Arlo Guthrie was at a benefit for the Sierra Club looking a whole lot older than he did 35 years ago, and his daughter was performing with her band. She told a story about Arlo that has stuck with me.
Arlo's one big hit was the recording of "Alice's Restaur-ant." Later, he bought a church in the town where Alice's Res-taurant was. He was sweeping the floor when a minister from town came in. The minister asked what Arlo was doing there, and Arlo said, "Sweeping the floor."
The minister was upset by the idea that Arlo had bought the church and said, "What kind of a church is this?"
Arlo hadn't been prepared for that question, so he answered, "It's a bring-your-own-God church!"
That sounds kind of irreverent, but the truth is every person brings his or her own gods with them to church and wherever else we go. And that includes pastors.
If a million people say they believe in God, you can bet that the more you talk to them, the more you'll realize that they believe in about a million different gods. Many, of course, aren't worth serving at all. Yet, we serve as Shakespeare said - "We love: not wisely, but too well."
The idea behind Martin Luther's notion of the priesthood of all believers was that the responsibility to find a God worth serving is the personal responsibility of each of us. The fact that priests wear fancy costumes doesn't mean they are any closer to God than anyone else. So the challenge in this God-hunting business is identifying a God worth serving, and then serving this God, those ideals and centers of value, rather than something less.
The Protestant Reformation probably would not have happened when it did, had not the pope at the time, Pope Leo X, been one of the worst popes in history. Two quotations have been associated with him.
In a letter to his brother, he wrote, "Since God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it." The other quote attributed to him is one where he wrote, "It has served us well, this myth of Christ."
Pope Leo X still stands as a prime example of a high office filled by a person of low character, using the title and a costume to deceive and bilk the masses. He wanted to raise a lot of money to build St. Peter's in Rome, so he sold what were called "indulgences" to his masses.
This meant that, for a fee, they could buy some pre-forgiveness for their many sins, so their punishment in purgatory might be shorter and less horrendous. So, it was like an insurance policy: Pay now, fly later.
But it was a good racket, because fear works well with disempowered people and helps keep them disempowered. So Pope Leo got more creative and began selling indulgences for their dead relatives.
You don't want your mother or grandmother being tormented beyond belief in purgatory, do you? Well, even though they're already dead, for a fee you can save them some suffering; it's the least you can do for them. Didn't they love you? How can you let them down now that they're dead and suffering and need you?
This was the practice of "selling indulgences" that angered Martin Luther and led to the Protestant Reformation and the splitting of Christianity into more than a thousand pieces now. Luther's primary message was that we are "justified by faith, not by works."
This was a 16th-century way of saying that God didn't make junk, including us (Ephesians 2:10: For we are God's masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago."). And that schemes like the pope's to convince us that he knows who is saved and who is damned are the schemes of a charlatan, which we are called to expose.
Pope Leo X provides a religious example of someone in power abusing and betraying both the people and the high ideals he is charged with serving.
The priesthood of all believers says that the common people without titles or dazzling costumes are as close to God as anyone. This week, we are considerably closer.
God called his creation of humanity not OK or good, but very good. Everyone in this world is important to God, our creator. Every person is of sacred worth. Every person is worth praying for. Every person is worth loving and caring for. And every person is worth saving.
What might you say to encourage a person who questions why they're on earth, or who thinks that life isn't worth living?