Where Are You From?

Recently, I overheard a conversation between two Lutheran pastors. They were talking about what to make of this Sunday at the end of October when many Protestants dust off the old battle drums for Reformation Sunday. One of the pastors said,

As it stands, Reformation Sunday is the only Sunday of the entire church year that commemorates a moment in the history of Christianity rather than a moment in the narrative of Scripture itself. It is elevated and idealized precisely because it is so unique. This needs to stop. 

The other replied,

You’re absolutely right. But I would argue that we should change how we celebrate Reformation Sunday rather than bury it. True, we’ve set our liturgical calendar to commemorate the date on which Brother Martin posted his 95 theses for public consideration.  However, one could (and I believe should) point out that there have been moments like this throughout the church’s history, all of which are worthy of being called reformation moments, moments where the church has been re-oriented toward the gospel, moved away from the many, many roads down which our distracted, narcissistic minds can take us.[1]

Reformation moments, I like that, moments where the church has been re-oriented toward the gospel, I like that a lot. But why set aside one Sunday for that? I think we need every single Sunday the good Lord gives us, not to celebrate past re-orientations, but rather to ask the risen Christ to re-orient us today, because there are indeed many, many roads down which our distracted, narcissistic minds love to take us.

The last thing we need are more opportunities to bolster tribal identities within the body of Christ. Luther himself was horrified when he heard people referring to themselves as “Lutherans.” “I ask that my name be left silent and people not call themselves Lutheran, but rather Christians.” Amen to that. And so we sing “A Mighty Fortress” on this Sunday with a nod to tradition, but we don’t make this a Protestant holy day; instead we celebrate that the Spirit of the risen Christ continues to work in such a fractured community as the church, and today we do so by remembering and giving thanks for those who have gone before whose lives embodied Christian faithfulness. We celebrate All Saints Sunday in a thoroughly apostolic manner: Paul addressed his letters to the saints, and he wasn’t writing to the few, the chosen, the stars among God’s people, but to all who had found new life through faith in Jesus Christ.[2]

It is difficult for us to say and celebrate who we are without stumbling into nasty messes. Who, for example, is an American and who is not? Well, the first people who came to this land were from Asia, and when the first Spanish settlers arrived, they called them Indians. They mingled and settled in what are today Florida and New Mexico, but the meaning of “American” continued to change. People came from England, Scotland, and Wales, from Holland and Germany, some to escape religious or political persecution, others to seek economic opportunity. Hundreds of thousands, of course, were brought here against their will on slave ships from ports on the West African coast.

The first U.S. Census in 1790 counted nearly 4 million people, the majority of them of English, Welsh, or Scottish heritage; the next-largest group were 757,000 blacks, followed by Germans. Not all of them qualified as “Americans”, though; only “free white persons” could apply for citizenship. Then came large groups of immigrants from Ireland and Italy, and Jewish immigrants from Germany and Eastern Europe, constantly changing the mix of cultures, especially in cities like New York, Boston, and Chicago. Emma Lazarus, herself the daughter of Portuguese Jewish immigrants, captured the nation’s welcoming spirit in an 1883 poem—“Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free...”

But the surge in Irish and Italian immigrants to a mostly Protestant nation provoked a backlash against Catholics, and immigrants in general, with some believing that the Pope was plotting to undermine U.S. democracy. No wonder many Protestants were eager to celebrate Reformation Day with great enthusiasm!

Out West, the presence of Chinese immigrants also provoked protests. The abolition of slavery had produced a demand for cheap labor, and Chinese workers had been brought in to build railroads. In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred all immigrants from China for 10 years, and the ban was later extended – while immigration from Europe continued unabated for almost 40 years.[3] Immigrants from Europe were considered better suited for becoming Americans than immigrants from China.

Maya Lin is a Chinese-American artist who gained worldwide recognition for designing the Vietnam memorial in Washington, D.C.. Years ago, I heard her recall in an interview a recurring scene in which somebody asked her where she was from. “When I said, ‘from Ohio,’ they replied, ‘No, where are you really from.’” Lin was born in Athens, Ohio, but in the imagination of those who asked her, people from the American heartland “just didn’t look like that.”

Just days ago I read something Benjamin Franklin wrote back in 1751 about the Pennsylvania Germans whom he considered to be a “swarthy” racial group distinct from the English majority in the colony.

Why should the Palatine Boors be suffered to swarm into our Settlements, and by herding together establish their Language and Manners to the exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion?[4]

Other 18th-century proponents of Anglifying all people accused Germans of laziness, illiteracy, and a reluctance to assimilate, in addition to their excessive fertility and their Catholicism.[5] What strikes me in those statements, besides their rudeness and blatant racism, is how easily they could be recycled for use against Irish and Italian immigrants – and they were – as well as against several Spanish speaking groups, summarily referred to as “Mexicans” these days.

The circumstances of our lives change constantly, sometimes slowly and gradually, sometimes too fast for our souls and imaginations to keep up. And when the world around us changes faster than our minds, we get anxious. When the world around us changes faster than our ability to mourn our losses and comprehend the startling newness of things, fear creeps in. And when fear creeps in, we seek safety. And nothing feels safer than circling the wagons and shouting ugly epithets at those on the outside. Much of our public discourse reflects that sad reality these days. We just keep going down the many, many roads our distracted, narcissistic minds can take us. How can we be re-oriented toward the gospel in this fear-feeding mess?

Today’s reading from 1John urges us to remember who we are.

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.

Perhaps you think ‘children of God’ sounds a little too cute, too infantilizing. Try this: See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called sons and daughters of God; and that is what we are.

Everything around us may be in flux, but our Christ-given identity and status as those who belong to God will not change. We speak different languages, we sing different songs, we were born on different parts of the planet, we tell different stories, and we uphold different values – but see what love the Father has given us, that we should be called sons and daughters of God; and that is what we are. The world changes constantly, and when we locate the core of who we are in the world, we are building on hopelessly unstable ground and we are setting ourselves up for disappointment and worse. When we locate the core of our identity in the world, we end up being defined by the world: we become what we do or what those in power need us to be; we become what we earn; we become the clothes we wear, the neighborhoods we live in, and the schools our children attend; we become the job we have or no longer have, we become the house we can afford or slaves of our mortgage payments. But see what love the Father has given us, that we should be called sons and daughters of God; and that is what we are.

What we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.

Everything around us will continue to change, but who we are will not change, but rather continue to be revealed. We are growing into a future which resembles the one in whom we dwell, and that is why we can face all the changes and the losses they represent, with courage and with hope. Nothing will change who we are, and we will see with greater clarity what it means to be called sons and daughters of God. Our likeness will no longer be veiled by layers of ignorance and fear.

The witness who speaks to us through this passage from 1John urges us to live in the kingdom of God, to make that our first address, and to let it shape our loyalties. Then we continue to live in the world, but we don’t believe the stories it tells us about ourselves and others; we don’t allow its anxieties to define us. We trust the word that we are sons and daugthers of God, and we dwell in the land of mercy. And when our neighbors start circling the wagons, we will, by the grace of God, have better hopes to affirm.

There is no better way to honor the spirit of reformation or the memory of those who have gone before than to listen more carefully for the word of God amid the clamor of our days.


[1] http://nachfolge.blogspot.com/2011/10/why-we-should-celebrate-reformation.html

[2] Romans 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:2; 2 Corinthians 1:1; Ephesians 1:1; Philippians 1:1; Colossians 1:2

[3] http://teacher.scholastic.com/scholasticnews/indepth/upfront/features/index.asp?article=f0904b

[4] The papers of Benjamin Franklin. Ed. Leonard W. Labaree. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1959. vol 4:234

[5] http://www.pbs.org/speak/seatosea/officialamerican/englishonly/