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.


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.


Sermon: Sunday, August 30, 2015: Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Deuteronomy 4:1-2,6-9  +  Psalm 15  +  James 1:17-27  +  Mark 7:1-8,14-15,21-30

I have to confess something.  I messed with the lectionary this morning. I didn’t like where the dividing line fell in the gospel reading, so I decided to read on. Let me explain.

As the shortest of the four gospels, Mark moves quickly and efficiently through its recounting of Jesus’ ministry. Wasting no time with legends of his birth, Mark launches immediately into his baptism by John and his ministry in Galilee with stories of his miraculous healings and radical teachings. Early on we get hints that he is redefining what it means to keep faith with the God of Israel, as when his family comes to claim him as he is teaching and he replies by looking around at the crowd surrounding him, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:35)

As his ministry grows he encounters opposition from those who’ve known him the longest and is rejected in his hometown of Nazareth, where he declares, “prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” (Mark 6:4) Shortly thereafter John the Baptist is killed and Jesus and his companions retreat to a deserted place so that they can rest and recover from this news. The crowds recognize him however, and follow him out to the countryside, hungry for a word. Out of compassion Jesus begins to teach them, and this moment becomes the occasion for one of the most memorable of his miracles, the feeding of the five thousand.

Again, because Mark’s gospel moves so quickly, this scene is sparsely narrated — explaining why for five weeks we left Mark and reflected on the Gospel of John’s much longer, much wordier, narration of Jesus’ teaching after the feeding of the thousands known as the “bread of life discourse.” But now that we’re back in Mark we have to bring all our questions and all our imagination to his provocative story, because Mark will not explain everything for us.

So we find ourselves at the beginning of the seventh chapter of Mark with Jesus in the countryside of northern Galilee, where Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem have come to observe his teaching and healing. As they watch him at work, what they notice is that some of his disciples were eating with unclean hands. The scriptures say that all throughout the region people were bringing the sick to Jesus on mats and that “wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.” (6:56) But rather than comment on that, what the elders noticed was that some of his followers were eating with unclean hands, so this is what they choose to comment upon when they engage with Jesus.

That’s why I get it when Jesus snaps at them, calling them hypocrites, and quoting the prophet Isaiah, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.” (Isa. 29:13) Christians have a bad history of reading this passage as an indictment of Judaism, which is really just ridiculous since Jesus is citing one of Israel’s greatest prophets to reprimand the establishment authorities in the presence of the very people, Jewish people, whom they’d failed to serve. As usual, if anyone is being indicted here it is those who hold power, institutional power, whether that be the power of the state that killed John or the power of the temple that left the hungry poor suffering in the countryside as it allied itself with Rome.

Jesus goes on to give an impromptu sermon on purity that is absolutely righteous.  Mark says,

“Then he called the crowd again and said to them, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.’” (Mark 7:14-15)

This is just beautiful to me, not just for what Jesus says, but how and to whom he speaks. Jesus is surrounded by the poor and the sick, the very people those with power and authority have disregarded. These sick, aching people have seen the elders from Jerusalem confront Jesus about their eating habits, the way they reach for the bread that will fill their empty bellies without stopping first to wash their hands. They have been shamed in public by people of rank and wealth. They are used to it. It happens all the time.

But then Jesus speaks to them, turning his attention away from those who notice their hands but not their lives, Jesus looks them in the eye and sees them and says, “Pay them no mind. It’s not what’s on your hands, but what’s in your heart, that concerns me.” Then, in a private follow-up with the disciples he explains himself, saying “it is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come…” then providing an exhaustive list of vices.

And that’s where I was supposed to draw the line and stop reading, with Jesus having stood up to the hypocrisy of the authorities and championing the cause of the poor and the weak. That’s where the lectionary wanted this object lesson to end. But I kept reading, and what follows puts Jesus in such a different light that I couldn’t help but wonder how these stories were intended to fit together.

You see after healing the sick and scolding the self-righteous, Jesus sets out with his disciples to go even further north to Tyre, a region among the Gentiles in modern day Lebanon. Mark says, “He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there” (7:4b) and I’m reminded that he still hasn’t had the retreat he was craving before the feeding of the five thousand following the death of John the Baptist. So perhaps now he has left Israel and headed north into Gentile territory precisely so that he can get some time and space to clear his head and grieve his loss and regroup from so many public encounters with the authorities.

But even in Tyre Jesus can get no rest, and soon a Gentile woman, a Syrophoenician, hears of his power and comes to beg for the life of her demon-possessed daughter. And how does Jesus, who has said that his mother and brothers and sisters are those who do the will of God; how does Jesus, who has said that it is not what goes into the mouth but what comes out of the heart that determines our purity, respond to this women? He says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” (7:27)

It’s horrible, what comes out of his mouth. Jesus responds to a mother in need, a mother not unlike those in Galilee who’d brought their children to him on mats, but not with the kind of generous and ennobling spirit that he’d used back in Israel. Instead he speaks to this desperate woman using exactly the kind of language we might have expected from the authorities, focused on ethnic purity instead of real need and honest faith.

At this point preachers and teachers can get tied into knots trying to make two thousand years of theologizing about Jesus match up with Mark’s gospel. How can Jesus, the eternal Word of God made flesh, at once both God and man, have said such a blatantly cruel, racist, nationalist thing to a despairing woman in need? Surely it is a test, or a provocation, or an intentional elevation of the tension so as to underscore the importance of the point. Surely Jesus did not just say such a thing!

But Mark is the earliest of the Gospels, unaware of the theologizing about Jesus to come, and in some ways making the most modest claims about this extraordinary figure. So if we simply let Mark tell the story Mark wants to tell about Jesus, one conclusion we might draw from this episode is that sometimes even the most radical and the most revolutionary of prophets, sometimes the most righteous and the most respected teachers and leaders, get it wrong. We are all products of our context and our history. Jesus can quote Isaiah in condemning the leaders of Israel, and in the very next instant be caught with words that stink to high heaven falling from his mouth.

But that doesn’t seem to be Mark’s point either, or at least not the fullest point this story makes. Because notice what happens after Jesus puts his foot in his mouth. The Syrophoenician woman speaks up and talks back, fighting for her child’s life, saying “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs,” and what Jesus does not do is argue with her, or try to clean up and explain away what he’d already said. He doesn’t tell her, “well, yes, #SyrophoenicianLivesMatter … but really, #AllLivesMatter.” He doesn’t say, “look, I’ve been healing the sick and confronting the powers since before you were born.” He doesn’t say, “I think you and I got off to a really bad start, let me explain what I meant.” He doesn’t say, “some of my best friends are Syrophoenician.” He just shuts up and listens, and after this woman shames him, shames Jesus, with the truth of her remarks he simply says, “For saying that you may go — the demon has left your daughter.” He cleans up his mess by doing what the woman asks, by providing what she needs, without taking credit, without superimposing his agenda on her.

This is a turning point in the Gospel of Mark, in the Jesus story. After this encounter it becomes much clearer that the Jesus movement is not simply going to be a return to a misremembered, purer past. It is going to be an expansive, boundary-breaking, ethnically-inclusive, anti-nationalist movement. Or at least the potential is there, however wrongly history unfolded thereafter. But this story remains to remind us that we are not called to be perfect, rather we are called to listen when voices pushed to the margins of society speak up and talk back to remind us that we are all heirs to the promise of abundant life, here and now, not just hereafter.

I didn’t like where the dividing line fell in this morning’s reading, because sometimes I am on one side of the line, speaking truth to power and other times I am on the other side of the line, parroting the worst of what our culture has taught me. I think these stories are meant to be told together, to remind us that all our dividing lines are false and dangerous, and that we cannot simply wrap them up in religious rationales and be satisfied with the ways things are. That real religion, pure religion, cares for all who are in distress and amends itself when we notice that it is we ourselves who have caused harm.



Sermon: Sunday, July 5, 2015: Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: 2 Samuel 5:1-5,9-10  +  Psalm 48  +  2 Corinthians 12:2-10  +  Mark 6:1-13

For those of us who preach according to a lectionary, which is what we call the cycle of readings assigned for worship, we begin to mark time by the texts. Our lectionary operates on a three year cycle, so when a set of readings comes back around it’s an opportunity to reflect on the passage of time and to ask how things have changed or haven’t since the last time we heard these words together.

The readings for this morning always jump out at me because they are the texts I preached for my trial sermon here at St. Luke’s nine years ago in 2006 when I flew up from Atlanta, Georgia to interview for this call. Back then, almost a decade ago, I was drawn to verse 11 of the 6th chapter of Mark, “If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” Kind of a risky verse for a trial sermon, but I reflected here on how hard it sometimes is to shake off the dust and move on. How we often come to define ourselves by our conflicts, and want to stay put and keep fighting, when what’s truly needed is for everyone to get a fresh start and to trust that God will keep working on each of us in other ways at other times by other means.

At that point in history St. Luke’s was on the cusp of launching a redevelopment, but struggling with a story that was being told about us: that we were too small, too old, and too worn out to do anything new.  The challenge for us was to knock the dust of those old struggles off of our sandals and stop trying to convince those whose minds were already made up about us that they were wrong. Instead, we needed to move on with our own journey, travel light, and see who was ready to join us for the miracle of rebirth that happened next.

Church of the Advent (Episcopal). Located at Logan Boulevard & Francisco Ave., Logan Square, Chicago.

Church of the Advent (Episcopal). Located at Logan Boulevard & Francisco Ave., Logan Square, Chicago.

When these texts came up three years ago it was also the Fourth of July weekend, and we were gathered with Church of the Advent, as we are this morning, but that year we met in their sanctuary and I was drawn to the story from Second Samuel of King David consolidating power and unifying the nation after a long series of violent sectarian struggles. “Look, we are your bone and flesh” say the tribes of Israel, after fighting hard against David and the nation of Judah, in an appeal to their shared memory of a time when Israel and Judah had been united.

At that point in time the question we were all asking had to do with how long our congregations could continue living out of the ethnic denominational identities that have defined us for centuries.  How much longer will we subdivide ourselves as the body of Christ by labels rooted in our immigrant past: Scottish Presbyterians, German Lutherans, Church of England, Dutch Reformed; or how long will we endure being segregated within our own denominations, which is really a coded way of asking how long white racism and the legacy of colonialism will keep us from doing the work of creating places and patterns of worship that are hospitable to the wide diversity of people who are truly our neighbors in this community, Anglo and Latino, life-long working class homeowners and young renters just passing through. When will we have our “look, we are your bone and flesh” moment with one another?

How are we different in the nine years that have passed?  How are our struggles the same three years later?  What is the word for us today?

As I prepare to begin my fourth journey through the three-year cycle with St. Luke’s, what has struck me the most about these texts at this time is how Jesus himself struggles with the power of prejudice to limit his ministry. Although he has just calmed a storm, exorcised a demon, healed a hemorrhaging woman and raised a dying girl to life, when he arrives in his hometown he is so boxed in by people’s preconceived notions of who he is based on their memories of who he was that he is unable to do any deed of power there (other than to lay hands on a few sick people and cure them, which is just tossed out there as an aside, to remind us that he is still Jesus after all).

How many of you have had a taste of what Jesus experiences here? It’s a fairly common occurrence, for those who leave home as young adults and experience some measure of success in the world to find that, when they go home, they chafe against the expectations of people who remember them from when they were children and define them by their past instead of their present. It’s the reason my sister and I turn into teenaged versions of ourselves at the holidays.

Jesus’ own ministry is deeply shaped by people’s prejudices about him (“is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” [Mark 6:3]), and as we will see in the next chapter of Mark when he encounters the Syrophoenician woman, by his own prejudices about other people as well. Half the miracle of that story, in which a non-Jewish woman begs Jesus to heal her child, and Jesus initially resists saying “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (7:27) is that Jesus overcomes his ethnocentrism and allows himself to be changed by the appeal of a woman who does not share his ethnicity, but definitely shares his humanity. When she challenges him, rather than condemn her, Jesus heals her child.

I think it must be divine providence that on this Independence Day weekend, as our two congregations are once again gathered for worship in this rapidly gentrifying neighborhood in which many of our long-time neighbors are getting pushed out by rising rents and unbalanced development; in a month in which our nation has had to grieve the loss of nine more Black lives, lives that matter, to a White racist, who also happened to be Lutheran, who still in this day and age had easy access to guns; a month in which nearly a dozen Black churches across the South have burned to the ground with at least three confirmed as arson and other investigations still pending; that the scriptures once again ask us to examine how our prejudices have stood in the way of the deeds of power God is dying to accomplish in and for us.

When Jesus, the descendent of David, the child of Mary, the one who called himself the “Son of Man,” a title sometimes translated as “the Human One” who has no place to lay his head yet makes his home in every heart comes home to you, to us, to Logan Square, to the city of Chicago, to the not-quite-yet United States of America, what deeds of power can he accomplish here and how do our prejudices about who he is, and who we are, stand in the way of who God is and what God longs to see in our lives and in the whole world?

It’s perhaps easier, though no less painful or shameful, to name the ways our prejudices stand in opposition to God’s healing and justice-making love on a societal level.  We can see how our culture’s love of money and power have manifested in the manufacture and sale of guns, in the over-development of military power and the under-development of human potential, especially in poor and working-class communities, disproportionately communities of color, across our nation. We can see how our ethic of retribution over reconciliation has led to a system of mass incarceration and built a pipeline that starts in our schools, passes through our penitentiaries, and follows ex-convicts the rest of their lives in records that can never be expunged.

But I can’t see inside your heart, and you can’t see inside mine. So I don’t know how your prejudices are standing in the way of God’s healing and justice-making love in your life. I don’t know how our many and varied histories intersect in you in ways that make it hard for you to see the full humanity of your co-workers or your neighbors, your parents or your children, your spouse or even yourself. Yes, even your relationship to your own self has been beaten and bruised by the forces of racism and sexism and heterosexism and classism and nationalism and colonialism and capitalism so that you can’t, none of us can, really see ourselves clearly anymore.

There’s not much humility in our national anthem, The Star Spangled Banner, but there is in the song we sang as we entered worship this morning. O Beautiful for Spacious Skies sounds like one of the psalms, as it sings its praises for the beauty of creation, for the achievements of the nation’s sons and daughters, but finally as it petitions God to “mend thine every flaw, confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.” It is a confession that our prejudices can’t be draped with a flag and forgotten, but that our union is flawed and can only be mended by the amazing grace of God, which meets us exactly where we are and yet calls us to become more than we’ve ever been before.