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Sermons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, August 7, 2016: Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Genesis 15:1-6  +  Psalm 33:12-22  +  Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16  +  Luke 12:32-40

maxresdefaultThe world is full of heroes. That’s true every week, but this week they’ve really been on display. Yusra Mardini, the 18-year-old Syrian refugee who, together with her sister, pushed a boat carrying twenty people through the sea for three hours, saving their lives and is now competing in the Olympics under the Olympic banner. Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the parents of Army Captain Humayun Khan (himself a hero), Pakistani immigrants who came to the United States seeking opportunity for their family and ended up at the center of national politics for the last two weeks following Khizr’s impassioned speech denouncing the rhetoric of racism and islamophobia infecting our nation’s political life.

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Khizr and Ghazala Khan at the Democratic National Convention

A young refugee and two immigrants thrust onto the international stage because of who they are and what they have done — but also, I think, because we are hungry for stories of heroism right now. We are weary and battered by a season in our life together filled with stories of police violence and political cowardice. We are soul-sick from watching the weekly polls tell us how cynical and skeptical we have become about the possibility of meaningful change.  We, who have so much, wrestle with a sense of helplessness and hopelessness. Then we hear the story of Yusra Mardini jumping out of her boat and literally pitting her body’s strength against the relentlessness of the sea. We watch an unknown Muslim man stand up before the entire nation and proclaim his love for a country that has not loved him and his family half as well, but for which he and his wife gave their son.

“They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, God has prepared a city for them.” (Heb. 11:13-16)

The Letter to the Hebrews is full of memorable turns of phrase from the description of faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (11:1) to the “great cloud of witnesses” (12:1) that surround us. If the verses I’ve just read are less familiar, they’re no less full of poetry and power. In fact, I almost named the sermon series that begins today and will continue through the month of August, “A Better Country,” but decided that at this point in the presidential campaign it would be heard too narrowly as a focus on electoral politics, when what the author is really talking about is more akin to what Parker Palmer has termed “courage” in his book “Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit.” 

Parker dedicated that book to Christina Taylor Green, the 10 year-old girl who was shot and killed five years ago in the same event at which Congresswoman “Gabby” Giffords of Arizona was also shot; and to Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley, better known as the “four little girls” who died in the racist bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama during the Civil Rights movement fifty-three years ago. In his dedication, he writes,

“When we forget that politics is about weaving a fabric of compassion and justice on which everyone can depend, the first to suffer are the most vulnerable among us — our children, the elderly, the mentally ill, the poor, and the homeless. As they suffer, so does the integrity of our democracy.”

That’s what draws me to the image of “a better country,” and what also ultimately moved me to title this series, “Sight Unseen” — because what we are laboring for is ultimately something we have yet to see: a homeland here on this earth of which all people are equally residents, equally citizens, equally honored and cared for, “a better country, that is, a heavenly one.” (Heb. 11:16a)

But it is exhausting, longing and laboring for this country to come into view. It is tempting to look back at the lands we have known and to convince ourselves that the world as it is is sufficient or, at least, the best we can hope for. Then we hear Yusra’s story, and we imagine her muscles freezing up in the cold sea as she pushes her fellow refugees toward that better country, the one she has never seen. Then we hear Khizr and Ghazala Khan, and see Khizr brandishing his pocket edition of the United States Constitution in the face of calls to ban an entire religious community from entering this nation, and we imagine the faith it must take to hold fast to promises made but not yet kept.

That is the heart of the Letter to the Hebrews, it is a letter to people who have not yet seen the promises of God fulfilled, who wonder if they will ever be kept. It is a word of encouragement to worn down people, a reminder that we have only come this far by faith. It is a roll call of the saints, the heroes, the ones like Abraham and Sarah, Yusra, Khizr and Ghazala, who left behind all they had known and fixed their eyes on the stars to guide them into a future filled with hope. It is a call to faith in things we have only hoped for, and conviction in sights as yet unseen (11:1).

And now, if you’ll let me, I want to make this all a bit more personal and talk for just a few moments about us as a congregation in light of this word from scripture. There is so much in this Letter to the Hebrews that makes me think of the journey we’ve been on for the last ten years. The setting out without knowing entirely where we’d end up. The power of procreation at a late age manifested as a congregation made up of elderly people who saw wave after wave of young adults and even younger children begin to fill in the empty pews. The promise of a future filled with hope set alongside the constant exhortation to never give up. There’s so much in this letter that feels familiar to me when I think of the distance we have come. I’m tempted to place our story in the background, as one more example among many, a word of encouragement for other congregations, other communities of faith preparing to leave behind the known past for the promised future.

But this letter is still for us. This letter is calling out to us from history, urging us to cast our lot fully with the “strangers and foreigners on the earth” (Heb. 11:13). To, as Jesus puts it, “sell your possessions, and give alms” and “make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven.” (Lk. 12:33)

There is a convergence of conversations and actions happening in our congregation and in the communities that surround us that I believe is about to set us on a new course just as adventurous as the one we have been on these last ten years. Having already sold our chief possession, the building that had housed us for a century, we are now considering anew what it means for us to “give alms.” For the last six months the Council has been deliberating with one another about the practical, ethical, and theological implications of the fact that we have gone, in a very short time, from being rich in land and poor in cash to being practically itinerant but carrying with us an enormous amount of money. Over the last few months the Social Justice committee has joined this conversation, sharing with the Council their intention to move us from a more shallow monthly focus on benevolent giving to a strategy of 6-month campaigns designed to deepen our engagement with partner organizations working in our community to build that better country, the one none of us has ever fully seen.

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We are beginning with Center for Changing Lives, an organization that grew out of Humboldt Park Social Services, which itself grew out of Humboldt Park United Methodist Church, a member of the Logan Square Ecumenical Alliance just two blocks north of us here on Mozart St.  Center for Changing Lives provides financial coaching and employment assistance to families and individuals in our neighborhood struggling to make it in today’s economy. As we learn more about their work and are shaped by it we’ll not only be looking for ways to enhance their mission, but will benefit directly ourselves from their “Just Financials” curriculum, a powerful tool for helping us develop a shared vocabulary for connecting our values as Christian people to our actions with regard to our wealth, taking Jesus’ encouragement to “sell your possessions and give alms” seriously enough to really ask how our relationship to God is shaping our relationship to what we earn and what we own.

But stewardship of wealth is only one aspect of our vocation as baptized people. As we enter this new phase of our life together we will be talking more openly, not only in worship but in small groups with one another, about the ways we choose to steward the gifts of our lives. Whether at work or at home, with family or friends, how do we live out our baptisms? How do we live into that vocation, so that our whole life reflects our relationship to the God of life and love and liberation? We’ll be listening for signs of the Holy Spirit’s work in each other, deepening our capacities for love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23).

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Pr. Bruce Ray standing in the center of the labyrinth at the Kimball Avenue Church “urban oasis” at last month’s LSEA summer garden party.

Which means that we’ll be telling each other stories. From the testimonies that have been a growing part of our Sunday morning worship to the sorts of story-telling we saw at the ecumenical alliance’s Garden Party last month at which members of our separate congregations told stories about how they had come to Chicago, stories of migration from Honduras and Puerto Rico and Latvia. Stories filled with the kinds of quiet heroism that brought Yusra Mardini and the Khans to the international stage. Stories that we come to realize populate all our pasts, if we would only take the time to listen.

So we will. We will listen to each other’s stories, in and out of worship, within this congregation and beyond its glass windows. We will listen, and we will grow. We will be experimenting with adding services this fall, not simply because those of us who are already here are feeling a little bit cramped, but because we know there are others in our neighborhood and across our city who are longing for a glimpse of that better country, that city God is already preparing for those who face the future by faith. We will plan for growth and we will embrace it because we are inheritors of the same promise made to Abraham and Sarah, that their descendants would be more numerous than the stars in the sky. Those descendants, who are Jewish and Christian and Muslim, whose rich diversity points us beyond Abraham and Sarah to all of humanity, are our people and we are theirs in ways we know to be true even if we have never seen it lived out perfectly. But we see that future coming from a distance and we welcome it (Heb. 11:13).

Amen.

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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
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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