Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, August 27, 2017: Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Isaiah 51:1-6  +  Psalm 138  +  Romans 12:1-8  +  Matthew 16:13-20

IMG_1067When we were together last weekend, I shared with you the news that I’d spent last Saturday evening at the hospital with Dea Checchin and her family, gathered around her hospital bed, sharing stories and surrounding her with prayer in the final hours of her life. She died later that night, though I didn’t find that out until after we’d finished worship last Sunday. A couple days later, this past Tuesday morning, my grandmother died. She’d led a long, full life, but the final weeks and days were hard as she labored to deliver herself unto death.

Both of these women taught me volumes about faith. On many occasions I shared with Dea my awe at her profound trust that God was with her and had provided enough. Two years ago, as we were moving from the old church building into this new space, she was moving out of her home and into assisted living. On her very first night there, her husband, Lino, passed away. A week later her son-in-law Gary died as well. Yet, when I visited with Dea after these traumas, she was always ready to tell me how fortunate she felt, how God had blessed her with a loving family and had taught her over the course of a lifetime about grace and forgiveness. It was one of the things I loved most about Dea — that, as quick as she was to speak (and often pretty bluntly), she was even quicker to forgive, herself and others. She knew God as the love that redeems, and she was always happiest in worship when we sang the old hymns that proclaimed the mystery of Jesus’ sacrifice for people like her, like us.

My grandma Blanche became my grandma about halfway through my internship year at Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Toms River, New Jersey. Up until then she’d just been a member of my internship committee, who took her responsibilities seriously and made a point of taking me out to lunch once a month to ask how my internship was going and to hear me reflect on what I was learning. About halfway through that year my life got really hard. My great-grand-aunt died, then my maternal grandmother, and then my sister went missing for a month and a half. I felt like the survivor of a great shipwreck, drifting out in the middle of the ocean, alone in a life raft waiting for someone to come looking for survivors. Into that lonely devastation came Blanche who told me that she would be my grandmother. It seemed like a kind thing to say, a gesture of sympathy, but that’s not what it was at all. IMG_0631For the next fifteen years, Blanche went out of her way to introduce herself to my family and friends. She made a trip in her mid-80s to Des Moines to get to know my parents. At the age of 93 she travelled to Chicago for my and Kerry’s wedding. She taught me a lesson I’ve learned over and over in my life: that all family is chosen family, and that the power of God working through each one of us is the power to create families wherever we are, whenever it’s needed. She knew Jesus as the love that claims us, even when our own flesh and blood may struggle to do so. She also left me with a file folder full of hymns and suggestions for her funeral, which will be a great help when it comes time to plan her memorial service next month.

But, however much I loved, respected, adored these women, their faith cannot take the place of my own faith. I cannot know God simply by living in close proximity to people who know God, by singing their songs and praying their words. I’m not saying it doesn’t help. In fact, it’s basically how each of us begins our faith journey, by adopting the words and gestures and customs and rituals of our parents and grandparents, or the friends who brought us to worship, or even the strangers who sit next to us in the pews (which I still feel obligated to say, even though we now sit in stacking chairs — as if all seating, when used for religious purposes, becomes a pew). But, at some point, I have to have my own answer to the question, “Who do you say that I am?”

Map-of-Upper-GalileeWhen Jesus asks his followers this question, they have just arrived in Caesarea Philippi. That was the new name for an ancient Roman city far to the north of the Sea of Galilee in the region of the modern nation of Israel called the Golan Heights. “Caesarea” marked it as part of the Roman Empire, “Philippi” referred to Herod Philip II, the son of King Herod who was king at the time of Jesus’ birth and had called for the slaughter of the holy innocents. Philip was also brother to Herod Antipas, the one who had called for the death of John the Baptist.

All of which is to say that, when Jesus asks those who follow him who they say he is, they are all very aware that they are living in a moment when violent rulers have taken over, rebranding everything around them to serve as a reflection of their own glory, erasing the past and moving against anyone who questioned their authority — including, most recently, John the Baptist. It is in that setting, in a city named for the family that had murdered the man who’d baptized Jesus in the Jordan River, that Jesus asks, “But who do you say that I am?”

His previous question had been easier, when he’d asked what others were saying about him. They simply report what’s being said. “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” Then Jesus sharpens the question, requiring the disciples to step off the sidelines and speak for themselves.

Who do I say Jesus is? I know what my father and mother showed me. I know what I learned in confirmation, and then in seminary. I got a pretty good idea who Jesus was to Dea, and to Blanche. “Some say” a lot of things about who Jesus is, but the question is — who do I say that Jesus is?

Even for me to join Peter in proclaiming that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” isn’t enough, since Peter’s declaration of faith is yet one more instance of received tradition, a formulaic response to a question that is, at its heart, all about relationship. “Who do you say that I am?” How am I the messiah, the long-awaited redeemer of Israel? In what way am I a “Son”? What does it mean to be a child of the “living” God?

Here’s what I believe.

I believe that Jesus was and is the messiah, a word that derives from the Hebrew verb for anointing and was used not only in anticipation of a future ruler, but by various kings, high priests, and prophets throughout Israel’s history. For me it is important to proclaim Jesus the messiah, in part because it means that we are no longer waiting for God to send a savior to create and lead the world I want to live in. In the shadow of Rome, in a city named for a tyrant, Peter declares Jesus to be God’s messiah, and I’m with Peter. I am not waiting for God to send someone else to get us out of this mess. Jesus was baptized by John, and I was baptized into Jesus, and that’s all the authority I need in this life.

I believe that Jesus is the Son of God, which I most often render as “God’s own Beloved,” since that is what the voice from heaven called Jesus, “my Son, the Beloved.” (Matt. 3:17) What’s important about remembering and reclaiming the title of Son, with all its gendered baggage, is that Roman emperors were also called Son of God — not “beloved,” not “child,” but “son,” as a way of making clear the connection between empire and patriarchy: from God to emperor to nation. But I proclaim Jesus, the messiah, as the Beloved heir of God because I believe it is an act of rebellion to say that power does not flow from God to kings, but from God to the oppressed; to colonized people in every land and time, to movements of people that leave what they were taught to do behind and follow the sound of the genuine in themselves and one another until they arrive at that moment when they are called upon to testify to what they have seen and heard.

Which is why it is important to say that Jesus, the messiah, is the beloved heir of the living God, because it makes clear that God did not finish reforming the world with the prophet Elijah, or Jeremiah, or John the Baptist. God did not finish reforming the church with Martin Luther or Martin Luther King, Jr.  God did not finish calling people to leave their nets and follow with Peter and the disciples, and God did not finish with me or with us with Dea and Blanche.

God is calling out to you right now to see yourselves as God sees you, as beloved children of the living God, anointed in your own baptisms and called to witness at a moment like this — when once again violent powers seek to erase the history of our land and remake it in their image. In this moment, we are not waiting for anyone who has not already been sent. You and I, baptized into the death and resurrection of the only messiah we need, are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

Jesus says, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Does that sound like an invitation to fear, timidity, weakness? By no means! “Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.”

And why do you suppose that was?

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, August 20, 2017: Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Isaiah 56:1,6-8  +  Psalm 67  +  Romans 11:1-2a,29-32  +  Matthew 15:10-28

Jesus called to the crowd and said to them, “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”

It was a provocative statement. By referencing “what goes into the mouth,” Jesus is playing identity politics, intentionally provoking the crowd and raising tension in the scene. “What goes into the mouth” is a reference to dietary law, to the Torah, to ideas about purity found in the book of Leviticus. It brings to mind not only laws about what can and cannot be eaten, but who can and cannot be married, who is and is not part of the people called “Israel.” The moment Jesus says, “it’s not what goes into the mouth that defiles” he has issued a very specific challenge to the idea of ethnic nationalism that was a given norm in his day.

Ethnic nationalism. God save us from ethnic nationalism.

 

You know, that’s not just the plea of a broken and exhausted heart — which is exactly how I expect we are feeling after a week of repulsive demonstrations of racist demonstrations and defenses of white supremacy: broken and exhausted — it is also a description of what is happening in this biblical story. God is saving us from ethnic nationalism.

“It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person,” Jesus says. It is not our ideas of ethnic purity and racial superiority that define us, Jesus implies. “But it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”

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“Blood and Soil”

Where to even begin? The things we have heard coming out of people’s mouths in recent days. They turn my stomach. “Blood and soil.” “You will not replace us.” “Jews will not replace us.” Words even more vulgar than these. The rallying cries of the Nazis and the Klan, which we’re supposed to call “neo” to indicate that this is the new incarnation of racism, except nothing about it feels new at all.

Jesus exposes the ultimate consequences of constructing an identity, personal or national, on ideas of race and ethnicity. Because it seems to be almost second nature for us to deride, degrade, despise whatever is different. Jesus says as much in his explanation of the parable, “out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person.” (Mt. 15:1-28) In other words, we ought to be less concerned with the dangers we imagine others represent, and more concerned with the very real and ever present dangers that live within our own hearts.

Then, in an ironic twist, the scene shifts and we get an illustration of just how hard it is to do the work of uncovering our own biases and prejudices. Having just lectured the disciples and the crowds on the dangers of ethnic nationalism, Jesus encounters a Caananite woman in desperate need of aid — her daughter is being tormented by a demon — and Jesus sends her away precisely because of her ethnicity. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” I came to take care of my own. Foreigners go home. Whites only. That kind of talk.

It’s shocking. This is not the Jesus we know, not the Jesus we talk about. This Jesus punctures the myth of perfection we’ve wrapped around history and shows us something troubling. Something, perhaps, we’d rather not see.

How many times over the course of the last two weeks have you heard someone say, “This is not who we are as a nation!” “This is not my America.” But, of course, we know that this in fact is who we are as a nation. This is our America. These are the myths upon which our nation was built. This is the original sin of our birth. We are a nation built on the lie of race. The power and prosperity this country has amassed over the last two hundred and fifty years was stolen from indigenous peoples, extracted from enslaved African peoples, and compounded by exploited immigrant peoples. This is who we are as a nation. Still. Today. As we pursue trade policy that keeps our goods cheap by exploiting foreign labor. As we preserve what we have secured by the threat of violence. You don’t have to march with a tiki torch to benefit from the racism, the ethnic nationalism, that built this country and underwrites the privileges we take for granted.

indexThat’s the nature of sin, it captures us in its constructs whether we choose to participate or not. We are not pure or impure on the basis of our individual choices or decisions. We are, as Dr. King said back in 1959, “tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.  And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” He went on to say, “For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.  This is the way God’s universe is made; this is the way it is structured.”

It seems also to be part of the nature of our sin that we quickly perceive the ways we are oppressed, but ignore or deny the power we have to oppress others. So Jesus, who is able to see so clearly how the purity codes enshrined in the law of Israel have engendered a spirituality of separatism cannot see how he himself has internalized that ethos. He, who has the power to heal, does not immediately recognize his own power and privilege as he encounters this Caananite woman. As prepared as he was to notice and name the sin around him, he was not immediately ready to confront the sin within himself.

That, of course, is a heretical statement. I’ve just uttered heresy. Mark the date and time. Scripture, elsewhere, says, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us” (2 Cor. 5:21), and that’s fine for the argument Paul is making to the Corinthians. But here, I think, scripture is showing us something equally true, equally valuable. Something we need to pay attention to and not explain away. Jesus, the Beloved child of God, the one the church has called fully God and fully human, shows us what it looks like when the myth of perfection cracks against the facts of history. When gospel promise meets human prejudice. The one we least expect to participate in the broken structures of human sin, who has just condemned ethnic nationalism and called on those who follow him to watch what comes out of their mouths, calls this woman, a mother fighting for her child’s life, a dog.

You hear the insult don’t you?

He calls this woman, a Caananite woman, a woman of color, he calls her a dog.

You hear the word, don’t you?

This ugliness is in us all. I’m sorry, but it just is. No matter how many workshops you’ve been to. No matter how many friends you have who are Black, or Trans, or immigrants, or disabled. No matter where you studied abroad, or served for a year as a missionary. Our hearts carry the scars of centuries, even millenia, of division. We learn the alphabet of its violent words before we are old enough to speak in subtle gestures, in micro-aggressions. We learn to fear and despise whatever is not us, then we try to unlearn it, then we feel guilt and shame for having been taught it, then we feel powerless to end it, so then we take one of a dozen different paths: we ignore it, we deny it, we rationalize it, we defend it, we embrace it — or we commit to dismantling it, without holding ourselves to the expectation that perfection will somehow be reached this side of eternity.

Jesus, in his humanity, does the thing we have all done. He says exactly the wrong thing. But she does not give up, she argues with him, she takes his insult and turns it back on him. She wrestles with God, like Jacob along the banks of the Jabbok.

And wasn’t it by wrestling with God that Israel got its name? This thing the Caananite woman does, isn’t it so like what Jacob did when he said, “I will not let you go until you bless me!” What would it look like, if a nation, a people, were defined not by adherence to an impossible idea of purity, but by a shared commitment to wrestle together with God, to hold on for dear life until we are blessed, to weave the single garment of destiny, to embrace the inescapable network of mutuality?

For me, it looks like baptism. Ordinary water combined with God’s promise that all people are God’s people. Water that makes us pure, not by erasing our difference, but by washing away everything that hides the image of God native to us all.

This morning we have baptized Sophie Geneva, revealing the truth that she belongs to God. So do you. So do I. So does everybody. We make this claim by faith, trusting in God to heal us all.

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Sermons

Saturday, August 12, 2017: The Wedding of Erika Sidney and Matthew Carek

A few weeks ago I was presented with an exciting opportunity and a difficult decision, it was a job offer that would take me from the work of being a solo pastor to a new position on a large staff that could open up new horizons in my career, but would also require me to give up some of the ways of operating that had become easy and familiar after a decade of working alone.

Know Your StorySo I called my bishop to ask for some advice, and what he said has stuck with me as wise counsel for anyone standing on the forward edge of a commitment, as Matt and Erika are this afternoon. He said, “Know your story. Know why you’re making this decision. Understand that change is hard, but that when you know why you’re making a hard decision you approach that hardship as an opportunity for growth.” He went on to tell me that over the years the people who get themselves into the worst trouble are those who’ve forgotten their story. He said, “Once you’ve forgotten the story that drives your decisions, you begin to feel and act like a victim of your own life.”

So the question that needs to be asked as you step into your future is: what is the story you will tell about your marriage? How do you understand the decision you are making today? Why are you making it now? What will you do when this decision becomes difficult to sustain (as it almost certainly will at some point)? What story can you tell that will help you face life’s hardships as opportunities to grow closer together?

One of the benefits of being our age is that we each have enough story behind us already to know that life follows its own rules. It routinely defies our hopes and expectations just as surely as it refuses to conforms itself to our worst fears and prejudices. Life has its own lessons to teach us which, if we can stay open to receiving them, become chapters in a story that is uniquely our own.

That said, there are some truths we hold in common as we each do the work of sharing ourselves with each other; there is some wisdom to be passed down from generation to generation, from couple to couple, as you stand before this community of people who possess volumes of hard-earned experience about life. So, in that spirit, I thought I’d share four truths my parents shared with Kerry and me on the day of our wedding that I now pass on to you:

Life is Full of Wonder and MiraclesFirst — life is full of wonder and miracles.

I still remember the Greyhound bus ride from Minneapolis to Des Moines made the fall of Erika’s first semester of medical school. I was reading a novel of some kind, I suppose, and Erika was reading a textbook — on, what, biochemistry? — when she turned to me and said, “Wow! My entire relationship to oxygen has completely changed!” It occurred to me that her relationship to oxygen had actually remained quite stable, but that her understanding of that relationship had been transformed.

This is one of the gifts of marriage — that you can turn to each other, over and over again throughout the course of your relationship and share how the ordinary things of life have all of a sudden become extraordinary again. Your relationships to each other, to your careers, to your families, to your bodies, to your politics, to your selves will change over and over again, and you have the opportunity to share all of that with each other. “In the press of daily life, may you know the blessing of time and attention for one another that love may deepen and flourish.”

Life is HardSecond — life is hard.

There is very little in life that robs us of our power to act more quickly than the assumption that things are supposed to be easy. Childhood isn’t easy, growing up is messy, and #adulting (as it’s now called on Twitter) is a never-ending series of puzzles to be solved and obstacles to overcome. We can’t be blamed for wishing that marriage could be an oasis from the challenges that come at us outside the home, but it’s not likely.

Instead, the blessing marriage proposes to offer is a place where your efforts to grow beyond past limitations are supported, your struggles along the way receive a sympathetic hearing, and your failings are met with grace and forgiveness. “In the twists and turns of life, howling winds and jagged edges of every sort, may you be blessed with patience and kindness, resilience, insight, gratitude, and great love, enough to carry you through to safe and healing harbors.”

Relationships are messy & complicatedThird — Relationships are messy and complicated

In her brief but brilliant poem, “why some people be mad at me sometimes” the African American poet Lucille Clifton writes, “they ask me to remember / but they want me to remember / their memories / and I keep on remembering / mine”

All across our country in places like Charlottesville and Chicago, and right here in Denver and Boulder, I’m sure, we are doing violence to one another because we refuse to allow for the truth that each of us is having a very different experience of reality. The social contract that is supposed to bind us together has been ripped apart by a politics of amnesia in which we keep insisting that women, and people of color, and immigrants, and LGBTQ people, and every other person who’s ever known what it feels like to be pushed to the side, remember their own story from the point of view of people who know them the least.

That dynamic plays itself out in our marriages as well, and it may well be that we will not be able to reconcile to one another in public until we’ve learned to do it in the privacy of our homes.

So, when you find yourself most certain that your version of events is correct, that your perspective on what’s happening is most needed, that is the very moment when you should stop and cultivate a deeper curiosity about what your partner knows, what they remember, how and where and from whom they learned those things about how the world “really” works.

Then, “when disappointments and disillusionment come, and threaten to make a home in your hearts, may you be blessed with the memory of all that drew you to each other, and all that you most love and enjoy in each other’s company.”

Life is short and preciousFinally — Life is short and precious.

It is tempting to think that there will always be enough time later to create the memories that will strengthen our children, or cement our friendships, or nourish our marriages — but, in truth, none of us is given any more or less time each day, and none of us is given the assurance of tomorrow. So, each day is an exercise in values-based budgeting. Who and what gets your time and attention; who and what does not?

Decide, now, to give the best of yourselves to one another and not the leftovers. Do not delay in naming what you need from this life and expect from each other. Do not let your desire for other people’s approval or fear of their opinions keep you from creating the life you long to live. Know your story. Know why you’re making this decision. Understand that change is hard, that this marriage will be hard, but that if you commit to it and to each other, you will be treated to wonder and miracles and blessings too many to count.

Erika Matt wedding

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