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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, June 5, 2016: 3rd Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: 1 Kings 17:17-24  +  Psalm 30  +  Galatians 1:11-24  +  Luke 7:11-17

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“Mark Lindsey is outside his mother’s house after a visit. He has chopped off his signature dreadlocks, and a woman has sent him a compliment. He forwards her message to a cousin. It’s working already, he writes.

He is behind the wheel of his red Chevy Monte Carlo, a car he so prizes that neighbors see him wash it again and again. A man approaches on foot and opens fire, and Mr. Lindsey, 25, is hit. The car lurches forward and strikes a parked pickup truck.

His mother hears the gunfire, runs out and yanks on the locked car door. ‘Someone get him out of the car!’ she shouts over and over.

The screams continue for long minutes. They are jarring here. This section of Ashbury, on the city’s Southwest Side, had seemed somewhat removed from the worst of the gun violence.”

“A Weekend in Chicago: Where Gunfire is a Terrifying Norm”

New York Times, Saturday, June 4, 2016

What goes through our minds as we hear these stories over and over again in our city? I’ll tell you what goes through my mind. I think, “Ashbury, Southwest Side, not my neighborhood.” I think, “signature dreadlocks, not like me.” I think, “a man approached on foot and opened fire? What had this kid done to deserve this execution-style hit? Was he in a gang?” I think all of these thoughts in the matter of one or two seconds, without trying to think them, without wanting to think them. As soon as I think them, another part of my brain starts to deconstruct these thoughts, starts scolding me for the prejudices they reveal in me.

What goes through your mind may be very different than mine. You might be remembering something very similar happening not too far from here. You might be listening to the description of Mark Lindsey’s hair thinking, “he sounds like my brother.” You might be remembering close calls with violence on the street, a night you were lucky to have made it to the morning. You might be hearing that mother’s screams, as she tugs at the jammed car door, trying to get to the lifeless body of her child.

It’s gotten so bad in Chicago that the New York Times has assigned a team of reporters to cover homicides in our city for the next year. Think about that for a second. It’s gotten so bad in Chicago that New York is doing a year long piece of investigative journalism about what’s happening in our city; because, you know, when you think of the streets of New York you immediately think about how safe they are. Yet it’s often true that in order to see clearly what is happening around us, we need an outsider to come and observe with fresh eyes what’s going on, to name the thing that’s so obvious we’ve become blind to it.

When Jesus comes upon the scene of a woman, named as a widow, walking alongside the lifeless body of her only son as he is being carried out of the city, Luke’s gospel says, “When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her…” (Luke 7:13) Even before we consider what Jesus said to this woman, let’s just stop to notice the three things Jesus does in response to this grieving woman:

  • He saw her — meaning, he allowed her suffering to interrupt his life, and he truly saw what was happening in the world, right in front of him;
  • He had compassion for her — meaning, he did not look for a way to distance himself from her suffering, to explain how her life was radically different from his life, even though it was. Even though as a man, his fortunes would be entirely different if it had been his only child that had died than this widowed woman’s would be; and
  • He spoke to her — meaning, he did more than contemplate her suffering from a distance, he did more than shake his head in pity at the state of the world, he crossed the distance between himself and this woman, and he joined her in the moment of her deepest despair.
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Wesleyan celebrated the graduates of the Class of 2016 at its 184th Commencement Ceremony on May 22. (Photo by John Van Vlack)

In his commencement address to the graduating class of 2016 at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut last month, Bryan Stevenson spoke to urgent need for the kind of active compassion we see in Jesus. Stevenson teaches law at New York University and is founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, challenging bias against the poor and minorities in the criminal justice system. Speaking to his hope for the future, and confidence that these young graduates could change the world, he said,

The first thing I believe you have to do is that you have to commit to getting proximate to the places in our nation, in our world, where there’s suffering and abuse and neglect. Many of you have been taught your whole lives that there are parts off the community where the schools don’t work very well; if there are sections of the community where there’s a lot of violence or abuse or despair or neglect, you should stay as far away from those parts of town as possible. Today, I want to urge you to do the opposite. I think you need to get closer to the parts of the communities where you live where there’s suffering and abuse and neglect. I want you to choose to get closer. We have people trying to solve problems from a distance, and their solutions don’t work, because until you get close, you don’t understand the nuances and the details of those problems. And I am persuaded that there is actually power in proximity. When you get close, you understand things you cannot understand from a distance … There is power in proximity.

He then goes on to recount how he himself is the “product of someone’s choice to get proximate.” How it was other people’s decisions to get close to him, to see him as he truly was, as he might become, rather than as a stereotype, that created the space he needed to grow into himself.

How are you the product of someone’s choice to get proximate, to get close to you? How has someone else’s willingness to look past the face you show the world, and to really see you, changed your life?

This is what Jesus shows us about the nature of God. That God, infinite in being and author of all that is, sees you. As small as you are. As invisible as you sometimes feel. God’s eye rests on you, sees you as you truly are, and loves you.

Last week we heard how the Centurion asked Jesus to heal his slave, but sent word that Jesus should not come into his home, because he understood that a religious Jew should not enter the home of a Gentile like him. But in today’s story Jesus goes further than entering the home of an unclean person, he touches the dead body of the grieving woman’s son, breaking the religious laws against coming into contact with the dead. In fact, it’s more than just the body of the dead son that Jesus should have stayed away from, but also anyone who’d come into contact with it, who would’ve been considered unclean for seven days. So, who was it that was very likely carrying this man’s body out of the city but the city’s own poor, who were hired to touch those unclean things that law-abiding folk could pay others to take care of.

These are the people Jesus sees, and has compassion for, and speaks to. These are the people Jesus allows to interrupt his affairs, to take precedence in his life. He steps forward, drawing his disciples with him, pulling them out of their comfort zones, to see and touch and talk to people and places left for dead. And as they do that, life returns.

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A night at the Healing Corner in West Humboldt Park

In West Humboldt Park, not too far from here, Arielle Maldonado and Krystal Robledo have begun a project called “The Healing Corner” as their response to a shooting that took place right next to a prayer vigil. “Realizing prayer circles were no longer enough” these two women are organizing the neighborhood to take the streets, reclaiming street corners where violent events have occurred and transforming them into sites of healing and new life with food and music and free hugs for friends and strangers alike. They are trying to make it easier for all of us to stop and see the true faces of our neighbors, to hold that space open long enough for compassion and hope to flow back into our hearts, and to make it easier for us to speak to one another, to listen to one another, to reclaim our common humanity. Describing their intent, these two women write, “through encouragement, guidance, resources, and love, we hope to change lives and create peace in our most troubled inner-city communities.”

If it were only encouragement, guidance and resources, it might sound like so many other attempts to solve problems from a distance. Love, however, will not abide any distance between suffering and healing. Love comes close. Love looks and sees. Love touches and talks to. Love heals and lifts up. You know this is true, because over and over love has done this for you.

Today our Lord is walking toward another funeral bier, another wailing mother, another dead son, another suffering city. Today Jesus is inviting us to stop and look and then to follow.

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, December 21, 2014: Fourth Sunday of Advent

Texts:  2 Samuel 7:1-11,16  +  Luke 1:46b-55  +  Romans 16:25-27  +  Luke 1:26-38

Hostages pressed against a window in Sydney, Australia during a standoff between a gunman and police.

Hostages pressed against a window in Sydney, Australia during a standoff between a gunman and police.

A young adult friend of mine told me that she’s spending the month of January in Sydney, Australia with classmates from her college. Normally this would have been unequivocally exciting news for both of us, but I noticed that my first response wasn’t joy. It was anxiety. In the week since we last gathered here for worship we have seen the faces of everyday people pressed up against the glass of a downtown cafe where they were held hostage by a lone gunman with a long history of violence against both intimate partners and strangers.

At least 141 people, including 132 children, have been killed in an attack by Pakistani Taliban fighters (TTP) on a military-run school in Peshawar in Pakistan's northwest.

At least 141 people, including 132 children, have been killed in an attack by Pakistani Taliban fighters (TTP) on a military-run school in Peshawar in Pakistan’s northwest.

No sooner had that crisis come to a brutal ending, than we learned of an attack on a school full of Pakistani children that left 145 people dead. I remember listening to the news coverage of this event while driving home from work in my car, wondering why anyone would target innocent school children. What political motivation could there possibly be for the wholesale slaughter of unarmed civilians? Then I heard the Taliban’s spokesperson say, “we targeted the school because the Army targets our families. We want them to feel our pain.”

That immediately took me back to the terrorist strikes against the United States on September 11, 2001. Our shock at watching the Twin Towers fall, and with them any sense that we are removed from the politics of our nation. We live in a time when terror rains down from the sky and violence is the preferred solution to conflict. No side can claim the moral high ground when it comes to the taking of innocent lives, whatever those are. The line between innocent and implicated has been blurred past the point of recognition. If the message of those we call terrorists says anything, it seems to say that those who benefit from the arrangement of power and wealth enforced by state-sanctioned violence will not be protected from the wrath of those who are trying to rearrange the balance of power by any means necessary.

It is no easy thing to make sense of Mary’s song in times like these. “[The Mighty One] has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.” Who is she talking about? Who are the powerful? Where are their thrones?

More importantly, where did Mary find the courage to sing her song? What ever would have led a pregnant, unwed young woman to believe that the life being born in her, a life that would be born into oppression and occupation, could change the balance of power in the world?

IMG_0169Do you know who Mary reminds me of? Can you think of a more inspiring young woman than Malala Yousafzai? She wasn’t even a teenager when she began blogging for the BBC on the plight of girls seeking an education in Pakistan. She was only 15 when she was shot three times, once in the head, for her activism. Yet she remained unbroken. She said, “I don’t want to be remembered as the girl who was shot. I want to be remembered as the girl who stood up” and “the terrorists thought they would change my aims and stop my ambitions, but nothing changed in my life except this: weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage were born.”

Malala didn’t come into the world an activist. She was raised and nurtured in a family of politically engaged people. Her family owns a number of schools and her father has been an educational activist. He remembers that from an early age, Malala stayed up late into the night listening to him talk politics and joining in.

Likewise, Mary draws on centuries of Hebrew prophetic rhetoric. Her song, the Magnificat, which we sing this time of year with great relish is a magnification of the song of Hannah, who dedicated her child Samuel to the Lord with these words,

My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God. Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil. The Lord makes poor and makes rich; [God] raises up the poor from the dust; [God] lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes in seats of honor. (1 Sam. 2:1,5,7,8)

These young women are exceptional, but they aren’t unique. They are extraordinary, but they are not inaccessible. They are signs of what happens when we allow the spirit of God to be born in us, when we say “Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38) Or, in Malala’s words, “Some people only ask others to do something. I believe that, why should I wait for someone else? Why don’t I take a step and move forward?”

One more Malala quote before I lose my voice or get lost in a fit of coughing. She has said, “If you hit a Talib with your shoe, then there would be no difference between you and the Talib. You must not treat others with cruelty and that much harshly, you must fight others but through peace and through dialogue and through education.”

This is the true reversal, the real upheaval. If we allow ourselves to get lost in the question of who is the mighty on their throne, we will stay trapped in justifications for violence. Nations will legitimate their use of drones and terrorists their use of suicide bombers. But, if we focus on unseating violence itself then we are truly getting to the heart of the matter. We stop playing musical chairs, replacing one violent power with another, and we begin building the world from the bottom up, from the vantage point of the lowly, through the eyes of the unarmed Black teenager, the Pakistani school girl, the hungry day laborer. We begin building a world where the good things of God — food, shelter, family, love, education, community, justice and peace — are shared among us all.

Mary and Malala, extraordinary prophets of hope flinging their fragile bodies forward into a world weary of war. Surely they are not alone. Surely God is being born in us as well.

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, July 28, 2013: Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts:  Hosea 1:2-10  +  Psalm 85  +  Colossians 2:6-15  +  Luke 11:1-13

Preaching last week on God’s wrath, I named a couple of ways that most of us dodge the discomfort of dealing with divine anger — by defending ourselves as mostly good, or by declaring that most of us (though not all) are good.  My assertion was that both of these dodges keep us from recognizing the power of anger in the work of love.

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Icon of the Prophet Hosea

Well, I have to confess to you, my sisters and brothers, that I’ve been trying to dodge all week long as I prepared for this week’s installment of the “School for Prophets.”  All summer long we’ve been reading and studying the oft-neglected prophetic books from Hebrew scripture, the books that form the backbone of Jewish and Christian ethical reflection on the world, and in their call for personal righteousness and political reform we have heard a good word for our day. But today we move into two weeks with the prophet Hosea, and his language and imagery are so difficult to read, much less to preach on, that I really wanted to dodge the bullet and go back to preaching on the gospels.

This week the gospel of Luke presents Jesus teaching the Lord’s Prayer.  While the spirituality of that prayer is certainly radical in its call for simplicity, forgiveness of debts, and reliance on God; the language is so familiar that it barely registers with us anymore as anything other than a word formula to be recited from memory.

The language of Hosea, on the other hand, is shocking.  So shocking that, in the end, after looking at about five different translations, I ended up softening the language of the text we heard Bob read a few minutes ago out of fear that we’d lose half the room after the first two verses.

The actual, commonly accepted, translation of these verses begins,

When the Lord first spoke through Hosea, the Lord said to Hosea, “Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord. (Hosea 1:2, NRSV)

You can see why I might be tempted to just focus on the Lord’s Prayer.

This ends up being, really, the dominant motif of the prophet Hosea, that Israel has prostituted itself out to foreign nations and other gods.  That Israel has broken the covenant between itself and Yahweh by placing its trust in other powers to give and sustain life.  And as I tried to think about how to preach the prophet Hosea with integrity, the real temptation (other than to simply not preach Hosea) was to excuse the prophet’s misogyny and explain away the rhetoric of violence against women that follows the verses we read this morning.  I wanted to mount a biblical “It Gets Better” campaign by skipping ahead to the brief, rare verses in Hosea that promise reconciliation with God and a new future for the people of Israel.

But to do that, to read these verses out loud in the sanctuary and let the words “whoredom” and “prostitute” ring off the walls of the church, and then skip ahead to some other passage in order to escape the ugliness and cruelty of those words is another kind of dodge that, in the end, does not produce faith but instead sows doubt — doubt that these scriptures are actually trustworthy after all, doubt that we can read and wrestle with difficult texts and come out the other side stronger for having done so.

In her groundbreaking book, “Texts of Terror: Literary – Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives,” biblical scholar Phyllis Trible explores the problem of violence in scripture, particularly the all-too-common violence against women found in scripture.  She names the dodges we too often take in our approach to the problem of violence like this:

From the start, certain theological positions constitute pitfalls.  They center in Christian chauvinism.  First, to account for these stories as relics of a distant, primitive, and inferior past is invalid.  Resoundingly, the evidence of history refutes all claims to the superiority of a Christian era.

Trible already catches me, red-handed, in the act of trying to dodge the problem of the prophet Hosea by explaining his use of misogynistic language like “whoredom” and “prostitute” as if those words are somehow a relic of the past that I would need to explain to you in the context of biblical history; as if they aren’t thrown at women (and men) everyday as insults and forms of social control; as if prostitution isn’t a global industry that creates wealth for men at deep and devastating cost to women.  No, we can’t escape the problem of the prophet Hosea by pretending as if his rhetorical violence is a relic of a biblical past, when we know that it is an all-too-common fact of the present as well.

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Trible continues,

Second, to contrast an Old Testament God of wrath with a New Testament God of love is fallacious.  The God of Israel is the God of Jesus, and in both testaments resides tension between divine wrath and divine love.

This is also a move we Christians too often make, to the detriment of our own faith and at the expense of our Jewish sisters and brothers as well.  There is a subtle anti-Judaism that creeps into Christian language when we contrast what we call the Old Testament, which is Hebrew scripture, with the New Testament, as if Christians really only need the later, not the former.  As if the Jesus we meet in the second testament, and the authors who are presenting him, are not quoting frequently and directly from the first testament.

We must learn to say plainly that it simply is not true that the God of the Old Testament is a God of wrath, while the God of the New Testament is a God of love.  God acts again and again in Hebrew scripture, moved by love, to create, save and restore God’s people and God’s creation.  Likewise, the New Testament is filled with language — in the gospels, in Paul’s letters, and elsewhere — that affirms the power of anger in the work of love.  So, no, we cannot dismiss Hosea’s angry, violent language toward his wife and children as “typical” of Hebrew scripture.  If it is typical, it is of something far more universal and encompassing than any one religious tradition.

If we cannot pretend that the issue of violence against women is limited to the ancient past, and we cannot dismiss these verses as diminished Old Testament precursors to a new-and-improved Christian Testament, then how are we to read these passages?  How are we to read the bible as a whole?

Phyllis Trible makes this suggestion:

Offsetting these pitfalls are guides for telling and hearing the tales.  To perceive the Bible as a mirror is one such sign.  If art imitates life, scripture likewise reflects it in both holiness and horror.  Reflections themselves neither mandate nor manufacture change; yet by enabling insight, they may inspire repentance. In other words, sad stories may yield new beginnings.

Honesty and integrity demand that we not gloss over the violence of Hosea’s rhetoric.  We can neither read his message to the nation of Israel, “for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord,” as a relic of the past, nor can we gloss over it and pretend it is not a feature of our own present-day society.

Instead, let’s do this.  Let’s affirm that the women and children, both female and male, used in prostitution are entirely human, equally created in the image of God, deserving of love and compassion,  and worthy of respect.  Let’s not pretend that prostitution is something that only happens to people we don’t know, or is engaged in by people we don’t know.  Given how prevalent it is in our own city, that is simply too unlikely to be true.

What that means in very practical terms is this: in this house, in this church, you are always welcome.  This does not stop being true if you have been prostituted.  This does not stop being true if you are currently engaged in prostitution.  Those are facts that cannot define a person.  Our deepest reality is that we are, each of us, created in the image of a loving God who unrelentingly searches us out so that we can be healed and restored to right relationship with God and with one another.

So I think one of the gifts that can be wrangled out of these explosive verses from Hosea is this: they force us to say words we’ve been taught not to say in polite company.  They hold a mirror up to our society, and they demand that we be clear that the good news of God’s justice-making love is intended for everyone, and by putting us on the record they also insist that we act in ways that make this affirmation true.  I know that, this past Christmas, our social justice committee hosted a holiday shopping party at which all the items being sold supported the work of a Christian ministry advocating for an end to human sex-trafficking.  I’ve been encouraged to see that the Evangelical church in particular has been active in working to shed light on this problem, and to support women and children who are able to leave prostitution and build new futures for themselves and their families.

There is another fact, however, that faces us in the mirror that scripture holds up to us in the words of the prophet Hosea.  I’ve struggled with how to say this, and I’m not entirely sure I’m going to get it right, so I just want to ask for your patience with me as I try to say something I see in these scriptures in the best way I know how, entirely aware that I likely won’t get this right.

As horribly intimate as Hosea is with his imagery — a wife used in prostitution, three children who he names “Jezreel” as a sign of punishment, “Lo-ruhamah” meaning “No Pity,” and “Lo-Ammi” meaning “Not My People” — he is trying to communicate something to the entire nation about their conduct as a people.  He uses his own marriage to a wife who has been prostituted to describe the state of affairs in the relationship between God and Israel, and to his way of thinking God is like a faithful spouse who endures humiliation after humiliation at the hands of a faithless partner.  I’m stripping the genders away from the metaphor, which I understand is a problem since the symbol is so rooted in patriarchy and power, but I’m trying, very imperfectly, to get at what I think Hosea was trying to get at, very imperfectly; and that is that when we talk about politics in church, we’re not talking about some impersonal set of ideas or laws or trade practices — we’re talking about ways of structuring our life together as a community that have deep and profound impact on all of us, as individuals and families, as neighborhoods and nations.

As you read through the entire fourteen chapters of Hosea you discover that what he’s really angry about is the way that Israel has misplaced their trust in the very powers that have previously enslaved them.  He writes, “they call upon Egypt, they go to Assyria,” (Hos. 7:11b) and goes on to say,

You have plowed wickedness, you have reaped injustice, you have eaten the fruit of lies.  Because you have trusted in your power and in the multitude of your warriors, therefore the tumult of war shall rise against your people, and all your fortresses shall be destroyed. (Hos. 10:13-14)

Hosea accuses Israel of being faithless, of abandoning their covenant with God, of seeking power and pleasure from the hands of the very people and places that have always been the source of their oppression.  He indicts them of placing their trust in their military, of using war as a method for getting what they want at the expense of others.

Doesn’t this all sound a little bit too familiar?  Don’t we sense that sometimes our own culture, our own society, keeps turning again and again to powers that we know are broken, systems that we know are hurting us, but which we have decided are “too big to fail.”  Can we imagine that as these systems rob us of our homes and our jobs, as these forces commit us to war after war so that we can maintain control over resources that rightly belong to all God’s people, that God’s wrath — which is God’s anger directed toward the work of love — might be kindled?

The image that Hosea reaches for, the symbol he uses to try and help Israel understand that talking about politics in church is actually talking about the very things that affect us in our homes on a day to day basis, is a symbol of domestic violence.  He uses language that demeans and denigrates his wife and his children, and he goes on to describe the ways they will be punished for their faithlessness that would, and should, get him arrested if he tried them today.

I am not excusing that, but I am trying to understand the message he is trying to deliver as he speaks in such graphic terms on behalf of God to the nation of Israel.  Here is my best attempt to boil that message down to something that does not harm or objectify women and children:

Oh my people, when will you learn that the personal is political and the political is personal?  When will you understand that your chasing after dreams and illusions of pleasure and privilege always come at the expense of someone else, the expense of the very land we rely upon for life?  When will you start living as if the promises we made to one another in baptism mean something to you, and not just to me?  When will you finally treat me, and one another, with the love I have always given to you?

Hosea uses the language of marriage and infidelity, I think, because it is some of the most powerful language we have available to us.  If you have ever had to talk with your lover, your partner, your spouse about infidelity, then you know how scary and painful and explosive those conversations can be.  Hosea draws on those emotions, and our almost universal experience with those emotions, to try and help us understand on a visceral level what is at stake in our relationship with God, not just at home in our private religious lives, but out in the world, in public, in our collective lives.

In many ways, he fails.  His inability to really even see the violence he perpetrates against his wife and children as he tries to make his point to the nation of Israel is a reminder to us all that we must guard against self-righteousness.  Still, I’m glad that our tradition has kept Hosea in the Bible.  His personal failures teach us something about the frailty of our own best efforts, while still demanding that we all be honest about our collective failures before God.

Amen.

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