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 8, 2015: Third Sunday in Lent

Texts: Exodus 20:1-17  +  Psalm 19  +  1 Corinthians 1:18-25  +  John 2:13-22

Nancy has worked at McDonald’s full-time for the last ten years. She makes $8.25 an hour and has never received a raise, which means that even working full-time she lives below the poverty line. As the mother of two, to say it’s difficult to make ends meet is an understatement. It’s nearly impossible. So when Nancy noticed the help line advertised in McDonald’s employee newsletter, she called looking for resources for her and her family.

We’re all familiar enough with how big business operates in this country to not be shocked by what happened next.  Nancy described her situation to the help line operator, saying that she’d begun rationing food because there wasn’t enough to feed her family. The operator offered to connect her to a listing of all the food pantries in her community and asked if she was on SNAP, the federal government’s food assistance program for low-income families. When Nancy said that she also needed help paying for medical bills, the McDonald’s helpline suggested she enroll for Medicaid.

SQhjQKwGWe’re not shocked by these stories, not because they’re not shocking, but because they’re so common. We’ve heard the same story at Wal-Mart and other national chains. In the interest of creating a business friendly economy we’ve created one that is hostile to low-wage workers. An economy where a person can work full-time at minimum wage and still not be able to feed themselves and their family. Where one medical incident could make the difference between keeping things together and complete disaster.

What does it mean that we live in a society where the value we assign to the labor of our lowest paid workers isn’t enough to live on? Where 52% of fast food families are forced onto federal assistance to make ends meet? Where hard-working people are required to rely on the charity of their neighbors and corporations are allowed to grow richer and richer by passing along labor costs to the rest of society, which ends up subsidizing those cheap burgers and other products of the low-wage economy to the tune of $7 billion each year?

Throughout the season of Lent we have been talking about the covenants God has made with God’s people; beginning first with Noah and the flood, then last week with Abraham and Sarah.  This week we hear the story of God giving the law, what we call the Ten Commandments, to Moses at Mount Sinai.  The law was one more covenant, one more sign that God was binding God’s self to God’s people.

The law comes to a people who are in the process of reclaiming their freedom after generations of slavery in Egypt. Unlike Pharaoh’s laws, which establish regimes filled with physical and economic violence, God’s law is established in the context of the ongoing covenant between a loving God and a free people. It is a law that recognizes our tendency to make idols out of wealth and to treat people as objects in the pursuit of all that we desire. It is a law intended to humanize us rather than oppress us.

0806656050hWe have been given the law as a way to order and structure our life together, to tend the distribution of God’s good gifts among all of God’s people, and yet we deform the law and twist it to suit our own needs and ends without regard for the other.  God tells Moses to tell the people, “you shall not murder” and “you shall not steal.”  Luther, commenting on the fifth commandment (you shall not murder)  in his Small Catechism writes, “what does this mean? [that] we should fear and love God so that we do not hurt or harm our neighbor in his body, but help and support him in every physical need.”  And, of the seventh commandment (you shall not steal) he writes, “we should fear and love God so that we do not take our neighbor’s money or possessions, or get them in any dishonest way, but help him to improve and protect his possessions and income.”

And yet, we have created and sustained an economy of scarcity that rewards greed and violates both commandments in that it does not help and support our neighbors in their physical needs, nor does it help and improve their possessions and income. The situation is completely outrageous – reminding me of the bumper sticker that reads, “if you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention.”  The only thing that prevents us from acknowledging our anger and the injustice of the situation is the fact that we have become so accustomed to it.  But not Jesus.

When Jesus goes up to Jerusalem in the gospel reading from John we hear this morning, he enters the temple – the place where the people have been commanded to go to receive the blessings of God’s covenant of love – and sees that between the entry to the temple and the foot of the altar a marketplace has sprung up.  Merchants in the temple, acting with the knowledge and consent of the religious establishment, are taking the wealth of the people and converting it into “acceptable” gifts for offering in the temple.  Jesus is enraged – the temple should be a place where God’s people see and taste and experience God’s free and unconditional love, and yet even that gift has become commodified.  And so Jesus drives the money-changers, the profiteers, out of God’s house saying, “destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

Sisters and brothers, you are the beloved people of God – along with everyone else.  Your lives are sacred and holy, they are a gift from God – and so are everybody else’s.  It’s not just the needs of our fellow Americans that we are called to address, but today we are challenged to look at the systems of power and privilege that we are a part of and that we have the power to change.  We are challenged to do this regardless of whether we consider ourselves liberals or conservatives, whether we vote Democrat or Republican, whether we voted for the current President or not.  We are called to do this because we are a part of the nation that stood at the base of Mount Sinai when God made an eternal covenant with us that requires us to care for the life and livelihood of our neighbors.

At the center of our low-wage scandal there is a cross. Like the cross that bore Jesus, the low-wage cross is a sign of the world’s disregard for life, a sign of the empire values of profit and expansion over God’s values of dignity and compassion.  As Christians we have a relationship to the cross that looks foolish to others, but to us is the wisdom and power of God.  Where the world sees shame, we see dignity. Where the world sees despair we see hope. Where the world sees death, we see new life.

In his letter to the Corinthians Paul puts it somewhat polemically, “For while the Jews call for miracles and the Greeks look for wisdom, here we are preaching a Messiah nailed to a cross.” What I hear Paul describing is a third way between the poles of fatalism and rationalization. Rather than declare that “it would take a miracle to get us out of this mess” (a straw man characterization of Jewish political and ethical thought, to be sure) or philosophizing that this failed under-regulated free market experiment is the best of all possible worlds (though acknowledging that there are plenty of political and philosophical traditions that very effectively critique the corruption of capitalism), the Christian response to the scandal of the cross is to affiliate, to associate, to allow ourselves to be nailed in solidarity to those who hang with Jesus in places of unjust suffering.

And this is a consequence of our baptisms, in which we are joined with Christ and called to take up his ministry of clearing away anything in church or society that stands between the doorway where we sing “all are welcome” and the altar where we say “the gifts of God for the people of God.”  Whether we chose to be baptized or were brought to the font by our parents, our lives have been dedicated to the service of a living God that stands against every idol that would reduce us to mere cogs in the machine, mere servers on the line. Who liberates us from every oppression, and gives us a law that calls us to participate in the liberation of our neighbors. Whose covenant love is not just for us, but through us.

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, October 19, 2014: Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Isaiah 45:1-7  +  Psalm 96:1-13  +  1 Thessalonians 1:1-10  +  Matthew 22:15-22

strategic planning retreat

Earlier this year our Church Council met with members of the Strategic Listening Team to receive the preliminary report of the listening campaign they conducted with members of St. Luke’s. Most all of you took part in this campaign, sharing with one another what you love about our congregation, what you worry about when you consider our future, and how you tell the story of our mutual ministry. After a season of listening, we were all eager to hear what common themes might have emerged.

When Katie Baxter, who’s been chairing this team, first shared with me the Strategic Listening Team’s summary I will confess to being extremely proud of the congregation we’ve become. Here’s what you said about us:

  • We are Christian. We follow Jesus who loved all conditions of people, who rolled up his sleeves to engage the world, and revealed a better way to live. We gather weekly to be healed, recharged, and sent out to continue that work.
  • We are accepting. Come as you are, inside and out. You are welcome here.
  • We are progressive. We’re willing to confront “the way things are” and seek new answers to old questions. We believe ordinary people can do extraordinary things.
  • We are active. We are committed to balance in life, compassion for the struggling, and engagement with the world. We’re imperfect but we’re determined to make a difference.
  • We are community builders. We invite you to get to know our diverse members and friends, to find your place among us, and to join us in extending our hospitality to Logan Square and beyond.

As I read that summary for the first time, I remember feeling my heart climb up into my throat as I recognized us in these words. Yes, we are welcoming, and yes, we are imperfect. Yes, we are progressive, and yes, we are Christians. Yes, Yes, Yes!

There is a spirit of daring in the way you see yourselves, a spirit of adventure and openness to the future, that is simultaneously exciting and, if I’m being honest, terrifying. You are not play acting at faith, you are wrestling with God and one another and the world in which we live. You are trying to figure out how to be good parents, and good children, and good neighbors, and good colleagues, and good citizens, and good Christians. You are giving yourself to so many people, so many projects, so many causes. You are taking life one day at a time and figuring it out as you go. You are beautiful and inspiring. You must be so tired!

Tiberian_denarius“Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” (Matt. 22:21, KJV) That’s the King James translation, I just love the poetry of it. “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” is the translation we’re working with. Simple enough, right? Give this world what belongs to this world, and give God what belongs to God.

Except that we know, with ears that have been conditioned to listen for puzzles and parables that the world does not divide so neatly into the things ruled by the powers and principalities of this world and the things ruled by God. We hear in Jesus’s dodgy response to the trap laid out by the Pharisees and the Herodians the ongoing call to struggle with how to be a good parent, a good child, a good neighbor, a good colleague, a good citizen, a good Christian. How much of myself am I prepared to give away?

The question itself was a trap, of that much I’m sure. As one commentator on this scripture has written, “politically, just about the only thing Pharisees and Herodians have in common is that they don’t like Jesus.” As Jesus’s ministry grew, both factions were becoming more and more concerned with his waxing influence among the people. He was becoming a greater and greater threat to the delicate balance of power worked out between the emperor in Rome and the local leadership in government, in the Temple, and out in the countryside. They hoped to trap him with a question that would split his base, so they asked him about the topic that still so often splits us: they asked him about money.

“Tell us then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” (Matt. 22:17)

Here’s the trap. If Jesus says it is lawful to pay taxes then he is siding with the Herodians, the Jews who backed King Herod, the local ruler who was beholden to Rome for his power. He’ll lose the support of the poor, those oppressed and angry with the Roman occupation. On the other hand, if he encourages the crowd not to pay taxes he may keep their support, but he will be openly defying the empire and could then be tried, jailed, even executed. Either way, the Pharisees and the Herodians think they have Jesus neutralized.

Often in the past, when I’ve considered this story I’ve put myself in the place of the crowd that followed Jesus, watching him take on the warring political factions of his day, hoping they wouldn’t trap him, cheering him on as he slips through their fingers. Over time though I sense that I, like most of us, am a Herodian or a Pharisee. I want Jesus to offer an authoritative answer that will either affirm my convictions or confirm that he is irrelevant. I want him to say something that will sound beautiful and righteous, that will seem laudable and impossible, so that I can recognize how right he is even as I let myself off the hook of living the life he calls me to live. Let him go to the cross for his glorious vision of a new heaven and a new earth, I’m just trying to get through the day in the heaven and earth we’ve got here and now.

To say that Jesus slips through their trap isn’t quite right though. First of all, it doesn’t fit with who we know Jesus to be. He’s not afraid of conflict, or to speak his mind. He has already made his attitude toward wealth perfectly clear when he told the rich young man, “go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (Matt. 19:21) So why dodge this question?

You know, it’s really only a dodge if you think it’s Jesus’s job to tell you how to live your life. It’s only a dodge if you think it’s a teacher’s job to do your thinking for you, or if you think it’s a parent’s job to solve your problems for you, or you think it’s a colleague’s job to do your work for you, or if you think it’s an elected official’s job to build your democracy for you, or if you think it’s a pastor’s job to be a Christian for you. But you don’t think these things, at least that’s not what I saw when I read the summary of the listening campaign’s findings. You don’t think our Christian faith is about having all the answers handed to you. You believe that following Jesus is a messy business that requires deep listening, respectful disagreement, careful discernment, and confidence that the God who called us together is with us each step of the way.

The Pharisees and Herodians ask, “tell us then, what you think.” In essence, Jesus replies, “no, tell me what you think. What belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God?”  On one level the answer is clear: everything comes from God, so everything belongs to God, so everything should be rendered to God. On another level, nothing is clear.  As the passage from Isaiah reminds us, God worked through Cyrus, the foreign king over Israel. God works through the governments and institutions of this world. And as the passage from Thessalonians points out, this world and its governments and institutions persecute those who are faithful to God’s vision for a world redeemed by love for love, for peace with justice. The answers aren’t as clear as “yes, pay your taxes” or “no, don’t pay them.” The answers aren’t as clear as “yes, military action” or “no military action.” The answers aren’t even as clear as “yes, marriage equality” or “no marriage equality.”

Which is not the same as saying that there aren’t legitimate, strongly held, faithfully arrived at convictions that motivate our public speech and action. It’s just to say that Jesus, like any good teacher, won’t do all our work for us. Jesus won’t fall prey to the intellectual or political traps we lay that try to neutralize him by making his call to discipleship so ideological that it can be ignored. Instead, Jesus lays a question before us and demands that we really listen to it, that we consider its many angles, that we search our religious tradition, our scriptures and the witness of those who have gone before us. Then, having done that, that we tell the world what we think with courage and humility knowing that each of us is working out our own salvation with fear and trembling. (Philippians 2:12)

This is one of the reasons we gather together as a church — to practice giving our testimony, to model what it looks like to say what we think, to listen to one another as we each work out what it means to follow Jesus in our lives and in the world. In this, you are a great encouragement to me. Your witness strengthens my faith on a daily basis as you give yourselves to the raising of your children in ways that nurture in them peace, love and compassion; as you support your spouses and care for your aging parents; as you devote yourselves to your work, your crafts, your art, your writing, your activism; as you engage with elected officials and community organizations to build the society you want to leave to those who follow us; as you offer yourselves to the life of this congregation and God’s church throughout the world. You do not divide the world into Caesar’s or God’s. Instead, you live with the awareness that each of us, you and me and even Caesar in all his manifestations, are part of the world God loves, and is reforming.

As I celebrate eight years of ministry with and among you this week, I am so grateful for the spirit of daring and hope you have brought into my life. Together we have been living a life in which questions are answered with more questions, and the answers are only found when we are together and not divided.

Amen.

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