Sermon: Sunday, March 12, 2017: Second Sunday in Lent

Texts: Genesis 12:1-4a  +  Psalm 121  +  Romans 4:1-5, 13-17  +  John 3:1-17



Pádraig Ó Tuama

“You are the place I stand on the day when my feet are sore.” That’s the English translation for an old Irish saying I recently heard on an episode of “OnBeing,” offered by Pádraig Ó Tuama — poet, theologian, and leader of the Corrymeela community in Northern Ireland. Founded in the 1960s to promote peace and reconciliation during “the Troubles,” that period of violent ethnic and religious conflict in Ireland, today Corrymeela continues to welcome guests from around the world who long for reconciliation with neighbors and fellow citizens in moments when such peace seems hopelessly naïve; moments like the one so many of us feel we ourselves are trapped inside as a nation, when it’s not just our feet that are sore from so many marches, but our hearts and our souls.

“You are the place I stand on the day when my feet are sore.” It’s awfully romantic, don’t you think? The kind of sentiment that seems more at home in a do-it-yourself wedding vow than in a sermon on the doctrine of salvation. But let me ask you this: what do you think a sermon on the doctrine of salvation ought to sound like? Should it be terribly complicated? Should there be lots of Greek and Hebrew words rendered into alternate English translations? Should there be rules, clearly laid out; structures of belief to be agreed with (or not)? What were you taught about “salvation,” and how, and who taught you? Is it the reward for a life well lived? Is it conditional, reserved for only a few? Is it a gift bestowed on the righteous, or the product of their efforts? Are there people who are most certainly saved? Are there people who most certainly are not?



Study for “Nicodemus Visiting Jesus” by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1899)


These questions lead us down late-night roads with no lamp posts. If we follow them too far, we can get lost in the dark and may struggle to find our way back. That seems to have been the case with Nicodemus, who came to Jesus by night with questions about the new life that comes by water and the spirit in the reign of God. He was a religious person who’d given plenty of thought to questions of who was chosen, who was saved, and what that all meant. Jesus, however, wanted to talk instead about love.

“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that God gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:14-17)

It’s not hard to see how we worked our way back around to legalism all over again. It’s right there in the text, “so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” It seems clear: the key to eternal life is belief in Jesus. Slow down though, and keep asking those questions. What is belief? And, what is eternal life? And, if God is not interested in condemning the world, then why such an oddly specific criterion for salvation as belief in a pretty unbelievable story?

Here’s the prerequisite Greek word study, in case that happened to be on your checklist earlier. When we think about salvation, we often get stuck worrying about what we have to believe in order to be saved — because of this very verse and how it’s been explained. But the verb in Greek which we translate into “believe” in English doesn’t mean “to give credence to a belief or an idea.” Instead, it’s the verb form of the noun (pistis) which means, “faith.” English doesn’t have a verb form of the noun “faith.” We can either say “have faith” — which is a problem because it implies that faith is an object we can possess — or we have to find another verb that comes close to the idea of “faith-ing.” So we’ve said “believe,” though we might just as well have said, “trust.”

It makes more sense when you imagine the kind of conversation in which one person might say to another in a moment of tension, or decision, “I need you to believe in me.” What are they saying? That they need you to agree that they exist? Or that they need you to trust them, to remember something about your shared past, your history, your relationship.

This is what Jesus finally tells Nicodemus, who has gotten lost in the dark, in his questions about being “born again.” Jesus points to the evidence of a loving God, a God who is trustworthy, a God who brought the people through the wilderness, a God who stayed faithful through the exodus and the exile, a God who brought them into a new land and worked with them as they fell into each and every trap that comes with the the problem of being a nation. Salvation is not our reward for having the right answers to the wrong questions. Salvation is God’s work, God’s nature, God’s love.

Why doesn’t that ever feel like enough of an answer? Why do we insist on turning God’s love into a prize rather than accepting it as a gift, a birthright even? How would our lives change if we knew in every cell of our bodies that God is for us? That God longs to be the place we stand on the days when our feet are sore, so much so that God created all the soil and all the earth, so that there is no place we can go where we are not standing in God’s presence. Even when God sends us out from the places we have called home, even when God sets before us challenges that call us into moments and relationships that feel alienating. We are always standing in the loving presence of God.

If we are always already in the presence of God, and we believe — we trust — that God’s love for us is real and true, then what else do we need to experience this thing Jesus calls “eternal life”? What is missing from this picture that is so bad it has us all longing for salvation?

The question the Irish had to face wasn’t whether or not God could love the Catholics and the Protestants. The question was, could they love each other? The question is always: can we love each other? Can the left love the center and the right? Can the winners love the losers, and vice versa. Can we love our enemies? Because, where there is no love, we might as well call it hell, wouldn’t you say?

So, as we continue the practice of holding silence after the sermon for reflections, both spoken and silent, I invite you to consider the following questions as starting points for a conversation with your own spirit that may last well beyond this morning’s worship. If you feel so led, you might offer a few words about where these questions are taking you this morning:

How has love saved you?


How could love save us?


Sermon: Sunday, March 5, 2017: First Sunday in Lent

Texts: Gen. 2:15-17; 3:1-7  +  Ps. 32  +  Rom. 5:12-19  +  Matt. 4:1-11

Let’s begin with a little bit of an explanation for how today’s worship service and sermon are like and unlike that to which you’ve grown accustomed. With Ash Wednesday this past week, we’ve now entered the season of Lent, the season in which the church has traditionally both prepared people to receive the sacrament of baptism and accompanied people through a period of intentional repentance and return to the faith. The name we give to the process of preparation for baptism and lifelong faith formation is catechesis, which literally means something like “instruction by word of mouth,” which points to the way our faith has been transmitted, person to person, over the centuries.

So, in considering how we might use this Lent to honor the church’s traditional observance of the season and to build on the local traditions we’ve been nurturing here at St. Luke’s, we’ve decided that for these five Sundays we will shorten our periods of speech and lengthen our periods of silence in order to strengthen our attention span for the sound of our own soul’s questions; we have selected music that can be sung without use of a hymnal and, for the most part (once you’ve picked up the simple tune and lyrics) with nothing in your hands; and we will be preaching shorter sermons directed towards teaching doctrine, followed by a period in which the entire assembly will be invited to reflect on a question in silence or by offering a brief thought or observation. You’ll get a chance to practice that in just a few minutes, so let’s begin.

This morning I want to talk about the doctrine of sin, which always seems to me to be one of the simplest yet most freighted topics in the church and among people — whether they are Christian or not. It is the thing with which people who make no claim to Christian faith assume those of us who do are obsessed. It is a source of great pain and shame for people who have been taught to believe that something about their very being is disordered. PHELPS-1-obit-master675It is the bucket into which every oppressed community has been dumped at one time or another: women, Black people, queer and gender non-conforming people, even peace activists practicing non-violent civil disobedience. In other words, sin is a theological concept that too often gets used by people in a majority to stigmatize and punish people in a minority.

However, the fact that a tool or a concept has often been misused does not make it inherently wrong or useless. Jesus himself had to address this dynamic many times during his ministry. From Matthew’s gospel we remember this awkward metaphor,

“Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” (Matt. 7:3-5)

It’s not as simple as saying we cannot, or should not, comment on another person’s conduct or another name another person’s sin, but the emphasis is clearly on attending to our own self-examination.

This is where I think the topic of sin is simplest. However uncomfortable we may be with how the concept of sin has been used or misused, most of us can acknowledge that we ourselves are sinners, in both the personal and the collective sense. If we examine our conduct over the course of even an hour, we can sense how we have hurt ourselves or others by our thoughts, words, and deeds; by things we have done, and things we have left undone.

Two nude lovers with apple

The temptation to sin is the focus of the story we hear this morning of Jesus wandering in the wilderness for forty days and nights, which is why some version of it is traditionally read on the first Sunday of Lent. The strong connection between the ideas of sin, temptation, and desire have often confused us, I think. We have grown too suspicious of desire as the sign of sin, when desire itself is quite natural. We are created to desire food, to desire love, to desire touch, to desire community.

The sin in the devil’s temptations is not connected to desire itself, but the nature of Jesus’ own baptismal vocation. In the waters of the Jordan, Jesus was revealed as God’s own Beloved, come to announce salvation and give himself away for the sake of the whole world. In his wilderness temptations Jesus is faced with a more personally enriching use of his life: feed himself, preserve himself, join the powers of the world as it is rather than calling them to become what they were meant to be.

This is one definition of sin: our participation in or collusion with the powers and forces that draw us away from the fullness of our humanity. The violence we do to ourselves and others when we forget that each of us bears the image and likeness of God. In baptism, each of you has been named children of God, good and loved by God. In baptism, each of you has been joined to the death and resurrection of Jesus, freeing you to give your life away in the present age so that all of creation can experience the life, love, and liberation that is its God-given birthright.

How has sin obscured the image of God revealed in your baptism?

How has sin tempted you away from your own baptismal vocation?

These are real questions you are invited to reflect upon now. You might choose to sit with them in silence, or to write down some thoughts on your bulletin or in that journal you keep in your bag. As you listen to the sound of your own soul’s voice, you might decide to share a word or a brief thought aloud. We welcome that. If that happens, I encourage us to hear what is offered not as an idea to be challenged, but as an offering to be appreciated. And it may be that we will simply share a few minutes of silence, in which we leave space for the Holy Spirit to continue its work in us.


How has sin obscured the image of God revealed in your baptism?

How has sin tempted you away from your own baptismal vocation?


Sermon: Wednesday, March 1, 2017: Ash Wednesday

Texts: Joel 2:1-2,12-17  +  Ps. 51:1-17  +  2 Cor. 5:20b–6:10  +  Matt. 6:1-6,16-21

One thing I miss about our former church building is the presence of the different 12-step groups that met in the Lesher Lounge across the hall from my office on various nights throughout the week. Over the years we’d hosted a number of A.A. and N.A. groups and I’d gotten to know their members, who would drop by my office to talk, share news from their lives, and occasionally to ask me if I could preside at the funerals of members who’d died.


Week after week these people gathered to recount the core tenets of their faith (“We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable / We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”), to listen to one another’s testimonies, to offer the kind of grace only another addict can give, to remind each other to “keep showing up,” and to fight for their lives. Because that’s what is at stake when you become aware of your addictions, your very life.

Do you have that sense when you come to worship, that you are here fighting for your very life?

I do.

When I look around at the world and see how badly it tries to warp the image of God, so clearly imprinted upon each of us; how it lies to us and badgers us and coerces us into giving up our self-esteem, our dignity, our love toward one another, our compassion — everything that makes us human. When I see people working themselves to death to prove to their neighbors and fellow citizens that they are worthy of acceptance and belonging. consumerismWhen I see people spending their time and their money on projects and purchases that are supposed to demonstrate, once and for all, that they made it, that they got out, that they succeeded. I see the power of death corrupting us from the inside out, worming its way into our hearts and souls and lying to us over and over again until we are willing hand over our birthright: the knowledge that, in God’s eyes, we are all good, and whole, and loved.

The alcoholic doesn’t give up drinking, the addict doesn’t give up drugs, to prove that they have willpower. They do it because they know their life is on the line and they want to live, or at least they want to want to live. So why do we “give something up” for Lent? Is it to prove the strength of our will? Is it a kind of offering to God, something we love given up to demonstrate an even deeper love? Maybe, and if so, okay. But with each passing year I hear more and more people saying, “I don’t give anything up for Lent,” and I understand why. Because if giving something up is just one more optional discipline in our already over-burdened lives, why would we bother? Most of us are going to need a deeper motivation than tradition to structure our behavior.

Let me suggest a different motivation.

You already know that our planet is in peril, that the Earth we are leaving to our children is compromised in ways that will take generations to heal. You already know that humanity is divided between the rich and the poor, that nearly half the world’s population lives on less than $3 a day. You already know that the nations are at war, that we are all experiencing the impact of a global refugee crisis. You already know that our nation is bitterly divided along partisan lines, and that our city is bleeding out from the ongoing epidemic of gun violence. You already know that this neighborhood is on the front lines of a class war that has pitted the working poor and working class against wave after wave of gentrifiers with affordable housing as the battleground. Those are the causes we most frequently name when we offer up our prayers to God — because we are conscious and we are compassionate, because we care about our neighbors and the planet we all share.

But those concerns also remain, for some of us, pretty abstract. They are the problems we know we are supposed to care about, the issues we post about on social media. They are the sorts of problems that we suppose can be fixed by having the right opinions, without requiring any true sacrifice on our part. They are the sorts of problems we can worry about, even work on, without examining our own lives too closely — without asking questions that might demand hard answers from ourselves.

ash-wednesday-2Ash Wednesday asks us to remember our mortality: “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” To know that we are not dying someday, we are already well on our way. Death is not far off for any of us, whether it comes next week or forty years from now. Our time is short, and the gift of life we have received was not meant to be wasted chasing after the false gods that promise solutions to problems they themselves have created.

Lent is for you. In the same way that Israel wandered in the wilderness for forty years in their quest to become free people, Lent is that forty day pilgrimage in which each of us is called to rigorous self-examination, to make an honest inventory of the ways we are tempted to give up on each other and ourselves, and to figure out why. Why are we so susceptible to the lure of advertising? What in our past made us feel so deficient that only the right clothes or the right neighborhood could fill that void? Why are we so willing to sacrifice our friendships and our marriages to the demands of our jobs? When did we learn that our worth was determined by our work? Why do we binge-watch hour after hour of fantasies about other people’s lives? Why are we consumed with jealousy about other people’s families? Why are we so obsessed with how much or how little we eat? What are the patterns and habits you find yourself trapped inside, and what would you have to give up if you wanted to be truly free?

Paulo Freire asks the question this way,

“What if we discover that our present way of life is irreconcilable with our vocation to become fully human?”

This is what God wants for you — that you turn and remember that you are already fully human, and that you not waste another hour of your one, precious life trying to earn something you’ve already been given as a free gift. You belong here on this earth, among the company of humanity, safe wherever you go, loved for who you are. Anything that says otherwise is a lie you need to give up — not just for Lent, but for life.

Here is what I’ve been saying about our community to those who ask me what our ministry is about: we are about creating powerful change in the lives of people so that, together, we can create powerful change in the world around us. My suspicion is that we are much more comfortable with the second half of that equation — naming and laboring for a changed world. The thing is, in order for our witness to have any credibility, we must attend to the first half of the equation as well. We cannot claim God’s love for the world if we cannot claim God’s love for ourselves. We cannot proclaim God’s liberation for the oppressed if we cannot accept God’s desire to set us free. We cannot credibly convey God’s grace to others if we cannot receive God’s grace ourselves.

So, if you are still struggling to figure out what to give up for Lent this year, try this as a starting point — try giving up the idea that there is someone more deserving of God’s grace, God’s freedom, and God’s love than you. Then, if you can figure out what it is in your life that keeps that idea alive, give that up as well. Become a ruthless investigator of your own soul and fight for it, as if you were fighting for your very life, because you are — and we are all here fighting alongside you.

Keep coming back.