Homily for Reformation Sunday Vespers
October 28, 2018, Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, New York City
The Rev. R. Guy Erwin, Ph.D
Text: Psalm 46
God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be moved,
and though the mountains shake in the depths of the sea;
though its waters rage and foam,
and though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be shaken;
God shall help it at the break of day.
The nations rage, and the kingdoms shake;
God speaks, and the earth melts away.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our stronghold.
Come now, regard the works of the Lord,
what desolations God has brought upon the earth;
behold the one who makes war to cease in all the world;
who breaks the bow, and shatters the spear, and burns the shields with fire.
“Be still, then, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations; I will be exalted in the earth.”
The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our stronghold.
What can it possibly mean for us today to say with the Psalmist: “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold”? Today especially these words give me very mixed feelings: on the one hand, I desperately want a powerful, protective God to come down and stop the madness I see on every hand — to still the hatred and shame the impunity and — most of all — to stop the killing; and on the other hand, I know that to conjure up God’s power for the sake of my own righteous indignation in the face of injustice would be to add violence to violence.
But it must be acknowledged that we live in a time of uncertainty and anxiety in which we need to call on all the spiritual resources we have to keep our balance and our sanity and our compassion. The murders yesterday in the synagogue in Pittsburgh are a devastating reminder of the power of evil. It is no wonder that the powerful image of a God who looks after and protects God’s own from the enemies they face has been compelling to Jews and Christians for centuries. And in times of crisis and anxiety, belief in a protecting (and sometimes an avenging) God has been a powerful consolation to those who live in fear.
Almost five centuries ago, in the midst of the Reformation that Lutherans remember on this weekend in October, Martin Luther found the words of the 46th Psalm inspiring in his own time of uncertainty and crisis. He Christianized the words-as was the custom in Christian interpretation of the psalms — seeing the power and the protection the psalm promises as embodied in the person of Jesus the Christ — for Luther the defender of a threatened people against the demonic forces that encircled and threatened them.
For Luther, this meant his own small band of preachers and teachers who had challenged the power of an entrenched hierarchy at the risk of their lives, and knew themselves surrounded by authority, power, and wealth far greater than that of their supporters. Their liberating proclamation of God’s grace, as freely given to an undeserving humanity through sheer divine mercy, was deeply threatening to a church whose power and wealth depended on its claim to be able to apply God’s favor (or judgment) to individuals by its own authority.
So Luther rewrites the idea of a God with armies in the heavens and turns it, in his famous hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” into a song in praise of Jesus, the one who alone gives God’s people hope for protection and rescue and safety. It’s still a militant song, but one that turns the battle into a cosmic, and not a tribal one-and it reminds us that human abilities alone are insufficient to hold the world’s evil at bay — divine assistance is required.
Both Psalm 46 and Luther’s hymn also understand the struggle between good and evil in the world to be a never-ending struggle. But in a significant way, neither one really describes what a world in which God’s righteousness prevails would be like. Instead, both prepare the faithful for a protracted, even eternal struggle between good and evil. For me, this both helps us face the struggles of our own time, while reminding us that a clear victory of the good remains an aspiration, it is not a near likelihood.
There’s a tragic irony in the fact that the same Luther whose great hymn, drawn from this powerful psalm, was also at the end of his life a writer of anti-Jewish texts. We who stand in his tradition reject these ideas, and do not consider them either valid or central to Luther’s theology — and it should be said that the devils whom Luther thought filled his world are not the ones he imagined — today they are the demons of anti-Semitism, racism, and homophobia — that mar our world.
The forces that seek to divide us, that promote violence among us, and that benefit from our fear and anxiety, are very strong and may seem impossible to resist. But the Psalmist and Luther both provide us with a powerful image of a God who strengthens God’s people by showing them love, by being with them in their uncertainty and fear, and who promises them ultimately better, safer times — both here on earth, and in a new creation yet to come.
“Be still, then, and know that I am God; I will be exalted above the nations; I will be exalted in the earth.” God calls us to reflection as well as action, to know that justice will win and righteousness prevail, and compassion will govern our society. Even in the depths of our uncertainty and fear, God’s love holds up the hope of a new world, free from fear and hate.
This psalm envisions a world in which war has ceased and quietness prevails; in which the nations are made glad by the stream of living waters God provides them, a world where our families and homes are safe from violence — all these are the things for which God’s people long and hope to receive from God’s mercy-and indeed they are the promises God makes to us. But the God who promises them is not just a dispenser of good things but — far more — promises to be with us in our struggle to make these hoped-for things a reality in our own world.
The God who promises us refuge and safety does not promise to keep us out of the struggle-indeed, God invites us to get into the arena and engage in the struggle between truth and falsehood; between good and evil; between violence and peacefulness — and promises to stand with us in our efforts to make things better. The God of the 46th Psalm (and of Martin Luther) promises not to abandon us in our our efforts to make our world a better and safer and more just place. May we live in that promise today, and tomorrow — when we arise again in hope, to face the challenge anew. Amen.
From Pittsburgh to Portland, and around the world, Jews are living in fear. Anti-Semitism is on the rise. Public acts of hatred and bigotry against Jews are commonplace. As Christians, and particularly as Lutherans, we deplore and reject this bigotry. “We recognize in anti-Semitism a contradiction and affront to the Gospel, a violation of our hope and calling, and we pledge this church to oppose the deadly working of such bigotry, both within our own circles and in the society around us” (1994 Declaration of the ELCA to the Jewish Community).
In the long history of Christianity there exists no more tragic development than the treatment accorded the Jewish people on the part of Christian believers. Very few Christian communities of faith were able to escape the contagion of anti-Judaism and its modern successor, anti-Semitism. Lutherans belonging to the Lutheran World Federation and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America feel a special burden in this regard 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.