Normal is not all it’s cracked up to be…

“If we could begin to see much illness itself not as a cruel twist of fate or some nefarious mystery,” writes Gabor Mate in The Myth of Normal, “but rather as an expected and therefore normal consequence of abnormal, unnatural circumstances, it would have revolutionary implications for how we approach everything health related” (page 8).

Mate urges us to turn our understanding of life in our culture inside out. What is abnormal is the toxic culture we inhabit. Our responses to such a culture are “normal,” insofar as they respond to the realities of the world in which we live.

“Far more than a lack of technological acumen, sufficient funds, or new discoveries,” Mate continues, “our culture’s skewed idea of normality is the single biggest impediment to fostering a healthy world, even keeping us from acting on what we already know” (page 8).

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The normality Mate indicts is the white, male, individualist, capitalist, rationalist, hierarchical, hegemonic, patriarchal, racist, classist, and ableist colonial system which is so familiar to us Americans that it is like the air we breathe.

For the few privileged at the “top” of this system — those who seek to define what is “normal,” the benefits of the system are huge. For the rest of us, the system takes resources from us and leaves us feeling chronically ill and personally responsible for our own disease.

“The core of it,” Mate writes, “which accords entirely with what the science shows is this: health and illness are not random states in a particular body or body part. They are, in fact,” he continues, “an expression of an entire life lived, one that cannot, in turn, be understood in isolation: it is influenced by — or better yet, it arises from — a web of circumstances, relationships, events, and experiences” (page 9).

I see this whole-culture understanding of disease in the healing ministry of Jesus in Matthew, chapters eight and nine. Jesus doesn’t blame any victims of illness for their conditions. He restores them to health and community. Jesus doesn’t expect any victims of illness to demonstrate that they are somehow “normal” or deserving of his attention. He just touches them. He just talks to them. He just sees them. In that welcoming touch and talk and gaze, they are restored to wholeness.

“Normal” in the first-century Mediterranean world was defined by the honorable, free, male, Roman noble man. Others in the culture found themselves placed on a scale of value with such “normal” individuals at the top of the scale. At the bottom of the scale were enslaved persons.

It it probably not entirely accurate to describe the enslaved as “persons” in that system. In fact, the enslaved were regarded as “natally alienated” and “socially dead,” according to Orlando Patterson. Such individuals were often regarded as two-legged cattle or tools that could speak. They were seen and treated as extensions of their enslavers’ bodies and were thought to have no independent existence of their own.

Other free males, free women, freed persons, children, and foreigners were assigned varying degrees of normality in comparison with the ideal and honorable man of Roman ideology. At the top of the top of the scale was the emperor — the epitome of maleness, the paragon of virtue, the font of all wisdom and intelligence, the bravest of the brave, father of the fatherland, source of peace and prosperity, and either a god himself or soon to become one.

Imperial life was a contest of honor and shame. The goal was always to increase one’s own honor. Since this was a zero-sum, limited good society, such an increase was always at the expense of someone else in the game. It was an agonistic culture, defined by struggle and competition. The definition of human flourishing was to be one of the few who reached the pinnacle. Of course, that position was always threatened by other contenders. Thus life was always an exercise in anxious self-protection.

Is it any wonder that such a system would produce numerous and serious chronic physical and mental illnesses? Compound that with that grinding poverty and lack of resources among the majority of the population, and it’s no wonder that Jesus was doing land-office business when it came to healing. Compound that with the effects of multi-generational trauma imposed on subject peoples and you get a culture consumed by infirmities and diseases.

I could just as easily be describing what Kelly Brown Douglas identifies as the imaginary of Whiteness in American culture and society. I’m working my way through her book, Resurrection Hope: A Future Where Black Lives Matter, and I see the connections all over the place. Let’s start with her definition of Whiteness:

“…whiteness is not a biological or an ethnic given. Rather, it is a socially constructed demarcation of race that serves as a badge of privilege and power. It fuels white supremacy, which in turn exists to protect it” (page 3). In Greco-Roman culture, noble and honorable maleness was the social construct that presumed to define normality, underwrite privilege and power, and protect the system upon which that privilege and power depended.

The system that underwrites and protects Whiteness is White supremacy: “the network of systemic, structural, and ideological realities that protect the “presumed” superiority of whiteness by granting certain privileges to those raced white and not to others (page 3). Like the Greco-Roman analogue, Whiteness is oppositional, agonistic, zero-sum, and inherently violent.

“Anything that belittles, degrades, or betrays the sacred humanity of another is violent,” Brown Douglas writes, “and, insofar as it separates one from the ways of a just and loving God, sinful. Whiteness, therefore, is both an intrinsically violent and sinful construct” (page 3). The same could be said of the Greco-Roman system. In his ministry of healing and wholeness, Jesus is claiming and restoring the sacred humanity of those he cures.

As Douglas points out, echoing many others, those who benefit from such systems are also cut off from their sacred humanity, even though they are resistantly oblivious to such disability. “Those who remain willfully or obliviously trapped in the privileges of whiteness,” Douglas argues, “are prevented from appreciating their common connection with the rest of humanity. In effect, uninterrupted whiteness overwhelms white people’s very souls…” (page 4).

The Matthean author concludes our small section of the Matthean account with an odd reference from Hebrew scripture. It is odd that the Matthean author doesn’t use the typical formula to describe what’s happening here. It is odd that the Matthean author references the “word through the prophet Isaiah,” rather pointing to what was written in that prophet’s corpus. It is odd that the Matthean author uses a text that seems only tangentially related to what has happened in the previous verses.

I don’t think the Matthean author has gotten momentarily sloppy. Instead, I think the Matthean author wants us to look deeply at what is happening in these healings in chapters eight and nine. Jesus is taking on the whole system of Greco-Roman “normalcy” and rejecting the ideology that underwrites that system. Jesus absorbs the violence of that system which betrays and denies the sacred humanity of those who don’t “measure up.”

And Jesus shows how such a system is inadequate even for one of the beneficiaries of the system — a Roman centurion. The centurion puts faith in Jesus rather than in empire. That’s radical.

“It is no overstatement,” Kelly Brown Douglas declares, “to say that white supremacy is the normative identifying marker of American identity” (page 6). Whiteness is the standard of American normalcy. All other lives are valued relative to Whiteness. The corollary to Whiteness as ideology is anti-Blackness as practice.

When a norm is constructed as superior — as defining the nature of what it means to be human — the justification is created for the denigration and elimination of all that is not “normal.” If I am not “normal,” then my suffering is my own fault, the result of my own deficiencies. Then the system and its beneficiaries are not only let off the hook but are justified in punishing and eliminating the “abnormal.”

The Matthean author proclaims that Jesus has joined the “abnormal” and is dismantling the tyranny of normalcy. He takes it all on and buries it in a rock-hewn tomb. He invites his followers to partner with him in the ongoing project of recognizing and restoring the sacred humanity of all people.

Douglas, Kelly Brown. Resurrection Hope: A Future Where Black Lives Matter. Maryknoll Fathers. Kindle Edition.

Mate, Gabor. The Myth of Normal.

Back to Reading Matthew

All right, friends, we’re through Holy Week, Easter, and the post-Easter recovery phase (sort of). So I’m headed back to my serial reading of and preaching on Matthew’s gospel. This week we’re reading and studying Matthew 8:18-9:1. I preached on Matthew 8:1-17 on Transfiguration Sunday, but I will need to re-orient myself to chapter eight and perhaps will need to do so for my listeners as well.

Jesus concludes the Sermon on the Mount, and the reviews are excellent. Jesus “finished these words” (Mt. 7:28). The verb is “teleo,” which can also mean to perfect or bring to fruition. The Matthean author likes that set of words and applies them to Jesus and his actions at several strategic points.

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The author doesn’t have the Johannine “it is finished” to conclude the crucifixion account. But the Matthean author does have Jesus promise to be with the disciples until the “sunteleias” of the age. This is another related word that points to how Jesus sums up and brings to fruition God’s mission of life for the cosmos.

This might seem like a random connection, except that it isn’t. Jesus finishes saying these words. The crowds are astonished at his teaching because he teaches with authority. We should hear a prefiguring of the words of the “Great Commission” in Matthew 28:19-20. There Jesus declares that all authority in heaven and upon the earth has been given to him. He now commissions his disciples to baptize in the name of the Triune God and to teach all to obey what Jesus has commanded.

The verbal connection between Matthew 7:28-29 and 28:19-20 should be clear.

As Jesus was coming down from the sermonic mountain (Mt. 8:1), large crowds are following him. The verse begins with a genitive absolute which should be translated as “while” or “as.” Therefore, the crowds who had heard the Sermon, along with the disciples, also witnessed the healing of the leper in Matthew 8:1-4. It appears that the crowds continue to accompany Jesus as he heals the centurion’s servant in Capernaum and Peter’s mother-in-law, presumably in the same village.

I make this suggestion because in verse eighteen, the Matthean author mentions the presence of the crowds around Jesus. At this point, Jesus embarks on a boat and leaves the crowds behind. When Jesus and the disciples return to Capernaum (Mt. 9:1), the crowds appear to be waiting for him. They are explicitly mentioned again in Mt. 9:8 and Mt. 9:33. In this section of the Matthean account, the crowds serve as a sort of chorus repeatedly declaring their awe and amazement and glorifying God for what they have seen.

The leper embodies and enacts the astonishment of the crowds. While Jesus was descending the mountain, guess what! A leper, coming toward him, fell on his face before Jesus. He called him “Lord.” He appealed to Jesus “will” or desire to heal him.

The NRSV translates the leper’s request as “if you choose, you can make me clean.” But really, it’s much more like, “If it is your will to heal me, I shall be made clean.” I think the Matthean author wants us to think immediately about the Lord’s Prayer — “Let your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Depending on how we translate this text (and others like it), we can significantly under-read the Matthean Christology built into the narrative. I think it’s a pretty “high” Christology, but that can, as they say, get lost in translation.

Jesus stretches out his hand toward the leper. He accompanies this action with the declaration, “I will [it]. Be cleansed.” The healing is immediate and complete. Then Jesus orders the man to complete the ritual requirements for restoration to the community. Two things happen here. Jesus does not abrogate the Mosaic Torah but rather fulfills it. And he fulfills it by implementing the real intention of the Torah, which is the maintenance and restoration of the community of God’s people.

“In the ancient Mediterranean,” write Malina and Rohrbaugh, “one’s state of being was more important than one’s ability to act or function. The healers of that world,” they continue, “focused on restoring a person to a valued state of being rather than an ability to function” (Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, page 70, Kindle Edition). As we go through Matthew 8 and 9, we meet several people who are restored to community and connection due to Jesus’ healing.

Illness was stigmatized and moralized in the ancient world. It remains stigmatized and moralized to a significant degree to this day. That is particularly true of our responses to mental illness, but we are still profoundly tempted to hold people personally responsible for their physical illnesses as well (even though we should know better).

Worse yet, we hold people morally culpable for situations like poverty. The “we” here is privileged, mostly white, people in the Western world. Capitalism is always in search of the “worthy poor,” those “deserving” of our help. Of course, poverty is, for many of us, a clear demonstration of unworthiness. Thus we find no “worthy poor” that we can help. And thus, we let ourselves of the hook and hang on to our stuff.

Whenever we make “worth” a condition of offering care, we’re opposing the Kin(g)dom of God. Yet it is the “unworthy” who provide the clearest direction to that Kin(g)dom. We need to keep that in mind, for example, when we come to the Great Judgment parable/prophecy in Matthew 25. As Stanley Hauerwas points out in his commentary on Matthew, it is the excluded and the stigmatized who recognize Jesus as Lord (page 93). And, I would add, it is the excluded and the stigmatized who bear the Lord’s presences in their excluded and stigmatized bodies.

Robert H. Smith writes these words about the leper’s healing. “Jesus…looks beyond the efforts to define boundaries. He has come with the authority of God neither to build a better wall nor to bow before the power of uncleanness. Acting in the place of God,” Smith continues, “Jesus begins to roll back the polluting powers and to restore God’s creation to primal purity and wholeness” (Matthew, page 131).

Jesus doesn’t “risk uncleanness” when he reaches out to touch the leper. Instead, he brings cleansing because he embodies that whole-making power of God in his ministry and in the world. We see throughout the Matthean account that the methodology of the Kin(g)dom is inclusion rather than exclusion. If we lose track of that interpretive focus as we read this gospel account, we can easily misread it as focused on exclusion. The texts in chapters eight and nine can help us to maintain the proper focus.

I have been re-reading Gabor Mate’s book, The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness, & Healing in a Toxic Culture. Mate argues that “chronic illness — mental or physical — is to a large extent a function or feature of the way things are and not a glitch; a consequence of how we live, not a mysterious aberration” (page 2).

I think that the Greco-Roman culture of the first-century Mediterranean world qualifies as another example of a “toxic culture.” The people Jesus encounters in Matthew 8 and 9 suffer the effects of that culture and point to the underlying trauma and tragedy upon which that culture is based. Therefore, Jesus heals people by taking away their illnesses and restoring them to a fullness of life that the larger culture cannot offer.

Jonathan Pennington argues that the Sermon on the Mount describes God’s blueprint for human flourishing. I think that’s a helpful discussion point, although I would extend that to a focus on the flourishing of all Creation. In any event, that’s the run-up to these healings and exorcisms. Jesus has taught what human flourishing can really mean. Now in thee chapters, he enacts and embodies that flourishing in those who have been trapped in the web of a toxic culture.

We’ll see how that continues to unfold in the succeeding stories.

Message for February 26, 2023

Matthew 6:24-34

Therefore, I tell you,” Jesus says, “do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body or what you will wear.”

Seriously, Jesus? Don’t worry? Who are you kidding?

The average adult in the Western world spends about ninety minutes a day worrying. That’s a little over ten hours per week. That’s somewhat more than five hundred twenty hours per year. So, the average adult in the Western world spends more than sixty eight-hour days each year worrying.

We worry most often about our health, our money, and our jobs. After that we worry about our relationships, our families, our communities, and the state of the world. When we worry, our physical health suffers. Our relationships suffer. Our productivity suffers. Our mental health suffers.

When we worry, we suffer.

Seriously, Jesus says, don’t worry. Worry is bad for us. Thanks, Jesus. Tell us something we don’t know.

Before I go on, I want to make a clear distinction. Jesus is not talking about real and serious psychological conditions and ailments. Many of us suffer from various levels of depression and anxiety. Those conditions are real illnesses. They can be identified, diagnosed, and treated.

Depression and anxiety are not moral failings. Depression and anxiety are not purely spiritual conditions that can be prayed away. At least one in twelve Americans lives a depressive condition. At least three in ten Americans has experienced a diagnosable anxiety condition at some time in our lives.

People don’t decide to be depressed or anxious in these ways. Those of us who deal with such conditions would be happy to decide our way out of them. But we can’t. Instead, we rely on a variety of self-care and treatment options to live full and productive lives.

I can’t say this strongly enough. Jesus is not judging or condemning any of us who live with various levels of mental health. That’s not what this is about.

But still, Jesus says, don’t worry. All right. What isit about?

The word here for “worry” combines two words. The first half means “to be divided.” The second half means “to bring to mind.” Worry is the experience of being separated from the present by images of the past or future.

That’s what Jesus describes here. Jesus is talking about the five hundred hours we spend each year someplace other than the here and now. Worry splits me into pieces. Worry pulls me into an imagined future. Worry paralyzes me with painful possibilities.

When we worry, we suffer. I can guarantee that during the last few minutes our collective blood pressure has increased. You probably feel more anxious. Some of you are squinting and squirming. I’m sorry I did that to you. But that’s what happens when we worry.

Jesus has a particular variety of worry in mind here. He focuses on worrying about wealth – about our stuff. Verse twenty-five has a “therefore” in it. Therefore, we need to go to the previous verse to see what’s up.

No one can serve two masters,” Jesus says in Matthew six, verse twenty-four, “for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot,” Jesus concludes, “serve God and wealth.”

Jesus worries about where we put our trust. That’s the real issue in our text, so let me repeat it. Jesus worries about where we put our trust. In fact, Jesus says, our stuff can easily end up as our god.

Jesus uses an odd word in verse twenty-four. That word is often translated as “wealth” or “money.” But the word is actually “Mammon.” That’s a name for a pagan god. Mammon is the god of certainty and security. Mammon promises us we can buy our way out of worry. Mammon promises us that stuff is the source of our security.

Mammon makes promises, Jesus says. But Mammon can’t deliver. “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal,” Jesus says in Matthew six, verse nineteen.

No matter how much we invest in preventive maintenance, in preservatives, and in planning, that all fails in the end. Moth and rust and thieves are relentless. Nothing lasts forever.

Mammon makes promises. But Mammon can’t deliver. God can and does. “But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven,” Jesus says in Matthew six, verse twenty, “where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.

This isn’t about buying a better security system. This is about where we put our trust.For where your treasure is,” Jesus says in Matthew six, verse twenty-one, “there your heart will be also.

Where will your heart be safe? With Mammon? Or with God?

When we trust in our stuff, we surrender to worry. We put ourselves in prison. We sacrifice genuine freedom for false security. We become less than human.

The opposite of worry is trust. That’s worth repeating. The opposite of worry is trust. The question Jesus raises is this. Where do we put our trust?

Let’s remember who’s talking here. The opposite of worry is trust. But that trust is not blind. Jesus is God with us. Jesus is God’s beloved Son. Jesus is the one who feeds and heals and holds us. Jesus is the one who brings the Kingdom of God. Jesus is the one who defeats sin, death, and the devil.

Jesus is the one who holds our hearts. Jesus is the assurance that we can trust God. Jesus is the proof that God keeps God’s promises. Jesus overcomes moth and rust and thieves. Jesus invites us to live in the trust that overwhelms our worries.

What is released in us when we aren’t worrying? The worry Jesus describes makes us less human. This worry makes us ruminate on the past. This worry gives us tunnel vision. This worry leads us to see others as threats, competitors, objects, resources to be exploited. This worry makes society a war of all against all.

Just think how much imagination and creativity are sucked down the drain of worry, It takes effort to worry. It takes imagination to craft the nightmares and catastrophes that clamor for our attention. It’s no wonder worry is exhausting.

Therefore, disciples, don’t’ worry about what you will eat, drink or wear. But you can worry about what others will eat, drink, and wear. Since we know that God provides for us, we can focus on providing for others. That’s real freedom. That’s the kingdom of God.

That’s how Martin Luther, for example, understood the power of the Gospel. We are freed from the power of sin, death and the devil. We are freed from the need to worry. We are also freed for loving service to our neighbor. Since we don’t have to guarantee our own lives, we are freed to work for the well-being of others.

The real antidote to worry is a larger purpose for life. “But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness,” Jesus says in Matthew six, verse thirty-three, “and all these things will be given to you as well.”

Think about those times when you focus on something beyond yourself. Do you have any space for worry? Can you think of any purpose bigger than living out the Kingdom of God? I can’t.

Of course, we will still worry. But let’s stay focused, Jesus says, on the here and now. “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own,” he says in Matthew six, thirty-four, “Today’s trouble is enough for today.” Can I get an “amen” for that?

Resisting this worry is profoundly counter-cultural. Advertisers amplify our worries. Political forces count on them. Authoritarian rulers exploit them. Racists rely on them. Ideologues manipulate them.

Jesus says, “Don’t cooperate.” How will you resist those forces this week?

Let’s pray…

Text Study for Matthew 5:1-12 (Part Three)

Things are coming into a bit more focus now. The first four beatitudes form a stanza in this programmatic poem. Those beatitudes offer examples of the Great Reversal promised in the coming Kin(g)dom of God. Jesus has announced, in line with John the Baptist and carrying through on that preview, that the Kin(g)dom is drawing near.

“Fundamental to all the beatitudes,” Warren Carter writes in his commentary, “is the establishment of God’s justice or righteousness by removing oppressive societal relationships and inadequate distribution of resources” (page 131).

Jesus demonstrates the truth of that announcement by enacting it through teaching, healing, and casting out demons. He shows what the world looks like when the Great Reversal is put into action. The first and third beatitudes parallel one another. And we know we have seen the people mentioned in these beatitudes. They are part of the crowd that Jesus healed in chapter four and who overhear the Sermon on the Mount now.

Those who have been drained of any hope for the future will receive the Kingdom of Heaven and will inherit the earth. Carter describes them as “economically poor and whose spirits are crushed by economic injustice” (page 131). Those who mourn the victory of oppressors will see that victory reversed. They will be filled with the justice of God (Beatitudes two and four).

“The first four beatitudes critique the political, economic, social, religious and personal distress that results from the powerful elite who enrich their own position at the expense of the rest,” Warren Carter writes in his commentary. “They delineate the terrible consequences of Roman power” (page 131).

The Great Reversal has been launched in the ministry and mission of Jesus. He has called at least the first four of the frontline troops who will continue that ministry and mission. How are they to participate in that ministry and mission in the here and now?

We come to the second stanza. Offering mercy and doing peace are two of the practices of that ministry and mission. Clean hearts filled with a passion for God’s justice are requisites for those who will be part of the work. It’s worth quoting Carter at length here.

“The focus in the second group of beatitudes moves from the circumstances which God is reversing to human actions that manifest God’s empire. These and similar actions (this is not a complete list) enact God’s purposes for just societal relationships and access to resources. Such a way of life is blessed now and rewarded by God in the future, at the completion of God’s purposes. That is, while the “empire of the heavens” is God’s rule, this emphasis on human actions indicates a partnership between God and those living in accord with God’s purposes” (page 134).

The work of mercy and peace, purity and justice – that work in itself is the reward. Those who engage in such practices become more and more of what God created them to be in the beginning. “To act like God is to be one of God’s children now (5:45; 6:9),” Carter writes, “which will mean intimacy with God in the future completion of God’s purposes. God’s children are shaped not by ethnicity (cf. Deut 14:1) but by imitating God (cf. Matt 3:9)” (page 136).

So, first we have the promise of the Great Reversal. Then we have the job description for those who will be part of the work. And third, we see the response of the world and the freedom of those who do it. Yes, the system that depends on poverty, oppression, humiliation, and injustice will react badly to any changes.

Yet, those reactions will be signs that the system cannot stand forever. “Disciples, like prophets, know a liminal role,” Warren Carter notes, “They live in but at odds with their dominant culture. Yet they cannot retreat from it because they have a God-given mission to it and in it” page 137).

Those involved in this process are to be “greatly honored.” I think that’s the best translation of “Makarios.” The English word “blessed” has been stretched to cover so many things that it has become nearly meaningless.

In our text, two groups of people are “greatly honored.” First, there are those whom the system regards as being without honor. They are among those whom Carter might describe as the “involuntarily marginalized.” They are the expendables, the people who can be disregarded and discarded. They are the ones who’ve been told their lives don’t matter.

The first stanza radically reverses this evaluation. The good news for these people is that their situation is not permanent. It is not God’s judgment. It is a failure of a system in bondage to sin, death, and the devil. The system stands under judgment and will come to an end. That is the promise of the Kin(g)dom which is beginning to bear fruit here and now in Jesus.

Second to be greatly honored, I think, are the voluntarily marginalized. These are the disciples (and not just the four who have been named). These are the ones who accept the call to be part of the struggle and to do so by means of nonviolent resistance rooted in God’s grace and mercy. As a result of answering the call, the marginalized all find one another in the Kin(g)dom of God (notice the double mention in verses 3 and 10).

The Great Reversal calls for the Great Resistance. The rest of the Sermon on the Mount gives further details about how that Great Resistance works.

I try to imagine, first, how these words landed with the Matthean community. Matthew’s gospel, according to Carter, “is a counternarrative. It is a work of resistance,” he continues, “written for a largely Jewish religious group” (page 1). The Matthean community resists the pressures of the larger Jewish community (in Antioch or Galilee) on the one hand and Roman imperial power on the other.

Carter argues that the gospel is also “a work of advocacy and hope. The gospel constructs an alternative worldview and community. It affirms a way of life marginal to the dominant structures. It challenges its audience to live this resistant way of life faithfully in its present circumstances. And,” he concludes, “it promises that Jesus will return to establish God’s empire and salvation in full” (page 1).

To challenge an audience to live in a resistant way – I think that’s my task as a preacher in the setting where I live and work. When I think about how that might turn out, I’m not sure that I will be rejoicing and being very glad. But too often, I think I sell people short. I find in surprising places a hunger and thirst for God’s justice in a world of injustice.

“Reading the gospel is a world-advocating and world-rejecting,” Carter writes, “world-unveiling and world-decentering, world-affirming and world-exposing process” (page 3). And this reading urges people to abandon old ways, ways that only produce death and despair. “One of the effects of reading this story of Jesus is to see God’s reign or empire at work,” Carter continues, “to notice it in unlikely places, to understand its goals and methods, to hear its call to live in and for a just and compassionate world, and to participate in its final triumph over all” (page 3).

I suppose I’m writing this to give myself another personal pep talk. This gospel is at work among us. We who claim to follow Jesus are called to be part of the work. I am surprised by how often the people I serve seek to answer that call. It’s not without some weeping and gnashing of teeth, on their part and on mine. But the gospel shapes disciples far beyond my meager efforts. I’m glad once in a while to be part of that process.

A Letter to Bishop Eaton and her response.

In response to the Bishop’s column in the Jan/Feb edition of Living Lutheran I offered the following comments to ELCA churchwide bishop Elizabeth Eaton. I attach her response as well. I would only say that I had hoped for something other than a report of a reader response poll.

Dear Bishop Eaton:

I have read your “Presiding Bishop” column in the January/February 2023 edition of Living Lutheran several times. I am puzzled and distressed by what I read.

You express concern that the Lutheran understanding of the word of God as both Law and Gospel and the distinction necessary for that understanding “is getting blurred.” If that is indeed the case, then I would share that concern.

You note that “some define the gospel as social justice…” I’m not sure if that is the case. I am sure that I don’t find the “some people are saying” language to be helpful or compelling. If there are specific examples of the issue you identify, I’d like to hear about them. But the “some people” language is a bit like saying there’s trouble right here in River City.

I understand you have limited space in the column, but this language is too general to be helpful or actionable. I would have wished for greater clarity and specificity. Or it would have been best to omit this generic accusation.

I have concerns as well about the historical theology and the theological analysis you offer in your column. The categories of “Law” and “Gospel” in our theological tradition are dynamic realities rather than static categories. The very same word of Scripture can function as Law for one person and Gospel for another, depending on one’s position and circumstance.

I hear echoes of the in-house Lutheran debates that preceded the final version of the Formula of Concord. On the one hand, there were those who argued that good works are necessary for salvation. On the other hand, there were those who argued that good works are dangerous to our salvation. Neither reflects Luther’s position. However, you seem to flirt a bit with that latter assertion.

You note that works of social justice are not the gospel. Rather these works flow from the liberation we receive by means of the Gospel. I find that to be a description from a position of colonizing privilege. Works of social justice are indeed good news for the poor – part of the proclamation included in Jesus’ own inaugural sermon in Luke 4. Again, the Scriptural functions of Law and Gospel are dynamic, not static.

I am concerned that your analysis focuses exclusively on the “work” of Christ and does not adequately include the “person” of Christ. The work of justification is certainly central to the Gospel. However, the presence of Christ through faith in the heart of the believer is also central to the Gospel. Luther makes precisely this point in his 1535 commentary on Galatians.

The “wonderful exchange” which you reference in your writing encapsulates this inclusion of the “person” of Christ in the gospel. Through this exchange, the believer is freed and equipped for a life of loving service to the neighbor. We are not, by the way, free (at least according to Luther’s own analysis of the bondage of the will).

I can make neither head nor tails of the last two paragraphs of your column. We Lutherans aren’t quietists, you say. I hope that is more and more true. However, we must be careful not to blur our in-house theological distinctions as we seek to be more active. I think that’s all true, but I’m not clear what you would urge me to do with those two paragraphs.

I am distressed that this cautionary column is the last word in an issue that begins with a reflection on Dr. King’s words and work. Whatever your intention, the very structure of the issue could give the impression that you are offering a corrective to over-eager attempts at self-justification by social justice. As we read this issue during Black History month, I find the conjunction unfortunate and unhelpful.

If I have misunderstood your words and argument, I gladly will be corrected. If that is the case, I will offer my heartfelt apologies. I hope you will have the time to read this over-long query.

Thank you for your time and leadership.

Yours in Christ,

Pastor Lowell Hennigs

Omaha, NE

Dear Pr. Hennigs,

I appreciate receiving your comments about my article in Living Lutheran. I was aware that some faithful members of the ELCA would raise questions and concerns.  Other faithful members have been encouraged and grateful.

My prayer is that God’s Holy Spirit continue to guide us all in the ways of faithfulness and love as we live together in Jesus Christ.

God’s blessings,

Elizabeth A. Eaton

Presiding Bishop