Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, July 23, 2017: Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Text: Romans 8:12-25

Just to get our blood flowing, let’s stretch our bodies a bit by raising our hands if any of the following apply to ourselves. This isn’t going to be one of those on the spot confessions that you later are made to feel dumb for having participated in. I just want folks to get a sense for the things we have in common. The topic is debt.

Raise your hand if you carry debt on a mortgage.

Raise your hand if you carry debt on a car.

Raise your hand if you carry debt on a credit card.

Raise your hand if you carry debt on a student loan.

Raise your hand if you carry medical debt.

Raise your hand if you carry personal debt to a friend or family member.

We are very indebted people, carrying heavy debt burdens. According to one recent report, “debt is a way of life for Americans, with overall U.S. household debt increasing by 11% in the past decade. Today, the average household with credit card debt has balances totaling $16,425, and the average household with any kind of debt owes $135,924, including mortgages.” For those households where there is student debt, the average amount being carried is just over $50,000. For those households making payments on a car loan, the average balance on that debt is almost $30,000.

While there’s no one reason why each of us are carrying so much debt — we do, after all, each make our own decisions — there are some broad economic trends which affect us all. The cost of living has, on average, increased more quickly than our household income. While median income has grown by 28% over the last fifteen years, the cost of living has gone up 30%. Medical costs have increased by 57% and food and beverage prices by 36%. It is exactly as Hope has been reminding us week after week, prices are going up and up and up!

When the cost of living increases, debt increases. Despite stereotypes of careless spending on easy credit, the reality for many families is that credit is how they cover the difference between what may come in over a month and what it takes to feed, clothe, and care for themselves and their children. Minimum wage work leaves millions of people living from paycheck to paycheck, with credit as one of their only safety nets. Pursuing an education in order to get higher paying work comes with its own dangers. Student loan debt has increased by 186% in the last decade as the long recession forced people out of work and back to school.

It’s no wonder then, that we tend to think of debt as bad. We are so heavy laden with the kinds of debt that constrain our freedom and crush our spirits that it’s difficult to think of debt in positive terms. We’ve heard of “good debt” and “bad debt” in the economic realm and it has, perhaps, guided our choices. In today’s portion of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, he also talks about debt — good debt and bad debt — though we have to go back, parse his sentence, and read between the lines, to understand what he’s saying.

“So then, [siblings], we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh — for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” (Rom. 8:12-13)

The beginning of this sentence is clear: we are debtors. Then Paul sets up an opposition he never quite finishes, leaving us to infer the ending. “We are debtors, not to the flesh,” but … to something else, something being contrasted with the flesh, which turns out to be the Spirit.

However, our relationship to the Spirit is so radically different from our relationship to what Paul is calling “the flesh” that we can barely understand it in terms of debt as we know it, because it is the exact opposite of how we have experienced debt in the rest of our lives. Paul says that the Spirit of God makes us children of God. That the Spirit of God is the spirit of adoption. It is a spirit that increases our connectedness, that strengthens the bonds that tie us together. Paul contrasts this with the spirit of slavery, evoking once again the image of God’s people liberated from the bondage of Egypt through the waters of the sea.

This begins to make sense, at least to me. There are definitely forms of debt that feel infused with the spirit of slavery; debt that pushes me down and traps me in place; debt that makes me feel like an anonymous cog in a global machine that is extracting life out of me to create wealth and prosperity for a class of people I’ll never meet.

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Then I consider how my own life benefits from the condition of debt between nations that keeps the wealth flowing up from impoverished continents to supply me with cheap(er) food and oil and clothing, and I see that I am living higher up on the pyramid; that I am someone’s Pharaoh, part of a class of people they will never meet. This way of ordering life strips human flesh of the divine image and treats people like objects to be used and discarded. If we live according to the broken logic of this broken system, we will die.

There is this other kind of debt, however, that does not kill us. Instead, it’s the exact opposite, it sets us free from “bondage to decay.” It is the debt I inherited in baptism, when I crossed through the waters that led me to freedom.

Oh, to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be; / let that grace now like a fetter bind my wandering heart to thee. / Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it; prone to leave the God I love. / Here’s my heart, oh, take and seal it; seal it for thy courts above.

There is a form of debt that we take on whenever we are loved, which is a debt we can never repay — not because it weakens us or traps us in a dependent state — but because love is not for sale. Love breaks down the market forces that turn everything and everyone into a commodity. By love we adopt one another into our families, into our hearts. We invest without concern for return on investment, so that when love’s dividends are finally paid we are glad to immediately give them away, reinvesting them in one another.

Raise your hand if a parent, or a family member, or a teacher, or a friend, or a partner, or a spouse, or a child ever loved you in a way that made you more human, more free, more alive.

Then you are a debtor to grace, which is love’s currency.

I have a dream for St. Luke’s — which I guess I now have to say is my dream for the whole church — that we would continue to grow and become a powerful church that transforms lives and changes the world. By powerful I don’t mean the kind of power shaped like a pyramid, where each of us uses those below us to try and get higher up ourselves. I mean the power that comes when we look at our neighbors, every single one of them, and see children of God, joint heirs with Christ of a love that liberates us from the forces that deal death to our flesh and to our spirits. The power that comes from being members of a family more numerous than the stars in the sky, a family spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south (Gen. 28:14).

Imagine all those siblings. Hear their groaning cries. The whole creation is laboring to be transformed, to be changed, to be saved. That work, which Paul describes as “suffering with Christ so that we may also be glorified with Christ,” is love’s debt. It is the work we do not in order to be loved, but because we have already been given the first fruits of God’s love — we have been given each other. That alone is cause for hope.

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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?

 

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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?

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, January 31, 2016: Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

Texts: Jeremiah 1:4-10  +  Psalm 71:1-6  +  1 Corinthians 13:1-13  +  Luke 4:21-30

Has your love ever been offensive?

I ask because I’m trying to hold the various passages assigned for this morning together in some way. In Jeremiah we hear God reassuring the young prophet that God will be with the child as he delivers the Lord’s judgment against the nations. Luke’s gospel plays out like Jeremiah’s greatest hopes and fears as those who hear Jesus in the synagogue are first drawn to him in admiration, then so enraged by his interpretation of scripture that they are ready to throw him off a cliff.

But in-between these two stories comes the excerpt from Paul’s letter to a community in conflict, exhorting them to speak to one another in love. Everything is subordinated to love: the prophetic word, acts of charity, even martyrdom. No expression of faith is complete unless it is performed in love.

So then, what do we make of Jesus’ acts of provocation when he returns to the synagogue in his hometown? Where is the love in his agitation of the village that raised this child?

As a reminder, Paul’s letter to the Corinthians isn’t trying to account for Jesus’ behavior in Nazareth. It’s written to a different group of people experiencing a very different situation. And, as I explained a few weeks ago, even the lectionary which assigns readings for each Sunday isn’t trying to force a connection here. During these Sundays in the Time after Epiphany the second reading has been working its way through First Corinthians. The lectionary isn’t assuming any particular thematic resonance between the gospel story and Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth. So what I’m engaged in here is a minor act of constructive or systematic theology, trying to create a coherent biblical worldview out of disparate scriptural materials.

It’s just curious to me that right next to two stories about young prophets sent to deliver challenging messages to audiences set in their ways we also hear Paul’s reminder to root all our speech and all our actions in love. That’s what leads me to ask: has your love ever been offensive?

There are some obvious answers to this question. For all the years that I’ve been alive on this earth there’s been a conversation going on in the public square about which kinds of love are acceptable and which are not. Before we were preoccupied with love between people of the same gender we were just as preoccupied with love between people of different ethnicities. God forbid people of the same gender, and different ethnicities. To advocate for our own right to exist, to search after love, to find it and claim it, was deeply offensive to the majority of our neighbors. Until it wasn’t.

But not all love is romantic, surely. Are there other forms of love that give rise to offense?

15816446In preparation for the book study we’ll be hosting during the season of Lent, I’ve begun reading Susan Thistlewaite’s #Occupy the Bible: What Jesus Really Said (and Did) about Money and Power. In it she argues that if we are going to build a faith-rooted movement for justice in our world, we will have to reclaim the power of scripture by learning to read it at “street level,” which is another way of talking about liberation theology. Rather than imagining our religious identities and traditions as stabilizing forces working hand in glove with secular culture to preserve the status quo, we are called to claim our inheritance as executors of a spiritual estate that helped end slavery, bolstered the women’s suffrage movement, sided with workers in the labor movement, fueled the Civil Rights movement, authorized the movement to end violence against women, cultivated the Farm Worker movement, and camped out with the #occupy movement. Her book reads like the word of the Lord commissioning young Jeremiah: “See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” (Jer. 1:10)

But can that work — the work of reforming a world that is stacked against the poor, the weak, the undocumented, the elderly — be done in love? If so, how does that change our notions of love, how it looks and sounds?

51F83RNC70L._SX317_BO1,204,203,200_In her ground-breaking essay, “The Power of Anger in the Work of Love,” Christian ethicist Bev Harrison writes,

“Anger is not the opposite of love. It is better understood as a feeling-signal that all is not well in our relation to other persons or groups or to the world around us. Anger is a mode of connectedness to others and is always a vivid form of caring.”

That insight, that anger is a vivid form of caring that signals to us a tear in the fabric of our relationships with one another helps me interpret what I read as anger when I listen to Jesus’ exchange with the people of his hometown. After impressing them with his reading of the prophet Isaiah, he pushes through traditional interpretations of scripture to make an uncomfortable point: There were plenty of widows starving in Israel during the time of Elijah, but God sent the prophet to a foreigner instead. And there were plenty of lepers in Israel during the time of Elisha, but God sent the prophet to heal a foreigner instead.

As we wrap up our three week series of testimonies organized around the theme, “Immigrants and Refugees, Strangers and Aliens” we have been challenged to remember that the God of Epiphany, who is a light to nations, does not claim any one nation as God’s own. Instead, God is always reaching out to all of us through the stories of people who share our common humanity, but whose lives are so very different from our own. That truth seems fairly innocuous until it rubs up against the way power and wealth have been arranged in the world. Until we insist that it should affect how we talk about poverty and taxation, how we should talk about housing and urban planning, how we should talk about immigration and border security, how we should talk about war and foreign debt relief, how we should talk about our enemies and national security.

It’s not that Jesus has no love for the people of Nazareth, his hometown. It’s just that he’s been called and sent by the God of Jeremiah and Isaiah, the God who chooses all people as God’s people. And when that God looks at how we have divided ourselves from one another, God is angry. You hear it in Jesus’ tone. It is patient, but it is not passive. It is kind, but it is not accommodating. It is not arrogant, but it is insistent. In Jesus we see and hear the power of anger in the work of a love that in the end does in fact bear and endure all things so that we might believe all things and hope for that which we thought was impossible.

On some level, I guess, all love is offensive — because love treats others as if they were of equal significance as us ourselves. Love transforms others from objects into subjects. In a world that is constantly tempting us to consider our own needs first, that celebrates greed and consumption, love is the only force that can disarm our hyper-vigilance and call us down from the guard posts on the walls that divide our nations, our cities, our hearts.

The bible is filled with these stories, stories of love and anger, stories of commissioning and sending, stories of children who are prophets and preachers who are peace-makers, stories of God’s offensive love. Stories that make a claim on us, and require us to sit with them, read them, inhabit them, occupy them, until we can claim them as our own.

Amen.

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