Transcribed from the sermon preached November 20, 2016
The Reverend Max Lynn, Pastor
Scripture Readings: Isaiah 5:1-8, Luke 22:14-32
As we move into Thanksgiving week, I want to take a moment and give thanks for the incredible blessing of living in Berkeley, near the great university, in Northern California, near the most productive farmland and technology hub in the world. A March 12, 2014 LA Times article by Russ Parsons notes that California produces almost half of all the fruits, nuts and vegetables grown in the country, as well as a very large amount of livestock and dairy. There are 66 food crops in which California leads the nation. And isn’t the computer industry amazing? According to a San Jose Mercury News article 2015 saw 65,000 jobs added in Silicon Valley, 30,000 in San Francisco, 129,000 over the whole Bay area.
We ride the wave of a nation, which though far from perfect, has by luck, wisdom and war been blessed with a relatively equal distribution of wealth and land, and the institutions, which have promoted education, protection of land, rights and justice, and the freedom to apply hard work and ingenuity to improve one’s position in life.
Of course, Native Americans lost; peasants, women and eventually African slaves would be left without a piece of the pie, so we have been working ever since to expand it to include all, to expand the definition of who is our neighbor.. But it was the initial leverage of the New England settler, labor against the old England investors and the crown that set the nation on a trajectory that was different than the extractive and exploitative track of Mexico and Peru and so many other nations throughout history.
So whether we have deserved it or not, we have been blessed by God with a great land and a great nation. We are indeed like the pleasant planting, the vineyard nurtured by God with all the blessings needed to be fruitful and succeed. If Why Nations Fail by James A. Robinson, is correct, and I think it is, our continued success depends on our ability to maintain a broad distribution of economic wealth and political power, so that rights, labor and property are respected rather than exploited. “Woe to us if God expects justice and beholds bloodshed, for righteousness and beholds a cry. Woe to those who join house to house and add field to field until there is no more room for anyone but themselves.”
The freedom to vote, freedom of speech and freedom of religion are absolutely essential. When an individual like Judas or a society is afraid and or economically in peril, there is a great danger of irrationally scapegoating minorities and narrowing freedoms in the name of security. There is a danger of selling out or we start discussing who is the greatest and who deserves a seat at the table rather than how we can make room and serve one another.
So what I would like to do for the rest of this sermon is to reflect on the Confessing Church in Germany from which we Presbyterians in the USA get the confession we call the Barmen Declaration.
There are a few Nazi beliefs that set the context for the Confessing Church. In the wake of the loss of WWI and the horrible economic depression in Germany, German self-esteem was low. Hitler came onto the scene promising to make Germany great again. German problems were not their fault, but there had been too much mixing of races, and they had been too soft. The white Aryans were the great race and culture, while Jews and other races were inferior. But the Aryan Germans were so great that it was their destiny to rule the world. Hitler and the Nazis then promoted a positive and tough stance which resonated with a tired and beaten down German people. So the Germans went for this narcissistic Hitler, who quickly demanded and received more and more power.
Hitler moved to appoint leaders in the church who supported Hitler and the Nazi philosophy of Aryan strength. Roughly a third of the Church fully supported Nazis, a third wanted the Church to remain neutral, and a third opposed Nazi intervention in the Church. Those that supported the Nazis gathered under the name of the German Church. Under the direction of Hitler, the Nazi party and their appointed church leaders implemented some changes. They sought to evict non-Aryans; first clergy and then church members were to be excluded from the church. They also sought to promote “Positive Christianity” which deemphasized the weakness and suffering of a Jewish Jesus in favor of a strong, Aryan, manly, warrior Jesus. The Nazi Jesus was not a Jewish, dark skinned suffering servant but a strong white man. They sought to dissociate Christianity from the Jewish Old Testament. And they promoted Hitler as a ‘new revelation’ from God. The churches could remain free, as long as they didn’t criticize National Socialism and pledged allegiance to Hitler. In public Hitler spoke well of the Church and Christianity, in private he and other Nazis wanted to do away with it. But he realized it would be a long difficult process so he started by trying to control it and change its theology.
This push to control and take over the church leadership and theology created a backlash. Martin Niemoller formed the Pastors’ Emergency League and by 1933 he had a third of the German clergy. In Barmen, a group of Confessing Church Christians gathered to write a statement. Karl Barth wound up writing the confession during a break in the group’s meeting. The confession affirms the Lordship of Christ against any other authority, and affirms servant leadership rather than position seeking demagoguery. Soon, 700 pastors were arrested.
The Confessing Church spoke strongly against attempts by the government to meddle in Church affairs. It spoke strongly against idolatry of the state and state leaders, proclaiming Christ alone as head of the Church, but it did not speak out clearly and strongly against racism and anti-Semitism or nationalism and war.
Pastor Martin Niemoller was arrested and thrown in a concentration camp for seven years. Later he wrote the famous poem expressing his sense of guilt and shame for not doing more sooner:
First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left
to speak for me.
I give this review of our Church tradition via the German Church because of several things that happened this week. First, we heard more talk of the registering of Muslims and the deportation of 12 million undocumented immigrants…so I start recollecting history lessons of boots of trampling Nazis. Second, we heard about the possible cabinet appointment of a guy white supremacists love. Third, an old friend posted a video about how a few Jewish bankers control the world, only the term Jew is not mentioned so my friend doesn’t know it is an anti-Semitic post very reminiscent of Nazi propaganda. Fourth, another one of my old friends, a conservative evangelical Christian, posted a video from a web page called Christians Fight Back, of Christians being attacked by Muslims, and then we see the Christians beating up the Muslims, and I can’t help but think of the Nazi strong white warrior Jesus. Fourth, my niece who came to this country from Guatemala as a child visited a church. After the service she spoke to the pastor who asked her why she didn’t go to the Spanish speaking service. She said she preferred English. The pastor said, I think you would be more comfortable in the Spanish service, and I think of the German Church evicting non-Aryans.
I am so grateful for this country, and even though we have work to do on race and class yet, regardless of your race, class or gender, or sexual orientation, there is freedom and opportunity here that billions of people the world over merely dream of. Equal justice and opportunity is good for everyone, even the rich. But not only that: we worship a servant God. So as soon as we hear Christians talking about separating out people who are not worthy of citizenship or friendship, we know idolatry is creeping into the Church. We can argue that we should not be wimpy and that we need to fight Muslim radicals, but it is simply bad theology and bad bible to argue for violence because of Jesus.
So here is the thing St. John’s, you church that has declared Sanctuary, and celebrates diversity of race, nationality, gender and sexual orientation because Jesus has said to love your neighbor as yourself and that if you want to lead you must serve… first I want you to be happy and grateful for all the diverse beauty all around you and in this Church. Turn to your neighbor and say, you are a blessing to me and this church. Say, Jesus loves you, this I know, for the bible tells me so.
And then know that you may be called to speak out in the name of Jesus for love, maybe at Thanksgiving dinner, or maybe at a protest at the Whitehouse. But let us proclaim here and now that nobody’s name is going on a religious registry. And while we are here because the grace of God in Christ is all we need for our salvation, and if you need a radical change in your life, Jesus is here to guide and empower you. Yet we also know that God is mysterious, greater than our attempt to understand and contain Her, and God’s grace knows no bounds – and therefore God’s grace is not even bound by our faith in Christ – We are going to go further than our Confessing Church in Germany and say no to religious bigotry and racism. You see we are so grateful for the freedom to worship and proclaim the God of grace and peace in Jesus Christ, that we grant others the same freedom. So if you are a Muslim or an atheist, a Hindu or a Jew, let me serve you a Thanksgiving feast, and let’s give thanks for our Freedom.