Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, January 29, 2017: Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Texts: Micah 6:1-8  +  Psalm 15  +  1 Corinthians 1:18-31  +  Matthew 5:1-12

Friday was International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The date, January 27th, is tied to the date in 1945 on which the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp where 1.1 million Jews and other “undesirables” were killed was liberated by the Russians. To mark the day, I took my first trip to the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in Skokie. The museum is laid out in such a way that visitors essentially walk a timeline, viewing artifacts, reading placards and watching short movies describing how an entire nation was swept by anti-democratic forces that ultimately invested total power in a racist dictator who then presided over the largest genocide our world has ever known.

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On this particular day, at this specific day in history, it was impossible not to notice the moments along that timeline when foreign nations had the power to rescue those Jews and other refugees of war fleeing for their lives, but chose not to.  img_0423The United States and other nations built “paper walls” along our borders, burying immigrants in policies and procedures that made it nearly impossible to enter the country legally.

I suspect many of you have seen the shameful bit of American history that’s resurfaced on the internet this past week: the saga of the German ocean liner named the MS St. Louis which crossed the Atlantic in 1939 carrying over 900 Jewish refugees from Germany in the hopes of resettling them in Americas. The ship was denied entry into Cuba, the United States, and Canada and was forced to return to Europe where a quarter of its passengers later died in Nazi death camps.

After the war, even after we’d learned the full extent of what had taken place, still America was reluctant to welcome the survivors of the holocaust upon our shores.

Libby A’Hearn Gilmore, a beloved former member of St. Luke’s and 8th-grade teacher who also took her students to the Holocaust museum this past week shared the following on Facebook:

Americans knew that the Nazis were persecuting the Jewish people and yet they stood idly by. We were prejudiced and so concerned with our own economic well-being that we did not want to intervene or welcome Jewish refugees. Now, decades later, most Americans look back at this inaction with shame and regret … Americans look back at the tragedy of the Holocaust and think, “I wish we would have prevented this tragedy.” How will future generations judge our response to the Syrian refugee crisis? We must continue to welcome Syrian refugees and increase our quotas.

Within days of her post, our new president signed executive orders that indefinitely bar Syrian refugees from entering the United States and effectively block entry by citizens from predominantly Muslim nations.

Racism and religion are as old and inseparable as scripture itself. Our holy book contains in both testaments accounts of God’s people purposefully self-segregating and violently resisting calls for transformation and renewal. Over and over again we choose to ignore and deny what God is dying to show us about the unity of creation and our common inheritance that defies all attempts to be confined to any particular race, class, or nation. We continually choose the lesser gods of ethnic pride, upward mobility, and nationalism.

“But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.” (1 Cor. 1:27-29)

Lest we miss the point: God chose, God chose, God chose. Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth stands as a rebuttal to marketplace spirituality, relativized religion, choose-your-own deity, “we’ll just have to agree to disagree” rhetoric. God takes sides and, depending on where we’ve chosen to place our bodies or stockpile our wealth, it may not be our side.

It is certainly not the side of complacency in the presence of suffering, or conspicuous consumption in the presence of poverty. It is not the side of passivity in the face of violence and oppression, or ambivalence in the moment of crisis. God takes the side of the poor, the mourners, the meek, those who crave righteousness, who show mercy, who model purity, who make peace, whose commitment to God’s reign leads to persecution and slander.

When Jesus pronounced God’s blessing upon the poor, the mourners, the meek and all the rest, he was not echoing the conventional wisdom of the day. He was taking sides with those the Empire called “losers.” He was casting his lot with the world’s undesirables. He was planting the seed that, once planted in the earth, would grow to become the nation of Denmark sheltering Jewish refugees and white college students on integrated buses bombed by the Klan. Power and privilege emptying itself for the sake of “what is low and despised in the world.”

So today, as we gather to receive God’s blessings at font and table, we must remember all those others whom God is blessing this day. We must hear the Beatitudes as Jesus might speak them if he were delivering the sermon at this moment in time, in this place, under this Empire:

Blessed are the migrants, for their citizenship is in heaven.

Blessed are the refugees and asylum seekers, for they shall find safety.

Blessed are those whose family members died trying to get here, for they shall be consoled.

Blessed are those who march, who make calls, who write, who organize, who never give up, for they shall be able to live with themselves.

Blessed are the Muslims. Blessed are the Syrians and the Iranians, the Iraqis and the Libyans, the Somalis and the Sudanese and the Yemenis, for they shall be called children of God.

Blessed are you when people call you dreamers or idealists, when they call you soft or stupid when they attack you in public or fall silent over dinner.

Rejoice and be glad, for you are standing in the lineage of the long line of God’s prophets who have remembered in every age that we are one, and we are God’s, so we belong to each other and are called to be a blessing upon the Earth.

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, January 22, 2017: Third Sunday after Epiphany

Texts: Isaiah 9:1-4  +  Psalm 27:1,4-9  +  1 Cor. 1:10-18  +  Matt. 4:12-23

How many of you were at the Women’s March downtown yesterday? I didn’t go, though I wondered all week if I would. I’ve been to a few marches in my life, but only one that could really compare to the quarter million people who turned out yesterday morning to pack the streets of Chicago in a demonstration of solidarity and cry for justice. It was the 1993 March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation (yeah, we didn’t get the T added to the official marches of the movement until the 2009 march).

In 1993 I was 19 years old and a college sophomore. I’d only started coming out six months earlier, and my therapist at the student counseling center had recommended that I try to attend the march if possible. A group of students from my alma mater, Macalester College, chartered a tour bus and about 50 of us rode all night from Minneapolis to Washington, D.C. to attend the march. After getting dropped off at Union Station late Saturday morning we took the subway to Dupont Circle, which is historically the heart of the gay community in D.C.

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I will never for the rest of my life forget what it felt like as we got off the train in Dupont Circle. That subway station is deep underground and to get to street level you either walk up a huge number of stairs or you take one of the longest escalators I’ve ever seen (I took the escalator). The opening onto the street is circular, with a short wall surrounding it. As we rose slowly from beneath the earth we could see that circle of bright sunlight above us getting larger and larger, and we could hear the voices of thousands of people chanting and cheering something, something we couldn’t quite make out until we were almost out of the ground. Then the noise of the crowd crystallized into the voices of individual people who I could now see were circling the subway entrance shouting down to us, “Welcome home! Welcome home!” And when we finally poured out into Dupont Circle we were swept up into a sea of every kind of queer person you can imagine: young college activists and emaciated men walking with canes; leather daddies and radical fairies; women decked in plaid flannel and others baring it all, as if they’d just arrived from the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. Androgynous and gender-queer people skipping through the streets as if it was the safest thing in the world to do because, on that day, in that place, for a short while, it was home and we were safe, and no bully or basher could stop us.

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The next day we marched on the Capital to demand our rights, to show our strength, to be counted. We marched past the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt on the national mall, laid out in its entirety for one of the last times before it got too big to do so. We marched with friends, we marched with strangers who felt like friends, we marched for hours and never got tired. We stood under a clear blue sky on a warm day like the earth was made for us and nothing could take it away from us. We marched like people who knew the truth and couldn’t be lied to. We marched like our lives depended on it, because they did.

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When we left we were filled with power and vision and hope, and we would need all three for the years ahead as we fought for equal treatment under the law in employment, in military service, in healthcare access, in parenting, in marriage. Even now as the struggle shifts and changes, I can return to that memory and feel my body and my voice getting stronger, filling up the way water rises from the earth to fill a well.

I suspect that is what those of you who attended yesterday’s Women’s March feel, filled with power and vision and hope. We are going to need all three in the years ahead.

It occurs to me that Jesus was no stranger to the notion of a public march. In fact, we commemorate his famous entry into Jerusalem every year on Palm Sunday, remembering how people flooded the streets to watch a poor, itinerant teacher and prophet enter the city on the back of a donkey as a counter-demonstration to the one the Emperor would put on, riding into town on the back of a war horse. Jesus, drawing on the long line of prophets from which he was descended, wasn’t above using street theater and public sign acts to reveal something about the nature of God. However, unlike the organizers of yesterday’s march, Jesus could not send out a call to assemble via social media or even the mainstream press. He had to build his coalition one person at a time, beginning at Capernaum by the Sea of Galilee.

The story we hear this morning begins with a quick note to let you know that Jesus of Nazareth, born in Bethlehem, is now in neither place. Instead, like so many young adults who leave home to start their life in a new city, Jesus begins his work in Capernaum by the Sea of Galilee. He makes an intentional choice to begin his organizing work among people who fished for a living. Political theologians have pointed out that the fishing industry was going through rapid transformations under the Roman Empire. What had been a subsistence economy, people fishing to feed their families, was being turned into an export economy, people fishing to sell their catch to feed those who had money and could afford to buy. The system worked well for Rome but not for those who fished, whose work could not keep up with the demand. Fish were depleted from the lake faster than the eco-system could replenish them, making it harder and harder for workers to earn their wage, keeping laborers out on the lakes longer and longer hours with less and less to show for it. You can imagine the kind of anger, frustration, and despair these working people felt as they clustered on the lakeshore each morning cleaning and repairing their nets. That is where Jesus began his work.

“Follow me, and I will make you fish for human beings,” was his recruiting pitch. I’m sure it was more than that. I imagine he walked the lakeshore getting to know the laborers by name, finding out who was sick, who’d just had a child, who was drunk and had missed a night of work again. I feel positive he listened to them, got to know their stories, helped them see their common cause with one another. I suspect he’d even begun preaching, telling them about the “kingdom of heaven,” trying out the lines that would make their way into his Sermon on the Mount. By the time he said “follow me” I think he must have followed them quite closely, gotten to know their struggles and their fears. Why else would Peter and Andrew, James and John, and all the others to follow have dropped their nets and followed him?

It also occurs to me that Jesus wasn’t afraid to ask those who became his disciples to make huge changes in their lives. He leads with “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” His call to repentance isn’t an injunction to feel bad about themselves, it’s a direction to turn their lives around. He says to them “repent,” because they have gotten so helplessly tangled in the Empire’s net, accepting the lies they’d been told about being a conquered people, an occupied people, an always-working-never-resting people, a people with no future. Jesus says, “the kingdom of heaven has come near,” to startle them, to rouse them, to remind them of who they are and who they have always been. A chosen people, God’s own beloved, created with dignity and worth, people with a future. Jesus is recruiting for his march, and you can already begin to imagine the signs people will be carrying, the chants they’ll be crying out, the rowdy street theater they’ll conduct to wake the nation. But to build that movement, the never-ending march toward heaven of which we are a part, Jesus first had to ask them to put something down, to leave something behind, to give something up, and to follow him.

This, my dear friends, is what I am here to do as well. I am here this morning to ask you to put something down, to leave something behind, to give something up and to follow Jesus, to join the march. And before I continue, let me remind you (and myself) that I am not asking this of you in the way that Jesus asked this of the workers on the shore, as though I am Jesus and you are the workers. I am asking these things of you because we are the body of Christ in the world, we are the hands and feet and voice and cry of Jesus by the lake and in the streets. That is our baptismal calling and vocation. So what I ask of you, I ask on behalf of us all. You might say we are asking this of each other, and you have commissioned me to periodically remind each of you of that fact (and by periodically, I mean every seven days, every time we pass by this font and dine at this table, we are reminded).

Here’s what we are asking of each other:

> Repent. Repent, stop and see which way your life is facing, and where you need turn around. The life of faith is aimed at societal transformation, the reign of God, the earth renewed — but it begins with you, with each one of us. A transformed world begins with transformed people. So stop and see which way your life is facing, which direction your energy is flowing, who and what gets all your time and love and money, and who and what does not.

> Remember. The kingdom of heaven, which is another way of saying God’s beloved community, the anti-Empire, the system under which all things are healed and whole and well has come near. We are no longer waiting. We are resurrection people. The moment of our liberation is at hand. The march has already begun.

> Leave your nets. Let your newfound resolve result in a new life. Decide what you must leave behind, and step away from it. Move toward the movement. Do not be a bystander to God’s work in the world. Join us now. Don’t wait another day!

Throughout the long history of the church, this has been one of the meanings of baptism — a visible sign of repentance and renewal, a public commitment to be part of the movement, a sign of our citizenship in this alternate, in-breaking “kingdom of heaven” which can no longer be called a kingdom because it abhors patriarchy, which cannot rightly even be called a commonwealth because it is better than any form of government we have ever seen. We call it a communion, because it a sacrament, a living sign of an eternal truth, that God created the world and called it good, that we are human and whole and free, that justice is our birthright, and everyplace is our home.

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That, church, is our mission and the stakes are high. So I am standing here today to tell you, to prepare you in advance for the fact that I am going to be making big asks of you in the coming year. No, let me get that right — we are going to be making big asks of each other in the coming year. We are going to ask you for your time. We are going to ask you for your money. We are going to ask you to open your address books and share your relationships. More than that, we are going to ask you to be brave, and patient, and loving, and generous. We are going to ask you to be peacemakers in a violent world. We are going to ask you to leave your nets and make your home in each other.

We will not be able to gather with a quarter million people every Saturday, but we can gather here with each other, with those we will catch in our nets, with those we will walk beside and accompany, with those we will listen to and heal, with those we will invite to join our movement, with those who will be baptized at this font. We can join the march that began when God exited the earth, ascended into the streets of time, joined the joyful throng of humanity, put violence and death on notice, and welcomed us all back home into our lives.

For that, I would gladly leave everything behind.

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Sermons, Uncategorized

Sermon: Sunday, January 8, 2017: Baptism of Our Lord

Texts: Isaiah 42:1-9  +  Psalm 29  +  Acts 10:34-43  +  Matthew 3:13-17

First words are significant, not only for babies but for adults as well.  First words create first impressions, which set the tone for new relationships.  When learning a new language one of the first things you’re taught is how to introduce yourself correctly — because we all know, you never get a second chance to make a first impression.

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“Baptism of Jesus” by artist, He Qi

In today’s gospel reading we hear the first words spoken by Jesus in Matthew’s gospel.  Jesus comes to be baptized by John, who is scandalized by the idea that the one to whom he has been deferring in his ministry comes to the river and would defer to him.  John says, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”  Jesus replies, his first words, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness” (Mt 3:14-15).

Jesus speaks for the first time, and he speaks about righteousness.  Righteousness will be a major theme in Jesus’ teaching throughout this gospel, so it makes sense that Matthew’s gospel uses his first statement to establish this idea.  Right from the start, a question is introduced: what is righteousness?  On face value the word means “carrying out the revealed will of God, acting in accordance with moral or divine law.” We see that definition operating here, as Jesus will be revealed throughout his life as the one who carries out the will of God, and who reveals God’s will for all of creation.

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Baptism or Our Lord, detail, stained glass

It’s hard to use phrases like “God’s will” however, without introducing all sorts of other questions.  Questions like, “What is God’s will for all of creation?” and “What does it mean to act against or outside of God’s will?” and “What happens to those who act against God’s will?” which in turn often leads to, “Who are you to tell me what God’s will is?”  Discussions of God’s will get scary because they are so often paired with people claiming to speak for God, placing God on their side.  That kind of moralism can be terrifying.  Preaching in the wilderness about the righteousness of God, John the Baptist drew people to the River Jordan to be baptized after they’d confessed their sins (Mt. 3:6).  Baptism became for them a sign of being washed clean of their various failures.   And, having been made clean, they felt more comfortable looking around at all the “dirty” people of the world and calling them to righteousness.

One of my best friends from childhood is now married with three children.  Shortly after the birth of her first son, she confessed to me over a couple of beers that she didn’t plan to have him baptized.  “When I think of baptizing him, all I can think is that these people are judging my child.  That they think he’s tainted with some invisible stain.  That he’s already somehow a sinner, and that he needs to be baptized to be saved.  But I gave birth to him, and I look at him – even when he’s crying or making me miserable — and I don’t see a sinner.  I see my child and I’m filled with love.”

I have to admit that this made me sad.  Less so that her child wasn’t being baptized and more that, to her, baptism was evidence of the church’s judgment of her child.  That the church is a community of people who would only see her child the way she sees him, through the eyes of love, if he conformed to the church’s rites and rituals.  To see the church this way is to see a community not so much made righteous by the gift of baptism but made self-righteous by the assumption that they possessed something everyone else needed to come to them for. Sad, because baptism isn’t something that the church owns and dispenses at our own discretion.  It’s not our righteousness being shared with the unrighteous. It’s the righteousness of God being shared freely with the whole world.

In this morning’s reading from Acts we hear Peter preaching one of his great sermons as the meaning of his baptism becomes clearer to him.  In the chapters preceding this one Peter has come in contact with a Gentile named Cornelius and his family – people that Peter would not have eaten with, much less baptized, as a matter of religious law.  But Peter receives a vision from heaven along with the command, “what God has called clean, you must not call profane.”  In response, Peter baptizes Cornelius and his entire family and forever changes the church’s understanding of baptism.  No longer for the people of Israel only, for the ritually pure, for the insiders, Paul explains his actions beginning with the words, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality…”

baptismfontThis is the gift God offers to the world — and to you. Despite our preoccupation with who has more and who has less, baptism is the sign that God shows no partiality. The same rain that falls on the just and the unjust alike (Matt. 5:25) fills the lakes and streams that feed the fonts from which we baptize. When we bring our children to these fonts, we are offering them up as living sacrifices to a vision for the future in which we all belong to each other the way we already belong to God. When we come as adults to this font, we are making a public statement about our deep longings to participate in the reign of God, to live lives of righteousness and holiness that make us family with those the world denies and rejects.

The righteousness of God, which sounds like fire and brimstone to some of our ears, which sounds like judgment is, in fact, God’s mercy made tangible, given to us in ordinary things we can see and touch and eat and drink.  The righteousness of God is love and mercy opened wide for all to experience.  The righteousness of God brings an end to fears of not measuring up to other people’s expectations of what it means to be a good Christian, or a good parent, or a good spouse, or a good child.  The righteousness of God means setting all that aside and being made new – a new body that is all of us together, a new family that is the whole world.

Jesus enters the waters of baptism and receives the gifts of God, the blessing of the Holy Spirit, just like so many of us have — at the hands of imperfect people, people like John the Baptist (or even me !) — and that is, as Jesus says, proper.  It is proper that we receive the gifts of God from the hands of ordinary people, made holy by God.  That is the meaning of Jesus’ first words about righteousness.  He is saying something to us about how we are to see each other, the way God sees us, the way my friend sees her baby boy, like parents who are falling in love with their children.  With hearts that tender.

Jesus uses his first words to declare and describe the righteousness of God.  God rushes to the waters to hear these first words of the child, bursting with pride that the child has heard rightly, that the child understands the righteousness God has sent this child to give away.  God says to this child, and to you, and to me, “this is my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Two short months from now it will already be Lent and we, along with churches throughout the world, will walk with those preparing to be baptized at Easter. Today, as we celebrate the Baptism of Our Lord, it is my duty and my delight to offer this invitation to all who have not yet received the gift of baptism: May we baptize you? Not because you are any more dirty or fallen or prone to failure than the rest of us, but because you — like every human being — are beautiful and good and God’s. May we baptize you?

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