Awaking the Sleeping Gaint

This is Reformation Sunday, which is historically the celebration of Martin Luther nailing the 95 Thesis to the Church door.

In my experience, Reformation sermons have emphasized either the John text that “the truth will set you free”, Reformation history, or basking in Lutheran victory.

Yet, basking in Lutheran victory might be rooted in a fairytale of our imagination. Yes, the Lutheran faith has survived nearly 500 years, yet vast populations have little to no knowledge of Lutheranism. Further, the harsh reality is that the Evangelical Lutheran Church is America (ELCA) is dwindling and the average age of practitioners is on the rise. Unfortunately, these realities have struck essentially all Mainline Protestant Churches.

Steve McSwain, Huffington Post author, researched these trends in American religiosity. The result was an article entitled Why Christianity is Dying while Spirituality is Thriving. McSwain describes a trend that Americans are seeking a vital spirituality, but have felt spiritually disconnected. The trend notes that Mainline Protestant churches are left behind for the sake of rapidly growing, evangelical mega-churches. Unfortunately, the seeker becomes disenchanted and becomes the one in five Americans that cling firmly to the motto: spiritual but not religious.

Perhaps, there is an additional route to the notion spiritual but not religious. Arguably, the evangelical, fundamental churches have been prominently seen and heard in our communities and in media. Unfortunately, the image of God is too often a wrathful, angry, judgmental God that seeks punishment, which has challenged the ability of individuals, such as Martin Luther, to be at home in an established religious organization.

Additionally, these faith traditions are frequently associated with the Puritan Paradigm. Mark Ellingsen, a professor of church history and the author of Sin Bravely: a Joyful Alternative to a Purpose Driven Life, exposed the continued influence of the Puritan Paradigm on American politics and ethos. Yes, American politics. The vast majority of American Presidents have belonged to these denominations. The 110th Congress that served in 2007 and 2008 is a further example of the Puritan Paradigm influence, because these denominations held 222 seats. While the largest denomination, Catholics, held 70 seats… the third largest, Lutherans, held 17 seats… and Jewish adherers held 43 seats. These political statics are a brief snapshot of the continued influence of the Puritan Paradigm on the political and cultural ethos of the United States of America.

If we return to the McSwain article, he states:
What I am seeing is a new and refreshing emergence the Christian religion itself…. The church today is slowly becoming, but in too few places as yet, something that I suspect Jesus himself might actually recognize. There is within this new emergence an affinity for those matters of social and personal justice, compassion, spiritual wholeness and unity within and among all people and faiths. These were the obsessions of Jesus while here on earth.

According to McSwain, these emerging, morphing churches will thrive while the others experience a slow, agonizing death. But, what identifies these churches as such:
(1)   The people are desperately seeking ways of understanding and a willingness to ‘rewrite’ Christian theology if needed.
(2)   The church holds a healthier view of the Bible as an inspired book that causes inspiration, not a textbook of morality.
(3)   The church does not envision liberalism or secular humanism as an enemy.
(4)   This Christianity is birthed in the hearts of sincere and devoted Christ-followers who are open to what other religions can teach us about spirituality.
(5)   This Christianity does not interpret Christian hope as a pie-in-the-sky future paradise that will be enjoyed by only themselves and those who agree with their, frequently exclusive, theology.

Huh, wait a moment. This does not sound like a Christianity to be prefaced with “some distant day, generations from now”. Yet, echoes the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

In fact, the argument that Ellingsen formulates in Sin Bravely is that Lutheran theology is counter American culture. Lutheran theology is counter American culture and ethos, because of the classic justification by grace alone apart from our merits. Additionally, Lutheranism doesn’t accept or flirt with the Prosperity Gospel, which teaches that material blessings are rewarded for faith, merits, and tithing.

Another Lutheran is Nadia Bolz-Weber, who is an Ordained ELCA Minister in Denver Colorado known as the Sarcastic Lutheran. She was a guest speaker at the ELCA National Youth Gathering, which sparked controversy and tremendous attention because she has several tattoos, a known dark history with sex, alcohol, and drugs, and is the ‘face’ of the Lutheran emergent church movement.

According to her, she had been raised in a tradition that was quote “Baptist plus”, which did not encourage her individuality. As I stated, she developed a problem with drugs and alcohol. After sobering up, she met her now husband Matthew. On a date, the two were discussing social justice issues when he noted his perspectives were rooted in his Christian faith. Bolz-Weber was shocked, because she believed that Christians striving for social justice were mystical creatures comparable to unicorns, but discovered they were Lutherans.

Additionally, Bolz-Weber declared that the Lutheran church gave language to the experiences she knew to be true. One, God ALWAYS acts first as echoed in our Jeremiah text. Bolz-Weber states that she did not decide to become sober, but that it was as one day God picked her up and said “that was adorable, but I am putting you over here now”. Two, the gospel is the unconditional grace of God that is rooted in God’s love not in our merit. Three, she is a Sinner and a Saint, because although she has a tremendous capacity for destruction of herself and others, but also a capacity for compassion and justice.

Yet, these fellow Lutherans are not alone in their regard of Lutheran theology. Allegedly, the American Evangelist Billy Graham stated that the Lutheran Church was a sleeping giant implying that if awoken revivalism would be sure to come to the whole Christian Church in the United States.

Granted, the United   States of America and the world will never be ‘Lutheran’. However, Lutherans do have a liberating theological perspective to offer the world. So, how might we awaken this sleeping giant and transform our fairytale into reality?

The simple, yet frightening, answer is to share our faith. Zinks, thankfully The Lutheran Handbook that includes How to Avoid being Burned at the Stake and How to Stay Alert in Church also includes How to Share Your Faith with Someone. According to this section:
Sharing the gospel with others is a natural part of exercising a mature faith. In fact, Jesus commanded his followers to do this, making it an important part of the life of faith (Matthew 28:18-20). Still, Lutherans tend to be rather shy evangelists.

While evangelism has become a negative word for some people, sharing the story of the salvation in Jesus Christ is still the most rewarding way to live out one’s faith. It is also a discipline that takes practice. So, here are the basic steps:

  1. Look for an opening in the conversation
  2. Be yourself
  3. Watch for a chance to take the conversation deeper
  4. Open up about your own struggles
  5. Follow up with future conversations
  6. Offer to share your faith community with the people
    (huh, sounds like Darcy’s weekly request for you to bring a friend with you)
  7. Try to maintain a relationship regardless of what the person does.

Yet, it might be easier than that. In a sermon, Martin Luther stated:
In short, I will preach it, teach it, write it, but I will constrain no man by force, for faith must come freely without compulsion. Take myself as an example. I opposed indulgences and all the papists, but never with force. I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; other wise I did nothing. And while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philips and Amsdoft, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. (Luther 51.77).

Martin Luther here accredited the entire Protestant Reformation to the Word of God. Perhaps, such trust in the Word of God can awaken the sleeping giant of Lutheranism.

In addition, perhaps Lutheranism could profit from an extreme theologian make over of Martin Luther. Our images of Luther are too often rooted in that of a grumpy, serious, aging man. Unless, you share my husband’s image of Luther, which is him stumbling around with a beer stein in one hand, hanging off of Katie Luther, in a theological debate, and shouting “here I stand, because if I let go of her I will fall”. However, I have become partial to the “winking” Luther in The Lutheran Handbook, which states:
Martin Luther’s theology is grounded in paradoxes – sinner/saint, law/gospel, hidden/revealed – and illuminated by a down-to-earth, everyday sense of humor. This icon of Luther winking at the reader combines the serious, formal scholarship that was his life’s work with the humor and lightheartedness that characterized his personality.

The wink on Luther’s face indicates that even though theology is serious stuff, we should nonetheless remember that it is not our theology that saves us, but Jesus Christ. Therefore, our life in the church can be buoyant, and our theological wranglings can be done with a sense of humor and love for our neighbor.

As Lutherans we have this amazing, radical theology, but as long as we remain silent it will always be this sleeping giant. Whether the preaching, the teaching, or the conservation is over coffee or over beer or whether it is posted on a blog or the church’s Facebook wall may we have the courage and the wit to speak as the “winking” Luther did. Amen.

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