Sermons

Sermon: Thursday, April 13, 2017: Maundy Thursday

Texts: Ex. 12:1-4,11-14  +  Ps. 116:1-2,12-19  +  1 Cor. 11:23-26  +  John 13:1-17,31b-25

 

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One of many prompts for prayer and conversation from Nov. 9th

Last fall, on November 9th — the day after the elections — St. Luke’s opened its doors for those who needed a place to pray, to weep, to talk, to be silent, to sing as we tried to make sense of an election that caught millions of people by surprise. My memory of that night is that people were shocked that their fellow citizens had elected to this nation’s highest office someone who showed no regard for values they held as central to our national identity. As they processed their shock and shame, it seemed to me that part of what they felt was a sense of betrayal by their neighbors; that they had been living under the assumption that the majority of people in our nation shared their outlook on the world, and that this assumed solidarity had been betrayed.

 

Once the shock subsided, there was no shortage of articles and essays attempting to make sense of the 2016 election. We were told that the surge from the right-wing of the American electorate was also acting out of a sense of betrayal — that the government created to serve and advance their interests had been co-opted by a liberal agenda dominated by identity politics and dedicated to a form of corporate globalism that devalued American labor and left the White working class behind. People who’d felt betrayed by their country rose up to take it back, we were told.

Betrayal is an odd and painful thing. It can only exist where there is the assumption of some form of solidarity. To be injured by one’s enemy isn’t a betrayal, it’s an assault. To be injured by one’s parents or children, however, is a betrayal of the bonds of family. To be fired without cause is a betrayal of the bonds built by shared effort. To be cheated upon by a lover or spouse is a betrayal of the bonds of love or the vows of marriage. To be neglected by a friend is a betrayal of the bonds of friendship. Betrayal assumes relationship, loyalty, solidarity, even love.

One of the effects of our modern, mobile, industrial life is that the number of people and communities we invest in as adults has, for many people, diminished. I could be wrong, but it seems to me that when I was younger I used to hear more anger and betrayal at how companies no longer treat their employees with any sense of loyalty. People who gave decades of their lives to help build a company up — only to find themselves laid off, replaced, or otherwise treated as expendable — used to express more of a sense of betrayal and outrage. Now it seems to be taken as a fact that companies have no commitment or obligation to their employees beyond what can be legally mandated.

Similarly, as a child I remember the sense of dismay people had over the rising divorce rate. In 1980 about half of all first marriages ended in divorce. Over the last thirty years the divorce rate has fallen, though it also seems that the expectation that marriages survive the trials of life has as well. People speak jokingly of “starter marriages” the way they might speak of “starter homes.” If we enter into our most intimate relationships with low expectations, how deeply can we feel betrayed when they finally end?

The year that I lived in Washington, D.C. I remember attending a party and overhearing a conversation in which someone remarked that they were on their “third set of friends” since moving to the Capital because of how quickly people come and go from that place. Today it seems to me that many people and many places experience that kind of transience as commonplace. Could anyone even feel betrayed by a friend or neighbor’s decision to move on? Can we imagine being invested enough in one another to feel a sense of betrayal in any relationship outside of work or family?

Or, just how far do we imagine our self-interest extends?

Over the course of his three years of public ministry, Jesus had built a community of people who were deeply invested in him and in one another. By leaving his family at home to wander the countryside with his disciples, Jesus had already betrayed societal norms for how men and sons were supposed to behave. By associating with women and foreigners and all manner of sick and diseased people, Jesus had betrayed religious norms for how observant Jews were supposed to act. By entering Jerusalem on the back of a donkey to the cries of those who named him “the King of Israel” he had betrayed the political norms for how occupied people were to supposed to relate to the government. But, however outrageous their behavior may have seemed to those outside their community, within the circle of those who followed Jesus there was a sense of solidarity with a new vision for how the world might be. A vision of food for the hungry, healing for the sick, dignity for the poor, justice for the oppressed, and welcome for the foreigner. It was a vision that bound them to one another and to Jesus like branches to a vine.

This is what makes this scene so dramatic, and potentially explosive. After three years of laboring alongside one another for a future none of them had ever seen, but all were hungry to behold, we learn that one of the disciples — Judas — has put a plan in place to betray Jesus. More than that, we know that Peter — always eager to prove his devotion to Jesus and the cause — is about to publicly deny Jesus. What do we expect at this moment?

If it were any other story, instead of a story about Jesus from a source we call the Bible, we would expect a fight. If this were a scripted drama on HBO, like The Sopranos or Game of Thrones, we would expect the traitors and cowards to get killed. If this were American politics, we’d expect someone to get scapegoated. If this was a workplace scene, we’d expect someone to get fired. In any other situation, we would expect the person with the power to use it to their advantage. We should expect Jesus, into whose hands God has “put all things,” to flip over the table and drive the faithless disciples out of the room.

washingfeet-jesusInstead Jesus rises from the table and, instead of flipping it over, he goes from person to person and washes their feet. He takes the job that would have been given to a servant or a slave, and he does that work for everyone in the community, knowing full well the ways that they will fail him and themselves. This, he calls the “new commandment” — the newness coming not from the command to love, but to love humbly, to love unconditionally, to love even those who betray and deny us, to show our love in acts of service we might wish someone else would do in our place.

How different our world might look if this was our response to betrayal. How different our conversations might sound, over coffee and online, if we trained ourselves to respond to anger with and resentment toward our fellow citizens with acts of service rather than blame and shame. How different our relationships with family members and co-workers might be if we stopped trying to win arguments or approval and just did the work that no one wants to do.

How different life could be, for all of us, if we met betrayal with love.

I believe we are living in the moment of betrayal. I actually believe we are living in a constant state of betrayal so deep and so persistent that most of us have numbed our hearts and distracted our minds so that we don’t have to feel the rage and heartbreak that come from expecting something more out of life. What has been betrayed is our humanity, what has been sacrificed is the memory that we were made in the image and likeness of God. We were not made for terror and anxiety. We were not made to fear our neighbor and hate the stranger. We were not made to rise or fall on the basis of our ability to accommodate ourselves to a system that ridicules us as we learn, that punishes us as we age, that uses us when we succeed, and that abandons us when we struggle or stumble. We were made for community. We were made for each other. We were made for love.

But the only way we will ever live in a world fit for lovers is if we band together to change the way things are, which means building something big enough and powerful enough to confront the powers and principalities of this world and to call them back to their original purposes — supporting and sustaining life for us all. That job is bigger than any of us can tackle alone. If we want to see that world, we will have to be willing to invest our time and our trust in one another. We will have to build relationships that matter enough to us that we are willing to risk being disappointed (again), being betrayed (again).

And why would we ever do that? Why would we ever risk the pain of putting ourselves out there over and over, knowing that we will certainly be betrayed and denied; knowing that we ourselves will sometimes be the ones who betray or deny the vision we are working toward? Why would we risk the humiliation and retribution that come from failing in front of our families, in front of our friends and neighbors? Failing on the world’s stage?

Let me ask this:

What would you be willing to risk, if you knew that failure would be met with love?

And, what would it take to convince you that no failure of vision or of nerve, no betrayal or denial, could break that love?

And, how often would you need to be reminded of that love?

This is what we say to each other within the community of the church about failure:

“On the night in which he was betrayed, our Lord Jesus took bread, gave thanks, broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying: ‘Take and eat, this is my body, given for you, do this in remembrance of me.’”

Every Sunday, every week, every time we return to this table we remember that God meets our failures, our denials, and our betrayals with the self-giving love of Jesus, who knelt to wash our feet and commanded us to love one another like that.

Don’t you long to live in a world that loving, that forgiving, that free?

That’s what we are building together — each meal shared, each foot washed, each person loved more deeply than any betrayal can deny.

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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