Reforming our Faith and Action

Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd                                               Oct. 29, 2017

Psalm 46, Romans 3:21-25a, 28

The world was in turmoil. Conflict was breaking out everywhere. Political leaders jostled for power at the expense of the people. Such was King David’s world.

David was one of the leaders who frequently went into battle, sometimes losing, sometimes winning, always at the loss of too many lives. But David was not only a warrior. He was also a musician, a songwriter. He played the lyre. Our psalms are attributed to him and they reflect his anguish, his doubts, his jubilation, and his praise of God.

Psalm 46 was written in the midst of great conflict and environmental disasters. David was afraid. He knew that he could not lead his people through the conflict unless he, himself, was confident in God. And so, his preparation as a King was to compose and sing a song that helped assure him of God’s presence. “Be still and know that I am God,” he wrote. Out of this soul-soothing grounding in God, he could then be assured that God would eventually bring a time of peace to all people. Only when he, himself, was spiritually prepared, could he be the leader that his people needed.

Fast forward 2500 years. Once again, the world was in turmoil. Conflict was breaking out everywhere. Political leaders jostled for power at the expense of the people. Such was Martin Luther’s world.

Like King David, Martin Luther was both an outspoken, bold leader and a deeply penitent, faith-filled worshipper. Luther entered law school, according to his father’s demands, even though Luther was favouring theology. One day, he was riding horseback through a thunderstorm when a lightening bolt struck close beside him. “Help! Saint Anna!” he yelled, “I will become a monk!” (Not the first thing I would have yelled, should I be almost struck by lightening—which I was—almost—but that’s another story for another time) Much to his father’s chagrin, this vow to St. Anna gave him the gumption (and the excuse) to leave law school, become a monk and eventually a theological professor at the University of Wittenberg.

During his studies, Luther agonized over his soul’s salvation. He spent long hours in confession and fasting, convinced that he was not good enough to find salvation. He began to pour through the scripture. As he studied the book of Romans, he suddenly had an “aha”. God’s salvation didn’t come through being a good person, following every rule and law fastidiously, punishing himself severely when he made mistakes. No—God’s salvation came through God’s grace alone. It was not based on anything he did. It was almost like a Scrooge moment, when he felt giddy and light-headed. He could see himself joining King David in his dance for joy. He had been trying so hard to be accepted by God, and God had accepted him all along.

Then he read Psalm 46 including that famous verse, “Be still and know that I am God.” Luther was still haunted by his demons of the past—demons of doubt, fear and failure. But Psalm 46 assured him that God would help him overcome these demons. This psalm inspired him to write both the words and music to a hymn that has since inspired the world: A Mighty Fortress is our God.

Once Luther had found a soul-soothing relationship of grace with God, he knew that his spiritual fight was preparing him for action. God was not content with a private faith. Rather, Luther knew that the Christian faith calls us into the political arena of justice. He jumped into action with a vengeance. He was incensed at the abuses of the state and the church, which were intertwined in their collusion of power. Rome was in the process of building St. Peter’s Basilica and was in desperate need of funding. The church leaders came up with a plan. They would sell indulgences, where people could buy their way out of purgatory: “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” Luther detested hearing this popular rhyme. Against this and many other abuses of the church, Martin Luther wrote 95 Theses, which he then publicized—perhaps by nailing on the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral on October 31, 1517, exactly 500 years ago this Tuesday.

Luther was aware of other reformers in other countries who had voiced similar concerns, some of whom were burned at the stake as heretics. He knew that he, too, risked his life. He was taken to trials, excommunicated and then kidnapped by friends who hid him away and gave him a safe, secret place where he could write and translate the Latin Bible into German. This led to another great accomplishment—the distribution, through the recently invented printing press, of the Bible in the language of the people. Luther taught the priesthood of all believers. This means that no one needs to go through a priest to reach God or to hear scripture. Rather, everyone can pray directly to God and read scripture themselves. Protestants and Roman Catholics owe much to the reforms of Martin Luther.

Luther did have his faults and anti-Semitism was one of his worst. His writings were used hundreds of years later to support the Nazi holocaust. Our gratitude for his courage and vision in establishing a Protestant Church must be tempered by an acknowledgement of his anti-Semitism.

Fast forward another 500 years to today. Still, the world is in turmoil. Conflict is breaking out everywhere. Political leaders jostle for power at the expense of the people. Such is our world.

King David and Martin Luther have taught us how to negotiate such a world. First, we must attend to our own soul. Both David and Luther spent much time in prayer. It was only out of a place of soul-soothing assurance of God’s presence that they could then turn their gaze on the world. We sometimes forget this spiritual grounding in our passion to respond to the world. My partner knows when I don’t take time to pray and meditate before I head out into the day. I’m more easily distracted and frustrated if I’m not living out of a soul-soothing assurance of God’s presence

The second thing that David and Luther have taught us is that our faith requires us to live it out in our world. Ours has never been a private faith. Rather, it has always called Christians to action. When we see injustice happening around us, when minorities are threatened, when leaders abuse their power, our Christian faith urges us to respond. Christ Jesus risked his life, time and time again, to stand with the woman accused of adultery, the prostitutes considered disposable, even the rich tax collectors shunned by the faithful. He called both the civil and religious leaders to change their unjust economic system that benefitted the powerful and kept the majority in desperate poverty. Our silence in the face of injustice betrays Christ. If we follow him as Lord, we must say with Martin Luther, “Here we stand. We can do no other.”

Where might God be calling us to action today? What theses would you like to post on the door of our church? of our government? of our own homes?