by Mark P. Bangert
John H. Tietjen Professor of Pastoral Ministry: Worship and Church Music, Emeritus
Here we are—Reformation 2009, and we are liturgizing in a way most un-Reformation-like; the chief hymn of the service is going to be sung by the choir. There goes one of the major identity marks of Lutherans. (Truth be told, such choral dominance was pretty much the order of the day for Luther and his companions.)
But that doesn't mean we on this side of the great divide between musicians and the rest of us have to give up our ownership. By turning to song 517 I invite you to claim your Reformation birthright and at the same time sing a text for this sermon.
This late hymn of Luther, written only five years before his death and postdating the large majority of his hymns by almost thirty years, is an offspring that was prone to amputation and plastic surgery. As some of you know, the first stanza began life this way (in another English translation):
Lord, keep us in thy Word and Work
Restrain the murderous Pope and Turk
Who fain would tear from off Thy Throne
Christ Jesus, thy beloved Son.
It took only a few years for print editors to tame the rhetoric for dissemination in hymnbooks. In some respects the hymn in its original version looked remarkably similar to those propaganda songs being circulated underground during the 1530's and 1540's, songs that seemed to emerge from 16th century SNL's held in the pubs of both persuasions. Here’s one from a Lutheran source. Subject is canons, staff clergy for a cathedral:
The canons practice usury
They are barely taught in scripture
They have quite lovely women,
They liturgize with tinkling bells,
And let others sing the mass for them.
They have houses full of whore’s children
Where they pass their time.
In its revised version Luther's hymn began to appear in hymnbooks, there advertised as a children's song. In retrospect, some might say it was intended for indoctrination. True enough, children can always better grasp straight-forward either/or language. All around people were being encouraged to take sides, such that it bred enmity and unkind defamation. Reformation-era princes, kings, and emperors were seizing political advantage, exercising their military skills to gain position, mostly in the name of faith and confession.
Larger threats loomed. In August of 1541 King Ferdinand of Austria, brother to Charles V, was defeated by the Turks at Budapest. Two months later the emperor's fleet was destroyed by a storm in Algiers. Stability in Europe seemed to be disappearing, and so the local elector of Thuringia put out a call for prayers, especially from the children. Luther responded with our hymn.
The vulnerable, little flock of the faithful faced imminent danger, even death from the hands of those feared Turks. All the effort, trust and risk that attended commitment to Luther's discovery of the Gospel, seemed to be just moments away from extinction. There were real enemies out there, palpable, threatening, ready to strike. The lords were warring.
One cannot escape the Reformation without being impressed by the abundance of military rhetoric that it surfaced: Hordes threatening to devour us; this world's prince may rage; take they our home, goods, fame, child, or spouse.
It was hell out there—across Europe people were caught up in skirmishes and battles. Pope and Turk were real, just as were power-hungry princes and kings. The enemy was real, and times called for, and good people yearned for, yes, peace and unity.
Within a few years other poets added stanzas to Luther's hymn, which more than doubled its size. Two of those stanzas are included in the cantata we are about to hear, one of them being a single stanza hymn also penned by Luther. Each of the stanzas contains more prayers for peace and unity, as you will hear. How will God respond to all these prayers for peace.
"Lord, keep us steadfast." Erhalt uns, Herr. Erhalten: which means to preserve, maintain, support, save. Preserve us, Lord, in your Word. Maintain us, Lord, in your Word. Support us, Lord, in your Word. Save us, Lord, in your Word.
In John's Gospel for today, Jesus is speaking with Judeans who had believed, and he begins to say: If you continue in my Word. One can only surmise that Luther found the idea for his hymn in those very words of the Gospel. "If you continue…" The word can also mean: remain, stay, lodge. If you remain in my Word…. If you stay in my Word… If you lodge in my Word… What's clear is that the believer STAY THERE, in the Word…set up housekeeping, hang pictures, move in with your tools and bed linens.
Now to whom was Jesus saying this again? To those Judeans who had believed, to those who believed once, but now were unsure, struggling. Jesus was busy re-evangelizing. If you are steadfast in my Word, then you will know the truth (Jesus, himself, right?) and the truth will give you freedom -- a promise they were not ready to hear, much less embrace. For they had never been in bondage. Rather, freedom was theirs already because they were busy studying the law. They already had truth, they already had freedom, and their lives were at peace.
But the truth of which Jesus spoke is of another kind. The truth that comes from lodging in the Word is about slavery to sin and being set free. What they, who had once believed, could not grasp is that their greatest enemy was within.
How quickly and completely the Luther hymn text moves from being steadfast in the Word to fear of the enemy without. It's always that way. Not that peace, good government, and unity is to go un-prayed for. Sometimes peace and unity yield a full house in the Word, but sometimes the lack of peace pushes us back to that place where we once had moved in with tools and bed-linens. Fear and neglect, however, can slowly render us homeless.
Let me be clearer. Even though Wall Street threatens pensions, and greed seems to win the day, even though fundamentalisms run rampant obscuring God's mercy, even though Sunday marathons have displaced the weekly procession to Easter food, even though we are committing ourselves to a shrinking church, the enemy within is always a greater threat than today's Pope and Turk.
What Luther prayed for is what Jesus offers again as evangel to us who are tempted by the freedoms and peace we think we can make for ourselves: keep steadfast, abide, lodge in the Word that reveals truth about your sin and slavery and that sets you free. Lodge there, stay there, and come to know intimately the One who is truth. Let yourselves be wrapped in the cross and resurrection of Christ. Hear the words "given and shed for you" yet again. Hear "the peace of Christ," as gift, as God's answer—even before you thought of praying—as God's answer to threats both within and without.
Keep us steadfast, Lord. Indeed, for you only are the One who can do that.
Stylistically Buxtehude presents the hymn phrase by phrase, giving us time to digest its text a little at a time. The effect is similar to our intercessions: they are necessary, willful, sporadic even, but full of hope.
We yearn for a sign that the Son who lives in the lodge where we have moved is ready to be Fortress even for us. Such a sign comes marvelously at the end of the cantata. The composer moves away from 110 measures of duple time obsessed with threats that surround us, suddenly giving us soaring lines that exude life—all on a single word: Amen. So be it, in triple time, God’s time. In that time comes assurance that we are after all, children and heirs of the free Son.