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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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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