Ghosts of the Reformation

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Grand Central Terminal in New York City; home to more than a few ghost stories. 
Photo cred: Wikimedia, user @Sracer357.

John 8:31-36

Welcome to Reformation Sunday. Or, as most people, even most Protestants call it: the Sunday before Halloween. Thus, I find it appropriate to begin with a little minimally scary ghost story. 

A few months ago, due to construction, I found myself arriving via Amtrak into New York’s Grand Central station. Grand Central, the iconic building — with the huge golden clock in the center of its large, open atrium, with painted celestial constellations on the ceiling looking down on you from above. I found out later that, as with anything that has a long history, Grand Central has its share of ghost stories.
One such story takes place in the early 1900s. It includes a frightened, gray-haired main in a black bowler hat approaching the main counter under the big clock at Grand Central’s center. He says, breathing quickly, “The midnight train to hell is coming for me. I have committed too many crimes against man and sins against heaven.”

As the story goes, the station agent reached out to grasp the man’s hand and reassure him.  “Sir, we have no midnight train to hell. We have the 11:58 PM from Croton-on-the Hudson and the 12:02 AM from New Haven arriving, but no trains to hell.  Furthermore, we have no connection with any infernal agents or a railroad stops [pointing] down below.”

But suddenly, a steam whistle echoed off the walls of the terminal.

A locomotive appeared, steaming, even though by that point in history, the tracks were electrified. It is said that the attendant could feel the rush of hot air propelled forward by the steam locomotive. 

A second later, the old grey-haired man disappeared.  Just the black bowler hat remained on the floor of Grand Central Terminal. The attendant says that the train continued south — though there are no tracks south of Grand Central.

The story scratches a lot of our ghost story itches: namely, the mystery surrounding historic places like Grand Central Station that have seen so much humanity over the years, as well as the ghosts that lurk around, stirring our imaginations and also disturbing us. It also reinforces our learned fears of God’s wrath, which brings us back to Reformation Sunday.

We Lutherans can get a little irritated that other Protestants aren’t as hyper-aware as we are of the history of Martin Luther and his Ninety-Five Theses and the profound effect that they had on the modern church. If you didn’t grow up Lutheran, you may not even feel all that connected to this history. If you grew up Catholic, you may feel hyper-connected to Luther — after all, I imagine that you left the Roman Catholic Church for a reason. Alternatively, though, if you still feel connected to the Catholic Church and/or have close family members and friends who still are Catholic, you may see Reformation Day as a painful reminder of our ecclesial separation from them.

Like Grand Central Station, you see, the Reformation has its ghosts. These are ghosts, like any, haunt and terrorize us, wedging themselves into our psyches. They also haunt our relationships with our neighbors. It is about time, I believe, that we shook free of these ghosts. The legend goes that at times, you can free yourself of a ghost by learning its name. It’s time to name the ghosts of the Reformation, then. So that we, like the Gospel texts, may be set free by truth and to set others free, too.

What’s more: our nation has its own ghosts. Violence and threats of violence against political leaders, as well as an antisemitic attack that has left eleven people dead in Pittsburgh have their own origins in prejudices as old as time.

So I give you today: the ghosts of the Reformation, or discomforts and untruths that lurk around Reformation Day — and the Western world — like ghosts. 

First, there’s the specter of schism. Schism — as in our separation from our siblings in the Roman Catholic Church. There is the fact that violence erupted between us and them not so long ago, and the fact that we manage to live in peace with them today, right here in South Hadley. There are the lies we tell about each other. For example, we might easily tell ourselves that the story of the man in Grand Central is more Catholic than Protestant, you know, since one of the lies that we tell is that Protestants alone believe in grace and that Catholics are all about God’s wrath. This, my friends, is a lie: both Catholics and Protestants, have, over the years, both preached grace and preached salvation by works. No Christian denomination owns grace; God alone does. Grace is poured out on everybody, and that’s the point. We must also accept, in the spirit of the Reformation, that no one church 100% gets any of this right and that we all mess it up royally on the regular.

Second, there’s the specter of self-reliance. When we hear that “everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin,” a lot of us feel a tightness in our chest. Are we, too, waiting for the “midnight train to hell”? Because we are aware that we all have royally messed up, we fear God’s imagined wrath, and it follows us around like a ghost. The more I talk to people about faith, the more I realize that a lot of people have this image of God where God is sitting in heaven with a clipboard, doing advanced calculus wherein God writes down each of our sins and marks them out when we confess, and if we die without confessing, we’re on the next train to hell. Sure, we may say that we believe in grace, but we fail to extend it to others, or to ourselves, believing deep inside that this “free grace” thing couldn’t possibly really be true.

This leads to the final ghost/lie, which is related to the others: that we are special and Jesus loves us best. When the folks in the Gospel reading say to Jesus “We are children of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone,” you’re not supposed to feel superior to Jewish people because you, unlike them, understand that Christ is greater than Moses. That’s not the point. The point, rather, is kind of the opposite: that you do not become part of God’s family by being born into the right faith or tradition. You don’t become part of God’s family by doing or saying the right things, either. Rather, “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” — no questions asked. Freedom is an act of God, offered to all people; it is not something that is earned. 

There are a lot of other “ghosts” related to the Reformation, too: Martin Luther wrote some stuff that is bluntly anti-Semitic. These writings are easily findable online. Especially in light of the continued violence against our Jewish neighbors, most recently in Pittsburgh, we can’t overlook this or fail to acknowledge our role here. Look, Luther was far from perfect, often lashing out at his enemies and perceived enemies. We make a mistake, and we hurt our neighbors, when we uncritically lift up Luther as a perfect example. He wasn’t, and he would be the first to say so.

It is time we set these ghosts free so that we can be free, too. 

501 years ago, something happened that changed the shape of Christianity and saved the world. Luther didn’t hope to cause a schism at first, but a schism happened. We should not be proud of this. We should take it as a sign of our brokenness as humans — that we can’t ever manage to get God, or grace, right — for ourselves or for others.

But in a way, the Reformation is also a blessing that gives us freedom: free to worship as we wish, free to follow the Spirit’s leading without fear of repercussions, free to welcome through our doors whomever we wish, as we think Jesus would want us to do. 

There are thousands of Christian denominations as a result of the Reformation. This is the reality that we must live with until all things are made right, until God finally makes the church one. How that will happen, I cannot tell you, because cannot fathom how the church today could possibly be one. We are so different, and we value such different things. There are Christians who believe that other Christians, including us, are demon-possessed, those who believe that LGBTQ people are demon-possessed, and I’m not sure how we could possibly be “one.” Being together, to me, sounds like a bad cocktail party and an even worse image of the end times. But then again, I am very much not God. My imagination is very limited.

But until Jesus comes back, let’s finally be free of the ghosts of the Reformation. Let’s embrace our neighbors, even if we can’t worship with them on the regular. I think that’s what Jesus would have us do: be free of the ghosts. There is no midnight train to hell, no bowler hat, no ghosts, only grace. So be free indeed. Amen.

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