“We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”
It’s a jaw-dropper of a statement, “we have never been slaves to anyone.” Jesus is talking to his Jewish followers about freedom. The line he delivers, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free,” should have landed easily with this crowd. He’s talking to people whose foundational stories are the story of the exodus from slavery and the exile in Babylon, which Jesus knows because, as a Jew growing up in occupied Israel, they are his stories too. Yet somehow they’ve forgotten who they are, where they came from, and how they got there.
This mass amnesia is an ever-present threat. As George Santayana famously put it, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Anymore that sounds like the premise for a horror movie. Imagine: a nation so beset by forgetfulness that it keeps imagining it will arrive at a new future by practicing the same old mistakes. Which echo of a war are we now living in? Is is the Gulf War or the Cold War? Which memory of an economy are we being haunted by? Is is the Great Depression or the Great Recession? What am I seeing when I tune into the news to find citizens marching to protest violence against Black and Brown bodies? Is it Emmett Till or Rodney King? What is going on up in North Dakota as Native Americans face off against federal forces? Are we headed for another Battle of Little Big Horn or massacre at Wounded Knee?
Life in these United States, life in the world, so often feels like being caught in an endless, tragic, memory. In light of this, who wouldn’t opt for a bit of mass amnesia. Or, at the very least, mass nostalgia. If we must remember the bad old days, can we just agree to remember them as not that bad? Current campaign slogans aside, Americans have been looking back to look forward for a long time now.
Those first TV families — June and Ward Cleaver and their boys, Wally and “Beaver”; Ozzie and Harriet, and their two boys, David and “Ricky”; Andy Taylor and his son, Opie; Steven Douglas and his three sons. What was up with all these sons and no daughters? The widowers raising boys with no mothers? The notion of a single-mother was a tragedy on television, while the idea of a single-father was somehow quietly noble. How have these differences in our representations of male and female authority and sufficiency continued to haunt us?
So we arrive at Reformation Sunday — and not just any Reformation Sunday, but the kick-off to a year-long global commemoration of the Protestant Reformation. The New York Times has already gotten in on the story, publishing a piece this weekend that proclaims, “Long Before Twitter, Martin Luther was a Media Pioneer.” Pope Francis will travel tomorrow to Sweden to participate in Reformation events there, continuing the long, hard work of reconciliation between our two church bodies. I understand how it’s newsworthy. I just wonder if it’s the story we need to hear right now, or if it’s the story we want to hear instead. Are we possibly like the Jewish people in this morning’s gospel, asking Jesus to explain himself when he talk to us about freedom, preferring to forget all the ways we have been enslaved?
Last weekend I attended a one-day conference at LSTC titled “#decolonizeLutheranism.” Organized by clergy and seminarians acting on their own, not as a project of the seminary, synod, or churchwide organization, this gathering set itself the task of trying to understand what it might look like to strip Lutheranism of its particular social, historical, and ethnic expressions — to “decolonize” Lutheranism. The organizers hoped they might pull together 50-60 people. Instead, over 200 showed up, flying in from all parts of the country, hungry for a conversation about what it means to call ourselves Lutheran at a moment when people are increasingly ambivalent about calling themselves Christian, or even religious. What does it mean to claim an identity that was forged at a very particular moment in time, in a very specific place, at the beginning of a time of upheaval that cracked open the Holy Roman Empire and charted a new course for Europe? But more, what does it mean to call ourselves Lutherans, a global community of more than 72 million people, when American Lutherans are a shrinking minority in the landscape of religious identity, while Lutherans in Namibia are the majority? There are large Lutheran communities in Slovakia, Kazakhstan, Tanzania, Brazil, India and South Africa which are not simply comprised of descendants of European and North American immigrants, but have taken roots in the soils of many lands, taking on the flavors of many foods and the sounds of many songs and the customs of many peoples.
All of which means we cannot say who we will be, or even who we are, simply by remembering and recounting just one version of who we have been. As we enter into this global retelling of the reformation story, we must keep Paul’s words to the community in Rome in mind, “Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that or works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” (Rom. 3:27-28)
These words, memorized by Lutheran confirmands generation after generation, should both comfort and terrify us at once. They tell us there is nothing we have to do, or even can do, to earn our place before God. They remind us that all that we are, and all that we have, come to us as a gift from a loving Creator. They also call us to faith — not as a litmus test, not as a new work, but as a way of life, as a discipline, as a daily dying to who we have been so that God can bring to life that which we are by grace becoming.
A few years ago I heard one of the most remarkable sermons of my life, preached by a pastor I’m lucky enough to call my mentor and my friend, the Rev. Jim Gertmenian, recently retired from Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis. In it, he retold a story from the beginning of the exodus cycle, a story from Moses’ infancy, the story of the moment when his mother, Jochebed, set her infant son in a basket of pitch and reeds, and set him on the waters of the Nile to save him from the death awaiting all Hebrew boys by the decree of Pharaoh.
It was a stunning sermon for so many reasons, not least of which is that Jim is a master storyteller with a poet’s ear. In his retelling we could feel the cool mud of the river bed pressing up between Jochebed’s toes. We could hear her heart beating faster and faster as the moment came to release the raft. We could imagine the horror and desperation felt by any mother, any parent, who has reached the place where their next best action is to let go of their child and place that life in the hands of God.
Then he made this point: the exodus begins with this act of faith, freedom and liberation stem from this moment, the act of placing that which is most precious to us in God’s hands and trusting God to be faithful. Too often, he pointed out, we imagine that reformation, or liberation, is about stripping away the husk, the dead inessentials, that are smothering the precious center from thriving. But the story of the exodus does not begin with a call to return to some older, purer, practice of faith. It does not imagine some essential Judaism, or Christianity, or Lutheranism that can be salvaged from the particularities of history. Instead, this story teaches that God is faithful, and that we can trust that which is most precious, most essential, most loved to God’s care. We can let go of that which we imagine to be most central to our faith, to our lives, and entrust it to God, who is always guiding us into a future in which we are all God’s people, no longer divided by labels, with that knowledge as close to us as our own hearts (Jer. 31:33-34)
This is the truth that sets us free. We Lutherans, we Methodists, we Christians, we Jews, we Muslims, we Hindus, we agnostics, we atheists, we spiritual but not religious, we living, we dead, we people, we planet, we belong to one another in ways our labels cannot erase. We have no need to boast, nor to forget. We have heard the truth. Not willful ignorance of our painful past, but faith in God’s future. We are free.