The blog of a lutheran pastor, writer, and political animal.

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Sermon: “What can Lutherans say about our complicity in the Holocaust?”

         This second to last Sunday in our summer sermon series “8 questions from the pews” is a heavy one. The question is this: “What can Lutherans say about our complicity in the Holocaust?”
         Part of me would simply like to respond with a time of silence.
         But, I think, today calls for confession and understanding.
         What can we say?
1.That the Lutheran tradition has within it a strain of submission to people in authority
2. a strain of anti-Judaism in it
Both of which make us complicit in the horror of the Holocaust.
3.      Additionally, there was also a portion of the faith that resisted Nazism, but it wasn’t enough and didn’t go far enough.

         Let us pray.

         One aspect of the faith going all the way back to our beginnings is that common question “How do we relate to the state and the society in which we live?”
         One tact is to take Jesus’ words “my kingdom is not of this world” to move all our concern in an otherworldly direction—to assume those things shaping day to day life here and now, are none of our business as Christians.

         Similarly, and this is more the norm for us Lutherans, is to follow Paul’s advice to the Romans—those in authority are there because God is the God of History, and therefore we ought to be good citizens of our country and not question authority.
         Lutheranism’s tendency to side with the powers that be, fits Luther’s life experience—when there were death threats by the Pope and other Catholic officials it was the secular princes who kept him from trial and death. The state kept him alive and the reformation afloat, and he rightly thanked God for that
—not knowing the kind of murderous totalitarianism that was to come.
(larger society)
         Now, Anti-Judaism is perhaps the original sin of Christianity. It was birthed out of that strange back and forth that lead to the cleaving of Judaism and Christianity.
Rome called on Jews to denounce Christianity as a new cult—an innovation and therefore not exempt from Emperor worship,
and the Roman Empire called upon the early Christian movement to denounce Jews as rebels to be expelled from Rome and Jerusalem.
The debates and stories Jesus told within the Judaism of his time and Paul’s description of “The Law” sounded much different coming from Gentile lips. It switched from being an inter-Jewish discussion to an antagonism from the outside.
Eventually Marcion, a Roman Christian, declared a separation between the “Jewish God” and the God revealed in Christ—and while he was condemned as a heretic, that did little to repair the widening breach between the two faiths.
         Supersessionalism—the idea that the Church replaced Israel and the New Testament replaced the 10 commandments—still haunts the Christian heart to this very day.
         In Nazi Germany this original sin was in full blossom—with wrongheaded arguments that Jesus was not a Jew and with renewed Marcionism—calling for the de-Judaizing of scripture.

         Similarly, the unfortunate words attributed to the crowd in Matthew’s telling of the passion, “His blood be on us and on our children,” has been used to justify all kinds of horrible things done to the Jews—Pogroms in Poland, the Inquisition in Spain
—the charge of “Christ-Killer” comes from these words.
In fact, so powerful a motivator were these words in past decades and centuries, that the panel on Lutheran-Jewish relations insisted, that “the New Testament … must not be used as justification for hostility towards present-day Jews", and that "blame for the death of Jesus should not be attributed to Judaism or the Jewish people.”—that is why on Good Friday you hear me talk a lot about Judeans and Religious Officials when I read the Passion account instead of the traditional translation “the Jews.”
         But, let’s get a little more particular—what of Luther?
At the age of 40 he wrote a tract against Dominican abuses of the Jewish populous entitled, “That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew,” in which he writes:
“Our fools, the popes, bishops, sophists, and monks—the crude asses—have treated the Jews in such a way that anyone who is truly a good Christian ought to become a Jew. If I was a Jew and heard such dolts and blockheads teach the Christian faith I would as soon be a wild boar as be a Christian.”
         If only he’d stopped there, but he did not. When he was 60, a few years before his death, he wrote “On the Jews and Their Lies” a tract so vile that even his closest friend Melanchthon said it “reeked of the Inquisition.”
         In it he maps out a “solution” for what he calls the “Jewish problem” in Germany—that Synagogues and Jewish houses ought to be burnt, Talmuds taken, Rabbis forbidden to speak, safe passage on highways removed, Jewish property confiscated, and Jews made to be serfs on German farms until they choose to self-deport.
         If this sounds similar to the Nazi “final solution,” minus the gas chambers—there is a good reason for it—Luther’s anti-Semitic writings were picked up quite whole-cloth by the National Socialists.

         There were however some Lutherans who heard the pseudo-Theological claims of the Nazis such as:
“The New Word of God is found in the History of the German People.”
“Jesus is not Savior but a Hero-Prophet for the Church just as Hitler is the Hero-Prophet of Germany.”
And “You may only believe in the resurrection if you believe in the resurrection of Germany.”
They heard these claims and took the entire Nazi program as an attack on the Church.

         When most German Church-folk were asking the question, “Should the Nazi controlled Church be more Calvinist or Lutheran?” There was a movement called the Confessing Church, who believed the Nazis should not control the Church and responded with the Barman Declaration, which we will confess together in place of the Apostle’s Creed in today’s service.
         One of those members of the Confessing Church, Reverend Doctor Dietrich Bonheoffer, responded to the situation in Nazi Germany by entering into a conspiracy to kill Hitler and smuggle German Jews to Switzerland. In fact one of the last orders of the Nazi High Command before they lost the control of German was “Bonheoffer must die.” And indeed he was executed in the Flossenburg concentration camp on April 9th 1945

         I bring up these heroes not to absolve us, but to challenge us to hear God in the midst of societal noise and historical half-truths. Challenge us to hear the Gospel above the clangor of Culture, to hear always the cries of our common humanity.

         So, “What can Lutherans say about our complicity in the Holocaust?”
         Christianity’s original sin Anti-Judaism, and Luther’s tract “On the Jews and Their Lies” are part of a train of thought that leads to Auschwitz.
         The Lutheran hesitancy to challenge secular authorities ensured that resistance to, or even questioning of, “The Final Solution” was limited.
         Finally, I thank God that there were some who tapped other veins of our tradition—Theology of the Cross and Scripture Alone—and in so doing resisted Nazism and the Holocaust.
  We mourn the majority’s inaction and wrong actions,
we remember the martyrs who died doing what was right,
and we continue to pledge to the 20 million victims of the Nazi regime, especially the 6 million Jews, never again.


Sunday, July 26, 2015

Religious Violence Sermon

Religious violence

            Today’s, on this, our 6th sermon in the Summer Sermon Series “8 Questions from the Pews,” I’ll be tackling a topic that you might say is one of my hobby horses, maybe even a fixation: the connection between religion and violence.
            It was on this subject, nearly 4 years ago, on the 10th anniversary of the attacks of 9/11, that I preached my first sermon as St. Stephen’s pastor. Since then, at Pub Theology and in other sermons, I’ve covered similar ground.
         In fact, judging by today’s question, I may have, in these last 4 years, made my case too forcefully—that I’ve made a solid link between religion and violence in you all’s mind.
         The question is this:
            “Religion is a source of hope and salvation for many, yet it has been the basis or cause of so many wars over time, why? And how do the positives negate all the negatives of war and radicals?”
         To answer this questions we’ll look at our text from Joshua in order to think about how violence can be connected to religion both in scripture and in history—then we’ll consider why this connection get’s made, and then finally I’ll suggest a few ways these negatives can be upended or at least balanced.


         It would be foolish to ignore the connection between religion and violence found in scripture.
         Consider the fanatical acts described in the book of Joshua, utterly destroying towns and people in the name of Moses and the name of God. Truly this is disturbing stuff found in our scriptures.
         And it’s not the only place in scripture where we find dark acts dedicated to God.
We find rules about slavery and the oppression of women,
Calls to kill Babylonian and Assyrian Children,
Guidelines for war that are more concerned with trees than people,

         And maybe there is a larger point that must to be made about these things:
Often scripture is being descriptive instead of prescriptive
—it’s showing and telling, not ordering
—describing a lived reality, not making a program for life now.
It’s faithful people at a particular time and place saying “wow, in the midst of it all God is here” so that we too might trust even in the most violent and strange of times, that God is here.

         For that matter, it would be foolish to ignore the connection between religion and violence found in history.
         Take for example a common interpretation and use of the book of Joshua from the 15th-17th century. When the Conquistadores, who took South America, read this biblical book—they did so in a prescriptive instead of descriptive way—they read themselves into the book
They justified their slaughter of natives and taking of land as a parallel to the taking of Canaan in the books of Joshua and Judges.
         In fact, frequently colonization and invasion has been justified by faith—it is often said colonizers
offer god,
bring guns and germs,
and leave with gold.

         And there is that icky question left—once you get into it, why?
         Why is religion linked to violence? Why does invasion and war often have a religious tint? Why is religion woven into matter of statecraft and splattered all over the history of war?
         It could be that religion is innately violent,
or that it encourages countries to colonize, or something like that,
but I think not, instead, religion speaks to our deepest selves and about those things which are most important to us both individually and collectively. Everything else is of secondary importance—imagine what kind of motivator our faith is!
         For example, an American drone kills your kid on the Afghanistan/Pakistan border—you want revenge… how much more of a motivation is it if you’re told not only will you get revenge for your kid, but also God wants you to get that revenge!

         What I’m saying is religion is often a justification for war and other acts of violence, not the actual cause.
         Take, for example, the most “religious” of wars, the Crusades. The initial Religious justification—when Pope Urban the 2nd declared “Deus Vult” “God wills it” it was a call to defend Christians traveling to Jerusalem, and throughout the Middle East, from attacks by Muslims. Yet, somewhere along the line it became more profitable to pillage fellow Christians in Constantinople and throughout Asia Minor, so the religious justification for such actions shifted to fighting incorrect understandings of the trinity.
         Two different acts of violence, both conveniently justified with a religious pretext.
         So, what do we do with all that—how do we, to put it crassly, “come out ahead?” How can we be sure religion is “worth it?”
         Well, firstly, it’s important that we continue to wrestle with the ways in which our faith has fallen short—more than that, we ought to repent of it.
         I think of former Presiding Bishop Mark Hansen’s moving words about representing the ELCA as part of the Lutheran World Federation in Stuttgart Germany, where they confessed to and repented of our historical persecution of the Mennonite tradition—there our Mennonite sisters and brothers accepted our repentance and declared us forgiven.
         And that right there—receiving forgiveness—for me that would be enough, that would upend all the negatives of being a religious people—that would, to quote the questioner be the positive that “negates all the negatives.”
         That this is a space where we can be honest about our faults and find forgiveness
—find a grace we don’t deserve
—that alone is of infinite worth. As Paul writes all else is rubbish.

         But wait, there’s more!
         While it can be deeply misused, religion is the language of our deepest values. It frames our existence, cultivates holy habits, and tells stories that give life meaning.

         Also it gives us comfort like nothing else will—just think back to the last time you heard the 23rd Psalm, all that is packed into that, how those words travel with you through the very shadow of death.
         Christ’s words we read today “No more of this” ring so true, in the face of violence both scriptural and historical, “No more of this.”
         Faith is for healing the hurt, not hurting the healed. Yes, of course faith can be misused, but so can so many things
—If a child hits another child with a book, do we burn all books, or teach them to read?

         The abuse of Religion, bad religion, can be best balanced by better religion.
         And that’s part of our calling—to put away swords and bring healing.
         To do what Christianity has always been called to do, to recognize the good in those things that are warped into evil, and redeem them! Bad religion is not to be banished, but transformed.

         To conclude, my answer to the question is this:
The violence we find in scripture describes God’s relationship to a brutally violent world.
The violence we find in history often uses faith as a motivator.
We ought to confess to this and make amends.
In so doing we find the core of faith—forgiveness.
Faith expresses the ultimate, it comforts as few other things can, and Christ calls us to be religious in such a way that we can redeem religion.



Sunday, July 19, 2015

Sermon: Foreknowledge, predestination, and human will

Foreknowledge, predestination, and human will

         Today, is the 4th sermon in the sermon series, “8 Questions from the pews,” we will tackle the question, “Matthew 13:10-15—Is this an example of pre-destination? It seems rather harsh and final, that whatever little they do have will be taken away.”
          My short answer is, “No. Matthew 13:10-15 is not about pre-destination. It’s about why Jesus speaks in parables.”
         But that wouldn’t be a very satisfying answer.
         After all, there are larger questions lurking behind this question—questions about pre-destination and the harshness and finality of some of our sacred scripture.
         To think about these questions we’ll touch on the section of Matthew’s Gospel we read today, but more concretely we’ll consider Pharaoh’s hardened heart.
         So, we’ll be looking at pre-destination and the harshness of scripture.

         When we consider pre-destination we tend to balk and then climb into one of two camps—the puppet camp or the free will camp.

         In the first, we consider Pharaoh, and take the author of Exodus at his most literal. That the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, was a puppet show. God takes Pharaoh’s heart, his will, and forces it in a certain direction.
         You’ve heard the phrase, “Jesus take the wheel,” this would be a little different, “Oh my, God has hijacked the vehicle!”

         The LORD walks Pharaoh through a thought process and across a stage like a marionettist would his puppet.
         If we go too far down this road we start to call everything fate. We become nothing more than debris on an ocean current. We lose a sense of agency and efficacy.
         God becomes a character of Greek myth—the Fates. Three old Crones creating the lives of mortals on a mystical loom. As the thread thickens, so does our heart, when the thread snaps, our life is done.
         At least, in this view of things, there is someone else to blame.

         In the second camp, the free will folk, we turn into a young child, stamping our feet and always saying, “I can do it my own self.”
         We take the tact of the Philistines in the book of Samuel, and interpret Pharaoh’s hard heartedness as something he has chosen.
We believe we have that power of choice.
         We respond to John Donne’s famous line, “no man is an island,” with “Na-ah, I’m an island!”
         We ignore any outside influence upon our lives. How our society shapes us, how our family forms us. We ignore that our self only exists in relationship with other people.
         Ultimately, we ignore that we are “part of the main,” because this radical individuality gives us a sense of power, and control in a fickle world.

         But, as Lutherans, we affirm that our will is bound, “we are bound to sin and can not free ourselves.”
         We profess that we’ve sold out.
         We say this often, but what does this mean? What does this look like?

         We’re saying that of course Pharaoh didn’t relent.
         He couldn’t,
          not because he was a puppet pulled around by the LORD, but because he was a human being.
         When confronted by a power greater than himself, something that threatened his narcissistic sense of control,
         He dived into himself.
         He defended his non-existent free will, shaped by forces he neither understood nor could control.
         The LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart simply by being the Law for Pharaoh there
—by giving limits to a man who considered himself god,
by pointing out to him “you are mortal, I am God,”
Pharaoh’s heart grew recalcitrant, because, outside of the Gospel message, this is almost inevitably the human response to being shown where we stack up in the universe
—seeing the world as it is, without also seeing God as God is, inevitably leads to a hardened heart.

         As for the question about harshness and finality, we can think of it this way: is this judgment on Pharaoh too harsh or too final? It is not.
         Pharaoh’s heart is hard, as are our own. We just aren’t often reminded of this fact.
         Likewise, is it hard to say, as it says in Matthew:
“if you don’t meditate on the parables of Jesus, the message will be lost on you/
but if you listen to his message it will blossom….
No, it is not too hard… because this is how Parables work, if you work on them, they work on you.
         As I say every chance I get, you chew on Parables until Parables chew on you. You read them until they start to read you.
         Is that harsh?
         Yes, yet it’s simply something like a law of the universe… a spiritual law sort of like physical laws… it is harsh only…
         Only if gravity is harsh.
         Only if Chemistry is harsh.
         Only if cause and effect is harsh.
         Yes, these things are harsh, and yes these things are final—immutable things.
         But I thank God every day that Jesus’ love steps beyond the harsh cause/effect relationship of our world.
         I thank God that the way the world works, the way our hard hearts respond to an honest assessment of our place in the universe,
the way our unlistening ears ignore the best and deepest truths…

         I thank God,
that the final word is not by these things
—the final word is His.
         And it is not harsh, but instead a word of comfort, a word that plucks us out of our alternating throws of fatalism and false independence.
         He takes our hearts of stone and makes them hearts of flesh.
         He takes our ears and unstops them so that we might here the final word—the gentle comfort of the Word Made Flesh.
         Thank you God, that in your greatness you free us from our bondage.
         Thank you God, that in your greatness you unite us to yourself and to one another as sister and brother.
         Faced with this freedom and this fellowship, My heart… my soul…can not help but sing How Great thou art.

Let us sing together, How Great Thou Art.