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.


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.


Law & Gospel

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 6th Sunday after Epiphany + February 12, 2017

Readings: Deut. 30:15-20; Matt. 5:21-37

The Bible passages we just heard are the kind that tend to make people squirm.

“If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today…”

 “I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment…”

 “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away…”

We got a good dose of law and judgement — which, from what I’ve heard in so many Bible studies, are not the parts of the Bible that Lutherans usually like to focus on. We are all about grace and forgiveness. Judgement? That’s for those other Christians. We’ve seen the light. We’ve gotten beyond the judgement hang-up.

But today’s readings offer the opportunity to remind ourselves that the Lutheran way of reading scripture is to listen for God’s Word in the law as well as in the gospel. The convicting words of the law that make us squirm are as much a part of God’s work of salvation as are the comforting words of the gospel.

The official Lutheran way of explaining it is known as the Three Uses of the Law:

  1. The law acts like a curb that keeps both Christians and non-Christians from doing wrong.
  2. The law acts like a mirror, reflecting what God created life to be like so that we can see how we don’t measure up, and repent.
  3. The law acts as a guide: those of us who know we are forgiven seek to thank God for this great gift and to embrace God’s work in our hearts to make us new creations, and the law helps us understand how to live as thankful children of God.

Contrary to a lot of misunderstanding of Luther’s teachings, we don’t say, “God forgives us! We’re free!” and throw away the law. We just know that its judgement on us is not the final word and should not make us panic, but rather the law should help us — even when it convicts us first.

I’ve also come to understand the connection between the convicting work of the law and the redeeming work of the gospel in another way. What most helps me to see the God who gave all those laws in the Old Testament as the same God doing the same gospel work as the God who came to us in Christ —- What helps me to understand how the Jesus who said “this is my blood, poured out for the forgiveness of sins,” could also say something like, “anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgement” — is to think about how the law and the gospel are so inseparable, connected like two sides of the same coin. Let me begin to explain what I mean with a story.

This story comes from the life of a pastor who served a tiny rural congregation in southern Illinois in the early 1970s. Early in his very first call a member of his congregation, Rose, asked to speak with him. The pastor knew that her husband, Seth, had a reputation for drinking too much. But Rose told him that the problem was much, much worse than that: Seth beat her and the children, and he knew how to do it in ways that would not leave bruises, so no one else would suspect anything. He was paranoid to the point of being delusional, he carried a gun, and once he stormed into the emergency room of a hospital, pulling a gun on a nurse and demanding that “she remove the electrodes from his head.”

The pastor begged Rose to do something, to call the police, to file a complaint with Social Services, but she refused. Finally one evening the pastor answered the phone to hear Rose say, “He punched me again. We’re scared.” The pastor called the sheriff, and they all met at Seth and Rose’s house. The pastor wrote about that night:

 The sheriff consulted with Rose, who complained that Seth was threatening the entire family. But Seth, who could pretend rationality for limited periods of time, dismissed her fears, reminding the lawmen, “Look, boys, I’m standing here on my own property. Nobody’s been hurt, I hahn’t done nothing wrong. You can’t arrest a man on his own front lawn for not doing nothing wrong, can you?”

 The sheriff was stumped. “I reckon he’s got us.” Then summoning his full authority, he declared to Rose and me, “I cannot arrest a law-abiding citizen on his own land.”

 I said, “This man has used his fists on his wife and son repeatedly. Sure, he’s standing on his own property. And when you leave, he’s going to walk in his own house and beat the hell out of her. Can’t you see that he is menacing her right now? Sheriff, I am going to hold you responsible for this. By the way, did I tell you he usually carries a gun?”

 At this last revelation, the sheriff’s eyebrow twitched. “Now, look, Reverend, you can climb down off’n your high horse. It ain’t my fault that this little lady has four kids and a crazy man for a husband, but it ain’t no law against being crazy. If’n I arrest him for nothing, like you want me to, you won’t bear the blunt of it. I will. Do you have a restraining order? Of course you don’t. The man ain’t trespassing on his own front yard.”

 “What if he were trespassing?” I asked.

 “Then I could cuff him,” he said with a chortle. “Let’s say he was at your house and you didn’t want him on the premises, then I could take him.”

 “Then let’s go to the church office,” I said, “and we’ll let him trespass there, and you, sir, can arrest him.”

 So Rose and the kids, the pastor, and the sheriff get into their cars and head to the church. “To my amazement,” the pastor wrote, “Seth hopped in his truck and followed the patrol car.”

At the church I hastily opened the sacristy and arranged the desk and chairs as if for a counseling session. Rose quickly led the children into the parish hall and then entered the sacristy. The sheriff and his deputy stood to the side of the entrance. With Rose seated nervously in front of the desk, Seth, who by this time was focused like a homing device on his wife, walked up the steps and barged into the sacristy.

 I said, “Seth, Rose and I are having a counseling session. It’s private. I’m asking you to leave.”

 Seth said, “This is my church, and this is my wife. I’m not leaving without her. What are you going to do about it?”

 I stepped to the door, motioned to the sheriff, and said, “He’s trespassing. Arrest him.”

 The law entered the church and took him without a struggle.[1]

What this pastor did is definitely a sketchy legal move; he even admitted it was entrapment. I’ll leave it to all the lawyers and law enforcement officials we’ve got around here to debate whether he did the right thing from that perspective. What I want to think about this morning is why he did what he did. And I imagine that one of the things running through his mind that night was, “What is the law for? Who is the law for?” Based on his actions, it seems he believed that the law’s number one purpose was to protect Rose and the kids. The law was there for the victims of violence and injustice. He was willing to do some manipulating, to make some questionable choices, in order to make sure the law was doing its job of protecting the people that most needed protecting in that moment.

For Seth the law was intrusive, it kept him from being free to live as he was living, it was demanding and threatening (even as it tried to work for him). But for Rose, that same law must have felt more like gospel.

I think the same can be said for the times we hear God’s law through scripture. We hear, “anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery…” and maybe we start to worry about our own divorce, or our friends’ divorces, which were arranged on very different grounds. We hear the big scary law. But at the time, women hearing that may have breathed a sigh of relief that their husbands could not cast them away from home and their only source of economic security without cause…they may have heard gospel.

We hear, “If you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire,” (by the way that part about hellfire is probably a common turn of phrase, an exaggerated metaphor, not an actual rule of damnation). But even so, we hear that and think, “Well, that’s pretty harsh.” But if we’re the ones constantly being insulted or called names or verbally abused…we might hear gospel there.

Laws are for both perpetrator and victim…laws are not individualistic, they are for the whole community. And while they bring some people down, they lift up others — and they offer life to the community.

Like it says in our Deuteronomy reading: “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess.”

Today we continue the age-old journey of seeking to live according to God’s will in the midst of laws and interpretations, in the midst of biblical laws and secular laws. It can be difficult to know when to obey to the letter, and when to say, “I’ve heard it said, but Jesus said to us…” But if we “choose life,” if we seek the good of the community and of God’s creation, perhaps that will keep us a little closer to God’s path. And most of all we can be confident that we will always be surrounded by God’s grace, guiding us in the law and forgiving us in the gospel.

[1] Richard Lischer, Open Secrets, (New York: Broadway Books, 2002) pp. 132-134.