This past Thursday evening, I went downtown to the After Hours at the museum annex to celebrate the grand opening of the museum’s newest addition: the Okey Room. Sadly, I got there too late to see the official ribbon cutting – but I did get there in time to get a thorough tour of the room from Mr. Lloyd Brichacek. It was very interesting! I never got to know Dr. Okey, because he died a few months before I moved to Schuyler, but it was fascinating to learn more about his veterinary practice. There was a lot I didn’t know. Even though I grew up in Nebraska, I was a “town kid” – so a lot of the instruments in the exhibit were new to me; and some of them were downright horrifying. (Although I have to admit that I did find the bloat needle a little bit amusing – I’m not to old to laugh at the idea of a mechanically assisted cow fart.)
But Lloyd said something during the tour that kind of stuck with me. He made the comment that Dr. Okey himself probably would have been really surprised to see the exhibit. He would have been surprised to see all his veterinary tools laid out so neatly on shelves in a museum, each with its own little label to explain what it was used for. For 54 years, he’d just been doing his job. The objects in this museum exhibit were just the tools of his daily life. They were just part of the messiness and unpredictability and craziness that I would imagine comes with being a veterinarian in rural Nebraska. He probably didn’t think of his own life as “history” to be preserved in a museum.
Today, we remember a piece of our history together as a church: the Reformation. And I can’t help but think that Martin Luther probably would have also found it strange to see how the Reformation – and he himself – is remembered now. In the first place, I think he would have found it especially weird that not just one, but several denominations of the church are now named after him! The term “Lutheran” actually started out as a derogatory term, coined by Luther’s rivals. Luther himself preferred to use the term “evangelical” to describe the movement.
And Luther didn’t set out to start a movement, and he certainly never meant to start a new church. He was just an ordinary guy living his life in the 16th century. Luther was definitely no saint. He was a faithful Catholic who loved the church, and his deep faith eventually led him to become a monk. But over time, Luther started to feel anxious and guilty and worried about his salvation. He even started going to confession multiple times a day. He felt despair that he could never do enough, never be good enough, to be justified in God’s sight. I’m sure he didn’t feel like a guy that anyone would want to name a whole church after.
Luther began to see things differently when he took a closer look at some of the scriptures, like the text we read today from Romans. Paul writes, “no human being will be justified in God’s sight by deeds prescribed by the law… For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” Luther realized that nothing he could do or say would ever justify him in God’s sight – instead, God had already justified him by grace.
This truth set Luther free and lifted a weight of guilt from his heart. He realized that the church’s teachings needed to change. And so he wrote what later became known as the 95 Theses to explain his disagreements with church doctrine, and to explain his understanding of justification by grace.
I doubt Luther would have ever imagined how utterly chaotic his life would become as a result. In just a few short years, he was excommunicated from the church he had devoted his life to, and he even had to go into hiding to keep from getting arrested. Other theologians and academics and even some German nobles took up Luther’s ideas and added to them, and eventually led the entire continent into decades of conflict, ending in one of the most destructive wars in human history and creating a massive schism in the church that persists to this day.
I don’t know what it felt like to be Luther – or what it felt like to be any other ordinary Christian at that time – but I can imagine that it probably felt like the world was coming apart at the seams. It probably felt like the church as they had known it was dying. I doubt that any of them imagined that people hundreds of years in the future would look back at this period of history and have anything good to say about it.
It’s no wonder then that Luther found such comfort in the words of Psalm 46. This, of course, is the psalm that Luther’s hymn “A Mighty Fortress” is based on. In the midst of all that messiness and confusion and conflict, the psalmist’s words reassured Luther that God is faithful, even in the midst of change and chaos:
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult…
The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
God speaks and the earth melts away.
The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.
It’s now been over 500 years since the start of the Reformation. And with so many centuries between us and the time that Luther lived, it’s easy for us now to look back and simplify the story. We can sort out the pieces of that time neatly on a shelf, just like the Dr. Okey exhibit at the museum. And it’s easy for us to label that whole messy period of history with one tidy word: The Reformation™.
But I find it helpful – and even hopeful – to think about the messiness of what the Reformation was actually like. The Reformation wasn’t some well-coordinated strategic effort by a team of super brilliant people out on a campaign to change history. It was simply what happened when some ordinary people of faith had the courage to follow where the Spirit was leading them, without having any idea what would happen. It was God’s work, trying to urge the church on into growing more into the body of Christ.
I find that hopeful, especially thinking about where we are now as a church. Like Luther, we live in times that are messy and confusing. As the global center of Christianity moves further and further away from us, the world as we have known it is changing. It’s becoming more pluralistic and more multicultural. It’s challenging our ideas of what it means to truly be the church, and inviting us to think about being church in new ways. And in response, the best thing we can do is to follow where the Spirit leads us, as best as we possibly can. None of us has all the answers. God knows I don’t! We have to act on faith, just like Luther and the other leaders of the Reformation did, and we have to trust that God will continue to guide us, just as God guided them.
I have no idea how this period in the life of the church will be remembered 500 years from now – or even 50 years from now. But I do know that the Spirit is still speaking. We are the church semper reformanda – the church always reforming. And I know that through all things, God will continue to be our mighty fortress, our very present help in times of trouble. Therefore we have no need to be afraid, even though the world should change, even though the nations rage and the kingdoms shake. The Lord of hosts is with us, and the God of Jacob is our refuge.