Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, December 11, 2016: Third Sunday of Advent

Texts: Isaiah 35:1-10  +  Psalm 146:5-10  +  James 5:7-10  +  Matthew 11:2-11

I took a class in college called something like “Conceptual Physics,” but which we all called “Physics for Poets.”  It was a physics class without any math, mostly taken by English and other humanities majors in order to fulfill a distribution requirement in the sciences. We studied things like Newton’s law of universal gravitation and Einstein’s theory of special relativity using stick figures named Moe and Joe sketched out on the chalkboard by our professor, Dr. Kim.

I don’t really fancy myself a poet, though I try my hand occasionally, but the link between the science of the observable world and the theologies that connect my experience of the world to my knowledge of myself remains. Physics sometimes, unexpectedly, helps me understand religious concepts. For instance, hope.

Werner Heisenberg

Werner Heisenberg

The German physicist Werner Heisenberg, a pioneer of quantum physics, published a paper in 1927 that described the unavoidable imprecision that enters when trying to plot both the position and momentum of an object.  He was thinking of unimaginably small objects, like electrons or photons I suppose, not soccer balls.  His idea, which we now call Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, says that the more closely you try to pin down where a thing is, the less accurately you can say how quickly it is moving, and (I think) what direction it is moving in.  Conversely, the more accurately you describe the velocity of a thing, the less accurately you can describe just exactly where the thing itself is.

Now, remember, Heisenberg was writing about quantum physics, laws of nature operating at an unseen level.  Fortunately for us, for most of our waking days, we do a pretty good job of determining where, how fast, and in what direction objects around us are moving (which is why we are able to play soccer). But when we begin asking questions about the inconceivably small, invisible and practically undetectable world around us, operating at the microscopic level, different rules apply.

So, and here’s another piece of physics for us to mull over, the harder you try to observe things at this level of existence, the more likely you are to actually alter what you are looking at.  This is called the “observer effect,” and if you’ve ever used a tire gauge to check the pressure in your tires, you already know what I’m talking about.  You know how this works, you unscrew the tiny cap to the inner tube of your tire and, as you apply the gauge to the tire, you hear the hiss of air being released.  You wanted to know the pressure in your tire, but the very act of measuring the pressure has changed the pressure itself.  In quantum mechanics the same thing happens.  In order to observe objects at the sub-atomic level, like an electron, we have to direct photons at it, which actually changes the path of the thing we’re trying to observe.  There is no neutral observer at this level of science – to watch is to participate.

A long time ago I picked up a habit from a dear friend of mine who has spent most of her life practicing the art of counseling and, in particular, counseling people around issues of oppression and its impact on their lives. She very intentionally greets people by asking, “what’s new and good?” I’m sure you’ve heard me repeat the greeting plenty of times myself.

This isn’t arbitrary on my part.  It’s not just another way of saying, “what’s up?”  Although I’m interested in knowing what’s persistently old and difficult, I often choose to begin small groups by asking “what’s new and good?” because I believe that choosing to focus, training yourself to observe, what is new and good in the world is a spiritual practice. Although each of us has a multitude of stories we could choose to tell about our lives, when we practice looking for the new and the good, we are choosing to find evidence that the past doesn’t define the future – that old hurts do not cut off the possibility of future healing, and that signs of that new life are already appearing.

As with any spiritual practice, choosing to look for what is new and good in the world is not easy and does not come naturally for most of us.  Like the painful throbbing of a stubbed toe, old injuries stick with us and demand our attention.  Chronic pain, ongoing illnesses and the injustice of oppressive systems that surround us make it difficult to concentrate on what is emerging and new, what is healing and hopeful.

The season of Advent is much longer and much harder than we often care to admit.  We say that it is the four weeks before Christmas, but in another sense, it is our whole lives.  We spend our whole lives waiting for the vision of the prophet Isaiah to come true,

“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom…

the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water…

and the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing”

The wildernesses in which we wander feel so arid, and maybe especially so during this season when the desire to create the perfect Christmas for our families and children is at odds with the struggles we face at work, at home, or as a nation.  Our country feels more divided than at any moment in recent memory. Isaiah’s promises feel far off, so far off that we doubt we will ever see them in our own life.

cwyenjqwqaey7woMartin Luther King, Jr. famously said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”   Justice, these days, can feel hard to find.  It can seem tiny in the face of personal tragedies and ongoing wars, almost microscopic.  We would like to know precisely where God’s justice is, and when it will arrive.  But theological physics seems to indicate that we cannot know precisely where God’s justice is and how quickly it is moving – only that it is on the way, and that our own search for the signs of God’s justice, in fact, changes the world we are trying to observe.

So, in this moment when racist organizations we once imagined to be on the fringes of society are gaining confidence and organizing themselves into a global movement, I am choosing to celebrate the news that the Army Corps of Engineers sided with the water protectors at Standing Rock. I am finding hope in images of military veterans kneeling before elders of the Lakota Sioux tribe, offering an apology for centuries of violent oppression and exploitation of Native peoples. As we listen to newly emboldened anti-immigrant rhetoric moving from the margin to the middle of American discourse, I am encouraged by the actions of states like California and sanctuary cities like Chicago that are putting mechanisms in place to resist mass deportations should the federal government move against our neighbors under the cover of paranoid fantasies and slanderous lies.

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Photo Credit: Josh Morgan for the Huffington Post

I am looking for what is new and good in the world.  I am perfecting my perceptions.  I am practicing hope, and I am waiting with patience for the fulfillment of God’s promises – knowing that as I look for evidence of God’s work in the world, I am drawn into that very work.

What are you looking at this Advent season?  What are you looking for?  How are you training yourself to seek and to find evidence of God’s movement in the world? I know it’s hard. I know that! The temptation to constantly rehash all that is old and wrong and broken is ever-present. But I also know that there are no neutral observers. To watch is to participate. It matters which stories we tell. It matters, the conversations we have. Do you say it’s all falling apart, or do you say the moment for radical transformation is finally upon us? It matters!

Stay awake, therefore, and watch for the coming of the Lord.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, November 30, 2014: First Sunday of Advent

Texts: Isaiah 64:1-9  +  Psalm 80:1-7,17-19  +  1 Corinthians 1:3-9  +  Mark 13:24-37

paper_machete_itunes-logo-finalYesterday afternoon Kerry and I dropped by the Green Mill in Uptown for a weekly event that happens there on Saturday afternoons called The Paper Machete, which the producer describes as a “live magazine.” It’s one part news to one part satire as writers, comedians, actors, journalists, musicians and others come together to present work reflecting on the absurdity of the past week. They had plenty to talk about yesterday given the various agonies of the last seven days.

“From Ferguson the hashtag to the actual Ferguson,” the M.C. led before running down a long list of happenings coinciding with our annual Thanksgiving celebrations that left many of us feeling something other than thankful. Head in our hands, we understand him completely when the prophet Isaiah opens this new year in the life of the church with the desperate plea, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.”

There’s a symmetry to me in the way the church year ended last week with a vision from the gospel of Matthew of cosmic judgment in which each of us is called to account for ourselves not on the basis of what nation or clan or group we belong to but on the basis of how we cared for those among us struggling most deeply, and the first words of the new year in which the prophet cries out for God to come down from heaven and redeem a corrupted world. Scenes of divine judgement make many of us feel uncomfortable, conjuring up images of a distant, angry God; but are we equally uncomfortable when it is we ourselves calling on God to traverse the tragic gap between heaven and earth and save us from our self-inflicted sufferings? What is the difference between calling out for God to intervene on behalf of the hungry, the stranger, the prisoner, the sick and being called to account for your own treatment of the same? I suppose it’s a matter of which way you point the finger.

This makes the season of Advent difficult. Throughout this season we will say that we are waiting for the arrival of our Lord, but what do we mean by that? It is the ancient proclamation of faith often recited as we prepare to receive communion at the Lord’s Supper, “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” We who live on the other side of the resurrection are not waiting for Christ to be born, we are waiting for Christ to come again. What does this mean for we who call on God to “tear open the heavens and come down?”

1958031_891036030237_54408422828328216_nAs I was scanning Facebook for pictures of family and friends enjoying their Thanksgivings and I came across pictures of Steph Berkas, one of our seminarians last year, and her husband Nate. They are in South Africa right now, celebrating the holidays together with friends made during their year of missionary service there. It struck me how improbable that would have seemed twenty-five years ago, when apartheid laws were still in place, that two White young adults from the United States would be able to travel freely and easily throughout South Africa visiting friends of every ethnic background.

Or I think about how tomorrow is the 26th annual World AIDS Day, and how far we’ve come in the last quarter century — from a president who could barely speak the word to treatments that for many people have made HIV and AIDS a manageable condition instead of the death sentence it once was. Still, all I have to do is go back and re-read Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On or watch Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart to remember the horror of those early days, when I was in college and many of you were getting phone calls from friends, brothers, uncles telling you that they were sick and needed your help. Then I remember the visceral urgency of the prophet Isaiah’s cry, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”

It’s not an either/or scenario.  It’s not either God intervenes in human history or we’re left to fend for ourselves. Listen to Archbishop Desmond Tutu talk about the struggle for liberation from apartheid and you will hear his utter conviction that God was moving in history for the freedom of the oppressor and the oppressed from a system that dehumanized them both. But that movement began with cries to heaven as well. It began with Cry, the Beloved Country and the freedom songs sung in townships from Soweto to Guguletu, songs that reminded us of our own Civil Rights Era, cries of “How long? Not long!”

ap9210110285When we join with the prophet Isaiah in crying out to God, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” we are not relinquishing our own power to make a difference in history. We are joining with the millions of families that stitched their tears into quilts in honor of the lives of loved ones lost to AIDS and sent them to be displayed on the lawn of our nation’s capital as a cry to heaven and a call to the powers of this world to do something. We are joining with the tens of thousands marching in the streets of Ferguson and Chicago and every other major city across this nation carrying signs that read, 996142_719803884735812_8807735881668704328_n“Hands Up Don’t Shoot.” We are giving voice to the pain that threatens to kill us if we remain silent about it one minute longer.

This is the starting place. This is the beginning of a new year, which comes weeks before the new year as marked by the empires of this world because God is already moving while we are still waiting. God is moving in the souls of people who know that nothing is hopeless, who cry out to heaven because they still expect God to answer, who can acknowledge their own complicity in the systems that oppress them but long to be free so that all can be free. God is moving in you.

So I will ask you this morning, right now, to be still and turn your ears inward and listen for the voice of your own soul naming all that is breaking your heart. Maybe it’s Ferguson. Maybe it’s a relationship with a family member that never seems to get better. Maybe it’s your own persistent loneliness. Maybe it’s the relentless violence in Afghanistan. Maybe it’s the ongoing conflict in Israel and Palestine. Maybe it’s your marriage. Maybe it’s the deep needs of our neighbors right here in Logan Square at the start of another cold winter. Right now, be still and listen to the voice of your own soul whispering your heartbreak …

If you’re able, write it down, your heartbreak. Or speak it aloud, quietly, to someone near to you …

Hold on to these words, the ponderings of your hearts. Pray on them. If you can, share them with a friend so that you are not alone in holding them. Find the song that gives voice to their urgency. Shout them to God, joining with the prophet Isaiah, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, January 5, 2014: Epiphany of the Lord (transferred)

Texts: Isaiah 60:1-6  +  Psalm 72:1-7,10-14  +  Ephesians 3:1-12  +  Matthew 2:1-12

12-years-a-slave-quadI told you last Sunday that my family took in a movie together over the holidays.  Well, later that day Kerry and I returned to the theater, but this time just the two of us, to see 12 Years of Slave at the Logan.  I know some of you have already seen the movie, because we’ve talked about it. Lots of people are talking about it and the film seems on track to be nominated for all sorts of awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Director.  There’ve been plenty of award-worthy movies this past year, and this one certainly holds its own against any of them.

The story begins in a somewhat unexpected place for a slave narrative in that the protagonist, Solomon Northup, an African-American man from Saratoga Springs, New York was not born into slavery. He’d been born free, and had lived as a free man until his early-30s, when he was kidnapped by slavers in the nation’s capital then taken to New Orleans and sold into slavery.

Much of the horror in the film comes from watching Solomon slowly internalize the rules and realities of slavery as a means of surviving. Immediately upon arriving in Louisiana he is given a new name, a new story, and each time he tries to assert the truth of his life he is punished swiftly and violently. In the dozen years he spends as a slave he sees first-hand how the evils of slavery have warped and distorted the minds and lives of all involved, slaves and slaveholders alike. Without minimizing the distinct suffering of African-American people under slavery, it seems to me that one of the movie’s central points is that racism enslaved us all.

We live in the age of “isms.” Racism. Sexism. Classism. Consumerism. As parts of speech each of these “isms” is a noun yet, unlike other objects, you can’t put your hands on them. If they are objects they are a sort of thought object. Ideas that obtain undeniable mass and reality as more and more people fall under their sway. The New Testament doesn’t use the language of “isms,” but refers instead to the “powers and principalities,” or as our translation of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians puts it “the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Eph. 3:10)

Like 12 Years a Slave, Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is a refutation of a mentality, of a spirituality, that divides the world into people “like us” whom God loves and saves, and “everyone else” who must then exist outside God’s care and concern and, therefore, can live outside our care and concern as well.

In the short passage we heard this morning, Paul gives a succinct summary of the mystery of Christ, “that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Eph. 3:6). It is a paradigm shift, a revolution in thought, a revolutionary thought. There is no God “for them” and a separate God “for us.” There is only one God, for all of us, who has created, and sustained, and redeemed us all.

The fact that I can say that and that we can all nod our heads in pleasant boredom shows the extent to which Christianity’s message of universal access and God’s grace has permeated our culture and consciousness. But there are clearly other thought regimes still enthroned in our collective minds that propose a different reality.

Do you remember how, after 9/11, Americans all of a sudden became much more interested in Islam then they’d been beforehand? Most Americans had been pretty content to let Muslims be Muslims, out-of-sight and out-of-mind, until long simmering anger at U.S. involvement in the Middle-East boiled over in acts of terrorism that made it impossible for us to ignore parts of the world as deeply shaped by Islam as the West has been by Christianity.

Blinded by fear and anger and loss, I remember hearing people — at work, on television, in churches — saying that they worshipped a different god, a god named Allah, who was not the same as the God made known to us by Jesus and the prophets. It was breath-taking how quickly our culture mobilized to make sure that anyone who fit the very poorly constructed profile of a “Muslim” — never mind if they were Arab or Assyrian or Persian, if they were Muslim or Hindu or Sikh — was understood as so “other” that they even belonged to another god. All of which, ultimately, was about making it easier for our nation to accept the idea of war. The first step in preparing to kill a person is to imagine that they are no person at all.

Which is part of what makes the Epiphany story so unexpected.

We are all familiar, I suspect, with the story of the three kings who came bearing gifts for the newborn baby Jesus. Listen closely to the story and you’ll realize that it says nothing about kings, or how many there were. Those are later additions to the tale that don’t show up anywhere in scripture. What Matthew’s gospel wants to get across is that these visitors are disciples of a different wisdom tradition, they are “wise people” who do not worship the God of Israel, yet have come to pay homage to the incarnation of God in Christ Jesus.

But these wise men aren’t simply foreigners, they are “from the east” — the direction of Babylon, or Persia, or Arabia. They are contrasted with King Herod the Great, who ruled in Jerusalem as a vassal of the Roman empire in the west, along with the chief priests and scribes of the people.

So one of the first scenes associated with Jesus’ ministry is the clash of empires, the Romans in the west, and the Parthians (or ancient Persians) in the east. Nothing plays out as expected, though. Rather than being accepted by his own people and rejected by the foreigners, Jesus is hunted down by his own king and venerated by those with no relation to him at all.

Again, the story has become so familiar to us that it’s very difficult for us to feel the sense of shock and awe the author intends. To get that, we would have to imagine something totally foreign to the everyday world as we experience it. Something like going to a baseball game at Wrigley Field and hearing in place of the national anthem a call to prayer issued in Arabic.

Something almost as odd happens about two-thirds of the way through 12 Years a Slave.  While working alongside his master and another hired hand, Samuel Bass, a White man from Canada, Solomon overhears a conversation in which one White man confronts another over the insanity of racism and the evils of slavery.

“The law can’t make a person a slave,” Bass says. “The law could change tomorrow and make you a slave. That wouldn’t mean it was true.”

Heard with our modern ears, this is the voice of reason and sanity. It is the voice of heroism, confronting the powers and principalities of this world. But, in the moment when such a conversation occurred, between an itinerant Canadian laborer and an American landowner and slaveholder, it was insanity. A paradigm shift that would upend an entire social order. A revolutionary thought.

When the prophet Isaiah stirs the nation of Israel from their sleep with the beautiful words, “Arise, shine; for your light has come,” he is speaking to people who are not yet fully restored. His audience is those who had returned from their exile in the East, who had been promised liberation but had only received a new kind of oppression in the form of poverty and occupation in a land that was once theirs, but was now ruled by others.

“Arise, shine; for your light has come” is what Isaiah says to people accustomed to life’s disappointments, struggling to imagine that anything new could ever take place in their lifetimes. So the prophet imagines it for them, describing a world they have never seen, but have always longed for.

“Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms. Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you … They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.” (Isa. 60:4-5,6b)

Isaiah whispers words of hope to occupied imaginations and weary hearts, promising that someday the world will be drawn to the light of God’s truth, reflecting off of them; that the rich and the powerful of the earth will bring gifts suited for royalty to people treated like slaves.

Centuries later, as they told and retold the Jesus story, they realized that their long-awaited future had broken into the present. That in Jesus, a disrespected child born in a barn, brought into a world defined by empires and ruled by violence, all the disrespected bodies, all the occupied imaginations and weary hearts, had been honored. It signaled the beginning of a revolution.

Revolutions create revolutionaries, like Paul, who gladly endured imprisonment for the sake of the gospel, who writes, “This is the reason that I, Paul, am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles” (Eph. 3:1).  Paul, the prisoner, reveals the truth that we are all prisoners of one kind or another. We may be prisoners of the present order, like the slaveholder who cannot imagine a world in which any Black person is his equal; or we may be prisoners of another power and principality, any of the “isms” that are constantly campaigning for our hearts and minds — the sexism that tells you you are only worth as much as the man who picks you, or the militarism that tells you you are only as safe as the weapons you carry, or the consumerism that tells you you are only as precious as the objects you own; or we can become servants of Isaiah’s vision, reflecting the light of truth, that God desires to dignify all of humanity by reconciling and restoring us to one another.

Paul, liberated by a love that transformed his whole life and set him free from the violence of his own religious zealotry to choose imprisonment for the sake of people so very different from him says, “Of this gospel I have become a servant.” As the light of God’s truth consistently pulls the scales from our eyes, we too are invited to imagine a world without borders, an undivided humanity and a new creation.

Arise, shine; for your light has come.

Amen.

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