Sermon: Sunday, January 5, 2014: Epiphany of the Lord (transferred)

Texts: Isaiah 60:1-6  +  Psalm 72:1-7,10-14  +  Ephesians 3:1-12  +  Matthew 2:1-12

12-years-a-slave-quadI told you last Sunday that my family took in a movie together over the holidays.  Well, later that day Kerry and I returned to the theater, but this time just the two of us, to see 12 Years of Slave at the Logan.  I know some of you have already seen the movie, because we’ve talked about it. Lots of people are talking about it and the film seems on track to be nominated for all sorts of awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Director.  There’ve been plenty of award-worthy movies this past year, and this one certainly holds its own against any of them.

The story begins in a somewhat unexpected place for a slave narrative in that the protagonist, Solomon Northup, an African-American man from Saratoga Springs, New York was not born into slavery. He’d been born free, and had lived as a free man until his early-30s, when he was kidnapped by slavers in the nation’s capital then taken to New Orleans and sold into slavery.

Much of the horror in the film comes from watching Solomon slowly internalize the rules and realities of slavery as a means of surviving. Immediately upon arriving in Louisiana he is given a new name, a new story, and each time he tries to assert the truth of his life he is punished swiftly and violently. In the dozen years he spends as a slave he sees first-hand how the evils of slavery have warped and distorted the minds and lives of all involved, slaves and slaveholders alike. Without minimizing the distinct suffering of African-American people under slavery, it seems to me that one of the movie’s central points is that racism enslaved us all.

We live in the age of “isms.” Racism. Sexism. Classism. Consumerism. As parts of speech each of these “isms” is a noun yet, unlike other objects, you can’t put your hands on them. If they are objects they are a sort of thought object. Ideas that obtain undeniable mass and reality as more and more people fall under their sway. The New Testament doesn’t use the language of “isms,” but refers instead to the “powers and principalities,” or as our translation of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians puts it “the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Eph. 3:10)

Like 12 Years a Slave, Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is a refutation of a mentality, of a spirituality, that divides the world into people “like us” whom God loves and saves, and “everyone else” who must then exist outside God’s care and concern and, therefore, can live outside our care and concern as well.

In the short passage we heard this morning, Paul gives a succinct summary of the mystery of Christ, “that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Eph. 3:6). It is a paradigm shift, a revolution in thought, a revolutionary thought. There is no God “for them” and a separate God “for us.” There is only one God, for all of us, who has created, and sustained, and redeemed us all.

The fact that I can say that and that we can all nod our heads in pleasant boredom shows the extent to which Christianity’s message of universal access and God’s grace has permeated our culture and consciousness. But there are clearly other thought regimes still enthroned in our collective minds that propose a different reality.

Do you remember how, after 9/11, Americans all of a sudden became much more interested in Islam then they’d been beforehand? Most Americans had been pretty content to let Muslims be Muslims, out-of-sight and out-of-mind, until long simmering anger at U.S. involvement in the Middle-East boiled over in acts of terrorism that made it impossible for us to ignore parts of the world as deeply shaped by Islam as the West has been by Christianity.

Blinded by fear and anger and loss, I remember hearing people — at work, on television, in churches — saying that they worshipped a different god, a god named Allah, who was not the same as the God made known to us by Jesus and the prophets. It was breath-taking how quickly our culture mobilized to make sure that anyone who fit the very poorly constructed profile of a “Muslim” — never mind if they were Arab or Assyrian or Persian, if they were Muslim or Hindu or Sikh — was understood as so “other” that they even belonged to another god. All of which, ultimately, was about making it easier for our nation to accept the idea of war. The first step in preparing to kill a person is to imagine that they are no person at all.

Which is part of what makes the Epiphany story so unexpected.

We are all familiar, I suspect, with the story of the three kings who came bearing gifts for the newborn baby Jesus. Listen closely to the story and you’ll realize that it says nothing about kings, or how many there were. Those are later additions to the tale that don’t show up anywhere in scripture. What Matthew’s gospel wants to get across is that these visitors are disciples of a different wisdom tradition, they are “wise people” who do not worship the God of Israel, yet have come to pay homage to the incarnation of God in Christ Jesus.

But these wise men aren’t simply foreigners, they are “from the east” — the direction of Babylon, or Persia, or Arabia. They are contrasted with King Herod the Great, who ruled in Jerusalem as a vassal of the Roman empire in the west, along with the chief priests and scribes of the people.

So one of the first scenes associated with Jesus’ ministry is the clash of empires, the Romans in the west, and the Parthians (or ancient Persians) in the east. Nothing plays out as expected, though. Rather than being accepted by his own people and rejected by the foreigners, Jesus is hunted down by his own king and venerated by those with no relation to him at all.

Again, the story has become so familiar to us that it’s very difficult for us to feel the sense of shock and awe the author intends. To get that, we would have to imagine something totally foreign to the everyday world as we experience it. Something like going to a baseball game at Wrigley Field and hearing in place of the national anthem a call to prayer issued in Arabic.

Something almost as odd happens about two-thirds of the way through 12 Years a Slave.  While working alongside his master and another hired hand, Samuel Bass, a White man from Canada, Solomon overhears a conversation in which one White man confronts another over the insanity of racism and the evils of slavery.

“The law can’t make a person a slave,” Bass says. “The law could change tomorrow and make you a slave. That wouldn’t mean it was true.”

Heard with our modern ears, this is the voice of reason and sanity. It is the voice of heroism, confronting the powers and principalities of this world. But, in the moment when such a conversation occurred, between an itinerant Canadian laborer and an American landowner and slaveholder, it was insanity. A paradigm shift that would upend an entire social order. A revolutionary thought.

When the prophet Isaiah stirs the nation of Israel from their sleep with the beautiful words, “Arise, shine; for your light has come,” he is speaking to people who are not yet fully restored. His audience is those who had returned from their exile in the East, who had been promised liberation but had only received a new kind of oppression in the form of poverty and occupation in a land that was once theirs, but was now ruled by others.

“Arise, shine; for your light has come” is what Isaiah says to people accustomed to life’s disappointments, struggling to imagine that anything new could ever take place in their lifetimes. So the prophet imagines it for them, describing a world they have never seen, but have always longed for.

“Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms. Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you … They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.” (Isa. 60:4-5,6b)

Isaiah whispers words of hope to occupied imaginations and weary hearts, promising that someday the world will be drawn to the light of God’s truth, reflecting off of them; that the rich and the powerful of the earth will bring gifts suited for royalty to people treated like slaves.

Centuries later, as they told and retold the Jesus story, they realized that their long-awaited future had broken into the present. That in Jesus, a disrespected child born in a barn, brought into a world defined by empires and ruled by violence, all the disrespected bodies, all the occupied imaginations and weary hearts, had been honored. It signaled the beginning of a revolution.

Revolutions create revolutionaries, like Paul, who gladly endured imprisonment for the sake of the gospel, who writes, “This is the reason that I, Paul, am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles” (Eph. 3:1).  Paul, the prisoner, reveals the truth that we are all prisoners of one kind or another. We may be prisoners of the present order, like the slaveholder who cannot imagine a world in which any Black person is his equal; or we may be prisoners of another power and principality, any of the “isms” that are constantly campaigning for our hearts and minds — the sexism that tells you you are only worth as much as the man who picks you, or the militarism that tells you you are only as safe as the weapons you carry, or the consumerism that tells you you are only as precious as the objects you own; or we can become servants of Isaiah’s vision, reflecting the light of truth, that God desires to dignify all of humanity by reconciling and restoring us to one another.

Paul, liberated by a love that transformed his whole life and set him free from the violence of his own religious zealotry to choose imprisonment for the sake of people so very different from him says, “Of this gospel I have become a servant.” As the light of God’s truth consistently pulls the scales from our eyes, we too are invited to imagine a world without borders, an undivided humanity and a new creation.

Arise, shine; for your light has come.



Sermon: Sunday, September 11, 2011– First Sunday in Season of Creation, Forests

Texts: Genesis 2:4b-22  +  Psalm 139:13-16  +  Acts 17:22-28  +  John 3:1-16

Preparing to preach on a morning like this one has been like trying to tell the trees from the forest. On a day like today there is so much going on, how do you narrow it down? How do you focus on one thing? One tree in the forest?

For months, preachers, their colleagues and their friends, have been asking each other, “What do you say on the 10th anniversary of September 11th?” The fact that this particular date falls on the first Sunday after Labor Day, which many churches (including our own) traditionally set aside as “Rally Sunday” just complicates things. On the very day that we’re trying to welcome people back from a summer filled with travel and Sunday morning diversions, the nation (and its news outlets) is consumed with the festering wound of a tragedy ten years old. How do we do both things? How do we focus on a single tree in the forest of our individual and collective preoccupations?

Then there is the fact that today we are not only welcoming each other home from the summer; we are not only marking the decade’s passing since 9/11; we are also entering into a new season in the liturgical life of the church – the Season of Creation – which we will observe for five weeks in worship, beginning with today’s recognition of forests as a vital part of God’s Creation, a part groaning under the weight of environmental degradation and human sin. How do we, literally, focus on the tree in the middle of this forest of competing claims on our attention?

apple treeMartin Luther, a man not unfamiliar with the anxiety brought on by the crumbling of institutions, the horrors of war, and the terror of threats against one’s life, is famously remembered as saying, “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.”

It’s in that spirit that I want to leave behind, for the moment, talk of 9/11 and summer vacations and Rally Sunday, and talk about trees. A tree planted today will take years to grow to maturity and, depending on where it’s planted and how it’s cared for, may well outlive everyone in this room. A tree planted today is a sign of hope in the very existence of the future.

Which is precisely why we should be horrified by the destruction of God’s forests, the fragile ecosystems they shelter, and the web of interdependence of which we ourselves are a part.

In the century from 1850 to 1950, half of the world’s forests were destroyed. They were torn out of the ground along the world’s riverbanks to facilitate riverboat shipping. They were clear cut from the central plains of the Midwest to make way for farms. They were eliminated throughout South America, Africa and Asia to make way for the emerging global food system. Some environmental scientists now project that in twenty years only 10% of the forests that covered the earth two hundred years ago will remain.

This one devastation, among the many being wreaked upon the earth, has far-reaching consequences. Tropical deforestation produces more global-warming pollution than the total emissions of every car, truck, plane, ship and train on Earth. It is changing the air we breathe, as water that would normally be released into the atmosphere through the roots and trunks and leaves of trees is taken out of circulation in a pattern that quickly leads to soil erosion and flooding. Worst of all, our destruction of the world’s forests has eliminated the natural habitats of tens of thousands of species which are now extinct from the Earth and can never be recovered.

When Christians and Jews tell our creation stories, we begin by remembering that we were made after the sun and moon, the skies and seas, the flora and the fauna. They are rightly remembered as our sisters and brothers every bit as much as we, who were washed in God’s creative waters at baptism, call each other “brother” and “sister.”

Genesis 2 says, “then the LORD God formed [humanity] from the dust of the ground,” a fact we are reminded of every Ash Wednesday as we’re marked with the cremains of burnt palm leaves, tree leaves waved as we sung hosannas to Christ making his way to the suffering tree where they hung him.

Psalm 139 say, “My body was not hidden from you, while I was being made in secret and woven in the depths of the earth,” and we’re reminded of that Norwegian hymn sung during the season of Lent, “Seed that in earth is dying rises to bear much fruit. Christ, as we meet at your table, give us the bread of life.”[i] Our life comes from the ground, and the new life we find as we follow Jesus into the broken, hurting places of God’s Creation follows as naturally as new growth breaks through ground burnt by fire or frozen by winter.

In recent history, and I use recent here thinking of the grand scope of human history stretching back thousands and thousands of years, so in last few hundred years our imaginations have contracted a bit with reference to God’s Creation, even in the church. When we preach and teach healing, forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration we too often speak only of our relationship to other people, our families, or sometimes really only with reference to ourselves. We take the grand story of the trinitarian God – the one who created the world and everything in it, who took on earthy substance in Jesus to identify with and redeem the suffering of every part of Creation, whose Holy Spirit blows like the wind and burns like tongues of fire – and we domesticate it, make it all about us, our needs, our hurts, our sufferings.

Martin Luther had a saying about this as well. He described sin as the state of being “turned in on one’s self.” Imagine being bent over so thoroughly that your eyes couldn’t see past your belly button and you’ll understand what he was talking about. Paul, speaking to the Athenians, tried to convey a sense of the grandeur of God’s Creation when he said, “The God who made the world and everything in it, who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands…” Instead “[God] is not far from each one of us. For in [God] we live and move and have our being…. ‘For we too are [God’s] offspring.’”

It’s for our sake, not God’s, that we build sanctuaries like the beautiful one that shelters us this morning. God, who formed the mountains, doesn’t need our terrazzo marble floors. God, who planted the ancient redwoods, doesn’t need our wormy chestnut rafters. But we need the rivers from which we drink, the skies that shelter our planet, the land that feeds us.

And the trees. The trees that produce fruit for us to eat, wood for us to build, pulp for us to write, shade for us to rest, and air. Air for us to breathe.

The whole world is God’s sanctuary, a word that means both “safe” and “holy.” When we treat Creation, of which we are a part and not the whole, as if it exists for our benefit, for our pleasure, then we reject the role God gave humanity in the garden, to till it and keep it – not to plunder and destroy it. We make our world neither safe nor holy.

Liberation theology listens to scripture with the ears of the oppressed. In this Season of Creation we are invited to listen to scripture with the ears of the earth and all its creatures. Listen to the creation story from the point of view of the animals of the field and the birds of the air. God brought them before the first human, and we named them, the way we might name a child, the way God named us. Created in the image and likeness of God, we were created to be family with all of earth.

When we deny our interconnection with any part of the web of creation, we tear at the whole of it. This is why, ultimately, we cannot separate the forest from the tree, they are all part of one another, even as we are all part of one another. The suffering of the tree is not compared to the suffering of the human being, it is inseparable. Jesus Christ, God wrapped in earth and flesh is nailed to the tree, for both the tree and the human being. The gospel of John says, “for God so loved the world.”

The fragile balance of earth and sea and sky that sustains human life is no more fragile than God wrapped in the fragile flesh of an infant born in the shadow of the Roman Empire, or the American one. The horrors of September 11th are the most visible manifestations of a state of being upon this earth in which we cannot tell that we are all connected to each other. The clear cutting of rainforests in Brazil, Canada, Thailand and Tanzania and the genocides of Darfur, Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Cambodia and Germany are interconnected as well.

Appreciating this can feel like learning a new language, like regaining the sense of sight. In truth, appreciating the extent to which we are all connected – the earth and sky and sea and all their creatures, including us – will take something like being born again. A new way of living we struggle to understand every bit as much as Nicodemus. A way of living connected to our baptism, where the waters that surrounded us in utero are replaced with the waters of the world, expanding our family tree to include all of Creation.

We celebrate the Season of Creation, we don’t commemorate it, because by faith Creation is always and already. It has happened, and it is happening again, and it will keep happening until all of Creation is healed and reconciled to itself. To plant a tree is a sign of hope for a future none of us will live to see, but is as certain as our next breath.

The world is always shouting the horrors of the past at us with full throat, always trying to terrify us into paralysis. But the promise of the gospel, on full display at Christ’s hanging tree, is that God has reconciled us to God’s self, to each other, and to all of Creation, precisely so that our past cannot define our future.

So I am with Luther. “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.”


[i] “Seed That in Earth Is Dying,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, 330.