The Holy Gospel according to Luke. Glory to you, O Lord.
Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” They 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’?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”
The Gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.
Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer. (Psalm 19:14)
I have been in awe of the stories of Muslim women involved in protests surrounding the wearing of the hijab. In my eyes they are heroes who are showing strength and resilience in the midst of persistent pushback.
One of the things that has struck me is that there is no one, universal stance. Women are asking for the power to choose how to live out their faith.
- There are women in Iran who refuse to be forced to wear a hijab. And at the same time there are women in India who wear their hijabs despite being banned from doing so.
While justice may look different in both of these societies, the message is clear: stand up for yourself and for others when change needs to happen. These women are putting their lives at risk to defy the way things are and the way things have always been.
What gives these women the confidence and courage that they need to demand change in their communities?
- I often wonder what motivates someone to join or lead a protest. Do they have a loved one in their life who has acted as a role model?
- Perhaps these women have mothers who have also shown strength in different ways. Or have they learned about heroes from other moments in history? They’re merely waiting for their own opportunities to act and fight.
Whatever the answer, God bless these women and others who sacrifice their time and energy to make a difference in the world—not only for themselves but for many generations to come.
The truth that sets us free is true whether we believe it or not because it depends on “if the Son has set you free you will be free indeed” and the “if” has nothing to do with us. That was true for the tradition bound Jews who “believed in him” but couldn’t understand how the truth of Jesus trumped the tradition of Abraham. We do the same thing when we think freedom depends on something other than the Word that says you are free.
- It might be that we prefer the comfort of conformity wherein we are securely bound by rules and regulations that order our religious universe.
- Or maybe we trust the pedigree of our denominational heritage, or ironically in this day and age, our lack of it.
But if we let God be God and say God will do whatever God will do while at the same time filtering all our “whatever God will do” talk through what God actually did (aka die on the cross) then the “Son has set you free” takes on a new dimension. Freedom is not the permission to do whatever we like but the opportunity to do whatever God desires. In a word. Love.
The gospel for this week is chosen to help celebrate the Reformation. The Reformation is the period of history when Martin Luther and many other people helped to work for change in the greater Church. The changes helped make it so people (ordinary people like you and me) could develop a more personal and relational sense of faith in their lives.
Because of its roots in the Reformation, I think that one of the most important traits of the Lutheran Church is that it should always be open to change. Lutherans balance tradition and innovation fairly evenly. So, when there is a shift in the world they are ready to adapt. That doesn’t mean that pastors and bishops are always right. We are too often slow to move in the right direction. But when we are wrong, we are committed to holding ourselves accountable and following the Holy Spirit wherever it leads. I feel I have wronged you all by not adapting to post-Covid sooner, and I am working with the leadership to right that wrong.
It can be easy to get stuck in the flow of how things are and how they’ve always been. Our text today references descendants of Abraham who believe that their history and lineage has earned them some kind of future reward. They are not eager to do what Jesus is asking of them.
Reading the gospel with the Reformation in mind encourages us to be proactive when it comes to change. While some of us may feel comfortable and affirmed in our current realities, there are countless others who are struggling with poverty, grief, violence, oppression, and other calamities in their lives. Our work is not done until all of God’s children are taken care of.
How do we do it? Like Martin Luther, and so many other people who have demanded change in the world, we have to listen.
We have to listen to the people around us who are crying out for help. We have to listen to the voices of folks who are usually ignored. And we have to listen to the rustling of the wind of the Holy Spirit to see where God is already at work.
I had a seminary colleague who was on internship and was once cautioned by a Lutheran elder to beware of their pursuit of developing a Lutheran approach to ecology and the environment. “All this talk of ‘saving the earth’ that I hear nowadays sounds like works righteousness. We are saved by faith, not works,” she reminded my friend. “So you’re dangerously close to Lutheran heresy by insisting that there is something humans can do to save the planet.”
In one sense, this elder was correct. It is important to be aware of the risk of human-centered ecological works-righteousness and firmly recognize that God is the source and agent of human involvement. In other words, it is not we who save the Earth, but the Triune God working in, through and among us who saves us all.
But her warning also seemed to shroud a more serious sin—ecological quietism. The danger of our Lutheran doctrine of being “saved by faith alone” is that we go to the other extreme of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace” which requires no response and no action. Cheap grace excuses us from doing the work of Christ in this world. So we can rationalize avoiding taking action on any justice issue—including ecological justice—by convincing ourselves that as long as we’re justified by faith, God will take care of the rest. But that’s not what Martin Luther meant, nor what he modeled.
The stories we will tell about Martin Luther on this day and other years will be so important as we remember who he was, what he did, and how our identity as Lutherans is shaped by the events that happened five centuries ago. Would Luther approve of what Christians of his namesake have been doing over the past 60 years working to restore Creation? Or would he shake his finger at our misguided deeds?
It’s helpful to remember that what drove Luther to that church door in Wittenberg, Germany, with his theological critique in hand was the fact that he paid attention to the suffering of souls around him. And that his anguish for himself and for them led him to ask questions.
And those questions led him to the source of suffering located in a particular narrative about God and salvation that had been constructed over the course of 1000 years. It was a narrative that benefited a select few while putting undue burdens on the great majority to uphold that system. So Luther’s questions started a conversation that did not fit into the dominant narrative, that disrupted the pattern of what had been passed down for generations. It was not well-received by those in power, but Luther’s questions and the ensuing conversation were part of a truth-telling that was intended to set us free.
Lutherans today who are concerned about re-forming the church toward an ecological responsibility are also attending to the suffering of others. From species disappearing, to coral reefs bleaching, to entire communities flooded, and others devastated by drought, the effects of fossil-fuel induced climate change and human violation of God’s Creation have all spurred us to ask questions that have no right to go away.
Like the Reformation of the 16thcentury, this Eco-reformation being led by some is also disruptive and disturbing. It interrupts the way we’ve been telling the story. That story about humanity’s dominion has benefited a select few while putting undue burdens on the great majority to uphold the system.
We do not do the work of Creation-care in order to be saved or to be justified by God. We do the work because we are saved and justified by God. For me, Martin Luther models the passion to be angry about the way things are. This is righteous anger that led him to take action: writing, preaching, debating, reading, teaching, and speaking boldly against the powers that are causing great and needless harm. This passion led to courage to take action on behalf of that faith active in love.
The Eco-reformation is inviting us into courageous conversation. This conversation is so difficult because we hardly know where to begin or what to say, since what is happening is so huge, it is something we can barely wrap our minds around. So there is, at best, a hesitancy. At worst, there is a denial that the conversation is even necessary.
But as Luther’s opponents discovered, once the question has been asked, it cannot be unasked. It cannot be contained. The Reformation spread like dandelion seeds across a meadow and quickly took root as a thousand yellow flowers across a landscape of despair.
Similarly, the conversation about our relationship to God and Creation has already started. It’s a conversation that’s going to happen with you or without you. So we have choices to make.
We can either choose to be part of that conversation, or we can resist it, deny it, or try to silence it. And then the choices will be made without us.
Like Luther, we are facing frightening prospects of what lies ahead for us. At great personal cost and sacrifice, he made his stand for truth. He could do no other. We can take heart—take courage—from the God of Luther who knows that we face stakes even higher than the pre-industrialized and pre-nuclear era of 1517.
- In the face of planetary collapse we plant trees.
- We write letters to the editor and to our elected officials.
- We march in protest.
- We teach our children how to ask questions and engage in those courageous conversations.
- We invent ways to conserve and create clean energy.
- We preach sermons that proclaim the truth of the laws of nature, as well as the gospel of Christ’s death and resurrection.
- And we remember Bonhoeffer’s words in his book Ethics: “The world still stands; the end is not yet here; there are still penultimate things which must be done, in fulfillment of the responsibility for this world which God has created,” (127).
Take heart! Be of good courage! The God of those small but mighty questions is alongside us, within us, and—sometimes in spite of us—still at work through us. This world which God has created is ready for us to get to work! So how are we going to do our part to be “free indeed!”