The Ten Commandments seem pretty straightforward, right? Over the past several weeks, as we’ve been progressing through reading the origin stories of the people of God, we’ve witnessed them go from enslaved people in Egypt, to refugees escaping, to a hungry and thirsty group in the wilderness, and now…it’s time to establish the rules as the people of God become a nation.
Isn’t that always somehow the beginning of a formal relationship, establishing the rules? That’s always the first thing on the first day of school—what are the class rules. When I was a camp staff person with a cabin full of girls, we spent the first evening of camp establishing a list of things we thought would be important—like “clean up after yourself” and sometimes even determining a maximum amount of time a single person could spend in the shared bathroom. We called it a covenant, meaning we all agreed on these behaviors and would keep them as one keeps a promise. Someone would write down all the ideas and we’d sign our names to the document.
Rules and laws tend to work best when we all agree what the rules should be and independently follow the rules and hold one another accountable when a rule is broken. For the people of God, the gift of the Ten Commandments is itself a sign of God’s love, a promise and a sacred covenant.
That could have settled it, but people are not perfect—because of sin, we’re gonna mess things up. If following laws were simple, we wouldn’t have thousands of years of discussion on this topic and libraries full of books recording those discussions. If it were simple, Jesus wouldn’t have been in conflict with his fellow Jewish leaders, as today’s Gospel lesson illuminates.
Remember that when we witness Jesus in disagreement with other Jewish leaders, what we’re watching is a family dispute—they’re all within the same tradition. Jesus, in the tradition of the prophets, is speaking to the leaders and calling them to faithfulness in God. Those same religious leaders, in the time of Jesus, are also trying to keep an uneasy peace with Rome. Freedom to worship was not necessarily a given, definitely not protected in a bill of rights. It was a privilege that could be revoked, religious leaders deposed, the people scattered.
Here in the United States, we probably take for granted that we have freedom to worship, but it’s truly a gift. We do have a bill of rights and a government built to ensure these freedoms. In fact, Lutherans call government itself a gift. Some of you are cringing, but it’s true!
The ELCA has a social message titled “Government and Civic Engagement in the United States: Discipleship in a Democracy.” A social message is a document for teaching which is adopted by the Church Council of churchwide body, the ELCA, and this one was unanimously adopted in June of 2020.
And here’s the very first line of this social message: “Lutherans Care about government because it is a gift from God intended for the safety and flourishing of human life.” The idea of orderly government as “created and instituted by God” was formalized in the Augsburg Confession, article XVI (sixteen), written in the year 1530, hundreds of years ago during the Reformation Era. Of course orderly government may be idealistic, but it’s not wrong to hold leaders to a higher standard.
The ELCA’s social message continues: “Government remains God’s gift because it is intended to do what churches, families, individuals, and businesses cannot do on their own: protect and coordinate the well-being of individuals, communities, and creation. …Taking partisan stances is not the church’s role, but ‘politics’ has to do with negotiating how the benefits and burdens of living in a society are shared.”
So we can believe in God and work within our own governmental structure with its democratic process, like organizing for people’s benefit with Metropolitan Congregations United, or by observing Indigenous People’s Day tomorrow and mourning the wrongs committed by our government.
But what happens when a follower of God lives in a country where the government is not supportive of faith or religion, or is even antagonistic? This has been the reality of faithful people all over the world, throughout history. There are real-world consequences for confessing one’s faith. The ones who paid with their lives, we call martyrs.
Saint Paul was one of these martyrs, who spent the last years of his life visiting places, establishing faith communities, and then when he would run into trouble with the local authorities, he would write letters from jail. He was always encouraging other believers—even though he was the one in jail! He remained laser-focused on the goal, and for him, that goal is Jesus. “I want to know Christ,” Paul writes, “and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings…”
Christians share the suffering of Christ in many and various ways. We hold these siblings in Christ in prayer and give encouragement and support when we can. One of the ways we share support is through relationships like companion synods. Our local Central States Synod is connected with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Urals, Siberia, and Far East, and our synod chose to designate this Sunday, October 8th, to lift up this relationship in prayer. This date was chosen because the first Sunday of October is often celebrated as a harvest festival in Russia.
For the past several years, Russia has been engaged in military action with neighboring areas, most recently and violently at war with Ukraine. It might feel far away, but the truth is that we’re connected with believers in those areas. Lutherans are there, too, on both sides of the national borders. And in lifting up the work going on there, I want to share some stories from our Lutheran partners there, still seeking God’s will in the midst of a lot of confusion and violence.
I came across a newsletter put together by the Reverend Bradn Buerkle, a long-time ELCA missionary who has lived in Russia, though he and his family have had to move away for their safety. For almost twenty years, he has titled his newsletter “Russian Correspondent” but this most recent newsletter, dated in mid-summer this year, is titled “Russian (?) -question mark- Correspondent.” For a long time, he has partnered with churches throughout Russia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, and Georgia, so the relationships are already there, and now complicated by nations at war.
Reverend Buerkle, mourning the situation, writes this:
“…how can I describe the relationship I have with the country that has become my second home? How can I explain the reactions of the churches in the region, how it struggles to witness to the Gospel despite its small size and vulnerability? How can God use me in service in this part of the world if living in the country (at least for now) appears to be an unwise option, and what positive role might partners (including readers of this newsletter) play?”
The newsletter also shares stories from congregations and ministries in these areas. Newsletters are important ways for missionaries to tell their stories to partner ministries as well as family and friends back home.
Reverend Buerkle includes this section from a Good Friday sermon from Deacon Alexander Zhakoon, in Odessa:
“At the Last Supper, Jesus gave the disciples final instructions – that
they should serve each other - and also instituted the Sacrament of
Holy Communion, which establishes a physical connection with His
future sacrifice. But He was betrayed by Judas and the religious elite
and executed by Roman occupiers.
In addition to Jesus, we see several actors in the scene that unfolded on Golgotha. Two of them are criminals. Since they were given the cruelest form of punishment, we can surmise that they, too, were condemned as enemies of the state. Yet, each of these criminals behaves differently on the cross. One of them, as the Evangelist writes, slandered Jesus. Perhaps he was angry at Jesus, since he himself had literally laid down his life to fight the occupiers, while Jesus, instead of leading an uprising, engaged only in preaching and in such symbolic actions as expelling merchants from the Temple.
From the criminal’s perspective Jesus’ sermons did not change anything. “What kind of Messiah are you? If you really want to God’s kingdom to come, prove it! Save yourself and us! No? Well, then you deserve nothing more than to be mocked."
The other criminal had every reason to do the same, but instead he had sympathy for Jesus. He understood that, unlike them, Jesus had not stained his hands with the blood of people; He was suffering unjustly. And so the second criminal decided to trust that Jesus really was the Messiah. Perhaps he had heard Jesus preach; maybe God granted faith through some other means, but he believed that the execution of Jesus was not the end, but only the beginning of His reign... He said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Jesus gives him hope: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” … One criminal who shared the same suffering and humiliation as Jesus saw only his own pain and disappointment. The second saw in Jesus hope for himself.”
In the Pentecost Greeting of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Russia, written by Deputy Archbishop Vladimir Provorov, Archbishop Provorov refers to the day of Pentecost when a “diverse group of people”… “were unified with one another.” He writes,
“The disciples, filled with the Holy Spirit, spoke openly, boldly and confidently about Christ. In preaching and witnessing about the Savior, they felt God's accompaniment... They were not afraid of earthly powers; in the Holy Spirit they were delighted by God's greatness and closeness to them.”
And listen to the encouraging words in this Pentecost greeting from Pavel Schwartz, Bishop of the German Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Ukraine. Bishop Schwartz writes:
“The Holy Spirit leads the Church through the centuries filled with suffering: wars, famines, persecutions… Huge empires and powerful rulers tried to destroy it, and surrounding circumstances caused Christians to disperse and lose their faith. But the Spirit of God, through the Word and the Sacraments, helped believers hold on to the Savior and rise up again after various catastrophes.
Now you and I are experiencing tremendous upheavals that tempt us to disperse and hide from our responsibility for the well-being of our neighbor. But the Spirit of God is calling the Church again so that we can be light and salt for the world and for our country in these difficult times. Be sensitive to this call; the Holy Spirit is stronger than those that resist the Spirit, but for Christians the Spirit is the tender Comforter. Together we ask the Holy Spirit to bless our Church and strengthen the hearts of all Christians for the faithful testimony of faith and the service of love to our neighbors!”
May we also hear the cries of those in pain and seek the well-being of our neighbors near and far, trusting in the mercy of the same God who has sustained the faithful from generation to generation.
Rules and laws will change; the boundary lines and even names of nations will change; but the reign of God remains, wherever believers dare to live by God’s rule and dare to trust in God’s promise of grace.
 https://www.elca.org/Faith/Faith-and-Society/Social-Messages/Government accessed October 7, 2023 at https://download.elca.org/ELCA%20Resource%20Repository/Government_and_Civic_Engagement_Social_Message.pdf?_ga=2.126518285.1847716392.1696711538-568035500.1662490875  Augsburg Confession, Book of Concord, Kolb and Wengert, page 48.  2023 Synod Assembly, Resolution SA23.02, “A Season of Global Awareness: Remembering our Companion Synods and ELCA ministries around the world.”  https://www.css-elca.org/_files/ugd/ed9008_953f5daebfaa45f8bb282a70d60d0523.pdf  https://www.css-elca.org/_files/ugd/ed9008_a5ecac4ebeee4300a5cfd56f2e82e9b4.pdf  https://www.css-elca.org/_files/ugd/ed9008_a5ecac4ebeee4300a5cfd56f2e82e9b4.pdf  Ibid.