Preaching to Protest: How the Gospel was a Threat to the Nazis

Preaching to Protest: How the Gospel was a Threat to the Nazis

This past summer, my girlfriend and I traveled with members of several Lutheran churches on a Lutheran pilgrimage—of sorts—to see many of the sites related to Martin Luther and the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago.

Beyond these sites, we sought also to learn about the more recent history of Germany: the fall of the Wall in Berlin, the struggles between East and West during the Cold War. We also stopped at the Buchenwald concentration camp, and it was here that I learned of a remarkable pastor who preached against Hitler and the Nazi party and was imprisoned and killed for his commitment to the Gospel. His name is Paul Schneider, and he is known as the Preacher of Buchenwald.

Paul Schneider was a pastor during the Third Reich who began preaching and speaking out against Hitler and the National Socialist (Nazi) Party after their rise to power. The Nazis were attempting to force the church to conform to their ideology by implementing Nazi ideas into confirmation classes, by having the churches ring their bells for national events, and by preventing pastors from criticizing the party. Paul Schneider, recognizing this insidious attempt to co-opt the church, joined the Confessing Church, a group of pastors, including Martin Niemöller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who opposed the conforming German Church. He hoped that more pastors would recognize the dangers represented by the Nazi party and speak authoritatively against it.

Schneider’s actions put him on the watch list of the Nazi party. They placed spies in his congregation to collect grievances against him.[i] It was clear that the Nazi Party had no misgivings against removing those who opposed them and creating ways to silence any opposition. Schneider was arrested several times for refusing to ring the church bells for national events, for refusing to add the Nazi salute to the confirmation curriculum, for refusing to add Nazi ideology to a funeral service, and for preaching against the Nazi party from the pulpit.[ii]

The Nazis pressured the German Church to remove Pastor Schneider from his congregation and transfer him to another congregation, hoping that this transfer would shut him up. However, he continued to speak out against the National Socialists in his new parish. Schneider was arrested and removed from that parish on the last Sunday before Lent in 1937. He was given papers for deportation and was expected to leave the country. But Schneider defied those orders and returned to his congregation to preach. He was arrested the same day and was sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp on November 27, 1937.[iii]

Paul Schneider continued to protest the National Socialists even in Buchenwald, leading morning devotions for other prisoners. He refused to salute the flag or take his hat off during flag-raising ceremonies, saying, “I will not salute this criminal symbol.”[iv] He refused to stop preaching to the other prisoners and to the guards around him.

For his actions of insubordination, Schneider was put into solitary confinement and beaten regularly. He was not given food to eat.[v] Still, even here, Schneider could not keep from preaching the Gospel.

When we visited Buchenwald, we were able to see the solitary confinement cells which had barred windows that faced out into open area where prisoners would gather for roll call. It was from one of these windows that Pastor Schneider could be heard preaching for as long as he could. One prisoner remembers in a letter to Schneider’s wife:

“I already knew your husband from the beginning of my detention at Buchenwald because every morning when we had lined up for roll call, the voice of your husband rang out through his cell window when he preached to the prisoners. A short time after that we could hear from outside how your husband’s preaching was disrupted by their beatings.”[vi]

Another prisoner remembered some of his words:

“Friends, listen to me. Pastor Paul Schneider is speaking here. They are torturing and murdering people here. For the sake of Christ, have mercy. Pray to God. Remain steadfast and true. God, the almighty Father, will take this evil from us.”

Paul Schneider was executed on July 18, 1939, because his actions in living out the Gospel that he preached threatened the ideology of the Nazi party. Our Church, which believes in a Gospel that preaches love rather than hate, which preaches the lifting of the lowly rather than praising “perfection,” which preaches inclusion rather than division, posed the greatest internal threat to the Nazi party’s power. And yet, the church in general conformed and was silent, while voices like Paul Schneider’s were forcibly made silent. Rather than preach the truth of the Gospel, the German Church (Reich Church) conformed to the Nazi party to feel safe and secure, failing to look to God alone to assure its future.

Despite everything that Paul Schneider faced, his reasons to stand up against the Nazi party never changed. Their promotion and adoration of themselves defied the Gospel. In undermining and dismantling the church, the Nazi party created their own civil religion, a “Positive Christianity,” — “a Christianity purged of Jewish influence and combined with nationalistic zeal… a Nazi religion.”[vii]

It was not the actions of one person that led to the atrocities of the Holocaust and the war. It was the action and inaction of those that would not speak up. It was the pride of a people who became convinced that they were perfect, who began to worship themselves.

In his introduction to the biography of Paul Schneider, the Rev. Dr. Craig L. Nessan writes,

“Positive Christianity bears a family resemblance to more recent versions of civil religion. Virtually every state must and does appeal to religious sources to legitimize its policies, making claims to divine authority. While rarely is the fusion of national hubris with divine sanction as potent as in the case of Nazi Germany, in every nation the church needs to examine its role in serving as an agent for legitimizing state policies. In many instances, it may be hard for the faithful to distinguish between the core articles of Christian faith and the tenets of civil religion. The overidentification of church and state has plagued the history of the church in various instances throughout the centuries. We are reminded again of the responsibility of Christians to serve God above all things and to know the difference between worship of God and the worship of the state.”[viii]

The lesson that we should learn from the calamities of the Third Reich is not merely that we must be wary of tyrannical leaders. The lesson that must be learned—especially by Christians—is that, when pride in our nation becomes worshipful, we can easily lose sight of what the message of the Gospel really is. German pride raised up a leader who thought of himself as a god and the leader of the superior race. He neutralized the church because it questioned his authority. He killed millions because their race was deemed inferior. And through it all, many of his people loved him because he made them to believe that they were more perfect than anyone else.

Is there anything more antithetical to the Gospel than that?

I am not going to sit here and tell you all the ways that I see pride and superiority dismantling our country and perpetuating an understanding of “better than” and “perfection.”

But I am going to ask you these questions:

Are there any current issues that you think suggest we may be more concerned about national pride than about the well-being of people in need?

Do the leaders of our country use language that suggests there are certain people or groups that are superior and inferior?

Do the reactions of our leaders suggest that some lives are worth saving and others are not?

Do some leaders of our country use religious language in passing but only to support their cause?

Finally, if the answers to these questions are affirmative and the Christian church fails to speak a prophetic voice against it, do we truly worship God, or do we worship the idols of the State?  [I’ll leave it to you to name the idols.]

 

**For more information on Pastor Paul Schneider:

Books: Paul Schneider: Witness of Buchenwald by Rudolf Wentorf

Websites:

Wikipedia (for Quick Facts):  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Schneider_(pastor)

(Interesting perspectives) http://www.messianicgoodnews.org/paul-schneider-german-opponent-of-hitler/

 

Footnotes:

[i] Rudolf Wentorf, translated by Daniel Bloesch, Paul Schneider: Witness of Buchenwald, forward by Craig L. Nessan (Vancouver: Regent House, 2008), 66.

[ii] Ibid., 10

[iii] Ibid., 11.

[iv] Ibid., 335.

[v] Ibid., 336.

[vi] Ibid., 337.

[vii] Ibid., 12.

[viii] Ibid..

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The ‘Protest’-ant Reformation: From Luther to Kaepernick

The ‘Protest’-ant Reformation: From Luther to Kaepernick

In Dr. Timothy Wengert’s (Professor of Lutheran History and the Lutheran Confessions) introduction and commentary to Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, he writes,

Luther clearly composed the Ninety-Five Theses as theses for debate. Yet, when compared to other theses that he and other professors were composing at around the same time, the Ninety-Five Theses contain some turns that were decidedly not intended for classroom debate using logic and syllogisms. They have far more rhetorical flare than one finds in other university theses, both before and after 1517.[i]

As is becoming more commonly known, Luther’s writing and posting of the Theses was not uncommon among professors. In fact, at this time each year it was common for any professor in Wittenberg to post their theses onto the doors of the Castle Church in order to engage in debate in that academic setting. This was a common practice – an academic practice.[ii]

However, what Wengert’s words above can help us to understand is that Luther was using this floor for debate as a jumping-off point to a much larger conversation. His goal was not to engage in one debate and to end the conversation there. His words in the Ninety-Five Theses were inflammatory. They were divisive. They were shocking. They were an act of protest.

Whether Luther intended to or not, his actions started the Protestant Reformation. He did not want to start a new church, but he did want to change and reform the system of the church. It was a system that was designed to profit off of those with no privilege and who were oppressed.

If you’re thinking this is a leap, here are some of the ways that the system of that time was taking advantage of its subjects:

One of the Catholic church’s practices that Luther took particular issue with and drove him to write his Ninety-Five Theses was the sale of indulgences. When we think about indulgences in modern times, we often think about them merely as a payment for your sins – that people would just have to pay money and then a priest would grant them absolution and for any sin that the had committed and then everything was solved. However, the sale and use of indulgences was far more cruel and costly.

Through this system, a sin could be paid for through prayer, fasting, or almsgiving. According to Tim Wengert, depending on the sin, “saying a prayer in a particular chapel dedicated to a saint, by giving money to a particular cause, or by going on a pilgrimage to a particular shrine, a person could, because of the church’s indulgence, satisfy more of the temporal punishment than otherwise would be the case.”[iii]

So, one could pay towards the building of St. Peter’s Basilica or, as Wengert writes, one could “participate in the Crusade to ‘free’ Jerusalem and other holy sites from the ‘infadels’ (i.e., adherents of Islam), Pope Urban II (c. 1042-1099) proclaimed that those who participated in a crusade for religious reasons would receive ‘plenary’ (full) indulgence, eliminating all satisfaction for all sins committed up until that time.”[iv]

The understanding of indulgences continued to be expanded overtime, from being able to contribute to the building of churches named after Apostles, to the purchasing of relics and placing them in churches (i.e. Elector Fredrick III, in the early sixteenth century whose placement of relics in the Castle Church of Wittenberg has a total indulgence associated with their viewing of over 100,000 years.)[v]

Wengert writes, “In 1476 Pope Sixtus IV (1414-1484), when proclaiming a plenary indulgence to help rebuild the cathedral church of St. Peter in Saintes, France, declared for the first time that plenary indulgences were also valid for souls in purgatory. Thus, one could now purchase an indulgence not only for one’s own soul but also for one’s dear, departed loved ones already suffering in purgatory.”[vi]

Nevertheless, the system continued to broaden so that that more people could pay into it, more people could participate in it, and the system would continue to perpetuate with nothing to stop the wheel from turning.

The system was designed to help itself but not to help those truly in need. The sale of indulgences funded the rebuilding of St. Peter’s in France, the building of St. Peter’s in Rome, and the religious hierarchy rather than giving the money to the starving peasants and those who were decimated by plagues and famines. The sale of indulgences funded and produced able bodies to fight the Crusades and “free” Jerusalem while slaughtering and pillaging thousands. The sale of indulgences boosted the religious hierarchy and crippled the population that needed the most help.

Martin Luther saw how this system was contrary to the Gospel. We know this by now. As a Lutheran, Protestant, (or even just a Christian), we better know this by now. Salvation and grace come not through any doing of our own – not our own works, payments, or merit. Ephesians 2:8-10 says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”

And so, Martin Luther protested. And Martin Luther started the “Protest”-ant Reformation by writing, posting, and debating these Ninety-Five Theses that were subversive, political, persuasive, and provocative in order to begin a conversation that could potentially create change and would help those who were suffering.

For example (taken from the Ninety-Five Theses):

  1. Christians are to be taught that anyone who sees a destitute person and, while passing such a one by, gives money for indulgences does not buy [gracious] indulgences of the pope but God’s wrath.
  2. Christians are to be taught that if the pope knew the demands made by the indulgence preachers, he would rather that the Basilica of St. Peter were burned to ashes than it be constructed using the skin, flesh, and bones of his sheep.
  3. Christians are to be taught that the pope ought to give and would want to give of his own wealth—even selling the Basilica of St. Peter if necessary—to those from whom certain declaimors of indulgences are wheedling money.[vii]

I do not feel that I need to go further in explaining that these early actions taken by Luther were not merely an academic practice but were purposefully enacted to drive the debate of the sale of indulgences. Luther was not interested in just talk but was demanding change. And ultimately to reform the church and return to the central message of loving one’s neighbor and not perpetuating a system that was directly antithetical to Christ’s work.

So, why bring this up at this time?

What amazes me at this time and in this century is that many Lutheran’s have somehow forgotten this side of Luther. Or I should say, we conveniently forget his protests unless we are we are feeling proud of ourselves and thanking Luther for having broken away from the Catholic church.

Luther protested the church in order to create reform. Those actions were divisive, provocative, and were an act of treason. To discount the authority of the Papacy was treasonous and punishable by death. And yet, we praise him for his actions. We give him all glory, laud, and honor and proclaim his words (that may only be attributed to him and he may never have actually said) until our dying day, “Here I stand. I can do no other.”

But, if we see an NFL football player take a knee during the national anthem (which is a sign of protest and protected by constitutional right) in order to bring awareness to injustices that oppress and kill people of color every day in this country, then we crucify them. We crucify them under the guise of excuses like, “They are disrespecting our flag.” “They hate America.” “They do not honor our veterans!” When really we know that it is because their sign of protest during an event that usually helps us to feel proud and superior is instead waking us up to our place of privilege in this country and forces us to come down off our fictional pedestal and face the realities of a status quo from which we just want to benefit.

I cannot speak to the realities of persons of color because I am a white male who only benefits from this system. But I can say that there is something wrong about the fact that Colin Kaepernick has not been signed on an NFL team even though his production as a QB has been superior to most back-ups and starters during the same time period of play. [viii] And the only reason that seems to be the case is because he is a person of color who has disrupted the status quo by taking a knee during the national anthem.

The 'Protest'-ant Reformation 2

If we truly believe that the system that we are in is perfect and can in no way change for the better, than we are truly delusional. Education and healthcare are crippled by lack of resources. Correctional facilities are privatized and operating in ways in which it is more profitable to keep them overly full than seeking to be rehabilitative.

If we really thought that the system was perfect, then we wouldn’t go to war every four years to elect a new president who promises to repeal everything put in place by the previous administration.

Martin Luther protested a system that was crippling those who were already oppressed because it only benefited those already in power. And he did so by trying to start a conversation. And the conversation was provocative and filled with words that were ruthless and sometimes violent (see the theses referenced above).  And this started the “Protest”-ant Reformation.

The NFL players that took a knee this past Sunday are not un-American or unpatriotic. They are reformers – those who are trying to start a conversation through an action that is provocative and shakes the status quo. But their actions are peaceful and showed unity rather than discord.

If we as the church, the Lutheran and Protestant church, are unable to at least hear the beginning of this conversation, then we don’t deserve to call ourselves Lutheran or the Church.

This issue is not outside the church. It is not a political issue that does not apply to our Gospel. Our neighbors, our siblings in Christ are calling out for us to hear that there is injustice and oppression that exists all around us. We have been told to love our neighbor, and in that love is deep listening and hearing.

The players and coaches’ actions around the NFL this past weekend should wake us up and have us truly listening to what is happening in our country. The Theses have been nailed to Church and it is long past time that we began to really have a conversation around racial justice and privilege.

From the love and grace of God, we are expected to love our neighbor, to care for our neighbor, to care about our neighbor. We have neighbors that are crying out, for justice, peace, and reform. As Christians, we cannot ignore that cry. We cannot dismiss it. We must hear their voice and reform what must be changed. Luther writes:

Therefore, we conclude that Christian individuals do not live in themselves, but in Christ and in their neighbor, or else they are not a Christian. They live in Christ through faith and in the neighbor through love. Through faith they are caught up beyond themselves into God; likewise through love they fall down beneath themselves into the neighbor—remaining nevertheless always in God and God’s love.[ix]

 

[i] Timothy J. Wengert, Martin Luther’s 95 Theses: With Introduction, Commentary, and Study Guide, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 5.

[ii] Wengert, 3-4.

[iii] ibid., xix.

[iv] ibid.

[v] ibid.

[vi] ibid., xxi.

[vii] Wengert’s translation see pgs. 20-21.

[viii] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fancy-stats/wp/2017/05/16/colin-kaepernick-is-statistically-superior-to-half-of-the-nfls-backups-and-deserves-a-job/?utm_term=.989309772e8b

[ix] Martin Luther, Freedom of a Christian, tranlasted by Timothy J. Wengert, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2016), 530.

Why I Tithe to the Church

Why I Tithe to the Church

“I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare.” –C.S. Lewis

As I enter my new position with Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Rosedale, MD, I have been remembering one of the many conversations that I had with my Dad while I was in seminary. It was about faithful giving to the congregation that you serve. My Dad always told me, “If you ask others to give, you must first be willing to give yourself.”

My parents have always been incredibly generous givers and have worked hard to tithe to the church for their entire marriage. Even when my Dad was a poor parish pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church in Baltimore (now Amazing Grace), with three growing children, and lots of school debt, both he and my mom made every effort to give fully to the church and to the community. My mom used to tell me, it would be nerve-wracking from week to week when they would write a check for the offering. Writing that check would mean living scarcely until the next pay check. But, she would also tell me that whenever they would run into difficult times, somehow, some way they would make it through that time and everything turned out all right.

From their example, I have prayerfully decided that I will follow in their footsteps and tithe (which means giving a tenth or ten percent of my income before paying other bills and other spending) to the church in order to further the mission of Prince of Peace and God’s work in the community. I know there will be months and years when tithing will feel a lot harder – when my car breaks down, or a pipe bursts and I need call a plumber right away – and placing a check in the offering plate will feel more like gambling then an offering to God. But even in those times, my parents have taught me that it is then that it is so important that we continue to give as we always do.

As we enter into the programmatic year, many congregations are entering into the pledge season when our congregations will hand out pledge cards for the coming year so that the congregation can faithfully create a budget that reflects the mission of the church for the upcoming year. This is the time when we prayerfully consider how much we can offer to God for the mission of the church.

During this time, I invite you to talk to me. You may ask me any questions about my giving and how I budget my giving each week so that I can consistently tithe but still be able to pay bills and have money to live. I encourage you to talk with your families openly about your giving. I invite you to ask discerning questions to your church council and pastor and ask how your offerings are used to the church’s mission .

I have just signed up for weekly online giving which is automatically deducted from my bank account each week. Whether or not I am present, I am still a member of my community and a part of my congregation and my offering should still be present to support the mission of this church.

Our offerings to God – time, talent, and treasure – are ways in which we bring about the Kingdom of God on Earth. I ask you to join me in prayerfully considering your giving for this coming year and towards furthering the church’s mission in the world.

Faking Demonic Possession is Like a Mustard Seed (Commentary on Matthew 13: 31-33, 44-52)

Although it is very sacrilegious and there’s quite a bit of profanity, one of my favorite books is Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore. As you can gather from the title, it is a fictional account of Jesus’ life told from the perspective of Jesus’ best friend, Biff. It tells the story of Jesus as a boy and goes until the death and resurrection. Jesus and Biff go on many adventures to give background to how Jesus of Nazareth, preaches, teaches, like the Jesus of Nazareth that we come to know. The dialogue and banter of all the characters is amazing. But there is one interaction between Jesus and Biff that really connected me to this week’s Gospel.

Jesus and Biff are trying to sneak Mary Magdalene away from some Pharisees and so Biff concocts a plan to have Mary fake demonic possession so that she is seen as unclean and they can usher her away. After the plan works, Jesus (referred to as Joshua throughout the book) turns to Biff:

“I’ve got to think that that was unethical,” Joshua said.
“Josh, faking demonic possession is like a mustard seed.”
“How is it like a mustard seed?”
“You don’t know, do you? Doesn’t seem at all like a mustard seed, does it? Now you see how we all feel when you liken things unto a mustard seed? Huh?” (358-359)

Well, just like in Lamb, in this week’s Gospel text Jesus also tells a lot of parables that liken things to the kingdom of heaven.

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed. And a hidden treasure in a field. And a great pearl. And a net that catches fish of every kind.

My favorite part about this text is the disciples’ response to these many Parables. Jesus goes on this list of parables (which also includes the Parable of the Sower and the Parable of the weeds) and he asks them, “Have you understood all this?” and they answer… “Yes.”

YES! Really? You understand all of that? No extra questions or further advice? They answer: Yes.

Um, I’m going have to call B.S. on that one.

As disciples and seekers, ourselves, we too read and hear these parables and we desperately try to understand what they mean. In the parable of the weeds, are we good or bad? Are we going to be thrown into a furnace? In the net, are we good fish or bad fish? What does it mean that the kingdom is like pearl or a hidden treasure? Does is mean that it’s hard to find? Am I not looking hard enough?

And like the disciples, we just pray and hope that our interpretation is right, and we can just answer: Yep! We got it! Totally understand.

But, I don’t think that’s what it’s about. Earlier in Chapter 13, the disciples ask Jesus why he speaks in parables and he says, “The reason that I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand (13:13).’”

When we hear these parables, it sounds as if there should be direct meaning with each one. ‘The bad and good will be sorted’ or ‘the kingdom is hard to find’ or ‘difficult to get into’. But, what if we’re really supposed to take a step back and embrace the simplicity and the multitude.

Each of these parables of Jesus describe such a different possibility of the kingdom. Each of these parables give us access to a different quality of God. Each of the parables point us, not towards looking at the heavens, but towards looking at the world around us. Appreciating the kingdom that has come but is not fully here.

I do not think these parables should call us to look beyond this time and place. Instead, they call us to look at the kingdom that is already around us. We are not in the 13th Chapter of Matthew. We live knowing the outcome of the story. We live knowing that the kingdom can be seen through the open arms of Christ on the cross.

It is through that lens that we can see this broken world anew and work to mend and repair this kingdom. Can we take root in this world and become the tree that gives rest and sanctuary to those who need shelter from hate, discrimination, and intolerance? Can we find those who are seeking and searching and invest in their lives to help them in every way that we can? Can we open our arms to all people, no matter where they come from, what their background is, or how they identify themselves?

If asked, do I understand everything that I’ve heard, I would have to answer with a huge resounding “NO!” And I think that is more than okay. But because of Christ’s death and resurrection out of unconditional love for all people we know that we are called to live into that kingdom of love and inclusion here and now.

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, that started out as one person but grew to be a church that loves and supports everyone.

This isn’t the Mountain Top (Commentary on Matthew 17: 1-9)

This moment should’ve changed everything.

Peter, James, and John see Moses and Elijah.

Peter wants to build three tents for Moses, who delivered the Israelites from Egypt, for Elijah, the great Prophet of Israel, and Jesus, the Son of God.

Peter, James, and John hear the voice of God. They bow and cower in fear as God’s presence encompasses them in a cloud with a booming voice all around them. “This is my Son, the Beloved.”

They see Jesus, shining like the sun around them, reminiscent of Moses coming down from Sinai.

This is the moment that should have changed everything. This should have been the moment where Peter, James, and John, fully get it.

They should know forever that Jesus is the Son of God, the Beloved, the Holy One. They should know that he is the Messiah, the one that all of Israel has been waiting for. He is the one that will deliver Israel, deliver the world, because he is the Chosen one of God.

This is the moment when they should be changed and transformed forever!

But, they aren’t. The disciples see it all before them but in just a few chapters, they will forget what they have seen. They will turn Jesus over to the Roman soldiers, watch him stand trial, and watch him die. The disciples will hide in fear. Peter will deny that he even knows Jesus three times, even after all he has seen and heard.

The mountain top experience.

At my seminary, we call it our “call story.” In some traditions, it’s called the “come to Jesus moment” or the day that a person is “saved.”

The mountain top experience. It is the moment, or series of events in which it is so clear that God is present in your life. It is as though God’s light is shining all around you, and you are so sure that nothing will ever separate you from this awareness of God. Nothing will shake your faith. Nothing will ever make you doubt.

From that moment forward, you pledge to be the greatest Christian there has ever been and that you have been transformed and nothing can ever change that. Like Peter, you may see the beauty of the moment and you want to take a picture of it, build shrine for it, capture the magic of that moment forever.

And then someone cuts you off in traffic and you forget everything that you just said.

Like the disciples, some of us have climbed the mountain and we have seen the light, we have seen God in that one incredible moment in our life (or multiple moments), clear as the sun in the sky. But, like the disciples, we try to hold onto that moment and we can never quite get that feeling back.

And so, we may not come down off the mountain easily but instead we fall… hard. And we quickly end up worrying about ourselves or the things around us and Jesus moves to the back of our minds.

Some of us, may have never even had a mountain top experience at all and it feels like we were left down at the bottom with the other disciples, having no idea what other people are talking about with visions and seeing God or being changed or transformed.

For many Christians, the mountain top experience, the call story, seems so critical to who we are. Without it, where is God in our lives? It seems that we must have this transformational moment in our lives in order to say that we are truly Christian and that we truly know who Jesus is.

During my candidacy process, I had an advisor who would always give me the same advice after every meeting that I had with him. He would say, “The more time that passes, the harder it will be to see God in our call stories. Those stories cannot sustain us. It is only experiencing the death and resurrection of Christ every day that will sustain us and carry us through.”

It has taken me a very long time to ponder those words and think about what they really mean. But, I think that I have finally come to understand them just a little more… after all this time.

The transfiguration is not the mountain top. My call story is not the mountain top. These moments are not the mountain top that saves us or makes us into the perfect Christian.

The mountain top that really matters is Golgotha. It is the place that they called the Skull. The mountain top that really matters is on top of a hill outside of Jerusalem. The mountain top that will sustain us isn’t as beautiful as shining white light or filled with prophets of old.

The mountain top that saves us, that sustains us, is the lonely, dark hill of Good Friday.

It is Christ, the beloved, with arms extended, hanging from the cross, pierced in the side. The mountain top experience isn’t the one that looks the prettiest and makes us feel good. The true mountain top experience, is the one that shows us the unrelenting love of God.

It is in the moment of the cross where we see God, who loves us so much, despite how we fall and forget, suffer and die on a cross in order that we are transformed.

In Christ’s death and resurrection, we are transformed and changed, freed to feel the love of God. To not be burdened by our failures and mistakes but to give them to God so that we let God’s light shine on us and free us to be the people of God.

This is the mountain top of our faith. This is the real transfiguration. It is Christ’s open arms on the cross. It is the open tomb and the stone rolled away.

That is where we are transfigured and transformed.

Perfection (Commentary on Matthew 5:43-48)

“We will be perfect in every aspect of the game. You drop a pass, you run a mile. You miss a blocking assignment, you run a mile. You fumble the football, and I will break my foot off in your John Brown hind parts and then you will run a mile. Perfection. Let’s go to work.”

What a great scene. Coach Herman Boone is meeting his players in the gym as they are beginning training for their High School Football team in Remember the Titans. Coach Boone (played by Denzel Washington) demands perfection from these players from the outset of the season. Perfection.

Perfection is a word that many of us get caught up on. To some, it is paralyzing. To be perfect is impossible and yet we so eagerly feel as though we need to achieve it.

Perfect (as defined by Merriam-Webster) is being entirely without fault or defect or satisfying all requirements.

There may have been some of us that were then caught off guard by this week’s Gospel lesson. Jesus continues his Sermon in Matthew (5:43-48) and is speaking to love of not only our neighbors but our enemies, giving to everyone who asks to borrow something, turning the other cheek when we are struck. And to finish it all off Jesus says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Be perfect. Perfection.

This word perfect is translated from the Greek word τέλειοι which can allude to being mature and in this case, would speak to maturity of faith as an individual. Be mature in our faith and our understanding so that we show love rather than hate for our enemies and those that ask things of us. However, this word can also be translated as more of a sense of completion (to be complete) and that is where we can find immense grace in this passage.

Since we break the Sermon on the Mount into multiple weeks, I feel as though we lose track of to whom this sermon is given. As we preach, teach, and think about this text, it is so easy for us to hear this as individuals and get caught up in what we should and should not be doing, what we need to strive for and a need to be perfect and not to fail. When we hear this Sermon and take it in as individuals, it is just like the law of the Old Testament. A list of rules and regulations and that bar us from hearing the grace in God’s commands.

But, this passage is not given to individuals. He is speaking to his disciples, a community of people, a body of people.

What if this Sermon is not, “You as an individual, need to be perfect,” but it is, “You people, this group, this body, you all need to be perfect.” It is still daunting, but it changes the meaning.

It brings me back to the movie. The Titans are in the Championship Game. It has been a long hard fought season. The desegregation of the two schools resulted in the merger of one school where black and white students would learn together, play sports together, interact with each other. This led to a season of racial tension, fighting, scandals, cheating, and more conversations than either body had ever had before. And now, in the Championship, the Titans are losing to the legendary Coach Ed Henry and his all-white team (who have had none of those same problems) and it seems improbable that they will mount a come-back to win this game.

And so, Coach Boone talks to them at half-time, “It’s all right. We’re in a fight. You boys are doing all that you can do. Anybody can see that. Win or lose… We gonna walk out of this stadium tonight with our heads held high. Do your best. That’s all anybody can ask for.”

But Julius, one of the leaders of the team, responds: “No, it ain’t Coach. With all due respect, uh, you demanded more of us. You demanded perfection. Now, I ain’t saying that I’m perfect, ’cause I’m not. And I ain’t gonna never be. None of us are. But we have won every single game we have played till now. So this team is perfect. We stepped out on that field that way tonight. And, uh, if it’s all the same to you, Coach Boone, that’s how we want to leave it.”

Each of these students and coaches have slipped up, fallen, made mistakes, and failed, but together, as a team, they were perfect.

That is the beauty of Jesus’ statement to this group of disciples. As a group, they are perfect.

As a Church, a group of people, we can be perfect. At our best, a group can hold each individual accountable, can comfort them and lift them up when they fall. As a body of people, the church can love our enemies, give away what we have to those who need it, turn the other cheek and take the pain that results from speaking the Gospel in a world that has so much trouble hearing it.

The church is a body of people, the body of Christ. When we work as the Body of Christ to hold each other accountable, to lift each other up when we are down, to call out poverty, injustice, oppression, racism, sexism, heterosexism, both out in the nation and world but also within our own walls and in our own body, then we as a group, are perfect.

As individuals, we’re going to fail. As individuals, we are prone to sin and will fall. We have been told that, and we know that from life experiences. And I will not belabor that point further.

But, as a group, as a body of people that gathers together in the name of Jesus Christ, we are called to something greater. As a body, the body of Christ, we are called to be perfect. We are called to give our time, talents, and treasures, to the service of God. We are called to love our enemy. We are called to turn the other cheek. We are called to work against poverty, injustice, oppression, and voices that seek to destroy the humanity of others. We are called to hold each other accountable, call each other out, be there for one another, and see Christ in every living thing in this world.

People of God, be perfect and don’t try for anything less.

Do You Have the Courage to Take the Heat? (Commentary on Matthew 5:21-26)

These last few months have been difficult to grasp as they have flown by. This nation and this world have been turned upside down, flipped, and shaken. And through it all, Donald Trump is still the President, the division in the nation has not lessened, and there seems to be a rumbling underneath the surface of life that has everyone on the edge of their seat in anticipation of what will come next (good, bad, or tragic).

As I have been looking around and entering into conversation with different people from different sides, I have had incredible and terrifying conversations with people with varying political ideologies. But, this does not shock me. I am not shocked by my Facebook feed blowing up with political arguments. I am not shocked by the name calling and mud-slinging. I am not shocked by the division of this country and of this world.

What I am surprised by is the shocked comments and expressions that Lutheran pastors and seminarians around the US are giving when they write a political rant on their Facebook and they get lambasted for it. Instead of converting all of their Facebook friends to the same political stance, they are receiving harsh criticisms, debates, name calling, and mud-slinging with a side of, “Don’t shove your political ideologies down my throat, Pastor.”

Who told us that being a pastor was going to be easy? Who told us that people listened to the prophets of Israel? Because if you have heard those things, then I need to tell you, they are not true. Being a pastor is hard. Being a prophet is a death sentence (or at least a path to getting fired). There are plenty of Bible verses that are used to explain this, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown,” (Luke 4:24). But, I believe it is this past week’s Gospel that is a Word our Pastors need to hear and understand in this time and place.

Jesus says, “But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire,” (Matthew 5:22).

There are many commentators and critics of the Gospel of Matthew that struggle because so much of this section (The Sermon on the Mount) comes across as law and as intensification of the law that leads us to feel judged or enact judgement. But, these words (5:22) of Jesus are not a law or intensification, but a warning. A warning of the consequences of confronting those who disagree with you.

If you act in anger, for good or bad reasons, you will be liable to judgement. If you insult a brother or sister (or Pharisee) for good or bad reasons, you will be tried before the council (the Sanhedrin). If you call someone a “fool” or “idiot”, you will be liable to the fires of hell.

Throughout the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is teaching and preaching to towns and cities about who God is and how community and love of neighbor is so important. But, the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Scribes cannot hear his words because all they see is Jesus breaking rules and regulations of the Jewish law. The Religious leaders are more concerned about the rules of Israel than about the people of Israel.

And so, In Matthew 23:17, Jesus calls the Pharisees and Scribes “blind fools.” And in a few chapters Jesus is being tried in front of the Sanhedrin. And within a few verses, this person who warned us about using these words is sentenced to die.

In the Gospel of Matthew, the author is speaking to a Jewish audience (probably in a land of Gentiles) and Jesus, a Rabbi, preaches this Sermon that is trying to calm their worries and tell them that the Law and Prophets are still very much important: “I do not come to abolish but to fulfill.”

But, when you look at this text then, Jesus is using this proverb on anger in order to tell a community to make peace when peace can be made; to reconcile differences when they can be reconciled; to restore relationships when they can be restored. But, sometimes, peace and truth cannot be heard by those that are causing the greatest harm and are using words of God to keep people out of the community, to enable corruption, to oppress those who are not in positions of privilege and power.

And so, 18 chapters later, Jesus realizes that he must speak the truth because the Pharisees, Scribes, Sadducees, have all lost their ability to listen and see, and feel with their heart, and he calls them fools. Fools who cannot see the harm that they are doing and the pain that they are causing. Fools that cannot see their incredible misinterpretation of the love that God has for all people. Fools that are blind, deaf, and hardened of heart. And Jesus calls them fools, knowing that in saying this as a prophet and priest, he will be tried unfairly, and will be killed for speaking the truth.

In times of anger, can we make peace when peace can be made? Can we set aside our anger and our ego in order to reconcile with those we disagree with?

In times of conflict, do we have the courage to speak the truth and to call out those that cause harm in the name of God? And if we speak out, then have the courage to stand before those that will yell and call us names and hate us for the words that we have spoken?

And do we have the patience to recognize the difference?

As people of the church, our conversations, lesson plans, and sermons are going to have to be even more intentional in trying to reach each other and break through each other’s defenses. One prophetic sermon (or Facebook post) will not convert everyone to our understanding of the Gospel but more than one may send us packing.

Do we have the courage to take the heat?