Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, February 1, 2015: Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Texts: Deuteronomy 18:15-20  +  Psalm 111  +  1 Corinthians 8:1-13  +  Mark 1:21-28

Paul writes “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Cor. 8:1) and Jesus enters the synagogue where he teaches “as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” (Mark 1:22) Read side-by-side, these two passages give me a bit of pause as a preacher, a member of a guild that strives to teach for transformation but all too often ends up confusing knowledge with authority.

It’s striking to me that after calling Peter and Andrew, James and John, Jesus heads to the synagogue to teach. So often we imagine Jesus teaching on the mount, or on the plain, or as they walked, or over dinner, even at the cross. So little of Jesus’ ministry is spent in the synagogue, so it struck me as significant that in Mark’s gospel Jesus begins there. The reaction of the assembly is instructive however. After he finishes teaching, the people are astonished at how different his presence is among them. He is said to teach “with authority, not as the scribes.”

At first this is frustrating to read. Jesus teaches with authority, but Mark doesn’t bother to tell us what Jesus said, what passage of scripture he chose to read, what application he made between their shared Jewish heritage and the present moment. Whatever knowledge Jesus imparted, it was apparently not the most significant aspect of his ministry in the synagogue that morning. Instead of telling us what Jesus said, Mark narrates an encounter between Jesus and a member of the community described as having “an unclean spirit” (v.23).

As Jesus finishes his teaching this man cries out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”

“What have you to do with us?” It’s a slippery question. Who is the man referring to? Later in Mark’s gospel Jesus will speak to a Geresene man possessed by a demon who identifies itself as “legion, for we are many,” (5:9) but this is not that encounter. Perhaps this event foreshadows that later one, and we hear the unclean spirit referring to itself as “us.” As I imagine the scene however, I place the man in the middle of the assembly gesturing to the people all around him as he heckles Jesus, “what have you to do with us?” It’s the sort of manipulation that playground bullies learn early on, to speak as though they represent a great many others. It’s the voice of “everyone knows” or “people are saying.” It’s the voice that inflates itself by claiming to stand for the majority.

“What have you to do with us? Have you come to destroy us?”

Ah ha! Now the real fear is exposed. First the unclean spirit questions what Jesus has to do with this community, this assembly; then it tries to incite a panic, “have you come to destroy us?” I suppose you could answer that question either way. On the one hand, the unclean spirit is right, Jesus has come to destroy the present arrangement of things. People and their families, synagogues and cities, powers and principalities will be upended and the world will not be left the same as it was. On the other hand, Jesus has not come to destroy but to heal, to liberate, to restore. Jesus is not the force of destruction, but God’s answer to the destruction of this world. The unclean spirit accurately names Jesus as the Holy One of God, before whom the status quo cannot stand, which is rightly threatening to most people, including us.

When Jesus arrives, things change. Jesus came to the seashore, and soon the disciples were leaving their nets and learning to fish for people. Jesus comes to the synagogue and the spirit that has taken up residence there has to go. Jesus liberates people from habits of life and patterns of accommodation that hold the status quo in place. I think this is what the people in the synagogue mean when they ask, “What is this? A new teaching — with authority!” They recognize that Jesus is more than an interesting lecture, a warm sentiment, or a well-constructed sermon but that in him the word is embodied, that intention is joined to action in a way that will not allow the present arrangement of power to remain unchallenged.

You can imagine how energizing this liberation movement could be to people and communities held under the thumb of empire. In fact, we know that within a few decades the apostle Paul was writing to the congregation in Corinth, for whom the knowledge of their freedom in Christ had taken on a rough edge, whose embrace of their liberated status had run rough shod over others in their community who were still coming to grips with the implications of the unfolding revolution.

At that time animals were still being sacrificed to a variety of gods worshipped throughout the empire. Choice cuts of meat might be burned on an altar, then served in a meal, while the remainder of the animal was sold to the meat market and then re-sold to whoever might purchase it. If you were being especially conscientious in your religious practice and trying to avoid eating meat dedicated to other gods, it could be very difficult. In response some Christians avoided eating meat altogether. Others, however, ate meat freely arguing that since there is no god but God, that meat dedicated to those idols was truly dedicated to nothing, and that there was nothing to fear from eating it. Apparently their disregard for the concerns of those who were being diligent in avoiding such meat was creating conflict in the congregation, so Paul steps in to reframe the debate.

The issue, he contends, isn’t whether or not it’s right or wrong to eat the meat. The issue is how you treat your neighbor who is earnestly struggling to live out their faith with integrity. The knowledge that there is no god but God may free you in principle, but if in your freedom you injure your brother or sister who shares your faith but not your knowledge, then what good has it done you or them? It’s not that knowledge is bad, it’s that it is secondary to love. When knowledge serves love, then the community is built up. When knowledge serves itself, then divisions creep in and take hold.

The injunction to keep love at the center of our life together as Christian people can be terribly inefficient. It is often much quicker to dispense with love and rely on knowledge alone. The knowledge of who is right and who is wrong, who stands with us and who stands against us, who is our ally and who is our enemy, is the world’s standard operating procedure for getting things done. Cut the issue and count the votes. Secure the win. We see it in our national politics, in our corporate boardrooms, in our community organizing, and sometimes in our congregations as well. It is outcomes at the expense of process, creating winners and losers constantly vying to gain or regain their power.

Knowledge without love seeks status. Knowledge with love seeks service. Perhaps this helps to explain why Jesus commands the unclean spirit to be quiet, not to reveal his identity, as he will command the leper he heals later in this chapter, or the disciples after he asks them who they believe him to be. Jesus is not seeking status, he is not concerned with whether or not people show him the appropriate level of respect. He has come to serve the creation by giving himself away in acts of love for the sake of healing, liberation and restoration.

At the river Jordan a spirit descended on Jesus like a dove, demonstrating a solidarity between Jesus and God, a solidarity we are invited to enter into as well. There are other spirits in this world however, spirits that puff up rather than build up, spirits that divide and conquer. In our baptisms we are asked to renounce those spirits and give ourselves to the Holy One of God who has come to set us free from anything that would separate us from one another and the God who created us in love.

What might it mean for us to renounce that unclean spirit, to exorcise it from our relationships to one another here in this congregation, from our dealings with those we disagree with at work or at home, from our politics — both local and national? What would it look like to use the freedom we have been granted by the gospel to meet those around us where they’re at, rather than to judge them for where they as yet are not? What are the conditions that make transformation possible? In my life knowledge has never been enough. It has always been love that has made me brave enough to believe that something new was possible.

In the name of Jesus. God’s love made visible.

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, October 26, 2014: Reformation Sunday

Texts: Jeremiah 31:31–34  +  Psalm 46  +  Romans 3:19–28  +  John 8:31–36

Öèôðîâàÿ ðåïðîäóêöèÿ íàõîäèòñÿ â èíòåðíåò-ìóçåå gallerix.ruIt’s Reformation Sunday, a festival of the church that for the most part is only celebrated by Lutherans.  It’s an odd holiday, in that it celebrates both a moment and a movement in the church. The moment was the posting of the 95 theses by Martin Luther on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany — a moment that sparked a movement which came to be known as the Reformation, a watershed moment in the Western Church in which the power and the practices of the church were radically transformed, a radical upheaval that ended up challenging Christian people and communities to understand their faith in entirely new ways.

As the father of this movement Martin Luther tends to be the focus of many a Reformation Day sermon.  That’s understandable, as his biography gives us a sense of the bold faith, the intellectual honesty, and the community of friends and supporters that were needed for the Reformation to be transformed from a single act of public provocation to a movement that swept the continent and changed the world. But I’d like to give some consideration to another famous Lutheran this morning, one whose ideas have had just as deep an impact on how we understand the world around us: Werner Heisenberg.

Werner HeisenbergWerner Heisenberg was a 20th century Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist who helped launch the study of quantum mechanics and who is best known for his uncertainty principle. The essence of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle is that there is a “fundamental limit to the precision with which certain pairs of physical properties of a particle, such as position and momentum, can be known simultaneously.” What this means is that the more precisely we define where a particle is, the less accurately we can tell where it is going. This insight was a cornerstone in the development of models for understanding the universe in which we live on a subatomic level, and it has influenced the development of everything from the microchips that make modern computing possible to the MRI machines that allow doctors to image our internal physiology for diagnosis and treatment.

Today quantum mechanics and Heisenberg’s uncertainly principle are taken for granted. During his life however, they represented a radical break with how scientists had understood the very nature of energy and matter. In his 1952 book “Physics and Philosophy: the Revolution in Modern Science” Werner Heisenberg remembers the fear and trembling that overtook him as he began to understand the implications of what he and his colleagues were proposing.

“I remember discussions with (Niels) Bohr which went through many hours till very late at night and ended almost in despair; and when at the end of the discussion I went alone for a walk in the neighboring park I repeated to myself again and again the question: Can nature possibly be so absurd as it seemed to us in these atomic experiments? … Here the foundations of physics have started moving, and … this motion has caused the feeling that the ground would be cut from science.”

This feeling of groundlessness was shared by others in the emerging field of quantum mechanics.  Albert Einstein said, “It was as if the ground had been pulled out from under me, with no firm foundation to be seen anywhere, upon which one could have built.”

Jesus told those who followed him, “if you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:31-32)  Freedom, however, is not the same as security.  For Werner Heisenberg and Albert Einstein and the community of scientists who proposed the nucleus of our new knowledge of energy and matter, space and time, the freedom that followed on the heels of truth felt like having the ground ripped out from under them.

In Martin Luther’s day the truth that challenged the structures of reality was a theological and a political one. In articulating the doctrine of justification by grace through faith, Luther reminded the Christian world that the good news of God in Christ Jesus is that we are saved by the goodness of God, and not through any goodness of our own. This threatened centuries of church teaching that terrified ordinary people with visions of hell, and used that fear to transfer wealth from poor people to the wealthy church so that the basilica of St. Peter could be built on the backs of people who gave more than they had to ensure that they and their loved ones would not spend an eternity in purgatory. This disruption in the area of theology sent ripples out in the fields of politics and economics and soon all of Europe was in revolt, challenging the power of the Holy Roman Empire.

Friends, we are living in a moment of great upheaval in the church and in the world, like none that we’ve experienced since the Reformation — and in some ways, like none that we’ve experienced since Christian faith was adopted by the emperor Constantine in the 4th century. Advances in science and technology have shrunk our world to such an extent that it is now quicker and cheaper for us to fly to the far reaches of another continent than it is to buy a car. Imagine trying to explain that to early American settlers who spent months crossing North America. With a few flicks of our fingers across the glass screens of our phones we can access more information than the Library of Alexandria, which housed all the known wisdom of the ancient world. All this knowledge is rapidly transforming not only our local culture, but our global culture.

And it’s changing our church culture. If the Reformation decoupled the church and the Holy Roman Empire, and the Enlightenment decoupled the church and the state, then the modern age of information has decoupled the church and the family. What was once a given — that children would assume the religious identity of their parents — is no longer true. Each new generation of young people is faced with a flood of information and experience that challenges any notion of a single way to be in the world. Rites of passage such as baptism and confirmation that used to be expected elements of a family upbringing have been set aside under the rubric of personal choice, waiting to see what religious identity (if any) children will select for themselves. The relationships between individuals within a nuclear family unit have been challenged as deeply in this present age as the relationships between subatomic particles were a century ago by quantum mechanics.

In moments like these, it is easy to despair, to feel as though the ground beneath us is crumbling, as though the fabric of reality is being ripped apart. It’s also at moments like these that I think Werner Heisenberg’s principle of uncertainty remains useful, the one that says we can know where a thing is or where it’s headed, but not both at the same time.

There is so much energy being spent in the church today naming where the church is. Millions of dollars are being spent describing the state of the church in space and time, the decline in membership, the collapse of the institutions that support it, the loss of the architecture that identifies it, the erosion of the traditions that maintain it. We are becoming experts at naming where the church is today, which makes it so much harder to say with any certain what direction it’s going.

To some, the Reformation of the 16th century looked like the end of the church, because they could not imagine a church that did not exist arm in arm with empire. To some, the field of quantum mechanics in the 20th century looked like the end of knowledge, as the very essence of energy and matter was reimagined. In our own day, we are grappling with what it will mean to claim a religious identity in community, when both the range of identities and the stability of communities are more fluid than ever before. It feels like the ground beneath us is shifting and the world we have known is disappearing.

If the reformations of the past in science and society have anything to teach us, it is that there is life on the other side of these upheavals. It’s too early to know with any certainty where the church will be on the other side of this moment of evolution, but if we can pull back from our obsessive interest with describing what is and look at the signs of what is becoming, we might be encouraged to notice that there is a movement taking shape at the intersection of religion, politics, economics and identity. People around the world are crying out for new ways of ordering their life together in ways that are ethical, sustainable, and hospitable. More and more we want to find ways to live with dignity in the presence of diversity, to engage difference rather than to simply tolerate it.

It is my prayer that the church, whatever it is becoming in this new reformation, will find a way to be both particle and wave, both matter and energy, both institution and movement as the ground beneath us gives way, and the new earth comes into view.

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Wednesday, December 25, 2013: Nativity of Our Lord III — Christmas Day

Texts: Isaiah 52:7-10  +  Psalm 98  +  Hebrews 1:1-12  +  John 1:1-14

If you’ve worshipped here at St. Luke’s on Christmas morning any time in the last few years, then you might remember that 1.) I vastly prefer Christmas Day to Christmas Eve and 2.) I have a tendency to bring poems on Christmas morning.

Death by Chocolate

Death by Chocolate

Christmas Eve is lovely, don’t get me wrong, but it’s kind of like “Death by Chocolate” cake: Christmas carols and candlelight And angel choruses AND the baby Jesus. There’s so much heaped onto that one night, and then all the memories of every Christmas Eve ever. It’s a lot to live up to.

But Christmas morning brings all the catharsis of any good morning after.  By the clear light of day we can mull over the previous night’s events, try and put them in sequence, and see if we can make any sense out of them.

As for the poems, well, firstly I just love poetry and since this is a day for giving gifts, I’m inclined to share with you the gift of a good poem.  More to the point, however, the gospel reading appointed for Christmas Day each year comes from the first chapter of John, and is a kind of poem itself — a hymn to the Word that sounds as much like a poem as it does a creed:

In the beginning was the Word / and the Word was with God / and the Word was God. / He was in the beginning with God. / All things came into being through him, / and without him not one thing came into being. / What has come into being in him was life, / and the life was the light of all people. / The light shines in the darkness, / and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:1-5)

Since we do get the same readings each Christmas morning though, it seems kind to bring you something new to reflect on each passing December.  In former years I’ve brought you Wendell Berry and John O’Donohue, two of my favorites.  This year I’ve brought you a little Billy Collins, poet laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003 and, this past summer, guest host of The Writer’s Almanac.  This poem is entitled, “Christmas Sparrow” (from his collection of poems, “Nine Horses”)

"Nine Horses: Poems" by Billy Collins (Random House, 2002)

“Nine Horses: Poems” by Billy Collins (Random House, 2002)

The first thing I heard this morning

was a rapid flapping sound, soft, insistent —

wings against glass as it turned out

downstairs when I saw the small bird

rioting in the frame of a high window,

trying to hurl itself through

the enigma of glass into the spacious light.

Then a noise in the throat of the cat

who was hunkered on the rug

told me how the bird had gotten inside,

carried in the cold night

through the flap of a basement door,

and later released from the soft grip of teeth.

On a chair, I trapped its pulsations

in a shirt and got it to the door,

so weightless it seemed

to have vanished in the nest of cloth.

But outside, when I uncapped my hands,

it burst into its element,

dipping over the dormant garden

in a spasm of wingbeats

then disappeared over a row of tall hemlocks.

For the rest of the day,

I could feel its wild thrumming

against my palms as I wondered about

the hours it must have spent

pent in the shadows of that room,

hidden in the spiky branches

of our decorated tree, breathing there

among the metallic angels, ceramic apples, stars of yarn,

its eyes open, like mine as I lie in bed tonight

picturing this rare, lucky sparrow

tucked into a holly bush now,

a light snow tumbling through the windless dark.

The poet, Billy Collins, gives us an image we all know that captures a sensation I suspect we’ve all felt — the panic of a bird, or a bat, or any wild thing trapped inside and trying to get free.

In his book, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, Parker Palmer compares the human soul to just such a creature.  He writes,

“Like a wild animal, the soul is tough, resilient, resourceful, savvy, and self-sufficient: it knows how to survive in hard places. I learned about these qualities during my bouts with depression. In that deadly darkness, the faculties I had always depended on collapsed. My intellect was useless; my emotions were dead; my will was impotent; my ego was shattered. But from time to time, deep in the thickets of my inner wilderness, I could sense the presence of something that knew how to stay alive even when the rest of me wanted to die. That something was my tough and tenacious soul.”

Perhaps you know something about the tenacity of a soul trapped, frantic, beating its wings uselessly against a glass pane, while on the other side of the window life goes by filled with free people who seem to have learned a secret you are still deciphering.

The bird senses the light and longs for it, and even more, the bird longs to be free and to soar unfettered toward the light, but instead it tosses its body against the glass time and time again, unable to comprehend all that stands between the fear of the present and the promise of the future.

The prophet Isaiah says, “how beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘your God reigns.’” And that is true even when we cannot tell it is so.  John’s gospel shows us the other side of our encounter with freedom when he writes, “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.”

For too much of our Christian history we have read those verses as a condemnation of the children of Israel, as an indictment of the Jewish people, for not accepting Christ as the messiah, as the savior, when he came into the world. How foolish of us! As if any of us really has accepted the salvation God has offered in Christ Jesus. As if any of us has stopped beating our wings, or our heads, against the glass. As if any of us truly believes that God’s salvation comes to us as evidence of God’s goodness and not our own.

When I read, “he came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him,” I understand that passage to mean that in Christ, God came to a people so terrorized by the cruelty of the world, so occupied as nation, so frantic to be free that they could not perceive their liberation in the form in which it was presented.

Collins says, “on a chair, I trapped its pulsations in a shirt and got it to the door.” How brief and benign. Maybe you’ve been tasked with catching the wild animal that’s gotten trapped in your house, and you know how fiercely it will fight, how expertly it will flee, as you work to set it free.

Aren’t we like that? So determined to break through the glass, to get to the light on the other side, that we scarcely notice when the light has broken through to us.

After the bird has been set free, the poet’s protagonist reflects on the terror it must have felt, “For the rest of the day, I could feel its wild thrumming against my palms as I wondered about the hours it must have spent pent in the shadows of that room, hidden in the spiky branches of our decorated tree, breathing there among the metallic angels, ceramic apples, stars of yarn, its eyes open, like mine as I lie in bed tonight…”

These words, in particular, sound a word of grace for any of us who awoke this Christmas morning with something other than joy in their hearts.  We too, sometimes, can feel as though the trees, and the ornaments, and the entire season of Christmas casts a shadow so deep we get lost in it. The wild bird doesn’t want to make its home in the decorated holiday tree, it wants to escape the house and make its nest in the holly bush outside.

To you who still feel trapped this cold winter morning, who still struggle against the shadows cast by such tall traditions, I urge you to hold fast to the old poem’s words:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in his was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

Break forth together into singing, you wild souls; for God has comforted God’s own people. God has set the caged bird free to burst into its element which is light, and life, and liberation.

Merry Christmas and Amen.

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