to encourage Waltherian law and gospel preaching about specific misdeeds in the realm of "peace and justice" concerns
a sermon-writing contest for ELCA seminarians
I'd like to see sermons that combine a Theology of the Cross and social concern.
Allow me to give some of my background and motivation. I grew up in a Lutheran Church- Missouri Synod congregation. I believe my catechesis gave me a good exposure to the traditional Lutheran understandings of sin, works, grace, law, gospel, and redemption. This grounding was fleshed out later when as an adult I read some of the classic texts of Lutheran theology: C. F. W. Walther's The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel, Martin Luther's Heidelberg Disputation, Gerhard Forde's On Being a Theologian of the Cross, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Cost of Discipleship. Meanwhile, in my college years, I got involved in ELCA campus ministry at two universities. I became interested in "peace and justice" issues that our denominations were debating, like apartheid, racism, sexism, militarism, exploitation, brutality, environmental destruction -- even abortion. Seeking to be rooted in scripture, I looked up bible passages and found ample evidence that God was concerned about the suffering behind these things, too. It seemed like a perfectly natural fit: one could look at the problems in contemporary social concern through the lens of a traditional interpretation of scripture and a straightforward application of the theology articulated in the 16th century. Or so I thought.
Too often it seems that Christians who are champions of either social concern or traditional theology are not champions of both. Sometimes one is a sarcastic critic of the other's forte. I'll call the two possible extremes "traditionalists" and "peace and justice activists," knowing that neither is a bad trait in and of itself. On one side, traditionalists posit social concern as either a distraction from evangelization or as a sign of our having fallen into mere Liberal-Protestantism. Everyone loves deeds of charity where you hand over things to the poor, but you're not supposed to ask justice questions about what we've taken from the poor. The traditionalists have turned social concern into the dirty word of "social agendas." They do more to encourage sarcasm than contrition in response to questions of culpability in causing harm to neighbor, poor, and planet. They seek a "pure gospel," but one that is devoid of grappling with terrors of the conscience on social questions. In this quietism, the law is evaded. While one camp seems to go to unbiblical extremes to excise "peace and justice" from the business of the church, the other camp seems to have made it the raison d'etre for the church. Peace and justice activists have advocated a "contextualized" approach to scripture and tradition, where no "propositional" claims can be made about God. This Christian witness is sometimes indistinguishable from Buddhism or any other way of being a "person of faith." Subjectivity reigns supreme. They confess a Jesus who needs be emulated or obeyed moreso than believed in. In summary, one side seems to elevate "conscience" and "experience" over scripture; the other seems determined to become, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., "archdefenders of the status quo." Indeed, it seems our denomination may split at the seams over this divide-- each side taking some of the best Christian thought with it and seeking to retreat to a pen where they may wallow in a complete absence of nagging about the other side's forte.
What is missing from both sides is a connection between suffering and the cross. There's no line drawn from temporal offenses against your neighbor's well-being to the eternal spiritual consequences of Christ's work on the cross. I ask, do we have to choose between theological orthodoxy and compassion? Does all talk of social injustices have to be seen as a distraction from the mission of the church? Do we have to give up an iota of the Johannine or Pauline scriptural doctrine or The Book of Concord, lest we become some kind of uncaring brute?
Looking at Luther's works, I see both a Theology of the Cross and grappling with our terrors of the conscience on social questions. Examples include how we treat the sick (Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague), oppression of peasants by the landed classes (Admonition to Peace), exploitation in the marketplace (Sermon on Trade and Usury), unjust wars (Whether Soldiers, Too, May be Saved), and warnings not to "skin, pinch, and hoard" (Explanation to the Seventh Commandment). I see some pretty interesting consequences of the fact that we see these topics from Luther's pen. If Luther were holding folks accountable for these social injustices, I doubt it's evidence that he was distracted from the gospel. It was, on the contrary, part of his Theology of the Cross. If Luther, author of seminal texts of our tradition, were rambling on about injustices, I cannot see how the (actual) tradition ignores or harms social justice. Luther's writing provides a counterexample to the harmful theological myths of both sides in this split.
Some may feel that I've overstated some of my criticisms here. Hopefully you would still agree that if the church were to be involved in social justice questions, then its involvement should be tempered with Luther's Theology of the Cross. Hopefully you would still agree that if the church were to be focused on preaching about the forgiveness of sins, then the preaching should not neglect "the very greatest and most shocking sins."
Can anyone write a sermon that brings up specific misdeeds that peace-and-justice folks are talking about, but addresses it in the context of a law-and-gospel formula of "law to the secure sinner, gospel to the terrified sinner"? 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? Can anyone write a sermon that confesses a Jesus who is both "sacrifice for sin and a model of the godly life"? Can't we all just get along?
The purpose of the Truth 'versus' Love Project, the Greg M. Johnson Homiletics Award, is to encourage traditional law and gospel preaching about bible passages that have been seen as a source of humanitarian concern. Specifically in this round, I'm asking students to think in terms of, "Waltherian law and gospel preaching about specific misdeeds in the realm of peace and justice concerns."
Greg M. Johnson Homiletics Award is open to all students of ELCA
seminaries enrolled in the Spring or Summer 2009 terms, regardless of race,
gender, ethnic origin, nationality, or even denominational affiliation.
This explicitly includes seminary students serving as interns during
this period and those intending to graduate in spring or summer 2009. I am personally more interested in supporting ELCA
seminary students who can write good sermons, regardless of their
religion, than members of ELCA congregations who are studying
elsewhere. Previous winners and entrants are of course welcome to submit this round!
The Project has no intent to refuse awards based on perceived lack of quality in entries.
This project is run by one layperson who is a member of an ELCA congregation. It has no connection to any parachurch organization or denomination.