Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, January 25, 2015: Third Sunday after Epiphany

Texts: Jonah 3:1-5,10  +  Psalm 62:5-12  +  1 Corinthians 7:29-31  +  Mark 1:14-20

It was a cold February day during my junior year of college when my favorite radio station (remember those, from the time before playlists and podcasts and Pandora?) began broadcasting R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” on repeat for days on end. For all the times I’ve sung a song in this pulpit, I know better than to try and pull of an a cappella rendition of that one, but if you know it then you remember Michael Stipe’s voice on a punching, single-note drone, stream-of-consciousness culminating in the chorus, “It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine…”

That song, on continuous loop, for days was … well, disconcerting. I remember tuning in to the station as I walked to class and being confused about why it kept playing. I thought perhaps it was a tribute to a fallen rocker. Maybe Michael Stipe had died? Maybe R.E.M. had split up? I didn’t give it a lot of thought. I turned off my headphones and found a seat in the classroom. Afterwards I put my headphones back on, assuming I’d get a explanation, but no — R.E.M. was still blaring away.

Across the Twin Cities people began sharing the story. “Have you tuned in to 93X? Do you know what’s going on?” More than fifty people called 911 to report, well, something. Some people thought the DJs were being held hostage and trying to transmit a covert S.O.S. Others thought it was some kind of bizarre promotional stunt, and drove down to the station’s offices in Eagan to see what was going on.

The truth is that the radio station had been bought out by its rival, one of those huge national media companies, and the outgoing owners were playing the song on repeat as a kind of protest to what was happening to small, independent radio. It was exactly the kind of cause that college students could rally around, our ambient hatred of “the man” coalescing around a concrete focus. Never mind that 93X had only been broadcasting its format for about five years. Never mind that for almost thirty years that station had been easy listening. For us, it was the end of an era, and we did not feel fine.

That story comes to mind today for a number of reasons, none of them too subtle, but it first occurred to me as I read through Paul’s words of advice to the community in Corinth.

I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away. (1 Cor. 7:29-31)

It’s not that Paul doesn’t care about history and tradition. In fact, at other points he goes out of his way to tout his own credentials as an educated person. It’s not that he is against the institution of marriage, which he writes about elsewhere in this letter, it’s that he believes that Jesus Christ is the sign that God is about to do something radically new in the world, something so big that it requires us to respond to the world with urgency, setting aside familiar things for the sake of God’s preferred future. It’s the end of the world as we’ve known it and, on that count, Paul feels better than fine, he is enthusiastic.

A similar dynamic is at play in the gospel reading from Mark where, once again, Jesus is finding his followers out where they live, in the context of their everyday lives. “The time is fulfilled,” he declares, “and the reign of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:15) And immediately (of course) Peter and Andrew, James and John, drop their nets and abandon their work and follow the Lord.

But it’s the first story, the story of the reluctant prophet Jonah, that really grabs me this morning. He’s been sent to deliver a message he doesn’t want to give to a people he doesn’t want to meet, the Ninevites. Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian empire, no friend to Israel. The entire short book of the prophet Nahum is an oracle foretelling God’s coming wrath against Nineveh in graphic language,

“Ah! City of bloodshed, utterly deceitful, full of booty — no end to the plunder! … I am against you, says the Lord of hosts, and will lift up your skirts over your face; and I will let nations look on your nakedness and kingdoms your shame.” (Nah. 3:1,5)

That’s how people expected, how people hoped, God would deal with their adversaries, by humiliating them in a dramatic way for the whole world to see. Instead God calls Jonah to march into Nineveh and invite them to repent. You know what happens next: Jonah refuses the Lord’s call and heads in the opposite direction, hopping a boat to Tarshish. But a great storm hits the boat out on the sea, and the crew eventually tosses him overboard where he is snatched up by a “great fish” a whale or some other mythical sea creature capable of swallowing a man whole without digesting him for three days and three nights.

Left in his watery grave with nothing to do but consider his life, Jonah realizes the folly of his ways, the foolishness of his impulse to flee from God, as if God could be evaded by moving to another city, by changing your address. Just as he regains his resolve to do as the Lord has asked, the fish spits him back out onto dry land. When the word of the Lord comes a second time, Jonah does as Peter and Andrew, James and John, and he leaves the safety of what he has known to deliver a message to Nineveh.

Unlike Jesus’ disciples however, the journey Jonah is required to make is not so much about leaving a place, but leaving a state of mind, a preconceived notion. When the disciples dropped their nets to follow Jesus they were leaving their homes in order to take part in the new thing God was doing through Jesus. But when Jonah set off for Nineveh he was forced to revise his opinion of people he’d grown to fear and hate. In fact, he admits as much. After the people of Nineveh heed Jonah’s warning and repent of their wickedness God chooses mercy over vengeance, and Jonah laments.

“Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” (Jon. 4:2)

You see, Jonah didn’t want the Ninevites to be saved. He wanted to deliver a word of judgment, followed by a moment of vengeance. But people change. Hearts and minds are moved. Our harshest oppressors can sometimes become our allies, even our friends. Grace changes us, which changes everything. But still so often we deny others the possibility of being made new in the ways that we ourselves have been made new. We withhold from others the same grace that has saved our very lives.

God is calling to us this morning, but we aren’t all hearing the same thing. Some are convinced that we are now called to leave this place that has been our home for over one hundred years, not out of any disrespect for traditions or institutions, but because there is an urgency to God’s summons to be part of the new thing that God is doing in the world. Some are convinced that we are called to stay and work harder than we’ve ever worked before to preserve this home for ourselves, for our neighbors, and for future generations.

And I want to be clear: these scriptures do not take a position on that decision. They do not take sides, declaring who is right and who is wrong. What they do say for certain is that the call to follow where God leads us will change us. It may change our address, it may not, but it will change our hearts. We will not be able, we will not be allowed, to look on any person or community of people and write them off. We will be called, we will be sent, we may even be dragged kicking and screaming, into community with those we trust the least as a sign of the power of God to heal, restore, and recreate the world.

You see the present form of the world is always passing away. Disciples are always being called and prophets are always being sent. The nations are always being reformed and redeemed. Because God is always doing a new thing. That is the constant on which we can build our lives, that grace is real and that it changes everything. It is the truth that allows us to sing, “it’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.”

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: 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, July 21, 2013: Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts:   Amos 8:1-12  +  Psalm 52  +  Colossians 1:15-28  +  Luke 10:38-42

Here’s a topic you’ve not heard me spend much time on: God’s wrath.

So, let’s go there.  It doesn’t take an especially close reading of the bible to uncover the fact that God is quite frequently represented as angry.  And when God is angry, it’s at humanity.  Whatever relationship God has to sharks and redwoods and geological fault lines is really beyond our knowing, but our scriptures are not silent on the point of God’s feelings toward humanity.  God loves us.  God pleads with us.  God forgives us.  And God is angry with us.

It’s hard for me to say that.  Even as I wrote this sermon, I had to stop myself from softening those words.  I wanted to say, “And, sometimes, God is angry with us” or “God is angry with some of us.”  But those are both dodges.  Those both imply that either we are, for the most part, doing the right thing — doing well — and only occasionally breaking God’s heart with our disregard for and neglect of the weakest and most needy, the despised and neglected among us; or that most of us are doing right by one another from the point of view of God, and that the real problems of this world can be laid at the feet of a few wicked evildoers.

These are the sorts of dodges that people make all the time as we deal with our relationships with one another out here in the “real” world: anger can be minimized because we imagine that we are “good” most of the time, or that most of us are good.

These rationalizations, while they may serve to shield us from our own fear of accusation, our discomfort with anger, and our resentment of any authority that asserts itself over us, raise two basic theological conundrums.

The first, our urge to assert that we are each basically good, is so difficult to challenge.  Particularly from a pulpit.  While it may not be the case across the spectrum of Christianities practiced throughout the world, and certainly is not the case for Christianity across time, it is the case that in the global north and west, in the mainline Protestant tradition to which we as Lutherans in the United States belong, there is a great reluctance to speak of God’s judgment.  We don’t want to be affiliated with those other kinds of Christians.  The kind who preach hellfire and brimstone.  The kind who divide the world into us and them, clean and unclean, pure and impure.

So, instead, we join the broader culture in a kind of psychological Christianity, or therapeutic Christianity, that begins with the affirmation that God created the world, looked upon it and called it good; and that ends with the affirmation that God “so loved the world that God gave God’s only begotten Son” without giving much attention to the reality of sin that necessitated a divine intervention in the life of the world in the first place.

When we make that first move, to say that we are mostly good, in a sense we are saying that we mostly didn’t need God’s intervention in Christ.  That we mostly had this under control ourselves, and that we’re mostly able to clean up our own messes.

This kind of logic reminds me of my senior year of college.  I was mostly done with my coursework.  I’d lived abroad in Costa Rica for a summer.  I’d completed a 3-month internship in adolescent mental health.  I was finally living off campus in a grown up apartment.  I was living life on my own terms, taking care of myself.  Except near the end of the semester, when I hadn’t quite budgeted to make my students loans and the paychecks from my part-time job stretch, and I needed to call my folks and see if they could help me just a little bit until the beginning of the month.

We’re mostly good, most of the time, and isn’t that enough — or so we wonder in a question that mostly misses the point.  Because when we aren’t “good,” when we can’t pull ourselves up, when we come up short, when we find ourselves insufficient to the crisis at hand, the question isn’t whether or not we’ll  somehow become better than we’ve ever been before.  It’s whether or not there is a power and a presence beyond our own that can sustain us through the crisis.  It is not, fundamentally, our goodness — our sufficiency — that counts, but God’s.

If, when faced with God’s anger or wrath, our first dodge is to assert that we’re good most of the time, the second is to claim that most of us are good.  That it’s just a few really rotten apples that spoil the bunch.  Week to week our minds turn to different names to populate that list.  We have our favorite politicians to blame.  Then there are the easy targets, the perpetrators of heinous crimes, the public figures whose private scandals come to light.  The constant parade of big news stories in the papers, on the news, across the internet, conspire to make it possible for us to believe that somehow all the responsibility for the world’s brokenness can be laid at the feet of a few mutually agreed upon failures.

This is not how the prophet Amos sees the world.

“The end has come upon my people Israel; I will never again pass them by… shall not the land tremble on this account, and everyone mourn who lives in it, and all of it rise like the Nile, and be tossed about and sink again … The time is surely coming, says the Lord, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord.” (Amos 8:2b,8,11)

For the prophet Amos, the nation of Israel is not a community of mostly good people who do good most of the time.  It is a community of people who cannot separate themselves one from another.  It is not the king or the people, but the whole nation together that must give an account for the treatment of the needy and the poor among them.  The faithfulness of Israel is not counted by the prophet as a private affair, but as a public witness to a public relationship between God and God’s people.

To the prophet Amos’ way of seeing, the ongoing and persistent presence of poverty in Israel testifies to an economy that values profit over people, such that business owners are trying to squeeze more labor out of the workers, asking “when will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath so that we may offer wheat for sale?” (Amos 8:5a)  It is an economy that offers less and less of value for more and more of people’s savings, “we will make the ephah small and the shekel great and practice deceit with false balances.” (Amos 8:5b)

Amos accuses the entire nation of “buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat.”  The prophet suggests that the greed of Israel’s economy has grown so great that creditors are foreclosing on those who cannot pay their debts for even minor purchases, not just home mortgages but even the sandals on their feet.  The economy has grown so greedy that the ancient tradition of leaving the gleanings of the field for the hungry has been forgotten, and even the most basic of necessities, food, cannot be counted upon.

Amos’ anger is not directed against one leader, or a handful of elites.  Amos brings a word from the Lord to Israel to say that this nation as a whole has forgotten who they are before God.  In response, God’s wrath will take the form of a famine — not of food or water, but of hearing the words of the Lord.

Again, in my own efforts to understand divine anger and divine punishment, I draw on my experiences of having been a child, and the ways my parents tried to offer me correction.  After many patient explanations, after plenty of warnings, there did come a time, especially as I grew older, when my parents decided that the way I would learn best was to suffer the natural consequences for my decisions and actions.  If I stayed up too late reading under the covers, dawn still came at the same time and I would have to go to school exhausted.  If I spent my money on junk food and diversions, there would be no new clothes for the new school year.  Actions had consequences.

That’s how I hear Amos’ forecasted famine.  If the nation continues to ignore the terms of God’s covenant; if the people continue to enjoy the privileges they reap off the backs of the poor, the needy and the neglected; then they will suffer the natural consequences of a society that has gone bad from the inside out.  Like a bowl of overripe fruit, what had been given them for nourishment will go bad and spoil.  If the people refuse to listen to God’s word, then they will be unable to access the abundant life it brings.  Natural consequences.

My friend Anne Howard, Executive Director of The Beatitudes Society, an ecumenical leadership development program that identifies and nurtures an emerging generation of Progressive church leaders for the sake of the common good, has taken to signing off on all her emails with the phrase, “we’re all in this together.”  It’s the perfect closing for correspondence from an organization that takes its name from Jesus’ most famous sermon, the one in which he said, “blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” and “blessed are those who hunger now, for you will be satisfied.”

Jesus, whose own prophetic ministry drew on the legacy and authority of the prophets of Israel, shared their concern for the poor and the hungry, the grieving and the reviled.  Like the prophets of old, his ministry was an earthy, embodied, political ministry.  He, too, talked about the needs of the sick, the poor, the outcast, the stranger.  In fact, when he spoke of heaven, it was almost always to say that it had drawn near, that it was breaking into this world, and not breaking us out.

In her classic essay on feminist Christian ethics, “The Power of Anger in the Work of Love,” Bev Harrison writes,

“Otherworldliness” in religion has two very different sources in our social world of knowledge.  One sort of otherworldly religion appears among the poor and downtrodden, reflecting a double dynamic in their experience: It reflects a hopelessness about this world that is engendered by living daily with the evil of oppression, but it also fuels and encourages an ongoing struggle against the present order by conjuring a better time and a better place, beyond the oppressive here and now.

However, an entirely different form of otherworldliness appears amongst those of us who have never been marginalized, who have lived well above the daily struggle to survive, when our privileges are threatened. This form of otherworldliness is merely escapist, and its political consequences are entirely reactionary. Its result is to encourage denial of responsibility for the limited power that we do have, and it always results in reinforcing the status quo.”

Harrison connects this observation about our tendency to privatize religion and assign it to some other world with her insights on anger when she writes,

It is my thesis that we Christians have come very close to killing love precisely because we have understood anger to be a deadly sin.  Anger is not the opposite of love. It is better understood as a feeling-signal that all is not well in our relation to other persons or groups or to the world around us. Anger is a mode of connectedness to other and it is always a vivid form of caring. To put the point another way: anger is — and it always is — a sign of some resistance in ourselves to the moral quality of the social relations in which we are immersed.

God’s anger, God’s wrath, is not a sign of God’s abandonment.  It is a vivid form of caring that signals God’s resistance to our human desire to pull away from God (“I’m mostly good”) and to pull away from each other (“most of us are good”).

Let me try and wrap this up with an anecdote from my own life over the past week that may illustrate what I’ve been trying to say here.

trayvon-martinThe thing that send me searching my bookshelves for Bev Harrison’s essay, “The Power of Anger in the Work of Love,” in the first place was my abiding anger over the verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman in the murder of Trayvon Martin.  I was in Atlanta with friends, Black and White, when the verdict was made public, friends I’ve known for over a decade and with whom I’ve engaged in some of the most intense political, ethical and theological conversations in my life. As we shared the news with one another, we barely spoke.  The pain of the wound of racism that is at the heart of the public furor over this verdict is overwhelming.

As the following week wore on, as Kerry and I sat at our dining room table, as you and your families sat at your dining room tables, my anger has only grown.  My anger is so deep on this point that it is difficult to speak.  And I wondered, “is there anything redemptive about this anger?  Can anything good come from these feelings that surface and are submerged over and over again?  Is there any value to this wrath?”

Bev Harrison’s answer is: yes.  The power of anger in the work of love is to give us the visceral evidence we need that the fabric of our relationships is torn, and that action is required.  The power of anger in the work of love is the voice of the prophet Amos, delivering a message from an angry, loving God that the creation, which God looked at and called good, for which God sent God’s only begotten Son, is aching under so much political, economic, and environmental abuse.

The power of anger in the work of love is the sound of the organizer knocking at your door, or the call from the program director looking for volunteers, or the letter that comes to your mailbox asking for a donation.

The power of anger in the work of love is the energy required to pull ourselves out of the hopelessness that is always trying to own us, to convince us that the world as it is is the world as it will always be.

The power of anger in the work of love is that voice that rises up inside each one of us, that voice that comes first from God, that says, “We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore.”  It is the voice inside us that has always known that we are all of us in this together and that refuses to be silenced.

The power of anger in the work of love is the end of the famine of hearing the words of the Lord, and when we understand the power of anger in the work of love in this way, then God’s wrath is not to be feared but to be longed for.  For it is God’s anger, spoken through God’s prophets, like Amos and you and me, that sets the spark that starts a revolution.

Amen.

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