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Preaching to Laymen in their Own Language – Johannes Geiler von Keysersberg, Sermon on the Ants (March 20, 1508)

Johannes Geiler von Keysersberg (1445-1510) was the most influential preaching theologian of the generation before Martin Luther. For thirty years, he used his pulpit in Strasbourg’s cathedral to admonish the city’s burghers and to labor for the reform of the church and society. His sermons in Latin and German comprise the most important corpus of texts on popular religion from this era. Taken from his sermon cycle The Ants, the following text uses ants as a model of social organization. Geiler, whose thinking was heavily communalist, saw the Church as an exchange of spiritual goods (e.g., prayers, sacraments) supplied by both the clergy and the laity, and material goods, by means of which the laity nourished the clergy.

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On Monday after Old Carnival, Dr. Keysersberg preached about the seventh characteristic of the ants, building.

The seventh characteristic of the ants is building [edificatio], for the ants build their dwelling in a heap and inside they build chambers and cover the chambers and the entire house with leaves, which they have gnawed off and carried inside. And in this activity they have no leader and no king, and no one teaches them except God alone. You say, "What should I learn from them?"

The first thing you should learn from the ants' heap and their dwelling concerns the assembly of all Christendom.* As when the pope calls the spiritual and temporal prelates from throughout the whole wide world to assemble in a Council, so they are called together. In this assembly they are supposed to unite and act, as I have just said, as the ants act, and if they do not take the ants for themselves [i.e., as their models] and learn from them, they will accomplish nothing. First, the ants build a house and furnish it. Therefore, those who sit in a Council should build and furnish the house of all Christendom, so that God may be served therein. You know quite well that Christendom is divided, full of quarrels, for in this Christendom here we fight and quarrel and expire on the field [of battle]. The other Christendom consists of the elect in God's kingdom; they have overcome the first Christendom and triumphed over it. This holy assembly should build up, improve, heal whatever is broken, and thoroughly reform [itself]. Second, the other thing the ants do, internal construction, is what the Council fathers should do in Christendom, establishing and regulating the orders, so that everyone will keep the Ten Commandments and follow God's counsel.

Third, the ants cover their house with leaves against heat and cold. Therefore, a Council should cover the poor, that is, struggle against the heat of vices, so that they may be suppressed, and cover them against the cold of temptation by the evil spirit and against the serpent, who creeps about and wants to creep up to God, ever since he was expelled from Heaven. Fourth, the ants do everything without a teacher, for no one leads them except God. Therefore, God the Holy Ghost, and no one else, should be a Council's teacher.

* That is, the General Council of the Church, its chief governing body – trans.

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