by Lenny Duncan
So here we are almost 500 years later and we stand on reformation Sunday. While the rest of the ELCA has been hell bent on celebrating the past I have decided to ground myself in the present. Our readings also point more to our most immediate reality in my opinion, but I’ll get back to that. Let us first acknowledge that for many folks this will be a day of celebrating our heritage as Christians from a Lutheran faith perspective.
But I would caution you not to be too quick throw out the streamers and blow up the red balloons. For while 1517 is important year for us, but I have another date just a year later.
August 18th 1518: in a significant escalation of the slave trade, Charles V grants his Flemish courtier Lorenzo de Gorrevod permission to import 4000 African slaves into New Spain. From this point onwards, thousands of slaves are sent to the New World each year.
That’s right it’s our friend Charles V from the Diet of Worms the very same one that Luther married himself, the reformers and the new movement we would later call Lutheranism. So, while for many of us this 500 years marks the spark of a theological revolution that turned the world on its ear I want to point out it was the genesis of something else. The continued oppression of Black and Native bodies and the birth pangs of chattel slavery. While many of us want to separate Martin Luther the man from his theology I think we do ourselves and Luther a disservice. There is only so many times you can explain away “Of the Jews and Their Lies” and rely on a 470 year post humous dementia diagnosis. Maybe Luther was like most of Europe, virulently anti-Semitic. I know that may be tough to swallow but the thing about the utter humanness of Luther is it really makes him more accessible to the 21st century, not less.
His silence on slavery I feel is the same. This is a man who was obsessed with the Quran and a Moorish sacking of Europe but he was unaware of slavery or the oppression of peoples in the so called “new world.” Does that sound intellectually honest to you? Yes, Luther changed the world. I am a proud “Lutheran” but the I make no mistakes about the historical context his movement sprang from.
Which brings me to today-
We are faced with Jeremiah
1The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. 33But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
We see this text from Jeremiah 31:31-34 which points to the incarnation. The God-man who we would know. In the sense that we know other fellow travelers on the journey. The feeling when you are at a march shoulder to shoulder with someone. Or those in our lives who seem to show up for a brief chat when we need them the most. A trusted colleague or peer. Our partner. But this new covenant, this new law, would hang on two things. That we would no longer be trapped by the prescriptions or systems. That by touching the God made flesh the people are set free from sin. That walls and prohibitions that separate us come tumbling down. Our brokenness forgotten and made whole.
One human family loved by the divine.
We experience this through faith alone. For my purposes I am skipping over the reading from Romans because we know what that little piece of scripture has done for us as a church. You wouldn’t be reading this and I wouldn’t be writing this if a monk had not stumbled along this letter from Paul and dealt with its consequences for all of mankind. Many folks will see this as the primary reformation Sunday text and will preach on it. This is a good and holy choice. But I want to talk to you about the Gospel text.
31Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 33They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”
34Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”
What is freedom? Is the freedom from sin alone as in my personal shortcomings in front of my creator? Or could it be systemic sin? What are we slaves to today in the North American context? Are guns and the right to bear them our new masters? Is Smith and Wesson the new Moloch that we feed children too? What about white supremacy and heteronormativity? We are the descendants of the founding fathers are we not? They have crafted a document that is the envy of the world. We are looked at as a shining city on a hill where freedom and liberty spread from one coast to another. We are so like the people of Jesus’s day that sometimes it strikes me like a pin prick to my heart. In the North American context we are just like people of Israel. We cling to our heritage so tightly we don’t even see that in our grip we have twisted it to the point that it is unrecognizable. There has never been freedom in this country, and any “right” that leads to Las Vegas. Sandy Hook. Pulse, well those are not rights. Those are demonic systemic sin cycles that keep repeating themselves on the national landscape over and over.
The truth is that Jesus disrupts our made-up stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. The people of his time didn’t remember the exodus, or the exile in Babylon. We don’t remember how this land was stolen and built on the back of black bodies. Often the majority of our parishioners forget that the freedom they cherish is an illusion. It is built on the continuation of a system that oppresses millions at home and abroad. That the freedom they believe they have is actually a prison for the oppressor and the oppressed. We are both locked in a death spiral that only Jesus can set us free from.
What is freedom? It is seeking the word and truth. What is truth? It is revealed on the cross.