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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Sermons

Sermon: Thursday, December 25, 2014: Nativity of Our Lord — Christmas Day

Texts: Isaiah 52:7-10  +  Psalm 98  +  Hebrews 1:1-4  +  John 1:1-14

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from god swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness God called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.” (Gen. 1:1-5)

Those of you who have worshipped at St. Luke’s on Christmas morning may remember me sharing that I not-so-secretly prefer Christmas morning to Christmas Eve. There are plenty of reasons this is so, and I won’t inflict them all on you unless you ask, but the one I will share is that Christmas morning tells the story of God’s incarnation as a poem instead of a narrative. Christmas Eve is all about Joseph and Mary, angels and shepherds keeping watch in their fields by night. Christmas morning is,

“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)

For the last few years it’s been my habit to share a bit of poetry on Christmas morning, in honor of the gospel of John’s deep love of metaphor and imagery. This year what struck me again is how my inclination to use poetry to interpret scripture is learned from John’s own gospel. Unlike the three gospels that precede it, John’s gospel doesn’t begin with a narrative about the historical figure of Jesus, but instead begins with a poetic reimagining of the story of creation — the first five verses of John echoing the first five verses of Genesis.

The symmetry is beautiful, from the repetition of the phrase “In the beginning” to the parallel themes of light and darkness and their separation. John’s gospel has gifted us with a prologue to the Jesus story to follow that makes extraordinary claims: that Jesus is the visible incarnation of the invisible God whose creative power brought into existence everything that is; that the teacher, whose words give meaning and order to our lives, is also the pre-existing Word who gives meaning and order to the cosmos.

This symbolic link between Jesus and Genesis has had a profound impact on Christian theology over the centuries. In the second century Irenaeus of Lyons, who was born in a part of what is now Turkey and who became the bishop of a part of what is now called France, explained the meaning and consequence of Jesus’ death and resurrection as such,

“[Christ] was in these last days, according to the time appointed by the Father, united to His own workmanship, inasmuch as He became a man liable to suffering … He commenced afresh the long line of human beings, and furnished us, in a brief, comprehensive manner, with salvation; so that what we had lost in Adam — namely, to be according to the image and likeness of God — that we might recover in Christ Jesus.” For Irenaeus, the divine Word becomes human flesh in order that our humanity might become divine; or, in his own words, “[he] became what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself.”

That is a noble sentiment, though so often difficult to imagine as being within the realm of possibility. Our lives are hard, some so much more than others, and if all we had to account for was our daily struggle it would still be difficult to understand our lives as divine. But there is more to account for. There is our hard-heartedness. There is our pettiness of spirit. There is our persistent sense of entitlement. There is our refusal to forgive. There is our hatred of those who challenge us. There is our greed that starves our neighbor. In short, there is our sin. How can we, who know ourselves too well, imagine our own lives as holy?

The point of the creation story, as I understand it, was for ancient Israel to assert that the world and everything in it are the product of a good and loving God, who called creation into being with an act of speech and not an act of war, as the creation myths of Israel’s neighbors suggested. By planting Jesus in the middle of that myth as the essence of that very world-making Word, John’s gospel reminds us that God is not at war with us. God’s heart is not like our heart. It is not petty or entitled, it is quick to forgive and filled with love. Hard as it may be to imagine that we are holy, that we are wrapped up in God’s divine life just as God is wrapped up in our human frailty, we can trust that it is true because it is God’s nature to make it true.

Which is another way to say that it is a gift to us, that it is pure grace, that we are being made new this Christmas along with the whole creation by the God who is always making all things new. Whatever stories you tell yourself about the kind of person you are, whatever immutable personal flaws or character defects you think define you, the poetry of Christmas morning says you are wrong. You are not all that you hide away in the dark. You are creations of the Word called into being by love. You shine with the light of God, which can never be extinguished in you or in this world.

Of all the gifts given and received this Christmas morning, let us give thanks for the gift of life and of the new life that is always being born in us by God’s grace, which will not be overcome.

Amen.

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