Seeing through God’s eyes

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 20), Year A, August 17, 2014

Isaiah 56:1, 6-8, Psalm 67, Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32, Matthew 15:[10-20] 21-28

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

 

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Our Gospel reading for today is a hard one. It goes against everything Jesus says and does elsewhere in the Gospels, and it goes against a lot of things in the Old Testament. For example, in our first lesson from Isaiah, God tells the people that not only will he save the outcasts of Israel—the people who are already part of God’s people but who aren’t allowed to participate for whatever reason—God will also save the foreigners, people outside of Israel. God tells his people that the day of salvation is coming, and in the meantime they should maintain justice and remember that God’s promise was for everyone who believed, not just a chosen few, not just the insiders. That’s God’s goal, God’s mission: to save everyone. As for the New Testament, Jesus spent a lot of his time with the poor, the outcasts, the sinners, the foreigners, the ones outside the boundaries. The sort of people that good Jews were not supposed to hang out with. He healed everyone who came to him for healing, no matter who they were or where they were from or what kind of people they were. Everyone, Jew or Gentile, sinner or saint, male or female, was healed. Jesus welcomed everyone even when it was going to get him in trouble. He did it when it was going to make his mission harder, when it was going to make the rich and powerful among his own people turn their backs on him and attack him. He did welcomed everyone even when his own disciples, his closest friends, were urging him not to. Because he saw through God’s eyes and knew that everyone was a child of God. Jesus opened his arms to everyone, no matter who they were or where they came from, no exceptions. He welcomed everyone. He poured out his life and died for everyone. He rose for everyone.

Except for the story told in this reading. In this reading, a foreign woman—a Canaanite, one of Israel’s ancient enemies—comes to him on her knees to beg healing for her daughter. This is the only time Jesus ever met someone in need of healing and tried to avoid healing them. And Jesus not only says “no,” he calls her a dog. Say what? This does not sound like Jesus at all. Remember, dogs were not considered man’s best friend in the ancient world. Dogs weren’t the family pet that everyone dotes on. Dogs were the dirty unclean things that ate all the disgusting stuff that people threw out. Calling someone a dog was a much worse insult for them than it is for us. This does not sound like God’s mission of salvation and healing and justice and reconciliation as proclaimed in both the Old and New Testaments. This sounds like ordinary, everyday human bigotry, preventing Jesus from spreading God’s healing and God’s Word. If the encounter ended there, with the disciples ignoring her and Jesus calling her a dog, do you think this woman would be very likely to become a follower of God? No. It’s a lot more likely that she would have gone home and told everybody about how horribly that Jesus guy treated her. She came for healing, and he insulted her and sent her away. Instead of spreading faith, that would spread disbelief. That would get in the way of God’s mission of justice and salvation.

To me, the problem with Jesus’ first response to the Canaanite woman is that it’s human. Too human. Humans like to draw nice neat categories—us vs. them. People who matter vs. people who don’t. The disciples do it all the time. When other pious Jews (their own people) challenge them, the disciples want to go along with them even if that goes against what Jesus is trying to teach. But the disciples consistently tried to avoid, discourage, or even attack non-Jews or people of low social status. When a Jewish town rejected Jesus, they just left quietly. When a Samaritan town rejected Jesus, the disciples wanted to call down hellfire and brimstone and destroy the town and everyone in it. Because, you see, the Samaritans weren’t members of the “in” group. They weren’t the children of the house of Israel, even though they claimed to be and worshipped the same God. They were the ancient enemies of the people of Israel. And the Canaanites, too, were ancient enemies of the people of Israel. And, here’s the thing: you and I? We’re not children of the House of Israel, either. Not in the sense that Jesus means here. The children of the House of Israel are the Jews. When Jesus calls the Canaanite woman a dog because she’s not Jewish, we’re all included in that. We like to think of ourselves as the children, the insiders, but we’re not. We’re the dogs, in this metaphor. The nasty, dirty, smelly animals, rooting around in the garbage.

This is the only time in the Gospels that Jesus shows any kind of ordinary human prejudice. The only time he falls into the “us vs. them” mentality that humans do every day. And I think it’s because of who and what Jesus is. We tend to focus on his divinity: Jesus is the Son of God. Jesus is God, the Word that was in the beginning with God, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end of all things. We tend to forget the fact that Jesus was also truly human. He was fully God, but he was also fully Human at the same time. He had to be. He could not have saved us if he hadn’t been. Like us, Jesus was human, a person of flesh and blood just like any of us. It was through his humanity, through becoming one of us, that God was able to reach out and join us to himself. It’s through Jesus’ humanity that we are united with him, and through Jesus’ divinity that we are pulled from brokenness and death into life.

Part of being human is being limited. Finite. Not knowing all the answers, and making mistakes because of it. There are only a handful of times in the Gospels that Jesus shows us his limits. Later on in the Gospels, when he speaks of the end times, his disciples will ask him when the Day of the Lord will come, and Jesus says he doesn’t know, that only the Father knows. I think this is another time when Jesus’ humanity shows through. Jesus grew up Jewish, amid the same prejudices that his disciples did. Prejudices against Canaanites, for one. And here he is, face-to-face with a Canaanite for the first time, and the prejudice comes out without thinking about it. But when she challenges him on it, he backs up. He realizes that those prejudices are wrong. He knew he was sent to the lost sheep of the House of Israel, but he apparently hadn’t realized that he was sent to all lost sheep, everywhere, of every tribe and nation. He realizes that all people are God’s children, not just the people he is a part of. He praises her great faith—greater than the disciples, whose faith is always pretty low. He gives her what he wants. He stops seeing her through the prejudices of his culture and starts seeing her through God’s eyes. And ever after, he gives his time and healing freely to all people. Not just the children of the house of Israel, but all people, Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, clean or unclean, sinner or saint. To people like us, and to people not like us. To insiders, and to those we want to keep out in the cold.

What prejudices do we have that are blinding us to God’s mission for us? What prejudices do we use to divide people into us vs. them, insiders vs. outsiders, people worthy of God’s love and God’s message, and people who aren’t? It might almost be easier to list what prejudices we don’t have. Race, color, gender, sex, politics—Sunday morning is still the most segregated time in America. We’re like the disciples, who think God’s message is only for the good people like us who deserve it. Who think God’s justice is only for the good people like us who deserve it. When I was thinking about prejudice this week, there were several examples of it happening right now that jumped right out at me.

One is the refugee children on the border. Children are coming to our country, fleeing for their lives. Yet because they are from another country, and they don’t speak our language or look like us, there are a lot of people who want to send them home where they will almost certainly be killed. They’re the dogs who we think don’t even deserve the scraps off of America’s table. Then there’s Ferguson, Missouri. A week ago Saturday, a white cop shot and killed an unarmed black teenage boy in the back for walking in the wrong place. When the police wouldn’t release any information or even apologize to the boy’s family, the black community protested and held candlelight vigils, demanding justice. The cops—almost all of whom are white—showed up with machine guns, snipers, armored vehicles, and tear gas. As one former member of the 82nd Airborne division put it, “We rolled lighter than that in an actual warzone.” Pictures coming out of Ferguson look more like the streets of Egypt or Syria than the US, except instead of Islamic fundamentalists vs. ordinary people, it’s white cops against black community members who just want to know why their child was murdered. How much of God’s work do you think is being done in Ferguson right now? Can you hear people asking for help and healing and justice, and being insulted instead?

Here in North Dakota, I most often hear prejudice about Native Americans and oil field workers. People gossip about all the bad things they do, and ignore the good parts. We talk about their flaws, but don’t acknowledge the struggles and hardships they’re dealing with. We don’t reach out to them; we don’t welcome them; and we don’t invite them to church with us. It’s us-vs.-them. The children of God vs. the outsiders. And, like Jesus in the Gospel lesson, our first instinct is to exclude them. We think to ourselves, it’s not fair to take the children’s food—our food—and throw it to the dogs. And so human prejudice prevents the spreading of God’s justice, God’s healing, God’s love, and God’s Word.

May we, like Jesus, learn to see with God’s eyes instead of our own prejudices. And may we learn to give God’s love, God’s healing, and God’s Word to all people.

Amen.

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Putting On Christ

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 12), Year C, June 23, 2013

Isaiah 65:1-9, Psalm 22:19-28, Galatians 3:23-29, Luke 8:26-39

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

 May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

For the last few weeks, we’ve been talking about Galatians.  Next week, we’re going to take a break for Augustana’s 100th anniversary before finishing up this sermon series.  To recap what’s happened so far in Paul’s letter to the Galatians: The Galatians had started to value human traditions as the way to prove themselves followers of God, and Paul tries to set them straight.  He reminds them that no human tradition, no matter how good, can take the place of the Good News of God in Christ Jesus.  No amount of following the rules and toeing the line will save us; only Christ can save us through his life, death, and resurrection.  Paul reminds us that the true Gospel, the Good News that Jesus came to give us, can change our lives as it changed his; the Good News that Christ called Paul to preach is the same Good News that we hear today.  Even in the midst of a world that is broken by sin and death, Christ is with us.  The faithfulness of Christ transforms us, gives us hope in the midst of all our brokenness, gives us faith in God and in one another.

Paul expands on that idea in today’s reading.  First he goes back to the law.  Now, when Paul talks about the law, he’s not just talking about the rules and regulations the government sets up to manage everything from traffic lights to taxes to elementary education to international treaties.  Paul is talking about religious laws—or, perhaps teachings would be a better translation—that govern everyday life.  He’s talking about everything from the Ten Commandments on down, all the things that faithful followers of God are supposed to do.  That’s the law he’s talking about, the law that he says imprisoned us and was our disciplinarian until faith came.

Disciplinarian, imprisoned—those aren’t very nice terms.  But the Law that Paul was talking about, that was part of ordinary religious observance!  We still teach and hold up some of those laws today as good and beneficial.  I just got through teaching the 7th Grade Confirmation students about the Ten Commandments, which is the cornerstone on which the rest of the Law is built.  I think we can all agree that following the Ten Commandments and other such religious teachings is a good thing.  I wouldn’t want to live in a society that didn’t have such a moral code.  So why is Paul so hard on the Law?  Why doesn’t he seem to like it?

I think an analogy with secular law is in order here.  You see, the legal system can’t make anyone good.  All it can do is punish you for being bad.  If you step out of line, you are punished.  And fear of punishment may stop people from doing evil or immoral things, but it won’t make them a good person.  I mean, it’s good to be a law-abiding citizen, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a good person.  All it means is that you’re not a criminal.  There are a lot of people out there who have never broken a law in their lives who are still thoroughly nasty people and miserable excuses for human beings.  I could name some, and I bet you could too.  And while the law tries to promote good behavior, all the incentives in the world can’t change a person’s nature.  You can donate to charity in order to get the tax write-off, and it still won’t make you a generous person, if all you’re doing is the minimum needed to reduce your tax obligations.  Don’t get me wrong, having laws is a good thing.  Restraining evil is a good thing.  Working together for the common good in the form of roads and schools and other necessities is a good thing.  But it can’t save anyone, and it can’t make people better.  And, sometimes, bad laws get made, laws that hurt people; sometimes good laws get interpreted in bad ways, to hurt people.

Religious law is the same way.  It can restrain evil, and it can regulate our life together for the common good.  But following all the traditions and teachings and rules can’t heal anyone’s brokenness or save anyone’s soul.  It can’t transform us; it can’t make us children of God; it can’t make us brothers and sisters in Christ.  And when we start focusing too much on our laws, when we make our traditions the arbiter and central point of our Christian faith, it’s all too easy to forget about the one thing that really can save and transform us: Jesus Christ.  It’s easy to get so focused on what we’re doing, that we can’t see what God has done and is doing for us.  And from there it’s a short step to interpreting God’s law through our own prejudices.  That was the Galatians’ problem: it wasn’t that the laws they were following were bad in themselves, but they were starting to put more trust in those laws than in Christ.

When we were baptized, we became children of God.  When we were baptized, we became united with Christ’s death and resurrection.  When we were baptized, we were washed clean.  When we were baptized, we were transformed.  That’s the core of the Gospel; that’s the core of what it means to be a Christian.  All the laws and traditions in the history of the world are less important than that simple fact.  Laws and traditions can’t save us; Christ can.  Laws and traditions can’t transform us into children of God; Christ can.  Laws and traditions can’t heal our brokenness; Christ can.

We have put on Christ.  We still live in a world broken by sin and death.  We ourselves are broken by sin and death, and will be until Christ comes again.  That brokenness divides us, separates us from one another and from God.  And yet we are clothed in Christ’s love, forgiveness, and righteousness.  And that makes a difference.  We are called to see the world through Christ’s eyes.  We are called to see one another through Christ’s eyes.  We are called to act out of love, not out of fear of punishment. We live in a world that is and always has been fragmented by tribe and race and creed and gender and class and sexuality and age and politics and a thousand other things.  We live in a world where people pay attention to the letter of the law, and not the spirit of it.  And we often fall short of our calling and fall prey to those divisions and temptations.

In Paul’s day, the most fundamental divisions were cultural divisions between Jews and Greeks, economic and class differences between slaves and free people, and gender divisions between men and women.  Those divisions were codified and reinforced by secular laws and customs, and also by the way religious laws and customs were interpreted.  And those divisions were getting in the way of spreading the Gospel, because people were paying more attention to those divisions, to the rules that kept people separate, than they were to the Good News that frees us and unites us all as children of God.  But as Paul said, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  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.”  In other words, Christ brings all people together—and our baptism in Christ is more important than anything that separates us, more important than any tradition or rule that holds us apart.

It’s easy to be blinded by all of society’s rules and prejudices.  It’s easy to use those rules as the basis for our actions, rather than our faith in Christ.  And it’s easy to let our understanding of God’s law be twisted and shaped by our prejudices and divisions, rather than by the light of Christ.  But the truth is, what we share in Christ is more important than any human division could ever be.  When you look at another human being, you see someone for whom Christ died.  Even if it’s someone you don’t like; even if it’s someone you think you have nothing in common with.  Christ’s life, death, and resurrection is the basis of our relationship with God, and it is the basis of our relationships with all people.

Through our baptisms we have been saved, redeemed, made children of God and united in Christ.  That is who we are.  That is more important than any human division.  That is more important than any rule or tradition.  It is Christ who saves us, all of us, no matter who we are or what we look like or where we come from or what group we belong to.  It is Christ, not our ability to follow the laws, not our traditions, not our ability to interpret the teachings.  It is Christ who makes us children of God, who forgives us and saves us no matter how many times we fall short of God’s glory.  That is the Good News, and it is Good News for all people.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

A Short History of the Black Church in America

Did you know that February is Black History Month?  This was set up because the contribution and experience of Black people in our nation has been ignored for most of America’s history, and is sometimes neglected even today.  In honor of Black History Month, I’d like to lift up the stories of Black Christians in America.

When the first Africans were brought over to this continent as slaves in the 1700s, no one tried to bring the Gospel to them.  You see, the slave owners believed that it would be wrong to hold a fellow-Christian as a slave, but had no problems enslaving non-Christians.  A few groups, such as the Baptists and Methodists (who were small minorities at that time, with little influence or power) believed that profits should not take precedence over the Gospel, and so they began sending missionaries to preach to the slaves.  By the late 1700’s, more and more slaves and free black people began converting to Christianity, finding comfort and spiritual freedom within it.  But even in church, they were treated as second-class citizens, relegated to the balcony and kept clearly separate from their white brothers and sisters in Christ.  In Philadelphia in 1787, a free Black man named Richard Allen led in the creation of a group that would become Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church.  An offshoot of the Methodist Episcopal Church, they had to sue in Pennsylvania courts to be allowed to remain independent of White Methodist congregations.  In 1816, Allen called a meeting of Black Methodist congregations in Philadelphia, and the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) was born, the first Black denomination.  The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (AME Zion) soon followed suit.  Because the position of Black people was so precarious, and there were so few professions and other opportunities available to them, Black churches became social centers as well as religious institutions, taking care of the bodies of their parishioners as well as their souls, and standing up for their rights.

Meanwhile, attitudes toward slavery were beginning to change.  Many people (Thomas Jefferson among them) believed that it was hypocritical to be a “free” nation which held slaves, so many slave-owners began searching for a “moral” justification for slavery—a way to argue that slavery was good for the slaves.  They did so by pointing to the possibility to “Christianize” and “uplift” the slaves from their “savagery.”  So more preachers were sent among the slaves—except that these new preachers were supported by the slave owners and tried to use the Word of God to control them.  They preached that slavery was a good thing, that God wanted Black people to be slaves and that slaves should submit to whatever their masters did.  In response, slaves and free black people began holding their own worship services with their own preachers, often in secret because gatherings of Black people were forbidden in many places.  Even those Whites who believed that slavery was wrong were uncomfortable with the idea of Blacks being educated or holding their own meetings outside the control of White people, and many believed that freed slaves should be transported back to Africa.

Daniel Alexander Payne (1811-1893) was the first Black student at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg.  He was a Methodist schoolteacher, but the Methodists would only allow him to go to seminary if he agreed to become a missionary in Africa after his training.  Believing that his call was to minister to his brethren in his own country, he went to Gettysburg instead.  Afterwards, he joined the AME Church, where he was a strong advocate for education, particularly the education of pastors.  In 1852, Payne was consecrated a Bishop.  He continued his work on education, being on the first Board of Directors of Wilberforce University in Ohio and was instrumental in keeping it open despite the Civil War and racist attacks.  Payne also worked to raise the quality of music in worship.  After the Civil War, Payne was influential in organizing congregations in the South among freed slaves.  Within a year of the end of the war, the AME Church had grown by 50,000 members.

Julia A. J. Foote (1803-1901) was the first Black woman to be consecrated a Deacon.  Born in New York, she spent her early years as a domestic servant.  By the age of fifteen, she was deeply committed to her faith and a member of the AME Zion church.  Although she married at eighteen, she and her husband were childless.  She had visions and heard the voice of God calling her to testify publically to her faith, which she did despite the disapproval of her husband and pastor.  After being removed from her church, Foote became an itinerant preacher, speaking in any home, pulpit, or revival meeting that would allow a woman to speak.  She preached the Gospel with vigor, with a heavy focus on social issues such as abolition and women’s rights, and drew large crowds.  She retired to Ohio and wrote her autobiography, A Brand Plucked From the Fire.  She was consecrated a deacon of the AME Zion Church in 1894 (the first woman), and was the second ordained female Elder of the AME Church.

Black churches boomed after the Civil War, taking advantage of newfound freedoms to organize themselves and minister without needing to be either “hidden” or under the supervision of a White church body as they had before.  Existing Black churches boomed, and new ones were formed; new denominations were organized, including the National Baptist Convention and the Church of God in Christ.  Black preachers provided leadership, encouraged education and economic growth, and were often the primary link between the black and white communities.  Given the discrimination and injustice faced by their members, Black churches connected the Gospel with social activism and community support, believing that they could not meet the spiritual needs of their members while ignoring their physical needs.  This trend continues today; it is no accident that many of the great leaders of the Civil Rights movement were pastors, such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph David Abernathy, Bernard Lee, Fred Shuttlesworth, Wyatt Tee Walker, and C.T. Vivian.

Black churches continue to flourish today.  Black Liberation Theology is the most visible and controversial trend of the past forty years; several times, fragments of sermons influenced by it have been quoted out of context in the national media during moments of high racial tension.  Liberation Theology is the belief that God is on the side of the oppressed and downtrodden because they are the ones most in need of Christ’s love and care.  It tends to focus on Christ’s saving, redeeming, and healing work in this present world, rather than on hopes of heaven, and therefore it tends to be very politically active.  Black Liberation Theology often includes images of Jesus as Black, drawing on his status as a member of an oppressed and persecuted group to lift up the similarities between his experiences and those of oppressed minorities today.  Because of this theology, Black Christians tend to be liberal on most social matters except for sexuality, where they tend to be very conservative.  But remember that this is just a generalization—there is as much variation in Black Christianity as there is in White Christianity.

I hope that we will always remember that we are all brothers and sisters in Christ our Lord.  We all bring to the body of Christ different spiritual gifts and a unique witness to God’s work in the world.

Essential Grace

There is a huge debate in the ELCA today about issues of sexuality.  There are several different views on the matter, many of which are in bitter opposition to one another.  Some congregations are leaving the church.  Some people are leaving their congregations.  Some, despite opposition on both theological and social grounds, are staying.  But how can we stay together in one church with such differences?  With such heated debate over whose interpretation of the Word of God is right?

We are not the first to have a major conflict within the church.  There have been times before when serious differences of practice and belief have challenged our ability to be a unified church.  This has happened many, many times over the history of the church, over issues that continue to be major and over issues that to us today seem to be largely irrelevant.  What can we learn from our forbears in the faith?  For the reformers in the 16th century, who were trying to create a new identity as Christians after having left the Roman Catholic church that had defined Christianity in the West since the very beginning, the solution was to divide things into essentials–those things that could not be compromised–and adiaphora–those things that were largely peripheral.  Adiaphora might be (and often was) comprised of issues that were at the heart of everyday life and practice of religion.  It was often bitterly fought over.  But those on differing sides of the issues could still come together as the body of Christ.  If we apply that question today, what are the essentials, to us?  What things are adiaphora?

As Lutherans, we hold that the core of the Gospel is justification.  All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; we are all sinners.  But we are also all saints, called and redeemed by God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Nothing in this world can separate us from the love of God.  We are saved by the grace of God, by his steadfast love.  No action or inaction of ours can change God’s saving will.  This is the core of the Gospel.  While other theological interpretations may change, this stands firm.  No one on any side of the issue is challenging this.

The sexuality question is not one of Gospel, but of morals.  How does God want us to live in this fallen world?  And while the Gospel does not change, morals can do.  A century and a half ago, there were Lutherans in America who believed that slavery was morally acceptable.  A little over half a century ago, there were Lutherans in Germany who believed that Hitler’s treatment of Jews was not only morally acceptable, but even praiseworthy in some cases.  There is a great deal of material in the Bible that can be taken to support either position (much of the Old Testament in the former case, though most emphatically not Exodus, and the virulent anti-semitism of the Gospel of John, in the latter).  Despite their claim to Biblical support, today we believe them to have been horribly, tragically wrong.

I believe both slavery and anti-Semitism to be of much greater concern to Christianity, much closer to issues concerning the heart of the Gospel, than issues relating to homosexuality.  There are only five references to homosexual behavior in the Bible.  Paul’s letters and the holiness codes of Leviticus each contain two one-verse references to homosexual behavior included in a laundry list of forbidden behaviors.  Then there is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, in chapters eighteen and nineteen of Genesis, which in the text is an issue primarily of inhospitality, violence, and xenophobia in which homosexuality is a manifestation of the depravity of those two cities, not the main problem.  (Compare with the parallel story of the Levite’s Wife in the nineteenth chapter of Judges; compare also with Jesus’ reference to Sodom in Luke 10:12 or Matthew 10:15.)  Commentators did not begin to cite homosexuality as the main problem of Sodom and Gomorrah until several centuries after Christ’s death and resurrection.

The Bible is saturated with stories about the grace and mercy and love of God, and with commands to love one another and protect the vulnerable.  And yet we are tearing our churches apart–tearing the Body of Christ apart–over four verses and one dubiously-interpreted story.

For further study, here are a collection of responses to the sexuality issue collected by the faculty of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg.

One in Christ: meditations in the week following Martin Luther King Day

This last Monday was MLK day, the day our government sets aside each year to honor the life and work of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr.  Some congregations remembered him in their prayers on Sunday; some held small prayer services or sang a gospel hymn in his honor; some did nothing at all.  As with all secular holidays that may be observed in church, I think it’s important to think about why we as a church care about this observance decreed by our political leaders.

So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

–Genesis 1:27

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.

–Galatians 3:28

For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5 so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. 6 We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7 ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8 the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness. 9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.

–Romans 12:4-10

There are many divisions in this world, divisions that we see as fundamental, that so deeply permeate our society and our ways of thinking that we don’t even recognize them.  This was true in St. Paul’s day; this is equally true today, though the categories that divide us have changed.  And yet, as in Paul’s day, we have all been made one in Christ.  But  more fundamentally even than that, every human being on this planet was created in the image of God.  Christian or not, we are made in the image of God.  That’s an amazing thing!  Every time you see a person, you see God!  That image may be twisted or broken, that image may be hidden beneath layers of differences you can’t understand and perhaps don’t want to.  But it cannot be denied.  Think about that for a bit.

Do we treat one another as if that is the case?  Really?  It’s fairly easy to do when we are dealing with people like ourselves–skin color, gender identity, orientation, class, ethnicity, etc., etc.  It’s a lot harder when dealing with people who don’t look like us and share our cultural backgrounds.  We see the differences and the divisions, and let them blind us to the image of God, created by God’s loving care.  The tragedy comes when people know they should do that and yet,  ingrained in their mind deep down, are the prejudices that are created by and thrive on the divisions that separate us.  It’s so much easier to ignore those darker voices within us, to allow them free reign while believing they don’t exist, than it is to face them.  It’s always difficult to face the ways in which we ourselves are broken by sin, both as groups and as individuals.  And yet unless we can, unless you and I can acknowledge our sin, our failure to treat all of God’s children as God wants them to be treated, we not only allow sin to flourish, we hurt other people through what we do and what we leave undone.

This is the duty all humans owe to God who created us in his image, to ourselves, and to our neighbors throughout the world.  As Christians we owe still more, for we know that our fellow Christians–no matter how different from us they may look or seem–are truly members of the same body, the body of Christ.  We are called not only to respect them, but truly love them as our brothers and sisters, to accept and cherish both the similarities that bind us together and the differences that could tear us apart if we’re not careful.

It’s a tall order, and we could not do it alone.  Thank God for our lord and savior Jesus Christ, into whose life, death, and resurrection we were baptized and whose body and blood we are given in the Eucharist, even as we are formed into Christ’s body in this world.  Thank God for the gift of the Holy Spirit, the empowering and renewing wind that blows through our lives and sends us out into the world to do God’s work.  Thank God for forgiving us when we fall short of his commands.

And thank God for the life of our brother Martin, who lived and died for the work of God to unite us all as brothers and sisters in one holy family.

Practical resources for dealing with issues of race, ethnicity, and other kinds of prejudice:

Talking Together as Christians Cross-Culturally (A good Lutheran resource)

White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack (A classic essay that has shaped discussions of racism, feminism, prejudice, and equality for the last twenty years)

Check my what? On Privilege and what we can do about it: some tips on going from pro-equality in theory to pro-equality in deed. A clear, concise explanation for what to do and what not to do, and why, complete with helpful links to more in-depth essays on a wide variety of issues and sub-issues.