In 1521 the monk Martin Luther was called to give account for his radical new teaching at the unfortunately named Diet of Worms. There were no worms eaten at the Diet of Worms. The Diet was what they called the Imperial Assembly, and it took place in the German city of Worms–in English, Worms. At the Diet, Luther was told that his books were heretical, and told he must recant, or he would be punished. He had already been excommunicated. Here he was, a poor monk, with nothing really to his name, and now he had lost the only worldly thing that mattered to him–his job as a teacher in the Augustinian seminary where he lived. If he recanted there was the possibility that he could retake his position at the seminary. If he did not, he would be a permanent outcast.
Luther was given a night to consider his position. In the morning he was called back into the Diet, and asked again if he would recant. He said, Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason, I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.
Some record that he also said, Hier stehe ich. Ich kann nicht anders, or in English, Here I stand. There is nothing else I can do.
As he uttered those words, he had nothing. He could not go back to the monastery since he was excommunicated. He could not go back home, because he would be arrested, tried, and possibly killed for heresy. He had the clothes on his back, and, fortunately for him, the support of prince Frederick III, the Elector of Saxony, who abducted Luther, and took him to his castle at Wartburg. There, living on the good graces of Frederick III, he started his translation of the Bible.
In earthly terms, Luther never really had a lot. But he had faith, he had conviction, and he had the power of God.
Later he would write:
Let goods and kindred go,
This mortal life also:
The body they may kill:
God’s truth abideth still,
His kingdom is for ever.
In 1530, a young man named Jean Calvin fled Paris after some riots by a small band of the new sect of Christians who were influenced by Luther. It’s not clear he was in the riots, but the backlash against them made every Protestant fear for their lives, and Jean, who was an attorney at the time, became a refugee, and made his way to Basel, Switzerland, where he joined a group of the Protestant leaders. We know this man better as John Calvin, the founder of the Presbyterian Church. The Protestant movement had grown, and there were now Protestant enclaves throughout Germany and France. What Luther started had taken off in a big way. But there were problems with the emerging movement. Luther never intended to start a new denomination. He had no idea what a denomination was! There was only the Catholic Church, and all Luther wanted to do was reform the corruption he saw in the Catholic church. Luther was a theologian, but his approach to theology was more practical than systematic. He dealt with problems as they arose, but did not provide a theological architecture for the new Protestant movement.
Calvin wanted to design the new theology. He wanted to take Luther’s original precepts and turn them into a systematic theology. In Basel, Calvin set to work on his task, but was interrupted by a visitor from Geneva, William Farel, who finally convinced Calvin to move, and become of the pastor of the church in Geneva. Calvin didn’t really want to do that. He just wanted to write, but Farel was convincing.
His stay in Geneva was a disaster. Calvin wanted to build a new church, but the city council of Geneva, who made all decisions concerning the church, opposed him at every front. For instance, Calvin wanted to have weekly communion. The city council limited to communion to four Sundays a year. Calvin wanted the city to close the bars of the town on Saturday night, so people would not come to Church hungover on Sundays, but the city council refused to do so. When Calvin finally refused to serve communion to the bar owners, both he and William Farel were fired and banished from the city.
Which was fine with Calvin. He moved to Strasbourg, where he pastored a church of French refugees and wrote theology.
But he was called back to Geneva, and lived the rest of his life there. He continually fought with the city council on various issues pertaining the church. He rarely won, but he persisted.
At every turn in Calvin’s career, he was interrupted or thwarted. He wrote his books, and preached sermons. He visited parishioners, and led worship. But his dream of being the architect for the new Protestant Church was never fully realized in his lifetime. In spite of all the setbacks he experienced in life, he said this:
Seeing that a Pilot steers the ship in which we sail, who will never allow us to perish even in the midst of shipwrecks, there is no reason why our minds should be overwhelmed with fear and overcome with weariness.
We look a the legacy of Luther and Calvin today, and we wonder that either ever doubted their impact on the world. Both Lutheran and Calvinist churches speard over the entire world. Both could be said to have changed the course of history. The movements they started have lasted for almost 500 years, and show no sign of stopping. By almost every measure, they would be considered a success. But it did not feel like it to them at the time. They could not see into the future. They could not know that the movements they started would survive.
But they had faith. They had conviction. They had a firm belief that God would take what they offered, and use it to help build the Kingdom of God. They both knew that God was at the helm, in spite of all the difficulties and dangers that surrounded them. They may not have been sure of their own successes, but they trusted in God, and knew that God’s work would never fail. They knew that God’s provision for them would never end. Again, as Luther wrote:
And though this world, with devils filled,
Should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed
His truth to triumph through us.
And God’s will does triumph–through us.
It does not always seem that way. This week, for example, we see the world with devils filled. First, the assassination attempts in the form of the 13 bombs that were mailed to ex-presidents, vice-presidents, senators, and others. If you kept up with the news, every day brought new potential victims. And just as that nightmare appeared to be at an end when the arrested the culprit, we heard about the horrific shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.
It seems that there are too many devils in the world today. What can we do? There are too many devils, and not enough of us. We have so little, not near enough to face the multitude of problems in the world, or even just in our community. We can echo the words of the disciples in the Gospel lesson this morning: “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.”
This is a familiar story to most of us. Jesus, trying to get away from the crowds, hops in a boat, and heads for a deserted place. But someone must have figured out where he was going, and they headed for the same place Jesus was. When he came ashore there was a crowd of needy people waiting for him. And Jesus had compassion on them. He ministered to them. The sun started to set, and the people were still there. It was getting to be dinner time, and the people were still there. “Send them home,” said the disciples. “They need to eat, and we can’t feed them.”
You may be wondering why there was no food. There were little towns dotting the Sea of Galilee. Why couldn’t the people get something to eat there. The answer is, they could. But there was one problem with that. You see, when it says that Jesus went to a deserted place, the place was probably in the Decapolis. The Decapolis was a region that bordered the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee, and was a Gentile region. They was food there, but not the kind of food that the Jews could eat. Had Jesus sent them to the closest town to round up some grub, he would be sending them to break the kosher laws. They might have good barbecue joints there, but the Jews were not allowed to eat pork. And pork was a common food among most non-Jewish people.
So what to do? There were too many people, too many problems. The only way, it seemed, to help the people would involve breaking the Law of God.
But Jesus had another solution. In the eyes of the disciples there was not enough. In the eyes of the disciples, the problem was too big, the needs were too great, and they did not have enough resources to do anything about it.
But Jesus had other ideas.
“You have everything you need,” he says. “Just give it to me, and stand back and watch.”
And we know what happens next. The five loaves and two fish turn into a feast for all, with twelve baskets full leftover.
There are those who say that what happened was that the people saw Jesus take what he had, and start to feed others, and when they saw that, they opened up their hearts, and their own stash of food, and all of sudden everyone is feeding everyone else. Maybe that is what happened.
Or maybe Jesus was able to draw on the power of God to serve the people. Maybe there was not other food there, and Jesus pulls the proverbial rabbit out of his hat–although in this case it is fish and bread, not a rabbit.
Whatever you believe about what really happened that, in any event it is a sign that God uses what we have to minister to people. Where we might see little, God sees an abundance. We might look around and say, “There’s not enough!” but God never does. I wonder if Luther ever looked around and said, “How can I do this? I am one person against the Roman Catholic Church, the largest organization in the world. There’s no way!” If he did, he never acted on his fears. He never acted on his feelings of being one very small fish in an ocean of sharks. He did what he felt God was calling him to do.
I wonder if Calvin ever thought, “I have no power here. They fired me once. They could fire me again. The city council holds all the power, and I have none. How can I do this?”
If he did, he never acted on that. He went on doing what he felt God was calling him to do.
Both Luther and Calvin depended on the power of God to do the work they were called to do. They did not focus on what they did not have. They focused on what God would give them. The fact they had little only encouraged them to focus on God’s abundance.
I look at the problems of the world, and I say to myself, “What can I do? The problems are so great, I am am so little.” I look at the problems in our community–drug addiction, housing shortage, food insecurity, that fact that you hit five red lights in a row when you travel down 10th Avenue, and I ask, “What can I do? These problems are so large, and I am so little.”
I look at the problems facing the Church of Jesus Christ today–declining membership, aging population, and a society that is growing increasingly secular, not to mention that fact that the political debates in our country have started to become church debates, and I ask, “What can I do? The problems are so large, and I am so little.”
But when I see how little I am in the face of all these, I am reminded of God’s abundance. I may not have enough, but God does. I may be little, but out of my smallness we can see the abundance of God.
We need not look at the world and despair. We need not look at the world, and throw up our hands, and say, “nothing can be done.” Out of our little comes God’s abundance.
This is stewardship Sunday. We will have a dinner, and then we will take pledges over the next couple of weeks. I am supposed to stand up here and say, “Give! Give! Give!”
But I don’t need to do that. You are generous givers.
But I want you to know that whatever your level of giving to this church, and to other causes you support, God’s abundance is there. I have quoted from the song, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God. The Psalm we read is what Martin Luther based his hymn on. I just want to revisit one passage from the Psalm:
Come, behold the works of the Lord;
… 9 He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.
10 “Be still, and know that I am God!
Yes the problems are many. Bombs are sent, and synagogues are attacked. The problems of the streets occasionally make their way into our church. We may feel small in the face of them. We may feel that all we have is two fish and five loaves of bread. But out of our little comes the abundance of God.