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I’m a little fig tree, short and stout

by davesandel on October 23rd, 2021

Saturday, October 23, 2021                            (today’s lectionary)

I’m a little fig tree, short and stout

If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through his Spirit, that dwells in you.

We had dinner together, George, his mom Martha, and me. A single bright red cardinal perched in the green tree beside our table. The cardinal didn’t move all evening. What fine company that cardinal was! And below the table, Muffin scuttled from chair to chair, looking for anything that fell. Muffin is 16 years old, a tiny white terrier whose tail wags him.

An unused chair in a corner of the dining room was stacked with books. George hopes to get his MDiv (Master of Divinity) degree in a few years. He had books by Phillip Bobbitt, Laura Schlesinger, and Hunter S. Thompson on that chair, along with a book of Bible charts and maps, a Bible study of 1 Corinthians, and two other books on theology. George is an eclectic reader, who in college sometimes began or ended his college papers with a few lines of ancient classical Greek. Not every professor appreciated his effort. I like to think I would have.

George and his mom watched a documentary on Martin Luther earlier this month. October is Reformation Month. Every year in October all of us in Sunday School at Zion Lutheran Church stayed in the auditorium for an hour two Sundays in a row to watch Martin Luther, a black and white film that won two Academy Award nominations on the one hand, and was banned in Quebec on the other. It wasn’t banned in Lincoln, Illinois.

Dr. Luther of the University of Wittenberg in Germany flagellated himself most nights, seeking to solve his guilt problem. His misery grew ever deeper, until one evening while he was preparing for a class on Romans, he re-read the 8th chapter with fresh eyes.

Brothers and sisters, now there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus has freed you also from the law of sin and death. What the law was powerless to do, God has done.

Suddenly all the hyperbole of the Roman Catholic church became empty words. Luther’s constantly deepening guilt, which he kept at bay only through countless confessions and whippings, along with expensive indulgences, disappeared in a beautiful mist of God’s grace and forgiveness. Then in 1517, 504 years ago this month, Luther wrote out God’s good news, sentence by sentence, and nailed his document to the Wittenberg church door.

Luther intended his 95 theses to be debated by scholars, but he didn’t realize how much false guilt plagued everyone else too. The document was quickly copied and printed on Gutenberg’s new press, spread throughout the land to be read by the ordinary folks, and within weeks indulgences were no longer profitable for the Roman church. Luther was summoned to Rome.

  1. The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.
  2. But this treasure is naturally most odious, for it makes the first to be last (Matthew 20:16).
  3. On the other hand, the treasure of indulgences is naturally most acceptable, for it makes the last to be first.
  4. Therefore the treasures of the gospel are nets with which one formerly fished for men of wealth.
  5. The treasures of indulgences are nets with which one now fishes for the wealth of men.

Luther was never known for his subtlety. “If you’re a hammer, then everything else is nails,” my friend Sheryl said to me yesterday. Luther was truly a hammer. And there were 90 more sentences to defend along with these five. He failed to defend, but he also failed to recant, and was excommunicated. On his way back to Germany he took the back roads and traveled at night.

As you watch any of the movies about his life, read Metaxas’ Luther or Bainton’s Here I Stand: I Can Do No Other, the drama of his story never wanes. Within a few years the peasants revolted against the German princes. Catholic hegemony in Europe was shattered. What came to be known as Protestantism burst into life and almost as quickly split into countless fragments, into what we usually call denominations. The Lutheran church was chief among them.

Who can ascend the mountain of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place? He whose hands are sinless, whose heart is clean, who does not desire what is vain. Lord, these are the people who long to see your face.

Ex-monk Martin married ex-nun Kate, after he helped her escape her nunnery in an empty fish barrel. They had children and started churches. Luther wrote constantly, and translated the Vulgate Latin bible into German. That translation has lasted centuries.

I memorized most of Luther’s Small Catechism in classes I attended each week for two years. Well, at least I memorized the parts I would be called upon to repeat, standing in a white robe with my classmates in front of our church congregation on a Sunday morning in the spring. I don’t remember much about the class, except that Nancy was in the class with me, along with a few other girls that caught my eye far more often than Pastor Neitzel did, with his wild white hair trying so hard to get us to take Martin Luther and his catechism a little more seriously. He had the patience of a saint.

For three years now I have looked for fruit on this fig tree but found none. Cut it down! But the gardener said, “Just give it one more year. I’ll cultivate the ground and fertilize it, and perhaps next year it will bear fruit.

I can’t wait to see what direction George will take with his studies. He is fascinated by everything and might have trouble settling into a single path. I gave him a copy of the Lutheran Concordia Seminary magazine, which I found on my mom’s coffee table in Lincoln. Who knows? God takes us where he wants us. Perhaps next year we will bear fruit.

(Romans 8, Psalm 24, Ezekiel 33, Luke 13)

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