First preached at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square on October 27, 2019.
Relevant lectionary texts here.
It’s Reformation Sunday. About 502 years ago, a monk named Martin Luther posted a treatise with 95 points to the door of a church in Germany. And here we are, over half a millenia later, worshipping in a church in a denomination that bears his name. As such a monumental day of commemoration, today is a good day to pause and think about some of the things we have inherited as Lutherans.
Lutheran theology has given so many gifts to the world. It is Martin Luther who gave us concepts like justification by grace – that it is God who saves us and not any of our own good deeds – and Lutheranism gave us the priesthood of all believers – the idea that all of humankind has direct access to God and therefore no one is in need of a special person like a priest in order to speak to God, we can access God for ourselves. Luther believed that all baptized people had particular calls and vocations, and that a call to the priesthood was not necessarily any more holy to God than the call of nurses or teachers, or the vocation of parenthood. And there’s more. Lutheran theology has offered up a framework for understanding humans that captures the paradox of our nature – that we are all simultaneously both sinner and saint. And Luther’s insistence on the theology of the cross points us all towards the reality of God revealed in the midst of our suffering neighbor. Martin Luther put scripture in the hands of the common people. The Reformation changed the western world.
These are things I love about being Lutheran; our robust theology, our history of protest.
But we have also inherited from our tradition parts that are less powerful, less beautiful. There are parts of our heritage as Lutherans that are complicated or even ugly. For all the good that came forth in the Reformation, it still ultimately resulted in a schism that multiplied and grew. And as descendants of a well-educated monk, there are often cultural traces of elitism particularly in white Lutheran churches, that make, for example, the process of becoming ordained inaccessible to large swaths of people.
And. From the same brilliant mind and flowing pen that produced such lifegiving theology, there were also violent anti-Judaic diatribes that led to hundreds of years of persecution for our Jewish siblings and laid the foundation for horrors like the Holocaust. As we remembered last week the one year anniversary of the massacre at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg, we must also recognize that Luther’s later writings in particular continue to be used by anti-semitic white nationalist domestic terrorists today.
This too is our inheritance and … our responsibility.
To our modern ears it can seem unfair to be held accountable for things that happened long before we were born. Conversations about things like reparations for African descent people or land repatriation to the people native to this land are often met defensively by descendents of white settler colonialists. We want to put distance between us and the evils done by the generations before us. But our reading from the prophet Jeremiah today reminds us that paying restitution for the sins of our ancestors is part of true repentance.
“We acknowledge our wickedness, O LORD, the iniquity of our ancestors, for we have sinned against you.”
Just as the blessings of generations past can still bless us today, the sins of generations past follow us into the present. There are studies now about generational trauma, the ways that pain and violence leave permanent changes our body in ways that are passed on genetically to our offspring. The history finds its way into the present and has to be reckoned with. Jeremiah describes that truth in our first reading.
We have received in our Lutheran heritage a complicated gift in our tradition, and with any gift, once it is given to us it is our responsibility to decide what to do with that gift. We have to sift through the legacy of Martin Luther and choose what we say yes to, and what we say no to; what to keep, what to reframe and reform, and what to reject. And in this discernment, we can’t just replicate the same processes that got us here in the first place. Jeremiah’s reading once again teaches us that our idols will not save us. Clinging to idols like white upper-midwestern culture or quietism or rugged individualism will not save us. To discern this, we have to listen for the Spirit, and that best happens in community.
Which brings us to the parable that Jesus shares with us in our Gospel reading today of the “Pharisee and the Tax Collector.” You might notice that our readings have been modified to substitute in, “Religious Leader” in place of “Pharisee.” Christians have used “Pharisee” as shorthand for “hypocrite” or worse for a long time, and our Jewish siblings have asked us to stop doing that because the modern Jewish movement was birthed out from the Pharisees. Using “Pharisee” pejoratively is the kind of language that easily lends itself to anti-semitism. But also it doesn’t make sense to set up Jesus as somehow always the opposite of the Pharisees, because there are a lot of things that the Pharisees and Jesus believed in common. It is important to remember that Jesus himself was very Jewish. There are some scholars who even think that Jesus was a Pharisee, and that the arguments recorded in scripture are more accurately contextualized as intergroup dialogue and disagreement.
Biblical studies is wild. Any story in the Bible has dozens of different scholarly interpretations, some based on details as minute as in depth studies of singular words. One interpretation of this story is by Dr. Amy Jill Levine. The religious leader in story was someone who the original audience of this parable would consider a person doing all the right things. He was generous with his money, he fasted even more than was required of him. The tax collector, on the other hand, would have been thought of as a traitor to his people, in cahoots with the oppressive Roman Empire. While the religious leader was giving money, the tax collector, by trade, was taking it from his neighbors, and on a certain level he seems to feel the weight of the guilt of being wrapped up in an unjust system. But Levine’s reading of this story doesn’t end with the tax collector being justified “rather than” the faith leader, as our reading puts it. Instead, Levine notes that the same Greek word there can also be translated as, “because of,” making the sentence, “I tell you, this man, the tax collector, went home justified because of the other, the religious leader.” In Levine’s reading of this parable, justification is a communal event. The faithfulness of the religious leader is sufficient to cover not only his own sin, but the sin of the tax collector as well. Once again, our actions have wider implications than just our own individual lives. Our choices have consequences for good or ill, that have ripple effects throughout our whole community. Our faithfulness can be for the benefit of our neighbor.
The ministry and faithful moments of St. Luke’s have already had impacts on the wider Logan Square community. The way that you have been fighting for years for affordable housing in our neighborhood and the recent progress with the Emmett Street Lot has the potential to provide housing for 100 families, keeping them in our neighborhood, making us stronger and better. The publicly funded mental health clinic you worked so hard for is going to leave a lasting legacy of greater health and wholeness for everyone by serving the people who desperately need this healing resource.
500 years ago, the church was charging indulgences to raise money to build a cathedral in Rome on the backs of the desperate poor. Luther saw the injustice of this exploitation and changed the directionality of church offerings. Once money had flowed up from the poor towards people in power in the church to build their wealth, but now the concept of offering changed to become a common communal pot, and the money that flowed in was used to redistribute wealth to the community for those in need.
We are living in a time where people continue to be crushed under oppressive systems run by the wealthy for their own benefit. Our idol of capitalism and the ways that the institution of the church has bought into its lies undermines the Gospel and threatens to destroy all of us. We need a new way of being, a new way of imagining church, which will require the same kind of courage and boldness that was demanded of our forebearers during the Reformation who stepped out in faith, pushed against convention, and resisted the unjust and oppressive authorities of their own day.
In the past few weeks we have taken risks together and spoken honestly with each other about our finances. We have participated in small group discussions about money, we have listened to testimonies, our liturgy and preaching have reflected a theme of gratitude and generosity. We are wrapping up our season, Growing in Generosity today. But we still have time to reflect and speak to one another about the ways that we use our resources. We can choose at St. Luke’s to organize our treasure in common with one another, to cast a vision of what God is calling us towards, to redistribute wealth and work for a more equitable society. Our individual financial choices are important for our own financial and spiritual health, yes, but with some bravery and creativity they have the capability to be more than that, to have a greater impact on the financial and spiritual health of the wider community. God can take the small, faithful choices we make and change things, reform things, for the better, for all of us.
Thanks be to God.