Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, August 20, 2017: Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Isaiah 56:1,6-8  +  Psalm 67  +  Romans 11:1-2a,29-32  +  Matthew 15:10-28

Jesus called to the crowd and said to them, “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.”

It was a provocative statement. By referencing “what goes into the mouth,” Jesus is playing identity politics, intentionally provoking the crowd and raising tension in the scene. “What goes into the mouth” is a reference to dietary law, to the Torah, to ideas about purity found in the book of Leviticus. It brings to mind not only laws about what can and cannot be eaten, but who can and cannot be married, who is and is not part of the people called “Israel.” The moment Jesus says, “it’s not what goes into the mouth that defiles” he has issued a very specific challenge to the idea of ethnic nationalism that was a given norm in his day.

Ethnic nationalism. God save us from ethnic nationalism.

 

You know, that’s not just the plea of a broken and exhausted heart — which is exactly how I expect we are feeling after a week of repulsive demonstrations of racist demonstrations and defenses of white supremacy: broken and exhausted — it is also a description of what is happening in this biblical story. God is saving us from ethnic nationalism.

“It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person,” Jesus says. It is not our ideas of ethnic purity and racial superiority that define us, Jesus implies. “But it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”

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“Blood and Soil”

Where to even begin? The things we have heard coming out of people’s mouths in recent days. They turn my stomach. “Blood and soil.” “You will not replace us.” “Jews will not replace us.” Words even more vulgar than these. The rallying cries of the Nazis and the Klan, which we’re supposed to call “neo” to indicate that this is the new incarnation of racism, except nothing about it feels new at all.

Jesus exposes the ultimate consequences of constructing an identity, personal or national, on ideas of race and ethnicity. Because it seems to be almost second nature for us to deride, degrade, despise whatever is different. Jesus says as much in his explanation of the parable, “out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person.” (Mt. 15:1-28) In other words, we ought to be less concerned with the dangers we imagine others represent, and more concerned with the very real and ever present dangers that live within our own hearts.

Then, in an ironic twist, the scene shifts and we get an illustration of just how hard it is to do the work of uncovering our own biases and prejudices. Having just lectured the disciples and the crowds on the dangers of ethnic nationalism, Jesus encounters a Caananite woman in desperate need of aid — her daughter is being tormented by a demon — and Jesus sends her away precisely because of her ethnicity. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” I came to take care of my own. Foreigners go home. Whites only. That kind of talk.

It’s shocking. This is not the Jesus we know, not the Jesus we talk about. This Jesus punctures the myth of perfection we’ve wrapped around history and shows us something troubling. Something, perhaps, we’d rather not see.

How many times over the course of the last two weeks have you heard someone say, “This is not who we are as a nation!” “This is not my America.” But, of course, we know that this in fact is who we are as a nation. This is our America. These are the myths upon which our nation was built. This is the original sin of our birth. We are a nation built on the lie of race. The power and prosperity this country has amassed over the last two hundred and fifty years was stolen from indigenous peoples, extracted from enslaved African peoples, and compounded by exploited immigrant peoples. This is who we are as a nation. Still. Today. As we pursue trade policy that keeps our goods cheap by exploiting foreign labor. As we preserve what we have secured by the threat of violence. You don’t have to march with a tiki torch to benefit from the racism, the ethnic nationalism, that built this country and underwrites the privileges we take for granted.

indexThat’s the nature of sin, it captures us in its constructs whether we choose to participate or not. We are not pure or impure on the basis of our individual choices or decisions. We are, as Dr. King said back in 1959, “tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.  And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” He went on to say, “For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.  This is the way God’s universe is made; this is the way it is structured.”

It seems also to be part of the nature of our sin that we quickly perceive the ways we are oppressed, but ignore or deny the power we have to oppress others. So Jesus, who is able to see so clearly how the purity codes enshrined in the law of Israel have engendered a spirituality of separatism cannot see how he himself has internalized that ethos. He, who has the power to heal, does not immediately recognize his own power and privilege as he encounters this Caananite woman. As prepared as he was to notice and name the sin around him, he was not immediately ready to confront the sin within himself.

That, of course, is a heretical statement. I’ve just uttered heresy. Mark the date and time. Scripture, elsewhere, says, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us” (2 Cor. 5:21), and that’s fine for the argument Paul is making to the Corinthians. But here, I think, scripture is showing us something equally true, equally valuable. Something we need to pay attention to and not explain away. Jesus, the Beloved child of God, the one the church has called fully God and fully human, shows us what it looks like when the myth of perfection cracks against the facts of history. When gospel promise meets human prejudice. The one we least expect to participate in the broken structures of human sin, who has just condemned ethnic nationalism and called on those who follow him to watch what comes out of their mouths, calls this woman, a mother fighting for her child’s life, a dog.

You hear the insult don’t you?

He calls this woman, a Caananite woman, a woman of color, he calls her a dog.

You hear the word, don’t you?

This ugliness is in us all. I’m sorry, but it just is. No matter how many workshops you’ve been to. No matter how many friends you have who are Black, or Trans, or immigrants, or disabled. No matter where you studied abroad, or served for a year as a missionary. Our hearts carry the scars of centuries, even millenia, of division. We learn the alphabet of its violent words before we are old enough to speak in subtle gestures, in micro-aggressions. We learn to fear and despise whatever is not us, then we try to unlearn it, then we feel guilt and shame for having been taught it, then we feel powerless to end it, so then we take one of a dozen different paths: we ignore it, we deny it, we rationalize it, we defend it, we embrace it — or we commit to dismantling it, without holding ourselves to the expectation that perfection will somehow be reached this side of eternity.

Jesus, in his humanity, does the thing we have all done. He says exactly the wrong thing. But she does not give up, she argues with him, she takes his insult and turns it back on him. She wrestles with God, like Jacob along the banks of the Jabbok.

And wasn’t it by wrestling with God that Israel got its name? This thing the Caananite woman does, isn’t it so like what Jacob did when he said, “I will not let you go until you bless me!” What would it look like, if a nation, a people, were defined not by adherence to an impossible idea of purity, but by a shared commitment to wrestle together with God, to hold on for dear life until we are blessed, to weave the single garment of destiny, to embrace the inescapable network of mutuality?

For me, it looks like baptism. Ordinary water combined with God’s promise that all people are God’s people. Water that makes us pure, not by erasing our difference, but by washing away everything that hides the image of God native to us all.

This morning we have baptized Sophie Geneva, revealing the truth that she belongs to God. So do you. So do I. So does everybody. We make this claim by faith, trusting in God to heal us all.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, March 26: Fourth Sunday in Lent

Texts: 1 Sam. 16:1-13  +  Psalm 23  +  Ephesians 5:8-14  +  John 9:1-41

In the third chapter of Luke, which we read at the beginning of Advent every third year, John the Baptist quotes the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: (break) ‘Prepare the way of the Lord…’” And every time this text comes up, I remember learning that scripture, in its original Greek and Hebrew forms, doesn’t come with commas and quotation marks. We impose them on the text, and where we choose to place those periods and commas can make a world of difference. Instead of implying that the voice will come from the wilderness (as John the Baptist did), we might have read, “The voice of one crying: (break) ‘Out in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord…’” (Luke 3:4), implying that the Lord will appear in the wilderness.

What we find in the text so often reveals what we went looking for. Our expectations shape our perceptions. The gospel text illustrates this point perfectly:

As [Jesus] walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:1-2)

 The way they have framed the question already presumes the answer, that blindness is a result of sin. Furthermore, the question starts us down the path of looking for sin. It suggests some kind of invisible, underlying moral physics to the universe, a cosmos of divine cause and effect, tempting us to think that we can make the world conform to our expectations of it.

beggarSo then, what do we find in Jesus’ reply when we go looking through the filter of our expectations? “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” (v. 3) In this rendering, which is how I’ve always read it, how it has usually been read to me, no one is blamed for the issue of blindness (that’s a relief) — but an equally troubling problem is proposed, “he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” This proposes that God imposed blindness on a person, a condition which led to poverty and condemnation, so that later God could prove God’s power by healing him. A God who hurts us so that God can heal us, so that we can be properly awed by God.

Here is another way to place the periods and commas: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned. He was born blind. (break) So that God’s works might be revealed in him, we must work the works of [the One] who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.” In this framing no one is blamed for the issue of blindness (still good news), it’s simply a fact of life: he was born blind. Then a shift, a call for the disciples to join Jesus in revealing God’s indelible handiwork in each and every human life, casting no one out of the circle of God’s love and care.

During the season of Lent we’ve been preaching on some of the core doctrines of Christian faith as a way of remembering that this season has traditionally been used to prepare people for baptism by instructing them in the core tenets of our faith — and that we are all still learning what it means to be baptized. In the field of theology the term for our attempt to justify the goodness of God in the midst of so much pain and suffering is theodicy. This story seems to present us with a case study.

Beneath the question, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” is an assumption that blindness is an evil that must be accounted for. What is implied is that God imposes blindness as a punishment for sin. This says something quite terrifying about God, yet — even more terrifying — is how inclined we are to believe it.

Why does that kind of logic come so easily to us? Why are we so ready to accept the horror of a God who would torture us with the poverty and exclusion that come from something as arbitrary as a condition of birth over which a person has no control?

Because this is how we treat one another. We are conditioned from birth to accept our place in the hierarchy of humanity on the basis of things over which we have no control. We see it at the earliest of ages when children, full of curiosity, look too long or ask impolite questions about the texture of a person’s hair, the size of their body, or the color of their skin; when they notice that some people walk quickly and smoothly, while others have a slow, syncopated gait and use a cane or braces; when they see that some bodies seem male or female, but are confused by others that confound easy categorization; when they point at surprising pairings of people holding hands. When children exhibit their natural curiosity at the amazing diversity of God’s good creation they get shushed, and from that silence they learn that there is something wrong with difference. That there is one best way to be in this world, but a million ways to be wrong in it. From that silence grows a fear, “what if I am one of the things that is wrong in this world?” From that fear emerges a question, “why was I made like this?” On the basis of that question, one answer seems most obvious, “God did this to me.”

But what is obvious is not always right, especially when our questions are built on the foundations of our mistreatment of one another. Once Jesus gives sight to the man born blind the story becomes an extended debate in which the religious authorities attempt over and over again to reinforce their view of the world on a set of facts that refuse to support it. Despite the evidence of their own eyes, they cannot see what has taken place, because they have already placed the periods and commas in such a way that clearly show where God’s grace begins and ends.

For me, the most poignant moment in this story comes at the end, after the man who now has sight has been cast out of the community once again. Jesus goes out to find him, just as Jesus went out to meet the Samaritan woman at the well, just as God consistently moves toward each of us. Jesus asks, “Do you believe in the Human One?” and the man replies, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” For this man, born blind and given sight, not even the experience of being at the center of a controversy or being repeatedly oppressed and excluded from community can dim his devotion to Jesus, the one who finally treated him like a human being. Whoever the “Human One” is, if Jesus asks for belief, this man is ready to give it without doubt or hesitation. That is the quality of trust that is implied by the word “believe.”

What is the real miracle here? That a man born blind was given sight, or that a human being raised to think that he was one of the things wrong with this world came to believe — to trust without question — that he was, in fact, beloved by God?

How have you been taught that you are “one of the things wrong with this world?”

When did you discover that you are not?

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, March 5, 2017: First Sunday in Lent

Texts: Gen. 2:15-17; 3:1-7  +  Ps. 32  +  Rom. 5:12-19  +  Matt. 4:1-11

Let’s begin with a little bit of an explanation for how today’s worship service and sermon are like and unlike that to which you’ve grown accustomed. With Ash Wednesday this past week, we’ve now entered the season of Lent, the season in which the church has traditionally both prepared people to receive the sacrament of baptism and accompanied people through a period of intentional repentance and return to the faith. The name we give to the process of preparation for baptism and lifelong faith formation is catechesis, which literally means something like “instruction by word of mouth,” which points to the way our faith has been transmitted, person to person, over the centuries.

So, in considering how we might use this Lent to honor the church’s traditional observance of the season and to build on the local traditions we’ve been nurturing here at St. Luke’s, we’ve decided that for these five Sundays we will shorten our periods of speech and lengthen our periods of silence in order to strengthen our attention span for the sound of our own soul’s questions; we have selected music that can be sung without use of a hymnal and, for the most part (once you’ve picked up the simple tune and lyrics) with nothing in your hands; and we will be preaching shorter sermons directed towards teaching doctrine, followed by a period in which the entire assembly will be invited to reflect on a question in silence or by offering a brief thought or observation. You’ll get a chance to practice that in just a few minutes, so let’s begin.

This morning I want to talk about the doctrine of sin, which always seems to me to be one of the simplest yet most freighted topics in the church and among people — whether they are Christian or not. It is the thing with which people who make no claim to Christian faith assume those of us who do are obsessed. It is a source of great pain and shame for people who have been taught to believe that something about their very being is disordered. PHELPS-1-obit-master675It is the bucket into which every oppressed community has been dumped at one time or another: women, Black people, queer and gender non-conforming people, even peace activists practicing non-violent civil disobedience. In other words, sin is a theological concept that too often gets used by people in a majority to stigmatize and punish people in a minority.

However, the fact that a tool or a concept has often been misused does not make it inherently wrong or useless. Jesus himself had to address this dynamic many times during his ministry. From Matthew’s gospel we remember this awkward metaphor,

“Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” (Matt. 7:3-5)

It’s not as simple as saying we cannot, or should not, comment on another person’s conduct or another name another person’s sin, but the emphasis is clearly on attending to our own self-examination.

This is where I think the topic of sin is simplest. However uncomfortable we may be with how the concept of sin has been used or misused, most of us can acknowledge that we ourselves are sinners, in both the personal and the collective sense. If we examine our conduct over the course of even an hour, we can sense how we have hurt ourselves or others by our thoughts, words, and deeds; by things we have done, and things we have left undone.

Two nude lovers with apple

The temptation to sin is the focus of the story we hear this morning of Jesus wandering in the wilderness for forty days and nights, which is why some version of it is traditionally read on the first Sunday of Lent. The strong connection between the ideas of sin, temptation, and desire have often confused us, I think. We have grown too suspicious of desire as the sign of sin, when desire itself is quite natural. We are created to desire food, to desire love, to desire touch, to desire community.

The sin in the devil’s temptations is not connected to desire itself, but the nature of Jesus’ own baptismal vocation. In the waters of the Jordan, Jesus was revealed as God’s own Beloved, come to announce salvation and give himself away for the sake of the whole world. In his wilderness temptations Jesus is faced with a more personally enriching use of his life: feed himself, preserve himself, join the powers of the world as it is rather than calling them to become what they were meant to be.

This is one definition of sin: our participation in or collusion with the powers and forces that draw us away from the fullness of our humanity. The violence we do to ourselves and others when we forget that each of us bears the image and likeness of God. In baptism, each of you has been named children of God, good and loved by God. In baptism, each of you has been joined to the death and resurrection of Jesus, freeing you to give your life away in the present age so that all of creation can experience the life, love, and liberation that is its God-given birthright.

How has sin obscured the image of God revealed in your baptism?

How has sin tempted you away from your own baptismal vocation?

These are real questions you are invited to reflect upon now. You might choose to sit with them in silence, or to write down some thoughts on your bulletin or in that journal you keep in your bag. As you listen to the sound of your own soul’s voice, you might decide to share a word or a brief thought aloud. We welcome that. If that happens, I encourage us to hear what is offered not as an idea to be challenged, but as an offering to be appreciated. And it may be that we will simply share a few minutes of silence, in which we leave space for the Holy Spirit to continue its work in us.

Again:

How has sin obscured the image of God revealed in your baptism?

How has sin tempted you away from your own baptismal vocation?

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