Reformation Day, Year B
31 October 2021
My father was born in 1931. I do not believe his childhood was particularly happy, though there were memories that stood out. Ironically, they are mostly memories from the years he was evacuated during the war, like learning to ski, or his buddy Werner making fun of the camp instructors. And then there was the memory of hoarding gun powder from un-detonated bombs in the basement of his parents home. 70% of the city had been flattened during the war and their house was one of the few left standing and you may imagine that his father was not pleased to find out that his son was gathering explosives in the basement.
While my paternal grandparents had never joined the Nazis and had displayed some critical capacities toward them, they were not political, and my father, according to his own memory had bought into the Nazi ideology lock, stock, and barrel. Hitler Youth, and the indoctrination that occurred when the children we away from their families had done its job.
At the end of WW II my father had turned 14. The end of the war left him deeply disillusioned. His family were not church-going Christians, and everything he had believed in had disappeared. It was during this time that he encountered a youth ministry that spoke of Jesus. Yet to him this faith seemed too fantastic to believe.
In Romans one St. Paul quotes the prophet Habakkuk, “The righteous will live by faith.”1
We know little about the prophet Habakkuk. We believe he lived after the end of the Assyrian empire and during the triumphs of Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. Habakkuk is a startled, tormented man, distressed at the fact that violence prevails and agonized by the thought that God tolerates evil.2
And yet Habakkuk receives a vision that is not recorded in the book and his despair makes room for faith in God. It is at the moment when his despair sees reason to hope that Habakkuk can say that “the righteous will live by faith.”
That the righteous will live by faith is of great importance to Martin Luther. At first Luther did not understand it. Luther’s primary perception of God was that of a judge. Consequently, he perceived the righteousness of God to be the measure by which God judged. And there was no way that Luther believed that he could measure up to God’s demands. And so when you read about Martin Luther, you always begin with the deep despair Luther experienced and from which Luther tried to escape. His discovery that the righteousness of God is the righteousness God gifts to us through the death and resurrection of Jesus and by faith in him, was what helped Luther escape his despair.
Our own time has its own despair. Climate anxiety is what we talked about prior to the pandemic. Young people are particularly vulnerable to climate anxiety because they will experience more of the effects of global warming than those of us who are older. Of course, the parts of the world that already experience severe storms, flash floods, heatwaves, and droughts, may have no time for anxiety.
And like Luther, Habakkuk, my father, and others, we do not want to suffer anxiety and despair because it only paralyzes us. But we also don’t want to stick our head in the sand.
Luther found the answer to his anxiety in the goodness of God and the same seems to have been true for Habakkuk, and eventually for my father as well. And so while Luther was not dealing with the same issues that we are, we still have in common not only an understanding of God’s grace but also the question of how this grace comes to bear in our lives and make us people filled with hope.
In a recent talk entitled, “Can the Land Forgive?”,3 Norm Wirzba, theologian at Duke Divinity School tells the story of Don and Marie Ruzicka of Killam, AB. Their family farm goes back to 1910 and Don and Marie bought the farm in 1983 from Don’s uncle. The 1980s were a time when governments, bankers, and agricultural experts pushed for the industrialization of agriculture by maximizing production and mining the land. Wetlands and sloughs were drained, bush and woodlots cut down, and native prairie plowed up in order to put as many acres into production as possible. With this many farms entered a vicious cycle of higher debt services requiring them to buy more land, which in turn increased their debt. As for many farmers, the stress of increased debt and servicing costs affected Don’s health and he was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. By 1995 they could no longer avoid the question whether they should quit the farm or learn to farm in a different way.
It was then that Don and Marie learned a whole new way to farm. They downsized the farm, converted some to pasture, and 200 acres to native prairie, wetland, and woods. They had learned that they don’t simply live on the land but from it and through it, as members of one vast community of life.
The question whether the land can forgive, Don answers in the affirmative and he traces the forgiveness of the land to the 21st of May 2000 at approximately 6 am when he heard the unmistakable song of a western meadowlark. A song he had not heard it since 1989.
Central to Martin Luther’s understanding of the human condition and the economy of salvation was the expression, incurvatus se, the state of being curved in onto oneself. We who are born after the fall, are curved in onto ourselves so that we not only appropriate the best gifts of God towards ourselves but we fail to realize that we seek all things, even God, for our own sake.
Seeing the world as commodity and not as co-creation, or the branch of the tree on which we are sitting requires us to be curved in on ourselves.
The gift of grace is that by the forgiveness of our sin God restores us to right relationship with God, one another, and the world.
Wirzba is a theologian and a Christian, and while he takes great interest in ecology, he speaks from the perspective of the Christian tradition.
And that is why he places this story not only in the context of grief at the state of the created world but also repentance for our part in it. You may remember that Luther considered confession and absolution a sacrament which is why you can find it in the Small Catechism.
At the beginning of his talk Wirzba anchors the ability to have hope in face of the world’s challenges in two words. One is by the writer Wendell Berry, the other is found in the Book of Ecclesiastes.
Berry says, “hope lives in the means, not the ends.”
This means that hope lives in the present and it is the present on which we must focus. God knows the end, we do not.
Ecclesiastes tells us that “whoever is joined with all the living has hope and that a living dog is better than a dead lion. (Ecclesiastes 9:4)
Martin Luther recovered God’s grace and forgiveness, the Ruzickas experienced the forgiveness of the land and learned that we are not separate from the planet on which we live but that we form one great community with all plants, animals, and organisms.
And so we are gifted with the ability to see a way forward, which at the same time is a path that leads us away from despair and anxiety and into hope. Wirzba says that “hope resides and manifests itself in the commitment to honour life together with others.” In this way hope is less what you have but what you do. Hope is that action in which you manifest your love, a love given to us by God.
I will admit that this is not your usual Reformation sermon. But then, we don’t live in the 16th century, and we know that we are saved by grace. The Ruzickas experienced that grace as tangible, in the song of the meadow lark, and in the forgiveness of the land. May we and the whole world experience the same.
1 Paul quotes Habakkuk 2:4 in Romans 1:17 and in Galatians 3:11.
2 Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets – An Introduction, Volume 1, New York, NY: 1962 Harper & Row, page 140