Pentecost 13 C: Beyond Anti-Racism, Beyond Woke

The readings for the Twelth Sunday after Pentecost are

Old Testament & Psalm, Option I

Old Testament      Jeremiah 18:1–11

Psalm                    Psalm 139:1–6, 13–18

or

Old Testament & Psalm, Option II

Old Testament      Deuteronomy 30:15–20

Psalm                    Psalm 1

New Testament     Philemon 1–21

Gospel                   Luke 14:25–33

We will focus on the Gospel reading from Luke, because it serves to remind the whole church of our radically different message about ethics when we hear Jesus require of his disciples that they hate family to follow him. God and Moses command us to honor parents, but Jesus now stands that on its head.

Years ago, the great historian, and all-around thinker and theologian, Jaroslav Pelikan, wrote that Christians fall into a big trap when they treat moralism, rather than the gospel, as the center of their message for the world. This happens when prophetic voices notice both the moral decline of society, and the church’s neglect of  ethical rigor and social justice in favor of right doctrine. Society at large will very often give positive feedback to such prophetic voices, but only as long as the prophets speak its language and share its conventional values. Society at large, in other words, has no use for the deep and more radical ethical implications of the full gospel message. But, Christians—even Christians who seem to be most earnest in “speaking truth to power”—fall  into the moralistic trap when they forget the gospel. Pelikan says that moralism is the trap we fall into when we confuse the good with the Holy. (Jaroslav Pelikan, Fools for Christ: Essays on the True, the Good and the Beautiful, 1955, Augsburg Fortress.)

Recently the denomination I belong to, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, has been living through a time of testing about wokeism and moralism. An activist, trans bishop disciplined a Latinx, activist pastor, creating a crisis. Then the female bishop of the national church body attempted to impose a solution that many deemed inadequate and insensitive. Instantly the prophetic voices of the ecclesiastical universe broke out in—not a chorus—but a din of accusation. Almost every pastor, bishop, and mover and shaker in the church knew this was all a matter of racism. Or was it transphobia?

In Luke 14 Jesus is demonstrating the gospel and its implications in the context of a dinner. He sees all around him people jockeying for social position, so he invites us to the gospel table where everyone is for everyone else. He talks the kind of practical, common sense etiquette that you might find in Proverbs or Dear Abby, but then moves on to the soaring dimensions of gospel hopefulness: God has destined us for a future where all our social distinctions are neutralized, everyone dines together, and the ones formally invalidated are honored. The implication is that we trust that God the Giver has filled our needs, so we have absolutely no need to look for redundant affirmation or payback from our fellow diners.

Our reading from Luke 14:25-33 seems at first not to belong to this larger setting. But we must keep these verses together with the foregoing to see how morality must be kept together with the theology of the gospel.

Jesus starts here calling on his audience to do the obviously immoral, commandment-breaking thing: to hate family.  He ends with the charge to give up “possessions.” But the Greek word for possessions here goes well beyond material wealth. Social historians like to point out that in Jesus’ ancient Mediterranean world one’s family was everything. The extended family was where you got your food, shelter, education, religious training and meaning, network of social connections. Family provided security, identity…everything.  Risking the loss of family was risking the loss of control of everything else that sustains life.

I believe the family is not less but more essential to us. Who in this crowded, busy world cares for our feelings if not parents, siblings, wives or husbands? What we think of as family is even more of a center and source for us today.

It is a radical challenge to us when Jesus tells us the risk of loss of that center is worth taking for the sake of a truer center.  Family is good, but not holy. Family is not absolute or ultimate.

Our family system and the good of playing our part in it are ours. They are things that we can control and that we seem to possess. But there is something greater that puts an absolute claim on us and that we cannot domesticate. It is the Holy God who claims us.

The table that Jesus presides over, and invites us to, is a table that includes all because the Holy God has no limits to food or fellowship. The family that Jesus invites us to is one that supplants our everything with one that is God’s EVERYTHING.

Christians look forward to dining at a table where all  are welcome though they can contribute nothing. They live now in a family that our world cannot recognize, and yet truly does give us everything.

Our society, including all the woke ones within it, care nothing for this kind of imagination, yet Christ calls on us, nonetheless, to not be embarrassed by it. And this worldview iis the greatest contribution we can make to the culture wars around us.

Being woke and anti racist can be a most wonderful thing. But it will never be able to take us to the nature of our sin, because it is always merely a matter of morality; and sin and righteousness are both beyond morality. If sin were a matter only of the moral, then Jesus was the greatest of sinners because he welcomed sinners and dined with them.

And being champions of wokeness and anti racism in the church is a shame when it causes us to neglect or be ashamed of the most important insight to justice and morality that we have.

If we are committed above all to gathering all of God’s people, as sinners, to the gospel table, we will not put principles above people. In the ELCA we will look on bishops, pastors, and lay folk not in terms of their place on a moral continuum, but we will see them and listen to them as they are–deep and complex beings, on the winding journey of life, walking always as sinners beloved by God. We will not be quick to point the finger, name the malady, pin the slogan on others. We will not see racism everywhere, but also see awkwardness, ignorance, and laziness. We will not reduce every problem to racism, we will see beyond racism to the sin within us all. And only then be able to see the way out of our sin: coming to the table of God’s grace. We will not be adding to the rage around us, and the eagerness to point the finger; but we will unashamedly share with people the gospel that we all need—the invitation to the banquet for broken, fallible people.

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About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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