The Old Man behind Young Man Luther

Frederick the Wise

Every year, on Reformation Sunday, I feel a bit silly. You know how every now and then you hear that it’s “pet appreciation day” or “national wildflower day” or something like that? Well, Reformation Sunday feels a bit like that for me. It FEELS made-up. Reformation Sunday is a celebration no one but Lutherans knows about. Frankly, nobody seems to care that much about it, either.

If you were to walk over to the grocery store after church and ask people who Luther was, you’d get blank looks. Maybe a few folks would know something about Martin Luther King Jr. But no one remembers the 16th century monk after whom our church is named. Except us. And even us, not so much.

Just in case you think I’m being cynical, I’m not. Clearly, there IS a place, if not for Luther, at least for Reformation. This week we Canadians voted out one majority government and voted in another. We voted out one prime minister and voted in another. Overwhelmingly. A lot of people must have thought there was a need for reforming things. And that’s just the way life goes.

In his world, Martin Luther was a great beacon of change, a fighter for the common person. But today I’m interested in someone else, someone who was there with Luther, but very much behind the scenes. If Luther is not that well known, this person is even less. He was Elector Frederick the Wise, of Saxony.

I think we should aim to be someone like Frederick. Maybe not with quite so big a stomach….

Frederick was the Duke who sort-of, from behind the scenes, helped Luther. The reason I’m interested in Frederick is that he was old. Like most of us. He was also quite happy with the way things were. He didn’t need change. Probably was suspicious of it, a bit. He was basically comfortable. Again, like most of us. And, at least until Luther came along, he was likely pretty invested in keeping things the way they were.

It all sounds quite familiar. Frederick was NOT a young revolutionary. But somehow, despite all that, when the moment of decision came, when God’s moment to shake up the Church came, Frederick had the courage to be the old man behind the young man Luther. He knew what he knew. He could see with his own eyes that things needed changing. And he risked his own comfort to help make that happen.

I think that’s our battle. Not to be Luther. We’re too old, and probably most of us too comfortable. But to be – at least – Frederick. That takes courage too.

The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will NOT be like the covenant I made with their ancestors…

Yesterday Bishop Pryse came to Montreal for his regularly scheduled visit. He told us what we already know: you’d have to be blind not to see that the church is changing. Our pews are emptying out. Young people are not coming in. The old days of big church picnics and full programming and not enough space for all the people are gone. The average age in our congregations is, at least, in the 70s. The days of a full-time professional, paid pastor for every church are gone. What does that tell us? The old ways of doing things aren’t working.

But are you and I going to be Luther? Really? Do we have the energy and the vision to nail our thoughts to the public doors, to debate against the powers of our world, and to take them all on?

I’m not sure that’s our battle. I’m not sure it’s who we are. So perhaps, being older Lutherans, from older, established congregations, congregations that are facing the end of things as we know it, congregations that often have more money than vision, we need to look out at our world and say: okay, maybe I’m not the one to actually bring the changes. But. Maybe I’m being called to support, to pray for, to guide, to help pay for, to protect and cheer for. Or – at the very least – not to stand in the way.

I will make a new covenenant, it says. Emphasis on the word NEW. It will NOT be like the covenant I made with their ancestors…

The Bishop told us that the very model of what it means to be a church has to change. The structure of our Synod and committees goes back to the 1950s and 60s. It was based on the corporate model, on companies like GM. Well, look at what happened to GM! We’re behind the world, not ahead of it.

The needs are just as great as they always were. Luther fought against oppression and ignorance and slavery. Those things are still, very VERY much, with us. We still have the hucksters. Like in medieval times, our leaders still try to use fear to control us.We’re STILL offered fake salvation, this time in bank accounts, in what we call ‘securities’. Our Creator still needs courageous disciples to speak out for freedom, and dignity, and respect for a gracious and free gift of life in our days.

The struggle is happening. So what role will we play?

Frederick had to swallow a lot from Luther. For one thing, Luther taught and preached against relics. Ironically, it was Frederick, Luther’s protector, who had the biggest relic collection in all of central Europe. Luther’s JOB – his professorship – was paid for by the very person and relics he was attacking. Do you know what kind of courage it takes to take a public stand against your own paycheque? But then imagine the courage it takes to let an employee speak against you, just because he or she may be right.

Reforming an institution isn’t easy. When we tore down the old church at Good Shepherd, it was not easy to see the walls and ceiling we had worked hard on, come down – I remember sitting on that roof myself. But the walls HAD to come down, in order for a new way of being church to be born. Just like Frederick’s relics had to become useless so that the good news of God’s love could be told in a new way.

You will know the truth and the truth will set you free, Jesus told his followers. We still need to hear that, and to share it. And since we now live in a world and a time where people are not flooding in through our doors, we need to find ways to go OUT through those doors. To be the church out THERE, in the world. Like for Frederick, it will mean supporting others, if we don’t have the ideas ourselves. It will mean seeing a Luther, and giving up something to make their gift of change happen.

            I know how sad I was to leave my last house. I’d spent so much time and money to make it just the perfect kind of space. I’d designed it to be perfect. But the time came to move. And I remember how STRANGE my new apartment seemed when I first moved in, and how odd the neighborhood felt.

But now, I can hardly imagine being anywhere different. I’ve discovered joys I didn’t know before, of being able to walk to work, of cleaning a smaller space, of a neighborhood with so many good restaurants. Things I would never have known without moving.

One thing is certain in our churches: we need to change. As the Bishop has said, it won’t always be easy. Probably, like Luther, we’ll make some spectacular mistakes. But if we don’t try, we won’t be faithful to this day, Reformation Sunday.

It still feels a bit, to me, like a made-up day. Our version of “adopt-a-caterpillar” day. But if Reformation Sunday seems a bit odd, perhaps we could call it Be-Like-Frederick day. And we could remember that, even old, and settled, and stuck in our routines, and happy with our lot in life, God might still be calling us comfortable Christians to support the winds of change blowing through our church. That way, we too might play a part in bringing the good news of love and life in a new way, to a new world.

Erfurt Luther statue

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