Sunday, September 24, 2017

September 24, 2017 - Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard

As an introduction to this sermon, I will share that fifty years ago, when the congregation was founded it was given 10 acres of property here on the Cape.  We use about 3 acres for our current ministries.  Recently we have been discussing if might sell or lease some of that land as way of bringing our budget back into balance and following worship we will continue that discussion.  So as I was preparing to preach this Sunday, I kept telling myself that I should leave the property discussion alone.  You have to be certain that you are not influencing the discussion.  The sermon isn’t the place for that.  After all, I have an unfair advantage in that I get to talk at you for a while and just at the moment that I say, “Amen,” at that critical moment when you might stand up and say, “Hold on a moment, dear pastor,” at that moment we break into song.

                Of course I have an opinion on the property issue as I assume most of you do.  Hopefully we can avoid that passive-aggressive thing of letting others make the decision and then complaining about it later, where our true feelings only come out at the Men’s Breakfast or the Ladies’ Luncheon or the Gender-Neutral supper.

                And yet as I went through the week I kept being drawn back to the property issue, weighing pros and cons, preparing the PowerPoint, thinking through outcomes.  And one morning, as I sat in silent meditation, I had an epiphany about priorities, something that had been brewing for a couple of weeks since it is reflected in the written report I prepared for today.  Namely, that for all the potential benefit of doing something with the property, and with all the potential conflict that might come in doing something with the property, and with the potential angst that will be raised by the process, our decision about the property is not the most important thing that we are discussing today.

                Now I know that as soon as talk about this there are going to people who smile to themselves and think, “The pastor just doesn’t understand business.  The church is like a business.”  You are right.  The church is like a business, but it is a simile, we have business-like aspects.  We have overhead costs and maintenance.  But the church is not a business.  The church is a mission, God’s mission,  that the business-like aspects support.  We have a building to do the mission.  We have a pastor and other staff members to help us carry out the mission.  We have a budget so that we can do the mission.  If we aren’t carrying out that mission, then all we have are the business-like parts and the church will feel more and more like a business whose primary jobs are to stay open and be profitable.  The more the church feels like a business, the more misdirected we have become as a community.  I’m not saying to ignore the business-like aspects.  It is part of our stewardship to be mindful of buildings and budgets.  But be sure to hold them in their place, that they are in service to the mission.  Maintaining our buildings is not our mission.  Balancing the budget is not our mission.  The mission becomes much more difficult if we don’t balance the budget or maintain the buildings, but those are not the mission themselves and it is easy to forget that.

                What is the mission?  We define it in a number of ways depending on the congregation and the tradition.  As a general statement we might say that our mission is sharing the good news of Jesus or spreading the kingdom of God.  In the past few decades, congregations have adopted another practice that started in the business world, individual mission statements.  Although we can point to a general mission for the church at large, it can be helpful for congregations to ask, “What is the mission of this community in this location at this time?”  They have been a helpful tool for congregations to see themselves as having a specific role to play in the larger mission.

               Last spring and through the summer we had several meetings here to discuss our own mission and we came up with a statement together, “Christ Lutheran Church of Falmouth seeks to be a community that is: serving through faith, centered in Christ, guided by the Word.”   Easier said than done.  Crafting a statement and approving a statement are much easier than implementing a statement. That work takes energy and attention.  It takes people challenging the status quo, looking at our ministry and asking “How does that line up with our mission?  How does that support our mission?  Is that program or event distracting us from our mission?”  If we don’t invest that energy and that time we will just end up like a myriad of other congregations who may have fine mission statements, but whose only purpose is to handle the business-like parts of the church: staying open and being profitable.

                As I read the parable of workers in the vineyard for today, only doing the business-like parts is akin to standing idle in the marketplace.  I’m not going to get into the whole, “Who worked the hardest and longest?” aspect of the parable.  What I want to emphasize is that the workers are called.  They are called out.  They are called to labor.  They are called to carry out the mission of the landowner. 

                Now this image may seem to come into conflict with our understanding of grace because we Lutherans get all squirmy when we might have to do something.  But note, our job in the vineyard, our job in the mission is not to save people or get them to save themselves.  Salvation is and has always been God’s job.  God saves.  Jesus offers wholeness and life.  God makes us complete.  Our job is to be living examples of what salvation means in the world: serving through faith, centered in Christ, guided by the Word.  Our job is pointing beyond ourselves toward God.  When we are focused on the business aspects of church we always end up pointing at ourselves, (“How do we get people to join us?  How to we get people to notice us?”)and we are not that interesting.  God is fascinating.  God’s creation is fascinating.  God’s love is fascinating.  Individual congregations all think that they are special and friendly and interesting, but we are mostly interesting to ourselves.  To people on the outside, we may be a curiosity, but when they investigate they determine we are a bit boring.  We need to point to the God who is truly interesting. 

                And so my addendum to the parable is another class of laborer in the vineyard.  There are workers who started in the morning and worked the full day.  There are workers who got there at noon.  There are workers who got there in the afternoon.  They are squabbling over who should get paid what at the end of the day.  But I believe there is another set of laborers.  They are the ones who got to the vineyard, decided the work was too hard and too long and too inconvenient and wasn’t worth it so they went home and never got paid.  They said to themselves, “This landowner always seems to be calling people.  I’ll just go when it is convenient for me, when I feel like it.  Maybe I’ll take a tour of the vineyard.  That’s always nice.”  And as time went by they noticed that the other laborers were better at the labor, because they had more experience.  They noticed the other laborers seemed to have a deeper relationship with the landowner, because they encountered him every day.  They noticed the other laborers became more invested in the vineyard and stopped seeing it merely as a source of occasional revenue; that they went from being day-laborers to full-time employees.

                God is calling every congregation to serve the mission.   God is calling every Christian to serve the mission, to point beyond ourselves to the God who is fascinating.  God is calling all of us to work in the vineyard: serving through faith, centered in Christ, guided by the Word.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

September 17, 2017 - On Forgiveness

On Saturdays this month, the Still, Small Voice has been exploring the writings of a modern mystic author, a Franciscan friar and priest named Richard Rohr.  Franciscan theology has always been a bit different from the mainstream.  Rohr spells this out in his book, Everything Belongs.  The idea is that everything that happens to us, good or bad, has something to teach us about God and about ourselves.  Even our sins and mistakes teach us about who we are deep down leading him to write, “I do not think you should get rid of your sin until you have learned what it has to teach you.”  So if you, as many American do, engage in the ancient sin of gluttony, eating more than you need, don’t just fall into a tailspin of guilt around your lack of self-control, pay attention to why you are eating what you do when you do.  Overindulgence is often about filling a different kind of hole in our lives.

                So I was interested in something that Rohr wrote about the nature of forgiveness.  I have often heard people say wrods along the lines of, “I can forgive but I cannot forget.”  And I would think that this was not authentic forgiveness.  In Psalm 103, when the author talks about God’s forgiveness he writes, “As far as the east is from the west, so far God removes our transgressions from us.”  In this image, God actually takes the mistakes away, wipes the slate clean.  It is as though the mistake never happened.  But is that our lived experience among one another?  I’ve told the story that in a previous call there was a young man who had figured out that during fellowship, there were about 10 minutes when the offering plates were sitting, uncounted in the church office and he discovered that he could make some cash withdrawals without notice.  He was caught and agreed to do yardwork for the congregation for a couple of years to make restitution.  This all happened shortly before I came on the scene and nobody told me for a few years so I just thought he was a very dutiful young man.  He repented, the congregation forgave him, even the minutes from meeting where the council discussed the issue had been removed from the record, but that did not mean that he got to near the plates again.  Nobody was going to ask him to count the money.  The offense was forgiven but not entirely forgotten.

                Richard Rohr suggests that when we forgive an offense we are not entirely letting go of it.  We can’t change history.  If you slap me in the face, you cannot take it back.  I can choose not to retaliate; I can turn the other cheek but the slap will still be part of our history.  I have heard people compare harsh words to squeezing toothpaste out of a tube.  Once the toothpaste is out there, it doesn’t go back in.  So what we are doing when we forgive is not so much letting go of the offense but rather forgiving the offense for being there in the relationship.  The fact that this offense is here does not mean that we cannot be in relationship with one another.  The fact that this offense is here means we have something to learn from it, it may even be an opportunity to grow our relationship.  Like an ugly family heirloom,  an object that you might not choose for yourself but with which you feel you cannot part, it sits there on the mantel of our relationship.

                Yet, asks Peter, how many of these ugly family heirlooms do I have to keep up there?  How many times do I have to forgive?  7 times sounds pretty fair.  And Jesus responds, “Think  77 (or in some translations 7 times 70). “  A little explanation here, in the Hebrew world, 7 was the number of perfection.  6 days of creation + 1 day of rest = 7 days.  In the Bible, often when you hear the number 7, it has to do with the perfect amount.  We talk about a scale of 1 to 10, ancient Hebrew would talk about a scale of 1 to 7 with 7 being the best.  So when Peter asks about forgiving 7 times he is thinking that this should be the perfect amount.  Jesus then offers an exaggerated number of perfection; an extreme amount.

                Then he tells a story to remind us of where we stand.  He tells the story of a slave whose master forgives a ridiculous amount of debt.   To an Israelite peasant, 10000 talents was a laughable amount of debt.  It is estimated that a single talent represented 20 years of wages to an average worker.  10000 talents is equivalent to saying, “He owed him a zillion dollars.”  It is laughable that the master would have allowed such debt to accumulate and laughable that such debt could be forgiven with a few minutes of pleading.

                Yet, as Jesus tells the story, this is the gracious nature of God.  The slave is released.  The crazy debt is forgiven.  If we believe this to be true, we should be walking around with great big smiles on our faces.  We should be the most generous people in the world because we have been set free.  And maybe that is how this first slave set out from the house.  He is headed out to tell his family the good news.  He is whistling a happy tune with a spring in his step.  And then he sees this guy who owes him $10 bucks (it is probably closer to $100 bucks, but the point is that it is insignificant compared to what he was just forgiven 5 minutes ago.)   And in a scene out of Charles Dickens he sends him to the poorhouse where he has to work off his debt.

                And that is where the story, as several of Jesus’ stories in Matthew do, turns off into a difficult ending.  The master hears, gets furious and now the slave is sent to be tortured until he can pay off the zillion dollars.  The laughable debt becomes a frighteningly impossible debt. 

                The problem with reading Matthew in our time is that Matthew’s Jesus frequently uses hyperbole, exaggerated speech in storytelling.  In the first century, it was part of how you made a point and it was how you kept an audience’s attention in an oral culture.  If you were to go to a storytelling competition today, you would hear exaggerated speech for the sake of effect, because it is much more engaging to hear about “the greatest chocolate chip cookie I ever ate” than “Here is a story about a cookie.”  So the problem is we read scripture rather than listen to it and often we get wrapped up in the hyperbole so that we miss the point of the story.

                The point of this story is not, “God is going to get you if you are unforgiving.”   The point of this story is that God has set you free so that you can set others free.  God has forgiven you so that you can be forgiving.  This is a formula that you are going to hear quite bit in the next few months.  I am going to be talking about being disciples, following Jesus on the Way and what that means for a grace-centered church.

                If you start with grace, you start with God’s action and not ours.  If you start with grace, the Christian life cannot turn into a conditional statement.  If you forgive, then you make God happy.  Or if you don’t forgive, then you make God angry.  Or if you forgive, then God will forgive you.  It has to be a statement.  God has forgiven you so that you can be forgiving. 

                That’s where the faith and challenge come in.  Christian life is not about completing an if/then condition but rather coming to believe more deeply that the things we say about God are true and the things God says about us are true.  Because God is forgiving you can be forgiving.  Because God is loving, you are loved.  Because God is loving you can be loving.  Because God is freedom, you are free.

                And forgiveness is about setting people free, free from the grudges and the debts, free from the unintentional slights and big mistakes.  And those slights and mistakes may sit there on the mantel of our relationships gathering dust but they cease to be front and center, hopefully pushed behind acts of love and care, compassion and kindness.  God has forgiven you so that you can be forgiving.

Monday, September 11, 2017

September 10, 2017 - Pushing People Away

When I was in seminary, in some classes we were given case studies to consider so we might think practically about being pastors.  I remember in a theology class the professor used a variety of scenarios to get us to think about how our theological understanding of the church affected the way we would make day to day decisions.   Now we had one scenario that really challenged us to think about pushing someone away from the church.  It involved unreconciled conflict and behind the scenes manipulation.  A member of the congregation was intentionally doing things to bypass the council and pastor.  It was causing renewed conflict and disruption.  The pastor has confronted the individual and he doesn’t see a problem with his actions.   The council has confronted the individual and he doesn’t see an issue.  People are starting to drift away from the congregation.  Is there a point where you tell this person that he is no longer welcome?

                Of course we all hemmed and hawed to answer this question because our theological understanding of the church was wrapped up in nice words like tolerance and diversity and reconciliation.  We were going to have places that would be beacons of peace and harmony, places of open communication where we could disagree and yet be bonded as one in the love of Christ.  So most of our musings and dreams were about how we going to bring new people into those spaces and never really considered that we might have reason to push someone out.

                Very wisely, our constitution has a process for the removal of a member.  It is based on the scheme that Jesus talks about in the gospel reading.  First the identified party is approached by the pastor; then by the pastor and 2 or 3 members; then is asked to come to the council.   And when it reaches that point and the behavior continues, the member can be publicly censured or formally removed from the rolls.  I have been doing this pastoral ministry for twenty years and I have never had to invoke this process, but I know clergy who have.   It is never easy and never pleasant because again, we want to be communities that invite people in and hate to be places that leave people out or push them away.
                I suspect that part of the reason I have never had to invoke this order is that our attitude toward the church and membership has changed.  Remember that for much of the life of the church excommunication was a really big deal.  This was a power of the church that, when used as a political tool, brought emperors to their knees.   Part of the tradition of the season of Lent was being an opportunity for the excommunicated to do extreme penance so that they might be brought back into the communion of the church at Easter.  Of course, all of this is predicated on the belief that outside the church there is no salvation, an idea which the Reformation movement disrupted.  Eventually, Luther’s message of Christ alone and faith alone made church attendance seem optional (something that Luther himself did not intend.)

                What I am saying is that in our day and age, people feel quite free to excommunicate themselves rather than waiting for the church to do it for them.  As a pastor, I can tell you many stories of people who have walked away from a given community, sometimes for very good reasons, sometimes for sort of neutral reasons, sometimes for just plain silly reasons, and when someone tells you the story of how she wanted the church to buy the KitchenAid  industrial mixer for making mashed potatoes at the annual roast beef supper and they bought the Hobart mixer despite her significant protests at a congregational meeting (a mixer that, as an aside, has operated without issue for about three decades), you’re just not sure how to react.  This is a silly thing to try to commiserate over with a straight face.  It was silly thing to excommunicate herself over and yet that was what she had done for thirty years.  

And this wasn’t the minor act of excommunication that is very common in our commercial culture of switching communities.  For some reason I cannot stay there so I will go over here.  This was the full-blown “If I can’t go to Saint Paul Lutheran Church, the church of my forbears, I will go nowhere.”

And I will bet that somewhere in your history with the Christian community, you have met someone who was offended, often for a better reason than for a kitchen mixer, and didn’t walk back or walk somewhere else.  I will also bet that you know someone who has walked away from a congregation simply because they were sick of it.  They were not offended, they were just tired of the work that goes into keeping a smaller community open, that 10% of the people do 90% of the work dynamic.  In church circles now we call them the “dones.”  We have the “nones,” who are the growing number with no affiliation and we have the “dones” who had an affiliation but walked away, sometimes in anger but more and more frequently out of frustration or exhaustion.

And was does Jesus say of the excommunicated?  “Let them be as Gentiles and tax collectors to you.”  That sounds very strident.  Push them out!  We don’t need them!   Except what does Jesus do with tax collectors and Gentiles?  What does Jesus do with those who are on the outside?  He has this very disturbing habit of finding ways to bring them back in.  He has this predilection for making the unclean clean.  He has a rather rude habit of inviting himself to the homes of the tax collectors, stepping away from the insiders to include the outsiders in his ministry, expanding the boundaries of what is inside and what is outside.

                Perhaps sometimes in our lives, we need to placed outside so that we can be welcomed once again.  Sometimes being outside can be the place of transformation, repentance, a changed heart.   What does this mean for the church?  At a practical level, I think it means that we can have boundaries and rules for safety.  If you have a children’s program, everyone leading it should have a background check done.  This isn’t about the church not trusting people but rather the church saying we are emphatic about keeping our children safe.   The counting rules we have are not so much about a lack of trust but a call to stewardship and accountability.

On a broader level, we can have ideals for conduct in the community.  In the reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans last week we heard this advice for the church, “Live in harmony with one another; do not by haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.  Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.  If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”   We can let Paul’s guidance shape us or even be a measuring tool for behavior in the community while being humble enough to know that we won’t live it perfectly. 

What I have come to know in the past 20 years is that, despite our best efforts, churches are imperfect places.  We don’t always know the best way forward.  We don’t always play nicely with one another.  We often suffer from entitlement issues, thinking we deserve a certain amount of power or say or special treatment.  And through it all, Jesus is always calling us inside, calling us to the table, calling us into the community.  Even in his instruction in the gospel on pushing someone out, if someone is pushed out of the community, it is with the hope of reaching out anew and welcoming them back in.

Most importantly, we need to remember that Jesus often stands with the outsiders: the tax collectors and Gentiles, the prostitutes and lepers.  If we are truly centered in Christ, we may well discover that the center of all things faithful is not on this plot of land, but rather outside among the nones and dones, the “never-have-been”s , the” never-will-be”s, and the “never-will-again”s.   And Jesus reaches out to include them all.  And here is the secret.  They are already included, they just don’t know it yet.  And we are not much better because we frequently forget that we are already on the inside.  God already loves us.  Jesus already died and was raised.  So go out and let the world know.  It is already holy.  They are already loved.  In Christ, they are already welcome.

Monday, September 4, 2017

September 3, 2017 - Taking up the Cross and Following

Today I am going to talk about what it means to take up the cross and follow.  Jesus says to the crowds, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  This is a message that speaks against the over-simplistic “faithful people are successful people”  or “good things happen to good people” kind of message that is in vogue right now.   It also goes against a vision of Christianity as a nominal part of one’s life.  To take up the cross is to walk the path that Jesus walked, a path that led to his death on the cross but also his rising from the dead.  Walking that path is not a piece of our lives; rather life is what happens while we are walking that path.

                In 1937, the German theologian and Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote his book, The Cost of Discipleship.  Now it is important to speak at little about the path that Bonhoeffer was on at the time, a path that would eventually lead to his own execution by the Nazis in 1945.  Hitler rose to power in 1933 and the next year Bonhoeffer and others formed the Confessing Church, a group that was both a criticism of Hitler as well as a criticism of the Protestant Church in Germany which had, for the most part, fallen in line with the Nazi party.   Although we don’t talk about it very much, a problematic part of our tradition is that many Lutheran churches and many Lutherans in Germany did attach themselves to the Nazi worldview.  Berhard Rust, Hitler’s minister of education, wrote, “I think the time is past when one may not say the names of Hitler and Luther in the same breath. They belong together; they are of the same old stamp.”  To persuade religious Germans, the Reich was at times described as a new Reformation project.

            In many of his writings, Bonhoeffer was dealing with what happens when the church ceases to be the church, goes so far afield that you can no longer say that this is Christ’s church.  It has become something else.  As we look back through history that happens periodically, the result of the church being both divinely inspired but a very human institution.  The Reformation that we are celebrating this year was built on ideas that had been growing here and there in Europe, that the Roman Catholic church had to change some fundamental practices or it could no longer claim to be Christ’s church.  I would argue that today that the hard prosperity churches and many televangelists that promise wealth and success in the name of Christ have developed something that is related to the Christian faith but is no longer Christ’s church, not centered on Christ but centered on wealth and worldly success.

            And the diagnosis that Bonhoeffer gave in 1937 was something called cheap grace.  He saw the Lutheran churches of Germany proclaiming a message of grace, but it was cheap grace.  As he described it, “Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”  What this led to was a kind of cultural Christianity, a membership that made one acceptable and proper in society.  Here the church had ceased to be centered on Christ but was centered on acceptability.  This kind of Christianity wasn’t something that would make you different from the world but rather something that would make you acceptable to the world.  It was not a faith to make one stick out but rather a faith to help one fit in, a faith with only the cost of a couple of hours on Sunday morning and a minimal donation.

            The antidote was the rediscovery of what Bonhoeffer called costly grace, the true nature of faith.  Bonhoeffer wrote, “Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ.  It is costly because it costs a person his life, and it is grace because it gives that person true life…  Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son.”  For Bonhoeffer, the path of discipleship was wrapped up in the gift of God’s grace.  We are given forgiveness so that we can repent and change.  We are set free from the paths of death so we can walk the path of discipleship and life.

            So what does that path look like or what does this mean?  This is a place where churches are divided or at the very least have differing descriptions.  Many churches today describe discipleship primarily as personal acts of devotion: prayer, study, financial giving.  “Do you have a dedicated prayer time or quiet time?” might be the important question.  The Lutheran tradition sometimes goes back and forth, but in my lifetime we have put a much greater emphasis on discipleship as caring for and advocating for others in need.  “How have you served someone today?  How has someone encountered God through your actions?” might be the important questions.

            Two responses to hurricane Harvey can illustrate.  Joel Osteen is the pastor of a megachurch in Houston that holds 16000.  He very much preaches in the vein of faithful people are successful people.  He has written books with titles like, Your Best Life Ever.  But his church came under criticism for not opening their facility as a shelter during the flooding.  I don’t blame them for that.  If you haven’t been asked and you don’t have anyone trained to deal with emergencies, opening your building as a shelter can set up some dangerous situations.  Hopefully this will inspire some congregations that do have larger facilities to consider what their role might be in an emergency ahead of time.  What interested me was the criticism prompted Osteen to make a more visible response and you could tell he was not really comfortable.  Yes, they were going to collect money but they didn’t quite know what they were do with it.  Some might stay in-house for members in need.  Some would go to Samaritan’s Purse (an Evangelical relief organization).  You could just tell that this kind of response was uncomfortable territory.  He talks a lot about personal discipleship and personal responsibility, but this role for his church was not something he had a lot of experience with.

            On the other hand, within a day of Harvey hitting Texas I received an alert from Lutheran Disaster Relief talking about how they were already coordinating a response.  100% of donations would go to that response.  When I forwarded that email to the congregation on Tuesday, I had people respond to me sort of saying, “Why are you sending this?  I already gave to them.”  This is an act of discipleship that our tradition understands.  Someone is in need and you respond.  Jesus says, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.”  On the flip side of that, I find you can flummox many Lutherans simply by asking them to look up a chapter from Ezekiel and definitely by asking them to pray out loud.

            But as I have said before, these models of discipleship are not mutually exclusive.  I would argue that if your path of discipleship never leads you to stand with a neighbor in need, you are walking an incomplete path.  I would also argue that if your path of discipleship never leads you to an encounter with God in scripture and in personal prayer, you are also walking an incomplete path.

            Now it would be very easy at this point to get legalistic and hit you with a bunch of “should”s.  You should be spending half an hour in prayer every day.  You should be reading a chapter of scripture every day.  You should be donating some percent of your money to charity.  You should be volunteering so many hours a week.  As soon as we begin to do that, we start recreating the path of the New Testament Pharisees, a religion of right and wrong, insider and outsider, righteous and unrighteous.  We can lose the sense that discipleship is as much a gift of grace as it is a task to be lived out.

            However you choose to live out the path of discipleship, whatever emphasis you give, it is costly, because it involves spending time differently, changing direction, changing habits.  But we don’t walk the path simply because God says so.  We walk the path because it is a gift.  Again as Bonhoeffer wrote, “It is costly because it calls us to follow and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ.”

            And I think this is why Jesus used the cross as the image for following him.  The cross is a path that led to pain and death, but ultimately resurrection.  To walk the path of the cross is to allow ourselves to die in order that we might be raised, to confess and repent in order that we might be changed, to be made last so we can be made first.  Over the next few months I am going to be talking a bit more and challenging you all in walking that path and I hope you will take part.  Together we will grow in walking a path that is costly because it costs us our lives, but is grace because it gives true life.

August 27, 2017 - Who Do You Say that I Am?

“Who do you say that I am?”  This is a rubber meets the road kind of question.  It is one that every Christian needs to consider and answer for him or herself.   Who do you say Jesus is?  Take a minute and think about it.  How would you answer if someone posed that question to you?  Son of God.  Savior.  Teacher.  Really nice guy.  Holy man.  Friend.

                The recent stories from Charlottesville, Virginia challenge the church to dig deep into the question because one of the markers of many white nationalists is a claim to Christianity.  The Ku Klux Klan historically has seen itself as a Christian organization.  In the Christian Identity movement (the religious wing of white nationalism) the ideal nation is one that has white, European, Protestant Christian heritage.

                The question becomes, how can you listen to Jesus and then land on that message?  I would argue that you can’t listen to Jesus and land on that message and yet we have groups who try to hold a worldview that includes both hatred of others and faithfulness to Christ.  Some of this has to do with how people have come to approach the Bible in the past couple of centuries.  One of the critiques I have of modern, Bible-centered Christianity is there is a tendency to treat the whole book as single, unified voice.  This is where you get the tradition of proof-texting, grabbing a verse to defend an idea.  It’s in the Bible and therefore it’s right. 

                And the problem when it comes to racism is that there is plenty of language in the foundational stories of Israel that allows for discrimination.  God chooses one nation to be the chosen people.  Israel arrives at the Promised Land after wandering in the wilderness for forty years and in Joshua they are ordered by God to take the Promised Land by force, to wipe out every Canaanite living in the land.  Later on in the narrative, one of Israel’s greatest failures was its inability to cleanse the land, thus leaving it open to marrying into the Canaanite families and worshiping their gods.  You can hear that themes of purity, of the power of separation, that white nationalists espouse.  If you do a creative rewrite and start saying that “Now America is the chosen land and we are the chosen people.  See, right from the beginning God wanted his special people to be separate.”

                “Who do you say that I am?”, asks Jesus.  As Christians, especially as Lutheran Christians, we start with Christ.  He is the lens through which we read the rest of the story, both backward and forward.  Jesus walks onto the scene when that nation-building scheme had failed.  The Israelites of Jesus’ time looked back on their nation-founding stories with an idealized, “once upon a time” sense.  They hoped it would happen again; that they would be their own nation again; that God would intervene again.  But that great nation had failed, been conquered by the Assyrians, dispersed by the power of the Babylonians, reconvened but only by the power of the Persians, re-conquered by Greeks and then governed by Romans.

                Jesus comes to them with a new message, a new vision of what God is doing in the world, a new meaning of what it means to be a child of God, one the chosen people.  It’s not about land and it’s not about government.  Instead it is about life. And life is for everyone.  Jesus is all about embracing the outsider and pulling people into community.  He ministers to both Jews and Gentiles.  He tells stories of good Samaritans and wicked Jewish Pharisees.  He touches those who are unclean.  He calls poor fishermen his friends.  He invites wealthy but disdained tax collectors into his movement.  As the story progresses, after the resurrection, he calls Paul, one who began as an enemy of Christ to be one his greatest proponents, and Paul writes to the Galatians, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

                But most importantly, as Jesus goes to the cross he goes there as a sign of where the paths of hatred lead.  People have always looked for someone on whom to blame the difficulties of their lives.   Among the Pharisees, it was the unrighteous and unclean.  If only they would be faithful, God would smile on us again and our nation would be whole and complete.  Among the Romans it was the Jews and Christians.  If only those monotheists would worship Jupiter and Apollo and Venus our cities would be safe and the gods would smile upon us. 

                When Christianity became acceptable then, in Europe, it was the Jews.  If only they didn’t have all our money and secret power circle, our nation would be so much stronger.  Later it was the Romani or gypsy people with their strange practices and questionable beliefs.  If we could just get their corrupting influence from the outskirts of town we would be so much safer.

                In America we have a painful history of doing this again and again.   If we could just get those savages out of this territory that God has given us, we would be a city on a hill.  If we could just get black people to learn their place, our society would be stronger.  If we could just get the illegal brown people out of our country we would so much more secure.  Now just to clarify, I am not making a political comment on border security.  I think every country has to figure out how to handle its borders in a responsible and ethical way.  I am commenting on the all too common rhetoric that sees salvation in the removal or constraint or separation of some group, that impulse that says, “Get rid of those people and rest of us will be great,”  an attitude summed up well 2000 years ago by the high priest Caiaphas in the gospel of John, “It is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.”   A sacrifice, a scapegoat, to make everyone else safe.

                “Who do you say that I am?” says Jesus from the cross.  Most of us have grown up with an understanding of the cross that developed with Saint Anselm about a thousand years ago, the fancy term for it is substitutionary atonement.  It is a helpful theology but not perfect.  Basically it is the idea that Jesus died in our place.  Someone had to die for our sins.  God’s wrath had to be satisfied or God’s honor had to be restored and so Jesus took that wrath in our place on the cross.  Remember, this is not explicitly stated Bible but rather is the interpretation of several passage that developed in the time of lords and serfs, where it was understood that justice had to be satisfied so that public order could be maintained.  I am not saying it is absolutely wrong, but rather it is one way of interpreting Christ’s death on the cross.

                Another way of interpreting the cross is Jesus allowing himself to be caught up in the natural consequences of our hatred, our desire for separation, our need to blame  someone else for what is wrong with our world and our lives.  Jesus looks down from the cross; Jesus looks at us with sunken eyes through the concentration camp’s wire fence; Jesus looks down from the lynching tree; Jesus looks up in the dehydrated face of someone making an illegal desert crossing.  This is where it leads.   Again and again.  This is where it leads.  It is not that someone has to die for us, but rather someone is going to die if we continue on this path.  This is why the cross itself is a call to repentance, to change our ways because again and again we think it works and yet the safety only lasts a little while and soon we need another group, another person to take the blame.

                This is also why it is important that our story does not end with the cross.  It continues with a resurrection and an empty tomb.  It continues with the Holy Spirit blowing through the church.  It continues with the circle of faith growing wider and wider.  Jesus has broken the cycle, saying, “Trust me.  You don’t need it anymore.  No one else needs to die for you.  You have been set free.” 

                And that is what the Messiah was all about.  The Messiah was going to come and set the people free.  That’s what Peter was thinking when he identified Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.  You are the one who can set us free.   And that is who Jesus continues to be, the one who sets us free: free to live without tearing other people down, free to live owning our own mistakes and not blaming them on others, free to live looking at all people with the love of God.  “Who do you say that I am?,” asks Jesus.  He is the one who has set us free.