“I am the way, and the truth, and the life: no one comes to the Father, but by me.” (John 14:6.) “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber. . . . I am the door; if anyone enters by me, he will be saved.” (John 10:1, 9.)
Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.
We reject the false doctrine, as though the church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God’s revelation.
Every confession in the Presbyterian Book of Confession underscores the fact that we are subject only to God. The reformation and its teachings were born out of lived experiences of persecution and discrimination. Watching the church become tyrannical in its leadership the reformers like Calvin and Luther realized that the Pope was no better than Cesar. Luther listed many of the abuses in the church 95 thesis nailed to the church door in Wittenberg.
To that end, throughout the protestant tradition we are always skeptical of leadership that tries to assert divine qualities or preach a message contrary to the Gospel in its whole. Simply stated it is our belief that no one can attain access to God except through the love and Grace of Christ. Additionally, the unwritten assertion of this “Evangelical Truth” is that there is no human mediator between any human and Christ.
The argument many make is that the church should not be political, but the church by its very nature is that our goals and purpose is to follow Christ and when we see actions that are not we are called to act Christlike and make people aware. Otherwise we risk becoming pawns of powers that do not truly uphold the values that we hold dear.
It is interesting when we look at the Barmen declaration, a document written in 1934 only 1 year after the Reich took over. Think about this, at the time, very little was known about the extent of what the Nazi Party would become, it was 5 years before the start of World War II. However, what they had seen in that first year of this new Reich government was that the government had co-opted the Christian message combining Christianity with nationalism and militarism. From an Evangelical standpoint this was problematic because it assumed that the state was equal to God and that the leader of the state would be able to assume a Godlike status. Of course, history tells us that, in fact, this did happen as Hitler was seen by many as a God.
What is scary right now is that the Modern Evangelicals have taken a stance that is contrary to Biblical teachings placing an emphasis on moral issues that are either not found in the Bible or require an eisegetical reading of certain passages in order to prove a singular point over actual call of the Bible. In fact, while we label them as “conservative” this form of reading the Bible is one of the most liberal ways to interpret the Bible because it relies on using the Bible to proof text a narrative, not follow what the message actually says. While the actions may serve to promote a “social conservative platform” there is no way you cannot see how that narrow interpretation is actually quite liberal.
What is really scary is that this was the exact way that Hitler co-opted so many to make the German Christian Cult. And, to record, the same thing that Osama bin Laden did with the Quran. But those are only two examples, history is packed with one example after another of leaders promising new ways to salvation through narrow readings, strict morals and an insatiable thirst for power.
There is a reason why early in every confession, we claim Jesus Christ is the head of the church. With no equivocation, we believe in Jesus Christ and that it is through Christ that we attain salvation. No Government, no celebrity, no guru, no captain of industry can take the place of God. As a church we are called to pay attention and speak out when we see people creating a cult around leaders and ideologies that do not support the basic truths we know.
Life was good, I had just turned 27, I finally moved into my first new home, and I was living in the bliss of a good honeymoon phase in my first called congregation, I could not imagine what things were to come. But then it happened, 9/11 changed everything. I was heading to a lectionary group as it was happening. Together we listened to the events unfurl and we knew that at that very moment everything changed, we just did not know how.
As we do in any crisis our government beefed up security, or at least the appearance of security, as armed soldiers stationed themselves in public places. That was understandable in the moment and as we would expect, it lessened in time and many only see the lingering effects as long lines at airports. But it changed a lot more. Not only did it spark a renewed a desire for isolationism among some, 9/11 brought fear, real fear, back to the mainstream in politics and community. This fear manifested in many forms and has become pervasive in many different parts of our everyday lives. But, what may be worse than fear is the longing by some to “get back” to a purer “Christian” nation. This is scary since the version of Christianity that they espouse is a form that really is neither supported Biblically nor history.
Now, 17 years after 9/11, we are in a place where we have a government that does not support anything that resembles Christian values yet is using Christianity to justify their devious actions. So, in trying to find some theological context and a vocabulary to address what I am seeing, I spent some time rereading the confessions and spending a good amount of time with one of the smallest and least known confessions in the reformed movement, “the Barmen declaration.” The Barmen declaration was a statement written in 1934 by a new denomination created in the resistance of the Reich. Like the evangelical movement today the Christians affiliated with the Reich took liberties with the Christian message to create a movement that supported the government and that assured a certain social order.
For the confessing movement, the very foundation of the church was Jesus Christ and the church was subordinate to Him. Moreover, the purpose of the church was to preach the Gospel and the message of the Free Grace of God. Within the declaration, there are 6 “evangelical truths” they make holding the Reich Christians to task. These are found towards the end of the declaration (8.10 in the PCUSA Book of Confession).
Since this election season is going to be a show and we already know how faith is being thrown around, I am going to spend the next six weeks writing about each of these points. My hope in doing so is that you can follow along and challenge yourself to see how faith is being used and abused in our country and how we need to become more vocal or we will find ourselves victims of a system that can easily justify truly anti-Christian actions.
But before we start a note about the term “evangelical”, this term has changed in meaning from the time the Barman Declaration was written. At that time Evangelical was both a denomination, a form of the Lutheran tradition and a term used to describe the Protestant “biblically based” traditions. In that respect, most mainline churches are evangelical. However, in America and other places the term “evangelical” became a politically correct term for fundamentalists, who, through social pressure, changed their terminology, but not their actual beliefs. To this end, when referring to modern Evangelicals I will use the phrasing Modern Evangelical.
I hope you enjoy!
In preparing for the sermon this week I am reminded of a story of a young man who was fascinated with the world. This man was always interested and moved close enough to his job so that he could walk there and enjoy the world he lived in. Being inquisitive and aware he looked at everything he passed by and tried to look at everything as if it were new every day. Then one day on his walk he found a pebble on the sidewalk that was unlike any pebble he had ever seen before. It has blues and reds and even some yellow, so he put it in his work bag and kept walking.
Inspired by that one pebble he kept his eye out for more unique treasures and almost every day he added another. While he loved these treasures that he kept in his bag, it was like most things that went into his bag, they went in, but never came out.
One day when he was especially tired, and the walk was just arduous. He was starting to curse his decision to move so close to work that the only option was to walk. He stopped looking around and found no pleasure in his walk any more. Then there was that bag, heavy and overstuffed with papers and electronics, he had actually forgotten about his little treasures that now filled the bottom of his bag. When he got to his office, he emptied the bag and there was a pile of dirty pebbles and other treasures. Individually they were neat, but as a group they were just a bunch of dirty pebbles.
He could not help but laugh at this “heavy bag” that he had made heavier because he could not let go of something that might have been special but not really worth the extra burden. Then he thought about why he was so tired and realized that he had been carrying too many burdens in his life, things that hung around, which he had never dealt with most of which, he could just let go. And he did just that. As he walked home that day he took his pebbles and carefully set each down, a burden he was letting go of. By the time he got home his bag was empty of everything but his computer. He smiled and realized that he had more energy than he had in months.
He also began to enjoy his walks to and from work again. Yes, he would stop and appreciate what he saw, but every time he picked up a pebble he would take a moment and appreciate it, then he always would, set it back down and say a little prayer.
Getting rid of your burdens is not about forgetting or hiding them. What the man realized was that he had to name them and let them go. Jesus did the same. In Luke 4:14-37, the writer is directly addressing burdens as Jesus makes his way home to a reception that is all but welcoming. Jesus knew he had to go, so as to not be burdened by not fulfilling his call, but also to let them know how important it was to let go and follow God.
Of course, their response was to not only throw him out of town but also take him to his death at that very moment. He got away and made his way to Capernaum to share the message. It was a different kind of message then they had heard before. It was kind and uplifting. But when a possessed man began to badger Christ, Christ saw the burden inside the man which they understood to be a demon, and He cast the demon out.
There is so much that burdens people and regardless of where you are in life, you have a burden. For some it is medical, others financial, and others social. Many are burdened with frustration over the state of the world and others still burdened by the questions of their faith. The thing about burdens is they weigh us down. They keep us from living the best we can and often get in the way of relationship.
This week I lost my lock and my swimsuit at the YMCA. Technically, I did not lose them. I left them behind and they were probably thrown out. In a combination of being hurried and tired from exercising, I was not being mindful. Both were at the end of their useful lives but, it still was frustrating. In this case I was being a fool. Form a secular standpoint a fool is “a silly or stupid person” or “a person who lacks judgment or sense.”However, when we look at how the term fool is used Biblically:
A fool is one who, either by ignorance or by deliberate and calculated pre-determination, follows a lifestyle or commits specific acts that are detrimental for the person or society.”
I think this distinction is important to understand especially in the light of what we are facing in our society today. By relegating the understanding of the fool to perceived or real intelligence levels or competence, we miss the Biblical relationship between the fool and the wise. In fact, the Bible, in many places, shows that the fool has more intelligence than the wise, but the wise ones are living intentionally and also with an understanding of the past, present and future.
It is how I was being foolish last week, thinking through the motions of getting ready, but not thinking about what I was doing, letting the urgency keep me from being mindful and aware of what I really needed to do. It may be a silly example, but it is one that highlights how often we all act foolish in little ways and hopefully helps us see how we maybe foolish in bigger ways as well.
A mentor of mine once told me the difference between the foolish and the wise was simple, “the fool lives in the moment and the wise understand their place in the moment.” This is where being mindful is so important to the growth of becoming wise.
In California we are very aware of mindfulness, we see ads and hear about it in many places. Mindfulness and its practice became part of the culture when “spiritualists” were big in the 60’s and 70’s. As these new traditions were forming, often picking up on themes and practices found in various religious traditions, the leaders often recognized that in both the eastern and western religious traditions, mindfulness was core practice especially in the more mystical traditions.
While different traditions may refer to it in different ways the practice of being mindful is essential for connecting with a spiritual life. Conversely, lack of mindfulness is often problematic to one’s spiritual nature because it removes us from having the intention in our lives and forces us to react to the world. Just like the fool, the one who is not being mindful, often misses out on life because they are unable to see the fullness of what the world offers.
In the Christian tradition, however we recognize that this lack of intention is more insidious than just losing a lock and being inconvenienced. It's what is broken on the inside that makes it difficult to lead our lives, which also, often allows evil to emerge.
One of the great questions of the 20thcentury has been: “how could the most advanced and educated country in the world succumb to the Nazi movement.” So many books written, dissertations, movies, etc. made to try and explain this question though, none really fully answer. The closest is to say that as a society, the Germans were overwhelmed with the situations they were in and the evil of the Nazi party was able to slowly encroach, because instead of thinking, people were willing to accept. Or one could say, instead of being mindful, the were living in the moment. That is how things really become scary.
As Christians we are called to interact wisely with the world. But to do that, we need to think and be mindful of our place within the world and not just go through the motions. If it is easy to lose a lock because of not being aware, we can easily lose our faith and even ourselves if we are not being mindful and wise.
So, by now you may have heard that I took on another position in the community as a commissioner on the Human Relations (Rights) Commission for the County of Santa Clara, and you may be asking yourself, why would he do this? Well, it goes to my deep understanding of how we follow what God is calling us to do.
To be honest, up until a few weeks ago I knew nothing about the Human Relations Commission (HRC), nor did I really have a desire to get involved in politics. But, being called to something is a funny thing. The call is different for everyone. Sometimes it is big and at other times it is small. But when you are called to something it beckons you. Usually it is not something you really WANT to do, rather it is a sense that it is something that would make you less if you did not do.
This is why in our tradition for clergy, we place a big emphasis on the call coming from outside, often those calls confirm the stirrings that are already in your heart, but just as often they are calls that you could not see in yourself, but others bring them to your attention and you just cannot shirk them away. For us, a call is like our understanding of sacraments, as an outward sign of what God is already doing in your heart.
One of the first things I would always tell new interns or candidates for ministry when I was active with that group was that “Ordination is a consequence NOT a goal.” The purpose of the statement was to make it known to the individual that it was not about them getting ordained, what I was really concerned with, was the call and the way in which they were serving God. It proved to be a good model as the interns that followed that lesson were able to listen to the call and become exceptional in their fields. And the ones that didn’t, well didn’t.
When I take on new things I often ask why I am called to do this and I put a lot of weight on what others think. It was interesting when I was called here because on paper I would not have taken the position, but in studying the church and community I felt as if I needed to be here. That is the reality of calls they ultimately do not belong to the individual, they belong to God. I would also go as far as saying that the call is vital only if it is connected in a way where God is working both inside and outside of us.
For this calling to the HRC, when I was approached my initial reaction was to say no. Heck, I was on vacation, still recovering from the parade and I had never heard of this group before. Moreover, this was yet another civic thing, not parochial. Luckily, I was on vacation and not really going to make any decisions but when I got home I began to ask if this would be a role where I could live out my calling. As I read the description of the commission I was amazed at how closely it aligned with both my personal statement and my statement of faith. While it is not a Christian endeavor, it is a very real calling to help create policies of welcome and tolerance to this community at large and that is ultimately one of our callings as Christians - to create a world that celebrates all of God’s children in the fullness of who they are!
I am sure you will hear more about my time on this commission and maybe even get involved in helping our community be a place of welcome and acceptance, just as we try to do within our congregation.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen