“Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me, Amen.” Words attributed to Martin Luther. Words that challenged the Pope, the Emperor and the power structures and systems of his day. Words that birthed the Reformation. Words that changed the world. And words that still inspire resistance to anything that stands in the way of the gospel—the good news that sets people free from the power of sin and oppression.
There is a different kind of “here I stand” moment in today’s gospel. There are two men at the temple to pray—standing apart. The devout, religious one is standing tall and proud. It’s as if he is saying, “Here I stand. And I’m so glad I’m not like other people. The undesirables and deplorables standing over there.” Sinners, he calls them. Others might say: “I’m so glad I’m not like folks who are lazy . . . who want hand-outs . . . or those who don’t believe in God . . . or those who have no morals.” We might say: “here we stand, proud that we have the right beliefs, the right justice commitments, the right politics. We’re glad we are people of faith without hate, fear, and superiority. We’re glad we’re not like other Christians.”
In the parable, the one who is justified—such a Lutheran word—the one made right in the sight of God, is the hated tax collector. The second-class citizen, the one morally suspect. He’s standing off to the side, looking down, overwhelmed with his own inadequacy, truly humble. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner,” is all he can say.
Luther took a stand and risked all for the sake of the gospel. Yet, sadly to say, some of his stances were arrogant and divisive. All our best intentions can be misled at times. A reforming church is one that looks honestly at its history and systems of power—and then is willing to change and take new stand, praying, “Lord have mercy, we have sinned.”
As our congregation embarks on a two-year antiracism initiative, we lament how indigenous peoples were displaced or even killed to build cities and churches in this country. We lament the surge in Islamophobia and anti-Semitic hatred by white supremacy groups here and around the world. Lutherans have had to come to terms with some of Martin Luther’s anti-Judaism statements. A reforming church confesses the sins of its history as part of the ongoing reformation. It calls for a
turn from “I’m so glad I’m not like other people” to humbly confessing our sin of apathy, indifference, exclusion. In 1994 the ELCA adopted a declaration to the Jewish community, and in it confessed sorrow for Luther’s violent invective that some used to justify the Holocaust. This past summer the ELCA adopted a declaration to people of African descent—confessing and repenting the Lutheran church’s complicity in four hundred years of enslavement, oppression, and marginalization of people of African descent—through corporate action, policy, and practices. “Lord, have mercy, we have sinned,” is our prayer.
Those were “here I stand” moments. In recent decades, Holy Trinity has stood with marginalized communities; gay, lesbian and transgendered persons . . . and refugees through our work with Refugee One.
We have our own “here we stand” statement on our website and in the bulletin today. Here we stand. We’re for radical inclusivity, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender identity, documentation or socio-economic status, sexual orientation or religious/spiritual background. But it’s also what we resist, what we stand against: power and privilege that lead to prejudice and oppression. Systems that perpetuate white preference and advantage.
It would be easy for us to let these past commitments and statements lead to pride. We’re so glad we’re not like other churches who haven’t come this far along yet. Yet the stance of the tax collector calls us to continue the hard work of repentance and reparation. This stance of humility challenges us to get out of our comfort zone. Lord, have mercy, we pray.
As a little black girl growing up in Quincy, IL, a town that that was 90% white, the Rev. Jennifer Bailey remembers an event when she was five years old in the early 90s. You can almost hear the kids standing away from her, thinking, “We’re so glad we’re not like you.” Some kid did suggest that she must be dirty, why else would her skin be brown? Now Jennifer is co-founder of the People’s Supper, working to bridge trust and connection among people of different identities and perspectives. Jennifer often says, “relationships move at the speed of trust; social change moves at the speed of relationships.” She reminds us that there is no movement for justice in this country didn’t start with relationships. It’s a generational project, she adds. And she’s glad our faith traditions have a currency of eternity, not simply election cycles.
St. Paul, whose writing is saturated with God’s grace and mercy, and was the primary inspiration for Martin Luther, cheers us on today, and inspires us with his words: I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.
When we are discouraged by frustration and exasperation with others, our forebears also cheer us on and remind us of our holy calling. A new biography of Frederick Douglass reveals his many moments of both fury and harmony, despair and hope. He both condemned and complimented Abraham Lincoln, the man who inspired and infuriated him. For Douglas, slavery and racism were not just morally wrong—they betrayed the divine order of things. Human beings may be diverse in many ways, but our souls make us radically equal. For Douglass, and for us—when we are exasperated by other people—there is grace—for all souls have a common home together.
This is what makes our work for justice holy and different from community organizers or politicians, as important and godly as those commitments are.
Here we stand. Not better than other people, not more or less sinful than other people. Here we stand, with a common human need for grace, mercy, and forgiveness. Justified not by our actions, our works, our good deeds—as important they are. Justified by a God whose power is made known in weakness. Whose love is revealed in suffering. Whose presence is always surprising. Whose image continues to be revealed in those different from us. Whose mercy never ends.
Come to the table. Take a stand. Stand there with both humility and dignity. Stand there with people of other races and religions and ethnicities and gender identifies and ways of life. We’re just like other people! So stand there with open hands. God is birthing a new reformation.