Sermons

Sermon: Wednesday, November 29, 2017: Reign of Christ (transferred)

Texts: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24  +  Psalm 95:1-7a  +  Ephesians 1:15-23  +  Matthew 25:31-46

“What I think, is that this is hell,” is what my sister told me.

scan0026

Me and Tara, ca. 1985. Arriving in the United States from Thailand.

By this point, I’d already gone to seminary. So it occurred to me, in the moment, that my sister was articulating a very present eschatology. By this point, she’d been living with a dual-diagnosis of persistent mental illness and mild developmental delay for a few years. She’d experienced the primal wound of being abandoned by her birth mother, raised in a foster home for the first six years of her life, and then torn from the land of her birth by loving, well-intentioned people who, nevertheless, did not look like her, or speak her language. By this point, my sister, Tara, who is Thai by birth and gifted with beautiful, lustrous brown skin, had experienced a childhood filled with racism both ignorantly casual and pointedly vicious. She had spent years running away from home, running toward danger. She’d been exposed to the violence that comes with life on the streets. She’d been beaten, she’d been exploited, and when she turned to the police in a life-or-death moment looking for help escaping the horrors of her immediate surroundings, they’d taken one look at her and saw only a disheveled, disorganized, dirty, brown-skinned girl with a funny way of talking and they told her to get lost, as if she wasn’t already.

20170222-chicago-tulips-breaking-ground

Tulips, breaking through topsoil.

So we were talking, she and I, about resurrection, and what hope we may have for the future, for a life better than the ones we’d known. I was talking to her about the miracle of tulips, which seem to die over and over, only to break free from the earth again and again to show their beauty in their frailty. And that’s when she told me, “what I think, is that this is hell.”

So, my reflection on this passage from Matthew has to start there, in hell, though the text itself does not use that word. This scene of final judgment, which is unique to Matthew’s gospel, is “the only scene with any details picturing the last judgment in the New Testament.”[1] Here we hear Jesus speaking in the voice of the ruler of heaven and earth seated on a cosmic throne before all the nations, rendering a judgment that addresses each person, each of us, on the basis of how we have responded to the human beings in our midst who are experiencing on a daily basis the depth of the hells this world has to offer: hunger, thirst, hostility to all that is strange or foreign or different, the bare naked exposure of poverty, the wretchedness of disease and illness, the graceless confines of our retributive justice and our merciless prison industrial complexes. In this scene of final judgement, the Lord of the universe says nothing about people’s personal sentiments, or public proclamations. The Lord gives no consideration to who you have claimed as your “personal Lord and savior.” The Lord of time focuses, like my sister, on the present and the fires to which we have consigned each other and asks what we have done for those whose daily reality is a burning hell.

Matthew.Lindisfarne

Illustration of St. Matthew the Evangelist from the Lindisfarne Gospels. Britain, 8th century.

I haven’t always known quite what to do with the festival of the Reign of Christ at the end of each liturgical year. Over time, however, I’ve come to appreciate the opportunity it provides for us to consider the distinctive voice of the synoptic gospel assigned to the year now ending. For this last year, it has been the Gospel of Matthew. So we have been hearing the good news of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ in a recognizably Matthean mode. Matthew’s theological world draws us into a recognition of the reign of God in clear opposition to the reign of Satan; it is the only gospel to speak explicitly of the “church” as a description for the community of believers, and so it invites us to give consideration to what we think the church is and who is part of it; it insists that Jesus is the fulfillment of the law, not the abolishment of it, and in doing so it ties the ethical life of those who follow Jesus to the ethical demands of the prophets of Israel. Then there is the thorny matter of Matthew’s relationship to the rest of Judaism, as this gospel preserves the memory of a religious community divided within itself over the nature of the covenant, the revelation of the messiah, and the imperative of the present moment to acknowledge and respond to what God is doing now in human history.

These themes and tensions are always with us, and I was reminded of that fact as I read and re-read the Boston Declaration, a theological statement released last Monday at the annual meetings of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature that publicly calls out American Evangelicalism for the ways that it has stoked the fires of a very real and present hell for millions of “the least of these” who suffer under the tyranny of intersecting ideologies of oppression that have interlaced racism, colonialism, and environmental degradation in ways that have created a living hell for the peoples of Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and the US territories; that have privileged and prioritized profits for gun manufacturers over the lives of human beings; that have supported the violent hetero-patriarchy evident in the daily revelations of rampant sexual misconduct and abuse by men against women and girls in workplaces and in homes; that has scapegoated Jewish people, Muslim people, Black and Brown people, and Queer people for the sins of White Christian Patriarchy; for elevating the economic appetites of nations by respecting national borders more than the lives of those who cross them as immigrants or refugees from the living hells created by those very same nations.

The stark and unapologetically divisive nature of the Boston Declaration very much reminds me of the stark and unapologetically divisive nature of this scene from Matthew of the final judgment in which all the nations are gathered before God and the people are surprised once more to hear that God takes sides. That our apathy and misconduct cannot be dismissed or justified by our claims to ethnic or national or religious exceptionalism.

Fra_Angelico_009

“The Last Judgment” by Fra Angelico, ca. 1395-1455

We all recoil from this scene, or should if we are in the least bit self-aware. The on-going presence of hunger and thirst, violence and poverty, malicious neglect of the ill and obscene incarceration of our neighbors who are, in fact, our siblings, indicts us all as complicit in the dominion of “the devil and his angels.” (Mt. 25:41) And it simply will not do to dismiss our discomfort with reminders of our Lutheran doctrine of justification by grace through faith; to let ourselves off the hook with reminders of God’s unceasing mercy, because it is God who addresses us here. It is God who speaks these words of judgment.

So we are left to grapple with the purpose and function of this eschatological vision and the tensions it produces. It is a tension that brings me back to my sister’s own declaration: “What I think, is that this is hell.” A very present eschatology, not unlike, I think, Jesus’s own eschatology. After all, it is in Matthew’s gospel that Jesus begins his public ministry by proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Mt. 4:17) This is Matthew’s Christology, that Jesus brings the reign of God, the fulfillment of God’s promises in the past, into the present moment with consequences for all of human life, for all of creation, here and now. Now is the moment of judgment. Now is the assurance that God does, in fact, take sides. Now is the promise that the hells in which we are burning cannot stand against the waters of the Christ into whom we are baptized. Now is the moment of our salvation. Now, not in the words we say or the identities we claim, but in the acts of lovingkindness we perform for one another, for the needless misery we relieve, for the welcome we offer, for the liberation we effect. Now. Now. Now.

Hell is not a threat of future punishment by our God. It is now. Or at least that’s what I heard when I listened to my sister, one of the least of these, and I believe her. What do you suppose might happen if you, if all of us, believed the voices of the women and girls, of the strangers and foreigners, of the masses that are incarcerated, of the legions of the sick and dying, of those who hunger and thirst?

A final word before I say goodbye to Matthew for a couple more years:

We struggle with the vitriol Matthew voices against those he calls “the Jews” because of the long history of Christian anti-Semitism, which the Boston Declaration rightly both laments and condemns. In its own context, however, what Matthew gives witness to is an intra-religious conflict among people who understood themselves as belonging to the same faith, yet who still drew very different conclusions about what God was doing in the present moment and what their faith required of them as a result. Here, again, the Boston Declaration provides a timely example. We might wonder what this present moment will look like two thousand years from now to those who have the advantage of that perspective, who will be able to look back and see what this one group called Mainline Protestants said about another group called American Evangelicals. We cannot know how these divides will deepen, or heal. Perhaps we will continue to drift away from one another to such an extent that we can no longer even recognize ourselves as belonging to the same religion.

Here Matthew shows us the righteousness of God, in that, no matter how much Matthew the evangelist might wish to claim superiority over the other sects of Judaism on the basis of his theological declarations, in the end God once again confounds our ideas of righteousness by disrupting the borders we draw around nations, tribes, religions, identities by lifting up those who do what is needed to meet the needs of the wounded neighbor, the suffering sibling.

We, too, should hear this word: that God cares less for our Boston Declarations than for our actual presence with those who suffer. God cares less about the accuracy of our theological ideas than the impact of our public witness. Just as fifty years of dialogue with the Roman Catholic church has led us to a new commitment to shared acts of proclamation and service, we might imagine and should already be looking for ways to heal the rifts that divide us from the very people we now condemn. For surely, in the moment of judgment that is always already happening, we will discover once again that we are all a part of the same family, that we all bear Christ to one another, that we are all standing before the throne of God, and that we are all in this together.

Amen.

[1] “The Gospel of Matthew: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” by M. Eugene Boring in The New Interpreter’s Bible, v.8, p.455 (1995: Abingdon Press)

Standard
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.

Standard
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.

Standard