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Sermons

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Amen.

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Sermons

A Charge to the Ordinand, the Rev. Jessica Palys

The following “Charge to the Ordinand” was delivered at the Ordination of the Rev. Jessica Palys (UCC) at First Congregational Church, Crystal Lake, IL on Sunday, August 21, 2016. Pastor Palys had previously served as an intern at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square in 2012/’13. This charge drew on themes from Ruth 1:12-18, one of the scriptures read at the service of ordination.

Imagine how differently the Book of Ruth would read if, as they were heading back to Judah from the land of Moab after the death of her husband and sons Naomi had said to her daughters-in-law, “Ruth, Orpah, I am lost without you. You are my last chance at a future with hope. Do not abandon me now!” How do you suppose the story would have unfolded?

I can imagine Orpah doing exactly as she did, returning to Moab, but forever haunted by guilt over an impossible decision between caring for herself and caring for her mother-in-law. I can imagine Ruth doing the same thing, following Naomi back to Judah, but out of obligation, not choice. It’s hard to imagine her passionate declaration of loyalty — “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” — flowing off of guilt-tripped lips.

3165Jb7ar+L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_After years of hearing Kirsten Peachey talk about Peter Block and his book on community I finally sat down and read it and, she’s right, it’s really good! One thing he says about the power of community to transform lives is that it has to happen by invitation, never obligation.

“The distinction here,” he writes, “is between invitation and the more typical ways of achieving change: mandate and persuasion. The belief in mandate and persuasion triggers talk about how to change other people and how do we get those people on board, how do we make showing up a requirement, all of which are simply our desire to control others. What is distinct about an invitation is that it can be refused, at no cost to the one refusing.”

In the case of Ruth and Naomi the invitation is never explicitly made and, in fact, Naomi sets things up so that the easiest thing in the world would be for Ruth to walk away from the situation, yet it is precisely because she is free to say “no” that her “yes” actually becomes significant.

Jessica, the vocation of pastoral ministry is one of issuing invitation after invitation after invitation. You will invite people to offer their gifts and talents in worship. You will invite people to provide their vision and leadership to new projects and new campaigns that seem important, even urgently necessary. You will invite people to open their hearts and minds to ideas, to practices, to futures that they would never have dreamed of entertaining on their own. You will invite them into a new story about their lives characterized by grace, forgiveness, transformation, renewal, solidarity and new life — resurrection life.

Sometimes, they will say no, and it will take everything in your being to let their no be no. It will require a massive act of discipline to respect their right to hear your invitation, to consider well what it might mean for their congregation, for their neighborhood, for their family, for their lives, and to decide that they are not interested. You must let them — even when yes is obviously the right answer, even when no is acting against their self-interest as you see it.

When you asked me to provide the charge today at your ordination, I had to ask you how that goes in the United Church of Christ because, as you know, we Lutherans have a script for everything. Here’s a piece of our script that I love:

From 1st Peter: “Tend the flock of God that is in your charge, not under compulsion but willingly, not for sordid gain but eagerly. Do not lord it over those in your charge, but be examples to the flock. And when the chief shepherd appears, you will win the crown of glory that never fades away. (1 Pet. 5:2-4)

What I love about this word from scripture is that it reminds us that before we can even consider the invitations we will offer to those we are called to serve, we must first give honest consideration to the invitation God has placed before us. We are called to tend to the needs of the people God has entrusted to our care “not under compulsion, but willingly.”

Though we so often hear clergy speak of their vocations as if they are the inevitable response to some kind of persistent and irresistible voice, in reality, God does not compel us. God never coerces or manipulates us into moving with God’s vision for a world both healed and liberated. Instead, scripture is filled with story after story of invitation after invitation. And often the story involves us saying no to God’s gracious reign. But our no is never the last word.

The gift of this day, the reason we have all gathered to surround you with our prayers and our presence, is to witness your “yes” to God’s invitation for your life — and to remind you in future days, the days that must surely come when you will question the wisdom of this decision, that you have made this decision freely and that you remain a free person; that you are a minister of the gospel of liberation and truth, which can only be received as a gift and never compelled.

So, Jessica, receive this charge:

Care for God’s people, bear their burdens,

and do not betray their confidence.

So discipline yourself in life and teaching that you preserve the truth,

giving no occasion for false security or illusory hope.

Witness faithfully in word and deed to all people.

Give and receive comfort as you serve within the church.

And be of good courage, for God has called you —

and you have said yes to this call —

and your labor in the Lord will not be in vain.

Amen.

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The Third Commandment
Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, August 21, 2016: Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Isaiah 58:9b-14  +  Psalm 103:1-8  +  Hebrews 12:18-29  +  Luke 13:10-17

Well, he told them he had come to bring fire to the earth; to bring division, not peace. Now it was time to make good on his campaign promises and the opportunity came soon afterward, as he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. When we read that Jesus was teaching on the sabbath I suspect we hear that word as a day of the week, as if Luke’s gospel is simply saying “one Saturday Jesus was teaching in the synagogue,” but it’s much more than that.

This story begins with the detail that Jesus was teaching in the synagogue on the sabbath, not so that we will observe that Jesus went to church on the weekend like we do, not so that we will remark that he was a popular speaker who booked great gigs on the preaching circuit, because we know that Jesus was teaching and preaching and healing all the time, wherever he went on whatever day it happened to be. When Jesus healed a boy seized by spirits, Luke’s gospel doesn’t mention the day of the week. When Jesus healed Jairus’ daughter and the hemorrhaging woman, no one remarks on what day of the week it is. When Jesus casts the legion of demons out of the man chained up in the country of the Gerasenes no one bothers to record on which day that miracle took place. So the framing of this story with the fact that it took place in the synagogue on the sabbath matters. Without that detail, the rest of the story doesn’t make sense.

To begin by saying that Jesus was teaching in the synagogue on the sabbath is to begin by reminding us that the God shown in Jesus is a covenant-making, promise-keeping God. That God is faithful. To begin by saying that Jesus was teaching in the synagogue on the sabbath is to remind us how the sabbath came to be. In the word “sabbath,” we hear the echoes of Israel’s liberation from the slavery of Egypt and the covenant made with the people, the giving of the law and the Ten Commandments with the sabbath as the sign of that covenant.

The Third Commandment

When we hear the word “sabbath” we’re supposed to remember all of this and more. Those of us who were raised on Luther’s Small Catechism hear his brief explanation of the Third Commandment (“Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy”) explained as meaning that “We are to fear and love God, so that we do not despise preaching or God’s word, but instead keep that word holy and gladly hear and learn it.” Of course, Luther had much more to say about the sabbath — as he had much more to say about practically everything. In Luther’s Large Catechism, he offers a much richer reflection on the ethical importance of the Third Commandment:

“We do not observe holy days for the sake of intelligent and well-informed Christians, for they have no need of them. We observe them, first, because our bodies need them. Nature teaches and demands that the common people — menservants and maidservants who have gone about their work or trade all week long — should also retire for a day to rest and be refreshed. Second and most important, we observe them so that people will have time and opportunity on such days of rest, which otherwise would not be available, to attend worship services, that is, so that they may assemble to hear and discuss God’s Word and then to offer praise, song, and prayer to God.”

Luther says that we observe the sabbath, not for the sake of intelligent and well-informed Christians, but because our bodies need it. There is a whole other sermon to be preached right at this point about the connection between the sabbath and the labor movement, and the long, proud history of working people facing all kinds of opposition to preserve for themselves and for their children and neighbors the right to rest. Because Labor Day is only two weeks away and because we will once again have a speaker with us from Arise Chicago, a faith-based labor justice organization, I will move on from that point for now, but I’m sure we can all hear the call to action.

Instead, let’s hold on to Luther’s assertion that the sabbath is intended first and foremost for our bodies’ rest and return to the scene in Luke’s gospel where Jesus is teaching in the synagogue on the sabbath, where a crowd has gathered to hear him speak. Keep in mind that Jesus is not teaching from a pulpit and the crowd is not seated in chairs or pews. Jesus may, in fact, have been seated. The crowd may have been standing around him or in front of him. It would be hard to see past the first row of faces, to know who was in the room, particularly if you were in the back, or if you were short, or if you were hunched over as one of the women was who’d been afflicted for eighteen years.

Jesus does see her, though. He sees the curve of her spine, the way it takes a great effort for her to walk. He sees the arch in her neck that makes even the simple act of looking up from the ground a painful act of resistance. He sees her body’s hard labor, its bondage to a condition that makes leaving her home a great ordeal. When I read about this woman, I think of our sister, Betty Feilinger, who is home this morning because of sciatica that has afflicted her for the last few years. Betty, who for most of her life enjoyed walking a few miles every day all around Logan Square, but has had difficulty leaving her house since her most recent surgery. How lonely it must be to feel so cut off from the people around you by a physical ailment over which you have no control. I believe Jesus saw that as well.

Now comes the challenge, the dramatic tension in the story. The crowd that has come to hear Jesus speak has heard of his miraculous healings elsewhere, and we who have read Luke’s gospel to this point know that he has the power to free her from the spirit that has bent her over. The only thing stopping him is the body of law that has grown up around the practice of keeping the sabbath. As a sign of the covenant between God and God’s people, the people have developed a complex set of customs and regulations for ensuring that no labor takes place on the sabbath, rules that prevent a farmer from farming, a fisher from fishing, and a healer from healing. Rules that go so far as to regulate that one’s oxen and donkeys ought to be untied so as to allow them to experience rest as well. So, in this moment, will Jesus show faithfulness to the law or to this “daughter of Abraham,” this woman who was also a part of the covenant community established by God’s word.

We know how the story ends, but let’s linger for just a little while longer in the space between the moment when Jesus first sees the woman bent low and the decision to call her over and set her free. That moment of opposition, between what Jesus had been taught to do and what he had been called to do. Because we confess that Jesus is Lord, that the Christ who comes to save is the visible face of the invisible God, it is hard to imagine that there was any gap between seeing and acting. After all, this is the same Jesus who berated the crowd by asking them, “Why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” Now the moment is upon him. Where does he find the courage to act, to do something new, to claim the authority to keep the spirit of the law by disobeying the letter of the law?

I think it was by knowing the stories and the histories, by claiming the people’s customs and traditions that he found the strength and inspiration to challenge and reform them. It was because he knew that Moses confronted Pharaoh and led the people through Red Sea on their way to freedom, because he knew that Joshua marched around the walls of Jericho until God brought them tumbling down, because he knew the stories of God’s faithfulness to God’s people, shown through the empowered and empowering acts of God’s prophets in every age. Jesus was a descendant of those heroes, women and men, who by faith saw the distance between the way things are and the way they ought to be, and who braved the leap of faith each one of us must make when we look out at the world today and wonder if we, too, are descendants of God’s holy people. If we, too, are people of the covenant.

We are all this, and more. As people marked by the covenant made with us in baptism, we make the absurd claim that we are connected not by bonds of blood but by bonds of water. We claim that we are living members of the body of Christ, that we have those eyes and those ears, that we are those hands and those feet, that our mouths are filled with words that flow from the same source as the words that flowed from Jesus’ own mouth when he looked at the woman the world had overlooked and said, “you are set free” (Lk 13:12).

We are constantly living in the moment between seeing this woman and calling out to her. There are always customs and regulations and laws, traditions cultivated to serve and protect us, which over time have come to choke and restrain us. In the face of such great opposition, we must remember our heritage. We are people marked by God’s promises, blessed with bodies that God made and God loves. We are destined for liberation, not bondage. Because God has shown such faithfulness to us, we are already free. How shall we use our freedom? Who shall we stand beside? How will our lives sing with the praise of those have known what it is to be laid low, but have also tasted the power of God to lift us up?

Together, with all God’s people, leaving no one behind. That is how. We face the opposition, which is simply another way of saying “the distance between what is and what is to come,” together.

Amen.

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