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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, November 23, 2014: Reign of Christ

Texts: Ezekiel 34:11-16,20-24  +  Psalm 95:1-7a  +  Ephesians 1:15-23  +  Matthew 25:31-46

I woke up yesterday morning and noticed that it wasn’t freezing outside, and I was so grateful. It seemed like the kind of day when it might be nice to be outside, the first day in a week or so when I could imagine going for a walk in the park next to our home. But I’d committed to attending the Logan Square Ecumenical Alliance’s event at Humboldt Park United Methodist Church, Connecting with Our Neighbors: Uniting Congregations for Social Justice.” I’m so glad I was there.

In the eight years that I’ve been working with the pastors of Humboldt Park United Methodist I’ve been to their building and have sat in their meeting room many times, but until yesterday I’d never been in their sanctuary. It’s smaller than ours, but with the same traditional architecture: the chancel in front with a high altar, rows of pews in the nave and a rear balcony. Like ours, it’s showing its age. Something about that made me feel right at home, the way you can walk into almost any sanctuary and understand the architecture and its function. It teaches you how to relate to each other.

So when people began to arrive, one-by-one or in clusters, I happily welcomed them and made a choice to sit next to people I didn’t already know, wanting to get to know who these neighbors of ours who worship so nearby and who care so deeply about our calling as God’s people to work for justice in the world.

We began with worship led by Humboldt Park United Methodist’s new pastor, the Reverend Paula Cripps-Vallejo, a young woman (also from Iowa) who’s been serving there for about half a year. Again, we’ve sat in plenty of meetings together already, but this was the first time I’d seen her lead worship. I was so impressed with the fluidity with which she moved between Spanish and English, effortlessly guiding us all through a sequence of litanies, songs, testimonies and prayers in both languages so that everyone in the room could be equally engaged in what we were sharing with one another.

41B3S5MR90L._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_One neighbor, Leslie Willis from Kimball Avenue Church, recited Langston Hughes’ heartbreaking poem, Let America Be America Again, which unfolds around the central refrain, “America never was America to me.” She spoke of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Trayvon Martin in Sanford, and her longing for racial justice not only in our nation, but right here in our neighborhood.

Another neighbor, Flori Rivera from Humboldt Park United Methodist, shared her story of coming to the United States with us including how she came to be a member of that church. She was drawn to them because of the work they were doing with immigrants like herself, but she remained because her skills as a social worker were engaged as she and other women in the congregation built a ministry to and for families experiencing domestic violence that has been a mainstay of that congregation’s service to our community for decades now.

The stories continued, one woman speaking through tears about the struggle to keep her family safe and together through our nation’s broken immigration system. Pastor Eardley Mendis from our sister parish, First Lutheran on Fullerton, talking about the challenge of ministering to a congregation in which many of those gathered for worship are homeless and hungry. Between each story we sang and we prayed and I could feel it happening, that thing that happens when we enter into the familiar pattern of worship with unfamiliar people: we were becoming a community.

10425365_697224310373547_6689628125051795348_nAfter we’d worshipped we moved from the sanctuary to the fellowship hall and gathered in small groups around tables, a familiar liturgy all its own. After another round of introductions we were asked to share why social justice mattered to each of us, and here’s the thing I find unremarkably remarkable: no one said that they do the work of justice because they are afraid of hell.

Not one of these Christian neighbors named as their reason for their good work a fear of hell.

I call this unremarkably remarkable because to us, who gather here for worship week after week, I don’t think this is much of a surprise at all. You know each other’s hearts. You share each other’s motivations. You, like the people gathered around those church basement tables yesterday, are all engaged in the work of caring for your neighbors in a variety of ways. You share your time, your skills, your money and all your other assets feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, welcoming the strangers in your workplaces and on your block, visiting with those imprisoned by illness or otherwise incarcerated. You take action on behalf of the unseen, the unwanted, the unknown year after year, and I never get the sense that you do it from a place of fear, of hell or any other punishment.

You do it for the same reasons I heard offered around yesterday’s tables. You do it out of gratitude, recognizing all that others have already done for you. You do it out of love, for the friends and family members who need your help. You do it out of passion burning in your heart for the environment, for children, for people living at the margins with their backs to the wall. You do it out of duty, honoring the memory of parents and those who’ve gone before you, showing you the dignity in a life of faith. You do it because you’re acquainted with grace, having been on the receiving end of it, and you simply want others to experience what you have come to know — that in God’s good economy all are welcome and there is always enough.

This work of yours is unremarkably remarkable however, because for many people outside the church the message they have heard is one of condemnation and damnation. Go to church, or else. Acknowledge Jesus Christ as your personal lord and savior, or else. Walk the straight and narrow, or else. Do right, or else. We may shake our heads at this fear-based, punishment-oriented caricature of Christian faith but we should not marvel at its ubiquity, after all it is simply the liturgy of the world wrapped up in religious language. Go to work, or else. Respect the authorities, or else. Follow the rules, or else. Conform, or else. Our souls rightly rebel against this deforming way of life, and against any institution that imposes it on us. Yet, it is very difficult to resist the spirituality of conditional belonging when your housing, your food, your economic wellbeing are governed by it.

In today’s gospel Jesus gives us an image of God’s judgment in which all the nations are gathered together and then people are recategorized, not on the basis of what nation, or what race, or what class, or what club they belong to, but on the basis of whether they have been turned in upon themselves or turned outward toward the needs of those around them. The deep irony in our all-to-common reading of this story is that in our anxiety about God’s judgment we begin to turn inward once again and begin the process of drawing the lines that separate us, sheep from goats.

But in God’s story, the sheep don’t know they’re sheep and the goats don’t know they’re goats and all of them are watched over by a shepherd who promises to seek after the lost, to bring back the strayed, to bind up the injured, to strengthen the weak (Eze. 34:16). I don’t know if you’re a sheep or a goat, but I can promise you that if you are lost, lonely, injured or weak, God is reaching out to you with food and drink, a warm welcome and safe lodging, healing and accompaniment. I know this because I’ve seen it, I’ve watched you reaching out toward one another, huddling together the way sheep do in a field.

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, August 25, 2013: Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts:  Jeremiah 1:4-10  +  Psalm 71:1-6  +  Hebrews 12:18-29  +  Luke 13:10-17

Do you remember the last day of … whatever?  Summer camp.  High School.  A mission trip.  The last day after something intense and formative and life-changing.

For three years after seminary I worked on the staff of a summer program down in Atlanta at my alma mater, Emory University, we called YTI — the Youth Theological Initiative.  Some of you recognize the name of the program because, about four years ago, we sent Lynda Deacon down to Atlanta for a month to participate.

YTI takes young people, high school students going into their junior and senior years, and puts them in classrooms with graduate students in theology, scripture and ethics with the explicit goal of equipping these young people to become public theologians.  They take courses that study the relationship between Christian faith and non-violence, Christian faith and environmental crisis, Christian faith and religious pluralism.  YTI is not vacation bible school or the church camp in the woods with a craft cabin, like the one I grew up with in Iowa (and loved).  It is a school for prophets.  It is a place where young people get treated like the theological subjects, not objects, that they are.  Youth are expected to leave YTI as voices that will lead the church and society in confronting some of the most pressing challenges of our day.

hssp13-goodbye-01Which brings me back to the last day.  On the last day of YTI we, the staff, stand outside the dorms with our students, our summer scholars, who each arrived a little bit scared of what the coming month would bring, but now are a little bit scared of what the future may hold.  They’d come to YTI with their expectations that we would teach them something, but they were leaving with our expectations that they would do something with what they’d learned. So they waited in front of the dorms  with their suitcases packed for a parent to arrive, or a shuttle to take them to the airport, and when the last moment came they hugged each other, and they cried, and then they went back out into the world.

One of those scholars, Liz Theoharris from the summer of 1993, went on to found The Poverty Initiative a decade later, a program affiliated with Union Seminary in New York City.  Inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision of a “Freedom Church for the Poor,” the Poverty Initiative seeks to empower poor leaders and the organizations that support them.  The idea came from a gap Liz saw in her work as a Christian and an activist.  At protests and prayer vigils, religious people regularly came together for social justice, but with very little ability to speak theologically about why they were there.  “I found myself at Union Seminary,” she says, “realizing my call to do social justice was a religious one, and yet saw that most churches weren’t really equipped to do the kind of work that we were called to do as religious leaders.”

Laura McCandlish, from the summer of 1997, went on to become a journalist who covers the food justice movement from her home in Oregon.  At YTI’s recent 20th year reunion last month, Laura led a panel discussion on how communities of faith are vital contributors to the food justice movement, whether by planting community gardens or opening their kitchens for end-of-season processing, for cooking classes, or as commercial kitchens for local entrepreneurs or disenfranchised neighbors.  Her reporting has focused on the intersection of immigration, labor and food, like one recent article on an effort to help migrant workers establish their own berry farm, and an ecumenical program to turn leftover berries gleaned from the harvest into low-sugar jellies for local food pantries.

Jamaya Powell went to YTI last summer, in 2012, expecting “a boring Jesus camp.”  Instead her life was changed, as she writes in a recent issue of VOX, a publication written by and for Atlanta-area teenagers.  She spent her month at YTI in a course that explored hip-hop music and culture as theological dialogue and visited local agencies fighting poverty, homelessness and sex trafficking.  She left wondering what she as a young person and a Christian could do to help remedy the situation.

All of these young people, young adults, some of whom are even approaching middle age now, came to the school for prophets at YTI in Atlanta unsure of their place in the church and in the world, unsure of their voice.  Like the prophet Jeremiah they were ready to say, “Ah Lord God!  Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”  But God answered them just as God answered Jeremiah, and each of us,

“Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you.” (Jer. 1:7-8)

This morning I taught our children the next line of the Lord’s Prayer, “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”  We played follow the leader up and down the central aisle and all around the edges of the sanctuary.  I tried to help them understand that the only way God can lead us into, or out of, temptation is if we are already following.  The question that raises, the one that’s a bit too abstract for them but not for us, is — does God actually lead us into trouble?  In the prayer Jesus taught us we are instructed to ask God to lead us not into temptation, but to deliver us from evil.

“Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, ‘Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.’” (Jer. 1:9-10)

That is a terrifying message for anyone to deliver, much less a young person like Jeremiah.  Yet, how often young people lead the way.  From the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the Civil Right Movement to the Young Lions of South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement.  From the youth who powered the Arab Spring to the students at Kelvyn Park High School’s social justice academy here in Logan Square.  How often it has been the case that young people carry forward God’s commission to speak truth to power, following God’s call both into and out of danger.

But it is not just the young whom God calls to bear God’s fiery word.  Over and over, time and time again God uses what is small, what is weak, what is unlikely, what is overlooked to challenge what is too big to fail, to strong to fall.  God uses the young and the old, the poor and the ridiculed.

Surely God can use us.

All summer long we have been at our summer school for prophets.  Now the seasons are changing.  Children go back to school tomorrow.  Classes start up at the university, at the seminary.  Summer sports leagues are over and the new rhythms of fall are upon us.  But we have learned something this summer that will stay with us.  We have been students at the feet of the prophets, and now we are being sent out into a world in need of reformation as much as any world has ever been.

As you wait with your bags packed for the future to come and get you, as you look back on all you have seen and heard, how have you been changed?  As you think about the expectations you bring to worship each week — that you will be comforted, that you will be challenged, that you will be fed — what expectations do you sense God has for you as you leave this place?  As you stand at the threshold of a new season, of a new world, what are the words God has put into your mouth?

Do not be afraid of them.

Amen.

 

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, May 19, 2013: Day of Pentecost

Texts: Acts 2:1-21  +  Psalm 104:24-34,35b  +  Romans 8:14-17  +  John 14:8-17,25-27

My god-daughter, Katie Russell, gives her testimony at Vanderbilt Divinity School's baccalaureate service.

My god-daughter, Katie Russell, gives her testimony at Vanderbilt Divinity School’s baccalaureate service.

A little over a week ago, Kerry and I were in Nashville, Tennessee to see my eldest god-daughter, Katie Russell, graduate from seminary at Vanderbilt Divinity School.  You can imagine that for a preacher and pastor like myself, there’s a special pride in watching your godchild graduate from seminary.

The night before the actual graduation, at the baccalaureate service, I got the added pleasure of hearing Katie give her testimony before her colleagues and her faculty.  She was one of a handful of students invited to do so at this closing worship service for a cohort of newly minted pastors who were preparing to be sent out into the world.

As she opened her remarks she used a phrase that was repeated over and over during the weekend.  Referring to her soon-to-be alma mater she said, “here at the School of the Prophets we learned…” School of the Prophets, I soon learned, wasn’t just a compliment being paid by a student to her teachers, or a preacherly turn of phrase, it is part of that school’s self-concept.  Just as so many schools have Latin mottos (the University of Chicago’s is Crescat scientia; vita excolatur or “Let knowledge grow from more to more; and so be human life enriched;”  Harvard’s is more simply veritas, or “truth”), the Divinity School of Vanderbilt University names itself in its foundational documents dating back to the 1870s a Schola Prophetarum, a school of prophets.

It’s a name the school takes seriously.  Its mission statement names as one of the school’s primary goals that they will “prepare leaders who will be agents of social justice” who will be “forceful representatives of the faith and effective agents in working for a more just and human society that will help to alleviate the ills besetting individuals and groups.”  The graduation program had a full-page description of the Divinity School’s commitments that explicitly state its opposition to racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, poverty, militarism and the destruction of the environment.

Still, there was something jarring about hearing a group of people refer to themselves so boldly as the “School of the Prophets.”  Maybe its my midwestern upbringing, but it just felt like bragging.  How could they be so bold?  Who died and named them prophets?

Well, as it turns out, Jesus did.

Growing up I thought a prophet was like a fortune-teller, a kind of biblical palm reader who could see the future.  It probably wasn’t until seminary that I myself was asked to really thoroughly read the prophetic books of the Hebrew scriptures, what we sometimes call the “Old” Testament.  The prophets of the bible sometimes spoke of future things, but just as often spoke to the present moment.  What made them prophets wasn’t that they told the future, but that they told the truth.  God’s truth.

Jesus — the one who lived, and died, and is rising in the world by the power of the Holy Spirit — says to his disciples shortly before his crucifixion,

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” (John 14:15-17,25-26)

And, indeed, Jesus is a man of his word.  Throughout these fifty days since Easter morning we have been hearing the stories of the Acts of the Apostles.  We’ve been recalling to ourselves the legacy of a church born in the moment when the Holy Spirit was poured out on those first followers of Jesus, huddled together for safety in the face of a scary world, but filled with power and purpose and sent out for the sake of restoration of God’s good creation.

God’s Holy Spirit fills the church, just as Jesus said it would, and when it does, Peter, their first preacher, remembers the words of another prophet, Joel, who said,

“In those last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy…” (Acts 2:17a-b)

In that moment of the church’s birth, Peter acts as a prophet, telling God’s truth that the last days are here.  The new heaven and the new earth are breaking into the ones we have known for too long.  Salvation is for here and now.  It has already begun, and we who are flesh, we who are sons and daughters and heirs with Christ to the fortunes of God’s love are called to act, like the apostles.

Looking back at the Vanderbilt graduation, I can see that I was mistaken.  Or, I wasn’t hearing that phrase, “school of the prophets,” correctly.  My midwestern aversion to pretense was bristling against the notion that these people were calling themselves prophets, when all they were really claiming to be was a school.  Because, you see, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we have all been made prophets.

By the power of the Holy Spirit, we are all called to speak God’s truth to a world burdened by lies.  By the power of the Holy Spirit, we are all called to dream incredible dreams and given eyes to see a vision of a future reality breaking into the present moment, a vision that makes these “the last days.”

As prophets, all of us, we need schools and churches and so many other places where we can learn about the legacy of which we are inheritors.  We need Sunday School teachers and small group leaders, seminarians and people to lead the adult education hour.  We need parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles and godparents who will teach us and shape us as we grow into our prophetic callings.  We need community organizers and event planners to call us to action and to put us to use.  We need faithful servants who fill grocery bags and glean the leftover food waiting in fields both near and far.

Icon of the prophet Amos.

Icon of the prophet Amos.

This is our school of the prophets, one of many God has built in the world, made of living stones.  We are its faculty and we are its students.  As we move out of the season of Easter and into the long summer of “ordinary time,” we’ll actually be reading the stories of the Hebrew prophetsElijah and Elisha, Amos and Hosea, Isaiah and Jeremiah.  We’ll remember how God’s people have been called to tell God’s truth to every age, as we live into our own prophetic calling to act.

This call, the call to action, is daunting to be sure, but we are kept in the promise that we will be filled with the power and the presence of the one who has made us prophets: Jesus, God’s Beloved, rising in the world by the power of the Holy Spirit.

As we commence upon this journey, some of us joining this congregation today, others saying goodbye, all of us being sent for a greater purpose, I want to offer you these words — often attributed to Oscar Romero, but believe to have been written by the Roman Catholic bishop Kenneth Untener of Detroit:

It helps now and then to step back and take a long view. The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a small fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said. No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession brings perfection. No pastoral visit brings wholeness. No program accomplishes the Church’s mission. No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about: We plant the seeds that will one day grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing  that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces effects  far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense  of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it well. It may be incomplete but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.

We are prophets of a future not our own.

Amen.

 

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