Here are my thoughts for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost. I am preaching at Stevens Memorial United Methodist Church (South Salem, NY).
I have edited this since it was first posted on 18 August 2007.
The weather last week and the news in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and in the Newburgh Times Herald-Record about lightning striking church steeples in the respective towns of St. Louis, MO and Newburgh, NY prompted me to look for other similar incidents. Doing a search on the Internet, I discovered close to 100,000 occasions when “lightning strikes a church steeple.”
If occurrences of natural disasters are a sign of God’s wrath, how are we to interpret these instances? Are the people of the churches that were involved doing something sinful? Or is it likely that church steeples are a likely target for lightning because they are often times the highest point in an area and thus easily the “targets” for God’s fireworks?
Jesus said we see the signs of weather but we do not know what they mean. I can understand that. Some saw the floods that covered most of the Midwest in 1993 and said it was God’s punishment for the people’s behavior. Some saw Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the devastation that wrecked New Orleans and the Gulf Coast and said it was God’s punishment for the people of New Orleans’ behavior and lifestyle. The tsunami that ravaged the Indian Ocean two years ago was because God was angry with the people of that region. Even the collapsed bridge in Minnesota was said to have been for the extreme behavior of the people of Minnesota.
I cannot speak to God’s wrath and what causes it. When we hear of floods destroying the Midwest and have some preacher say it is God’s wrath, I am reminded that God promised us, with the sign of the rainbow, that he would never again destroy the earth through floods (Genesis 9: 8 – 11). And while the people of New Orleans and the surrounding Gulf Coast may lead lifestyles that are not Christian in nature and they may do things that we personally do not like (one person in Alabama even argued that hurricane Katrina’s real target were the casinos on the Mississippi Gulf coast), the destruction of New Orleans was more a sign of how poorly we maintain the levies along the Mississippi River and the destruction of the wetlands south of New Orleans. The fact that we are still discussing New Orleans and Katrina some two years after it happened is a sign of how little we may care for people less fortunate than us. The collapse of the bridge in Minnesota is again another sign of how we take care of our public infrastructure. If Minnesotans are so sinful that their bridges collapse, how are we to read the sign of the steam pipe exploding in New York? Are New Yorkers not sinful enough to warrant God’s wrath?
To say that such acts of nature are a sign of God’s wrath is to show a lack of understanding of the natural world as well as a lack of understanding of our relationship with God. Treating acts of nature as acts of God is to put God on the same level as the gods of ancient Egypt, Greece, or Rome.
If we see the signs around us as a portent of things to come, then we also do not understand what a prophecy is or what a prophet does. A prophet (from the Greek word for “speaker”) does not necessarily predict the future bur rather speaks out on behalf of God. A prophet does not foretell the future but tells forth. This can mean that they will foretell what the future will be but the primary and distinguishing characteristic of a biblical prophet is to be sought in the divine vocation and mission of telling and speaking in the name and by the designated authority.(Adapted from “Whose Bible Is It?” by Jaroslav Pelikan )
I do not perceive myself as a prophet by any stretch of the imagination but I do see the need to speak out (https://heartontheleft.wordpress.com/2007/01/14/no-i-cant-and-neither-should-you/). In a world that literally cries out for care and compassion, in a world where violence is almost too commonplace, there is a need for the Gospel message. Yet, today the church seems totally oblivious to the world around it. It seems to be that the church today has turned a blind eye to where it should be and where it is at.
I see churches where pastors, ministers, and leaders call for war and proclaim that the one true God is the God that we worship; anyone who worships the same God but in another religion worships a false God. But I also see churches and pastors who preach against war and call for peace.
When I wrote “Study War No More” and “Perhaps We Should Study War More Often”, I received a number of comments in support of war and arguing that war was inevitable. I found it amazing that these comments came from clergy in the United Methodist church rather than from the laity of the church. When I wrote about the killings at Virginia Teach (“It Happened Again”), it was a minister who argued that if one student had carried a gun the killings would have not happened. How is it that we can say that we work for the Prince of Peace but then say that war and violence are the solutions to war and violence? This is quite a change from the Methodists of this country in the 1700’s who were very much pacifists and opposed to war. Those who opposed the war were treated as loyalists and supporters of the crown, even if they were in support of the concept of the American Revolution.
I see and hear preachers today who claim that our founding fathers were devout Christians and who used their beliefs in God and Christ to write the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Yet, these same preachers forget that many of those they lift up were in fact deists, believers in an omnipotent God but not necessarily Christian. They revise history to suit their needs just as they have tried to revise science in order to quell questions that would undermine their own power and authority.
I see and hear preachers and churches that proclaim the gospel of riches and ignore the poor, claiming that the poor are sinful and responsible for their lot in life. But there are other preachers and churches who work to end poverty in this country; who see to it that the hungry are fed and work to build homes for the homeless when others turn their back on their plight.
We see the violence in the world; yet all we do is continue the violence. We see the hungry starving, even in our own country; yet our concern is limited to the compassion we feel for these poor souls. The poor keep getting poorer while the rich keep getting richer. Instead of making sure that everyone has the means for success, we encourage the hoarding of wealth. How big is the gap between the pay of a CEO in even the smallest companies in this country and the salaries and wages of the workers who work for that company? We see the quality of health care in this country more related to the amount of money in one’s bank account than to the skills and capabilities of the doctors, nurses, and technicians.
Yes, our own John Wesley encouraged us to earn all that we could; he was one of the highest paid ministers of his time. But he also encouraged us to save as much as we could and to give as much as we could. Even though John Wesley earned as much as 1400 pounds a year (a rather nice sum in those days), he had determined that he and his family could live on 28 pounds a year; the other money was given back to the church and to the poor. John Wesley sought to embody the words of Christ in his faith and his actions. How many pastors today, with their multi-million dollar book deals and salaries, with their expensive houses and private airplanes, can say the same thing? How long will it be before we realize that what we do to the least of our society is what we do to Christ?
I see and hear people in this country calling for a religious government, one that would emulate God’s Kingdom here on earth. Never mind that Christ never called for such a Kingdom but constantly urged us to prepare for the Kingdom in Heaven. I see and hear people who want nuclear war in the Middle East because it will start Armageddon and they will get to heaven. Never mind that the judgment as to who gets into heaven is made there and not here; that those who seek war and ignore peace, those who argue against helping the poor, the sick , and the needy will be the ones left out. I see and hear people in this country who put the country before God and claim that God will do the will of the people. Are we not supposed to do God’s will?
I see a parallel between what is happening in this country today and what happened in Germany in the 1930’s. When Adolph Hitler came to power, one of the groups that supported him was the Lutheran Church in Germany. For many in the church, his nationalistic rhetoric overshadowed his racism and bigotry.
It is hard to think that so many people died because the church turned a blind eye to the plight of the people. 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 ).
I cringe at the thought that was written about Germany in the 1930’s is again happening in this country at this time. How long shall Christians allow people to kill other people in the name of their country because they believe it is the correct action? We walk a fine line indeed when we say that our actions are acceptable because they are in the best interests of the country but which go against the moral teachings we supposedly learned in Sunday School and church. These are days which challenge the very soul of the church; these are days which cry out for each church to speak out and think of their responsibilities to mankind, no matter how they pray to God.
I see divisions in the church today. These divisions exist in local churches, denominations, and the church in general. And Jesus said that He had come not to bring peace, but division. Brother will turn against brother, parent against child, friend against friend (Luke 12: 49 – 56 ). This is a rather brutal statement from our Lord, especially in light of what He consistently said and did. But when you consider what He said and did, then it is easy to see how families can be divided, children will turn against their parents, and friends will split with friends. The message that Christ brought was a message that ran counter to the thoughts and actions of much of society. Those who followed Him would find themselves at odds with many people in society.
We see the signs but do we understand what they mean. How long will it take before we realize that some have too much money and many do not have enough? How long will it take before we realize that the continued oppression of a minority in any country can only incur hatred and violent rage? How long will it take before we realize that ignorance of the basic tenets of the Gospel will only yield terrorism, hatred, and continued violence?
So what are we to do in this time of struggle and strife? Are we to stand idly by and let the world self-destruct? Or are we to act so that the destruction of the world is a mute point?
Not all of the Lutheran ministers in Germany during the 1930’s went along with their church. There were many who openly 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 of these two 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.
Isaiah speaks of the vineyard and the walls that surrounded it (Isaiah 5: 1- 7). Isaiah is speaking out against the people of Judah because of their lack of faith. The vineyard that he speaks of in today’s Old Testament reading is the people and God’s is the vineyard owner. The wild grapes that overgrow the cultured grapes are the product of the people’s sins. This are just sins of the lifestyle but also sins of greed, arrogance, and self-centeredness. The people of Judah had destroyed their own lives with their own self-centeredness. Their own self-centeredness overcame their faith.
If we are not willing to speak out against violence in all forms, when will violence end? If we are not willing to call for positive ways of resolving the violence, both domestic and foreign, that exists in this world today, how can we ever expect violence to end?
I will reiterate what I have said in the past and which no one else, that I am aware of, has said. If we do nothing to eliminate the causes of terror; if we do not work to eliminate world-wide hunger, world-wide poverty, and world-wide oppression, then terrorism will always be a part of our lives and we can expect violence to continue. If we respond to violence with violence with violence, how can we ever expect to achieve peace?
We must seek another way, a way that reflects who we are and what we believe. What would have happened if the German pastors, instead of supporting the Nazis, had spoken out against the wrongs that the Nazi government was doing in the 1930’s. Would we have had World War II if these men of God had spoken out against war, violence, and evil then? Unfortunately, these men of God were more interested in their own well-being and establishing that they were just as nationalistic as everyone else in Germany.
We are not asked to be martyrs to the faith; rather we are asked to be representatives of the faith. We are asked to go to Biloxi or Red Bird or Bolivia. We are asked to aid when disaster calls. We asked to invite our friends and neighbors to be here with us on Sunday morning. We are simply asked to show the presence of Christ in this world.
Yes, what we are often asked to do is very difficult. It is so much easier to walk by a homeless person than offer help. It is much easier to say that someone’s plight of homelessness or poverty is because they are sinful in nature. It is much easier to go to war than to work for peace. It is much easier to turn a blind eye to oppression than it is to speak out.
It is not an easy task; ask the writer of Hebrews (Hebrews 11: 29 – 12: 2). The writer lists what many of the early members of the church endured to insure that safety and the future of the church. The road, the path that they walked was clearly not an easy one. Yes, there are those who died in battle or led the nation in times of conflict but there were conflicts imposed upon them, not incited by them. We have those who went before us, that great cloud of faith to remind us that we are asked to do much for God and to do it with only the hope of a reward later. That is what our faith gives us in these times.
I do not have the answers. I am still struggling with the questions myself. But I know that I must speak out. I can no longer simply stand by and let others destroy the work of those who came before us. I will seek to do what God asks me to do; I will say “here I am” when God asks who will serve Him.
Each day we are asked one of two questions:
“Will you follow Jesus, no matter where it leads you in life?”
“And when you follow Jesus, will you carry out the tasks of the Gospel?”
What will you say when God asks you?