Reformation Day Sermon 2012

The Schaeffer-Ashmead Chapel of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia
Holy Communion
Reformation Day
Wednesday, October 31, 2012 at 11:30 am

First Reading: Jeremiah 31:31-34 (A new covenant written on the heart)

Psalm 46

Second Reading: Romans 3:19-28 (Justified by God’s grace as a gift)

Gospel: John 8:31-36 (Jesus says, Continue in my word and you will know the truth)

It was good being in Lutherstadt Wittenberg this August – it was good to stay in the Leucorea, the University founded in 1502, where early on Luther was called to be a Professor, and later Melanchthon. It was good to have enough time to visit the Luther house and see every exhibit and read every descriptive plaque, and also to admire the magnificent new display on how daily life in the Luther household was run by Kathie, with audio and visual components, including the sounds of water being drawn from the well and ducks being slaughtered. It was good to see the Melanchthon Haus swaddled in construction tarps, and to read about how the new exhibition that would open there would focus on this great figure and his role in university reforms world-wide. It was good to worship in the City Church and soak in the great altar piece of Cranach the Elder, with its evocative representation of the sacraments and the centrality of the Word. It was good to worship in the Castle Church and contemplate the stark simplicity of the graves of Luther and Melanchthon, flanked by the statues of prominent figures from the time of the Protestant reformation. 

It was good to use this opportunity to remember Wilhelm Kling, a German Lutheran missionary from the Evangelische Landeskirche in Württemberg, a mechanic who came out to India in 1928 and served at the Mission Station of Puttur, a small town, then 10 hours from Mangalore by bullock-cart and ferry. Mangalore was where the pioneer missionaries from the Basel Mission, mainly coming from South Germany and North Switzerland, began their mission work in 1834. It was good to recall Annaiah Pujary, a priest of the Bhuta or spirit cult of the toddy-tapping community, who responded to the preaching of the early missionaries and became one of the early converts, along with his family, and in whose direct line on the maternal side I come from. Many years later Rev Kling must have been surprised to find a panic-stricken woman carrying a small baby begging for refuge after having fled her village, where her husband had been killed in a land-dispute by members of the family, who in fear of her life and that of her small child, ran through the forest with no possessions to the one place where she knew help could be had. In due course she was baptized “Ruth” and the baby “David”, my father. His first memory is that of the funeral of the little child of the Klings, and how all the children in the orphanage followed the casket to the cemetery. In 1986, on a visit to Puttur, Mrinalini’s hometown, I rediscovered the damaged and almost unrecognizable grave of baby Kling. At that time I was far from Wittenberg, but in another sense I had come home, and the rediscovery of my father’s childhood memory connected me with another place and another time in more senses than one.

Back in Wittenberg it was good to walk out of the Leucorea and look for a place to have something to eat, and almost bang opposite find what I thought was a Turkish Imbiss, where I used my German to order a Döner Kebab, only to find the puzzled owner asking me in Hindi (which I don’t know too well) whether I wouldn’t rather have an Indian biryani instead! Yes – there is not only a Maharani Restaurant in Wittenberg, but also a Taj Mahal restaurant very close to where Johannes Bugenhagen had been buried. These Indians are everywhere – and here you can blame the reformation for that!!

Yes – the message of the Bible has travelled far and wide and the hope of salvation in and through Jesus has touched the hearts and lives of many people all over the world. Of course, things were happening years, decades, and centuries before the events in the early 16th century in Wittenberg, but the reformation provided impulses and proved to be a catalyst impacting people, places, events, and epochs in ways that the great reformers in Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and beyond could never have imagined. However, it’s not just the message of the Bible, and the one to whom to Bible bears witness, who has travelled, but the Bible as an artifact itself has travelled. In many places postcolonial thinking and analysis have had to deal with the Bible as an object, even as an imperial artifact. The fetishization of the Bible has had all kinds of consequences, even during the recent superstorm Sandy, where verses from the Bible were used to predict anything from the end of the world to judgment because of the perceived lifestyles and choices of people who are easily demonized and made into scapegoats. Yes – the closed Bible or the Bible from which a few verses are brandished as a weapon of destruction has been flung around, quoted and misquoted, used and abused. 

Using the Bible to prove something – from why tattoos are taboo, or about women wearing pants, from justifying corruption as God’s blessing, to vindicating slavery and apartheid, from using it as a text to beat down other sacred texts, to the colonial annihilation of native populations. 

There are many trajectories in the Bible – trajectories that are clear from the time of the priestly reinterpreters of the myths of origin and the formation of national identity to the redactors of the sayings of the great prophets, from the variety and range of situations and emotions addressed in the Psalms, to the pursuit of wisdom, from the recollections of the history of the judges and kings to the specificity of the so-called minor prophets, and coming to the Greek scriptures, from the vivid recollections of the deeds and teachings of Jesus, to the apocalyptic visions of a new Jerusalem, from the events detailing the spread of Christianity to letters written to new churches, from the discussions and disputes over appropriate behavior to the reminders of what the Thursday supper was all about. 

The prophet Jeremiah realized as to how quickly ritualistic forms of religion could deteriorate into idolatry, and reminds his readers and us about the gracious activity of God, who continues to act and interact in terms of a new creation and a new covenant. “Remembering their sin no more”, the new covenant constantly offers new opportunities and beckons us to fresh possibilities in our journey with God and to God, a journey in which we constantly discover that journeying itself is the goal and that on this journey our covenantal obligations to God and God’s graciousness to us are not measured in terms of reward and punishment, in terms of a carrot and stick, in terms of measurable expectations and promised outcomes. No, this is a journey where we are constantly surprised by the “God of all grace” who knows who we are “from the least of us to the greatest” and for whom this status doesn’t matter, since in Paul’s words “there is no distinction.” This is what Paul reminds us again and again as to how the reified word made hollow and devoid of content can easily become the law of judgment and condemnation, and how one needs to recognize time and again about the deeper intentions and liberating message of the law of love and of grace freely given, given to all for “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”

Events have consequences – Jesus knew that and despite what awaited him “set his face firmly towards Jerusalem.” The son who has a “permanent place in the household of God” offers to us the gift of companionship and welcome, a gift that we have not earned through being who we are, or what we have done, or what we have achieved, or from what family we came, or even how well we think we know our Bible. The gift of freedom to be who we are, not defined by being the descendants of Abraham or whoever, but those for whom there is place for Jesus’ word.

Events have consequences – Luther knew that and despite what awaited him offered up for debate the ninety-five theses, the ninety-fourth of which states that Christians should follow Christ at all cost. The cost and consequences of discipleship, especially in terms of the world-wide missionary movement, and the reality that events in the little German town of Wittenberg; events amidst the dusty roads of Galilee; events in the small town of Puttur in India; events taking place at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, are all ongoing testimony to the liberating and loving power of our Lord, drawing together people across places, across space and time, overcoming possible limitations with the limitless possibilities of the promise that “if the Son makes us free, we shall be free indeed,” Jesus says, “Continue in my word and you will know the truth.”  And to the one who leads us to the truth of God be the glory, now and forever. AMEN.