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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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, September 13, 2015: First Sunday in Creation — Planet Earth Sunday

Texts: Genesis 1:1-25  +  Ps. 33:1-9  +  Romans 1:18-23  +  John 1:1-14

Good morning St. Luke’s!  I don’t know what it is, if it’s the fact that it’s Rally Day or Homecoming Sunday, or if it’s the fact that as we gather this morning we begin a fall season that will culminate with our exodus from this building, or if it’s the fact that the Bears are playing the Packers after church today — but there’s a level of adrenaline pumping through me this morning that’s both thrilling and exhausting in equal measure.

Actually, I think we’re all pretty clear that it’s not the Bears/Packers game that’s got me buzzed. I’m so tuned out to the world of sports that I’m feeling proud of myself for even knowing that the Bears and the Packers are playing today, which is nothing at all like the kind of excitement real fans are feeling — I know, because I’ve spent the last two days up in Wisconsin preparing for and then celebrating our friends Ryan and Rachel’s wedding. It was a beautiful ceremony and the love radiating out from the couple was palpable, but when Rachel’s father made a point of the fact that Ryan is a Bear’s fan during his toast, the sudden explosion of cheers and jeers made me think that we may want to say a prayer for that couple on game days.

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The view of Lake Michigan from the scene of Ryan and Rachel Coffee’s wedding in Racine, Wisconsin.

Rachel and Ryan got married at the home of one of Rachel’s relatives, in a spacious backyard overlooking Lake Michigan. The weather was perfect: a sunny blue sky, a cool breeze, the sound of the waves washing the sandy shore. I joked with a couple people that there was no need for a sermon — all I needed to do was point to our surroundings and say, “Look, God’s creation proves God’s love for us!”

The apostle Paul makes a similar point in his argument about the sinfulness of human nature.  “Look,” he says, “what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.” (Rom. 1:19) He says “them” because he’s setting up a contrast between Jews and Greeks (so that he can later knock it down), but we might as well say “us” because the point he’s making is that God’s goodness and power are obvious in God’s creation, and that we hardly need scripture or divine revelation to observe that we are part of a created world that is fearfully and wonderfully made. “Ever since the creation of the world [God’s] eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things [God] has made.” (v. 20)

It occurs to me that this statement may make Paul the unwitting accomplice of all those people who say that they don’t need to come to church to encounter God, because they find God in the sunset, or at the lake, or in the mountains. “Yes!” I can hear Paul saying, “Precisely! We do not need church or religion to know that God is powerful and active in the world, because the splendor of creation testifies to that basic, foundational fact all day long!”

And, that is not why we gather for worship each week. We are not here because we think God is trapped in this cage, waiting for us to come visit, like the lion at the zoo. We’re not here because we went down to the lakeshore, but we just couldn’t find God. We’re here because we know that we have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, but that in God’s mercy and compassion we are forgiven and set free to share in the work of healing and reconciling a planet and its inhabitants that are groaning under the suffering caused by so much human greed and negligence.

The reality of sin is distasteful to the culture at large, I think, mainly because it is so wrapped up with experiences of shame. For many people, even hearing the word “sin” shuts them down. It may be that some of you are already feeling shut down right now, hearing me talk about sin from the pulpit. If that is so, I ask you to try and keep an open heart and open mind for just a little while longer.

In our world, it is often the case that if we admit we are in the wrong, we expect to be embarrassed in front of our classmates, punished by our parents, humiliated by our friends, dismissed by our colleagues, divorced by our spouses. If we admit that we make terrible, terrible mistakes then we expect to be abandoned. We are not trained for grace. We do not have enough experience with forgiveness. We are merciless because we do not expect mercy.

Why do people go to church, the logic goes, just to be made to feel bad about themselves? I don’t need help feeling bad about myself, I need to surround myself with positivity.

I turn 42 next month, so it’s time to schedule my annual physical. Every year my primary care physician looks at my height and weight, and asks me how many times a week I’m getting 30 minutes or more of exercise that elevates my heart rate. He reminds me of the facts: that regular exercise and a healthy diet will reduce my risk of heart disease and stroke and that I’ll have a much higher quality of life if I make even small changes to my lifestyle. I don’t ever tell him, “what a downer! I don’t know why I even bother coming to you each year, I need more positivity in my life!” Because I know that what he says is true, and that he’s not interested in shaming me, but instead that he’s encouraging me to become an actor in the story of my own healing and wholeness.

Paul says, “So we are without excuse; for though we know God, we do not honor God as God or give thanks to God, but we have become futile in our thinking, and our senseless minds have become darkened. Claiming to be wise, we have become fools; and we have traded the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being …” (Rom. 1:20-23)

Like a doctor speaking a hard truth to a patient, Paul puts us all on notice with a diagnosis delivered two thousand years ago that has only been confirmed with the passage of time. Although we can see the evidence of God’s goodness and power in the splendor of creation all around us, we have become so preoccupied with ourselves that we have traded the worship of God — which pursues unity and reconciliation out of gratitude for the goodness of the gift of life God freely gives — for worship of ourselves — which encourages division and self-interest in an attempt to secure for a few those things we all require for life. We betray God’s abundance by creating scandalous poverty, even as we pretend that there are no limits to what we can extract from the earth, or the ocean, or the land.

But God, whose face is seen throughout creation — in the mountains, under the big sky, has also worn flesh like ours and has wrapped the living Word in frail humanity so that all creation could be made new. As bleak as the present moment is, environmentally speaking, we remember that God’s Word, God’s life, God’s light is not overcome by sin, or by ignorance, by fear, by greed, or by despair. God keeps coming and coming for us, inviting us to embrace the truth not because it will shame us, but because it will set us free.

prayergraphiclaudatosipopefrancis1 (1)With Pope Francis’ visit to the United States just over a week away, I’ve been drawn to read his most recent encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si (which is Latin for “Praise be to you,” drawn from the beginning of Francis of Assisi’s canticle). I’d like to invite you to read the Pope’s letter to the church with me throughout this Season of Creation. The document is a beautiful interweaving of the science of climate change, the human roots of the ecological crisis, the political and economic realities of poverty and global inequality, and the resources of Christian faith and life that culminate in a call to action on behalf of our fragile planet. Laudato Si is available online for free (and I’ll include the link in my sermon when I post it later today) and I’ve set a few copies out in the narthex for those who may not have access to the internet at home.

Near the end of that document, Pope Francis draws a connection between our worship and the created world. He writes,

“[The Lord’s Supper] joins heaven and earth; it embraces and penetrates all creation. The world which came forth from God’s hands returns to [God] in blessed and undivided adoration: in the bread of the Eucharist, ‘creation is projected toward divination, toward the holy wedding feast, toward unification with the Creator[’s own self].’ Thus, [Holy Communion] is also a source of light and motivation for our concerns for the environment, directing us to be stewards of all creation.”

Yes, God is present in the sunrise, at the lakeshore, in a grain of sand … and God is also present in these bits of created matter — in bread and wine that we can only receive when we are together, which is also (not un-coincidentally) the only way we will survive this crisis: together, in restored communion with one another that requires a restored relationship to the earth. Our unity, demonstrated in the sacraments, but imparted to us as a gift freely given, removes shame’s threatening loneliness and replaces it with the solidarity that comes from a deep and abiding knowledge that we belong to each other and to the earth, our sister, our home.

Praise be to you, our Lord!

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, July 21, 2013: Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts:   Amos 8:1-12  +  Psalm 52  +  Colossians 1:15-28  +  Luke 10:38-42

Here’s a topic you’ve not heard me spend much time on: God’s wrath.

So, let’s go there.  It doesn’t take an especially close reading of the bible to uncover the fact that God is quite frequently represented as angry.  And when God is angry, it’s at humanity.  Whatever relationship God has to sharks and redwoods and geological fault lines is really beyond our knowing, but our scriptures are not silent on the point of God’s feelings toward humanity.  God loves us.  God pleads with us.  God forgives us.  And God is angry with us.

It’s hard for me to say that.  Even as I wrote this sermon, I had to stop myself from softening those words.  I wanted to say, “And, sometimes, God is angry with us” or “God is angry with some of us.”  But those are both dodges.  Those both imply that either we are, for the most part, doing the right thing — doing well — and only occasionally breaking God’s heart with our disregard for and neglect of the weakest and most needy, the despised and neglected among us; or that most of us are doing right by one another from the point of view of God, and that the real problems of this world can be laid at the feet of a few wicked evildoers.

These are the sorts of dodges that people make all the time as we deal with our relationships with one another out here in the “real” world: anger can be minimized because we imagine that we are “good” most of the time, or that most of us are good.

These rationalizations, while they may serve to shield us from our own fear of accusation, our discomfort with anger, and our resentment of any authority that asserts itself over us, raise two basic theological conundrums.

The first, our urge to assert that we are each basically good, is so difficult to challenge.  Particularly from a pulpit.  While it may not be the case across the spectrum of Christianities practiced throughout the world, and certainly is not the case for Christianity across time, it is the case that in the global north and west, in the mainline Protestant tradition to which we as Lutherans in the United States belong, there is a great reluctance to speak of God’s judgment.  We don’t want to be affiliated with those other kinds of Christians.  The kind who preach hellfire and brimstone.  The kind who divide the world into us and them, clean and unclean, pure and impure.

So, instead, we join the broader culture in a kind of psychological Christianity, or therapeutic Christianity, that begins with the affirmation that God created the world, looked upon it and called it good; and that ends with the affirmation that God “so loved the world that God gave God’s only begotten Son” without giving much attention to the reality of sin that necessitated a divine intervention in the life of the world in the first place.

When we make that first move, to say that we are mostly good, in a sense we are saying that we mostly didn’t need God’s intervention in Christ.  That we mostly had this under control ourselves, and that we’re mostly able to clean up our own messes.

This kind of logic reminds me of my senior year of college.  I was mostly done with my coursework.  I’d lived abroad in Costa Rica for a summer.  I’d completed a 3-month internship in adolescent mental health.  I was finally living off campus in a grown up apartment.  I was living life on my own terms, taking care of myself.  Except near the end of the semester, when I hadn’t quite budgeted to make my students loans and the paychecks from my part-time job stretch, and I needed to call my folks and see if they could help me just a little bit until the beginning of the month.

We’re mostly good, most of the time, and isn’t that enough — or so we wonder in a question that mostly misses the point.  Because when we aren’t “good,” when we can’t pull ourselves up, when we come up short, when we find ourselves insufficient to the crisis at hand, the question isn’t whether or not we’ll  somehow become better than we’ve ever been before.  It’s whether or not there is a power and a presence beyond our own that can sustain us through the crisis.  It is not, fundamentally, our goodness — our sufficiency — that counts, but God’s.

If, when faced with God’s anger or wrath, our first dodge is to assert that we’re good most of the time, the second is to claim that most of us are good.  That it’s just a few really rotten apples that spoil the bunch.  Week to week our minds turn to different names to populate that list.  We have our favorite politicians to blame.  Then there are the easy targets, the perpetrators of heinous crimes, the public figures whose private scandals come to light.  The constant parade of big news stories in the papers, on the news, across the internet, conspire to make it possible for us to believe that somehow all the responsibility for the world’s brokenness can be laid at the feet of a few mutually agreed upon failures.

This is not how the prophet Amos sees the world.

“The end has come upon my people Israel; I will never again pass them by… shall not the land tremble on this account, and everyone mourn who lives in it, and all of it rise like the Nile, and be tossed about and sink again … The time is surely coming, says the Lord, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord.” (Amos 8:2b,8,11)

For the prophet Amos, the nation of Israel is not a community of mostly good people who do good most of the time.  It is a community of people who cannot separate themselves one from another.  It is not the king or the people, but the whole nation together that must give an account for the treatment of the needy and the poor among them.  The faithfulness of Israel is not counted by the prophet as a private affair, but as a public witness to a public relationship between God and God’s people.

To the prophet Amos’ way of seeing, the ongoing and persistent presence of poverty in Israel testifies to an economy that values profit over people, such that business owners are trying to squeeze more labor out of the workers, asking “when will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath so that we may offer wheat for sale?” (Amos 8:5a)  It is an economy that offers less and less of value for more and more of people’s savings, “we will make the ephah small and the shekel great and practice deceit with false balances.” (Amos 8:5b)

Amos accuses the entire nation of “buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat.”  The prophet suggests that the greed of Israel’s economy has grown so great that creditors are foreclosing on those who cannot pay their debts for even minor purchases, not just home mortgages but even the sandals on their feet.  The economy has grown so greedy that the ancient tradition of leaving the gleanings of the field for the hungry has been forgotten, and even the most basic of necessities, food, cannot be counted upon.

Amos’ anger is not directed against one leader, or a handful of elites.  Amos brings a word from the Lord to Israel to say that this nation as a whole has forgotten who they are before God.  In response, God’s wrath will take the form of a famine — not of food or water, but of hearing the words of the Lord.

Again, in my own efforts to understand divine anger and divine punishment, I draw on my experiences of having been a child, and the ways my parents tried to offer me correction.  After many patient explanations, after plenty of warnings, there did come a time, especially as I grew older, when my parents decided that the way I would learn best was to suffer the natural consequences for my decisions and actions.  If I stayed up too late reading under the covers, dawn still came at the same time and I would have to go to school exhausted.  If I spent my money on junk food and diversions, there would be no new clothes for the new school year.  Actions had consequences.

That’s how I hear Amos’ forecasted famine.  If the nation continues to ignore the terms of God’s covenant; if the people continue to enjoy the privileges they reap off the backs of the poor, the needy and the neglected; then they will suffer the natural consequences of a society that has gone bad from the inside out.  Like a bowl of overripe fruit, what had been given them for nourishment will go bad and spoil.  If the people refuse to listen to God’s word, then they will be unable to access the abundant life it brings.  Natural consequences.

My friend Anne Howard, Executive Director of The Beatitudes Society, an ecumenical leadership development program that identifies and nurtures an emerging generation of Progressive church leaders for the sake of the common good, has taken to signing off on all her emails with the phrase, “we’re all in this together.”  It’s the perfect closing for correspondence from an organization that takes its name from Jesus’ most famous sermon, the one in which he said, “blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” and “blessed are those who hunger now, for you will be satisfied.”

Jesus, whose own prophetic ministry drew on the legacy and authority of the prophets of Israel, shared their concern for the poor and the hungry, the grieving and the reviled.  Like the prophets of old, his ministry was an earthy, embodied, political ministry.  He, too, talked about the needs of the sick, the poor, the outcast, the stranger.  In fact, when he spoke of heaven, it was almost always to say that it had drawn near, that it was breaking into this world, and not breaking us out.

In her classic essay on feminist Christian ethics, “The Power of Anger in the Work of Love,” Bev Harrison writes,

“Otherworldliness” in religion has two very different sources in our social world of knowledge.  One sort of otherworldly religion appears among the poor and downtrodden, reflecting a double dynamic in their experience: It reflects a hopelessness about this world that is engendered by living daily with the evil of oppression, but it also fuels and encourages an ongoing struggle against the present order by conjuring a better time and a better place, beyond the oppressive here and now.

However, an entirely different form of otherworldliness appears amongst those of us who have never been marginalized, who have lived well above the daily struggle to survive, when our privileges are threatened. This form of otherworldliness is merely escapist, and its political consequences are entirely reactionary. Its result is to encourage denial of responsibility for the limited power that we do have, and it always results in reinforcing the status quo.”

Harrison connects this observation about our tendency to privatize religion and assign it to some other world with her insights on anger when she writes,

It is my thesis that we Christians have come very close to killing love precisely because we have understood anger to be a deadly sin.  Anger is not the opposite of love. It is better understood as a feeling-signal that all is not well in our relation to other persons or groups or to the world around us. Anger is a mode of connectedness to other and it is always a vivid form of caring. To put the point another way: anger is — and it always is — a sign of some resistance in ourselves to the moral quality of the social relations in which we are immersed.

God’s anger, God’s wrath, is not a sign of God’s abandonment.  It is a vivid form of caring that signals God’s resistance to our human desire to pull away from God (“I’m mostly good”) and to pull away from each other (“most of us are good”).

Let me try and wrap this up with an anecdote from my own life over the past week that may illustrate what I’ve been trying to say here.

trayvon-martinThe thing that send me searching my bookshelves for Bev Harrison’s essay, “The Power of Anger in the Work of Love,” in the first place was my abiding anger over the verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman in the murder of Trayvon Martin.  I was in Atlanta with friends, Black and White, when the verdict was made public, friends I’ve known for over a decade and with whom I’ve engaged in some of the most intense political, ethical and theological conversations in my life. As we shared the news with one another, we barely spoke.  The pain of the wound of racism that is at the heart of the public furor over this verdict is overwhelming.

As the following week wore on, as Kerry and I sat at our dining room table, as you and your families sat at your dining room tables, my anger has only grown.  My anger is so deep on this point that it is difficult to speak.  And I wondered, “is there anything redemptive about this anger?  Can anything good come from these feelings that surface and are submerged over and over again?  Is there any value to this wrath?”

Bev Harrison’s answer is: yes.  The power of anger in the work of love is to give us the visceral evidence we need that the fabric of our relationships is torn, and that action is required.  The power of anger in the work of love is the voice of the prophet Amos, delivering a message from an angry, loving God that the creation, which God looked at and called good, for which God sent God’s only begotten Son, is aching under so much political, economic, and environmental abuse.

The power of anger in the work of love is the sound of the organizer knocking at your door, or the call from the program director looking for volunteers, or the letter that comes to your mailbox asking for a donation.

The power of anger in the work of love is the energy required to pull ourselves out of the hopelessness that is always trying to own us, to convince us that the world as it is is the world as it will always be.

The power of anger in the work of love is that voice that rises up inside each one of us, that voice that comes first from God, that says, “We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore.”  It is the voice inside us that has always known that we are all of us in this together and that refuses to be silenced.

The power of anger in the work of love is the end of the famine of hearing the words of the Lord, and when we understand the power of anger in the work of love in this way, then God’s wrath is not to be feared but to be longed for.  For it is God’s anger, spoken through God’s prophets, like Amos and you and me, that sets the spark that starts a revolution.

Amen.

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