Messages

Resolved: A New Year

IMG_0048There it is, sitting open on the dining room table. The 2018 planner, with its blank pages and silent promise that this may be the year when I finally … what? What is it that I hope will slip in and replace this sense of fragile, tentative expectation?

I wonder if it might be accountability.

New Year’s Day creates a moment for reflection on the patterns and habits that, over time, shape our lives into whatever they are. From the Earth’s point of view, it’s just another day, another twenty-four hour rotation. From the sun’s point of view, it’s the end of one earthly cosmic circuit and the beginning of a new one. Our planet’s steady wobble creates the periodic rhythm of seasons that help us track the course of each year, reminding us that we, too, will grow up, bear fruit, shed our leaves, and eventually rest with our ancestors in the ground.

Having firmly entered middle age, I’m newly aware that my life is not infinite. My time feels measured in ways both mysterious and urgent. I want to make something of myself, to use the time given to me wisely and powerfully, to make a difference, to leave something of value behind. I sense that there is another iteration of me lying just under the surface of my present life better equipped to meet the challenges of this broken and tragic world, and my blank planner is the outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible commitment to become that person.

This is the sentiment that gives rise to the ritual of making resolutions, and today is the day for doing just that. Yet, having lived through a few New Year’s Days already, we are all a bit suspicious and weary of resolutions. We remember too easily our stalled efforts and abandoned commitments. Perhaps we compensate by setting our sights just a little lower with each passing year, or by abandoning the ritual of making resolutions altogether. While that may be acceptable in a specific sense (we can surely make allowances for those who refuse to follow the crowd), what would it mean to live a life devoid of goals? What happens when we abandon any sense of agency to set and pursue a direction for our lives, our families and communities?

My suspicion is that the the sense of futility that haunts our efforts at reform is directly connected to the spirituality of individualism and the myth of willpower that props it up. As an undergraduate psychology major, I remember being surprised to discover that “willpower” was not a readily verifiable aspect of human personality. If willpower is measured by the ability to make significant changes in one’s life, then it runs counter to all the evidence that the single most important factor in making real and lasting change is the support of another human being to whom we make ourselves accountable. In one memorable study, a pool of heart attack survivors whose lives depended on their ability to make major changes to their diet and exercise regimens were split into two groups for observation. The first group was given clear information about the changes needed to improve health and prolong life. The second group was given the same information, and was also supported in identifying and recruiting another person to whom they would be accountable for making these changes. The results were dramatic. A year later, those who’d been given nothing but information had not made the necessary changes to their lives. Those who’d established relationships of accountability had made real gains toward recovering their health. Though willpower failed, relationships prevailed.

What does this teach us about what is needed in this present moment, in which it seems the whole world has suffered a heart attack? A moment in which the necessity of change is a matter of existential survival for the planet, and a test of moral credibility for institutions like the church that have for too long been silent about, and therefore complicit with, the unjust arrangements of power that have kept great swaths of humanity shackled in poverty and dependent upon untrustworthy actors. It teaches us that we need more than information. I believe it suggests that the time has come once again, as it does each and every morning, for us to make new resolutions — but now to make them together.

This is what I appreciate about community organizing. It begins with the assumption that we are all longing for change in our lives and in the life of the world around us. Furthermore, it does not blame us for failing to effect these changes on our own. Instead, it correctly diagnoses the issue — we lack the power to make these changes alone and, therefore, need one another. Where the spirituality of individualism with its myth of willpower blames and mocks us for what we fail to accomplish by ourselves, the spirituality of organizing assumes that we were always intended to arrive at God’s preferred future together. Therefore, it offers a process by which we can do so through deep investment in one another’s lives, solidarity with one another’s dreams, and collective action for the common good.

This is also why I find worship so nourishing. In worship I am reminded that my life is not my own, that we all belong to one another. I regularly name the ways that my life fails to conform to the image of God within me, and hear a word of forgiveness that frees me from self-hatred and useless guilt so that I can resume the work of building the beloved community of God here and now with other, similarly liberated people. Over and over again I am reminded that I exist as part of “a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.” (1 Peter 2:9) All of us in this together.

Science backs up what we intuit from our participation in worship as well. In his work on gratitude and self-control, Northeastern University professor David DeSteno has found that where individual strategies of change (let’s call them attempts at “willpower”) create body damaging side effects connected to the release of stress hormones, the intentional cultivation of gratitude in relationship to one another seems to generate higher levels of self-control while lowering blood pressure and reducing anxiety and depression. Our ability to act together may, in fact, be what saves our lives.

The lesson I take from these findings is this: that the sense of urgency I feel on this particular day of the year to do something new, something better, something effective, powerful and lasting will quickly dissipate unless I find a way to do it with others. This means the resolutions I make need to make space for the resolutions you may be making as well, which means we each need to hear one another’s stories of resolve. I need you to understand what I am trying to do with my “one wild and precious life” (to quote Mary Oliver), and I need to understand the same from you. These goals won’t make much sense unless we understand the paths that led each of us from our various pasts to this fresh moment in which, once again, everything is possible.

So let this be one of the handful of commitments we make today: to share our resolutions with each other, and then to ask the other,

“Why are you making this resolution?”

“What is at stake for you in this commitment?”

“What will happen if you fail to make this change?”

And, most importantly of all, “How can I help you keep this resolution?”

Happy New Year,

Pastor Erik Christensen

“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.” (2 Cor. 3:17-18)

Standard
Sermons

Sermon: Wednesday, November 29, 2017: Reign of Christ (transferred)

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

“What I think, is that this is hell,” is what my sister told me.

scan0026

Me and Tara, ca. 1985. Arriving in the United States from Thailand.

By this point, I’d already gone to seminary. So it occurred to me, in the moment, that my sister was articulating a very present eschatology. By this point, she’d been living with a dual-diagnosis of persistent mental illness and mild developmental delay for a few years. She’d experienced the primal wound of being abandoned by her birth mother, raised in a foster home for the first six years of her life, and then torn from the land of her birth by loving, well-intentioned people who, nevertheless, did not look like her, or speak her language. By this point, my sister, Tara, who is Thai by birth and gifted with beautiful, lustrous brown skin, had experienced a childhood filled with racism both ignorantly casual and pointedly vicious. She had spent years running away from home, running toward danger. She’d been exposed to the violence that comes with life on the streets. She’d been beaten, she’d been exploited, and when she turned to the police in a life-or-death moment looking for help escaping the horrors of her immediate surroundings, they’d taken one look at her and saw only a disheveled, disorganized, dirty, brown-skinned girl with a funny way of talking and they told her to get lost, as if she wasn’t already.

20170222-chicago-tulips-breaking-ground

Tulips, breaking through topsoil.

So we were talking, she and I, about resurrection, and what hope we may have for the future, for a life better than the ones we’d known. I was talking to her about the miracle of tulips, which seem to die over and over, only to break free from the earth again and again to show their beauty in their frailty. And that’s when she told me, “what I think, is that this is hell.”

So, my reflection on this passage from Matthew has to start there, in hell, though the text itself does not use that word. This scene of final judgment, which is unique to Matthew’s gospel, is “the only scene with any details picturing the last judgment in the New Testament.”[1] Here we hear Jesus speaking in the voice of the ruler of heaven and earth seated on a cosmic throne before all the nations, rendering a judgment that addresses each person, each of us, on the basis of how we have responded to the human beings in our midst who are experiencing on a daily basis the depth of the hells this world has to offer: hunger, thirst, hostility to all that is strange or foreign or different, the bare naked exposure of poverty, the wretchedness of disease and illness, the graceless confines of our retributive justice and our merciless prison industrial complexes. In this scene of final judgement, the Lord of the universe says nothing about people’s personal sentiments, or public proclamations. The Lord gives no consideration to who you have claimed as your “personal Lord and savior.” The Lord of time focuses, like my sister, on the present and the fires to which we have consigned each other and asks what we have done for those whose daily reality is a burning hell.

Matthew.Lindisfarne

Illustration of St. Matthew the Evangelist from the Lindisfarne Gospels. Britain, 8th century.

I haven’t always known quite what to do with the festival of the Reign of Christ at the end of each liturgical year. Over time, however, I’ve come to appreciate the opportunity it provides for us to consider the distinctive voice of the synoptic gospel assigned to the year now ending. For this last year, it has been the Gospel of Matthew. So we have been hearing the good news of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ in a recognizably Matthean mode. Matthew’s theological world draws us into a recognition of the reign of God in clear opposition to the reign of Satan; it is the only gospel to speak explicitly of the “church” as a description for the community of believers, and so it invites us to give consideration to what we think the church is and who is part of it; it insists that Jesus is the fulfillment of the law, not the abolishment of it, and in doing so it ties the ethical life of those who follow Jesus to the ethical demands of the prophets of Israel. Then there is the thorny matter of Matthew’s relationship to the rest of Judaism, as this gospel preserves the memory of a religious community divided within itself over the nature of the covenant, the revelation of the messiah, and the imperative of the present moment to acknowledge and respond to what God is doing now in human history.

These themes and tensions are always with us, and I was reminded of that fact as I read and re-read the Boston Declaration, a theological statement released last Monday at the annual meetings of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature that publicly calls out American Evangelicalism for the ways that it has stoked the fires of a very real and present hell for millions of “the least of these” who suffer under the tyranny of intersecting ideologies of oppression that have interlaced racism, colonialism, and environmental degradation in ways that have created a living hell for the peoples of Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and the US territories; that have privileged and prioritized profits for gun manufacturers over the lives of human beings; that have supported the violent hetero-patriarchy evident in the daily revelations of rampant sexual misconduct and abuse by men against women and girls in workplaces and in homes; that has scapegoated Jewish people, Muslim people, Black and Brown people, and Queer people for the sins of White Christian Patriarchy; for elevating the economic appetites of nations by respecting national borders more than the lives of those who cross them as immigrants or refugees from the living hells created by those very same nations.

The stark and unapologetically divisive nature of the Boston Declaration very much reminds me of the stark and unapologetically divisive nature of this scene from Matthew of the final judgment in which all the nations are gathered before God and the people are surprised once more to hear that God takes sides. That our apathy and misconduct cannot be dismissed or justified by our claims to ethnic or national or religious exceptionalism.

Fra_Angelico_009

“The Last Judgment” by Fra Angelico, ca. 1395-1455

We all recoil from this scene, or should if we are in the least bit self-aware. The on-going presence of hunger and thirst, violence and poverty, malicious neglect of the ill and obscene incarceration of our neighbors who are, in fact, our siblings, indicts us all as complicit in the dominion of “the devil and his angels.” (Mt. 25:41) And it simply will not do to dismiss our discomfort with reminders of our Lutheran doctrine of justification by grace through faith; to let ourselves off the hook with reminders of God’s unceasing mercy, because it is God who addresses us here. It is God who speaks these words of judgment.

So we are left to grapple with the purpose and function of this eschatological vision and the tensions it produces. It is a tension that brings me back to my sister’s own declaration: “What I think, is that this is hell.” A very present eschatology, not unlike, I think, Jesus’s own eschatology. After all, it is in Matthew’s gospel that Jesus begins his public ministry by proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Mt. 4:17) This is Matthew’s Christology, that Jesus brings the reign of God, the fulfillment of God’s promises in the past, into the present moment with consequences for all of human life, for all of creation, here and now. Now is the moment of judgment. Now is the assurance that God does, in fact, take sides. Now is the promise that the hells in which we are burning cannot stand against the waters of the Christ into whom we are baptized. Now is the moment of our salvation. Now, not in the words we say or the identities we claim, but in the acts of lovingkindness we perform for one another, for the needless misery we relieve, for the welcome we offer, for the liberation we effect. Now. Now. Now.

Hell is not a threat of future punishment by our God. It is now. Or at least that’s what I heard when I listened to my sister, one of the least of these, and I believe her. What do you suppose might happen if you, if all of us, believed the voices of the women and girls, of the strangers and foreigners, of the masses that are incarcerated, of the legions of the sick and dying, of those who hunger and thirst?

A final word before I say goodbye to Matthew for a couple more years:

We struggle with the vitriol Matthew voices against those he calls “the Jews” because of the long history of Christian anti-Semitism, which the Boston Declaration rightly both laments and condemns. In its own context, however, what Matthew gives witness to is an intra-religious conflict among people who understood themselves as belonging to the same faith, yet who still drew very different conclusions about what God was doing in the present moment and what their faith required of them as a result. Here, again, the Boston Declaration provides a timely example. We might wonder what this present moment will look like two thousand years from now to those who have the advantage of that perspective, who will be able to look back and see what this one group called Mainline Protestants said about another group called American Evangelicals. We cannot know how these divides will deepen, or heal. Perhaps we will continue to drift away from one another to such an extent that we can no longer even recognize ourselves as belonging to the same religion.

Here Matthew shows us the righteousness of God, in that, no matter how much Matthew the evangelist might wish to claim superiority over the other sects of Judaism on the basis of his theological declarations, in the end God once again confounds our ideas of righteousness by disrupting the borders we draw around nations, tribes, religions, identities by lifting up those who do what is needed to meet the needs of the wounded neighbor, the suffering sibling.

We, too, should hear this word: that God cares less for our Boston Declarations than for our actual presence with those who suffer. God cares less about the accuracy of our theological ideas than the impact of our public witness. Just as fifty years of dialogue with the Roman Catholic church has led us to a new commitment to shared acts of proclamation and service, we might imagine and should already be looking for ways to heal the rifts that divide us from the very people we now condemn. For surely, in the moment of judgment that is always already happening, we will discover once again that we are all a part of the same family, that we all bear Christ to one another, that we are all standing before the throne of God, and that we are all in this together.

Amen.

[1] “The Gospel of Matthew: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” by M. Eugene Boring in The New Interpreter’s Bible, v.8, p.455 (1995: Abingdon Press)

Standard
Sermons

Sermon: Monday, September 25, 2017: Lectionary 25 / Proper 20

This sermon was preached in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC) on Monday, September 25th.

Texts: Jonah 3:10 — 4:11  +  Psalm 145:1-8  +  Matthew 20:1-16

In my own personal history of interpretation, this parable of Jesus has gone through a series of evolutions — each one raising different questions, none fully exhausting the possibilities of the story, which I suspect is an intentional teaching strategy on Jesus’ part.

godly-consumer-art1As a confirmand, this story was presented to me as a parable of grace. The workers clearly perform different amounts of labor, yet are rewarded equally. I was nine years old when I got my first paper route to earn money toward the plane ticket that would take me to Thailand with my parents when we adopted my sister. As soon as I was legally able, at age fourteen, I got a part-time job at McDonald’s after school and on the weekends, so that I’d have some spending money to keep up with the consumer demands placed on young people who want to fit in with their peers. Early on, I’d accepted the social contract that my time was a commodity to be bought and sold on the labor market. As such, the wage slave in me knew that this story was, somehow, unfair. People who work more hours should get more pay.

But, I was taught, grace is not for sale and cannot be earned — and this is a story about grace. So the hard working student in me set his mind to mastering this bit of Lutheran dogma — there is nothing I can say or do to earn God’s grace, love, or forgiveness. God, like the owner of the vineyard, is free to do as God wishes. And what God wishes is for everyone to live upon the earth equally.

Later on, after college, I spent a year teaching junior high in the Boston Public School system. I learned a lot that year about the art of teaching, stuff I’d read in books about developmental psychology took on three dimensions in the young people with whom I spent my days. As I struggled to scale the undergraduate education of which I was so proud down to an age-appropriate takeaway for the twelve to fourteen year olds before me, I began to wonder what had been stripped out of my own Christian education and formation.

Like this parable. Was God really like the owner of the McDonald’s franchise down the street from my folks’ house in Des Moines? Was the only thing being critiqued in this story the sense of injustice felt by the workers when the value of their labor was set aside for some kind of non-negotiated guaranteed income? I’d had just enough exposure to both Marx and post-modernism in college to be suspicious of this (and every) text. I wanted better answers to my questions.

In seminary I learned to read scripture with an awareness of the history surrounding each text, to ask questions about how power and wealth operated in the lives of the people who would have heard these stories first so that I could make better guesses about what these stories might have sounded like to their ears. I began to learn how military occupation had transformed a subsistence economy into an export economy, how ancestral lands had been stolen by invading powers, how peoples who’d once worked the land or fished the sea to feed their families now worked the land and fished the sea to earn a wage off of which their families could barely survive. I wondered why Jesus would tell such people a story about a land owner who took away their last inalienable asset, their labor, and would identify God with such an actor. God as the conquering power, the robber baron, the proto-industrialist, the erratic capitalist. My childhood faith held firm, that God wishes for everyone to live upon the earth equally, but how this story conveyed that message was far less clear.

In 1989 Peggy McIntosh published the article, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” giving fresh language and a new conceptual framework to an enduring problem. Twenty years later in 2009 she published a shorter, lesser known, article titled, White People Facing Race: Uncovering the Myths that Keep Racism in Place. In it, McIntosh asserts that white people “resist looking at racism because we fear damage to ourselves as ‘good people’ in the ‘greatest country’ in the world,” and asks the question, “how have whites kept such a strong sense of pride and deservedness?”

quote-white-privilege-is-the-unquestioned-and-unearned-set-of-advantages-entitlements-benefits-peggy-mcintosh-85-82-05

The answer she proposes is that white people have been raised on five strong cultural myths: meritocracy, manifest destiny, white racelessness, monoculture, and white moral elevation. It is the first of these myths, the myth of meritocracy, that draws my attention as I think about this strange parable of Jesus and wonder what he was doing when he told it to these occupied people in first century Palestine.

In her essay, McIntosh defines meritocracy as

“The myth that the individual is the only unit of society, and that whatever a person ends up with must be what [they] individually wanted, worked for, earned and deserved. This myth rests on the assumption that what people experience; how they see, feel, think, and behave; and what they are capable of accomplishing are not influenced by any social system or circumstance. The myth of meritocracy acknowledges no systems of oppression or privilege that, for various people and in various situations, could make life arbitrarily more, or less, difficult.”

When I look back and try to remember what nine year old Erik thought, as he delivered the newspaper; or what fourteen year old Erik thought, as he passed milkshakes through the window at the drive through, it’s complicated. There was some resentment, in that I realized that not everyone seemed to need to work in the ways I did to have the things I wanted. And there was some pride in discovering that when I worked hard, I could affect my environment. As a young person, who often had very little control over my environment, this was an empowering discovery. But I suspect it also laid the groundwork for a false logic that the powers of racism and capitalism later exploited: the assumption that everyone could just do what I did and get what I’d gotten. The myth of meritocracy.

I wonder if Jesus told this parable to people whose ancient ways of being and belonging were being disrupted as a way of agitating them, intentionally provoking them, helping them to remember that they had once been more than wage slaves and that in God’s economy they’d never been slaves at all. Could it be that this story wasn’t comparing God to a wealthy landowner, but instead critiquing the ways that both oppressor and oppressed come to accept and internalize the myths that structure and support all the violence that follows from them?

The myth of meritocracy is just that, a myth. It’s simply impossible that any of us is self-made. We are all products of the complex web of relationships that connects us to one another. For this reason, it’s just as impossible to say that any of us are getting what we deserve in any individual sense. Individually we are all simultaneously paying it forward and cashing in on the labor of others. It is only collectively that we might be able to say that we are reaping what we have sown.

Therefore, because we have sown fear of our neighbors, we have reaped this new travel ban. Because we have sown colonialism we have reaped devastation in the form of hurricane damage in Puerto Rico and throughout the Caribbean that could have been mitigated if the United States had invested in infrastructure and the economy long ago. Because we have sown white supremacy and enforced it with a militarized police force, we have reaped a national discourse in which taking a knee and proclaiming that Black Lives Matter is tantamount in the eyes of many to an act of treason. Here, the “we” I speak of stands in for all the various estate owners in my current understanding of this parable of Jesus; who are, most often, white people.

But our unpacking of this parable remains incomplete if we do not also ask ourselves how we have internalized the myth of meritocracy. How old were each of you when you learned the rules of this deadly game? When and how did you start playing by the rules? How has accepting the rules of this rigged game saved your life? How has it destroyed your relationships? What did you have to give up to get over?

I don’t think my confirmation teachers were lying to me when they bottom lined this parable as a story demonstrating that God’s love is free and cannot be earned. I just think they knew that we were only just beginning to understand the rules of the game, and that they themselves were caught up in the myth. I still believe, I know, that God wishes for everyone to live upon the earth equally. I also believe, I know, that Jesus will keep troubling my certainties and disrupting my attempts to accommodate myself to the lies this world tells, until we can all remember that we are all in this together.

Amen.

Hear this sermon preached aloud here.

Standard