Sermon: Sunday, August 12, 2012: “A Game of Thrones; Act 3, Scene 2 — A House Divided Against Itself”

Texts:  2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33 and Psalm 130  •  Ephesians 4:25-5:2  •  John 6:35, 41-51

In the name of Jesus, the bread of life. Amen.

There are times when a preacher sits down to write a sermon and all previous plans get cast aside.  Times when a happening, something local or something global, takes center-stage and demands our full attention.  Such was the case this past week.

Last Sunday, just as we were beginning our worship service here at St. Luke’s, a mass shooting took place at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin just over an hour north of us near Milwaukee.  I was driving home from church when I got the text alert that something had happened, and called Kerry right away since the massacre took place so close to his hometown. Coming just over two weeks after another mass shooting outside Denver, Colorado, this event brought closer to home the terrifying reality that we live in a culture infected by fear, hatred and violence.

These are anxious times, to be sure, and anxious times too often produce anxious responses.  Families stretched to find work or keep food on the table worry about competition for employment.  Wave after wave of corporate downsizing leaves some resentful of jobs moved overseas. It doesn’t take much for people who are hurt and scared to begin to look upon their neighbor as their enemy.

This sort of fear finds its strength in racism and nationalism and calls it pride.  It wraps its bigotry in a flag and calls it patriotism.  It builds walls along the very same borders crossed by one wave of immigrants after another, forgetting how many of our ancestors arrived on these shores fleeing poverty and oppression and hoping for a better life.

An article published by Sojourners magazine and co-authored by Eboo Patel and Hana Suckstorff of Interfaith Youth Core spoke into this anxious amnesia with the following words,

“The shooting in Oak Creek reminds us that the forces of prejudice are loud. They sling bigoted slurs and occasionally bring 9mm guns to places of worship. But we are not a country of Wade Michael Pages [the man who carried out the attack at the Sikh temple].

We are a country whose first president George Washington, told a Jewish community leader that ‘the Government of the United States… gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.’

We are a country where Jane Addams welcomed Jewish and Catholic immigrants streaming in from Eastern Europe in the 19th century as citizens, not strangers.

We are a country where a young black preacher, Martin Luther King, Jr., learned nonviolence not only from Jesus, but also from an Indian Hindu named Gandhi and from a Buddhist monk named Thich Nhat Hanh.

And we must be a country where a new generation of leaders rises up to write the next chapter in the glorious story of American pluralism or else we will forfeit the territory to those who would shoot at our neighbors while they worship.”

That fact — that while we gathered in safety last Sunday a community of neighbors, separated from us by just a little geography and united to us by a great deal of shared humanity, were marked for death because of how they looked, where their families were from, or how they worshipped — that fact of history pushed aside the plans of many a preacher this week.

But our worship tradition calls us to listen to our sacred texts in weeks filled with sorrow and weeks filled with joy, so we turned to scripture this week wondering what, if anything, these stories and histories might offer in light of the present moment.

For the tenth week in a row we have been following the story of King David, his rise and fall.  For the last two weeks we’ve heard the story of his abuse of power in taking Bathsheba and his avoidance of accountability in the murder of her loyal husband, Uriah.  As we left the story last week, the prophet Nathan has brought a word from God saying that, because of David’s violence against Bathsheba and Uriah, the sword will never leave his house.

As we rejoin the story this morning, all that Nathan prophesied has come to pass. Tragedy has befallen David’s home, like a houseguest that refuses to leave. First the child born from David’s illicit relations with Bathsheba dies in its infancy.  Then, in a series of crimes mirroring his own against the house of Uriah, David’s eldest son, Amnon, takes his half-sister, Tamar against her will — provoking her brother, Absalom, to murder Amnon at a dinner party for all David’s heirs. With that, the war of succession is on, and it becomes clear that Absalom’s appetite for power and privilege exceeds even David’s.

After engineering a return from exile, Absalom sets about building support for himself by playing on the ethnic prejudices and anxieties of the Israelites. Rising early and stationing himself by the gate to the city, Absalom would greet petitioners who had come to Jerusalem seeking justice and would ask them, “from what city are you?”  When the claimants identified themselves as Israelites, Absalom would respond, “see, your claims are good and right.”

Some scholars have read into this evidence of ethnic tensions the nation of Israel.  Though David had originally ruled from Hebron in southern Judah, he later moved the capital to a Jebusite city and incorporated Hittites and Gittites, foreigners, into his administration. When Absalom plots to engineer a change of regime, he begins by playing on the ethnic resentments of the hometown Israelites, demonstrating that race-baiting tactics are as old as human memory, and as deadly as ever.

We wish we could say that we’ve somehow evolved beyond these sorts of tactics, that as human beings living in the most materially wealthy civilization in the history of the world we have grown too savvy to the politics of division to be distracted by their frantic antics, but we have not.  We continue to need the advice Paul gives the Ephesians when he writes to them,

“So then, putting away all falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another… Let no evil come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” (Eph 4:25,29-32)

As is so often the case, when events like the one in Aurora, Colorado or Oak Creek, Wisconsin demonstrate to us the horrors of which we are capable, there are voices that rise to show us the best in ourselves, that speak the truth in love and remind us what we were created to be.  The voice that has provided the most encouragement to me these last few days hasn’t been either of the candidates in this fall’s presidential election, or any columnist or pundit.  Instead, it’s been the voice of a 10-year old Sikh girl named Tarina from the state of Virginia who wrote,

I am only 10 and don’t know about all the religions but the recent shooting in Wisconsin got me wondering about other religions. I watched the coverage on TV (for once my parents seemed OK with it) and the reporter kept saying that temple seemed to have been mistaken for a Muslim place of worship. Then, I heard another person saying, “Sikhs are not Muslims.” I started thinking what if we were? It would still be wrong for Mr. Page to come in the place of God and shoot people.

I was not born then but have learned about 9/11. It was horrible when Osama bin Laden attacked the Twin Towers. A lot of Muslims were wrongly thought of. A lot of people think that if one person is bad in a religion, everyone in that religion is bad. I think that statement is not true. No matter what religion, we should never misjudge a person. If someone is a different color or is from somewhere else you should try to get to know them and you might learn something new. You will also make someone feel good and at home if you just talk to them and learn about their background.

I think that Mr. Page hurt Sikhs because he might have mistaken Sikhs as Afghani people. It doesn’t make it any less horrible as Afghani people are great people as well. We need to stop hurting each other and create a world of peace and tolerance. We are the only people who can change this world.

As David’s house fell apart, his son Absalom tried to consolidate power around himself by playing on people’s nationalism and ethnic prejudice.  In the end, not only did he not win the crown, but he lost his life and divided the nation.

Consider, by contrast, what happened at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin just hours after their house was assaulted.  As police officers and reporters converged on the scene, the very people who’d hid in closets and restrooms to avoid being killed offered them food and water as part of langar — the Sikh practice of feeding all visitors to the house of worship.

This morning, one week later, we gather at the Lord’s table to take part in the Christian practice of feeding all visitors to the house of worship, the one we call communion that reminds us, as Paul writes, “we are members of one another.”  We share this meal in remembrance of the guru Jesus, who said, “It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’”



Sermon: Sunday, July 15, 2012: “A Game of Thrones; Act 2, Scene 2 — Learning to Dance”

Texts:  2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 and Psalm 24  •  Ephesians 1:3-14  •   Mark 6:14-29

This past week Kerry and I took our first Latin Dance class at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Lincoln Square.  We had a blast.  The guy teaching the class is named Saladeen Alamin, and he is awesome to watch.  I don’t know for certain, but I think he looks to be in his 50s, and he’s in incredible shape.  As we were shuffling our feet back and forth learning the basic steps to the mambo and the cha cha cha, Saladeen was leaping up and down, back and forth, adding flourishes to every step pattern as he called out, “BA! — BA! — BA! — BA! — left foot up on one and down on two, now move!”

You can’t learn to dance if you’re worried about your dignity, in fact, it’s hard to learn pretty much anything if you’re overly concerned about what other people think of you.  Learning requires an openness of heart and mind and an acknowledgement that we are not already perfect — that we still have things to learn.  Stated like that, it seems kind of obvious.  None of us would say that we’re perfect, or that we know everything, but our actions… well, they tell a different story.

After a month of telling you that we’re in a sermon series this summer following the semi-continuous set of texts from the books of Samuel and Kings in which the Hebrew scripture reading is disconnected from the gospel text, today we get two stories about dancing — one from 2 Samuel and one in the gospel of Mark.

In the gospel story, set during the reign of King Herod and the ministry of John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth, the king gives a feast in honor of his birthday at which his daughter dances so masterfully that Herod promises to give her whatever she desires — which ends up being John the Baptist’s head on a platter.

In the older story, from 2 Samuel, King David is bringing the ark of the covenant up from its previous home to the new capital, the city of David: Jerusalem.  Along the way he and the honor guard he’s brought to accompany the ark to its new resting place dance frenziedly before the caravan in a show of ecstatic devotion.  As he enters Jerusalem, David dances in front of the ark and before all his people, dressed only in his undergarments, not afraid to expose himself to God and to the world.  His dancing angers his wife, Michal, the daughter of old King Saul and drives a wedge between them.

How did you discover what you’re good at?  Whether you’re a teacher or a lawyer, a student or a grandparent, how did you first discover the kinds of gifts God has given you?  Maybe it was a natural talent you’ve enjoyed since childhood.  Maybe it was a passion you discovered in school.  Maybe it was the quiet pride you nurtured as you raised your children and found that you liked them, and that you were good at being a parent.  However it happened, can you remember the joy and delight that came with the discovery that God gave you a gift, a talent, a knack, a calling?

Over time, as your gifts became known to you and to others, you likely found yourself being asked to use them.  If you’re lucky, someone offered to give you a job doing the thing you love most.  I say “if you’re lucky” because so many people don’t get that opportunity.  Many labor away day after day for years, wishing for a way to join their vocational role with their God-created soul.  But even those who find work that connects them to their native talents can come to feel alienated from the sense of joy that once came with discovering their gifts.

When your gifts become your bread and butter, it’s hard to hold on to the joy that comes with exercising them.  I remember deciding in my early twenties that I didn’t want to follow my parents into a career in music because I never wanted to have to rely on the thing I loved to make a living.  I wanted to be able to keep on loving it in a much simpler way.  Instead I became a pastor, which still comes with many of the same risks.  Once you are “on the job,”  it’s hard to allow yourself to make mistakes, to risk looking like a fool, to learn.  In fact, your professional success, sadly, may depend on you conveying the appearance that you don’t make mistakes.

But there’s no growth without learning, and there’s no learning without risk.  Whatever gifts God has given us, none of us has perfected them yet.  If we want to grow as people, as professionals, as a community, we have to be willing to try things out, expose ourselves, and make some mistakes.

That willingness to be exposed is really what differentiates the two kings in our two tales of dancing today.  In the gospel of Mark, King Herod has been keeping John the Baptist locked up in prison for calling into question his decision to marry his brother’s wife, Herodias.  The scripture here describes a situation I think most of us understand on some level.  It says,

“[Herodias] had a grudge against [John], and wanted to kill him.  But she could not for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him.  When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.”

Even though Herod was the king and John was a radical repentance-preaching prophet crying out in the wilderness, “make straight a way for the LORD,” Herod liked to listen to him.

When I picture the scene in my mind, I think about the way that a child throwing a tantrum actually wants an adult to step in and restore order.  Herod has been spoiled by his power, and he needs to hear a Godly critique of his life.  He is perplexed to discover that someone as powerless as John can hold his attention, and so he protects him.  But John continues to expose Herod and Herodias’ relationship as unlawful, and so — in a scene so dramatic it has spawned an opera — the girl we’ve come to know as Salome dances before her father Herod and secures the right to ask for John’s death.

King David, too, has made a mistake — though it’s been expunged from this morning’s reading.  You might have noticed that we skipped over some verses in the reading from 2 Samuel.  They tell the story of Uzzah, who was named in v. 3 as one of the sons of Abinadab who accompanied the ark as it journeyed toward Jerusalem.  In the missing verses, Uzzah reaches out to touch the ark of the covenant, perhaps to keep it from falling, and is struck dead.  It’s a story that deserves a sermon of its own, so I wont’ go into it too much, but for the purpose of this morning’s worship, it served to remind David that the power he enjoyed as king was secondary to the power of God, which placed every good gift in him and brought him to this place in his life.

Unlike Herod, David recognizes his mistake and is able to make the course correction.  He seems to grasp the danger of his own pride… though this first glimpse of his personality flaws foreshadows the troubles waiting for him just around the corner.  As the ark of the covenant enters Jerusalem, bringing the visible sign of the invisible God before the nation, David strips off all his royal finery and dances before the LORD with all his might.  Without saying a word, David communicates to the people that there is one LORD before whom we are all naked.

When I was a child, learning to play the violin, I had to give a recital at the end of each year.  Recitals made me a little bit nervous.  Standing before all the other kids and their parents, and my parents and my teacher, I felt exposed.  I felt naked.  Somewhere along the line I learned that trick for dealing with my nerves where you imagine everyone else in the room in their underwear.  I never made the connection before now, but I think the reason that trick works is because it levels the playing field, at least in our minds.  We’re all exposed.

Decades later, having mastered my anxiety in most situations, I find that the price I’ve paid for some mastery of one set of skills is that I’ve lost the sensation of truly learning something for the first time.  That’s part of the reason behind the Latin Dance classes with Kerry.  I’m taking guitar lessons at the Old Town School as well, and I have to tell you that at the end of the first lesson, when all I’d accomplished was blistering my right thumb and bruising the fingers of my left hand, when the music I made could have been pleasing to no one but the LORD, I almost broke down and cried.  Not out of embarrassment or frustration, but out of joy.  It felt so good to be so exposed, so open, to be learning, to be growing.

Dear friends, I hope you’ve got spaces and places in your life where you get to be wide open like that.  I hope there are people and communities in which you still feel free to try new things, to make mistakes, to learn, to grow.  I hope you are able to be vulnerable with your family members and honest about your failures and limitations with your co-workers.  Closer to home, I hope we are being and becoming the kind of church that creates opportunities for you to discover and use your God given gifts and talents in a spirit of joyful discovery instead of dutiful obligation.

As hard as it may be to remember, in our overly professionalized lives, in our cultures of competition, we are not called to be perfect.  Paul says to the Ephesians,

Blessed be the God and Parent of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before God in love.  God destined us for adoption as God’s children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of God’s will, to the praise of God’s glorious grace freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.  In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of God’s grace, lavished on us.

We are blameless not because of our performance, but by the grace of God’s love.  It is that love that allows us to live our lives like baby Isla did this morning, dressed in not much more than a linen ephod, squirming her first little dance before the LORD as she was washed in these baptismal waters and adopted into the forgiving family of God.

Perhaps as we come forward, as we pass this baptismal font on our way to the communion rail, we will follow in her footsteps and we will dance as well.



Sermon: Sunday, July 8, 2012: “A Game of Thrones; Act 2, Scene 1 — Flesh & Bone”

Texts:  2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10 and Psalm 48  •   2 Corinthians 12:2-10  •   Mark 6:1-13

(Preached at Episcopal Church of the Advent, Logan Square, on the annual occasion of our ecumenical summer worship service.)

In the name of Christ, our sovereign.  Amen.

It’s good to be together this morning.  Our congregations have been sharing mission and ministry for decades now, gathering at least twice a year for worship at the peak of summer near Independence Day, then again in late November near Thanksgiving.  Always around these two national holidays.

Ecumenical ministry and worship is something we all pretty much take for granted these days, but that wasn’t always the case.  My mother, who was raised in Boston as an Irish Catholic during the Kennedy years, remembers hearing that the Lutherans were stockpiling bombs in their church basements.  Lutherans were, in many parts of the country, synonymous with Germans, and in the post-WWII-era there was still plenty of suspicion and hostility against Germans floating around.  This is why so many American flags popped up in Lutheran sanctuaries in the 1940s and 50s.

No, these days denominational difference — at least within the mainline Protestant church — is mostly treated as a matter of preference, not of substance.  Decades of full communion agreements between Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, Congregationalists and others have followed, not coincidentally, the assimilation of many ethnic immigrant communities into the fabric of national life.  So, if for this reason alone, the fact that we gather around the 4th of July and Thanksgiving Day actually follows a certain logic.

As we were planning for this morning’s worship, I shared with Father Peter that St. Luke’s is in the middle of a preaching series this summer and asked if I might continue it here with you today.  The Revised Common Lectionary provides two tracks of readings during the season of ordinary time after Pentecost — the thematic readings and the semi-continuous ones.  The thematic series, which you’ve been following here at Advent, pairs the Old Testament reading with the Gospel reading so that the former intentionally prefigures or reinforces the latter.  The semi-continuous series, which we’ve been following at St. Luke’s, disconnects the Old Testament reading from the assigned Gospel reading.  Instead, each year, it follows one of the major narrative arcs from Hebrew scripture.  This year it traces out the story of the rise and fall of the nation of Israel and the house of David found in 1 & 2 Samuel and 1 & 2 Kings.

It’s a story in three acts, and we’ve just come to the beginning of Act Two.  In the previous act, the people of God petitioned the prophet Samuel for a king.  God warns that this desire to be ruled will lead to all kinds of suffering, but relents and gives the people what they ask for.  Saul is anointed king over Israel, and things quickly fall apart.  The boy shepherd David is introduced as an unlikely underdog of a political opponent — yet, as the one chosen by God, his star rises without fail as Saul’s diminishes.  At the close of Act One, Saul and his son Jonathan lie dead on the battlefield and David is poised to become king.

During last week’s worship, St. Luke’s heard the song of lament David sang for his fallen king and his beloved Jonathan.  To move from that text to the one for this morning, in which Israel joins Judah in making David their king, is sort of misleading.  It’s a kind of amnesia, glossing over the painful past to lay the groundwork for a unified future.  You see, David didn’t immediately become king over all Israel and Judah immediately after Saul’s death.  For seven years Israel and Judah were locked in civil war, a battle between the houses of David and Saul.  While the southern tribes of Judah had moved immediately to make David their king, the northern tribes of Israel were ruled by Saul’s military commander, Abner, who used Saul’s weak-willed son, Ishbaal, as a puppet to take control of the north.

As we enter into the story this morning the tribes of Judah and Israel are weary of war and long to be united under a strong king.  They are ready to forget the past and begin building a future together.  The leaders of the tribes of Israel come to David in Hebron in the south, where he has been ruling until this point, and they appeal to him on the basis of their common ancestry.  “Look,” they say, “we are your bone and flesh.”

Don’t you wish we could remember that before we launch into our wars, civil and uncivil?  Whether we are at war other nations, are caught up in religious or corporate power struggles, or are simply fighting with our neighbors — even our friends and families — a time will come when the battle is over and we will be left to make peace and forge a new future, when we will have to look in the eyes of our former enemies and say, “look, we are your bone and flesh.”  Wouldn’t it go so much better for us all if we could remember that at the outset?

Within the family of Christianity, the ecumenical movement is a funny thing.  Again, we in the mainline Protestant church basically take it for granted that the schisms that ripped Europe apart in the 16th century are essentially resolved.  We forget that Luther was branded a heretic and that, for a time while he fled from Rome with a death sentence on his head, it was illegal for anyone in Germany to provide him with food or shelter.  Fifty years later, Pope Pius V declared Queen Elizabeth a heretic and “released all of her subjects from any allegiance to her and excommunicated any who obeyed her orders.”

The battles that divide the church have been bloody and, as in the time of David, these conflicts have always been about more than who carries the God-anointed truth — they are about nation building and ethnic identity.  Religion, nation, and ethnic tribe have always been inseparable elements of our collective stories.

In his commentary on this passage from 2 Samuel, Tony Cartledge — a Baptist scholar — writes,

“The kingdom of God, as represented by the community of faith, is far from united.  We make far more of our differences — even within individual denominations and churches — than we do of our common ties.  Our differences may be theological, methodological, ecclesiastical, or cultural.  Though we are bound by a common faith in Christ and by a common call to share Christ’s love, our tendency is to allow our differences to overshadow common cause.  Instead of celebrating diversity and allowing it to empower growth, we often fail to fellowship or work together with those whose gender, creed, culture, or worship style fall outside the lines we have drawn.”

However, we are living in a time of incredible transformation, a time in which the lines that divide us are being redrawn — some disappearing as others become more deeply etched.  In a recent article on the Huffington Post, David Lose, a professor of preaching at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota asked if Christian denominations have a future.  He gives five reasons why he suspects denominations may have seen their day, including:

  1. How confusing denominations are in an increasingly non-Christian and religiously unaffiliated society.
  2. The relatively minor and difficult to communicate theological difference between Christian denominations.
  3. The inordinate expense of maintaining the same number of seminaries, publishing houses, and denominational organizations when there aren’t as many people to support them and those who remain have fewer means with which to do so.

But it’s the last two that I find most interesting in light of today’s story from 2 Samuel.  Lose writes,

4) Political differences outstripped theological ones decades ago. Let’s face it: progressive Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Episcopal congregations have a lot more in common than do progressive and conservative congregations in the same tradition.  Differences over how to read the Bible, the nature of the atonement, and the character of God are far more important today than nuanced differences in polity or regarding the sacraments.

5) Denominational affiliation often represents the triumph of ethnic and cultural loyalties over theological convictions.  While denominations may have initially arisen over theological differences, they were soon co-opted be the political realities of their sponsoring state.  Little wonder, then, that ethnic and cultural identity is closely tied to denominational affiliation.  Those in the club, after all, talk not simply of Presbyterians and Lutherans but Scotch Presbyterians and Swedish or German Lutherans [and I might add Irish Catholics and Mayflower Anglicans].  This has always made it difficult to reach beyond one’s ethnic enclave because interested seekers, even if they were attracted to, for instance, Lutheran theology, had to accept it in the form of German chorales or Swedish traditions.  Moreover, as ethnic culture has declined as an important identity-maker, so also has religious affiliation — after all, for many folks, if Lutheranism isn’t about Santa Lucia, what is it about?  And if they’ve stopped going to the Santa Lucia festival, why bother with church?

Dear people of St. Luke’s and Church of the Advent, these are actually very important questions for us to be wrestling with — and, most likely, we should be wrestling with them together.  As congregations who both once boasted of membership rolls far more robust than we presently enjoy; who are both experiencing some measure of revitalization and new growth; and who find ourselves increasingly surrounded by a society apathetic, or even hostile, to our presence; we must learn from the lessons of our past.  Those we mistrust, those we resent, those we even perhaps envy, will one day be sitting with us at the end of a long, bloody, civil (or uncivil) war and one of us will be saying to the other, “look, we are your flesh and bone.”

Here’s how my mother became a Lutheran.  She ended up going to a small Lutheran liberal arts college in Fremont, Nebraska on a vocal scholarship where she met my dad (a Congregationalist).  When the choir went on its annual tour, they would perform in churches and before each concert they would have a brief prayer service and would take communion together.  Raised Catholic, my mother had been taught to refrain from taking the sacraments outside the Roman Catholic church.  Although she deeply loved the choir, being unable to share that meal felt like not really being a part of that community.  In the end, she took the communion and she joined the Lutheran church.

It hasn’t been too difficult for us to get together like this, twice a year, to share the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper and to renew our long friendship.  I wonder though, who else might be invited? When we consider that religious difference has always been tied to national identity and ethnic tribe, who else belongs at the table with us when we break the bread of life and drink the cup of salvation?  Despite our differences, and the lines that divide us, there is something in us — I think it is most likely the image of God, like calling unto like — that draws us back together again.  One day we will all be looking at each other across the table saying, “look, we are your bone and flesh.”

Why not today?