The Ahmed family at the home of Jim and Peggy Karas, left, who were joined by other sponsors.
Credit Damon Winter/The New York Times
Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, July 3, 2016: Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Isaiah 66:10-14. +. Psalm 66:1-9. +. Galatians 6:1-16. +. Luke 10:1-11,16-20

Let’s just jump right into the text for a moment, then we can back up into our lives and the life of the world around us, shall we? We’ve been slowing reading through Paul’s letter to the Galatians ever since the beginning of summer, and this morning we reach the end. Starting next week we’ll begin working our way through the letter to the Colossians and also a four-week series on the importance of acting on our faith, using stories from the gospel of Luke. But here, at the end of Galatians, Paul is once again talking about circumcision as a way of talking about all the ways we try to impose our standards of acceptability onto each other, denying the power of God’s grace that accepts each of us as we are and calls us to be more than we have ever been.

Paul writes,

“It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh that try to compel you men to be circumcised — only that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. Even the circumcised men do not themselves obey the law, but they want you men to be circumcised so that they may boast about your flesh.” (Gal. 6:12-13)

Remember here what we talked about a few weeks ago, when we began reading this letter. The conflict among the Galatians is that Paul had taught the people that, in Christ, God has broken down all the walls we build to divide ourselves one from another: our religious walls, our ethnic walls, our cultural walls, our economic walls. All those ways we have been taught to look at other human beings and feel morally superior to one another, what Paul calls “the law.” It’s not that Paul disregards the positive uses of the law, the way that the best in our traditions move and motivate us to good works. In fact, even here at the end of his argument he writes, “let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.” (vv. 9-10) But he is realistic about just how quickly human beings move from good works to works righteousness; how quickly we go from working for the good of our neighbor, to working so that others may see us working for the good of our neighbor. This is the heart of his complaint about circumcision.

After Paul left, other teachers came in and began to teach that the new converts who wanted to follow Jesus, many of whom were not even Jewish, would first need to follow the steps to become observant Jews before they could take the next step toward becoming followers of Jesus. No skipping in line. No getting ahead of themselves. No exceptions. This is what gets Paul worked up, why he says, “Even the circumcised men do not themselves obey the law, but they want you men to be circumcised so that they may boast about your flesh.” There’s more to being an observant Jew than getting circumcised, Paul is saying. There’s the whole of the law. There’s showing hospitality to strangers. There’s caring for the orphan and widow. There’s honoring your parents and your neighbors, and not enriching yourself at the expense of the poor. Most importantly, there is the command to remember to that there is only one God, and that God is the only one worthy of our worship. These are the laws that the Galatians themselves do not keep, that none of us fully keep. So, if we ourselves cannot keep the law in its essence, then why do we demand that others keep up the appearance of the law? So that we will appear righteous before others, Paul says, forgetting that it is the grace and love of God that has made all of us righteous. That we who call ourselves Christians have nothing to boast about, other than the cross of Jesus, by which God showed God’s great love for all people, breaking down all the walls we had built to divide ourselves from one another.

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The Ahmed family at the home of Jim and Peggy Karas, left, who were joined by other sponsors. Credit Damon Winter/The New York Times

It has been so easy in these last few weeks and months to focus only on those stories of our failures to love each other across the lines that divide us. There is so much in the news to feel hopeless about. But there was one story in this last week that really lifted my spirits. Maybe you read it as well. It was the story published in the New York Times on Wednesday about the extent to which Canadian citizens have come forward to welcome Syrian refugees into their homes, so much so that the Canadian government can barely keep up with the demand on the part of citizens to be part of this massive undertaking of hospitality. The story was honest in naming the ways it is complicated for Syrian families to get used to life in Canada; and about the many ways that their Canadian hosts screw up — trying to figure out when to be assertive and when to step back and let these new Canadians figure it out for themselves. How will they respond to the different cultural norms around gender roles, child-rearing, and work when they have their own deeply held convictions about each of these subjects? Despite all the difficulties and complications, it was such a hopeful story to me because it showed what is possible when we decide to step out from behind the walls of our own self-interest to imagine a world where strangers and foreigners are just friends we have yet to meet. It showed what is possible when we structure our society around tending to the needs of our neighbors instead of keeping them at arm’s length.

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Elie Wiesel, ca. 1987

Late yesterday afternoon the world learned that Elie Wiesel, the famous writer who chronicled his experience of the Holocaust as a survivor of the concentration camp at Auschwitz had died. He was a powerful voice in this world who made it his mission to speak out wherever silence threatened to hide the destruction of human life. In many ways he was a living testimony to the danger of allowing ourselves to be seduced by the politics of fear. He knew in his flesh in a way most of us will never understand the cost of allowing our shallow self-righteousness to take over our politics. He saw what happened when a nation fell prey to the racist rhetoric of a charismatic demagogue. He new what happened when good people stood by and did nothing. His words stand as a judge of all human history, “Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night…”

At the same time, he believed that the forces of evil that had touched his life and the lives of the six million Jews slaughtered could be defeated if and as we come together around the enduring truth of our human dignity. “Never shall I forget” was his call to all of us to deal with the truth of our own human failure to care for and protect one another, and also his belief that in remembering we have the power to choose a new and different future for ourselves and for humanity.

“New creation!” is how Paul puts it. “Neither circumcision not uncircumcision is anything; but new creation is everything! As for those who will follow this rule — peace be upon them and mercy, and upon the Israel of God.” (vv. 15-16) That’s what is waiting for us on the other side of nationalism, of racism, of tribalism. New Creation. A new peace beyond borders. A new world without war. It starts one conversation at a time, with each act of welcome, with every stranger welcomed into our homes.

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, February 23, 2014: Seventh Sunday after Epiphany

Texts: Leviticus 19:1-2,9-18  +  Psalm 119:33-40  +  1 Corinthians 3:10-11,16-23  +  Matthew 5:38-48

As books of the bible go, Leviticus has kind of a bad rap, mainly because of its preoccupation with rules and laws.  This is, after all, the book that gave us such gems as:

It shall be a perpetual statute throughout your generations, in all your settlements: you must not eat any fat or any blood. (Lev. 3:17)

which rules out the best steaks I’ve ever had, and

You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard. (Lev. 19:27)

which I regularly defy every time I pull out my electric razor; not to mention a range of laws defining who you may and may not lay with that has left many of us a little beaten and scarred in the great culture wars of the last fifty years. So, it’s not often that I preach on Leviticus.

The lectionary seems to have picked up on our aversion to this book of the bible, since this morning’s passage is actually the only time we’ll hear from Leviticus all year long.  That’s right. In an odd twist of liturgical fate, the book of the bible most often cited to support legislating human behavior is one of the least read books of the bible, at least in terms of the portions we read together in worship.

Lucky for us then that the passage we read this morning is a bit of a greatest hits medley from the book of Leviticus.  Today we hear verses that sound quite an awful lot like the Ten Commandments,

You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another. And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God. (Lev. 19:11-12)

And we hear words that we associate with Jesus, though he himself is quoting Leviticus,

You shall love your neighbor as yourself. (Lev. 19:18)

But the verses I want to inspect with you for just a few minutes this morning are not that familiar and, on the surface, not that applicable to our everyday lives. The passage we hear Jossy read this morning begins,

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the LORD your God. (Lev. 19:9-10)

When we study rules and laws, one generally safe assumption is that the rule exists because it has already been broken.  We don’t tend to make rules about things no one does, or ever could do.  We don’t legislate how quickly pigs are allowed to fly, or how much wood a woodchuck may chuck if, in fact, a woodchuck can chuck wood.  But Leviticus does set rules for how a landowner should go about reaping the harvest for which she or he has labored.

Apparently in ancient biblical times landowners would become so zealous to make a profit from their hard work that they would strip their vineyards bare, they would gather not only the grapes of the vine, but the ones that had fallen to the ground as well.  Whatever could be used to make the wine that sold at market and brought wealth and security to the landowner’s family.

Actually, come to think of it, this just sounds like good business.  The whole point of laboring all throughout the growing season is to bring in a harvest that will generate a profit, after all.  Landowners don’t go into business, whether in the vineyard or in real estate, to just get by.  They work, and often they work very hard, in order to turn a profit. To do well for themselves and their families.  In fact, not just land owners, but all kinds of business owners, work under a set of governing assumptions about the way the market works.  Assumptions like the idea that supply and demand are the best way of determining the value of a good. There’s nothing terribly Machiavellian about that idea, it’s just business as usual.

That’s what makes this law, buried in the book of Leviticus, so provocative to me. It seems to suggest that there’s something flawed, something wrong with some of the most basic structures that undergird our ways of interacting with one another.

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There’s something poetic about the way this law is stated: “you shall not reap to the very edges of your field… you shall not strip your vineyard bare.”  It paints a picture.  Sometimes I go apple picking in the fall, around October, so I can bake some real homemade apple pies. If I go late in the season, I can see that the trees have already been picked over. The low hanging fruit has already been harvested, and now all that’s left are the hard-to-reach apples, or the ones that have fallen on the ground and already begun to rot just a little.

Leviticus imagines a very different kind of operation, one in which not only the easy money, but the marginal profit has been squeezed down to the very last penny.  If a good has any value at all in the free market, then it belongs to the owner who is entitled and even expected to strive to get the highest price she can; even when the good, the item being sold, is something required for life. Something like food, or housing.

If you’ve been at Community Dinners, then you’ve seen this Levitical law at work.  We serve food from the second harvest — leftover bread from Panera, vegetables from the Greater Chicago Food Depository that was sourced from larger food distributors and producers. In the summer, we send volunteers out to the Logan Square Farmers’ Market to gather the gleanings of that harvest for the poor and the alien in our land. There is a generosity of spirit and a beautiful kind of neighborly friendship that has developed between Pat and Dorothea Kuhlman and the farmers who wait for them each Sunday, knowing that the leftovers that didn’t sell will still provide for people who need what the land produces, whether they can afford it or not. There is a law at work, deeper than supply and demand, that these landowners and laborers remember: that we belong to each other, that we rise and fall side by side, that we’re all in this together.

1902752_1405070206413799_1846997853_nA few months ago I got a call from Terry, one of the guys who volunteers regularly at the Community Dinners, some of you know him pretty well.  He lives in the neighborhood, he helps source some of the food we serve and he’s handy in the kitchen.  He’s also fighting the mass evictions going on in his building and in scores of other buildings in the blocks surrounding his home.  A handful of housing developers, and one in particular, are buying up properties in Logan Square, issuing 30-day notices to residents — many of whom have lived there for decades with their families — and flipping the units.  Cosmetic upgrades: a new refrigerator and some marble counter tops, and then the rent goes up a few hundred dollars a month, or it doubles. The point being, the people, the families, our neighbors are gone. Where they go, who knows? Certainly not into the hundreds of boarded up units of public housing sitting vacant at Lathrop Homes for the last fifteen years.

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Terry wanted to know if the churches could help.  You see, there’s a story going around the neighborhood about a handful of congregations who leave their buildings each spring to occupy the public square and demand an end to business as usual in our homes, in our streets, throughout our government and all of society. They wave palms and carry signs that read “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” and “en los ohos de Dios, todos somos iguales.”  There’s a story that these churches marched through the ghost town at Lathrop Homes in the dead of winter, knocking on doors to ask if there was room for Mary and Joseph to come in from the cold.  Terry’d heard that story, and he wondered what it meant for people like him, neighbors fighting to keep their homes in the face of landowners reaping to the very margin and stripping the streets of Logan Square bare of any trace of affordable housing.

I wonder too.

Not every injustice is illegal, in fact most injustices have been made legal by laws that support a vision for our life together as human beings that privileges power over people, money over mercy.  The fact that a thing is legal, that it can be done, doesn’t mean that it should be done.  But we get confused.  Isn’t that what we were all taught to be?  Good, hard-working, law-abiding citizens.  Even when the laws seem stacked against us, when they tell us where we can live or who we can love; even when they seem to strip us of the things we need for life — food to eat, a warm home, a living wage, affordable healthcare.

When Jesus says, “You have heard it said, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’” he’s talking about the law.  The saying comes from a legal principle of the Roman empire that lives on in our legal codes today. We hear it in sayings like, “let the punishment fit the crime.” It is the kind of law that fits well in an economy of scarcity, in a worldview ruled by fear that there isn’t enough and that we must each fight our whole lives long to get what we can, and to keep it.

By contrast, Jesus says, “if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you” (Matt. 5:41-42). It is a divine logic, rooted not in compensation and proportional retaliation, but in compassion and solidarity.  Jesus, drawing on the wisdom of his Jewish heritage paraphrases the book of Leviticus, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’” Then he expands upon the law,  “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” These are the kinds of laws that fit well in an economy of grace, in a worldview ruled by the assurance that there is already always enough and that we can trust that the care we provide to others will also be provided to us.

Two very different economies — the economy of scarcity and the economy of grace.  Two different sets of laws.  Echoes of last week’s reading from Deuteronomy, “choose life, that you and your descendants may live,” (Deut. 30:19) and Jesus, who has been delivering this sermon on the mount for weeks now, “do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” (Matt. 5:17)

There is a movement building in Logan Square to protect our neighbors, to stop the mass evictions, to call upon our elected officials to support us in this cause, and to recognize that land and housing are more than just a commodity to be bought and sold in the marketplace for whatever value the law of supply and demand dictates. To recognize that every good needed for life must be treated as a right for the poor and the strangers among us. It is a movement toward an economy of grace, and we’ve been called, literally, by a neighbor who saw us marching out in the streets and wondered if we meant it.

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, April 28, 2013: Fifth Sunday ofEaster

Texts:  Acts 11:1-18  +  Psalm 148  +  Revelation 21:1-6  +  John 13:31-35

Apostles dream, and then they act.

This passage from Acts stirred up some lively debate among the pastors with whom I gather each Tuesday morning to study the scriptures in preparation for preaching.  There was some concern that the story is too bizarre, too removed in its images and symbols to be easily understood by today’s readers.  In a few short verses we hear words like “uncircumcised,” “trance,” “beasts of prey,” “kill and eat.” and “profane.”  It’s a lot of language to have to explain, and no one wants a sermon that sounds like a lecture.

Others were quick to point out how important this passage has been for Christians of every time and place for understanding how the early church opened itself up to people and communities that had previously been excluded.  It’s a text worth teaching, precisely because of humanity’s propensity for provincialism.  Our inclination to imagine that God’s beloved community is composed of people just like us.

As I was weighing the merits of these two perspectives, I learned that there were plans underway for a rally in Logan Square this weekend by a group of Christians, organized by the Illinois Family Institute, protesting marriage equality for same-gender couples on biblical grounds and I decided there is no better time to dive into the rich, if unfamiliar, world of Acts 11.

The first words in need of explanation are the distinction between the believers who were in Jerusalem and the Gentiles.  The “believers in Jerusalem” were the early church, the disciples who had known and followed Jesus.  They were mainly Jewish people living in Jerusalem, still relating to the Temple and the worship that went on there.  They were circumcised as a matter of religious law hearkening back to the covenant God made with Abraham, and which continues to this day in observant Jewish families.  Though they had experienced the liberating, life-giving power of Jesus in their own lives, they still seemed to understand the significance of his life, death and resurrection as being for them, and for people like them.

The Gentiles were people not like them.  The Gentiles were people who were definitionally unclean.  The books of Moses, the Torah, the Hebrew scriptures, were filled with clear laws about how faithful people were to keep themselves separated from people not of the faith; how clean people were to keep themselves separated from unclean people; how the circumcised were to keep themselves from the uncircumcised.  This is the religious divide lurking behind the line, “so when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying ‘why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”  We might translate their question “why did you break the laws of our faith by associating with people who are not like us?”

By way of explaining himself, Peter relates to them a vision that came to him while he was praying in the city of Joppa.  Joppa was the same city from which the prophet Jonah (famous for his journey in the belly of the whale) was sent out to the wicked people of Nineveh.  This historical detail, while minor, establishes an important resonance for the present story: just as God showed care and concern for the people of Nineveh, people far from the nation of Israel, and sent them a prophet  — even a prophet who did not want to go — to bring them back into relationship with their Creator, so God is acting now and always to reach out to people and places imagined to be beyond God’s care and concern to include them in God’s beloved community.

So, while praying in Joppa, Peter receives a vision in which “something like a large sheet was coming down from heaven.”  In this sheet are “four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air.”  In other words, this sheet from heaven is filled with all sorts of things that Hebrew scripture called unclean according to Levitical law.

Chapter 11 of the book of Leviticus is where we find detailed instructions about what foods are clean and unclean.  It begins,

Speak to the people of Israel, saying: … Any animal that has divided hoofs and is cleft-footed and chews the cud — such you may eat. (Lev. 11:2-3)… Everything in the waters that has fins and scales, whether in the seas or in the streams, such you may eat (Lev. 11:9)… These you shall regard as detestable among the birds. They shall not be eaten; they are an abomination: the eagle, the vulture, the osprey, the buzzard, the kite of any kind; every raven of any kind; the ostrich, the nighthawk, the sea gull, the hawk of any kind (Lev. 11:13-16)…”  These are unclean for you among the creatures that swarm upon the earth: the weasel, the mouse, the great lizard according to its kind, the gecko, the land crocodile, the lizard, the sand lizard, and the chameleon. (Lev. 11:29)

And so on.  You get the idea.  These things are unclean, even an abomination, and are not to be touched, certainly not to be consumed, to allowed entrance into the body.

But this is not all that the book of Leviticus calls unclean or an abomination. Another section of the book of Leviticus detailing what is clean and what is not, often referred to as the holiness code, is found in chapters 17-26.  These are the chapters where we read that “you shall not eat the blood of any creature, for the life of every creature is its blood; whoever eats it shall be cut off.” (Lev. 17:14)  We also read, “You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard.  You shall not make any gashes on your flesh for the dead or tattoo any marks upon you” (Lev. 19:28); and “if a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death” (Lev. 20:10); and “you shall not lie with a male as with a woman, it is an abomination” (Lev. 18:22).

So Peter, while praying in Joppa, has seen a vision in which all manner of abominable beasts are brought before him, and Peter is instructed to make a meal of them.  To take that which was considered unclean, and to allow it to enter his body.  He replies, “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” (Acts 11:8)  But the voice from heaven insists in what must be considered the heart of this passage, “what God has made clean, you must not call profane.” (Acts 11:9)

What God has made clean, you must not call profane.

This happens three times, the same number of times Peter had previously denied Jesus, the same number of times Jesus requested that Peter feed his sheep and tend to his lambs, as if to say that these creatures too, like the sheep and the lambs, like the wicked people of Nineveh, are cared for by the good shepherd.

And then, just as he is coming out of this trance, a group of Gentiles, the uncircumcised, the unclean, arrive at the house where Peter was praying and invite him to the home of Cornelius, a Gentile, uncircumcised, unclean and the Holy Spirit moves in Peter, telling him to go with these men anyways.  So he goes, and he breaks the laws of Leviticus, and he enters the home of a Gentile, and he begins to preach to that household and the Holy Spirit falls on those outsiders just as it had on Peter and all the disciples on the first day of Pentecost.

Seeing this evidence of God’s presence among people categorically dismissed as unclean, Peter comes to a new realization, “if God gave them the same gift that [God] gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” (Acts 11:17)

If God gave them the same gift that God have us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?

Brothers and sisters, can you imagine what thrilling and terrifying times these must have been for the early church?  For these people, who understood themselves to be good, law-abiding, upright, and clean?  For these people, who understood themselves as inheritors of a covenant with God?  Can you imagine what it must have been like for the early church in Jerusalem to get this report from Peter, their leader, that God in Christ Jesus was rewriting the rules.  That the outsiders were welcome in.  That the insiders were being sent out.  That the clean and the unclean, the sacred and the profane, were becoming indistinguishable from each other?

I would have expected that they would have said something like, “but the Bible says…” or “but Torah says…”  God knows we hear plenty of that these days, as people march down our streets with signs quoting passages from Leviticus, presuming to tell us whom God hates. But this morning’s story from Acts tells us that God loves those whom the world hates.  God makes clean those whom the world calls dirty.  God welcomes in those the world shuts out.

And, what God has made clean, we must not call profane.

And, if God gave them the same gift God gave us, who are we to hinder God?

But the people in Jerusalem, the early church, did not say, “but the Bible says… ” or “but Torah says…”  Instead, they perceived that God was doing a new thing.  That the God who is revealed in scripture is not bound to scripture, but instead the other way around.  That scripture reveals over and over again a God who refuses to be bound to our prejudices, refuses to be defeated by our failures, refuses to be broken like our promises.  Our scriptures reveal a God who is willing to rewrite scripture in order to get all of God’s beloved creation back into relationship with God and with one another.  The church in Jerusalem says, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.” (Acts 11:18)

What a great story for us to inherit!  A story that says, “yes, I know what the Bible says, but I’m saying a new thing!”  “See, I am making all things new!  Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” (Rev. 21:5)  Into a world filled with laws that divide us, one from another; into a world filled with faiths that struggle to find harmony between themselves;  into a world filled with people, longing to be free, to come home, to belong, God establishes a new commandment, a new law, a new righteousness for those who are called children of God.

Right here in Logan Square, just blocks away from where we are now worshipping, people gathered this weekend to make a public witness to their faith.  Some carried signs quoting Leviticus and its laws, but my favorites were carried by those who were marching in support of marriage equality for same-gender couples, like the placard that read, “John 13:34-35”

Marriage Equality Rally in Logan Square

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you should also love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

This is what God’s apostles dream.  This is how God’s apostles act.

Amen.

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