Martin Luther, Two Bishops, Love ~ Our bishop’s humor: defining love.

©Photos by Oma Liz 

The Lutheran Bishops, Martin Luther, Love
Photos by Oma Liz

Once upon a time, I was brought into a direct connection between Martin Luther, two bishops, and myself.

During the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s birth,St. Paul’s commemorated the occasion by holding a celebratory service. Although much of the order of worship was in English, hymns, scripture, and communion would be in German.

The then bishop of the LCA New Jersey Synod, whose name now is lost in the mists of time, was invited to give the sermon. “In English!” he laughed. “I was raised speaking German in Camden, but can no longer speak it. The vocabulary and its subtleties are lost.”

He didn’t know either any of the Germanic readers, but Pastor Mangiante assured him that “They all know their stuff. They laugh uproariously when reading to each other. There’s something about regional dialects that sets them off.”

Some of us, including, of course, Fred and myself, were asked to read scripture in German. Fred and I both read our readings aloud to each other as practice, and tittered about each other’s regional accents. “These accents might confuse some member of the congregation,” said Fred.

“I fully agree. This is going to be fun.” I answered him.

We both laughed again. This was truly going to be entertaining.

It was indeed highly entertaining until the Big Day arrived. Almost at the very moment we arrived in the sanctuary, we began to ponder the significance and importance of Luther’s accomplishments and gifts to the world. It was not to be an entertaining day. It was to be a day of prayer, and thankfulness, and mulling of the events that had changed the world. It was to be a day of recognizing courage and how this man gave service to others so that they would be free to worship the Trinity as spoken of in The Word. Martin Luther taught that we are to go directly to the Lord in His Son’s name, and that no intervention was needed because God loves us.

The service went well. It was uplifting to hear the timeline of Luther’s accomplishments. Our hearts were touched as the hymns were sung and the scriptures were read in German. I read the lesson from the New Testament without a hitch and stepped down.

Then the bishop stepped forward. He was smiling and even chuckling a bit as he stepped to the pulpit. He looked at me and said, “You’re from Vienna, aren’t you?” A bit discomfited, I nodded assent. “Have you been in this country a long time, Liz?”

I could feel my face turning bright red. What in heaven’s name was going on? What was this man doing? “Yes,” I stammered.

“How long, Liz?”

My face was now getting hot. “Since 1938.”

“Ah, yes, and the music of Alt Wien – that means Old Vienna,” he told the congregation, “still flows from your tongue.” Some scattered chuckles and laughs were heard. Somehow the words “Liz” and “musical tongue” seemed incongruous to my friends.

I mouthed a “thank you” and quietly asked God to control this man.

He chuckled as he faced the congregation. Then he proceeded to briefly explain Germanic dialects and the implications to them.

““You know, I grew up in a German speaking family in Camden. We were regular church goers, and on one occasion, some time in the 1930’s, the guest pastor was the then bishop of Camden. He was a formidable looking man in his formal vestments and as I watched him floating, as it seemed to me, up the pulpit steps, he frightened this then seven year old.

“The sermon began and his German was not the gentle language I was used to hearing and speaking at home. It was dynamic, guttural, loud. When he wanted to make an important point, he would slap his hand next to the Bible. Bang! Crash! Often he would point at us with his index finger and jab the air. Many of we children were startled each time, and inched closer to our mothers.”

The bishop proceeded to imitate the sounds and actions of that long ago voice. He sounded like the best of the comedians imitating and exploiting the language.”

 We in the congregation were mesmerized. Where was this story going?

“I inched closer and closer to my mother, becoming more and more frightened. Finally, I could stand it no longer. ‘Mutti, mutti! Was sagt er? Was sagt er?” (Mama, what is he saying?) I appealed to her. I was shaking and in tears. My dear mother turned to me, smiled sweetly, and patted my head. ‘Do not be frightened. He is saying that God is love, my dear.’ “

The explosion of laughter from the congregation delayed the service for a good five minutes. Laughter and applause swept through the audience.

Finally, the bishop controlled his own amusement and was able to begin his sermon. Without thinking of the consequences of his next act, he opened his notes and he began, “Martin Luther had a clear message to the world: God is love.”

Near chaos erupted.

It was truly a joyous celebration of Martin Luther’s birthday.

The twists of that day were almost unbelievable.


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