But Remember Who God Is

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 2nd Sunday after Pentecost + June 3, 2018

Readings: Deut. 5:12-15; Mark 2:23-3:6


There are some things that Christians say a lot that are true and important to really remind ourselves of from time to time: God’s ways are not our ways. God knows better than we do. The Lord works in mysterious ways. Being a disciple of Christ requires us to sacrifice.

Sometimes, however, people apply these principles in mistaken ways — ways that lead to harm that is not actually part of God’s will.

The hot topic in America’s Evangelical world right now is the story of Paige Patterson, a pastor and major leader in the Southern Baptist Convention. Recently stories have surfaced in which Patterson gave sermons or counseling advice addressing women in abusive marriages. He advised them to stay in these marriages — to stay in these homes, forgive their husbands even while the abuse continued, and even to face more abuse — in the hope of saving their husband’s souls.[1]

I can muster up some generosity and say I think Patterson really was motivated by his understanding of scripture and God’s will in matters like divorce, forgiveness, and eternal salvation. But when his attempts to teach faithfully were causing his parishioners to come to him with black eyes — in a society where 50% of female victims of murder are killed by their husbands or boyfriends[2] — he should have stopped to re-evaluate, to pray, and to study scripture. Would our God who, throughout the Old Testament, sends prophecy calling out kings and leaders for their treatment of orphans and widows and those without power — want women to stay in dangerous relationships? Would our God, revealed in the compassion and justice of Jesus Christ, really ask victims to bear responsibility for those abusing them? Or was there another, more faithful way to care for both the abuser and the abused?

History is full of examples like this, examples of people who were, perhaps, honestly trying to be faithful to God, but whose judgment was clouded by the sins of society or their own personal desires. Americans argued — with biblical arguments — that slavery was the will of God. Politicians argue with pastors who advocate on behalf of people who suffer from poverty, saying, “Well, y’know Jesus said ‘the poor you will always have with you,’ so this is just the way things are.” (By the way, when Jesus said that, he was referencing Deuteronomy, and that whole commandment says: Since the poor you will always have with you, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land”[Deut. 15:11].) One of the things that breaks my heart the most is when people are diagnosed with something horrible or injure themselves badly and spend a lot of time wondering, “What did I do wrong, that God would do this to me?” That’s not the God we see in Jesus.

So yes, we need to remember that God is beyond us, that God’s ways are not our ways, and sometimes that’s going to be annoying or hard or require sacrifice — but we also have to balance out that teaching with teachings about who God is, what God desires, what God thinks is important.

I think that’s one of the things Jesus was trying to point out when he challenged the Pharisees on the right ways to observe the sabbath.

Macklin_Vol_6-22-medium

John Opie and William Bromley, The Macklin Bible, “Christ Healing the Woman on the Sabbath Day” (1799). Via Vanderbilt Divinity Library’s Art in the Christian Tradition

But first, a side note: I think it’s worth saying the Pharisees might not have found Jesus’s teachings about sabbath observance all that heretical. Jesus said, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath,” and he asked, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save a life or to kill?” before answering his own question by healing a man on the sabbath.

The Jewish Rabbinic tradition — which grew out of the Pharisees’ movement — actually sides with Jesus on these points. Their teachings from the time of Jesus include sayings like: “The Sabbath is handed over to you, not you to it,” and, “Profane one Sabbath for a person’s sake, so that he may keep many Sabbaths.”[3] There’s an overriding principle in Jewish law which says that preserving life is more important than observing other laws.[4] This rule comes from ancient interpretation of Leviticus 18:5, in which God said, “You shall keep my statues and my ordinances; by doing so one shall live.”

So, probably, what went down between Jesus and the Pharisees was not exactly a disagreement over interpretation of sabbath law. Rather, the Pharisees had already decided they didn’t like Jesus, and they were trying desperately to catch him doing something wrong so they could publicly accuse him and get those crowds of people to stop following him. But Jesus kept just toeing the line, doing things that were just a little scandalous and daring the Pharisees to say something; but Jesus could also turn to scripture and tradition to prove that what he was doing was right.

I read a webcomic this week where the writer remembered back to being a child, to a Halloween where she was sent to school in a dinosaur costume. And being in that costume — being a dinosaur — made her feel powerful, like the rules didn’t apply to her. So when her teacher told her to sit in a circle with the other children, she suddenly felt that dinosaur-power fill her, and she rebelled. She ran around the room, knocking over chairs and toys, grabbing a handful of pens, and scribbling manically on the walls. Then came the showdown: a moment of stillness while the teacher stared her down and demanded, with all her teacher’s authority, “Give me the pens. Now.”A pause as the child stared back at her teacher, deciding…and then she threw the pens right at her teacher’s face.[5]

I imagine that moment in the synagogue felt almost like that to the Pharisees. Jesus, we’re watching you. Don’t do it. Don’t heal that man. It’s the sabbath. We’re the teachers here, and you know what we say about the sabbath. Don’t do it, Jesus. And Jesus looked them right in the eye, reached out his hand, and healed.

Of course Jesus chose these moments of rebellion very carefully. He was making a point. He was, for instance, claiming his own authority over and above that of the Pharisees. I know the law as well as you do, and maybe better; I know that what I’m doing is in line with God’s will. Just try and tell me it’s not. He even put himself in the place of King David: as David had a mission that deserved special dispensation, so did Jesus. Claiming that he deserved the same as the greatest of Israel’s kings was a big claim indeed. No wonder the Pharisees wanted to discredit him.

But, to work our way back to my original topic: this sabbath healing was also an opportunity to draw people’s eyes to God’s real purpose for the sabbath law, and to the central purpose of Jesus’s mission — to draw people’s eyes back to what God is like and what God cares about.

Our first reading for today, from the book of Deuteronomy, told us about the reason God commanded the Israelites to observe the sabbath as a day of rest. God said: “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.” We could sum that up: Remember that God saved your people from forced labor; now enjoy this day of rest. The sabbath is meant as a gift, and as a day to remember God’s gift of freedom, God’s gift of salvation, and to give thanks by celebrating and enjoying the gift.

Jesus’s mission was to bring those gifts of freedom and salvation to even more people.

So one sabbath day, Jesus met a man with a withered hand. A man who either was injured or born with that difficulty; who probably has trouble finding work; who had, maybe, spent a lot of time anxiously wondering what he’d done that made God curse him. So when Jesus met that man on the sabbath, he knew how to best observe the sabbath law: by granting that man the gift of healing and freedom.

And yeah, maybe it was a little scandalous. The man wasn’t in mortal danger; couldn’t you wait till tomorrow to do the work of healing, Jesus? But Jesus’s mission to bring freedom and salvation was too urgent and too important to be so scrupulous about the sabbath.[6]

And what does that tell us about God’s priorities?

It’s really easy for us to focus too much on the idea that “God is above us, we need to just surrender and obey God,” so that we end up making obedience to laws more important than God’s mission to save people and free people. Or, actually: we end up making our interpretation of God’s laws more important than God’s main mission.

God is bigger than us. God does give us commandments that are difficult. God does ask us to step out of our comfort zone, to do things we don’t want to do, to sacrifice, even — sometimes — to suffer. But think of those things as, like…facts about God.

Who God is, is even more important than that. We can’t know what God wants from us without first knowing who God is. And the God we see revealed in both the Law and the Gospel is a God who cares for people, and not just our souls, but our bodies and our minds, too. God cares for our relationships and our societies and our planet.

If the teaching we’re hearing doesn’t seem to match up with who God is — if it harms rather than saves — it’s worth turning back to the scriptures and seeing what the message really is. That’s what Martin Luther would do. And, according to today’s gospel reading, I’m pretty sure that’s what Jesus would do, too.


[1] Ed Kilgore, “#MeToo in the Pews: A Backlash to the Southern Baptist Patriarchy,” New York Magazine, 9 May 2018. http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2018/05/metoo-engulfs-southern-baptist-patriarch-paige-patterson.html Accessed 3 June 2018.

[2] Camila Domonoske, “CDC: Half of All Female Homicide Victims are Killed by Intimate Partners,” National Public Radio, 21 July 2017. https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/07/21/538518569/cdc-half-of-all-female-murder-victims-

are-killed-by-intimate-partners  Accesed 3 June 2018.

[3] Quoted in Matt Skinner, “Commentary on Mark 2:23-3:6”, Working Preacher, 3 June 2018. Online: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3667 Accessed 28 May 2018.

[4] Simon Glustrom, “Saving a Life (Pikuach Nefesh),” My Jewish Learning. Online: https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/saving-a-life-pikuach-nefesh/ Accessed 28 May 2018.

[5] Allie Brosh, “Menace,” Hyperbole and a Half, 2 October 2013. Online: https://hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.com/2013/10/menace.html?m=1

[6] N. T. Wright, Mark for Everyone, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), p. 25-28.

Advertisements

“…who brought you out of slavery”

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + Lenten Midweek Service + March 7, 2018

Reading: Exodus 14:10-31; 15:20-21


 

Chludov_Miriam-medium

Crossing of the Red Sea and Miriam dancing and singing, illumination from the Chludov Psalter (9th century). State Historical Museum, Moscow, Russia. Via Vanderbilt Divinity Library’s Art in the Christian Tradition.

The story we just heard is one of the most important in Israel’s history. It has been told and retold, almost like Christians tell and retell the story of Jesus, as a way to understand God and people, as a way to know what’s right and wrong, and as a source of comfort and hope.

In fact we heard it referenced this Sunday. Our first reading told us the story of how God gave Israel the 10 Commandments. It began: “Then God spoke all these words: ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:1-3) Many other laws from the First Testament include this reminder that God brought the Israelites out of Egypt and out of slavery.

The book of Leviticus contains commandments like: “You shall not cheat in measuring length, weight, or quantity. You shall have honest balances, honest weights…I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt. You shall keep all my statutes…I am the Lord” (Lev. 19:35-36).

The book of Deuteronomy says: “You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this” (Deut. 24:17-18).

Commandments like these use the story of the exodus from Egypt as a reason to be faithful to God, and sometimes they use the history of God freeing the Israelites from slavery as a reason why the Israelites should not treat people unjustly, as the slavemasters did their ancestors, but they should treat people fairly and graciously, as God treated them.

The First Testament recalls the Exodus story in other ways, too: to praise God and to give hope to the Israelites when they need God to save them again.

The Psalms rejoice in God’s power and help:

Come and see what God has done:

He is awesome in his deeds among mortals.

He turned the sea into dry land;

They passed through the streams on foot. (Psalm 66:5-6)

The prophets offer God’s hope to the people of Israel with the memory of God saving their ancestors from slavery. After the Babylonian Exile, when Jerusalem had been conquered by foreign armies and many of its people had been dragged away to Babylon, a prophet reminded the Israelites of who their God is:

…the Lord,

Who makes a way in the sea,

A path in the mighty waters,

Who brings out chariot and horse,

Army and warrior,

They lie down, they cannot rise,

They are extinguished, quenched like a wick. (Isaiah 43:15-17)

That God was still there God, and God would do for them what God did for their ancestors:

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;

And through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you…

For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. (Isaiah 43:2a, 3a)

In addition to all these reminders, the Bible commands the Jewish people to remember and celebrate their liberation from slavery in Egypt every year with the Passover meal (cf. Exodus 12).

Telling (over and over) the story of God freeing Israel from slavery is a way for the Jewish people to remember who God is and what God is like. God has chosen Israel to be God’s people; God is the one who saves them and sets them free; God is the one with power to do miraculous things like hold back the waters of the sea. And even beyond the people of Israel: God cares for all those who are being mistreated and oppressed and acts to save them.

The Exodus story also reminds the Jewish people of who they are. They are a people who have known both slavery and liberation, who have known what it’s like to suffer at the hands of other people and known what it’s like to be saved by God through other people and through miracles. And they are a people in relationship with the God who called them and saved them, and they are beholden to God for what God has done for them. In the same way that Luther told Christians that we — with the help of the Holy Spirit — ought to strive to live according to God’s will because we are thankful for what God has done for us in Jesus Christ — in the same way God told the Israelites: remember what I have done for you, and now live as I am telling you to live. Obey these commandments. Care for those who are suffering. “Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).

The Exodus story has continued to be hugely important for Christians. Through Jesus we have become part of God’s chosen people, inheriting God’s promises and stories, including this one. The gospels often paint Jesus as a new Moses, teaching God’s will and leading people to freedom; maybe it’s no coincidence that Jesus’s last meal was the Passover celebration, the official day to remember the Exodus story, and that Jesus was crucified and resurrected on Passover weekend. And Christians since ancient times have lifted up the story of the Israelites’ path to salvation through the Red Sea as a symbol for baptism, the Christian path through the waters to salvation.

Christians in the United States have held on to the Exodus story in their own particular ways. In 1630 the Puritan preacher John Winthrop told a ship full of Puritan pilgrims that they were the New Israel, crossing the sea on the way to the Promised Land. European-Americans continued to hold on to that version of the story as they settled new regions, formed a nation, and spread westward across the continent — believing that they were doing this by God’s promise and God’s command, spreading God’s light and building God’s world.

Meanwhile, enslaved Africans converted to Christianity, and they heard the story of the Exodus from the point of view of the slaves waiting for God to free them. They found hope in this story of God hearing the cry of the slaves and leading them to freedom. The exodus story has continued to be a central story in the Black Church, through the time of Emancipation and Reconstruction and on again through various movements for civil rights.

The history of telling the story of the Exodus — both inside and outside the Bible — shows us how this story can preach to us both gospel and law, both liberty and justice, both comfort and judgment. Sometimes the prophets used this story to offer hope to the Israelites when they felt trapped and hopeless; other times the prophets put the leaders of the Israelites in the place of Pharaoh, the ones who were treating others unjustly and needed to change their ways. Likewise, in American history the same story that inspired many of our nation’s founders and leaders could be used to point out that in some ways they were pharaohs, keeping slaves captive and legislating other forms of injustice. Powerful stories have this effect: they can call us to be better people and give us hope when it feels like we are the ones who can’t make it on our own. In Lutheran terms, they speak to us as both full sinners and full saints.

As we read this story during Lent, during our time of preparation for Easter and the celebration of our own salvation and freedom, we may best approach it from both sides. How are we like the Israelites in Egypt, needing God to free us from whatever it is that binds us — from slavery to sin, or hopelessness, or the forces of injustice? How can this story give us hope? But also: how are we like Pharaoh, the one who needs to hear God speaking through the people around us, saying “let my people go,” or “hear my commandments” or “do justice, and love kindness”?

Let us pray.

Liberating God, give us ears to hear you in all the ways that you speak to us. When we do not walk in your ways of humility and justice, when we do not speak your good news, soften our hearts so that we may hear you call us to help you free others. When we get too comfortable in our own chains — in our own sin, or in the ways of world — open our imaginations so that we can hear you call us to freedom and new life. And when we feel trapped or hopeless or helpless, break through our thoughts so that we can hear your promises of forgiveness, freedom, and resurrection. Through Christ our Lord and Savior, Amen.

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