Sermons

Sunday, September 3, 2017: Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Jer. 15:15-21  +  Ps. 26:1-8  +  Rom. 12:9-21  +  Matt. 16:21-28

IMG_1120We’re getting close to the end, can you feel it?

In both Paul’s letter to the Romans and Matthew’s account of Jesus’ ministry, the end is coming into view. For Paul, this takes the shape of what sound very much like parting words, “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; Love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor” (Rom. 12:9-10) and so on. In Matthew, the inevitable end is the cross but when Jesus begins to speak plainly about it, Peter demonstrates a certain level of denial about what Jesus has been doing and what it will cost him.

Gen-Net-drafts-768x768Coincidentally, perhaps, St. Luke’s is in a very similar moment. By now you’ve heard the announcements, you’ve gotten the postcard encouraging you to sign up for a pair of dinner conversations, and in just a few weeks now you’ll begin “workshopping the story” of just how it is that St. Luke’s proposes to be a powerful church that transforms lives and changes the world. The conversations you have in these small groups will shape the narrative that will become the basis for your 2018 budget — which is another way of saying, what you are doing and what it will cost you.

When Jesus gets clear about what he is doing and what it will cost him, he begins to describe the inevitable conflict that will occur in Jerusalem when he brings his life-giving, liberating message of divine love to the local seat of imperial power. He fully understands that his ministry will raise tension and unmask the ongoing violence between the empire and the colonized in such a way that the system of domination will use every tool at its disposal to end the conflict quickly. For the Roman Empire in the first century, this meant crucifixion.

It’s absolutely important to understand this because, without this understanding, Jesus’ words to his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,” sound like an encouragement to passive acceptance of pain and suffering in their lives. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard people say something along the lines of “we all have our crosses to bear” as a way of saying “life is hard and painful.” That is not what Jesus is saying. Jesus is not asking those who follow him to resign themselves to lives of chronic pain and crushing burdens.

Instead, Jesus is asking for something much harder. Jesus is asking the disciples to examine their lives and discern the ways that life under the empire has forced or enticed them into settling for something less than their full humanity. Jesus wants those who follow him to get clear about what is at stake for them in the upcoming conflict, to know their own story of oppression so that they can maintain the resolve to struggle for their own liberation. Jesus acknowledges that the empire has more than one tool at its disposal when it comes to keeping us in line. It can threaten us with the cross, or it can buy us by offering us access to the goods it unjustly extracts from others. Speaking to this dynamic, Jesus asks, “For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?” In other words, how much is your life — your integrity — worth? What’s your price?

When Jesus asks those who follow him to take up their cross, he actually means their cross. He doesn’t say, take up your neighbor’s cross and follow me. He says, “let them take up their cross and follow me.” For an example of what this can look like, we need look no further than the labor movement which brought us this 3-day weekend we’re celebrating right now.

644427_846847908334_5572230673972944578_nIf you were with us on Palm Sunday two years ago, then you’ll remember how we stood with fast food workers in the fight for a living wage, the #FightFor15. For most of us, this was not an act of taking up our cross — it was an act of solidarity with those whose livelihoods were actually on the line, those who’d taken stock of how the machine of modern day empire was getting rich off their backs, and who’d gotten organized so that they could confront the system of domination that extracted wealth from their labor without paying them enough to buy food, cover rent, and pay for their families’ healthcare and other needs. The workers whose hands we blessed, who served us holy communion and then marched with us to the McDonald’s where those same hands served fast food to nameless consumers day after day, understood that they might lose their jobs in this fight, that something was at stake for them, but they were not swayed from their goal.

Part of what it means for St. Luke’s to be a powerful church that transforms lives and changes the world is a commitment to helping each member of this community begin to see more clearly how the current arrangement of power and wealth has harmed each one of us, has diminished our fullness of life, has compromised our integrity, has purchased our complacency and our complicity. One of the ways that has happened in the last year is through the public faith trainings that Erin led, and will lead again in the fall. The outcome of community organizing done well is that we each get in touch with our own story of oppression — and, yes, I mean each of us, because there is no way of life under the system of domination, what we used to call empire but which now goes by other names, that escapes oppression.

Fundamentally, empire divides and conquerers. So capitalism not only harms workers, but the middle and owning classes as well. Racism dehumanizes not only people of color, but so-called White people as well. Sexism and gender oppression supply us all with painful, restrictive patterns for relating to our own bodies and the bodies of others. Nationalism creates false solidarity within invented borders at the expense of our neighbors, who are actually our siblings in the vast human family.

There are exciting times ahead for you, St. Luke’s. I can see it. Exciting and difficult, because you have heard Jesus’ call to take up your cross and follow and you have. You have and you will again. When it seems unclear to you just what that cross is, I encourage you to go back and read this passage from Romans again. As you listen to Paul describe what it means to live in loving harmony with one another, examine your life for the forces and influences, the stories and the histories, that make it hard for you to do so. There, in the tragic gap between God’s vision for human life and our experience of it, is the cross — your cross and our cross to bear together as we follow Jesus in a faith that demands everything and promises something even better in return: our humanity, redeemed and restored.

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Sermons

Sermon: Saturday, April 4, 2015: The Resurrection of Our Lord — The Vigil of Easter

Texts: Genesis 1:1–2:4a  +  Exodus 14:10-31;15:20-21  +  Isaiah 55:1-11  +  Daniel 3:1-29  +  Romans 6:3-11  +  John 20:1-18

JFK_Assassination2It was a Friday in November, 1963 when the nation found out that their president, John F. Kennedy had been killed. News of his assassination spread quickly as televisions in lunchrooms and living rooms flickered on to share minute by minute coverage of the events taking place in Dallas. All across the country people dropped whatever they were doing and waited for any bit of news that might make sense of this shocking tragedy.

Leonard Bernstein, the famous Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, was in meetings that afternoon when the news came to him that Kennedy was dead. The two men were friends, and Bernstein was a frequent guest at the White House. So it was perhaps not unexpected that Bernstein was approached the following day, Saturday, by CBS to create a memorial program that would air the following day, a Sunday. Bernstein accepted and worked quickly to select the music.

The obvious choice would have been a requiem, and many orchestras across the country did just that. Bernstein, however, went a different route. On Sunday, November 24, just days after the president’s assassination, Leonard Bernstein led the New York Philharmonic and the Schola Cantorum of New York in a nationally televised memorial featuring Gustav Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony. Speaking the following evening at a fundraiser for the United Jewish Appeal of Greater New York, Bernstein explained his decision.

“There were those who asked: Why the Resurrection Symphony, with its visionary concept of hope and triumph over worldly pain, instead of a Requiem, or the customary Funeral March […]? Why indeed? We played the Mahler symphony not only in terms of resurrection for the soul of one we love, but also for the resurrection of hope in all of us who mourn him. In spite of our shock, our shame, and our despair at the diminution of [humanity] that follows from this death, we must somehow gather strength for the increase of [humanity], strength to go on striving for those goals he cherished.”

Near the end of his remarks he said this,

“We musicians, like everyone else, are numb with sorrow at this murder, and with rage at the senselessness of the crime. But this sorrow and rage will not inflame us to seek retribution; rather they will inflame our art. Our music will never again be quite the same. This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”

brooks-circular-thumbLarge-v3This story came back to me after my dad shared David Brooks’s column from yesterday’s edition of the New York Times (04/03/2015) titled, On Conquering Fear.” In it Brooks reflects on the power of art to rouse us from the apathy and skepticism that are the byproducts of living in a constant state of terror and learned helplessness. He begins by offering a commentary on the story of the Exodus read in Jewish homes on Passover, the ending of which we’ve already heard tonight (Ex. 14:10-31;15:20-21). He writes,

Storytelling becomes central to conquering fear. It’s a way of naming and making sense of fear and imagining different routes out. Storytellers expand the consciousness, waken the sleeping self and give their hearers the words and motifs to use for themselves. Jews tell the story of the Exodus each generation to understand the fears they feel at that moment. Stories create new ways of seeing, which lead to new ways of feeling and thinking.

That is what we’ve been doing here tonight. Telling the old stories of salvation inherited from our Jewish sisters and brothers, stories of God’s hand in history creating us in love, liberating us from oppression, providing abundantly despite our fear of scarcity, accompanying us through the times of trial.

These are the stories the followers of Jesus knew by heart, the stories they’d heard passed down from generation to generation in oral traditions and songs and plays and dances and dramas. These stories were in their blood.

These were the stories that Jesus himself drew on as he gathered women and men around him to dream of a world made new, a world in which the hard lines between empire and colony, master and slave, man and woman, Greek and Jew were softened, blurred, obliterated. Stories that reminded us that in the beginning we were all made in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:26).

These were the stories the disciples would have heard echoing in the miracle of loaves and fishes multiplied until all were fed. “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!” (Isa. 55:1)

These were the stories the followers of Jesus might have remembered as he was led away by the Roman guard to be tried by Pontus Pilate. “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent his angel and delivered his servants who trusted in him.” (Dan. 3:28)

jesus-crucifixion-1127718-galleryThen the news came on a Friday that the man they’d loved, and trusted, and followed, was dead.  He wasn’t just dead, he’d been killed, and not quietly, not out of sight, but on a cross on a hill, in plain view for everyone to see.  The message was clear: be afraid. Do not be fooled by this dreamer. The world as it is is the world as it ought to be. The empire rules and you are its subjects. Obey and live. Rise up and die.

Rome thought that would be the end of it. That the people would mourn, perhaps even riot, but they knew how to deal with that. That’s what crosses were for. What they were not expecting was Gustav Mahler’s second symphony, the Resurrection symphony.  They were not expecting the insurrection only artists can lead, the kind that begins with a story and ends with a new creation.  Somehow, somewhere, on that Saturday between the cross and the triumph of the empty tomb God, the artist who spoke creation into being with a word, whose image and likeness is imprinted on every soul, moved once again over the waters. The story spread quickly. The cross on which the teacher hung was as empty as the grave in which they laid him. The empire is unmasked! Death, where is your power now?

These are the storied waters by which we baptize, and tonight we celebrate with our brother Ryan who has responded to the call of the Holy Spirit to come and die. To come and die to the numbing death of conformity to a culture of violence. To come and die to the wasting death of complicity with a culture of scarcity. To come and die to the corrupting death of privilege in a culture of supremacy. To come and die to the tragic death of waste in a culture of consumption and degradation. Ryan has heard the call to die to all that is killing us, and to rise with Christ, the firstborn of a new creation. So we celebrate with him, and his family, and his beloved, Rachel, and with the whole church, the rebirth of a new disciple, a new storyteller, a new artist in the commonwealth of God, the anti-empire, the reign that has no end.

Sisters and brothers, there are so many reasons to weep. From the senseless massacre of human lives in Garissa, Kenya to the racialized violence that plagues our streets and swells our prisons. The sources of our grief are always before us, terrorizing us, numbing us into submission to a nightmare passing as reality. What we need is a story, a song, a symphony to rouse us to life. Jesus said to the weeping woman, to Mary whom he loved, “do not hold on to me … but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’  Mary went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord.’” (John 20:17)  So I say to you: do not hold on to this story, this life-giving work of art, but go and tell anyone who will listen that you have seen the Lord, who is not dead, as they claim, but alive and being born again and again in you and me, in these waters and all who emerge from them.

This will be our reply to the cross: to proclaim the gospel more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.

Amen.

Credit where it’s due goes to the Leonard Bernstein Office’s website for details shared in this sermon.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, March 16, 2014: Second Sunday in Lent

Texts:  Genesis 12:1-4a  +  Psalm 121  +  Romans 4:1-5,13-17  +  John 3:1-17

We finished our second session in a six-week series in Adult Education titled “Making Sense of the Cross” this morning, focusing today on how each of the four gospels presents the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection a little differently (or a lot) because of the particular confession of faith each author was trying to make in response to the needs of very different communities.

For example the gospel of Matthew, from which we’ve been reading since the beginning of Advent, was very likely written to a community of believers who were mostly Jewish in their background and therefore more familiar with the sacred texts of Hebrew scripture which we often call the Old Testament. We see evidence of this in the number of times that the author offers an explanation for powerful events from Jesus’ life by saying something like, “this has taken place, so that the scriptures of the prophets may be fulfilled” (Matt. 26:56).

This morning we move from Matthew’s gospel to the gospel of John, from which we’ll be reading through the rest of the Sundays in Lent until Palm Sunday.  The gospel of John was written about twenty years later than Matthew to a different community facing very different circumstances.  Like Matthew’s gospel, John is believed to have been written to a community of Jewish believers, but ones who had experienced significant conflict with the rest of the Jewish community, perhaps having been removed from the synagogue for their conviction that Jesus was the long awaited Messiah.

You can often hear in both gospels subtle or outright hostility toward people labeled “the Jews,” though we should understand in both cases that the author and the intended audience were also Jews, at least by birth, and would have been treated as such by the rest of the Roman-occupied world.  The anger and conflict we hear behind the words of both gospels are less like the violent forms of anti-Semitism that led to pogroms across Europe and eventually the horrors of the Second World War (though passages from these scriptures were used to fuel those campaigns), and more like the kinds of conflicts that tear churches apart — conflict between family members who know each other only too well.

Nicodemus helping to take down Jesus' body from the cross, Michelangelo Pieta.

Nicodemus helping to take down Jesus’ body from the cross, Michelangelo Pieta.

So this morning we are introduced to a character with a name, Nicodemus, who is identified as “a leader of the Jews,” and you can almost hear the casting notes to the director of this drama: “pick someone to play this part who is a little too full of himself, make sure to dress him in fine robes and give him a prop — maybe glasses — to indicate his education. It will make his ignorance all the funnier.”

Nicodemus comes to Jesus under the cover of night, confessing that Jesus’ acts of power of signs of God’s presence and trying to understand what this means.  Jesus responds to his honest curiosity with a cryptic statement, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (John 3:3).

If any of you come from one of the many “born again” traditions of Christianity, then this is probably a familiar passage of scripture.  Over the centuries it has been used to justify the practice of adult baptism as a response to Nicodemus’ question, “how can anyone be born after having grown old?” (3:4)  Our response as Lutherans to our sisters and brothers who ask, “have you been born again?” has never been very satisfying to them, since we understand the process somewhat differently.  We say, along with Martin Luther, “yes, I’m born again every morning as I rise to wash my face and remember that I was baptized.”  Our practice, and the theology that arises from it, is rooted less in Nicodemus’ question and more in Jesus’ answer: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” (3:5).

This conflict between Christians over who to baptize, how to baptize, and what age to baptize has, over the centuries, gotten quite heated.  In this modern day of laissez-faire religion and spirituality, in which individual choice and preference are valued above all else, it can be hard to understand that in previous times and, in some places, to this day there is deep disagreement over the meaning and practice of baptism — so deep that some Christians refuse to recognize each other as such if their baptism was not performed in the ways each considers acceptable.  This, ironically, is exactly the kind of intra-religious conflict that we overhear going on in Matthew and John’s gospels when they speak disparagingly of “the Jews.”  It is more like the way you might hear some Christians talking about others as “bible-bangers” or “fundamentalists.”

But what is even more ironic is that this kind of intra-religious conflict reveals a tendency in us all to lose sight of what Jesus is actually trying to communicate, which is that God is not in the business of taking sides in our self-righteousness projects. Rather, in Christ Jesus, God is showing us God’s love for the whole world, those we agree with and those we disagree with, our friends and our enemies, the “good” and the “evil.” All of us. Everyone.

This is the point Paul is making in his letter to the Romans.

If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void (Rom. 4:14).

In other words, when we turn our faith in God into a set of rules and practices about God that must be followed in order to get to God, then we have taken faith — which we might also call loving-trust or loving-reliance — out of the picture altogether and have turned grace into a scorecard.

This is what Jesus tells Nicodemus, who is still trying to figure how to be born from above. “No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man” (John 3:13).  No one gets themselves into heaven. Faith is not a competition sport. Or a New Year’s resolution. Or a fitness routine. Or a self-help book. Or a retreat. Faith is not something that practice perfects. “No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.”

Paul puts it this way,

But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness (Rom. 4:5).

We might put it like this:  God is not looking for evidence that you get it right, or even that you get it at all.  Remember that fruit from the Tree of Knowledge?  The food that left us thinking we knew the difference between good and evil?  The one God told us to stay away from?  Yeah, we’re back to that.  We get caught in the trap of thinking we know who’s right and who’s wrong, who’s good and who’s evil.  We get stuck in our fights between the good Christians and the bad ones. We start labeling one another “the fundamentalists,” “the conservatives,” “the old guard,” “the establishment,” just like Matthew and John called their sisters and brothers, “the Jews.”

Paul suggests that even the act of sorting out who has the right set of beliefs can itself become a kind of works righteousness. “Abraham believed God,” — not Abraham believed in God, but “Abraham believed God.”  It makes all the difference.  It is the difference between “Abraham held the right set of thoughts and ideas” and “Abraham trusted that God is faithful” — “and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (Rom. 4:3).

And all this talk of Abraham begins with a story that calls each of our allegiances to religion, nation, politics and land into question. God says to Abram (whose name has yet to be changed), “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing” (Gen. 12:1).

The church, the nations that have emerged in the shadow of the church, and we ourselves have often been more interested in the second part of that story, the idea that we belong to a great nation — be that religious or secular — and that we exist as a blessing for others, a slippery slope that too often has led to all kinds of colonial disasters.  But what about the first part of that story, the deep faith that enabled Abraham to leave everyone and everything he knew behind: his country, his family, his good name.  Stripped down, almost as naked as Adam and Eve in the garden, left with only his trust that God was for him and would not forsake him.

Are we ready to take that trip? Honestly, I doubt it.  Like Nicodemus, we see the power of God at work in Jesus, but we trust in our own abilities, our own beliefs, to get us closer to God. Thankfully, God is taking a trip as well, crossing every barrier that divides heaven and earth to be with us, to be for us. “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 3:17).

Amen.

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