Feb 5, 2005

Sermon Title: In Groups, Out Groups, and the Grace which Transcends Both

Kevin Sumner-Eisenbraun
M.Div. Student, Luther Seminary
Honorable Mention, Feburary 2005 Round
The subtitle listed for the 91st Psalm reads “Assurance of God’s Protection.” To whom does this subtitle refer? We read in the first verse: You who live in the shelter of the Most High who abide in the shadow of the Almighty…” The person to whom this Psalm refers is depicted in quite a favorable light. The person in the Most High shelter is the only person left standing when the rest of the world falls out of favor with God.

Many times a day I wrestle with the question about how I personally fit into this Psalm. Obviously, we are speaking in metaphors here. Do I live in the shelter of the Most High? Do I abide in the shadow of the Almighty? Or am I awaiting my condemnation? And what does it really mean to live in the shelter of the Most High? This Biblical passage is quite threatening really. How do we know if we are on God’s good side or bad side? Is God really that hard to please?

I believe this Psalm is analogous to our legal system. On one hand, we are thankful for the laws that keep us and other people safe. On the other hand, when we get speeding tickets our anger can be misplaced. We might get mad at the officer and throw a fit. In theory, we are willing to submit to the laws of the land. However, when we are the offenders, our response is quite different.

Luther speaks about God’s anger unleashed upon us. It is not a pleasant thing to think about. Most of us only want to think about the God that loves us and the God who is always warm, always loving, and always caring. But I must ask… Would God be a loving God if S/He ultimately let evil take over our souls?

This discussion about who is under the functions of God’s Law is vital for our discussion of the Biblical texts we are investigating. As we make our way through the Biblical passages I encourage you to try to fit yourselves into the texts. The way in which I questioned my own place in today’s Psalm is an example of this exercise.

Let us now turn to the Gospel reading for this morning from Luke.
Many believe the book of Luke was written especially for the down-trodden, the oppressed, and the marginalized. In fact, the Gospel of Luke is the book of choice for Latin American Liberation theologians. That is, theologians that believe God has a preferential option for the poor. So, do we believe that? If this is true does God want all of us to be down-trodden and oppressed our entire lives? In order to gain God’s favor and live in the shelter of the Most High, do we need to sell all of our possessions and live a life without luxury and convenience? I certainly do not want to romanticize poverty. In a book I recently read entitled, Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer, a youth travels to Alaska penniless in order to live out a life free from money which he believed to be oppressive. This impulse which causes us to want to “escape” the ills of society is popular among many groups. In many circles, people believe that the very structure of the economic system of which we participate is against God’s plan for the world.

Many of these groups in our culture have their own answers. There are the cult leaders who believe that to “live in the shelter of the Most High” actually requires a radical withdrawal from society, a casting aside of all of the things that get in the way of our relationship with God. When I was in high school I was “dumped for Jesus” on more than one occasion due to this type of thinking.

Then there are the thinkers associated with the liberalist movements of the 19th century, often called Deists. These thinkers believed in human achievement and progress. It was a time when questioning authority was O.K. The God of the Bible and traditional forms of the Christian faith were not especially appealing. Instead, people began to place their faith in the work of people. Many thinkers associated with Deism believed that God set the world in motion and let things progress from there. As a result, the belief that humans had the tools to bring about positive change and a better life was contagious.

There was only one problem. With human progress also comes human egos and pride. Wars began in part because of this type of thinking. Then there were the World Wars and the optimism was crushed. Rather, then looking over the vast accomplishments of humanity, the ground and the world was a garbage dump. The need for a radically Other being and belief presented itself. Barthian neo-Orthodoxy was the solution. In this way of thinking humans must turn back to God and believe that God is truly the only truly holy one.

Notice the trend here. The liberal theological movements of the 19th relied far too heavily upon humanity, while other groups, believing they are only relying upon God excommunicate themselves from everything worldly.

Now that we have had a brief history lesson I must ask, how then do we cope with the challenges of modernity? How do we make peace with these texts? We never want to over spiritualize the Bible. It does not have to be a mystery. We let our conscience guide us. Luther translated the Bible into German, the language of the people, simply for this reason. He claimed that the Word of God is clear. But is it? The two examples from history we just discussed were stories of people using Biblical “practices” that looked very different. How do we read the Bible without polarizing it? After all, Lutherans do believe in dividing the Bible into Law and Gospel, right?

Let us turn now to the Gospel message for today and perhaps a coherent message might become clearer to us. If the Hebrew Scriptures were hard to understand, perhaps Jesus may be able to clear things up for us.

The Gospel lesson today is the story of the Rich man and Lazarus. First, I want discuss what it means to be rich. Not in a spiritual sense. Simply, what is it that makes someone wealthy? How much money does someone have to have before they are considered rich? When I was growing up, from my perspective, the rich kids at school were the kids with cable television in their homes, and video games.

It is important to think about what rich means when we consider Walter Bruggemann’s notions of scarcity verses abundance in a book entitled Deep Memory Exuberant Hope. Bruggemann tells the story of Pharaoh and his eventual domination of all the food in the region. Pharoah was scared because he heard there was going to be a famine in the land. As a result he collected all the food for himself and created the first monopoly. The rich man that Jesus refers to in this story is probably this kind of rich, monopoly rich.

I asked us to think about how we might place ourselves in the Biblical texts for today? Would you all consider yourselves the rich man or Lazarus? Again, consider what we discussed earlier. Are we romanticizing poverty if we choose Lazarus? Or are we more like the rich man? We shall come back to this question but for now let’s continue.

The Epistle lesson today comes from the book of 1Timothy. In this passage it sounds as though it is a ringing endorsement for slavery. How can that be in the Bible? Would we really instruct a slave to remain under the yoke of slavery and actually honor his master? I don’t think so.

Concerning the Epistle, do we really believe that those who do not obey their masters are guilty of conceit and a morbid craving for controversy?
Many believe the God of the OT in condemning while the NT God loves. However, this cannot be true when we search the whole story.

Now is when we turn to our theological imagination. The Bible has many different seemingly contradictory messages. But the final verse in the Epistle lesson reads: “Of course, there is great is great gain in godliness combined with contentment.” This verse, I believe, is the key to our learning this morning.

The Lutheran faith is all about affirming tension, finding a middle ground, thinking things through. Christians receive the gift of grace which is out of our control. Sin is also out of our control. I believe the presence of sin forces us into extremes, but the fact of grace keeps us marching forward.

The way we make church decisions is evidence of this fact. Instead of making hard and fast claims we affirm the “both…and” nature of the universe. We believe God is both hidden and reveled. God is both gracious and judging. In the same manner we believe humans are both sinners and saints, worldly and righteous. When we come to the communion rail there are four elements: both bread and wine, and the body and blood of Christ. The list goes on and on. All this is to say that there are no easy answers. This should not paralyze us, however.

The Bible has all sorts of polarizing stories. Are you with the Most High? Or are you with the condemned? Are you a rich oppressor? Or are you the marginalized poor? Are you a master? Or are you a slave?

The beauty of our Lutheran theology is that we can say yes to both. We fit into the Biblical narrative in both places. We are righteous when we live according to the traffic laws, but when we receive a speeding ticket we have done wrong. But we are still loved by God.

This is the final message today. We do not have to live out our existence in extremes. You are loved and forgiven just as you are. We do not have to choose between the Creeds and compassion. Our traditions are the result of a redeemed community’s struggle over many centuries to be truthful about life. The truth about life is that we are all absolutely equal before God.

What does this mean for us then? Just as we have learned about Lazarus and the rich man and the Epistle Lesson’s discussions of the master/slave distinction, we must also begin to imagine ourselves in these stories. However, instead of choosing a role to identify with and play out, we shall instead look at the issue from every angle. This is what our Confessions, Traditions, Creeds have done. The purpose is that these elements of orthodoxy allow us to be more loving, more compassionate and disciples of Jesus. Our orthodoxy gives us a systematic framework in which we can exercise our compassion. Amen.