Reforming the Reformation – Tom Martin reflects on iconoclastic homiletics for Reformation Sunday.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary
Readings for the Reformation Sunday, Year A (2023, 2026)
Stories of Beginnings are, like the fields of force reaching out from the quantum void, vehicles of immense and superhuman power. Just as these fundamental physical forces, although hidden away deep within the universe’s subconscious, are capable of controlling the actions of galaxies and atoms, mythic stories of beginnings reach from their primal vortices to exert their forces on our images of ourselves and our sense of order and purpose in God’s creation. The mythic stories within which we rehearse varied aspects of our always occurring beginnings give shape to life, purpose to action, meaning to living and, when shared by whole cultures or subcultures, sanction to social structures and mores. Such myths have been with us, as near as anthropologists can discover, since the beginning. From the Enuma Elish to The Boston Tea Party such stories have served to legitimate identities and produce seemingly self-existent frames of reference by which we anchor our thinking and very existence. In the context of Creation Care our foundational myths produce, whole-cloth, value systems through which we govern our relationships with the natural world just because that is the way things are!
On Reformation Sunday we Lutherans gather to rehearse our foundational myths. We tell the story, in narrative (e.g., the likely apocryphal Ninety-Five Theses being tacked to a church door) and abstract doctrine (Law-Gospel, Two Kingdoms, Saint-Sinner), which serve as the bases of our identity and provide the lens through which we see God, the Church, and the World within which we live. Few and far between are the Lutherans who celebrate the fact that this lens is clouded, distorted, and rose-colored. We see reality via the lens of our origin myths as through a glass, darkly. And almost none of us pay attention to the fact that our founding story bypasses the doctrine of Creation altogether. Reformation Sunday gives us a parochial story whose immense force in shaping our lives achieves an inertia driving us, often unaware, toward the future. And if we continue to tell our foundational myth per “business as usual” the story drives us into a future that is not good for the Earth. So, the question facing a pastor willing to preach eco-justice on Reformation Sunday is where to find anchors in the story from which to reinvent the story.
In my experience of Reformation Sunday, detailed sermonizing on the biblical texts is rare. In my experience preachers most often use the texts as jumping off points for a celebration of Lutheran doctrine. Sermons are theological rather exegetical. So my comments about the texts here will be similarly focused. What changes about the preaching of foundational Lutheran theology if we take eco-justice concerns seriously?
An obvious legacy of the Reformation is courage. Reformers risked life and possessions to speak truth to power. They courageously smashed doctrinal idols that appeared to be coercive reality, thereby exposing those idols’ powerlessness. Eco-justice preaching on Reformation Sunday will require the courage to be iconoclastic. The image in my mind is from The Wizard of Oz. Finally arriving at the Emerald City with the broomstick of the Wicked Witch, Dorothy and her companions are brought before the great and mighty Oz. Fire and smoke and a more-than-human face greet them. The supernatural metaphysics of Oz appear real. All the while, behind the curtain, unseen, unsuspected, unknown is a mere human carnival huckster. When the reality of the smoky fiery face is penetrated the human manipulation behind it all is exposed. Behind our curtain, behind our sacred Reformation theology, lurks an unseen, unacknowledged, idol of anthropocentrism pulling the strings. That idol controls us and distorts our doctrines in ways we cannot begin to imagine. Our cherished Reformation Doctrines need to be challenged, brought down, recast, to expose the lurking danger they pose to God’s Creation. An ecological sermon needs to pull back the curtain. In these overworked texts for Reformation Sunday, in their standard homiletic presentation, we are unconsciously steered to an understanding of God and salvation that is all about us and has little or nothing to do with the other beings and systems of God’s creation.
All of this begins to lay out a homiletical stance from which to approach the texts. And stance is vitally important to eco-justice preaching on this particular Sunday. What needs to be fore-fronted in sermon construction is the need to speak prophetically. My usual experience of Reformation Sunday is as a cheerleading session. Wow! Lutherans have it all together! Our heritage is amazing. We’ve got theology everybody else should envy. We preach constitutively about the Reformation. We need to apply prophetic critique to ourselves.[i] The only hope for the environment is to expose the blind spots in our praxis, thought, and assumptions about how to live. Shining light on blind spots needs to begin at home and in relation to our most cherished beliefs. Our living must be reformed and that cannot happen without an honest appraisal of the deepest motivations for our behaviors. “It is painful but necessary to be critical of your own system, whatever it is.”[ii] And that will require a courageous preacher.
John 8 takes us immediately into challenging territory in an American context. Slavery. And it simultaneously reveals the anthropocentric lens by which we read scripture. We hear the slavery in the story to be human slavery. Indeed that IS how Jesus’ audience hears the words. “We are freeborn, children of Abraham.” “We’ve never been slaves to anyone.” To begin let’s explore this idea anthropocentrically, naming the demon behind our screen, but seeing where its exposure can lead us.
Formal chattel slavery is not the only bondage in which people find themselves. John’s Jesus suggests that other “slaveries,” informal slaveries, unacknowledged slaveries, are nevertheless enslavement. Addictions come to mind as the obvious example. The text suggests “sin” is a slavery. So, what exactly IS “sin?”
American Christians of various stripes tend toward identifying “sin” as wrong behaviors, actions. We make a list of what our particular group thinks wrong and then usually accuse others of doing what’s on our list! In our current culture wars sin is most often used to demarcate sexual behaviors that are thought of as wrong. This pattern of looking out at the other who is sinful, while I/we are righteous is almost instinctual. Itself a symptom of human alienation.
Supposedly Jesus’ call to repent (Mark 1:14-15) means stopping whatever behaviors I have been taught are wrong. But the deeper significance of repent (metanoia) is to change one’s mind. To get the point! To perceive differently. Repenting is to transform our own consciousness. It is to be “woke.” I am struck by a line from a song by John Michael Talbot, “Behold now the Kingdom, See with new eyes.”[iii] If we connect this insight back to “sin” (hamartia); sin is to miss the mark, or to miss the point. Looking at, but not seeing an idea. And we nearly endlessly fail to see the point of God’s good news.[iv] But John’s Jesus offers good news to us anyway! If I make you free you will be free indeed! Words that helped shatter the medieval theological world.
What is freedom? Many of us are more than likely to respond as Jesus’ audience did. We are children of Martin Luther! We’ve never been enslaved to anyone! We have congregational polity! And our theological doctrines yell out “freedom!” Are we as American Lutherans free? For exploration let’s focus on the question of slavery. For over a hundred years our culture has been slowly and sneakily redefining “freedom” so that our ideas of what constitutes “freedom” conform to an individualized consumerist model. We read John’s gospel at this point enslaved by how marketing firms have conditioned us to understand “freedom.” I am free to buy anything I want, but I am not free not to buy. I am enslaved to a consumerist system, like it or not. I am not enough of a historian of the 16th century to know if people heard Luther’s “Freedom of the Christian” in such individualized terms, but WE do. Against this level of individualized freedom I respond “Ain’t Nobody Free, Till Everybody’s Free.” Freedom is communal, shared, mutual. I am free in Christ to seek to serve others. I am free to work for the common good rather than my own private good. In Christ I am free to expand the commons to include all living things and ecosystems. To seek the good of an expanded commons will be to break the bonds of consumerism. And by freeing myself from a consumer identity I am in a position to bring freedom to the others of God’s creation.
It is now time to pull up the curtain and do away with the anthropocentric chimera that has been pulling the strings. Since the 16th century our doctrines of grace, faith, forgiveness of sin, sanctification, redemption have been understood as being about human salvation. For many theologians just trying to talk about animal salvation, let alone the salvation of oceans and mountain ranges, lapses into incoherence. So notice that in this Sunday’s texts ONLY Psalm 46 makes any use of the natural world. And then only in the first three verses. The readings are foundational texts for Lutheran identity. Texts nearly totally devoid of interest in or concern for the other-than-human creation. None of these texts has a clue about how salvation, forgiveness, grace, the Covenant in “our” hearts, or imputed righteousness fit marmots, starfish, or the Gobi Desert. If, as eco-hermeneutics argues, the bible was written from an unquestioned, metaphysically self-obvious anthropocentric viewpoint then that viewpoint has been passed on to infect our Lutheran theology. We preach to people. Our theological starting point is human sin and righteousness. That must change or our relationship to the planet will not change.
With Luther we can continue to affirm grace as gift. Pure, free, gift; underserved, and without need for any merit. The gift of God’s graciousness speaks to us humans in sky, wind, rain, the death and decay of hummus, evolution, predation, parasitism, and animal consciousness. The doctrinal realm of words, formulas and doctrines is a poor reflection. Grace permeates, as in prevenient grace, all of life. The ‘doctrine’ of grace is given in unobstructed sunsets, clean water, animals rejoicing in their habitats, native flowers, grasses celebrating sunlight. And we see grace in the redemptive cycle of death and life. The freedom of all is preached by bees, spiders, dragon flies, and ants busy about Life. We are surrounded by an economy of gift. In this economy [eco(no)system] we are called to live and find our God. Toward this inclusion of all life and supporting systems we are called to reform our human theologies.
Five hundred years of Reformation preaching have not changed our relationship with the planet given us in God’s grace. Five hundred years of celebrating salvation by grace through faith have done nothing to alter how we exploit ecosystems. Five hundred years of promoting proper sacraments has not altered how we grow the lion’s share of our grain and grapes, or how we care for the planet’s water. From an environmental point of view the Reformation was a half-assed wrong-headed idea. The changes needed to alter how we treat the air, water, soil, animals and plants must go much, much further than reforming doctrines about human sin and redemption. The changes needed are much deeper than my inner faith in Christ. A still more radical reformation of Christian faith must happen. We must look out past ourselves and past our human neighbor to the cosmos.[v]
I have been reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future. (Recommended.) The novel expertly conveys the profundity of change that must occur at all levels of human life. Five hundred years ago Martin Luther radically changed how the world understood God’s grace. He didn’t go far enough. Richard Rohr has said that religion is an attempt to ensure that nothing new happens. All is, by doctrine, fixed, predictable, controlled. Spirituality, the teaching of Jesus, is to discern the NEW that God is doing and continues to do. What will we say about new ideas of grace? Grace cannot mean only forgiveness of sins. Nature needs no forgiveness. It is infused with grace, and yet it needs the gift of new life promised by grace. We need a bio-grace. An understanding, a living, of our faith in which there is no separation of the spiritual and the physical.[vi] Sacraments should be proper, as Reformers endlessly argued. But the notion of sacrament will need to pervade all things, blessed and unblessed. Bio-sacral. Each living thing, each “thing,” infused by God and drawing us into richer living. This is only the beginning of how a continuing reformation, one of our key theological foundations, must unfold, or the unfolding, for our species at any rate, may cease.
Originally written by Thomas W. Martin in 2023.
[i] See James Sanders’ seminal treatment of constitutive vs. prophetic reading of scripture in “From Isaiah 61 to Luke 4” in Christianity, Judaism and Other Greco-Roman Cults, Ed. Jacob Neusner (Leiden, E.J. Brill: 1975).
[ii] Richard Rohr, Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality (Cincinnati, OH: Franciscan Media, 2008), 77.
[iii] John Michael Talbot and Terry Talbot, “Behold now the Kingdom,” The Painter (Vancouver, B.C.: Sparrow Records, 1980).
[iv] Rohr, 143-165, has cogent insights along this line.
[v] H. Paul Santmire is a leading Lutheran voice for cosmocentric theology. See The Travail of Nature: The Ambiguous Ecological Promise of Christian Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1985).
[vi] Rohr, 3-15.