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Ninth Biennial Convention
Augustana University College,
Camrose, AB
June 12 - 15, 2003

Sing to the Lord a New Song

Bible Study

Readings

Longings for significance…

  • 1 Samuel 8:10–20
  • 2 Samuel 7:1–11
  • 2 Samuel 11:1
  • Luke 13:31–35a
  • Luke 22:25–30
  • John 18:37
  • John 10:14

The despair of dashed hopes

  • Exodus 16:1–3
  • Deuteronomy 29:16–20, 22, 24–28
  • Psalm 137

The vision of the prophets

  • Isaiah 2:6–9
  • Jeremiah 18:13–17
  • Amos 5:21–27
  • Matthew 4:1–10
  • Luke 24:13–21a, 25
  • Revelation 3:14–22

The merciful words of a gracious God

  • Deuteronomy 10:16–21
  • Isaiah 25:7–10
  • Isaiah 40:1–31
  • Isaiah 42:1–4
  • Isaiah 43:1–3
  • Isaiah 60:1–3
  • Isaiah 61:1–4
  • Jeremiah 3:17–18
  • Ezekiel 34:5–16
  • Micah 5:2–5
  • Micah 6:6–8
  • Micah 7:11–20
  • Psalm 103:8–13
  • Romans 3:21–30
  • Romans 10: 12–15

Note: this Bible study is the background material that lead up to the opening sermon of the convention and the National Bishop's articles in Canada Lutheran.

This bible study gives me an opportunity
to pay tribute to a man who influenced three of this church's bishops
with his wisdom, insight and passion for the gospel.

That man is Professor Harold Floreen,
teacher of English New Testament at Lutheran Theological Seminary
during the time that Marlin Aadland, Richard Smith and I
were students there.

Harold had been a scientist before studying theology
and found a scientific paradigm
that helped him develop a structure for Biblical analysis.

He saw in the scriptures a carrier wave,
an oscillating pattern that rises and falls as the story progresses
through the Hebrew scriptures
and into those of the Christian church.

For him, there was a continuity of which I have been persuaded.

My recollection and reflection upon Professor Floreen's structure
was aroused when Loren Mead wrote The Once and Future Church,
about the fall of Christendom,
and reinventing the mission of the church.

That book gave birth to the largest Chicken Little epidemic
I have seen in a generation.

Every religious pundit in North America
was predicting the fall of the sky
and the imminent demise of the church.

Not only that, but the church was being blamed for its demise
as if the church can control the forces of secularism, pluralism
as it wishes.

I much prefer the writing of Douglas John Hall,
who calls on the church to repent and divest itself
of the privileges Christendom bestowed upon the church,
in order that the church can establish its distinctness
from the historical context in which it currently exists
and its integrity in relation to creation.

A lecture on the history of the canon
presented at one of the ELCA Bishops' Academies by Dr. James Sanders
reminded me that the scriptures were assembled
out of the experience of the community to whom they witness.

While individual books tell their own story,
they are arranged in a sequential relationship to tell the "big story."

A principle of Lutheran Bible interpretation
is that scripture interprets scripture.

What I see in scripture is that Jesus gave precedence to the prophets,
so I have leaned heavily on that body of material in this presentation.

As I listened to Dr. Sanders' series of lectures,
I saw a pattern emerge;
a pattern that was relevant to this particular time in history.

The pattern was Harold Floreen's!

The scriptures present an undulating wave
on which surf the people of God.

Sometimes the surf's up,
sometimes the people are swamped.

I think it is no accident that the church is depicted as a ship.

The church sails on a sea of liquid history.

The church does not control the wind and the waves.

Its fortunes go as they go.

Do not forget, however, that time and history are also servants of god.

I am deeply rooted in the Christian confessional tradition.

I believe that one holy catholic church shall remain forever.

That statement, however, contains three problem words:
one,
holy,
and catholic.

Fragmentation of the church began at the time of the Reformation
so that oneness took a terrible beating.

Holiness means
allowing oneself to be taken over by God solely for God's purposes,
something the church has never quite managed
in spite of the holiness movement.

Catholicity went out the window
when Lutherans and Calvinists formed national and ethnic church bodies,
which were highly determined by the monocultures
of the nations in which they took root.

These parochialisms
made their way to North America with European immigrants
and resulted in even the Lutherans being separated.

We have spent an enormous amount of energy in the past 200 years
trying to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

Has the price we paid for Lutheran unity been worth it?

What mission have we neglected in the meantime?

What idols have we erected in our pursuit
of Canadian Lutheran nationalism?

I see throughout the Biblical cycle
of the fall and raising of the people of God,
a strong theme of idolatry of nationhood and retention of identity.

In other words,
we want to be God's servants,
but we also want to be important and endure forever.

We don't really want to give anything away
completely without strings attached.

What I see when I surf Harold Floreen's carrier wave,
is that idolatry is what brings the people down.

Idols are given the status of gods,
but have no life of their own.

Idols are depictions of monarchical hopes and dreams,
whether they are the ravings of a dictator,
the sagas of an ancient culture,
or the institutions of our creation.

They only produce what people put into them.

Sometimes they rely on illusion to appear alive.
(That is why the religious establishment of the pharaohs included magicians.)

Idols do not give life, they consume it.

A nation devoted to the service of idols
will eventually run out of life force.

It will lose its faith, its sense of vocation, its moral character.

However, God is not a combatant.

God makes free choices.

God refuses to compete.

So God retreats
and lets the culture discover the lifelessness of its idols
and become emptied of life.

These are the stories of the Egyptian sojourn,
the defeat by the Assyrians,
the exile in Babylon
and the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.

The cycle could go on forever except for the Gospel.

The Gospel is the story of Jesus Christ,
who took on the burden of the world,
and went to the cross for no other reason
than that God asked him to.

For him to do so was pleasing to God.

The mission was God's, not his.

Whether the conditions were optimum or not was irrelevant.

It was the time that it was;
it was the time when God chose to act.

All of this filled the disciples with fear and even anger.

They wanted a plan with a better projected outcome.

Instead, they saw Jesus surrendering to chaos.

Chaos did ensue, but Jesus didn't surrender to it;
he lived his own human life within it.

The Romans obliterated Jerusalem and believers were scattered
all over Asia Minor and southern Europe,
but the gospel flourished.

The disciples were martyred,
but faith in Christ grew stronger.

What we now call the Christian Scriptures were documents
delivered by hand around a network of congregations
trying desperately to keep in touch with one another
and develop doctrine and practice in keeping with the gospel.

As the church gained members, it adapted its practices.

Foremost among the innovators was Paul, once a Pharisee,
who became convinced that the needs of Gentiles
were different from those of orthodox Jews.

Peter was similarly converted by the Holy Spirit and Paul,
so that he arrived at the same conclusion.

At the same time, the growing church was seen as a serious threat
to the mighty empire of Rome
and underwent horrible persecutions.

Christians who were thriving in the Roman business climate
were challenged to think about
the compromises of faith they were making
and what that would mean for the emerging church.

The church existed in a multinational, multireligious, empire
that severely limited the church's freedom of expression
and punished any interference with the Roman system of values.

It was everything Jesus' disciples had feared it would be.

The problem was that the disciples had not yet understood
the lessons of Israel
that Jesus had learned from the prophets.

The prophets had recognized,
in the several devastations of Israel
that Israel was not meant to live for itself,
but in order to be a blessing to the other nations.

Israel, however, wanted to be in competition with the other nations.

It wanted to emulate them,
have a territory and a status like them.

It wanted to find strength in the things
the other nations found strength in
and worship what they worshipped.

If Israel was going to be a blessing,
it wanted to do so from a position of dominance and admiration.

However, Jesus had discovered that the so-called Chosen People of God
were chosen, not for privilege,
but for a witness to the nations.

They were to live a cycle of life
that went in the opposite direction to the trajectory
of the aspirations of the nations.

For God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom,
and God's weakness is stronger than human strength.

1 Corinthians 1:25

And now, for a more contemporary reflection…

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was invited to wait out the Second World War
in a secure professorship in the United States.

However, he found the self-centred nationalism
of the United States churches
in conflict with his understanding of Christian ethics.

He chose to return to Germany
and live with the consequences
of his opposition to the government of Adolf Hitler.

His complicity in a plot to assassinate Hitler was discovered
and he was imprisoned, later to be hanged.

He wrote the following poem and sent it to his friend, Eberhard Bethge,
18 July 1944, from Tegel prison:

  1. People go to God in their need,
    for help, happiness and bread they plead,
    for deliverance from sickness, guilt and death.
    Thus do they all, Christians and pagans.

  2. People go to God in God's need,
    find God poor, reviled, with neither shelter nor bread,
    see God entangled in sin, weakness and death.
    Christians stand by God in God's suffering.

  3. God comes to all human beings in need,
    sates them body and soul with His bread,
    dies the death on the cross for Christians and pagans,
    and forgives them both.

"Christians stand by God in God's suffering,"
that distinguishes Christians from pagans.

Being a Christian does not mean being religious in a certain way,
or on the basis of some methodology
to make something out of oneself,
such as a sinner, penitent, or saint.

It means being a human being.

It is not some religious act that makes one a Christian,
but taking part in God's own suffering amid worldly life.

That is what conversion means:
Not to think first of one's own distress or questions or sins or fears,
but rather to allow oneself to be swept onto the path of Jesus Christ,
into the messianic event itself,
into the realization that Isaiah 53 is now fulfilled.

Hence: "Believe in the gospel,"
[…in] the "Lamb of God who bears the sin of the world" […].

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Meditations on the Cross, Westminster John
Knox, 1998, pp. 60–61

Two Roman Catholic sociologist/theologians,
Paul Knitter and John Hick,
have written articles and books on the relativity of religion.

In other words, they say religion is a human phenomenon,
common to all people.

The kind of god and the kind of theology people develop
is based on the time in history when their religion emerged,
and on their anthropological, social and cultural experience.

One religion, therefore, is pretty much the same as another.

Christian uniqueness, they say, is a myth.

Carl Braaten, a retired American Lutheran theologian,
is their nemesis.

He has exchanged articles and papers with Paul Knitter for years.

They have agreed to disagree.

However, in one article,
Braaten wrote that he agreed with Knitter
that all religions are relative.

However, wrote Braaten, religions do not save.

Jesus Christ saves!

Braaten was arguing that without Christ,
it is impossible to have any direct knowledge of God.

You can know about God,
but you cannot be in direct communion with God.

It is because of Jesus Christ,
that humanity has been taught something
that seems to have escaped the understanding of the people of God
even after his life among us:
that the way in which God saves humanity
is directly opposite to the way in which humanity seeks to save itself.

Humanity, including that within the church,
wants the very things Jesus rejected
in his forty-day retreat in the desert.

Jesus read the prophets and recognized the idolatry
of his people's strivings for statehood.

When they played with the big boys, they got trampled-
flicked off the lapel like a pesky fly.

Then, when Cyrus liberated them from Babylonian exile
and gave them all kinds of patronage,
they called him a son of God.

I don't think he cared much about the God of Israel.

He was simply a decent human being
who saw the injustice of their being deprived of a homeland.

However, they saw in his political approval,
a sign of God's approval.

A thousand years later,
that's what Christendom saw in Constantine.

He made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire
because it was an emerging force that would work to his advantage,
but the church saw it as God's sign of approval.

And soon the church was captive to western culture
and a very contractual understanding of life with God.

The covenant way of life was replaced
by a very demanding system of qualifications.

Christianity replaced all its competition,
wiping out pagans and others with breathtaking ruthlessness
that hardly corresponded to the gentle reed described in Isaiah 42.

The Spanish invasion of the southern Americas
and the British treatment of Canadian First Nations
are merely two examples of this world-wide phenomenon.

However, the cultural transition that took place in Quebec,
beginning the 1960's,
has happened all over the world.

Secular nationalism has replaced religion as the dominant icon.

For Quebecers that has a lot to do with Francophone culture.

In most of the western world,
the major factor is economics.

Religion continues to exist,
but it is now a commodity.

In some parts of the world
religion has been co–opted to serve the political agenda,
both economic and cultural.

Right wing religion in North America backs free market capitalism,
in Ireland it backs British rule.

In the Arab world it backs anti-Americanism.

So now the church, like Israel in exile,
is mourning the loss of its dominance.

It believes that it cannot be effective
unless it is in a position of institutional strength.

I, for one, think it never had dominance.

It was merely in the pocket of those who did have the power.

All of the losses the church mourns
are often nothing more than cultural gains,
but they are seen as signs of God's favour in times past.

The present decline of the church is therefore blamed
on some kind of perceived unfaithfulness to a standard of righteousness.

The fact is, the church has been living with idols
that it now has discovered
are not only not life–giving, but are life–consuming.

When war broke out in the Balkans,
the Catholic church of the Croats
and the Orthodox church of the Serbs were unable to be effective.

They were so closely identified with denominationalism and nationalism
that they were unable to transcend the politics
for the sake of peace-making and reconciliation.

Lutherans are relieved
that they weren't involved in providing residential schools
to First Nations children
and therefore escaped the devastating lawsuits
faced by the United, Anglican and Catholic churches.

I wouldn't feel too proud about that, if I were you.

It means Lutherans avoided doing things
that were meant for the good of the land as a whole
and were more interested in taking care of their own,
a common attribute of early-generation immigrants.

Is there any good news in this?

No, unless the Holy Spirit has granted you the grace
to see how the cross has become good news.

When Jesus refused his desert temptations,
he set himself on a path of faithfulness to God
that would put him at odds with all the idol–makers of the world,
as St. Paul found out.

Read about it in Acts 19:24–41!

The first eleven chapters of Genesis
tell the story of the fragmentation and alienation
of humanity and its cultures.

The people of the world end up living on different continents,
making war on each other
and inventing religions that underwrite their most cherished aspirations.

It is only in Chapter Twelve that a new theme emerges:
a theme that promises that, just maybe,
the people of the world one day can be reconciled.

In that chapter God calls Abraham and Sarah
to commit themselves to birthing a new nation
whose sole purpose shall be to bless the other nations of the world.

What God doesn't tell them
is that the rest of the world will not be very open
to their offer of blessing.

They find that out soon enough
when the pharaoh of Egypt that befriended Joseph dies
and a new dynasty emerges.

Then the memory of the one
who used the bread basket of Egypt to feed the nations
is denounced and his people punished
for his peaceful vision.

Service of others is replaced by desire for domination and subjugation.

Yet, when the people finally emerge into the freedom of the desert,
guess what they miss: the fleshpots of Egypt!

It takes two generations to get the paradigm of dominance out of them.

However, after two or three generations of living in Canaan,
they revert and want a king like the other nations,
so they too can go out and wage territorial wars.

Thus begins the prophetic material,
beginning with Samuel,
and gaining eloquence in Ezekiel, Jeremiah and Isaiah.

And what they argue
is essentially what we mean in the Christian tradition
by theology of the cross.

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.

"Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say–'Father, save me from this hour'? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name." Then a voice came from heaven, "I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again." The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, "An angel has spoken to him." Jesus answered, "This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.

John 19:24–31

Being stripped of our idolatry is a blessing.

It is what the cross did for Jesus.

It is what the various fallings of God's people did for them.

Each time they saw God for who God really is,
and the various persecutions resulted in the theological writings
of the very prophets that Jesus quoted.

Rev. Cornelia Fuellkrug-Weitzel
is the director of Bread for the World (Brot fuer die Welt),
the social service agency of the Protestant Church in Germany

She spoke at a conference on Prophetic Diakonia
in Johannesburg, November 3–7, 2002.

Pastor Fuellkrug-Weitzel pointed out that
diaconal work is dependent on the government structures and
on the degree of specialization of the social systems.

Diaconal work is furthermore caught up in the dynamics of globalization.

By that, she meant that all non-governmental
local, national and regional initiatives,
including religious agencies,
are made to conduct business in similar economic structures and dynamics.

Individuals, ethnic groups and nations
are played against each other in the
competition for resources and markets.

As a result, faith communities end up competing against each other
instead of serving the central purposes of their communities.

However, as the New Testament shows,
service was not only part of the life of Jesus Christ: it was his life.

Diakonia is the essence of the church.

Diakonia, as loving service:

"[…] moves the church to set aside its own agenda and not to put its own existence, preservation and market value on the 'market of denominations and religions' first," ["…]diakonia is an indispensable part of the mission of the church in the world. Its mission is to proclaim the good news of the gospel."

Lutheran World Information Church Social Service an Integral Part of Society's Development November 6, 2002

Reginald Bibby made similar observations in his book, Fragmented Gods.

Religious bodies are no longer seen as communities of gathered believers,
but as dispensers of religious goods in some kind of market place.

The most successful are those that provide the most sought–after goods,
responding to a population of seekers
that treats the religious offerings of the churches
like dishes at a smorgasbord.

The market place determines mission strategy:
capturing market share becomes the mission.

So I want to present this church with a challenge:

Because…

This church confesses the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the inspired Word of God, through which God still speaks, and as the only source of the Church's doctrine and the authoritative standard for the faith and life of the Church.

(ELCIC Constitution: Article II: Section 3: Confession of Faith)

…therefore, we are called to reconsider the mission of this church
as the cross calls us into the context
of our contemporary Canadian society.

It is a time to name the idols we need to renounce
and a time to recognize where the hunger for the gospel
is being expressed in our society.

It is a time to let Jesus' scandalous openness
to the unacceptable people of his society
be a guide for planning the witness program of this church.

Jesus began with the lost sheep of the house of Israel,
but he found more faith among the Gentiles.

Paul, and then Peter, felt compelled by the Spirit,
not only to witness to Gentiles,
but even to alter the religious rules to accommodate them.

Are we ready to do that again?

Are we ready to risk the dialogue required?

Are we able to pay the price of refusing the devil in the wilderness?

Gary Larson, of Far Side fame, once drew a cartoon
that showed a naked man facing two doors.

Behind him was a devil
poking him in the bottom with a trident and nagging at him,
"Hurry up! Hurry up! Choose!"

One of the doors was labeled
"Damned if you do,"
the other was labeled
"Damned if you don't."

That's what the devil tried to do with Jesus in the wilderness.

"I can make you succeed,
but you will have to deny God.

Stay loyal to God and I will make you suffer."

But God offered Jesus the door labeled "Cross."

It is a hard passage,
but it leads to real freedom to choose genuinely new life.

-- Bishop Raymond Schultz


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