The blog of a lutheran pastor, writer, and political animal.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Religious Violence Sermon

Religious violence

            Today’s, on this, our 6th sermon in the Summer Sermon Series “8 Questions from the Pews,” I’ll be tackling a topic that you might say is one of my hobby horses, maybe even a fixation: the connection between religion and violence.
            It was on this subject, nearly 4 years ago, on the 10th anniversary of the attacks of 9/11, that I preached my first sermon as St. Stephen’s pastor. Since then, at Pub Theology and in other sermons, I’ve covered similar ground.
         In fact, judging by today’s question, I may have, in these last 4 years, made my case too forcefully—that I’ve made a solid link between religion and violence in you all’s mind.
         The question is this:
            “Religion is a source of hope and salvation for many, yet it has been the basis or cause of so many wars over time, why? And how do the positives negate all the negatives of war and radicals?”
         To answer this questions we’ll look at our text from Joshua in order to think about how violence can be connected to religion both in scripture and in history—then we’ll consider why this connection get’s made, and then finally I’ll suggest a few ways these negatives can be upended or at least balanced.


         It would be foolish to ignore the connection between religion and violence found in scripture.
         Consider the fanatical acts described in the book of Joshua, utterly destroying towns and people in the name of Moses and the name of God. Truly this is disturbing stuff found in our scriptures.
         And it’s not the only place in scripture where we find dark acts dedicated to God.
We find rules about slavery and the oppression of women,
Calls to kill Babylonian and Assyrian Children,
Guidelines for war that are more concerned with trees than people,

         And maybe there is a larger point that must to be made about these things:
Often scripture is being descriptive instead of prescriptive
—it’s showing and telling, not ordering
—describing a lived reality, not making a program for life now.
It’s faithful people at a particular time and place saying “wow, in the midst of it all God is here” so that we too might trust even in the most violent and strange of times, that God is here.

         For that matter, it would be foolish to ignore the connection between religion and violence found in history.
         Take for example a common interpretation and use of the book of Joshua from the 15th-17th century. When the Conquistadores, who took South America, read this biblical book—they did so in a prescriptive instead of descriptive way—they read themselves into the book
They justified their slaughter of natives and taking of land as a parallel to the taking of Canaan in the books of Joshua and Judges.
         In fact, frequently colonization and invasion has been justified by faith—it is often said colonizers
offer god,
bring guns and germs,
and leave with gold.

         And there is that icky question left—once you get into it, why?
         Why is religion linked to violence? Why does invasion and war often have a religious tint? Why is religion woven into matter of statecraft and splattered all over the history of war?
         It could be that religion is innately violent,
or that it encourages countries to colonize, or something like that,
but I think not, instead, religion speaks to our deepest selves and about those things which are most important to us both individually and collectively. Everything else is of secondary importance—imagine what kind of motivator our faith is!
         For example, an American drone kills your kid on the Afghanistan/Pakistan border—you want revenge… how much more of a motivation is it if you’re told not only will you get revenge for your kid, but also God wants you to get that revenge!

         What I’m saying is religion is often a justification for war and other acts of violence, not the actual cause.
         Take, for example, the most “religious” of wars, the Crusades. The initial Religious justification—when Pope Urban the 2nd declared “Deus Vult” “God wills it” it was a call to defend Christians traveling to Jerusalem, and throughout the Middle East, from attacks by Muslims. Yet, somewhere along the line it became more profitable to pillage fellow Christians in Constantinople and throughout Asia Minor, so the religious justification for such actions shifted to fighting incorrect understandings of the trinity.
         Two different acts of violence, both conveniently justified with a religious pretext.
         So, what do we do with all that—how do we, to put it crassly, “come out ahead?” How can we be sure religion is “worth it?”
         Well, firstly, it’s important that we continue to wrestle with the ways in which our faith has fallen short—more than that, we ought to repent of it.
         I think of former Presiding Bishop Mark Hansen’s moving words about representing the ELCA as part of the Lutheran World Federation in Stuttgart Germany, where they confessed to and repented of our historical persecution of the Mennonite tradition—there our Mennonite sisters and brothers accepted our repentance and declared us forgiven.
         And that right there—receiving forgiveness—for me that would be enough, that would upend all the negatives of being a religious people—that would, to quote the questioner be the positive that “negates all the negatives.”
         That this is a space where we can be honest about our faults and find forgiveness
—find a grace we don’t deserve
—that alone is of infinite worth. As Paul writes all else is rubbish.

         But wait, there’s more!
         While it can be deeply misused, religion is the language of our deepest values. It frames our existence, cultivates holy habits, and tells stories that give life meaning.

         Also it gives us comfort like nothing else will—just think back to the last time you heard the 23rd Psalm, all that is packed into that, how those words travel with you through the very shadow of death.
         Christ’s words we read today “No more of this” ring so true, in the face of violence both scriptural and historical, “No more of this.”
         Faith is for healing the hurt, not hurting the healed. Yes, of course faith can be misused, but so can so many things
—If a child hits another child with a book, do we burn all books, or teach them to read?

         The abuse of Religion, bad religion, can be best balanced by better religion.
         And that’s part of our calling—to put away swords and bring healing.
         To do what Christianity has always been called to do, to recognize the good in those things that are warped into evil, and redeem them! Bad religion is not to be banished, but transformed.

         To conclude, my answer to the question is this:
The violence we find in scripture describes God’s relationship to a brutally violent world.
The violence we find in history often uses faith as a motivator.
We ought to confess to this and make amends.
In so doing we find the core of faith—forgiveness.
Faith expresses the ultimate, it comforts as few other things can, and Christ calls us to be religious in such a way that we can redeem religion.



Sunday, July 19, 2015

Sermon: Foreknowledge, predestination, and human will

Foreknowledge, predestination, and human will

         Today, is the 4th sermon in the sermon series, “8 Questions from the pews,” we will tackle the question, “Matthew 13:10-15—Is this an example of pre-destination? It seems rather harsh and final, that whatever little they do have will be taken away.”
          My short answer is, “No. Matthew 13:10-15 is not about pre-destination. It’s about why Jesus speaks in parables.”
         But that wouldn’t be a very satisfying answer.
         After all, there are larger questions lurking behind this question—questions about pre-destination and the harshness and finality of some of our sacred scripture.
         To think about these questions we’ll touch on the section of Matthew’s Gospel we read today, but more concretely we’ll consider Pharaoh’s hardened heart.
         So, we’ll be looking at pre-destination and the harshness of scripture.

         When we consider pre-destination we tend to balk and then climb into one of two camps—the puppet camp or the free will camp.

         In the first, we consider Pharaoh, and take the author of Exodus at his most literal. That the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, was a puppet show. God takes Pharaoh’s heart, his will, and forces it in a certain direction.
         You’ve heard the phrase, “Jesus take the wheel,” this would be a little different, “Oh my, God has hijacked the vehicle!”

         The LORD walks Pharaoh through a thought process and across a stage like a marionettist would his puppet.
         If we go too far down this road we start to call everything fate. We become nothing more than debris on an ocean current. We lose a sense of agency and efficacy.
         God becomes a character of Greek myth—the Fates. Three old Crones creating the lives of mortals on a mystical loom. As the thread thickens, so does our heart, when the thread snaps, our life is done.
         At least, in this view of things, there is someone else to blame.

         In the second camp, the free will folk, we turn into a young child, stamping our feet and always saying, “I can do it my own self.”
         We take the tact of the Philistines in the book of Samuel, and interpret Pharaoh’s hard heartedness as something he has chosen.
We believe we have that power of choice.
         We respond to John Donne’s famous line, “no man is an island,” with “Na-ah, I’m an island!”
         We ignore any outside influence upon our lives. How our society shapes us, how our family forms us. We ignore that our self only exists in relationship with other people.
         Ultimately, we ignore that we are “part of the main,” because this radical individuality gives us a sense of power, and control in a fickle world.

         But, as Lutherans, we affirm that our will is bound, “we are bound to sin and can not free ourselves.”
         We profess that we’ve sold out.
         We say this often, but what does this mean? What does this look like?

         We’re saying that of course Pharaoh didn’t relent.
         He couldn’t,
          not because he was a puppet pulled around by the LORD, but because he was a human being.
         When confronted by a power greater than himself, something that threatened his narcissistic sense of control,
         He dived into himself.
         He defended his non-existent free will, shaped by forces he neither understood nor could control.
         The LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart simply by being the Law for Pharaoh there
—by giving limits to a man who considered himself god,
by pointing out to him “you are mortal, I am God,”
Pharaoh’s heart grew recalcitrant, because, outside of the Gospel message, this is almost inevitably the human response to being shown where we stack up in the universe
—seeing the world as it is, without also seeing God as God is, inevitably leads to a hardened heart.

         As for the question about harshness and finality, we can think of it this way: is this judgment on Pharaoh too harsh or too final? It is not.
         Pharaoh’s heart is hard, as are our own. We just aren’t often reminded of this fact.
         Likewise, is it hard to say, as it says in Matthew:
“if you don’t meditate on the parables of Jesus, the message will be lost on you/
but if you listen to his message it will blossom….
No, it is not too hard… because this is how Parables work, if you work on them, they work on you.
         As I say every chance I get, you chew on Parables until Parables chew on you. You read them until they start to read you.
         Is that harsh?
         Yes, yet it’s simply something like a law of the universe… a spiritual law sort of like physical laws… it is harsh only…
         Only if gravity is harsh.
         Only if Chemistry is harsh.
         Only if cause and effect is harsh.
         Yes, these things are harsh, and yes these things are final—immutable things.
         But I thank God every day that Jesus’ love steps beyond the harsh cause/effect relationship of our world.
         I thank God that the way the world works, the way our hard hearts respond to an honest assessment of our place in the universe,
the way our unlistening ears ignore the best and deepest truths…

         I thank God,
that the final word is not by these things
—the final word is His.
         And it is not harsh, but instead a word of comfort, a word that plucks us out of our alternating throws of fatalism and false independence.
         He takes our hearts of stone and makes them hearts of flesh.
         He takes our ears and unstops them so that we might here the final word—the gentle comfort of the Word Made Flesh.
         Thank you God, that in your greatness you free us from our bondage.
         Thank you God, that in your greatness you unite us to yourself and to one another as sister and brother.
         Faced with this freedom and this fellowship, My heart… my soul…can not help but sing How Great thou art.

Let us sing together, How Great Thou Art.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Sermon: Where are the Steeple People?

         Today’s question, the 3rd in our sermon series “8 Questions from the Pews,” is one the demographers have had their eye on pretty intensely for at least as long as I’ve been alive—though in these last few years the question has become more pressing.
         The question is: “Why are there fewer people in Church? All over the place, not just here.”
         In the last quarter century the ELCA has shed a million and a half members.
         So too the Episcopal Church… The UCC has plummeted from 2 million members at it’s inception to under a million now… the Methodist church sheds 1,000 members a week and church attendance in the Roman Catholic Church has fallen from 77% in 1950 to 45% today.
         In the last seven years 8% of Americans have stopped identifying as Christian and 7% more identify as non-religious.
         So, it’s not the questioner’s imagination, in general we’re shrinking…. And yes, “all over the place, not just here.”
         There are many reasons for it, but I’ll talk a bit about three of them, the 3D’s—
and Demographics.

         I like Samuel—not the man so much, but the idea, that he represents—where he sits vis a vis the history of God and God’s people.
         On one side of him is the period of God’s history known for Bands of Prophets and Tribal Judges—for a loose league of tribes, a decentralized way of worshipping and leading.
         On the other side of Samuel, is a period of time centered on a single monarch and a lone temple—a centralized structure of both religion and politics.
         Yes, it is as God said, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears it tingle.” Such change surely made the ears of many burn.
         The Israel that existed before Samuel is unrecognizable to the Israel that exited after him. It was a mixed bag and a rough transition
—a time of civil war,
a time when the Levitical Priests outside of Jerusalem starved to death,
a time of prosperity and of unsettling change.

         So too we are experiencing a sea change in our religious life.
We are experiencing the Disestablishment of the Church, the Decentralization of all things, and a shift of both ethnic and economic demographics.

1.      We are experiencing the Disestablishment of the Church… there was a time when being a Good American Citizen and being a Good Christian were seen as the same. No more.
         Now it’s assumed Soccer Practice, or Pop Warner, or Reading the New York Times on Sunday Morning will make a good citizen just as well as Sunday School, Confirmation, or Church Attendance.
         Fostering faith is no longer seen as a societal good. Social pressure will no longer regularly be put behind the Christian faith.

         We are also experiencing extensive decentralization—that a small group of people without anyone in charge can now influence the world.
Think, as an example, of the two things that have shaped American life in the first decade of the 21st century—Terrorist and the Internet.
         On 9/11 19 men dispersed among 4 groups, loosely connected, were able to kill nearly 3,000 people and radically change American domestic and foreign policy to this very day.
         Or for that matter, think of the internet. A group of people, each working on their own for no pay, were able to create Wikipedia, a continually expanding online encyclopedia that dwarfs anything in print, and is available for free to anyone with an internet connection.

         Compared to these things the Church can be a hulking unwieldy thing…
         Decentralization fosters radical individuality and undercuts all centralizing authorities. All of a sudden every viewpoint is expressed, no matter how far out, and all of a sudden no viewpoint needs to be listened to. Everything becomes polarized and individualized.
         Anything claiming to have, or be, a center, will not hold
—no authority has authority
—this includes:
the Church writ large,
and denominations.
         Finally, we are confronted by changing ethnic and economic demographics in America.
         One of the reasons people came to Church, especially Lutheran and Catholic Churches
—was to be with people who spoke the same language and came to America from the same country.
(we’re sort of a victim of our own success) This is no longer something the average Lutheran seeks in a Church. For that matter, there are no new Lutherans coming from “The Old Country” to refill our pews.

         Additionally, the ELCA tends to draw members from the “middle class”—but in the last two—maybe the last four—decades what it means to be middle class—the demographic realities of that, have changed.
         There are few good manufacturing jobs, people are accruing massive student debt in order to get into the middle class, and there is a necessity of two incomes just to stay in the middle class.
It’s squeezed the middle class and it’s squeezed the Church.
The average person is now both time and money poor—so too the church.

2.            Now, like the Israelite Exiles in Babylon, we too feel lost. It can feel like this Demographically different, Decentralized nation that we have been Disestablished from, is a strange land. We may weep when we remember the good old days
—all change, even positive change, involves a loss
—it involves mourning.

         But that’s not the whole story
—there ought to be shouts of joy mixed with our earnest weeping. Like those returning from the Exile we can rightly weep when looking at the shrunken shroud of what once was a vibrant house of God.
         At the same time, like them, we ought to shout for joy because the foundation of the House of the Lord is laid!

         Yes, because of Disestablishment “The Game” might start before church finishes,
you can now buy things on Sunday,
Christianity won’t regularly get a pat on the head from civic leaders, unless, you know, we actually do something special,
and at some point we’ll probably have to start paying property tax on the Church and the Parsonage.
         But that’s not all bad.
         Maybe being taxed will shock us into thinking about the difference between community and building, people and steeple.
         Maybe the church will be freed from the shackles of respectability… because we no longer expect that pat on our head from society for upholding social niceties.
         For example a clergyman more conservative than I, recently found out that Pub Theology meets in a bar, and he said to me, “Next thing you know you’ll be talking to Prostitutes about Jesus won’t you? What do your neighbor’s think?” And I responded, “Isn’t that what Jesus was accused of doing?” Shedding societal respectability to bring the Gospel to Sinners. “If I’m following Jesus why should I worry what the neighbors think?”

         Yes, Decentralization undercuts our authority, denominational loyalty, and fosters radical individualism.
         But maybe,
maybe this decentralized, semi-anonymous, depersonalized internet age
filled with crabby and hurtful people (no really look at any comments section of any page on the internet),
maybe this age could use the highly person community of the church as balm for its tired and hurting soul.
maybe Lutherans, the tradition that harnessed the Guttenberg press to spread the Word of God, can harness new technology for the same!
maybe the church is in fact a small group of people, who can influence the world,
 and therefore an era of decentralization is an exciting time to be Christian!

         Yes, Demographic shifts have us on the ropes, being a tradition tied to an ethnic identity no longer does us any favors, and being a middle class church just doesn’t mean what it used to.
         But maybe,
maybe we should consider that of the five countries with the most Lutherans in the world, two of them are African and one is Asian—and we need to get ready for the immigration of our sisters and brothers from Tanzania, Ethiopia, and Indonesia.
maybe this breaking of ethnic identity and religious identity will focus us on what makes us Lutheran
—because I swear to God, Lutheranism offers so much more than Lutfisk and blond braids or Bratwurst and Lederhosen
—ours is Grace,
ours is the Word of God,
ours is Cross.

         For that matter, maybe the new economic reality we face will allow us to hear the cries of the poor more fully. Maybe this little bite of poverty we experience will point us to the mauling our brothers and sisters in poverty are experiencing.

3       In closing, ours is to be faithful, following after our Lord, Baptizing and making Disciples.
Doing so in whatever world we find ourselves.
Doing so whatever our relationship to wider society.
Doing so in large groups together or in small groups dispersed.
Doing so whatever our ethnic and economic composition.
         Yes—doing so, this very day.

         Baptizing little Ryan into Christ right here today
—affirming that God is with him no matter what
—with him in this day of his Baptism,
with him in his old age,
in the morning of his life and noontime and evening.
With him,
with all of us,
as our life unfolds.