Proper 7C Sermon (2016)

Proper 7 (June 19-26)
Texts: Galatians 3:23-29;
Luke 8:26-39; Isaiah 65:1-9


The Oneness of God which St. Paul lays before us today is stunning. Do we realize how much so? It’s like the Apostle Paul is lobbing a thought grenade into our midst. Ka-boom! I use the violent image ironically, precisely because we so desperately need to blow apart all — and I mean all — our violent images of God. As we languish this week in the aftermath of our nation’s most deadly mass shooting ever [the shooting at the Orlando nightclub killing 49 — which is now second to the Las Vegas shooting in 2017], God needs us to grow up as a species and begin leaving behind our violence.

How so? Well, one of the most important crucial first steps is to finally leave behind all our violent images of God. Keep in mind the radical Oneness in our Second Reading: God is the one creator and has created humankind to be one human family. Until we finally begin living as if we are truly one family, we will continue to fall short of being the creatures God created us to be — created in the image of the loving, nonviolent God. We human beings will not become less violent until we discover in Jesus Christ that God is completely nonviolent.

The urgency for leaving behind our violent images of God is dramatized poignantly in the 2008 Masterpiece Theater TV presentation God on Trial. It is a fictionalized account of what some survivors Nazi “death camp” at Auschwitz — most notably, Elie Wiesel — have indicated really happened: while awaiting their deaths, some Jews held a mock trial of sorts, putting God on trial for abandoning the covenant God made with God’s “Chosen People.” This PBS drama provides a fictional account of what that might have been like.

[Introduce from handout and read highlights of dialogue. A rough transcription is shared below at the end of the page. It is recommended that listeners/readers of this sermon look-up and view the video on YouTube:]

So how did we followers of Jesus get to be so far off with our ideas of God? I would suggest that a very important answer to this is that we have had an inadequate reading strategy for reading our Bibles — especially the Old Testament. If we read with only a literalistic strategy, then this video makes clear that we get a God who clearly commands things like genocide. This God is on the side of folks like the Nazis. Is that what we want?

Paul gives us a very helpful image for a different kind of reading strategy, one that sees God as allowing us a development in our species as human beings. St. Paul says that God has allowed us to experience god as a “disciplinarian” god until we are ready for the real thing in Jesus Christ. Those of you who are parents (on this weekend we celebrate Father’s Day!): Think about your own relationship with children over the years. They needed to know you as a disciplinarian who made safe boundaries for them, and sometimes even punished them in order to teach them how to safely navigate this sometimes dangerous, challenging world. But when your children reached adulthood, your relationship changed dramatically. You hope they come to know you as the persons in this world who will always give them unconditional love and support. But you no longer play the role of disciplinarian; they will suffer the consequences of wrong actions on their own.

St. Paul is telling us that that’s how it is with God our Father. Christ Jesus came at the time when we are ready to grow up as a species! We are ready to take the responsibility for own actions — especially the violent ones. As Jesus says, “Those who live by the sword die by the sword.” But when we are crucified with Christ and he begins to live in us, we find ourselves finally ready to begin leaving our violence behind — even as we are ready to leave behind our violent images of God.

To be sure, growing up will take a conversion of faith that leaves behind much of the faith passed on to us. That’s difficult! But I’m convinced that we in the 21st Century need to finally complete the Reformation of the 16th Century. And I think a key is to correctly translate a verse from last week’s Second Reading — that crucial Reformation verse about being “justified by faith in Christ.” The word “in” is not part of the original Greek. And the better translation of these words is that we are “justified by the faith of Christ.” It’s not our faith that saves us! And certainly not in the sense of believing the right things about Jesus. No! What saves us is Jesus’s faithfulness to God in going to the Cross and being raised on Easter morning. Jesus was faithful to a loving and nonviolent God by suffering our human violence and trusting that God might raise him to new life. Which God did! And so Paul makes it clear with his next words: “I was crucified with Christ so that it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.” In short, it’s not about our faith in Jesus Christ. What we most desperately need is the faith of Jesus Christ living in each of us. That will be the key to our finally growing up!

It’s been 2000 years, though, since Christ came. And there’s signs all around us that we have not much begun to grow up yet. There’s seemingly more violence everywhere. And instead of Oneness, there seems to be more division everywhere. So, yes, it is discouraging. And yet if we see this not just in terms of each person’s salvation and instead see it on the level of our whole species, there is some reason for hope. If Jesus was the turning point of humankind needing to enter into adulthood, we know from modern anthropology that our species took more than 100,000 years in its childhood! So 2000 years is a short time in that evolutionary timeframe of God’s.

On the other hand, we have also developed technologies that can more easily destroy us . . . weapons of both mass murder and mass destruction. Could it be that the time is now for us to more fully turn the corner on growing up? Brothers and Sisters, you and I are followers of this Jesus, God’s Son, our older brother, who came to show us how to grow up. Let’s do whatever it takes to finally begin to more faithfully follow in his footsteps. In fact, the promise is that, through the Holy Spirit, it doesn’t even have to be us who’s faithful to God’s image of loving caretakers. It can be Christ himself living in us so that it is his faithfulness helping us to change this world. For God’s sake, you and I can join the movement of humankind finally growing up. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Faith Lutheran, Saginaw, MI
June 19-20, 2016

From the PBS drama God on Trial, about Jewish prisoners at Auschwitz putting God on trial, here is a rough transcription of Rabbi Akiba’s monologue near the end:

Who led us out of Egypt? A: God. Why were we in Egypt to start with? A: Famine. Who sent the famine? God. God sent us to Egypt, and God took us out. How did he bring us out of Egypt? Plagues. [Recites the ten plagues.] Finally, God struck down the first born, from the heir of Pharaoh to the slave at the mill. He slew them all. Did he slay Pharaoh? No. Pharaoh was the one who said “No” but God let him live and slew the children. All the children. Taking much of the riches from Egypt, the Hebrew slaves went out into the wilderness. And God drowned all the Egyptian soldiers. The waters went back not to block their way. God waited until they were in danger to close the waters.

Then what? The desert and ultimately the Promised Land. Was the Promised Land empty, a new place, uncultivated? No. “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. . . , seven nations mightier and more numerous than you – and when the LORD your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy” (Deut. 7:1-2).

And God gave us a king, Saul. When Saul went to war against the people of Amalek, what did the Lord God command? “Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey” (1 Samuel 15:3). On the way, Saul meets the Kenites and warns them to flee. Was God pleased by Saul’s mercy? And Saul saved some of the cattle and livestock of the Amalekites. Was God pleased by Saul’s prudence, his charity? No. “Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, he has also rejected you from being king” (1 Samuel 15:23). And to please God (1 Samuel 15:33) “Samuel hewed king Agag in pieces before the LORD in Gilgal.”

After Saul came David, who took Bathsheba as his wife by arranging to have her husband Uriah killed — against the wishes of God. Did God smite David or Bathsheba for this sin? (2 Samuel 12:15) “Adonai struck the child that Uriah’s wife bore to David, and it became very ill.”

[Akiba turns to Baumgartner:] You asked earlier, ‘Who punishes a child?’ God does. Did God strike the child suddenly to spare it pain? It took seven days to die a painful death.

Did that child find that God was just? Did the Amalekites think that Adonai was just? Did the mothers of Egypt think that Adonai was just?

Idek answers, “But Adonai is our God.”

[Akiba responds:] Did God not make the Egyptians? Did he not make their rivers and their crops grow? If not Adonai, then who? Some other god? And what did he make them for? To punish them? To starve, to frighten, and to slaughter them? The people of Amalek, the people of Egypt, what was it like for them when Adonai turned against them? It was like this.

Today there was a selection [German soldiers marking who will live and who will die]. When David defeated the Moabites, what did he do? 2 Samuel 8:2: “He also defeated the Moabites and, making them lie down on the ground, measured them off with a cord; he measured two lengths of cord for those who were to be put to death, and one length for those who were to be spared.” We have become the Moabites.

We are learning how it was for the Amalekites. They faced extinction at the hand of Adonai. They died for his purpose. They fell as we are falling. They were afraid as we are afraid. And what did they learn? They learned that Adonai, the Lord our God, our God, is not good. He is not good. He was not ever good. He was only on our side. God is not good!

At the beginning, when he repented that he had ever made human beings and flooded the earth. Why? What had they done to deserve annihilation? What could they have done to deserve such wholesale slaughter? What could they have done that was so bad? God is not good.

When he asked Abraham to sacrifice his son, Abraham should have said “No!” We should have taught our God the justice that was in our hearts. We should have stood up to him. He is not good. He has simply been strong. He has simply been on our side.

When we were brought here by train, a guard slapped my face. On their belt they had written, “Gott mitt uns.” “God is with us.” Now, who is to say that he is not? Perhaps he is. Is there any other explanation? What do we see here? His power, his majesty, his might, all these things, but turned against us. He is still God. But not our God. He has become our enemy.

That’s what’s happened to the covenant. God has made a new covenant with someone else.

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