Andrew Tucker, Columbus, OH
Who comes to mind when you think of your ancestors? Share a story about this person or group of people. Why are they significant to you?
Freed From Our Past
When you think of a sloth, what do you think of? I’d bet a small, furry creature. Likely clinging to a tree with incredibly long claws. Probably munching on some leaves or flowers with a glib, goofy grin that God placed on its face through millions of years of evolution.
Not too long ago, at least in terms of the cosmic timeline, some ancient sloth ancestors were shaped more like tanks and, apparently, huge fans of old steak. Mylodons, or Giant Ground Sloths, bumbled around on the ground and ate meat as a part of their diet. Scavengers rather than hunters, the meat Mylodons consumed as a part of their diet was likely the leftovers from ice age predators like Saber-Toothed Tigers.
Still with long nails, fur, and we sure hope that glib, goofy smile, they were something like the sloths we know today, but they were bound to the ground, cleaning up others’ old meals. Clearly Mylodons weren’t exactly the same as their present-day counterparts. To read more about these ancestors, check out this article (https://news.yahoo.com/giant-ancestors-todays-sloths-stood-110400474.html) or read the scientific research that led to this discovery (https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-021-97996-9). Fair warning: that second article is very dense, but for the scientists and historians among us, quite fascinating.
Sloths are connected to their ancestors, but they’re not carbon copies. The same is true for us. We are connected to our ancestors, biological and spiritual, and that shapes who we are today. But it does not mean we’re just the same as those who came before us, nor do our ancestors absolutely determine who we will be.
- How would you feel if you came across a present-day sloth? How about a Mylodon?
- How do their differences change your reaction?
- What other present-day animals are connected to, but also very different from, their ancient ancestors?
- How are you similar to your ancestors? How are you different?
(Text links are to Oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year B at Lectionary Readings.)
For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.
It’s Reformation Sunday, where as a church we give thanks for the reform movement started by Martin Luther and others in the 16th century. One of the many themes that pops up at this time each year is freedom, often connected to these words in John: “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
It’s important for us to ask two questions: What are we set free from? What are we set free for? All too often, Reformation becomes a chance to bash on other Christians. Often Roman Catholicism becomes a target, as though our freedom has fully severed us from our church ancestors. At other times, Evangelicals draw our angst, as though our spiritual descendants have no connection to the reform movement Luther started. Whatever our freedom is from, it is not from our connections, nor our history, nor those who come after us.
But because of Christ’s intervention, we are free for more than our ancestors could imagine or determine. Just a few verses before, some disciples wonder how they, descendants of Abraham, might still need freedom. Their confusion ultimately points to the crux of the scripture: we are connected to the legacy of our ancestors, but we are not absolutely beholden to it. Christ frees us from the worst and for the best.
This is true biologically. Think, for instance, of someone like me with a mental illness. Thanks to my DNA ancestry, I’m biologically predisposed to a shortage of natural serotonin that leads me to battle depression and anxiety disorders. That connection lives on in me. Yet, thanks to medication and counselors, changes to diet and exercise, and adding faith practices like meditation, my future is not determined by those ancestors alone. Reform is possible in my life thanks to the influence of others, especially through medical, relational, and physical intervention.
This is also true spiritually. Our tradition is full of profound contributions and desperate failures. The Lutheran reformation paved the way for some of the first schools for girls in Europe, robust social safety nets, and increased knowledge of religion by lay practitioners. But Luther’s writings also included terribly anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim rhetoric, as well as critiques of peasants who took political authority into their own hands. Such passages became rallying cries for racial purists in Nazi Germany, the United States, and elsewhere.
Even in our Reformation celebrations, the goodness of our tradition is accompanied by the failures. We are not free from that tainted legacy. But, because of God’s work in Jesus Christ, we are free for reform, to make a new way that admits our connection to that past and sets a different course for the future. Our ancestors’ failures are real, as are their triumphs. But neither is certain for us at this present moment, in this new day calling for new reform. Like today’s sloths, we can climb from the ground of our ancestors to the sky of our future, reforming and evolving into the creatures God calls us to become.
- What does it mean to you that we have been set free by Christ?
- Why do you think it was so difficult for Jesus’s disciples to connect the freedom he offers with the legacy of their ancestry?
- As we commemorate Reformation Sunday, what kind of evolution is God calling us to consider, even as we are connected to a legacy of reform?
Spiritual Family Tree–Have students create a family tree of those forebears in faith who’ve shaped them into who they are today. This could include members of their family of origin, church members, authors, social media personalities, people from church and social history, and others. Use this as an opportunity to ask how they’ve been positively shaped by their ancestry and to consider the ways they’ve been negatively impacted by those who’ve come before.
Gravestone Etchings–To make a tangible activity of legacy, take students to a local cemetery with paper and pencils (or charcoal or pastels) to make rubbings of the grave markers. Bring paper large enough to cover a tomb stone but thin enough to follow the contours of weather-worn material. Once the names and dates are covered by the paper, rub the paper lightly to reveal the characters in more detail. This is especially powerful with stones that are difficult to read due to years of weathering. Use this as an opportunity to ask about the legacies we leave and what people will remember, as well as how bound we are to the legacies of our ancestors.
Transforming God, we give you thanks for the good of reformation and we confess the ways that we’ve refused to follow your continued call for reform. Free us from the things that bind us to past failures, and free us for the future of blessing all creation, to the very ends of the earth. Send your Spirit of transformation on us, today and every day, through Jesus Christ our Liberator. Amen