Luther

why the 16th century is still important

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The more things change, the more they’re the same. Some of us tend to idolize Luther. But scholars point out he’s only important because he came at a kind of tipping-point. Despite the significant, obvious differences, we live in a similar time. There is again, as there was during the European Reformation, a revolution happening in social media. There is again, as there was in the 16th century, a kind of apocalyptic feeling in the air, a shock-wave of anxiety at the rapid pace of change. There are again various forms of political uprisings and revolts among the disadvantaged. Remarkably, there is a similar fear of the Muslim world’s influence on Europe, a fear stoked for political reasons by leaders in the West. There is, again, an important wing of Christianity (this time found on television and online) that offers to the gullible and the afraid, salvation in exchange for money. Cities are still the crucibles of social, economic and technological transformation. And there is again, as at the time of the Reformation, a church caught in the middle, and unsure of the way forward.

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Luther’s Long Shadow

My contribution to 500 years…

Luther's Long Shadow from Matthew Anderson on Vimeo.

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

The Jesus Wallet

Jesus wallet

When I got home from the airport Thursday evening, waiting for me in the pile of mail, mostly flyers, that had accumulated while I was gone was a small parcel. The parcel was from Virginia. When I picked it up and turned it over, I saw the return address of my friend and fellow Lutheran pastor, Lyndon Sayers. The parcel had a little customs stamp on it saying what was inside. But I didn’t look at that. Instead, I did what any kid with a present would do! I ripped open the envelope and reached inside. And what I pulled out was this:

A wallet.

Now. There are lots of things I can imagine getting from Lyndon and his family. But not that.

Why would Lyndon send me a wallet, I wondered? It was red leather, one of those kinds of wallets I remember from growing up out west. A cowboy-wallet, with stiff, thick leather outers, an soft brown inner liner that smelled of fresh cowhide, and plastic threading winding around the outside. A BIG wallet. The kind you can imagine going with a cowboy hat and 100 dollar US bills. Nice, but not exactly my style.

I turned the wallet around so I could really see it, and that’s when I got the second surprise of the day.

There was the face of Jesus, carved into the leather by one of those leather-working tools and signed “Gene”. On the other side were some intricate flower patterns, and in the middle of them these words, taken from Isaiah 53: “For he was acquainted with grief”.

A Jesus wallet. A real Jesus wallet! Just for me.

When the religious leaders at the Temple in Jerusalem tried to trap Jesus, they did it by asking if it was right to pay taxes to Caesar. They thought they had him with that, since whatever Jesus said, he would have been either against the Emperor or against his own faith. But he answered like this: Why are you putting me to the test? Show me the coin used for the tax. And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them: Whose head is this, and whose title? And they answered: the emperor’s.

I LOVE my new wallet. Lyndon knows I’m from the west, since he grew up in exactly the same small prairie town I did. And he knows I like kitsch. But as soon as you put Jesus’ face on a wallet, it seems to me that you’re entering some unusual – and potentially challenging -territory.

Imagine pulling that wallet out at the bar when you’re buying a beer. And there’s the face of Jesus, right there, looking you in the eyes. Now in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says that one of the things people criticise him for is being a “wine drinker and a glutton”. So maybe a beer wouldn’t be so bad. But imagine pulling out the wallet when it comes time to buy that fancy new cell phone that I KNOW I don’t really need. Or a meal downtown when I could have made a lunch. Or a four-dollar tea at Starbucks when I have a teapot in my office and Canadian Lutheran World Relief is asking for donations to help the refugees in Syria. I wonder if the Jesus wallet might just make me think twice then.

Jesus slid right out of the trap that the religious leaders were setting for him. He did it by saying that whoever’s face is on the coin is who that coin belongs to. Period. Give therefore to the Emperor those things that are the Emperor’s and to God those things that are God’s. In the ancient world, just as in ours, coins are – technically, at least – owned by the state. We just borrow what is known as legal tender.

But then what did Jesus actually mean about giving to God the things that are God’s? He could have been talking about what is holy enough for the Temple offering. Coins with a human image were considered idolatrous by the ancient Jews, who had to change them for special Temple coins that had no such image. But I think there’s a deeper meaning.

Jesus and his interrogators might have been opponents of each other, but as Jews they all believed one thing: when Israel’s God made human beings, it was in the divine image. Every human being bears the stamp of the Creator. As sure as any coin. Two thousand years later we who are Christians have inherited that belief from the Jews. We still say, at least, that we are made in God’s image. We can argue over exactly what that means – is that divine image in our capacity to imagine, to create, to love, or in something else? But somehow, in some important ways, we are, every single one of us, stamped with the divine.

In fact, a lot of books on spirituality say more or less the same thing. I was reading a Buddhist book this past week that said this:

 

“Science, in its zeal for objectivity, tells us that we are our bodies, the product of Darwinian evolution, originating in a chance combination of molecular gasses, our growth and decay dictated by genetic DNA codes. Thus death is the end. But there is something in the collective unconscious of the human species that intuitively knows that this “objective” definition does not embrace the totality of who we are…” (Levine, Who Dies? viii)

 

That book would not use the phrase, but we can: we are made in the image of God.

When faced with a dilemma, Jesus upped the ante. He’s like the businesswoman who is forced to sell her store to her opponents but then goes out and buys the whole franchise. Give the coin to the Emperor, he says. It’s only a coin. But you….YOU belong to God.

The point is: we can argue over all kinds of rules and customs. But it’s who and what we are in relation to, that’s important. When we have a baptism, and we pour the water, we say: “So-and-so, child of God, you have marked with the cross of Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit forever.” For us that’s yet another of the ways we are first made, and then re-made, in God’s image. And our lives can either be a fractured mirror, broken by the sadnesses and troubles and hurts we all go through, or as we grow in maturity and in thoughtfulness and in peace with our own selves and with others, we can grow more and more into the beings we were intended to be. Our reflections will tell the tale.

It’s not easy, of course. Even Moses, when he wanted to meet God, was told he could only see God “on the way by”. You cannot see my face, God answers. I will put you in a cleft in the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until my glory has passed by, and then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.

Rather than a clear-headed, divinely-ordained clarity about the meaning of life and love, most of us kind of muddle through. We live in a world that looks rather more like God’s backside than anything else. We get flashes of what we think might be the truth. But then we fall back into our routines, where life just passes and our email inboxes are so full we despair of ever answering all those messages and we have too many bills to pay and worries to worry about and occasionally real catastrophes, and most of the time we barely even feel awake.

Luther emphasized what he called the “hiddenness of God”. He called it, in Latin, Deus Absconditus. But the message of Matthew seems to be that while we struggle through the darkness, the clearest thing we can do is to seek that image of God in ourselves, and in serving others. The person sitting beside you right now – that is the image of God – for us Christians, that is what Jesus looks like. The baby brought to the font – he or she is the image of God. The foreigner, the immigrant, the differently-abled, the sick, the hungry, the imprisoned. That is what God looks like, for us.

It does feel just a bit weird, having a Jesus wallet. But it’s not Jesus who had a problem with faith and money being so close together. It’s us. When we realize – really realize – and take to heart the image of God in us and in those around us, then we will see that Jesus doesn’t just show up on wallets. He’s everywhere: calling us to real life, and real service, looking for how we can lift up and honour that holy image wherever we find it.