“The Cheese and the Worms: Reflections on the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation”

“The Cheese and the Worms:
Reflections on the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation”
A Sermon by Rev. John Gibbons
Delivered on October 30, 2016
At First Parish in Bedford


A Thought to Ponder at the Beginning:

    Come to this place to worship with the soul, to elevate the spirit to God.  Let not this house be desecrated by a religion of show.  Let it not degenerate into a place of forms.  Let not your pews be occupied by lifeless machines. Do not come here to take part in lethargic repetitions of sacred words. 
Do not come from a cold sense of duty, to quiet conscience with the thought of having paid a debt to God.  Do not come to perform a present task to insure a future heaven.  Come to find heaven now, to anticipate the happiness of that better world by breathing its spirit…

    Come to worship with the heart as well as intellect, fervor, zeal. 
Sleep over your business if you will, but not over your religion

—William Ellery Channing (1780-1842)


Opening Words:

“Does the World Know I’m Here?” by Rev. David Rankin:

It was a restaurant for confused tourists and local residents who had pawned their taste buds. The waitress took the parents’ order, and then turned to their small son.

“What will you have?” she asked.

“I want a hot dog! . . .” the boy began.

“No hot dog!” the mother interrupted. “Give him what we ordered!”

But the waitress ignored her.

“Do you want anything on your hot dog?” she asked.

“Ketchup!” the boy replied with a happy smile.

“Coming up!” she said, as she walked to the kitchen.

There was silence at the table.

Then the youngster said to his mother: “Mom, she thinks I’m real!”

The odor of thick and greasy food permeated the room—but his was a hunger beyond all power to suppress.


The Sermon

A few days ago, our parish administrator Joan Petros and I were checking out the unbelievable profusion of corpses and monsters and spiders and steampunk gadgetry and shelves of apothecary jars and carnivorous plants and eye-popping eyeballs and jaw-dropping whirling flashing Haunted House phantasmagoria that had taken over the entire church.  Now Joan is a good Roman Catholic who attends St. William’s in Tewksbury and, surveying this house of horrors, Joan turned to me and said, “You know, that’s the difference between my church and First Parish: At St. Willy’s, the inmates are not allowed to take over the asylum!”

Here at First Parish, however, the inmates are in charge!  No matter what the authorities may say, if the people want a hot dog, a hot dog is what they’ll get.  Or possibly a zombie.

And, my friends, this morning I am here to say that the origins of this phenomena are to be found in the Protestant Reformation, the 500th anniversary of which is to be commemorated over the next year.

It was in October of 1517 that the once-unified world of Christendom cracked open and split apart, such that all the kings horses and all the king’s men could not put Christianity back together again.  Unto the present day, the Christian world came to be divided into the diverse but authoritarian world of Roman or Greek orthodoxy and the equally diverse but anti-authoritarian, heterodox, and infinitely fragmented world of Protestantism.

The good priests and people of St. William’s generally like their church and religion orderly.  The ministers and the people of First Parish hardly know the meaning of the word.  A once-obscure monk named Martin Luther is to be significantly credited or blamed.

It was on October 31, 1517 that Martin Luther nailed 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg church in Saxony – now part of Germany but then a part of the Holy Roman Empire.  That hammer-stroke of Luther (of which you just sang) ultimately would crack and split church, state, and empire.

The 95 Theses were Luther’s critique of the corruptions of the church and its clergy. The church (and the empire) had absolute power and, as is said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Most notably Luther objected to the sale of indulgences, which was a major source of revenue to the church: By paying a fee (a bribe, essentially) to a priest, you were promised some time off from purgatory for yourself or your loved ones. As a popular saying put it, “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul into heaven springs.”

Forgiveness, Luther argued, cannot be bought and is God’s alone to grant.  Closely related was the practice of simony, the buying or selling of holy offices. (In the Bible, Simon tried to buy the holy spirit from the Apostles.) The way it worked was, “You want to be an archbishop, do you?  Well, that’s going to cost you a pretty penny!”  Ka-ching! Ka-ching!

Luther further objected to the corruption of the papacy.  One of the recent popes had been Alexander the VI who, among other things was the father of 7 children. Clerical celibacy, Luther observed, just wasn’t working.  Furthermore, Luther asked, “Why does the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of St. Peter with the money of poor believers rather than with his own money?”  Good question.

It is generally agreed that the foremost contributor to the Protestant Reformation was Gutenberg’s 1440 invention of the printing press which enabled a riot of books and tracts that inflamed theological innovation, controversy, violence and war across the European continent.

And to honor Mr. Gutenberg I checked out one of the biggest, thickest and heaviest books in the library, a brand new history of the early modern world, titled Reformations, by Yale historian Carlos Eire.  I don’t claim to have read every word, but to save you some trouble I’m going to read you its first and final sentences.

“Sometimes,” he begins, “the course of history can change instantly, in the blink of an eye, and everyone notices.  Sometimes, however, change is imperceptible. …Most historians have agreed for five centuries about when and where one such epochal shift took place.  October 1517  …The event was a simple act of defiance: Luther’s public questioning of widely accepted teachings concerning the forgiveness of sins.”

And now let’s jump 905 pages to its conclusion:  “Western Christendom ceased to exist, but Christians thrived nonetheless within the chaos, warily keeping an eye on one another and on the rising tide of unbelief and materialism.  Paradoxically, within the whirlwind of conflict and violence, and the desacralizing and hypersacralizing, spiritual and moral greatness were also sometimes brought to new heights on all sides by brave souls, in the most unexpected ways.  Meanwhile, among the secularists and materialists, some took comfort – as many still do – in finding their precursors among the reformers and dissidents of the early modern age.  …The legacy of the Reformation endures.”

My goals this morning are two-fold.  I want us to understand why the Protestant Reformation is so formative of who we are today.  And, secondly, I want us to know a few of our brave-soul precursors among the reformers and dissidents of that period.

Now I have to admit that this is a different kind of sermon; it’s not like this every Sunday.  Most of the time we come to church with the expectation that our minds and spirits will be taken in or out or beyond, and often that happens.  We don’t often spend much time asking the how or why of any of this: it just works for us to have acrobats one Sunday, and marching shoes, Josh talking about refugees, lay-voices like that of Doug Muder; and then Bree Newsome climbing the flagpole, and then Megan last week affirming the importance of women and girls.   This is just how we do religion.  It’s a little bit like getting into our cars and expecting them to take us where we want to go.  We don’t spend a lot of time thinking about spark plugs and pistons and how energy is transferred to the hee-haw-whimmydiddle thing-a-ma-jig.  But the question of how we as a church came to be this way is very important – first of all to our RE teachers who are trying to figure out how to explain Unitarian Universalism to our kids – but also to those of us who are concerned about where we may be going as a church.

And to forewarn you, this will be a two part sermon because I will continue some of today’s themes into next week’s sermon as well.

Anticipating today’s sermon, I could not be sure that all or even most of you know even the most basic things.  It is called the Protestant Reformation because it began in protestProtest is in our DNA!  The protestant spirit is a spirit of questioning and doubt.  “Why?” and “Says who?” are among our favorite theological questions.  “Revelation,” we say, “is not sealed.”  Though it is sealed for many others, religion, for us, is not a matter of “God said it.  I believe it. And that settles it.” Truth and our apprehension of it, evolves.

And it is called the Reformation because Luther’s intent was not to overthrow the church but to reform it.  Ours remains a reformation church because we deeply believe that the world can and must be made a better place.

Does that mean that our church – First Parish, specifically, or Unitarian Universalism as a whole – is a Protestant church?  Well no, not really.

Protestantism is a movement within Christianity and, while our origins are protestant, we have evolved far from that starting point.  To be sure, there are parishioners here who identify as Christian; there are more, I expect, who identify as humanist (and the history of humanism is very linked to that of the Protestant Reformation); among us are Jews and Quakers and Mennonites and Buddhists; some others are atheists, some are theists; plenty are pagans; we have a polytheist who has recently published her traveler’s guide to the Egyptian spirit world; and we have a big crew of folks who have a deep and worshipful relationship to haunted houses.

I want to point out some of our very obvious inheritances from the Protestant Reformation.  We do have a liturgy with sacred (and Shakespearean) music, and we have our rituals at the candlestand and elsewhere; but a significant centerpiece of our services, almost always, is the sermon.  This reliance on the logos, the Word, is a legacy of the Reformation.  It is not the sole source of authority, and these sermons are subject to the same doubt and questioning to which all else is subject.

And we would, as well, recall Ralph Waldo Emerson who, when he sat in the pews,  received more divine inspiration from watching the sun, and leaves, and snow through the clear glass windows than ever he received from the words of the preacher or, for that matter, the words of scripture.  Long before Emerson, it was Martin Luther who said, “God writes the Gospel not in the Bible alone, but also on trees, and in the flowers and clouds and stars.”

A Catholic priest friend once visited First Parish and he looked at our sanctuary and said, “It’s nice but isn’t it sort of plain?  He suggested, “Wouldn’t it be nice to have stations of the cross, or some icons or a few statues of saints here and there?”  Our puritan and congregational architecture, devoid of ornamentation, with a central pulpit, is a legacy of the Protestant Reformation.  You face, not an altar, but a pulpit.  (In Hungarian, by the way, the pulpit is the szoszekszo means “word” and “szek” means “chair.”) God only knows what my priest friend or my Hungarian friends would think of the disco ball and the trappings of our Haunted House!

It was the Reformation that rejected the pomp and mysteries of the orthodox.  It was the Reformation that caused not only books and tracts and pamphlets to be printed in the vernacular language of the people, but so too the church service itself came to be spoken, not in Latin, but in the language of the people.

Let me give you simple sketches of a few of the Reformers.  A precursor to Martin Luther was Jan Hus.  Born in 1369, he was a Czech priest, who was burned at the stake in 1415.  We keep this painting of Hus hidden in a stairwell, but it depicts him at the Council of Constance where he was condemned to death.  What were his crimes?  He spoke the Mass in Czech, the language that his people understood.  When it came to communion, it had been the practice of the priests to share the bread and the wine only among themselves.  The people were to be content in witnessing this eucharist, not actually eating and drinking the elements themselves!  Our flaming chalice remembers Hus.  Hus shared the bread and wine with the common people, and for it he was burned.

Hus, whose name means “goose” in Czech was quick-witted enough that, on the day of his execution, he prophesied, “Today you burn a goose, but in a hundred years a swan will rise that you can neither roast nor boil.”  That swan would be Martin Luther.

The spirit of the Protestant Reformation is the spirit of the great pilgrims who went to Emerald City to behold the Great Oz, but when Toto exposed the wizard as a fraud, the man exclaimed “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”  Thus, over and over, the church tried desperately and in vain to close the curtain to retain its fraudulent authority.

Burning people was a favorite tactic.  Michael Servetus was a Spanish theologian, scientist, author, and physician.  He was the first to discover pulmonary circulation of blood. His reading of the Bible, however, caused him to conclude that there is no biblical basis for the Trinity and he published his conclusions.  That caused him to be condemned by both Catholics and Protestants, and on October 28, 1553 in the city of Geneva, by the authority of John Calvin, Servetus was tied to a stake along with copies of his books, and using green saplings to make the fire as lingeringly excruciating as possible, he was burned to death.

At our UU seminary in Berkeley, California this weekend, students will have their annual Servetus barbecue in his honor.

A quote from this era worth your memorizing is from another 16th century reformer, the Frenchman Sebastian Castellio, one of the first advocates of religious toleration.  It was Castellio who said, “To burn a man is not to defend a doctrine, it is to burn a man.”

Today I am wearing my robe just so I can tell you that it is formally called a Geneva gown, Geneva Switzerland being at the epicenter of the Reformation.

One more Reformation vignette is this.  This print that hangs in our Common Room is taken from a famous painting and depicts the Transylvanian Unitarian preacher Francis David who proclaims, “Faith is a gift of God and cannot be coerced!”  He was debating a number of other preachers in front of the “king” John Sigismund who declared Francis David to be the winner of the debates.  Sigismund then declared himself a Unitarian but, instead of requiring all his subjects to become Unitarian as other kings would have done, he issued the first Edict of Religious Toleration in 1568 because “faith cannot be coerced.”

Francis David, furthermore, argued that prayers should not be said in Jesus name for that would be idolatrous.  Nothing and no one should come between us and God.  David also believed that the church must always be reforming and must never stop.

When Sigismund died, his successor declared David a heretic and banished him to a mountaintop cell in the city of Deva where he died.  When we go on pilgrimages to Transylvania we climb the mountain and visit the cell where David is said to have scratched into the wall, “Egy az Isten,” the motto of the Transylvanian Unitarians, “God is One.”

We’ve had posters made of this print, by the way, along with a history and a key; and when your “20 bucks in the coffer rings, your soul into heaven will spring!”

Sigismund, also by the way, is known as the first and only Unitarian king in history and, though our Transylvanian friends don’t talk about it much, he is also the first and only Unitarian gay king in our history.  That is a story for another day!

And there is one more representative of the Protestant Reformation that I want to introduce you to.  I came upon him on page 662.  His name is Domenico Scandella, born in Italy in 1532, but he is better known as Menocchio.  Not Pinocchio, Menocchio!

I preface his story with two more terms you should know.  In some places, like Geneva, when the Protestants came to power, they could be every bit as authoritarian as the Catholics.  Wanting to reform the church but not to burn down the house, people like Martin Luther and John Calvin joined forces with the magistrates, and this is called the Magisterial Reformation.

Others did want greater egalitarianism, even if the house did burn down.  Ulrich Zwingli and the Anabaptists were among those who remained anti-authoritarian and their movement is called the Radical Reformation.  It should not surprise you that Unitarian Universalism has its roots in the left wing of the Radical Reformation!

It used to be that histories of the Reformation – like histories of almost everything – emphasized the role of great men – like Luther and Calvin and Servetus and others.  Historians today are increasingly revealing the role of peasants and women and ordinary people who lived lives of popular nonconformism.

Such a man was Menocchio.  He was an ordinary miller but he was literate, familiar with many religious texts and even read the Qur’an.  Based on his studies, he came to the astonishing conclusion that people could “mix and match their beliefs as they saw fit, and come up with their own opinion about what is true.”  Menocchio believed, among other things, that the universe came into existence from something pre-existing, rather than out of nothing as the church taught.  Asked repeatedly by the authorities where he came up with his odd ideas, he insisted, “My opinions come out of my own head.”  Folks, does this sound familiar?

And, yes, he had unorthodox ways of expressing his ideas.  The cheese and the worms, for example.  A great sermon title, don’t you think?  It’s the title of this scholarly account of Menocchio (The Cheese and the Worms, The Cosmos of a 16th Century Miller, by Carlo Ginzburg).  And cheese and worms are on your front cover!  You see, this was Menocchio’s own version of the creation: “All was chaos,” he said,  “that is earth, air, water, and fire were mixed together; and out of that bulk a mass formed…” And then Menocchio came up with a metaphor from his own peasant experience of making cheese…”A mass is formed – just as cheese is made out of milk – and worms appeared in it, and these were the angels.”

Wow! Really!  You think the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster is weird?  Menocchio paved the way!

Menocchio enjoyed arguing with the priests: “Priests want us under their thumb, just to keep us quiet, while they have a good time.”

Menocchio seems to have been like those people who love it when Seventh Day Adventists knock on their door, just so they can mix it up.  “(I would) go before the pope, or a king, or a prince,” he said, “…I would have a lot to say…and if he had me killed afterwards, I would not care.”  Menocchio was burned at the stake in 1599.

And, so you see, for most people in the West, prior to October of 1517 the world of Christendom was unitary, whole, authoritarian and unchallenged.  By the end of that century, the world was vastly changed.  Many were burned, but the Reformation could not be stopped and, indeed, it continues today.

Recall an hour or so ago when I said that the Reformation was significantly attributable to Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press.  And, yes, I did read a bit of this big fat book.  And for research I pulled one of my seminary textbooks down from the shelf, the first time I’ve touched it in decades! And you know what I really did, don’t you?  I went to Wikipedia!

There is a growing agreement that with the advent of the internet, we too stand at the threshold of a new epoch, here and now.  Heirs to the Reformation, we have been witnesses to the fragmentation, the segmentation, the devolution, the atomization, the pixilation, the bits-and-bytes-ization, the disruption of everything.  Some might even suggest that the inmates are now running the asylum.

Today, however, we are not mere witnesses but we are also now participants in the innovation of everything.  It is our hands that are now upon the hammers.  Next Sunday, reflecting upon the insights of Sebastian Junger’s new book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, I will consider what our hammers may build or destroy.

Tomorrow is called Reformation Day and we have a confluence of Halloween, and All Saints, and All Souls, and El Dia de los Muertos, and Samhain and Beltane, and Diwali, and the Jain New Year, and Hallotak Napja, and the Day of the Dead, and we sing For All the Saints, No.103.