I am again at Hankins UMC this Sunday. (Location of Hankins – the church is just past the intersection of NY 97 and NY Co 94 (on church road)) The service starts at 10:15 and you are welcome to attend. The Scriptures for this Sunday, the 4th Sunday after the Epiphany, 31 January 2010 were Jeremiah 1: 4 – 10, 1 Corinthians 13: 1 – 13, and Luke 4: 21 – 30.
This has been edited since it was first posted.
There was a murder trial in Wichita, Kansas, the other day. And whatever your thoughts about the trial might be, it was a murder trial. It was not a platform for a discussion of societal issues, which the defendant wanted it to be. It was not, as I believe the defendant wanted it to be, a platform for the presentation of his views. The defendant admitted that he planned the murder and then he carried out the plan. And the jury found him guilty of murder. And this young man will spend the rest of his life in jail.
I do not want to focus on either the reason for the murder or what the victim did; that is for another time and another place. But I am bothered that this young man basically used Christianity as his defense. His primary argument was that he had the right to murder his victim in order to save the lives of others and that he should not be punished as severely for his crimes as others might be.
His argument was that it is against one of the commandments to kill someone yet it is permissible to kill someone who is killing someone. And while Kansas does have the death penalty, it apparently does not apply to this case and we can also leave this discussion for another time and place. This young man will spend the rest of his life in a version of Sheol that is his own creation. And he will not get to die as a martyr to his faith, which I think he would like to do.
But my bringing this point up is that this young man said that the words of Christ and the words in the Bible were the justification for his thoughts and his actions. What bothers me is that he and those who support him will quote Leviticus 24: 19, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”. Too many people have taken this as a commandment; that which must be done. In truth, it is a limit.
We as a race and a society have a remarkable tendency to make up our own punishment, to decide the justice that each crime requires. It is our very nature as humans to hurt our attacker more than we were hurt. The phrasing in Leviticus was meant to put a limit to this vengeful tendency of mankind.
But I find something more disturbing in all of this, if it is possible to find something more disturbing than the murder of someone. It is that the word Christian was used in a way that is so contradictory to what it is supposed to mean. This trial and how the word Christian was used only reinforced something else that I heard last week.
Last week I heard someone speaking about the nature of society today in relationship to the Supreme Court decision that essentially confirmed the notion that a corporation in this country has the same rights and privileges as a citizen. This speaker painted a very bleak picture and harkened back to the late 1920s and early 30s when the Weimar Republic in Germany was seized by the Nazis. He spoke of the rich and the powerful gathering up the power, the wealth and material goods of this planet and finding ways of preventing others from sharing or benefiting. It is almost as if this group of ultra-elites seeks a Roman Empire state of mind. There is peace in this world of the ultra-elites but it is a peace enforced by countless skirmishes and wars along the border. There is prosperity in this world of the ultra-elites but it is prosperity for only the few and where the majority of the population is enslaved by economic status. It would also be a 21st century equivalent of Rome in biblical times except for one thing, the church.
Then the church, or rather the church community, was in opposition to the direction of the Empire. They worked for the people who were forgotten and cast aside; they worked for those who had no support.
But the picture that was painted by this speaker included the church as being that part of society that worked against the people. And while he confirmed what I knew and heard from others close to me also say, he didn’t say as others have that the “religious right” was at fault; he said that “Christians” were at fault and he did not differentiate between those who are Christians in what they say and what they do and those who say they are Christians but whose words, whose deeds, and whose lives belie the very word they want to be known by.
It was almost as if this speaker had forgotten that the church was the prime mover for civil rights in the sixties and against the war in Viet Nam. Yes, there were those in the church, pastors and laity alike, who wanted no part of the civil rights movement and were very much for the war in Viet Nam; they were the ones who created the conservative side of the church today. But I could not see then and I cannot see now how you can claim to be a follower of Christ and then find ways to imprison and degrade other human beings, or to use violence as a justification for violence, and turn your hearts against other human beings.
Last week, I spoke of the Bible being a living document, one in which the message remains true over the years. This is especially true when you read Paul’s words about saying things and doing things but saying and doing them with an empty heart and without love. The words and actions of too many Christians today are such words and such actions; they are words of selfish children, interested in their own well-being and outcome. The difference between a child-like faith and an adult-like faith is not situational but expanded. You see more of the world; those with the child-like faith that Paul writes about are limited in their thinking. The problem is that too many adults have this self-centered view of faith.
We cannot expect to find peace in this world if there is no peace in our hearts. And we cannot expect to have peace in our hearts until such time as we come to truly know Christ and the words that He spoke about taking care of people and loving each other fully and unconditionally.
But what this speaker said was true; the shift taking place in this country, the favoritism given to the rich and powerful over the rest of society, the destruction of individual rights, and the marginalization of the individual in general is supported by many who call themselves Christian. There is a distinct correlation between what is happening today in this country and what happened in Germany in the 1930s when Adolf Hitler came to power.
One of the major groups that supported Hitler was the Lutheran Church. For many in the church, his nationalist rhetoric overshadowed his racism and bigotry. And many turned a blind eye to the racism and the bigotry because they felt the same way as well, though perhaps not as overtly.
To turn a blind eye is nothing new. Jesus stood up in front of the people in the synagogue where He grew up, in front of the people who saw Him grow up and pronounced the fulfillment of the prophecy. Yet the people turned against Him when He reminded them of their failure as a nation to take care of people and their self-centeredness.
We who were taught and raised to see the church as the instrument for the salvation for humankind may find it hard to believe that many people died because the church as an institution and individually turned a blind eye to what was happening. But it did and we must not let it happen again. John Conway wrote,
It was the tragedy of the German churches that they were so inadequately prepared to oppose such strident heresies. They lacked safety valves against the challenge of the ‘radical right’ that offered a vision of church and state working hand in hand to renew the nation’s strength. The more perceptive churchmen realized too late the dangers of Nazi ambitions. The heresy of a nationalist pseudo-religion had gained too many adherents for effective defenses to be built or successful alternatives to be preached. Cut off from potential allies in the ecumenical movement abroad, only a handful of staunchly orthodox members of the Protestant Confessing Church were ready to take up arms to uphold Christian truths and to suffer for their faith. The lessons to be drawn from the churches’ behavior before and after the rise of National Socialism remain (http://www.bonhoeffer.com/bak2.htm).
But we also need to remember that not all Lutheran pastors went merrily along with the crowd. There were many pastors who stood up and opposed the transformation of the Lutheran church into the spiritual advisor of the Nazi regime. There were people like Paul Schneider and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Reverend Schneider was a Lutheran minister who consistently and openly spoke out against the Nazi regime and its attempt to subvert the Lutheran church. He was imprisoned in Buchenwald and died from a lethal injection in 1939 (This was adapted from comments about Paul Schneider in Servants, Misfits, and Martyrs by James C. Howell).
I also wonder what Dietrich Bonhoeffer might say to the churches of today who ignore the poor and whose leaders tow the party line. What would either Schneider or Bonhoeffer say to those whose view of the future does not keep the Cross in plain sight?
I first encountered Dietrich Bonhoeffer when I was in college. His name kept coming up in situations related to the anti-war movement of the sixties. But I didn’t know who he was or why his thoughts were so important to that moment in time. When he was in his mid-twenties, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was recognized as one of the brightest theological minds of all times. Yet, with his great understanding of the Bible and theology, he wrestled with the idea of what being a Christian was all about. In part, this dissonance between his mental life and his daily life came because of what was happening in Germany at that time, the early 1930′s. He saw a church where many leaders welcomed with open arms Adolf Hitler and many others simply acquiesced to the rise of Nazism, hoping that it would all go away.
Bonhoeffer was living in America and could have stayed here, safe from the troubles in Germany. But God called him to go home. In Germany, he worked to overthrow the Third Reich and help smuggle Jews out of Germany. He was arrested and imprisoned for two years. He was executed for his part in the attempted assassination of Hitler four days before Allied troops liberated the prison camp where he was imprisoned.
During those two years he thought and wrote about faith, God, life, and the church. He already knew that grace without discipleship was meaningless. In prison, I think that he began to see why. He wrote of missing worship services though he could not explain why. He wrote of a deeper sense of God’s involvement in our lives. He began to see how we are able to bring good out of evil, much in the manner that Joseph saw through the injustices of his brothers and the plans of a vindictive and rejected wife to the uniqueness of God’s own plan. (This was adapted from comments about Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Servants, Misfits, and Martyrs by James C. Howell.)
Most importantly, Bonhoeffer saw that crisis becomes that edge where change is possible. But such change requires something greater than human nature. That something is our faith in God.
I cringe at the thought that what happened 80 years ago may again be happening in this country today. I cringe because that is not how I came to my own faith and my understanding of what Christianity is about. When I was in college and struggling to learn many things, one of the things that I had to struggle with was the very nature of my faith. My vision of faith was very rudimentary and perhaps false.
I was like the child of faith that Paul speaks of in his letter to the Corinthians for today. But I wanted to learn; I wanted to understand how my faith would help me through those tough times then and the tough times now. I don’t have the answers but my faith is still growing as I learn more about it.
But too many people stay as a child when it comes to their faith; they hold onto the simplistic ideas that they were taught as a child. The problem is that we cannot stay as a child when it comes to faith, because to do so is to leave our faith incomplete. I have seen too many people in my time whose faith is like that of a child because they stopped growing. In part, it was because the church did not offer the chance for the faith to grow; in part, because each individual was quite content with a faith that was black and white with no delineation of gray.
It is hard to live in the 21st century with a basis for belief that is locked into the past. It is hard to grow up when you are limited in what you know because you have closed your heart and mind to the message. The message transcends time; it doesn’t matter whether the message was written on a papyrus or parchment scroll or by electrons in an electronic book, the message remains the same. But if you insist that it is only true when read from the parchment scroll, then you lose the meaning of the message, for you are also locked in time.
We have heard the Gospel message. We see the world around us and wonder how we shall ever find an answer. We know that we need to cast aside our childish ways and we know that we must, as Paul wrote, rejoice in the truth. But too many people are perhaps unwilling to do so. They are unwilling to leave the protective cocoon of a child and venture out into the world.
Hear again the words of Jeremiah that “I am just a boy, a child, and I cannot do a thing.” And God said to Jeremiah, as He says to each one of us today that He will give us the words to say, He will give us the strength to act, and He will give us the ability to make things truly right in this world.
You may hear these words today, words written two and three thousand years ago and say that there is nothing we can do. The world is what it is and we are powerless to change the world. Or we can say that we have found Christ in our hearts and we have let the Holy Spirit empower us and though we are like a small child today, we will grow in the Spirit and we will take the Gospel message, first spoken in the synagogue in Nazareth, out into the world. So, my friends, how shall you speak this day?