Does God change his mind? Part II

The reflection of the week was on whether God changes his mind, and if that is good or bad. Today’s sermon was of course a culmination of that topic, in light of the recent election of Elizabeth Eaton as presiding bishop of the ELCA.

Bishop Hanson is associated with the ELCA’s controversial 2009 decision on homosexuality – a worthy goal that lost many members – 2000 parishes plus lots of empty pews in those that remained. Eaton represents “now that we’ve done that, rather than look back, let’s look forward again to what we as Lutherans bring to the common Christian mission.”

Today’s Gospel was the parables of the lost lambs and the lost coin. One sense is that we may tend to identify with the 99 lambs who were not lost, or as an acquaintance of the woman who lost the coin but not as the woman. In reality we are the lamb and the woman, from two perspectives: (1) Try as you might, you will say and do things you regret; your ego with its desires and attachments will always lead you away from the flocks, and (2), as Bonhoeffer wrote in Life Together, “Help must come from the outside, and it has come and comes daily and anew in the Word of Jesus Christ, bringing redemption, righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.”

That brought PB to a feeling of sadness for those who are not in the pews. What is the best way to feel about it? What can be done to bring them back? Should we feel that as 99 sheep we are more pure? Should we be concerned for the lost sheep? Should we even think of them as lost sheep?

Bonhoeffer faced the same issue in Germany in the 1930s. After all, there was the great schism between the “mainline” Deutsche Christen (German Christians) and the dissident Bekennende Kirche (Confessing Church) that Bonhoeffer helped found. Suffice it to say that the German Christians tended to think of Germans as God’s chosen people, and to draw a circle around the “flock” that included only those of “Aryan blood.” They aimed to purge Protestantism of those aspects they considered “Jewish,” such as the concept of sin and the need for confession, repentance, and God’s grace. Think of them as Christians who agreed with Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity and therefore re-imagined Christianity as an Aryan Christ leading the Deutsche Volk to glory and authentic self-expression.

But even if you didn’t go in for all that, there was still the issue of all those “reasonable” Lutherans who liked (or at least didn’t terribly object to) the Nazi regime for various aspects of it. Remember, war and Holocaust did not begin until the sixth year of Nazi rule. When Life Together appeared in 1939, there was the shame of Kristallnacht but as yet no Auschwitz. To that point it was about ending unemployment, the “threat” of Communish, and the shames of Versailles so that Germany could stand proud again. All issues a good country Lutheran would support, as well as a main reason why those good country Lutherans were Hitler’s greatest supporters at the polls. As a bekennende pastor, how do you treat such people in your congregation? Bonhoeffer’s advice:

Spiritual love “will not take pleasure in pious, human fervor and excitement. It will rather meet the other person with the clear Word of God and be ready to leave him alone with this Word for a long time, willing to release him again in order that Christ may deal with him.”

To relate that to the current schism, it boils down to which side is God on. In Bonhoeffer’s day, the German Christians and the Nazi influences were the newfangled, “enlightened” influences. The German Christians thought they were being progressive in their accommodation of Nazi racial ideals to their theology. Are we doing the same with homosexuality vis-a-vis progressive, urban liberal ideology? Who are the lost sheep, the ELCA or those who left?

1. God doesn’t issue fatwas on modern issues. We have to use our own guidance using “what would Jesus do?” Or, if the thing that works you up leads to hatred, it probably isn’t God’s will. Jesus’s ire was directly mainly at the self-righteous, those who put religious form over content, and those who enrich themselves through religion at the common man’s expense. Yet he would heal a gentile woman with the explanation that the dogs under the table get the scraps. (I wish he would’ve put it more kindly, but Jesus was himself a Jew preaching to other Jews – it was an historical irony that he was rejected by Jews in his time and embraced by Gentiles posthumously.)

2. We don’t know what Jesus would have said about homosexuality because the concept as such did not exist in Jesus’ time. From The Lutheran, page 3 of September 2013, Peter Marty on “Talking about Homosexuality”: There is no Greek or Hebrew word that corresponds exactly to our word “homosexual.” You may have participated in a bible study where the term was used. But that’s a modern application of the word. The category or classification that we may refer to as homosexuality did not exist in biblical times. The few scriptural references to lusting or exploitative sexual behaviors between same- or differently gendered people have nothing to do with the abiding personal companionship, enduring love, shared intimacy, and trusting commitment of gay and straight couples who cherish such qualities in our day.”

3. Even so, as progressive humanity has changed its mind, what we think of as God’s opinion eventually catches up. There is a creation story and flood story that fit better in Mesopotamian civilization than in our time. Slavery is normal in the Bible. Woman are chattel. Genocide is committed in God’s name to clear the chosen land for the chosen people. When Moses leads the Jews from Egypt, and later admonishes them not to worship Baal, the stories are quite innocent about magic, and other gods. This God seems to constantly consider destroying humanity and even his own chosen people, and has to be talked out of it based on “what would the Egyptians think?” (See Exodus 32:7-14) It took a little while for that god to become God. So, yes, even in the Bible as with any other religion, you have a thousand year evolution in the conception of who and what God is. There’s no way around that. Part of God’s grace is our continual evolution out of our own unpleasantness.

September 15, 2013 in Life