Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, March 12, 2017: Second Sunday in Lent

Texts: Genesis 12:1-4a  +  Psalm 121  +  Romans 4:1-5, 13-17  +  John 3:1-17

 

Pádraig

Pádraig Ó Tuama

“You are the place I stand on the day when my feet are sore.” That’s the English translation for an old Irish saying I recently heard on an episode of “OnBeing,” offered by Pádraig Ó Tuama — poet, theologian, and leader of the Corrymeela community in Northern Ireland. Founded in the 1960s to promote peace and reconciliation during “the Troubles,” that period of violent ethnic and religious conflict in Ireland, today Corrymeela continues to welcome guests from around the world who long for reconciliation with neighbors and fellow citizens in moments when such peace seems hopelessly naïve; moments like the one so many of us feel we ourselves are trapped inside as a nation, when it’s not just our feet that are sore from so many marches, but our hearts and our souls.

“You are the place I stand on the day when my feet are sore.” It’s awfully romantic, don’t you think? The kind of sentiment that seems more at home in a do-it-yourself wedding vow than in a sermon on the doctrine of salvation. But let me ask you this: what do you think a sermon on the doctrine of salvation ought to sound like? Should it be terribly complicated? Should there be lots of Greek and Hebrew words rendered into alternate English translations? Should there be rules, clearly laid out; structures of belief to be agreed with (or not)? What were you taught about “salvation,” and how, and who taught you? Is it the reward for a life well lived? Is it conditional, reserved for only a few? Is it a gift bestowed on the righteous, or the product of their efforts? Are there people who are most certainly saved? Are there people who most certainly are not?

 

80cde58671743589089ee6d5e4140419

Study for “Nicodemus Visiting Jesus” by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1899)

 

These questions lead us down late-night roads with no lamp posts. If we follow them too far, we can get lost in the dark and may struggle to find our way back. That seems to have been the case with Nicodemus, who came to Jesus by night with questions about the new life that comes by water and the spirit in the reign of God. He was a religious person who’d given plenty of thought to questions of who was chosen, who was saved, and what that all meant. Jesus, however, wanted to talk instead about love.

“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that God gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:14-17)

It’s not hard to see how we worked our way back around to legalism all over again. It’s right there in the text, “so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” It seems clear: the key to eternal life is belief in Jesus. Slow down though, and keep asking those questions. What is belief? And, what is eternal life? And, if God is not interested in condemning the world, then why such an oddly specific criterion for salvation as belief in a pretty unbelievable story?

Here’s the prerequisite Greek word study, in case that happened to be on your checklist earlier. When we think about salvation, we often get stuck worrying about what we have to believe in order to be saved — because of this very verse and how it’s been explained. But the verb in Greek which we translate into “believe” in English doesn’t mean “to give credence to a belief or an idea.” Instead, it’s the verb form of the noun (pistis) which means, “faith.” English doesn’t have a verb form of the noun “faith.” We can either say “have faith” — which is a problem because it implies that faith is an object we can possess — or we have to find another verb that comes close to the idea of “faith-ing.” So we’ve said “believe,” though we might just as well have said, “trust.”

It makes more sense when you imagine the kind of conversation in which one person might say to another in a moment of tension, or decision, “I need you to believe in me.” What are they saying? That they need you to agree that they exist? Or that they need you to trust them, to remember something about your shared past, your history, your relationship.

This is what Jesus finally tells Nicodemus, who has gotten lost in the dark, in his questions about being “born again.” Jesus points to the evidence of a loving God, a God who is trustworthy, a God who brought the people through the wilderness, a God who stayed faithful through the exodus and the exile, a God who brought them into a new land and worked with them as they fell into each and every trap that comes with the the problem of being a nation. Salvation is not our reward for having the right answers to the wrong questions. Salvation is God’s work, God’s nature, God’s love.

Why doesn’t that ever feel like enough of an answer? Why do we insist on turning God’s love into a prize rather than accepting it as a gift, a birthright even? How would our lives change if we knew in every cell of our bodies that God is for us? That God longs to be the place we stand on the days when our feet are sore, so much so that God created all the soil and all the earth, so that there is no place we can go where we are not standing in God’s presence. Even when God sends us out from the places we have called home, even when God sets before us challenges that call us into moments and relationships that feel alienating. We are always standing in the loving presence of God.

If we are always already in the presence of God, and we believe — we trust — that God’s love for us is real and true, then what else do we need to experience this thing Jesus calls “eternal life”? What is missing from this picture that is so bad it has us all longing for salvation?

The question the Irish had to face wasn’t whether or not God could love the Catholics and the Protestants. The question was, could they love each other? The question is always: can we love each other? Can the left love the center and the right? Can the winners love the losers, and vice versa. Can we love our enemies? Because, where there is no love, we might as well call it hell, wouldn’t you say?

So, as we continue the practice of holding silence after the sermon for reflections, both spoken and silent, I invite you to consider the following questions as starting points for a conversation with your own spirit that may last well beyond this morning’s worship. If you feel so led, you might offer a few words about where these questions are taking you this morning:

How has love saved you?

Or

How could love save us?

Standard
Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, March 16, 2014: Second Sunday in Lent

Texts:  Genesis 12:1-4a  +  Psalm 121  +  Romans 4:1-5,13-17  +  John 3:1-17

We finished our second session in a six-week series in Adult Education titled “Making Sense of the Cross” this morning, focusing today on how each of the four gospels presents the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection a little differently (or a lot) because of the particular confession of faith each author was trying to make in response to the needs of very different communities.

For example the gospel of Matthew, from which we’ve been reading since the beginning of Advent, was very likely written to a community of believers who were mostly Jewish in their background and therefore more familiar with the sacred texts of Hebrew scripture which we often call the Old Testament. We see evidence of this in the number of times that the author offers an explanation for powerful events from Jesus’ life by saying something like, “this has taken place, so that the scriptures of the prophets may be fulfilled” (Matt. 26:56).

This morning we move from Matthew’s gospel to the gospel of John, from which we’ll be reading through the rest of the Sundays in Lent until Palm Sunday.  The gospel of John was written about twenty years later than Matthew to a different community facing very different circumstances.  Like Matthew’s gospel, John is believed to have been written to a community of Jewish believers, but ones who had experienced significant conflict with the rest of the Jewish community, perhaps having been removed from the synagogue for their conviction that Jesus was the long awaited Messiah.

You can often hear in both gospels subtle or outright hostility toward people labeled “the Jews,” though we should understand in both cases that the author and the intended audience were also Jews, at least by birth, and would have been treated as such by the rest of the Roman-occupied world.  The anger and conflict we hear behind the words of both gospels are less like the violent forms of anti-Semitism that led to pogroms across Europe and eventually the horrors of the Second World War (though passages from these scriptures were used to fuel those campaigns), and more like the kinds of conflicts that tear churches apart — conflict between family members who know each other only too well.

Nicodemus helping to take down Jesus' body from the cross, Michelangelo Pieta.

Nicodemus helping to take down Jesus’ body from the cross, Michelangelo Pieta.

So this morning we are introduced to a character with a name, Nicodemus, who is identified as “a leader of the Jews,” and you can almost hear the casting notes to the director of this drama: “pick someone to play this part who is a little too full of himself, make sure to dress him in fine robes and give him a prop — maybe glasses — to indicate his education. It will make his ignorance all the funnier.”

Nicodemus comes to Jesus under the cover of night, confessing that Jesus’ acts of power of signs of God’s presence and trying to understand what this means.  Jesus responds to his honest curiosity with a cryptic statement, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (John 3:3).

If any of you come from one of the many “born again” traditions of Christianity, then this is probably a familiar passage of scripture.  Over the centuries it has been used to justify the practice of adult baptism as a response to Nicodemus’ question, “how can anyone be born after having grown old?” (3:4)  Our response as Lutherans to our sisters and brothers who ask, “have you been born again?” has never been very satisfying to them, since we understand the process somewhat differently.  We say, along with Martin Luther, “yes, I’m born again every morning as I rise to wash my face and remember that I was baptized.”  Our practice, and the theology that arises from it, is rooted less in Nicodemus’ question and more in Jesus’ answer: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” (3:5).

This conflict between Christians over who to baptize, how to baptize, and what age to baptize has, over the centuries, gotten quite heated.  In this modern day of laissez-faire religion and spirituality, in which individual choice and preference are valued above all else, it can be hard to understand that in previous times and, in some places, to this day there is deep disagreement over the meaning and practice of baptism — so deep that some Christians refuse to recognize each other as such if their baptism was not performed in the ways each considers acceptable.  This, ironically, is exactly the kind of intra-religious conflict that we overhear going on in Matthew and John’s gospels when they speak disparagingly of “the Jews.”  It is more like the way you might hear some Christians talking about others as “bible-bangers” or “fundamentalists.”

But what is even more ironic is that this kind of intra-religious conflict reveals a tendency in us all to lose sight of what Jesus is actually trying to communicate, which is that God is not in the business of taking sides in our self-righteousness projects. Rather, in Christ Jesus, God is showing us God’s love for the whole world, those we agree with and those we disagree with, our friends and our enemies, the “good” and the “evil.” All of us. Everyone.

This is the point Paul is making in his letter to the Romans.

If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void (Rom. 4:14).

In other words, when we turn our faith in God into a set of rules and practices about God that must be followed in order to get to God, then we have taken faith — which we might also call loving-trust or loving-reliance — out of the picture altogether and have turned grace into a scorecard.

This is what Jesus tells Nicodemus, who is still trying to figure how to be born from above. “No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man” (John 3:13).  No one gets themselves into heaven. Faith is not a competition sport. Or a New Year’s resolution. Or a fitness routine. Or a self-help book. Or a retreat. Faith is not something that practice perfects. “No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.”

Paul puts it this way,

But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness (Rom. 4:5).

We might put it like this:  God is not looking for evidence that you get it right, or even that you get it at all.  Remember that fruit from the Tree of Knowledge?  The food that left us thinking we knew the difference between good and evil?  The one God told us to stay away from?  Yeah, we’re back to that.  We get caught in the trap of thinking we know who’s right and who’s wrong, who’s good and who’s evil.  We get stuck in our fights between the good Christians and the bad ones. We start labeling one another “the fundamentalists,” “the conservatives,” “the old guard,” “the establishment,” just like Matthew and John called their sisters and brothers, “the Jews.”

Paul suggests that even the act of sorting out who has the right set of beliefs can itself become a kind of works righteousness. “Abraham believed God,” — not Abraham believed in God, but “Abraham believed God.”  It makes all the difference.  It is the difference between “Abraham held the right set of thoughts and ideas” and “Abraham trusted that God is faithful” — “and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (Rom. 4:3).

And all this talk of Abraham begins with a story that calls each of our allegiances to religion, nation, politics and land into question. God says to Abram (whose name has yet to be changed), “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing” (Gen. 12:1).

The church, the nations that have emerged in the shadow of the church, and we ourselves have often been more interested in the second part of that story, the idea that we belong to a great nation — be that religious or secular — and that we exist as a blessing for others, a slippery slope that too often has led to all kinds of colonial disasters.  But what about the first part of that story, the deep faith that enabled Abraham to leave everyone and everything he knew behind: his country, his family, his good name.  Stripped down, almost as naked as Adam and Eve in the garden, left with only his trust that God was for him and would not forsake him.

Are we ready to take that trip? Honestly, I doubt it.  Like Nicodemus, we see the power of God at work in Jesus, but we trust in our own abilities, our own beliefs, to get us closer to God. Thankfully, God is taking a trip as well, crossing every barrier that divides heaven and earth to be with us, to be for us. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17).

Amen.

Standard
Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, June 23, 2013: Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: 1 Kings 19:1-15a  +  Psalms 42 & 43  +  Galatians 3:23-29  +  Luke 8:26-39

amos-mlkThroughout the summer we’ve been enrolled in what I’ve been calling “A School for Prophets,” following the stories from Hebrew scripture of the prophets of Israel.  Within this series, for the last few weeks, we’ve been focusing specifically on the prophet Elijah, who was called to speak out against the idolatry of Israel’s king, Ahab, and his wife, Jezebel.  We’ve remembered the story of the widow of Zarephath, who fed Elijah out of her meager pantry.  We’ve witnessed as Elijah called down fire on the prophets of Baal.  We heard with horror how Jezebel engineered a plot to steal Naboth’s birthright. Throughout, we’ve been challenged to understand that prophesy is less a form of fortune-telling, and more a vocation of truth-telling, a vocation that is not confined to the past, but is called for in every age.

If this summer School for Prophets had a textbook, something other than the bible, something more like those heavy hardbound chapter books we got back in high school and lugged around in backpacks, then today’s lesson would be laid out in a single page, followed by two case studies or examples.  The chapter would be titled something like, “The Freedom of a Prophet.”

The lesson, in its simplest form, comes not from Hebrew scripture, but from Paul’s letter to the Galatians.  He is writing to a community of people who have begun to turn away from his teaching, who have begun to impose a kind of legalism onto the faith they’d received, making their religion into an exercise in following the right rules rather than cultivating and maintaining relationships.

“Now before faith came,” he writes, “we were imprisoned and guarded under the law.”  In the narrowest sense, the law Paul is referring to is not Roman law, but Jewish law.  It seems that the people who have come around since he left Galatia have been teaching a different gospel.  Paul had taught that we are all justified, or made right with God, through faith — which is to say, through a living, loving, trusting, dynamic relationship.  Those who came after Paul were teaching that in order to be right with God, to be justified, the people needed to follow a set of rules and practices connected with Jewish faith and life.

Remember that Paul was speaking as a Jew to and among other Jews.  So, in his context, he was experiencing a reformation of religious identity.  He was talking and teaching others about what it meant to be freed from slavish religious legalism, and to experience relationship with God as a source of liberation, not regulation.  If we wanted to draw parallels to our own day and time, rather than contrasting our religious experience with people from other religions, it would be more appropriate for us to look for examples within our own tradition, or even our own lives, where we have come to experience faith in God as a living, loving, trusting, dynamic relationship.

But, just as we think we’re beginning to understand what Paul is talking about.  Just when we’re beginning to think this religious liberation sounds pretty good, Paul continues,

“for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.  As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:27-28)

You and me, we live in an age of growing comfort with and acceptance of religious pluralism and multiculturalism.  So, to us, this passage may just sound like the preamble to a song from “Free to be You and Me.”  But try to hear these words with other ears, ears tuned to the dynamics of power, violence and abuse.

Instead of “there is no longer Jew or Greek,” try on “there is no longer American or Afghan;” or “there is no longer White or Black or Latino or Native or Asian or Arab.”  Even for those of us who embrace diversity and strive for something better than mere tolerance of difference, Paul’s words feel dangerous.  We don’t want our differences to be demolished.  We aren’t looking for one identity into which we can all be dropped, erasing all that makes each of us distinct.

Instead of “there is no longer slave or free,” try on “there is no longer undocumented or born-and-bred,” or “there is no longer hungry or well-fed,” or “there is no longer rich and poor.”  Now Paul’s rhetoric sounds not only foolish, but feeble.  What can he have meant?  In his day there quite clearly were citizens and there were slaves.  In our day there are quite clearly citizens and undocumented, people with papers and people without.  People with wealth, people with food, and people without.

Finally, he says, “there is no longer male and female.”  Here the pattern has been broken.  Paul has said Jew or Greek, slave or free; but now he says male and female.  This is an echo of the language we first heard in Genesis, when God sets out to create humanity saying,

“let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness… So God created humankind in God’s image, in the image of God did God create them; male and female God created them.” (Gen. 1:26-27)

Men and women are created in the image and likeness of God, but in Paul’s day and to this day, men and women both here in the United States and around the globe are not treated equally.  Whether we look at women’s pay, women’s education, women’s access to health, or rates of violence against women, it is clear that the world has not set its societies up to affirm what our scriptures tell us is true, that both men and women are created in the image and likeness of God.

Far from being some kind of proto-hippie love anthem on how we should all just be free, and get along, and enjoy our diversity, Paul has rejected a rules-based religion in favor of a relationship-centered faith in which we are called to live and act as though all the people with whom we are in very complicated relationships of power and privilege are integral to our own life, are a part of our own body.

This kind of living is a prophetic challenge to everything we’ve been taught about what it means to be free, because it means our freedom is not from other people, it is for other people.

So now, if we were reading our “School of Prophets” textbooks, we would come to the case studies, one from the gospel of Luke, the other from First Kings.  Both of these stories are incredibly rich, and deserving of a slow reading in a solid bible study, or a full sermon of their own.  I’m not going to be able to do either, so I’ll just make a plug here for another way you can delve into these texts.

Beginning next week, and running through the rest of the summer, there’s going to be a Sunday morning adult bible study on the prophets we’re covering in worship from 9am – 10am.  These bible studies are being led by Ray Pickett, Greg Singleton and Erika Dornfeld, each of whom brings a deep understanding of scripture and a unique perspective on how the vocation of the prophets is shared by each of us who, by baptism, has “put on Christ,” who himself inherited the mantle of the prophets.  I am looking forward to learning from all three of these teachers, and I hope you’ll make an effort to join me for at least a couple of these two week units on each of the prophets.

To return to the texts, I want to draw our attention to a feature that each text has in common: their endings.

In the gospel of Luke we hear the story of the Gerasene demoniac who has been chained up in a graveyard, possessed by demons who say their name is “Legion,” whom Jesus exorcises into a herd of swine that then run off a cliff and into the sea.  As I said, this story deserves a good long bible study.

But as the story comes to its conclusion, the Gerasenes, the people who had chained this demon-possessed man up in their graveyard have asked Jesus to leave them.  Jesus, by casting out their demons, has disrupted their social order.  They’d had a system for handling their demons, namely by scapegoating a man they kept chained up like a slave.  Now that he’d been set free, they were afraid.  Jesus does what they ask, and leaves them there on the far side of the sea, and the man he has healed begs to come with him.

But Jesus sends him away, saying, “return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you. So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.” (Luke 8:38-39)

Jesus may have freed this man of his demons, but he will not liberate him from his people.  Even though he will still be an outcast among the Gerasenes, though now for a different reason, Jesus does not invite this man to leave his community and withdraw to some better place among better people somewhere else.  Instead, liberated from death, he is sent back to proclaim a new world order.  Set free for, not from.

In the story we hear from First Kings, Elijah — like the Gersasene demoniac — is enduring a kind of living death.  He’s not chained up in a graveyard, but he is hiding in a cave from Queen Jezebel who has promised to see him dead within a day.

As Elijah is hiding out, away from the people God sent him to serve and to save, the word of the Lord comes to him, saying, “what are you doing here, Elijah?”  Elijah offers his complaint, essentially saying, “this prophetic work is hard work, it has not made me any friends, and I’m worried that I will lose my life.”  God tells Elijah to go stand on the mountaintop, the place where God had traditionally met God’s people, and then we hear all the ways that God had traditionally been manifest among the people — winds, earthquakes and fires.  But God was not present to Elijah in those ways.  Instead God was present in silence.

Again, God asks what Elijah is doing hiding out in a cave; and again, Elijah complains that this work is hard, and it has not made him many friends, and he is worried that he will lose his life.  But, does God carry him away from this danger and hardship to be with better people in some better place somewhere else.  No, instead God says, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus.”

Here, in the School for Prophets, I think we learn one of a prophet’s hardest lessons.  The prophet is called to live with, to love, to lead in a world that, frankly, didn’t ask for the word the prophets have been sent to deliver.  Paul’s radical relationships sounded a lot harder than rule-based religion, and people weren’t sure they wanted to stick with it.  The Gerasenes had figured out how to manage their demon problem, and keeping one guy chained up in a graveyard seemed like an acceptable price to pay for their relative freedom.

The prophetic word wasn’t welcome in Israel under Ahab and Jezebel, and it’s not really all that welcome here, in Logan Square and Humboldt Park, in Chicago, in the United States, among the nations.  Because the prophetic word is this: there is no escaping each other.  There is no freedom from each other.  There is no neighborhood you can live in that exempts you from the violence done in other communities.  There is no wall you can build that keeps one nation separated from another.  There is no trade agreement you can sign that can differentiate the humanity of one worker from another.  There is no getting away from each other.  We are all in this together.

Even in our churches, we sometimes come, huddling, like Elijah in his cave, stinging from the hurts of so much hard work out there in the world.  Hoping God will maybe show up this Sunday to say, “well, yes, that’s enough.  You can be done now.”  But God doesn’t do that, because somewhere there is still a widow in Zarephath running out of food, and somewhere there is still a man chained up in a graveyard, longing to be free.

So, instead of giving us a way out, God gives us each other, a company of prophets.  Freed, not from the world, but for the world.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Standard