Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, August 9, 2015: Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: 1 Kings 19:4-8  +  Ps. 34  +  Ephesians 4:25–5:2  +  John 6:35,41-51

parker-crowdI was on retreat this past week at Techny Towers, up in Northbrook, at an event held by The Center for Courage and Renewal titled “Habits of the Heart for Healthy Congregations: Risking the Call to Belong.”  I’ve been to Courage and Renewal retreats before, which are based on the work of Parker Palmer, who also happened to be there with us for part of the event.  On Tuesday night I got to be part of a panel discussion on “the changing shape of belonging” during which I was asked to share to what, or whom, I am committed. Here’s what I said:

“At the risk of being trite, when it comes to belonging to a community of faith my first commitment is to Jesus. I offer this in, I hope, as non-chauvinist a way as possible. I don’t mean to suggest that Jesus is the only name by which we encounter the divine, but it is the name I have been given to rely on for health and healing. I also don’t mean to say that I am committed to Jesus because of the cultural inheritance he represents or because I get something out of the relationship — though both are true as well. What I do mean is that as I have lived in community with Jesus, I have grown in my capacity to see the people Jesus saw, like the widow with her mite; to touch the people that Jesus touched, like the leper living at the edge of community longing to go home; to love the people that Jesus loved, like the young man of privilege who wanted to be part of God’s movement without giving up what he already had.  In other words, I am committed to Jesus because I belong in his company, along with people who are very much like me, and people who are very much unlike me.”

When I got done talking I felt pretty good about myself.  I’d managed to say what I wanted to say, and to do it while sitting directly next to someone I kind of idolize.  I’d given my testimony about who Jesus is to me, and why I am committed to living my life in his company.  I claimed my place at Jesus’ side as one who belongs to him.

But Jesus does not belong to me.

At least, that’s what I hear loud and clear in this story from the gospel of John.  After feeding the five thousand and calming the storm, Jesus begins to teach the crowds that follow him with words that challenge them.  Words that challenge them — not because they don’t understand, but because they think they understand too well.  After referencing the story of the Exodus and God’s provision of manna in the wilderness, Jesus says, “I am the bread of life.”  And because he says this, the Jews begin to complain about him.

Now, can we just stop for a minute and get real about who the Jews in this story were?  They were his people, his countrymen.  They were his neighbors.  They even say, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?”  As the crowd struggles to makes sense of and accept what Jesus is saying, the stumbling block isn’t their Jewishness (as two thousand years of Christian anti-Judaism have too often implied), but the fact that they thought they already knew everything they needed to know about him!  The stumbling block isn’t their religious background or their ethnic background, it’s their shared background. Who is this guy, that he compares himself to the bread that gave life to our ancestors in the wilderness?  We’ve known this guy since we were kids, since he was a kid.  He belongs to us!

It’s easy to feel that way about Jesus, especially if you love him.  The crowds must have loved him, he’d just met their most basic need in the most extraordinary way, taking what little they had and transforming it into enough to send them to sleep stuffed with leftovers to spare.  I love him, because he sees me giving my all, as little as that may be; because he touched me even when I was aching at the margins of society; because he loves me, even when I am more attached to my comfort and my wealth than I am to his revolution.  You love him in ways you already know how to share, and ways that are still searching for words.  You love him because he is your inheritance, because he is your hope, because he is your teacher, because he is your struggle, because he is your shepherd, because he is your savior, because he is your Lord, because he is your God.

Because you belong to him, though he does not belong to you.

Interfaith Worker Justice's Founding Director, Kim Bobo

Interfaith Worker Justice’s Founding Director, Kim Bobo

I was down at the seminary last night for the opening convocation of this year’s LVC orientation.  All of the new volunteers, who will be placed in settings across the country, are gathered this week in Chicago for training and community building. All of the speakers were fantastic but one snippet from Kim Bobo, the founding director of Interfaith Worker Justice, stuck out at me. Speaking to a crowd made up mostly of recent college graduates she said,

“I would far rather work with someone who will do something than someone who knows something. The problem with college is that it spends four years training you that the most important thing is knowing the right answer. Then you get sent out into the world and you feel like the most important contribution you can make to an organization is to have the answers. I’m running the copier, making coffee, and taking out the trash, and my interns want to do something that ‘matters.’”

For too long, too much of Christianity has been about trying to prove we know something. Over the course of two thousand years we have divided the body of Christ again and again with dispute after violent dispute over what “matters,” our ideas about what we must believe about God in order to belong to God.  It’s not hard to see where it comes from, we get it in this morning’s passage as well,

“No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life.” (John 6:44-47)

Ironically, whenever we get too self-satisfied with our answers about what it means to belong to God, we take our role in the story being played out between Jesus and the Jews, those who thought they knew him best, his friends and neighbors. In our insistence on right beliefs we hear echoes of their insistence that they also knew how God would save them, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate manna in the wilderness…” (6:30-31) Time and time again we confuse our belonging to God with God belonging to us.

And each branch of the Christian family tree has their own particular way of doing this, none of us are exempt.  Lutherans are extraordinarily proud of our theology. We stand behind Martin Luther’s recovery of the apostle Paul’s assurance that we are “justified by faith apart from works of the law.” (Rom. 3:28) So, we get nervous whenever anyone talks about doing anything, because we worry that someone will get the wrong idea and understand us to be saying that we have to do something to merit God’s favor.  That our belonging depends on our doing instead of what God has already done. The problem is, there are things that need doing — not in order that you might finally one day be worthy of belonging to God, but because you already belong to God.

You already belong to God, and so does everyone else, despite all that the world does to deform our sense of self so that some of us are taught to believe that the world exists for our benefit and others are taught to believe that the world is permanently set against us.  Most of us, in fact, experience the world to be a place of both privilege and pain, which creates in us a sense of anxious confusion as we try to maximize our privilege and minimize our pain.

The world operates on the logic of what Martin Luther might have called “works righteousness,” except that instead of offering us the old trade — our righteous works for the promise of heaven — it has shrunk the horizon of belonging down to earth and demanded our righteous works — in the form of obedience to a political and economic pyramid scheme that benefits a few by oppressing a great many — in return for the promise of acceptability here and now.  It has lied to us and told us that the only way we can know if our lives have any worth or meaning is if they look like the lives led by happy, comfortable, well-fed, able-bodied, White, middle-class, heterosexual, Christian, married, home-owning families. Except, guess what, I’ve checked 9 out of 10 boxes on that list — and they have nothing to do with what gives my life meaning or purpose or value!  If anything, being able to check those boxes leaves me constantly aware of a nagging complicity with a system that was organized before I was born and without my consent to create separation and mistrust between me and and so many other groups of people who are like and unlike me. God’s own people, who are my sisters and brothers.

What gives my life purpose and value is that I belong to God, whose answer to my anxious confusion is not to maximize my privilege and minimize my pain as so much prosperity-promising religion suggests, but to do the exact opposite.  In Jesus, God has shown us a way of loving that gives up privilege and stands with those in pain. In Jesus I see a way of godly living that Paul commends in his letter to the Ephesians,

“So then, putting away all falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another … Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Eph. 4:25;5:1-2)

The world is filled with people giving it their all, aching at the margins, clinging to their privilege — people like you and me, and people so very different from us — and if we are going to be part of God’s healing and redemptive purpose we will have to give up so many illusions about God and about ourselves.  We will have to dismantle the machinery of capitalism, which treats people like objects and objects like people. We will have to deconstruct myths of White superiority, which pretend that White people’s successes and People of Color’s sufferings are both deserved and disconnected. We will have to disavow nationalism, which teaches us to accept the bondage and humiliation of other people as long as it happens away from our view. We will have to confess that our ideas about God are so much smaller than God’s own self, and be ready to release not only those elements of our Christian heritage that seem peripheral, but even those which may feel essential, in order to participate in the expansive welcome God has in store for all of us.

I don’t think that’s actually so different from what Jesus said to his friends, his neighbors, his people, the Jews — who are also our friends, and our neighbors, and our people as well, along with every other person on the face of the earth, Muslims and Bahá’í, Hindus and Jains, Buddhists and Atheists, Indigenous and Colonizers, Asian and Latino, Black and White, and all the rest of God’s richly diverse creation — I will be who I will be, I will become what I am becoming. I am not confined to your memory, I am laboring alongside and within you to give you a future with life. I will support you.  I will sustain you.  I will feed you.  I will be your bread, and you will be my people.  You belong to me.  All of you.

Amen.

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sheep of the good shepherd
Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, April 26, 2015: Fourth Sunday of Easter

Texts: Acts 4:5-12  +  Psalm 23  +  1 John 3:16-24  +  John 10:11-18

In the prelude to his 2011 book Healing the Heart of Democracy, Parker Palmer writes,

Parker PalmerIf American democracy fails, the ultimate cause will not be a foreign invasion or the power of big money or the greed and dishonesty of some elected officials or a military coup or the internal communist/socialist/fascist takeover that keeps some Americans awake at night. It will happen because we — you and I — became so fearful of each other, of our differences and of the future, that we unraveled the civic community on which democracy depends, losing our power to resist all that threatens it and call it back to its highest form.

Or, put more simply, if community built on the ideal of power emanating from the people for the sake of the common good fails, it will not be because of how others used their power, but because of how we gave our power up.

How do you give your power up? Under what circumstances do you find it easier to point the finger and blame others for the plight of the present, rather than to acknowledge your own participation in creating the situation you lament?  Is it in your workplace, in your relationships with your colleagues?  Is it at home, with your spouse or children?  Is it here at church, as we face some of the most challenging conversations of our life together?  Where is it that you notice yourself telling a story in which everyone else has all the power, and you are a victim of their actions?

We come by it honestly, our inclination to give up our power. We live in a world that creates wealth by assigning blame. Our litigious society rewards people for seeking out lawsuits that might enrich them at the expense of others by assigning blame for every harm. The constant ideological battle that passes for the news paralyses the nation by blaming elected officials and political parties for every ailment suffered by society, creating a culture of fear and mistrust. Rarely are we invited to consider how we ourselves have participated in creating a climate of mistrust, blame, and powerlessness through our own tendency to gossip, criticize and slander rather than truly listen, discern, and collaborate in building the world we need. Instead we settle for tearing down the world we have and wondering how others allowed things to get so bad.

Power is at the heart of the readings that surround us this Sunday, readings filled with images of shepherds and sheep, readings filled with conflict between people assumed to have power and people challenging the arrangement of power.

In the reading from Acts, we hear that Peter has been brought before the high priest to account for actions that have landed him in jail. If we go back to the preceding chapters we learn that Peter and John had healed a man whom scripture describes as being “lame from birth.” Each day he would rest near the gate near the temple, begging for just enough to get by. Peter tells him, “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” (Acts 3:6) Immediately the man leapt to his feet and entered the temple, praising God. Peter begins to speak to all who had witnessed the miracle, declaring God’s power to restore people and places left for dead. His preaching lands the disciples in prison, and it is against this backdrop that we hear Peter being questioned by the authorities, “by what power or by what name did you do this?” (Acts 4:7)

Of course, the name by which Peter and John have acted, their authorizing agent, is Jesus of Nazareth, a human being located in space and time, living under empire and challenging the collusion of church and state; and also God’s own beloved, the anointed one, the messiah, the Christ — the two natures being inseparable: a human being acting in space and time and the beloved child of God revealing God’s own self to all the world.

Jesus is navigating a very similar situation in the gospel of John. We get only a snippet this morning of the much longer speech in which he names himself the good shepherd. It is an image that pervades the Christian imagination, Jesus carrying the lamb over his shoulders, a shepherd’s staff in hand.

This mural, designed and installed by the Rev. Louis Valbracht at St. John's Lutheran Church in Des Moines during another period of deep racial divides and unrest in the 1960s was intended to be a visual reminder that the good shepherd gathers all sheep into one flock. (John 10:16)

This mural, designed and installed by the Rev. Louis Valbracht at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Des Moines, IA during another period of deep racial divides and unrest in the 1960s was intended to be a visual reminder that the good shepherd gathers all sheep into one flock. (John 10:16)

Growing up in Des Moines there was a mural in the fellowship hall that depicted just such a Jesus cloaked in an orange robe holding two sheep, one in each arm, one black and one white. The artwork was created by Pastor Louis Valbracht in the mid-1960s as an intentional meditation on the nation’s deep racial divides. Pastor Valbracht, who grew up right here in Logan Square, whose father was the pastor here at St. Luke’s from the late 20’s through the mid-50’s, wanted to remind my home congregation in Iowa that the same sweet shepherd who called to them by name was also the shepherd of black women and men beaten and bleeding in the streets. The same shepherd who assures us that  “there will be one flock, one shepherd.” (John 10:16)

Again, if we read back, behind the passage assigned for this day, we discover that the incident which has precipitated Jesus’ speech about sheep and shepherds was another healing miracle. In this case, a man born blind. When Jesus heals him of his blindness it creates a scandal as those in power demand to know by what power the man has been healed. As the authorities get tangled up in questions of power, the man who has been healed finds his voice and praises God. Jesus explains the miracle using this metaphor of the shepherd whose job it is to find those who have been lost under the present arrangement of power, and to bring them back inside the fold, to be the gate, to be the guard, to do the work and to pay the price, which he does willingly, of his own accord, because of the great love that exists between the God who creates the world and God’s own beloved who redeems the world.

But it does raise a question for us this morning. The Jesus who declares, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, for they will listen to my voice” (John 10:14) is also the Jesus who lays down his life and dies that we might live. This Jesus is both lamb and shepherd, both savior and sacrifice. This is a thorny truth we struggle with as Christians, uncomfortable with the idea that there is a cost to discipleship. That God issues both invitations and commands, which we are free, we are empowered, to act upon or to ignore. Often our objections are framed as resistance to the notion of a God who demands sacrifice. I wonder, however, if our resistance is actually to the reality that all change comes at a cost, the price of which is not determined by a wrathful God but a greedy humanity, which resists all efforts to curb its consumption with threats of violence. If the God revealed in Jesus Christ will not rest until there is “one flock, one shepherd,” then we, who live on this side of the resurrection, bathed in promises made at our baptisms, must listen to the author of 1 John who reminds us:

We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us — and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. (1 John 3:16-18)

Truth and action, both of which require us to acknowledge our power and to use it in service of those caught up in the world’s lie that the goodness of God’s creation was only meant for some of us, that a safe home, and an abundant table, and a loving family, and a fruitful marriage, and a rewarding vocation, and a peaceful city, and a just nation, and a redeemed creation are entitlements of the few rather than an inheritance for the whole.

Easter life requires us to understand that the risen Christ rises in each of us. That the Holy Spirit breathed onto the church empowered the Acts of the Apostles. That the only hands and feet God has in the world are ours. This is not a form of “subtle works righteousness,” as Lutherans have sometimes worried. Works righteousness is the idea that we earn our standing before God, we earn our place in the reign of God, through our own actions, by our own merit. This is the exact opposite. This is the acknowledgement that we stand under the grace of God, as citizens in God’s commonwealth, because of God’s goodness and mercy and love. That all that we have and all that we are comes to us as a gift, and that to allow others to suffer second-class citizenship in a world intended for equality is to collude with a world order already governed by a hypocritical myth of meritocracy in which we pretend that everyone has gotten what they deserve while we all suffer the tragic consequences of structures of oppression, but some pay with their lives.

Good Shepherd Sunday is not some sweet, sentimental song to make us feel safe and secure. It is the assurance that God sets a table for us, even in the presence of our enemies, and that we live this life in the valley of the shadow of death, but that we do not walk through the valley alone. It is a reminder that the power of God is not the power of this world, which seizes and hoards, but the power of love, which willingly sacrifices.

To acknowledge our power, and to use it, to spend it, to give it up for the sake of those other sheep, those other human lives, those other creaturely habitats, the whole creation called into being by the God who breathed over the waters and made something out of nothing, is what it means to act in the name of Jesus. It is the movement that gives his name any power at all. It is the life of God coexisting with the fragile humanity we all share.  How will you use the power of the name given to you in baptism?  How will your life, how will our life together, be a testimony to that power?

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Wednesday, December 25, 2013: Nativity of Our Lord III — Christmas Day

Texts: Isaiah 52:7-10  +  Psalm 98  +  Hebrews 1:1-12  +  John 1:1-14

If you’ve worshipped here at St. Luke’s on Christmas morning any time in the last few years, then you might remember that 1.) I vastly prefer Christmas Day to Christmas Eve and 2.) I have a tendency to bring poems on Christmas morning.

Death by Chocolate

Death by Chocolate

Christmas Eve is lovely, don’t get me wrong, but it’s kind of like “Death by Chocolate” cake: Christmas carols and candlelight And angel choruses AND the baby Jesus. There’s so much heaped onto that one night, and then all the memories of every Christmas Eve ever. It’s a lot to live up to.

But Christmas morning brings all the catharsis of any good morning after.  By the clear light of day we can mull over the previous night’s events, try and put them in sequence, and see if we can make any sense out of them.

As for the poems, well, firstly I just love poetry and since this is a day for giving gifts, I’m inclined to share with you the gift of a good poem.  More to the point, however, the gospel reading appointed for Christmas Day each year comes from the first chapter of John, and is a kind of poem itself — a hymn to the Word that sounds as much like a poem as it does a creed:

In the beginning was the Word / and the Word was with God / and the Word was God. / He was in the beginning with God. / All things came into being through him, / and without him not one thing came into being. / What has come into being in him was life, / and the life was the light of all people. / The light shines in the darkness, / and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:1-5)

Since we do get the same readings each Christmas morning though, it seems kind to bring you something new to reflect on each passing December.  In former years I’ve brought you Wendell Berry and John O’Donohue, two of my favorites.  This year I’ve brought you a little Billy Collins, poet laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003 and, this past summer, guest host of The Writer’s Almanac.  This poem is entitled, “Christmas Sparrow” (from his collection of poems, “Nine Horses”)

"Nine Horses: Poems" by Billy Collins (Random House, 2002)

“Nine Horses: Poems” by Billy Collins (Random House, 2002)

The first thing I heard this morning

was a rapid flapping sound, soft, insistent —

wings against glass as it turned out

downstairs when I saw the small bird

rioting in the frame of a high window,

trying to hurl itself through

the enigma of glass into the spacious light.

Then a noise in the throat of the cat

who was hunkered on the rug

told me how the bird had gotten inside,

carried in the cold night

through the flap of a basement door,

and later released from the soft grip of teeth.

On a chair, I trapped its pulsations

in a shirt and got it to the door,

so weightless it seemed

to have vanished in the nest of cloth.

But outside, when I uncapped my hands,

it burst into its element,

dipping over the dormant garden

in a spasm of wingbeats

then disappeared over a row of tall hemlocks.

For the rest of the day,

I could feel its wild thrumming

against my palms as I wondered about

the hours it must have spent

pent in the shadows of that room,

hidden in the spiky branches

of our decorated tree, breathing there

among the metallic angels, ceramic apples, stars of yarn,

its eyes open, like mine as I lie in bed tonight

picturing this rare, lucky sparrow

tucked into a holly bush now,

a light snow tumbling through the windless dark.

The poet, Billy Collins, gives us an image we all know that captures a sensation I suspect we’ve all felt — the panic of a bird, or a bat, or any wild thing trapped inside and trying to get free.

In his book, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, Parker Palmer compares the human soul to just such a creature.  He writes,

“Like a wild animal, the soul is tough, resilient, resourceful, savvy, and self-sufficient: it knows how to survive in hard places. I learned about these qualities during my bouts with depression. In that deadly darkness, the faculties I had always depended on collapsed. My intellect was useless; my emotions were dead; my will was impotent; my ego was shattered. But from time to time, deep in the thickets of my inner wilderness, I could sense the presence of something that knew how to stay alive even when the rest of me wanted to die. That something was my tough and tenacious soul.”

Perhaps you know something about the tenacity of a soul trapped, frantic, beating its wings uselessly against a glass pane, while on the other side of the window life goes by filled with free people who seem to have learned a secret you are still deciphering.

The bird senses the light and longs for it, and even more, the bird longs to be free and to soar unfettered toward the light, but instead it tosses its body against the glass time and time again, unable to comprehend all that stands between the fear of the present and the promise of the future.

The prophet Isaiah says, “how beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘your God reigns.’” And that is true even when we cannot tell it is so.  John’s gospel shows us the other side of our encounter with freedom when he writes, “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.”

For too much of our Christian history we have read those verses as a condemnation of the children of Israel, as an indictment of the Jewish people, for not accepting Christ as the messiah, as the savior, when he came into the world. How foolish of us! As if any of us really has accepted the salvation God has offered in Christ Jesus. As if any of us has stopped beating our wings, or our heads, against the glass. As if any of us truly believes that God’s salvation comes to us as evidence of God’s goodness and not our own.

When I read, “he came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him,” I understand that passage to mean that in Christ, God came to a people so terrorized by the cruelty of the world, so occupied as nation, so frantic to be free that they could not perceive their liberation in the form in which it was presented.

Collins says, “on a chair, I trapped its pulsations in a shirt and got it to the door.” How brief and benign. Maybe you’ve been tasked with catching the wild animal that’s gotten trapped in your house, and you know how fiercely it will fight, how expertly it will flee, as you work to set it free.

Aren’t we like that? So determined to break through the glass, to get to the light on the other side, that we scarcely notice when the light has broken through to us.

After the bird has been set free, the poet’s protagonist reflects on the terror it must have felt, “For the rest of the day, I could feel its wild thrumming against my palms as I wondered about the hours it must have spent pent in the shadows of that room, hidden in the spiky branches of our decorated tree, breathing there among the metallic angels, ceramic apples, stars of yarn, its eyes open, like mine as I lie in bed tonight…”

These words, in particular, sound a word of grace for any of us who awoke this Christmas morning with something other than joy in their hearts.  We too, sometimes, can feel as though the trees, and the ornaments, and the entire season of Christmas casts a shadow so deep we get lost in it. The wild bird doesn’t want to make its home in the decorated holiday tree, it wants to escape the house and make its nest in the holly bush outside.

To you who still feel trapped this cold winter morning, who still struggle against the shadows cast by such tall traditions, I urge you to hold fast to the old poem’s words:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in his was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

Break forth together into singing, you wild souls; for God has comforted God’s own people. God has set the caged bird free to burst into its element which is light, and life, and liberation.

Merry Christmas and Amen.

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