Martin Luther visit


Guten Tag. Allo. Ich heiss Martin. My name is Martin. Liebe Gott! I can speak English! Something incredible happened to me on my way to this time and place. And I cannot explain it! So, “Here I stand.” With you. In this place. Today.
You know, truth be told, I don’t know what to make of this “Lutheran Church”.

Yes, it’s been a long time — 500 years — since I hung the 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Church. So much in the world has changed. Travel, electricity, automation, information systems. And yes, I did write a lot with my hand. I suppose I would do things differently today, as well. Who knows?

But I noticed that some of my words have taken on an iconic status in your discourse through the centuries. And so, I’ll start there and tell you what I observe about your “Lutheran” church today — I feel awkward even saying that word: “Lutheran”! Who the hell do you think I am? “It’s true, we are all beggars!” Even me!

So, let me set the record straight. First off, I never intended there to be a separate church, divided from the Catholic church. Oh yes, a toilet-flushing theology underpinned some religious practices at the time, beliefs that needed reformation. I was excommunicated. And that meant death. But the Lord had a purpose for me still to fulfill, and I was spared. Thanks to Frederick, who let me live in his Wartburg castle for a time being.

Obviously, I still have a purpose or else I wouldn’t be standing here today. I am amazed to see how many different churches exist — and some even taking on my name! In a letter I once sent to my colleague Philip Melanchthon, you know, I encouraged him to “sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly.” He must have taken my words seriously — the “sin boldly” part, anyway — since he pushed my reforms to brink of dividing the “one, holy, catholic church.” Dumbkopf!

Which, it seems, has happened here in Ottawa as well. I take it that Lutherans from my Heimat, Germany, arrived quite late in Ottawa — later than in other parts of Turtle Island — is that not what the first nations of this land call it, this Canada?

I have secret to tell you — the Germans have long since stopped getting off the boats and settling this land in large waves of immigration. You are all settlers! And, the first Lutheran Church was St Paul’s Lutheran Church near the University of Ottawa, established in 1874. For the most part of your history since then there have been some 15 Lutheran congregations, no?, divided basically into three different Synods — the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, the Lutheran Church Canada-Missouri Synod, and the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod.

“What does this mean?”. You who have endured Confirmation classes decades ago, yes I’m speaking to you now: When you memorized parts of my Small Catechism, you will remember I sectioned parts of the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments, for example, I offered my interpretation of those sections preceded by the question: “What does this mean?”

I did that on purpose. Don’t you know that asking the question itself reflects an important stance towards learning? “What does this mean” is a question that first seeks to understand. It doesn’t presume you already have the answer.

I certainly didn’t at first. I struggled mightily with my own stuff, and spent a whole lot of time on that blessed toilet seat! I had doubt and prayed: “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).

The purpose of your Lutheran Council, for example, which functioned between 1968 and 1992 (I learned in your history books), was “to foster greater understanding between Lutherans in Ottawa” (1) — this amid conflicts over biblical interpretation, Communion practice and ordination of women to suggest a few enduring divisions. Good for the Lutheran Council! They were onto something, there, you know!

Learn from the first nations of this land. Among the diversity of Indigenous Peoples of Canada comes the wise advice: Seek first to understand, then to be understood. First, however, to understand the other. Not to persuade, to defend, to self-justify, to impose one’s opinion. Which appears to be the dominant characteristic of relationships in the church and the public today. You believe you first have to defend yourselves.

“What does this mean?” can be a call sign for you “Lutherans” today, indeed for all of mature faith, on how to learn, how to grow, how to move forward to embrace God’s future. You do so first by seeking to understand the other. Ask questions. Try to feel into from where the other is coming in their approach. Listen for smidgens of truth, of potential points of agreement, of overlap between what you hear and where your own heart resonates.

There’s another phrase some have said I wrote. But I didn’t. One of your modern theologians, Karl Barth, actually wrote it, based on something Saint Augustine of blessed memory wrote: “Semper Reformanda” — Always reforming. It’s still good and wise counsel! The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Germany (Evangelische Kirche Deutschland) has as the theme logo for the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation: “500 Years of Reformation”, suggesting that these past 500 years represent a continually reforming church. I like that. Sehr gut!

I know you like “A Mighty Fortress is our God”, ok? But I wrote that hymn in order to bring the popular music of my day into the church. I confess I spent much time in bars during my travels across Germany enjoying the local ales. And I sung along to the bar tunes, and wondered: “Wouldn’t this sound great in church!” And so, I took some of those tunes and transformed them into hymnody.

Why are you still singing “A Mighty Fortress” to celebrate the Reformation? The very idea of 21st century “Lutherans” celebrating the Reformation by clinging to the events of the 16th century doesn’t make sense, if you believe you are truly Semper Reformanda. I travelled all this way through space and time; I want to hear some of your new songs! 

We should be singing this century’s music rather than smugly resting on the laurels of the past, you would say. You should be plotting where the reformation goes from here. Perhaps in this the 21st century, when so many of your traditions have seen the institution fall into the malaise of irrelevancy, you need to echo the cry: “Semper Reformanda” — “Always Reforming”. Indeed, the church in every age stands in need of reformation (2).

In my Disputation in Heidelberg, a year before I hung those famous Theses on the doors of the Wittenberg Church, I stated that, “The Law says ‘do this’ and it’s never done; Grace says, ‘believe in this’ and everything is already done.”

The quality and practice of faith today is on trial. What do you believe about God, and your life with God, others and this world? Reformation starts with those questions.

I’m glad to see you still say, at least, that we are justified by grace through faith.

And when I read the Jeremiah (31:31-34) text for today, I must confess we are often our own worst enemy. When we try so hard and work so hard but underneath all that work is a niggling belief that it’s all up to us. We are most ready to hear those words of grace, forgiveness and mercy, I will confess, when our own efforts are exhausted. When we are weary of our inner turmoil we are ready to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And believe. And trust.

Because by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ, in God, or anything good!

Do the work of God, yes. But allow God, in the end, to reap God’s own harvest. Believe in that which cannot be seen, towards that which can be seen (Hebrews 11:1). It won’t be our accomplishment when it finally happens. Because all is grace. All is love.

“This is most certainly true.”

I’ll tell you what else is true. There are some new words circulating among Lutherans in Ottawa these days. I’ve heard them. Who are you? You are “many communities and one church”. And you are “better together.” The fragmentation of the church which has been the unfortunate legacy of the Reformation needs reformation.

How can you see it? This is a matter of faith and belief? Do you believe that though you are many communities you are still one church? Do you believe you are better together?

This is not a figment of someone’s imagination that has mere mythic, allegorical status, invisible and irrelevant.

After all, when in the last year you gathered together at a Peace pole and prayer garden; when you gathered together to recall the history of the relationship between Indigenous and setter peoples in the blanket exercise; when you gathered together on Ash Wednesday and during Advent to worship; when you support a city-wide youth group by gathering together to have fun at summer fest; and when you serve together to do refugee sponsorship — it is real. It is tangible. It is visible.

And it is happening in a Lutheran community near you!

This is most certainly true!

(1) Barton Beglo & Jo Nordley Beglo, eds., “By Faith; Lutherans in Ottawa and the Valleys” (Ottawa: St Peter’s Press, 1995), p.66

(2) Dawn Hutchings, pastordawn.com “Enough with ‘A Might Fortress’ Already! Sing a New Song”

The outing begins within us

“If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand … No one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered … Whoever does the will of God is [my family]” – Mark 3:24,27,35 

I wonder, in an action-oriented culture, whether we have considered the curious notion of where the kingdom of God – the reign of God – resides. In the the Gospel of Luke (17:21), Jesus says that “The kingdom of God is within you.” The great reformer, Martin Luther, preferred this rendering to the sometimes translated, “among” you. In his famous German translation he writes: “Das Reich Gottes ist inwendig in euch.”

Our house-dividedness and our divisions are not only externally out there in the big, bad world; they embody an internal reality, among and within us, that we often fail to acknowledge.

I think it was Canadian mystery writer, Louise Penny, in one of her recent novels described the internal conflict between two wolves: On the one hand, there is the wolf that lives on fear, anxiety and negativity; the other wolf warring for supremacy inside of us lives on joy, optimism and hope. The main characters in the newly-released home video entitled “Tomorrowland” starring George Clooney use this image of two parts of ourselves in conflict: the wolf of fear versus the wolf of hope. Which one wins? Which one will be victorious?

The answer: The one you feed.

We don’t often recognize the darkness within each one of us. We are all divided – in our nation, in our city, our communities, our churches and in our own lives. Whether we are ‘saved’ or not. Whether we are believers or not. Whether we belong to the right church, or not. Whether we have the right interpretation and doctrine, or not. Whether we speak the right language, or not.

It is curious how Jesus rebuffs the religious leaders’ serious accusation that Jesus had the devil inside him. In denouncing their claim by a logical argument – how can the devil purge the devil? – he acknowledges Satan’s existence and influence. Jesus doesn’t deny the power of evil.

We are all divided. The power of sin extends into the ways we have organized our lives, our prejudices, our racism, our bigotry, our ‘common sense’ ways of looking at the world and people, our economy. We are divided. Our identity is fractured. We will say one thing about God’s love, and behave the opposite way when it comes down to it.

It can be very easy to detect which wolf we end up feeding, most of the time.

Thankfully, there is this levelling affect that Jesus has in his words from the Gospel today. This is not an exclusive venture we are on, as followers of Jesus. In verse 28 a more accurate translation of the word “people” evokes a universal meaning, such as “all children of humanity” – everyone will be forgiven their sins! This is good news! This is the hope. Because, even though we live in imperfect, flawed and divided communities – there is still the good, therein.

But how can the two wolves get along inside of us? How can the warring internal battles, in the end, be resolved?

“Das Reich Gottes ist inwendig in EUCH”. That last word, “you”, is not singular. In German, it is the plural form. Of course, in the original Greek, Jesus addressed his disciples. But in English we don’t have this distinction in the second-person between individual or plural; so we easily and naturally assume, I think, the individual. But this is a mistake.

In this Gospel text, the one verse that I think get’s us distracted more than any other is the ‘one sin against the Holy Spirit that is unforgivable’ (v.29). And immediately we, individually, start getting upset and fearful and very nervous: What if I have sinned against the Holy Spirit? Will I go to hell? People on their death beds will often become anxious about their faith, whether they, individually, have done enough to ‘earn’ salvation on their own, by themselves. This fear goes deep.

But the weight of glory and the burden of sin is carried by the whole, mystical body of Christ. I don’t have to be privately perfect in order to go to heaven, because the perfection is in the whole body of Christ. We are merely members of it: some of you are a foot, some of you are an eye, some of you are an ear – today, I am the mouth! “I” am not the whole body; you (singular) are not the whole body.

You, individually, don’t have to take the burden of universal sin upon yourself, in which you are complicit, I agree. And so am I. But neither can you, individually, take on the weight of glory upon yourself. If you are good – and obviously you are by coming to church today and sticking with us the whole hour long – your goodness is not your own: It’s your Mom in you; it’s your Dad in you; it’s your grandfather and your grandmother in you; it’s your neighbour in you; it’s your pastor that pastored you years ago in you; it’s your friends in you. They are your goodness.

This rampant individualism that is the unfortunate consequence of the Reformation has probably undone Christianity more than anything else, to keep us – ‘tie us up’ – from understanding the communal aspect of God’s kingdom and the church. This is the level from which Jesus, Paul and Martin Luther for that matter proclaimed it. (Richard Rohr, Center for Action and Contemplation, The Rohr Institute, Disc 4, New Mexico, 2012).

So, despite the tug of war inside of inside of us, obey the good. Whatever is strong and good in us together, let that lead. Whatever good nudges us at the core of our being – forgiveness, compassion, grace, good intention – let’s not ‘tie that strength up within us.’ Let’s not hesitate. Let’s not rationalize it to death. Let’s not succumb to the temptation of paralysis-by-analysis. Let it out. Let that goodness lead us. Because each of us has this shared, good strength within – even people against whom we hold prejudice and discriminate.

Decorated Canadian Olympian and mental health advocate, Clara Hughes, said at the Closing Ceremonies of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Ottawa this past week that “The only way you can be good and strong and fast is if you want it for everyone.”

Jesus said, “Only those who do the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (v.35). We say the words every week in our prayers – praying for peace among waring religious groups in far away places. We pray for peace in Syria and Iraq where ISIL continues its reign of terror against religious minorities. We pray for reconciliation between Aboriginal and Settler peoples – that is, immigrants like us.

Why don’t we also consider living that prayer out, in our own backyard? Why don’t we also consider actually doing something in the name of Jesus to the purpose of peace and reconciliation between different religious and ethnic groups in our own city? To be a faithful witness of what peace can look like, to the world?

To feed the wolf of hope.

Pentecost: A tangled mess

The tangled mess that is this long, electric cord takes me time whenever I cut the grass. I stand there pulling the ends through loops and ties, slowly unravelling the serpent-like wire until it stretches straight. Each time I cut the grass. Sometimes I am impatient and frustrated. But I do it time and time again. How can I resolve this problem of a tangled cord?
Sometimes our lives may feel tangled. In truth, our youth and those teenage years often may feel quite tangled, as you sort out sometimes messy contradictions and conflicts in your life — figuring out your sexuality, clarifying your vocation, discerning what you want to do “when you grow up”, finding your place in this world, and navigating the often bumpy road of relationships and friendships.
Dear confirmands, you are entering a most complicated, challenging and exciting period of your life. And through it all, your life may sometimes feel, frankly, a tangled mess. How to even begin un-tangling it?
Today, the colours in the church are passionate, powerful, fiery red, because it is Pentecost Sunday — the birthday of the church. It is the day we commemorate the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples gathered in Jerusalem, in dramatic fashion I might add: Tongues of fire alighting upon peoples’ heads, and a sound like the “rush of a violent wind” crashing around them (Acts 2:2-3). Then, when the disciples address the diverse crowd in their native languages, Peter quotes from the prophet Joel describing what is happening in these “last days” — when God will show “signs on the earth below: blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day” (v.19-20). Indeed, we are seeing red!
Living amidst all this drama could feel kinda tangled, messy, chaotic. But, I thought being a Christian was supposed to be all neat and tidy, ordered and predictable, comfortable and nice. The coming of the Holy Spirit into our lives suggests something altogether different! Birthdays are supposed to recall who we are, our identity. How do we even begin un-tangling meaning and purpose of our existence as a church, from this crazy picture?
I purposely did not iron my red chasuble for today’s service to remind myself that following Jesus sometimes feels ‘dis-ordered’. And, I purposely left alone two small holes in this old, Pentecost garment to remind myself of something Saint Paul gets at in the second reading for Pentecost Sunday: “the Spirit helps us in our weakness”; and, that the whole creation, including you and me “groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Romans 8:22-27). 
What I often ‘see’ in my life are a lot of holes — many weaknesses. What I often see in other peoples’ lives are their weaknesses. What I often see is me trying so hard to keep my life untangled, compared to others. What I see is all my toiling and fretting and striving to make things right and straight. But, hope that is seen is not hope. If I pretend how good everything is — or ought to be — all of the time, that’s not hope. That’s just me toiling in vain pretending I will be saved by my own efforts.
You might have heard illustrations of some old cathedrals in Europe especially built with holes in the ceiling. They were built purposely so, in order to provide an ‘imperfect’ entry point for the Spirit of God to descend into the lives of the Body of Christ on earth — the church. The entry point of the Spirit of God is precisely through the imperfections, the tangled messes, of our lives — not through our vainglorious, self-righteous, pull-myself-up-by-the-bootstraps efforts. Remember, the Spirit of God helps us in our weaknesses. At ground zero. When on our knees we fall and confess, “I need help and I cannot do it on my own.”
We don’t find God by doing it right. God finds us by our doing it wrong. That’s not to say we ought to go out and try to sin. It is to say that when we find ourselves — as we all will — in moments of our greatest weakness, that’s when Grace happens, when we provide entry points through the ‘holes’ of our ego, our bravado, our pretences of ‘being right when everyone else is wrong’.
You would think that after fifteen years of home ownership and being the person who cuts the lawn in our household; and after ten years of cutting the lawn with an electric, corded, lawn-mower, I would have already figured this out and just purchased one of those roller-thingies for the cord. The strange thing is, I haven’t and after I am finished cutting, I still just crumple the cord and throw it into the garage on top of the mower.
Maybe that says something about the reality and truth of our lives. No matter how much we may grow, and mature — I would hope — over life, we are still stuck in some ways, and will still get into messes from time to time. Youth is just the beginning!
The scriptures for Pentecost are very clear that the disciples of Jesus did not ‘invoke’ the Spirit or earn God’s coming by saying and doing the right things. The Spirit came to them, freely, surprisingly and despite their weaknesses. And what is more, Saint Paul further specifies how that Spirit comes — when we do not know how to pray as we ought (v.26). Not a very impressive picture of humanity. And yet, God still has faith in us, and comes to us!
On the cross, as Jesus hung dying, he said, “It is accomplished” (John 19:30). The victory is won. In Jesus’ human suffering and death, he says this. Not on Easter Sunday, when we celebrate his resurrection. But the victory is won in the moment of God’s fullest identification with human humility, shame, vulnerability, weaknesses — at the moment of what signifies and is in reality our greatest defeat: death. There, “It is accomplished.”
Jesus, God, identifies with us in our tangled messes. In some ways — although this may not be comforting — being a teenager is the best time of our lives to know God, precisely because it is a time in our lives when we have permission to be most honest about the struggles of our identity and purpose in life. 
Even when you feel most distant from God. Even when you feel your faith is not ‘all there’, and you wonder if you have any faith in God at all. Even when you make a mistake, which you will. Being confirmed today is not a perfect ‘affirmation’ of baptism and faith you are making. And it never will!
These are the ‘holes’ so important that we acknowledge — not deny! — and we see as the entry points of the Spirit of the living God into our hearts. It is exactly at those moments of greatest vulnerability and honest weakness that Jesus walks closest to us: That was the purpose of the Cross, the accomplishment of the Cross. That in human suffering and entanglement, God’s grace and power abound. It is God who saves us. Not our work at being ‘good’ or ‘perfect’.
Traditionally during the liturgy of Pentecost, and specifically right after the reading of the Holy Gospel, the “Paschal” light is extinguished. You will recall that this candle was first lighted at the Great Vigil of Easter fifty days ago. And for each of the subsequent Sundays of Easter it has remained lighted — a sign of Christ’s living, resurrected and eternal presence.
Now it is extinguished. Would anyone suggest, why? Isn’t Jesus still alive? Where is he now? With the coming of the Holy Spirit into the church, and with Jesus ascended into heaven, the presence of God and Christ Jesus through the Holy Spirit alights in our own hearts. Through the ‘holes’ of our ego, in the imperfection of our lives, the flame of God’s Spirit washes over us in patience and in gentleness. The Spirit purifies and clarifies our hearts upon which God’s stamp still rests from our baptism. The Spirit encourages and reminds us of who we are and whose we are, forever, and no matter what.