Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, April 16, 2017: Resurrection of Our Lord, Easter Day

Texts: Acts 10:34-43  +  Psalm 118:1-2,14-24  +  Colossians 3:1-4  +  Matthew 28:1-10

40c56c33a130111cfc865d39931328077e83b6d2I have this really bad habit. The way I wake up each morning is to the sound of the alarm on my cell phone, which means that when the alarm goes off I roll out of bed and grab my phone off the edge of my dresser and drag it back into bed with me so that I can hit snooze every nine minutes until I’m ready to be awake. This can take up to an hour and, as annoying as that may seem, it’s not even the bad habit I had in mind.

Once I reach the point where it would take more effort to fall back asleep than to simply get out of bed, I turn off the alarm and — now that the phone is in my hand — (here’s the bad habit) I begin to read the headlines that have accumulated in my inbox overnight:

“Jesus, have mercy,” I mutter, maybe shouting the news to Kerry in the other room, “Have you heard? About the guy on the plane?”

“Yeah, I need them to stop with that already.”

And then I’m on to, “What do you have going on after work tonight? Do we have plans for dinner?”

That’s how the day begins, with a quick daily dose of trauma, immediately normalized as part of the backdrop to the details of my agenda.

I try to imagine how each of these mornings is filed in my memory. The details each day are different, but my experience of them is the same, so I picture them landing one upon the other the way dirt lands on a coffin at the cemetery, one shovelful at a time. Each morning packing down all the previous mornings so that, over the course of a lifetime, this idea of the world as a place defined by violence and war is compacted, locked into place by the weight of history and expectation.

3652860950_1f5fc7e2bd_bIf you’ve ever been to a graveyard for a burial, then you know how dense the earth can be. Beneath the topsoil, from which the grass grows, there are layers upon layers of soil filled with sand and clay, peat and loam. Looking into an empty grave from above, you can sometimes see the line where clumps of dirt held together by the root system of the lawn are separated from darker, tightly packed clay. Beneath that the Earth’s crust continues another twenty to thirty miles until it comes to the place where the crust of the earth floats on the upper mantle, forming the tectonic plates on which our homes and cities and civilizations rest.

We take it for granted that the ground beneath our feet is solid in much the same way that we take it for granted that reality is fixed and unchanging. Morning after morning, mile after mile of soil and experiences packed too tightly for anything to move too much.

Then, in an instant, the pressure built up beneath the surface breaks through and the pillars of the earth shift. Our homes, our cities and our civilizations are rocked and the facts on the ground are changed forever. Think Haiti, 2010.

This is how Matthew describes the resurrection of Jesus from the dead:

“After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.” (Mt. 28:1-2)

Mary Magdalene is one of the few unshaken constants of all the stories of the resurrection. No matter what else they remember differently, all four gospels place her at the empty tomb. “The other Mary” is named in the previous chapter as “the mother of James and John,” who are also Jesus’ brothers. This means that “the other Mary” is none other than Jesus’ own mother.

I think about these two women — one who had walked with her precious child every step of his life, the other who’d personally experienced his healing and liberating power — and their trip to the graveyard. Matthew makes no mention of spices for embalming the body, it just says that they “went to see the tomb.” It reminds me of the words of another mother shared at the Good Friday walk for peace in Englewood two days ago. She said that after her son was shot and killed on the steps of the church she and her family kept going there, unable to accept his death, expecting to see him again.

 

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Cardinal Cupich leads Walk for Peace through Englewood on Good Friday, 2017.

 

I imagine it was like that for these women as well. Their child, their teacher, their Lord had been killed, had been humiliated and executed before their eyes. They had watched Joseph of Arimathea petition for the body to be removed from the cross. They’d seen him wrap Jesus in a burial shroud and place him in the tomb. They’d seen the massive stone rolled into place. They knew he was dead and buried in the earth. It was as certain as the power of the Empire. It was as certain as the ground beneath their feet.

We treat so many things as certain. If you’d have told me twenty years ago that I’d be legally married to my husband, I’d have thought you were a dreamer. If you’d told me fifteen years ago that my sister would still be alive and healthy, I’d have thought you were in denial. If you’d told me ten years ago that we’d have moved out of our church building and into a storefront — and that that’s where we’d experience our most exciting growth, I’d have thought you were pulling my leg. But here I am: legally married, still a big brother, and lucky enough to pastor a storefront church that’s outgrown its storefront!

You have your own tightly packed certainties about yourself and the world we live in. Certainties about your families. Certainties about your marriage. Certainties about your place in the world. Certainties about your people. Certainties about other people. Certainties about the government. Certainties that could likely be summed up, “that’s just the way it is.”

But far beneath the surface of each of these stories there are unseen forces building up, gaining steam, pressing against the weight of miles and miles of settled ideas and expectations. There is a power, which we have come to call “God,” that is more certain than your certainties. And this God does not settle. This God unsettles, and nothing — not thirty miles of earth, not thirty years of heartbreak and disappointment, not the empire of the “world as it is” — can keep this God from moving the ground beneath our feet and waking us up to a new reality that is always breaking through our ideas of what is real and what is possible.

The resurrection is the power of God breaking through the sediment of history, our personal stories and our shared story, to insist that we do not know enough to say what is possible and what is impossible. The resurrection is the earthquake that topples the things we imagine are fixed and unchanging and unearths the dreams we had left for dead. The resurrection is the rallying cry of the generations that came before us, that could never have imagined the lives we are leading, calling out to us, “who are you to give up on the future, when you have already seen what God can do? What God has done!”

What is it you imagine is too settled to change? Your heartbreak? Your addictions? Your loneliness? Your despair? To you, as to the women who’d come looking on that first Easter morning, Jesus now appears saying, “Do not be afraid.” God is with you in life and beyond death.

What indisputable truths have you feeling defeated? Is it our corporate Democracy with its complicit courts and prisons and industrial complexes? Hear the voices of our ancestors, crying up from the ground, “You have seen slavery end, women enfranchised, and love ennobled by the law! Who are you to give up on hospitality at the border, humane healthcare, and an end to war?” Jesus sends you on to Galilee, to the place where his ministry began, where it is always beginning — by the sea, where people are working and waiting for God’s future to arrive.

We are God’s future sent to break open the dirt. We are God’s body rising up from the ground. We are God’s seed being scattered all over. We are God’s harvest, bearing fruit in due season. We are God’s meal, feeding and strengthening one another. We are God’s church, built on solid ground. We are God’s resurrection!

Run, don’t walk. Share the story. Worship God and do not be afraid. Anything could happen. It does and it will.

Alleluia!

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Sermons

Sermon: Thursday, April 13, 2017: Maundy Thursday

Texts: Ex. 12:1-4,11-14  +  Ps. 116:1-2,12-19  +  1 Cor. 11:23-26  +  John 13:1-17,31b-25

 

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One of many prompts for prayer and conversation from Nov. 9th

Last fall, on November 9th — the day after the elections — St. Luke’s opened its doors for those who needed a place to pray, to weep, to talk, to be silent, to sing as we tried to make sense of an election that caught millions of people by surprise. My memory of that night is that people were shocked that their fellow citizens had elected to this nation’s highest office someone who showed no regard for values they held as central to our national identity. As they processed their shock and shame, it seemed to me that part of what they felt was a sense of betrayal by their neighbors; that they had been living under the assumption that the majority of people in our nation shared their outlook on the world, and that this assumed solidarity had been betrayed.

 

Once the shock subsided, there was no shortage of articles and essays attempting to make sense of the 2016 election. We were told that the surge from the right-wing of the American electorate was also acting out of a sense of betrayal — that the government created to serve and advance their interests had been co-opted by a liberal agenda dominated by identity politics and dedicated to a form of corporate globalism that devalued American labor and left the White working class behind. People who’d felt betrayed by their country rose up to take it back, we were told.

Betrayal is an odd and painful thing. It can only exist where there is the assumption of some form of solidarity. To be injured by one’s enemy isn’t a betrayal, it’s an assault. To be injured by one’s parents or children, however, is a betrayal of the bonds of family. To be fired without cause is a betrayal of the bonds built by shared effort. To be cheated upon by a lover or spouse is a betrayal of the bonds of love or the vows of marriage. To be neglected by a friend is a betrayal of the bonds of friendship. Betrayal assumes relationship, loyalty, solidarity, even love.

One of the effects of our modern, mobile, industrial life is that the number of people and communities we invest in as adults has, for many people, diminished. I could be wrong, but it seems to me that when I was younger I used to hear more anger and betrayal at how companies no longer treat their employees with any sense of loyalty. People who gave decades of their lives to help build a company up — only to find themselves laid off, replaced, or otherwise treated as expendable — used to express more of a sense of betrayal and outrage. Now it seems to be taken as a fact that companies have no commitment or obligation to their employees beyond what can be legally mandated.

Similarly, as a child I remember the sense of dismay people had over the rising divorce rate. In 1980 about half of all first marriages ended in divorce. Over the last thirty years the divorce rate has fallen, though it also seems that the expectation that marriages survive the trials of life has as well. People speak jokingly of “starter marriages” the way they might speak of “starter homes.” If we enter into our most intimate relationships with low expectations, how deeply can we feel betrayed when they finally end?

The year that I lived in Washington, D.C. I remember attending a party and overhearing a conversation in which someone remarked that they were on their “third set of friends” since moving to the Capital because of how quickly people come and go from that place. Today it seems to me that many people and many places experience that kind of transience as commonplace. Could anyone even feel betrayed by a friend or neighbor’s decision to move on? Can we imagine being invested enough in one another to feel a sense of betrayal in any relationship outside of work or family?

Or, just how far do we imagine our self-interest extends?

Over the course of his three years of public ministry, Jesus had built a community of people who were deeply invested in him and in one another. By leaving his family at home to wander the countryside with his disciples, Jesus had already betrayed societal norms for how men and sons were supposed to behave. By associating with women and foreigners and all manner of sick and diseased people, Jesus had betrayed religious norms for how observant Jews were supposed to act. By entering Jerusalem on the back of a donkey to the cries of those who named him “the King of Israel” he had betrayed the political norms for how occupied people were to supposed to relate to the government. But, however outrageous their behavior may have seemed to those outside their community, within the circle of those who followed Jesus there was a sense of solidarity with a new vision for how the world might be. A vision of food for the hungry, healing for the sick, dignity for the poor, justice for the oppressed, and welcome for the foreigner. It was a vision that bound them to one another and to Jesus like branches to a vine.

This is what makes this scene so dramatic, and potentially explosive. After three years of laboring alongside one another for a future none of them had ever seen, but all were hungry to behold, we learn that one of the disciples — Judas — has put a plan in place to betray Jesus. More than that, we know that Peter — always eager to prove his devotion to Jesus and the cause — is about to publicly deny Jesus. What do we expect at this moment?

If it were any other story, instead of a story about Jesus from a source we call the Bible, we would expect a fight. If this were a scripted drama on HBO, like The Sopranos or Game of Thrones, we would expect the traitors and cowards to get killed. If this were American politics, we’d expect someone to get scapegoated. If this was a workplace scene, we’d expect someone to get fired. In any other situation, we would expect the person with the power to use it to their advantage. We should expect Jesus, into whose hands God has “put all things,” to flip over the table and drive the faithless disciples out of the room.

washingfeet-jesusInstead Jesus rises from the table and, instead of flipping it over, he goes from person to person and washes their feet. He takes the job that would have been given to a servant or a slave, and he does that work for everyone in the community, knowing full well the ways that they will fail him and themselves. This, he calls the “new commandment” — the newness coming not from the command to love, but to love humbly, to love unconditionally, to love even those who betray and deny us, to show our love in acts of service we might wish someone else would do in our place.

How different our world might look if this was our response to betrayal. How different our conversations might sound, over coffee and online, if we trained ourselves to respond to anger with and resentment toward our fellow citizens with acts of service rather than blame and shame. How different our relationships with family members and co-workers might be if we stopped trying to win arguments or approval and just did the work that no one wants to do.

How different life could be, for all of us, if we met betrayal with love.

I believe we are living in the moment of betrayal. I actually believe we are living in a constant state of betrayal so deep and so persistent that most of us have numbed our hearts and distracted our minds so that we don’t have to feel the rage and heartbreak that come from expecting something more out of life. What has been betrayed is our humanity, what has been sacrificed is the memory that we were made in the image and likeness of God. We were not made for terror and anxiety. We were not made to fear our neighbor and hate the stranger. We were not made to rise or fall on the basis of our ability to accommodate ourselves to a system that ridicules us as we learn, that punishes us as we age, that uses us when we succeed, and that abandons us when we struggle or stumble. We were made for community. We were made for each other. We were made for love.

But the only way we will ever live in a world fit for lovers is if we band together to change the way things are, which means building something big enough and powerful enough to confront the powers and principalities of this world and to call them back to their original purposes — supporting and sustaining life for us all. That job is bigger than any of us can tackle alone. If we want to see that world, we will have to be willing to invest our time and our trust in one another. We will have to build relationships that matter enough to us that we are willing to risk being disappointed (again), being betrayed (again).

And why would we ever do that? Why would we ever risk the pain of putting ourselves out there over and over, knowing that we will certainly be betrayed and denied; knowing that we ourselves will sometimes be the ones who betray or deny the vision we are working toward? Why would we risk the humiliation and retribution that come from failing in front of our families, in front of our friends and neighbors? Failing on the world’s stage?

Let me ask this:

What would you be willing to risk, if you knew that failure would be met with love?

And, what would it take to convince you that no failure of vision or of nerve, no betrayal or denial, could break that love?

And, how often would you need to be reminded of that love?

This is what we say to each other within the community of the church about failure:

“On the night in which he was betrayed, our Lord Jesus took bread, gave thanks, broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying: ‘Take and eat, this is my body, given for you, do this in remembrance of me.’”

Every Sunday, every week, every time we return to this table we remember that God meets our failures, our denials, and our betrayals with the self-giving love of Jesus, who knelt to wash our feet and commanded us to love one another like that.

Don’t you long to live in a world that loving, that forgiving, that free?

That’s what we are building together — each meal shared, each foot washed, each person loved more deeply than any betrayal can deny.

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, April 9, 2017: Palm Sunday

This homily was preached during an ecumenical worship service at Humboldt Park United Methodist Church on Sunday, April 9, 2017 in advance of the Logan Square Ecumenical Alliance’s 6th annual #OccupyPalmSunday rally. This year’s rally called on the City of Chicago to expand the Welcoming City ordinance and demand reforms to the city’s contract with the Fraternal Order of Police.


Text: Mark 11:1-11, 15-19

 

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Pastor Erik preaching during a series of short homilies by clergy from St. Luke’s, Nuestra Señora de las Americas, Kimball Avenue Church, and Humboldt Park UMC.

“Is it not written: ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers!” The implication is clear: the Temple is the house of God, intended to be open to all people, but a system had sprung up that economically exploited the most vulnerable people. Those who had travelled the farthest. Those with no family connections or personal favors to cash in. Those with no higher authority to whom they could appeal.

 

We know all about these kinds of systems. The kinds that work one way for locals, but another way for visitors. One way for citizens, but another way for immigrants or refugees. One way for people that look White, another way for people who clearly aren’t. One way for people with extra money, another for people working hard to pay the bills. We know all about these kinds of systems.

We know about systems that will tax your paycheck and in exchange fund schools and hospitals and police departments — but no guarantee that every neighborhood and every community will get the same benefits out of that exchange. Some schools will be well-funded. Some neighborhoods will get level one trauma centers. Some police departments will come when you call 9-1-1.

But some neighbors will never call 9-1-1. Because the moneychangers of this day and age will take their hard-earned income, but in return they get racially profiled, treated with excessive force, or maybe shot 16 times. Some neighbors run drills at home with their children about what to do when there’s a knock at the door. Who to call if Mom or Dad don’t come home from work.

People made the long journey to Jerusalem expecting sanctuary. They were coming to the Temple, after all. Shouldn’t they have been able to expect to be treated with dignity and offered hospitality after coming all that way?

Shouldn’t all people, from every nation, be able to expect to be treated with dignity and offered hospitality however far they’ve traveled? And not just in our sanctuaries, not just in our churches and temples and mosques — but everywhere! Don’t we remember that we are the ones who decided to build a temple to house our God and not the other way around? We wanted to hem God in, define the place where God would reside, where God could be colonized.

But God, who made the heavens and the earth, created all land to be sacred, and all people to be holy, and called all nations to worship God by caring for one another.

So it is time to expand our ideas about sanctuary. We’re not talking about hiding behind our church walls. We’re talking about taking to the streets, showing our holy outrage at the ways we are dehumanizing each other, and ourselves in the process. We’re talking about exchanging a dead legalism for a living, daring faith that risks all for the sake of our common humanity.

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