A sermon-writing contest for Lutheran seminarians

Note this is a site for a sermon-writing contest I held in 2010.
I consider it an error that a link to this web site showed up in a comment I made on an article.

"In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, 
I have heard
 many ministers say: 'Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.'"
-- Martin Luther King, Jr.,  Letter from a Birmingham Jail

"Likewise the faith of which we speak exists in repentance, i.e., it is conceived in
 the terrors of conscience, which feels the wrath of God against our sins, and 
seeks the remission of  sins, and to be freed from sin. And in such terrors and other afflictions
 this faith ought to grow and be strengthened." -- Defense of Augsburg Confession

Everyone loves acts of charity which involve handing things over to the poor.  Christians of all theological and political stripes are united in support of deeds of private-sector charity which involve education, medical aid, and natural disaster relief. What has caused disagreements in mainline denominations, however, is how to respond to questions of "injustice".  For example, in 2009, congregations who severed ties with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in American complained not only about a revision of sexual standards but also that "We've talked about the nuclear freeze and apartheid"[1] or failed to support Israel[2].  These controversies have involved critique of the use of money by individuals and violence by the state. Controversies have revolved around indictments of war-making and use of force by our allies, and in criticism of corporations, and how lifestyle choices affect environmental problems.  These could be called Social Gospel concerns.

There's a wide variety of views on how social concern fits into Christian orthodoxy. On one side, some Lutherans have said that there is no Social Gospel in Lutheranism[3].  Other Christians have gone so far as to claim that "private salvation", is a "Western heresy"[4].   Is the Social Gospel a distraction from, or is it the crux of the faith? Do the words of Luther offer any critique of either of these perspectives? Is Luther himself guilty of violating both camp's dogmas?  Do either of these perspectives contain a grain of truth from the historical teaching of the church, one which is badly needed today?

My view is that there is a place for the so-called "Social Gospel" within traditional Lutheran orthodoxy.  The answer lies in law and gospel preaching, in the offense of the cross, applied to the specific abuses and choices people make related to these social concerns.  I hold that it is a controversial middle ground. One could give the two camps many different labels, but I'll just call them "conservative" and "liberal" here.  On one hand, conservatives may have a natural affinity for a theological platform that points to spiritual issues like evangelism and eternal salvation. On the other hand, conservatives seem to bristle at every implication that the Fall affected the practices of business, military, or police--- bristle at most indictments of the powerful, the comfortable, the "good" suburban people. On one hand, liberals meanwhile may have a natural affinity towards seeing outrages against human dignity in issues like torture, blockades, or separation of immigrant families. On the other hand, liberals seem less enthused with a preaching that drives listeners of all faiths toward contrition and faith in Christ, especially if it were at the expense of some pre-determined good work or legislative advocacy. 

At the end of the day, too many conservatives have made the Christian response to a problem indistinguishable from that of the most insensitive AM radio pundit. How far can you go in mocking the machinations of mainline bureaucrats before you encourage indifference to the cry of the poor themselves? In this quietism of the conservatives on social concerns, the law is evaded.  Meanwhile, at the end of the day, too many liberals have made the Christian response to a crisis indistinguishable from a humanitarian, Buddhist response.  How far can you go in removing the exclusive elements of Christianity before you're actually a Baha'i'? Here, Christ is to be obeyed or emulated, rather than believed in.  I would of course love to find counterexamples to prove me wrong on this. That is the whole point of this contest! Show us the way!

Can anyone write a sermon that neither makes the Social Gospel the raison d'etre for the faith nor tries to chip away from a traditional, Confessional, biblical orthodoxy anything that remotely looks like it? Can anyone take a controversial social problem, and extract from it direct violations of the Ten Commandments, perhaps from both sides of the issue, so that "every tongue may be silenced"?  Can anyone write a sermon that neither makes the quietistic mistake of Dr. King's peers (quote above), nor uses the word "gospel" differently from the way the late Dr. Gerhard Forde would?  Can anyone write a sermon with a Law message that offends us in our comfortable conservatism, and a Gospel message that offends us in our liberal, moralistic hand-wringing?   Do we have to give up an iota of the doctrine found in any of Johannine or Pauline biblical texts, in the writings of the church fathers, in the Book of Concord, lest we become some uncaring brute? Do we have to view all talk of social injustices as a distraction from the work of the church, even the "pulpit work"? Do we have to choose between theological orthodoxy and compassion?

The Lutheran Social Gospel, the Greg M. Johnson Homiletics Award is an $1800 sermon-writing contest for Lutheran seminary students. Its purpose is to advance traditional law and gospel preaching about bible passages that have been seen as a source of humanitarian concern. 

To receive instructions on how to enter, visit this link on this web site.


[1] " 'For 20 years, we have fought and discussed things that are really rather minor and esoteric, things that the Bible really doesn't speak to us much about,' he said. 'We've talked about the nuclear freeze and apartheid. We debated pulling our assets out of South Africa. It's been a political discussion driven by activists on the very far and flaky left of the ELCA.' " 

[2] "On its website, Community Church of Joy cited three documents to help make clear the reasons for the congregation's actions. One document is on ELCA’s policy toward Israel, which the church says is not supportive of the nation." 
Eric Young, reporter, "Ariz. Megachurch Cuts Ties with ELCA",  Christian Post, Mon, Sep. 28 2009 

[3] "For Lutherans there is no such thing as a Social Gospel, there is only the Gospel of Jesus Christ..."  Dr. Robert Benne. This is the quote as printed on the back cover of the book, excerpted from his article in By What Authority?, Confronting Churches Who No Longer Believe Their Own Message.

[4] "The overarching connection in all of these crises has to do with the great Western heresy – that we can be saved as individuals, that any of use alone can be in right relationship with God."    
The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, TEC, 2009 General Convention opening address