Sermons

Sermon: Wednesday, November 29, 2017: Reign of Christ (transferred)

Texts: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24  +  Psalm 95:1-7a  +  Ephesians 1:15-23  +  Matthew 25:31-46

“What I think, is that this is hell,” is what my sister told me.

scan0026

Me and Tara, ca. 1985. Arriving in the United States from Thailand.

By this point, I’d already gone to seminary. So it occurred to me, in the moment, that my sister was articulating a very present eschatology. By this point, she’d been living with a dual-diagnosis of persistent mental illness and mild developmental delay for a few years. She’d experienced the primal wound of being abandoned by her birth mother, raised in a foster home for the first six years of her life, and then torn from the land of her birth by loving, well-intentioned people who, nevertheless, did not look like her, or speak her language. By this point, my sister, Tara, who is Thai by birth and gifted with beautiful, lustrous brown skin, had experienced a childhood filled with racism both ignorantly casual and pointedly vicious. She had spent years running away from home, running toward danger. She’d been exposed to the violence that comes with life on the streets. She’d been beaten, she’d been exploited, and when she turned to the police in a life-or-death moment looking for help escaping the horrors of her immediate surroundings, they’d taken one look at her and saw only a disheveled, disorganized, dirty, brown-skinned girl with a funny way of talking and they told her to get lost, as if she wasn’t already.

20170222-chicago-tulips-breaking-ground

Tulips, breaking through topsoil.

So we were talking, she and I, about resurrection, and what hope we may have for the future, for a life better than the ones we’d known. I was talking to her about the miracle of tulips, which seem to die over and over, only to break free from the earth again and again to show their beauty in their frailty. And that’s when she told me, “what I think, is that this is hell.”

So, my reflection on this passage from Matthew has to start there, in hell, though the text itself does not use that word. This scene of final judgment, which is unique to Matthew’s gospel, is “the only scene with any details picturing the last judgment in the New Testament.”[1] Here we hear Jesus speaking in the voice of the ruler of heaven and earth seated on a cosmic throne before all the nations, rendering a judgment that addresses each person, each of us, on the basis of how we have responded to the human beings in our midst who are experiencing on a daily basis the depth of the hells this world has to offer: hunger, thirst, hostility to all that is strange or foreign or different, the bare naked exposure of poverty, the wretchedness of disease and illness, the graceless confines of our retributive justice and our merciless prison industrial complexes. In this scene of final judgement, the Lord of the universe says nothing about people’s personal sentiments, or public proclamations. The Lord gives no consideration to who you have claimed as your “personal Lord and savior.” The Lord of time focuses, like my sister, on the present and the fires to which we have consigned each other and asks what we have done for those whose daily reality is a burning hell.

Matthew.Lindisfarne

Illustration of St. Matthew the Evangelist from the Lindisfarne Gospels. Britain, 8th century.

I haven’t always known quite what to do with the festival of the Reign of Christ at the end of each liturgical year. Over time, however, I’ve come to appreciate the opportunity it provides for us to consider the distinctive voice of the synoptic gospel assigned to the year now ending. For this last year, it has been the Gospel of Matthew. So we have been hearing the good news of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ in a recognizably Matthean mode. Matthew’s theological world draws us into a recognition of the reign of God in clear opposition to the reign of Satan; it is the only gospel to speak explicitly of the “church” as a description for the community of believers, and so it invites us to give consideration to what we think the church is and who is part of it; it insists that Jesus is the fulfillment of the law, not the abolishment of it, and in doing so it ties the ethical life of those who follow Jesus to the ethical demands of the prophets of Israel. Then there is the thorny matter of Matthew’s relationship to the rest of Judaism, as this gospel preserves the memory of a religious community divided within itself over the nature of the covenant, the revelation of the messiah, and the imperative of the present moment to acknowledge and respond to what God is doing now in human history.

These themes and tensions are always with us, and I was reminded of that fact as I read and re-read the Boston Declaration, a theological statement released last Monday at the annual meetings of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature that publicly calls out American Evangelicalism for the ways that it has stoked the fires of a very real and present hell for millions of “the least of these” who suffer under the tyranny of intersecting ideologies of oppression that have interlaced racism, colonialism, and environmental degradation in ways that have created a living hell for the peoples of Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and the US territories; that have privileged and prioritized profits for gun manufacturers over the lives of human beings; that have supported the violent hetero-patriarchy evident in the daily revelations of rampant sexual misconduct and abuse by men against women and girls in workplaces and in homes; that has scapegoated Jewish people, Muslim people, Black and Brown people, and Queer people for the sins of White Christian Patriarchy; for elevating the economic appetites of nations by respecting national borders more than the lives of those who cross them as immigrants or refugees from the living hells created by those very same nations.

The stark and unapologetically divisive nature of the Boston Declaration very much reminds me of the stark and unapologetically divisive nature of this scene from Matthew of the final judgment in which all the nations are gathered before God and the people are surprised once more to hear that God takes sides. That our apathy and misconduct cannot be dismissed or justified by our claims to ethnic or national or religious exceptionalism.

Fra_Angelico_009

“The Last Judgment” by Fra Angelico, ca. 1395-1455

We all recoil from this scene, or should if we are in the least bit self-aware. The on-going presence of hunger and thirst, violence and poverty, malicious neglect of the ill and obscene incarceration of our neighbors who are, in fact, our siblings, indicts us all as complicit in the dominion of “the devil and his angels.” (Mt. 25:41) And it simply will not do to dismiss our discomfort with reminders of our Lutheran doctrine of justification by grace through faith; to let ourselves off the hook with reminders of God’s unceasing mercy, because it is God who addresses us here. It is God who speaks these words of judgment.

So we are left to grapple with the purpose and function of this eschatological vision and the tensions it produces. It is a tension that brings me back to my sister’s own declaration: “What I think, is that this is hell.” A very present eschatology, not unlike, I think, Jesus’s own eschatology. After all, it is in Matthew’s gospel that Jesus begins his public ministry by proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Mt. 4:17) This is Matthew’s Christology, that Jesus brings the reign of God, the fulfillment of God’s promises in the past, into the present moment with consequences for all of human life, for all of creation, here and now. Now is the moment of judgment. Now is the assurance that God does, in fact, take sides. Now is the promise that the hells in which we are burning cannot stand against the waters of the Christ into whom we are baptized. Now is the moment of our salvation. Now, not in the words we say or the identities we claim, but in the acts of lovingkindness we perform for one another, for the needless misery we relieve, for the welcome we offer, for the liberation we effect. Now. Now. Now.

Hell is not a threat of future punishment by our God. It is now. Or at least that’s what I heard when I listened to my sister, one of the least of these, and I believe her. What do you suppose might happen if you, if all of us, believed the voices of the women and girls, of the strangers and foreigners, of the masses that are incarcerated, of the legions of the sick and dying, of those who hunger and thirst?

A final word before I say goodbye to Matthew for a couple more years:

We struggle with the vitriol Matthew voices against those he calls “the Jews” because of the long history of Christian anti-Semitism, which the Boston Declaration rightly both laments and condemns. In its own context, however, what Matthew gives witness to is an intra-religious conflict among people who understood themselves as belonging to the same faith, yet who still drew very different conclusions about what God was doing in the present moment and what their faith required of them as a result. Here, again, the Boston Declaration provides a timely example. We might wonder what this present moment will look like two thousand years from now to those who have the advantage of that perspective, who will be able to look back and see what this one group called Mainline Protestants said about another group called American Evangelicals. We cannot know how these divides will deepen, or heal. Perhaps we will continue to drift away from one another to such an extent that we can no longer even recognize ourselves as belonging to the same religion.

Here Matthew shows us the righteousness of God, in that, no matter how much Matthew the evangelist might wish to claim superiority over the other sects of Judaism on the basis of his theological declarations, in the end God once again confounds our ideas of righteousness by disrupting the borders we draw around nations, tribes, religions, identities by lifting up those who do what is needed to meet the needs of the wounded neighbor, the suffering sibling.

We, too, should hear this word: that God cares less for our Boston Declarations than for our actual presence with those who suffer. God cares less about the accuracy of our theological ideas than the impact of our public witness. Just as fifty years of dialogue with the Roman Catholic church has led us to a new commitment to shared acts of proclamation and service, we might imagine and should already be looking for ways to heal the rifts that divide us from the very people we now condemn. For surely, in the moment of judgment that is always already happening, we will discover once again that we are all a part of the same family, that we all bear Christ to one another, that we are all standing before the throne of God, and that we are all in this together.

Amen.

[1] “The Gospel of Matthew: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” by M. Eugene Boring in The New Interpreter’s Bible, v.8, p.455 (1995: Abingdon Press)

Standard
Sermons

Sermon: Monday, September 25, 2017: Lectionary 25 / Proper 20

This sermon was preached in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC) on Monday, September 25th.

Texts: Jonah 3:10 — 4:11  +  Psalm 145:1-8  +  Matthew 20:1-16

In my own personal history of interpretation, this parable of Jesus has gone through a series of evolutions — each one raising different questions, none fully exhausting the possibilities of the story, which I suspect is an intentional teaching strategy on Jesus’ part.

godly-consumer-art1As a confirmand, this story was presented to me as a parable of grace. The workers clearly perform different amounts of labor, yet are rewarded equally. I was nine years old when I got my first paper route to earn money toward the plane ticket that would take me to Thailand with my parents when we adopted my sister. As soon as I was legally able, at age fourteen, I got a part-time job at McDonald’s after school and on the weekends, so that I’d have some spending money to keep up with the consumer demands placed on young people who want to fit in with their peers. Early on, I’d accepted the social contract that my time was a commodity to be bought and sold on the labor market. As such, the wage slave in me knew that this story was, somehow, unfair. People who work more hours should get more pay.

But, I was taught, grace is not for sale and cannot be earned — and this is a story about grace. So the hard working student in me set his mind to mastering this bit of Lutheran dogma — there is nothing I can say or do to earn God’s grace, love, or forgiveness. God, like the owner of the vineyard, is free to do as God wishes. And what God wishes is for everyone to live upon the earth equally.

Later on, after college, I spent a year teaching junior high in the Boston Public School system. I learned a lot that year about the art of teaching, stuff I’d read in books about developmental psychology took on three dimensions in the young people with whom I spent my days. As I struggled to scale the undergraduate education of which I was so proud down to an age-appropriate takeaway for the twelve to fourteen year olds before me, I began to wonder what had been stripped out of my own Christian education and formation.

Like this parable. Was God really like the owner of the McDonald’s franchise down the street from my folks’ house in Des Moines? Was the only thing being critiqued in this story the sense of injustice felt by the workers when the value of their labor was set aside for some kind of non-negotiated guaranteed income? I’d had just enough exposure to both Marx and post-modernism in college to be suspicious of this (and every) text. I wanted better answers to my questions.

In seminary I learned to read scripture with an awareness of the history surrounding each text, to ask questions about how power and wealth operated in the lives of the people who would have heard these stories first so that I could make better guesses about what these stories might have sounded like to their ears. I began to learn how military occupation had transformed a subsistence economy into an export economy, how ancestral lands had been stolen by invading powers, how peoples who’d once worked the land or fished the sea to feed their families now worked the land and fished the sea to earn a wage off of which their families could barely survive. I wondered why Jesus would tell such people a story about a land owner who took away their last inalienable asset, their labor, and would identify God with such an actor. God as the conquering power, the robber baron, the proto-industrialist, the erratic capitalist. My childhood faith held firm, that God wishes for everyone to live upon the earth equally, but how this story conveyed that message was far less clear.

In 1989 Peggy McIntosh published the article, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” giving fresh language and a new conceptual framework to an enduring problem. Twenty years later in 2009 she published a shorter, lesser known, article titled, White People Facing Race: Uncovering the Myths that Keep Racism in Place. In it, McIntosh asserts that white people “resist looking at racism because we fear damage to ourselves as ‘good people’ in the ‘greatest country’ in the world,” and asks the question, “how have whites kept such a strong sense of pride and deservedness?”

quote-white-privilege-is-the-unquestioned-and-unearned-set-of-advantages-entitlements-benefits-peggy-mcintosh-85-82-05

The answer she proposes is that white people have been raised on five strong cultural myths: meritocracy, manifest destiny, white racelessness, monoculture, and white moral elevation. It is the first of these myths, the myth of meritocracy, that draws my attention as I think about this strange parable of Jesus and wonder what he was doing when he told it to these occupied people in first century Palestine.

In her essay, McIntosh defines meritocracy as

“The myth that the individual is the only unit of society, and that whatever a person ends up with must be what [they] individually wanted, worked for, earned and deserved. This myth rests on the assumption that what people experience; how they see, feel, think, and behave; and what they are capable of accomplishing are not influenced by any social system or circumstance. The myth of meritocracy acknowledges no systems of oppression or privilege that, for various people and in various situations, could make life arbitrarily more, or less, difficult.”

When I look back and try to remember what nine year old Erik thought, as he delivered the newspaper; or what fourteen year old Erik thought, as he passed milkshakes through the window at the drive through, it’s complicated. There was some resentment, in that I realized that not everyone seemed to need to work in the ways I did to have the things I wanted. And there was some pride in discovering that when I worked hard, I could affect my environment. As a young person, who often had very little control over my environment, this was an empowering discovery. But I suspect it also laid the groundwork for a false logic that the powers of racism and capitalism later exploited: the assumption that everyone could just do what I did and get what I’d gotten. The myth of meritocracy.

I wonder if Jesus told this parable to people whose ancient ways of being and belonging were being disrupted as a way of agitating them, intentionally provoking them, helping them to remember that they had once been more than wage slaves and that in God’s economy they’d never been slaves at all. Could it be that this story wasn’t comparing God to a wealthy landowner, but instead critiquing the ways that both oppressor and oppressed come to accept and internalize the myths that structure and support all the violence that follows from them?

The myth of meritocracy is just that, a myth. It’s simply impossible that any of us is self-made. We are all products of the complex web of relationships that connects us to one another. For this reason, it’s just as impossible to say that any of us are getting what we deserve in any individual sense. Individually we are all simultaneously paying it forward and cashing in on the labor of others. It is only collectively that we might be able to say that we are reaping what we have sown.

Therefore, because we have sown fear of our neighbors, we have reaped this new travel ban. Because we have sown colonialism we have reaped devastation in the form of hurricane damage in Puerto Rico and throughout the Caribbean that could have been mitigated if the United States had invested in infrastructure and the economy long ago. Because we have sown white supremacy and enforced it with a militarized police force, we have reaped a national discourse in which taking a knee and proclaiming that Black Lives Matter is tantamount in the eyes of many to an act of treason. Here, the “we” I speak of stands in for all the various estate owners in my current understanding of this parable of Jesus; who are, most often, white people.

But our unpacking of this parable remains incomplete if we do not also ask ourselves how we have internalized the myth of meritocracy. How old were each of you when you learned the rules of this deadly game? When and how did you start playing by the rules? How has accepting the rules of this rigged game saved your life? How has it destroyed your relationships? What did you have to give up to get over?

I don’t think my confirmation teachers were lying to me when they bottom lined this parable as a story demonstrating that God’s love is free and cannot be earned. I just think they knew that we were only just beginning to understand the rules of the game, and that they themselves were caught up in the myth. I still believe, I know, that God wishes for everyone to live upon the earth equally. I also believe, I know, that Jesus will keep troubling my certainties and disrupting my attempts to accommodate myself to the lies this world tells, until we can all remember that we are all in this together.

Amen.

Hear this sermon preached aloud here.

Standard
Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, September 10, 2017: Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost — Leave-Taking and Farewell to St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square

Texts: Ezekiel 33:7-11  +  Psalm 119:33-40  +  Romans 13:8-14  +  Matthew 18:15-20

Before I headed off to seminary — the first time, almost twenty years ago — I reached out to all of my former pastors, people who’d known me since I was a child. I needed their help as I tried to understand what it might mean for me to set off on this path, when the ending was so unclear. I wanted to know if they thought I was making a mistake. After all, what was I hoping for, going to seminary as an openly gay man at a time when our church refused to ordain gay people?

AR-304059984.jpg&q=80&MaxW=550&MaxH=400&RCRadius=5Each of my pastors shared their own bits of wisdom with me, but one pastor’s response in particular sticks out to me as I stand here with you for the last time in my capacity as your pastor. Pastor Elton Richards of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Des Moines, Iowa, who’d known me during my high school years, told me to “keep singing.”

He’d always said kind things about my voice when I was younger. He’d ask, “How’s my favorite tenor doing?” He did the same with my mom, who has a beautiful soprano voice. So when he signed his letter to me, reflecting on my call to ministry, with the words “Keep singing,” I didn’t think much of it at first. It seemed like another way of saying, “I remember you. I see your gifts.” And even if that’s all he was saying, that would’ve been powerful enough. “I remember you. I see your gifts.”

I think about how powerful those words could have been to the people of St. Luke’s twelve years ago, just before we began this redevelopment. The handful of people who’d clung to the hope that their congregation might still have a future, when the rest of the church had all but given up on them. “I remember you. I see your gifts.”

Dad's Photos 002 (2)

St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square; October, 2006

But, whether he meant more than that or not, Pastor Richard’s words to me have come to mean more than being seen and acknowledged. For me, “keep singing,” means something more than sharing my gifts, it means “be yourself.” It means, “tell the truth.” It means, “don’t stop now.” It means, “change is coming.”

Baltic_Way_1

Photo of “The Baltic Way” (1989)

It wasn’t until I went to seminary — the first time — that I learned about the Singing Revolution, the term coined by the Estonian artist and activist, Heinz Valk, to describe the non-violent means by which the peoples of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia sought their freedom from the Soviet Union in the late 80s and early 90s. In one of the most famous of these actions, the Baltic Way, about two million people joined hands to form a human chain that stretched over four hundred miles, crossing the national borders of all three Baltic states. Together, they sang songs that expressed their hope for a new nation, a new future. Through a series of actions like this one, Estonia regained its independence without violence or bloodshed.

The text we’ve heard this morning from Romans is now, for me, forever a song. “You know what time it is, now is the moment to wake from sleep. Salvation is nearer to us now, is nearer now then when we first believed. The night is far gone, the day is near. You know what time it is, now is the moment to wake from sleep.” (Rom. 13:11-12) We’ve used this text as a sung gospel acclamation during the season of Advent for years, so that now, when I read those words and hear that tune, I also remember that season: Advent, a season that fills the long nights with songs about the coming light, about hope for a new tomorrow, about God’s faithfulness to God’s promises.

0225BACE-C31A-447F-B5F3-CF9241BD91D1Despite the great love I have for you, and the light that floods this room through these larger-than-life windows facing out onto the street, in many ways the world outside this sanctuary feels trapped in a long and lengthening night. There’s no way we can gather this morning for worship without naming the devastation that’s been taking place during this hurricane season. Harvey has been called “the worst disaster in Texas history.” At least seventy people died and recovery efforts will take years. Irma is breaking records for intensity and duration, and left a path of devastation across the Caribbean before landing in Florida yesterday. Hundreds of thousands of people have been advised to flee the storm in “one of the largest evacuations in American history.” All credible science tells us that the intensity and frequency of these storms is connected to climate change, and that we should plan to see this trend get worse as long as we continue to ignore the ecological crisis in which we are now living.

And, in some kind of societal equivalent to the devastation of the natural world, we also seem to be living in the eye of another storm of racism and nationalism, as politicians pour gasoline on the fires of racial resentment and white supremacy for short term personal gain at the expense of our common life as a nation. From the riots in Charlottesville to the rescinding of DACA protections for the Dreamers in our communities, we have every reason to think that this storm will continue to rage on as well, as long as we ignore the root causes of the human crisis we have created.

This is what God tells the prophet Ezekiel to announce to the nation: “Turn back, turn back, from your evil ways!” (Ezek. 33:11) That is our job as well, to keep singing, to keep telling the truth, to never give up, to herald the dawn while the night still feels long.

It feels almost ridiculous to try to connect the massive destruction being done to people and places by these raging forces of nature (both human and environmental) and the intimate moment we are sharing here, together, as we say goodbye to each other after eleven years of ministry. But it is not. Not at all.

21370983_10155670135457453_8512820843859694856_n

Kerry and Pastor Erik, Farewell Patio Party; September 4, 2017

On Monday night you all shared such kind words with me and Kerry about what our ministry together here at St. Luke’s has meant to each of you. Something Katie Baxter said has stuck with me all week. She said that I brought with me a gift for reminding St. Luke’s of its story, and telling it back to you over and over again. It meant so much for me to hear you say that, because that’s exactly what I was trying to do. It’s what all of us who preach are trying to do: to remind the church of who we are in light of who God is, to keep singing the song that started long before our verse began.

So let me do this with you one last time. Let me remind you of the part you play in the larger story, your verse in the cosmic song:

When I came to you, after a long journey of my own in which the odds seemed stacked against me, the church as it was did not recognize my ministry in this place. In the technical jargon that props up institutions, the pulpit at St. Luke’s was listed as “vacant” for the first few years of our work together.

What we did, as piece by piece we began to rebuild the foundations of this congregation, was to contribute one more story to a narrative that had already been forming for decades, a story that showed how God calls people from all walks of life, of every sexual orientation and gender identity, to lead God’s church. Our story, our success, was part of a great human chain that stretched across the church, sometimes quite literally across the floors of synod and churchwide assemblies, creating change out of nothing more than hope for the children coming up behind us, faith in the God of liberation, and the songs that kept us standing. We stood against that storm and it did not overcome us. It was we who overcame, and we shall overcome again and again until the whole human family is free.

orlando_vigil_2005a

You are a part of that chain. We are a part of that much longer chain. The bonds between us. The love we’ve shared. The church we’ve built. The future we’ve imagined. None of that is going away. Everything we’ve been doing until now has just been part of the labor pains, one great push toward the delivery of the new creation.

Now is not the time to stop pushing. Now is the time to take a deep breath and look one another in the eye, to take hold of one another’s hands, to remember who we are and what we were made for. The sounds that come next may sound as much like a howl as a song, but they will carry the truth of this moment to ears that have been longing to know, waiting to hear if the church has anything to say, anything to sing, that makes any kind of difference in times like these. So the songs we sing next, wherever our journeys take us, had better not be confined to these small places. They need to be heard out in the world, in the streets, in the halls of power, at the voting booth, in the break room, over countless meals with family and friends and strangers.

As you set off on the next leg of your journey now, the path unclear but the destination absolutely certain, I have only hand-me-down words to offer. Thankfully, hand-me-down words are to a preacher what notes are to a composer — you’ve heard them all before, but they still have the power to move you. So I’ll leave you with some of the best words I’ve ever heard.

Keep singing.

Keep singing.

Keep singing.

Standard