3 West 65th St | New York, NY 10023 | 212.877.6815

“The Truth Will Make You Free”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“The Truth Will Make You Free”
John 8: 31-36
500th Commemoration of the Reformation
October 29, 2017
Bach Vespers (Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott)

Please let me say to you, “Happy 500th Anniversary of the Reformation.”

And, while I am at it, please excuse any Lutherans sitting near you who sang “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” a bit too rambunctiously for your taste.  We simply cannot help ourselves as we ruminate on our fearless leader, Herr Doktor Martin Luther.  We love his vigor against Pope Leo X; we adore his courage, standing before Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and proclaiming, “I cannot do otherwise. Here I stand. May God help me, Amen;” we revere his towering intellect, translating the Bible into the German vernacular.  Forgive us, please, at least tonight, for being a bit more boisterous than is typical for us pokerfaced Lutherans as we cheer for our guy, the fellow who turned the world upside down.

We Lutherans, by the way, have gotten into hot water over the years, making claims about Luther similar to those who stood before Jesus and said, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone.”  We have sung grandiose things at worship as our choir just did; were you paying attention to what they sang: “Long live Luther, long live Melanchthon!  Long live you luminaries of this land!”—and I am told the uncensored version actually has something, that the sopranos sang, about giving honor to the Elector Frederick the Wise—that can’t possibly be Psalm 119 as it states in our bulletin, can it?

On his best days, Luther would censure us for raising our beer steins too high in his honor.  It was he, after all, who warned: “People should not call themselves Lutherans, but Christians…How did I, poor stinking bag of maggots that I am, come to the point where people call the children of Christ by my evil name?”

Oh, the dangers of this 500th observance of the Reformation.  I don’t need to tell you the other side of Luther, the outrageous and bombastic, arrogant and horrid side.  Think of the tragic fault lines between Lutheran and Roman Catholic; think of the ecclesiastic squabbles that have led to horrific wars.  You have likely experienced similar family brawls, all because we claim to bear a greater truth than someone else.

And there is the other abhorrent part, Luther’s anti-Semitism.  Some of Luther’s writings on the Jewish people are so vile that our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America declared in 1994: “Lutherans feel a special burden because of certain elements in the legacy of the reformer Martin Luther and the catastrophes, including the Holocaust of the twentieth century, suffered by Jews in places where the Lutheran churches were strongly represented.”

If we are honest about the Reformation and, believe it or not, if we are true to Luther, we must tell the truth because, after all, we proclaim truth-telling will make us all free.  And the truth is that Luther was human, very much so.

A few months ago, I attended a lecture by the Luther scholar Thomas Kaufmann who teaches at the University of Göttingen in Germany.  One participant was particularly exasperated by Luther’s anti-Semitism.  Professor Kaufmann simply said, “Say goodbye to Luther the hero!”

In our apologies for Luther’s anti-Semitism, our Lutheran church also noted: “Luther proclaimed a gospel for people as we really are, bidding us to trust a grace sufficient to reach our deepest shames and address the most tragic truths.”

That’s the good side of Luther, the truth that proclaims that all our heroes—including us!—are clay-feeted. We can be breathtakingly courageous and remarkably brilliant one day and pathetically cowardly and disgustingly offensive the next.

The Lutheran legacy we celebrate on this 500th anniversary of the Reformation is that God never gives up on us.  As he so often did, Luther said it best, “God can carve the rotten wood and ride the lame horse.”

One of my favorite books is Graham Greene’s “The Power and the Glory.”  It is about “a seedy little half-baked, cowardly, adulterous, whiskey priest in revolutionary Mexico.”   Frederick Buechner writes: “Every life he touches is somehow brought a little more to life by his presence, making him a saint in a way, not a saint in the sense of a plaster saint, of a haloed saint, but a saint in the sense of a person as mixed up as the rest of us through whom, nonetheless, God’s grace was able to work.”

Luther was like the whisky priest as, by the way, is the church on earth and as are we all.  The wonder is that God makes music through scoundrels and vagabonds, ragamuffins and jailbirds, Luther and Bach, and, yes, you and me. Our music-making, each in our own way, is as wondrous and brilliant as Luther’s “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott.”  For that alone, it is well worth celebrating this 500th observance of the Reformation.  As we lift our beer steins high, let us give glory to God alone on this 500th anniversary of the Reformation.