Sermon: Sunday, October 9, 2016: Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: 2 Kings 5:1-15c  +  Psalm 111  +  2 Timothy 2:8-15  +  Luke 17:11-19

man-silhouetteThis man is revolting. He is rotten, inside and out. He is toxic, and whatever he’s got, it is spreading. It spreads from person to person, and if we’re not careful it will consume our whole nation. There is a place for folks like him, and it’s not among decent people. If it were up to me we’d send him somewhere we’d never have to see him again.

But somehow he’s still here. Despite the obvious rot, he is still treated as though he is a person of substance, a person deserving our attention and respect. Why is that? How is it that this man believes there to be one set of rules to govern the majority of people and a different set of rules that apply to him? Is it because he is wealthy? Is it because people are afraid of him, because of his history of combativeness? Is it because his exploits have made other people rich? Is it because he enjoys the favor of the ruling establishment, because he has the endorsement of the nation’s elites? Is that why he thinks he plays by different rules?

You know who I’m talking about, right? His reputation precedes him. He’s the kind of public figure who needs no more than a single name.

He is Naaman.


By 1530 it had been more than a decade since Luther had presented his 95 theses and launched the Protestant Reformation. Families, cities, and nations were deeply divided and the rhetoric used by each side to describe the other was so inflammatory it might actually make us feel better about our present electoral embarrassments. Writing against the Roman papacy Luther once remarked,

“You are desperate, thorough arch-rascals, murderers, traitors, liars, the very scum of all the most evil people on earth. You are full of all the worst devils in hell — full, full, and so full that you can do nothing but vomit, throw, and blow out devils!”

And you thought “basket of deplorables” was rough? Luther had all the best words. Though Paul still advises us to avoid “wrangling” over them. (2 Tim. 2:14)

In 1530 the Lutherans were tasked with doing more than railing against all they did not agree with and could not support, but to make a positive statement of faith which became one of the most important documents of the entire Reformation, the Augsburg Confession. In it, Martin Luther, Philipp Melanchthon, and other early theologians of the Lutheran reform movement found new words to share the good news of the free gift of God’s love, justice, mercy, and liberation. Describing what we have come to know as the doctrine of justification, the Augsburg Confession says,

“It is taught that we cannot obtain forgiveness of sin and righteousness before God through our own merit, work, or satisfactions, but that we receive forgiveness of sin and become righteous before God out of grace for Christ’s sake through faith when we believe that Christ has suffered for us and that for his sake our sin is forgiven and righteousness and eternal life are given to us.” (AC IV)

Later, because we have such a hard time believing that our standing before God has everything to do with God’s grace and nothing to do with our goodness, the Lutherans had to write an explanation and defense of all they’d written in the Augsburg Confession, so they expanded their explanation of justification:

“Reconciliation does not depend upon our merits. But if the forgiveness of sins depended upon our merits and reconciliation were by the law, it would be useless. For since we do not keep the law, it would also follow that the promise of reconciliation would never apply to us … For if the promise required the law and condition of our own merits, it would follow that the promise is useless since we never keep the law.” (Apol IV.42)



Baptisms still take place in the River Jordan.

Still, God does not simply meet us where we are — God graciously changes us, though in practice it can feel like anything but a gift. For Naaman, change came in accepting that he was no better than any other of God’s own people. There was no special water reserved for people like him. There was no elite baptism. God’s love and God’s justice are strong enough that they do not fail to encompass even a narcissistic, belligerent fellow like Naaman; but God’s love and God’s justice do change Naaman who, in the end, takes his place among all God’s ordinary saints, proclaiming that there is no God in all the earth but the one who met Israel in the waters of liberation from slavery, who met them in the crossing of the Jordan as they entered into a promised land, the same God who meets us at the font.

If the story of Naaman is just a story about how God works through ordinary water to heal and restore people to fullness of life, I can accept it. It’s a miracle story from Hebrew scripture that prefigures the Christian sacrament of baptism, so let’s just sing “All Are Welcome” and continue feeling good about ourselves. And if the doctrine of justification by grace through faith is just a bit of Reformation history, passed down through the generations for confirmands to memorize, then I can manage it. It’s one more bit of theology in one more book on one more shelf to be referenced in one more sermon.

But this story and our history is more than that.

The story of Naaman is the voice of our ancestors telling us that there will always be rotten bullies spreading their illness, getting preferential treatment, enjoying the spoils of war and the approval of the nation. Still, God meets them in the water. The power of the doctrine of justification by grace through faith is that it tells the truth about me. That too often I believe I have earned my place in this world when in reality my successes are the products of a wide set of factors, many of which I have no control over and for which I can claim no credit: my race, my gender, my class, my nationality.

Even more fundamentally, the doctrine of justification reminds me that I am not a good person. I am filled with anger at others but minimize my own failures. I set goals and intentions for myself that I am not able to keep. I delight in the public embarrassments of those I consider hypocrites and pray that my own hypocrisies will remain hidden. I judge people. I judge them over important things and over petty things. But if I stood before God’s judgment, as I do, as we all do, I would come up lacking. When we stand before God’s judgment, we come up lacking. We are rotten. And still, God meets us in the water.

reformation500-enOur stories and our histories, our confessions and our doctrines, are not abstractions for us to agree or disagree with, they are our attempts to describe reality as we have experienced it in our skin. As we begin this 4-week series looking at the legacy of the Lutheran Reformation at the start of the global observance of its 500th anniversary, we are reminded that our history as a movement within Christianity includes the fact that we were born at a moment no less political, no less violent, no less corrupt, no less horrifying than the one we’re currently in. This week’s outrageous statements shock us, but they should not surprise us. Honestly, we’ve all heard worse. The depth of the divide in our nation scares us, but it should not defeat us. Our nation has been through worse, more than once, and so has the Church. If these recurring atrocities of human nature should convince us of anything, it is that human nature is inherently atrocious.

Therefore, it is a gift when we remember that Christ did not come to reward the righteous, but to save sinners. God did not come looking for perfection, but offering salvation. The Holy Spirit who breathed life into us as the first of many gifts comes to us over and over and over again to heal us, to justify us, to liberate us, to forgive us, to save us. What else can we say in response to such grace, such divine generosity, so many gifts, but “Thank you!”


Sermon: Sunday, October 2, 2016: Season of Creation – Cosmos Sunday

Texts: Proverbs 8:22-31  +  Psalm 148  +  John 6:41-51

Throughout this Season of Creation, we’ve been listening to voices from a genre of literature within scripture known as “wisdom literature,” the Book of Job, the Book of Psalms and today the Book of Proverbs. In the verses that precede those we’ve already heard this morning, Wisdom is personified as a noble lady present with God since before creation, standing at the crossroads and calling out for humanity to heed her voice. In this way, she introduces the idea of God’s own existence being inherently communal which Christianity later transformed into the doctrine of the Trinity, the second person of which we call the Christ. By faith, we claim that this Christ, the Word and Wisdom of God, present with God before the cosmos came into being, has taken on flesh and entered history in the person of Jesus of Nazareth who stood himself at the crossroads of history and spoke words of divine judgment and divine grace so that we might know salvation in a whole new way.

Wisdom literature operates by analogy and relies on metaphor. Whether the tightly crafted sayings found in proverbs, the evocative music of the psalms, or the courtroom drama of Job’s argument with God, wisdom literature works best by saying just enough to get us thinking but not enough to tell us what to think.



Joesph Mills

Here’s another kind of wisdom literature, a poem, this one by Joseph Mills titled, “Questions.”


On the Interstate, my daughter tells me

she has only two questions. I’m relieved

because she usually has two hundred.

I say, Okay, let’s have them, and she asks,

What was there before there was anything?

Stupidly, I think I can answer this:

There was grass, forests, fields, meadows, rivers.

She stops me. No, Daddy. I mean before

there was anything at all, what was there?

I say that I don’t know, so then she asks,

Where do we go when we die? I tell her

I don’t know the answer to this either.

She looks out the side, and I look forward,

then she asks if we can have some music.

“Questions” by Joseph Mills from The Miraculous Turning. (c) Press 53, 2014.

The poet presents us with another Lady Wisdom, this time a young girl who — like many children — has already intuited the limits of human knowledge and so tests her parent, wanting to know if age is enough to provide answers to the hardest questions.

Speaking as though she were already in a dialogue with the passage from Proverbs, the young girls asks, “What was there before there was anything?” The Hebrew scriptures reply, “The LORD created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth.” (Prov. 8:22-23) But the girl’s father can only say, “I don’t know.”

Then she asks a question none of us can answer from direct experience because we are still living. “Where do we go when we die?” While the child’s father cannot answer this question either, John’s gospel tells us that Jesus was sent by a different Father, a cosmic Parent, a universal source whose wisdom emanates throughout creation to such a degree that no one race or religion or clan or nation can lay claim to it, but that we have all been taught by God. (John 6:45) This Jesus utters wisdom sayings of his own, speaking in poems and parables, using metaphor to describe truths as complex as theoretical physics. “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (v. 51)

Jesus calls himself the living bread that has come down from the heavens, like the manna that fell from the sky to feed the people of Israel as they escaped their slavery in Egypt. Jesus, avatar of the Christ, God’s living wisdom, present since before anything created was, comes to us as food. Can we just play with that image for a moment and consider what it might mean?


Like the breath that passes between us, each inhalation drawing our neighbor’s life into our own body, bread — like all food — carries with it vitamins and minerals, proteins and sugars, catalyzed from the soil of the earth; earth composed of elements that were ultimately birthed in the hearts of stars like our own sun. Each breath we take, each bite we consume, is an act of participation in the unity of creation. By connecting the act of eating to the story of salvation, Jesus reminds his followers that ultimate salvation comes when we realize that we are all intimately bound up in one another’s lives in ways that are sewn into the fabric of reality. As real as gravity, there is a strong attraction that binds us to one another, that makes our individual existence dependent on the actions of everyone and everything around us.

And vice versa. So that we cannot pollute our oceans, or destroy the habitats of our animal kin, or warm the atmosphere to the point of climate change that unleashes devastating storms at sea and along the coasts without killing ourselves as well. We may live inside the myth of rugged individualism but, in truth, we are all and always in this thing called life, called existence, together because all of creation, all the cosmos, are one.

There’s something poignant in the poem, as the child recognizes that her father cannot answer the questions she’s thrown at him. They look away from one another and she asks if they can have some music to fill the disappointed silence. It’s beautiful writing, acknowledging the limits of our knowing. But we do not fill our silences with song simply because we have no words to offer, but also because music and poetry and all good art allow us to tell the truth in ways that other modes of knowing cannot access as easily. While I marvel at the elegance of physics and mathematics to describe the universe, they often leave me speechless, locked outside their wisdom.


But when we gather for worship and begin to sing, when the breath leaving my body joins the breath leaving your body to vibrate at frequencies that fill the air with harmony, and together we create something that none of us could create alone, then for a moment, I remember that we are all a part of something vast and limitless, but also something that needs us, and our skin and bones and breath and questions if it is ever going to know itself at all. And in that moment, it is as though the whole creation, the whole cosmos, cries “Alleluia!”


Sermon: Sunday, September 11, 2016: Season of Creation, Ocean Sunday

Texts: Job 38:1-18  +  Psalm 104:1-9,24-26  +  Luke 5:1-11


To begin, consider closing your eyes and picturing the ocean. Have you been to the ocean? Have you walked barefoot along its shores, shoes dangling from your hand? Have you heard that sound, the ceaseless tide, washing the land with its salty waves? Have you sensed its infinite depths?

Standing at the edge of the ocean is like standing at the border to a country most people never truly enter. Our bodies ride the waves at its very edges like the tiniest pieces of flotsam and jetsam, not even driftwood, as its wet gravity takes us wherever it wants. Our boats skim the surface of its unseen interior the way dandelion seeds ride the currents of our breath without ever seeing the insides of our lungs.


Next to the oceans, our continents seem petite. The oceans cover 71% of the earth’s surface, and the ocean floor extends miles below its waves. The land covers only 29% of the earth’s surface, and we live our lives on the thinnest crust of earth and sky. Imagine the largest animal that roams the Earth’s lands, the African bush elephant (weighing in at 3 tons), next to the largest sea creature known to humanity, the blue whale (weighing in at over 150 tons). But the oceans do not dwarf the continents only in terms of size, but in their diversity as well. For every massive blue whale there are an infinity of delicate coral reefs, surreal squids and octopi, strains of life that predate humanity by millennia, yet look like they must have come from another planet. Beyond the sandy beaches, beyond the metronomic waves, there is another world filled with neighbors we have yet to meet, though they have already been introduced to us.

Just yesterday afternoon, as Erin and I were preparing for this morning’s worship service, a man walked through the front door carrying a cardboard box and wearing an irritable frown. As I greeted him I could see that his box was filled with our trash: last week’s bulletins, copies of old newsletters, discarded mail. It was all clearly recyclable. In fact, we had tried to recycle it, but the trash bins in the alley are so full that neighbors have resorted to dumping their waste wherever they can find space. Failing that, they are setting it on ground, where the winds carry it away, blowing it down the alley. This is how our new neighbor met us for the first time, through our trash.

The same is true for our oceanic neighbors but with far worse consequences. By now it’s no longer news when we hear once again that “ships on the high seas routinely dump trash and sewage into the ocean,” or “that plastic pollution has permeated the entire ocean forming massive gyres, with plastic pollution being found even in the once pristine Arctic Sea.” But, beyond our trash, the massive levels of carbon dioxide generated by our automobiles and other fossil fuel consumption — coal, natural gas, and oil — are “dissolving into the ocean, making it more acidic.” Meanwhile, rising global temperatures have bleached vast swaths of the world’s coral reef in a matter of just a few years, endangering shoreline protections from ever-more-severe tropical storms and eliminating natural habitats for endangered species.


The hubris we have displayed as a species threatens our very existence, but it is not new. In fact, it is the topic of perhaps the oldest piece of biblical literature in our holy scriptures, the Book of Job. If you’re at all familiar with Job, you know it concerns his quarrel with God over the justice of human suffering. Rather than answer Job’s complaints directly, God addresses Job’s mistaken notion that he is even capable of comprehending the wisdom by which God has ordered creation:

“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?

Tell me if you have understanding.

Who determined its measurements — surely you know!

Or who shut in the sea with doors

when it burst out from the womb?

and said, ‘thus far shall you come, and no farther,

and here shall your proud waves be stopped’?” (Job 38:2,4-5a,8,11)

When we hung these rainbow banners back in June it was partially in recognition of Pride month, as a sign of our embrace of the sacred value of every human life at a moment when our nation was grieving the loss of those 50 lives that ended in a shower of bullets at the Pulse nightclub. This morning they speak to us of a different kind of biodiversity and remind us of God’s promise to Noah not to end the world by means of a flood. If only we had made the same promise in return. Instead, our lack of wisdom, our failure of resolve, our climate-change-denying “words without knowledge” (Job 38:2) have brought us to the precipice of a global disaster from which there may be no turning back.

60ed9c8ef85b5bbd6ea848b2411557261d6f4960In an essay published by The New Republic titled “A World at War,” Bill McKibben — environmental activist, educator, and prophet of the climate crisis — cries out for the world to wake up to the hour that is upon us, and to band together to address the devastation we have begun before it brings an end to us all. I’ll post his essay this afternoon, and encourage you all to read it closely as we begin this Season of Creation, as it offers more than a diatribe, but also a roadmap to guide us out of the wilderness. Or, perhaps more apropos to the day, a constellation of bright ideas by which to navigate our way safely to the shore.

The true north star of his piece is the observation that for us to have any hope of survival, we must agree that we are fighting for our lives and that we intend to win the fight. We need to move beyond optional, feel-good, individual responses to environmental degradation and demand that the world’s nations and leaders take swift, decisive action to reverse global warming and all its deadly effects. Which means “a fracking ban, a carbon tax, a prohibition against drilling or mining fossil fuels on public lands, a climate litmus test for new developments, an end to World Bank financing of fossil fuel plants.” Which means we need to get organized.

organize-fish-400x250One of my early images of the idea of organizing came in the form of a poster that hung in classrooms and on campuses when I was a high school and college student. It showed a school of tiny fish swimming in the shape of a giant fish chasing down a single fish that, while larger than any of them individually was clearly no match for them together. Under the illustration was the single word: Organize.

That image comes to mind as I hear the miracle story told in the gospel of Luke. Here again, we learn that the more things change, the more they stay the same, as Simon Peter tells Jesus that the people have been fishing all night with no luck. Just as factory fishing in our day has stripped the oceans of fish at an unsustainable rate, so in Jesus’ day the Roman Empire had transformed Galilee from a place of subsistence farming and fishing into an export economy to feed its legions in a manner that had impoverished the people and drained the sea of fish.

Then Jesus tells those who would follow him to “put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” (Luke 5:4) When they did as he said their nets were filled with so great a haul that their boats nearly sank. At that moment Jesus drew a parallel between the power of these tiny fish, which alone were barely a meal but together could sink a boat, and the people of Galilee, who alone were dying of poverty, but together could change the world. “Do not be afraid,” he said, “from now on you will be catching people.” (v. 10)

The hour has come for us to lose our illusions and to shed our fear. The moment is upon us to set out into the deep waters, the ways of being and becoming that we have sensed are possible but have seemed too difficult. Now it is time to get organized, to fight not only for life on this planet but for the life of the planet itself, its lands and its waters. To fight like the people of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has fought to prevent the Dakota Access Pipeline from defiling sacred lands. To fight together. Organized into a body greater than any special interest, organized for the self-interest of the Earth itself.