Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, July 23, 2017: Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Text: Romans 8:12-25

Just to get our blood flowing, let’s stretch our bodies a bit by raising our hands if any of the following apply to ourselves. This isn’t going to be one of those on the spot confessions that you later are made to feel dumb for having participated in. I just want folks to get a sense for the things we have in common. The topic is debt.

Raise your hand if you carry debt on a mortgage.

Raise your hand if you carry debt on a car.

Raise your hand if you carry debt on a credit card.

Raise your hand if you carry debt on a student loan.

Raise your hand if you carry medical debt.

Raise your hand if you carry personal debt to a friend or family member.

We are very indebted people, carrying heavy debt burdens. According to one recent report, “debt is a way of life for Americans, with overall U.S. household debt increasing by 11% in the past decade. Today, the average household with credit card debt has balances totaling $16,425, and the average household with any kind of debt owes $135,924, including mortgages.” For those households where there is student debt, the average amount being carried is just over $50,000. For those households making payments on a car loan, the average balance on that debt is almost $30,000.

While there’s no one reason why each of us are carrying so much debt — we do, after all, each make our own decisions — there are some broad economic trends which affect us all. The cost of living has, on average, increased more quickly than our household income. While median income has grown by 28% over the last fifteen years, the cost of living has gone up 30%. Medical costs have increased by 57% and food and beverage prices by 36%. It is exactly as Hope has been reminding us week after week, prices are going up and up and up!

When the cost of living increases, debt increases. Despite stereotypes of careless spending on easy credit, the reality for many families is that credit is how they cover the difference between what may come in over a month and what it takes to feed, clothe, and care for themselves and their children. Minimum wage work leaves millions of people living from paycheck to paycheck, with credit as one of their only safety nets. Pursuing an education in order to get higher paying work comes with its own dangers. Student loan debt has increased by 186% in the last decade as the long recession forced people out of work and back to school.

It’s no wonder then, that we tend to think of debt as bad. We are so heavy laden with the kinds of debt that constrain our freedom and crush our spirits that it’s difficult to think of debt in positive terms. We’ve heard of “good debt” and “bad debt” in the economic realm and it has, perhaps, guided our choices. In today’s portion of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, he also talks about debt — good debt and bad debt — though we have to go back, parse his sentence, and read between the lines, to understand what he’s saying.

“So then, [siblings], we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh — for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” (Rom. 8:12-13)

The beginning of this sentence is clear: we are debtors. Then Paul sets up an opposition he never quite finishes, leaving us to infer the ending. “We are debtors, not to the flesh,” but … to something else, something being contrasted with the flesh, which turns out to be the Spirit.

However, our relationship to the Spirit is so radically different from our relationship to what Paul is calling “the flesh” that we can barely understand it in terms of debt as we know it, because it is the exact opposite of how we have experienced debt in the rest of our lives. Paul says that the Spirit of God makes us children of God. That the Spirit of God is the spirit of adoption. It is a spirit that increases our connectedness, that strengthens the bonds that tie us together. Paul contrasts this with the spirit of slavery, evoking once again the image of God’s people liberated from the bondage of Egypt through the waters of the sea.

This begins to make sense, at least to me. There are definitely forms of debt that feel infused with the spirit of slavery; debt that pushes me down and traps me in place; debt that makes me feel like an anonymous cog in a global machine that is extracting life out of me to create wealth and prosperity for a class of people I’ll never meet.

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Then I consider how my own life benefits from the condition of debt between nations that keeps the wealth flowing up from impoverished continents to supply me with cheap(er) food and oil and clothing, and I see that I am living higher up on the pyramid; that I am someone’s Pharaoh, part of a class of people they will never meet. This way of ordering life strips human flesh of the divine image and treats people like objects to be used and discarded. If we live according to the broken logic of this broken system, we will die.

There is this other kind of debt, however, that does not kill us. Instead, it’s the exact opposite, it sets us free from “bondage to decay.” It is the debt I inherited in baptism, when I crossed through the waters that led me to freedom.

Oh, to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be; / let that grace now like a fetter bind my wandering heart to thee. / Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it; prone to leave the God I love. / Here’s my heart, oh, take and seal it; seal it for thy courts above.

There is a form of debt that we take on whenever we are loved, which is a debt we can never repay — not because it weakens us or traps us in a dependent state — but because love is not for sale. Love breaks down the market forces that turn everything and everyone into a commodity. By love we adopt one another into our families, into our hearts. We invest without concern for return on investment, so that when love’s dividends are finally paid we are glad to immediately give them away, reinvesting them in one another.

Raise your hand if a parent, or a family member, or a teacher, or a friend, or a partner, or a spouse, or a child ever loved you in a way that made you more human, more free, more alive.

Then you are a debtor to grace, which is love’s currency.

I have a dream for St. Luke’s — which I guess I now have to say is my dream for the whole church — that we would continue to grow and become a powerful church that transforms lives and changes the world. By powerful I don’t mean the kind of power shaped like a pyramid, where each of us uses those below us to try and get higher up ourselves. I mean the power that comes when we look at our neighbors, every single one of them, and see children of God, joint heirs with Christ of a love that liberates us from the forces that deal death to our flesh and to our spirits. The power that comes from being members of a family more numerous than the stars in the sky, a family spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south (Gen. 28:14).

Imagine all those siblings. Hear their groaning cries. The whole creation is laboring to be transformed, to be changed, to be saved. That work, which Paul describes as “suffering with Christ so that we may also be glorified with Christ,” is love’s debt. It is the work we do not in order to be loved, but because we have already been given the first fruits of God’s love — we have been given each other. That alone is cause for hope.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, July 12, 2015: Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: 2 Samuel 6:1-5,12b-19  +  Psalm 24  +  Ephesians 1:3-14  +  Mark 6:14-29

I was having a conversation about faith this past week with someone who asked me if you have to believe all the things we’ve heard Christians believe in order to belong.  It’s a really common question, as you know, because many of you have asked me the same thing.  I gave the sort of answer I think I usually give, which is to say that I don’t think Christianity is primarily about believing the right things, but about the practice of standing up for those beliefs which will put you at odds with a world that is always trying to convince you to remember your place, but lies to you about what that place is.

My fear about the role of beliefs in the experience of Christian faith, I continued, is that we so quickly turn them into criteria for inclusion, whether that be in the church on earth or in some concept of heaven we’ve developed that exists only for those who’ve proven themselves good enough at thinking and doing the right things to get in.  We make belief the high bar you have to vault over to belong, though I am convinced that the message of grace is that there is no bar at all.  By the grace of God, who created us in and for love, you already belong.  You belong to yourself.  You belong to your family.  You belong to the land.  You belong to God.

The extent to which we already feel as though we do not belong — that our bodies are not our own, that our place in our families is conditioned on becoming and remaining the right kind of person, that our experience of life on this earth is determined by fictitious lines drawn across the face of the planet that assign freedoms and resources to some and dictate hunger and poverty for others, that we doubt we could ever be known and loved by God — is a sign of the sinful brokenness of the world around us.

The conversation stuck with me long after it ended, and I kept thinking of other ways I might have answered the question.  It occurred to me that another way of getting at the testimony I was trying to give would have been to say that for all the emphasis on what Christians say they believe, I think it’s just as important for us to name what we do not believe.

This Roman currency minted ca. 18 B.C. shows an image of Caesar with the Latin inscription "divi filius" or "Son of God."

This Roman currency minted ca. 18 B.C. shows an image of Caesar with the Latin inscription “divi filius” or “Son of God.”

For example, our creeds teach us to say, “I believe in Jesus Christ, the only Son of God.”  If we stopped right there and excavated that statement of faith from history, we would remember that in Jesus’ time the title “Son of God” was already taken by the emperor.  Naming Jesus the Son of God wasn’t radical because it claimed divinity for a human being. It was radical because it said that imperial authority and divine authority were not one and the same. It was saying, “I do not believe that the emperor is God’s agent on this earth. I do not believe that wealth and power make right.”

Jesus was not the first person to stand up to wealth and power and call them to account. In this morning’s gospel we hear the story of the death of John the Baptist, who was killed for standing before King Herod and telling him that all his power and wealth did not entitle him to take whatever he wanted.  Herod had taken his brother Philip’s wife, Herodias, a violation of the Jewish law that bound both the king and his subjects. In the great tradition of biblical prophets, John spoke truth to power and paid the price.

What I find tragic about this story, and convicting for me, is how the gospel of Mark describes Herod’s ambivalence about John the Baptist. Though he has John jailed for speaking out against him, Herod does not immediately kill him.  He recognizes that John’s accusations are true, and that he is a righteous and holy man. “When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.” (Mark 6:20) He is stuck in a conflict between his role and his soul.

In a former life, one in which I worked with teenagers for a living, we used to talk a lot about limits, and how essential they are for establishing safety.  Children are constantly testing their environments for the invisible lines that divide acceptable from unacceptable.  When adults fail to clearly establish those lines, children feel unsafe and act out in terrible ways.

Excessive power and wealth seem to make children out of grown people.  The idea that “everything has a price” creates the illusion that wealth transcends limits with destructive consequences.  The bible illustrates that principle with Herod’s desire for his brother’s wife, but we see the same dynamic playing out all around us every day.  When employers exploit the labor of their workers because no one is watching, or because the laborers are undocumented, we see the lie that power and money make right at play.  When states such as our own threaten to withhold pay from government workers and cut services to those who are poor, elderly, in recovery, or ill in order to preserve imbalanced systems of taxation that treat corporations like people and people like cogs in the machine, we see the lie that power and money make right at play. When nations use military might to keep the global balance of power tipped in favor of the relatively wealthy at the expense of the undeniably poor, we see the lie that power and money make right at play.

Like children, our employers, our states and nations, need limits in order for the world to remain safe for those who are crushed and exploited by the powerful and the wealthy.  I think Herod, on some level, knew that.  I think his attraction to John’s message exposes the fact that, beneath his title, beneath his power and wealth, he is still a human being whose conscious can be swayed. At least I think that’s the point the story is trying to make, and it’s a point worth remembering.  Behind every corporate hierarchy, inside every state bureaucracy, there are people who are trying to balance the obligations of their roles with the dictates of their souls.

We know this because we are those people.

How often have we, in our own lives, found ourselves defending the organizations we work for at the expense of those they exist to serve?  How often has the “greater good” been used as an excuse for the status quo?  Can’t we all, on some level, relate with Herod — who knows that John is right, who is drawn to his message, but who capitulates to his wife in a demonstration of power and wealth in front of his guests.  Haven’t we all, at some point, ignored the voice within us to appease the voices around us?

The reason we so often begin our worship with a confession of sin is because we know that we do. We do ignore the voice within to satisfy the voices around. We do maintain the status quo when change is needed. We do avoid the uncomfortable interaction, the difficult conversation, the formal complaint, the organized protest. We do overlook the harm we cause while still demanding justice from others, and we confess these things regularly so that we can stay alert for all the ways these patterns of complicity are daily recruiting us into a system of lies in which we do not believe.

We do not believe that our humanity is defined by our nationality.

We do not believe that justice and vengeance are the same thing.

We do not believe that food and shelter and health are commodities to be withheld.

We do not believe that violence is the precondition for safety.

We do not believe that our skin color or our native tongue determine our worth.

We do not believe that poverty is an acceptable price for progress.

We do not believe that anyone’s life is more legitimate than any other’s, but instead that we have all been adopted as children of God, heirs to the promise of grace and forgiveness, which is the assurance that the bar is not high, it is not even low. There is no bar. We all belong, to ourselves, to each other, and to God.

And we know there is such joy in this belonging that we cannot help but share it.  Like David dancing in the streets and feeding the people, we are wanton in our love for those the world calls unlovely.  Like John, we cannot help but speak truth to power.

This is why so many people have been gathering downtown on Mondays in a growing movement called “Moral Mondays Illinois” to protest the failure of our state government to take the actions necessary to protect and provide for the most vulnerable people in our communities. Last month our bishop, Wayne Miller, got arrested at one of the Moral Monday protests.  In a letter explaining his decision to take part in the protests he said,

Bishop Wayne Miller, Metropolitan Chicago Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

Bishop Wayne Miller, Metropolitan Chicago Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

“The ideal that all are created equal is betrayed by the glacial advance of a new age of racism, classism, gender bias, spatial segregation, life-annihilating violence, and general disregard for the well-being of others. The ideal that all are afforded equal access to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is betrayed by the unconstrained rise of an oligarchy of fabulously wealthy tycoons and corporations, to which the courts have granted civil rights without demanding civic responsibility in return …

It is therefore incumbent upon Christian leaders, not merely as a matter of civic responsibility, but as a matter of evangelical necessity, to speak and act in a way that places the Church clearly and unambiguously in community with the God who was betrayed by standing in solidarity with those … whose trust is being betrayed by government that has forgotten that it exists to defend the well-being of the vulnerable, the broken, and the marginalized, against the crushing force of unrestrained wealth and social privilege, even if this solidarity — this withdrawal of consent — leads to arrest and punishment.”

I will be gathering tomorrow morning at 10:30am at the James Randolph Center on LaSalle St downtown for the next Moral Monday protest, where at least 200 other people of faith are expected to be as well. My goal is not only to participate in the protest, but to listen to the voices and stories of those whose lives are placed in jeopardy by the failure of our elected leaders to govern wisely. I want to hear their stories first-hand so that I can share them with you and with others more accurately. I invite you to join me.

Paul writes to the Ephesians, “In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people…” (Eph. 1:13-14)

The word of truth is the witness of Jesus’ humanity in the face of the world’s inhumanity, the fact of his solidarity with all the poor and oppressed, the challenge of his non-violent confrontation with power, his life poured out for others, and finally the assertion that he is not dead. That power and wealth, that violence and empire, have not ended his life because it lives in us. It is our salvation. It is our inheritance. It is our song. It is our dance. It is our cry whenever we assemble to declare now the year of the Lord’s favor, the jubilee, the foretaste of God’s preferred future breaking into the present. That is what we believe.

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, January 25, 2015: Third Sunday after Epiphany

Texts: Jonah 3:1-5,10  +  Psalm 62:5-12  +  1 Corinthians 7:29-31  +  Mark 1:14-20

It was a cold February day during my junior year of college when my favorite radio station (remember those, from the time before playlists and podcasts and Pandora?) began broadcasting R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” on repeat for days on end. For all the times I’ve sung a song in this pulpit, I know better than to try and pull of an a cappella rendition of that one, but if you know it then you remember Michael Stipe’s voice on a punching, single-note drone, stream-of-consciousness culminating in the chorus, “It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine…”

That song, on continuous loop, for days was … well, disconcerting. I remember tuning in to the station as I walked to class and being confused about why it kept playing. I thought perhaps it was a tribute to a fallen rocker. Maybe Michael Stipe had died? Maybe R.E.M. had split up? I didn’t give it a lot of thought. I turned off my headphones and found a seat in the classroom. Afterwards I put my headphones back on, assuming I’d get a explanation, but no — R.E.M. was still blaring away.

Across the Twin Cities people began sharing the story. “Have you tuned in to 93X? Do you know what’s going on?” More than fifty people called 911 to report, well, something. Some people thought the DJs were being held hostage and trying to transmit a covert S.O.S. Others thought it was some kind of bizarre promotional stunt, and drove down to the station’s offices in Eagan to see what was going on.

The truth is that the radio station had been bought out by its rival, one of those huge national media companies, and the outgoing owners were playing the song on repeat as a kind of protest to what was happening to small, independent radio. It was exactly the kind of cause that college students could rally around, our ambient hatred of “the man” coalescing around a concrete focus. Never mind that 93X had only been broadcasting its format for about five years. Never mind that for almost thirty years that station had been easy listening. For us, it was the end of an era, and we did not feel fine.

That story comes to mind today for a number of reasons, none of them too subtle, but it first occurred to me as I read through Paul’s words of advice to the community in Corinth.

I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away. (1 Cor. 7:29-31)

It’s not that Paul doesn’t care about history and tradition. In fact, at other points he goes out of his way to tout his own credentials as an educated person. It’s not that he is against the institution of marriage, which he writes about elsewhere in this letter, it’s that he believes that Jesus Christ is the sign that God is about to do something radically new in the world, something so big that it requires us to respond to the world with urgency, setting aside familiar things for the sake of God’s preferred future. It’s the end of the world as we’ve known it and, on that count, Paul feels better than fine, he is enthusiastic.

A similar dynamic is at play in the gospel reading from Mark where, once again, Jesus is finding his followers out where they live, in the context of their everyday lives. “The time is fulfilled,” he declares, “and the reign of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:15) And immediately (of course) Peter and Andrew, James and John, drop their nets and abandon their work and follow the Lord.

But it’s the first story, the story of the reluctant prophet Jonah, that really grabs me this morning. He’s been sent to deliver a message he doesn’t want to give to a people he doesn’t want to meet, the Ninevites. Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian empire, no friend to Israel. The entire short book of the prophet Nahum is an oracle foretelling God’s coming wrath against Nineveh in graphic language,

“Ah! City of bloodshed, utterly deceitful, full of booty — no end to the plunder! … I am against you, says the Lord of hosts, and will lift up your skirts over your face; and I will let nations look on your nakedness and kingdoms your shame.” (Nah. 3:1,5)

That’s how people expected, how people hoped, God would deal with their adversaries, by humiliating them in a dramatic way for the whole world to see. Instead God calls Jonah to march into Nineveh and invite them to repent. You know what happens next: Jonah refuses the Lord’s call and heads in the opposite direction, hopping a boat to Tarshish. But a great storm hits the boat out on the sea, and the crew eventually tosses him overboard where he is snatched up by a “great fish” a whale or some other mythical sea creature capable of swallowing a man whole without digesting him for three days and three nights.

Left in his watery grave with nothing to do but consider his life, Jonah realizes the folly of his ways, the foolishness of his impulse to flee from God, as if God could be evaded by moving to another city, by changing your address. Just as he regains his resolve to do as the Lord has asked, the fish spits him back out onto dry land. When the word of the Lord comes a second time, Jonah does as Peter and Andrew, James and John, and he leaves the safety of what he has known to deliver a message to Nineveh.

Unlike Jesus’ disciples however, the journey Jonah is required to make is not so much about leaving a place, but leaving a state of mind, a preconceived notion. When the disciples dropped their nets to follow Jesus they were leaving their homes in order to take part in the new thing God was doing through Jesus. But when Jonah set off for Nineveh he was forced to revise his opinion of people he’d grown to fear and hate. In fact, he admits as much. After the people of Nineveh heed Jonah’s warning and repent of their wickedness God chooses mercy over vengeance, and Jonah laments.

“Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” (Jon. 4:2)

You see, Jonah didn’t want the Ninevites to be saved. He wanted to deliver a word of judgment, followed by a moment of vengeance. But people change. Hearts and minds are moved. Our harshest oppressors can sometimes become our allies, even our friends. Grace changes us, which changes everything. But still so often we deny others the possibility of being made new in the ways that we ourselves have been made new. We withhold from others the same grace that has saved our very lives.

God is calling to us this morning, but we aren’t all hearing the same thing. Some are convinced that we are now called to leave this place that has been our home for over one hundred years, not out of any disrespect for traditions or institutions, but because there is an urgency to God’s summons to be part of the new thing that God is doing in the world. Some are convinced that we are called to stay and work harder than we’ve ever worked before to preserve this home for ourselves, for our neighbors, and for future generations.

And I want to be clear: these scriptures do not take a position on that decision. They do not take sides, declaring who is right and who is wrong. What they do say for certain is that the call to follow where God leads us will change us. It may change our address, it may not, but it will change our hearts. We will not be able, we will not be allowed, to look on any person or community of people and write them off. We will be called, we will be sent, we may even be dragged kicking and screaming, into community with those we trust the least as a sign of the power of God to heal, restore, and recreate the world.

You see the present form of the world is always passing away. Disciples are always being called and prophets are always being sent. The nations are always being reformed and redeemed. Because God is always doing a new thing. That is the constant on which we can build our lives, that grace is real and that it changes everything. It is the truth that allows us to sing, “it’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.”

Amen.

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