All Saints C Sermon-turned-Essay (2004)

The following is a sermon turned into an essay, that was originally delivered at Atonement Lutheran, Muskego, WI, November 7, 2004, on All Saints Sunday, based on the Gospel Lesson, Luke 6:20-31. It was the first Sunday after the 2004 election, when we were barraged with the analysis that Bush won because of his stance on “moral issues” championed by the so-called Religious Right.

 


JESUS’ CAMPAIGN OF “MORAL ISSUES”

Children’s Sermon

Objects: clear plastic bottles of white grape juice, soda, and green Lysol cleaner.

Extemporize around the following main points:

  • From an early age our parents teach us what is healthy for our bodies. Which drink is most healthy for us? Which is the junk food? Which is poison?
  • We need to learn the same for our spirits: healthy spiritual food, spiritual junk food, and poisonous spiritual food.
  • We have spirits with our bodies. God doesn’t have a body like ours that you can see. God is Spirit. Our spirits are the parts that we can’t see in each other, the thoughts and feelings.
  • Which means that our spirits are constantly starving for food and drink! Even while we sleep, we dream thoughts and feelings. How many times to you eat each day? Three? Four? Knowing how to feed our spirits is so important because we are feeding them all day long! Our feelings and thinking never completely shuts off. With everything we do, we are feeding our spirits. Discuss things the kids like to do and sort them into the categories of spiritual food.
  • We have first communion today, and the Lord’s Supper is the most healthy spiritual food of all. Jesus shows us how to love like God loves. We feed our spirit with God’s love.
  • I’m going to spend some time now talking about this with everyone. Let’s pray.

Sermon

I would like to extend the discussion of spiritual food and drink into the talk we’ve heard much about this week in the aftermath of the election. We’ve heard much about “moral values” as having played a big part in President Bush’s re-election.

Does Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Plain reflect definitive moral values? Do you feel uncomfortable listening to this Gospel, as I do, hearing blessings upon the poor and hungry and grieving and then curses upon the wealthy and well-fed and happy? I would have to say that I’m among the latter, wouldn’t you? Especially in the wider context of this world’s three billion people, I’m wealthy and well-fed and happy. What’s Jesus doing here?

My proposal to you this morning is that Jesus’ words should challenge us into wrestling with some “moral values” that run much deeper and challenge all of us, much more than I heard from either candidate in the past weeks. But if I’m going to show that this runs much deeper, I’ll need to get to basics, such as the story of the fall into sin in Genesis and also the Ten Commandments. And I will set it up first, as I did with our First Communion students, with a deeper discussion of spiritual food and drink.

Let’s begin with an important distinction between the words “appetite” and “desire.” I want to use the word appetite to refer to our physical hunger and thirsts. Mirroring the points I made with the children, these are about the needs of our physical bodies. Along with the other animals, we have appetites for food and drink, for sexual reproduction, for being nurtured and groomed in basic ways. We don’t usually say it this way, but our need for rest might also be considered as a basic appetite. We share these things with all of God’s creatures.

But human beings alone are said to be made in the image of God. I think this means that we have spirits, ‘spiritual bodies’ that also crave food and drink. God has breathed into us his own Spirit, a spirit which takes us beyond the basic appetites and instincts of the other animals. As our physical bodies need their appetites satisfied, what is it about our spiritual selves that needs satisfying? Instead of the word appetite, I would like to propose the word desire to designate the cravings of our spiritual bodies. Desire goes beyond appetite to point to our craving for spiritual food and drink. A romantic view of desire sees it more like appetite, that is, as simply arising within our bodies. I think we want to see it that way because we want to feel in control. But contrary to such a romantic view, I suggest to you that the Bible teaches us that desire goes beyond such basic appetities. Desire is born in the spaces in between us, as our spirits collide and interact with each other. Basically, we catch our desires from each other by learning them from each other.

An example I used with the kids for First Communion class involves appetite for food experienced by our physical bodies turned into desire. Our stomachs growling can awaken us to the fact of our physical hunger, our physical appetite. But going beyond the basic fact of being hungry is a matter of desire. How do we know, for example, that pizza would be great to satisfy that hunger? Don’t we learn from someone else along the way that we should desire pizza to satisfy our appetite? To see how our desire for certain foods is learned, is even cultural, I present to you the case of lutefisk! How did our northern European ancestors from Norway and Denmark decide that fish soaked in lye would be good to satisfy our hunger? What’s up with that?! Fish-tasting jello! Or from my own German heritage, there’s sauerkraut. As an adult I’ll eat it once in a while out of a can or jar. But when I was growing up, my mother made it from scratch and smelled the whole house up with it all day. What a stink! I wouldn’t touch the stuff. Can you see what I mean? Our desires for foods, beyond our appetites, are shaped according to our cultures and to what we learn from others.

Now, before we go on, let’s remind ourselves that God created us good. This aspect of our spirits, that our desires interact with each others’, is not bad in itself. But the story of creation is followed by the story of the fall into sin, which tells us that the important thing about our desire is that it can also interact with God’s desire. We can catch God’s desire and be able to live life to the fullest, a veritable Garden of Eden on earth. Why? Because God’s desire is love, love for the whole creation, love for every creature, an infinite love for each one of us. When we catch that desire from God, we live as we ought to, in peace and harmony with one another.

But there is also that story of desire at the Bible’s beginning that shows us that we don’t often enough catch God’s desire. We catch each other’s desire. The serpent convinces the woman that she should find desirable that fruit of the forbidden tree, and the woman models that desire to her husband. They catch that desire from each other. And what is the upshot? The man and woman, instead of catching their desire from God, fall into rivalry with God, and so with one another. Our fallen desire becomes a story of rivalry and conflict. It’s not long before their first two sons, Cain and Abel, are caught up it, and one murders the other. Before you know it, as the stories in those first chapters of the Bible go, the whole earth is full of violence (Gen. 6:11), and God decides to start over with Noah and his family.

Well, ultimately, as the story goes, that didn’t quite work either. God promises with the rainbow to never again try solving the problem of human violence with divine violence. And so the real beginning of the Bible is in Genesis 12, when God forms a covenant to live in love with Abraham and Sarah, no matter what. God has chosen a people with whom to reveal the Godself in a special way, so that we might begin to learn how to desire like God — how to love the whole creation, and to thus work for its abundance.

And it takes that kind of unconditional covenant love to nurture us along. Because we keep falling. Basic to God’s covenant with his people is the Ten Commandments. In our First Communion class (as I’ve also done here on Sunday morning once before), we talked about how we break that last commandment about desire, about catching our desires from our neighbor, so that we end up coveting their possessions. We break that last commandment by breaking the first commandment about not having other gods. Do you see? When we catch our desires from each other, we are using each other as models for our desires. We are gods to each other in that most basic way of feeding our spirits. If we were to keep that first commandment, catching only the loving desire of the true God for the whole creation, then we wouldn’t break the last commandment about coveting each other’s stuff. We’d avoid the rivalry by loving our neighbor as ourselves. Loving God means loving like God so that we love our neighbor just as God does.

But we do break both the first and last commandments, and so, caught up in the rivalries of covetous desire, we break the commandments in the middle, too. As rivals with one another, we bear false witness; we tear down one another’s reputations vying for position. We steal. We covet our neighbor’s spouse and so commit adultery. And, yes, we even move on to killing.

But it’s this last one which might be the most deceptive of all. For it’s what our sinfulness leads to, in even killing God’s son on the Cross. How does that happen? Well, there’s one more important step to this fall into sin. What did the man and woman do in the garden when God came to them? The man blamed the woman and the woman blamed the serpent. Blame is what happens next, when our fallen desire spawns rivalry.

Now, the story shouldn’t quite have ended there. Because it stops a bit short of the full story on how we live in at least a relative peace. You see, given all the rivalry because of fallen desire, we would be in constant conflict with each other. We’d be killing each other left and right, just as Cain killed Abel. For Adam and Eve, for us, to be able to live in a relative peace, they needed to both blame the snake together. That’s the untold end of the story of the fall: the blaming of a scapegoat. The man and woman could gain a measure of relative peace together by jointly blaming someone else, shifting their blame from each other.

This is the depth of our sinfulness that makes the Cross of Jesus necessary. It’s the depth of what we must come to see about ourselves, that we require scapegoats to live in peace with each other. Jesus — whom we call the Lamb of God, in other words, our scapegoat — Jesus came to take this sin away from us by finally helping us to see our scapegoats as scapegoats. Oh, we still try desperately not to see them. But the work of the Holy Spirit has made it increasingly obvious to us that we do kill — not individually, perhaps, but we do choose to kill together. We Jointly find scapegoats and kill them. War, executions, and on and on. As I just said, we try desperately not to see this, by trotting forward all our justifications. Our scapegoats are guilty, after all, right? But that’s not the point, you see. Yes, our scapegoats may be guilty of something. The serpent was guilty of tempting the woman to catch his desire instead of God’s desire. But the act of scapegoating the serpent was for Adam and Eve to also shift their guilt upon the serpent so that they could live with some relative measure of peace. Do you see? When we execute someone, they may be truly guilty of something. We hope so. Our justice system has tried to build in lots of rights and measures to ensure that the guilty are punished. But, even when our scapegoats are guilty, there remains this aspect of our fallenness that we desperately need their guilt so that we can also unwittingly shift our guilt upon them. We feel better about ourselves because we can feel so righteously angry at our scapegoats. And so we live in peace — minus our scapegoats, of course.

Or so we think. For this ‘peace’ we have attained is always at the expense of others. It takes the Lamb of God to get us to fully face this darkness about ourselves. It takes the Son of God, who is completely innocent of all our charges, to show us the sin of our entire enterprise of scapegoating. In fact, it blows the lid off the whole process of our sin — the whole thing that we’ve traced here this morning: the desiring according to our neighbor instead of God (the breaking of the first and tenth commandments), the fall into rivalry and conflict that ensues, and so the breaking of all the commandments, right down to the choosing to kill together, to blame a scapegoat so that we can feel more righteous about ourselves. This is what we must come to see in the cross of Jesus when we proclaim that he takes all our sinfulness to that cross. It must also be what we come to see when that same Jesus rises from the dead to forgive our sins. As we come to know the depth of that forgiveness, we can come to know the joy of just how much we are forgiven — again, right down to the choosing to kill together, to blame a scapegoat so that we can feel more righteous about ourselves. We can begin to know a joy of being able to come together in peace on a wholly new basis, without having to shift our blame on someone else. We can begin to be made into a Holy Communion.

Finally, let’s return to all that talk this week of “moral values,” which apparently played such a big role in the re-election of President Bush. The first problem I have is that the two “moral values” most often named as playing such a big role are opposition to abortion and gay marriage. Not only are these “moral values” a severe narrowing of what I would consider “moral values” (we will speak shortly of what I consider to be other, more basic moral values), but it is a narrowing that can tend to play right into our scapegoating tendencies. We can make pro-choice and pro-gay marriage folks our enemy in order to get some measure of peace among us folks with the proper “moral values.” Once again, let’s be careful here. I’m not saying we can’t have meaningful discussions around the ethics of these two issues. But we have to also be faced with our scapegoating tendency to blame someone else and to not take responsibility for our guilt in the problems that face us. Most of us here this morning haven’t felt forced in desperation to resort to abortion. Most of here this morning aren’t gay and instead enjoy the benefits of heterosexual marriage. So we can feel better about ourselves by pointing at someone else’s moral dilemma. Our guilt appears lessened by focusing on someone else’s guilt. Can we see how this is the kind of moralizing that puts Jesus on the cross again?

What other kind of moralizing is there, you ask? The kind that implicates us all — the kind that makes true the truth we heard from St. Paul last Sunday:

But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God… (Romans 3:21-23)

The kind of moralizing from the law that we use to make our scapegoats, to proclaim some guilty so that can appear more innocent, is shown to be a sham in the cross, because it shows us all to be guilty — and then all innocent in the forgiveness of the cross. The only basis for moralizing, then, must be to begin from our point of common guilt — never from points of unequal guilt or innocence.

That’s why the “moral issues” behind Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain are so fundamental. They ultimately implicate us all. Even the relative distinction between rich and poor can be shown to be one that we all participate in. It is a distinction that arises because of our breaking of the first and last commandments. In the fallenness of our desire we always want to see our neighbor as having more than us. We want to see ourselves as poor compared to our rich neighbor who has what we want. And in our consumerist culture, of the last fifty years especially, hasn’t this become a coveting our neighbors’ things on steroids, a “keeping up with the Joneses” on steroids? And so our eyes are always on those we judge to have more than us, rather than those we judge to have less. We see ourselves as poor, as the blessed of Jesus’ sermon, and those with more than us as the cursed of Jesus’ sermon. No, says Jesus, we all need to begin with our usual values upside down, topsy-turvy. Instead of seeing ourselves as poor because our gaze is constantly on those we deem more rich, we need to learn to see ourselves as rich so we can finally see those we deem to have less than us. In other words, we need to begin to see how we are cursed, how we are guilty, not innocent. This is very tricky and dangerous, mind you. We need to see ourselves in solidarity with all others, finally transcending distinctions between rich and poor. It will mean crossing our usual boundary in ways that share out of our blessings. Bottom line: we will find ourselves in ministry with those the world sees as poor, giving up our projects to be rich. Isn’t this the most pervasive “moral issue” we, in fact, find throughout the Bible? Jesus himself says almost nothing about our sexuality. He says loads and loads about how we view and use our possessions; he says lots about standing in solidarity with the poor. I consider this is a fundamental “moral issue” that was nowhere nearly addressed adequately by either candidate.

And do you notice how our scapegoating is also a basic “moral issue” of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain? Blessed are those who are hated, excluded, and reviled. In other words, blessed are those who are our scapegoats! Again, Jesus would have us turn upside-down our usual way of moralizing — something completely missing from the campaign — or there wouldn’t have been so much pointing the figure of blame at each other, so much breaking of the eighth commandment, of bearing false witness against each other.

And here’s the toughest part of all: Jesus completely turns upside-down our entire way of striving for peace which is through righteously striking out against our enemies, our scapegoats.

“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also….” (Luke 6:27-29a)

Our way to peace through righteous violence is replaced by God’s way of peace through Jesus Christ, who loved us even while we were still enemies of God in our sinfulness (Rom. 5:1-11). Jesus suffered our violence and was raised to new life in order to show us that God’s love is the true power of this world. Our human way to peace trusts in the superior firepower of righteous violence; God’s way of peace in Jesus Christ calls us to have faith in the power of God’s love, which goes to the length of showing love even to enemies, while calling us to do the same: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” Didn’t both candidates basically take the opposite approach to this “moral issue,” stumbling all over each other in trying to be first is hunting out and destroying our enemies?

Now, I’m not saying that our foreign policy is ready to take on the moral values of the Sermon on the Plain. It plainly isn’t. But aren’t we a long ways away from it in the kind of hate-filled, vengeance-filled rhetoric we’ve been treated to? Could destroying our enemies at least not be the measure of great leadership? I’m a lot less certain that we are taking the right tactic than either Mr. Kerry or Mr. Bush seem to be. In fact, I think we might be playing right into Osama bin Laden’s hand. Don’t get me wrong. Bin Laden is clearly does evil things when he tries to make us scapegoats for his cause, finding it righteous to slaughter thousands of innocent people by flying loaded airplanes into them. It hardly gets more evil than that. But I wonder if his overall aim isn’t the even more evil design of trying to provoke us into continuing to escalate violence until we find ourselves in World War III, with the majority Christian nations against the majority Muslim nations — that is, one billion people against another billion people. Do we realize how much our actions are alienating Muslims around the world? Are we playing right into bin Laden’s hand as we continue to escalate? Can’t we at least see Jesus’ fundamental moral issues in the Sermon on the Plain as motivation to slow down the escalation and to find better ways of reaching out to Muslims in peace? These are tough questions, but how can we as Christians not at least wrestle with them on the basis of Bible passages like the one that confronts us this morning? Can we listen to Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain again today and not have our approach to “moral values” not challenged to the core in ways that this past election didn’t begin to touch on?

And so we come to our Lord’s table once again this morning for true food and drink, a basis for a Holy Communion, a Holy basis for the politics of living together as God’s children. We are fed with the Holy Food of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ, so that we might be nourished into holy lives of love for the whole creation. Amen

Paul Nuechterlein

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