Tag Archives: grace

Why White Supremacy is a Sin

The events of Charlottesville, VA over the weekend were truly tragic and deplorable. One of the things that struck me was just how groundless and arbitrary the reasons were for white nationalists to gather for a rally. How pointless was the violence and death inflicted on people over a statue?

Even here in Canada, this kind of open display of hatred evoked a visceral reaction. To see nazis and klan members taking the streets was surreal. This is something that used to belong only in historical source footage and fictionalized movies. And yet there it was, in my newsfeed along side the regular photos of friends on holidays, recipe videos, cat pics and other news articles.

As a white Christian, I cannot help but feel outraged and shamed by the images and videos of white men who look just like me “rallied” thinking they were standing up for themselves. There is simply no excuse or moral justification for what took place in Charlottesville.

As a pastor, I struggled with how to address the events of the weekend. And I confess, that I did not re-write or change my sermon to address the issue of white nationalism (I did address Charlottesville in the intercessory prayers). But still I agreed with the many calls for pastors – white pastors in particular – to name the sin of white supremacy and racism. This article in particular named the need for pastors to speak out very well.

But one thing I noticed that was largely absent or only briefly address are the reasons why white supremacy is a sin. And while it may seem obvious to many or most people that this kind of hatred is sinful, I don’t think it is understood by or obvious to all.

In fact, I quite honestly doubt that those who espouse white supremacy and Christian faith understand why the two are incompatible. While some may choose to hate knowing that it is ‘wrong,’ I think many simply don’t understand that this hatred is, in fact, wrong and sinful.

So hopefully to add some clarity to the call to name white supremacy as a sin, here is the  why:

Sin

To begin with, we need to understand what is sin. So often we think of sins as “bad things” that we do. This is only a surface and passing understanding. To better understand sin, it needs to be more deeply understood in two ways. First, sin is distortion in our relationship with God. Second, sin is distortion in our relationships with other people and creation.

Sin is when we put ourselves first. When we put ourselves above God, trying to be God in God’s place (Commandments 1-3 in the Lutheran order). It is also when we put ourselves above others and creation, tying to be God over others and creation (Commandments 4-10 in the Lutheran order).

The sin of hierarchy

White supremacy is a sin because it elevates some people above other people for arbitrary reasons. It attempts to claim that some (white people) are more fully human, while others (people of colour) are less human. This is a violation of commandments 4-10 meant to keep our relationships with others and creation in balance. This is also a violation of commandments 1-3 meant to remind us of who is God, and that God alone defines our humanity.

The sin of trying to be like God

White supremacy is also a sin because it also tries to claim who is worthy of God’s love and favour, saying that God has arbitrarily chosen some people (white people) over others (people of colour). God alone chooses who is worthy of God’s love and favour, and God has chosen all peoples and all nations.

The sin of limiting the Gospel

And finally, the most important, white supremacy is a sin a because it tries to constrain and control the gospel, and ultimately to control and constrain God. God in Christ has declared that grace is given for all people. To restrict the Gospel or the Good News is to attempt to confine and control God, to be God in God’s place.

Trying to be God in God’ place is at the root of all sin.

The Gospel overcomes sin and death

God became incarnate in flesh to show us (all humanity) that the New Life given in Christ is given for all people. And there is no ideology based on arbitrary differences (like skin colour) that can constrain that Good News.

And in the face of racism and white supremacy, the Good News is that Christ is not controlled or restricted by white supremacists (not matter what they claim) or any others who would claim to limit Christ’s saving act of dying on the cross and rising to New Life so that New Life may be given for all.

The Gospel of Christ’s death and resurrection is something that God has given to all peoples and no one can change that.

So as pastors and other leaders in faith continue on through this week and into next Sunday naming and condemning the sin of white supremacy, my hope is that we also take the time to say why.

Because in saying why white supremacy is sinful, we also remind people that God’s love, mercy and grace is given for all.

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The parable of the sower – The soil is not the point

Matthew 13:1-9,18-23

Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. (Read the whole passage)

This is one of my favourite readings. For my installation service in my second call, I chose this parable as the gospel lesson. I just love the idea of a sower or farmer planting seed with wild abandon, willing to imagine and see if seeds will grow – even in the unexpected places. The excitement of potential, the willingness to see possibilities seems so hopeful.

And yet, anyone who knows anything about modern farming, knows that this kind of hap hazard seeding is not how things are done. These days GPS plows make for the maximum use of soil, air seeders measure density and plant at the optimum places. Good soil maximized for productivity, seed isn’t wasted and poor soil avoided.

But ancient farming, while a little more low tech, wouldn’t have been much different. In fact, isn’t that the point Jesus is making. A good sower knows where to seed and where to avoid just wasting valuable seeds on soil that won’t produce.

Yet this parable that Jesus tells, describes a sower who is not so efficient and careful with his seeds and soil and planting techniques. This farming style seems crazy to us and to the crowds listening in Jesus time. This haphazard sower who scatters seed anywhere, draws our attention to the different kinds of soil. To the hard packed soil of the paths, not unlike gravel roads or waking paths. We hear about rocky soil with no depth to it. Soil that is in amongst the thorns and thistles. But perhaps the most interesting soil of them all is the soil that gives 30 or 60 or 100 fold return. These kind of returns from good soil are almost unimaginable. In fact, anything that gives even a 30% return is almost unheard of in life. Anyone with a savings account knows that a 30% interest rate is crazy.

And so as soon as we hear Jesus talking about these incredible returns, we want to jump right to part where we figure out how to be good soil. We want to separate those who are bad, hard, inhospitable soils from those who are good soil. We want to see ourselves as the good soil, we like the ability to categorize and label, to judge and condemn. This lens of productivity is one we know well. It is one that all 3 gospel writers, Matthew, Mark and Luke, give with their telling of this story. If we want to be productive, we need to be good soil. If we want to be righteous, we need to be good and faithful.

Yet, we know that this kind of productivity just isn’t realistic, we know that this really isn’t the way the world is. And if we are honest with ourselves, we know that life is full of unpredictable, unexplainable, and unknowable outcomes. We know that sometimes the people with strongest faith, those who are gentle and kind, those who are most vulnerable sometimes receive the hardest lot in life. We know that suffering and sin doesn’t really seem to follow a pattern but rather happens to us at random. We know that there are those out there who seem to have an easy and blessed time with life, who get all the legs up without really trying or even when they don’t seem to deserve it.

And when it comes to hearing the word as Jesus says, we know that much of the time we are much more like the hard, or rocky or thorny soil than the good soil. We we all wish we could pray more and pray better. We all wish that we gave more to the church, more time and money. We all wish we could share our faith more easily, that we could tell our friends and neighbours just why this place means so much to us, that is when we ourselves find the time to come.

But we don’t feel like good soil… we can see and feel in ourselves what we know to be failure. We can see and feel the rocks, the thorns and the hardness within us.

In the parable, we get caught up in the business of the seeds and the soil. We like to imagine the details of where we fit. And we are struck by the reality of what it means to be soil, good or otherwise.

But the parable isn’t about seeds or soil. Jesus gives us the clue right at the beginning.

Jesus says, “Hear then the parable of the sower”. This parable is not about soil, it is about the sower.

Not about us.

But about God.

About this sowing God who seems radical, haphazard, and all over the place. God whose seeds end up everywhere.

When Jesus explains this parable, he never encourages or exhorts anyone to be good soil or good seed. He says that the parable is about the sower. It is about the one who owns and works the fields, the one who owns and plants the seeds. This parable is about a God who is willing to see that there is possibility even in the rocky, hard, shallow and thorny soil. Even knowing that the seeds may not grow in poor conditions, God scatters and plants anyways.

This parable is about God who declares that the hard packed soil, the rocky soil, the thorny soil and that dark, nutrient soil… God declares that all these soils are acceptable. All these soils are good enough to sow. Good enough for the Word to be scattered on.

The sower seems to be scattering seed, knowing that it probably will not grow, but seeing the possibility that it might. So are we the soil or the seeds in this parable? That part isn’t clear. And maybe it doesn’t matter if we know where we fit exactly. What this parable does show is a God who has decided to scatter grace, mercy and love in all directions. This parable shows a God who has decided to scatter on the rocky, the shallow, the thorny soil and the good soil. It is a God who is wants the Word of the Kingdom to be heard everywhere and anywhere. It shows a God who is determined to let this creation, these seeds and this soil, to let us know, that we are cherished and loved, imperfections and all.

This sowing God is showing us that the lenses of good and bad soil that we see the world through are not how the sower sees. The productivity of the soil does not determine the whether the sower sows. Whether we are good and holy, whether we are hard, rocky or thorny… these things do not determine whether God loves.

The sower sows because the sower has decided to scatter the seed. God gives God’s word of grace to us because God has decided that we are God’s beloved. And there is no amount of fruit that we can bear or fail to bear, no good works that we can do to earn or sins that we separate us from God’s love and mercy.

“Listen!” Jesus says, “a sower went to sow…” and with those first few words gives us the good news. The good news that God has decided to love us, no matter whether we feel good enough or not. Because God’s love is given because God has declared it is given – for us.

Are we the rich man in The Rich Man & Lazarus?

Luke 16:19-31

Jesus said, “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. (Read the whole passage)

Is anyone here worried? Did any anyone else take a moment to think as we heard this parable? Am I like the rich man and I don’t know it? Will I end up in Hades because I have a house and a car and RRSPs? These are fair and honest questions. Last week there was confusion about the Master who praises his dishonest manager. But this week things are clear. The rich man is rewarded in this life and punished in the next. Lazarus, the poor man living in front of the rich man’s house was punished in this life and will be rewarded in this next.

Well, let’s think about this. How much makes you rich? Well, if your annual salary is $40,000 a year, you are in the top 5 percent of the worlds richest people. If you make $60,000 a year, you are in the top 1% of the world’s richest people. These can be staggering figures.

If this parable is really about the amount in your bank account, then most Canadians are in deep trouble.

And while this parable is familiar to us, we cannot reduce it to its surface meaning. When Jesus tells a story, there is always more to it than what’s at the surface.

The rich man is more than just a rich person. He is the epitome of wealth and excess. He wears the clothes of kings, the feasts each day like he is at the royal court. He is a caricature more than real person. And Lazarus, he is the poorest soul you have ever seen. Starving at the rich man’s gate and too weak to move. Diseased and unclean. He is so pitiful that even the street dogs take mercy on him.

Yet, something strange happens when Lazarus dies. For you see, normally an unclean sinner like Lazarus should not be taken to heaven, at least according to the religious understanding of his day. The poor and the unclean are unrighteous, and while they are to be cared for in this world, they excluded from the next. But when Lazarus dies, he is carried into heaven by angels, similar to Elijah or Moses, heroes of the Hebrew people. Heaven was reserved for only the most favoured of God.

And something even stranger happens when the rich man dies. Most people in Jesus’ day didn’t believe in an afterlife for the average person. The place you went to when you died was Sheol, the ground, the grave. But the rich man isn’t just buried. He goes to Hades. And Hades is not just generic Hell. No, the rich man winds up in Greek Hell. Gentile Hell. Being buried wasn’t bad enough in the parable, he had to go to the hell of another religion.

And here is where we get to see that this isn’t about what we need to do to get in heaven. Even in Hades, the rich man still doesn’t have clue about what is going on. He cries out to Abraham from gentile hell. And even from hell he maintains his superior attitude. As if poor Lazarus hasn’t suffered enough, the rich man say to Abraham, “Send that poor Lazarus fellow down with a drop of water.”  Here he is in hell, acting like a snooty hotel guest ordering room service. And when Abraham says no, the rich man tries again. He orders a message to his brothers, and still Abraham refuses.

The rich man is the epitome of selfishness. He does not care for the poor on his door step as religious law dictates, he dresses like a king and eats like a king. And even when he is in Gentile hell, he doesn’t give up on his sense of entitlement. The chasm that has been set between Abraham and the rich man is the chasm of self-righteousness.

The chasm of selfishness that we create for ourselves so often keeps us from seeing the world around us. The rich man might be an exaggeration and Lazarus might be an extreme example, but the reality of these feelings and emotions about others, about ourselves, remains the same. Often we get stuck inside ourselves. We cannot see beyond what we are owed, what we believe we deserve and what injustices have been done to us.

And we have a name for this as Lutherans — original sin. We are curved in on ourselves. We try to be like God. We try to save ourselves.

And in the end, we fall short and we fail.

We die.

Its the last few words of the parable that cue us into what Jesus is talking about today.

“Neither will they be convinced, even if someone rises from the dead”.

We have heard those words before. The rich man wants Lazarus the ghost to go to warn his brothers of their fate so that they can save themselves. But Jesus is not talking about Lazarus the ghost.

It is not Lazarus who comes to us from the position of the poor in order to save us. It is God in Flesh. It is Christ who comes into our world as the child of peasants, Christ who is a homeless and penniless carpenter, Christ who is put to death as a common criminal.

The rich man is trying to save himself while Lazarus is dead to the world. These two are not really people, but reminders of who we are. That we are in need of salvation. And it is God who is giving up all power and might, to become like us. Christ is born into the muddy, dirty places that we live in, the places of self indulgence, the chasms of superior attitudes, the gates of self-pity and death.  And it is in these places, where God comes near to us.

Whether we are rich or poor, entitled or humble, in the mansion or on the street.

God is turning death into life regardless.

God is licking our wounds of suffering and sin.

God is loving us, even when we do not deserve to be loved.

And God is doing this whether we see it or not

 

God is acting in the world no matter what we are doing. God is making the dead alive, even if we are too busy to notice.  And God isn’t swayed by our righteousness or unrighteousness. God acts out of love, God comes near enough to touch us because we belong to God.

The world is so much more grey, so much more complicated than the story of the rich man and Lazarus. We are all too rich too see others around us. And we are all too poor to do anything to save ourselves. And this parable isn’t about condemning the rich and nor is about the value of being poor.

This parable is about the cross.

The cross where new life begins in the most powerful symbol of death.

The cross where God empties Godself of all power and might to take on human flesh and dies like us.

The cross where God hides in plain sight, where God turns the world on its head and where God reminds us all that it is God alone who saves us.

Will our riches will keep us out of heaven? Yes they will, not even money can pay our way. Will being poor and dead to world make us worthy of salvation. No. Nothing that we do will save ourselves.

God alone saves.

“What is the Good News?”: It is not buying God off.

So I am sitting at a table in a church in rural Manitoba, Canada. For Canadian readers, imagine the winter paradise that most of you think rural Manitoba is. For American readers, imagine the winter wasteland you might think Canada would be all about. This is where I am.

I am also betweens sessions as the co-presenter at a youth retreat. Our theme for the weekend is “What is the Good News?”

Two sessions in and 3 to go, it strikes me how difficult a question this can be. There are  seemingly obvious definitions, like Jesus died for our sins, or God loves us, or God is King of all creation. But when you are trying to explain this youth, you need to be more concrete. At the same time, when you speak to youth and allow for their response, you will be surprised by their depth and their insight. Already the youth have been pointing out nuances that I didn’t consider when planning my parts of the speaking sessions.

As Lutherans, we have a very specific dogma when it comes to the “Good News”. We boldly declare that grace, that God’s love, that God’s mercy and forgiveness is entirely an action on God’s part. There is no earning God’s love. There is no choosing to follow Jesus. There is no repenting first, so that we may then be forgiven. The direction of God’s grace is always towards us.

We showed this video to the youth, of Nadia Bolz-Weber speaking to 40,000 ELCA youth in New Orleans about Lutheran theology:

Good News with this 1-sided approach (as in, it is all God’s work, and none of ours) becomes hard to nail down. We so desperately want to know our part. We want to have something to contribute. In in the middle ages it was good works which earned merit. The merit could be earned with works, and purchased with indulgences. The church sold Good News like a commodity. Merit became like ladder rungs to purchase for our climb to heaven.

Today, we are mostly over the good works thing. But the church is still selling Good News, in the form of faith or repentance or choice. We don’t say that we need to do good works to go to heaven, but instead that we need to actively accept God’s love. We need to choose Jesus in a conscious, life changing way. We need to truly repent of our sins to be truly forgiven. We need to DO something in our relationship with God.

This is still selling Good News. And we still buy it because it affords us a sense of control. If we can make the active choice, have the repentance moment, if we can accept Jesus as our Lord and Saviour, than we are in control of our eternal fate.

But this is not what Jesus says about Grace. This is not what Martin Luther realized by reading Romans. This is not Good News

It is all still buying Good News, still buying God’s love. We once bought God with work and indulgences, now God is bought with sincerity of faith or our choice.

God doesn’t act this way. The Good News is not that we can somehow earn or buy off God.

The Good News has always been, and still is, that God is the one coming to us. God’s love, mercy and grace is freely given. Given whether we have earned it or not. Given whether we repent, choose, or accept it or not. God is constantly giving Grace, and there is nothing we can do about it. Nothing at all.

So what is the Good News?

That God is doing all the work when it comes to us. That is God is doing the saving, forgiving, resurrecting work.

And it just happens to us.

God just happens to us… just happens to love us, before we even knew what love was, before we had any say in the matter.

That is Good News!

So what is the Good News? What is our role? Can we have a role? Share in the comments, on Facebook, or on Twitter: @ParkerErik