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Monday, September 28, 2009

It has not been my practice to post my sermons on my blog, since they are found on Trinity's website, www.trinitylansdale.com , in both text and video, always posted by Wednesday or Thursday of the week after the sermon is shared. However, I have received so many comments on my sermon from this past weekend, based on the weekend's gospel lesson from Mark 9: 38 - 50, that I thought it important to post here also.


Tolerance, Sermon for 17th Pentecost, “B,” September 26/27, 2009, Trinity, Lansdale

(I began by stating that I was not going to preach on cutting off one’s hands or feet or plucking out one’s eye and that I hoped no one would be disappointed (smile). I did note that these statements by Jesus in today’s gospel were obvious metaphors and that they pointed to Jesus’ emphasis on concentrating on what is important in life and faith and not what is not important).

This past week the season changed from summer to fall and, after reading today’s gospel lesson, I got thinking about how the summer of 2009 would be remembered. And, that reflection made me feel sad because I believe that the summer of 2009 will be remembered as the summer of intolerance, the summer of intolerance.

You do not have to go too far to find examples of extreme intolerance from last summer, especially on the national scene. Health care town meetings were orchestrated from all points of view to be shouting matches. The President of the United States was called a liar as he spoke to Congress.

The strangest summer intolerance may have been the many school districts which banned the President’s speech to school children from being shown at their schools, a speech that urged children to stay in school and study. More locally, we saw a Montgomery County swim club withdraw from a contract to allow city children to swim at their club, a withdraw which has since been investigated and found to be racially-based.

Of course, bad summer behavior was not confined to the political scene. There are always bad behavior examples from sports and entertainment figures. We don’t have to look very hard to find too many examples. Just think of rapper Kanye West’s public bad behavior at the Video Music Awards.

Now, I do not follow either rap music or country music as closely as I probably should, but I do follow fellow Wyomissing native Taylor Swift’s career somewhat and it doesn’t take a music expert to identify West’s poor behavior. President Obama correctly described it in a word similar to “donkey.” I also do not have a solution for the United States healthcare crisis, but I surely know as a pastor who sees people, especially the poor and the elderly, members and non-members alike, without adequate health insurance that what we now have is not working. And, my African American friends have told me what they think of Congressman Wilson’s outburst during the President’s speech before Congress and what they think is rather obvious.

Regardless of your personal point of view on these examples, I hope you can agree that, sadly, intolerance was all too common this past summer.

In today’s gospel lesson John says to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”

Sounds like intolerance goes back a lot farther than this past summer!

Jesus reacts strongly and decisively when he responds to John, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.”

John’s and the other disciples’ reaction to an outsider casting out demons in Jesus name – “He must be stopped” – is a perfect example of intolerant religion.

Now, intolerant religion was not a new phenomenon in Jesus’ day. The Old Testament is full of intolerance with God even ordering the Israelites to exterminate people of other faiths in Exodus, Deuteronomy and Numbers, for example.

The early Christian church didn’t do much better. Remember the Crusades? The burning of heretics at the stake? The execution of women thought to be witches in the early history of our own nation?

Even today, some call for us to “hate the sin but not the sinner.” Let me tell you, those who have those words thrown at them can feel the hatred in those words.

There are just too many examples. The continual history of Christian hatred and persecution of Jews and homosexuals are just two more examples of both historic and modern intolerance.

I hope all of this makes you cringe as much as it does me!

This sort of Christian intolerance is a double problem for us. Not only does Jesus clearly condemn it, as he does in today’s gospel lesson, intolerance creates a very negative image of Christianity among non-Christians. Just ask the average young person on the street what they think of Christians – you will be surprised at their reactions – they will use words like “judgmental, narrow-minded, condemning and intolerant.”

Sadly, many Christians seem almost addicted to such intolerance. Well-meaning people see their intolerance as a desire to keep the truth uncorrupted. They treasure their intolerance as a means of assuring themselves of their own unique superiority. With such a view, open-mindedness and the possibility of changing one’s mind is never even necessary – they own the truth! They defend their racial, religious or class prejudices and asset their right to force their views on others. All this in the name of Christianity. Sigh…

All this caused Mahatma Gandhi, certainly one of the non-violence saints of the 20th century, to say that Christianity was a fine religion; he just had never found someone who lived it!

Now, don’t get me wrong, I am pleased to say that this is less of a problem here at Trinity, and in our Lutheran congregations generally, then it may be in other faith traditions. But, it is something we must be continually vigilant about, lest we, too, fall into easy intolerance.

Jesus looks at tolerance and intolerance differently. In today’s gospel lesson Jesus is clear: Jesus does not care if someone is even his disciple, if he is doing good, then, Christian or non-Christian, that person is doing Jesus’ work in this world. It is a simple as that.

St. Paul follows Jesus’ lead when he writes in Romans 14, “Let us no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another.” In Philippians, Paul goes even further when he states that he rejoices whenever Christ is proclaimed in any way by any one, whether their motives for doing so are good or bad.

Jesus goes even further in today’s gospel lesson, suggesting that teaching hatred to children, putting any stumbling block before any little ones, is as bad as sinking to one’s death in the sea. Remember that old song about prejudice and hate from the musical South Pacific – “You’ve got to be taught.” Jesus says “no” to any teaching that involves hate or prejudice and even cautions against judging those who do not believe in him!

I believe that Jesus, in today’s gospel lesson, is teaching us that tolerance is the better way. Here’s why:

Intolerance is a sign of weak faith. When some people find themselves insecure in an argument, they think they can win by talking louder – witness the health care town meetings this past summer. In the same way, insecurity about faith can lead us to an intolerant attitude. If we are uncomfortable or unsure in our own faith, it is then easy to try to expose absolute rules in the hope that they will overcome any doubt or ambiguity. Witness those who oppose the recent ELCA changes allowing gay and lesbian pastors in long-term, committed same-sex relationships to be pastors in our church. Some of those who oppose these changes are now shouting a lot and making absolutist and ultimately, I believe, false statements about church history and homosexuality.

Regardless, tolerance is just a better way. Intolerance always damages the cause it tries to defend. Attack a heretic and you give him an audience. Banish a book and everyone wants to read it. Condemn a sin and some want to try it. More importantly, an intolerant Christian attitude only ultimately drives people away from Christianity. If you don’t believe me, check out the fastest growing religious group in America according to recent polls – that group is “none or no religion.” And we Christians have only ourselves to blame, I believe, for the growth of that group.

Tolerance, and only tolerance, overcomes hatred. The church, our congregation, must be a model of tolerance in a hate-filled world. We must present Christ to the world. And Christ is not arrogant, He does not coerce belief, He is not dogmatic. We cannot exult love by encouraging hate.

We Lutherans love the word “grace.” By grace we always mean the unconditional love that God has for us all in Jesus Christ, God’s continual outreach in love to us, even when we do not love God in return, God’s promise, once and for all times, of eternal life with him for all who believe in Jesus Christ.

Tolerance of others, however similar or dissimilar they are to us, flows from this grace. Tolerance is and must be our commitment in Christ. We choose the path of tolerance and grace, not because it is the broad or easy path, but actually because it is the narrow path, the path advocated by the highest and best that our Bible and tradition has to offer.

Tolerance is the path of Paul and Jesus and is the high road of grace. May it be our path and high road also.


Pastor Shafer,

Your sermon speaks well to the disrespectful behavior so evident over the past 10 years. Perhaps am I misreading the text but I am uncertain on the acceptability of differing views at Trinity. What are Trinity's thoughts on diversity of opinion on the types of difficult and divisive issues you mentioned in your sermon?
@Good question and not an easy one to answer. Part of an answer would depend on which "difficult and divisive issue" we are addressing. For example, the issue of homosexuality is one that is no longer open for debate here at Trinity - Trinity made a decision for full acceptance long before my time here.

I mentioned health care in my sermon - for me, the issue of the current state of health care in our country is not debatable - the current system is broken, as I said in my sermon, and the other pastors and I have too many examples of this from our members' experiences. However, WHAT we do to fix health care, that is certainly open to discussion and debate. But, in this case, this is my opinion, not the "official" stance of our congregation which would not, I believe, take a stance on health care reform.
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