albeit troubling at times, I can assure you. He married. His reformation spread. Other reformers were allowed to “come out” and spread their message. Luther would go on to lay the foundation for Protestantism, of which we owe our heritage to, and free a good portion of Europe from the bonds of Empire and religious oppression. But he would also do some things that were not pleasant.
Wars would be started in his name, with radical followers thinking he wasn’t going far enough with his reforms. Luther would write vicious letters against Muslims – though, mercifully, he would add, “Let them believe how they will.”
And perhaps lesser known but increasingly a part of his story, he would write letters and books aimed at the Jewish community in the hopes that they would convert in light of his reforms. When they rejected him, he would go on to say vicious things about Jewish people.
He was a deeply flawed man, a man that believed in reforming the church in the name of God, but, still, flawed. The world is a drastically different place than it would’ve been because of Martin Luther. For better or for worse, some might ask – this Sunday is Reformation Sunday, 500 years after the beginning of the Reformation, I think that is enough history on which to weigh the legacy of Luther.
And we, Unitarian Universalists, in this room, on this Sunday, might wonder why we are looking back on this occasion. We look because we should be reminded that our heritage is originally Protestant. We did not spring out of the 70s when new religious movements were springing up left and right. We owe our history to that act of protest – that of questioning the way religion is done.
For, our ancestors, inspired by Luther and his reforms, would go on to share their reforms, their heresies, their questions with their communities and change the world as well.
They would protest in Great Britain and form the Church of England, only to protest again and become the Puritans, protesting to have their own land and landing here on these shores, only to protest further and become Unitarians and continue to protest, incorporating Transcendentalism, then Humanism, and so on and so forth, here we are.
One could say, Unitarian Universalists are the protestants that never stopped protesting. We shed all doctrines, creeds, rituals, and almost every structure that is church – until we were left with temples to unknown gods and had to build a new religion in 1961 when the Unitarians and Universalists consolidated to make Unitarian Universalism.
That spirit of protesting is with us still, here in this living tradition. I pray it is with others who have some roots in the reformation. I believe the message of Martin Luther, that reforming spirit that dared to ask why of the authorities for the good of his community, is still relevant today.
We will know we’ve succeeded in continuing our legacy as reformers if the Unitarian Universalism of today looks nothing like the Unitarian Universalism of 50 years hence. But, so, too if our own lives look different than they are today in the future.
As Unitarian Universalists, we claim those personal reformations as being just as needed, just as valid, just as important as the ones that change the world. Because sometimes, in the growing of our heart and mind, the world can change…and if not, certainly our lives can.
The road ahead is never an easy one, be it a person reformation or a world changing one. These acts of protest, these growth experiences, these challenges are so needed. You know that. And if you’re out there in the world day after day, protest after protest, boy do you know it. If you’re struggling with a matter of the heart, you know it, too. And the bad news is that yes, it is not easy, and it isn’t pain free. Like the poem we heard:
The hairs—like our sins—
were not held against us but swept
away at the end of the day, the brown
and red and gold alike. We were not
saved by the pain of our cutting, but
by its graceful release. All that was
needed was faith—simple, humble,
kind—like the seed of the mustard,
or the gel that made the front of a crew
cut stand up straight: a blessing that drew
the eye only towards the newly made face.
And so, we must ask, day after day, what simple, humble, and kind moments are awaiting us? Where are our consciences captive? Where can we do no other but claim our truth?