Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, January 29, 2017: Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Texts: Micah 6:1-8  +  Psalm 15  +  1 Corinthians 1:18-31  +  Matthew 5:1-12

Friday was International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The date, January 27th, is tied to the date in 1945 on which the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp where 1.1 million Jews and other “undesirables” were killed was liberated by the Russians. To mark the day, I took my first trip to the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in Skokie. The museum is laid out in such a way that visitors essentially walk a timeline, viewing artifacts, reading placards and watching short movies describing how an entire nation was swept by anti-democratic forces that ultimately invested total power in a racist dictator who then presided over the largest genocide our world has ever known.

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On this particular day, at this specific day in history, it was impossible not to notice the moments along that timeline when foreign nations had the power to rescue those Jews and other refugees of war fleeing for their lives, but chose not to.  img_0423The United States and other nations built “paper walls” along our borders, burying immigrants in policies and procedures that made it nearly impossible to enter the country legally.

I suspect many of you have seen the shameful bit of American history that’s resurfaced on the internet this past week: the saga of the German ocean liner named the MS St. Louis which crossed the Atlantic in 1939 carrying over 900 Jewish refugees from Germany in the hopes of resettling them in Americas. The ship was denied entry into Cuba, the United States, and Canada and was forced to return to Europe where a quarter of its passengers later died in Nazi death camps.

After the war, even after we’d learned the full extent of what had taken place, still America was reluctant to welcome the survivors of the holocaust upon our shores.

Libby A’Hearn Gilmore, a beloved former member of St. Luke’s and 8th-grade teacher who also took her students to the Holocaust museum this past week shared the following on Facebook:

Americans knew that the Nazis were persecuting the Jewish people and yet they stood idly by. We were prejudiced and so concerned with our own economic well-being that we did not want to intervene or welcome Jewish refugees. Now, decades later, most Americans look back at this inaction with shame and regret … Americans look back at the tragedy of the Holocaust and think, “I wish we would have prevented this tragedy.” How will future generations judge our response to the Syrian refugee crisis? We must continue to welcome Syrian refugees and increase our quotas.

Within days of her post, our new president signed executive orders that indefinitely bar Syrian refugees from entering the United States and effectively block entry by citizens from predominantly Muslim nations.

Racism and religion are as old and inseparable as scripture itself. Our holy book contains in both testaments accounts of God’s people purposefully self-segregating and violently resisting calls for transformation and renewal. Over and over again we choose to ignore and deny what God is dying to show us about the unity of creation and our common inheritance that defies all attempts to be confined to any particular race, class, or nation. We continually choose the lesser gods of ethnic pride, upward mobility, and nationalism.

“But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.” (1 Cor. 1:27-29)

Lest we miss the point: God chose, God chose, God chose. Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth stands as a rebuttal to marketplace spirituality, relativized religion, choose-your-own deity, “we’ll just have to agree to disagree” rhetoric. God takes sides and, depending on where we’ve chosen to place our bodies or stockpile our wealth, it may not be our side.

It is certainly not the side of complacency in the presence of suffering, or conspicuous consumption in the presence of poverty. It is not the side of passivity in the face of violence and oppression, or ambivalence in the moment of crisis. God takes the side of the poor, the mourners, the meek, those who crave righteousness, who show mercy, who model purity, who make peace, whose commitment to God’s reign leads to persecution and slander.

When Jesus pronounced God’s blessing upon the poor, the mourners, the meek and all the rest, he was not echoing the conventional wisdom of the day. He was taking sides with those the Empire called “losers.” He was casting his lot with the world’s undesirables. He was planting the seed that, once planted in the earth, would grow to become the nation of Denmark sheltering Jewish refugees and white college students on integrated buses bombed by the Klan. Power and privilege emptying itself for the sake of “what is low and despised in the world.”

So today, as we gather to receive God’s blessings at font and table, we must remember all those others whom God is blessing this day. We must hear the Beatitudes as Jesus might speak them if he were delivering the sermon at this moment in time, in this place, under this Empire:

Blessed are the migrants, for their citizenship is in heaven.

Blessed are the refugees and asylum seekers, for they shall find safety.

Blessed are those whose family members died trying to get here, for they shall be consoled.

Blessed are those who march, who make calls, who write, who organize, who never give up, for they shall be able to live with themselves.

Blessed are the Muslims. Blessed are the Syrians and the Iranians, the Iraqis and the Libyans, the Somalis and the Sudanese and the Yemenis, for they shall be called children of God.

Blessed are you when people call you dreamers or idealists, when they call you soft or stupid when they attack you in public or fall silent over dinner.

Rejoice and be glad, for you are standing in the lineage of the long line of God’s prophets who have remembered in every age that we are one, and we are God’s, so we belong to each other and are called to be a blessing upon the Earth.

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, August 7, 2016: Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Genesis 15:1-6  +  Psalm 33:12-22  +  Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16  +  Luke 12:32-40

maxresdefaultThe world is full of heroes. That’s true every week, but this week they’ve really been on display. Yusra Mardini, the 18-year-old Syrian refugee who, together with her sister, pushed a boat carrying twenty people through the sea for three hours, saving their lives and is now competing in the Olympics under the Olympic banner. Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the parents of Army Captain Humayun Khan (himself a hero), Pakistani immigrants who came to the United States seeking opportunity for their family and ended up at the center of national politics for the last two weeks following Khizr’s impassioned speech denouncing the rhetoric of racism and islamophobia infecting our nation’s political life.

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Khizr and Ghazala Khan at the Democratic National Convention

A young refugee and two immigrants thrust onto the international stage because of who they are and what they have done — but also, I think, because we are hungry for stories of heroism right now. We are weary and battered by a season in our life together filled with stories of police violence and political cowardice. We are soul-sick from watching the weekly polls tell us how cynical and skeptical we have become about the possibility of meaningful change.  We, who have so much, wrestle with a sense of helplessness and hopelessness. Then we hear the story of Yusra Mardini jumping out of her boat and literally pitting her body’s strength against the relentlessness of the sea. We watch an unknown Muslim man stand up before the entire nation and proclaim his love for a country that has not loved him and his family half as well, but for which he and his wife gave their son.

“They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, God has prepared a city for them.” (Heb. 11:13-16)

The Letter to the Hebrews is full of memorable turns of phrase from the description of faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (11:1) to the “great cloud of witnesses” (12:1) that surround us. If the verses I’ve just read are less familiar, they’re no less full of poetry and power. In fact, I almost named the sermon series that begins today and will continue through the month of August, “A Better Country,” but decided that at this point in the presidential campaign it would be heard too narrowly as a focus on electoral politics, when what the author is really talking about is more akin to what Parker Palmer has termed “courage” in his book “Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit.” 

Parker dedicated that book to Christina Taylor Green, the 10 year-old girl who was shot and killed five years ago in the same event at which Congresswoman “Gabby” Giffords of Arizona was also shot; and to Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley, better known as the “four little girls” who died in the racist bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama during the Civil Rights movement fifty-three years ago. In his dedication, he writes,

“When we forget that politics is about weaving a fabric of compassion and justice on which everyone can depend, the first to suffer are the most vulnerable among us — our children, the elderly, the mentally ill, the poor, and the homeless. As they suffer, so does the integrity of our democracy.”

That’s what draws me to the image of “a better country,” and what also ultimately moved me to title this series, “Sight Unseen” — because what we are laboring for is ultimately something we have yet to see: a homeland here on this earth of which all people are equally residents, equally citizens, equally honored and cared for, “a better country, that is, a heavenly one.” (Heb. 11:16a)

But it is exhausting, longing and laboring for this country to come into view. It is tempting to look back at the lands we have known and to convince ourselves that the world as it is is sufficient or, at least, the best we can hope for. Then we hear Yusra’s story, and we imagine her muscles freezing up in the cold sea as she pushes her fellow refugees toward that better country, the one she has never seen. Then we hear Khizr and Ghazala Khan, and see Khizr brandishing his pocket edition of the United States Constitution in the face of calls to ban an entire religious community from entering this nation, and we imagine the faith it must take to hold fast to promises made but not yet kept.

That is the heart of the Letter to the Hebrews, it is a letter to people who have not yet seen the promises of God fulfilled, who wonder if they will ever be kept. It is a word of encouragement to worn down people, a reminder that we have only come this far by faith. It is a roll call of the saints, the heroes, the ones like Abraham and Sarah, Yusra, Khizr and Ghazala, who left behind all they had known and fixed their eyes on the stars to guide them into a future filled with hope. It is a call to faith in things we have only hoped for, and conviction in sights as yet unseen (11:1).

And now, if you’ll let me, I want to make this all a bit more personal and talk for just a few moments about us as a congregation in light of this word from scripture. There is so much in this Letter to the Hebrews that makes me think of the journey we’ve been on for the last ten years. The setting out without knowing entirely where we’d end up. The power of procreation at a late age manifested as a congregation made up of elderly people who saw wave after wave of young adults and even younger children begin to fill in the empty pews. The promise of a future filled with hope set alongside the constant exhortation to never give up. There’s so much in this letter that feels familiar to me when I think of the distance we have come. I’m tempted to place our story in the background, as one more example among many, a word of encouragement for other congregations, other communities of faith preparing to leave behind the known past for the promised future.

But this letter is still for us. This letter is calling out to us from history, urging us to cast our lot fully with the “strangers and foreigners on the earth” (Heb. 11:13). To, as Jesus puts it, “sell your possessions, and give alms” and “make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven.” (Lk. 12:33)

There is a convergence of conversations and actions happening in our congregation and in the communities that surround us that I believe is about to set us on a new course just as adventurous as the one we have been on these last ten years. Having already sold our chief possession, the building that had housed us for a century, we are now considering anew what it means for us to “give alms.” For the last six months the Council has been deliberating with one another about the practical, ethical, and theological implications of the fact that we have gone, in a very short time, from being rich in land and poor in cash to being practically itinerant but carrying with us an enormous amount of money. Over the last few months the Social Justice committee has joined this conversation, sharing with the Council their intention to move us from a more shallow monthly focus on benevolent giving to a strategy of 6-month campaigns designed to deepen our engagement with partner organizations working in our community to build that better country, the one none of us has ever fully seen.

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We are beginning with Center for Changing Lives, an organization that grew out of Humboldt Park Social Services, which itself grew out of Humboldt Park United Methodist Church, a member of the Logan Square Ecumenical Alliance just two blocks north of us here on Mozart St.  Center for Changing Lives provides financial coaching and employment assistance to families and individuals in our neighborhood struggling to make it in today’s economy. As we learn more about their work and are shaped by it we’ll not only be looking for ways to enhance their mission, but will benefit directly ourselves from their “Just Financials” curriculum, a powerful tool for helping us develop a shared vocabulary for connecting our values as Christian people to our actions with regard to our wealth, taking Jesus’ encouragement to “sell your possessions and give alms” seriously enough to really ask how our relationship to God is shaping our relationship to what we earn and what we own.

But stewardship of wealth is only one aspect of our vocation as baptized people. As we enter this new phase of our life together we will be talking more openly, not only in worship but in small groups with one another, about the ways we choose to steward the gifts of our lives. Whether at work or at home, with family or friends, how do we live out our baptisms? How do we live into that vocation, so that our whole life reflects our relationship to the God of life and love and liberation? We’ll be listening for signs of the Holy Spirit’s work in each other, deepening our capacities for love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23).

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Pr. Bruce Ray standing in the center of the labyrinth at the Kimball Avenue Church “urban oasis” at last month’s LSEA summer garden party.

Which means that we’ll be telling each other stories. From the testimonies that have been a growing part of our Sunday morning worship to the sorts of story-telling we saw at the ecumenical alliance’s Garden Party last month at which members of our separate congregations told stories about how they had come to Chicago, stories of migration from Honduras and Puerto Rico and Latvia. Stories filled with the kinds of quiet heroism that brought Yusra Mardini and the Khans to the international stage. Stories that we come to realize populate all our pasts, if we would only take the time to listen.

So we will. We will listen to each other’s stories, in and out of worship, within this congregation and beyond its glass windows. We will listen, and we will grow. We will be experimenting with adding services this fall, not simply because those of us who are already here are feeling a little bit cramped, but because we know there are others in our neighborhood and across our city who are longing for a glimpse of that better country, that city God is already preparing for those who face the future by faith. We will plan for growth and we will embrace it because we are inheritors of the same promise made to Abraham and Sarah, that their descendants would be more numerous than the stars in the sky. Those descendants, who are Jewish and Christian and Muslim, whose rich diversity points us beyond Abraham and Sarah to all of humanity, are our people and we are theirs in ways we know to be true even if we have never seen it lived out perfectly. But we see that future coming from a distance and we welcome it (Heb. 11:13).

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, July 6, 2014: Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Genesis 24:34-38,42-49,58-67  +  Psalm 45:10-17  +  Romans 7:15-25a  +  Matthew 11:16-19,25-30

Illegal-Kids-Cross-US-BorderAn unknown man walks into your hometown and offers to take you away from your family, away from your country, to another land and another group of people. He discusses the offer with your parents, who seem willing to let you go but are willing to leave the decision to you. As you consider the possible futures that lay before you, you parents ask you “will you go with this man?” And, perhaps to your surprise, you hear yourself saying, “I will.”

What would have to be going on in your life, in your world, for such an offer from an unknown person to seem like the wiser course of action? What would it take for you to leave all that you have ever known and set out for a new nation, placing your life in someone else’s hands?

That is the essence of the story we hear from Genesis this morning. Having been tried and tested throughout his long life, Father Abraham has buried his wife, Sarah, and is nearing death. All that God had promised him has come to pass. Called to leave their own homeland behind, Abraham and Sarah have come into the land that was promised to them; they have borne a child, Isaac, against all odds; and now all that remains is for Abraham to be sure that Isaac has a wife so that their family line can continue and God’s promise to make them progenitors of a vast people more numerous than the stars in the sky can be fulfilled.

Having built a new life for himself in this new land, Abraham does not want to return to Haran, the land of his birth, to find Isaac a wife — and he doesn’t want Isaac to return there either. What would be the point of all that they’d sacrificed, all that they’d risked, if their son simply returned to the place they’d come from? At the same time, Abraham doesn’t want Isaac to marry one of the women in Canaan where they have made their home. Like many a first generation immigrant, Abraham is caught between identifying with the land of his birth, and the place he and his wife had come to call home.

So Abraham, who has slowly, finally, come to understand that God’s promises will be kept in God’s time, does what he has learned to do. He makes a plan and takes action, charging his chief servant to return to their homeland to find a wife for Isaac, but allowing that things may or may not turn out as planned. As Abraham sends his servant off on this mission he says,

“See to it that you do not take my son back there. The LORD, the God of heaven, who took me from my father’s house and from the land of my birth, and who spoke to me and swore to me, ‘To your offspring I will give this land,’ he will send his angel before you, and you shall take a wife for my son from there. But if the woman is not willing to follow you, then you will be free from this oath of mine; only you must not take my son back there.” (Gen. 24:7-8)

There’s something interesting about this story, something that makes it more approachable to ordinary people like you and me: God doesn’t speak. Over the long course of their relationship, God has spoken to Abraham, guiding and directing him. Now, nearing the end of his life, Abraham takes action without knowing precisely what God expects or desires. Standing at the threshold between life and death, having achieved great things but knowing that the future remains uncertain, Abraham does not hear a voice from God instructing him in what to do. Instead, he exercises discernment. He makes a choice, one that is obviously colored by his own experience, perhaps even his own prejudices, but one that also creates an opportunity for a future for his family.

This theme is repeated throughout this story. The servant whom Abraham sent back to Haran comes to a well, and there he offers a prayer, a plea for God’s assistance. He says,

“Oh LORD, God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham. I am standing here by the spring of water, and the daughters of the townspeople are coming out to draw water. Let the girl to whom I shall say, ‘Please offer your jar that I may drink,’ and who shall say, ‘Drink, and I will water your camels’ — let her be the one whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac.” (Gen. 24:12-14)

Faced with a difficult challenge, Abraham’s servant turns to God in prayer and shows signs of discernment. His criteria may, initially, seem odd — a woman who will offer him a drink and water his camels — it’s not the sort of thing we might post in our own online profiles, but it shows that he is looking for a woman who demonstrates evidence of kindness, generosity and hospitality to strangers. These would be markers of a faithful woman who heeded God’s call to show hospitality to strangers, as Abraham and Sarah did when God came to them by the oaks of Mamre (Gen. 18) to announce that they would have a son.

When just such a woman does show up in the form of Rebekah, whose gracious hospitality is almost comic in proportions as she fetches water for not only the servant but his ten thirsty camels as well, God still does not speak. Instead the scriptures say that Abraham’s servant “gazed at her in silence to learn whether or not the LORD had made his journey successful” (Gen. 24:21). Like us, this servant of the LORD relies on prayer and then makes the best decision he can, trusting God to be faithful to God’s promises.

Having done his part, the final discernment is left to Rebekah, a woman whom the author of Genesis goes to great lengths to compare to Abraham himself. Like him, she is called out of their shared homeland, called to leave family and nation behind. Like him she offers hospitality to a stranger, in fulfillment of God’s commands. Like him she is offered a blessing that anticipates the she will become the mother of nations who will inherit a land of their own (Gen. 24:60). But all these things rest on her own decision, freely made, to step into this new reality, which she does — not because she hears the voice of God, but because she discerns something in the servant’s story that rings true, and leads her to step forward in faith.

“Faith,” said Martin Luther, “is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that a man could stake his life on it a thousand times.” Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace. That is what Abraham finally shows here at the end of his long life. No longer trying to force God’s hand with attempts to engineer his own future by means of his slave, Eliezer, or through his wife’s slave, Hagar; Abraham’s penultimate action is to chart a course forward that demonstrates a living, daring confidence that God will be whom God has been. It is living because it is happening in the present, influencing decision being made in real-time. It is daring because there is something of real value being risked — his family’s future.

This story about the passing of generations has so much to say to us, here, today.  As Abraham and Sarah give way to Isaac and Rebekah, we see how in each generation God’s call sounds remarkably similar, inviting us to leave the security of what we have known behind and to be willing to make big decisions, in the present, risking all that has been hard won, to ensure a future for our families.

Immigration Overload Hot SpotWe see it being played out on the border of our country every day, as young women and men leave their homes in Honduras, in El Salvador, in Mexico to create a new life for themselves in the United States, where others have gone before them fleeing the violence of their homelands. Perhaps no voice other than their own internal wisdom guiding them to step out in faith, with the living, daring confidence that God will guard and guide them to a better life than the one they’ve known.

We are living this faith right here in our own congregation, as the strategic listening team goes out like Abraham’s servant to watch and to listen for signs in the stories each of us is sharing about how this congregation offers welcome in the form of food and water, at the table and the font, and as we feed our neighbors knowing that when we welcome strangers into our homes we welcome God as well. We have received a great inheritance from those who have gone before us. Still, we know that in every generation we are called to demonstrate a living, daring faith in the grace of God — a faith that calls for discernment and decisions in the present moment that involve real risk.

You, too, are facing these decisions in your own lives. Whether you are young or you are old, whether you are raising children or burying spouses, you — like Abraham and Sarah, like Rebekah and Isaac — are living your lives by faith. Grounded in prayer, shaped by a tradition that has formed you for lives of kindness, generosity and hospitality, you meet the challenges of each day listening for the voice of God in the world and in your life. More often than not, however, you are required to exercise what wisdom you have gained by watching and listening for signs of God’s movement in the world without anything so clear as a voice from above.

What allows you to do this? I believe it is confidence in God’s grace. The apostle Paul, plagued by his own fears that his best choices were corruptible, and his own worst inclinations ever-present, nevertheless shows the same living, daring confidence in the grace of God that we see in Abraham, his servant, and Rebekah. He writes, “wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Christ Jesus our Lord!” (Rom. 6:24)

It is this grace that makes light the burdens of the decisions we are called to make each and every day. Like Abraham and Rebekah we are making decisions that will shape the course of our lives, and of the lives of generations to come. Rather than causing us to be timid, the grace of God calls us to be bold — not placing our trust in our own discernment, but in the power of God to work in us and through us for the healing of the nations and the entire world. Or, to quote Luther again,

“God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong [sin boldly!], but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides. We, however … are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth where justice will reign.”

Knowing, then, that God is at work in every generation, in me and in you, calling us to leave behind all that we’ve known to forge a new family, created by water shared and promises made, we are faced with the same question posed to Rebekah: “Will you follow this man?”

Amen.

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