I think Pat would be delighted if we would sing A Mighty Fortress at least twice a month. Today she must be doing cartwheels because the choir opened the service with an inspiring take on Luther’s classic and we will visit it again for our closing hymn. If you can see Pat behind the organ, note the smile that will certainly light up this room as she plays this personal favorite to conclude the service.
This might surprise you but Martin Luther did not write “A Mighty Fortress” immediately after he nailed his 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Chapel on October 31, 1517. Some have speculated the song came after a great battle with the Moors in Austria. This too is false. The greatest myth is that Luther wrote the hymn as a protest against the Pope and the power of Rome. While Luther certainly struggled with Rome, the song was written years after he was excommunicated by Pope Leo X.
The actual story is not very exciting in terms of explaining the theological transformation of this catholic scholar. But its telling is critical to the life of a man who had a family he dearly loved. In the year 1529, twelve years after the 95 Theses, seven years after Luther married Katarina von Bora, and four years after he founded his new church, a deadly disease broke out in Wittenberg. Katarina, pregnant with their third child, and Hans, Luther’s oldest son were infected. While both survived, the baby died soon after birth. Luther writes about those days as the darkest period of his life. This theological giant, who stood toe to toe with history, was being destroyed a day at a time by the physical ailments of his family. As he had done so many times in the past, Luther found comfort in the Psalms.
“God is our refuge and strength, an ever present help in time of trouble, therefore we will not fear even if the earth should change and the mountains shake in the heart of the sea. For there is a river whose streams make glad the city of God. The Lord is with us. God will be our refuge.”
We are a proud and powerful people who like to speak of self-reliance as being one of our greatest virtues. Sometimes we forget how weak we really are. The Psalmist speaks of mountains being toppled by the fury of the sea. As we sit in our beautiful valley that seems impossible. Yet stories are still told about the devastation of Camille. The Tye River became a roaring ocean and little in its path survived. Such is the clout nature can unleash.
On a much smaller scale, many of you have sat with a loved one trying to discern the words of your doctor. What seemed to be a nagging cough or just a loss of energy has now been given a name and that name has ripped the calendar from the wall as the concept of a lifetime changes from years to months. How does one fight something that cannot be seen? How do you place your life in the hands of medications that might prove as deadly as the disease? Such circumstances call for decisions that are never considered when one believes themselves to be immortal. But rains do fall and cancer is real. Seldom if ever are we prepared for the chaos they bring into our lives.
If we consider a medical emergency to be devastating today, imagine what it must have been like in the 16th century. Preventable medicine boiled down to a single option, burn the clothes of anyone who had died. When the “sweating sickness” spread through Europe in the 16th century no one knew its cause or cure. Folks watched helplessly as children and the elderly died after much suffering. Luther, possibly the most learned man in his community had no answers for the illness of his wife and child. Powerless to act, Luther placed his trust in something much large than himself when he wrote A Mighty Fortress is our God.
Imagine this husband and father, devastated by an enemy he could not see, having the courage to write, “Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing?” Imagine the times you have sat powerless, watching hours turn into days, as some disease with an unpronounceable name turns your life upside down. The Psalmist whispers, “Be still”, yet how can stillness be possible? Luther speaks to our fear by adding, “The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him, his rage we can endure, one little word can fell him.”
Ironically, even as Luther places the lives of his family completely in God’s hands, he knew this did not guarantee their survival. Nothing is more certain than death. We have no record of how many folks in Luther’s community died but we can be certain Luther was spending much time caring for other folks who had lost loved ones. His response to this reality almost seems cruel, “Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also.” How can we possibly let someone we love go? Yet how can we not? Listen to Luther’s final statement of faith, possibly written while holding his beloved wife in his arms. “The body they can kill. God’s truth abideth still. God’s kingdom is forever.”
Unlike many folks in the Wittenberg community, Luther’s wife and child survived. Much to his amazement, his song became an anthem for the Reformation. Even more amazing is this marvelous text has evolved into a living document. Folks who have never heard of Wittenberg, or Leo X, or Charles V or the Diet of Worms, find hope and courage in these words dedicated to his beloved wife. A Mighty Fortress is no longer a Protestant battle cry and yet it has never been so universally accepted. The truth is I doubt Luther could have dreamed of a day when Catholics and Protestants alike would admire our current Pope. I am certain he would not believe the friendly interdenominational conversations we are conducting in the areas of baptism and even communion. Any funeral meditation I have ever preached is always secondary when compared to the astounding words found in this song. Like the Psalm that was its inspiration, Luther’s hymn offers hope in the midst of despair.
A year ago I was speaking with a Roman Catholic priest from Charlottesville. The topic of conversation was All Saints Day and I was explaining how I had only recently celebrated it as part of my church year. I told him our musical standby on that day was, “For all the Saints”. I asked if he had any other suggestions from his tradition. He laughed and then replied, “My favorite All Saints Day hymn is A Mighty Fortress is Our God.
I was shocked until he added, “It is a song that reminds me that nothing, not even death, stands between us and the grace of God.”
As I reflect on that conversation I am once again drawn to Psalm 46. “The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms are tottering. God speaks and the earth melts. God makes wars to cease. Be still and know God that God is our refuge, a bulwark never failing. Know that God is our refuge, a truth that abideth still. Know that God is our refuge, a kingdom that reign’s forever. To God be the Glory. Amen.