Sermons

Sermon: Thursday, April 13, 2017: Maundy Thursday

Texts: Ex. 12:1-4,11-14  +  Ps. 116:1-2,12-19  +  1 Cor. 11:23-26  +  John 13:1-17,31b-25

 

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One of many prompts for prayer and conversation from Nov. 9th

Last fall, on November 9th — the day after the elections — St. Luke’s opened its doors for those who needed a place to pray, to weep, to talk, to be silent, to sing as we tried to make sense of an election that caught millions of people by surprise. My memory of that night is that people were shocked that their fellow citizens had elected to this nation’s highest office someone who showed no regard for values they held as central to our national identity. As they processed their shock and shame, it seemed to me that part of what they felt was a sense of betrayal by their neighbors; that they had been living under the assumption that the majority of people in our nation shared their outlook on the world, and that this assumed solidarity had been betrayed.

 

Once the shock subsided, there was no shortage of articles and essays attempting to make sense of the 2016 election. We were told that the surge from the right-wing of the American electorate was also acting out of a sense of betrayal — that the government created to serve and advance their interests had been co-opted by a liberal agenda dominated by identity politics and dedicated to a form of corporate globalism that devalued American labor and left the White working class behind. People who’d felt betrayed by their country rose up to take it back, we were told.

Betrayal is an odd and painful thing. It can only exist where there is the assumption of some form of solidarity. To be injured by one’s enemy isn’t a betrayal, it’s an assault. To be injured by one’s parents or children, however, is a betrayal of the bonds of family. To be fired without cause is a betrayal of the bonds built by shared effort. To be cheated upon by a lover or spouse is a betrayal of the bonds of love or the vows of marriage. To be neglected by a friend is a betrayal of the bonds of friendship. Betrayal assumes relationship, loyalty, solidarity, even love.

One of the effects of our modern, mobile, industrial life is that the number of people and communities we invest in as adults has, for many people, diminished. I could be wrong, but it seems to me that when I was younger I used to hear more anger and betrayal at how companies no longer treat their employees with any sense of loyalty. People who gave decades of their lives to help build a company up — only to find themselves laid off, replaced, or otherwise treated as expendable — used to express more of a sense of betrayal and outrage. Now it seems to be taken as a fact that companies have no commitment or obligation to their employees beyond what can be legally mandated.

Similarly, as a child I remember the sense of dismay people had over the rising divorce rate. In 1980 about half of all first marriages ended in divorce. Over the last thirty years the divorce rate has fallen, though it also seems that the expectation that marriages survive the trials of life has as well. People speak jokingly of “starter marriages” the way they might speak of “starter homes.” If we enter into our most intimate relationships with low expectations, how deeply can we feel betrayed when they finally end?

The year that I lived in Washington, D.C. I remember attending a party and overhearing a conversation in which someone remarked that they were on their “third set of friends” since moving to the Capital because of how quickly people come and go from that place. Today it seems to me that many people and many places experience that kind of transience as commonplace. Could anyone even feel betrayed by a friend or neighbor’s decision to move on? Can we imagine being invested enough in one another to feel a sense of betrayal in any relationship outside of work or family?

Or, just how far do we imagine our self-interest extends?

Over the course of his three years of public ministry, Jesus had built a community of people who were deeply invested in him and in one another. By leaving his family at home to wander the countryside with his disciples, Jesus had already betrayed societal norms for how men and sons were supposed to behave. By associating with women and foreigners and all manner of sick and diseased people, Jesus had betrayed religious norms for how observant Jews were supposed to act. By entering Jerusalem on the back of a donkey to the cries of those who named him “the King of Israel” he had betrayed the political norms for how occupied people were to supposed to relate to the government. But, however outrageous their behavior may have seemed to those outside their community, within the circle of those who followed Jesus there was a sense of solidarity with a new vision for how the world might be. A vision of food for the hungry, healing for the sick, dignity for the poor, justice for the oppressed, and welcome for the foreigner. It was a vision that bound them to one another and to Jesus like branches to a vine.

This is what makes this scene so dramatic, and potentially explosive. After three years of laboring alongside one another for a future none of them had ever seen, but all were hungry to behold, we learn that one of the disciples — Judas — has put a plan in place to betray Jesus. More than that, we know that Peter — always eager to prove his devotion to Jesus and the cause — is about to publicly deny Jesus. What do we expect at this moment?

If it were any other story, instead of a story about Jesus from a source we call the Bible, we would expect a fight. If this were a scripted drama on HBO, like The Sopranos or Game of Thrones, we would expect the traitors and cowards to get killed. If this were American politics, we’d expect someone to get scapegoated. If this was a workplace scene, we’d expect someone to get fired. In any other situation, we would expect the person with the power to use it to their advantage. We should expect Jesus, into whose hands God has “put all things,” to flip over the table and drive the faithless disciples out of the room.

washingfeet-jesusInstead Jesus rises from the table and, instead of flipping it over, he goes from person to person and washes their feet. He takes the job that would have been given to a servant or a slave, and he does that work for everyone in the community, knowing full well the ways that they will fail him and themselves. This, he calls the “new commandment” — the newness coming not from the command to love, but to love humbly, to love unconditionally, to love even those who betray and deny us, to show our love in acts of service we might wish someone else would do in our place.

How different our world might look if this was our response to betrayal. How different our conversations might sound, over coffee and online, if we trained ourselves to respond to anger with and resentment toward our fellow citizens with acts of service rather than blame and shame. How different our relationships with family members and co-workers might be if we stopped trying to win arguments or approval and just did the work that no one wants to do.

How different life could be, for all of us, if we met betrayal with love.

I believe we are living in the moment of betrayal. I actually believe we are living in a constant state of betrayal so deep and so persistent that most of us have numbed our hearts and distracted our minds so that we don’t have to feel the rage and heartbreak that come from expecting something more out of life. What has been betrayed is our humanity, what has been sacrificed is the memory that we were made in the image and likeness of God. We were not made for terror and anxiety. We were not made to fear our neighbor and hate the stranger. We were not made to rise or fall on the basis of our ability to accommodate ourselves to a system that ridicules us as we learn, that punishes us as we age, that uses us when we succeed, and that abandons us when we struggle or stumble. We were made for community. We were made for each other. We were made for love.

But the only way we will ever live in a world fit for lovers is if we band together to change the way things are, which means building something big enough and powerful enough to confront the powers and principalities of this world and to call them back to their original purposes — supporting and sustaining life for us all. That job is bigger than any of us can tackle alone. If we want to see that world, we will have to be willing to invest our time and our trust in one another. We will have to build relationships that matter enough to us that we are willing to risk being disappointed (again), being betrayed (again).

And why would we ever do that? Why would we ever risk the pain of putting ourselves out there over and over, knowing that we will certainly be betrayed and denied; knowing that we ourselves will sometimes be the ones who betray or deny the vision we are working toward? Why would we risk the humiliation and retribution that come from failing in front of our families, in front of our friends and neighbors? Failing on the world’s stage?

Let me ask this:

What would you be willing to risk, if you knew that failure would be met with love?

And, what would it take to convince you that no failure of vision or of nerve, no betrayal or denial, could break that love?

And, how often would you need to be reminded of that love?

This is what we say to each other within the community of the church about failure:

“On the night in which he was betrayed, our Lord Jesus took bread, gave thanks, broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying: ‘Take and eat, this is my body, given for you, do this in remembrance of me.’”

Every Sunday, every week, every time we return to this table we remember that God meets our failures, our denials, and our betrayals with the self-giving love of Jesus, who knelt to wash our feet and commanded us to love one another like that.

Don’t you long to live in a world that loving, that forgiving, that free?

That’s what we are building together — each meal shared, each foot washed, each person loved more deeply than any betrayal can deny.

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, April 27, 2014: Second Sunday of Easter

Texts: Acts 2:14a,22-32  +  Psalm 16  +  1 Peter 1:3-9  +  John 20:19-31

“When it was evening on that day…” (John 20:19)

Do you remember that day? That O Happy Day? I remember that day last week.  My heart is still singing and my mind is still reeling from that day. This house was rocking and rolling to the sounds of praise and worship in celebration of the God of life, predictably showing up to do the unpredictable, to raise the dead. For many of us it was the kind of day when we felt like we could see with our own eyes, touch and taste with our own hands and mouth, the goodness of the Lord, present to us in word and water, in bread and wine. It was the day when the alleluias that had been locked up inside us for forty days were finally set free from the tombs of aching hearts and troubled minds, so that as we came to this cavernous sanctuary and found the stone rolled away and Jesus once again loose in the world, we were able to join with Mary Magdalene who left the tomb and returned to the rest of the disciples, saying “I have seen the Lord!” (John 20:18).

But not all who had known Jesus experienced what Mary and Simon Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved experienced when they came to the grave that Easter morning. Not everyone who loved Jesus had come to see his empty tomb, so when the word first arrived that Mary had seen the Lord, they sounded like empty words. So, I want to ask you all if there’s ever been a time when all the things that we religious people say, when all the things that Christians say, have sounded like empty words. Has there ever been a time in your life when the things that people say, people who genuinely seem to have faith, didn’t generate any faith in you? If so, would you raise your hand?

If you gave me pen and paper, I could fill it in just a few minutes with the things “people of faith” have said to me that didn’t bring me one inch closer to faith myself. “When God closes a door, he opens a window.” “Let go and let God.” “God doesn’t give us anything we can’t handle.” But not just the easy targets, not just the stock phrases that somewhere, way back, come from some real, felt experience of faith; but the personal testimonies as well. In fact, at times in my life when my own faith has been at its weakest, when I have been filled with doubt in the reality and the presence of a loving God, hearing someone else say “I have seen the Lord” in some truly genuine way has been almost painful. “Why,” I might think, “is that person so certain when I am so uncertain?” I won’t ask you to raise your hands, but I will ask you to examine your hearts this morning, and see if you don’t hear a voice like that, your own true voice, asking that kind of question.

So, when it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, the day Mary had returned from an empty grave with the news that she had seen the Lord, had seen Jesus — not dead, but alive — that day found the followers of Jesus in the house where they had grown accustomed to meeting. Despite Mary’s testimony, they had not left the building, they were not out looking for their friend, they were not conducting a door-to-door search for the teacher they had loved. They were hiding out of fear of the religious authorities that had engineered Jesus’ death.

What kind of fear is that? What kind of fear would it take to keep you committed to your doubts rather than open to your hopes? Because, surely when Mary came back to the house with her incredible story, some part of each of the disciples had to have said, “she’s lost her mind!” Maybe out of grief, maybe out of shock, but this simply can’t be true. But, some other part of each of the disciples knew that it could be true. That the one who had changed water into wine, who had healed the sick, and restored sight to the blind, and fed the multitudes, and walked on the waves, and brought Lazarus back to life, that if there was anyone who might have emancipated himself from the slavery of the grave, it would be Jesus. But they stayed in the house out of fear, because they saw what people with power had done to the leader they loved.

And I wonder if you have known that kind of fear. The kind of fear that follows the death of parent who showed you how to walk bravely in the world, leaving you to wonder if you could ever be as strong as you were when your mother or your father was still there to call you, to coach you, to cheer you on. Or the kind of fear that follows the firing of a co-worker or a supervisor who spoke out in a workplace dominated by silence, who told the truth about what was happening to customers, to clients, to the neighborhood, to the environment, leaving you to wonder if anyone else would ever find the courage to speak out again. The kind of fear that looks like hopelessness when the truth-tellers in our schools, and churches, and City Halls, and congressional hearings get outmaneuvered over and over again by big money and the anonymous machine of politics and power to the detriment of us all, leaving you to wonder if there’s any point to hope at all. The kind of fear that kept the disciples locked away in the house where they’d always met to tell their stories quietly to one another.

If you have, if you’ve known that kind of fear, the fear of failure, of disappointment, of defeat, then imagine how you might feel if the parent, or the coach, or the teacher, or the leader that you loved and admired came and found you, locked away, hiding the gifts they’d nurtured in you, squashing the hopes they’d invested in you, giving up.

I suspect we’ve all done it at one time or another, given up, in ways both big and small. We start early and keep practicing as we get older. We give up on the instrument or the sport we loved as children, giving up on playfulness altogether as we get older. We give up on our friendships with the odd child in school, giving up on all sorts of outsiders as we enter adulthood. We give up on math, or science, or writing, or whatever subject most challenged us as children, only to find ourselves giving up on all sorts of dreams for our careers later in life. We give up on love, on our first love, on the idea of love, and we spend our lives wondering if we will ever find love, ever keep love, ever trust love. We know what it’s like to give up, to hide from the lives we once dreamed of having.

And when someone finally comes and finds us hiding from ourselves, what do we expect will happen? I expect to be scolded or shamed or blamed. I expect to feel embarrassed, even humiliated. I expect to be fired, or dumped, or abandoned. And the fear of each of these outcomes pushes me further and further into that locked room, until I’m somewhere in the back, under the desk, under the covers, hiding, hoping that no one will see what a disappointment I’ve turned into.

You don’t have to raise your hand. We’ve all been there.

The doors were locked that day, but Jesus had told them “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture” (John 10:9). The one who couldn’t be kept in a grave, certainly couldn’t be kept out of the homes and the hearts of those God loved. So, disregarding every stone blocking the tomb, every lock blocking the home, Jesus came back — not to blame them, or shame them, or fire them, but to free them.

shalom-linda-woods“Shalom,” he says. “Peace be with you.” It means “peace” and “be well” and “greetings” all at the same time. It means, we have come into one another’s presence and my desire for you is that you be whole, and well, and that there be peace between us. It is the reign of God come near. With that word they are set free and they see that the Lord is still with them. So, a second time Jesus says, “Shalom. As [God] has sent me, so I send you.” Because, in addition to meaning “hello,” shalom also means goodbye. It is a word that both receives and sends the one being addressed. The act of being set free is one and the same with the act of being sent out to free and liberate those still trapped behind locked doors. For this reason, Jesus says to them “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

Far from endowing the disciples with special powers, what Jesus is doing here is describing a basic spiritual principle; the very one, in fact, that they have just experienced. By announcing peace to people trapped by their own fears, Jesus has set them free.  Now Jesus tells them that they have been called and commissioned to do the same, to announce peace to all who still live lives of desperation turned inward as self-loathing, turned outward as violence in thoughts, words and deeds.

Remember that in the gospel of John, “sin” isn’t so much a moral transgression, its a lack of relationship. All throughout John’s gospel, Jesus has been bringing people to belief: the woman at the well, the man born blind, the sisters at the grave. Even after his own death and resurrection, Jesus is still working to bring people to belief — belief that there is no power that can bind the power of God welling up on God’s own people, no power that can keep locked the doors of our hearts, or our minds, or our futures which are all secured in God. So, when Jesus sent the disciples out with the power to forgive or to retain, he is pointing to the reality he has just demonstrated for them. If they will forgive people’s fear-driven behavior, if they will announce shalom, peace, well-being, as they greet and send one another, then sin will be cease to hold any power in the world. But if they refuse to announce shalom, peace, well-being; if they come with blame and shame and dismissal, then the world will continue to cower behind locked doors and fear one another.

We are still learning this lesson. We are still coming out from under the desk, under the covers. We are still waiting for Jesus to open the door. It happened for Mary early that day, it happened for the disciples later that day, it happened for Thomas a week later, in that same place where they were accustomed to gathering.  So maybe it happened for you last week, early in the morning, when you heard Peggy singing “O happy day, when Jesus comes” and Kerry singing, “clap your hands if you know that happiness is the truth.” But maybe it came for you later that day, as you looked back and realized that something had broken loose in you, a joy, a hope that you thought was dead, but you sensed coming back to life. Or maybe it took an extra week, and you had to come back to the scene of the miracle to see if it would happen again for you.

The point of the story isn’t about how quickly you experience God’s appearance in your life. The point is how consistently God will keep showing up, week after week, person after person, announcing peace to people trained for war, announcing well-being to people committed to misery, so that we may come to trust God, and in that trust find new life beyond every door.

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, June 16, 2013: Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts:  1 Kings 21:1-21a  +  Psalm 5:1-8  +  Galatians 2:15-21  +  Luke 7:36-8:3

2013 Bangladesh Factory Collapse

Not quite two months ago, in the capital city of Bangladesh, an eight-story building collapsed killing over 1,100 people, and injuring an additional 2,500.  The building housed a garment factory, one of many in Bangladesh which pays some of the lowest wages in the world. According to reports by the Center for American Progress and the Workers Rights Consortium, garment factory workers in Bangladesh earn about $136 per month and labor in “buildings largely unpoliced by local officials, many of whom themselves own stakes in the factories.”  So, even though cracks had appeared in the building and the owners had been warned to evacuate the factory, the labor force had been ordered to report for work on the morning the building collapsed.  It was the deadliest garment-factory accident in history, and the cost of clothing manufactured cheaply in Bangladesh cannot be correctly counted if it does not include the cost of those lives.

About a year and a half ago the New York Times ran a series of reports on the “iEconomy,” by which it was referring to the economy that has grown up surrounding high-tech industries.  Their reporting highlighted the harsh working conditions and frequent injuries in manufacturing plants that produce products for Apple, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, I.B.M., Motorola, Sony, Toshiba and others.  In one case “137 workers at an Apple supplier in eastern China were injured after they were ordered to use a poisonous chemical to clean iPhone screens.”  Reports of underage workers, excessive overtime, and hazardous waste continue to haunt the high-tech manufacturing sector.  The cost of the smooth, shiny, miracle devices so many of us — myself included — have come to love cannot be correctly counted if it does not include the cost paid by the workers and even the environment.

For the purposes of sermonizing, the “iEconomy” couldn’t have been better named.  It’s not just high-tech devices and cheap clothing that come with unbearable costs.  We all know that.  We’ve seen the documentaries, we’ve even screened some of them here at St. Luke’s, about the costs of an unsustainable food-subsidy policy, of fracking for natural gas, of cheap oil.  Here in the United States, and throughout much of the northern hemisphere, we reap the benefits of the “I-Economy,” an economy that caters to the wealthy at the expense of the poor.

15 Facts About US Inequality that Everyone Should Know

We don’t like to think of ourselves as wealthy in the United States, we like to think we’re all in the middle.  We’re all middle class.  But, objectively speaking that’s just not true. We are living in an era in which the gap between the rich and the poor has been expanding faster than at any time in recent history, not just here in the United States, but globally.  The Bangladeshi factory worker earning $136 each month does not buy the clothing she makes.  The Chinese factory worker cannot afford the iPad he polishes.  The undocumented farm laborer in the United States could never shop at a Whole Foods or a Mariano’s.

The “I-Economy” exists to serve those with money and power, to give us what we want at the price we want to pay, and there’s nothing new about it.

In this morning’s story from First Kings, we return once again to King Ahab and his wife Jezebel.  The king spies a vineyard in the fertile Jezreel valley, next to his palace.  He wants it, regardless of the fact that it belongs to someone else, so he offers to buy it from its owner, Naboth.  This may sound fair to us, but in the context of the story something affronting has already begun to take place.  During these times, the land was understood to be more than a commodity, more than real estate.  Land was the source of a family’s income and security, but even more, it was understood to be a God-given gift.  It was a birthright passed from generation to generation.

The connection between land and lineage is symbolized in the story by the crops each owner would grow.  Naboth has established a vineyard on his land, and as anyone who loves wine and knows how it is made can attest, vines are precious and require cultivation over generations.  When immigrants came to the United States from the wine countries of the Mediterranean they would sometimes bring cuttings from the vines of the old country to plant in the new world as a sign of continuity with their ancestors.  By contrast, King Ahab wants the land for a vegetable garden, the kind of crop you plant again and again at the start of each new season.  Ahab proposes to destroy a lineage and an inheritance for the sake of a fast crop, a quick profit.

Bolivia QuinoaIn Bolivia, where quinoa has been cultivated for over 4,000 years — so, literally, since the time of Ahab — the global demand for this cash crop has actually begun to destroy traditional agricultural practices as farmers take cash incentives from the government to abandon other crops in order to keep up with the demand in American health food markets.  As a result, farmers have stopped rotating crops, and the land is quickly becoming depleted.  This has devastating local impact in this nation, where one in five children suffers from chronic malnutrition.  The cost of quinoa cannot be correctly counted if it does not include the cost paid by the families whose own children are not being fed.

But the king wants what he wants when he wants it.  When Naboth rejects his offer, Ahab takes to his bed in an almost comical tantrum.  He didn’t get what he wanted, and so he feels like he is the aggrieved party.  Isn’t this how the “I-Economy” works?  It so distorts our sense of what is fair, that we can actually imagine that we are the injured party when gasoline prices rise, or food prices rise, or manufacturing prices rise.  We punish our legislators with angry phone calls and the threat of being ousted if they touch our crop subsidies.  We look the other way when troops are sent to protect oil, knowing the bottom line lines our pockets as well.

There is, however, another economy in the world.

We catch sight of it in the gospel story from Luke, in which a woman comes to the place where Jesus is sharing dinner with Simon the Pharisee.  This woman is known to be a sinner, what kind of sinner the scriptures don’t say, but whatever her debts are, Jesus has forgiven them.  Her jubilee tears are the signs of joy you might experience when a crushing load is lifted, an unimaginable debt is forgiven, an incurable illness is healed.  She spends her tears on his feet and she pours precious and costly oil over his skin to anoint him.

Simon is confused by Jesus’ interaction with this woman, his transaction in this economy of gratitude and grace.  It did not fit within the accepted business practices of the day.  Simon was a Pharisee, the woman was a sinner.  We don’t even know her name.  She could have been one of the women crushed in Bangladesh.  She might have been a factory worker in China.  She may have picked the quinoa served for dinner that night.  But to Jesus, she was a person who mattered.  Her suffering in the I-Economy was seen by God, and challenged by Christ, and this nameless woman was grateful, so grateful, to be seen and loved by such a good and gracious God, that she poured herself out at Jesus’ feet.

Sisters and brothers, we live in the tension between two economies as well.  We all know this.  Our cupboards and our closets are filled with signs of one economy.  Our church is filled with signs of another.  We are so tightly entangled in systems of production and consumption that distance us from one another, that benefit some while punishing others, that we barely know how to begin to extricate ourselves.  But we must begin, we must continue, to try.  Because the woman who stitches our clothes, the man who polishes the glass on our smart phones, the children who pick our crops do have names, and they belong to God, which makes them members of our family.

When we baptized Zoey Charlotte White this morning we washed her with water and anointed her with oil, just like the nameless woman who touched Jesus’ feet.  Like that woman in Simon the Pharisee’s house, we too are sinners.  We too have been caught in systems of suffering and oppression that have lured us away from our birthright, our baptisms, our utter belonging to God.  But today, in this baptism, in this naming, we see how good God is.  We see that before we ever chose God, God chose us.  We see that no one is nameless before God — not the workers in the factories and the fields, not the woman at Jesus’ feet, not Mary, called Magdalene, or Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, or Susanna, or Zoey or me or you.

In our baptisms we were called out of the “I-Economy” and into the economy of grace.  That means it matters what we eat, and what we wear, and what we buy because somewhere, another child of God just as beautiful and precious as Zoey has labored to bring these things to you and me.  May we learn to love those whose names we do not know as deeply as God has loved us.

Amen.

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