Cultural Anxiety: A Hus’ Day Sermon

Scripture: Mark 8:34-37, 1 Corinthians 1:18-24

Today, we offer prayer and thanksgiving for the life and ministry of Jan Hus. Jan was a popular catholic priest working in Bethlehem Chapel, in Prague, who became an instrumental leader in the reformation. Many of his radical, peace-loving followers fled Prague after his death, and formed illegal, intentional communities, as witness to a God of Peace and Justice. The Moravian Church is rooted in these communities.

Tomorrow will solemnly mark the 600th anniversary of Hus’ martyrdom, having been burned at the stake for offering a critique of the Roman Catholic church, and refusing to recant his ideas.

So, as we think about his death for a few moments, I offer you this question:

“Whodunnit?” Who killed Jan Hus? Whodunnit?

Pardon my glibness on this somber occasion, but I think this phrase from Clue and other murder-mystery games is a fitting reminder at the absurdity of Jan Hus’ martyrdom. We know that the weapon was not a lead pipe, or a revolver – it was a living funeral pyre. We know that the location was not a conservatory or drawing room, but a public square in what is now Constance, Germany.

What we do not know is the motive and, more plainly, “whodunnit”.

We could take an easy route and blame the Catholic Church, whose officers convicted Hus of being a heresiarch, which is a serious crime, a heretic who leads other heretics. I think this is a title I’d like to put on my door: the Arch Heretic, the heretic who leads other heretics. Hus preached and ministered rather autonomously, because the Bethlehem Chapel was not under the authority of an archbishop. Hus answered to his colleagues in the chapel and at the University of Prague, and to his parishioners; not to a pope. His most famous crime is providing access where there previously was none: mass should be offered in local languages rather than Latin, and all people should have access to the bread and the cup, not just the clergy. He also cared for the least of these in ways that the church was yet unable: the sale of indulgences, or, guarantees of free admission to heaven, in exchange for money that funded wars, capital campaigns, and bribes, was hotly condemned by Hus, as preying upon poor and vulnerable populations. Some families would spend their entire lives work to ensure that a unbaptized loved one would be admitted to Heaven upon their untimely death, and then this money would be used to fund the expansion efforts of the Holy Roman Empire. But, to blame the Catholic Church sounds rather easy: we know that the word heretic is an abstract term used to demonize someone whose theology we disagree with.

I’m still not sure, “whodunnit”.

We could, therefore, take another easy route and blame the legal system of the Holy Roman Empire, a nation that governed central Europe from the 900s to the 1800s, and ultimately morphed into the Astro-Hungarian Empire that collapsed during World War I. King Wenceslas of Bohemia was a fan of Hus’, and protected him from external threats. But, King Wenceslas began to deal with a number of personal issues in very unhealthy ways, and was ultimately deposed. When Hus could no longer count on Wenceslas’ protection, pressure was applied that Hus should appear before the Council of Constance to answer for his popularity and theological claims. Even so, what value is there, for a government, to remove Hus from the conversation.

I’m still not sure, “whodunnit”.

We know that the executioner was carrying out the will of the state, who was living out the imagination of the church, who was responding to crisis among the faithful. But whodunnit?

Perhaps there is a fourth alternative: cultural anxiety, whose cousins are self-awareness and the phrase “hindsight is 20/20”.

Having now been a clever detective for about 5-minutes or so, I offer you this pearl of wisdom: when we zero in too closely on a clue, we may be missing the larger scene, and overlooking something crucial. Its easy to be literalists and blame Jan Hus’ death on the catholic church – which is an effective way to separate as us versus them – or to blame Hus’ death on the works of a government that no longer exists.

When we take a step back, we realize that Hus stood trial at the Council of Constance. The Council of Constance gathered at the request of AntiPope John 23 (as an aside, I’ve discovered that antipope is a title for a pope whose been fired), to resolve the matter of the papal schism: that time when there was a pope in Rome, and a pope in Paris, and the church was rapidly dividing. As we know from his fun title, AntiPope John 23, from Rome, was deposed along with several other AntiPopes, in order to end the Papal Schism. Furthermore, I believe – and I’m sure if I looked hard enough, many historians would support my claim – that this Council of Constance marked the end of the Medieval Era, and commenced the Modern Era. Maybe there wasn’t electricity and effective indoor plumbing, but we know that, in this time, the modern concept of a Nation-State and Capitalism and Economy were replacing the former notions of tribes and bands. The Church was freaking out as it sought to clarify its role – and maintain its power and authority – as new governments formed with unprecedented control, reach, and power.

Jan Hus stood in the middle of all this, in the middle of the Holy Roman Empire – Constance, Germany – and advocated a premise that many people could get behind, that God values each of us as precious, and that no church or state should exploit people for their own futile gain. The church and state, naturally, joined together, in their anxiety, and recognized Jan Hus as a scapegoat.

I think this is an important point to recognize: the answer to whodunnit is wedunnit.

When our desire for control amidst anxiety trumps our willingness to witness and attend to God`s holy change, we demand a scapegoat. And the tragic thing is, we will never find comfort in the destruction of another human being, yet our culture persists in this line of thinking. We can separate ourselves from the work of our government, we can separate ourselves from the work of family and friends, we can even try to distance ourselves from ourselves, but as long as we seek to comfort our anxiety with the self-medication of violent acts or tendencies, we will never be fully brought together in God`s sacred act of shalom, of wholeness, of fullness, of grace: Holy Communion.

We are partners in ministry, along with the Roman Catholic Church, and the United Nations. Our job, as I`ve said now, in the past, and in the future, is to be agents of grace, witnesses to reconciliation and resurrection, and unselfish givers of hopeful love.

It is said that the price of injustice is human flesh. This is what Jesus said, when he reminds us: `this is my blood, this is my body, given for all.` Attending to God`s justice in the midst of cultural anxiety had Jesus crucified. Attending to God`s justice in the midst of cultural anxiety had Jan Hus burned. May we be so courageous as to comfort the grieving, then work for healing. May we be so courageous as to nurture the least of these, then seek equality. May we be so courage as to speak for the voiceless, then proclaim justice. It is each of our call, from God.