Sermon: October 29, 2017 – Some Things Never Change

Some Things Never Change

Reformation Sunday
Martin Luther nails his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenburg, Germany

Text: 2 Peter 2: 1-3

But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive opinions. They will even deny the Master who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves. 2 Even so, many will follow their licentious ways, and because of these teachers the way of truth will be maligned. 3 And in their greed they will exploit you with deceptive words. Their condemnation, pronounced against them long ago, has not been idle, and their destruction is not asleep.

Language is a funny thing. There are words in our language today that did not exist just a few years ago. Words like “selfie” or “Google” or I-pad, I-phone, and I-pod are recent examples of new words that we have become accustomed to hearing.

There are also words that are used today as verbs, which were not originally intended to be used that way. Close to 100 years ago as radio communication was just beginning to become a reality here in the United States, we might have heard the word “microwave” as a description of a particular type of radio signal. The word has been around for a while now. But only recently has the word started to be used as a verb, for example, “my coffee was cold so I had to microwave it.” Of course this also happens sometimes with new words as well, the word mentioned earlier “Google” is both a noun and a verb; “I didn’t know what it was, so I had to Google it to find out.”

Then there are combinations of words that when used together mean something entirely new or different than they originally meant. One set of words that are now used together are the two words face and book; when used in combination as Facebook, it has a whole new meaning. There are other examples, the two words smart and phone when used separately mean one thing, but when combined into a single word, “smartphone” has a whole new meaning. This can all be very confusing. Particularly when all these new words are used in combination. For example, one might say something like: “I saw a new microwave on Facebook and didn’t know how it worked so I Googled it on my smartphone to find out.” “It was so cool that I bought one on-line and when it arrived I took a selfie with my I-Pad and posted it on Instagram and had to tweet about it as well!” Yikes! How are we supposed to keep up?

There is another set of two words that we are just beginning to become accustomed to and has been in the media lately and those two words are fake and news. When used together they have started to mean something entirely new. It seems we are now living in an era of “fake news”.

But with the example of “fake news” I would like us to consider the possibility that only the label is new, the existence of “fake news” has been with us for millennia. Not only has it been with us for thousands of years, I think the motivation for most of the fake news that is out there has remained unchanged for thousands of years as well.

I want to take another look at the scripture I read a few minutes ago. This text in Second Peter is talking about fake news in the form of teaching or “destructive opinions” that may be present in what the author considered to be the last days. We now know that the last days may never arrive, but the false teachings and the false prophets, the fake news, have been with us the whole time. What I really want to point out today is found in verse 3 where the text reads: “And in their greed they will exploit you with deceptive words.”

Today we are recognizing the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. It was 500 years ago, almost to the day, that Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany and that act is considered to be the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther had a number of issues with the Catholic Church headquartered in Rome, but the one thing that pushed him over the edge was the selling of indulgences.

The situation was that the church in Rome wanted to construct a new basilica, or a new cathedral, that would be the grandest of all cathedrals. To build such a monumental structure, which they eventually did, requires a great deal of money. As they began the project, it wasn’t long before the funds dried up and there was legitimate concern that the project would never be finished if a new source of funds could not be found. So the creative and somewhat deceitful heads of the Roman Catholic Church got together and hatched a scheme. They would sell indulgences.

For clarity, let me describe to you what an indulgence actually is. The idea was that for a small contribution the Pope in Rome would have a brief conversation with God and ask God to release a particular person from Purgatory. If this sounds like nonsense to you, I think you are on the right track, but it actually gets worse.

Purgatory, in the Catholic tradition, is a holding place for the deceased until the final day of judgement. Even though it is not a permanent sentence, the understanding was that purgatory was still full of punishment and suffering. If you were not up to standard at the time of your death (and very few were considered to be up to standard) then you went to purgatory to await final judgement. Only the very elect few went directly to heaven upon their death. Everyone else got to hang out in purgatory with the flames and suffering of hell until such time the final judgement either sentenced you to eternal suffering in hell or granted you passage to heaven.

An indulgence meant that the Pope could arrange for special treatment of a deceased love one, but the Pope would only do so with an appropriate contribution to the new cathedral being constructed in Rome. Thus, the selling of indulgences to raise funds for the new cathedral.

Remember verse 3 that I pointed out a minute ago? “And in their greed they will exploit you with deceptive words” It was really awful. There are excerpts of various sermons and speeches that were given to the common people in the villages all around Rome. This included places as far away as Germany where Martin Luther happened to hear about what was going on. Listen to what was being told these people about their departed loved ones.

Listen now, God and St. Peter call you. Consider the salvation of your souls and those of your loved ones departed. You priest, you noble, you merchant, you virgin, you matron, you youth, you old man, enter now into your church, which is the Church of St. Peter. Visit the most holy cross erected before you and ever imploring you. Have you considered that you are lashed in a furious tempest amid the temptations and dangers of the world, and that you do not know whether you can reach the haven, not of your mortal body, but of your immortal soul? Consider that all who are contrite and have confessed and made contribution will receive complete remission of all their sins. Listen to the voices of your dear dead relatives and friends, beseeching you and saying, “Pity us, pity us. We are in dire torment from which you can redeem us for a pittance.” Do you not wish to? Open your ears. Hear the father saying to his son, the mother to her daughter, “We bore you, nourished you, brought you up, left you our fortunes, and you are so cruel and hard that now you are not willing for so little to set us free. Will you let us lie here in flames? will you delay our promised glory? 

Remember that you are able to release them, for

As soon as the coin in the coffer rings,
The soul from purgatory springs.
Will you not then for a quarter of a florin receive these letters of indulgence through which you are able to lead a divine and immortal soul into the fatherland of paradise? 

It was at this point that Martin Luther declared “Fake News”! And he nailed his opinions and justifications to the wooden church door in Wittenberg, Germany, and thus began the Protestant Reformation.

Unfortunately, the 95 Theses did not deter the fake news. It continued, indulgences were still sold and the Basilica in Rome was constructed. It still stands today. And fake news also continues to this day.

One important question comes to mind. How are we to determine for ourselves what is fake news and what is not?

Again, I want to reference verse 3 in the text which I read at the very beginning. According to the text, greed and fake news almost always go hand in hand. When fake news is evident, there is almost always a corporation, an institution or an individual that stands to gain financially or otherwise from the distribution and acceptance of fake news. If you ask yourself the question “who stands to benefit the most” before you accept anything as truth, I think you will have great success in deciding for yourselves what is fake news and what is not.

If that question had been asked by the villagers, it’s possible no one would have purchased a single indulgence and the church in Rome would have looked foolish. Remember the fake news campaign during the 1950’s and 60’s that tried to convince us that smoking was healthy and perhaps even good for you? If the question would have been asked who benefits from the acceptance of this fake news, no one would have believed these reports or studies.

You see, Martin Luther had nothing to gain and everything to lose by declaring the information from Rome fake news. When you witness that same thing today, chances are good that those who are risking everything are telling the truth. And that truth still stands even after 500 years. Thanks, Martin.

And that is food for thought. Amen.


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