Photo Credit: Jason Creps photography
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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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, June 8, 2014: Day of Pentecost

Texts: Acts 2:1-21  +  Ps. 104:24-34,35b  +  1 Cor. 12:3b-13  +  John 20:19-23

No one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:3b-13).

I’ll admit that when I was young, this verse was confounding.  I wondered if it could be true, in a literal way. I wondered if there was magic in the words “Jesus is Lord” that summoned the Holy Spirit, or if maybe it was the other way around; that by hearing or reading those words, I was inviting the Holy Spirit inside me, where it would work to bring me to say the words as well, “Jesus is Lord.”

With time I’ve come to a different understanding, though not completely different. I now hear these words, “Jesus is Lord,” as an early creed, a Christian reimagining of the tradition handed down to us through the words of the Torah, the prayers recited in the morning and evening by our Jewish brothers and sisters, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone” (Deut. 6:4).

But it’s not a creed in the way that we sometimes experience the creeds in worship, like a fragment of memory preserved in amber and recited as a testament to the past.  To say “Jesus is Lord” is a creed in the way that creeds may first have been used, as a public declaration of independence from all the forces of this world that work so hard to enslave us. The forces of greed, of violence, of envy, of terror. The forces that masquerade as the basis for our life together, the marketplace and the military, a strong economy and the power to keep it that way. To say “Jesus is Lord” is an act of bravery and imagination, because it implies that there is another way to live than the way we are living now, another world than the one we know, and it commits the speaker to the work of bringing that world into existence.

You know what I am talking about, because you are dreamers.

In his speech to those gathered in Jerusalem from every nation of the known world, Peter foretold the moment we now inhabit. He said,

“In the last days it will be, God declares,

that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,

and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,

and your young men shall see visions,

and your old men shall dream dreams.

Even upon my slaves, both men and women,

in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.”

(Acts 2:17-18)

What have you been dreaming about lately?  Do you know?  Do you remember your dreams?  What is your soul trying to say to you about the deepest yearnings of your heart?

Dreams are powerful things, in part, because they create a space where the mind can conjure up impossible solutions to impassable problems.  I remember that as a boy I had a recurring nightmare that I was being chased by a mob of children down the street on which I lived.  Each time I had the dream I would run as fast as I could until the children would finally grab hold of me, pull me to the ground, and begin to beat me.

a71013ea374c84f9efb44b25ee607130_largeOne night, as I was fleeing, it occurred to me that I might escape them by climbing a tree. So I leapt up and grabbed the lowest branch, pulling myself up and resting as the children gathered around the base of the tree yelling at me.  Soon they began throwing sticks and rocks at me, so I jumped from one tree to the next, evading their attacks, until I came to the end of the street and there were no trees left. Then the children began to climb the tree so that they could drag me down again.

It went on like that for another year or so, the nightmare visiting me every so often as I slept, always ending with me in that last tree at the end of the street, until one night when it occurred to me that I didn’t need another tree to escape, because I could fly. As the children began swarming at the base of the tree, reaching for its lowest limbs, I climbed up to the highest branch and looked up into the sky. I remember there was a bird coasting on the wind, barely working at all to stay aloft, and I decided to fly. I didn’t even have to leap, I just spread out my arms and rode the wind away from that tree on that street with those children. I never had that nightmare again.

Dreams make the impossible possible, they give us a chance to practice imagining a world different than the one in which we spend our waking hours.  For a little boy, the daily anxiety of navigating rooms filled with children who could be carelessly cruel seemed inescapable. In my dreams however I discovered that I could rise above my fears and found the freedom to explore the wider world.

Do you remember any of your childhood dreams?  What were they trying to tell you?  What new possibilities, what new worlds, did you create with your prophetic imagination?

lead_brueggemannI’m borrowing that phrase, “prophetic imagination,” from Walter Brueggemann, a biblical scholar who was interviewed by Krista Tippett a few years ago for her radio program “On Being.”  In that interview he said,

“I think at the broadest level, it is hard to talk about the fact — I think it’s a fact — that our society has chosen a path of death in which we have reduced everything to a commodity. We believe that there are technical solutions to everything, so it doesn’t matter whether you talk about over-reliance on technology, the mad pursuit of commodity goods, our passion for violence now expressed as our war policies. All of those are interrelated to each other and none of us, very few of us, really want to have that exposed as an inadequate and dehumanizing way to live. I think, if one is grounded in the truth of the gospel as a Christian that’s what we have to talk about.”

What Brueggemann is describing is our calling as Christians to imagine a world other than the one in which we live.  He describes the commodification of creation as the primary obstacle to envisioning a new world, and I agree.  We see this most easily in the advertising that surrounds us, a kind of waking dream in which impossible ideas get expressed as though they were reality — cosmetics equal beauty, cars equal power, cereal equals health, cell phones equal friendship, new homes equal family. The waking world in which we live and move and have our being has adopted the symbolism of our dreams, offering us a kind of pseudo-escape from the very real problems that pursue us. Except that, when we spread our wings and try to fly away from the anxieties of our lives in our new car, or our new home, or our new vacation, or our new phone, we find that we have really only leapt from one tree to the next, and our problems are still waiting for us.

What Peter preached to the people of Jerusalem, what Paul confessed to the people of Corinth, was not just another illusion, another substitute for the deepest longings of their hearts. What they offered was a new vision for the world, a living dream that was breaking into reality, that was calling people to renounce their old allegiances to empire and exploitation, to fear and accommodation.  The alternative they proposed was like a word spoken in a dream at the beginning of time, planted deep in the mind of every dreamer.  The word was light in dark places. The word was truth in a culture of lies. The word was power to the powerless.  The word was hope for the despairing.  The word was food for the hungry.  The word was love for the lonely. The word was life, rising up from every grave and waking every dreamer from the long night. The word was loose, and could not be contained, could not be silenced, could not be bought.

The word has a name, it is Jesus, and he is LORD.

When we say that, it is like the moment that sometimes happens while you are dreaming when you realize that you are in a dream, and it dawns on you that you might shape the dream rather than just observe it. Lucid dreaming, it’s called. When we say, “Jesus is LORD,” we are making the choice to not simply observe the world around us, but to change the world around us. We are committing ourselves to God’s dream for the world, and we are working to birth it into reality.

Sisters and brothers, these are the last days, and God’s Spirit has been poured out on us. We are God’s dreamers, God’s visionaries, God’s prophets. We rise from our beds like Christ rose from the tomb, undefeated by the powers and principalities of this world. We rise from our beds like Christ rose from the earth, glorifying the God of creation for whom nothing is impossible. We rise from our beds with stories to tell about the dreams and visions God has placed within us all, dreams that point the way to God’s preferred future.

Tell me, you prophets and seers, about your dreams. Tell one another. Can you see the new world coming? Come, let’s build it.

Amen.

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