Although counseled by friends not to appear at the trial, Martin Luther made his way to the city called Worms to a crowd who greeted him as a hero and a tribunal with the power to put him to death. He was facing charges of heresy on account of his defiance of papal authority. At that trial he delivered his most famous speech, concluding with these words:
“Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the Pope or in the councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.” Some reports have him adding, “I cannot do otherwise, here I stand.” And then, “May God help me. Amen.” (Martin Luther: A Life, by Martin Marty, p. 68)
Here I stand. Luther was clear.
What about you? Where do you stand? What ground can hold your life and propel you to action?
It is a fracturing and fraying time, what with mass shootings and sexual assaults filling our lives and the focus of our prayers. It is a tense time in a world where some base their attitudes on “alternative facts,” as if we have the right to make up a reality to conform to our own biases. This fall some college kids have entered schools that are banning fraternities and sororities, what with the level of chaos and alcohol abuse. In a day and time when so much seems to be fraying at the edges if not completely falling apart, what holds us together? What ground can hold your life?
OK. We are at church and the expected answer is “Jesus” or “love.” A child regular at a Protestant church is prone to answer any question in a children’s sermon with those words: “Jesus” or “love.” Even though that’s not a bad answer to many of our struggles, many are prone to respond, “Nice idea but how do you know?” or “What Jesus are you talking about? His name is used for so many things. Even the KKK puts Jesus on their side.”
I admire the persons who are so deeply grounded in faith, life and personal integrity that they know who they are and what they are to be about. “Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread; or sit in the seat of scoffers,” the psalmist announces. In contrast, the psalmist goes on, blessed are those who find that “their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night.” These are strong and well grounded people. In the words of the psalmist, “They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in their season and their leaves do not wither.” Grounded. Planted near life giving streams. That is what a living faith is all about.
I vividly remember the tears, the passion and the strength of the family I visited outside of Cape Town, South Africa with our minister friend Jan de Waal. This was many years ago during the struggle to bring down apartheid. We were on a call to the home of a black pastor, his social worker wife and their seventeen year old son, Jan. The boy had just returned home after some months of hiding. With the security police now gone from their street, they agreed that he could sneak back home. His offense: he had accepted a position in the student government at his high school, a student group that had organized boycotts to protest the Apartheid government and the apartheid system of public education. The discussion we entered into was if he would continue in his school position. His parents were scared for him and said that it would be wise and even appropriate for him to step down. But, the boy’s parents added that he was raised in Sunday school and was always told to do the right, honorable and faithful thing. Through tears, they agreed that he would continue. My friend Jan reminded that teen that the struggle needed strong leaders more than dead heroes. We prayed and left. To this day I marvel how they could be so grounded in faith and hope and loyalty to make such hard decisions. “Here I stand” that young man boldly, naively and faithfully announced.
Paul, the apostle Paul, that is, reminded Timothy that he had been through it all – grounded in faith and love yet suffering all kinds of troubles on account of his commitment to following Jesus. Then, he threw out a piece of advice: “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”
It is a great, short line. The Bible is inspired by God … not delivered by God. So much for the literalists. And the end goal is not to flee to heaven but for the purpose of being “equipped for every good work.”
Let’s stay with the Bible for a moment. If you have ever tried to read through all 66 books of the Bible you know that it can be quite the slog. (A number of us are doing this year - we are currently in Isaiah in the Hebrew text and the Pastoral Epistles in the Christian scriptures). Yes, it is tough to work through it all! Parts of the Bible are dreadful – wars, genocide and sexual abuse – parts that are deeply moving – from the intimate history of people like Ruth and Naomi, to much of the poetry and the profound teachings of Jesus – and some parts that seems to go on and on, like Proverbs, what one person described as being on a long road trip with your mother, what with the endless stream of repetitive advice.
Yet, there is an advantage of slogging through all 66 books. The biggest advantage is to discover that the Bible is an on-going argument. In Chronicles, Manasseh repents and becomes a righteous leader (II Chronicles 33); in Kings he is a scoundrel to the end (II Kings 21). But the argument is deeper than differing political opinions. Many of the prophets take on the fundamental assumptions of the sacrificial laws of the Torah, the basis of Temple worship. I end each service with the words from Micah to go into the world “to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God.” It is a fine summary of what we are to be about but take note of the context. Backing up in chapter six, Micah also states what God does not want, namely, burnt offerings, calves a year old, ten thousand rivers of oil or ones’ first born (yes, a bit of exaggeration here). Micah directly challenges the sacrificial code laid out earlier in the Bible. Then Jesus comes along and challenges Sabbath laws, summing up what all the laws are really about in the command to love God and love neighbor. Later Paul confronts the holiness code of who is clean and who is unclean, blowing open the doors to the Gentile world. To be grounded in the Bible is to argue with it. To be grounded in the text is to enter into the stream of those who wrestle with the word and tradition to wring out a blessing for each new day. We wrestle with the Bible, joining the long stream of interpreters, in order to be “equipped for every good work.” We join Micah who confronted the sacrificial laws and Jesus who freed the text with love and Paul who found in a Jewish text the seeds of a universal faith. We join with Martin Luther and John Knox, the reformer from Scotland, to oppose the abuse of power in church and in state and we make company with saints like Dorothy Day who advocated for the rights of workers and that other Martin Luther …. King, who found in scripture the solid ground to oppose the evil called racism.
Near the end of his life and in a reflective mood, Martin Luther concluded:
I simply taught, preached and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything. (Marty, p. 86)
Luther is being more than modest; he is affirming that bold faith is entering into the stream of the faithful and the living spirit of God that has been around for centuries and will continue long after our fleeting contributions. A solid ground is ground much bigger than the small turf we call self. The good news for this day is that each of us is invited into the strength and power of a great river of righteousness and stream of justice. Luther knew that. John Knox, who carried the Reformer’s message from Geneva to Scotland, knew that. The river is always rough and the stream messy. It is always within a torrent of political intrigue: Luther was protected by a spirit of German nationalism as much as Christian fervor and Knox’s Scot Confession was as much about Scottish nationalism as it was Christian purity. In fact this Kirkin of the Tartan that we celebrate today is all about the never ending English-Scottish battles, long ago fueled by English – French alliances as today’s arguments are about EU as the English back out and the Scots want in. The river always includes rocks and rapids and the streams can get polluted. Our strength is not found standing alone but in entering that river of righteousness and the stream of justice, what Luther called the living Word.
In the way that I imagine that Jesus would be quite embarrassed to know that we call ourselves Christian and not followers of God, I imagine that Luther might be a bit chagrin to know that roughly 72 million people on the planet call themselves “Lutheran.” For Jesus and folks like Luther call us into the river of those seeking to love God and the stream of those whose passion is to love neighbor. Any preacher who claims to have all the truth and any leader, who claims that allegiance is to him or her, not only miss the point but are dangerous. The ground is bigger than the small turf called self. Our grounding, our foundation, our strength is discovered within the river of righteousness and stream of justice.
Yes, it is a fracturing and fraying time. Evil is not too strong a word to describe part of what is coming our way. It is good to know that we are provided solid ground that can hold our lives. It is life saving news to discover the waters that can carry a life.