Reformation 500: A call to practice curiosity

Written for Reformation Day at Emory University +October 26, 2017

Readings: Jeremiah 31:31-34 and John 8:31-36

[A video of this sermon is available here via the Candler School of Theology at Emory]


As we gather today to remember the story of the European Reformation, we have a number of options for a place to begin. Once upon a time an Englishman named John Wycliffe declared that the Bible — not the Pope — was the best source for knowledge of God, and he translated the Bible into the common tongue of his people. Once upon a time a Bohemian named John Huss declared that the people were being exploited by the church through the system of indulgences. Once upon a time a German named Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, and suddenly mass communication was possible — even when the writings were suppressed.

But since we are calling this year the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we should probably begin like this:

Once upon a time, a German monk felt trapped. Trapped, he would say, by his own sin. Trapped, we might diagnose, by his own anxiety and by certain problems with the church of his day. He spent his days in confession and his nights in penance, putting all his energy into justifying himself before God, making himself righteous, and avoiding eternal damnation. He lived in fear, and he almost hated the God he feared so deeply.

Driven by some mix of that anxiety and dedication to his faith and his call to teach, Luther poured over the scriptures. And as he studied and studied, so the story goes, Luther came to a realization: he could not possibly make himself righteous in God’s eyes; but he also didn’t have to. God had chosen to justify Luther — and all those who believed — through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. That was God’s work, not Luther’s, not any human’s. That was God’s gift.

It was there in Romans: “Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith” (Rom. 3:24-25).

It was there in Galatians: “We know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (Gal. 2:16).

It was there in the Gospels: “They who have believed and have been baptized shall be saved” (Mark 16:16).

That great, liberating message was threaded throughout the scriptures (sidebar: yes, it’s in the Old Testament too). But that message was not being heard over the Church’s — or at least some priests’ — emphasis on things like penance, purgatory, hell, and indulgences.

And that was another of Luther’s great epiphanies: it wasn’t Luther who was trapped; the problem was much bigger. Scripture was trapped. The grace of God was trapped. The gospel was trapped. Trapped behind false teachings and abusive, greedy preachers — at least that’s what Luther thought.

Thinking the church would like to see the error of her ways so that she could correct the mistakes and sound the gospel more clearly, Luther nailed 95 theses, 95 arguments, to the door of his church — and soon the Gospel good news was set free over Europe.

One of the Reformation’s central statements of faith is that if people read the scriptures — like Luther read the scriptures — then they cannot possibly miss the truth of God’s will and God’s grace. The law and gospel ring free and clear in those writings and in faithful preaching — and all the false teachings will be swept away by its power. Our annual Reformation Day readings reminds us of that belief:

Today’s reading from the book of Jeremiah seems to promise a clear, direct, and personal understanding of both the will of God and the love of God. “I will put my law within them [says the Lord], and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest…for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”

And we who are Christian confess that Jesus of Nazareth was the fulfillment of that ancient promise, believing that by some holy, graceful mystery, Jesus brings us into that intimate knowledge of God; believing Jesus when he said to his followers: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

We read these passages every year on Reformation Day because they point us back to that core Reformation belief: If we can just read the scriptures and just hear the word of God preached in faithfulness to the teachings of the Bible, then we will know God. Then we will know God’s will and God’s great love and forgiveness.1

And yet — Luther’s story of feeling like the Word of God is trapped or confused by the language of scripture or the teachings of one preacher versus another or by our own internal shame or anxiety — that story is still familiar.

Because we look back on the history of the Reformation and we see that things were not so clear and easy once the scriptures were translated and set free. My Reformation professor liked to call 16th-century Europe “the hermeneutical wild west”2 — because as soon as people felt freed to read and interpret the scriptures themselves, there were as many church factions as there were people with strong opinions. We know the Roman Catholic church did not agree with Luther’s interpretation of the scriptures; Luther struggled with other thinkers within his own Evangelical movement; the Anabaptists popped up quickly with their own, even more radical interpretation, and they were persecuted by Catholics and Lutherans alike. This splintering continues today; I remember hearing from a Candler admissions representative that they received applications to the M.Div. program from a brand-new denomination just about every year.

We look back and see that even with all Martin Luther’s world-changing and soul-changing epiphanies, all his intense study of scripture, Luther’s thoughts were still bound by some of the the more heinous teachings of the Church. Lutherans today are still repenting of his terrible anti-Jewish writings, wondering how this liberator of the gospel could also write something so painfully contrary to the heart of our Jewish savior.

We look around us at the arguments that tear at the unity of the Church today. Arguments about who can be ordained or even allowed in the doors of the church; arguments about who is welcomed to the Communion table; arguments about whether Christian hands are permitted to commit violence or bake a cake for a same-sex couple or join together with people of different faiths for prayer. And each side of each of these arguments can open their Bibles and point and read and defend their position.

We look within ourselves — and this may be the most trying task of all. We struggle with our own doubt and confusion. We struggle to differentiate our own opinions and upbringing from the revelation of God. We feel, embedded with us, messages of shame and guilt and unworthiness — messages that run contrary to God’s love and forgiveness, we know, but still we can’t quite shake them.

So, looking back and looking around and looking within, we recognize that God’s Word is always competing against the other messages written on our hearts and in our communities and in our culture. Messages that cloud and confuse and maybe you, like me, sometimes find yourself praying:

Dear Lord, is it really possible for us to know you? “For now we see in a mirror, dimly,” and some days that mirror is so smudged and foggy that we wonder if we are really seeing you at all or just some combination of other people’s fingerprints and our own reflection (1 Cor. 13:12).

And yet every year we (of certain traditions) gather and look back at this thing called the Reformation. We read these same Bible lessons, promising us that God is writing on our own hearts, that we shall know the truth, and the truth will set us free. And it is a day for us to take a breath and receive anew that great gift of faith: the faith that God is speaking to us even through the debate and the questions and the doubt.

Yes, the Reformation was imperfect. Yes, it — like the Christians that brought it to life — was simultaneously righteous and sinful. It fractured the Western Church, and the factions that splintered off spoke hatred and committed violence against one another. It continued the Church’s horrible history of spewing poisonous words against the Jewish people. (I have noted these things already, but some corporate sins need repeated public confession.)

And yet we can hold all that in hand and still remember how the Reformation did help the gospel ring more clearly again. We put Luther’s face and a big “500” on our church calendars and our children’s coloring books and our coffee mugs because we want to remember and celebrate how the good news of God’s grace seemed to pour out anew over 16th-century Europe. We want to remember and celebrate how so many people heard for the first time that most powerful Word of God given to us, embodied, in Jesus Christ: “For it is by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8). We want to remember how those people, our ancestors in the faith, felt liberated from their paralyzing fear of God’s judgment and liberated for loving God and loving neighbor.

And by remembering that history, we hope for ourselves. We hope with the confidence of that memory; we hope with the confidence of what God has done for our ancestors in the faith. We hope that God will do again for us what God has done over and over throughout history. We hope that the Word of God will pour over us too, that God will write the message more clearly on our hearts and on our communities and on our culture.

So let’s begin telling the story of the Reformation again.

Once upon a time an anxious, imperfect German monk dared to be curious. He dared to question the teachings and traditions that everyone seemed to take for granted. He dared to read the scriptures with fresh eyes and an open heart. He dared to jump into the debates and confusion. He dared to believe that his questions and thoughts were, just maybe, the prompting of the Holy Spirit.

I think that such curiosity is what we need today in order to hear God’s Word more clearly.

Too often we approach confusion about God’s Word with fear. Fear maybe like the young Luther felt: fear of messing up, of doing something wrong, of believing something wrong, and so maybe putting ourselves outside of God’s grace (as if that were possible). And fear can make us freeze and hide, and keep us from sharing the gospel or serving our neighbor. Fear can make us defensive, so we cling tightly to what we believe and refuse to hear other opinions, perhaps missing opportunities to hear a new word from God. Fear is, I think, what is behind today’s shouting matches and Facebook wars and silent glares at Thanksgiving dinners. It’s not a new phenomenon, but, dear Lord, does it feel especially strong right now.

But in the Bible visits from God’s messengers often began with the command, “Do not fear.” Do not fear, but hear what God is saying.

So what if, instead, we approached all that confusion about God’s Word with curiosity? If we let ourselves wonder at different opinions. If we asked to hear about the experiences of our neighbors, if we asked the question, “What’s it like to be you? What do you think and believe?”: in our congregations and in our families; and also of our neighbors on “that side” of town, or living in the Penthouse, or locked up in prison; of our neighbors living around the world. What if we listened, openly and curiously, to those experiences and then returned to the scriptures and to our faith tradition and listened for what the Spirit was saying to us? After all, the assurance of God’s grace sets us free to do such daring things.

I’m going to tell you a story I heard, like, third-hand from Bishop Julian Gordy and then imagine my own ending for it, so I hope that’s okay.

An Ethiopian pastor took his seat on a plane, settling in next to a nice European-American woman who started the customary small talk. When she found out that he was a pastor, she brimmed with excitement about meeting not only an African person, but an African person who was a Christian. Her curiosity was set on fire. She asked him excitedly, “When did your people hear the good news about Jesus?” The pastor responded as politely as possible, “In the first century, madam.”

Imagine what that woman’s ears may have been opened to hear through that conversation. She could hear the story of the Ethiopian eunuch who heard the word of God so clearly that he begged to be baptized, and she might feel a new sense of connection to that ancient character. She could be disconnected from the false story (told far too often in my culture) of a God working through the white people to save the world — and instead reconnected to God’s story of a dark-skinned messiah and a Holy Spirit that spoke in every tongue and to all nations and through all nations. That one moment of curiosity on an airplane could be a like a boulder dropped into a lake, the water rippling out in all sorts of directions.

God is still speaking. God is speaking to us through the scriptures, through our neighbors, through our own hearts. If we are curious to follow the Spirit weaving through all those things, it will help us to join in what God is doing to continue the work of the Reformation in us: to write again and again, more and more clearly, the Word of God on our hearts and in our world. To unleash the power of the Gospel for us today.

Speak to us, Lord: help our world to know you; help those in need to hear your good news and believe; help each of us to trust that your grace has set us free to be curious. Amen.


1. [In his lecture on the question “Did the Reformation Fail?” given October 26, 2017 at Emory University as part of the Reformation Day events, Bishop H. Julian Gordy (Southeastern Synod of the ELCA) noted that Luther believed that the Bible should still be interpreted by and in the church. However, the idea that individuals could read and interpret the scriptures themselves was one of the fruits of the Reformation, and it clearly holds sway in our time. (I always think of the bumper-sticker-like phrase, “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.”)]

2. [Paul C. H. Lim, Vanderbilt Divinity School.]

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Stewardship of Law and Gospel

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 14th Sunday After Pentecost + September 10, 2017

Reading: Matthew 18:15-20


Story #1: Kamaria Downs was an honors student at a small Christian university. In 2015, her senior year, she had to fill out medical forms for her student teaching assignment, and through those forms the college discovered that Kamaria was pregnant. She was unmarried. The college told her she had to move out of the campus dorms and did not refund her the money she’d pre-paid to live there for the year. She had to scramble to find a place to live so that she could complete her degree.[1]

Story #2: Peter courted Sally in the classic way: with flowers and lots of love letters. His charm won her over, and the she agreed to marry him. Almost immediately, Peter seemed like an entirely different person. He yelled at her for things as small as sleeping in on their honeymoon; he drank too much and flew into abusive rages; later, he was violent with their young daughter. When Sally went to the counselors at her church for help, they advised her to forgive her husband and submit to him. “When she [finally] left Peter, Sally also left her church parish, feeling isolated and unwanted as a single mother.”[2]

Unfortunately, neither Kamaria’s nor Sally’s experience is uncommon.

Today’s gospel reading is a lesson on our stewardship of the Law and the Gospel — in other words, our stewardship of the message “You’ve sinned; you’ve done something wrong,” and the message, “God loves you and forgives you, and we love you and forgive you, too.”

It’s common for us to lean to one extreme or another. To emphasize the need to call people to repentance so that they may receive grace and new life from God and to protect our community from sin and its devastating effects. Or to emphasize the radical acceptance and forgiveness of God to the point where we feel uncomfortable even using the word, “sin.” We often think of whole denominations as leaning one way or the other.

We also tend to fall into communal habits of thinking of some sins as more necessary to call out than others. One of my professors gave an example of this in a very blunt and cynical way: the Church likes to keep arguing about sex so that we don’t have to talk about the more uncomfortable topic of how we use our money.

Jesus’s teaching in today’s gospel reading challenges us to get out of our comfort zone and see the importance of both Law and Gospel, both approaching a fellow Christian whose sin is affecting the community and being a place of welcome and healing for all of us sinners seeking grace.

For those of us who tend to want to speak only of forgiveness, this passage may help us think of reasons why pointing out sin and calling for change may be necessary. It may be good for the one who has done wrong: Martin Luther pointed out that we need to realize that we are stuck in sin in order to see that we need God’s grace and to reach for God’s forgiveness and God’s power to free us and transform us. We see that principle at work when families and friends stage interventions for someone struggling with addiction in the hope that she will accept help and start changing her life for the better.

Calling for repentance may also be good for the community. Telling a friend that they’ve hurt you is the first step toward forgiveness and the healing of the relationship. Though I am by nature and upbringing a conflict-avoider, I’ve come to realize that it’s an act of grace to tell my friend that I’m angry or hurt and why rather than to give her the silent treatment. We can’t reconcile if only half the party knows what’s wrong. In the case of Sally and her abusive husband, it would have been better for the church to help Sally confront him and turn away from him; for her safety; for their child’s safety; and for the well-being of the community. Then, if he was willing, others could give him the help and support he needed to change.

That’s a good segue into talking about what Jesus said to do if you approach someone three times and they still won’t repent. Jesus said, “Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

At first that seems to indicate a total rejection of the unrepentant person: “Gentiles” means “people who aren’t Jews,” and Jews (like Jesus’s disciples) were not supposed to fellowship with those outsiders. Tax collectors were among the most reviled and rejected people of Jesus’s community.

But how did Jesus treat Gentiles and tax collectors? Matthew was a tax collector, and Jesus called him to be one of his closest disciples (Matthew 9:9). The gospel book that today’s reading comes from bears that tax collector’s name. Zaccheus was a tax collector, and Jesus invited himself over to his house and changed his life forever (Luke 19:1-10).

And though the gospels do mention times when Jesus specifically excluded Gentiles (e.g. Matthew 10:5), in the one story we have where he meets a Gentile face-to-face, he is so impressed by her faith that he changes his mind and heals her daughter (Matthew 15:21-28). Later, the still-very-Jewish Church decides to accept Gentiles and to reach out to them with the message of the Gospel (Acts 11:1-18); St. Paul’s main vocation was to be the “apostle to the Gentiles” (Romans 11:13).

So even when we are instructed to treat the unrepentant one as a “Gentile and a tax collector,” it does not indicate that we should utterly reject them and cast them out. Rather, the minute we remove them from the community, they become someone to be invited back in.

So for those of us who might lean towards over-emphasizing the need to remove sin from our community, Jesus’s teaching reminds us that God’s first priority is that all people would be part of God’s family, all people would be forgiven and welcomed. This becomes very obvious when we read Jesus’s teaching in this passage with what’s going on in the verses right before and after it. This lesson is set between two stories that emphasize God’s desire that all people would be forgiven and welcomed into the fold.

Right before Jesus gave the disciples these rules for dealing with sin in the church, Jesus told them a story. It’s that crazy story of the shepherd who loses one sheep, and he leaves 99 sheep behind to go looking for the lost one. Jesus summed up the moral of the story: “So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost” (Matt. 18:10-14).

Then he went into, “If another member of the church sins against you…” do this and this and this, and then after all that they still won’t listen, then “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

Peter then asked Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus responded “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times,” which we generally agree doesn’t mean “count to seventy-seven and then you can stop forgiving him,” but rather, “forgive endlessly.”

Then Jesus tells another story, which we’ll hear in worship next week, about a slave whose debts are forgiven by his master, but who does not forgive other slaves the debts they owe him. The king is furious, and says to the slave, “Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?” (Matt. 18:21-25).

Matthew sets today’s gospel story — of confronting someone who has sinned and how to treat them if they don’t repent — in the middle of stories that emphasize how important it is to God that not even one person be lost from the Church, how important it is to God that we forgive one another.

Jesus said to his disciples, “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” In church tradition, this has been called the “Office of the Keys” or the “Power of the Keys” — the great power given to the Church to bind people to their sins or to free them; to include them or exclude them from the community. To quote Spiderman, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

So let’s be careful and thoughtful with our stewardship of this power and this responsibility. Let’s be careful to help our fellow sinners find their way to God’s grace and to protect and heal our relationships and our communities. But let’s also remember that even the Law is a servant of God’s grace, God’s unending desire that we would be in communion with God and with one another, knit together by the mercy and love of God.


[1] Susan Donaldson James, “Student Changes Christian College’s Policy After Getting Kicked Out for Being Pregnant,” NBC News, September 16, 2016. Online: https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/college-game-plan/student-changes-christian-college-s-policy-after-getting-kicked-out-n649381

[2] Julia Baird with Hayley Gleeson, “’Submit to your husbands’: Women told to endure domestic violence in the name of God,” ABC News (Australia), August 10, 2017. Online: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-07-18/domestic-violence-church-submit-to-husbands/8652028

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.]