Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, March 26: Fourth Sunday in Lent

Texts: 1 Sam. 16:1-13  +  Psalm 23  +  Ephesians 5:8-14  +  John 9:1-41

In the third chapter of Luke, which we read at the beginning of Advent every third year, John the Baptist quotes the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: (break) ‘Prepare the way of the Lord…’” And every time this text comes up, I remember learning that scripture, in its original Greek and Hebrew forms, doesn’t come with commas and quotation marks. We impose them on the text, and where we choose to place those periods and commas can make a world of difference. Instead of implying that the voice will come from the wilderness (as John the Baptist did), we might have read, “The voice of one crying: (break) ‘Out in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord…’” (Luke 3:4), implying that the Lord will appear in the wilderness.

What we find in the text so often reveals what we went looking for. Our expectations shape our perceptions. The gospel text illustrates this point perfectly:

As [Jesus] walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:1-2)

 The way they have framed the question already presumes the answer, that blindness is a result of sin. Furthermore, the question starts us down the path of looking for sin. It suggests some kind of invisible, underlying moral physics to the universe, a cosmos of divine cause and effect, tempting us to think that we can make the world conform to our expectations of it.

beggarSo then, what do we find in Jesus’ reply when we go looking through the filter of our expectations? “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” (v. 3) In this rendering, which is how I’ve always read it, how it has usually been read to me, no one is blamed for the issue of blindness (that’s a relief) — but an equally troubling problem is proposed, “he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” This proposes that God imposed blindness on a person, a condition which led to poverty and condemnation, so that later God could prove God’s power by healing him. A God who hurts us so that God can heal us, so that we can be properly awed by God.

Here is another way to place the periods and commas: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned. He was born blind. (break) So that God’s works might be revealed in him, we must work the works of [the One] who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.” In this framing no one is blamed for the issue of blindness (still good news), it’s simply a fact of life: he was born blind. Then a shift, a call for the disciples to join Jesus in revealing God’s indelible handiwork in each and every human life, casting no one out of the circle of God’s love and care.

During the season of Lent we’ve been preaching on some of the core doctrines of Christian faith as a way of remembering that this season has traditionally been used to prepare people for baptism by instructing them in the core tenets of our faith — and that we are all still learning what it means to be baptized. In the field of theology the term for our attempt to justify the goodness of God in the midst of so much pain and suffering is theodicy. This story seems to present us with a case study.

Beneath the question, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” is an assumption that blindness is an evil that must be accounted for. What is implied is that God imposes blindness as a punishment for sin. This says something quite terrifying about God, yet — even more terrifying — is how inclined we are to believe it.

Why does that kind of logic come so easily to us? Why are we so ready to accept the horror of a God who would torture us with the poverty and exclusion that come from something as arbitrary as a condition of birth over which a person has no control?

Because this is how we treat one another. We are conditioned from birth to accept our place in the hierarchy of humanity on the basis of things over which we have no control. We see it at the earliest of ages when children, full of curiosity, look too long or ask impolite questions about the texture of a person’s hair, the size of their body, or the color of their skin; when they notice that some people walk quickly and smoothly, while others have a slow, syncopated gait and use a cane or braces; when they see that some bodies seem male or female, but are confused by others that confound easy categorization; when they point at surprising pairings of people holding hands. When children exhibit their natural curiosity at the amazing diversity of God’s good creation they get shushed, and from that silence they learn that there is something wrong with difference. That there is one best way to be in this world, but a million ways to be wrong in it. From that silence grows a fear, “what if I am one of the things that is wrong in this world?” From that fear emerges a question, “why was I made like this?” On the basis of that question, one answer seems most obvious, “God did this to me.”

But what is obvious is not always right, especially when our questions are built on the foundations of our mistreatment of one another. Once Jesus gives sight to the man born blind the story becomes an extended debate in which the religious authorities attempt over and over again to reinforce their view of the world on a set of facts that refuse to support it. Despite the evidence of their own eyes, they cannot see what has taken place, because they have already placed the periods and commas in such a way that clearly show where God’s grace begins and ends.

For me, the most poignant moment in this story comes at the end, after the man who now has sight has been cast out of the community once again. Jesus goes out to find him, just as Jesus went out to meet the Samaritan woman at the well, just as God consistently moves toward each of us. Jesus asks, “Do you believe in the Human One?” and the man replies, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” For this man, born blind and given sight, not even the experience of being at the center of a controversy or being repeatedly oppressed and excluded from community can dim his devotion to Jesus, the one who finally treated him like a human being. Whoever the “Human One” is, if Jesus asks for belief, this man is ready to give it without doubt or hesitation. That is the quality of trust that is implied by the word “believe.”

What is the real miracle here? That a man born blind was given sight, or that a human being raised to think that he was one of the things wrong with this world came to believe — to trust without question — that he was, in fact, beloved by God?

How have you been taught that you are “one of the things wrong with this world?”

When did you discover that you are not?

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Sermons

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

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?

 

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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?

Or

How could love save us?

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Sermons

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.

Again:

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

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

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