Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Normally, Reformation Sunday is a day for Lutherans to commemorate their musical and theological heritage. It is a day for recalling the phrase, “What does this mean?” and, “This is most certainly true.” It is a day for singing the Battle Hymn of the Reformation, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” It is a day for celebrating the rite of passage for young confirmands affirming their faith. It is even a day for a little good natured Lutheran humor. How many Lutherans does it take to change a light bulb? Four. One to screw in the new bulb, and three to sit around and talk about how much they miss the old one. This year, we can add a new wrinkle to our Reformation Day festivities. We can mention the scourge of 2020, the Corona virus. Martin Luther, would have understood. For he himself experienced the distress and sorrow of three epidemics.
Deadly plagues were frequent and common in Europe in the Middle Ages. Black Death or the Bubonic Plague killed at least twenty-five percent of its population. Like the Corona virus, it too came in waves, but unlike COVID-19, the Black Death was not a pandemic. It was an epidemic. This generally meant that there were places where one could escape. As a result, historians tell us that healthy people did all they could to avoid the plague. They fled the cities leaving behind their sick and dying. Shops were closed. Doctors refused to see patients and priests refused to administer the last rites. For that reason it baffled Luther’s friends and critics alike, when he chose to stay in Wittenberg when the plague first occurred in August of 1527.
Luther’s protector at the time, Elector John the Steadfast, recognized the threat to his fledgling university in Wittenberg and sought to move Luther and the other university professors to the city of Jena about 100 miles away. Luther, however, chose to defy the order. Luther’s friends appealed for him to leave. After all, Luther was placing himself, his son, and his pregnant wife Katharina von Bora at terrible risk, but he refused. Seventeen days into the plague, there were already eighteen deaths in Wittenberg. For a small village, an average of at least one death a day was frightening and disheartening.
The first surge of the plague lasted about five months. During that time Luther’s son Hans became sick. The wife of the mayor died, almost in Luther’s own arms. Moreover, the pregnant wife of Luther’s friend, the Church deacon George Rörer, died as did their unborn child. These events all took a toll on Luther who wrote about it in a letter to his colleague Justus Jonas.
“I am concerned about the delivery of my wife, so greatly has the example of the Deacon’s wife terrified me. But He who is mighty has done great things for me; and so the endurance of great things also is required of me. May my Christ, whom I have purely taught and confessed, be my rock and fortress. Amen. We hope for the end of the plague. Farewell, and give a kiss to your son and a hug to his mother, and remember us in your prayers.”
Historians and theologians have wondered why Luther would choose to stay in Wittenberg with his toddler son and his wife waiting a second child when it was justifiable and acceptable to flee. Some scholars have argued that it was during these months of plague-ridden death, stress, and heartache, that Luther penned the hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is our God.” Of course, no one knows the exact inspiration of the hymn. What is clear from Luther’s writings, is that Luther honored Jesus’ words of the greatest commandment, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.” For Luther, the neighbor mattered. It is a conviction and message that resonates today among Lutheran just as it did nearly 500 years ago. And so we are asked, how are we called to love God and our neighbor in the midst of a pandemic?
In the face of those waves of the plague that rolled across Europe in that century, Luther taught that loving parents and the heads of the households should not shy away from the duties of raising their children and their households in the faith. It was indeed their most important task. When everyone else was fleeing to safe places they needed to share the good news of hope and salvation with those who remained behind. Who else would proclaim the Christian faith through words and deeds as the challenges of the world seemed to overwhelm them?
Unfortunately, Luther was shocked by how little people knew of God’s love and his commandment to love their neighbors. So, when the face of the plague was behind him Luther began to write his Small Catechism outlining the fundamentals of the Christian faith and illustrating how Christian believers were to love God and to love their neighbor as themselves. Luther didn’t intend for the catechism to be a source of testing, which would certainly surprise most confirmands today, but he intended for it to be a means of grace for growing deeper in the faith. Like a tree planted by streams of water, in Psalm 1, Christians are to draw life for in the living streams of God’s grace and in his holy word, so that in turn, they can grow outward in love and service towards their neighbor. It is that confession that we explore today in this confirmation meditation with Claire Jacoby.
In the midst of the corona virus, the journey of faith has continued for Claire. Through the technology of Zoom, and meetings on the patio of church, she has reflected on her faith.
My journey with God first started was when I was baptized. Since it was my parents’ decision to baptize me, I believe that when I was younger I was trying to do the things that were normal in my family, such as going to church. In all honesty I hadn’t known what the true purpose was. Over the years of going to church, such as when I first went to Sunday School, held a bible for the first time and started Confirmation, I have learned more about who God truly is. He is a selfless and forgiving God who I believe has made me look differently on life.
Luther understood in Jesus’ quotation of the greatest commandment, that we grow to love God, by growing in a relationship to him. We need to study his word, to open our lives in prayer, and to be nurtured at his Table in Holy Communion. Surprisingly, as much as we state that we are saved by grace alone, and by faith alone in Jesus Christ, we must learn that faith is an active process of listening, meditation and attending to God’s word. We grow into this relationship by studying God’s word.
When starting Confirmation, I only knew a few stories from the Bible. By the end of Confirmation, I have now studied the Bible with an open mind and decided for myself that I believe God is the creator of all things and I put my trust in him. By trusting God I know that living in fear is not worth it in life, and trusting that God is watching over me and is forgiving every day has helped me have a more positive outlook on life.
One of the greatest challenges for faith in this global pandemic is physical distancing. We simply cannot be near to those who would nurture us in our faith. We all need those mentors and voices to lift us up when we are down. But somehow, God has even used the corona virus to work for good.
Having faith has brought me closer to my family and friends which has been amazing. Having this community at church where everyone has faith is what makes me happy whenever I am in the sanctuary. Seeing my family in church has been a highlight of my life since I was younger, but now I am able to appreciate more than just the community but understanding that God is watching over me when I have good days and bad days. Though I feel I don’t thank God enough by praying every single night, going to church reminds me that even after Confirmation I can still build my relationship with God over time. The thing that I love most about the community of this church is that I am provided with comfort, strength and guidance throughout my journey with God.
That is why Luther felt it was so important to stay in Wittenberg, rather than to flee the plague. His neighbors needed him. He wrote, “God does not need our good works, but our neighbor does.”
In the spring of 1527, even before the plague came to Wittenberg, Johann Hess wrote to Luther on behalf of clergy in Breslau, asking, Was it proper for Christians to flee such deadly plagues? Luther’s response came months later after he had personally experienced the worst of the first surge. He noted that, fleeing was not necessarily a bad thing, admitting that the desire to flee death was a “natural tendency.” He cited examples from Scripture of men who fled. All of them fled from death when it was possible and saved their lives yet without depriving their neighbors of anything. But as for pastors and their call, he was not so sure, writing, “For when people are dying, they need a spiritual ministry which strengthens and comforts their consciences.”
In that final letter to the clergy is Breslau, Luther offered practical and pastoral counsel for us all. Apparently even in the 16th century, social distancing, wearing a mask and washing your hands were fashionable.
“Therefore,” he wrote, “I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine, and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others, and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me, however, I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely, as stated above.”
Luther himself stayed in Wittenberg to fulfill the commandment, “For the love of God and the love of neighbor.” Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.