Last Sunday’s 1675-word sermon mentioned 10 complex questions, Charlottesville, VA and our responsibility to speak, to not be prodded into inaction, to not let the opinions of the crowd guide us to quieten down. For to God’s world, we are part of God’s great cloud of witnesses, and if we abdicate our role in that cloud of witnesses we opt out of being the Jesus that others desperately need to see.
And, doesn’t our world desperately need to see Jesus?
I don’t need to tell you what the world looks like today. You are in it. You see it. But, the Bible does speak quite prophetically about such things:
Reading from 2 Timothy 3:
“You must understand this…distressing times will come. For people will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, inhuman, implacable, slanderers, libertines, brutes, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to the outward form of godliness but denying its power.”
Written in the 1st century, seems to fit well in the 21st century. What does it take for us to see that we are God’s subversive agents of grace in this world?
If we are living in the ways mentioned in 2 Tim 3, then we are not living in a way that shows this world Jesus Christ. We are showing this world something else—the very worst in each of us.
And speaking of the worst in each of us, last Sunday I mentioned Granddaddy’s WWII service, his participation in the liberation of two concentration camps. Race hate, political hate, ignorance, and fear made those concentration camps happen. And once those camps were under allied control, that prompted an order from General Omar Bradley. The 195th F.A. Battalion was to participate with the Army infantry to round up all the occupants of a nearby village, the women and children, the men and lap babies, even the elderly with mobility issues were carried on stretchers, to march them through the gates of the camp. Granddaddy described how hard it was to obey the order because of the unforgettable ugliness that was going to be seen, especially by the children. Still, with gun and bayonet, soldiers marched villagers through the barracks, past emaciated people, past mass graves, past some unburied and unmourned dead. Why would General Omar Bradley order such a thing—he did it so that the villagers would never forget, never let it happen, never again think that such a camp was a fertilizer factory, never again use human ash to fertilize their gardens and flowerbeds.
And this begs a question, where was God’s Church while this was going on? Well, speaking for Lutherans in Germany, one side supported the great evil. The other side that didn’t support the great evil, preachers like Dietrich Bonoeffer and Martin Niemoller were prisoners peering through the wire of concentration camps.
Did you catch what I said, that God’s Church, a significant portion of Lutheran Christians, supported great evil. We did it then. Is it possible that we do so now? Unknowingly? Knowingly?
As flood waters rise in Houston, do we let those waters wash Charlottesville from our minds? Do we prefer to overlook one ugliness, through preferring the other? Or do we ponder, “What should God’s Church be doing about both?” There’s time to grieve and address Houston, to hold them in prayer, to give money through Lutheran Disaster Response where 100% of your gift goes to meet needs, to do our part in sending our youth as missionaries to Houston next Summer where they will gather with 30-ish thousand of their closest baptismal kin to clean up some of that flood’s mess, even praising Jesus while their clean-up work gets done. And, Lutheran Disaster Response will still be there long after hurricane flood waters and youth flood both recede. God will help us handle Houston. So, since we’ve the time, let’s ponder with God those Nazi flags in Charlottesville.
Do you know how the Nazi party got so many faithful Christian people in Germany to hate the Jews? Do you know who Adolf Hitler used as his most effective spokesperson to divide the faithful German Christians? I’ll give you some hints to figure it out.
In 1523, Luther said that the Roman Catholic Church quite literally treated Jews like dogs, says, “deal gently with [the Jews]… If we really want to help them, we must be guided in our dealings with them…by the law of Christian love. We must receive them cordially, and permit them to trade and work with us, hear our Christian teaching, and witness our Christian life. If some of them should prove stiff-necked, what of it? After all, we ourselves are not all good Christians either.”
Don’t you love Luther’s refreshing honesty? That Luther has the authenticity to say, “we ourselves are not all good Christians either.”
And Luther proves his own point within twenty years, by publishing an essay 63.325 words longer than last Sunday’s sermon, a work called, “On the Jews and their Lies.” In it Luther writes, “A Jewish heart is as hard as a stick, a stone, as iron, as a devil.” Luther charges Jews with every crime short of crucifying Jesus. Luther leaves that crime for us, saying in one hymn, “great sins and misdeeds gross nailed Jesus, God’s true Son, to the cross. Thus you, poor Judas, we dare not blame, Nor the band of Jews; for ours is the shame.”
It’s a shame that Luther ever wrote On the Jews and their Lies, for Luther’s 65,000 words outlined seven measures of the “sharp mercy” that Luther said they deserved. Measure (1) burn their schools and synagogues; Measure (2) transfer Jews to community settlements; Measure (3) confiscate all Jewish literature, which was blasphemous; Measure (4) prohibit rabbis to teach, on pain of death; Measure (5) deny Jews safe-conduct, so as to prevent the spread of Judaism; Measure (6) appropriate their wealth and use it to support converts and to prevent interest earned from money-lending; and Measure (7) assign Jews to manual labor as a form of penance.
389 years later, in a speech, came these words, “I do insist on the certainty that sooner or later—once we hold power—Christianity will be overcome and the German church, without a Pope and without the Bible, and Luther, if he could be with us, would give us his blessing.” The speaker was Adolf Hitler.
Now you know the spokesperson whose voice was used to divide the German Lutheran Church, whose voice was heard as blessing for the openly practiced race hate of those dark days—Martin Luther.
65,000 words made all the difference. And some say words don’t matter.
Luther’s 65,000 words most assuredly mattered, just ask those who have numbers still tattooed on their wrists. Over 6-million European Jews died, many with such tattoos.
So, let’s imagine for a moment that like Luther, our words, too most assuredly matter? Words like redneck, burrhead, wop, redskin, camel jockey, raghead, nip, paleface, wet-back, pick your own racial slur of which you ought to be ashamed, the one which your God knows you use, have used, or permit others to use around you—let’s imagine that these words matter. Just nine slur words used one sentence ago—and now I’ll bet some of you have strong feelings as you hear them. Reckon you’d be having such a reaction if our words didn’t matter? Why in the world would Pr. Bryant say such unforgettable words in church? Perhaps so that the villagers will never forget, never use ‘em again, never ever use them to reduce others into metaphoric ash to fertilize their unhealthy relational gardens and societal flowerbeds. From time to time we need to hear tough words because we can be stiff-necked. After all, from time to time, as Luther points out, we ourselves are not all good Christians either.
Let’s go ahead and stop the pretext of imagining that words matter, for we already know that they do.
When we’ve teased and been teased with such words, we keep right on teasing ‘cause that’s how it was done to us, and how we’ve done it to others. When little people see and hear these words they embrace them and use them ‘cause that makes ‘em big and powerful like mom or dad. What a difference in our world it would make if we realized these truths and as a result chose to use our words in love.
What a positive difference it would make in our world were we to speak words of love rather than tease with words that cut at one’s race. Seems like sound advice for people who are only weeks away from a stunning display of race hate, one that included the vehicular death of Heather Heyer. While it is true that we have surely come a long way since the days of slavery and de facto segregation, our words show us that we’ve still got a-ways yet to go.
And I am confident that we can go all the way, for I believe these paraphrased words of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who says, in his 1963 Oberlin College Commencement Address,
“…continue the tradition that you have followed so long….to support the struggle for racial justice; …never allow it to be said that you are silent onlookers, detached spectators, but that you are involved participants in the struggle to make justice a reality.
And by that we do not mean that we shall overcome the white man…for a doctrine of black supremacy is as dangerous as a doctrine of white supremacy. God is not interested in the freedom of black men or brown men or yellow men. God is interested in the freedom of the whole human race, the creation of a society where every man will respect the dignity and worth of personality…with this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair, the stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood, and speed up the day when, in the words of the prophet Amos, “Justice will roll down like waters; and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
Let us stand up. Let us be a concerned generation….We, in the final analysis, can gain consolation from the fact that at least we’ve made strides in our struggle for peace and in our struggle for justice.
Our hope is found in the words of a slave preacher who didn’t quite have his grammar right, but uttered words of great and profound significance:
Lord, we ain’t what we oughta be; We ain’t what we wanna be;
We ain’t what we’re gonna be; But thank God we ain’t what we was! “
So perhaps, right now you are wondering, “Pastor Bryant, we do hear you, but how in the world do we go forward from we aint what we was, into becoming what we ought to be?” Well, when it comes to that question and 10 others offered last Sunday, you already have 190 great words from St. Paul which speak to that,
“Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink…Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
This is the stuff that turns back hate, that handles 65,000 word problems, and even bigger ones, too. It’s what gives our world the best of Jesus rather than the worst of us, because this is what it takes to be God’s subversive agents of grace in a world so desperately looking to see Jesus. And to that end—all God’s children say, “Amen.”