Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, July 2, 2017: Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Text: Romans 6:12-23

There is a story you already know that is the story you are always longing to hear.

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Does that seem possible? If you let your mind search through the cabinet drawers of your heart and your memory, is there a story there you are always longing to hear? Is it a story from your childhood, one of the ones adults placed in your hands filled with archetypes of heroes and metaphors for the lives you could only imagine? Is it a bit of family lore, a founding myth that explains why your people are the way they are? Is it to be found threaded into all the novels and movies and television shows that are streaming into our homes? Is there a story behind all the stories?

There is a story you already know that is the story you are always longing to hear.

What kind of story must it be for you to know it, and for me to know that you know it? What aspect of human existence is broad enough that it can bridge all the differences that divide us? What feature of human life is so universal that a single story about this theme can speak to us all, while still respecting our essential differences?

The story you know, the story you long to hear, is the story of freedom.

Does that seem right? What are our coming-of-age movies — The Breakfast Club, Lean on Me, Real Women Have Curves, heck, even 13 Going on 30 — if not the stories of young people running hard into the predetermined limits of adulthood and striving to achieve a kind of freedom of self-determination at the front end of a long life defined by other people’s expectations for them?

Freedom is the heartbeat of so many other types of stories. In love stories it is the freedom to be ourselves while joining with another. In mysteries it is wed to the theme of truth which is always breaking free of attempts to hide it. In war stories, freedom is the reason offered first for why people are willing to die. In our greatest epics, the stories of our nations, freedom is promise that drives people to leave their homes, to sacrifice their health, to work harder than they’ve ever worked before, to risk their lives and even to give them up, for the hope of a freedom they may never see.

In a version of the world that existed before the internet, or the radio, or even the printing press, our stories were still freedom stories — passed down by memory from one generation to the next. In the first century, just decades after the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, the apostle Paul could count on his audience having access to these oral traditions, to a common library of shared stories. Among these stories, there was one that perfectly captured their experience of life, that brought together the reality of oppression with the promise of liberation. That story was the story of the exodus of the Hebrew people from slavery under Pharaoh to the promised land of freedom.

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For thousands of years we have been telling that story. In fact, it was already ancient by the time John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness calling people out of the city to repent and be baptized. That baptism was a sign of the original passage through water that liberated the Hebrews from bondage in Egypt. Those waters were the starting point for the ministry of Jesus, and that ministry — a life lived freely for others in defiance of empire, which led to the cross but ended with the resurrection — is the defining moment in all of history for Paul’s message to the church in Rome.

For Paul the story of Jesus makes no sense without the story of the exodus. They are of a piece. The God who brought God’s people through the Red Sea and made them free is the God who claims all people as God’s own people through the waters of baptism and liberates them from the power of death which continues to do its best to choke the life out of the world, and each of us as well.

And, just as it took the Israelites generations of wandering in the wilderness to learn to live like free people instead of slaves, so we also are learning to live in the manner of people saved by grace and not by our own slavish commitment to the false idols of this world. The Israelites were free of Pharaoh the moment they set foot on dry land and the waters crashed in on Pharaoh’s armies, but still they looked back at the enticements of their former slavery with longing and grumbled in the desert. So, Paul acknowledges, though we too are already free, having been baptized into Christ, we also struggle to live fully into the reality of that freedom. We, too, look at the world through the logic of our former captivity and long for its rewards — even when we know that those rewards bring us no closer to the freedom we desire, and that they may even hasten our death!

When you tell the story of your life, what is the freedom you long for? When you search your calendar or your credit card statement, what is the evidence you find of your quest for that freedom? Is the manner in which you spend your life reflective of the freedom that is your birthright, or does it show evidence of the habits that distract you from the hard work of liberation?

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About a week ago I got to meet Jamie Kalven, an award-winning journalist and human rights activist from the South Side of Chicago who has chronicled the deep legacy of police abuses and unchecked power in the city of Chicago and broke the story on the cover-up of the killing of Laquan McDonald. As he spoke to the group of clergy I was with, he recounted to us the history of freedom movements in repressive states, what he called “glaciated totalitarianism.” In such places, like Czechoslovakia under communism or South Africa under apartheid, freedom fighters and dissidents operated on what he called the “as if” principle, asking themselves, “what would happen if we behaved as if we were neighbors?” when, politically, everything was set up to keep that from happening.

The effect he described was the creation of new power. Rather than cowering in fear of repressive power, or sacrificing their vision in order to be granted a small apportionment of corrupt power, people who behaved “as if” their future citizenship had already been secured generated a new kind of power that caught hold of the imaginations of their fellow citizens and launched movements that led to lasting change.

What would happen in your life, in our life together, if we acted “as if” we were already free of the forces that oppress us, of the stories that overwrite us with a vision for our lives that is not our own?

There is a story you already know that is the story you are always longing to hear. If you were to live your life as if that story is true, what would have to change? What do you think? Shall we live “as if” …

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, August 21, 2016: Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Isaiah 58:9b-14  +  Psalm 103:1-8  +  Hebrews 12:18-29  +  Luke 13:10-17

Well, he told them he had come to bring fire to the earth; to bring division, not peace. Now it was time to make good on his campaign promises and the opportunity came soon afterward, as he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. When we read that Jesus was teaching on the sabbath I suspect we hear that word as a day of the week, as if Luke’s gospel is simply saying “one Saturday Jesus was teaching in the synagogue,” but it’s much more than that.

This story begins with the detail that Jesus was teaching in the synagogue on the sabbath, not so that we will observe that Jesus went to church on the weekend like we do, not so that we will remark that he was a popular speaker who booked great gigs on the preaching circuit, because we know that Jesus was teaching and preaching and healing all the time, wherever he went on whatever day it happened to be. When Jesus healed a boy seized by spirits, Luke’s gospel doesn’t mention the day of the week. When Jesus healed Jairus’ daughter and the hemorrhaging woman, no one remarks on what day of the week it is. When Jesus casts the legion of demons out of the man chained up in the country of the Gerasenes no one bothers to record on which day that miracle took place. So the framing of this story with the fact that it took place in the synagogue on the sabbath matters. Without that detail, the rest of the story doesn’t make sense.

To begin by saying that Jesus was teaching in the synagogue on the sabbath is to begin by reminding us that the God shown in Jesus is a covenant-making, promise-keeping God. That God is faithful. To begin by saying that Jesus was teaching in the synagogue on the sabbath is to remind us how the sabbath came to be. In the word “sabbath,” we hear the echoes of Israel’s liberation from the slavery of Egypt and the covenant made with the people, the giving of the law and the Ten Commandments with the sabbath as the sign of that covenant.

The Third Commandment

When we hear the word “sabbath” we’re supposed to remember all of this and more. Those of us who were raised on Luther’s Small Catechism hear his brief explanation of the Third Commandment (“Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy”) explained as meaning that “We are to fear and love God, so that we do not despise preaching or God’s word, but instead keep that word holy and gladly hear and learn it.” Of course, Luther had much more to say about the sabbath — as he had much more to say about practically everything. In Luther’s Large Catechism, he offers a much richer reflection on the ethical importance of the Third Commandment:

“We do not observe holy days for the sake of intelligent and well-informed Christians, for they have no need of them. We observe them, first, because our bodies need them. Nature teaches and demands that the common people — menservants and maidservants who have gone about their work or trade all week long — should also retire for a day to rest and be refreshed. Second and most important, we observe them so that people will have time and opportunity on such days of rest, which otherwise would not be available, to attend worship services, that is, so that they may assemble to hear and discuss God’s Word and then to offer praise, song, and prayer to God.”

Luther says that we observe the sabbath, not for the sake of intelligent and well-informed Christians, but because our bodies need it. There is a whole other sermon to be preached right at this point about the connection between the sabbath and the labor movement, and the long, proud history of working people facing all kinds of opposition to preserve for themselves and for their children and neighbors the right to rest. Because Labor Day is only two weeks away and because we will once again have a speaker with us from Arise Chicago, a faith-based labor justice organization, I will move on from that point for now, but I’m sure we can all hear the call to action.

Instead, let’s hold on to Luther’s assertion that the sabbath is intended first and foremost for our bodies’ rest and return to the scene in Luke’s gospel where Jesus is teaching in the synagogue on the sabbath, where a crowd has gathered to hear him speak. Keep in mind that Jesus is not teaching from a pulpit and the crowd is not seated in chairs or pews. Jesus may, in fact, have been seated. The crowd may have been standing around him or in front of him. It would be hard to see past the first row of faces, to know who was in the room, particularly if you were in the back, or if you were short, or if you were hunched over as one of the women was who’d been afflicted for eighteen years.

Jesus does see her, though. He sees the curve of her spine, the way it takes a great effort for her to walk. He sees the arch in her neck that makes even the simple act of looking up from the ground a painful act of resistance. He sees her body’s hard labor, its bondage to a condition that makes leaving her home a great ordeal. When I read about this woman, I think of our sister, Betty Feilinger, who is home this morning because of sciatica that has afflicted her for the last few years. Betty, who for most of her life enjoyed walking a few miles every day all around Logan Square, but has had difficulty leaving her house since her most recent surgery. How lonely it must be to feel so cut off from the people around you by a physical ailment over which you have no control. I believe Jesus saw that as well.

Now comes the challenge, the dramatic tension in the story. The crowd that has come to hear Jesus speak has heard of his miraculous healings elsewhere, and we who have read Luke’s gospel to this point know that he has the power to free her from the spirit that has bent her over. The only thing stopping him is the body of law that has grown up around the practice of keeping the sabbath. As a sign of the covenant between God and God’s people, the people have developed a complex set of customs and regulations for ensuring that no labor takes place on the sabbath, rules that prevent a farmer from farming, a fisher from fishing, and a healer from healing. Rules that go so far as to regulate that one’s oxen and donkeys ought to be untied so as to allow them to experience rest as well. So, in this moment, will Jesus show faithfulness to the law or to this “daughter of Abraham,” this woman who was also a part of the covenant community established by God’s word.

We know how the story ends, but let’s linger for just a little while longer in the space between the moment when Jesus first sees the woman bent low and the decision to call her over and set her free. That moment of opposition, between what Jesus had been taught to do and what he had been called to do. Because we confess that Jesus is Lord, that the Christ who comes to save is the visible face of the invisible God, it is hard to imagine that there was any gap between seeing and acting. After all, this is the same Jesus who berated the crowd by asking them, “Why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” Now the moment is upon him. Where does he find the courage to act, to do something new, to claim the authority to keep the spirit of the law by disobeying the letter of the law?

I think it was by knowing the stories and the histories, by claiming the people’s customs and traditions that he found the strength and inspiration to challenge and reform them. It was because he knew that Moses confronted Pharaoh and led the people through Red Sea on their way to freedom, because he knew that Joshua marched around the walls of Jericho until God brought them tumbling down, because he knew the stories of God’s faithfulness to God’s people, shown through the empowered and empowering acts of God’s prophets in every age. Jesus was a descendant of those heroes, women and men, who by faith saw the distance between the way things are and the way they ought to be, and who braved the leap of faith each one of us must make when we look out at the world today and wonder if we, too, are descendants of God’s holy people. If we, too, are people of the covenant.

We are all this, and more. As people marked by the covenant made with us in baptism, we make the absurd claim that we are connected not by bonds of blood but by bonds of water. We claim that we are living members of the body of Christ, that we have those eyes and those ears, that we are those hands and those feet, that our mouths are filled with words that flow from the same source as the words that flowed from Jesus’ own mouth when he looked at the woman the world had overlooked and said, “you are set free” (Lk 13:12).

We are constantly living in the moment between seeing this woman and calling out to her. There are always customs and regulations and laws, traditions cultivated to serve and protect us, which over time have come to choke and restrain us. In the face of such great opposition, we must remember our heritage. We are people marked by God’s promises, blessed with bodies that God made and God loves. We are destined for liberation, not bondage. Because God has shown such faithfulness to us, we are already free. How shall we use our freedom? Who shall we stand beside? How will our lives sing with the praise of those have known what it is to be laid low, but have also tasted the power of God to lift us up?

Together, with all God’s people, leaving no one behind. That is how. We face the opposition, which is simply another way of saying “the distance between what is and what is to come,” together.

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, February 1, 2015: Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Texts: Deuteronomy 18:15-20  +  Psalm 111  +  1 Corinthians 8:1-13  +  Mark 1:21-28

Paul writes “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Cor. 8:1) and Jesus enters the synagogue where he teaches “as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” (Mark 1:22) Read side-by-side, these two passages give me a bit of pause as a preacher, a member of a guild that strives to teach for transformation but all too often ends up confusing knowledge with authority.

It’s striking to me that after calling Peter and Andrew, James and John, Jesus heads to the synagogue to teach. So often we imagine Jesus teaching on the mount, or on the plain, or as they walked, or over dinner, even at the cross. So little of Jesus’ ministry is spent in the synagogue, so it struck me as significant that in Mark’s gospel Jesus begins there. The reaction of the assembly is instructive however. After he finishes teaching, the people are astonished at how different his presence is among them. He is said to teach “with authority, not as the scribes.”

At first this is frustrating to read. Jesus teaches with authority, but Mark doesn’t bother to tell us what Jesus said, what passage of scripture he chose to read, what application he made between their shared Jewish heritage and the present moment. Whatever knowledge Jesus imparted, it was apparently not the most significant aspect of his ministry in the synagogue that morning. Instead of telling us what Jesus said, Mark narrates an encounter between Jesus and a member of the community described as having “an unclean spirit” (v.23).

As Jesus finishes his teaching this man cries out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”

“What have you to do with us?” It’s a slippery question. Who is the man referring to? Later in Mark’s gospel Jesus will speak to a Geresene man possessed by a demon who identifies itself as “legion, for we are many,” (5:9) but this is not that encounter. Perhaps this event foreshadows that later one, and we hear the unclean spirit referring to itself as “us.” As I imagine the scene however, I place the man in the middle of the assembly gesturing to the people all around him as he heckles Jesus, “what have you to do with us?” It’s the sort of manipulation that playground bullies learn early on, to speak as though they represent a great many others. It’s the voice of “everyone knows” or “people are saying.” It’s the voice that inflates itself by claiming to stand for the majority.

“What have you to do with us? Have you come to destroy us?”

Ah ha! Now the real fear is exposed. First the unclean spirit questions what Jesus has to do with this community, this assembly; then it tries to incite a panic, “have you come to destroy us?” I suppose you could answer that question either way. On the one hand, the unclean spirit is right, Jesus has come to destroy the present arrangement of things. People and their families, synagogues and cities, powers and principalities will be upended and the world will not be left the same as it was. On the other hand, Jesus has not come to destroy but to heal, to liberate, to restore. Jesus is not the force of destruction, but God’s answer to the destruction of this world. The unclean spirit accurately names Jesus as the Holy One of God, before whom the status quo cannot stand, which is rightly threatening to most people, including us.

When Jesus arrives, things change. Jesus came to the seashore, and soon the disciples were leaving their nets and learning to fish for people. Jesus comes to the synagogue and the spirit that has taken up residence there has to go. Jesus liberates people from habits of life and patterns of accommodation that hold the status quo in place. I think this is what the people in the synagogue mean when they ask, “What is this? A new teaching — with authority!” They recognize that Jesus is more than an interesting lecture, a warm sentiment, or a well-constructed sermon but that in him the word is embodied, that intention is joined to action in a way that will not allow the present arrangement of power to remain unchallenged.

You can imagine how energizing this liberation movement could be to people and communities held under the thumb of empire. In fact, we know that within a few decades the apostle Paul was writing to the congregation in Corinth, for whom the knowledge of their freedom in Christ had taken on a rough edge, whose embrace of their liberated status had run rough shod over others in their community who were still coming to grips with the implications of the unfolding revolution.

At that time animals were still being sacrificed to a variety of gods worshipped throughout the empire. Choice cuts of meat might be burned on an altar, then served in a meal, while the remainder of the animal was sold to the meat market and then re-sold to whoever might purchase it. If you were being especially conscientious in your religious practice and trying to avoid eating meat dedicated to other gods, it could be very difficult. In response some Christians avoided eating meat altogether. Others, however, ate meat freely arguing that since there is no god but God, that meat dedicated to those idols was truly dedicated to nothing, and that there was nothing to fear from eating it. Apparently their disregard for the concerns of those who were being diligent in avoiding such meat was creating conflict in the congregation, so Paul steps in to reframe the debate.

The issue, he contends, isn’t whether or not it’s right or wrong to eat the meat. The issue is how you treat your neighbor who is earnestly struggling to live out their faith with integrity. The knowledge that there is no god but God may free you in principle, but if in your freedom you injure your brother or sister who shares your faith but not your knowledge, then what good has it done you or them? It’s not that knowledge is bad, it’s that it is secondary to love. When knowledge serves love, then the community is built up. When knowledge serves itself, then divisions creep in and take hold.

The injunction to keep love at the center of our life together as Christian people can be terribly inefficient. It is often much quicker to dispense with love and rely on knowledge alone. The knowledge of who is right and who is wrong, who stands with us and who stands against us, who is our ally and who is our enemy, is the world’s standard operating procedure for getting things done. Cut the issue and count the votes. Secure the win. We see it in our national politics, in our corporate boardrooms, in our community organizing, and sometimes in our congregations as well. It is outcomes at the expense of process, creating winners and losers constantly vying to gain or regain their power.

Knowledge without love seeks status. Knowledge with love seeks service. Perhaps this helps to explain why Jesus commands the unclean spirit to be quiet, not to reveal his identity, as he will command the leper he heals later in this chapter, or the disciples after he asks them who they believe him to be. Jesus is not seeking status, he is not concerned with whether or not people show him the appropriate level of respect. He has come to serve the creation by giving himself away in acts of love for the sake of healing, liberation and restoration.

At the river Jordan a spirit descended on Jesus like a dove, demonstrating a solidarity between Jesus and God, a solidarity we are invited to enter into as well. There are other spirits in this world however, spirits that puff up rather than build up, spirits that divide and conquer. In our baptisms we are asked to renounce those spirits and give ourselves to the Holy One of God who has come to set us free from anything that would separate us from one another and the God who created us in love.

What might it mean for us to renounce that unclean spirit, to exorcise it from our relationships to one another here in this congregation, from our dealings with those we disagree with at work or at home, from our politics — both local and national? What would it look like to use the freedom we have been granted by the gospel to meet those around us where they’re at, rather than to judge them for where they as yet are not? What are the conditions that make transformation possible? In my life knowledge has never been enough. It has always been love that has made me brave enough to believe that something new was possible.

In the name of Jesus. God’s love made visible.

Amen.

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