We come once more to that Sunday out of the year when we get to glory in our Lutheran-ness: Reformation Sunday. We might indulge in some German or Scandinavian food but certainly we will sing A Mighty Fortress and preach the Gospel. We are the church of Solus Christus, Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, and Sola Scriptura.
I think that in the hagiography of our tradition, we often focus on the young Luther, the rebel who stood up to Charles V and wrote the fiery treatises which provided the intellectual bases for the undoing of Medieval Catholicism, or we focus on the more mature Luther, the fellow who wrote the Catechisms and presided over the maturing Lutheran movement from Wittenberg. But there is another time in Luther’s life, the bit between, which happens to have been 500 years ago in 1523. Diarmaid McCullough, whose book “The Reformation” I highly recommend, calls this the “Carnival Time.” Luther had between 1518 and 1522 broken a dam of frustration and anger in central Europe. Times were changing very rapidly and it felt like everything was up for grabs. Some were suggesting that marriage itself was outdated, that polygamous relationships were acceptable, that governments should be overthrown, populist movements were forming spontaneously, and there was a whiff of rebellion in the air. Sound familiar?
Luther would navigate this time, but not without some scars. He waded into the conflict between the peasants and the nobility in 1524 and was almost overwhelmed by it. The movement which derives its name from him, finds itself facing a similar time of societal and political upheaval. Institutions which looked so firm and enduring even 10 years ago are shaking. The government seems paralyzed by division. The world seems to be erupting in violence. My city’s streets are filled with trash and the tents of people addicted to fentanyl. The Church likewise seems riven and in decline.
Luther navigated that time by remaining faithful to the things which God had said to him: Grace, Faith, Word, and especially Christ – these alone mattered when things were shaking and the very ground beneath his feet seemed to be collapsing. Take a moment to focus on Psalm 46, with those dramatic lines about the earth giving way and the mountains being hurled into the sea. When his world was shaking apart and the mountains were being thrown into the sea (Wittenberg means “white mountain”) Luther turned to the mighty fortress, his Rock and Salvation.