Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost
October 30, 2022
By: Pastor Amandus Derr
From October 1528, through January 1529, Martin Luther visited the churches of Saxony. Encountering what he called “deplorable conditions” in which the common people had “no knowledge whatever of Christian teaching and, unfortunately, that many pastors are quite incompetent and unfit …” Luther wrote, and in May 1529, published, one of his most influential works, the Small Catechism, “in plain form so the head of the family (by which he meant, the father) shall teach … to his household” (by which he meant, his wife, children, and servants). The Small Catechism continues to be a great teaching document, but in it I believe, Martin Luther made one serious mistake. Innocent, to be sure; culturally conditioned, to be sure; yet a serious with unimaginably horrendous consequences. Given the perilous times we are living in – when, more and more we hear “it can’t happen here;” and given that we still – I still – continue to perpetrate this error, it is well past time – and Reformation Sunday is a good time — to address it, because it led directly to one of the saddest Lutheran confessions ever uttered, the confession of Pastor Martin Niemöller after he was liberated from Dachau concentration camp near the end of World War II:
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Luther’s error, I think, was with his answer to his “What does this mean?” question for the Fourth Commandment: Honor your father and your mother.
We are to fear and love God, so that we neither despise nor anger our parents and others in authority, but instead honor, serve, obey, love, and respect them.
It’s the inclusion of “others in authority” and the instructions “neither despise nor anger…but honor, serve, obey, love, and respect” that became problem. Taught relentlessly for hundreds of years, this kind of thinking became so thoroughly ingrained in people’s memories and behaviors that disobeying, or even questioning those in authority became unthinkable.
It only took a few unscrupulous, authoritarian leaders, a Kaiser and a Fuhrer, to name but two, to turn “honor, serve, obey, love, and respect” into a demand for absolute obedience, which in the face of unspeakable atrocities led to “we were just following orders” from some and silence, “Lutheran quietism” as it was called, from many. When “others in authority” are lumped in with “father and mother,” and people are taught to “honor, serve, and obey them,” conscientious objection, civil disobedience, and public opposition to the unjust activities of those in authority become harder to conceive and even harder to get others to do. Then and there, and here and now. Especially when unscrupulous authoritarians take and abuse their position and power.
There is a better place to locate “others in authority” as we order our lives and teach our children. By his actions, not his words, another Lutheran pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, taught us that way. By playing a role in the plot to assassinate der Fuhrer, Bonhoeffer chose to break the Fifth Commandment, “you shall not murder,” and to use Luther’s “what does” that commandment “mean” as the standard by which we, the people, can judge the words and actions of our leaders. Do you remember that explanation? You shall not murder.
What does this mean?
We are to fear and love God, so that we neither endanger nor harm the lives of our neighbors, but instead help and support them in all of life’s needs.
“…neither endanger nor harm the lives of our neighbors, but instead help and support them in all of life’s needs.” That, Bonhoeffer’s life and death teach us, is the role of “those in authority;” and when they fail to do these things, Bonhoeffer, not Niemöller, shows us the way.
Of course, there is a cost for that. Bonhoeffer named it, The Cost of Discipleship. It’s still in print and, given these days, worth a careful read.
All of this is, of course, Lutheran – Reformation – theology: meant to be useful for us to deal with – and to teach our children deal with – the frightening realities of these days. Most important of all, all of this is deeply rooted in what Reformation was, is and must always be about: the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Word of God spoken, heard, refreshingly felt, and joyously consumed together each time we are gathered in Christ and emboldened by the Holy Spirit. The Gospel that not only gives us peace, but also gives us courage, courage we need in days like these “when hordes of devils fill the land.” Peace that God gives through Christ’s sure and certain Promise: “The kingdom’s our forever.”
Peace and Joy, dear friends. Peace and Joy — and Courage!
Amandus J. Derr
Interim Senior Pastor