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, July 10, 2016: Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Deuteronomy 30:9-14  +  Psalm 25  +  Colossians 1:1-14  +  Luke 10:25-37

Ever since Pentecost, the gospel of Luke has been feeding us with one story after another of Jesus healing people, like the centurion’s slave (Lk 7:1-10); raising people to new life, like the widow of Nain’s child (vv. 11-17); forgiving people, like the woman who anointed his feet with costly oil (7:36—8:3); liberating people, like the Gerasene man seized by a legion of demonic spirits (8:26-39). Don’t you wish today was one of those days? Don’t you wish today was one of those days when the good news took the form of the assurance of healing, resurrection, forgiveness, and liberation?

Instead, we arrive this morning battered by the events of a week in which police officers in Baton Rouge, LA and St. Paul, MN killed two black men, Alton Sterling and Philandro Castile, setting off another round of protests and public actions focused on police violence around the country. We arrive this morning just three days after twelve police officers were shot and five killed while doing their duty, protecting a non-violent march in Dallas, TX: Michael Smith, Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Patrick Zamarripa, and Brent Thompson. We arrive this morning, after waking to news of crowds taking to the streets in cities across America, of repressive policing tactics and violent clashes between protesters and law enforcement. And what does the gospel of Luke have to offer us today? Only Jesus’ most well-known teaching parable, a story about an ancient ethnic conflict between Jews and Samaritans, one that had been going on for generations and from which there seemed to be no escape.

We’ve actually been building toward this story for the last few weeks. Perhaps you recall that Jesus and the disciples had just recently passed through a Samaritan village where they were rejected. In response, the disciples asked Jesus if they should call down fire on their ethnic enemies, but he rebuked them (9:55). Instead he sent them out into a dangerous world in pairs, instructing them to cure the sick and proclaim the reign of God come near (10:9). As the story of Jesus’ ministry unfolds, we have moved from the initial phase of being met where we are — healed and forgiven and set free — to a new chapter in which the demands of this new life become clearer. New attitudes and habits are being formed. Action is required.
ACTIONThat will be the focus of our worship for these next four weeks: “Action Required!” We will be looking at habits of the heart that follow from lives baptized into the life and ministry, the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ: loving, listening, praying and perceiving. Today we begin with love.

Jesus sends the disciples out in pairs, instructing them to cure the sick and announce the in-breaking reign of God. It’s harder than it seems. They are not always welcome. Sometimes people don’t want to hear what they have to say because of who they are. The Samaritan village did not care to receive Jesus, presumably because he and his followers were Judeans. Sometimes people don’t want to hear what they have to say because they are not ready for peace, for the kinds of truth-telling required for real peace and reconciliation. They are not ready to have the stories and the histories, the institutions and organizations that have profited from on-going violence dismantled. They are not ready to see themselves as others see them. They’re just not ready.

Tellingly, when Jesus encounters people who are not ready to receive the reign of God that is laboring to be born among them, he doesn’t burn them to the ground. He shakes the dust off his feet and moves on, always sowing that seed regardless of where it falls (Lk 8:5-15). But it’s not that easy for his followers. People are drawn to Jesus and his teachings, but they are also exhausted by him. How much is enough? Exactly how far do we have to go? Like the lawyer who questions Jesus this morning, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

I feel like I’ve been hearing some version of the lawyer’s question all week. “What am I supposed to do in the face of this string of never-ending tragedies?” “What am I supposed to say to my friends and co-workers who are African American?” “What am I supposed to post on Facebook, or not post on Facebook?” All variations on, “what must I do to get this right?”

Jesus answers the lawyer’s question with another question. Typical. “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”

The lawyer answers, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” This is the wisdom we’ve received from our Jewish sisters and brothers, part of our inheritance from our shared scriptures (Deut. 6:5, 10:12; Lev. 19:18) and Jesus does not alter or amend it. He says, “you have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” (Lk 10:28)

The answer is given before the parable even begins. The lawyer wants to know what to do, and Jesus asks, “what have you been taught to do?” To which the lawyer replies, “love.” Love with everything you’ve got. Love with every gift God has seen fit to give you. Love with your heart, with your compassion, with your empathy. Love with your soul, with your wisdom, with your hard-earned truth. Love with your strength, with your power, with your privilege. Love with your mind, with everything you’ve studied, with your ability to see and diagnose and assess. Then bring all these gifts of love and put them in service of your neighbor.

But the lawyer has heard all this before. Maybe it sounds too simplistic, too idealistic, too naïve for the complex realities of the kind of world in which they live. The kind of world in which a militarized police force walks the streets as the daily visible reminder of distant Rome; always conquering, always expanding, always impoverishing, always suppressing, always crucifying anyone who rises up, because they can. This lawyer wants a better answer. A more tactical answer. A more sophisticated answer. One that takes the social, historical and political realities of the present moment more seriously. Where does love end and something else begin? Who is our neighbor, whom we must love; and lurking behind that question, the next question, who is not our neighbor, whom we therefore must not love?

Still, Jesus does not reverse what he has already said. The wisdom and teaching we have received since the time our ancestors were taken into captivity in Babylon has not changed. The answer to this question is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. Or, as Deuteronomy puts it, “Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away … No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.” (Deut. 30:11,14) The answer is still love, but in each generation as the wheel of the cycle of violence turns, we need to be reminded again of love’s power to make all things new. So Jesus takes the wisdom of our ancestors and wraps flesh around it so that the lawyer can apprehend its radical truth.

Instead of telling a story about a Jew and a Roman, a story in which the protagonist would have been clear to the lawyer, Jesus tells a story about a man from Jerusalem who is beaten and left for dead by robbers. The robbers would seem at first to be the villains of the story, though their ethnicity is not reported. Then the parable takes a twist as first a priest, then a Levite, both knowledgeable as to Jewish law and customs, pass by without helping the man. This man, who was their countryman, they do not assist. Presumably they have their reasons. People are always able to find reasons to justify their actions. Taken from the perspective of the man lying in the ditch however, their justifications can’t mean much. His life does not #matter enough for them to stop what they are doing and give him aid. He begins to see that the worship they have been leading and the laws they have been upholding had nothing to do with his life, as it bleeds out into the ground.

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Then comes the third man, a Samaritan. Do you know who these Samaritans were? We’ve heard them described plenty of times before. They were ethnic hybrids, the product of those left behind during the Babylonian captivity and other ethnic groups. They were religious infidels, whose worship practices ran counter to the Jewish Temple establishment in Jerusalem. We’ve heard that all before, a casting of the Samaritans in some updated fantasy of the noble savage, the misunderstood biblical hero. But they were also dangerous enemies in a very real sense. There was a long history of violent conflict between Judeans and Samaritans. There were blood feuds between families and clans who’d lost children to the other. There were horrific acts of defilement carried out against each other’s holiest places. Samaritans weren’t just some tragically misunderstood foreigners, they were in a very real sense dangerous people, people made into enemies by histories of violence.

Still, it is the Samaritan who sees the beaten man bleeding in the streets who takes pity on him. It is the Samaritan who lingers on a dangerous road when there are robbers nearby. It is the Samaritan who treats his wounds, who transports him to the nearby inn and cares for him throughout the night. It is the Samaritan who pays the innkeeper to continue tending to the man and promises to return to see the job through.

What do you call a person like this Samaritan, who somehow manages to see through the veil of history and perceive not just another ethnic enemy almost dead, but a human being fighting for life? What do you think the dying man thought when he saw the Samaritan draw near? What do you think the Samaritan’s kinsmen would have called him, if they knew he’d spent his money on a Judean, their ancestral enemy? I wonder if they’d have called him a race traitor.

A race traitor. One who knowingly crosses the lines created by societies to keep people of different ethnic heritages apart. In every age there are names that get thrown at people who show love toward those the larger society has decided are “not our neighbors.” There were names you called the white women and men who worked in the Civil Rights movement. Those names haven’t died. There are names that get thrown at people working with immigrants along the border. There are names that get used with those assisting in the refugee camps in eastern Europe. There are levels of violence in the ways we talk about one another, the ways we think about one another, that take root long before the violence we see streaming on our cell phones and newsfeeds. Violence that trains us from the earliest age who is and who is not our neighbor.

But Jesus asks, “which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”

It wasn’t the people who knew how to answer the question correctly. It wasn’t the people who had the right opinions or perspectives about state-sanctioned violence in a racialized society. It was the one who acted. Not knowing if he was doing the right thing. Not sure how his own family might react. Never getting a thank you from the injured man. At cost to himself. At risk to his own life and livelihood.

I don’t know if I can agree with the Deuteronomist, who says, “surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you.” It seems pretty hard. It seems like acting against all the conditioning we’ve been given to avoid conflict, to trust authority, to play by the rules. It seems hard, but maybe not too hard to understand. Not overly complex, just really terrifying.

Which is why we have been given each other, so that we don’t have to figure this all out on our own. So that we don’t have to act in isolation. It’s terrifying to imagine acting as the Samaritan did, crossing the lines we’ve been taught never to cross, having the conversation that terrifies us, asking the questions we’ve resisted, hearing the anger and pain that confuses us, making a mistake, making another mistake, making yet another mistake, and then not giving up, not retreating back into the security of old answers to old questions, but fighting for new answers. Showing up at the rally. Writing the letter. Reading the book. Having the meal. Trying again, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind to love, to love, to love and not let yourself give in to the false expectations of fear and hate. To love your neighbor as yourself. To love your neighbor’s child as your own child. To love your neighbor’s family as your own family. To love your neighbor’s people as your own people. To love the way race traitors and crucified saviors love, to love to the end. To love so hard that the world might say, “see how they love, these Christians.”

Amen.

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