A Humbler Reformation

Mark was conspicuously absent that Reformation morning.

Reformation Day was his favorite church festival, a day on which our organist blew every stop on the organ and the congregation’s lungs burst singing the great hymns of the Reformation. “A mighty fortress is our God,” we shouted. “Lord, keep us steadfast in your word,” we prayed.  “Out of the depths,” we cried to God.  Mark never missed Reformation Day. 

We could not have known that as we prepared for worship, Mark’s mother, a widow of seven years, was waking to a muffled shout and a dull thump from Mark’s bedroom–her only child’s 47-year-old body falling to the floor.  We could not have known that as we sang the walls of God’s mighty fortress in position, our brother Mark was lying comatose in the local hospital’s emergency room. We could not have known as we prayed for God’s coming kingdom, by nightfall, Mark would be clinically dead, felled by a sudden and lethal virus.

Three days later I sat with his mother as Mark drew his last breath, mercifully released from machines and tubes and needles and heroic medical efforts.  And three days after that, on the eve of All Saints, we gathered in the sanctuary Mark loved, sobbing our way through the hymns and the psalms and the texts that only days before had been shouts and cheers.

Reformation Day. It is not merely an historical romp, a tip of the hat to giants who once roamed the earth, a vague memory of a church untainted by worship wars and divisive decisions and declining membership.

Reformation Day. It is not merely another fall festival, an autumn tradition akin to New England leaf peeping or cider pressing, a first opportunity to pull out the winter wool, to don that worn-to-the-point-of-ratty red blazer.

Reformation Day. We may continue to erect mighty fortresses around ourselves and our ideas. We may strap on our swords and shields, but that old satanic foe is still fully committed to work us woe (A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, verse 1).

Reformation Day. We are poignantly reminded that the earth does change, the mountains still shake in the heart of the sea, its waters roar and foam, the mountains tremble with its tumult. (Psalm 46).

Reformation Day. We celebrate a theological terrorist named Martin Luther, a religious impulse with bloody implications, a scriptural firestorm whose embers still smolder.

Reformation Day.  Three years ago, as we were boldly shouting hymns and pretending to celebrate reform, the life of a faithful and gentle man was slipping away from us. The festival has not been the same since.

There are some among us who imagine we are in a modern-day Reformation, a sifting of truthful wheat from chaff-riddled lies, a rending of orthodoxy from heresy. There are some among us who imagine they know what scripture really means, that they have an inside track on God’s desires for the church, that some of us speak freeing truth while others weave only enslaving falsehoods.

We might be wise to approach this festival with a greater humility than is customary (or comfortable) for us. We might be wise to remember that it was many decades, if not centuries, before the dust settled on Martin Luther and his compatriots, before we knew if their words were world-rattling truth or nothing but a new organizational structure hastily erected on the rubble of the old one. We might be wise to pay attention to the words of our texts and our hymns– they speak of fear and trembling, of God’s power and protection in a dangerous world, of our love for bondage and our disdain for freedom. 

We are not so different from those who rebuffed Jesus’ gracious offer of a place in the household with sneers:”We are children of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone!” (John 8.33)

Those who do not admit their slavery cannot even fathom freedom. When our hands and hearts are bound with chains of holy hubris, we cannot reach for the gift of trembling truth.  It was as true of Martin Luther’s opponents in the sixteenth century as it is today. They clung to self-serving human traditions and cathedral-size fund-raising schemes. We cling to our own human traditions, our own insights, our own foolishness– imagining we alone control scripture and, by controlling scripture, control others and perhaps even God.

Reformation Day.  We celebrate the gift of adoption into God’s family, a family of God’s choosing, not ours. We celebrate the gift of truth, a truth written on our hearts by God’s hand.  We celebrate the gift of reform, God’s tireless efforts to fashion a Christ-like body from these rattling bones, this dusty frame.

Reformation Day will always be for me a sad day. “Were they to take our house, goods, honor, child or spouse” has taken on new meaning since Mark’s life was stripped from him even as we sang. But, more than that I know that none of our boisterous singing or boastful sermons can halt death’s prowl, inscribe even a comma on human hearts, free anyone from anything.   After all, it is not we who do the reforming.

We preach God’s word. This is Christ’s church. We are the slaves needing to be freed.