Amos 6:1a, 4-7; Psalm 146; 1 Timothy 6: 6-19; Luke 16:31
The Rev. Rachel G. Hackenberg
Tell me who you think will solve this. Tell me who you think can fix our collective state of being, the status quo of our living that includes as a foundational truth the devaluing and criminalizing of Black and brown bodies to the point of death.
Who do you think can fix this?
Who do you hold responsible for fixing this?
I talk with friends, I follow conversations on Facebook and Twitter, and I read books & blogs on racism, and it’s clear that there are many fixes. There are many good and necessary efforts toward uprooting racism, and truthfully we need every tool at our disposal to uproot racism. People I know and read have a variety of opinions about where to start or which efforts to prioritize:
The police system needs to be overhauled: not because every police officer is problematic, but because the historic foundations of policing are inherently racist and so the system of law enforcement needs revision if it’s going to be proactively anti-racist.
The justice system needs to be exorcised of its demons and redeemed of its biases against Black and brown persons: from public defenders’ offices to the selection of juries to mandatory sentencing laws to the privatization of jails & prisons.
It’s also essential for white folks who to account for our participation in and our unwillingness to stand against racism. More than that, white folks need to talk to white folks about racism, we need to hold each other accountable for our prejudices, we need to teach each other that the white experience is not the only experience. In particular we Christians who are white need to speak up to other white Christians and testify that Christ’s commandment to love one another is at risk if we do any less than work wholeheartedly against personal & systemic racism.
Those are just a few tools and avenues in the work against racism. Where do you look for solutions?
Where and with whom do you place the responsibility for change?
Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals,
in whom there is no help.
When their breath departs, they return to the earth
and their plans perish. (Psalm 146:3-4)
In this particular season of American racism, this is what I hear when I read Psalm 146:
Do not put your trust in police systems,
in which there is no help.
Do not put your trust in justice systems,
in which there is no hope.
Do not put your trust in white folks,
in whom there is no hearing.
These are all mortal
and by their mortality, inherently sinful.
When their self-righteous breath departs,
they will return to dust.
Only when they return to dust will their plans perish.
It’s a dismal paraphrase of the psalm, perhaps, but then again several of our scripture readings this morning have a rather hopeless cloud hanging over them – did you notice?
Amos 6 is less than reassuring: “Alas to to you who relax on their couches, who drink a glass of wine, who pause to enjoy a bit of musical harmonization, not minding the suffering outside your doors. You’ll be the first to be punished for the injustices of the world when the LORD finally holds us accountable for failing to love one another.” How bad was the injustice? Amos wrote that the people’s living was so outrageously contrary to God that it was as if they were trying to plow the sea for a harvest. (Amos 6:12)
The thread of biblical misery continues in Luke 16: Jesus tells the parable of a rich man and a poor man who die. In the afterlife, the poor man is waited on by angels while the rich man is tormented by flames. For the first time in his life (and death), the rich man is in need and dependent on someone else for relief. And Abraham, who’s monitoring the whole situation, shrugs and says “Too bad for you.” When the rich man asks if the poor man can be sent with a warning message to the rich man’s brothers, Abraham shrugs again and says, “People don’t really like ghosts.”
Far from a parable of good news, Luke 16 discourages the notion that all will be better if we can just be patient for the sweet by-and-by. To the extent that we look at the pain & suffering, racism & hatred in the world around us and believe that heaven will be the great equalizer, that God’s grace will comfort all who have suffered and cover all who have sinned, Jesus disrupts us in the most strident terms,
“Woe to you who have anything to do with the suffering of another. It would be better to throw yourself into the sea. Otherwise, plan to repent and confess at least seven times a day.” (Luke 17:1-4)
Who do we look to to fix this world of ours?
In what or in whom do we hope against the hopelessness of racism?
If we’re waiting for our sins to turn to dust along with our mortal selves, if we’re waiting for God’s grace to make us all one in the afterlife, Luke’s parable of the rich man and the poor man paints a picture of a judgment day that will feel worse before it feels better.
So then, hoping in heaven seems to be less than a guarantee.
Perhaps we hope just to live a little better, day by day, to keep our priorities grounded in faith according to the admonishments of 1 Timothy 6: to fight the good fight of faith, to hold fast to God’s commandments, to avoid greed, to pursue righteousness. But faith did not save a Black man who was at the wrong end of a police officer’s gun in Charlotte and in Tulsa. Righteous living didn’t save a Black woman who was arrested in Texas for failing to use her turn signal.
God help us, where and in whom are we to place hope?
Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the LORD:
the One who made heaven and earth,
the sea and all that is in them,
who keeps faith forever,
who executes justice for the oppressed,
who gives food to the hungry;
the One who sets the prisoner free
and opens the eyes of the blind,
the One who lifts up those who are
weighed down and weighted down,
and watches over the stranger;
the One and only LORD
who upholds the orphan and the widow
but ruins the ways of the wicked.
This is the LORD to whom we sing praises
for generations. (Psalm 146)
It is neither easy nor simplistic to say to one another, “Hope in the LORD,” at a time when hope feels so foolish.
But it is all and everything we have.
“Hope in the LORD” is the beginning of our efforts against racism. It is the foundation and motivation for living with love. “Hope in the LORD” compels us to look upward and outward when fear and stress would otherwise draw our shoulders and our spirits inward in self-protection.
“Hope in the LORD” is the rock we cling to at the end of each day, when racism remains even though we are tired. “Hope in the LORD” is the courage we have to sleep, believing that God has dreams still to give us that are more compelling than our nightmares.
“Hope in the LORD” is not a free pass from doing the work. It is not a dismissal of systems from being held accountable. It is the impatience that we will not wait for the princes of Psalm 146 or the rich man of Luke 16 to understand their dust & their sin before we demand the fullness of life. It is the conviction that our own dust & sin must not deplete another’s fullness of life, must not deplete our own full living in unlimited love.
“Hope in the LORD” is not easy but it is a yoke worth bearing — worth sharing and carrying together.
“Hope in the LORD” is a song worthy of singing through eternity.
Friends, let us hope when hope seems hopeless.
It is all we have.
Politics and the Lens of the Gospel
Amos 8:407; Luke 16: 1-13
Rev. Peter Faass
I’d like to speak about two words that have entered the national lexicon in a big way this past week: deplorable (or as it was used, deplorables) and irredeemable. Both terms were used by one of the two major political party presidential candidates in a speech a week ago Friday in reference to supporters of the other major political party presidential candidate, who then demanded apologies. These two words became fodder for the media – and partisan ammunition to stir up our emotions, one way or another.
I know some of you are probably cringing that I am preaching on an issue that has consumed our national political life for the past week. “Please stay out of politics, Peter,” you may be thinking. “This is the church and we should not meddle in that world. We’re not supposed to be political. We are here to save peoples souls not offer commentary on the presidential campaign. Plus, think of the IRS! What if they see us as being partisan and take away our tax-exempt status?”
Well, some of that is correct and some, well, not so much. Yes, we don’t want to risk our tax-exempt status, and of course we are here to save people’s souls, our own included. We are here to bring about God’s reign, which is a place of all souls – without exception - living in harmony as we love one another as God loves us.
Understand this: Our mission to build up God’s reign is why it is imperative for the Church to always offer the Gospel perspective on what is happening in the world (all of it) – and that includes the political realm. Please don’t tell me that Jesus wasn’t political, because he most certainly was! Remember – he was arrested and put to death for sedition against the state. It doesn’t get more political than that.
Let’s start with the word deplorable. It was used to reference to a segment of people in our country whose political sentiments and social leanings are seen by that one presidential candidate as being deplorable. These deplorables include people who hold racist, Islamaphobic, xenophobic and misogynist views – to name a few deplorable beliefs- and want to support and vote for politicians who share these views.
As we have witnessed, it is not just these deplorable beliefs that these particular people want candidates to support, but legislation and enforceable actions as well; legislation and actions that by there very nature increase hatred in our culture and are of such an incendiary nature that they incite violence.
While the use of the term deplorable was awkward and ill advised, it was – the truth be told - accurate, especially when viewed through the lens of the Gospel. These are deplorable views and desires. We are Christians, and it the Gospel lens that Jesus calls us to look through as we steer the course of our life’s journey. Hatred and violence toward people who are different from us, regardless of what that difference is, is not a Christian value – ever. Jesus condemned all hateful beliefs that diminished any human being’s dignity.
With that understanding, this is the hard challenge before us: What’s going to determine how we respond to these deplorable beliefs and those who hold and engage in them? What will command our allegiance: our political affiliation or our Christian faith? As Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel, “No [one] can serve two masters; for [you] will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth."
Well, neither can you simultaneously serve God and whatever political ideology you hold. If you try to do so you will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. Who are you going to love?
If we are to truly follow Jesus, we must serve God and the values of His reign first and foremost. We must not serve our political affinities, especially when the values tolerated by our political affinity have become beliefs that unequivocally defy the values of God and His reign.
Now we come to the word “Irredeemable.” When calling out the beliefs and behaviors of those deplorables, the same major presidential candidate also stated that because of their beliefs, that they were irredeemable. In other words, so heinous are these deplorable beliefs and behaviors that these persons are beyond redemption, beyond salvation. Well, no, that is absolutely not true when we look through the lens of the Gospel. The Christian faith believes that there is no person or behavior that people engage in which is irredeemable.
In one of the Good Friday anthems, we profess that “O Savior of the world, who by your cross and precious blood has redeemed us.”
That means all of us, without exception.
In the Nicene Creed, we profess that “for us and our salvation [Jesus] came down from heaven.” Not some of us, all of us, and maybe even especially so for those folks who hold values antithetical to God’s reign.
The entire purpose of the Incarnation, of God becoming human, was to redeem and save all Creation... every last person, every last iota of it. Jesus’ life and ministry relentlessly worked proclaimed that goal. In the three parables (the lost coin, the lost sheep and the Prodigal Son) we discussed last week, God relentlessly works to redeem whom and what others believed were irredeemable.
Many of us believe that there are, in fact, people – lots of them - who are beyond redemption. We roll our eyes or shrug our shoulders with disbelief when Jesus forgives prostitutes, adulterers, extortionists and most poignantly, those who crucified him even as he hung upon the cross. We believe them to be irredeemable. By believing that, we also believe two things that defy the faith we profess to hold:
When we profess to see life through the lens of the Gospel, but still believe that there are irredeemable and deplorable people in the world, it certainly is dispiriting. Mercifully and thankfully, it is not irredeemable. Such is God’s grace.
As we encounter more bizarre speech and behavior in this election, never forget that the word of God we receive through Jesus Christ is not some archaic, meaningless text without practical application to our current times and in our lives. It is a living, vibrant word that can heal what drives this dysfunctional election and the brokenness so many people feel, which causes them to fear and hate and hold deplorable views of all kinds.
None of us need to hold fast to deplorable beliefs when we strive to follow Jesus. None of us, or the circumstances we find ourselves in, are irredeemable and beyond God’s passionate desire to heal and love us. Ever.
My sisters and brothers, we need to decide. We can’t serve two masters. We need to choose either God or deplorable beliefs. Who are we going to love?
Rev. Peter Faass, Rector
At our Wednesday morning Bible Study, some students mentioned that the parables of Jesus had lost their relevancy because they were too agrarian with all their sheep, seeds, stalks of wheat, soil and fish metaphors. Some folks thought we needed to contemporize the parables to make them punchier and more meaningful. Here’s a new version for one of today’s parables that might better resonate with us at Christ Church.
"Which choir director, (with 100 choir members) who loses one tenor, does not leave the 99 sopranos, altos and baritones in the wilderness and go after the one tenor who is lost until she finds him? When she finds him, she lays the tenor on her shoulders and rejoices. When she comes home, she calls the entire congregation saying, `Rejoice with me, for I have found my tenor who was lost.' Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one tenor who repents and returns to the choir than over 99 righteous sopranos, altos and baritones who need no repentance.”
The parables of the lost sheep and lost coin are part of a trilogy. Immediately following today’s text is the third in the triad, which is of the parable of the Prodigal Son.
The entire trilogy is a set piece whose meaning is found in the first two verses: “All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."
The religious authorities are once again grumbling, engaging in the character assassination of Jesus as they seek to disparage him as an immoral person, unfit to be a bearer of God’s message. By doing this, they hope to undermine his reputation and turn his followers against him (Sounds like a political campaign, doesn’t it?). Today, they condemn his association with notorious sinners: Tax collectors, who were Jewish and worked for the Roman Empire; and sinners, who included those who broke the moral laws and those who did not maintain ritual purity as practiced by the Pharisees.
Religious authorities applied the Law harshly, lacking forgiveness, compassion and grace. The authorities were also highly adept in pointing out the inequities of others while boasting of their own purity, often seeing themselves in a perfect relationship with God – and therefore righteous.
In the Gospels, Jesus repeatedly addressed how exclusionary and hypocritical this belief system was and how it damaged the fabric of society. Jesus disapproved of this behavior in his words and deeds, which was why he intentionally associated and dined with those hated tax collectors and sinners. By doing this, he showed that there is no one, regardless of their sins, real or perceived, who is beyond the love of God. God desires all of us to be in a right relationship with God.
Last Sunday, we baptized baby Sean Alejandro. In the rubrics for the Baptismal liturgy tells us that “The bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble.” Once that relationship is established between God and the newly baptized, nothing can break it. I would push that theological envelope even further: I believe that indissoluble bond already exists between God and all humanity – Christian and otherwise, baptized or not. That bond is established by the sheer fact that we are creatures created in the image of a loving God. God loves us and always will love us.
To undergird that message of this indissoluble bond (which is not believed or practiced by the religious authorities), Jesus tells these three parables about being lost and found:
The first two parables start with common daily events in that culture: a shepherd loses a sheep from his flock, and a woman loses one of her ten denari. Notice how these parables emphasize the person’s absolute commitment to find what is lost (By the way, the shepherd and the woman represent God and the sheep and coin, children of God). Action verbs are used for the shepherd and not the sheep: Leave, go after, finds, lays it on his shoulders, rejoices, comes home, and calls together his friends.
Action verbs are also used in the tale of the woman: Light a lamp, sweep the house, search carefully, finds, and calls together her friends. The parallels of these stories emphasize the relentless seeking of God, who is committed to find the otherwise hapless lost sheep and the passive lost coin.
No repentance on their part is required (As if sheep and coins can repent!).
A stunning theological conclusion happens in both parables: “there will be more joy in heaven” and “joy in the presence of the angels of God” when what was lost is found. Heaven celebrates when a lost person is found and returned to right relationship with God. These parables reveal a divine point of view that reframes why seeking and finding matter.
Theologian Joseph Fitz Myer puts it well: “Repentance does not take place without the provenience and the initiative of the gracious shepherd.” Repentance finds its origins in God, and it occurs because God took the initiative to affect it.
This truth gets vividly portrayed in the Prodigal Son:
““When [the prodigal son] was still a long way off, his father saw him. His heart pounding, he ran out, embraced him, and kissed him. The son started his speech: ‘Father, I’ve sinned against God, I’ve sinned before you; I don’t deserve to be called your son ever again. But the father wasn’t listening (Luke 15:20-22).”
The son is far off when his father spots and runs towards him with his arms open to embrace and kiss him. After the father does this, the son begins to repent. The father is so joyful to have his son back that he doesn’t hear his son’s repentance. The son has already been forgiven because he wanted to return to his father. This powerfully tells us that repentance finds its origins in God’s indissoluble love. We aren’t required to repent to receive God’s love. He always loves us.
This parable also results in rejoicing. The son is finely dressed, wearing the family ring, a fatted calf is roasted, and a huge party ensued. Rejoicing when a lost person was found and restored to right relationship with God did not square with the religious practices of Jesus’ time, especially as it occurred before repentance was offered. It frequently doesn’t with our own religious practices as well.
The irony and lesson in these three parables lies in the statement “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous persons who need no repentance.”
This was a poignant dig at the religious authorities, who believed in their own righteousness, their own perfectness in the eyes of God. None of us is truly righteous, at least not all the time. All of us get lost now and then. None of us can claim to be better than another: Holier than thou doesn’t fly in God’s reign. These parables point a finger at our religious hypocrisy.
Op-ed writer Nicholas Kristoff recently wrote an article titled, “What Religion Would Jesus Belong Too?” He writes, “One puzzle of the world is that religions often don’t resemble their founders.”
He then quotes Brian McLaren who states, “Our religions often stand for the very opposite of what their founders stood for.”
It is this very behavior that Jesus condemns in the Pharisees and scribes who strayed far from what the Law of Moses intended. Kristoff continues, “[If religion] were less about preening about one’s own virtue or pointing fingers at somebody else’s iniquity and more about tackling human needs around us, this would be a better world –and surely Jesus would applaud as well.”
Is Jesus a member of this church? Are we finger pointers at others’ faults or do we embrace those who have been labeled as outside of God’s love? Does Jesus applaud our seeking and finding the tax collectors, the sinners and yes, even the lost tenors and welcoming them as beloved children in the fold of God’s love? When we do that, we hear his applause, we know his love, and the reign of God draws ever closer to us. Then the party begins!
Where Do Our Loyalties Lie?
Philemon 1:1-21; Luke 14: 25-33
Rev. Peter Faass
Good grief. "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” Really? Hate your family, your own life? Does Jesus require us to hate so that we may faithfully follow him?
This is the second time in Luke’s gospel that Jesus called us to behave in bizarre, counter-intuitive ways as Christians. Well, at least on our good days.
He certainly was on a roll. Three weeks ago, Jesus proclaimed to bring fire to the earth and that he was no peacemaker, coming to sow division. Plus, he eagerly awaited that fire to be kindled! Luke’s image of Jesus turns our preconceived notions about him upside-down and inside-out.
I don’t know about you, but I would prefer not to hear about hate, especially from Jesus. The world and our culture are already so overloaded with messages of hate. It seems as if you can’t go online or turn on the television without being washed over by a tsunami of it.
We are confronted by this challenging Gospel message, and the epistle is not an easy out, as it concerns the equally challenging topic of slavery. What’s a preacher to do? Well, examine both because these texts have something valuable to contribute to the way we are supposed to live our life in the world today.
So first Luke. It’s important to know that Jesus is speaking in hyperbole, which was a common rhetorical device in his day. Using the word “hate” and saying we have to hate our loved ones, and even our own life in order to follow him, is meant to grab our attention. And hey, it worked!
In this passage, Jesus expects - even demands - undivided loyalty when we choose to follow him. He wants us to seriously think about what that undivided loyalty and fidelity entail. His two stories undergird the meaning. In the first story, a contractor is building a tower; in the second, a king is going to war. Each needs to calculate the cost of their endeavor before embarking on it. These stories compel us to count the cost of what it will truly entail to be faithful followers of him – because the Christian life is expensive, demanding our commitment of resources of time, attention and money.
I’m not talking about calculating the cost of achieving our salvation in this passage. We can’t earn our salvation. That’s been done, completely taken care of by God’s grace alone. Any Lutherans in the congregation thinking I was suggesting works over faith can breathe easily!
This passage is about the cost of discipleship, which includes the image of carrying the cross. By carrying your cross (which is essential for true discipleship), we carry the choices, burdens and realities of a life that has made a certain commitment – a commitment to a way of life that is devoted to bringing the Reign of God. That’s certainly what it meant for Jesus, and for us.
Carrying your cross doesn’t mean bearing a burden that leads to suffering and death. It is working through challenging and sinful situations, so you can achieve the fullness of the precious gift of life you have been given, here and now. The cross always leads to resurrected life in the present.
Luke’s clarion call about carrying your cross is moving past the sinful behavior of tribalism: the tribalism of family; the tribalism of religion; the tribalism of race; the tribalism of gender; the tribalism of economic class; and the tribalism of health status.
In Luke, Jesus picked up the cross of moved beyond tribalism at the very start of his ministry. In chapter four, just as he returns from spending forty days in the wilderness, we are told:
“He went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4: 17; 18-21)
Jesus self-identified as the one Isaiah foretold, the one who would heal all the ailments of the human condition, making us whole. He was the one who would lead us away from our narrow, tribal ways of living and free all people from the shackles of prejudice that enslave the human person, giving them freedom, dignity and respect. He did this unwaveringly and great commitment. That was his cross to bear.
To carry our cross and faithfully follow him, we also must, without wavering, work to free all people from the tribal shackles that enslave them. We must also carry the cross to free ourselves from the tribal shackles that enslave us.
This is why we must hate anything that we give our loyalties to, preventing us from fully picking up our cross. A house divided – with split loyalties – cannot stand. You can’t serve God and mammon. You can’t be half-free and half in bondage. When we follow Jesus, it’s both all freedom and dignity, or it’s nothing.
When we baptize baby Sean Alejandro this morning, we will be reminded of that cross we are asked to carry Christ’s followers when we recite our Baptismal Covenant and commit to respecting the dignity of every human being. We commit to doing this to role model a better way of life for him as he grows into the fullness of Christ. We want a better world for him and all people. We want to build up God’s reign.
And now the letter to Philemon…
Paul’s short letter appealed to a man named Philemon to free his slave Onesimus, who had run away and sought shelter with Paul. Paul converted Onesimus to the Christian faith. Because Paul believes that in Jesus one is no longer slave or free, he desires to move Philemon to a new way of life; a slave-free life. He wants Philemon to carry his cross and free his slave Onesimus, since the Gospel always sets us free when we give up sinful ways of life.
It would cost Philemon to set Onesimus free. The Christian way of life is expensive. Freeing Onesimus would exact a price, and not just in monetary terms. By freeing Onesimus, Philemon’s sense of status and in his relationship with Onesimus would mean that Onesimus would "no longer [be] as a slave but . . . a beloved brother.”
A Biblical commentary I read asked this about the letter to Philemon: “Could it be that Paul is calling his readers (including us) to see every human being through the lens of the gospel message of freedom and dignity, to shine the light of the gospel on every situation and then to listen for how God is still speaking about every cultural practice and in every moral question we face in our communities today?”
We desperately need to see though that gospel lens today. Tribalism is having a resurgence.
New York Times op-ed communist David Brooks wrote this on Friday. “Politics is dividing along crude identity lines — along race and class. Are you a native-born white or are you an outsider? Are you one of the people or one of the elites? Politics is no longer about argument or discussion; it’s about trying to put your opponents into the box of the untouchables.”
Defaulting to these crude identity lines based on tribalism is a cancer threatening to destroy our entire culture and world. We have the cure.
But we must pick up that cross and carry it, which means we must choose where our loyalties lie.
The transforming power of the Gospel yearns to shine its redeeming light in a dark world. Are we willing to commit to picking up our cross and follow Jesus, working for the freedom and dignity of every human being?
If we say yes, we will free ourselves of those sinful shackles of tribalism that enslave us. The choice is ours to make. Where do our loyalties lie?