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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Go read: “So I lost my daughter today.”

A friend from seminary has posted a great reflection on fatherhood, losing your children, and God’s perspective.

Today however, I honestly lost my eight year old daughter. I thought she was behind me and when I looked back she was gone. Granted, she was not paying attention to where she was going either but, I was not watching her.  After realizing that she didn’t merely stop to look at something and that she was really lost, the panic ensued. I sent my sixteen year old with her cell phone in one direction and my twelve year old daughter and I went in another direction.

Read the rest at LatinLutheran.

The mystery of the Trinity

Holy Trinity (Year A), Sunday, June 15, 2011

Gensis 1:1-2:4a, Psalm 8, 2 Corinthians 13:11-13, Matthew 28:16-20

Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Saint Luke Lutheran Church, Bloomsburg, PA

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

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

Did you see the new Sherlock Holmes miniseries set in modern times that ran on PBS a few months back?  How about the 2009 Sherlock Holmes movie?  Do you read mystery novels?  Do you watch mystery shows on TV, like Law and Order or CSI or Criminal Minds?  I like a good mystery, which is fortunate since mystery shows and books are all over the place in our modern world.  There’s a huge variety of styles and approaches, but the overall pattern hasn’t changed much since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published the first Sherlock Holmes story.  The detective searches out clues—just the facts, ma’am—and puts them together like a puzzle to figure out whodunit.  By the end the detectives have figured out who did it, and with what, and where, and why.

Today is a day of mystery, but it’s not the kind of mystery we’re most familiar with. The Sunday of the Holy Trinity is the only day of the Church year where we celebrate a doctrine—an understanding of God and the way God works in the world—rather than an event written of in the Bible.  Trinity, put simply, means one-in-three.  We worship one God who is made up of three persons, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  There are other names for the three persons of the Trinity, for example we sometimes call them the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sanctifier.  This way of talking about the Trinity is useful because it helps us remember that God is not just an old guy with a white beard wearing a bathrobe, sitting up in the clouds.  The Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God; and yet we worship one God, and not three.  At the same time, the Father is not the Son, and the Son is not the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is not the Father, yet all three are one God.  Confused yet?  Don’t worry, you’re in good company.  There’s been more ink spilt by theologians trying—and generally failing—to understand and explain the concept of the Trinity than just about any other aspect of Christianity.

A diagram of the trinity, a triangle, with God in the center and the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit at the corners.  There is a line marked "is" between the center and each of the three corners, and the outer edge of the triangle is lines between the points saying "is not."

Saint Augustine of Hippo, one of the greatest theologians in the history of Christianity, was struggling and trying to understand the concept of the Trinity when he had a vision in a dream.  In the dream he was walking along the beach when he came across a child digging a hole.  Now, have you ever tried to dig a hole on a sandy beach?  You don’t get very deep before the sides start collapsing and sliding down.  Augustine watched the child digging, and eventually he spoke up.  “You’ll never be able to dig any deeper,” he said.  But the child replied, “I have a better chance of digging this hole than you have of understanding the Trinity.”

The Trinity is a mystery.  Not a mystery in the sense of Sherlock Holmes, a problem to be solved or a case to be closed.  The Trinity is a mystery in a deeper sense, an older sense.  The word “mystery” comes from the same root as “mystic.”  Mystery means, in this case, something that must be revealed by God.  A true mystery cannot be understood by human reason, for it is deeper and greater than that.  It can’t be reduced to facts, or a diagram (no matter how much we try), and we can’t logically puzzle it out, for it deals with a reality that transcends our limited human imagination.  That makes mysteries even more difficult for us to deal with now than it was in Augustine’s day, because we are far more devoted to literal facts now than people were back then.  We live today in a world where facts reign supreme, where the things that matter most are the things that can be proved in a science lab or a court of law.  In our society almost everything can be reduced to something understandable, something logical, something concrete.  Those things that don’t fit, that can’t be analyzed statistically make us uncomfortable.

Don’t get me wrong, that fact-and-reason approach has given our society great gifts.  For example, I am very happy that my car was designed and built by people who tested and knew how the whole thing worked and made sure that each part was perfectly made to specifications.  I’m glad that if (God forbid) I ever get caught up in a real-life murder mystery like the ones I read and watch on TV, the investigation and prosecution of the crime would be based on evidence and facts.  But at the same time, we are more limited by that understanding of the universe—and of God—than I think we realize.  There are more things in heaven and on Earth than are dreamt of in our (scientific) philosophies.

As poet Killian McDonnell put it,

God is not a problem
I need to solve, not an
algebraic polynomial equation
I find complete before me,

with positive and negative numbers
I can add, subtract, multiply.
God is not a fortress
I can lay siege to and reduce.

God is not a confusion
I can place in order by my logic.
God’s boundaries cannot be set,
like marking trees to fell.

God is the presence in which
I live, where the time between
what is in me and what
before me is real, but only God

can draw it. God is the mystery
I meet on the street, but cannot
lay hold of from the outside,
for God is my situation,

the condition I cannot stand
beyond, cannot view from a distance,
the presence I cannot make an object,
only enter on my knees.

So why did God choose to reveal God’s self to us in this way, in the form of a mysterious Trinity that so often confuses us?  I think it’s to remind us that we are limited, finite beings.  We are the creatures, not the creator.  No matter how smart God has made us, no matter how much about the universe we understand or think we understand, we are not gods.  As God gave us our ability to reason, and created the world that we live in, it is right and fitting that we use our reason to explore and study the gifts God has given us.  And it is right and good to use the gift of reason that God has given us to study the ways God has revealed God’s own self to us.  Yet we should never forget that God is not only greater than we imagine, but greater than we can imagine.  What we know of God, we know because God has revealed it to us.

What do we know of God, this great being, this one-in-three?  We know that God created us, that God created the world and all that is in it.  We know that God’s Word is powerful enough to transform nothingness into an entire world.  God took a formless void and created a universe of possibilities, all that is, seen and unseen, from the stars in the skies to the creatures that live on this planet and more.  And even more than that, God created the world and all that is in it to be good.  No matter what brokenness is in the world, God made the world to be good.  We are created, all of us, in God’s image.  Once God created us, God didn’t just abandon us to our own devices, but stayed with us even when we turned away.

And when that good creation was broken by sin and death, God loved us so much that he came to save us.  He became truly human in the form of Jesus Christ our Lord, who taught and lived and died that we might have life, and have it abundantly.  Jesus was crucified and died so that we might be saved, redeemed, made whole from the sin and brokenness that trap us.  Jesus did this not because we had earned it, but simply because he loves us.  And he rose from the grave so that we who are tied to his death and resurrection might also rise to new life in him.

And after the Son had ascended to the Father, and was no longer physically with us, the Holy Spirit came.  The Holy Spirit is the breath of God, the wind that moved over the waters of creation, our Comforter in times of trial and our guide through life.  The Spirit came to inspire us, to help us live good and holy lives and to understand God’s word.  The Holy Spirit was with those who wrote down the Bible, and is still with us now when we read it.  The Holy Spirit is with us in good times and bad, praying for us with sighs too deep for words when we don’t even know what we need.

God the Father our Creator, God the Son our Redeemer, God the Holy Spirit who leads us in holiness: these are the three faces of God, who together are one.  God moves in mysterious ways, in wonderful ways.  We may not understand how it all works, and we may not be able to understand all of God’s plan for us and our world, but one thing is absolutely certain: God loves us.  God will never abandon us, and God will never stop loving us.

Amen.

A three-lobed Celtic-style knot, a symbol of the trinity

A Lutheran’s Argument For Religious Freedom

There are a lot of debates going around now about religious freedom, morality, and related topics.  There is also a lot of violence throughout the world, that testify to the consequences these debates have.  So one of my classmates recently wrote theological defense/championing of religious freedom.  It’s concise, well-reasoned, theologically sound, and well worth reading.  So, with his permission, here it is:

A LUTHERAN’S THESES FOR RELIGIOUS FREEDOM

by Robbie Ketcham

 

I.) CENTRAL THESIS

The Gospel of Jesus Christ, rightly understood as God’s will to save the world by God’s grace and love alone (Jn. 3:16), not only allows but demands that one not restrict another’s religious or moral freedom in God’s name.

 

II.) THE PURPOSE OF THIS WRITING

1.) Some of the most notable public displays of religion have often depicted God as legalistic, judgmental or condemnatory. Further, the promoters of this view of God have often taken it upon themselves, either individually or institutionally, to restrict the religious and moral freedom of others, under the supposed authority of God.

a.) This has been most apparent in the rise of militant Islam, including the declaration of religious war against the United States by al-Qaida; and barbaric interpretations and executions of Sharia law in Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Taliban-controlled areas of the Afghan-Pakistan region.

b.) The Christian Church has historically also misused the Gospel of Jesus Christ as a basis for denying religious freedom to others, especially in the Medieval period of the Church.

c.) While the United States has not committed such institutional actions denying religious freedom, certain individuals and so-called Christian churches in the United States have also misused the Gospel so as to intimidate or restrict the freedom of belief of others,  such as in attacks or bigotry against those of other faiths or intentionally desecrating the sacred texts of other faiths.

d.)  Others, on both the “conservative” and “liberal” wings of American Christianity, have advocated for legal limitations on people’s moral freedoms, seeking to impose by law their own sense of personal morality (often regarding sexuality or speech, and using such euphemisms as “family values”) or their own sense of social morality (often regarding the distribution of wealth or taxation, and using such euphemisms as “social justice”).

e.) Still others, while not seeking to act through physical violence and intimidation or through legal action, have propagated corrupt interpretations of the Christian faith, such as claiming the God “hates” or condemns others based on their morality, especially in regards to sexuality.

2.) These images of religion have, especially in recent years, led to a backlash against organized religion – and, in Europe and the United States, against Christianity in particular.

a.) Several recent surveys have shown that non-Christians’ perception of Christians is as judgmental or intolerant. (There have been several articles that I cannot retain at the moment, but here is one: http://www.probe.org/site/c.fdKEIMNsEoG/b.5281867/k.C5A7/unChristian_Is_Christianitys_Image_Hurting_Christs_Image.htm)

b.) The recent movement of “evangelical atheism,” epitomized chiefly through writings such as Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” and Christopher Hitchens’ “God is not Great,” attempt to refute religion altogether, but are chiefly a condemnation of this legalistic idea of religion. (Again, I fear I’ve not the link at the moment, but in an article with the London Guardian, Dawkins seemed to acknowledge this – in response to a criticism that his work did not as fully grapple with theologians such as Barth, Tillich or Bonhoeffer, he said that he was confronting religion as most people saw it – which he described as being chiefly that of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, etc.)

3.) Given that such an image of a judgmental God seems to correlate with increasing disillusionment with Christianity, the issue of religious tolerance and freedom is therefore neither merely one of political correctness nor merely one of social niceness. It is, in fact, a theological issue that could well determine the future health of the Christian church in the West. Indeed, one can claim that the promoters of such a judgmental image of God are “turning to a different gospel – not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing [the people] and want to pervert the gospel of Christ” (Gal. 1:7). As such, these false prophets and teachers must be condemned not just on the basis of political correctness or social propriety, but on the basis of true theology and the true Gospel of Christ, lest Satan work through them as “wolves in sheep’s clothing” (Mt. 7:15) and so tear down people’s faith in the true Gospel of God’s love and grace, manifest in Jesus the Christ.

 

III.) THE BASIS OF THIS WRITING’S AUTHORITY

1.) The ultimate basis of authority on Christian doctrine is the Incarnate Word of God, Jesus the Christ. For in the Christ, “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth” (Jn. 1:14). Hence, the Incarnate Word is also the Word of “grace and truth.” The Incarnate Word is the Word of grace, in that the crucified and resurrected Christ ensures all God’s chosen of salvation and everlasting life by God’s love and freely given grace alone, regardless of works. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (Jn. 3:17). The Incarnate Word is the Word of truth, as Christ is the one and only true Son of God, “the way, the truth and the life” (Jn. 14:6).

2.) The Protestant canon of the Holy Bible is the Inspired Word of God (2 Tim. 3:16). In its original writing and rightly interpreted in light of the Incarnate Word of God, the Bible is an authoritative and infallible witness to God’s desire to be in right relationship with humanity, which includes God’s desire for right human living (the Law; Rom. 7:7), the human inability to so live rightly (the condemnation of the Law; Rom. 7:8-14), and which culminates in the salvific death and resurrection of the Christ, through which God’s relationship with humanity is forever restored (the Gospel; Rom. 3:23-27).

3.) The ancient and ecumenical Creeds of the Church are authoritative accounts of the Christian faith, insofar as they are in line with the Incarnate and Inspired Word of God.

4.) The unaltered Augsburg Confession of 1530 and the Small Catechism of Martin Luther are authoritative accounts of the Christian faith, and in particular of the Gospel of God’s salvation of humanity by grace and love alone without regard to human works, insofar as they are in line with #1-3.

5.) The other writings of the Book of Concord of 1580 are enlightening and useful reflections on the Christian faith, insofar as they are in line with #1-4.

6.) The Holy Spirit’s continued action in the proclamation and witness of the Church is authoritative, insofar as it is in line with #1-4.

 

IV.) AGAINST LIMITING THE FREEDOM OF BELIEF

1.) As noted in Art. III Sect. 1 of this paper, Jesus Christ is the one and only Son of God. As Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn. 14:6). While this does not mean that a doctrinal belief in Jesus Christ in this world is a condition for salvation (for indeed, such would make doctrine itself a work, and would restrict God’s freedom of grace; see also Karl Rahner’s concept of “anonymous Christians”), it does mean that adhering to the Christian faith and being baptized in the name of the Triune God is the one assurance of salvation, for “the one who believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mk. 16:16). Therefore, this argument in support of the freedom of belief should not be misconstrued as a relativistic view that minimizes the centrality of the Christian faith.

2.) Despite the centrality of Christian faith, however, neither the Incarnate nor the Inspired Word of God suggests that one should force his belief on another through law, force or intimidation. Indeed, the Incarnate and Inspired Word of God instead argues forcefully in favor of upholding another’s freedom of belief.

a.) The Incarnate Word of God is Jesus Christ, in whom is “grace and truth” (Jn. 1:14). This grace is God’s free gift given through the death and resurrection of the Christ, and is freely given to those whom God chooses. Grace and faith, therefore, cannot be obtained through human effort (see Luther’s Small Catechism, on Art. III of the Creed). While God does work through human means to spread the Gospel (see Augsburg Confession, Art. V), any human attempt to force one’s belief upon another runs contrary to God’s sole independence to give grace and faith to those whom He wishes.

b.) The Inspired Word of God – that is, the Protestant canon of the Holy Bible – repeatedly shows Jesus explicitly refusing to force his beliefs on others. For instance, Satan’s temptation of Jesus in the desert with all the kingdoms of the world would have given Jesus the power to force all people to follow a particular belief. However, Jesus explicitly refused such temptation – which, Scripture notes, would have actually been a worship of Satan (Mt. 4:8-10). Even if one considers another belief to be an enemy of his own faith, Jesus does not allow for one to act with force, but with love for enemies and without judgment or condemnation (Lk. 6:27-42). When a Samaritan village refused to welcome Jesus, the disciples asked if they should command fire to come down from heaven and consume the village. But Jesus rebuked the disciples for such thoughts (Lk. 9:51-55). In sending out 70 followers to proclaim the Kingdom of God, Jesus warned that some would reject the message, but he did not order the followers to force any belief, but rather to leave the town and leave any retribution to God alone (Lk. 10:10-12). Even at his arrest, when a disciple attacked a slave of the high priest with a sword, Jesus rebuked such force, saying, “Put your sword back into its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Mt. 22:51-52). Therefore, Scripture clearly shows that it is against God’s will to force another into one’s own beliefs. While one can try to persuade others through proclamation, it is the Holy Spirit alone that can inspire faith and belief – not any human force of sword, law or intimidation.

c.) It is true that some components of the Old Testament Law, such as the rule of cherem or cities “devoted to destruction” (e.g., Deut. 20:16-18) could be read as allowing for religious warfare. However, such a reading for today is out of line with both the context of the Mosaic Law – which had its roots in an Israelite theocracy that had been overturned by Jesus’ claim that his Kingdom is “not of this world” (Jn. 18:36) — and is out of line with the overall theme of the Inspired Word as grounded in the Incarnate Word, as described in #2a. Further, even such texts were not efforts to force others into Israelite belief, but were attempts to defend the Israelites against others’ beliefs (Deut. 20:18) — therefore, they cannot be used as a basis for attempting to force or intimidate another into adopting one’s own faith. Indeed, the Old Testament also witnesses to God’s sole role in judging the righteousness of other nations and peoples (Isa. 2:3-4), saying that “vengeance is mine” alone (Deut. 32:35, cf. Rom. 12:19). Therefore, the Mosaic Law cannot be used as a basis for forcing or intimidating another into accepting one’s own beliefs.

 

V.) AGAINST LIMITING FREEDOM OF MORALITY

1.) It is undoubtedly true that a great deal of religious teaching is on morality. The Old Testament Law, the teachings of Jesus and the writings of the New Testament all include numerous exhortations for a moral life. Likewise, the whole basis of Christian faith – that Jesus Christ came to redeem sinners (1 Tim. 1:15) by God’s grace and love alone – would be meaningless if there were no such thing as sin, or that which separates humanity from God.

2.) Despite the wealth of teachings on morality, however, both the Incarnate and Inspired Word of God suggests that one should not attempt to force one’s moral code upon another by force, law, threat of divine condemnation or intimidation, but should instead seek to persuade others toward right action as a response to God’s grace and love.

a.) The Word became Incarnate not to condemn the world, but so that all the world might be saved (Jn. 3:16-17). This salvation cannot be obtained by human action alone (Gal. 2:15), not can it be lost by human action alone (Gal. 3:25-29, Rom. 8:31-39; see also, Augsburg Confession Art. IV). Therefore, if God has chosen to freely justify and save humanity, and in so doing free it of the condemnatory demands of the Law, no human can try to use force, human law or the threat of divine condemnation (the heresy of Pelagianism) to force obedience to a particular moral code.

b.) The Inspired Word of God also refutes any attempt to force moral obedience upon another. Although the Mosaic Law might have been initially used as a legal code for ancient Israel (that is, the “First Use of the Law”), even then God maintained His covenant with Israel despite its transgressions (see, e.g., Ex. 32:14) and remained a God “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love (e.g., Ps. 145:8). This steadfast love came to its full manifestation in the death and resurrection of the Christ, which fully freed humanity from the consequences of the Law (Gal. 2:15; Rom. 3:21-22). Moral demands thus become means by which humanity is shown its sin, and is drawn to Christ for forgiveness (the “Second Use of the Law”). God still does desire humanity to follow God’s will, but not as a demand but as an invitation to live a new life in Christ (Rom. 6:1-4; the so-called “Third Use of the Law”). This is not truly “Law” anymore, but free invitation, for breaking such “law” will not carry any eternal or eschatological consequences, as Christ has overcome the full burden of sin (it is true, of course, that human actions can have consequences in this world). Again, Jesus’ refusal of Satan’s temptation of worldly kingdoms manifests this, as an earthly King Jesus could have forced all to follow his moral code. Rather, however, Jesus says that “my kingdom is not of this world” (Jn. 18:36), allowing others the moral freedom even to kill him. Likewise, Paul refused to force Philemon to free Oenesimus, but instead appeals to him on the basis of love (Phm. 8-9). Paul also encourages the Corinthians to give of themselves, but “not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor. 9:7). Therefore, Scripture shows that God does have moral expectations for humanity, but that no human should take upon himself the power to force his own morality upon another.

 

VI.) IMPLICATIONS OF THE FOREGOING

1.) Any attempt to use force, law, violence or intimidation as a means to make another adopt a particular belief, or to force not to change beliefs, should be most strongly condemned.

2.) Any attempt to use force, law, violence or intimidation as a means to make another adopt a particular moral code, or to force one into following certain actions on the basis of divine will alone, should be most strongly condemned.

a.) While the realities of civil society do demand some degree of law and restraint, these laws should be based as much as possible on the practical and utilitarian benefits to society, liberty and good order, and should not be based on one’s perception of “God’s will.”

3.) Even if disagreeing strongly with another belief or moral code, one should act with respect if trying to encourage or exhort another to adopt one’s own beliefs or morality.

4.) Those adopting such beliefs as outlined here should proclaim this Gospel of freedom in God’s love and grace, over against the false prophets and teachers who would distort God’s will into a means of coercion, intimidation, legalism, moralism or judgmentalism.

5.) Prayers should be frequently made to God for wisdom and guidance so that even those professing these beliefs might avoid corrupting the God’s will into a means of legalism, judgmentalism and condemnation, and for God to work God’s loving will, despite humanity’s resistance and inclination to cling to its own desire for control and power.

And with such prayers are the foregoing theses humbly submitted.

 

Some disclaimers:

I do recognize that parts of this might alienate friends both on the right and the left of me – which I’ve actually sort of come to expect. 🙂 I also recognize that not all of this is necessarily “Lutheran,” though it is strongly influenced by my understanding of the Confessions (see “Basis of Authority”). Hence, I title this “A Lutheran’s argument” rather than the more basic “a Lutheran argument” or the more vague “a Christian argument.”

Sing to the Lord a New Song: hymns from around the world

Why is music so important to us?  Why is it that the introduction of a new hymn or liturgy can create such a dramatic battle within a church?  One reason is that music speaks to our heart; the songs we grow up singing are the songs that we remember throughout our lives.  Long after a sermon or a scripture reading has been forgotten, we remember melodies and lyrics.  They help us learn and they shape our faith in deep and sometimes unacknowledged ways.  Music for worship should always be carefully chosen.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America recently produced a new hymnal, “Evangelical Lutheran Worship,” replacing the old Lutheran Book of Worship.  Now, this is a fairly common happening; Lutheran hymnals seem to have a shelf life of between twenty and thirty years, before they need to be updated.  Lyrics are “modernized,” new liturgies written to match new styles of worship, new hymns added and old rarely-used ones removed.  It’s always a controversial process.

In this new book, however, there’s a far greater percentage of what might be called “multi-cultural hymns,” that is, hymns written around the world by a wide variety of Christians.  Hymns from Africa, from Asia, from Latin America, hymns written by Native Americans, by African Americans, old Gospel favorites–a far cry from previous hymnbooks, in which only hymns from the Lutheran heartlands (i.e. northern Europe and certain parts of North America) were included.  Now, there are still plenty of those classics in the new book; the editors of the ELW have taken the stance that it’s more important to have everything–a smorgasbord of worship and praise–than it is to have a manageable number of liturgies and hymns.  Each congregation can then pick and choose which hymns and liturgies that suit it.  And from what I’ve seen, churches are mainly sticking to the old favorites they already knew, or ones similar in style and theme to old classics.

So why bother with all the “multicultural” hymns?  Why include them in a hymnal that’s already overstuffed?  The most common answer that I’ve heard is that if we want to be a multicultural church–one that is welcoming of people from different cultural backgrounds–we need to have music that they recognize, that makes them feel welcomed.  But however practical an answer that might be, it misses a deeper theological point: music is a powerful tool for shaping our theology and our relationship with God and our community.  So, theologically, why include those hymns?

It’s important to include those hymns–and to use them!–because God is great, not only greater than we know but greater than we can know.  God is wonderful beyond the limits of our knowledge or imagination.  God is a god of all places and times, not just those which are most familiar to us.  We have seen and experienced how God works in our own lives, and the lives of our forefathers and foremothers; the hymns and songs and liturgies we regularly use reflect that.  But just as God works in Europe and North America, so too God works in Africa and Asia and South America.  Christians in those places have lives that are very different from ours, and see the world differently than we do.  Yet the one God who created all things and all people, who redeems us, who draws us together into one body in Christ, is with them just as he is with us.  And they put their experience of God into their songs and hymns just as we do into ours.

If we only sing the hymns we are familiar with and comfortable with, we limit our understanding and experience of the ways God works in the world.  It becomes easier to forget that God speaks in many languages.

By singing these “multicultural” hymns, by adding them to our rich musical heritage, we become more connected to the Body of Christ around the world.

God is not a vending machine: the problem with the prosperity gospel

Oh Lord, wont you buy me a Mercedes Benz ?
My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends.
Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends,
So Lord, wont you buy me a Mercedes Benz ?

–Janis Joplin

This song was written to be a satire on the materialistic culture of America.  Like all satires, it’s funny because it’s true: we do pray to God for that ‘Mercedes-Benz,’ whatever that may be for us.  There is a widespread belief that in the “prosperity Gospel”: if God loves you, you will be healthy and wealthy.  If you are spiritual enough, if you pray the right prayers, if you go to the right churches, if you have the right positive attitude, God will give you what material gifts you ask for.  And it makes sense–we all know people who self-sabotage, who assume the worst or prepare for the worst and through that very belief cause, in some sense, the worst to happen to them.  So if the opposite is true, that you can influence what happens to you by having a positive attitude, well, that seems fair.  And after all, didn’t Christ say “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.  For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened” (Matthew 7:7-8).  It seems clear enough.  Decide what you want, trust in God, ask, and it’s yours.

A best-selling book was written about the Prayer of Jabez from 1 Chronicles 4:10, explaining how this one verse can lead you to a deeper spirituality that will result in material prosperity, as if God were a vending machine.  Put in the correct change (the right belief and the right attitude), make the correct selection (the right prayer) and the treat drops down into your hand.  Joel Osteen and other televangelists make similar claims, as do a wide variety of other spiritual figures from Conservative Christians to New Age gurus to business consultants and life coaches.  (And what does it say about our society that business consultants give spiritual advice?)  We all want a good, long, prosperous life.  God loves us and wants us to be happy, and has said he’ll take care of us.  Surely, putting the two together can’t be a bad thing?

But what happens when things go wrong?  What happens when we don’t get that Mercedes-Benz?  What happens when bad things happen–abuse, illness, injury, the death of a loved one, the breakup of a marriage, the loss of a job?  If God rewards the right attitude, the right faith, and the right prayers with material prosperity, then the only explanation is a failure of the person in trouble.  Maybe they didn’t have a positive enough attitude.  Maybe they didn’t pray for the right things.  Maybe their faith wasn’t strong enough.  This is the fundamental problem with the prosperity gospel: during the darkest times of our lives, when we need the love and presence of our God the most, we are abandoned.

Now, I don’t mean to say that God actually leaves us, because he doesn’t.  But if we assume God only works through material prosperity and good fortune, if we assume that bad things are a sign that he is not with us, we will almost certainly blind ourselves to the ways that he is with us during times of trouble.  And then we have nothing to fall back on.  God is always with us, even if we can’t see him.  But if we can’t see or feel him, we feel as bereft as if he was truly absent.  I worked for a summer as chaplain in a mental facility, and one of the people living there was a woman with severe depression who had suffered many things in her life and so believed God was not with her.  However untrue that belief was, her anguish over the perceived abandonment was real.

But God does tell us “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Matthew 7:7-8).  How do we interpret this if not through the lens of the prosperity gospel?  How do we pray to God and share with him our needs and concerns without assuming that if those needs and desires aren’t met, God has ignored us?  Let’s compare Jesus’ words in Matthew with those of James in his letter to the church:

You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.

-James 4:2-3

Why do we ask for things?  How do we decide what we need, and how does that relate to God?  James points out that our attitude and our greed matter.  If we try to treat God like a cosmic vending machine, handing out treats on demand, we’re asking wrongly.  It’s not that pleasure is by itself bad, and it’s not that wealth itself is bad.  The problem comes when we allow our wants and desires and appetites to direct our thinking instead of our relationship with God.  If we’re focused on our own wealth and well-being, we’re probably ignoring both God and our neighbor.  James points out that selfish thinking separates us from the community as we try and get what we want through whatever means we can; we shouldn’t be surprised if it has the same effect of separating us from God, so that we cannot see the ways in which God is calling us and supporting us.

God is always with us, even when we can’t see or feel him.  God is with us even when we focus on our own selfish desires.  God is with us in good times and bad, and God knows our true needs better than we do ourselves.  God will never forsake us, in good times or in bad.  God’s love cannot be measured by health or wealth, but only in the fullness of his grace and mercy.

Reflections on the ELCA churchwide assembly

As some of you may be aware, the ELCA recently voted to “recognize publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships.”  In other words, while the Churchwide Assembly did not endorse homosexuality nor give monogamous same-gender relations the same status as heterosexual marriages, it did state that homosexuality is not inherently sinful.  Now, this is a hugely controversial thing to say, even when you’re trying to be even-handed and take a middle of the road coarse (which the ELCA is trying to do).  This is particularly controversial for a church body, and there is a great deal of confusion as to the scriptural basis (or lack thereof) on which the decision rests.  There are also a great many accusations from both sides of the argument that the other side is acting based on their own personal prejudices and politics rather than the will of God.  There is also a great deal of confusion on what it was exactly that the ELCA voted to do.  What happened can be explained fairly easily from the ELCA FAQ on the subject.  The theological basis on which those decisions rested are a bit more complicated.  Here’s a helpful article by Timothy Wengert:

“If there is one rule we need to follow in the wake of the ELCA Churchwide Assembly, it is this: Do not break the eighth commandment (against false witness) in order to defend the sixth (against adultery and other sexual sins).  Both those who supported the changes in policy and those who did not need to remember this.  We must speak what we know and not cast aspersions on those who disagreed with us.  Luther’s comments on the eighth commandment in the Large Catechism are helpful here.  Even when forced by one’s office to speak out, one must not lie or distort the truth.

“In light of some implied (and explicit) attacks on the decision, however, it is also necessary to make one thing clear.  The change in policy was grounded in Scripture.  In fact, the calls for justice toward gays and lesbians in committed relationships and the recitation of examples of healthy same-gender relations, as important as these are to some folk, finally do not in themselves constitute a complete standard for changing church policy, since even calls for justice must for Christians be grounded in and normed by sound interpretations of Scripture as God’s Word for us….”

Timothy Wengert is an outstanding theologian of the church.  He is an expert on Luther and the early Lutheran church, having been one of two editor/translators of the latest edition of the Book of Concord (the collection of documents that form the basis of the particularly Lutheran understanding of Scripture and the Christian life, of which the Augsburg Confession is a part). He is a professor of Reformation History at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, and a regular contributor to the Journal of Lutheran Ethics.