Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, July 23, 2017: Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Text: Romans 8:12-25

Just to get our blood flowing, let’s stretch our bodies a bit by raising our hands if any of the following apply to ourselves. This isn’t going to be one of those on the spot confessions that you later are made to feel dumb for having participated in. I just want folks to get a sense for the things we have in common. The topic is debt.

Raise your hand if you carry debt on a mortgage.

Raise your hand if you carry debt on a car.

Raise your hand if you carry debt on a credit card.

Raise your hand if you carry debt on a student loan.

Raise your hand if you carry medical debt.

Raise your hand if you carry personal debt to a friend or family member.

We are very indebted people, carrying heavy debt burdens. According to one recent report, “debt is a way of life for Americans, with overall U.S. household debt increasing by 11% in the past decade. Today, the average household with credit card debt has balances totaling $16,425, and the average household with any kind of debt owes $135,924, including mortgages.” For those households where there is student debt, the average amount being carried is just over $50,000. For those households making payments on a car loan, the average balance on that debt is almost $30,000.

While there’s no one reason why each of us are carrying so much debt — we do, after all, each make our own decisions — there are some broad economic trends which affect us all. The cost of living has, on average, increased more quickly than our household income. While median income has grown by 28% over the last fifteen years, the cost of living has gone up 30%. Medical costs have increased by 57% and food and beverage prices by 36%. It is exactly as Hope has been reminding us week after week, prices are going up and up and up!

When the cost of living increases, debt increases. Despite stereotypes of careless spending on easy credit, the reality for many families is that credit is how they cover the difference between what may come in over a month and what it takes to feed, clothe, and care for themselves and their children. Minimum wage work leaves millions of people living from paycheck to paycheck, with credit as one of their only safety nets. Pursuing an education in order to get higher paying work comes with its own dangers. Student loan debt has increased by 186% in the last decade as the long recession forced people out of work and back to school.

It’s no wonder then, that we tend to think of debt as bad. We are so heavy laden with the kinds of debt that constrain our freedom and crush our spirits that it’s difficult to think of debt in positive terms. We’ve heard of “good debt” and “bad debt” in the economic realm and it has, perhaps, guided our choices. In today’s portion of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, he also talks about debt — good debt and bad debt — though we have to go back, parse his sentence, and read between the lines, to understand what he’s saying.

“So then, [siblings], we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh — for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” (Rom. 8:12-13)

The beginning of this sentence is clear: we are debtors. Then Paul sets up an opposition he never quite finishes, leaving us to infer the ending. “We are debtors, not to the flesh,” but … to something else, something being contrasted with the flesh, which turns out to be the Spirit.

However, our relationship to the Spirit is so radically different from our relationship to what Paul is calling “the flesh” that we can barely understand it in terms of debt as we know it, because it is the exact opposite of how we have experienced debt in the rest of our lives. Paul says that the Spirit of God makes us children of God. That the Spirit of God is the spirit of adoption. It is a spirit that increases our connectedness, that strengthens the bonds that tie us together. Paul contrasts this with the spirit of slavery, evoking once again the image of God’s people liberated from the bondage of Egypt through the waters of the sea.

This begins to make sense, at least to me. There are definitely forms of debt that feel infused with the spirit of slavery; debt that pushes me down and traps me in place; debt that makes me feel like an anonymous cog in a global machine that is extracting life out of me to create wealth and prosperity for a class of people I’ll never meet.

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Then I consider how my own life benefits from the condition of debt between nations that keeps the wealth flowing up from impoverished continents to supply me with cheap(er) food and oil and clothing, and I see that I am living higher up on the pyramid; that I am someone’s Pharaoh, part of a class of people they will never meet. This way of ordering life strips human flesh of the divine image and treats people like objects to be used and discarded. If we live according to the broken logic of this broken system, we will die.

There is this other kind of debt, however, that does not kill us. Instead, it’s the exact opposite, it sets us free from “bondage to decay.” It is the debt I inherited in baptism, when I crossed through the waters that led me to freedom.

Oh, to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be; / let that grace now like a fetter bind my wandering heart to thee. / Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it; prone to leave the God I love. / Here’s my heart, oh, take and seal it; seal it for thy courts above.

There is a form of debt that we take on whenever we are loved, which is a debt we can never repay — not because it weakens us or traps us in a dependent state — but because love is not for sale. Love breaks down the market forces that turn everything and everyone into a commodity. By love we adopt one another into our families, into our hearts. We invest without concern for return on investment, so that when love’s dividends are finally paid we are glad to immediately give them away, reinvesting them in one another.

Raise your hand if a parent, or a family member, or a teacher, or a friend, or a partner, or a spouse, or a child ever loved you in a way that made you more human, more free, more alive.

Then you are a debtor to grace, which is love’s currency.

I have a dream for St. Luke’s — which I guess I now have to say is my dream for the whole church — that we would continue to grow and become a powerful church that transforms lives and changes the world. By powerful I don’t mean the kind of power shaped like a pyramid, where each of us uses those below us to try and get higher up ourselves. I mean the power that comes when we look at our neighbors, every single one of them, and see children of God, joint heirs with Christ of a love that liberates us from the forces that deal death to our flesh and to our spirits. The power that comes from being members of a family more numerous than the stars in the sky, a family spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south (Gen. 28:14).

Imagine all those siblings. Hear their groaning cries. The whole creation is laboring to be transformed, to be changed, to be saved. That work, which Paul describes as “suffering with Christ so that we may also be glorified with Christ,” is love’s debt. It is the work we do not in order to be loved, but because we have already been given the first fruits of God’s love — we have been given each other. That alone is cause for hope.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, July 2, 2017: Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Text: Romans 6:12-23

There is a story you already know that is the story you are always longing to hear.

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Does that seem possible? If you let your mind search through the cabinet drawers of your heart and your memory, is there a story there you are always longing to hear? Is it a story from your childhood, one of the ones adults placed in your hands filled with archetypes of heroes and metaphors for the lives you could only imagine? Is it a bit of family lore, a founding myth that explains why your people are the way they are? Is it to be found threaded into all the novels and movies and television shows that are streaming into our homes? Is there a story behind all the stories?

There is a story you already know that is the story you are always longing to hear.

What kind of story must it be for you to know it, and for me to know that you know it? What aspect of human existence is broad enough that it can bridge all the differences that divide us? What feature of human life is so universal that a single story about this theme can speak to us all, while still respecting our essential differences?

The story you know, the story you long to hear, is the story of freedom.

Does that seem right? What are our coming-of-age movies — The Breakfast Club, Lean on Me, Real Women Have Curves, heck, even 13 Going on 30 — if not the stories of young people running hard into the predetermined limits of adulthood and striving to achieve a kind of freedom of self-determination at the front end of a long life defined by other people’s expectations for them?

Freedom is the heartbeat of so many other types of stories. In love stories it is the freedom to be ourselves while joining with another. In mysteries it is wed to the theme of truth which is always breaking free of attempts to hide it. In war stories, freedom is the reason offered first for why people are willing to die. In our greatest epics, the stories of our nations, freedom is promise that drives people to leave their homes, to sacrifice their health, to work harder than they’ve ever worked before, to risk their lives and even to give them up, for the hope of a freedom they may never see.

In a version of the world that existed before the internet, or the radio, or even the printing press, our stories were still freedom stories — passed down by memory from one generation to the next. In the first century, just decades after the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, the apostle Paul could count on his audience having access to these oral traditions, to a common library of shared stories. Among these stories, there was one that perfectly captured their experience of life, that brought together the reality of oppression with the promise of liberation. That story was the story of the exodus of the Hebrew people from slavery under Pharaoh to the promised land of freedom.

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For thousands of years we have been telling that story. In fact, it was already ancient by the time John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness calling people out of the city to repent and be baptized. That baptism was a sign of the original passage through water that liberated the Hebrews from bondage in Egypt. Those waters were the starting point for the ministry of Jesus, and that ministry — a life lived freely for others in defiance of empire, which led to the cross but ended with the resurrection — is the defining moment in all of history for Paul’s message to the church in Rome.

For Paul the story of Jesus makes no sense without the story of the exodus. They are of a piece. The God who brought God’s people through the Red Sea and made them free is the God who claims all people as God’s own people through the waters of baptism and liberates them from the power of death which continues to do its best to choke the life out of the world, and each of us as well.

And, just as it took the Israelites generations of wandering in the wilderness to learn to live like free people instead of slaves, so we also are learning to live in the manner of people saved by grace and not by our own slavish commitment to the false idols of this world. The Israelites were free of Pharaoh the moment they set foot on dry land and the waters crashed in on Pharaoh’s armies, but still they looked back at the enticements of their former slavery with longing and grumbled in the desert. So, Paul acknowledges, though we too are already free, having been baptized into Christ, we also struggle to live fully into the reality of that freedom. We, too, look at the world through the logic of our former captivity and long for its rewards — even when we know that those rewards bring us no closer to the freedom we desire, and that they may even hasten our death!

When you tell the story of your life, what is the freedom you long for? When you search your calendar or your credit card statement, what is the evidence you find of your quest for that freedom? Is the manner in which you spend your life reflective of the freedom that is your birthright, or does it show evidence of the habits that distract you from the hard work of liberation?

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About a week ago I got to meet Jamie Kalven, an award-winning journalist and human rights activist from the South Side of Chicago who has chronicled the deep legacy of police abuses and unchecked power in the city of Chicago and broke the story on the cover-up of the killing of Laquan McDonald. As he spoke to the group of clergy I was with, he recounted to us the history of freedom movements in repressive states, what he called “glaciated totalitarianism.” In such places, like Czechoslovakia under communism or South Africa under apartheid, freedom fighters and dissidents operated on what he called the “as if” principle, asking themselves, “what would happen if we behaved as if we were neighbors?” when, politically, everything was set up to keep that from happening.

The effect he described was the creation of new power. Rather than cowering in fear of repressive power, or sacrificing their vision in order to be granted a small apportionment of corrupt power, people who behaved “as if” their future citizenship had already been secured generated a new kind of power that caught hold of the imaginations of their fellow citizens and launched movements that led to lasting change.

What would happen in your life, in our life together, if we acted “as if” we were already free of the forces that oppress us, of the stories that overwrite us with a vision for our lives that is not our own?

There is a story you already know that is the story you are always longing to hear. If you were to live your life as if that story is true, what would have to change? What do you think? Shall we live “as if” …

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, June 18, 2017: 2nd Sunday after Pentecost

Text: Romans 5:1-8

 

Louie C.K., star of 'Louie' arrives at the FX Network series premiere of 'Wilfred' and season two launch of 'Louie' in Hollywood

Louis C.K.

The comedian Louis C.K. has a bit in one of his stand-up routines in which he points out the reality of Christian cultural dominance.

 

“I always tell my kids, ‘There are many religions in the world and they’re all equal, but the Christians are the main one.’ That’s what I tell them. ‘The Christians won. They’re the winners, so act accordingly. Congratulate Christians when you meet them, because they won the world.’

And it’s true. It’s true! We love to tell ourselves, ‘Every religion is exactly…’ No, no they’re not. The Christians won everything, a long time ago. If you don’t believe me, let me ask you a question: what year is it?”

He goes on from there to illustrate the point, imagining a conversation between a couple of grown adults back in the year 3. How do they explain that? Or people living before the “common era,” what we used to call “B.C.” in an effort to acknowledge that not everyone makes the same confessional claims about the human being named Jesus that Christians recognize as the Child of God and Lord of Creation. So now, instead of referring to things which occurred before his birth as “B.C.” we say that they happened “B.C.E.” before the common era. Which, instead of forcing a non-Christian to publicly order time according to someone’s else’s religion, now allows them to simply acknowledge that time is most commonly ordered by someone else’s religion, though not their own, if they should even happen to be religious.

For the next ten weeks we’re going to be focusing very intentionally on the book of Romans — which, in its own odd way, requires us to unwind this way of thinking about time. Like those imagined adults trying to talk about their age at the dawn of the common era, Romans is a piece of religious literature that is trying to talk about religious identity before the labels we use today were being applied. Unlike some books of the bible, the scholarly consensus is quite firm, not only about the fact that this letter is authentically Pauline, but even about the date it was written. The common assumption is that this letter can be dated to somewhere in the mid to late 50s, which places it twenty-plus years after the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth.

So try to hold on to that. This letter from Paul to the church in Rome, a letter that will repeatedly refer to the tensions between Jews who confess Jesus as the messiah and Jews who do not and Gentiles who name Jesus as Lord and Gentiles who do not, this letter knows nothing about what we would call “Christianity.” There is no “Holy Roman Catholic Church” here. There’s not even an inkling of what a Protestant might someday be. There is the Jewish people, the people of Israel, living under Roman rule in a religiously pluralistic world in which the empire doesn’t really much care who or what you worship as long as it doesn’t get in the way of the empire’s insatiable appetite for growth and domination. Back in Jerusalem there is a small, but growing, community of Jews who believe that the long-expected messiah who would come to liberate them from Rome the way Moses liberated the people from Pharaoh had come in the most shocking way imaginable: as a countryside prophet who’d faced off against the empire and been killed for it. This Jesus, they said, God raised up from the dead and now sits at God’s right hand.

And as the community of Jewish believers in Jerusalem focused on sharing this message with other Jews, Paul — a scholar of Jewish law and one-time persecutor of the followers of Jesus — has been radicalized. Not only has he gone from persecuting the followers of Jesus to joining them, he has become an apostle to the Gentiles preaching that Jesus had come to liberate not only the nation of Israel, but all of humanity, and even all of creation!

That improbable message, delivered by that unlikely person, is the one that Louis C.K. says “wins.” And from the very beginning, it is a message that has to deal with race.

Now, in saying that, I’m intentionally blurring the very lines of history that I was just trying to tidy up. Because, to say that the gospel message preached by Paul had to deal with race is to invoke a concept that means something very specific today; something loaded with a legacy of violent power relations in much the same way that our way of keeping time globally by tracking “the year of our Lord” comes with a legacy of violent colonialism blessed by a church that Paul could never have imagined.

What Paul would have had no trouble imagining was the deep suspicion and hostility that existed between Jews and Gentiles. It is the same suspicion and hostility that exists anywhere between communities that are scapegoated and targeted by the regime in power and those who benefit from that same regime. It’s not that Jews and Gentiles didn’t have dealings with each other out in the marketplace. Not that Jews and Gentiles didn’t know each other’s names and exchange sincere and friendly words. It’s not even that there could be no friendship between Jews and Gentiles, or even love that crossed lines and produced children. It’s that Jews carried the memories of centuries of occupation and oppression, of being targeted and scapegoated.

In fact, in the decade just prior to Paul’s letter to the Romans, the Roman emperor Claudius had expelled all the Jews from Rome, as had happened twenty years earlier, when Jesus himself would have been a young adult, before the start of his public ministry. Jews knew that the regime in power only tolerated them so long as they remembered their place. So long as they didn’t make any moves to grow their base, or change their situation in life. It’s no wonder then that Paul spent plenty of time in prison, because his ministry was about building community — which is to say, building power — across racial lines.

Paul’s letter to the Romans explicitly addresses the barely buried lines that divide this multicultural church. The letter, which can be divided into four parts, begins by spelling out exactly what observant Jews would have thought of the Gentiles in their midst, a kind of racial profiling. Then, Paul flips the script on them, accusing them of hypocrisy for being guilty of all the same vices they abhorred in their neighbors. Their hypocrisy stinks all the more, Paul presses, because though guilty of the same offenses, they believe themselves to be superior to those they hate because of their racial and religious heritage. This, Paul deconstructs, returning to the story of Abraham their ancestor and reimagining the terms by which Abraham is to be remembered as righteous — not as the father to a nation, but as a human being trusting entirely in God’s righteousness. Ethnic pride is replaced with radical trust that God is working through history for the redemption of everyone and everything that God has made. Thus we are justified by faith, apart from any works prescribed by the law. (Rom. 3:28)

This is how we arrive at the passage from Romans read this morning, which is the beginning of the second full section of the letter. Already Paul has named the ethnic tensions in the room. Already he has invoked the long legacy of animus and prejudice. No one needs to spell out the reasons why it is hard for Jews and Gentiles to just “get along.”

You know what I mean? You hear what I’m saying?

 

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Philando Castile’s mother, Valerie, reacts to the not guilty verdict.

Think of the anti-Muslim demonstrations here in Chicago this past week. Think of the families and colleagues of the politicians who were the target of the gunman in Washington, D.C. Think of Philando Castile’s mother raging at the nation that robbed her of her son and denied him justice in death. Think of all these people and their stories, their lives, their hopes, their anger, their anguish. Who are you in this story? Who are you in this story that repeats generation after generation, this story of people sitting in a room, divided by their shared history, longing for a future better than their past?

 

Those stories were seated side by side in a room somewhere in Rome in the mid to late 50s: stories of ancient oppression and violent colonization, stories of radical conversion and unlikely community, stories of power being built across lines meant to divide. But the tension is simmering, just under the surface, the way it always is. Then someone stands up and reads a letter to the congregation from a faraway teacher and the part you hear with fresh ears is this:

“Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Rom. 5:1-5)

This is the promise of God, as reliable as the grace that comes to us by faith, that in this community of people divided by history but united by love, we do not have to remain quiet about what harms us! We do not have to pretend that we are all “alright” when the world is doing everything it can to exploit us and pit us against each other. We do not have to blame ourselves for the pain we are living with any more than we need to blame each other for the violent legacies we have inherited. Instead we can boast in our sufferings. We can tell the truth about how this present age has harmed us because our faith rests in the God who is bringing to birth a new creation. We can see the agonizing spasms of this present moment as the prelude to something new and better.

We can boast in our sufferings because we know that what we can share with one another has the power to build us up instead of tear us down. What we can share with each other produces endurance. What we can share with each other produces character, which is to say that it changes us. It takes the raw clay out of which we are made and molds us into something new. We are being transformed by one another’s suffering. We are bearing one another’s burdens. We are saying and doing things that feel outside our comfort zone. We are taking bigger risks for the sake of a bigger community, a wider sense of clan, an expanding vision of humanity in which none of us can claim superiority over another on the basis of the identities we inherited but never asked for.

This character, the character that is forming each of us and all of us together, is the source of our hope. It is no naive, amnesiac hope. It is the hope that remembers all we have suffered, all we have overcome, all that God has brought us through. It is the trust that God will do it again, and again, and again. That God is not done with us until we understand that “us” means all of us. That is the hope that does not disappoint.

It is a hope born of love, which is the subject of this letter.

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