Lectionary 20C (August 18, 2019)

“No, I tell you…I have [not] come to bring peace to the earth…but rather division.” That’s a nice way to start a picnic, Jesus. He’s not bringing division for division’s sake. I have in my life encountered folks who I am convinced simply enjoy fighting. That’s not the division Jesus brings. Some division is brutal but still involves stuff where you don’t know why people are fighting. Like, if you take a step back, you see what they’re fighting about isn’t the real problem. That’s not the division Jesus brings; the division Jesus brings is the real conflict. Jesus cannot help but cause division.

            Jesus brings division, today. Last Sunday, while many of us were in worship, a major 24 hour cable news network ran a segment attacking our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. At issue was the decision of our Churchwide Assembly to designate the ELCA as a Sanctuary Church. Being a Sanctuary Church means that we stand with immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers, as a church body we favor keeping families united, and we advocate for reforms in immigration. These are things Lutherans have done in the United States of America since July 4, 1776. It’s rooted in Scripture, Scripture’s commands to love neighbor and to care for the alien and refugee, and Scripture’s reminders that God’s people have often been refugees. It’s rooted in our theology of incarnation, that God is present in other people, that God serves us through other people and God serves other people through us. And it’s rooted in our Lutheran history: Katie Luther had to flee Wittenberg in the face of an invading army. So, we’re a sanctuary church. It does not deal with causes of the refugee crisis. It does not embrace the President’s plan that denies asylum to all who haven’t sought it elsewhere, nor does it seek out long term solutions in the immigrants’ countries of origin. Rather, it acknowledges we have a problem in our midst and that we need to deal with it.

            The panel discussion…well, let me give the run down. FOX NEWS personality Jonathan Morris opened by saying, “We don’t want to create a place in which the rule of law is not respected.” Apparently, we have no rule of law. Who knew? He goes on to say that the ELCA’s newly declared lawlessness “isn’t even good for the immigrant…to suggest to them that somehow, there’s one place where you have to follow the law and another place that you don’t.” As if non-Americans might be confused about the idea of rule of law. We didn’t invent that.

Then, FOX NEWS personality Pete Hegseth asked Pastor Robert Jeffress (not ELCA) about rule of law. Jeffress agreed that the ELCA “is absolutely wrong and encouraging people to break the law.” No, but, please, do go on. He cited Romans 13, in which Paul says, “Government is established by God,” and then Jeffress said, “the only exception to that is when government asks us to do something that violates the teaching of the Bible, and look, there is nothing about enforcing immigration laws, securing our borders, protecting our citizens, that violates the word of God.” Obeying the Eighth Commandment and assuming the best about Pastor Jeffress: Pastor Jeffress either has not read the Bible, is unfamiliar with current events, or he feels that he is justified in lying about the Bible’s teachings regarding immigrants and refugees.

Pete Hegseth then asked a physician, Dr. Qanta Ahmed (who is Muslim), to tell viewers how a mosque would handle immigrants. She said that the ELCA was undermining the fabric of society (I have always wanted to be accused of undermining the fabric of society, so, in all honesty, when I read that part I was like, “YEAH!”). Then she used her position as a physician to characterize all refugees as unvaccinated.  So, to recap: while we were in worship, we were labeled as heretical, lawless, risks to public health. I don’t know about you, but I am just drunk on the sense of power that gives me.

            Jesus has brought division. This somehow surprises us. I still revert to Sunday school Jesus with a friendly smile, surrounded by a diverse group of happy children, some lambs, maybe a woman he healed. But it should not surprise us that Jesus has brought division. When Jesus was eight days old, Luke tells us, Simeon told Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.” When Jesus was 30 years old he started his job as Sign That Will Be Opposed by preaching that he was the Year of the Lord’s Favor, the Jubilee, the redistribution of land and wealth. That sermon ended with the congregation trying to throw Jesus off a cliff. So, this guy brings division. He brings division to our current discussion over how to handle immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. Jesus brings division because of his authority. After all, who is Jesus? The angel Gabriel told Mary, “You’re going to have the Holy Spirit’s baby. Your kid is going to be God.” Jesus causes division by being God, who we are not.

            When Jesus brings division, it’s an issue of the relationship of human beings with each other and of human beings with God. When Jesus declares himself the Jubilee, his listeners don’t like it because they cling to the sense of power they get from the status quo. It’s not much, but it’s something. In the status quo I have an assigned seat, a side of the bed, a big office, a secretary. It’s not spectacular but I value it and I don’t want to think about losing it. It gives me some sense of power and control. Now, having a chair and a house and a job is not “bad” or “wrong.” Am I willing to deprive others of safety, rest, and personal space in order to preserve mine? Yes. And once I say “Yes” I’ve appointed myself as superior to at least one other person. I’ve made myself into a god—a very small, pathetic god. I’ve warped my relationships with other humans and with God.

            Jesus embodies the right relationship between humans and God. Christians confess that Jesus Christ is fully human and fully divine. This speaks directly to our situation a week after a major network labeled us as heretical lawbreakers and a threat to public health. One of the sources of this doctrine is the Letter to the Hebrews, part of which we read today. It calls Jesus the “pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” Jesus is “perfect.” For the author of Hebrews, Jesus is perfect through the cross. The cross is a final act of obedience. This is dangerous language, so we must stress: God did not want Jesus to suffer. Rather, human beings suffer, even (perhaps especially) when they follow God. For Jesus, as a human, obedience to God was going to lead to a cross, and Jesus obeyed. As a human relating to God Jesus exemplifies perfect humanity by perfect obedience at the cost of his life. As a human being relating to other humans, Jesus is perfectly human because he suffered as any obedient human would. Any human being obedient to God is going to suffer.

            If Jesus had avoided suffering, that’s great, but he’s not really human. Jesus was very much human. Jesus was the most fully human being ever. Hebrews dares to proclaim, “Look to Jesus. We are surrounded by faithful humans—some lived with luxury and power, some with poverty and weakness—but take heart, because the most human of all of them is Jesus who is also God.” When God became human, when Eternal Wisdom decided she was going to be a guy named Jesus, God chose to spend Jesus’ time being perfectly human—that is, letting God handle God stuff and being in solidarity with other humans. The incarnation says a lot. One of the things it says is that if God chose to spend God’s human time being perfectly human, God calls us to spend our human time being perfectly human (or at least as close as we can manage).

            Jesus, fully God and fully human, brings division by calling us to be fully human. Jesus calls us to be one in suffering with our fellow humans. Again: God does not cause the suffering. We’ve got that part handled. God calls us to be one in the suffering with our fellow humans. And that is why the ELCA voted overwhelmingly to be a sanctuary denomination. As Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton shared on Wednesday, “We have a broken system regarding immigration, refugees, and asylum seekers. …[W]e seek to provide concrete resources to assist the most vulnerable to who are feeling the sharp edges of this broken system.” Our human brokenness creates this situation. Eaton says, “The ELCA is publicly declaring that walking alongside immigrants and refugees is a matter of faith.” We believe God calls us to be human beings alongside our fellow human beings, to be people who care for other people where a system does not care for them. This will look different in each congregation. I don’t know what forms it will take for us. That’ll be a question for us when we begin our time of study and discernment of what our precise mission is. I do know that Bishop Eaton said Wednesday, “Sanctuary for a congregation may mean hosting English as a Second Language classes.” Hey, guess what we’re already doing! We’re a sanctuary congregation. Maybe we’ll discern there’s more to do. I don’t know.

            Jesus has brought division. Jesus calls us to be perfectly human. Jesus calls us to be one in suffering with our fellow human beings who are suffering. Right now, in this world, there is great suffering surrounding immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. How we will suffer in solidarity with those who suffer greatly remains to be seen. But, now that we’ve been part of a hit piece on national television, it appears Jesus is not going to let us ignore this one.