Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, July 2, 2017: Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Text: Romans 6:12-23

There is a story you already know that is the story you are always longing to hear.

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Does that seem possible? If you let your mind search through the cabinet drawers of your heart and your memory, is there a story there you are always longing to hear? Is it a story from your childhood, one of the ones adults placed in your hands filled with archetypes of heroes and metaphors for the lives you could only imagine? Is it a bit of family lore, a founding myth that explains why your people are the way they are? Is it to be found threaded into all the novels and movies and television shows that are streaming into our homes? Is there a story behind all the stories?

There is a story you already know that is the story you are always longing to hear.

What kind of story must it be for you to know it, and for me to know that you know it? What aspect of human existence is broad enough that it can bridge all the differences that divide us? What feature of human life is so universal that a single story about this theme can speak to us all, while still respecting our essential differences?

The story you know, the story you long to hear, is the story of freedom.

Does that seem right? What are our coming-of-age movies — The Breakfast Club, Lean on Me, Real Women Have Curves, heck, even 13 Going on 30 — if not the stories of young people running hard into the predetermined limits of adulthood and striving to achieve a kind of freedom of self-determination at the front end of a long life defined by other people’s expectations for them?

Freedom is the heartbeat of so many other types of stories. In love stories it is the freedom to be ourselves while joining with another. In mysteries it is wed to the theme of truth which is always breaking free of attempts to hide it. In war stories, freedom is the reason offered first for why people are willing to die. In our greatest epics, the stories of our nations, freedom is promise that drives people to leave their homes, to sacrifice their health, to work harder than they’ve ever worked before, to risk their lives and even to give them up, for the hope of a freedom they may never see.

In a version of the world that existed before the internet, or the radio, or even the printing press, our stories were still freedom stories — passed down by memory from one generation to the next. In the first century, just decades after the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, the apostle Paul could count on his audience having access to these oral traditions, to a common library of shared stories. Among these stories, there was one that perfectly captured their experience of life, that brought together the reality of oppression with the promise of liberation. That story was the story of the exodus of the Hebrew people from slavery under Pharaoh to the promised land of freedom.

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For thousands of years we have been telling that story. In fact, it was already ancient by the time John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness calling people out of the city to repent and be baptized. That baptism was a sign of the original passage through water that liberated the Hebrews from bondage in Egypt. Those waters were the starting point for the ministry of Jesus, and that ministry — a life lived freely for others in defiance of empire, which led to the cross but ended with the resurrection — is the defining moment in all of history for Paul’s message to the church in Rome.

For Paul the story of Jesus makes no sense without the story of the exodus. They are of a piece. The God who brought God’s people through the Red Sea and made them free is the God who claims all people as God’s own people through the waters of baptism and liberates them from the power of death which continues to do its best to choke the life out of the world, and each of us as well.

And, just as it took the Israelites generations of wandering in the wilderness to learn to live like free people instead of slaves, so we also are learning to live in the manner of people saved by grace and not by our own slavish commitment to the false idols of this world. The Israelites were free of Pharaoh the moment they set foot on dry land and the waters crashed in on Pharaoh’s armies, but still they looked back at the enticements of their former slavery with longing and grumbled in the desert. So, Paul acknowledges, though we too are already free, having been baptized into Christ, we also struggle to live fully into the reality of that freedom. We, too, look at the world through the logic of our former captivity and long for its rewards — even when we know that those rewards bring us no closer to the freedom we desire, and that they may even hasten our death!

When you tell the story of your life, what is the freedom you long for? When you search your calendar or your credit card statement, what is the evidence you find of your quest for that freedom? Is the manner in which you spend your life reflective of the freedom that is your birthright, or does it show evidence of the habits that distract you from the hard work of liberation?

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About a week ago I got to meet Jamie Kalven, an award-winning journalist and human rights activist from the South Side of Chicago who has chronicled the deep legacy of police abuses and unchecked power in the city of Chicago and broke the story on the cover-up of the killing of Laquan McDonald. As he spoke to the group of clergy I was with, he recounted to us the history of freedom movements in repressive states, what he called “glaciated totalitarianism.” In such places, like Czechoslovakia under communism or South Africa under apartheid, freedom fighters and dissidents operated on what he called the “as if” principle, asking themselves, “what would happen if we behaved as if we were neighbors?” when, politically, everything was set up to keep that from happening.

The effect he described was the creation of new power. Rather than cowering in fear of repressive power, or sacrificing their vision in order to be granted a small apportionment of corrupt power, people who behaved “as if” their future citizenship had already been secured generated a new kind of power that caught hold of the imaginations of their fellow citizens and launched movements that led to lasting change.

What would happen in your life, in our life together, if we acted “as if” we were already free of the forces that oppress us, of the stories that overwrite us with a vision for our lives that is not our own?

There is a story you already know that is the story you are always longing to hear. If you were to live your life as if that story is true, what would have to change? What do you think? Shall we live “as if” …

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, June 18, 2017: 2nd Sunday after Pentecost

Text: Romans 5:1-8

 

Louie C.K., star of 'Louie' arrives at the FX Network series premiere of 'Wilfred' and season two launch of 'Louie' in Hollywood

Louis C.K.

The comedian Louis C.K. has a bit in one of his stand-up routines in which he points out the reality of Christian cultural dominance.

 

“I always tell my kids, ‘There are many religions in the world and they’re all equal, but the Christians are the main one.’ That’s what I tell them. ‘The Christians won. They’re the winners, so act accordingly. Congratulate Christians when you meet them, because they won the world.’

And it’s true. It’s true! We love to tell ourselves, ‘Every religion is exactly…’ No, no they’re not. The Christians won everything, a long time ago. If you don’t believe me, let me ask you a question: what year is it?”

He goes on from there to illustrate the point, imagining a conversation between a couple of grown adults back in the year 3. How do they explain that? Or people living before the “common era,” what we used to call “B.C.” in an effort to acknowledge that not everyone makes the same confessional claims about the human being named Jesus that Christians recognize as the Child of God and Lord of Creation. So now, instead of referring to things which occurred before his birth as “B.C.” we say that they happened “B.C.E.” before the common era. Which, instead of forcing a non-Christian to publicly order time according to someone’s else’s religion, now allows them to simply acknowledge that time is most commonly ordered by someone else’s religion, though not their own, if they should even happen to be religious.

For the next ten weeks we’re going to be focusing very intentionally on the book of Romans — which, in its own odd way, requires us to unwind this way of thinking about time. Like those imagined adults trying to talk about their age at the dawn of the common era, Romans is a piece of religious literature that is trying to talk about religious identity before the labels we use today were being applied. Unlike some books of the bible, the scholarly consensus is quite firm, not only about the fact that this letter is authentically Pauline, but even about the date it was written. The common assumption is that this letter can be dated to somewhere in the mid to late 50s, which places it twenty-plus years after the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth.

So try to hold on to that. This letter from Paul to the church in Rome, a letter that will repeatedly refer to the tensions between Jews who confess Jesus as the messiah and Jews who do not and Gentiles who name Jesus as Lord and Gentiles who do not, this letter knows nothing about what we would call “Christianity.” There is no “Holy Roman Catholic Church” here. There’s not even an inkling of what a Protestant might someday be. There is the Jewish people, the people of Israel, living under Roman rule in a religiously pluralistic world in which the empire doesn’t really much care who or what you worship as long as it doesn’t get in the way of the empire’s insatiable appetite for growth and domination. Back in Jerusalem there is a small, but growing, community of Jews who believe that the long-expected messiah who would come to liberate them from Rome the way Moses liberated the people from Pharaoh had come in the most shocking way imaginable: as a countryside prophet who’d faced off against the empire and been killed for it. This Jesus, they said, God raised up from the dead and now sits at God’s right hand.

And as the community of Jewish believers in Jerusalem focused on sharing this message with other Jews, Paul — a scholar of Jewish law and one-time persecutor of the followers of Jesus — has been radicalized. Not only has he gone from persecuting the followers of Jesus to joining them, he has become an apostle to the Gentiles preaching that Jesus had come to liberate not only the nation of Israel, but all of humanity, and even all of creation!

That improbable message, delivered by that unlikely person, is the one that Louis C.K. says “wins.” And from the very beginning, it is a message that has to deal with race.

Now, in saying that, I’m intentionally blurring the very lines of history that I was just trying to tidy up. Because, to say that the gospel message preached by Paul had to deal with race is to invoke a concept that means something very specific today; something loaded with a legacy of violent power relations in much the same way that our way of keeping time globally by tracking “the year of our Lord” comes with a legacy of violent colonialism blessed by a church that Paul could never have imagined.

What Paul would have had no trouble imagining was the deep suspicion and hostility that existed between Jews and Gentiles. It is the same suspicion and hostility that exists anywhere between communities that are scapegoated and targeted by the regime in power and those who benefit from that same regime. It’s not that Jews and Gentiles didn’t have dealings with each other out in the marketplace. Not that Jews and Gentiles didn’t know each other’s names and exchange sincere and friendly words. It’s not even that there could be no friendship between Jews and Gentiles, or even love that crossed lines and produced children. It’s that Jews carried the memories of centuries of occupation and oppression, of being targeted and scapegoated.

In fact, in the decade just prior to Paul’s letter to the Romans, the Roman emperor Claudius had expelled all the Jews from Rome, as had happened twenty years earlier, when Jesus himself would have been a young adult, before the start of his public ministry. Jews knew that the regime in power only tolerated them so long as they remembered their place. So long as they didn’t make any moves to grow their base, or change their situation in life. It’s no wonder then that Paul spent plenty of time in prison, because his ministry was about building community — which is to say, building power — across racial lines.

Paul’s letter to the Romans explicitly addresses the barely buried lines that divide this multicultural church. The letter, which can be divided into four parts, begins by spelling out exactly what observant Jews would have thought of the Gentiles in their midst, a kind of racial profiling. Then, Paul flips the script on them, accusing them of hypocrisy for being guilty of all the same vices they abhorred in their neighbors. Their hypocrisy stinks all the more, Paul presses, because though guilty of the same offenses, they believe themselves to be superior to those they hate because of their racial and religious heritage. This, Paul deconstructs, returning to the story of Abraham their ancestor and reimagining the terms by which Abraham is to be remembered as righteous — not as the father to a nation, but as a human being trusting entirely in God’s righteousness. Ethnic pride is replaced with radical trust that God is working through history for the redemption of everyone and everything that God has made. Thus we are justified by faith, apart from any works prescribed by the law. (Rom. 3:28)

This is how we arrive at the passage from Romans read this morning, which is the beginning of the second full section of the letter. Already Paul has named the ethnic tensions in the room. Already he has invoked the long legacy of animus and prejudice. No one needs to spell out the reasons why it is hard for Jews and Gentiles to just “get along.”

You know what I mean? You hear what I’m saying?

 

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Philando Castile’s mother, Valerie, reacts to the not guilty verdict.

Think of the anti-Muslim demonstrations here in Chicago this past week. Think of the families and colleagues of the politicians who were the target of the gunman in Washington, D.C. Think of Philando Castile’s mother raging at the nation that robbed her of her son and denied him justice in death. Think of all these people and their stories, their lives, their hopes, their anger, their anguish. Who are you in this story? Who are you in this story that repeats generation after generation, this story of people sitting in a room, divided by their shared history, longing for a future better than their past?

 

Those stories were seated side by side in a room somewhere in Rome in the mid to late 50s: stories of ancient oppression and violent colonization, stories of radical conversion and unlikely community, stories of power being built across lines meant to divide. But the tension is simmering, just under the surface, the way it always is. Then someone stands up and reads a letter to the congregation from a faraway teacher and the part you hear with fresh ears is this:

“Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Rom. 5:1-5)

This is the promise of God, as reliable as the grace that comes to us by faith, that in this community of people divided by history but united by love, we do not have to remain quiet about what harms us! We do not have to pretend that we are all “alright” when the world is doing everything it can to exploit us and pit us against each other. We do not have to blame ourselves for the pain we are living with any more than we need to blame each other for the violent legacies we have inherited. Instead we can boast in our sufferings. We can tell the truth about how this present age has harmed us because our faith rests in the God who is bringing to birth a new creation. We can see the agonizing spasms of this present moment as the prelude to something new and better.

We can boast in our sufferings because we know that what we can share with one another has the power to build us up instead of tear us down. What we can share with each other produces endurance. What we can share with each other produces character, which is to say that it changes us. It takes the raw clay out of which we are made and molds us into something new. We are being transformed by one another’s suffering. We are bearing one another’s burdens. We are saying and doing things that feel outside our comfort zone. We are taking bigger risks for the sake of a bigger community, a wider sense of clan, an expanding vision of humanity in which none of us can claim superiority over another on the basis of the identities we inherited but never asked for.

This character, the character that is forming each of us and all of us together, is the source of our hope. It is no naive, amnesiac hope. It is the hope that remembers all we have suffered, all we have overcome, all that God has brought us through. It is the trust that God will do it again, and again, and again. That God is not done with us until we understand that “us” means all of us. That is the hope that does not disappoint.

It is a hope born of love, which is the subject of this letter.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, August 17, 2014: Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Genesis 45:1-15  +  Psalm 133  +  Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32  +  Matthew 15:10-28

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A protester in the middle of a smoke bomb in Ferguson. Credit David Carson/St. Louis Post-Dispatch, via Associated Press

Well, to begin, let me just say that there is so much going on in the passages we’ve just heard that there is no way to do justice to all of the many themes and theologies at work here. That’s true every Sunday, and it’s especially true this Sunday due to the fact that in addition to a story of reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers, in addition to a meditation on God’s faithfulness to God’s promises in Paul’s letter to the Romans, in addition to Jesus’ encounter with a Canaanite woman seeking healing for her daughter, we are also dealing with the texts that come to us from the front lines of history. Depending on how you use technology, this may be literally true for you as it is for me, since I get text messages from the New York Times whenever they push a breaking story alert. So I woke up this morning with texts telling me that while I was sleeping, law enforcement in Ferguson, Missouri used a combination of smoke and tear gas to disperse demonstrators whose protests over the killing of teenager Michael Brown last weekend broke the newly imposed curfew.

Given that we’ve been intentionally following the stories from Genesis all summer long, and that we’re midway through a cycle of stories centered on Joseph, the dreamer, I’d thought there might be a way to frame what is happening in the world around us through the lens of Joseph’s estrangement from his family, who sold him into slavery but ended up at his mercy when famine struck and their own food stores were depleted.  Listening to Joseph’s reunion with his brothers, I was moved by the depth of emotion that Genesis conveys. “Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, ‘Send everyone away from me.’ So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it…” (Gen. 45:1-2)

Don’t you just feel like weeping?  

The image of a family divided by its own violent past, of brothers brought to the brink of ruin by their mistrust of one another, of the desire to be reunited almost perfectly balanced with the desire to be right, and vindicated. Joseph and his brothers — will they ever get over their tragic past, or will it define them for the rest of their lives?

_76259254_76257635Where to even begin? Is it Israelis and Palestinians struggling the share the same land, suffering the deadly effects of generations of violence that have made it almost impossible to maintain a ceasefire for a mere 72 hours?  Is it ISIS forces driving tens of thousands of Yazidis into the mountains of northern Iraq? Is it children and parents sitting in detention facilities in Texas and all along the border, awaiting deportation to places suffering famines of opportunity and failures at peace? Is it yet another young black man shot down in the streets, this time Ferguson, Missouri; last time in Sanford, Florida; and before that Queens, New York; Oakland, California; Staten Island, and the list goes on.

Don’t you just feel like weeping?

Joseph sends everyone away so that he can reveal himself to his brothers and they can be reconciled, but for all the tears and all the falling into one another’s arms, the reason I can’t stay with this story from Genesis on this morning has to do with the words that follow.  Joseph says,

“I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life … God send me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, to keep you alive for many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God…” (Gen. 45:4b-5,7-8a)

The author of this story in Genesis is sharing a story from the past with an audience caught in the grip of yet another period of captivity, not in Egypt but in Babylon. To those people, suffering a humiliating defeat by a foreign power, the voice of God speaks through scripture to reassure them that God is still present, even where the suffering of God’s people is most intense, and that God can still bring life and healing and reconciliation to the most desperate of circumstances.

That’s a message we need to hear and to remember, but I just can’t lift this story up as a template for understanding the moment in which we’re living.  Joseph may be able to say, “do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here…” but we do not get to let ourselves off the hook quite so easily.

In the gospel story from Matthew Jesus speaks with a candor that seems perfectly suited to our situation.  He says,

Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles … Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. (Matt. 15:10b-11,17-18)

What Jesus says angers the Pharisees and confuses the disciples, because what he’s saying is that we’re not made clean or kept clean by keeping the laws set up to separate us from what is regarded as filthy in this world.  He’s speaking narrowly about dietary restrictions here, since food laws were an important part of the religious customs of the community, but it quickly becomes apparent that this conversation about purity is about people as well.

Jesus leaves that place and heads to Tyre and Sidon, a district filled with people regarded as unclean because of their ethnic background, because of their proximity to Gentiles, because of their worship practices and a variety of other reasons. There were lots of reasons why these people weren’t well regarded, but a lot of it boils down to the fact that they were different. Jesus’ presence draws a woman whose daughter is oppressed by evil forces, and this woman begs for Jesus to help her.

At first Jesus keeps silent. Then his disciples ask him to get rid of her. Finally Jesus responds, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Jesus implies that this new world, the reign of God of which he has been speaking, God’s in breaking reality, is only for some people, only for God’s elect, only for a few.

But this mother is not easily deterred. She kneels before Jesus just as the leper who sought healing knelt before him after he preached his sermon on the mountain, just as a ruler had come kneeling before Jesus pleading for his daughter.  She kneels as a sign that she recognizes God’s authority at work in him, but she persists in pleading for her child.

Next Jesus says something so ugly we can barely recognize him.  He says, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” (Matt. 15:26)  There are so many explanations that have been offered that try to make sense of Jesus’ harsh words to a woman so clearly in need, and no one interpretation can say everything.  I’ll tell you what I think.  I think the writer of Matthew’s gospel is intentionally trying to shock us with a visceral dramatization of the principle Jesus has just presented in his teaching about what defiles.  

Under the law, under the cultural norms and expectations of his time, Jesus is perfectly justified in narrowing the focus of his concern to his own people, who he calls the “lost sheep of Israel.”  It’s like those who say we have to attend to our own house before we go messing around in other people’s affairs.  The problem with this kind of thinking is that it reinforces false distinctions between “us” and “them.” Those false distinctions lead to jealousy, violence, enmity and war. They lead to slurs and racial stereotypes. They lead to religious crusades and ethnic cleansing. They lead to abuses of power and violence in our streets.  They lead to Joseph and his brothers weeping over the great distance between them and the tragedies of their past.

It’s a short walk from “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” to “it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,” which is why Jesus has just taught, “what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.”

Then comes the miracle.  In fact, I would say that there is not one miracle in this story, but two.  The first miracle is less visible, but perhaps more significant.  In the face of rejection and humiliation, this Canaanite woman finds the strength to stay engaged in the struggle for healing and liberation.  She does not accept the label she is given, instead she uses it to redirect the conversation toward an even deeper reality.  She says, “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” And we’re reminded that after feeding the five thousand, there were still leftovers.

This Canaanite woman, who has called Jesus “Lord” and “Son of David” knows that in God’s economy there is always enough for everyone, but she also knows that religious folk and people with power sometimes need to be reminded to practice what they preach. So she persists in the face of discrimination, and I think that is the first miracle.

This Caananite woman could be anyone.  She could be the mother in Gaza or in Israel calling for an end to violence and a lasting peace so that her child can be released from the torment of growing up with one eye always toward the sky.  She could be the mother waiting with her children to be sent back to a life of violence and hunger when just beyond the walls of her detention center there are tables overflowing with food, and plenty of scraps and more to be shared. 9720539-largeShe could be the mother marching in the streets, scrubbing blood off the sidewalk, weeping for her son.  She could be your neighbor here in Logan Square, fighting for an affordable apartment in a zip code where condos sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars, wondering if there isn’t still a crumb to be shared with her family as well.

Whoever she is, whoever he is, whoever they are, they’re pushing back against the conventional wisdom that says “me first” or “take care of your own” or “blood before water” or “to each their own” or “I got mine, you get yours” or “not in my backyard” or “not my problem.” They’re pushing back against easy religion that says that all you have to do is eat the right food, or wear the right clothes, or pray the right prayers, and they’re demanding that someone do something to create a future different from our past. To free our children from the demons that torment them.

In the face of a miracle of resistance, Jesus says “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”  Then comes the second miracle, and her child is finally healed.

Sisters and brothers, we have been estranged from our own families for far too long — for some of you, like Joseph, it is literally members of your immediate family with whom you can no longer speak, but for all of us it is estrangement from members of the human family into which we were born, invisible bonds made clearer by our baptisms that tie us not only to those who share our faith, but to those who challenge it.

As we come forward this morning with prayers for healing, I encourage you to be bold. Pray for a miracle, that you and the whole world around you might find the strength to persist in the face of silence and complacency.  With faith in the God who made us, and is always making us whole. Amen.

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