Hardly any people I went to college with had heard of Reformation Sunday. It’s not all that surprising, I guess, considering I went to a Roman Catholic college so it wasn’t exactly a major feast day.
The Protestant Reformation began when Martin Luther proposed a conversation intended to lead to the reform of his antagonist – the Roman Catholic church of his day, a church in which he was a priest and a professor. The conversation centered largely on Indulgences: payment that could be made to the church to hasten the salvation of oneself or others. Besides the economic problem (the Vatican was in the midst of a rather large building program at the time, and some of the money was certainly coming from people who could scarcely afford it), Luther had a theological problem with indulgences; one that is summed up this way: If the pope has the power to free people, he should just do it. Because, as Luther knew, the grace of God is free.
[As our presiding bishop elect reminds us,] Lutherans came to this continent in waves of European immigration in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. English was almost always a second language for Lutherans in part because they gathered in ethnic enclaves. A Norwegian Lutheran marrying a Swedish Lutheran was about as close to scandal as people were willing to get. Lutherans were aliens.
Over the last 25 years as the ELCA, and for centuries before that, Lutherans’ gradual assimilation into American culture has led us to blend in now. It’s hard to walk down the street and spot a Lutheran just by looking. We blend right in.
And I think there is some danger in that. I wonder if we have taken off to much of the edge of the Reformation.
My nephew Liam, about whom you’ve heard much over the last 4 years, has a song he likes to sing: “Everything is opposite on opposite day.” I won’t sing it for you because it will get stuck in your head and annoy you. But, the gist of it is that everything is opposite on opposite day, things just happen in the opposite way.
So much of our Lutheran theology, so much of the gospel itself, is (in a word), opposite. The Lutheran voice is not a generic Christian or a generic Protestant voice. Rather, it’s a voice of opposites. It’s a voice that says the gifts of God are free, despite any indication to the contrary. In a culture of glory, we point to the cross. We are simultaneously saints and sinners. We find life in the Resurrection as well as in the Cross. We know that nothing we can do will make God love us less. And (sometimes harder to believe) we know that nothing we can do will make God love us more.
It is easy for us to forget that we have more to contribute to the conversation than beer brats and Lake Wobegon and lefse. While culturally significant, this list of foods should at least include frybread and pho and papusas. But, more importantly, our distinctive Lutheran voice is not cultural. It’s not cultural. In fact, it is countercultural – because it’s theological. It speaks of the Christ whose truth makes us free.
I have a friend new to the area who asked me what it’s like to serve a congregation in a part of the country where even the “spiritual but not religious” crowd is in the minority. I said that I think it’s probably a lot like what the early Christians experienced. Or, in the words of Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention, we can no longer pretend we are a moral majority. We are maybe a prophetic minority. Or, to put it another way, we are aliens.
I have this Keep Tahoe Blue sticker on the door to my study. It reminded me of this Keep Tahoe Cardinal sticker, which I picked up from the Stanford Snowboarding and Skiing group. And that reminded me of a conversation Vicar Maggie and I had a while ago about a movement called Keep Church Weird.
I admit, at first, I didn’t really like that idea. Why should church try to be weird? Between the language and the clothing and the music, we are already pretty set apart from the world around us. Then, I realized, maybe that’s the point. Besides what we say and wear and sing, this is different. I’m reminded of Flannery O’Conner’s take on today’s Gospel text: You’ll know the truth and the truth will make you odd. The truth we deal in is grace, mercy, peace, love, forgiveness. And, if those don’t make us odd, I don’t know what will.
In today’s gospel, Jesus offers freedom to people who respond by saying, “We’ve never been slaves to anyone.” But they had. And they were. And we have. And we are.
Martin Luther’s antagonist was the Roman Catholic Church of his day. The antagonist of our day is the sin of a society, a workplace, a school, our selves – whatever says to us, “You are what you produce, what you achieve, what you accomplish, what you earn.”
And, to that antagonist, we bring reform. And Good News.
My friend Aimee picked up her kids at school this week and the teacher gave her three donuts as they left, one for each child. Aimee promised the kids they could have them after their quick stop at Walmart. She says the kids were not “in any way human” for the thirty minutes they were in there. But, when they got to the car, there were the donuts. And she gave them to them with these words, “You are not receiving these donuts because you’ve done anything to deserve them, but because I promised, and I love you, and I’m keeping my promise.”
To the antagonist of our day, who would have us believe that our worth is a commodity that can be earned, we are Reformers – you are Reformers – shifting the paradigm, saying something different, changing the rules, sharing the Good News that grace is not for sale but is the free gift of God – not because we earn it, but because God loves us and God keeps promises. You are worthy because you are. You are loved because you are. You are valued because you are.
That’s truth that makes us odd.
And it’s truth makes us free.