Proper 23B Sermon Notes (2018)

SERMON NOTES — October 14, 2018
Stewardship Emphasis – Week 3 of 4 (Proper 23B)

“Jesus died for my sins.” This is a deep truth of the Christian faith. The problem has been in how we understand it. The way that the majority of us grew up with goes something like this:

God is right to punish human beings for their sins. We deserve death. But by grace Jesus was sent to die for sins to satisfy God’s right to punish. Jesus died for my sins in the sense of dying in my place, taking the punishment I deserve.

There are many things wrong about this understanding. The death penalty for all human beings before they are even born and commit a sin? But the main thing wrong is that it says more about who we are than about who is the God revealed in Jesus, a God of loving forgiveness who wants to heal not punish. Jesus came precisely to show us a god different than the ones we have needed to justify our need to punish. Punishing people goes along with gods of tribalism. Jesus came to reveal a God who wants to heal our tribalism, to make us into one human family. God wants us to live and peace and fulfill our destiny as stewards of creation, caring for one another and for the earth.

So what is a more correct understanding of, “Jesus died for my sins”? Something like this:

Human beings, trapped in tribalism, often need to punish those who are not of their tribe, so that they can keep the clear boundaries between good and bad, us and them. Our way of keeping order depends on it. In order to begin to break through our tribalism, Jesus let himself be declared bad, one of Them. He let himself be punished with the death penalty in order to reveal to us the flaw in our entire way of keeping order based on tribalism, Us-Them. He died for my sins by taking the biggest Sin upon himself, our entire unjust way of keeping order.

This means seeing sin differently. All our individual sins are bad enough. They are the sins we typically identify in keeping order. But the chief Sin Jesus came to reveal is the hardest one for us to see: namely, our tribalistic way of keeping order in society.

This chief Sin is what is at stake in today’s Gospel Reading. A man comes to Jesus wanting to know what it takes to live into God’s coming kingdom. The commandments? That’s a start. Jesus looks lovingly at the man and gives him the bad news: you might as well sell everything you have and give it to the poor and follow me.

Why does he say this? Because Sin is bigger than what is covered by the commandments. In fact, it has infected the way we use the commandments to keep order. Sin has turned the law itself into a violent way of maintaining the boundaries between good and bad, us and them. If the man follows Jesus to the cross, he will witness this first hand.

But why sell everything and give it to the poor? Because his wealth is a deep part of the unjust system of keeping order. One of the ideas in the Old Testament is that of Jubilee: every 50 years all debts would be forgiven and everyone would start out fairly equal again. Sound crazy? Yes, to human ears. But not to God if the plan is to make us into one family. The man in today’s Gospel uses a revealing word: inherit. What happens in families if wealth is passed on unequally? A mess, right? But our human way of order tends to pass on wealth with huge inequities over generations. This man’s wealth was likely largely inherited. To live into God’s Kingdom this was going to be a problem. (Example: the difference in this country along lines of gender and race not just in income but in accumulated wealth. The idea of reparations for slavery and past sins sounds as ridiculous to us as Jubilee. But should it? Can we ever heal the tribalism created by racism without it?)

Illustration: The Man in the High Castle, a TV series on Amazon Prime, a historical Sci-Fi drama. It takes place primarily in 1962 United States. But the Sci-Fi is that it is in an alternative world, where the Nazis developed the atom bomb first and won the war. Seventeen years later they have kept an uneasy alliance with the Japanese but are brewing to make a move on them. The United States has been divided: the Japanese have the West Coast, the Rocky Mountains are a Neutral Zone, and everything east of the Rockies is controlled by the Nazis. Most white people in the Nazi held part of the U.S. have simply become Nazis, though there is still a resistance. It is more difficult on the West Coast, where the Japanese see themselves as superior and so the relationship to Americans is more like slavemasters. But the entire series dramatizes the heart of tribalism: believing that our tribe is somehow better than yours. We are better than Them, so it justifies violence against Them to keep them in line and make them bend to our superior way. (Share a bit more on the Sci-Fi element of some people able to travel between alternate worlds.)

The point of such a drama is imagining a different way that is better. Certainly, there are aspects of our democracy which is better than Nazi Germany or imperialistic Japan. But isn’t that to play the same “Us better than Them” game in the long run? In recent decades we have wrestled with the injustices of enslaving Africans and stealing from Native Americans. We have played the violent games of Us being better than Them. How much do we still do so with our democracy and our economics? Is our system of wealth significantly more just than during the time of Jesus?

Key questions for us Americans today: Do we over-trust the “free market” to rightly determine who wins and loses? Or do markets need rules to help make them more just for everyone? In fact, how much is capitalism beside the point if the point is justice to the poor? Can we ever get to justice through our present form of capitalism?

Or perhaps we could ask this way: What would it mean for our capitalist system to receive Jesus’ challenge to ‘sell everything and give it to the poor’? In other words, to make systemic changes that reorient our communities to care for the most vulnerable? Can we get beyond charity to the point of changing the injustices of the system? How do respond as individuals, as families, as faith communities?

In the meantime we are called to be sacramental communities, living into new ways of justice. As we noted in closing two weeks ago, we are especially called to live faith in abundance in our church communities, focused on caring for the least in God’s family. The early Christians in Acts 4 lived a radical new paradigm of abundance in the face of an Empire based on scarcity thinking. What are the ways we do this at Lutheran Church of the Savior? What special opportunity does Lutheran Church of the Savior have in sponsoring the African Christian Fellowship?

Paul Nuechterlein
Lutheran Church of the Savior
Kalamazoo, MI

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