2 Samuel 5:1-5; 6:1-5
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
On October 31, 1517, a young Augustinian monk named Martin Luther changed the course of history and the direction of Western civilization when he defiantly nailed his 95 Theses – properly titled “A Disputation on the Power an Efficacy of Indulgences” – to the door of the castle church at Wittenberg in Germany. At least, that’s the short, simple, and triumphant version of the story that we Lutheran Christians tell ourselves when we celebrate the anniversary of beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Many of us gather on this Reformation Sunday with that story firmly implanted in our minds, and we are met in worship today by a similarly triumphant story from Scripture centered on a vital figure in the history of God’s people. After the failure of Israel’s first king – a man named Saul whose tragic story was sadly passed over in this year’s telling of the Biblical story – the people of Israel and Judah were eager to place their lives and their fortunes in the hands of the one who had been anointed by God to succeed Saul. David, once a young shepherd whose musical talent, rugged good looks, and valor in warfare had endeared him to his people, now stood at the pinnacle of power in the eastern Mediterranean, having been given charge over the twelve tribes of Israel as the ruler of an unprecedented “united kingdom”. His reign as king became legendary, and long after his death David continued to be the model for every king who would follow him, both in terms of faithfulness to God and in terms of skillful and discerning leadership.
Two men. Two significant eras in the history of God’s people. Two leaders lionized for their boldness and courage in the face of opposition. David and Luther certainly share a number of characteristics in the popular imagination, although I’m not sure that most of those characteristics are terribly helpful for our reflection, especially because many of them don’t actually match the historical record. If, however, we cut through the myths, I think there are lessons to be learned from the lives of these two figures who loom large in our collective memories, and those lessons are capable of drawing us beyond “hero worship” to a proper understanding of God’s movement in their lives (and ours).
On the positive side, both Luther’s reformation project and David’s rise to the monarchy have in common a desire to place God at the center of community life. In today’s reading, we hear the account of David bringing the Ark of the Covenant, the visible symbol of God’s presence among the people of Israel, back into the midst of the people. The new king was convinced that keeping the nation together and making it strong would require the people to acknowledge God as the source of their blessings and their common life. So we have this evocative scene in which David leads a procession containing the Ark into the city of Jerusalem, the newly established capital of the United Kingdom, accompanied by dancing and music and wild celebration. At its core, then, the story of David’s ascent to the throne is also a story of gratitude and remembrance of God’s gracious favor poured out upon him and the entire nation, and that is certainly worthy of being lifted up as an example for us.
In the same way, if we cut through the mythology around Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses, which was surely less dramatic than we commonly imagine, we recognize the truly profound impact of this young priest and university professor calling the church to take Christ’s command to be a repentant and forgiven people seriously. Where some within the church had lost their proper focus, Luther called the whole church to remember that – in the words of one of those famous Theses – “[t]he true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God. (Thesis 62, “The 95 Theses”, Luther’s Works, vol. 31, p. 31)
While we rightly celebrate these defining events in the church’s history, we also do well to remember that both of these men were flawed, and that the stories we tell ourselves about them are demonstrably false if we leave out their faults and failings in the interest of advancing our own interests. So, for example, David was described as being “a man after God’s own heart,” but he was also the perpetrator of one of the most heinous abuses of power in the entire Old Testament. His assault of Bathsheba, his violation of her marriage to Uriah the Hittite, and his treachery in sending Uriah to the front lines of battle to be killed at the hands of the Ammonites, all of these are reminders of David’s humanity, including his inability to place his own desires aside for the sake of holiness or godliness. Luther’s life is also rife with examples of his fallibility. His fierce polemic against other Christian groups – from the Roman Catholic church to the Anabaptist and Reformed churches – became the justification for the slaughter of tens of thousands, and his rhetoric about the Jewish people has had an even more devastating impact upon that community through the centuries. In trying to serve the cause of God as he understood it, Luther’s frequent lack of humility did great harm to the Church and to society in general.
As Christians – those who have been grafted onto God’s chosen people and given a share in God’s grace – and particularly as Lutheran Christians, what can we take away from the stories of Martin Luther and King David? On the one hand, there is much to be emulated as we look at the lives of these two saints of God. David’s desire to seek after God’s heart and God’s will is certainly a desire that we should share. His symbolic act of placing the Ark back at the center of Israel’s common life is one that we might ponder as we are pulled to and fro by all the people and things that demand our attention. Likewise, Luther’s pursuit of the gracious God revealed in Holy Scripture is a part of our DNA as those who have inherited his legacy, and to the extent that we set our minds to pursuing the truth about God in Christ for ourselves, we embody one of the Reformation’s most enduring projects. By the same token, the very idea of reformation, of being continually shaped by the Holy Spirit’s movement in our midst, is an idea and worthy of being recalled regularly for the sake of our life together.
On the other hand, of course, some of the most significant learnings we might take from these two figures are examples of what not to do. We do well to remember the excesses of David’s leadership, and his abuse of that leadership to satisfy his own needs and desires. We also do well to avoid the hubris that led Luther to espouse a rhetoric which has done profound and lasting damage to the unity of the Church, and with which we are still coming to terms as heirs of the Reformation. As we examine that lives of David and Luther, we are called to be discerning about those parts of their legacies that are praiseworthy, and to learn the lessons of those parts that are worthy of criticism so that we can avoid their mistakes.
On this Reformation Sunday, brothers and sisters, let us give thanks for the lives of our forerunners in the faith – David and Martin – and for the example they set in seeking to be faithful to God in word and deed. Let us pray for the wisdom to see their failures for what they are, and the grace to avoid them so that God might be glorified. Finally, let us pray that God’s Holy Spirit would continue to move in our midst, forming us to be God’s people in the world, and drawing us ever closer to one another in the bonds of love and peace, for the sake of the church and the world that God loves. Amen.