(This sermon was given by Pastor Sarah Goettsch on June 19, 2016, only one week after the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting)
I sometimes wonder if the United States of America is a failed experiment. I can say that, because I have lived in two countries besides this one and often draw some stark comparisons and conclusions. I also say that as a patriot, because I love this country. But at the same time, I often find myself wondering how this grand experiment can possibly work out.
Let me also say at this point that I have also often wondered if some of my own casserole recipes have proven to be failed experiments. Ingredients that often go well together in my mind sometimes are a different experience on the palate. Sometimes things blend in a perfect synchronicity of flavors, like my chicken and rice casserole. Other times, it is catastrophe, like my ham lasagna.
Similarly, we look at our own beloved country in the wake of yet another mass shooting, yet another attack carried out in the name of sheer hatred, and we have to ask the question—how is this experiment supposed to work? Once upon a time, our forefathers did an astonishing job of accumulating people from every nation, whether rich or poor, tired or hungry, the homeless and the huddles masses from around the world onto these very shores. This is quite a random collection of ingredients, to be sure. But how has this casserole turned out? Has it worked, as our forefathers so eagerly anticipated? Can it work, as we their descendants so desperately hope?
Can this casserole of people, from every nation on this planet, blend its collective flavors into something extraordinary, or will it fail? Is the only thing our nation has in common is hatred or is there something more? And what does this have to do with Jesus and church and faith? Well, it has EVERYTHING to do with Jesus and church and faith. Because it is a question that goes far beyond one of civil tolerance or even acceptance; it has to do with something far more radical—love, as modeled by Jesus, who, even though he was the son of God, often found himself caught in the political crossfire between the Jewish leaders and the Roman government.
This most recent shooting in Orlando is tragically ironic for many Christians, because, in this case, many Christians love to hate both the victims and the perpetrator. Many Christians love to hate Muslims or those who affiliate with the Muslim faith, yet they also love to hate gays. So whom do you root for, when your faith insists that you hate both the murderer and the murdered? Hmm. These Christians find themselves in a pickle. I am tired of these Christians, who claim to speak for all of us. Luckily, ELCA Lutherans do not find themselves in a pickle, and it is high time (indeed, it is past beyond high time) that we stop being sheepish about faith and remember the boldness that birthed our faith tradition. ELCA Lutherans claim the most amazing faith tradition, and we must proclaim it. And I am being specific about ELCA Lutherans here, because we’ve worked hard on our social statements—we engage the tough issues with integrity and compassion. We follow the teachings of a revolutionary monk who married a runaway nun…let us not get so comfortable that we fail to speak out when the time comes, like when the next mass shooting comes, and it will.
But in regards to last Sunday’ tragedy, what does Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of Man, have to say about this most recent shooting? What does Jesus have to say about homosexuality? Nothing. What does Jesus say about Muslims? Nothing. Jesus has plenty to say about so many other issues—judging others, hypocrisy, social injustice, the reign of God. All we know is that, for those who are in Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female—for all are one in Jesus Christ. Think about this—what an earthshattering thing this is…what this means is that God’s chosen people are beloved by God just as much as the pagan ones who will not even speak his name, believers and unbelievers alike…what this means is the scum of society is loved as much as the majestic…what this means is gender isn’t an issue for Jesus and neither are any of the sexual hang-ups that go along with gender. All are one in Christ—no one better than the other. All equally beloved.
This means we are free from worrying about whom to love and whom not to love. If these things don’t matter to Jesus, then they don’t matter to us. Loving others is not a choice for us—it is a mandate. I remember attending my graduation from Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque in 2001…outside the church, the Fred Phelps contingent had shown up with picket signs that said, “God Hates Fags.” And our key note speaker Rev. David Miller walked down the center aisle and opened the doors and yelled at the top of his lungs, “God hates nothing he has created!” And if God hates nothing he has created, then neither can we.
The war that is referred to so often after a mass shooting or a terrorist attack is not one that is waged outside of ourselves—whether it be against Muslims or gays or China or Democrats or Republicans or whomever. The real war that rages on in this world begins not as an external one, but rather as an internal one. It is the war fought inside of each one of our own heads. It is the voice that whispers things that alienate us from each other…voices that say you are either better than your neighbor or worse. In ancient times, they called these voices demons. These voices, which we all battle, are manifestations of brokenness within the human soul…these are proof that we are shattered people, that we lack balance, that we either see ourselves as far superior to our neighbor or else we see ourselves as worthless. We fail to see our neighbors as equals, different but the same, one in Christ, different ingredients in a casserole that go great together. When this imbalance plays itself out, some people in society are demonized, driven to live among the tombs, like the one whom Jesus encounters in the land of Gerasenes.
There was a time in our country’s history when we drove the Native American out to live among the tombs. Then we drove the African Americans out to live among the tombs. Then women. Then homosexuals. Then Muslims. Can’t we see? These ones whom we drive away are the ones Jesus seeks out. Always. And if you live long enough, your turn will come to be demonized and driven to live among the dead, if you offend the wrong people. Jesus will seek you out. And your brothers and sisters in Christ are called to follow.
It is a curious thing that we call ourselves a Christian nation, and I sometimes wonder if that is what feeds this mess we’re in. Because what does that imply to the Muslim or Jew or Buddhist or atheist if we call ourselves a Christian nation? And, even more dangerously, what does this say about Christianity? Is it Christianity the way Jesus taught, who loved tax collectors, ate with sinners, forgave adulterers, set the possessed free from the demons that tormented them, healed the sick and raised the dead back to life? NO, it is a Christianity that people have concocted in the name of Christ, where we are free to carry signs with terrible words and shout terrible chants, all in the name of Jesus Christ, who carried no such signs and said no such things, but rather loved everyone and died to prove it.
This is not a political sermon per se, although there is a certain political component to it, if by political we mean a set of concepts that have the potential to change people. Christianity has its place in our country, and a precious place, as long as it is the Christianity modeled by Jesus Christ, not created by people.
I understand that Christians often hesitate about the public dimension of faith, and we often hide behind the idea of separation of church and state. However, we come from a long line of public Christians. Refresh your history regarding Martin Luther and how he directly challenged the pope and upset the entire political scene in Europe. Read about Abraham Lincoln’s Christology in his second inaugural address. Listen to the speeches of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. They were bold Christians living in turbulent times. We can be too. Indeed, we must be. We can be bold in the dealings of daily life. One of our students at LCM quit his fraternity this week because his brothers were making derogatory public statements about Muslims and gays in response to last Sunday’s shooting. Daily professions of faith can also be bold. Little bold things aren’t so little when they’re done in the name of the demonized ones living among the tombs.
In our work and in our play, we must remember we are baptized into the name of the one who died a redeeming death for all people, not just some. It is an honor not a burden for us to do the work that Christ did—by loving the ones who either think they are so revolting or others convince them they are so revolting that they hide amongst the tombs. Doing the public work of Christ means loving not just the friend but the enemy, by praying for this country and its leaders and its citizens, so that we might remember the humility upon which we were founded. This experiment doesn’t have to fail; our country can be a delicious casserole of ingredients if we blend together our civil freedoms with Luther’s small catechism…that freedom of speech means we have the right to speak well of and defend our neighbor, that our freedom to be people of faith in this country means there are times when we need to step up and demonstrate to others that this God in whom we believe is not the God of the signs in front of abortion clinics or the God in whose name gay clubs are attacked.
God’s ways are not the ways of the world. And we are first a part of God’s ways and then the world. Faith first, the patriotism. Faith informs citizenship. God’s ways are profound and revolutionary:
God invites even when we show no interest in being invited.
God seeks us even when we do not seek God.
God’s love contradicts our hostility.
The word of God brings sanity to a world gone insane. Jesus seeks out whomever society has demonized and shunned to live among the dead. And he asks, no he requires, us as Christians and citizens in whatever country we live in to do likewise.