Sermons

Sermon: Monday, September 25, 2017: Lectionary 25 / Proper 20

This sermon was preached in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC) on Monday, September 25th.

Texts: Jonah 3:10 — 4:11  +  Psalm 145:1-8  +  Matthew 20:1-16

In my own personal history of interpretation, this parable of Jesus has gone through a series of evolutions — each one raising different questions, none fully exhausting the possibilities of the story, which I suspect is an intentional teaching strategy on Jesus’ part.

godly-consumer-art1As a confirmand, this story was presented to me as a parable of grace. The workers clearly perform different amounts of labor, yet are rewarded equally. I was nine years old when I got my first paper route to earn money toward the plane ticket that would take me to Thailand with my parents when we adopted my sister. As soon as I was legally able, at age fourteen, I got a part-time job at McDonald’s after school and on the weekends, so that I’d have some spending money to keep up with the consumer demands placed on young people who want to fit in with their peers. Early on, I’d accepted the social contract that my time was a commodity to be bought and sold on the labor market. As such, the wage slave in me knew that this story was, somehow, unfair. People who work more hours should get more pay.

But, I was taught, grace is not for sale and cannot be earned — and this is a story about grace. So the hard working student in me set his mind to mastering this bit of Lutheran dogma — there is nothing I can say or do to earn God’s grace, love, or forgiveness. God, like the owner of the vineyard, is free to do as God wishes. And what God wishes is for everyone to live upon the earth equally.

Later on, after college, I spent a year teaching junior high in the Boston Public School system. I learned a lot that year about the art of teaching, stuff I’d read in books about developmental psychology took on three dimensions in the young people with whom I spent my days. As I struggled to scale the undergraduate education of which I was so proud down to an age-appropriate takeaway for the twelve to fourteen year olds before me, I began to wonder what had been stripped out of my own Christian education and formation.

Like this parable. Was God really like the owner of the McDonald’s franchise down the street from my folks’ house in Des Moines? Was the only thing being critiqued in this story the sense of injustice felt by the workers when the value of their labor was set aside for some kind of non-negotiated guaranteed income? I’d had just enough exposure to both Marx and post-modernism in college to be suspicious of this (and every) text. I wanted better answers to my questions.

In seminary I learned to read scripture with an awareness of the history surrounding each text, to ask questions about how power and wealth operated in the lives of the people who would have heard these stories first so that I could make better guesses about what these stories might have sounded like to their ears. I began to learn how military occupation had transformed a subsistence economy into an export economy, how ancestral lands had been stolen by invading powers, how peoples who’d once worked the land or fished the sea to feed their families now worked the land and fished the sea to earn a wage off of which their families could barely survive. I wondered why Jesus would tell such people a story about a land owner who took away their last inalienable asset, their labor, and would identify God with such an actor. God as the conquering power, the robber baron, the proto-industrialist, the erratic capitalist. My childhood faith held firm, that God wishes for everyone to live upon the earth equally, but how this story conveyed that message was far less clear.

In 1989 Peggy McIntosh published the article, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” giving fresh language and a new conceptual framework to an enduring problem. Twenty years later in 2009 she published a shorter, lesser known, article titled, White People Facing Race: Uncovering the Myths that Keep Racism in Place. In it, McIntosh asserts that white people “resist looking at racism because we fear damage to ourselves as ‘good people’ in the ‘greatest country’ in the world,” and asks the question, “how have whites kept such a strong sense of pride and deservedness?”

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The answer she proposes is that white people have been raised on five strong cultural myths: meritocracy, manifest destiny, white racelessness, monoculture, and white moral elevation. It is the first of these myths, the myth of meritocracy, that draws my attention as I think about this strange parable of Jesus and wonder what he was doing when he told it to these occupied people in first century Palestine.

In her essay, McIntosh defines meritocracy as

“The myth that the individual is the only unit of society, and that whatever a person ends up with must be what [they] individually wanted, worked for, earned and deserved. This myth rests on the assumption that what people experience; how they see, feel, think, and behave; and what they are capable of accomplishing are not influenced by any social system or circumstance. The myth of meritocracy acknowledges no systems of oppression or privilege that, for various people and in various situations, could make life arbitrarily more, or less, difficult.”

When I look back and try to remember what nine year old Erik thought, as he delivered the newspaper; or what fourteen year old Erik thought, as he passed milkshakes through the window at the drive through, it’s complicated. There was some resentment, in that I realized that not everyone seemed to need to work in the ways I did to have the things I wanted. And there was some pride in discovering that when I worked hard, I could affect my environment. As a young person, who often had very little control over my environment, this was an empowering discovery. But I suspect it also laid the groundwork for a false logic that the powers of racism and capitalism later exploited: the assumption that everyone could just do what I did and get what I’d gotten. The myth of meritocracy.

I wonder if Jesus told this parable to people whose ancient ways of being and belonging were being disrupted as a way of agitating them, intentionally provoking them, helping them to remember that they had once been more than wage slaves and that in God’s economy they’d never been slaves at all. Could it be that this story wasn’t comparing God to a wealthy landowner, but instead critiquing the ways that both oppressor and oppressed come to accept and internalize the myths that structure and support all the violence that follows from them?

The myth of meritocracy is just that, a myth. It’s simply impossible that any of us is self-made. We are all products of the complex web of relationships that connects us to one another. For this reason, it’s just as impossible to say that any of us are getting what we deserve in any individual sense. Individually we are all simultaneously paying it forward and cashing in on the labor of others. It is only collectively that we might be able to say that we are reaping what we have sown.

Therefore, because we have sown fear of our neighbors, we have reaped this new travel ban. Because we have sown colonialism we have reaped devastation in the form of hurricane damage in Puerto Rico and throughout the Caribbean that could have been mitigated if the United States had invested in infrastructure and the economy long ago. Because we have sown white supremacy and enforced it with a militarized police force, we have reaped a national discourse in which taking a knee and proclaiming that Black Lives Matter is tantamount in the eyes of many to an act of treason. Here, the “we” I speak of stands in for all the various estate owners in my current understanding of this parable of Jesus; who are, most often, white people.

But our unpacking of this parable remains incomplete if we do not also ask ourselves how we have internalized the myth of meritocracy. How old were each of you when you learned the rules of this deadly game? When and how did you start playing by the rules? How has accepting the rules of this rigged game saved your life? How has it destroyed your relationships? What did you have to give up to get over?

I don’t think my confirmation teachers were lying to me when they bottom lined this parable as a story demonstrating that God’s love is free and cannot be earned. I just think they knew that we were only just beginning to understand the rules of the game, and that they themselves were caught up in the myth. I still believe, I know, that God wishes for everyone to live upon the earth equally. I also believe, I know, that Jesus will keep troubling my certainties and disrupting my attempts to accommodate myself to the lies this world tells, until we can all remember that we are all in this together.

Amen.

Hear this sermon preached aloud here.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, August 20, 2017: Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Isaiah 56:1,6-8  +  Psalm 67  +  Romans 11:1-2a,29-32  +  Matthew 15:10-28

Jesus called to the crowd and said to them, “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”

It was a provocative statement. By referencing “what goes into the mouth,” Jesus is playing identity politics, intentionally provoking the crowd and raising tension in the scene. “What goes into the mouth” is a reference to dietary law, to the Torah, to ideas about purity found in the book of Leviticus. It brings to mind not only laws about what can and cannot be eaten, but who can and cannot be married, who is and is not part of the people called “Israel.” The moment Jesus says, “it’s not what goes into the mouth that defiles” he has issued a very specific challenge to the idea of ethnic nationalism that was a given norm in his day.

Ethnic nationalism. God save us from ethnic nationalism.

 

You know, that’s not just the plea of a broken and exhausted heart — which is exactly how I expect we are feeling after a week of repulsive demonstrations of racist demonstrations and defenses of white supremacy: broken and exhausted — it is also a description of what is happening in this biblical story. God is saving us from ethnic nationalism.

“It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person,” Jesus says. It is not our ideas of ethnic purity and racial superiority that define us, Jesus implies. “But it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”

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“Blood and Soil”

Where to even begin? The things we have heard coming out of people’s mouths in recent days. They turn my stomach. “Blood and soil.” “You will not replace us.” “Jews will not replace us.” Words even more vulgar than these. The rallying cries of the Nazis and the Klan, which we’re supposed to call “neo” to indicate that this is the new incarnation of racism, except nothing about it feels new at all.

Jesus exposes the ultimate consequences of constructing an identity, personal or national, on ideas of race and ethnicity. Because it seems to be almost second nature for us to deride, degrade, despise whatever is different. Jesus says as much in his explanation of the parable, “out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person.” (Mt. 15:1-28) In other words, we ought to be less concerned with the dangers we imagine others represent, and more concerned with the very real and ever present dangers that live within our own hearts.

Then, in an ironic twist, the scene shifts and we get an illustration of just how hard it is to do the work of uncovering our own biases and prejudices. Having just lectured the disciples and the crowds on the dangers of ethnic nationalism, Jesus encounters a Caananite woman in desperate need of aid — her daughter is being tormented by a demon — and Jesus sends her away precisely because of her ethnicity. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” I came to take care of my own. Foreigners go home. Whites only. That kind of talk.

It’s shocking. This is not the Jesus we know, not the Jesus we talk about. This Jesus punctures the myth of perfection we’ve wrapped around history and shows us something troubling. Something, perhaps, we’d rather not see.

How many times over the course of the last two weeks have you heard someone say, “This is not who we are as a nation!” “This is not my America.” But, of course, we know that this in fact is who we are as a nation. This is our America. These are the myths upon which our nation was built. This is the original sin of our birth. We are a nation built on the lie of race. The power and prosperity this country has amassed over the last two hundred and fifty years was stolen from indigenous peoples, extracted from enslaved African peoples, and compounded by exploited immigrant peoples. This is who we are as a nation. Still. Today. As we pursue trade policy that keeps our goods cheap by exploiting foreign labor. As we preserve what we have secured by the threat of violence. You don’t have to march with a tiki torch to benefit from the racism, the ethnic nationalism, that built this country and underwrites the privileges we take for granted.

indexThat’s the nature of sin, it captures us in its constructs whether we choose to participate or not. We are not pure or impure on the basis of our individual choices or decisions. We are, as Dr. King said back in 1959, “tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.  And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” He went on to say, “For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.  This is the way God’s universe is made; this is the way it is structured.”

It seems also to be part of the nature of our sin that we quickly perceive the ways we are oppressed, but ignore or deny the power we have to oppress others. So Jesus, who is able to see so clearly how the purity codes enshrined in the law of Israel have engendered a spirituality of separatism cannot see how he himself has internalized that ethos. He, who has the power to heal, does not immediately recognize his own power and privilege as he encounters this Caananite woman. As prepared as he was to notice and name the sin around him, he was not immediately ready to confront the sin within himself.

That, of course, is a heretical statement. I’ve just uttered heresy. Mark the date and time. Scripture, elsewhere, says, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us” (2 Cor. 5:21), and that’s fine for the argument Paul is making to the Corinthians. But here, I think, scripture is showing us something equally true, equally valuable. Something we need to pay attention to and not explain away. Jesus, the Beloved child of God, the one the church has called fully God and fully human, shows us what it looks like when the myth of perfection cracks against the facts of history. When gospel promise meets human prejudice. The one we least expect to participate in the broken structures of human sin, who has just condemned ethnic nationalism and called on those who follow him to watch what comes out of their mouths, calls this woman, a mother fighting for her child’s life, a dog.

You hear the insult don’t you?

He calls this woman, a Caananite woman, a woman of color, he calls her a dog.

You hear the word, don’t you?

This ugliness is in us all. I’m sorry, but it just is. No matter how many workshops you’ve been to. No matter how many friends you have who are Black, or Trans, or immigrants, or disabled. No matter where you studied abroad, or served for a year as a missionary. Our hearts carry the scars of centuries, even millenia, of division. We learn the alphabet of its violent words before we are old enough to speak in subtle gestures, in micro-aggressions. We learn to fear and despise whatever is not us, then we try to unlearn it, then we feel guilt and shame for having been taught it, then we feel powerless to end it, so then we take one of a dozen different paths: we ignore it, we deny it, we rationalize it, we defend it, we embrace it — or we commit to dismantling it, without holding ourselves to the expectation that perfection will somehow be reached this side of eternity.

Jesus, in his humanity, does the thing we have all done. He says exactly the wrong thing. But she does not give up, she argues with him, she takes his insult and turns it back on him. She wrestles with God, like Jacob along the banks of the Jabbok.

And wasn’t it by wrestling with God that Israel got its name? This thing the Caananite woman does, isn’t it so like what Jacob did when he said, “I will not let you go until you bless me!” What would it look like, if a nation, a people, were defined not by adherence to an impossible idea of purity, but by a shared commitment to wrestle together with God, to hold on for dear life until we are blessed, to weave the single garment of destiny, to embrace the inescapable network of mutuality?

For me, it looks like baptism. Ordinary water combined with God’s promise that all people are God’s people. Water that makes us pure, not by erasing our difference, but by washing away everything that hides the image of God native to us all.

This morning we have baptized Sophie Geneva, revealing the truth that she belongs to God. So do you. So do I. So does everybody. We make this claim by faith, trusting in God to heal us all.

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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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