Sermons

Sermon: Wednesday, November 28, 2018: RCL Texts for the Wednesday following Reign of Christ

The following sermon was preached in LSTC’s Augustana Chapel on the Wednesday following the festival of the Reign of Christ. Audio of the sermon can be found here.

Texts: Ezekiel 30:20-26  +  Psalm 76  +  John 16:25-33

I love Jesus. I love Jesus, and I long for the reign of Christ.

Earlier this week, as I listened to Samantha preaching that brilliant sermon on the texts for the festival of the Reign of Christ, as I listened to Doc’s exquisite improvisation on the Canticle of the Turning, I’m not ashamed to admit that I didn’t get all the way through the hymn without crying. 

“From the halls of pow’r to the fortress tow’r, not a stone will be left on stone. Let the king beware for your justice tears ev’ry tyrant from his throne. The hungry poor shall weep no more, for the food they can never earn; there are tables spread, every mouth be fed, for the world is about to turn.” (Canticle of the Turning)

Yes! Yes, I want to live in that world!

Yes! I long for the day when the hungry poor are fed first from the table of abundance.

Yes! I can even name my family’s self-interest in seeing that world come sooner, rather than later. I know that in that world, my sister will have access to work and housing with dignity, my family will have health care without conditions, my husband will be reunited with his incarcerated brother, and I will be able to walk arm in arm with my beloved without the fear of violence hanging over our heads. Yes! I want to live in that world — Come, Lord Jesus, come!

But I don’t think I’m ready to give up my Amazon Prime account.

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Maybe you’ve heard. Despite the company’s recent move to raise the entry-level wage for its U.S. workers to $15 per hour, Amazon workers worldwide continue to protest the low wages and horrible conditions under which they are required to work. In cities across Europe last week, Amazon workers went on strike. It was barely a story here in the United States.

I’m not trying to make this sermon into an exposé on labor rights for Amazon workers, though that’s a worthy topic for further investigation, because to spend too much time here is to invite you to focus too narrowly on whether or not you can justify the Amazon Prime account that you may or may not have. The point I’m making is that I don’t think I’m ready to give the account that I most certainly do have up.

Or, to be frank, I must confess that I am often more motivated by narrow self-interest and fear of scarcity than I am by care for my neighbor and trust in God’s abundance.

In this morning’s reading from the gospel of John, Jesus nears the end of his lengthy farewell discourse with words that are unexpectedly troubling. After a ministry filled with allegories and cryptic sayings, Jesus now speaks plainly, “I came from Abba God and have come into the world; again, I am leaving the world and going to Abba God.” (John 16:28) If that’s not plain speech, I don’t know what is. The cat is out of the bag. Jesus is the messiah, the one sent by God as the ultimate sign of God’s love for all creation.

In response the disciples say, “Yes! Now you are speaking plainly, not in any figure of speech! Now we know that you know all things, and do not need to have anyone question you; by this we believe that you came from God.”

Yes, this is what we’ve been waiting for! 

Yes, we know! 

Yes, we believe!

It would seem that the whole gospel has been building toward this moment, this declaration of belief in Jesus by those who followed him. But Jesus immediately casts doubt on their belief.

“Do you now believe? The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each one to their home, and you will leave me alone.” (John 16:32)

It is more than anticlimactic. It is disturbing. The disciples’ profession of belief is not convincing to Jesus, who rightly predicts that they will not keep faith with him in the moment of his passion which has now arrived. That they will scatter when confronted with the consequences of their association with Jesus.

This is not the first time that the word “scatter” has appeared in John’s gospel. It appears one other time, back in the 10th chapter, when Jesus was still using figures of speech. There he says, 

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away — and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.” (John 10:11-12)

As Jesus approaches his eschatological hour, this previous figure of speech haunts the scene. The wolf is coming with death in its jaws, and the disciples will soon scatter, like both the hired hands and the sheep.

And, of course, the language of scattering goes even further back in Hebrew scripture. We hear it in Genesis in the famous story of the Tower of Babel. There, in a time preceding history, “the whole earth had one language and the same words.” In a bid to protect themselves from the divine imperative to be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth, humanity adopts an “us first” isolationist stance toward the future, preferring to build a tower and establish a uniformity of identity rather than participate in the unfolding diversity of human community. In response, God scatters them abroad “over the face of the whole earth.”

600px-Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_The_Tower_of_Babel_(Vienna)_-_Google_Art_ProjectWhen read in light of the Babylonian exile, the story of the Tower of Babel has been interpreted as representative of Jerusalem, scattered in captivity. This theme is especially prominent in Ezekiel, as in the passage assigned for today, where God promises to scatter the Egyptians among the nations (Ezek. 30:23,26) in language very similar to the story of Babel. A few chapters later, in the 34th chapter of Ezekiel, the language of scattering reappears in a prophesy against the shepherds of Israel that offers a stark contrast to Jesus’ image of the Good Shepherd:

“Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts … My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.” (Ezek. 34:2b-6)

This is the world as it is. The weak left to struggle, the sick left to die, the injured left to suffer, the straying and the lost left alone. This is the world I was born into, yes, and that I have had a hand in maintaining. This is the world that is required if I want to continue to enjoy cheap gas and cheap clothes and cheap airfares and cheap food and cheap labor. This is a world that cheapens life itself. It is the world that my Amazon Prime account creates and requires, and I’m still not sure I’m ready to give it up.

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Dr. Gail O’Day

In her article “Preaching as an Act of Friendship: Plain Speaking as a Sign of the Kingdom” Dr. Gail O’Day, who was my faculty advisor at Emory University and who died earlier this fall, offers a context that helps make sense of Jesus’ stinging words to the disciples following their statement of belief. She writes,

“In their quick and easy assent to his words, [Jesus] recognizes the behavior of a flatterer instead of that of a friend. Jesus’ rebuke suggests that he suspects the disciples are saying what they think Jesus wants to hear, not what they really believe. To prove they are flatterers and not friends, Jesus links their false words with what seems to be a much more serious offense, their abandonment of him at his hour.”

This is what I want to avoid. Being a flatterer. Saying one thing in my sermon and living another truth with my life. What does it mean for me to say, “Jesus is Lord!” or “Come, Jesus, come!” when my life actively demonstrates my half-hearted allegiances and my scattered loyalties? When I abandon my espoused values the moment they become inconvenient? When I denounce the political rhetoric of “America first” nationalism, but continue to pursue a “me first” consumerism?

What it means is that I am human, which is to say that I am a sinner, just like you. My best efforts are inadequate, and my worst mistakes are tragic. And ironically, while my knowledge of my failures often leaves me feeling painfully isolated, it is actually proof of my membership in the human family.

Jesus knows that his followers will abandon him, that they will scatter before the consequences of their association with him. Just as we do. Yet, even as he is abandoned, Jesus remains a part of the divine community which is the inner life of God. “I am not alone,” he says, “because Abba God is with me.” This is the same God whom Jesus assures us loves us, is accessible to us, shelters us, calls to us, forgives us, encourages us, saves us.

“I have said this to you,” Jesus explains, “so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution,” he acknowledges. “But take courage; I have conquered the world!” It’s precisely the kind of thing a good shepherd might say, or a good friend, the kind willing to lay down their lives for you, the kind who will keep loving you through all your fears and betrayals. The kind who will gather up the scattered fragments of your life and call you home to yourself. Peace, take courage, I’ve got this.

Have I told you how much I love Jesus, and long for the reign of Christ?

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Sermons

Sermon: Wednesday, September 19, 2018

This sermon was preached for daily worship at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC) in Augustana Chapel. To hear the audio file of this sermon being preached, click here.

Texts: Isa. 10:12-20  +  Psalm 119:169-176  +  John 7:25-36

The trial of Jason Van Dyke, the police officer who shot and killed Laquan McDonald four years ago here in Chicago, began this week. For those of us who have lived here in Chicago for some time, or who have been following the story of endemic police violence against black and brown bodies nationally, the details of this case are very old news. But for those here today who may be new to this country, or perhaps just awakening to this issue, the details in brief are these:

Laquan McDonald was born on September 25, 1997. If he were still alive, he would be celebrating his 21st birthday next week. But he is not alive because, on the night of October 20, 2014 he was fatally shot by Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke. Police had been called to investigate reports of a person breaking into vehicles at a trucking yard at 41st Street and Kildare, which is about 11 miles from here. You could get there in 20 minutes by car, just off the Stevenson Expressway, north of Midway Airport.

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Jason Van Dyke (L) and Laquan McDonald (R)

When officers confronted Laquan, he used a knife with a 3-inch blade to slice the tire of a patrol car and damage the windshield. Initial reports by the police department said that he lunged at Officer Jason Van Dyke, forcing him to shoot Laquan in self-defense. This was the accepted story for almost a year, until video taken by a police car dashboard camera was released, clearly showing that 17 year-old Laquan was walking away from the police officers when he was shot, 16 times in 15 seconds.

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(L-R) Former Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and former State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez. (Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune)

The tale of how that dashboard video got released is a story all its own, and it’s a story worth taking the time to learn. It involves a $5 million payout to Laquan’s family that wasn’t settled until the day after Mayor Rahm Emanuel secured re-election to his second term, and continued protests that built into a movement calling for the resignation of the city’s top officials. Eventually police superintendent Garry McCarthy was fired, and Cook County’s State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez lost her bid for re-election. There is even speculation that Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s decision not to seek a third term is connected to the timing of this trial coming just as Chicago’s mayoral race is heating up.

Chicago Public Radio has created a podcast titled 16 Shots that goes deep into the facts surrounding Laquan’s death, and explores how the police killing of this one young man set off a series of events that led to the United States Department of Justice conducting a civil rights investigation that resulted in a public report in which the Chicago Police Department was described as having a culture of “excessive violence,” a “culture in which officers expect to use force and never be carefully scrutinized about the propriety of that use,” especially when used against minorities, an assessment supported by the fact that Chicago Police are 14 times more likely to use force against young black men than against their white counterparts.

But I worry that I’m getting off track here, because I’m supposed to be talking about Jesus.

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The Rev. Marshall Hatch, Sr.

Right, so I was listening to the podcast, 16 Shots, and was struck by the fact that of all the places the journalists might have chosen to begin their reporting on this story, they began with a clip of an interview with the Rev. Marshall Hatch, Sr., pastor of New Mt. Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church, who — along with other black clergy from Chicago’s south and west sides — was called into the mayor’s office and asked for support in quelling the rising tensions immediately after the video footage of Laquan’s killing was released. These clergy were told in no uncertain terms that if they did not help out, they should not expect support from city hall when they came with requests of their own. In that same meeting, Pastor Hatch learned that Laquan had been raised in foster care from the age of three, bounced from home to home, diagnosed with learning disabilities and post-traumatic stress disorder rooted in the brutality and trauma of growing up on the streets. Reflecting theologically on these facts, Pastor Hatch told the reporter,

“That’s when I knew we had moved into a real spiritual realm with this piece … and as a pastor, to me, that’s divine poetry. ‘Cuz he’s a throwaway person if ever there was one. That would have to be the one that God would have to put in the center, the name that somebody else thinks is worth throwing away. And it was pretty explosive after that, as the ministers kind of said, ‘Look, we’re not making any guarantees. It’s not our job to go and tamp down a situation that you guys have created.’”

That would have to be the one that God would have to put in the center, the name that somebody else thinks is worth throwing away.

Are we talking about Jesus yet?

This past Sunday, the Church throughout the world gathered for worship and many heard the excerpt from the eighth chapter of Mark’s gospel, in which Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” and follows this up with, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answers him, “You are the Messiah.”

The daily lectionary selects passages that support our reflection on the meaning of the Sunday texts, setting them in conversation with other biblical voices so that we can more readily perceive the conversation that’s going on within scripture about questions like these. So, today we hear a related conversation taking place in the gospel of John, as “some of the people of Jerusalem” speculate about Jesus’ identity, wondering with one another whether or not the authorities have actually determined that Jesus is, in fact, the messiah.

This passage is the only time where “the people of Jerusalem” appear as a group in John’s gospel. They seem to be different from “the crowds” that Jesus has been addressing, who may be pilgrims to Jerusalem, there for the Festival of Booths. Because, in the verses immediately preceding this passage, Jesus says to the crowd, “Did not Moses give you the law? Yet none of you keeps the law. Why are you looking for an opportunity to kill me?” And the crowd replies, “You have a demon! Who is trying to kill you?” Jesus perceives correctly that his movement is setting him in opposition to the reigning power structures, and that he is a man marked for death. The crowds, less schooled in the politics of Jerusalem, doubt Jesus. “The people of Jerusalem,” however, know how power works in Jerusalem. They understood how the religious authorities operated when it came to exposing false messiahs, so they knew that Jesus’ life was most definitely at risk. 

They say, “Isn’t this the one they want to kill?” because they know that’s how the system works, to eliminate all voices of dissent. “And here he is, speaking freely, and they have nothing to say to him! Can it be true that the authorities have made up their minds that this is the Messiah?”

So here we have finally returned to the question from Mark’s gospel, the question that ties these readings together this week, the question that Jesus puts to his disciples, and to us, “Who do you say that I am?” It is a question that forces us to examine our expectations of God, who God is and how God moves in time and space. Is God a divine conqueror, the sovereign of a heavenly empire? Is God an ineffable wisdom,  the truest of realities hiding in plain sight? Is God a righteous avenger, upending worlds and effecting regime change? Who is God, and how does God show up in the world?

We all have our explicit and implicit expectations about who God is, and how God will show up in our worlds. The people of Jerusalem say, “Yet we all know where this fellow comes from, but when the Messiah comes, no one will know that one’s origins.”

The story begins working in irony at this point, because the people of Jerusalem have named their expectation for God’s messiah, that that one will have unknown origins. Jesus cannot be the messiah, because they know exactly where he is from, Nazareth in Galilee, not Bethlehem — at least, not in John’s gospel — the expected site for a messiah in the Davidic model of warrior kings. The irony is that Jesus actually does meet their expectations, his origins are unknown to them, because he has been sent by “the One who is true.” He is, to use John’s earlier words, “the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. [The Word] was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through [the Word], and without [the Word] not one thing came into being. What has come into being in [the Word] was life, and the life was the light of all people.” (John 1:1-4)

So here is John’s answer to the conversation Jesus started in Mark. “Who do you say that I am, John?” And John replies, “You are the Word. You are the life that is the light of all people. The light that shines in the darkness, that has not been overcome. You are the Word that became flesh and lived among us.”

This is why the people of Jerusalem cannot recognize Jesus as the messiah at first, because they cannot conceive that God would take on human flesh in time and space, in history and in politics, in the dying mess of human relations and the decay of human bodies. In children shot down in the street and hung from crosses.

That would have to be the one that God would have to put in the center, the name that somebody else thinks is worth throwing away.

“But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of humanity, but of God.” (John 1:12-13)

In this way, John’s gospel responds to Mark, asking a new question of those looking for a messiah. John poses from the very first chapter, “And who do you say that you are? Who do you think you are? Could you be children of God? Could we all be children of God?”

This is the question we grapple with. Our desire to deny that name, child of God, to those we hate, those who oppress us. Our habit of denying that name to ourselves, in our own self-hatred and self-doubt. The evidence of history, the way that all our hate of self and other has laid the foundation for systems of violence that seem eternal. Yet, the gospel truth is that the Word of God, shining in darkness, has not been overcome and, one day, it shall be that same Word that overcomes.

That is who we say Jesus is: the Word, co-eternal with God, the Word that creates, the Word that overcomes. The Word that somebody else thinks is worth throwing away. That is the truth we bear in our hearts and on our lips, even in moments when it seems that truth and justice themselves are on trial. 

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Sermons

Sermon: Wednesday, August 29, 2018

The following sermon was preached in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago in advance of a day of service, expertly facilitated by Chicago Cares, as part of our annual “Welcome (Back) Week” (new student orientation).

Texts: Jeremiah 29:4-14  +  Psalm 111  +  John 4:27-42

Here’s a story about a time I just didn’t understand what was really going on.

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It was the late-90s, about twenty years ago, and I was in my mid-twenties. I was living in Minneapolis, Minnesota and working as a case manager for youth and young adults experiencing homelessness in a federally subsidized public housing project. Most of my clients were no more than three or four years younger than me, but the fact that I held a college degree and could pay my own rent somehow qualified me to provide support and guidance to the people in my case load.

Federal dollars meant federal regulations and federal oversight, and part of my job was to make sure we stayed in compliance with those regulations so that we didn’t lose those dollars. So, when I realized that the eighteen year-old with the corner apartment on the first floor was sneaking his buddies in through the window after midnight and allowing them to crash on his floor overnight, I wrote him up and explained that if he kept this up he was putting his housing at risk.

But that didn’t stop him. At least once a week I’d hear loud noises coming from his unit and discover unauthorized guests asleep on his couch after visiting hours, or I’d spot them dropping from his window to the sidewalk as I was leaving work at the end of an overnight shift.

Realizing that write ups weren’t having any impact at all, and not wanting to have to be the one to issue him an eviction, I pleaded with my client to explain to me why he was putting his housing at risk — when he’d waited so long to get into this program and start rebuilding his life after years on the street.

He told me, “look, you don’t understand. When you’re a kid on the street, you find a new family — people who look after you, that you look after too. If you’ve got food, you share it. If you find a place to crash, you let them in. Without your crew, you’d never survive on your own. So, I know you think I’m being an idiot, but this is my family and I owe them. I owe them everything.”

I felt foolish. In my role as a case manager I’d been set up to accept that the rules of the game, as they’d been established by the government, were the first and last word on what was acceptable behavior for young people transitioning off the streets. Of course, from the point of view of young people experiencing homelessness, these rules were just one more hoop to jump through, one more set of competing and contradictory forces pulling their lives in opposite directions. I’d spent weeks thinking about this young man as an isolated individual, holding him to a standard of adulthood rooted in values of individualism and autonomy that work really well for capitalism, but not so well for human beings with their many and varied needs. And the whole time I’d been thinking about him and his path to independence, he’d been thinking about his family, the other runaway, homeless and street-dependent youth on whom he relied for his life far more than he relied on me.

I just didn’t understand what was really going on.

But a strange thing happens when I begin to tell you a story about a time when I didn’t understand what was really going on. By framing the story through my experience of unknowing followed by discovery, another story gets told as well, a story that hides behind the words of the first. That second story might be titled something like, “this is a story about a time when I finally realized what’s really going on.”

This is the story about the time I when I finally realized the harsh realities under which homeless youth live their lives. This is the story of when I finally realized that there are different rules for people who can’t maintain a middle class lifestyle. This is the story of how I got woke to the nature of privilege. This is a story that demonstrates that I actually do know what’s going on.

Both stories getting told at once.

It seems to me that something similar is happening in the portion of scripture from John’s gospel. It begins with the tail end of a much longer and extraordinary conversation between Jesus and a Samaritan woman who meet at a well and defy all manner of social conventions in their exchange. A Jew and a Samaritan. An unmarried man and a woman who’d been married several times. As the scene opens, the disciples have just returned from a trip to pick up supplies to find Jesus speaking to someone whose life experience was, in all likelihood, a complete mystery to them. John says, “They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, ‘What do you want?’ or ‘Why are you speaking with her?’” (John 4:27)

It’s interesting to speculate about why the disciples were silent in the face of this exchange between Jesus and the Samaritan woman. The gospel doesn’t spell it out for certain, leaving preachers and readers all sorts of room to guess.

But since we’re here at a seminary, and classes are about to begin, I’m led to wonder if the disciples didn’t want to risk being wrong in front of the rest of the class. They’d returned from their mission to find their teacher teaching someone else, and she seemed to be a far more capable student than most of them had proven to be most of the time. She, an outsider among outsiders, had uncovered Jesus’ identity as the messiah. While the disciples were out picking up lunch, she’d become an apostle and had already begun evangelizing her community. She had joined God’s mission without any help whatsoever from the disciples, because God had reached out to her directly. Later, when she returns with the Samaritans from her city, all that is left for the disciples to do is to enter into her labor, her work among her people, accompanying Jesus as he continues his sojourn with the Samaritans over the next few days. 

So, in a sense, John’s gospel tells its story much in the same way that I told my story by telling two stories at once. There is the story of the Samaritan woman who engages directly with Jesus, is transformed in the process, and immediately joins God’s mission in the world by sharing her story with the people in her immediate community; and there is the story of the disciples, who do not immediately understand what’s going on, and remain silent in the face of their ignorance and confusion. And we, the readers and hearers of this gospel story, perceiving the contrast between these two examples, are tempted to consider ourselves woke to the dynamics at play in this intercultural exchange.

We, too, are disciples — the scriptures seem to imply — except we understand what’s really going on.

The problem with this way of hearing the story is that is assumes that we, the listeners, are always the subjects. It is a way of reading that works very well in the context of colonialism and empire, because it continually re-centers the reader as the disciple who understands what’s really going on, and therefore as the one with the knowledge and authority required of those who lead. After all, that’s why we’re all here, right? To learn what we need to learn in order to secure positions of leadership in the church, in the academy, in the world?

In her book Misunderstanding Stories: Toward a Postcolonial Pastoral Theology,” Methodist theologian Melinda McGarrah Sharp writes,

“Misunderstanding and understanding are not so much achievements as they are moments in a lifelong process. Both moments of misunderstanding and rarer moments of understanding must be acknowledged. Understanding across differences is more challenging than misunderstanding because [understanding] involves a willingness to recognize one’s complicity in [misunderstanding].”

For me, this means that I never, ultimately, understood what was going on with the young man at the end of the hall — I had a moment of understanding in which it became clear to me that he lived, and moved, and had his being in a much wider network of relationships than I could even perceive. That in the story of what was going on in his apartment, I wasn’t even really a central character. I was, perhaps, more like the disciples who been sent off on a practical, somewhat administrative errand; while he was demonstrating love and fidelity by laying down his well-being for his friends. From the perspective of his friends, who were not my clients, but who had a safe, warm place to sleep because of the risks he took, I was barely a part of the story at all. And my ability to understand this at all was occasioned by my complicity in the original misunderstanding that arose when I used the power delegated to me through a variety of intermediaries, but originating with the state, to exert influence over a situation I barely understood at all.

And me knowing this does not mean that I have achieved any true depth of understanding, just that I have experienced for a moment a glimmer of insight into the lived experience of another human being and the communities to which they belong. I have perceived, I have once again been reminded, that God is constantly at work in the world, carrying on conversations with and converting the hearts and minds of people whose lives look very little like mine, at least from the outside. 

Our task — whether we are meeting one another in the classroom and beginning to form opinions about each other, or we are entering a congregation and seeing how power and authority work, or we are representing the seminary out in the community through a day of service and encountering people whose lived experience does not match our own — is to remember that long before we encountered that person, place, or community, God was already present there. God was already active in those lives. God is already carrying on a conversation with each of them, just as God is carrying on a conversation with each of us, treating each of our lives and all of our lives as worthy subjects of divine love and liberation.

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