The Heresy of the Charleston Shooter: Racism and Lutherans

The Charleston shooting is still heavy on our hearts and issues around race boiling over and over on social media. Here in Canada, we have been dealing with issues related to our (predominantly white and Christian) government’s relationship with indigenous peoples. Just this week, the premier of Manitoba apologized for the “60s Scoop” where thousands of aboriginal children were taken from their homes and given up for adoption to white families, often in other countries.

As a white Canadian, I am pulled to consider the role I play in passive racist systems. I have to acknowledge the privileges I enjoy because of my skin colour and the benefit of the doubt I receive because I don’t look “other.”

As a Christian, I am also moved to consider the role our faith plays in the suffering of marginalized peoples, and the ways in which the church has been tacitly and explicitly connected to racism.

However, the Charleston shooting hits particularly close to home as the suspected shooter (who I refuse to name) is a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). I serve in the ELCA’s sister church of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC). It not just that the shooter was a Lutheran. Our church bodies are so interconnected that I could have been the shooter’s pastor. There are number of Americans serving ELCIC churches that I count as friends. There are Canadian friends of mine serving in the ELCA. He could have been my parishioner.

And still again, Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, wrote in her pastoral letter following the shooting, “Mother Emanuel AME’s pastor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, was a graduate of the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, as was the Rev. Daniel Simmons, associate pastor at Mother Emanuel.”

This incident is first and foremost a tragedy for the victims and their families, for the African American community, for South Carolina, for the US as a whole. But further down the list, it is also a Christian and, specifically, a Lutheran tragedy. 

And as Lutherans it is particularly troubling that the shooter sought to identify himself with the racist regimes in apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia. The shooter’s twisted view of race, clearly born in a larger system of racist thought, is something that Lutherans have indeed strongly and clearly condemned for decades.

Almost certainly the shooter did not know, probably nor cared to know, that the Lutheran World Federation in fact condemned apartheid in 1977. “A statement on “Southern Africa: Confessional Integritydeclared that the racial separation of the church in compliance with apartheid in Southern Africa constitutes a “status confessionis” (a basis in faith for churches to reject apartheid publicly and unequivocally).” And while Lutherans have a complicated history when it comes to racism with Hitler using some of Martin Luther’s writings to justify his actions, Lutherans during the past few decades have sought to clearly condemn racism, as they did in 1977.

To put this in perspective, the last time Lutherans added something to their confessions (collected statements of faith) was in the 1500s. The Lutheran World Federation thought it was so important to condemn the racist regimes of apartheid, that it made the issue a matter of faith, and those who practiced apartheid would be excommunicated.

The accused shooter’s views on apartheid and race, therefore, make him a Lutheran heretic. His views and actions have put him outside of fellowship with Lutheran church.

Lutherans are a people and community born out of excommunication, and it is very odd to turn those tables around. However, I think it bears understanding just how contrary to the core of our faith as Christians, and especially as Lutherans, that the events of Charleston are.

In the wake of this tragedy, I would expect bishops and pastors closer to the situation to make pastoral statements, expressing care and concern, sorrow and sadness, while also calling for healing and pointing to our source of hope – The One who was also murdered by oppressors and those in privilege.

However, I think that it needs to be said publicly, by pastors and other faith leaders, that the actions of the shooter last Wednesday night in Charleston were just as contrary to Christian faith as denying the Trinity or the divinity of Christ or any other heretical view.

The exclusion of someone based on the colour of their skin, gender, age, sexual orientation or otherwise is contrary to the gospel. 

Here is an anecdote to explain why:

When I was doing my pastoral internship in Calgary, Alberta, it was the in the 12 months just prior to 2008 financial crisis. Oil prices were booming. Housing was soaring. Rental units were impossible to find. The economy was firing on all cylinders.

But poverty was also soaring. The population of Calgary was growing very fast and 25% of the population was comprised of visible minorities. Poverty was growing, but in a new form. The ‘working poor’ became a new term.

Housing and the cost of living had become so expensive, that people with full time jobs couldn’t find housing and were living on the street. As a winter city,  Calgary churches and other organization were scrambling to find people shelter. Our congregation participated in a program called “Inn from the Cold”, where we provided cots and food for people to have a warm place over night. Many of the clients using the program were families where both parents were employed, but who couldn’t find affordable housing.

As a pastoral intern one of my regular duties was to help serve communion. It was during that year, having the chance to regularly serve communion – the body and blood of Christ, to that congregation, at that time, opened my eyes to the reality of God’s hope for the church.

Week after week, at the communion rail, people of all different kinds knelt with hands open to receive. There were rich oil executives, teachers, doctors, blue collar oil patch workers, single parents, unemployed people and even homeless people. There were young and old, men and women, and people of all different ethnicities.

It became clear to me, just as it was in 1977 to the Lutheran World Federation, that the Body of Christ cannot be limited by human categories. Regardless of gender, class, occupation or race, we are all equal before God. We are all kneeling beggars with our hands open to receive at the railing.

And this equality at the communion rail is a fundamental characteristic of the God’s grace for us. There is nothing about us, about human beings, that earned our place at the railing. And in fact, to suggest that something like skin colour would be a disqualifying characteristic, denies the very nature of God’s grace and mercy – a divine love – given wholly and freely by God with no condition.

That is why the Charleston shooter is a heretic. That is why he is to be excommunicated. His views on race contravene the very nature of God’s unconditional love for all humanity. 

Along side heavy hearts, conversations about race relations and renewed focus on gun violence, it also needs to be said that this tragedy committed in a church by a church member against other people of faith is tragic, deplorable and ultimately, heretical.


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Greenhouse Churches, Scattering Seeds and the Kingdom of God

Mark 4:26-34

Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. (Read the whole passage)

Sermon

Today, we delve again into Mark’s gospel. Last week, we started this long season of green, by hearing how Jesus’ family thought he was crazy. But we also heard that God’s house is the divided house, the one with room for differences and diversity, the one broken open for the sake of the world.

Today, we hear parables. Parable of the Kingdom. And while this teaching may be familiar for us, it wasn’t for those that Jesus was teaching and preaching to. As Jesus tells parables of the Kingdom, lessons that often begin, “The Kingdom of God is like…” we hear them with 2000 years of Christian tradition that has made us ready to hear them. But to the people of 1st century Israel, their understanding of the Kingdom of God was very different than ours. Before unpacking what Jesus said, it is important to know what the people would have expected.

The Kingdom of God for the people of ancient Israel had a very specific form. As we are reminded each Advent, the Israelites were waiting for the Messiah, the Saviour King who would free them from foreign oppressors like the Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians, and Romans. And this Messiah King would establish an earthly Kingdom with divine approval. A powerful kingdom with powerful armies – maybe even powerful enough to do some oppressing itself. A wealthy kingdom with abundance – maybe with enough abundance that other nations would come begging to it. This Kingdom would keep Israel from ever being ruled over by foreigners ever again. This Kingdom would find favour with God, and would therefore be a holy and righteous Kingdom. This Kingdom would be centred in Jerusalem, with the temple, God’s dwelling place as its symbol of power. The Kingdom of God was long hoped for but also had to live up to very specific criteria.

Then Jesus showed up. And he started telling parables about the Kingdom of God being like unknown seeds scattered in a field, with the sower having no clue how it would grow. Jesus told parables of how the Kingdom of God was like the humble mustard seed, the smallest of seeds that would grow into the most unruly of bushes / garden weeds.

These parables would not have described a Kingdom like the crowds would have expected. This is not the Kingdom of God they were looking for.

Even though we have heard all the Kingdom parables, we too can have a pretty narrow definition of what the Kingdom of God should look like. We too often want a Kingdom of power, security and predictability. We expect that God will fit into our narrow vision of what Kingdom will look like.

Now, it would be easy to describe the often narrow expectations that churches and ministries so often operated under, expectations of increasing attendance and finances… but I suspect we “get” that by now.

So perhaps it is more interesting to consider the effects of our narrow view of the Kingdom of God.

So let me ask a question. A question that the Bishop of the Diocese of Rupertsland asked Lutheran and Anglican clergy this week. And it is for the gardners among us, in particular.

Does anyone know of a seed that looks like the plant it produces?

I can’t think of any.

You might never guess what plant a seed turns into until you plant it. In fact, many seeds also look similar to each other and it can be hard to tell them apart without labels. Planting seeds is a bit of a guessing game. And churches, like all human beings, don’t like facing the unknown.

Churches often prefer to know that the things they do, the ministries, outreaches, projects or programs that they start will be predictable, identifiable, manageable.

And to stay with the garden image, this is more like greenhouse gardening. In the controlled environment of a greenhouse, small seedlings are grown, produced and sold. Seedlings are smaller versions of the plants they will become. And churches often like the things we invest ourselves into to look a little more like greenhouse gardening than scattering seeds in fields. We like to grow small known seedlings into larger yet similar plants.

In fact, churches are a lot like greenhouses. They are safe, stable environments. They are good at producing life. They are good growing plants that wouldn’t grow out in fields. They are good are growing with intention and purpose. They are places where life is nurtured. They are places with an an abundance of water – communities born in the waters of baptism. They are places with an abundance of fertilizer or food – bread and wine to be precise. Churches and greenhouses produce predictable, purposeful, rich life.

But Greenhouses are not the only place where plants grow. In fact, Greenhouses prepare plants for life on the outside. And churches prepare the people within them for life on the outside. To grow out in the world.

But even still, greenhouses are not the only place where life grows. In fact, most life grows out in the fields.

And like any good greenhouse, churches are in the seed scattering business too.

But scattering seeds is not predictable, or safe. Scattering seeds is not easily managed. Scattering seeds is a bit of a guessing game. And sometimes we end up planting mustard seeds in the middle of the field. A mustard seed which grows into a wild, weed-like over-powering bush.

And yet, this is what Jesus says the Kingdom of God is like. A sower who scatters seeds, but who isn’t sure just what will grow or how it turns from seed into living plant.

And yet again, this is what Jesus says the Kingdom of God is like. A small unassuming mustard seed, planted in a garden and treating to take over.

As people of faith, as workers and tenders of God’s garden, we declare that the Kingdom of God is near to us. That it is here. But sometimes we imagine that it is only here. That the Kingdom is contained only within the church. Within these four walls. Within communities who clearly and purposely identify themselves as Christian. We imagine that we allow the Kingdom into our world when we read our bibles, or pray, or attend church or gather as community.

We forget that the Kingdom of God is not contained within us. The Kingdom of God is not grown just in the Greenhouse.

Rather the Greenhouse, the church is contained in the Kingdom. We are just one place where God is growing, one place where seeds have been scattered.

The Kingdom is not in us. We are in the Kingdom.

To people that have a very narrow view of what the Kingdom of God looks like. To the Israelites of the 1st century, and to Christians of the 21st century who often have equally narrow views. Jesus reminds us that Kingdom of God is so much more than what we know.

Jesus tells of how the Kingdom of God is spread with seed that is scattered all over.

Jesus tells of how the Kingdom is sprouting in un-expected places.

Jesus tell of how the Kingdom of God is growing into life that we would have never predicted from the seed.

Jesus tells of how the Kingdom of God is teeming with life where we would have only imagined barrenness.

God is scattering seeds of the Kingdom all over. God is growing plants that we would have never have guessed from the seeds. And God’s Kingdom is showing up, taking over, filling the fields with life.

But perhaps most importantly, even as we garden in the greenhouse, even as we continue on as the church, God is growing the Kingdom here too. Not growing a narrow Kingdom within us, but growing us in the wild, broad, surprising and life-filled Kingdom.

Amen

God’s House is the Divided House

Mark 3:20-35

… And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. (Read the whole passage)

Sermon

A house divided cannot stand.

A house divided cannot stand.

Of all the lines to pick out of this passage, why does this one stand out in particular? Why not “he has gone out of his mind”? Or “then indeed the house can be plundered”? Or “Who are my mother and sisters and brothers”?

A house divided cannot stand. We seem to be caught by this line for some reason.

This short vignette in the life of Jesus can strike us as a strange one. As is usual, Mark uses the structure of the story to draw us to the centre. We begin and end with the crowds. The unwashed, poor, unclean and desperate crowds are pushing in on Jesus and his disciples. They are looking for something, someone to give them good news.  And by the end, Jesus names those same crowds as his brothers, sisters and mothers.

The next frame is Jesus’ family. Just after we first hear about the crowds, Jesus’ family comes to take him away because he is out of his mind. And just before the last mention of the crowds, we are reminded that Jesus family is desperate to get him away, to relieve their shame and embarrassment at what Jesus is doing.

And finally the scribes make up the inside frame. He has a demon the scribes claim. And Jesus rebukes the scribes for trying to make claim to actions of the spirit.

Crowds, family scribes. Scribes, family crowds. And right in the middle, Jesus gives us this strange image of Satan’s house. A house divided cannot stand. Satan’s house divided cannot stand. Satan’s house is not divided. Satan’s house, the strongman’s house, IS the undivided house.

As Jesus’ family attempts to restrain Jesus and as the scribes declare that Jesus is acting with a possessed spirit, Jesus reminds all those around him of this fact. It is the house of the strong man that cannot stand if divided, and therefore is not divided. But rather, that Jesus is here to tie up of the strong man in his house and to plunder it.

Jesus speaks to the crowds, his family and the scribes who all believe that they have the world figured out and that they have God figured out. The crowds know that they are on the outside of God’s love, they know that because they are unclean and unable to make sacrifices in the temple that God couldn’t possibly accept them.

Jesus’ family knows that family unity is essential to the Hebrew faith. They know that Jesus’ actions will not only reflect badly on him, but will bring shame to the whole family. They will lose standing in the community.

The scribes know they are part of the religious authority. They know that because they have kept the law that they are permitted to make judgements about who is clean and unclean, who us righteous and who is unrighteous.

Jesus speaks to these groups who believe they have it all figured out and turns their whole world, their whole understanding of God on its head. Jesus tells all of them, they are all wrong.

Like the crowds, Jesus’ family and scribes, we so often think we have things figured out.  Whether we think like the scribes, that we can determine where God begins and ends and make judgements about who is outside of God, or like Jesus’ family that we need to keep from being shamed and embarrassed or like the crowds that we are too sinful for God to possibly love us.

Jesus hears all of that and turns it on his it head. Jesus challenges our assumptions, challenges our claim to be the arbitrators of God’s love and declares a completely different reality.

“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”

Whatever we think we have figured out, whatever understanding of God’s activity in the world we claim to have Jesus tells the crowds, tells his family, tells the scribes and tells us that it is opposite of what we think. God is usually doing things very differently than we imagine.

A house divided cannot stand.

But God’s house, divided for 2000 years, continues to stand. It has stood despite our inability to agree. It has stood because the Church has been full of people who thought differently.

God’s house stands divided because it is able to hold within it the differences that we bear as the Body of Christ. God’s house stands because even when we cannot hold our differences between us, God can.

God’s house stands because it stands on Christ.

Satan’s house is the undivided house.

But Christ, who ties up the strong man and plunders Satan’s house, is our foundation.

God’s house stands divided between the many members of the body, the many members who serve and live in different ways, the many members whose different gifts are used in different ways, the many members who are each chosen and loved by God.

God’s house stands divided, as the Body of Christ broken and given for the world, as the Blood of christ shed and poured out for a world in need of forgiveness.

Just as we are all guilty of same eternal sin, of the same original sin, of wanting to be God in God’s place, of standing in judgement of others. Just as we are guilty, like the crowds, family and scribes of standing in Judgement of Christ. Jesus is declaring a new reality.

A reality where people will be forgiven for their sins.

The Body of Christ, the House of God, stands broken and divided in the world. And today, Jesus reminds us, that it is not by agreeing or finding unity that we stand. In fact, Jesus reminds us that it is Satan’s house that stands undivided.

Rather, Jesus declares today that God’s house divided and broken house stands only by God’s forgiveness. God’s house stands only by God’s stubborn insistence that we are all brothers and sisters in the Body of Christ. God’s house stands only by the turning of our world upside down.

A house divided cannot stand. But God’s house, broken and divided given and shed for us, has stood, stands now and will stand forever.

Amen.