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
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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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, May 8, 2016: Seventh Sunday of Easter

Texts: Acts 16:16-34  +  Psalm 97  +  Revelation 22:12-21  +  John 17:20-26

A while back, before we’d moved into this temporary space, before the listening campaign a few summers back, before the Logan Square Ecumenical Alliance, around the time of the Boulevard Bash (our five year foray into the world of Chicago’s summer street festivals), we were tossing the phrase “One Logan Square” around a lot. It was our response to another phrase we were hearing in the neighborhood more often, the “two Logan Squares” idea. People would say, “there are two Logan Squares — there’s the small corner grocery stores and then there’s the new food co-op” and you were supposed to know what that meant. “There’s Taqueria Moran and then there’s the Boiler Room” and you were supposed to know what that meant.

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Drawings of the Mega Mall redevelopment.

“There’s the Mega Mall on Milwaukee and there’s the Target on Logan Boulevard near Elston.” But you can’t really say that anymore, because the Mega Mall’s been closed for a year and is about to be turned into luxury apartments with a high end grocery store on the ground level. And people are talking about the “two Logan Squares” less and less. Nevertheless, on the night before his death, Jesus’ final prayer was “that they may become completely one” in the kind of love shared between the Father and the Son. (John 17:23)

God, it’s Mother’s Day, and John’s gospel gives us “Father” language. What to do? I read commentaries that tried to paste the two together by labeling the divine desire for unity as a portrait of motherly love and I thought, “no, thank you, we’ll pass on that stereotype.” There are plenty of mothers who sow disunity in their families, and there are plenty of fathers who long to see their children reconciled. For that matter, there are plenty of childless people who do both. But if the idealized trait is to long for unity in the human family, let’s not limit our projection of that trait onto the feminine divine, let’s say that we are all made in the image and likeness of a God whose desire for unity is imprinted onto every single one of us. And that, for better or for worse, is all I’m going to try to say about Mother’s Day, in this sermon.

But I’m still stuck on the idea of the “two Logan Squares,” which seems emblematic of the sort of divisions we see deepening throughout our world. You hear it echoing in coded talk about the “North Side” and the “South Side” in Chicago. You definitely hear it in the political rhetoric bleeding electric ink into the onslaught of emails and news articles filling my inbox.

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The new mayor of London, Sadiq Khan

Even at a moment when we’re celebrating the election of a Muslim of Pakistani descent as mayor of London, the press is quick to label this as a historic moment in “the West.” This is how we insist on seeing ourselves, always it seems, as an “us” and a “them.”

Paul and Silas run into it as they continue their ministry in Philippi, which is introduced in the story as “a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony.” (Acts 16:12) This is where Lydia and her household become followers of Jesus, which commentaries always point out makes her the first “European” convert, assuming that’s something we ought to know. But we don’t know anything about the slave girl in the story that follows, except that she “had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling.” (v.16) Not even her name.

Once again Acts gives us a story rich in detail but light in exposition, forcing us to fill in the blanks ourselves. For instance, this spirit-possessed slave girl is making her owners a great deal of money, from which we might assume that her divinations were accurate enough that they generated new and repeat business. She was a slave and she was a powerful fortune teller. She was someone’s property, but she was also profoundly gifted. Gifted enough that when she sees Paul and Silas, she immediately sees them for who they are. “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” (v.17)

It takes one to know one, as they say, and in this case it is a slave girl who can see that these men are also slaves. Of course, that’s not how the angry slave owners identify them after Paul releases the girl from her possession. Once they are no longer able to make their money off the girl she disappears from the story altogether and the scene shifts to Paul and Silas being dragged before the authorities where the race-baiting begins.

“These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” (v.20-21)

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Its what the Freedom Riders were called when they rode the buses down to Birmingham and Montgomery and Jackson. It’s what the Christian Peacekeeper Teams heard when they went into Colombia, Chiapas, and the West Bank. “Outside agitators” who don’t belong here. Getting involved in business they have no part in. We heard it after we rallied at Lathrop Homes on Palm Sunday in the CHA’s press release, which stated,

“it is important to remember that these plans were crafted with full input from the community (my emphasis added), who were part of the decision making process and worked with CHA, the alderman, advocates, longtime affordable housing developers and other stakeholders to make decisions about the shared vision for the future of their community.”

ct-lathrop-homes-redevelopment-protest-video-20160321But, aren’t we part of “the community?” And wasn’t the Lathrop Leadership Team that helped organize the event part of “the community?” Or, as Sojourner Truth put it to the women’s convention in Akron, Ohio in 1851, “Ain’t I a woman?”

After they are beaten with rods and thrown in jail. After they spend the night praying and singing hymns to the other prisoners. After the earth shakes and the jail cells are broken open. After the jailor nearly commits suicide out of fear for what will happen when it is discovered that he has lost all his prisoners. After Paul and Silas choose to stay put, even after they were free to walk away. Then the magistrates try to clean up the problem, dismissing the charges and hoping it will all go away. But Paul and Silas stay put until the authorities agree to meet with them in public, saying, “They have beaten us in public, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and now they are going to discharge us in secret? Certainly not!” (v.37) He might just as well have said, “and ain’t I a Roman?”

But not in our either/or imaginations. He couldn’t be a Roman and a Jew any more than Sojourner Truth could be Black and a Woman too, or Sadiq Khan can be both Muslim and the mayor of London, or the jailor could be both complicit oppressor and liberated in baptismal waters, or we can be both gentrifiers and housing activists.

Our either/or tendencies run so deep. Even as the book of Revelation crescendos to its climactic conclusion, inviting everyone to “come,” it repeats the old divisions. The cosmic Christ can be both the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end, the root of Jesse’s tree and the descendent of David (Rev. 22:12,13,16); but we are either those whose robes have been washed (in the blood of the Lamb), or we are “dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.” (v.15) When, of course, we’re both. Both liberated and still captive to patterns of sin that harm ourselves and others. Simul justus et peccator. Both righteous and sinners. But even our lectionary plays the either/or game, cutting the troubling verses out of the assigned reading for this morning so that we wouldn’t have to be bothered by the presence of those disturbing voices in our scripture, that evidence that we are always struggling with who to let in, with how much of ourselves to invite into the presence of the holy.

As the new life first discovered at the empty tomb pivots toward the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, we are being reminded over and over again that resurrection always goes hand in hand with reconciliation, that the Holy Spirit cannot bear segregation. That there is no East and West, just the planet. No North or South, just Chicago. No Black or Woman, no Muslim or Briton, just humanity. Just one Logan Square. And the minute we think we’ve named the last of the lines that still divide us, we discover there are lines that remain unnamed.

Who is that unnamed slave girl in our midst today, whose labor is exploited, who tells the truth about what is really going on, whose story gets lost the minute the main character — someone with power and privilege — shows up?

To her, and to you,

“The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come,’

And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’

And let everyone who is thirsty come.

Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift. (Rev. 22:17)

Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.

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