Martin Luther, 1483-1546

Today is the commemoration of Martin Luther in the Episcopal Church’s calendar. He died on this day in 1546.

My sermon on Sunday elicited two lengthy written comments, both of them addressing what I take to be Christian misinterpretations of the Sermon on the Mount (1–that it is meant only for a spiritual elite, and 2–that it is intended to show us the folly of attempting to live according to good works and thus forces us to ask for God’s grace). I made an offhand (and unscripted comment) critical of Luther on the latter point which elicited both of the replies.

So I want to briefly lay out my gratitude and indebtedness to Luther and take issue with some of his central theological concerns.

I am an Episcopal priest because of Martin Luther. As a young man, I struggled to hear the good news of Jesus Christ in the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition in which I was raised. Reading Luther’s early works helped me to come to a new understanding of faith. Instead of assent to a series of propositions, or a commitment to follow Jesus Christ in a certain way, for Luther, faith is not something we need to do. It is a gift from God, God’s work in us, justifying us before God. Our only task is to trust in God’s promise that God will save us.

Luther opened me to the power of God and the power of God’s grace. Over the years, I’ve come to know and experience God’s grace in my life and in the lives of others. I’ve come to trust in God’s promises and to trust that God can work a new thing in me.

If my personal religious experience and theology were profoundly shaped by Luther, there are also important divergences. I find his focus on God’s grace and on human sinfulness ultimately somewhat narrow and only partially adequate for making sense of God, the world, and humanity. He is too critical of the created world, too quick to see evil in it and to see evil in human effort and accomplishment. He was also too critical of the scholastic tradition and not able to see his own dependence on it.

Reading extensively in Augustine of Hippo deepened my experience and knowledge of the grace of God. Augustine also helped me to think of the relationship between God and humans more three-dimensionally, attributing goodness and beauty to creation in ways that Luther could not.

Why am I an Episcopal priest because of Luther? He provided me with the theological and spiritual tools to begin to recconstruct my Christian faith out of my broken experience as a child and young adult. He gave me the tools to build a bridge from my past Christian life to the present. There were many other tools and building blocks, including many that I brought with me from the church of my upbringing, but Luther helped me see and experience the way forward, to imagine the possibility of a way to cross the river that blocked my path. The path on the other side of the river ultimately led toward the Episcopal Church but without Luther, I couldn’t have begun the journey.

What is one’s true self?

Josh Knobe wrote a piece on the New York Times in which he asked “How is one to know which aspect of a person counts as that person’s true self?” He begins with the example of Mark Pierpont, a Christian who was deeply involved in the ex-gay movement, even though he had to repress his own sexual desires for men. Eventually, Pierpont came out. Knobe uses his example to ask which was Pierpont’s true self, the one that had gay desires, or the one that sought to live according to the “Christian values” he held dear. Most of us would probably say that one’s deepest desires are a reflection of the authentic self, but Knobe wonders. For philosophers, he says, “what is most distinctive and essential to a human being is the capacity for rational reflection.” Knobe has put his ideas to test in the emerging field of experimental philosophy.

His essay has received considerable discussion on the web. A thoughtful perspective is offered by Noah Millman that what is important to recognize is that the conflict within the self is real; perhaps, in fact, the authentic self is conflicted.

This week, I was having a beer with a parishioner and our conversation turned to Augustine. Perhaps it was because I had recently read Knobe’s piece, but as we talked, I was put in mind of Augustine in Confessions, as he tries to deal with his divided will in the moments leading up to his conversion:

The mind commands the body and is instantly obeyed. The mind commands itself and meets resistance. The mind commands the hand to move, and it so easy that one hardly distinguishes the order from its execution. Yet mind is mind and hand is body. The mind orders the mind to will. The recipient of the order is itself, yet it does not perform it. What causes this monstrosity and why does this happen?


A Homily for the First Sunday in Lent, 2011

March 13, 2011
Grace Episcopal Church

As if things couldn’t get any worse. On top of everything that we as individuals and as a community were dealing with, tragedy and crisis continue to accumulate. We woke up Friday to learn of the horrific earthquake and tsunami in Japan; yesterday morning brought the news that a nuclear reactor had exploded. Today, things have gotten even scarier, with reports that two reactors may be in partial meltdown, and others in danger. Closer to home, tragedy struck as well with the death of Vince Puglielli, our friend and neighbor, father of Dave and grandfather of Josh. Like Peter Finch in Network, I want to open up my window and shout, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.” But, there’s not much point in that, because my shouts would be drowned out by all of the other noise on the square.

Lent is supposed to be a time for us to reflect on our faith, to deepen our spiritual lives, to explore new ways of encountering and following Christ. Traditionally, it has been a time of fasting, one of those spiritual disciplines that, like many, has fallen out of favor with contemporary Christians. We may go on diets, even radical ones in order to improve our health, or more often in the quest for achieving a more attractive physique. But to limit our food or drink choices for a spiritual reason seems just a bit odd.

It may be though, that fasting would be inappropriate this Lent, given our context. Oh, I don’t mean a small gesture like giving up chocolate or some other favorite food or beverage. I’m talking about the intense spiritual disciplines that are often associated with Lent. It may be that for many of us, the emotional and spiritual strength needed to sustain us through such a season of fasting is just not there.

What might Lent look like for us this year? In the Ash Wednesday liturgy, I recite what is sometimes called “An Invitation to a Holy Lent.” In that exhortation, a holy Lent is defined by “self-examination and repentance, by prayer, fasting, and self-denial, and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.” All of those are certainly worthy efforts, but in this time, for many of us, it may be that we have no energy left for such things. What might a holy Lent look like for us?

Our lessons invite us to reflect on who we are, as individuals and as humanity—our very human nature. The reading from Genesis includes excerpts from the creation story, actually, the second creation story, in which Yahweh God plants a garden, and creates a human being, Adam, is the Hebrew word for human, to till it and take care of it. To end the man’s loneliness, Yahweh God fashions all manner of animals, and in the end, crafts the woman out of the man’s rib. Then in chapter 3, one of those animals that Yahweh God had previously made, the serpent, the craftiest of them all poses a question to the woman, asking whether God forbad them to eat of anything. When she realizes that the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was beautiful, good to eat, and could make one wise, she ate of it, and gave some to the man, who was with her, and he ate.

We know this story as the Fall. It may explain, at least for those of us in the Western Christian tradition, the origin of sin and evil, but as I used to enjoy telling my students, if it is about original sin, then it’s very interesting that among the words that never appear in the story are apple, Satan, and sin.  Whether or not it describes original sin, and that notion is not present in traditional Jewish interpretation, nor particularly important in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, it is clearly about human nature.

The story reveals something deep and lasting about us. We are innately inquisitive, impulsive, and seek to be independent. All of these things make us who we are. Indeed, one could say that those desires for independence, self-sufficiency, and knowledge are the very yearnings or desires that help us grow and mature. Without them, we would remain as little children, even infants.

There was another temptation that Adam and Eve faced in the garden, something besides the desire for wisdom and self-sufficiency. Eating the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil also promised the possibility that they might become like gods.

As humans, those desires for wisdom, self-sufficiency, and divinity drive us to great lengths. We might say that these desires have created all of human culture, all of the great achievements of civilization. Yet however hard we as individuals and as a race, strive, no matter how much we desire, there remains something beyond our grasp.

I am an Augustinian. That is to say, my theology and my understanding of human nature is profoundly shaped by my encounter with St. Augustine of Hippo. Now that may come as a surprise to some of you and some of you may even find my acknowledgement of that as problematic. If people know anything about Augustine, they tend to think that he is responsible for the West’s hang-ups over sexuality. But that’s a very superficial read. For Augustine, sex is just one way in which we humans seek to fulfill an even deeper yearning, a desire that is in the very core of our being, a desire for God. Because of the fall and because of our sin, we seek to feed our desires in all kinds of ways that ultimately disappoint us, and sometimes damage us deeply. As Augustine puts it in the first paragraph of his Confessions, “my heart was restless until it found its rest in you.”

In the gospel, Jesus is presented with temptations that confront us, as well, at every turn—temptations to be self-sufficient, to have great power and wealth. But the temptations were much more than that. The story of the temptations in the wilderness follows immediately after Jesus’ baptism, when a voice from heaven announced, “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.” Satan came to him in the wilderness and said, “If you are the Son of God….” By rejecting the temptations and that identity with God, Jesus’ relationship with God was confirmed. To put it another way, Jesus dependence on God was reaffirmed.

In Paul’s letter to the Philippians, in a passage where he is commending the love and fellowship that community shares, he urges his readers to have the same mind that was in Christ Jesus:

“who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be grasped,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

This mystery of our faith, the mystery of the cross, may be quite beyond our comprehension, or even our understanding. It is certainly far beyond our imitation. Still, the actions of Jesus Christ beckon to us across the centuries. His ability to reject the temptation to power, wealth, and equality with God helped shape him and confirm him as God’s Son.

Perhaps it is enough, this Lent, in the middle of everything that troubles and worries us, that we take as our Lenten discipline nothing more than reflection on that gift, on that miracle. We know what comes when we grasp for security, power, and wealth. We know our deepest desires can be met not by any of those things.

To desire God. Perhaps this Lent, that is enough. To seek God where God may be found, in the example of Jesus Christ, but, yes, also deep in our own hearts, where, with Augustine, we might say, our hearts were restless until they found their rest in you.