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You’ll find that Lutheran worship is often very similar to Catholic mass. The Lutheran church is part of the “liturgical tradition.”

Join us for Sundary Worship:
8:00, 9:30, 11:00am

Holy Spirit Lutheran Church is located on the corner of 100th Ave and 124th Street.

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Rainbow Kids (Preschool) available during 9:30am service

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Time 4 Tweens (6th Grade) available during 9:30am service

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Reformation500Palooza

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For the past few months, Lutheran clergy and musicians and church staff have been gearing up for the Big Deal Lutheran Festival of 2017: the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. In this case, we’re counting October 31, 1517 as day one: the day on which Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, hoping to start a conversation with church officials about abuses he thought needed to be addressed. Instead, he kicked off one of the most significant revolutions in Western civilization.

 

Apart from this excuse to sing ‘A Mighty Fortress,’ wear red, quote Luther (who was regularly so colorful in his language that you can’t always quote him from the pulpit), and learn about a significant historical event, why do we still care? Why does it matter what Luther did, when we are so consumed daily with what we should do here and now? Is this just a historical nostalgia, looking back on the good old days of booming Protestant churches?

 

It could easily be just that, yes. But if we can avoid that temptation, there is still a lot to learn from Luther: his theological ideas, his social revolution, his terrible mistakes, and his commitment to the ongoing reform of the church. So, let’s take a short look at each of those.

 

Luther’s Theological Ideas

In the mid 1300’s, the Black Death began to decimate the population of Europe. Priests did the work to which they were called; they visited the sick and comforted the dying, and as a result, between 60-80% of the priests in Europe died. Eager to fill so many pulpits, the church ordained men (and it was all men at the time) who were barely educated and rarely trained. As a result, both priests and people in Luther’s time had little to no knowledge of the bible. Meanwhile, the church was raising money and resorted to charging people for forgiveness: one of the primary abuses Luther named in his Theses. The church was a mess: using the fear of a righteous, angry God to keep people in line and obedient. Luther spent much of his young life in that very same fear. Eventually, he discovered in the book of Romans the revolutionary claim that God’s righteousness was not a demand but a gift: not a characteristic to be feared, but the source of life. This changed everything for Luther.

 

By now, many Protestants take this insight for granted. Of course God is gracious to us! But do we live this way? Do we live as if grace, mercy, and forgiveness orient our lives? Do we live freed from the fear of pleasing God, pleasing others – freed to be radical about justice, hope, and new life?

 

One of the movements I am deeply grateful for in these days – and one I believe is continuing the work of Luther toward radical reform – is the Decolonize Lutheranism movement. For many years, being Lutheran has become synonymous with being Scandinavian, German, or midwestern; with liking (or enduring) lutefisk, lefse, and beer. In other words, being Lutheran has been synonymous with being white. And yet, for many years, the Lutheran movement has been alive and vibrant as a global movement. Luther’s theological insights – and those of the Lutheran church – are not limited to any particular ethnicity or culture. The Lutheran World Federation represents 72 million Lutherans around the globe – only about 4 million of those live in the United States. We hope to have a Decolonize event at Holy Spirit in 2018: watch for more about this important and reformation-al conversation.

 

Luther’s Social Revolution

In 2009, I was fortunate to be able to travel with a group from HSLC to several cities which were significant in Luther’s life. As a lifelong, seminary-educated Lutheran, I felt pretty confident in what I knew about Luther. I could rattle off theological catchphrases like a pro. I could sing all the verses of ‘A Mighty Fortress.’

 

I had a lot to learn.

 

Primarily, I learned how much Luther is valued in Germany not for his religious influence, but for his contributions to public education and the German language. Since then, I have also learned how much of the Reformation was social: that the changes Luther made in religious life had huge societal implications. Luther, for example, advocated for the closure of monasteries and convents because he believed that there was too much hierarchy in religious life. Monks and nuns were viewed as holier than ordinary people, and Luther found this dangerous. But once those monasteries and convents began to close, people realized that those religious orders had provided enormously valuable social services, including hospitals, education, and care for the poor.

 

The ’Lutherans’ (who didn’t quite use that term for themselves yet) in one particular German town wrote to Luther about how to handle this. In response, Luther turned to one of his theological convictions – that we are justified before God by grace – and determined that it had social implications. When we live into this gift, we are turned toward the needs of our neighbor. Eventually, the town created a community chest – a form of taxation in which all would contribute toward the needs of others. “In effect,” says one writer, “the people of Leisnig were inspired by Luther’s reform to create the first program of social assistance.”

 

Luther also called for free public education (again, funded by the community) for both boys and girls. He reprimanded political leaders for their selfish pursuit of profits at the expense of others. He praised the economic and homemaking skills of his wife, Katie, without whom he would likely have starved (she ran a brewery and took in student boarders to make ends meet for the family).

 

Luther saw no distinction between what was religious and what was political. This partly comes from the time in which he lived, of course. Religious and political power were intimately connected. But he pushes us now, when we so often try to divide the two. Luther was utterly unafraid to be politically radical.

 

For more, consider reading Radical Lutherans/Lutheran Radicals, edited by Jason Mahn (from which the quote about Leisnig is taken). It’s available in our church library.

 

Luther’s Big Mistakes

How much time have you got?

 

Luther did make big mistakes. Chief among them are the virulently anti-Semitic writings that marked the later years of his life. Some scholars note that these were written after the death of Luther’s 13-year old daughter, Magdalena – a loss from which he never recovered. But while that gives some context to his words, it does not excuse them. In 1994, the ELCA officially repudiated his anti-Semitic writings and apologized to the Jewish community. We must acknowledge that this part of Luther’s body of work has caused deep harm and contributed to generations of anti-Semitism among Protestants.

 

Luther was inconsistent. Unlike some later reformers, he never wrote an organized, systematic set of volumes on his theological insights. Instead, he responded to situations, and events which bothered him, or to questions from people and communities. While Luther was clear about the gospel work of serving those who were poor, he also sided with the German princes when thousands of peasants, inspired by the freedoms Luther had called for, revolted in 1524. Between 100,000-300,000 peasants died in the revolt. Though Luther supported some of the claims of the peasants, he felt their actions were too violent. Many say that he betrayed his own ideals by siding with the status quo.

 

Though Luther did remarkable things in his life, he was also deeply wrong about important things. Celebrating this 500th anniversary is not about worshipping Luther or ignoring his faults. He was far from perfect, and we must be honest about this.

 

Ongoing Reform

Given that Luther himself never wanted anyone to call themselves “Lutheran,” preferring the term ‘Evangelical,’ Luther would probably be horrified by so many of us rushing to celebrate events of the past. Luther himself never wanted to leave the Catholic church, but to reform it.

 

The best way to celebrate the Reformation is not to look backward, but forward; not to focus on what Luther did, but what we can do. How can we be as radical as Luther was, in both religious and social life? How can we push the powers of our day toward the care of neighbor? How can we be open to the challenge and new life of God’s Spirit, even when it makes us uncomfortable? If Reformation isn’t over, but just beginning, how are you part of the re-forming work of God in the world right now?

 

Pastor Katy

 

For a quick overview of Luther’s life and legacy, read this article from the New Yorker.

 

 

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