Reformation or Re-formation?


Jeremiah 31:7-9
Psalm 126
Hebrews 7:23-28
Mark 10:46-52

Prayer of the Day: Eternal light, shine in our hearts. Eternal wisdom, scatter the darkness of our ignorance. Eternal compassion, have mercy on us. Turn us to seek your face, and enable us to reflect your goodness, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

This week’s lesson from Jeremiah as well as the psalm celebrate the liberation of exiles from captivity and their joyous homeward journey under the sheltering protection of the God who frees slaves, champions the cause of the poor and leads the homeless to a homeland. In our gospel reading, Jesus halts his journey toward Jerusalem to heal a blind beggar, a loud and bothersome fellow that the rest of the crowd tried to silence. These lessons are by no means atypical. The Bible, especially as it is read through the lens of Jesus, paints the picture of a God whose heart bleeds for the orphan, the widow, the stranger, the sojourner with no country to call home, the hungry, the poor and the noisy outcast at the side of the road that everyone else wishes would just shut up.

From whence, then, cometh the God of “America First”? How the hell did we wind up with this deformity called the “prosperity gospel?” How can those of us from the American “mainline” protestant churches, bastions of middle class respectability that we are, claim to worship the messiah who calls disciples from among “the least” of every nation, tribe and tongue? How did we get to be the church of white privilege?[1] How is it that self described “evangelicals” can be found in such large numbers howling with laughter as our president mocks a man who is disabled and makes fun of a woman trying to piece together what happened to her in the wake of a sexual assault? Can anyone with the most rudimentary understanding of Jesus find this funny? And why are so many self-proclaimed Christians cheering that same president who now proposes to meet a band of refugees fleeing violence and poverty with military force?

Of course, I am aware of all the historical currents, ancient and contemporary, that brought us to this pass. I am also painfully aware that the church in every age has always been less than a perfect witness to its Lord. Even in its finest hours, its witness has been clouded by self-interest, timidity and tunnel vision. This week we observe the 501st anniversary of the Reformation initiated by Martin Luther. Luther certainly had his character flaws, blind spots and prejudices. The Reformation movement failed to address some critical issues, became captive to political agendas inconsistent with the gospel and produced some horrific unforeseen consequences. Yet, to his credit, Luther recognized what was really at stake, namely, the truth of the gospel or, you might also say, the truth about God. That truth is known as one knows Jesus. Jesus is at the heart of the scriptures and the scriptures are rightly called God’s word in their capacity to lead us to faith in Jesus.

In view of all this, it is remarkable how little is said about Jesus these days, both among evangelicals and mainliners. As to the former, see the satirical piece in Kierkegaard’s Ghost. For the latter, see my post for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost. It is equally remarkable how little Jesus figures into what passes for public Christian witness these days. Evangelicals in Alabama were ready to go to the trenches in order to keep a monument bearing the Ten Commandments in front of the state house. But has any Christian group, evangelical or otherwise, ever advocated for posting the Beatitudes in public? Has anyone ever suggested enshrining Jesus’ admonition to love the enemy on the wall of the Pentagon? And how do you explain the fixation of so many American Christians on abortion and homosexuality-two matters Jesus never so much as mentioned-while blatantly ignoring his clear and unambiguous call for his followers to sell their possessions and give alms? And how much of the frantic “do gooding” activity in which we engage is actually grounded in and constitutes a clear and unambiguous witness to the crucified messiah? The only conclusion I can reach is that for North American Christians, conservative or progressive, mainline or evangelical, Jesus just isn’t that big a deal.

Therefore, on this anniversary of the Reformation, we should perhaps be asking ourselves what shape reform ought to take. What does return to the radical good news proclaimed in Jesus look like in our context? Is reform really just a matter of tweaking the machinery of the old order? Can we be re-formed without formal dissolution? One vision of reformation has been offered to my own ELCA by #Decolonialize Lutheranism. Decolonialize has articulated a refreshingly Christocentric proclamation of salvation by grace:

“As Lutherans, our greatest gift to the world is our theology – the recognition of human beings as simultaneously sinner and saint, the theology of the cross, and our holy insistence upon the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. But most importantly, Luther’s ultimate contribution to the Christian world is his insistence on justification. If Article IV of the Augsburg Confession is the article by which the church stands or falls, if all and any are ‘freely justified for Christ’s sake through faith,’ then this means that Christ has justified everyone and everything before God. And hence, if this is so, then no one is to be excluded – indeed, cannot be excluded – from the love and power of God: human beings, nature, earth and all stars, indeed all of the created cosmos. Attempts to do so are not only impossible, but are even a most foolish attempt to thwart the holy will of God. Therefore, Justification lays at the center of all that #decolonizeLutheranism stands for, and all that we hope to accomplish.”


“The time has come for marginalized communities to lead our church into the 21st century –  people of color, the disabled, all genders (women, trans, and gender nonconforming), sexualities, ages, incarceration or immigration or citizenship status, and others. Since early Christians were never bound to respectability and social perceptions of right behavior, and often boldly contradicted these standards by lifting up the lowly and the down-trodden, #decolonizeLutheranism believes that we must all do likewise. Because of this, every member of the church is to be aware of and respect all of the voices in the room, not just the most evident or numerous, for each sings a part in God’s chorus.”

Of course, “talk is cheap.” Unless accompanied by concrete proposals, bold theological assertions are empty. This group, however, has specific reformation goals. These are set forth at this link. In short, Decolonialize is calling for the inclusion of ten bishops of either of color, gay, lesbian, transgender or disabled. It recommends tripling the number of female bishops; equalizing salaries for minority/women clergy and reforming seminary curricula. Little is said about how this is to be accomplished without doing violence to our representative polity or creating in its place an even more repressive hierarchy. But where the representative polity’s chief problem is its failure to be truly representative by reason of which it is doing violence to those with little or no voice, then we have to ask ourselves whether there is any virtue in protecting from violence a structure that is doing violence to our members and our witness to Jesus. The risk that these bold proposals might fail must be weighed against the clear and present reality of systemic failure in the status quo and the dangers of doing nothing to transform it. Reform and renewal never come without risk, failure and a measure of loss. As people guided by the theology of the cross, we ought to know that.

In the meantime, I am waiting, like poet Lawrence Ferlingghetti, for a rebirth of wonder, the capacity to be astounded at the good news of resurrection for the crucified messiah, the awakening of a community to the hope that once sustained it. And every so often, I see the foundations of the old order shudder; the proud certainty of the oppressor suffer a spasm of doubt; a blinding flicker of hope seep through the cracks in my cynicism; and I know that the old skins cannot forever restrain the new wine. At times like these, I am able to believe that the gentle reign of God will undo the militarized borders, class distinctions and systemic engines of oppression, both within the church and throughout the world, just as surely as the sun is bound to rise.

I am Waiting

I am waiting for my case to come up
and I am waiting
for a rebirth of wonder
and I am waiting for someone
to really discover America
and wail
and I am waiting
for the discovery
of a new symbolic western frontier
and I am waiting
for the American Eagle
to really spread its wings
and straighten up and fly right
and I am waiting
for the Age of Anxiety
to drop dead
and I am waiting
for the war to be fought
which will make the world safe
for anarchy
and I am waiting
for the final withering away
of all governments
and I am perpetually awaiting
a rebirth of wonder

I am waiting for the Second Coming
and I am waiting
for a religious revival
to sweep thru the state of Arizona
and I am waiting
for the Grapes of Wrath to be stored
and I am waiting
for them to prove
that God is really American
and I am waiting
to see God on television
piped onto church altars
if only they can find
the right channel
to tune in on
and I am waiting
for the Last Supper to be served again
with a strange new appetizer
and I am perpetually awaiting
a rebirth of wonder

I am waiting for my number to be called
and I am waiting
for the Salvation Army to take over
and I am waiting
for the meek to be blessed
and inherit the earth
without taxes
and I am waiting
for forests and animals
to reclaim the earth as theirs
and I am waiting
for a way to be devised
to destroy all nationalisms
without killing anybody
and I am waiting
for linnets and planets to fall like rain
and I am waiting for lovers and weepers
to lie down together again
in a new rebirth of wonder

I am waiting for the Great Divide to be crossed
and I am anxiously waiting
for the secret of eternal life to be discovered
by an obscure general practitioner
and I am waiting
for the storms of life
to be over
and I am waiting
to set sail for happiness
and I am waiting
for a reconstructed Mayflower
to reach America
with its picture story and tv rights
sold in advance to the natives
and I am waiting
for the lost music to sound again
in the Lost Continent
in a new rebirth of wonder

I am waiting for the day
that maketh all things clear
and I am awaiting retribution
for what America did
to Tom Sawyer
and I am waiting
for Alice in Wonderland
to retransmit to me
her total dream of innocence
and I am waiting
for Childe Roland to come
to the final darkest tower
and I am waiting
for Aphrodite
to grow live arms
at a final disarmament conference
in a new rebirth of wonder

I am waiting
to get some intimations
of immortality
by recollecting my early childhood
and I am waiting
for the green mornings to come again
youth’s dumb green fields come back again
and I am waiting
for some strains of unpremeditated art
to shake my typewriter
and I am waiting to write
the great indelible poem
and I am waiting
for the last long careless rapture
and I am perpetually waiting
for the fleeing lovers on the Grecian Urn
to catch each other up at last
and embrace
and I am awaiting
perpetually and forever
a renaissance of wonder

Source: Ferlinghetti, Lawrence, These Are My Rivers: New and Selected Poems (c. 1993, New Directions Publishing Corporation). Lawrence Ferlinghetti, born March 24, 1919, is one of American’s last living poets of the “beat” movement, which included Allen Ginsberg, Kenneth Patchen and Gregory Corso. In addition, he is an accomplished  painter, a socialist activist and the co-founder of City Lights Booksellers & Publishers. Ferlinghetti is best known for his book, A Coney Island of the Mind (1958), a collection of poems that has been translated into nine languages, with sales of more than one million copies. He earned a master’s degree in English literature from Columbia University in 1947. From there, he went to Paris where he earned a doctorate in comparative literature. You can learn more about Lawrence Ferlinghetti and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

[1] I base this claim, which some might find offensive, on the results of a comprehensive demographic survey of the American Religious landscape done by the Pew Research Center. The study shows that the membership of my own church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) continues to be 96% white, notwithstanding numerous official statements trumpeting our openness and diversity. Furthermore, the northern midwestern states, where ELCA membership is primarily located, were instrumental in electing the current president whose racist sympathies are well known and crudely expressed.

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