Yesterday was the feast of Martin Luther, reformer, pastor, scholar, husband, father, servant of the Word, friend of Christ.
This is a sermon from four years ago. I'd forgotten I preached it till I remembered yesterday's feast!
February 18, 2004
The Church Divinity School of the Pacific, Berkeley
During my seminary studies, back in that era I am now teaching as history, the 1970s, I took one of those intense surveys of the history of Christian thought, during which we were required to read a book by the 6th century Roman scholar and man of public affairs, Boethius. It was called The Consolation of Philosophy. I disliked that book.
I have since repented, having revisited the book in my wiser, grey-haired days. I also realize that a good part of what bothered me –and in some ways still does– was the title. I don’t find philosophy that consoling. What I do find consoling is history. The fact that Boethius wrote this book in prison and that it was in part an effort to articulate a response to the turmoil of his times –Remember the Ostrogoths? Remember the days of hard-core doctrinal heresy?– warms my heart as much as the content of the book, worthy as that content is of our attention.
History is consoling.
Take the 16th century, for instance, a millennium after Boethius wrote his Consolation of Philosophy. This is the century we remember in today’s liturgy. You think we have religious turmoil and civil disturbance today! Study the 16th century: several reformation movements in Christian Europe –in Germany, France, Switzerland, Spain (yes, Spain, which had not only the Inquisition but Teresa of Avila and Ignatius of Loyola), England, Scotland, the Low Countries; and what we now call Eastern Europe wasn’t exactly religiously quiet either. Then there were religious wars, civil wars, Holy Roman Emperors, feudal lords, shifting borders and political alliances, epidemics and witch-burnings, Popes and princes, the Council of Trent.
And that’s just Europe. As Professor Alejandro García-Rivera of JSTB once reminded a group of us, if you ask a group of people of European descent what the major religious event of the 16th century was, they will say "the Reformation," of course. If you ask what the major religious event was for people with roots in this region of the U.S., California, in what is now Texas, in Mexico, and in an entire continent south of here, the answer is "the Conquista." Yes, the Conquista as religious event. The 16th century, century of religious reform, of marrying monks (like Luther) and remarried kings (like Henry), was also the century of military and religious conquest, the century of cultural destruction and cultural blending, the century of Juan Diego and La Virgen de Guadalupe.
This century is Luther’s century.
And here we are, thinking for a few minutes in English at a bilingual Spanish-English liturgy in the chapel of an Anglican seminary on the feast commemorating a 16th century reformer –biblical scholar, Catholic monk, priest, husband and father, teacher, pastor, vigorous actor in the church and in the maelstrom of what our century calls "culture" and "politics." Luther: a lover of good beer and heated conversation, a man schooled in Hebrew, Greek and Latin who offered his theological gifts to his contemporaries in the vernacular German of his day.
Martin Luther: a man of his time, he married at first reluctantly –he was 43 and knew his life was often in danger, not good family potential– and not out of passion –few people did in those days– but grew to love his beloved Katharina von Bora, a.k.a. Katie Luther, with a force we recognize from his later letters as both deep respect and tender intimacy; we might even call it well-seasoned romance.
We honor a reformer whose traces are present –in ways he might find surprising– in one of the books from which I am teaching, edited by a Methodist from Ghana and a Lutheran from Kenya, both women. Katie Luther, no intellectual slouch herself, literate in both German and Latin, might well approve of this recent development. (She was, by the way, both while Martin was at home and while he was off being Luther, the manager of a household that was more like a convention center, hotel, restaurant, brewery, study hall and seminary all rolled into one. Yes, she read Latin and made beer.)
Martin Luther, complex actor and thinker, challenger, brooder, pastor, tender father who with his beloved Katie mourned the death of two daughters, is a reformer for the whole church, the church universal.
Still, we might wonder why he is in our Episcopal calendar, why we claim him as ours. Our own reforming ancestors, those island people, when they imported theology from the Continent, got it shipped in from Geneva –not, for the most part, from Wittenberg.
The reasons we honor Luther with a feast could fill many books. But one of the strongest, which is closely linked to the consoling power of the study of history, is right here in today’s lessons, brought to us by the architects of our lectionary. It sings to us from the Scriptures today. And I do mean "sings," because both the passage from Isaiah and the excerpt from the Gospel of John are vivid and lively, full of images from nature, biblical language at its poetic best.
Luther’s life and work, Luther’s faith, Luther’s struggle and leadership, with their genius and their flaws, are pervaded with a lived and felt sense of the presence, the reality, the truth and the power of the Word of God.
And Martin Luther, far as he may be from our contemporary ways of reading the Bible, was no mere biblicist. The Bible was his byword, but the Bible was not his God. Christ was his God. And Christ for him was God’s living Word. The Bible was God’s word inasmuch as it brought people to Christ. And it did so in history and through history and with the good news of a God of unimaginable grace alive in history. Martin and Katie Luther’s history, Frederic the Great’s history, the history of the conquerors and the history of the conquered, our history.
The Word for Luther is alive, alive as the rains that drench the earth and the seeds of spring carried on the wind, alive as the sap flowing from the heart of the vine to its branches. (1)
The Word is in history. The Word moves history. The Word of God isn’t the word on the page, it’s the power of the Word that leaps off of the page and grabs us. Or draws us in.
This may be hard for us to grasp on days when "word" and "words" evoke for us the burdens rather than the joys of study, scholarship, committee meetings, reports and papers, not to mention the beating that language is taking at the hands of its handlers in politics and media –and, yes, in religion too. This is why we need poetic language, this is why we need sung language, this is why we need the silence between the words. And this is why we need the live memory of Luther, servant of the Word. This is why we need Luther, a man of his time, reminding us that the Word who lived and lives in the world, our world, is an enfleshed word.
You want incarnation? You’ve got incarnation in the life and teaching of Luther. At the same time, paradoxically, along with the Word enfleshed, Luther stressed the otherness of the Word, its distance from us. Just as in Luther’s thought, we have in the reading from Isaiah, along with the images of rain returning and watering the earth, of sprouts and new growth, the language of the otherness of God:
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
Let me share with you Luther’s own words, taken from an essay on what to look for and expect in the Gospel:
The chief article and foundation of the gospel is that
before you take Christ as an example,
you accept and recognize him as a gift,
as a present that God has given you
***–there’s the otherness of the Word–
and that is your own
***–there’s its intimacy–.
This means that when you see or hear of Christ doing or suffering something,
you do not doubt that Christ himself, with his deeds and suffering,
belongs to you.
On this you may depend
as surely as if you had done it yourself;
indeed it is as if you were Christ yourself.
See, this is what it means to have a proper grasp of the gospel,
that is, of the overwhelming goodness of God,
which neither prophet, nor apostle, nor angel was fully able to express,
and which no heart could adequately fathom or marvel at.
This is the great fire of the love of God for us,
whereby the heart and conscience become happy, secure, and content.
This is what preaching the Christian faith means.
This is why preaching is called gospel, which in German
***–Luther wrote, in German–
means a joyful, good, and comforting "message"...(2)
On this day when the birds sing after the earth has been drenched with rain, let the Word in all its richness find a home in us,(3) as we remember Luther, servant of the Word, friend of Christ.
1. The Gospel for the day was the passage from John about the vine and the branches.
2. Martin Luther, "A Brief Instruction on What to Look for and Expect in the Gospels"  in Timothy F. Lull, ed., Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), 104-105.
3."Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly..." Colossians 3:16a.
Note: This sermon was dedicated, with gratitude, to the memory of my teacher, friend and colleague Tim Lull, who died the previous May, and to his wife, my friend Mary-Carlton Lull, who that week was mourning the death of her father in Georgia. I commend to you, besides Tim’s edited selection from Luther’s works, his small and lively book My Conversations with Martin Luther (Augsburg Fortress, 1999).