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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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, August 6, 2017: Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

Text: Matthew 14:13-21

Laura James, Feeding the Five Thousand

“Feeding the Five Thousand” by Laura James

The story of the feeding of the five thousand (which is probably better named, “the feeding of the ten thousand” since “those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children”) carries the distinction of being the only miracle from Jesus’ ministry that is recounted by all four gospels. That feels significant, like coming across a passage highlighted in yellow in a used textbook. Someone before us wanted to be sure to point out that this scene is essential to understanding the meaning of the greater story.

The scene opens by referencing a tragedy that’s just taken place somewhere else: “Now when Jesus heard about the beheading of John the Baptist, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” (Matt. 14:13) John died at a feast, a birthday party for Herod the ruler, who’d wanted to get rid of John but was afraid of how the crowds with whom he was popular would react. But when he made a promise to his wife’s daughter that he would give her whatever she might ask for, and she asked for John’s head on a platter, Herod was forced to choose between his fear of the people and his public image, and he chooses to save face by having John killed.

This is all background information, but it’s important as we try to make sense of Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the crowd to understand that feasts were happening all the time — it’s just that they were typically held by the wealthy as a way of demonstrating their power in order to cement their relationships with the class of people just below them in a system of cascading patronage that started much higher than Herod, who was himself a vassal of the Roman Empire.

nero-denarius-60-61-adWealth and food and power were all tied together in ancient Rome. The connection was made explicit in the currency of the time, which featured an image of Emperor Nero on one side of the coin and the goddess of agriculture — Ceres (from whose names we get the word “cereal”) — on the other paired with the words, “the annual harvest of the emperor.” Money was intended to represent the wealth that comes from having access to food, all of which was understood as trickling down from the wealth of the empire.

In reality, empire was (and still is) a violent way of ordering the world. It takes the good gifts of the earth and commodifies them, pretends that the things God provides for all people belong to only a few people who can then leverage our need for them into other forms of wealth and power. The underlying economic violence of this system erupts into moments of public violence, like John’s beheading or the president’s public celebration of police brutality,  that function to keep people in their place.

State Violence

This is what Jesus needs to get away from when he hears of John’s death, and the crowds as well. So they leave the so-called “civilized” places and head to the deserted wilderness, a political blank canvas, a fresh start, and there Jesus demonstrates a different kind of political economy by providing a feast that is the exact opposite of the one Herod had hosted.

The crowd that frightened Herod follows Jesus, and out of compassion for their plight Jesus heals their sick. The Greek word used here to describe the sick (ἄρρωστος) carries the connotation of weakness or feebleness, just the sort of people who lose out in competitions for “survival of the fittest.” Rather than bestowing the gifts of life and health only on those who have something to offer him in return, Jesus models a vision for community where the sick and the weak have access to health and healing on the basis of God’s compassion for all that is living.

But as the day goes on and the needs grow, the disciples worry that this shadow economy of lovingkindness will not be enough to meet the real needs of this massive crowd. “Send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves,” they say. Send them back to that other economy where everything is for sale. These problems are too big for us to address on our own.

Of course, Jesus had recently been preaching about this very dynamic. He’d told them the story of a tiny mustard seed that grows into a tree that shelters the birds of the air. He’d reminded them how just a little yeast is enough to leaven an entire loaf of bread. When he asked if they’d understood what he was saying, they replied “yes”; though, now he has to wonder. So, once again, Jesus shows those who would follow him how just a little — five loaves and two fish — can become more than enough, enough for ten thousand with a dozen baskets left over.

Of all the things the scripture wants us to remember, this is the miracle that shows up in all four gospels, highlighted in yellow by whoever owned this book before us: God uses small things to make big changes! God uses an oppressed and colonized people to break the power of Pharaoh. God uses a child conceived by an unwed young woman to call to account the power of Rome. God uses what is weak to shame the mighty. God uses small things to make big changes!

Of all the things I will remember as I begin now to leave St. Luke’s, I will never forget what this community has taught me over and over and over again: God uses small things to make big changes.

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I don’t have to tell you the whole story of how small we were. Let’s just say we had one person for each of those baskets of leftovers. But God used this small group of people who’d been defined by their deficits to build something powerful: a home for all manner of people like the mustard tree; a loaf that expanded in proportion to the needs and hungers of the people who came to this table.

I want you to be powerful. I want the church to be powerful. Not the kind of power that shows itself off with feasts that reinforce the violent status quo, but power that meets the weak and the feeble — you know, people like us — with love and compassion and offers a glimpse of a world in which the daily bread we’re always praying for is provided for all.

Can you envision what it would look like for St. Luke’s to step more fully into this story? We, who have gathered in deserted places to demand housing for our neighbors, who have launched pantries and dinners to feed our neighbors, who have marched to Springfield to protect our neighbors. What miracle of abundance is God calling out of St. Luke’s in the years to come?

Those are the questions you’ll be considering this fall, after I’m gone. All year long the Council and the Generosity Network has been laying the groundwork for a process of planning for the future that will engage our entire community in asking these sorts of questions:

  • What is the story we are telling about St. Luke’s?
  • What is the story we’d like to be able to tell about St. Luke’s?
  • What is the impact we make as St. Luke’s?
  • How are we being transformed as members of St. Luke’s?
  • How is the world being changed because we gather as St. Luke’s?

Do those questions seem too big for a church our size? Do you worry that we won’t have enough people, enough money, enough time, enough “pastoral leadership” to dream so big?

Haven’t you heard? Haven’t you understood all this? God uses small things to make big changes.

God uses small things to make big changes!

The miracle highlighted in yellow since the story’s beginning is you.

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Sermons

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

Text: Romans 8:12-25

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

Raise your hand if you carry debt on a mortgage.

Raise your hand if you carry debt on a car.

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

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

Raise your hand if you carry medical debt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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