10425365_697224310373547_6689628125051795348_n
Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, November 23, 2014: Reign of Christ

Texts: Ezekiel 34:11-16,20-24  +  Psalm 95:1-7a  +  Ephesians 1:15-23  +  Matthew 25:31-46

I woke up yesterday morning and noticed that it wasn’t freezing outside, and I was so grateful. It seemed like the kind of day when it might be nice to be outside, the first day in a week or so when I could imagine going for a walk in the park next to our home. But I’d committed to attending the Logan Square Ecumenical Alliance’s event at Humboldt Park United Methodist Church, Connecting with Our Neighbors: Uniting Congregations for Social Justice.” I’m so glad I was there.

In the eight years that I’ve been working with the pastors of Humboldt Park United Methodist I’ve been to their building and have sat in their meeting room many times, but until yesterday I’d never been in their sanctuary. It’s smaller than ours, but with the same traditional architecture: the chancel in front with a high altar, rows of pews in the nave and a rear balcony. Like ours, it’s showing its age. Something about that made me feel right at home, the way you can walk into almost any sanctuary and understand the architecture and its function. It teaches you how to relate to each other.

So when people began to arrive, one-by-one or in clusters, I happily welcomed them and made a choice to sit next to people I didn’t already know, wanting to get to know who these neighbors of ours who worship so nearby and who care so deeply about our calling as God’s people to work for justice in the world.

We began with worship led by Humboldt Park United Methodist’s new pastor, the Reverend Paula Cripps-Vallejo, a young woman (also from Iowa) who’s been serving there for about half a year. Again, we’ve sat in plenty of meetings together already, but this was the first time I’d seen her lead worship. I was so impressed with the fluidity with which she moved between Spanish and English, effortlessly guiding us all through a sequence of litanies, songs, testimonies and prayers in both languages so that everyone in the room could be equally engaged in what we were sharing with one another.

41B3S5MR90L._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_One neighbor, Leslie Willis from Kimball Avenue Church, recited Langston Hughes’ heartbreaking poem, Let America Be America Again, which unfolds around the central refrain, “America never was America to me.” She spoke of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Trayvon Martin in Sanford, and her longing for racial justice not only in our nation, but right here in our neighborhood.

Another neighbor, Flori Rivera from Humboldt Park United Methodist, shared her story of coming to the United States with us including how she came to be a member of that church. She was drawn to them because of the work they were doing with immigrants like herself, but she remained because her skills as a social worker were engaged as she and other women in the congregation built a ministry to and for families experiencing domestic violence that has been a mainstay of that congregation’s service to our community for decades now.

The stories continued, one woman speaking through tears about the struggle to keep her family safe and together through our nation’s broken immigration system. Pastor Eardley Mendis from our sister parish, First Lutheran on Fullerton, talking about the challenge of ministering to a congregation in which many of those gathered for worship are homeless and hungry. Between each story we sang and we prayed and I could feel it happening, that thing that happens when we enter into the familiar pattern of worship with unfamiliar people: we were becoming a community.

10425365_697224310373547_6689628125051795348_nAfter we’d worshipped we moved from the sanctuary to the fellowship hall and gathered in small groups around tables, a familiar liturgy all its own. After another round of introductions we were asked to share why social justice mattered to each of us, and here’s the thing I find unremarkably remarkable: no one said that they do the work of justice because they are afraid of hell.

Not one of these Christian neighbors named as their reason for their good work a fear of hell.

I call this unremarkably remarkable because to us, who gather here for worship week after week, I don’t think this is much of a surprise at all. You know each other’s hearts. You share each other’s motivations. You, like the people gathered around those church basement tables yesterday, are all engaged in the work of caring for your neighbors in a variety of ways. You share your time, your skills, your money and all your other assets feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, welcoming the strangers in your workplaces and on your block, visiting with those imprisoned by illness or otherwise incarcerated. You take action on behalf of the unseen, the unwanted, the unknown year after year, and I never get the sense that you do it from a place of fear, of hell or any other punishment.

You do it for the same reasons I heard offered around yesterday’s tables. You do it out of gratitude, recognizing all that others have already done for you. You do it out of love, for the friends and family members who need your help. You do it out of passion burning in your heart for the environment, for children, for people living at the margins with their backs to the wall. You do it out of duty, honoring the memory of parents and those who’ve gone before you, showing you the dignity in a life of faith. You do it because you’re acquainted with grace, having been on the receiving end of it, and you simply want others to experience what you have come to know — that in God’s good economy all are welcome and there is always enough.

This work of yours is unremarkably remarkable however, because for many people outside the church the message they have heard is one of condemnation and damnation. Go to church, or else. Acknowledge Jesus Christ as your personal lord and savior, or else. Walk the straight and narrow, or else. Do right, or else. We may shake our heads at this fear-based, punishment-oriented caricature of Christian faith but we should not marvel at its ubiquity, after all it is simply the liturgy of the world wrapped up in religious language. Go to work, or else. Respect the authorities, or else. Follow the rules, or else. Conform, or else. Our souls rightly rebel against this deforming way of life, and against any institution that imposes it on us. Yet, it is very difficult to resist the spirituality of conditional belonging when your housing, your food, your economic wellbeing are governed by it.

In today’s gospel Jesus gives us an image of God’s judgment in which all the nations are gathered together and then people are recategorized, not on the basis of what nation, or what race, or what class, or what club they belong to, but on the basis of whether they have been turned in upon themselves or turned outward toward the needs of those around them. The deep irony in our all-to-common reading of this story is that in our anxiety about God’s judgment we begin to turn inward once again and begin the process of drawing the lines that separate us, sheep from goats.

But in God’s story, the sheep don’t know they’re sheep and the goats don’t know they’re goats and all of them are watched over by a shepherd who promises to seek after the lost, to bring back the strayed, to bind up the injured, to strengthen the weak (Eze. 34:16). I don’t know if you’re a sheep or a goat, but I can promise you that if you are lost, lonely, injured or weak, God is reaching out to you with food and drink, a warm welcome and safe lodging, healing and accompaniment. I know this because I’ve seen it, I’ve watched you reaching out toward one another, huddling together the way sheep do in a field.

Amen.

Standard
Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, November 24, 2013: Reign of Christ

Texts: Jeremiah 23:1-6  +  Psalm 46  +  Colossians 1:11-20  +  Luke 23:33-43

Tara arriving in the United States.

Tara arriving in the United States.

My sister was six years old when my family adopted her from Thailand. For six years she’d eaten Thai food, watched Thai television, played with Thai children, and — most importantly — spoken Thai. Imagine yourself at age six: how much you’d already grown, and learned, about who you were and what could be expected from the world around you. Now imagine all of that changing essentially overnight.

My folks and I flew to Bangkok, Thailand and spent about a week getting to know Tara before bringing her home with us. First, a visit to the adoption agency where we spent a few hours together. Then, a sight-seeing day-trip, supervised by her social worker. Finally, an overnight at the guest house where we were staying. Then she was on a plane with us, heading to the United States, where everything was different. The food, the weather, the big house with a private bedroom she didn’t have to share with anyone else, and Jesus.

Tara learned her English in bits and pieces. Names of foods and people and places came first. Simple verbs in the present tense. Our early conversations were very basic, no abstract concepts. “I want pancakes,” or “We go church.” So, when Tara burst forth with her first theological question, it was memorable.

We were sitting around the dinner table preparing to eat with the same prayer I’d been saying every night since I could remember: “Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest, and let these gifts to us be blest. Amen.” Suddenly, Tara asked, “Where Jesus? We eat, we say Jesus. We sleep, we say Jesus. I no see Jesus. Where he? He hiding?”

When the apostle Paul writes, “He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son…” (Col. 1:13) it reminds me of my sister’s experience of coming to the United States — not  in the sense that Thailand was somehow a place of darkness, or the United States an outpost of the reign of Christ. Just that, I have a memory of how hard that transfer was for Tara, every day being surrounded by sights and signs and symbols for things she’d always known and done, but being forced to see them and speak about them in a new way. Even her name was new in this new place.

The same is true for we who bear the name of Christ. We live and move and have our being in a world filled with foods, and rituals and relationships, but we are asked, over and over, to see them and speak about them in a new way. The man who shuffles slowly down the sidewalk, talking to himself, we call brother. The woman whose work is paid under the table, and not well enough to support her family, we call sister. The child whose swagger and swearing is intended to push us away we invite in, and call friend. The water that welcomes us into this house changes our names. The food we eat at this table goes by the name Jesus.

“Where Jesus? We eat, we say Jesus. We sleep, we say Jesus. I no see Jesus. Where he? He hiding?”

Paul goes on to say, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers — all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Col. 1:15-17)

There’s something ironic to me about the fact that it is Paul, and not Peter or one of the other apostles who had accompanied Jesus during his earthly ministry, who says, “he is the image of the invisible God.” Paul, who had never laid eyes on Jesus, who was blinded as he traveled the road to Damascus, who heard the voice of Jesus asking him, “why do you persecute me?” This Paul is the one who says, “he is the image of the invisible God.”

Paul knew in his own flesh what it meant to be rescued from the power of darkness and transferred into the reign of God. He, who had been a violent opponent of the Jesus movement, who was present at the stoning of the apostle Stephen and approved of his murder, who entered home after home of the church in Jerusalem, and threw its men and women into prison, he was the one God chose to carry the message of reconciliation out from Jerusalem to the far corners of the known world. Someone who had never laid eyes on Jesus.

The reign of God is not like anything we have been taught to expect in this world. The gospel of Luke, which we have been reading throughout this past year, and which we will soon set down as we prepare to begin a new year in the life of the church next week as Advent leads us into the gospel of Matthew, has presented us with parable after parable about the foreignness of God’s reign of forgiveness.  The reign of God is like a father who forgives his son for wasting the family fortune, and welcomes him home with open arms. The reign of God is like a shepherd who foolishly leaves ninety-nine sheep alone to go after the one who is lost. The reign of God is like a wealthy man who throws a party, and invites the poor, the blind and the weak to enter his house. Images of the reign of God.

Jesus’ own life has read like one of his parables. After being baptized at the Jordan, and being named God’s Son, the Beloved, Jesus wanders in the wilderness where he is tempted, three times, to use that mantle, that power to distance himself from God’s people. Those three temptations are mirrored again at the end, in the final passage we will hear from Luke’s gospel this year.  Now Jesus is on the cross, and three times he is mocked by those who are killing him, “save yourself!”

They have fundamentally misunderstood him, Jesus, the one whose name means “God saves.” Because he did not come to save himself. He came to save a world full of common criminals. As common as you and me. Even on the cross, in the hour of his death, Jesus looks with mercy on a man who confesses that he is getting exactly what he deserves for his crimes, and says, “today you will be with me in paradise.”

But this is the kind of God we have come to know in Jesus. The kind of God who looks at a criminal with compassion, sealing his record so that his sins might be forgiven and he might enter with joy into the paradise of communion with God.

Maybe Paul, who never saw Jesus, but laid eyes on so many who followed him, heard that story, the one about Jesus forgiving the criminal on the cross. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but somehow he went from being the kind of man who persecuted Christians to the kind of man who voluntarily stayed in his prison cell to spare the life of his jailor and to witness to the power of God to heal and transform every place on earth, even the ones we imagine to be God-forsaken — like our prisons, and their execution chambers.

Paul’s letter to the Colossians is one to people he also had never seen, only heard of through the testimony of the rest of the church as it spread across the Mediterranean. He writes to them to encourage them in their faith, to exhort them to exercise judgment in separating the ways of the world from the ways of Christ Jesus, and to call them to love.  The verses we’ve heard this morning sound an awful lot like a creed, in that they are a series of propositions about who Christ is — the head of the body, the church; the beginning, the firstborn from the dead in whom all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through whom God is reconciling all things, making peace through the cross (Col. 1:18-19).

Language is learned through repetition. We didn’t have a way to answer Tara’s questions, “where Jesus? He hiding?” given the vocabulary she had at the time. All we could do was to keep bringing her to church. Here she began to pick up fragments of songs, phrases that she could remember: “worthy is Christ, the Lamb who was slain, whose blood set us free to be people of God” and “Lord God, lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world. Have mercy on us.”

Soon she began to understand who Jesus was, where he was, even though she hadn’t seen him. Like Paul hadn’t seen him. Because she saw the cross, and later she spent some time on it, like you and I have. And, oh, what mercy God has shown to each of us in those moments when we have found ourselves in the worst of our suffering — even suffering we can admit, like the criminal who hung next to Jesus, is sometimes the just punishment for our misdeeds. Because God did not send Jesus to save himself, but to save us. To rescue us from solitude and restore us to community. To reconcile us to God and to one another. To bring vision to our downcast eyes by lifting them to the glories of a paradise where all are welcome, regardless of their past or their present. To follow us and to find us and to finally bring us home.

This is Jesus, who is not hiding, but is with us. Now and forever. Thanks be to God!

Amen.

Standard
Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, November 25, 2012: Reign of Christ Sunday

Texts:   Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14 and Psalm 93  •   Revelation 1:4b-8  •   John 18:33-37

Grace and the peace that passes all understanding be with you, my brothers and sisters, in the name of Christ our King.  Amen.

As we gather at the end of this Thanksgiving weekend — days filled, for many of us, with travel to see family and friends; tables filled with extravagant food and drink as a reminder of the abundance with which we are blessed, even in these trying financial times — I am feeling truly thankful for events taking place far from Chicago.  When we gathered a week ago for worship, we were praying for peace in Gaza.  The following day a handful of us took part in a peace rally downtown that drew thousands of people here in Chicago as similar events took place around the world.  On Wednesday, as families in the United States prepared to take stock of their lives and give thanks for their many blessings, a ceasefire was negotiated between the nation of Israel and the leaders of Hamas, the party in power in Gaza. After seven days of fighting, two hundred Israelis and Palestinians were dead and over a thousand had been wounded. While the ceasefire is holding for now, a more lasting peace is still far off on the horizon.

The conflicts in Israel and the Palestinian territories are being fought on lands that have seen the rise and fall of the most ancient of nations, the first being the Mesopotamians who inhabited what is now called Iraq.  The Mesopotamian empires gave us cuneiform, the first form of writing.  They were amazingly complex politically, religiously, socially.  Now they are gone.

The Mesopotamian empires passed officially into history when they were conquered by Alexander the Great as part of his crusade to conquer the world.  This began what historians call the Hellenistic Age, which lasted until 31 BCE when the Egyptians were defeated by the Romans at the Battle of Actium, prompting their queen, Cleopatra, to commit suicide – famously re-enacted 2000 years later by Elizabeth Taylor.

The Roman Empire should be more familiar to us, since it serves as the backdrop to the gospels and the life of the early church.  When we hear the stories of Caesar Augustus and King Herod, we are hearing tales from the Roman Empire.  It was hostile to the early church, and was the cause of many Christian martyrs… until the Emperor Constantine, who in the fourth century made Christianity the religion of the Empire.  That was reputedly good for the Christians, but didn’t do much for the Roman Empire, which fell about 100 years later to Germanic invaders.

I could go on and tell you all about the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, which held together for the most part for three hundred years of so.  Somewhere in there you’d hear the story of a scuffle in which a monk named Luther played a bit of a part, leading to a deterioration of the Empire and the formation of smaller nations: Austria, Prussia and the like.  That left room for the rise of the British Empire, which prided itself on being the most extensive empire in the history of the world, boasting that the sun never set on its lands.  By the early years of the twentieth century the British empire counted over 450 million people in its territories and holdings.

The wars of the twentieth century brought that empire to a close however, and began what TIME/LIFE publisher Henry Luce called “The American Century.”  Historians mark the American Century as beginning with the Spanish-American war and reaching its peak during the fever pitch of the Cold War during the 1980s. From 2003 until just about this time last year the United States had troops on the ground back in Mesopotamia – or Iraq.  The costs of that war, along with the one in Afghanistan, has left our country with tremendous debt and has eroded our ability to maintain and expand the social infrastructure that creates growth and prosperity – which has prompted many around the world to remark that the American Century is now over.

So many beginnings and so many endings, and each time the same story: empires built on the spoils of war, empires crushed by failure at war, empires called into being and replaced, over and over again.  Where do we suppose it will end?

When you tell the story of our human history, when you hear the bloody tale of nations and wars, it is enough to make you run for cover.  In the face of the stormclouds of war, we wonder if there are boats sturdy enough to carry us through the storm and safely to the far shore.  In a world of violence we naturally look for sanctuary.

Well friends, we need not look far.  This sanctuary in which we sit is both safe refuge and sturdy transport.  In fact, and I’m sure you know this already, but the area in which you are sitting – what we call the nave – get its name from marine terminology.  Can you hear the similarity between the words: nave, navy, naval?  The intent, when our mothers and fathers in the faith named their worship spaces, was that we would remember that God has acted to provide safe refuge from the destructions of life.  Like Noah’s ark that carried a remnant safely across “the thunders of mighty waters” [Ps. 93:4], this sanctuary is God’s gift to us as we make our way in a violent world.

Later this morning we’ll hear from Lyn Westman who works with Mercy Ships, an international Christian ministry that brings medical aid and assistance to some of the poorest people and nations in the world — a ministry that takes the shape of this sanctuary quite literally.

But it doesn’t end there, because this sanctuary is not only the boat that carries us across the waters, it is also the far shore to which we are headed.  You see, it appears that God has something far more grand in store for us than sheltering us from the wars of one world, only to drop us in the conflicts of whichever empire is coming next.  No, instead God has lifted us out of not just one nation, but every nation, and made of us an entirely new people.  You heard it in the reading from Revelation, “to [God] who loves us and freed us… and made us to be a kingdom.”

This is very difficult to imagine, that God is lifting us out of our many and varied backgrounds and creating something new, a new body, a new family, a new kingdom, a new nation.  It’s something so new, that we struggle even to find good words or symbols that can teach us the meaning of what God is doing.  But we try.

Let’s imagine then that this sanctuary in which we gather is not only a nave, not only a ship, but that it has, and does and will carry us into a new way of being in the world.  Let’s imagine together what it might be like to disembark from this ship and enter into this new land on these imagined shores.  It’s as though we’ve arrived at Ellis Island, having left the old country behind us – except the nation that we are about to step foot in is not the United States.  It is, as Jesus speaks it to Pilate in today’s gospel a kingdom “not from this world.”  Something brand new, difficult to imagine, but for which we have been given signs.

So if this were an Ellis Island experience, the first thing we would have to worry about is immigration.  Having weathered the storms of life, of war and of death, we might wonder whether or not we would even be granted access to this new and promised land.  What might we look to in the sanctuary to teach us about the immigration policy in God’s new nation?

We HAVE been given a sign and a sacrament to teach us something about who is welcome in this kingdom, and it is baptism.  These waters marked entrance into the kingdom for each of us.  These waters, the tears of God, are an open door for everyone.  We wash babies and we wash the aged and dying in these waters, and in both cases the water is a gift, not a right or an entitlement.  This is the immigration policy in God’s new nation: come one and come all, there is plenty of room.

Now that we have entered into this new land we are refugees and immigrants.  So, like all refugees and immigrants we have some very basic necessities that we must attend to: what will we eat and how will we support ourselves?  We might be concerned, seeing how immigrants in those nations we have left behind us were often made to fend for themselves, but soon we discover that there is a new kind of economic policy in the kingdom of God.  Here there is a table filled with rich foods and life-giving wine, and even better, there is room at the table for everyone.  However much we may eat at this table, there is some left over.  Even better, we are given legitimate employment right away, as we discover that our job now is to share the food and the blessings of this table with those who are still hungry for the gifts of God!

Now that is no easy task.  If fact, it is a job that could consume all our time, yet we make time in this new nation to return for basic citizenship classes.  As I understand it, when people arrive in the United States we require about 16 hours of instruction before you sit for the test that determines whether or not you get your green card or your naturalization papers.  We teach you basic history, the Constitution, the pledge of allegiance.  But what about the new nation?  Here we do NOT sit for a test.  I suppose we have a Constitution of sorts, but it is a much grander one – it is the Word of Life, read aloud among the people and then proclaimed from the pulpit.  It is not fixed in time, but instead it is a living Word that constantly rises to reveal the truth of our lives to us.  It is Scripture, surely, but more than that it is our living Lord, Jesus, who “came into the world to testify to the truth.”  We have basic history lessons that we learn, they are our creeds, they are our way of remembering the story of those who came before us in faith, who made their witness to the world about the freedom of life in the new nation.  We have our pledge of allegiance, but we call it the Lord’s Prayer, and instead of talking about ourselves and our promises, we use our prayer to recall to one another who God is: the one who creates, the one who saves us from the time of trial, the one has made us into one body, one family, one kingdom, one nation, one new thing for which we are still looking for words.

Look around the sanctuary friends, it is filled with familiar signs each of which is actually a clue to the kind of king Christ seeks to be in the world and in our lives.  We even have a flag!  Where do you suppose we place it?

Why front and center, of course.  It hangs above our altar.  Do you see our flag?  It is the cross of Christ – the evidence of God with us throughout all the wars, all the violence, all the deaths in our lives, great and small, and transformed into life by the God who does not leave us ever, and who gives us to one another, across lines of race and nationality, across lines of hatred and hostility, and says: you are now family to one another, you are my family.

Our lessons this morning describe for us an awareness of God’s kingdom that is always with us.  Daniel remembers that “all peoples, nations, and languages should serve [God].” [Dan. 7:14]  John of Patmos, speaking in that strange apocalyptic language says, “every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of earth will wail.” [Rev. 1:7]  Wail because we someday, surely, will finally come to know what has always been true: that it is God who is the Alpha and Omega [Rev. 1:8], the beginning and the end.  The nation that has always existed and will never fail.

We would like to think that we are citizens of a nation that can never fall, but that is not so.  We are not, in the end, too very different from the Mesopotamians, or the Greeks, or the Romans, or the Germans, or the English.  For that matter, we’re not that very different from the Mongols who created the largest land empire, spanning all of Asia; or the Aztecs, whose society collapsed from the inside as a result of their decadent and conspicuous consumption of the land’s resources.  We are always trying to have it both ways, dual-citizenship if you will.  “For God and Country,” or “pro deo et patria” – ironically, that is the slogan of the Army chaplains.  They who have been called to stand in the midst of war and to be a sign that God is present, even there.

Of course God is present everywhere, in every people, and always has been.  When we gather here, in this place, this sanctuary, let us remember that this is not only refuge from the storm – but also conveyance to the new country.  Let us be very intentional about the words and signs and symbols that we use in this place so that we are not simply pointing to the broken and fading realities of the present age, but instead to the in-breaking and glorious realities of the world that is to come, and that is now drawing close in Christ, our King.

Amen.

Standard