United in Christ, Bound to the Gospel

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 3rd Sunday After Epiphany + January 22, 2017

Readings: Isaiah 9:1-4; Psalm 27:1, 4-9; 1 Cor. 1:10-18; Matt. 4:12-23


I’m going to cut right to the point, to the topic I assume is at least near the top of everybody’s minds this weekend: Donald Trump’s inauguration as 45th President of the United States of America.

 Words spinning through the media include: conflict, polarized, worry, divided.

 Our congregation reflects that national reality, if not on the surface of our interactions here at church, then at least in the viewpoints we carry in to worship with us. Within our membership directory are some who supported Trump for President since the days of the campaign, because they thought he could bring the right changes to our nation, and there are some who took to the streets this weekend to lift up their rights and those of others which they believe will be ignored by the new administration. And of course there are some here who turned off the TV and said, “I don’t want to hear any more about all of this.”

 All of that floated to the top of my mind this week as I read Paul’s words to the early church in Corinth: “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.”

 Apparently the Corinthian church was divided over a whole lot of things. Paul spent all of 1 Corinthians — one of the longest letters in the New Testament — trying to settle dispute after dispute and to remind the Corinthians of the importance of their unity in Christ.

 In the section we read together this morning, Paul addressed one of the ways the Corinthian church had divided itself: by who baptized them or by whose Christian teachings they followed. Paul wrote that he’d heard rumors that the Corinthians were saying things like “I belong to Paul” or “I belong to Peter”…

 …which definitely feels like what’s happening in the U.S. right now. Doesn’t it seem like a lot of people are dividing the conversation in terms like, “I belong to Trump!” or “I belong to Clinton!”? Or “I belong to the Democrats!” / “I belong to the Republicans!”? Even if it’s not said so explicitly, those allegiances seem to underlie the way we talk to one another and the way we post on Facebook and the news sources we read and the way we understand what’s going on.

 So maybe this is a particularly good time for Christians in the U.S. to reflect on Paul’s response to a similar situation from long, long ago: “Has Christ been divided? Was Paul [or Clinton or the GOP] crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul [or of left-wing or right-wing politics]?” … “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” From thousands of years ago Paul calls us to focus on our unity in Christ and the message of the gospel.

 This is the point where it’s tempting to go with an easy interpretation of what Paul said there. Something like, “What really matters is that we’re all Christians and we need to get along, so let’s only talk about churchy things in church and sing kumbaya a lot.”

 But that’s not exactly what Paul was encouraging, nor is it what we see that Paul himself did. (And it’s definitely not what Jesus did – that’s why he got in so much trouble.) Yes, Paul exhorted the Corinthians to remember that they were one in Christ; yes, Paul wrote those beautiful words: “Love is patient, love is kind…” (1 Cor. 13:4). Paul encouraged compromise and setting aside our pride and all that good stuff. But Paul also set boundaries on what Christians could compromise, boundaries on what we could be patient about, boundaries where love had to “get tough” and stand its ground. And those boundaries were the truths and the demands of the gospel.

 For example: later in 1 Corinthians Paul gets tough about how the Corinthians are celebrating the Lord’s Supper. Back in that time the Lord’s Supper was still more like a meal than the simple ritual we have today. And Paul said, look you’re eating this meal and calling it the Lord’s Supper. But “when you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s Supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk” (1 Cor. 11:20-21). In other words, some Christians — probably the wealthier members of the community — had more time to sit at the table and more food to eat and more wine to drink. They would already be full and drunk by the time poorer members of the community arrived.

 That’s not what the Lord’s Supper is about. The Lord’s Supper is a sign of God’s love for the whole world: rich and poor equally. The Lord’s Supper is like a foretaste of God’s Great Banquet, where each and every person will have enough to eat. Paul held the Corinthian Christians accountable to the gospel in how they celebrated the Lord’s Supper; the way they gathered to eat and drink in Jesus’s name needed to show who Jesus was and the message Jesus brought: that God desires to “fill the hungry with good things” (Luke 1:53).

 Paul’s instructions to the Corinthians on how to celebrate the Lord’s Supper are a small example of the truth he communicated throughout 1 Corinthians: we need to be united in Christ, and our unity needs to proclaim the message of the gospel — in the way we live right now. It’s not just about getting along; it’s about holding one another accountable to the gospel. It’s about continuing the work of Christ in our time and place.

 And the problem, of course, is that the gospel is not only about what we might call “churchy things.” There’s a pretty strong pattern in history of diluting the gospel to “the good news about how to get into heaven.” But when we read scripture and study the life of Christ and the community of early Christians, it’s like being hit over the head with the fact that the gospel is about what’s going on here and now, too. The gospel — God’s good news to us — doesn’t just kick in after we die. The gospel is also about now: about spirits and bodies and neighborhoods and nations right here and right now.

 The gospel is about loving God and our neighbors (Matt. 22:36-40).

 The gospel is about bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives, giving healing to those who need it, and setting the oppressed free (Luke 4:18-19) — here and now.

 The gospel is about caring for the foreigners and refugees in our midst (Lev. 19:33-34, 24:22; Mark 7:24-30).

 The gospel is about showing through what we do and say that “God so loved the world that he sent his only son…” (John 3:16).

The gospel is about mercy within justice, hope and faith in times of fear, forgiveness in times of wrongdoing, love in times of hatred.

 These are the boundaries at which we must take our stand. And together, Christians help one another figure out what these things mean for our day to day lives: how we speak, how we act, what we care about.

 As Christians united in Christ here at St. Andrew, we must help one another and our community as a whole to proclaim the gospel in word and in deed. And the political diversity of our congregation, which can seem like something that threatens to divide us, can be a great help to us in this. We come with our differing understandings and differing viewpoints, and we gather together around what we share: a deep need for the love of God and deep commitment to the gospel of Christ. With our differences, we can help open one another’s eyes to better ways to live out the gospel, to opportunities to do Christ’s work: to spread the message of God’s love, to serve others, to humble the proud and lift up the lowly.

 Let us join together as disciples called by Jesus, united in Christ’s love and bound to the gospel. Amen.

Mercy in Violent Times

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 17th Sunday after Pentecost + September 11, 2016

Readings: Exodus 32:7-14; Psalm 51:1-10; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10


“Never forget,” we say as a way of keeping tragedies in our national memory. It’s almost impossible to forget the tragedies that occurred 15 years ago today in four airplanes, at the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon in Virginia, and in all of our hearts. After all, we call these tragedies by today’s date: “9/11.” “September 11.” Just hearing that date, or seeing it written down, transports me back in time to the social studies classroom where our teacher first told us the horrible news, starting with: “You will remember this day forever.”

As we remember the 9/11 attacks, we also remember the ongoing violence that’s tied to that day in our memories: military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, counter-terrorism efforts around the world. We remember terrorist attacks that have happened since then, all over the world. And then maybe we are led think about all the other horrible, sudden violent attacks that have shaken our nation in the last 15 years, from shootings in schools and churches and nightclubs to everyday life in Chicago. Even as I typed this sermon on Thursday, my phone buzzed with a news story about a shooting at a high school in Texas, and I hate that my immediate reaction is always, “Dear God, not again.” It seems, some days, like violence is the only news we hear in our times.

But “our times” are not special in that.

The ancient city of Sepphoris perched like a bird on a mountain less than four miles northwest of Nazareth. It was the capital of Galilee, the administrative center of the region, and the home of the rich and famous. Around the time Jesus was born, a rebellious Jewish man named Judas raided the city’s treasury and armory, stealing weapons to arm his followers in a revolt against King Herod, who had been put in charge of Galilee by their Roman occupiers. According to an account from around that time, the Roman Governor responded by burning down the city and selling its people into slavery. Jesus grew up near that wounded city, and as the son of a craftsman he may have spent time helping to rebuild Sepphoris.1

The events at Sepphoris were fairly commonplace in Jesus’s time. Jewish groups rebelled violently against their Roman occupiers; Rome squashed the insurrection. Pontius Pilate, who governed Judea for about five years prior to Jesus’s crucifixion and continued on ruling for another five years afterward, had a reputation for violence. He often trampled over Jewish customs in the holy city of Jerusalem. Once upon a time Pilate dipped into the Jewish Temple’s treasury, using the money to build an aqueduct. When a group of Jews came to petition his actions, he had soldiers hide within the crowd and then randomly beat and kill the protestors. In the Gospel of Luke, just two chapters before today’s reading, Jesus responded to the news that Pilate had killed a group of Galileans while they were making sacrifices (Luke 13:1). Jesus lived in a time of violence and terrorism and tragedy. The headlines we read today would sound familiar to him, too.

 

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The Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem. Francesco Hayez. Oil on canvas, 1867. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Living with constant news of tragedy and death can make us hyper-aware of the fact that we, too, will die one day. And when so many of the tragedies appear random — a group of young people killed while dancing at a night club; a group of Jews killed while offering their sacrifices — our fear may skyrocket.

There are a few common ways that we humans deal with that kind of mortal fear. Many of those common responses involve shutting down mercy.

Mercy can be risky, because mercy involves opening ourselves up to the needs of others in ways that ignore the logic of what of what people deserve. Forgiving people who have done wrong is an act of mercy. Healing someone who is wounded — whether friend, stranger, or enemy — is an act of mercy. Deciding not to seek vengeance is an act of mercy. In times of conflict, actions like forgiving, healing, and choosing peace can feel like they open the doors to danger.

So when this world and the people in it seem so terribly dangerous, we shut down our mercy, we give it to fewer people. We cling more tightly to what is familiar, to people whom we know to be safe. Studies have shown that when people are made to think of their own mortality, they have more negative thoughts about people from outside of their familiar group. That means that in times where we feel endangered, people in general are less likely to be merciful to people who are different from us.

People also interpret their scriptures and faith traditions in ways that are less merciful in times of danger. When the times are peaceful, people of faith often focus on the stories and teachings in their scriptures that encourage peace, love, forgiveness, mercy. They downplay or ignore the more violent, fearful, and intolerant passages. However, even when a group of people have pushed down the violent passages and lifted up the merciful for generations, if their experience of the world becomes dangerous, they often turn back to the intolerant and violent passages.2 Feeling like we live in dangerous times can make us less merciful, and it can also inspire us to turn to violence and revenge.

Jesus saw these patterns at work in his own time and among his fellow Israelites. Many Israelites responded to Roman rule of their homeland with violence; multiple movements formed with the goal of restoring Israel’s independence. Judah, the man who led the attack in Sepphoris I mentioned earlier, was among the founders of one such group, known as the Sicarii. The Sicarii were known for hiding daggers in their clothes, and then, while in a crowd of people at a festival or another event, discreetly assassinating their political target and escaping into the crowd. The Sicarii also stole Roman property and livestock, set fire to Roman buildings, and seized hostages.

How did groups like the Sicarii understand God? They believed that God would make Israel great again, as it had been in the days of King David and King Solomon. They believed that God would come to their aid if they gave their whole selves to the violent struggle against Roman rule. They believed that God would work through their acts of violence in order to once again lift up God’s Chosen People.

Though Jesus grew up in the same world as the people who became Sicarii, he lived in a way that was remarkably different. Jesus was known for teaching and healing.Like the Sicarii and other groups, he stood with those who were suffering in a world full of oppression, but he did so not through violent rebellion, but by being “mercy in motion.”3

Jesus pointed to the mercy of God, shown in stories like God forgiving the repentant city of Nineveh (Jonah 3). Jesus pointed to the mercy of God shown in commandments like: “When a foreigner resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the foreigner. The foreigner who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the foreigner as yourself, for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Lev. 19:33-34). Jesus pointed to the mercy of God shown in the poetry of the Psalms: The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Ps. 103:8).

The parables we heard in today’s gospel reading paint pictures of a God who is remarkably, wildly, almost inconceivably merciful. God is like a shepherd who leaves ninety-nine sheep to go after the one who wandered away, seeking to bring him back into the fold. God is like a woman who searches her house from top to bottom for the coin that rolled away. Notice that neither the sheep nor the coin does anything in these stories: they don’t ask to be found; they don’t change their ways. The parables do not tell the story of what the sheep or the coin or one of us deserves from God. They tell the story of how God almost can’t help but run after us or tear apart the house to find us; they tell the story of how, when God does find us, God’s joy overflows into a big party. That is out-of-control mercy.

According to Luke Jesus told those parables because people were grumbling about Jesus’s mercy. Eating with sinners? With tax-collectors who work for the Romans? In these dangerous times? What is this guy doing? While news of violence and danger so often makes us want to shut down our mercy, lock it away, Jesus went against that common reaction. Jesus responded to his times by showing abundant mercy.

May we dare to do the same.


1. [Marcus Borg. Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary. (New York: HarperOne, 2006), pp. 93.]

2. [ Philip Jenkins. Laying Down the Sword. (New York: HarperCollins, 2011), pp. 18.]

3. [Will Willimon, quoted by Peter W. Marty in “Mercy,” The Lutheran. July 2015, pp. 3.]

When Jesus Brings Division: On Conflict

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 13th Sunday After Pentecost + August 14, 2016

Readings: Jeremiah 23:23-29; Psalm 82; Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:49-56


Usually when I go and stand closer to the congregation seated in the pews, I get to say things like, “May the Lord bless and keep you,” and “The peace of the Lord be with you always.” Today I had to proclaim: “Jesus said, ‘I came to bring fire to the earth!’ and, ‘Do you think that I come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!’”

Those aren’t the kind of words we expect to hear from Jesus, and they’re not the kind of words we like to hear from Jesus. People are drawn to Jesus by his message of radical love, by sayings like “Just as I have loved you, you ought to love one another” (John 13:34), and “Turn the other cheek” (Matt. 5:39), and “Even the hairs on your head are all counted [by God]” (Matt. 10:30).

Those words about division and fire aren’t what we expect from our Christian community, either. Often we expect our church to be a place of love and forgiveness, a little slice of heaven on earth. Even if we acknowledge that we are a group of humans coming together and that therefore we will be flawed, we tend to think the the ideal we should be striving for is perfect peace and harmony — because isn’t that what Jesus was all about?

Today’s Bible readings remind us that conflict is an inherent part of God’s work in the world. In the Jeremiah reading God said: “Is not my word like fire…and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” In Jeremiah and the other books of the prophets God complained that the people would listen to the happy messages of the false prophets while ignoring God’s messengers, because the true messages often brought news people didn’t want to hear, demanded change, and caused conflict.

Today’s gospel reading may point to the fact that what is good news for some is not good news for everyone. In the next chapter in Luke we read of the time Jesus healed a woman who had been unable to stand up straight for eighteen years. Good news for the woman and those who cared about her; good news for all people who need healing. But because Jesus healed on the Sabbath, his action brought conflict with those who preached a strict version of God’s command to rest on the Sabbath (Luke 13:10-17). Other stories remind us that what is good news for the poor might cause conflict with the rich (e.g. Matt. 20:1-16); what is good news for a foreigner might cause conflict with the native (e.g. Matt. 15:21-28). The gospel is good news: news of peace and love and healing, of the hungry being fed and the poor being lifted up and the outcast being welcomed. It is the news of God making the world a better place for all people, but that does not make it free of conflict.

I am by nature a conflict avoider. A dramatic example: when I was in college I worked in our theatre department’s set building shop, and one afternoon I was working alone with my boss, putting big pieces of lumber through this new machine that made warped boards more straight. At one point I realized he was feeding the wood in the wrong way, but I couldn’t make myself say anything; even saying “Um, hey, I think it goes like this,” felt too much like conflict to me. When my boss figured out the problem, and that I had seen it a few minutes before, he was more perplexed than frustrated: “Why didn’t you just tell me? It would have saved time.” I like to think I’ve grown a lot since then and am not so ridiculously afraid of conflict anymore, but this story gives you a clear idea of how much I would rather think that following Jesus meant just serving people and making everybody happy all the time. So when I say that conflict and the gospel go hand in hand, know that I am not saying it lightly or easily or without demanding a lot of myself. To hear that being involved God’s mission means being involved with conflict makes me quake in my boots.

But I’ve learned that if we see conflict differently, even conflict can be a proclamation of the gospel. Most often people see conflict sort-of like a tug-of-war match: there are two sides, pitted against one another, and there can be only one winner. But if our conflict has been sparked by God, by a desire to be true to the gospel, then we should see conflict as an opportunity for both sides to hear something new from God. Through conflict the Holy Spirit may work to refine our sense of God’s mission in the world and of who we are as people of the gospel.1

Of course it can be really, really difficult to hear from God in the middle of a conflict. Maybe the main reason why is that God does not make it easy to for us to know exactly what God wants us to do.  As Lutherans there are things we count on as sources of revelation from God to us: first and foremost is scripture, and we also turn to tradition, to the wisdom of community, to the sacraments, and to prayer. If I learned only one thing during my time in seminary and during all these years of going to Bible studies, it’s that people can interpret scripture (and all those other sources of revelation) in so many ways. Though we like to think these things offer clear direction for our lives, when we try to apply these revelations to our lives, especially in a group, it can get really confusing.

Another reason it can be difficult to hear from God in the middle of a conflict is because of the way humans tend to behave in conflict. In all sorts of situations humans do this thing called mirroring, where we play off and copy each other’s attitudes and actions. A lot of the time this is a really good thing: if someone smiles at me, I smile back; if someone treats me with respect, I treat them with respect. Sometimes it works in a sort of complementary way: you take leadership of situation, and I naturally step back and become your helper.

But when we are in conflict and do that natural mirroring thing, the hurtful component of conflict will escalate quickly: you insult me, I insult you; you go behind my back, I go behind your back. We get caught up in the heat of our interactions, in trying to look stronger, in trying to win. When our interpretations of the Bible come into conflict, it can turn into that tug-of-war with each side yelling, “This is what God says!” / “No, this is what God says!” In the midst of all that noise, that strange mix of sincere faith, hope, fear, pride, and self-defense, it can be really difficult to open our hearts and listen for the movement of God’s spirit.

I heard stories this week about psychologists and sociologists (and even police officers doing counterterrorism work) who are studying the benefits of intentionally breaking that cycle of mirroring, something they call non-complementarity.

One story I heard was about a family who was held up at gun point. They try reasoning with the man with the gun: “Look, we don’t have any money!” They try shaming the man: “What would your mother think?” But then one of the people in the family has a crazy, backwards idea. She stops mirroring the man with aggression; she stops playing the complimentary role of the fearful victim. She flips the script. She says to the man, “Look, we’re here celebrating. Why don’t you join us, and have a glass of wine.” Immediately the man’s face completely changes. He drinks some wine; he eats some cheese; he puts the gun back in his pocket. A few minutes later, the man says, “I think I’ve come to the wrong place.” They forgive him. After a few minutes of silence, he asks for a hug, and as the family embraces him, he says that he is sorry. It’s a crazy story. It may not work every time. But it is powerful example of how breaking the cycle of mirroring and reacting can totally turn a conflict on its head.2

Maybe this idea — this non-complementarity thing — is where Jesus’s teachings start to come together. Maybe “I come to bring division,” does somehow fit together with “love your neighbor” and “turn the other cheek.”  We are always going to have conflict: in the church, in the world, in our homes. The gospel itself is always going to bring conflict as God changes the world. Jesus’s teachings about love and forgiveness are not meant to create a world without conflict, but to be a guide for how we react in conflicts. As in so many cases, Jesus-followers are not meant to act in the usual way of the world.

Jesus said: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you: do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile” (Matt. 5:38-41).

These teachings are not about avoiding conflict entirely; they are not about being a pushover or letting other people do whatever they want and making yourself nothing. They are more about breaking the cycle of harmful mirroring, about flipping the script, about acting in a new way to change the way a conflict is headed. They are examples of who to stay true to the Christian values of peace and love even when conflicts arise. Through these teachings, Christ once again calls his disciples to be leaders, to go against the way the world usually works.3

That’s not to say that conflict will be easy and happy and peaceful. In today’s gospel reading Jesus talks about households being painfully divided: father against son, mother against daughter. (We probably know something about that picture, especially during an election season.) He talks about fire; he references his impending crucifixion, and in doing so, he points to the martyrdom of so many his disciples. Yet to know that God is present even in our division, ushering us and the world into God’s kingdom, ought to give us comfort and hope that even our conflict is part of God’s mission, and one day God will lead us to reconciliation, peace, and a better world. Amen and Amen.

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Symeon Shimin. “Contemporary Justice and Child.” Washington, D.C. mural, 1940. Provided by Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library.


1. [Susan M. Lang. Our Community: Dealing with Conflict in Our Congregation. Congregational LEADER Series. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2002). ]2. [Lulu Miller, Alix Spiegel, and Hanna Rosin. “Flip the Script.” Invisibilia (podcast). July 15, 2016. Available online (with some great additional articles!) http://www.npr.org/programs/invisibilia/485603559/flip-the-script%5D3. [See for example: Walter Wink. Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003.) Especially chapter 2.]