Pastor’s Word

Halloween is fast approaching, and in the Lutheran world, that means Reformation Sunday is almost here! We often think of this as that time when founder Martin Luther started the Lutheran Church, but the truth is that Luther never actually wanted to start a whole new church. He loved the church he had grown up in and been ordained in, but saw significant problems and corruptions, and his goal when he went and posted his 95 Theses was not to write his exit papers, but to call the church to change.
 
And, the church did need to change! Practices of selling indulgences—preying on fears and offering the chance to buy forgiveness and a place in heaven for yourself or a loved one—were common. Grace as Luther had come to understand it was a foreign concept, leaving people to earn God’s love. Lay people did not have access to scriptures, as the Bible was available only in Latin. The unquestioned authority of the pope left room for corruption to run rampant within the church, in many ways.
 
Luther, having had an awakening to the mysteries of God’s grace and love after many years of personal struggle, wanted to start dialogue in the church he loved, and he did this in the way that academics of his day often did: posting the 95 Theses, his points of challenge and debate, on the doors of the Wittenberg castle church, on October 31, 1517.
 
And debate the church did, if not in the way Luther may have hoped for! Luther lost friends and mentors and was eventually cast out of the Roman Church, and even found himself hiding at Wartburg Castle for nine months as church leaders sought not to dialogue but to silence through death—which truth be told was just about the only way they could have prevented Luther from talking. A point of interest . . . he wrote A Mighty Fortress is our God during his time at Wartburg!
 
Luther has given us many gifts: hymns, an understanding of grace, a commitment to have the Bible translated into the languages of the people, and so much more. And ultimately, his challenge to the Roman Church even allowed me as a Catholic kid to grow up in a very different church from what my parents experienced, as the reformation reached even into the Vatican walls, nearly 450 years later.
 
But perhaps the most important lesson we can learn from Luther is that the church is made up of human beings, and ultimately we humans will never be perfect. We must, as people and a church, always be reforming. Luther himself was certainly not perfect. Most notable is his unapologetic anti-Semitism. Luther scholar Lyndal Roper points out in his book Living I Was Your Plague: Martin Luther’s World and Legacy that Luther’s anti-Semitic thought was not incidental, but “rather suffused different areas of his thought and feeling. It encompassed both gut instinct and carefully worked out argument . . . “
 
We need to own this part of our history not to discount the gifts we as Lutherans have received from our founder, but to remember that 500 years later we still have work to do as people of God seeking to live out our Christian faith. Anti-Semitism still manifests itself today, and racism, sexism, homo- and trans-phobia, and abuses of power are continual sins to acknowledge and repent of.
 
500 years ago, Martin Luther walked to the Wittenberg Church and made his stand, claiming for the world to see that God was calling God’s people to reform, to recognize the human brokenness within the church itself and seek God’s forgiveness and the truth of the Gospel. Today, 504 years later, we as Lutherans are called to continue reforming, in the greatest tradition of Martin Luther. So grab your hammer and nails, and let’s get to work!