Proper 19 (Sept. 11-17)
Texts: Luke 15:1-10;
1 Tim. 1:12-17
We’ve experienced a terrifying evil as a nation this week. And the question arises: Why didn’t God stop it? Billy Graham noted in his sermon Friday that he’s heard this question a lot this week. Why does God allow such evil?
One of the best answers to this question that I’ve run across didn’t come from some thick theology book, but from one of the Trailblazer series books that I read to my boys. It’s the story of one of those ugly times in the church’s history when it inflicted great suffering and death on people in the name of God. The church was persecuting one of the new Protestant groups in Europe, the followers of Menno Simons, the Mennonites. It’s precisely the kind of righteous violence that St. Paul is confessing to in our first lesson this morning when he says, “I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence.”
This book tells the story of an adolescent boy, Adriaen, whose mother is being held in prison to be hanged simply for being a Mennonite. After the chapter in which Adriaen visits his mother in a horrible dungeon, my boys actually asked me to stop reading. It’s the only time they’ve ever asked me to do that, to not finish a book. It’s the kind of heartbreak we’ve seen repeatedly this week, as we hear stories of moms and dads who called home one last time before being tragically murdered at the hands of evil men.
But here’s a conversation Adriaen has with his friend Betty after his visit to the dungeon. Listen for Betty’s answer to the question of why God doesn’t stop evil:
“I thought God was supposed to take care of us,” Adriaen grumbled. “What have I ever done to deserve losing my mother? It’s not fair.””Adriaen, don’t confuse God with life. Life may be unfair…God is not. It wasn’t God who put your mother in prison.”
“Maybe not, but [God] didn’t stop those men from doing it.”
“And you think [God] should have? You think [God] should have stopped the authorities from arresting those believers?”
“Yeah, why not?”
“Well, God can do whatever [God] pleases, but when was the last time [God] stopped you from doing something wrong?”
“I don’t know,” Adriaen said with a shrug, not sure he liked the direction the conversation was going.
“The reason you don’t remember is because [God] very rarely does something like that,” said Betty matter-of-factly. “We’d like God to stop other people from doing bad things all the time, but when it comes to us, we want the freedom to make our own choices even if they are wrong.” (1)
We as Americans want the freedom right now, as a matter of fact, to plan our own response to the dastardly deeds of this past Tuesday, even if it is the wrong choice in God’s eyes, I dare say. In fact, I was glad to see Sen. McCain so brutally honest about that this week, when he said, “God have mercy on the souls of the men who did this, because we won’t.”
I find Sen. McCain’s statement not only refreshingly honest but also to be making a very important theological point: namely, the difference between the choices we human beings often make to acts of violence against us, and the choice God made in responding to our violence in Jesus Christ. God made a very different choice: forgiveness rather than revenge. The God we come to know in Jesus Christ is a God of mercy and love.
Yet throughout history humankind has made the choice of seeking revenge, of responding to violence with our own “righteous” violence. And all too often we have gotten God mixed up in our deeds of revenge, in our responses of righteous violence. God is an idol who justifies our violence. The terrorists who performed this act of violence no doubt felt it to be righteous violence, the kind of violence that St. Paul confesses to this morning. The terrorists felt themselves justified to strike out, even against civilians, because they see our nation as evil and themselves to be carrying out God’s punishment. That’s why they could even do what they did as a suicide. They were confident in God’s approval of what they were doing. To be honest, it was the same kind of righteous violence that we Christians carried out against Muslims — men, women, and children — during our crusades to the Holy Land in the Middle Ages. If the U.S. carries out its own righteous violence against Muslim people in the weeks ahead, I hope we are at least clear about our responsibility as Sen. McCain when he says, “God have mercy on the souls of those men who did this, because we won’t.” It is we human beings who do such things to each other. The God we meet in Jesus Christ is a God of mercy, a God who responds to our human violence with forgiveness instead of revenge.
How different are God’s ways from ours? An important story for me is one of the stories Luke tells to close his Gospel. It’s Easter evening and two disciples are walking home from Jerusalem to Emmaus. They are caught up in what we are this week: a bewildering grief, theirs due to the loss of Jesus on the cross. How could God have let Jesus be handed over into the hands of a human righteous violence? Jesus suddenly meets them on the road, though they don’t recognize him at first. Instead, Jesus listens to their grief, but then this is what Luke tells us happened next:
Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. (Luke 24:25-27)
In other words, Jesus had to go back through all of scriptures so that they could begin to see who God truly is, and what God’s ways are about, in light of the cross. Do the Hebrew scriptures sometimes give us a God who asks for righteous violence against his people’s enemies? Yes, but we must begin to read those passages in light of the cross, which is a completely different response to violence. In other words, even in the Hebrew Scriptures we sometimes meet a god who tells us more about our idolatry than about the true God we see in the cross. And Jesus helps us to meet the true God in the Hebrew scriptures by helping us to see when God’s ways are completely different from ours.
Jesus had already given us many hints about these differences during his life which culminated at the cross. This morning’s Gospel lesson is yet another example of the topsy-turvy nature of God’s ways. It may be lost us on city folks who don’t really know too much about shepherds and sheep. I think that Jesus must have offered this parable with tongue in cheek, or with a wry smile, when he says, “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” This is precisely something that no self-respecting shepherd would do! A shepherd doesn’t leave the rest of the herd in danger in the wilderness to go traipsing off looking for one lost sheep. It’s just too bad for that lost sheep! Jesus’ parable is once again indicating that God operates in basically the opposite way as we would. We would sacrifice that one sheep. God goes after the one we would sacrifice.
If we go after Osama Bin Laden and begin to see “collateral damage” — let’s call it what it is, innocent people killed in the process — I dare say that the God of Jesus will be with those innocent people, not us. We would sacrifice those who get in the way of our righteous violence. God would go after those we sacrifice.
So I go into these next weeks expecting a personal struggle. I’m thankful to Sen. McCain for putting the choice so clearly: God’s mercy or our righteous violence. But as a disciple of Jesus I can’t be quite so glib about it. As a follower of Jesus I need to be repenting of my righteous violence, not wallowing in it. In the second lesson this morning, we’ve already noted that St. Paul confesses his past life as a man of righteous violence, but he’s not wallowing in it. His confession comes in the context of giving thanks for a changed life. “But I received mercy,” he says, “because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.” He had acted out of ignorance, and Jesus forgave him, just as he did those who hung him on the cross “for they didn’t know what they were doing.” St. Paul, however, does know what he is doing by the time he wrote this letter, and so he no longer has that excuse.
You and I no longer have that excuse, either. We, too, have experienced God’s grace and forgiveness, so we can’t go on doing the same things. “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us,” we pray. We can’t go on getting caught up in righteous violence when we have so clearly known the God of mercy in Christ Jesus. So I will struggle in the weeks ahead as our political leaders talk to us about such righteous violence against our enemies. [By the way, even if we call it “justice” instead of “vengeance,” as I’ve already heard from some religious leaders this week, it still amounts to the same thing if it involves violence. Righteous violence is still righteous violence despite our attempts at naming it as just or righteous.]
Perhaps I can at least give thanks, ala St. Paul in Romans 13 (vs. 1-7), that government exists in this meantime to impose order, to help keep my family and I safe. But notice that St. Paul doesn’t anywhere imply that he himself can as a follower of Jesus Christ be part of those efforts. No, his thanks for the order of good government comes in the context of a section in which he is emphasizing his life as a disciple of Jesus. The only law left for him to follow as a disciple is the law of love (Rom. 13:9-10), even when that means loving one’s enemies (Rom. 12:14-21). So I will struggle with much of the rhetoric and many of the choices we will be making as we go to war over the coming weeks.
Let me close by putting this more positively. We gather here today for God’s gift of Holy Communion. There are our human ways of coming together, our communions, and there’s God’s way of Holy Communion. What we remember once again in the sharing of Christ’s body and blood is our unholy ways of communion based on making sacrificial victims of our righteous violence, like our Lord himself. But God graciously transforms these unholy means of gathering ourselves together into the Holy Communion, a gathering together in remembrance of the Risen sacrificial victim, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He takes away our sin, by exposing our righteous violence, robbing it of its power, and replacing it with the life-giving power of God’s forgiveness and mercy.
This is more the kind of Holy Communion that I think we’ve been experiencing this week in our nation. In the days ahead we will talk increasingly of striking back, which is just more of our old unholy communion — that is, coming together on the basis of striking out at a common enemy. But this week we’ve experienced the Holy Communion of coming together around those sacrificed by the terrorist’s act of righteous violence. We’ve come together with incredible acts of loving service in response to the terrible, tragic loss of our fellow citizens. Let’s cherish these acts of mercy as we all pitch in at a time of crisis and loss. Let us cherish them as the real means of Holy Communion, the way of living which is truly and ultimately binding.
The most spectacular picture of this in Scripture, I think, is the one painted for us by St. John in his vision of Revelation. Like us, he has been shaped by his culture to expect a military victory as the thing to save us. But he looks up to find the Lion of Judah, that symbol of military might, and he instead beholds the Lamb slain since the beginning of the world (Rev. 5:5-6), the one who has solidarity with all the victims we have made through righteous violence. John then looks up and sees the true Holy Communion:
After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (Rev. 7:9-10, 13-17)
As we gather for this celebration of Holy Communion set before us, may we have a foretaste of that great day to come. And may this foretaste nourish us into lives of loving service, of reaching out to those who continue to be victims of this world’s violence, for that is what makes for a truly Holy Communion. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Redemption Lutheran,
Wauwatosa, WI, September 16, 2001