We live in a world where people all too often are prone to divide the world into different “teams,” as it were, and – like Yankees fans hating the Red Sox – permanently ruling out any possibility that somebody on the “other side” is worthy of any respect or honor.
Walking back to my Mobile, Alabama office from lunch today (I write this on Wednesday), I was treated, by the nearby Catholic cathedral, to a grace-filled refutation of that “permanent enemy” mentality.
First, indulge a backstory as to why the cathedral’s surprising action seemed so perfectly timed for me.
Just this past weekend, I was visiting my mother, who has retired to the North Carolina mountains, and she had occasion to mention that her favorite church hymn is Martin Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” I had not known this preference of hers. It happens to be my favorite, too. It always was, ever since the old cartoon “Davey and Goliath” used it as theme music when I was growing up as an Episcopalian in New Orleans. I thought the tune was magnificent – and the older I got, the more I appreciated the powerful images in the lyrics.
My love for the hymn only deepened when, as a theology major at Georgetown University (a Jesuit school), I had focused particularly on the Reformation-era debates between Luther and the Catholic Church or between him and the church’s great moderate reformer Erasmus. I preferred Erasmus’ tone, but on a purely intellectual level, I agreed with Luther and admired his courage. As a Lutherist scholar, then, I came to appreciate “A Mighty Fortress” even more deeply.
But, despite a preliminary accord in 1985 between the Catholic Church and some branches of Lutheranism on the key and touchy theology of grace-vs.-works, the average Catholic – including most of my classmates – still thought of Luther himself as at least a mid-level demon and perhaps the moral equivalent of Satan’s spawn.
Catholic theologians, and even the Vatican, have for some years taken a more nuanced view of Luther, decrying his splintering of the “One True Church” while acknowledging on issues such as the sale of indulgences that his criticisms had some merit. And Pope Benedict XVI, like Luther a German, was even described a few years ago as “nonchalantly talking positively about Luther.”
Still, the rank-and-file Catholic, at least the ones of my acquaintance, clearly either think badly of Luther or look furtive and nervous when confronted in any way with the idea that the 16th century monk can be considered anything but a villain.
That’s why, as I walked past the cathedral after lunch, I was so surprised when, suddenly, the tune of “A Mighty Fortress” started pouring forth from the cathedral’s tower. Knowing the background as I did, it seemed to me to be something akin to the Ohio State band playing the Michigan fight song. And coming as it did just days after that conversation with my mother, it seemed a particularly timely bit of grace, almost as if it was a message meant specifically for me.
Alas, I never did figure out exactly what that personal message was – if there was one. But the broader message was that any vessel which promulgates the wonder and glory of the Almighty is worthy of celebration, even if the source itself of that vessel is seen as flawed. Even those that are far from perfect (as Catholics believe Luther was) can create majestic and worthy paeans to our God of love and benevolent might. There are no teams; there are no unbridgeable divisions; there are just heirs of God’s promise (if we will only believe and accept that heirship).
As Paul writes in Galatians (one of today’s readings from the Revised Common Lectionary): “In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
In this week’s Gospel, Jesus casts out demons from a man long possessed: “Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.”
And as Luther writes in “Fortress,” “And though this world, with devils filled/Should threaten to undo us,/We will not fear, for God hath willed/His truth to triumph through us.”
The formerly possessed man certainly felt God’s truth triumphing through him. Asking what he should do in response, he was instructed thusly by Jesus: “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.”
In doing so, we should leave “teams” and prejudices behind, as Luther wrote in his great hymn: “Let goods and kindred go,/This mortal life also;/The body they may kill:/God’s truth abideth still:/His Kingdom is forever.”
Indeed it is. And when you hear majestic testimony to that Kingdom peeling out from a cathedral tower, you smile, and rejoice, and want everyone else – even people from another “team” – to receive it and share it and be graced by it as well.