Strange, isn’t it, to be talking of reformation when we gather each week in a structure of liturgical worship that has changed so little, not only in 500 years but in several thousand years. Still we gather in a tradition whose founder, Martin Luther, said that the only absolutes for worship was that the Gospel was rightly preached and the sacraments properly administered. Everything else – everything else – was adiaphora. Open to interpretation.
And come to think of it, perhaps it’s not so strange. In nearly 55 years as a congregation, St. Michael has experienced at least one significant change, becoming a part of the newly formed Evangelical Lutheran Church in America after its creation in 1988. Much more recently, the people of God at St. Michael’s have had to re-form as a congregation when the time came for a beloved pastor to step down after four years here and more than 60 years in ministry. When Pastor Pete arrived, you accustomed yourself to a particular style of worship leadership. But that changed over time as Pastor Pete’s health declined. Gradually you stepped up to provide your own worship leadership, fulfilling Luther’s ideal of the priesthood of all believers. When I arrived, you and I had to become accustomed to a very different style of leadership. But virtually all of these changes are adiaphora. That is, they are all open to interpretation without harming the central core of worship, which is the right proclamation of the Gospel and the proper administration of the sacraments.
Martin Luther, whose faith and courage we celebrate today, wasn’t always considered a force to be reckoned with. He did not seek out the life of a leader. In fact, when the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V called on Luther to defend his writings in the city of Worms in 1521, the Pope’s envoy was certain that no one as uncharismatic and stupid as Luther could possibly have written the incendiary books and treatises he was in trouble for writing.
But when Luther was asked to take back his criticisms of the church, he responded with the now-famous line: “My conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant, for to go against one’s conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me. Amen.”
Imagine the courage that took, for one man to stand up to the only church he had ever known, to stand up to the emperor anointed by God, and to say, in effect, more than a thousand years of church history are wrong, all of you are wrong, and I alone am right. And, once he believed that he had found the church’s fundamental error, he did not simply sit and stew about how he was right and everyone was wrong. He spoke up. He spoke out. He could not allow people of faith to continue to be enslaved as the church of Rome idolized money above God.
We celebrate what happened next, calling it the Reformation of the church. It sounds so innocent. But for the people of that time, it must have been terrifying. The Reformation was not a peaceful movement. It spawned class warfare and bloodshed in several countries.
Suddenly, the people who’d always known what to expect from their church and their position in society found themselves in entirely new territory. Everything they had always known to be true was now subject to interpretation. The once-immovable bulwark of the church now appeared to be under assault. Grace was a gift open to all, not something to be earned, bought and paid for. Imagine how that word of hope sounded on the ear of those on the margins! Even they, the oppressed and overlooked, were beloved of God. Could this possibly be true? And yet all around them, the world was undeniably changing. Peasants were revolting against land-owners, and the nobility was violently crushing the revolts, Roman Catholics were burning Lutheran preachers at the stake, and Lutherans were lashing out against priests and anything that looked remotely Catholic.
Besides this religious and social unrest, all of Europe was dealing with the catastrophic effects of the plague, which wiped out whole villages with infection. And there was a constant threat of invasion from the Ottoman Empire. In the midst of all that we can easily imagine people everywhere, whispering under their breath, “We will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea, though it waters roar and foam; though the mountains tremble with its tumult.”
Some of us are praying that psalm now, too. Many of us feel anxious about the coming election in our country. Both Republicans and Democrats I know have expressed the fear that if the other party wins, it will be disastrous for our nation and for the world. We do fear that “the nations” will be “in an uproar” and that “the kingdoms” will “totter.” We might want to revisit Psalm 46 in the week ahead, and maybe even sing Luther’s setting of it with heartfelt sincerity: Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also: The body they may kill; God’s word abideth still, his kingdom is forever.”
The Reformation was not a triumph, but a traumatic event for many people. Today’s political situation may be similar. It’s all because of what Paul expresses so clearly in today’s reading from Romans—a passage Luther celebrated often in his ministry—”all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” To make matters worse, we all will keep sinning and keep falling short. Sometimes we forget that our ultimate hope rests not in our successes but in what appears to be God’s great failure on the cross. It looks like the end, but God redeemed that failure (and all failures) by making sure that it was only a new beginning.
Don’t be afraid, this week or ever. The cross is not the end of the story. The body they may kill; God’s word abideth still. You belong to God. I belong to God. This world belongs to God. Every failure is an opportunity for God’s grace to creep in. This is not Luther’s doing, nor the work of a Lutheran church. It is not the work of the Republican party or the Democratic party. It is not our doing. Loving, forgiving, saving, and redeeming you and me and the whole wide world is God’s doing.
In that truth, we are set free—free to risk, to dare, to love, to live, to work, to dream, to struggle, and even to fail…all in hope. Do not give up. God promises to transform all that burdens us, all the endings, even the cross, to bring about new life. Keep the faith, keep the word, keep on trying and failing. God promises to keep hold of us and to use us in ways we cannot imagine.
When we find ourselves in the grip of fear, we might do well to remember Luther’s famous declaration: “When the devil throws your sins in your face and tells you that you deserve death and hell, answer this: ‘I admit that I deserve death and hell. What of it? For I know one who has suffered and made satisfaction on my behalf, and that is Jesus Christ, Son of God; where He is, there I shall be also.”
Rooted in the promise, we are not slaves but free indeed – free to change, free to transform ourselves and the world around us, free to reform the church for the sake of the world, rooted in the past yet reaching for the future: free to live without fear, knowing that, like Pastor Martin, God calls us to bring change to ourselves and to our sisters and brothers, freed from fear, freed from bondage, free to hope. Always, free to hope.