Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, June 18, 2017: 2nd Sunday after Pentecost

Text: Romans 5:1-8

 

Louie C.K., star of 'Louie' arrives at the FX Network series premiere of 'Wilfred' and season two launch of 'Louie' in Hollywood

Louis C.K.

The comedian Louis C.K. has a bit in one of his stand-up routines in which he points out the reality of Christian cultural dominance.

 

“I always tell my kids, ‘There are many religions in the world and they’re all equal, but the Christians are the main one.’ That’s what I tell them. ‘The Christians won. They’re the winners, so act accordingly. Congratulate Christians when you meet them, because they won the world.’

And it’s true. It’s true! We love to tell ourselves, ‘Every religion is exactly…’ No, no they’re not. The Christians won everything, a long time ago. If you don’t believe me, let me ask you a question: what year is it?”

He goes on from there to illustrate the point, imagining a conversation between a couple of grown adults back in the year 3. How do they explain that? Or people living before the “common era,” what we used to call “B.C.” in an effort to acknowledge that not everyone makes the same confessional claims about the human being named Jesus that Christians recognize as the Child of God and Lord of Creation. So now, instead of referring to things which occurred before his birth as “B.C.” we say that they happened “B.C.E.” before the common era. Which, instead of forcing a non-Christian to publicly order time according to someone’s else’s religion, now allows them to simply acknowledge that time is most commonly ordered by someone else’s religion, though not their own, if they should even happen to be religious.

For the next ten weeks we’re going to be focusing very intentionally on the book of Romans — which, in its own odd way, requires us to unwind this way of thinking about time. Like those imagined adults trying to talk about their age at the dawn of the common era, Romans is a piece of religious literature that is trying to talk about religious identity before the labels we use today were being applied. Unlike some books of the bible, the scholarly consensus is quite firm, not only about the fact that this letter is authentically Pauline, but even about the date it was written. The common assumption is that this letter can be dated to somewhere in the mid to late 50s, which places it twenty-plus years after the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth.

So try to hold on to that. This letter from Paul to the church in Rome, a letter that will repeatedly refer to the tensions between Jews who confess Jesus as the messiah and Jews who do not and Gentiles who name Jesus as Lord and Gentiles who do not, this letter knows nothing about what we would call “Christianity.” There is no “Holy Roman Catholic Church” here. There’s not even an inkling of what a Protestant might someday be. There is the Jewish people, the people of Israel, living under Roman rule in a religiously pluralistic world in which the empire doesn’t really much care who or what you worship as long as it doesn’t get in the way of the empire’s insatiable appetite for growth and domination. Back in Jerusalem there is a small, but growing, community of Jews who believe that the long-expected messiah who would come to liberate them from Rome the way Moses liberated the people from Pharaoh had come in the most shocking way imaginable: as a countryside prophet who’d faced off against the empire and been killed for it. This Jesus, they said, God raised up from the dead and now sits at God’s right hand.

And as the community of Jewish believers in Jerusalem focused on sharing this message with other Jews, Paul — a scholar of Jewish law and one-time persecutor of the followers of Jesus — has been radicalized. Not only has he gone from persecuting the followers of Jesus to joining them, he has become an apostle to the Gentiles preaching that Jesus had come to liberate not only the nation of Israel, but all of humanity, and even all of creation!

That improbable message, delivered by that unlikely person, is the one that Louis C.K. says “wins.” And from the very beginning, it is a message that has to deal with race.

Now, in saying that, I’m intentionally blurring the very lines of history that I was just trying to tidy up. Because, to say that the gospel message preached by Paul had to deal with race is to invoke a concept that means something very specific today; something loaded with a legacy of violent power relations in much the same way that our way of keeping time globally by tracking “the year of our Lord” comes with a legacy of violent colonialism blessed by a church that Paul could never have imagined.

What Paul would have had no trouble imagining was the deep suspicion and hostility that existed between Jews and Gentiles. It is the same suspicion and hostility that exists anywhere between communities that are scapegoated and targeted by the regime in power and those who benefit from that same regime. It’s not that Jews and Gentiles didn’t have dealings with each other out in the marketplace. Not that Jews and Gentiles didn’t know each other’s names and exchange sincere and friendly words. It’s not even that there could be no friendship between Jews and Gentiles, or even love that crossed lines and produced children. It’s that Jews carried the memories of centuries of occupation and oppression, of being targeted and scapegoated.

In fact, in the decade just prior to Paul’s letter to the Romans, the Roman emperor Claudius had expelled all the Jews from Rome, as had happened twenty years earlier, when Jesus himself would have been a young adult, before the start of his public ministry. Jews knew that the regime in power only tolerated them so long as they remembered their place. So long as they didn’t make any moves to grow their base, or change their situation in life. It’s no wonder then that Paul spent plenty of time in prison, because his ministry was about building community — which is to say, building power — across racial lines.

Paul’s letter to the Romans explicitly addresses the barely buried lines that divide this multicultural church. The letter, which can be divided into four parts, begins by spelling out exactly what observant Jews would have thought of the Gentiles in their midst, a kind of racial profiling. Then, Paul flips the script on them, accusing them of hypocrisy for being guilty of all the same vices they abhorred in their neighbors. Their hypocrisy stinks all the more, Paul presses, because though guilty of the same offenses, they believe themselves to be superior to those they hate because of their racial and religious heritage. This, Paul deconstructs, returning to the story of Abraham their ancestor and reimagining the terms by which Abraham is to be remembered as righteous — not as the father to a nation, but as a human being trusting entirely in God’s righteousness. Ethnic pride is replaced with radical trust that God is working through history for the redemption of everyone and everything that God has made. Thus we are justified by faith, apart from any works prescribed by the law. (Rom. 3:28)

This is how we arrive at the passage from Romans read this morning, which is the beginning of the second full section of the letter. Already Paul has named the ethnic tensions in the room. Already he has invoked the long legacy of animus and prejudice. No one needs to spell out the reasons why it is hard for Jews and Gentiles to just “get along.”

You know what I mean? You hear what I’m saying?

 

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Philando Castile’s mother, Valerie, reacts to the not guilty verdict.

Think of the anti-Muslim demonstrations here in Chicago this past week. Think of the families and colleagues of the politicians who were the target of the gunman in Washington, D.C. Think of Philando Castile’s mother raging at the nation that robbed her of her son and denied him justice in death. Think of all these people and their stories, their lives, their hopes, their anger, their anguish. Who are you in this story? Who are you in this story that repeats generation after generation, this story of people sitting in a room, divided by their shared history, longing for a future better than their past?

 

Those stories were seated side by side in a room somewhere in Rome in the mid to late 50s: stories of ancient oppression and violent colonization, stories of radical conversion and unlikely community, stories of power being built across lines meant to divide. But the tension is simmering, just under the surface, the way it always is. Then someone stands up and reads a letter to the congregation from a faraway teacher and the part you hear with fresh ears is this:

“Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Rom. 5:1-5)

This is the promise of God, as reliable as the grace that comes to us by faith, that in this community of people divided by history but united by love, we do not have to remain quiet about what harms us! We do not have to pretend that we are all “alright” when the world is doing everything it can to exploit us and pit us against each other. We do not have to blame ourselves for the pain we are living with any more than we need to blame each other for the violent legacies we have inherited. Instead we can boast in our sufferings. We can tell the truth about how this present age has harmed us because our faith rests in the God who is bringing to birth a new creation. We can see the agonizing spasms of this present moment as the prelude to something new and better.

We can boast in our sufferings because we know that what we can share with one another has the power to build us up instead of tear us down. What we can share with each other produces endurance. What we can share with each other produces character, which is to say that it changes us. It takes the raw clay out of which we are made and molds us into something new. We are being transformed by one another’s suffering. We are bearing one another’s burdens. We are saying and doing things that feel outside our comfort zone. We are taking bigger risks for the sake of a bigger community, a wider sense of clan, an expanding vision of humanity in which none of us can claim superiority over another on the basis of the identities we inherited but never asked for.

This character, the character that is forming each of us and all of us together, is the source of our hope. It is no naive, amnesiac hope. It is the hope that remembers all we have suffered, all we have overcome, all that God has brought us through. It is the trust that God will do it again, and again, and again. That God is not done with us until we understand that “us” means all of us. That is the hope that does not disappoint.

It is a hope born of love, which is the subject of this letter.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, January 29, 2017: Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Texts: Micah 6:1-8  +  Psalm 15  +  1 Corinthians 1:18-31  +  Matthew 5:1-12

Friday was International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The date, January 27th, is tied to the date in 1945 on which the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp where 1.1 million Jews and other “undesirables” were killed was liberated by the Russians. To mark the day, I took my first trip to the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in Skokie. The museum is laid out in such a way that visitors essentially walk a timeline, viewing artifacts, reading placards and watching short movies describing how an entire nation was swept by anti-democratic forces that ultimately invested total power in a racist dictator who then presided over the largest genocide our world has ever known.

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On this particular day, at this specific day in history, it was impossible not to notice the moments along that timeline when foreign nations had the power to rescue those Jews and other refugees of war fleeing for their lives, but chose not to.  img_0423The United States and other nations built “paper walls” along our borders, burying immigrants in policies and procedures that made it nearly impossible to enter the country legally.

I suspect many of you have seen the shameful bit of American history that’s resurfaced on the internet this past week: the saga of the German ocean liner named the MS St. Louis which crossed the Atlantic in 1939 carrying over 900 Jewish refugees from Germany in the hopes of resettling them in Americas. The ship was denied entry into Cuba, the United States, and Canada and was forced to return to Europe where a quarter of its passengers later died in Nazi death camps.

After the war, even after we’d learned the full extent of what had taken place, still America was reluctant to welcome the survivors of the holocaust upon our shores.

Libby A’Hearn Gilmore, a beloved former member of St. Luke’s and 8th-grade teacher who also took her students to the Holocaust museum this past week shared the following on Facebook:

Americans knew that the Nazis were persecuting the Jewish people and yet they stood idly by. We were prejudiced and so concerned with our own economic well-being that we did not want to intervene or welcome Jewish refugees. Now, decades later, most Americans look back at this inaction with shame and regret … Americans look back at the tragedy of the Holocaust and think, “I wish we would have prevented this tragedy.” How will future generations judge our response to the Syrian refugee crisis? We must continue to welcome Syrian refugees and increase our quotas.

Within days of her post, our new president signed executive orders that indefinitely bar Syrian refugees from entering the United States and effectively block entry by citizens from predominantly Muslim nations.

Racism and religion are as old and inseparable as scripture itself. Our holy book contains in both testaments accounts of God’s people purposefully self-segregating and violently resisting calls for transformation and renewal. Over and over again we choose to ignore and deny what God is dying to show us about the unity of creation and our common inheritance that defies all attempts to be confined to any particular race, class, or nation. We continually choose the lesser gods of ethnic pride, upward mobility, and nationalism.

“But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.” (1 Cor. 1:27-29)

Lest we miss the point: God chose, God chose, God chose. Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth stands as a rebuttal to marketplace spirituality, relativized religion, choose-your-own deity, “we’ll just have to agree to disagree” rhetoric. God takes sides and, depending on where we’ve chosen to place our bodies or stockpile our wealth, it may not be our side.

It is certainly not the side of complacency in the presence of suffering, or conspicuous consumption in the presence of poverty. It is not the side of passivity in the face of violence and oppression, or ambivalence in the moment of crisis. God takes the side of the poor, the mourners, the meek, those who crave righteousness, who show mercy, who model purity, who make peace, whose commitment to God’s reign leads to persecution and slander.

When Jesus pronounced God’s blessing upon the poor, the mourners, the meek and all the rest, he was not echoing the conventional wisdom of the day. He was taking sides with those the Empire called “losers.” He was casting his lot with the world’s undesirables. He was planting the seed that, once planted in the earth, would grow to become the nation of Denmark sheltering Jewish refugees and white college students on integrated buses bombed by the Klan. Power and privilege emptying itself for the sake of “what is low and despised in the world.”

So today, as we gather to receive God’s blessings at font and table, we must remember all those others whom God is blessing this day. We must hear the Beatitudes as Jesus might speak them if he were delivering the sermon at this moment in time, in this place, under this Empire:

Blessed are the migrants, for their citizenship is in heaven.

Blessed are the refugees and asylum seekers, for they shall find safety.

Blessed are those whose family members died trying to get here, for they shall be consoled.

Blessed are those who march, who make calls, who write, who organize, who never give up, for they shall be able to live with themselves.

Blessed are the Muslims. Blessed are the Syrians and the Iranians, the Iraqis and the Libyans, the Somalis and the Sudanese and the Yemenis, for they shall be called children of God.

Blessed are you when people call you dreamers or idealists, when they call you soft or stupid when they attack you in public or fall silent over dinner.

Rejoice and be glad, for you are standing in the lineage of the long line of God’s prophets who have remembered in every age that we are one, and we are God’s, so we belong to each other and are called to be a blessing upon the Earth.

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, December 11, 2016: Third Sunday of Advent

Texts: Isaiah 35:1-10  +  Psalm 146:5-10  +  James 5:7-10  +  Matthew 11:2-11

I took a class in college called something like “Conceptual Physics,” but which we all called “Physics for Poets.”  It was a physics class without any math, mostly taken by English and other humanities majors in order to fulfill a distribution requirement in the sciences. We studied things like Newton’s law of universal gravitation and Einstein’s theory of special relativity using stick figures named Moe and Joe sketched out on the chalkboard by our professor, Dr. Kim.

I don’t really fancy myself a poet, though I try my hand occasionally, but the link between the science of the observable world and the theologies that connect my experience of the world to my knowledge of myself remains. Physics sometimes, unexpectedly, helps me understand religious concepts. For instance, hope.

Werner Heisenberg

Werner Heisenberg

The German physicist Werner Heisenberg, a pioneer of quantum physics, published a paper in 1927 that described the unavoidable imprecision that enters when trying to plot both the position and momentum of an object.  He was thinking of unimaginably small objects, like electrons or photons I suppose, not soccer balls.  His idea, which we now call Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, says that the more closely you try to pin down where a thing is, the less accurately you can say how quickly it is moving, and (I think) what direction it is moving in.  Conversely, the more accurately you describe the velocity of a thing, the less accurately you can describe just exactly where the thing itself is.

Now, remember, Heisenberg was writing about quantum physics, laws of nature operating at an unseen level.  Fortunately for us, for most of our waking days, we do a pretty good job of determining where, how fast, and in what direction objects around us are moving (which is why we are able to play soccer). But when we begin asking questions about the inconceivably small, invisible and practically undetectable world around us, operating at the microscopic level, different rules apply.

So, and here’s another piece of physics for us to mull over, the harder you try to observe things at this level of existence, the more likely you are to actually alter what you are looking at.  This is called the “observer effect,” and if you’ve ever used a tire gauge to check the pressure in your tires, you already know what I’m talking about.  You know how this works, you unscrew the tiny cap to the inner tube of your tire and, as you apply the gauge to the tire, you hear the hiss of air being released.  You wanted to know the pressure in your tire, but the very act of measuring the pressure has changed the pressure itself.  In quantum mechanics the same thing happens.  In order to observe objects at the sub-atomic level, like an electron, we have to direct photons at it, which actually changes the path of the thing we’re trying to observe.  There is no neutral observer at this level of science – to watch is to participate.

A long time ago I picked up a habit from a dear friend of mine who has spent most of her life practicing the art of counseling and, in particular, counseling people around issues of oppression and its impact on their lives. She very intentionally greets people by asking, “what’s new and good?” I’m sure you’ve heard me repeat the greeting plenty of times myself.

This isn’t arbitrary on my part.  It’s not just another way of saying, “what’s up?”  Although I’m interested in knowing what’s persistently old and difficult, I often choose to begin small groups by asking “what’s new and good?” because I believe that choosing to focus, training yourself to observe, what is new and good in the world is a spiritual practice. Although each of us has a multitude of stories we could choose to tell about our lives, when we practice looking for the new and the good, we are choosing to find evidence that the past doesn’t define the future – that old hurts do not cut off the possibility of future healing, and that signs of that new life are already appearing.

As with any spiritual practice, choosing to look for what is new and good in the world is not easy and does not come naturally for most of us.  Like the painful throbbing of a stubbed toe, old injuries stick with us and demand our attention.  Chronic pain, ongoing illnesses and the injustice of oppressive systems that surround us make it difficult to concentrate on what is emerging and new, what is healing and hopeful.

The season of Advent is much longer and much harder than we often care to admit.  We say that it is the four weeks before Christmas, but in another sense, it is our whole lives.  We spend our whole lives waiting for the vision of the prophet Isaiah to come true,

“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom…

the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water…

and the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing”

The wildernesses in which we wander feel so arid, and maybe especially so during this season when the desire to create the perfect Christmas for our families and children is at odds with the struggles we face at work, at home, or as a nation.  Our country feels more divided than at any moment in recent memory. Isaiah’s promises feel far off, so far off that we doubt we will ever see them in our own life.

cwyenjqwqaey7woMartin Luther King, Jr. famously said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”   Justice, these days, can feel hard to find.  It can seem tiny in the face of personal tragedies and ongoing wars, almost microscopic.  We would like to know precisely where God’s justice is, and when it will arrive.  But theological physics seems to indicate that we cannot know precisely where God’s justice is and how quickly it is moving – only that it is on the way, and that our own search for the signs of God’s justice, in fact, changes the world we are trying to observe.

So, in this moment when racist organizations we once imagined to be on the fringes of society are gaining confidence and organizing themselves into a global movement, I am choosing to celebrate the news that the Army Corps of Engineers sided with the water protectors at Standing Rock. I am finding hope in images of military veterans kneeling before elders of the Lakota Sioux tribe, offering an apology for centuries of violent oppression and exploitation of Native peoples. As we listen to newly emboldened anti-immigrant rhetoric moving from the margin to the middle of American discourse, I am encouraged by the actions of states like California and sanctuary cities like Chicago that are putting mechanisms in place to resist mass deportations should the federal government move against our neighbors under the cover of paranoid fantasies and slanderous lies.

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Photo Credit: Josh Morgan for the Huffington Post

I am looking for what is new and good in the world.  I am perfecting my perceptions.  I am practicing hope, and I am waiting with patience for the fulfillment of God’s promises – knowing that as I look for evidence of God’s work in the world, I am drawn into that very work.

What are you looking at this Advent season?  What are you looking for?  How are you training yourself to seek and to find evidence of God’s movement in the world? I know it’s hard. I know that! The temptation to constantly rehash all that is old and wrong and broken is ever-present. But I also know that there are no neutral observers. To watch is to participate. It matters which stories we tell. It matters, the conversations we have. Do you say it’s all falling apart, or do you say the moment for radical transformation is finally upon us? It matters!

Stay awake, therefore, and watch for the coming of the Lord.

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