Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, June 4, 2017: Day of Pentecost

Texts: Acts 2:1-21  +  Psalm 104:24-34,35b  +  1 Cor. 12:3b-13  +  John 20:19-23

You can imagine that it must have already been a somewhat terrifying moment. All the believers were together, numbering about a hundred and twenty (which, as a point of comparison, is about how many people we have here at St. Luke’s if everyone from both services were to show up at once), when some kind of divine event took place. “There came a sound like the rush of a violent wind,” is how it’s described, and it was audible not only to the crowd of believers gathered inside the house but to those outside their gathering place as well.

Rather than move away from the sound, a crowd begins to gather around the place where Jesus’ followers had been staying. This gathering crowd was already diverse, as the scripture reminds us that “there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.” In other words, the Galilean disciples of Jesus were now surrounded by a mob of immigrants.

What was going on in this house church to attract and hold the attention of these foreigners? Following that first sound, the holy storm that blew through the house, came a second sound — the sound of all these Galileans suddenly speaking in tongues. Not in that holy and mysterious language of the Spirit that the apostle Paul called glossolalia, but in the actual languages native to the group of immigrants that had gathered in Jerusalem from across the known world, so that each of them heard these followers of Jesus telling the story of God’s acts of power in their own mother tongue.

Finally, in case all this wasn’t already odd enough, Peter stands up to address the growing crowd of native-born Judeans and foreign-born immigrants living in Jerusalem with words that are not entirely comforting, by quoting the Israelite prophet Joel — who himself spoke in the voice of God:

“In those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” (Acts 2:18b-21)

Everything about the scene is chaotic. The sudden rush of the Spirit is described in terms that make it sound as though a tornado broke loose in a house. A growing crowd of multinationals. A bizarre miracle of translation. A ancient prophesy of ecological horror. A promise of universal salvation.

Nothing in our waking lives could prepare us for such an event. If it were to happen here, now, that we all fell out in a mass act of Pentecostal testimony so disruptive it summoned all our neighbors to gather outside our door, it’s hard to imagine that the natural next step would be for one of us to get up and begin speaking about the end of the world as the prelude to a promise of salvation. The only relevant experience we have, or at least I have, for making sense of this story is the experience of dreaming.

In a dream we are prepared for images to come at us in ways that defy logic and order, for settings to shift suddenly, for the laws of physics to be disregarded. Yet somehow, within the world of the dream, these impossible things can be observed and even understood. Their stories can be remembered and brought back to the waking world as a kind of message from our subconscious, speaking to us with a symbolic language crafted from our daily lived experience.

What then might this bizarre scene, which some have come to describe as the “birth of the church,” reveal when handled like a dream?

The first thing we notice is that the story begins with two actions: one on the part of the people and one emanating from the heavens. The people assemble and the Spirit comes. Not that the one forces the other, that the people can summon the Spirit simply by coming together, but that the Spirit acts once the people have left their private homes and joined together in public.

The second thing we notice is that the Spirit immediately acts to disrupt the homogeneity of Jesus’ followers. Rather than acting on the crowd, equipping the immigrants to understand what the disciples were saying, the Spirit acts on the church, equipping it to share its story in ways none of those followers of Jesus had been raised to do. They were making new sounds, speaking new languages, telling the story of God’s power in a way that made that very power obvious to anyone listening.

The third thing we might notice is that Peter relates this miracle of communication and comprehension to a prophesy of destruction — as if to say that the new community coming into being will feel to some like the end of the world.

That feels particularly important to say this morning, as we are waking up to the details of yet another attack on the people of London, which killed six and wounded nearly fifty. In a week in which multiple attacks were carried out in Afghanistan that left a hundred people dead and another five hundred badly wounded. In a news cycle dominated globally by despair for the environment, and locally by disappointment and outrage at the city’s failure of nerve to reform our system of law enforcement.

In the dream logic of Pentecost, these signs of destruction in the heavens and on earth are the beginning of the end. But it is not the earth that is coming to an end, or human life upon the earth. It is our way of being, our destructive patterns of relating to one another, that are finally coming to an end.

I know it doesn’t feel like it. I know it seems like things are getting worse. In reality, however, it seems to me that part of what is happening is that ancient wounds, intergenerational traumas, barely-buried prejudices, cultural addictions to unsustainable consumption, are boiling over — being exposed to the light.

Pentecost is the culminating moment of the season of Easter. It is the moment when the power of Christ’s resurrection and ascension ripples out beyond the boundaries of any single life, or even any single community of believers, or nation of people. Pentecost is the memory of God’s promise to never again to destroy the world with water — it is the “fire next time.” (2 Pet. 3:7)

 

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“Fire Dreaming” by Australian artist Ronnie Tjampitjinpa

 

 

But what is destroyed in this fire is the pretense that any of us are better than any other, that any of us are more deserving than any other, that any people are more chosen than any other, that any nation is more favored than any other. What is burned away in this fire are the lines that divide us — and without those lines the world as it is cannot go on.

So this fire ends the world as we know it, and in its place something new is already growing up among us. That something new is God’s dream for the world. We are its dreamers. When we gather the Spirit gathers with us, giving us new sounds and new songs, new words to describe God’s power at work in us, and for us, and through us.

May the sound of our gathering draw others to us. May the Spirit at work in us change the way we think and speak. May God’s dream for the world become our dream as well. May the whole world be made new.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, October 4, 2015: Fourth Sunday in Creation — Mountain Sunday

Texts: Isaiah 65:17-25  +  Psalm 48:1-11  +  Romans 8:28-39  +  Mark 16:14-18

IMG_0018I turned 42 on Friday, so I posted on my Facebook page, “I am the answer to life, the universe, and everything.” I thought the reference to Douglas Adams’ seminal classic The Hitchhiker’s Guide the Galaxy was self-explanatory, though many did not. My father, trying to be accommodating and corrective at the same time opined, “what you said is probably true — if it is also true for everyone.” Our brother, Bob Goldstein, expressed his concern that I’d gone off my meds. You could hear his eyes rolling as John Carlisle weighed in, “Oh, you Gen Xers and your sci-fi”; though Sara Spoonheim attributed my nerdiness to another cause, declaring, “that’s a boy book.”

Say what you will.  Whether it’s the fact that I was born in the 70s or identify as male, I do love sci-fi and fantasy and comic books, and I never grew out of it. I think it all started with the illustrated children’s bibles I read as a very young child, or maybe the Sunday School classroom that rendered Noah’s Ark, filled with two of every kind of animal, large enough to fill an entire wall. If we’re going to read these stories to children, we can’t be surprised if they grow up to believe that anything is possible.

So we get a vision of God’s future from the prophet Isaiah in which there is a new heaven and a new earth, where the wolf and the lamb dine together, and the lions have all become vegetarians; where the city no longer remembers the sound of weeping, because all its children live long and prosperous lives and no one is gentrified out of their homes or pushed off of the land (“they shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat” Isa. 65:22). Do you still think science fiction is just for boys?

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Walter Brueggemann, captured by paparazzi.

In a lecture he gave here in Chicago two weeks ago on the prophetic imagination, biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann suggested that the reason prophets speak in poetry and Jesus taught in parables is because both of these forms of speech activate the imaginations of the listener.  You can already see how that is true in my rendering of Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable reign of God. The prophet says nothing about gentrification, just that “they shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.” (65:21) I made the leap to our present situation here in the city, I filled in the blanks in Isaiah’s poetic rendering of God’s future with the facts of our present. Poetry and parables, fantasy and sci-fi, cinema and comic books. All trying to wake our sleeping minds and our numbed souls with their message of hope: the world as it is is not the world as it was meant to be. Anything might yet happen. Wake up and dream!

tumblr_nmssnazawh1rom810o4_500One of my favorite comic books of all time is Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman.”  The series centers on a character named Dream, one of the seven Endless, anthropomorphized personifications of aspects of being. Dream, also known as the Sandman or Morpheus, is usually (though not always) represented as a pale, slender man who moves in and between the dreams of all sentient beings. His siblings are Destiny, Death, Desire, Despair, Delirium (who was once Delight), and Destruction (who abdicated his duties, explaining why destruction runs rampant throughout creation).

In the most recent storyline, Dream is called to witness the end of the universe — all of creation being snuffed out of existence. Gathered with a remnant of the living things that once filled every corner of the cosmos, Dream has a conversation with a version of himself that is also a cat (it makes sense in the ways that dreams make sense). Staring at the end of everything, the cat says, “We have only the slightest chance, but that is enough … because it is the nature of Dreams, and ONLY of Dreams to define reality. Destiny is bound to existence. Death is limited by what she will or will not accept.” So, at the precipice of universal extinction, dream reaches out to the last remaining souls and appeals to them, “don’t dream this universe, sad and over too soon. Dream the real world. A place in which a star died long, long ago, so that all of us could live. Make it different.” (“The Sandman: Overture”; iss. 6, Nov. 2015)

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Why am I talking about comic books and dreamscapes on the final Sunday in the Season of Creation, on Mountain Sunday, at a moment in time when mountain tops are being scraped off and blown away to mine for natural gas? Why am I allowing myself to escape into flights of fancy when all of creation is crying out in labor pains that we fear may lead to a still birth? How do the voices of prophets from thousands of years ago matter when we hear the voices of scientists telling us we have less than a decade to change course or we risk runaway climate change, changes to the Earth’s environment, melting of the planet’s polar ice caps, that will flood the shores, alter the oceans, destroy marine ecosystems, and devastate the food chain that supports life as we know it. The situation is that dire, the threat is that real.

But you don’t need me to tell you that, because you’ve already heard it. You don’t need me to recite the laundry list of environmental degradations, you’ve read all about them. You don’t need me to rail against the horror of this most recent campus massacre, you’ve seen the footage. You don’t need me to reconstruct the final moments of Kelly Gissendaner’s life before the state of Georgia executed her. You don’t need me to tell you how many lives have been lost to the interconnected matrix of racism, poverty, misogyny, and environmental collapse.

Missy, The Doctor and ClaraSo let me tell you instead about this episode of Doctor Who I saw last week. The opening scene of the season premiere begins on a battlefield. Soldiers in mid-20th century uniforms carrying bows and arrows are being chased across an open field by bi-planes firing laser beams, suggesting a timeless, unending war. Stranded in a field of land mines (hand mines, actually, but it would take too long to explain) is a young boy, a victim of the relentless conflict. He is stuck, he cannot take a step without risking death.

Standing at the brink of death he hears a voice calling to him through the mists. It is The Doctor. “Now you’ve got to make a choice … you’ve got to decide that you’re going to live. Survival is just a choice, so choose — now! You have one chance in a thousand, but one is all you ever need. What’s your name? Come on! Faith in the future! Introduce yourself, tell me the name of the boy who isn’t going to die today.”

The Gospel of Mark would make an excellent comic book. We don’t often read these final verses from the longer ending, because they’re weird. Plenty of people who know more about scripture than I ever will feel pretty sure that these verses were added later, that they’re not part of the original story. In this longer ending Jesus appears after the crucifixion and resurrection to scold the disciples for their lack of faith and their stubbornness because they would not believe the testimony of those who’d seen him after he’d risen. He says, “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned.” (Mark 16:16)

It’s the kind of verse progressives avoid because it talks about salvation, and we’re so afraid that someone will think that we think that they’re not saved, even though we’re not sure what salvation is, and heaven, and all that, and yeah, whatever.

But listen again with the ears of someone living under the heel of a violent empire, someone who’s been pushed off the land, someone longing to belong to a future with hope. Then, make just one more tiny adjustment. Change the word “believe” to “dream.”

“Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. The one who dreams and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not dream will be condemned.”

5777536803_aea18034a7_bThe season of creation ends with hope, not because it is warranted, but because it is necessary. The season of creation ends with mountains, because in the biblical imagination, the mountain is the place where earth’s immanent suffering touches God’s transcendent healing. The mountain is the new heaven reaching the new earth. The mountain is the new Jerusalem, it is Zion, the city of God. The mountain is Moses bringing the law that saves. The mountain is Jesus preaching the sermon that reverses the relations of power. The mountain is the bizarre, surreal, dreamscape of the book of Revelation in which all the people of the world are finally gathered together in peace and creation is set right.

“Because it is the nature of Dreams, and ONLY of Dreams, to define reality.”

I’ve found a new respect for the longer ending of Mark, even if it is a later addition by entirely human beings who needed to say something else about what it means to live by faith in God in the face of annihilation by the powers and principalities of this world. Whoever that later author was, she was not afraid to dream a new ending to a story that gave her hope to keep fighting for the real world, a place in which a star died long, long ago, so that all of us could live. In her dream, Jesus said:

“And these signs will accompany those who [dream]: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.” (Mark 16:17-18)

Now let your imaginations rise up in you and take these words and dream with them. What demons will be cast out of your mind, out of our neighborhood, out of this world? What snakes, what ancient enemies, what fears, will you hold gently, tenderly, lovingly in your hands? Which waters will be purified, which seas will be cleansed? What bodies of land, bodies of water, bodies of the sick and dying, will you bless with your touch in the name of Jesus, the ancient light, the star that died so that we might live?

We have one chance in a thousand, but one is all we have ever needed. What is the name? Come on, faith in the future! Tell me the name of the planet that isn’t going to die today!

Make it different.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, June 8, 2014: Day of Pentecost

Texts: Acts 2:1-21  +  Ps. 104:24-34,35b  +  1 Cor. 12:3b-13  +  John 20:19-23

No one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:3b-13).

I’ll admit that when I was young, this verse was confounding.  I wondered if it could be true, in a literal way. I wondered if there was magic in the words “Jesus is Lord” that summoned the Holy Spirit, or if maybe it was the other way around; that by hearing or reading those words, I was inviting the Holy Spirit inside me, where it would work to bring me to say the words as well, “Jesus is Lord.”

With time I’ve come to a different understanding, though not completely different. I now hear these words, “Jesus is Lord,” as an early creed, a Christian reimagining of the tradition handed down to us through the words of the Torah, the prayers recited in the morning and evening by our Jewish brothers and sisters, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone” (Deut. 6:4).

But it’s not a creed in the way that we sometimes experience the creeds in worship, like a fragment of memory preserved in amber and recited as a testament to the past.  To say “Jesus is Lord” is a creed in the way that creeds may first have been used, as a public declaration of independence from all the forces of this world that work so hard to enslave us. The forces of greed, of violence, of envy, of terror. The forces that masquerade as the basis for our life together, the marketplace and the military, a strong economy and the power to keep it that way. To say “Jesus is Lord” is an act of bravery and imagination, because it implies that there is another way to live than the way we are living now, another world than the one we know, and it commits the speaker to the work of bringing that world into existence.

You know what I am talking about, because you are dreamers.

In his speech to those gathered in Jerusalem from every nation of the known world, Peter foretold the moment we now inhabit. He said,

“In the last days it will be, God declares,

that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,

and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,

and your young men shall see visions,

and your old men shall dream dreams.

Even upon my slaves, both men and women,

in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.”

(Acts 2:17-18)

What have you been dreaming about lately?  Do you know?  Do you remember your dreams?  What is your soul trying to say to you about the deepest yearnings of your heart?

Dreams are powerful things, in part, because they create a space where the mind can conjure up impossible solutions to impassable problems.  I remember that as a boy I had a recurring nightmare that I was being chased by a mob of children down the street on which I lived.  Each time I had the dream I would run as fast as I could until the children would finally grab hold of me, pull me to the ground, and begin to beat me.

a71013ea374c84f9efb44b25ee607130_largeOne night, as I was fleeing, it occurred to me that I might escape them by climbing a tree. So I leapt up and grabbed the lowest branch, pulling myself up and resting as the children gathered around the base of the tree yelling at me.  Soon they began throwing sticks and rocks at me, so I jumped from one tree to the next, evading their attacks, until I came to the end of the street and there were no trees left. Then the children began to climb the tree so that they could drag me down again.

It went on like that for another year or so, the nightmare visiting me every so often as I slept, always ending with me in that last tree at the end of the street, until one night when it occurred to me that I didn’t need another tree to escape, because I could fly. As the children began swarming at the base of the tree, reaching for its lowest limbs, I climbed up to the highest branch and looked up into the sky. I remember there was a bird coasting on the wind, barely working at all to stay aloft, and I decided to fly. I didn’t even have to leap, I just spread out my arms and rode the wind away from that tree on that street with those children. I never had that nightmare again.

Dreams make the impossible possible, they give us a chance to practice imagining a world different than the one in which we spend our waking hours.  For a little boy, the daily anxiety of navigating rooms filled with children who could be carelessly cruel seemed inescapable. In my dreams however I discovered that I could rise above my fears and found the freedom to explore the wider world.

Do you remember any of your childhood dreams?  What were they trying to tell you?  What new possibilities, what new worlds, did you create with your prophetic imagination?

lead_brueggemannI’m borrowing that phrase, “prophetic imagination,” from Walter Brueggemann, a biblical scholar who was interviewed by Krista Tippett a few years ago for her radio program “On Being.”  In that interview he said,

“I think at the broadest level, it is hard to talk about the fact — I think it’s a fact — that our society has chosen a path of death in which we have reduced everything to a commodity. We believe that there are technical solutions to everything, so it doesn’t matter whether you talk about over-reliance on technology, the mad pursuit of commodity goods, our passion for violence now expressed as our war policies. All of those are interrelated to each other and none of us, very few of us, really want to have that exposed as an inadequate and dehumanizing way to live. I think, if one is grounded in the truth of the gospel as a Christian that’s what we have to talk about.”

What Brueggemann is describing is our calling as Christians to imagine a world other than the one in which we live.  He describes the commodification of creation as the primary obstacle to envisioning a new world, and I agree.  We see this most easily in the advertising that surrounds us, a kind of waking dream in which impossible ideas get expressed as though they were reality — cosmetics equal beauty, cars equal power, cereal equals health, cell phones equal friendship, new homes equal family. The waking world in which we live and move and have our being has adopted the symbolism of our dreams, offering us a kind of pseudo-escape from the very real problems that pursue us. Except that, when we spread our wings and try to fly away from the anxieties of our lives in our new car, or our new home, or our new vacation, or our new phone, we find that we have really only leapt from one tree to the next, and our problems are still waiting for us.

What Peter preached to the people of Jerusalem, what Paul confessed to the people of Corinth, was not just another illusion, another substitute for the deepest longings of their hearts. What they offered was a new vision for the world, a living dream that was breaking into reality, that was calling people to renounce their old allegiances to empire and exploitation, to fear and accommodation.  The alternative they proposed was like a word spoken in a dream at the beginning of time, planted deep in the mind of every dreamer.  The word was light in dark places. The word was truth in a culture of lies. The word was power to the powerless.  The word was hope for the despairing.  The word was food for the hungry.  The word was love for the lonely. The word was life, rising up from every grave and waking every dreamer from the long night. The word was loose, and could not be contained, could not be silenced, could not be bought.

The word has a name, it is Jesus, and he is LORD.

When we say that, it is like the moment that sometimes happens while you are dreaming when you realize that you are in a dream, and it dawns on you that you might shape the dream rather than just observe it. Lucid dreaming, it’s called. When we say, “Jesus is LORD,” we are making the choice to not simply observe the world around us, but to change the world around us. We are committing ourselves to God’s dream for the world, and we are working to birth it into reality.

Sisters and brothers, these are the last days, and God’s Spirit has been poured out on us. We are God’s dreamers, God’s visionaries, God’s prophets. We rise from our beds like Christ rose from the tomb, undefeated by the powers and principalities of this world. We rise from our beds like Christ rose from the earth, glorifying the God of creation for whom nothing is impossible. We rise from our beds with stories to tell about the dreams and visions God has placed within us all, dreams that point the way to God’s preferred future.

Tell me, you prophets and seers, about your dreams. Tell one another. Can you see the new world coming? Come, let’s build it.

Amen.

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