Sermon: Sunday, February 28, 2016: Third Sunday in Lent

Texts: Isaiah 55:1-9  +  Psalm 63:1-8  +  1 Corinthians 10:1-13  +  Luke 13:1-9

So, three powerful, evocative texts from the scriptures this morning. Isaiah offers the image of “wine and milk without money and without price” (Isa. 55:1); Paul lectures the church in Corinth about idolatry with examples about the various and horrible ways the Israelites died in the wilderness (1 Cor. 10:1-13); and Jesus interrogates the given assumptions about why bad things happen to some people, calling those who follow him to repent before they perish (Luke 13:1-9). The obvious choice would be Isaiah, right? Let’s go back to that invitation to feast on rich food, or at least the parable of the gardener who advocates for the unproductive tree. But no, I think I’ll try my hand at Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, with its haunting reminder of the more than twenty-thousand who died in the wilderness because of sexual immorality, because, you know, Lent.

Before we can dive into the prickly thicket of these particular verses, let’s just remember for a moment the audience to whom Paul was writing. They were a church divided for a multitude of reasons. The community included some Jews, but mostly Gentile converts. They were poor and working people, some of them were slaves, though a few were wealthy, possibly even nobles. They were women and men who were deeply at odds with each other, while somehow remaining fairly comfortable with the dominant culture’s practices of excessive litigation, the commodification of women’s bodies, and feasting on food sacrificed to pagan gods. In other words, they were a microcosm of the surrounding world whose conduct toward one another showed very little evidence that their experience of God in Christ had made any difference in how they lived their lives.

In his letter up to this point, Paul has called on the community to transcend their petty factions where some claim to be following Paul’s teachings, while others are following the teachings of another Jewish Christian named Apollos, yet others are following Jesus’ own disciple, Peter, and a final group claiming to follow Christ — though Paul fails to understand how one can claim to follow Christ while continuing to divide Christ’s body. While the Corinthians put their trust in their interpretations of various teachers and leaders within the church, Paul flips their argument on its head by proclaiming his own faith in “God’s foolishness” by demonstrating power through a cross, choosing “what is foolish in the world to shame the wise” and “what is weak in the world to shame the strong.” (1 Cor. 1:27)

Having re-established a common foundation for Christian faith and life, something deeper and more trust-worthy than all their self-interested rationalizations and accommodations to the dominant culture’s dysfunctions, namely the witness of Jesus’ self-giving for the sake of love, Paul begins to try and reunify the church, stating, “we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.” (1 Cor. 3:9)

By the time we get to the passage we just read this morning, Paul had tackled head on the issues that were dividing the church, from issues of morality and advice on marriage to methods of conflict resolution and finally the matter of eating food offered to idols. Now, as we join this argument already in progress, he is using language powerfully, masterfully, to implicate this divided community in a shared reality. Let’s tease it apart.

“I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.” (1 Cor. 10:1-4)

Paul is writing to a community that is mostly Gentile, but still partly Jewish. Yet he says to them, “our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea.” He’s telling them the story of the Exodus, the story that belongs to the ethnic minority in their congregation, the ethnic minority Paul himself is a member of, and he’s asserting that it’s everyone’s story. It’s hard for us today to hear how shocking that is, because Christians have been reading Jewish scriptures for two thousand years as our story, so it seems perfectly natural. But it wasn’t always. I don’t think it was here.

MLK-in-Birmingham-jailIt would be as if Martin Luther King, Jr. — but the MLK from 50 years ago, before he was a saint with a national holiday — were to write a letter to a community of mostly white people, with perhaps a few people of color, you know, like Lutherans, and say, “our ancestors gathered in the woods beyond the plantation fields and sang songs from the old country, songs of freedom, songs that gave them the courage to steal away in the dark of night and wade in the river waters as they made their way north toward freedom.” Would we even hear the message, or would we be like, “Wait a minute. Did that Black preacher just call me Black?!”

Except it doesn’t stop there, because Paul also said, “all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea … For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.” Now Paul is talking to the Jewish minority, as one Jew to another, saying that their foundational stories, their crossing at the Red Sea, their water from the rock, their pillar of cloud by day and fire by night, was Jesus all along. It would be as if … well it would be just exactly that, as if a rabbi were to walk into a synagogue and say, “all your sacred stories are really about Jesus.” You can actually imagine exactly how that would go, because we’ve been living with the rift it caused two thousand years ago ever since as ethnic prejudice made enemies and oppressors out of people and communities that Paul called sisters and brothers.

Because what he’s saying is your story is my story. My people are your people. The body of Christ is not divided but one, and anything that harms one of us harms all of us. These horrible stories he references from Hebrew scriptures about the twenty three thousand who fell in a single day (v. 8), or those who were destroyed by serpents (v.9), or who were destroyed on account of their complaining (v. 10) — well, they’re horrible stories, which we can unpack some other time, because the reason Paul cites them here is not to terrify the church with threats of an angry, vengeful God, but to point out that we do not live or die alone, that we are all in this together. He is telling stories from Hebrew scripture about times when the idolatry that caught hold of a few had devastating consequences for the entire community. And while that may not sound fair, doesn’t it strike you as actually being very, very true?

Doesn’t it seem as though we are living in precisely such a moment, when the idolatry of a few might bring about the ruin of us all? When our inability to confront the false gods that some of us have turned to to provide the illusion of safety in the middle of a wilderness of chaos and doubt might be the very things that finally kill us all?

And, what’s worse, is that we are all so sure we know what the false gods are! They’re the ones those other, crazy people are following! You know, the unrestrained gun culture; or the racism and xenophobia that rules our borders; or the austerity that has gutted public services to the most vulnerable of our neighbors; or the denial of death as a fact of life that has paralyzed our healthcare system. Our story about what is wrong with the world, which is generally just our story about other people.

But what about their story about us? What truth is there to the accusations leveled at us by brothers and sisters we refuse to acknowledge as members of the one human family to which we all belong? How offended would we be to hear them tell our story of oppression as if it were their own, as if they had a right to the same kind of longing for a better world, even if their better world is one we would never want to live in, and the path to getting there is one we would never want to walk?

Can we afford another two thousand years of unresolved family feuds? Do we even have the luxury of another two thousand years?

Paul writes, “so if you are standing, watch out that you do not fall.” (v. 12) It’s a warning against the false pride of the self-righteous, and I will confess to you, my brothers and sisters, that I am the worst of all sinners when it comes to this. I am so self-righteous. I am so convinced that I see clearly what others are too dumb or blind to understand. I won’t ask you to tell me I’m wrong, because you know me too well, and we both know it would be a lie. And I won’t say that we all suffer from the same sin, because we don’t. Some of you possess a humility that puts me to shame. You live from a place of selfless love and genuine compassion that sees people before politics or positions. You minister to me, because I see Christ in you, and it calls me to repent.

And repentance is not synonymous with feeling bad about one’s self. It isn’t rehearsing a feeling of guilt. Repentance is turning to face the God who never wearies of forgiving us so that our minds can be renewed and our broken hearts can be healed. Repentance is the dawning epiphany that God’s foolish love is so much stronger than our “smart” self-righteousness. Repentance is a thirsty person finally realizing that they’re standing knee-deep in water, or the exhausted worker finally asking what might truly feed them. Repentance is a rejection of the logic of ownership, which throws away anything or anyone that doesn’t produce the thing we want to see, to have, right now, in favor of the logic of the gardener, who is willing to wait, to be patient, with all that is still possible for you and for me and for those who do not look, or think, or talk, or vote like you or like me. Because God is faithful, and will not let us be tested beyond our strength, but instead will give us another year, and another after that, and another after that, until we realize that our strength is each other, and that together we are being made new.

And what is it that you need to repent of? What false gods have you put your trust in? Whose story are you refusing to hear as your own? Which community do you hold at arm’s length? Who is too different for you to love? How has your heart grown hard, and when did it happen?

planting-a-tree--banner-3There is a reason we hear this hard scripture halfway through Lent, this season when the church prepares people to be baptized, and calls us each to be honest about the ways we have all fallen down in our baptismal vocations. Because if we cannot be honest about our failings, then we cannot experience the relief of forgiveness or the joy of a new beginning. And that is what God is always offering — a new beginning. God, whose first act was to plant a garden and populate it with life, is always granting the extra year, the year of the Lord’s favor, the year Jesus proclaimed when he unrolled the scroll and sat down to teach. We are living our whole lives in that extra year.

Let’s not spend another minute of it despising or condescending to another another. Let’s tell our stories. Let’s listen to each others, imagining that they could be our own.

Let’s fall in love with each other like long lost relatives.



Sermon: Wednesday, March 5, 2014: Ash Wednesday

Texts:  Isaiah 58:1-12  +  Psalm 51:1-17  +  2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10  +  Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

The prophet Isaiah issues a call to action, “Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet!” (Isa. 58:1) and Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew replies, “So, whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so they may be praised by others” (Mt. 6:2)pb-120222-ashes-2-go-01.photoblog900At El stops across the city, people have been getting their ashes-to-go since this morning’s commute, even as Jesus continues with “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others” (Mt. 6:5) And, it is almost guaranteed that if you leave worship tonight with the sign of the cross on your forehead and venture into any public place, someone will ask you, “what have you given up for Lent?” How will you answer, given that Jesus instructs, “whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward” (Mt. 6:16)

What’s a faithful Christian to do with this season of Lent?

Though they may disagree on the surface about the nature of our repentance, whether it should be public or private, the prophet Isaiah and Jesus share in common a distaste for the hypocrisy that fills too much religious ritual.  When Isaiah instructs his listeners to lift up their voices like trumpets, it is not so that the world can see their faith, but so that the community can hear as an honest account of their failings is made public.

Isaiah mocks the pleas of the people as he mimics their complaints, “why do we fast, but you do not see?  Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” (Isa. 58:3a)  In response he offers a cold dose of hard truth, “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers” (Isa. 58:3b).  The prophet has sounded the horns not to praise the people, but to take a searching and fearless moral inventory of their wrongdoings.

cb_alcoholics_anonymous_ll_120314_wgIf that language of “searching and fearless moral inventory” sounds familiar to you, then you’re probably acquainted with the 12 steps and 12 traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous, or one of the many communities of recovery based on the 12-step spirituality that emerged from AA.  The steps are an essential part of the process of healing that restores people to life and makes it possible for them to return to the families and communities they have harmed in a new way.  Listen to the twelve steps:

We admitted that we were powerless … that our lives had become unmanageable.

Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God, as we understood God.

Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings.

Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.

Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood God, praying only for God’s will for us and the power to carry that out.

Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to [others who shared our condition], and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

Taken as a whole, the 12 steps set out by communities of recovery like Alcoholic Anonymous give us, perhaps, contemporary language for making sense of the ancient traditions of Ash Wednesday.

We are addicts, all of us.  Some of our addictions are confined to our own personal behavior — be that drinking or drugs, gambling or sex.  Some of our addictions, though, are harder to spot because we share them with so many of the people around us — a reliance on violence, in any of its many forms, to establish and maintain control; a dependency on wealth to prop up a flagging sense of self; a habit we just can’t shake of taking on more and more work to prove to ourselves and others just how important we are. Then there are those mass addictions, our unhealthy attachment to goods and services that come to us at great expense to others: foreign oil, sweatshop clothing, cheap food, and the list goes on.  We allow ourselves to remember only briefly and occasionally the cost others pay daily so that we can get our quick fix of consumer culture and conspicuous consumption.

In 12-step recovery programs, the promise that’s held out is that there is restored health and new life available to all, but that to get there we will have to be honest with ourselves, with others, and with God.  The same is true tonight, on Ash Wednesday, as we begin a season of repentance and renewal that will last forty days, and will culminate in our celebration of the resurrected life that is ours through Christ Jesus when we finally arrive at Easter on the other side of this season.

But that is still forty days off, and the new life that God is always giving us comes to us all, rich and poor, one day at a time.  There will be many steps between this night and that great morning, but none of us can speed the days or avoid the work to be done in the interim.  “Now is the acceptable time; see now is the day of salvation!” (2 Cor. 6:2b)

Tonight’s work is to take a searching and fearless inventory of our failures as individuals and as a people — not in order to generate a certain mood, or the appearance of penitence — but so that we can actually open our hearts and our lives to the healing that God is always and already pouring into and over us.

As we do our work we will be marked with ashes, not so that the world around us might notice what good Christians we are, but so that we might remember that life is short, and precious, and sooner than we can imagine will be over.  And why would we want to spend one more minute of our irreplaceable lives pretending to be well, when God is already at work making us truly whole.



Sermon: Sunday, March 3, 2013: Third Sunday of Lent

Texts:  Isaiah 55:1-9  +  Psalm 63:1-8  +  1 Corinthians 10:1-13  +  Luke 13:1-9

So I have three god-children whom I adore.  My eldest goddaughter, Katie, is finishing up her final year of seminary at Vanderbilt in Nashville this spring and was recently approved for ordination by the Disciples of Christ.  My middle godson, Gabriel, just got into his parents’ first choice of Montessori pre-schools in Brooklyn, which will begin this coming fall.  And my youngest goddaughter, Kai, just celebrated her first birthday here in Chicago two weeks ago.

Goddaughter Katie (far right) carries the cross at my ordination, ca. October, 2006.

Goddaughter Katie (far right) carries the cross at my ordination, ca. October, 2006.

I adore all three of my godchildren, and my only regret is that I don’t somehow live close enough to all of them to get to see them as frequently as I do Kai, who Kerry and I get to babysit once a month in Oak Park while her moms lead the youth group at their church.  You heard me right, we babysit their infant daughter so that they can spend time with other people’s children.  That the kind of fantastic parents these two moms are.

If you’re thinking I look too young to have a goddaughter old enough to be graduating from seminary, thank you.  I do look great, don’t I?  I wish I could chalk it all up to the godly life, but I know myself (and some of you know me) better than that.  The fact of the matter is that I became a godfather at a very early age.  I think I was a freshman in high school.  Katie’s mother, LaDonna, had been my fifth grade Sunday School teacher and, like our own Sunday School teachers here at St. Luke’s, she took the job seriously.  She was prepared for us each week.  She entertained us.  She disciplined us.  She got to know us and she loved us.  LaDonna was among the first in the church who showed us what it means that, in baptism, we are reborn children of God and made members of the body of Christ.

Erika (left), Erik (center), and Laurie (right) with goddaughter Katie and her brother Sean, ca. ~1992.

Erika (left), Erik (center), and Laurie (right) with goddaughter Katie and her brother Sean, ca. ~1992.

When her second child, Katie, was born, LaDonna asked three of us from that fifth grade Sunday School class to be her godparents, me and my two best friends, Erika and Laurie. We were honored, and a little daunted.  What did it mean for us to be godparents at so young an age?  Would we be expected to take care of Katie if something happened to her parents?  What kind of a responsibility was this?

Different cultures have different expectations around what a godparent is, and different families have different traditions around who gets asked to be a godparent.  I’d like us to look for just a few minutes at what parents and godparents actually commit to during a baptism.  So, once again, I’m going to ask you to open the ELW, the red hymnal, in the back of the pew in front of you.  If you’ll turn to page 228 you’ll find the questions that are asked of parents and sponsors when children who are not able to answer for themselves are brought for baptism.

When parents bring their children for baptism, this is what the church asks of them:

As you bring your children to receive the gift of baptism, you are entrusted with responsibilities:

to live with them among God’s faithful people,

to bring them to the word of God and the holy supper,

teach them the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and the Ten Commandments,

place in their hands the holy scriptures,

and nurture them in faith and prayer,

so that your children may learn to trust God,

proclaim Christ through word and deed,

care for others and the world God made,

and work for justice and peace.

We ask parents to promise that they will do these things, and we ask sponsors (the church’s name for godparents and any others who commit to caring for a baptized person) to “nurture these children in the Christian faith” and to “help them live in the covenant of baptism.”  Then, beyond even the parents and godparents, we ask the entire congregation, who act as the local representatives of the whole Christian church to promise to support these children and to pray for them in their new life in Christ.

In other words, we invite the church to meddle in their lives.

I think we have to remember that — that for most of us in this room promises have been made, very likely before we can even remember, by members of this and other congregations, by our parents and their friends, by church mothers and fathers, by Sunday School teachers, to meddle in our lives — before we can read this morning’s scriptures.  We have to remember that we have been claimed in love, by love, for love, before we can read the word this morning’s scriptures all speak.

Because that word is repent.

A group of people come to Jesus with questions about a terrible thing that has happened.  A group of Galileans had been killed by Herod, the local ruler beholden to the Roman empire.  The blood of the slaughtered had been mixed with that of their temple sacrifices.  What did this mean?  Why had this happened to these people?  What had they done to deserve this?

This is a totally natural question, it’s one we’re still asking.  Ours is a world in which blood is spilled every day, and we tell ourselves stories about those who have died in an attempt to manage the horror of that reality so that we can move on with our lives.  Derrion Albert was beaten to death walking home from school on the South side in 2009.  Why did this happen to him?  What had he done to deserve this?  Janay McFarlane was shot just hours after President Obama gave a speech condemning gun violence in Hyde Park last month.  Why did this happen to her?  What had she done to deserve this?

Jesus asks the crowd, “do you think that because these people suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other people?”

It’s a good question.  Do we think these things only happen to people who, somehow, deserve it?  Worse, do we think these things happen because people deserve it?  The quick answer is, no, of course not.  But that answer comes too easily.  It’s the one we know we’re supposed to give.

If we stay with the question for a while, other questions and other answers begin to emerge.  If we don’t think violence is an acceptable form of judgement on a life, then why do we tolerate its use as a punishment by the courts?  Why do we allow solitary confinement, a form of psychological torture, to be used by our penal system?  Why do we fetishize or valorize the use of torture in films from Reservoir Dogs to Zero Dark Thirty?

If we don’t think violence is an acceptable judgement on a life, then why do we abandon communities, neighborhoods, and nations to the ravages of prolonged violence — whether that be the in the form of children bullied every day for a decade because of a physical or developmental disability; or neighborhoods left to languish without quality education or adequate opportunities for employment; or nations living under the constant scrutiny of drones flying overhead that might rain death at any moment.

We have come up with all sorts of perverted theologies and crass politics to explain away our use of violence against one another.  They deserve it because they’re poor.  They deserve it because they’re Arab.  They deserve it because they’re queer.  They deserve it because they’re Black.  They deserve it because they’re immigrants.  They deserve it because they’re different.  They deserve it because they’re not us.

It’s rarely said out loud, these blunt denials of our shared humanity, but if they aren’t on some level what we believe about the people in this world who disproportionately suffer violence at the hands of the powerful, then why do we suppose it happens?

Jesus says, “do you think that because these people suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other people?  No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”

There’s a quote I used to see on posters and in print all the time by the German Lutheran pastor, Martin Niemöller, on the dangers of political apathy.  Reflecting back on the abuses suffered in Nazi Germany, he said,

First they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.

Then they came for the socialists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Catholic.

Then they came for me, and there was no one left for me.

I think this Lutheran pastor was trying to teach us something about the meaning of the word “repent” and its relationship to baptism.  As long as we respond to the suffering of others with questions and assumptions about what they’ve done to deserve their treatment, we will let ourselves off the hook when it comes to doing anything about it.  We’ll find excuses to stay out of the struggle.

“Oh, but I’m not in a union.”

“Well, my family immigrated legally.”

“If you’d seen the way he was dressed, he was asking for it.”

Then the moment comes when it is you who has been targeted for violence, whether that be the economic violence of a war on not only the middle class, but the working class, the working poor and the majority of the world outside of industrialized nations like ours; or the violence of laws that deny you access to the same civil rights taken for granted by your neighbors; or the violence of a spouse or lover who lays hands on you in order to maintain power and control.

And in that moment, who will stand up for you?

We made promises to each other when we were each baptized.  Promises to care for each other and the world God made.  Promises to work for justice and peace.  Baptismal promises.  We promised to meddle in each others’ lives for the sake of good.  We promised we would not abandon each other to the violences of this world.

And we have broken our promises, which is why Jesus calls us to repent.

It’s hard to preach repentance, because it sounds like condemnation, and who am I — who are any of us — to offer up condemnation?  Didn’t Jesus also say, “let he who is without sin cast the first stone?”

But we’re not talking about casting stones, which is just another form of violence.  We’re talking about telling the truth, even when it’s messy, even when it’s dangerous.  And we’re talking about telling the truth in love — not to score points or win arguments, but in order to care for one another and the world God made.  In order to keep the promises we made, and were made over each of us.

Godson Gabe (left) and goddaughter Kai (right), ca. Jan. 2013.

Godson Gabe (left) and goddaughter Kai (right), ca. Jan. 2013.

I love my three godchildren, and I made promises to help them live into the promises of baptism.  Whether they are near to me, or far away, I take those promises seriously.  I meddle in their lives, and I will continue to do so because I understand that to be a part of my job as a Christian, as a member of the household of faith.

It is your job too.  The work of prophets is not reserved for a few, but for all the baptized people of God.  It is not limited to a committee of the church, called Social Justice — it is work that belongs to each of us.  We are called as Christians to make a public witness to the world that each of us is a precious child of God.  That each of us is loved and cherished and necessary in God’s economy.  That none of us are expendable.  If we cannot do that for one another, if we cannot do that for the weakest and most vulnerable among us, apart from us, even far from us, then we will all perish just as they already are.

Remember your baptism and repent.