Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, August 6, 2017: Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

Text: Matthew 14:13-21

Laura James, Feeding the Five Thousand

“Feeding the Five Thousand” by Laura James

The story of the feeding of the five thousand (which is probably better named, “the feeding of the ten thousand” since “those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children”) carries the distinction of being the only miracle from Jesus’ ministry that is recounted by all four gospels. That feels significant, like coming across a passage highlighted in yellow in a used textbook. Someone before us wanted to be sure to point out that this scene is essential to understanding the meaning of the greater story.

The scene opens by referencing a tragedy that’s just taken place somewhere else: “Now when Jesus heard about the beheading of John the Baptist, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” (Matt. 14:13) John died at a feast, a birthday party for Herod the ruler, who’d wanted to get rid of John but was afraid of how the crowds with whom he was popular would react. But when he made a promise to his wife’s daughter that he would give her whatever she might ask for, and she asked for John’s head on a platter, Herod was forced to choose between his fear of the people and his public image, and he chooses to save face by having John killed.

This is all background information, but it’s important as we try to make sense of Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the crowd to understand that feasts were happening all the time — it’s just that they were typically held by the wealthy as a way of demonstrating their power in order to cement their relationships with the class of people just below them in a system of cascading patronage that started much higher than Herod, who was himself a vassal of the Roman Empire.

nero-denarius-60-61-adWealth and food and power were all tied together in ancient Rome. The connection was made explicit in the currency of the time, which featured an image of Emperor Nero on one side of the coin and the goddess of agriculture — Ceres (from whose names we get the word “cereal”) — on the other paired with the words, “the annual harvest of the emperor.” Money was intended to represent the wealth that comes from having access to food, all of which was understood as trickling down from the wealth of the empire.

In reality, empire was (and still is) a violent way of ordering the world. It takes the good gifts of the earth and commodifies them, pretends that the things God provides for all people belong to only a few people who can then leverage our need for them into other forms of wealth and power. The underlying economic violence of this system erupts into moments of public violence, like John’s beheading or the president’s public celebration of police brutality,  that function to keep people in their place.

State Violence

This is what Jesus needs to get away from when he hears of John’s death, and the crowds as well. So they leave the so-called “civilized” places and head to the deserted wilderness, a political blank canvas, a fresh start, and there Jesus demonstrates a different kind of political economy by providing a feast that is the exact opposite of the one Herod had hosted.

The crowd that frightened Herod follows Jesus, and out of compassion for their plight Jesus heals their sick. The Greek word used here to describe the sick (ἄρρωστος) carries the connotation of weakness or feebleness, just the sort of people who lose out in competitions for “survival of the fittest.” Rather than bestowing the gifts of life and health only on those who have something to offer him in return, Jesus models a vision for community where the sick and the weak have access to health and healing on the basis of God’s compassion for all that is living.

But as the day goes on and the needs grow, the disciples worry that this shadow economy of lovingkindness will not be enough to meet the real needs of this massive crowd. “Send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves,” they say. Send them back to that other economy where everything is for sale. These problems are too big for us to address on our own.

Of course, Jesus had recently been preaching about this very dynamic. He’d told them the story of a tiny mustard seed that grows into a tree that shelters the birds of the air. He’d reminded them how just a little yeast is enough to leaven an entire loaf of bread. When he asked if they’d understood what he was saying, they replied “yes”; though, now he has to wonder. So, once again, Jesus shows those who would follow him how just a little — five loaves and two fish — can become more than enough, enough for ten thousand with a dozen baskets left over.

Of all the things the scripture wants us to remember, this is the miracle that shows up in all four gospels, highlighted in yellow by whoever owned this book before us: God uses small things to make big changes! God uses an oppressed and colonized people to break the power of Pharaoh. God uses a child conceived by an unwed young woman to call to account the power of Rome. God uses what is weak to shame the mighty. God uses small things to make big changes!

Of all the things I will remember as I begin now to leave St. Luke’s, I will never forget what this community has taught me over and over and over again: God uses small things to make big changes.

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I don’t have to tell you the whole story of how small we were. Let’s just say we had one person for each of those baskets of leftovers. But God used this small group of people who’d been defined by their deficits to build something powerful: a home for all manner of people like the mustard tree; a loaf that expanded in proportion to the needs and hungers of the people who came to this table.

I want you to be powerful. I want the church to be powerful. Not the kind of power that shows itself off with feasts that reinforce the violent status quo, but power that meets the weak and the feeble — you know, people like us — with love and compassion and offers a glimpse of a world in which the daily bread we’re always praying for is provided for all.

Can you envision what it would look like for St. Luke’s to step more fully into this story? We, who have gathered in deserted places to demand housing for our neighbors, who have launched pantries and dinners to feed our neighbors, who have marched to Springfield to protect our neighbors. What miracle of abundance is God calling out of St. Luke’s in the years to come?

Those are the questions you’ll be considering this fall, after I’m gone. All year long the Council and the Generosity Network has been laying the groundwork for a process of planning for the future that will engage our entire community in asking these sorts of questions:

  • What is the story we are telling about St. Luke’s?
  • What is the story we’d like to be able to tell about St. Luke’s?
  • What is the impact we make as St. Luke’s?
  • How are we being transformed as members of St. Luke’s?
  • How is the world being changed because we gather as St. Luke’s?

Do those questions seem too big for a church our size? Do you worry that we won’t have enough people, enough money, enough time, enough “pastoral leadership” to dream so big?

Haven’t you heard? Haven’t you understood all this? God uses small things to make big changes.

God uses small things to make big changes!

The miracle highlighted in yellow since the story’s beginning is you.

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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?

Jamie_Kalven-3-815x630

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, 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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