Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, March 12, 2017: Second Sunday in Lent

Texts: Genesis 12:1-4a  +  Psalm 121  +  Romans 4:1-5, 13-17  +  John 3:1-17

 

Pádraig

Pádraig Ó Tuama

“You are the place I stand on the day when my feet are sore.” That’s the English translation for an old Irish saying I recently heard on an episode of “OnBeing,” offered by Pádraig Ó Tuama — poet, theologian, and leader of the Corrymeela community in Northern Ireland. Founded in the 1960s to promote peace and reconciliation during “the Troubles,” that period of violent ethnic and religious conflict in Ireland, today Corrymeela continues to welcome guests from around the world who long for reconciliation with neighbors and fellow citizens in moments when such peace seems hopelessly naïve; moments like the one so many of us feel we ourselves are trapped inside as a nation, when it’s not just our feet that are sore from so many marches, but our hearts and our souls.

“You are the place I stand on the day when my feet are sore.” It’s awfully romantic, don’t you think? The kind of sentiment that seems more at home in a do-it-yourself wedding vow than in a sermon on the doctrine of salvation. But let me ask you this: what do you think a sermon on the doctrine of salvation ought to sound like? Should it be terribly complicated? Should there be lots of Greek and Hebrew words rendered into alternate English translations? Should there be rules, clearly laid out; structures of belief to be agreed with (or not)? What were you taught about “salvation,” and how, and who taught you? Is it the reward for a life well lived? Is it conditional, reserved for only a few? Is it a gift bestowed on the righteous, or the product of their efforts? Are there people who are most certainly saved? Are there people who most certainly are not?

 

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Study for “Nicodemus Visiting Jesus” by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1899)

 

These questions lead us down late-night roads with no lamp posts. If we follow them too far, we can get lost in the dark and may struggle to find our way back. That seems to have been the case with Nicodemus, who came to Jesus by night with questions about the new life that comes by water and the spirit in the reign of God. He was a religious person who’d given plenty of thought to questions of who was chosen, who was saved, and what that all meant. Jesus, however, wanted to talk instead about love.

“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that God gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:14-17)

It’s not hard to see how we worked our way back around to legalism all over again. It’s right there in the text, “so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” It seems clear: the key to eternal life is belief in Jesus. Slow down though, and keep asking those questions. What is belief? And, what is eternal life? And, if God is not interested in condemning the world, then why such an oddly specific criterion for salvation as belief in a pretty unbelievable story?

Here’s the prerequisite Greek word study, in case that happened to be on your checklist earlier. When we think about salvation, we often get stuck worrying about what we have to believe in order to be saved — because of this very verse and how it’s been explained. But the verb in Greek which we translate into “believe” in English doesn’t mean “to give credence to a belief or an idea.” Instead, it’s the verb form of the noun (pistis) which means, “faith.” English doesn’t have a verb form of the noun “faith.” We can either say “have faith” — which is a problem because it implies that faith is an object we can possess — or we have to find another verb that comes close to the idea of “faith-ing.” So we’ve said “believe,” though we might just as well have said, “trust.”

It makes more sense when you imagine the kind of conversation in which one person might say to another in a moment of tension, or decision, “I need you to believe in me.” What are they saying? That they need you to agree that they exist? Or that they need you to trust them, to remember something about your shared past, your history, your relationship.

This is what Jesus finally tells Nicodemus, who has gotten lost in the dark, in his questions about being “born again.” Jesus points to the evidence of a loving God, a God who is trustworthy, a God who brought the people through the wilderness, a God who stayed faithful through the exodus and the exile, a God who brought them into a new land and worked with them as they fell into each and every trap that comes with the the problem of being a nation. Salvation is not our reward for having the right answers to the wrong questions. Salvation is God’s work, God’s nature, God’s love.

Why doesn’t that ever feel like enough of an answer? Why do we insist on turning God’s love into a prize rather than accepting it as a gift, a birthright even? How would our lives change if we knew in every cell of our bodies that God is for us? That God longs to be the place we stand on the days when our feet are sore, so much so that God created all the soil and all the earth, so that there is no place we can go where we are not standing in God’s presence. Even when God sends us out from the places we have called home, even when God sets before us challenges that call us into moments and relationships that feel alienating. We are always standing in the loving presence of God.

If we are always already in the presence of God, and we believe — we trust — that God’s love for us is real and true, then what else do we need to experience this thing Jesus calls “eternal life”? What is missing from this picture that is so bad it has us all longing for salvation?

The question the Irish had to face wasn’t whether or not God could love the Catholics and the Protestants. The question was, could they love each other? The question is always: can we love each other? Can the left love the center and the right? Can the winners love the losers, and vice versa. Can we love our enemies? Because, where there is no love, we might as well call it hell, wouldn’t you say?

So, as we continue the practice of holding silence after the sermon for reflections, both spoken and silent, I invite you to consider the following questions as starting points for a conversation with your own spirit that may last well beyond this morning’s worship. If you feel so led, you might offer a few words about where these questions are taking you this morning:

How has love saved you?

Or

How could love save us?

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, July 3, 2016: Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Isaiah 66:10-14. +. Psalm 66:1-9. +. Galatians 6:1-16. +. Luke 10:1-11,16-20

Let’s just jump right into the text for a moment, then we can back up into our lives and the life of the world around us, shall we? We’ve been slowing reading through Paul’s letter to the Galatians ever since the beginning of summer, and this morning we reach the end. Starting next week we’ll begin working our way through the letter to the Colossians and also a four-week series on the importance of acting on our faith, using stories from the gospel of Luke. But here, at the end of Galatians, Paul is once again talking about circumcision as a way of talking about all the ways we try to impose our standards of acceptability onto each other, denying the power of God’s grace that accepts each of us as we are and calls us to be more than we have ever been.

Paul writes,

“It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh that try to compel you men to be circumcised — only that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. Even the circumcised men do not themselves obey the law, but they want you men to be circumcised so that they may boast about your flesh.” (Gal. 6:12-13)

Remember here what we talked about a few weeks ago, when we began reading this letter. The conflict among the Galatians is that Paul had taught the people that, in Christ, God has broken down all the walls we build to divide ourselves one from another: our religious walls, our ethnic walls, our cultural walls, our economic walls. All those ways we have been taught to look at other human beings and feel morally superior to one another, what Paul calls “the law.” It’s not that Paul disregards the positive uses of the law, the way that the best in our traditions move and motivate us to good works. In fact, even here at the end of his argument he writes, “let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.” (vv. 9-10) But he is realistic about just how quickly human beings move from good works to works righteousness; how quickly we go from working for the good of our neighbor, to working so that others may see us working for the good of our neighbor. This is the heart of his complaint about circumcision.

After Paul left, other teachers came in and began to teach that the new converts who wanted to follow Jesus, many of whom were not even Jewish, would first need to follow the steps to become observant Jews before they could take the next step toward becoming followers of Jesus. No skipping in line. No getting ahead of themselves. No exceptions. This is what gets Paul worked up, why he says, “Even the circumcised men do not themselves obey the law, but they want you men to be circumcised so that they may boast about your flesh.” There’s more to being an observant Jew than getting circumcised, Paul is saying. There’s the whole of the law. There’s showing hospitality to strangers. There’s caring for the orphan and widow. There’s honoring your parents and your neighbors, and not enriching yourself at the expense of the poor. Most importantly, there is the command to remember to that there is only one God, and that God is the only one worthy of our worship. These are the laws that the Galatians themselves do not keep, that none of us fully keep. So, if we ourselves cannot keep the law in its essence, then why do we demand that others keep up the appearance of the law? So that we will appear righteous before others, Paul says, forgetting that it is the grace and love of God that has made all of us righteous. That we who call ourselves Christians have nothing to boast about, other than the cross of Jesus, by which God showed God’s great love for all people, breaking down all the walls we had built to divide ourselves from one another.

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The Ahmed family at the home of Jim and Peggy Karas, left, who were joined by other sponsors. Credit Damon Winter/The New York Times

It has been so easy in these last few weeks and months to focus only on those stories of our failures to love each other across the lines that divide us. There is so much in the news to feel hopeless about. But there was one story in this last week that really lifted my spirits. Maybe you read it as well. It was the story published in the New York Times on Wednesday about the extent to which Canadian citizens have come forward to welcome Syrian refugees into their homes, so much so that the Canadian government can barely keep up with the demand on the part of citizens to be part of this massive undertaking of hospitality. The story was honest in naming the ways it is complicated for Syrian families to get used to life in Canada; and about the many ways that their Canadian hosts screw up — trying to figure out when to be assertive and when to step back and let these new Canadians figure it out for themselves. How will they respond to the different cultural norms around gender roles, child-rearing, and work when they have their own deeply held convictions about each of these subjects? Despite all the difficulties and complications, it was such a hopeful story to me because it showed what is possible when we decide to step out from behind the walls of our own self-interest to imagine a world where strangers and foreigners are just friends we have yet to meet. It showed what is possible when we structure our society around tending to the needs of our neighbors instead of keeping them at arm’s length.

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Elie Wiesel, ca. 1987

Late yesterday afternoon the world learned that Elie Wiesel, the famous writer who chronicled his experience of the Holocaust as a survivor of the concentration camp at Auschwitz had died. He was a powerful voice in this world who made it his mission to speak out wherever silence threatened to hide the destruction of human life. In many ways he was a living testimony to the danger of allowing ourselves to be seduced by the politics of fear. He knew in his flesh in a way most of us will never understand the cost of allowing our shallow self-righteousness to take over our politics. He saw what happened when a nation fell prey to the racist rhetoric of a charismatic demagogue. He new what happened when good people stood by and did nothing. His words stand as a judge of all human history, “Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night…”

At the same time, he believed that the forces of evil that had touched his life and the lives of the six million Jews slaughtered could be defeated if and as we come together around the enduring truth of our human dignity. “Never shall I forget” was his call to all of us to deal with the truth of our own human failure to care for and protect one another, and also his belief that in remembering we have the power to choose a new and different future for ourselves and for humanity.

“New creation!” is how Paul puts it. “Neither circumcision not uncircumcision is anything; but new creation is everything! As for those who will follow this rule — peace be upon them and mercy, and upon the Israel of God.” (vv. 15-16) That’s what is waiting for us on the other side of nationalism, of racism, of tribalism. New Creation. A new peace beyond borders. A new world without war. It starts one conversation at a time, with each act of welcome, with every stranger welcomed into our homes.

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, June 26, 2016: Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: 1 Kings 19:15-16,19-21  +  Psalm 16  +  Galatians 5:1,13-25  +  Luke 9:51-62

Pew Partisanship InfographicA report published this past Wednesday by the Pew Research Center describes U.S. partisanship as being at its highest point since at least 1992, when they first began tracking the data. According to the report “91 percent of Republicans view the Democratic Party unfavorably, with 58 percent holding ‘very unfavorable’ attitudes toward it. Among Democrats, 86 percent view the Republican Party unfavorably, while 55 percent hold it in a very unfavorable light.’” (1)

We feel the split throughout our life together as a nation and it is reflected in the divided Supreme Court, which delivered a ruling this week that denies protections from deportation to more than four million undocumented people living in the U.S., most of them parents of U.S. citizens, families now living under the daily shadow of being separated from one another. (2) We feel it in the irrational divide between the 90 percent of Americans who support expanded background checks for gun purchases and the continued failure of our elected government to act on the will of their constituents.

These deep canyons between us are widening and spreading. While we were in Barcelona, Kerry and I saw posters on every street for the campaign for Catalonian independence from Spain. British voters have now decided by a very narrow margin to secede from the European Union, immediately prompting calls for new referendums in Scotland and Ireland about their futures in the “United” Kingdom.

And we feel it in the church, where seven years after the ELCA moved to allow for the rostering of LGBTQ people and local control over which relationships congregations will or will not choose to bless with marriage rites, we still exist in a state of limbo that does not allow us to say without reservation that LGBTQ people are of sacred worth, created in the image and likeness of God, and that our relationships are as holy and healthy as anyone else’s (which, of course, we would then need to follow up by acknowledging that our relationships are as strained and stretched and painfully broken as anyone else’s as well).

In her letter to the church following the massacre in Orlando at a gay bar that left 49 queer Latinx (3) people dead, Bishop Elizabeth Eaton told the church:

Our work begins now. We need to examine ourselves, individually and as a church, to acknowledge the ways we have divided and have been divided. We must stand with people who have been “othered.” We must speak peace and reconciliation into the cacophony of hatred and division. We must live the truth that all people are created in God’s image. (4)

This is our work to do as Christians, because we bear Christ’s name, and because we have been baptized into his life, his death, and his resurrection. To illustrate the point, we need look no further than the passage we’ve already read this morning from the gospel of Luke.

The scene opens, “When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” Here we are to understand that Jesus faced his future with no uncertainty about what was to come. His confrontation with empire would be his death, but not his end. The phrase “he set his face” is an echo from the prophet Isaiah who confidently professes, “Therefore I have set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near.” (Isa. 50:7) Like prophets in any age, Jesus knows that his ministry will provoke opposition and he draws strength from his confidence that God is with him in his work.

Next we learn that Jesus and his followers have entered a Samaritan village. Moving as he is from Galilee to Jerusalem, it makes a certain amount of sense that he is in Samaritan territory, because the most direct path from Galilee to Jerusalem ran directly through Samaria — yet, most Jewish people took the long way around and avoided Samaritans because they were because they were of mixed ethnic heritage, because they had it all wrong when it came to worship and religious life, because they were different.

But Jesus takes the direct route, leading his community straight into Samaria where they unsurprisingly are not well received. Think about this though. Knowing he was headed for a world-changing confrontation in Jerusalem, Jesus still opted not to avoid conflict with the people and communities along the way, but to move through the world not making distinctions between his people and those other people, between his followers and his skeptics. What a different style of leadership and communication than what we’ve grown accustomed to, than we have adopted as our own.

Furthermore, once he is rejected Jesus’ followers ask, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” In our present age of aggression, flame wars on the internet are a daily fact of life — the natural byproduct of a culture of micro aggressions and interpersonal violence both large and small. We are experts at dismissing one another. We are primed for retaliation. But Jesus refuses to engage in their ongoing war with one another, instead turning to rebuke them.

The way so many of us have learned to make a home for ourselves in the world is to figure out who is for us and who is against us, and then to fortify the walls that separate us. We find our security in surrounding ourselves with like-minded people who share our opinions, our politics, our prejudices, our language, our religion, our skin-tone, and we call that home. Could this be what Jesus means when he says, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son-of-Man has nowhere to lay his head;” that to follow Jesus is to give up the safety of like-minded community, and to take the direct path to engagement with the people you’ve been conditioned your whole life to avoid?

I feel like I end up preaching some version of this sermon over and over again every four years, as the national elections heat up. It’s baked into our political process, this culture of negativity and demonization, and we all get sucked in so quickly. We surround ourselves with like-minded people, and we call down fire upon one another.

How’s that working for us? Has it stopped the gunfire in our neighborhoods? Has it slowed the rate of homicide in our city? Are we feeling any safer?

As the city gathers this afternoon to remember the Stonewall riots that took place in New York City 47 years ago that gave rise to the modern LGBTQ civil rights movement, I am reminded that the single action taken by millions upon millions of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, Two-Spirit, gender non-conforming people and their allies to change the world was coming out. Telling their story to parents and siblings, friends and co-workers, neighbors and elected officials. It was an act of radical vulnerability. It was the willingness to share their truth with the very people who had too often proven to be untrustworthy, but to do it anyways.

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It’s not just the 49 queer Latinx sisters and brothers we’re remembering this year. It’s the children at Newtown. It’s Freddie Gray and Sandra Bland. It’s Aurora and Columbine. It’s Tijuana and Juárez. It’s the 6 year old girl shot here in Logan Square, slowly working her way back to health. We honor them best not by doubling down on the tactics of division, but by coming out from behind our walls to tell our stories, to listen to one another, to find the common ground between us — no matter how thin that isthmus of understanding may be — and to begin again the work of building the home large enough and safe enough for us all.

Jesus says, “let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the dominion of God.” It sounds callous at first, but I think in his own way he was saying what I’ve heard so many saying once again in the last two weeks. “We don’t need your thoughts and prayers. We need change.” The dead are gone, and we honor them best by fighting like heaven for the lives of those who remain. When the world is on fire, we don’t need a monument to firefighters, we need water — more water than we’ve ever dared to imagine — to pour down and save us.

You baptized people of God. You are God’s water. We are God’s water. We pray with our feet. Our pride is in the God of Israel and Judah, Galilee and Samaria, citizens and the undocumented, Native and colonizers, Black and White and Latinx and Asian, Democrats and Republicans, Britons and Europeans, straight and cisgender and the whole rainbow of folks who are not. Our God is the God of the living and the dead, and since we can count on God to care for those who have passed on from this life, we are free to fight for those still here and yet to be born.

Amen.

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(1) “U.S. Partisanship is Highest in Decades, Pew Study Finds” New York Times, June 23, 2016.

(2) “Low-Priority Immigrants Still Swept Up in Net of Deportation” New York Times, June 24, 2016.

(3) Latinx (pronounced: La-teen-ex) being the name that some trans and gender non-conforming people of Latin American descent have chosen for themselves as a way of moving beyond the gender binary woven into the Spanish language.

(4) “ELCA presiding bishop issues letter in response to Orlando shooting” ELCA press release, June 13, 2016. Online at http://www.elca.org 

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