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, May 17, 2015: Seventh Sunday of Easter

Texts: Acts 1:15-17,21-26  +  Psalm 1  +  1 John 5:9-13  +  John 17:6-19

In the name of Jesus — who has ascended into heaven, and yet is with us still.

The scriptures we hear this morning sketch out the circumference of an unusual circle, a bubble in time, an interim time of watching and waiting for the victory of the resurrection to come to completion in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The texts come from different authors, each of whom is reflecting on the meaning of the crucifixion from a different vantage point, after the fact, offering their own testimony to the growing communities of believers spreading across the known world during the time of the Roman Empire.

First we heard from the Acts of the Apostles, a scene set after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, but before Pentecost. In the sweep of the story that begins with the gospel of Luke and continues through the book of Acts, this passage feels awkward as it interrupts the drama of the crucifixion and resurrection and post-resurrection appearances of Jesus and then his ascension into heaven and the sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, creating the church and flinging the apostles out into the world. This scene, of the apostles gathered together for prayer and discernment, feels totally anticlimactic. If we were making a movie and trying to get it in under two hours, the editors would surely leave this scene on the cutting room floor. Who needs this fragment of the story, where those who were called to follow Jesus — who have heard him teach, who have seen him heal, who have grown from twelve to seventy and been sent out in pairs to work miracles in the world, who followed him to Jerusalem, who witnessed his death, who encountered him on the road to Emmaus, who touched the body of their resurrected Lord, who saw him ascend into heaven — now sit in the upper room in Jerusalem praying and waiting?

Well, I think we need it. Very specifically, I think we here at St. Luke’s need these stories, each tracing the perimeter of a moment between Jesus’ ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit. It is the moment in which we are living.

We, too, have been on quite a journey together, each of us following our own calling into this community — some raised here, some transplanted from other congregations, some following friends or spouses, some following a question in their soul that would not be quiet until it found an answer — we have listened to and learned from one another, we have hurt and been healed by one another, we have grown from twelve to seventy and then more, we have experienced our power to affect and influence the world when we witness together in public to what we have tasted and seen of God in Christ Jesus, we have had our own moment of shock as we realized that our story would not move from glory to glory without its own encounter with the cross, we have felt the crushing weight of endings that feel like death, we have walked side by side wondering what all our ministry meant and if it was all over — only to discover God still present with us when we gather at God’s table, we have been convinced of the victory of the resurrection and have proclaimed Christ risen indeed (alleluia!) … and now we feel a bit like the believers who watched Jesus ascend into heaven, who’d heard the promises of God’s ongoing presence through the power of the Spirit, but had little more to do than wait.

We’ve been waiting. A lot. Ever since we voted back in January to list our property for sale, we’ve been waiting to find out what would happen next. Waiting while a small group selected a broker. Waiting to hear if there would be any interest in the building. Waiting to find out if prospective buyers might keep the building a house of worship, or might keep the structure and repurpose it to meet the needs of underserved communities in our neighborhood — low-income families, or seniors looking for affordable elder care, or if something entirely new might come into being at this site. Waiting to hear where we might go in the interim. Waiting to hear who will come with us. It’s a lot of waiting, and it’s not easy. We can understand why impatient editors might want to skip this scene for the sake of advancing the plot, but that wouldn’t be true to how we experience real life, in which moments of high drama are accompanied by long periods of waiting.

The early church was expert at waiting, and much of the literature of the New Testament is explicitly addressed to the experience of waiting.  The author of First John, a letter commonly dated near the end of the first century, declares “Children, it is the last hour!” (1 John 2:18) approximately seventy years after Jesus’ ascension. During that long period of waiting, the writer encourages the people to love one another as God has first loved us. As we’ve read through this letter over the past few weeks we’ve heard the call to love fearlessly (4:18) and been reminded that we love God best by loving one another as God’s children (5:1). Now as the letter draws to a close, the writer proclaims that the world as we know it is being conquered in a way we would never have imagined and can barely believe, through faith in a crucified messiah.

“This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with water only but with the water and the blood.” (5:6) Water and the blood stand in here as substitutes for baptism and crucifixion, the writer reminding us that the same Jesus who rose from the waters of the Jordan River and was announced as God’s own beloved was the same one who willingly laid down his life in an encounter with empire as a sign of God’s unyielding solidarity with creation’s suffering. “Not with water only, but with water and the blood” is First John’s way of reminding us during this period of waiting that God does not remake the world in the ways that the world would see and label as success, but instead remakes the world through acts of humility, self-giving, and abiding love.

“And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” (5:11-12) This isn’t about believing the right things, or saying the right words, or having the right answers. This is the writer’s own testimony, the thing on he would stake his own life, and which he offers to us as a gift: the only life worth having, the only life that will last, is the life that comes when we stop trying to conquer and colonize one another, and learn to love one another as fearlessly as we have been loved.

This is Jesus’ own prayer, offered on the night before his death, as we hear it once again this morning. “And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” (John 17:11) As he looks toward his own crucifixion, Jesus is already seeing past the ascension to a time when the community of faith will be gathered in his name, and he prays for their unity. “Let them be one as we are one.”

The unity for which Jesus prayed isn’t a given. It takes work, so it takes time. It sometimes looks fairly mundane next to the incarnation, the crucifixion, the resurrection and the ascension. In the book of Acts, the work of unity looks oddly like one of our annual congregational meetings, as the assembly realizes that there is a leadership gap that needs to be filled and so sets out to select a replacement for the apostle who’d betrayed them and was now dead.

The list of qualifications for leadership seems to have been pretty straight-forward: you had to have been a witness to the story of Jesus from the time of his baptism by John to the time of his ascension and, apparently, you had to be a man … which confirms what Jesus himself said before he offered his prayer in Gethsemene, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, [it] will guide you into all truth.” (John 16:12-13a)

Photo credit: Jason Creps Photography

Photo credit: Jason Creps Photography

In our own period of waiting, it can feel frustrating to have witnessed so much growth and vitality, so much resurrection as a community, only to find ourselves waiting once again for the Holy Spirit to set us on fire and send us out. The lesson this day offers to us, however, is that there is still work to be done during times of waiting. We are to continue to gather for prayer and discernment; we are to attend to the question of leadership, realizing that there are always others in our midst who have the gifts required for the present moment; and we are to commit ourselves to practices of love for one another, costly love that sets aside power for the sake of unity, and prepares us so that we are still together when the Holy Spirit at last blows through us again.

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, January 11, 2015: Baptism of the Lord

Texts: Genesis 1:1-5  +  Psalm 29  +  Acts 19:1-7  +  Mark 1:4-11

Hosea Williams of SCLC, left, and John Lewis of Student nonviolent Coordinating Connitte leading more than 500 people across Edmund Pettus Bridge (Selma) on March 7, 1965

Hosea Williams of SCLC, left, and John Lewis of Student nonviolent Coordinating Connitte leading more than 500 people across Edmund Pettus Bridge (Selma) on March 7, 1965

There’s a scene in the movie Selma, which opened this weekend, in which the Reverend Hosea Williams and a young John Lewis are leading a crowd of hundreds in crossing the Edmund Pettus bridge on what came to be known as “Bloody Sunday,” March 7, 1965. As the two civil rights leaders look ahead to the far side of the bridge they can see state troopers led by County Sheriff Jim Clark along with a mob of angry white people. Looking down at the Alabama River below them, Hosea Williams asks, “Do you know how to swim?” To which John Lewis replies, “There aren’t many swimming pools that allow blacks in my neighborhood.” The meaning behind their exchange is clear: the act of crossing these waters will put their lives in danger.

That’s what Christian baptism is, a passing through waters that puts your life in danger.

When the John the Baptist called the people out of the city walls, into the wilderness offering a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Mark 1:4), he wasn’t offering a wilderness retreat. It wasn’t a countryside getaway. It wasn’t a day trip with meals included. John led people out into the wilderness calling on them to repent and be forgiven. It was an invitation to leave the broken status quo behind.

Forgiveness was the business of the Temple, it was a part of the religious establishment’s franchise. It was a well-known and understood exchange of goods in return for priestly services. It was an allowed activity, a local concession made by Rome for people living under occupation. A lot of religion is like that, a perfectly acceptable bit of inoffensive ritual that threatens no one and changes nothing. What happened on the Edmund Pettus bridge was not an inoffensive bit of ritual. It threatened the power of Jim Crow laws that had bolstered a system of racial segregation that had kept Black people oppressed, stripped of their civil rights and denied any means of recourse and it changed the course of the nation.

tumblr_mja57gWewj1r2r773o1_r1_500On the day of that first march across the Edmund Pettus bridge, no one thought a few hundred Black people marching out under the Alabama sun could change much of anything. It was just street theater, and it could be dealt with. But when the nation turned on their televisions in 1965 and saw law enforcement charging on horseback into a crowd of non-violent protestors, beating Black men and women, young and old, with fists and clubs, the power of that bit of ritual, that street theater, became clear.

I know that for many people, Holy Baptism is a polite rite. An occasion for photographs and brunch. And I love those things, photographs and brunch, I love them a lot. But when I smile for the camera or share in the joyful repast after a child is baptized, what I am celebrating is another life dedicated to the God who is revealed in Jesus of Nazareth, who baptizes us with the Holy Spirit, which is the power of God unleashed upon the world for its liberation, reconciliation and restoration.

After Jesus had engaged the rulers of this world and defeated all the powers of death the Holy Spirit called women and men to continue that work, people like the apostle Paul, initially slow to recognize the Spirit’s movement for what it was, but zealous for the Lord after his conversion. As he traveled through Greece, Paul came upon a group of twelve disciples, like those first twelves disciples Jesus had called away from all they’d known to follow him. When he learned that they too were followers of Jesus, he asked them if they had received the Holy Spirit when they came to believe in Jesus. Their answer is heartbreaking. They said, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”

These twelve Greek disciples knew the name of Jesus, even called themselves his followers, were even baptized into John’s baptism, which is to say that they had experienced a renewal of their consciousness, had experienced a kind of epiphany, had come to know that the world as it is is not the world as God intends it to be, had accepted a call to leave the status quo behind. But it stopped there. They had begun their turning toward God, but they had not experienced the power that comes with baptism into God’s mission, the power that goes beyond withdrawing from this world to participating in its recreation. When Paul heard this he baptized them at once in the name of the Lord Jesus, and they began to speak in tongues and prophesy.

When I was a boy, I asked my dad about speaking in tongues and he told me that some Christians experience the Holy Spirit in ways that fill them with inspired divine speech which, when paired with someone who had been given the gift of interpretation, could result in a kind of divine testimony in the assembly. For many years that was the only image I had for speaking in tongues. Later in my life when I was called on, time and time again, to speak before teachers and bishops and to offer my own testimony about the movement of the Holy Spirit in my life calling me, anointing me, to bring good news to the poor, and freedom to those held captive by the closet, and liberation from the short-sightedness of institutional preservation at the expense of human dignity, I did not realize that I, too, was speaking in tongues. In those moments I did not have notes in my hands and I did not know what I would say, but as they were needed, words would flow from my mouth, the right words at the right time. And sometimes, when the Holy Spirit was moving in the hearts and minds of those to whom I was speaking, they could actually hear me, and a new understanding emerged. There was liberation, and reconciliation, and healing.

Now I know that I was speaking in tongues, which is to say that I was speaking the same English words in the same English sentences, but filled with the presence of the Holy Spirit which blows where and when it will. I remember on one occasion, after I’d finished giving my testimony, a man asked me, “so, do you imagine yourself as some kind of prophet?” and being the good, Midwestern Lutheran I was raised to be I said, “no, not at all. I’m just trying to be honest and stay true to the God who put me on this path.” As though that isn’t precisely what it means to speak in tongues and prophesy. To tell the truth in the face of a lie so pervasive it passes for reality.

It happens at least a hundred times a day. You see something, or you hear something, or you read something that you know is simply untrue. This last week it might have been something about Muslims in the wake of the tragic terrorist attacks on the French publication Charlie Hebdo and the hostage crises that followed. Maybe you read or overheard the violence of these attacks being blamed on Islam.

Or perhaps it was a news story reporting on the culture of sexual violence against women that exists on every campus in this country, but gets dismissed as an internal affair. Perhaps you heard excuses being made for the misbehavior of young men as if date rape was inevitable.

Or maybe it was a comment shared by coworkers, or on social media, about how we should’ve expected the work slowdown by New York police after the riots following the death of Eric Garner and the murders of two NYPD officers, Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, as if to imply that we as a nation are not capable of both supporting our police officers and also holding them accountable for their conduct.

Finding the words to speak and the courage to say them in the face of a culture of silence and stasis is the work of the Holy Spirit, which blew over the chaotic waters at creation and brought something out of nothing. Finding the strength to not only withdraw from a world that breaks your heart, but to join together with others who share your pain, your grief, your experience and organize to change it is the work of the Holy Spirit, which enters at baptism and makes us members of one body, so much larger than any one of us could ever be on our own.

And the point isn’t that the Holy Spirit only acts through those who’ve been baptized, or won’t act until you’ve been baptized, or waits for you to decide to be baptized. The point is, the God who meets us in the waters of baptism is always at work in this beat up world of ours, but so often it’s hard to see. However, each time one of us comes to the water, we are making clear what the world tries so hard to conceal, which is the truth. That all are welcome and there is always enough. Each time one of us brings our precious child forward to these waters we are not only saying no to the death-dealing forces that are always reducing us to something anonymous, a number, a dollar, a bottom line; we are placing what is most valuable to us in service of a world that we still haven’t seen, that’s still being created, that is coming toward us from the future, that threatens to change everything. We are joining the movement.

Amen.

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