Proper 23C Sermon (2016)

Proper 23 (October 9-15)
Texts: Luke 17:11-19;
2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c; 2 Tim. 2:8-15


proper-23c-2016-slide2In addition to reading today’s scripture in the context of Refugee Sunday,2 I’m also reading them in the wider context of “The Great Spiritual Migration,” based on the book of that title by Brian McLaren. Today we ponder the second of three great migrations which McLaren suggests is underway in the Christian journey.

Consider St. John’s definitive statement about God for Christians:

God is love. (1 John 4:8, 16)

proper-23c-2016-slide3Short and sweet. God is love. But how does that square with alleged words and actions of God elsewhere in Scripture? There is this direct command from God, for example, in Deuteronomy 7:

When the LORD your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy, and he clears away many nations before you…, then you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy. (Deut. 7:1-2)

Here God is basically commanding genocide. Let that settle in for a moment. It’s the kind of genocide we have finally become more painfully aware of in recent years. How do we square this with, “God is Love”?

proper-23c-2016-slide4It depends on our reading strategy of the Bible. Sadly, many Christians aren’t even aware that there are various strategies for reading the Bible. By strategy, I mean: how do you view the meaning or truth in a text? You wouldn’t, for example, read a biography of Abraham Lincoln with the same strategy as the Harry Potter series of children’s books. But many Christians have assumed only one strategy for reading the Bible: namely, that all statements in the Bible are literally and equally true. And that’s precisely the strategy that presents us with problems like squaring these two statements about God. If we read 1 John 4 and Deut. 7 as both literally and equally true, then God somehow is both love and someone who commands genocide.

Most regrettable have been the historical consequences of such a strategy: it has meant we Christians have been able to keep a genocide card in our back pockets, to pull out whenever it has been convenient for us to slaughter an enemy. For example, when our Christian European ancestors came to this continent 400 years ago, they could pull the genocide card out of their pockets and clear away this land — just like the people of Israel did under Moses and Joshua. Our ancestors used passages like Deut. 7 as a justification for mass murdering the native peoples of this land.3

I believe that our history makes it clear that we need to consider a new reading strategy for the Bible that doesn’t allow for a God who can justify our human violence. I propose that we finally make the great spiritual migration into a new experience of God as Love, simply Love, a spiritual migration that Jesus not only launched but incarnated. Jesus, we proclaim, is God’s love in the flesh. In other words, God himself has made the decisive move to finally help us know who God is — Love, period, end of story.

Except it’s not the end of the story yet because we human beings are so slow to learn. We are happy with the gods we have created that allow us to kill our enemies instead of love them, and so we are slow to journey to the place of God as love only. So by “great spiritual migration” I mean that God himself is taking human beings on a long journey, one where God takes us from our own false ideas about God into the complete knowledge in Christ of God as love.

proper-23c-2016-slide5This migration also means a new reading strategy for the Bible — precisely as a migration! We are to read the Bible from the perspective of God taking human beings on a long journey — many centuries long so far, with many advances and retreats. We can expect to find continuing false ideas about God along the way, even in the Bible — Deut. 7:1-2 being a prime example. This sin of idolatry in the Bible shouldn’t shock us if we are willing to confess our own Christian history of the same sin of justifying our violence in God’s name. God as love has been revealed to us in Jesus Christ and we’ve continued the sin of violence in our own Christian history. Right? We still don’t have this thing of God as love completely right, do we? How have we Christians done on loving our enemies?

proper-23c-2016-slide6Here’s the matter in a nutshell. From the perspective of human beings on a long journey with God, we come to see that we human beings have evolved with a largely false idea of who God is. We evolved primarily with what we might call God-on-our-side. This is the God created in each human community and culture which helps cement the cultural identity. Example: most cultures, until now, have said that men have a higher place than women because God made men superior. But that’s what we are calling “God-on-our-side” — in this case, on the side of men, who had taken charge and justified it with God-on-their-side. This God-on-our-side defines who our group is over against those Others, protecting us from them and hopefully giving us victory over them. God-on-our-side is the God who sometimes commands genocide in times of conflicting interests or war.

But I’m proposing to you today that the biblical story is one of God taking us on a journey away from God-on-our-side to God-is-love.4 The God who created the entire universe, including all human beings, does not take sides.5 God-is-love is a God beyond any one of our human cultures who came to fulfill all our law-based cultures in love. In Jesus the Messiah God shows us how to love, even loving enemies, as the only way to ultimately live in peace.

But how can God overcome the God-on-our-side version of God, which we have come to rely on so much? Put yourself in God’s shoes for a moment. If you are the true God, how would you get through to us human beings that you as Creator don’t take sides? That you are Love and never the willful violence of human beings? How would you get through? It wouldn’t be easy to go against 100,000 years of evolution, right? It would take a long time — hopefully, not another 100,000 years! — but a long time, nevertheless.6

Here’s how I suggest God broke through our idolatries — bringing us to our theme of Refugee Sunday: God needed to identify with the outsiders, immigrants, and refugees, in order to show us God-on-everyone’s-side, not just on our side. God needed to identify with marginalized and oppressed in our own cultures. And when you take a look at the biblical story as a whole, doesn’t this begin to make sense? Let’s take a quick whirlwind tour with this new reading strategy (extemporizing on the following):proper-23c-2016-slide7

  • Abraham and Sarah called out from their culture to be perpetual wanderers
  • The Hebrew slaves in Egypt called out to be wanderers in the desert.
  • Then, when God’s chosen people insisted, against God’s advice, to get kings and kingdoms of their own, God sent prophets to keep them reminded of the outsiders, the oppressed.
  • When Jesus arrives as the crucified Messiah, the people of Israel had been perpetual outsiders to other people’s empires for centuries. Their hopes are for a Messiah who will fulfill the God-on-our-side to the tune of crushing their enemies. Instead, they get a Messiah who fulfills the God as outsider, immigrant, and refugee. In Jesus, we get God making it clear to us that when we want to find God, we should always look first to the outsider, the oppressed.
  • Brings us to today’s readings: Elisha helping a foreign, enemy general; Paul, a political prisoner; Jesus heals marginalized lepers, and it’s the foreigner who returns to give thanks.

proper-23c-2016-slide8Here’s the deeper meaning, the wider Good News, of today’s Gospel Reading. The healing of the Samaritan leper means more than healing ten people of a terrible disease, as wonderful as that is. Jesus came to heal more than a blind person here, a crippled person there. Jesus came to heal all of humanity from our diseased way of religions which praise the God-on-our-side. Jesus came to heal all of us of our warring violence so that we might begin to hope for a day of peace.

The Bible, in other words, is one, long, long story of our healing. And it’s ongoing! Look at our politics of immigration right now here in this country. As followers of Jesus, what are the ways in which we can become an ongoing part of this healing story?

Brief reflections on Refugee Sunday [extemporized] — Faith supported a refugee family from Viet Nam in 1975. There is currently a tremendous need to support refugees from Syria. Could Faith answer the call again? I have experienced a loving congregation in my time here as interim. The promise is that when we extend that love to outsiders, we open ourselves to meeting God in powerful ways.

So, in the meantime, we return each week to this table to be healed. We follow the Samaritan leper in returning here each week to give praise to God! And then we are sent out with that healing love to a world sorely in need of it. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Faith Lutheran,
Saginaw, MI, October 8-9, 2016


1. This sermon is based on the second of three spiritual migrations in Brian McLaren’s newly released book (Sept. 20) The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s Largest Religion Is Seeking a Better Way to Be Christian. (We explored the first of three last Sunday and the third next Sunday.) I highly recommend this book for all! It is the essential guide to being better Christians for the sake of the world. This sermon draws on Part 2 of the book, the second of three great spiritual migrations that he elaborates.

2. Refugee Sunday is an opportunity to lift of the ministry of the excellent organization Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (link for more on Refugee Sunday).

3. McLaren, The Great Spiritual Migration, chapter 4, “The Genocide Card in Your Back Pocket.” McLaren does a superb job of raising awareness for the White Christian Supremacy that has been justified by this reading strategy. Chapter 6, “The Bible in Labor,” points the way to a different reading strategy.

4. McLaren, The Great Spiritual Migration, chapter 5, “God 5.0,” makes this basic move using different language. He argues that our experience of God needs to migrate beyond what I’m calling “God-on-our-side,” which he calls “God 4.0.”

5. Matthew 5:44-45: “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”

6. Raising these questions in this manner is where the anthropological perspective as represented by the Mimetic Theory of René Girard has been crucial for my own perspective. My reading strategy of Scripture has become anthropological — seeing the Bible as the story of God’s long journey with us into becoming truly human.

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