Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Free Slaves (Reflections on Reformation Sunday, 2020)

An early printed edition of "A Mighty Fortress" in German

“…and you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:32)

 I’m always amused by the response Jesus’ Judean followers give to the above quote. These guys must’ve looked at Jesus with their mouths open. “Whaddya mean ‘made free?!’ We’re the descendants of Abraham. We’ve never been slaves.” You don’t even have to know too much Bible history to know they’re kidding themselves here. Remember Moses and that Red Sea thing? The descendants of Abraham were slaves in Egypt, right? They were also slaves to Babylon, then to Persia, Greece and a whole bunch of little crappy kingdoms. By the time of Jesus they were a vassal of the Romans.  Freedom wasn’t their long suit.

 But, in a sense they were right. To them, “free” meant they were the rightful heirs of God’s promise to Abraham. No matter who was actually calling the political shots, the children of Abraham had full personhood in God’s eyes. They weren’t adopted in nor were they “property.” If their self-determination as a nation was taken away, they still had their heritage as legitimate heirs to the title of “Chosen People.”

 Unfortunately for their pride, Jesus had to remind them they were still slaves to sin—something they had a real hard time recognizing. Let’s face it: the truth hurts some times. If you’ve ever tried to live in denial, or defensiveness, or behind some excuse, or in just plain wishful thinking, you know how much it sucks. You want to keep up the pretense that everything is just groovy. Well, it isn’t. It’s the old saying, “you’re only as sick as your secrets.” Perhaps the worst form of bondage is refusing to admit the truth to ourselves.

 We’re all salves in some way, I guess. These days I’d have to say that many of us are slaves to fear. We fear COVID-19. We fear economic catastrophe. We fear civil unrest. Most of all, we probably fear change and loss—especially the loss of thigs we’ve been comfortable with and counted on. Like the church.

 But the truth is, church attendance in America was declining before the pandemic. We’re becoming a more secular society. Young working people don’t have Sunday mornings free anymore. Youth sports, multiple jobs, and the gig economy have killed the Sabbath. I also fear that, as far as public proclamation goes, the more strident voices of fundamentalism outshout the voices of Christ’s mercy and inclusivity in the public media.

 I ask myself on this Reformation Sunday, “What would Luther do?” I wonder what our tradition and heritage as Lutherans give us to get us through this time of transition and worry? How would Martin speak to our fears?

 First, I think the brutally blunt reformer would want us to be honest with ourselves. As a church and as individuals we’ve made plenty of mistakes. Without confession there can be no absolution. We remember that we are slaves to sin, but we are also heirs to God’s promise of love and forgiveness through the blood of Jesus Christ. Simul Justus et peccator is the Latin phrase Luther was so found of. It means simultaneously justified and sinner. The phrase calls us to remember that in these fearful times we’ve all been doubtful, we’ve probably been self-righteous, and our opinions have been less than charitable about people who hold views with which we differ. The good news is that whatever kind of jerks we’ve been, we’re still loved and forgiven by God’s grace. Like the Judeans Jesus addresses in our Gospel lesson, we’re both slaves and free people because we are the legitimate heirs—through no effort of our own—to God’s promise. We should remember that.

 Secondly, I think Luther would remind us ecclesia semper reformanda est. That is, the church is always reforming. Our comfortable little congregations may be going the way of the 8 track, but that doesn’t mean that something new isn’t rising in their place. “God’s word forever shall abide” Luther reminds us in that great anthem we Lutherans love to sing (quietly and through our COVID masks this time!). 

Thirdly, Luther might advise us to take every advantage we can of new media technology. The world didn’t come to learn of the 95 Theses just because they were posted on the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg. No. Before nailing them to the door, Luther had his theses printed on the new-fangled machine called the printing press and mailed out copies to a whole bunch of interested—and some really ticked-off—parties. In our information age, we have the advantage to bypass the Sabbath and put church online. If COVID-19 has taught us nothing else, it has forced us to use the new means available to this generation for spreading the Gospel.

 Finally, I hope Luther would remind us as Christians to be get comfortable with the uncomfortable. Church people, Luther taught, have a duty to civic engagement. Yes, he believed that church leaders should not run countries or cities and secular leaders should not dictate theology. That doesn’t mean, however, that the church should remain unconcerned about the affairs of the world. I think it’s time we were all a little edgier. Our faith in Jesus can’t just be for Sunday morning. Love of neighbor needs to be put into practice.

 So take heart, church. As our Reformation hymn reminds us, “The kingdom’s ours forever.” That’s pretty good news.

 God bless. Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

What Are You Wearing to the Banquet? (Reflections on Pentecost 19, Year A)



Everybody loves a wedding. In the parable Jesus tells in the Gospel appointed for Pentecost 19, Year A (Matthew 22:1-14) a king throws a big wedding bash for his son. He invites all the nobles in his realm, but they—for whatever reason—refuse to come. So, the king does what any good absolute monarch would do in such a situation. He has them all massacred. Then, he sends his slaves out to invite everyone else to the wedding banquet. This is a completely indiscriminate invitation. Everyone is welcome—the good and the bad alike (see v. 10). Unfortunately, one guy shows up being a little cavalier about the dress code (he’s not wearing a wedding robe), and the king has him chucked out. 

I don’t know about you, but I have to confess I really love performing wedding ceremonies, and I’ve been asked to marry couples in some pretty swanky and elegant venues all around Philadelphia. I’ve been part of some gorgeous weddings. Granted, as a steward of God’s blessings, I have to admit that some of these affairs may have been a trifle excessive. In fact, most couples could make a pretty decent down payment on a house for what they blow on a fancy wedding. Yeah, I’ll admit there’s often some rather worldly and conspicuous consumption involved in American weddings. All the same, I love these affairs because a wedding is the one time in our culture when people really try to bring their best selves. Everyone dresses up for a wedding. Face it: most of the time we Americans are a nation of slobs. I’ve even seen people dress in shorts and a T-shirt for a funeral! But weddings are different. 

 And why not? I’ve been told that when one gets an invitation, one dresses to honor the host. When we come to a wedding we’re being invited to share in someone’s love and joy. We’ll probably get a pretty good meal out of it, too—to say nothing of an open bar and a chance to party and dance the night away while we celebrate the possibility of “happily ever after,” a new family being formed, and a new hope for the future. That’s certainly an occasion to bring out our best selves, don’t you think? 

 When I read this Gospel parable, I think Jesus is reminding us that we’ve all been invited to our King’s wedding banquet. All of us, the good, the bad, the indifferent. As the appointed psalm for Pentecost 19 proclaims, God has prepared a table for us in the presence of our enemies. Even in the presence of enemies like COVID-19, racial injustice, civil unrest, floods and fires. We are still invited to celebrate the miracle of God’s creation, the beauty of the earth, and all the beautiful people God has put in our lives. We are served a sumptuous feast of our faith, complete with the promise of the Gospel, the assurance of the sacraments, the comforting beauty of the music, and the support of Christian fellowship. Decency dictates that we show up, even in times such as these in which we live, wearing our best selves—whether this be at home, at work, at church, or even in the car line at the Burger King take-out window. As Christians, we’re called to be decked out in gratitude, faith, hope, and love. The wedding garment Jesus refers to in verse 11 is a representation of a new self and a reminder that every day we are drowned to sin by the promise of our baptism and made new through the grace of God in Christ. 

Our spiritual life will never be about what happens to us, only about how we embrace it. Pain comes to the good and the bad alike, but so does the invitation to God’s celebration. You have been asked to be a guest at the party. Show up wearing your best self. (Just make sure your outfit includes your facemask!). 

May God’s peace be with you.

For a video version of this post, click here.