Sermon: Sunday, January 18, 2015: Second Sunday after Epiphany

Texts: 1 Samuel 3:1-10  +  Psalm 139:1-6,13-18  +  1 Corinthians 6:12-20  +  John 1:43-51

So the apostle Paul wants to talk about prostitution?  OK, let’s at least start there, but here’s where I want to end up: with Samuel in the temple praying, “speak, for your servant is listening.”

I’ve known plenty of people who’ve been involved in prostitution. They’re more or less like the rest of us, neither better nor worse. They are neither morally degenerate, nor covert heroes. They are human beings, each distinct with her or his own story about how and why they ended up involved in prostitution, how it served them, how it trapped them, how they survived it, or didn’t.

As an example, I remember one young woman whom I’ll call Cecilia, a transgender young woman I met while working with runaway and homeless youth in Minneapolis almost twenty years ago.  Cecilia was big and loud, and sometimes awkward and shy.  She worked at a drop-in center for LGBTQ youth, sometimes checking people in at the door, sometime as a barista behind the coffee bar. She’d been kicked out of her house very early in life for coming out as a woman and, like every homeless youth I’ve ever known, had to make hard decisions about how to survive. There is a market for young people’s bodies, so she used what she had.

Once she’d left the streets Cecilia was, for the most part, able to leave prostitution behind. Then one day as she was walking home from work two police officers stopped her on the street and harassed her, making cruel comments about her gender identity and publicly humiliating her. Once they left she returned to the park where she’d often met johns and turned a quick trick, not because she needed the money but because she felt so violated and powerless that she needed to assert herself in a situation she felt she knew how to control.

I wonder how Cecilia would hear Paul’s words to the First Corinthians. “Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never!” (1 Cor. 6:15b) I imagine there’s a way to read that verse that sounds an awful lot like the way those cops spoke to her on the sidewalk. I wonder if anyone ever looked at her beautiful trans* body and said, “do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you” (1 Cor. 6:19). That’s what I wanted to tell her, that her body and the bodies of her friends whom I cherished, were sacred temples and homes to a divine presence that is democratically distributed among us all and can never be kicked out. That no matter the rejection or abuse any of us has suffered, God has chosen to make a home inside of us that is permanent.

It was stories like Cecilia’s that finally drove me to seminary, that helped me get over the idea that there was no place for me in the church and to ask if the church actually mattered if it had nothing helpful to say to Cecilia and her friends. I knew from my own experience that the church could be a site of incredible community, unconditional love, and ethical challenge — if you were well-housed, in-school, middle-class. But I wondered if the church had anything to offer to those Howard Thurman described as the “disinherited,” those living with their backs to the wall.

1303751314-logo.31184548_stdIt turns out the church has plenty to say to the disinherited, and a variety of creative and effective ways to say it. For example, down in Nashville, Tennessee the Rev. Becca Stevens, an Episcopal chaplain, started the Magdalene ministry almost twenty years ago to work with women with histories of substance abuse and prostitution. Knowing that poverty and addiction make it very difficult for many to escape prostitution, the Magdalene program combines Narcotics Anonymous and addiction counseling with residential treatment, job training and financial education. After five years of working with these women, Pastor Stevens recognized that it is difficult to find good work upon leaving residential treatment, so launched Thistle Farms, a small business that employs graduates of the Magdalene program to make personal care products sold in stores like Whole Foods and the Thistle Stop Café. For women who have experienced prostitution and have decided to leave it behind, the Magdalene program and Thistle Farms are one way the church has shown up with more than words to communicate God’s unfailing love for their precious lives.

If we read Paul’s words to the Corinthians carefully, we notice that his instruction isn’t aimed at prostitutes, but at those who pay for their services. From everything we know about the world Paul lived in, prostitution was quite common and men felt entitled to women’s bodies in ways that, sadly, hasn’t changed all that much in the intervening millennia. Paul is critiquing common practice, and challenging those who have found their identity in Christ to make a distinction between what is allowed, or lawful, and what is beneficial. It may have been commonly accepted, or permissible, to engage the services of a prostituted woman, but that didn’t make it beneficial to either party. Paul describes the exchange of bodies for money as a sin against the body, as a reduction of something holding sacred worth to something to be bought and sold in the marketplace. Some have asked how prostitution is all that different from the many other ways we buy and sell our bodies in the marketplace: our time, our skills, our labor. I think this is a wonderful line of questioning that might lead us to think more broadly about all the ways modern labor practices dehumanize real people in the production of fetishized objects. How is our treatment of the people who work in sweat shops to manufacture cheap designer clothing or underpaid migrant labor to produce cheap organic food different than our treatment of abused and neglected women and men, girls and boys, to provide cheap sexual gratification? And are any of the above really beneficial to us?

But there is another question that the set of scriptures we heard read among us this morning asks, that begs for our attention. That is, what is God calling us to do and be in and for those whom God created in love for love? The story of the boy prophet Samuel is the story of a child dedicated to God by his family and apprenticed to an older generation whom God calls to lead the people in a new direction. Three times God calls out to Samuel, and Samuel goes to the bedside of his mentor, Eli, mistaking the voice of God for the voice of the past.  Eventually Eli realizes that it is the LORD who is speaking to his young protege, and he instructs Samuel to return to his bed to wait for the voice of God and to answer, “Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.”

I wonder what it felt like for Eli, who had spent his life caring for the people and tending to the temple, to recognize that God was preparing to do a new thing with new leadership. And I wonder what it felt like for Samuel to be called by God to share a difficult and painful message with Eli, to tell him that his family’s term in the temple was coming to an end. God tells Samuel, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears it tingle.” (1 Sam. 3:11) It’s a moment of great courage by both parties when Samuel comes to Eli to share what God has revealed and the older man says to the younger, “What was it that [God] told you? Do not hide it from me.” (1 Sam. 3:17) What a deeply respectful exchange that is. And then, after Eli hears what God has in store for his family and the larger nation, he says, “It is the LORD; let [God] do what seems good to [God].” (1 Sam. 3:18)

This is how God seems to work in the world, calling unlikely people to get up and leave what they’ve known to do the unexpected, which turns out to be precisely what is needed. When Philip the disciple tells Nathanael about Jesus, he replies, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” But that was the pot calling the kettle black, because who really expected anything good to come out of a group of working class fishermen in occupied Israel? Who really expected anything good to come out of a group of women used in prostitution? Who really expected anything good to come out a group of twelve elderly Lutherans in a crumbling church? But here we are. Out of twelve people who had the courage to follow the voice that called them away from the lives they’d known, God was able to build the church. Jesus assures Nathanael, “you will see greater things than these … you will see the heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” (John 1:50-51)

In this season of Epiphany we are challenged to remember that God has a vision for the world that is larger than the domesticated dreams to which we’ve grown accustomed. God speaks through the prophet Isaiah, declaring,

“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (Isa. 49:6)

As we consider our future together, I pray we have the courage to dream on that scale, to consider that we were called together by the spirit of God, which is not content with simply restoring the survivors, but saving the nations. What radical departures is God calling us to make? What shores is God calling us to leave? Come and see. Speak, LORD, for your servants are listening.



Sermon: Sunday, September 25, 2011–Third Sunday in Season of Creation, Wilderness

Texts: Joel 1:8-10,17-20  +  Psalm 18:6-19  +  Romans 8:18-27  +  Matthew 3:13—4:2

The congregation in which I grew up, St. John’s Lutheran Church in Des Moines, Iowa, used to take high school groups up to the Boundary Waters for weeklong canoe trips in the summer. We went through a Christian camping organization that provided the canoes, the backpacks, the food, and wilderness guides who were also trained to lead us in nightly bible studies. I don’t remember the bible studies at all, but I do remember the joy of floating out on the water in the middle of the cold, blue lakes that separate the United States from Canada. Watching hawks draw circles in the sky. Listening to the crackle of the campfire and the unfamiliar combination of sounds and silence in the night.

The forests of the boundary waters have been in the news in the last few weeks because of a forest fire started by a lightning strike in mid-August. For weeks afterwards the fire grew, covering as much as 16 miles a day and creating an enormous cloud of smoke that could be smelled as far south as Chicago, some 600 miles away. It was those wild lands and forests that came to mind for me when I heard the passage from the prophet Joel,

To you, O LORD, I cry. For fire has devoured the pastures of the wilderness, and flames have burned all the trees of the field. (Joel 1:19)

In this Season of Creation, it’s this morning’s emphasis on the wilderness that I find most difficult to preach. The Sundays of this season move along a story arc that began with creation and alienation, and that end with passion and new creation. It was easy to talk about creation in the context of the forest trees, and alienation in the context of our relationship to the land. To try and imagine the wilderness as the place of passion is more difficult though – partly because we are so thoroughly entrenched in city life, not wilderness life; and partly because the wilderness is so densely occupied by metaphor that it’s hard to talk about the wilderness as it is without turning it into a symbol for us as we are.

The more I thought about it though, the more I realized that it’s not just difficult to talk about the wilderness without talking about humanity – it’s actually impossible. Consider this: the first Sunday of this season, we focused on forests which are filled with what? Trees. The second Sunday we focused on land, which is comprised of what? Soil. Next week we’ll consider the plight and the potential of rivers, which are made of what? Water. But today we are talking about the wilderness, which is filled with what?

Where the Wild Things Are graffittiWild things? Wild animals? Wild plants? Wildness?

Wild isn’t a thing, it’s an idea. It’s the place where we aren’t. It’s the runaway’s refuge, the criminal’s hideout, the refugee’s journey, the traveler’s nightmare. It is unmastered territory, which is precisely why it is often presented as the place where people go to master themselves. This, I suppose, is what makes the wilderness a place filled with passion. Passion, not only in the sense of being filled with desire, but also being filled with suffering – such as when we talk about Jesus’ passion and death.

That’s a pretty deep thought now, isn’t it? Desire and suffering are flip sides of the same coin, and the wilderness is the unmastered landscape where human beings go to master the untamed geographies of their hearts and souls.

That’s certainly what seems to be going on in the gospel reading this morning. Jesus rises from the waters of baptism to the sound of God’s voice declaring that he is God’s own beloved child, the one on whom God’s favor rests. Immediately thereafter, the Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness precisely so that he can be tempted by the devil. During that time, Jesus fasts for forty days and forty nights, getting empty so that he can be filled, being hungry so that he can be fed. Then he returns to civilized areas and begins his work.

Very coincidentally, I took part in a bible study on this passage from Matthew the week before last. I was with a group of pastors discussing leadership in the church, and the trainer working with us used this story to talk about how healthy ministry takes place. It’s a three-act play: first the baptism, then the temptations, and finally the work.

Too often, when we think about leadership we jump straight to the final act, the part about the work. Sustainable leadership though, we were invited to think, comes first from the deep knowledge that you are baptized, that you are looked on with the eyes of love and claimed as one of God’s own children. This is critical, that our work comes from a place of security and confidence that we are already claimed by God. Our leadership, our work, our relationships, our pastimes – all of that can feel hollow, empty, unsustainable if we are using them to try and fill a hole left by anxiety that there is something unseen, unknown, or unloved about us. In his baptism, as in ours, Jesus learns that he is God’s beloved, now and for always.

But, what to do with that knowledge? What does it mean to be beloved of God? Is it license to conquer? Is it power to subjugate? Is it assurance of wealth or prosperity? Is it cause to look down upon others? Is it freedom from responsibility? The story of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness reflect the very real struggles each one of us has to face in our own lives. As one of the pastors in the bible study said, “you can’t be tempted with things you don’t want.” Jesus is tempted with bread, religious authority and worldly power. Temptations ranging from daily necessities to lifelong ambitions, and certainly understandable desires for someone born, as a Palestinian Jew under Roman occupation, into hunger for change.

We might want different things, and so face different temptations. Perhaps we want stability above all else, so we are tempted to ignore opportunities for change and growth. Perhaps we crave freedom, so we are tempted to avoid commitments and obligations that might teach us steadfastness and responsibility. Perhaps we desire comfort, or admiration, so we amass wealth and miss openings to encounter God in the suffering of the world. Perhaps we want love so badly that we forego the time and honesty it takes to truly come to know and love ourselves. Perhaps we want power and respect so much that we treat those around us like objects, and trade community for control. Until we face these wants, these passions, these sufferings; until we remember that our truest identity is rooted in love, all our work in the world will be compulsive, unhealthy and unsustainable.

This three-act play of baptism, temptation and work can be applied in a variety of contexts. I certainly would invite you to spend some time thinking about your own life through the lens of this story, and consider your own wants, desires, sufferings and temptations. What do they reveal about the motivations behind your work, your rest, your relationships? What would happen if you brought a remembrance of your baptism into each of those arenas of life? How would your home, your office, your community be transformed for deeper ministry if it was rooted in love?

During this Season of Creation though, I want to apply this three-act story specifically to our relationships with God’s creation, of which we are obviously a part. In a webinar on presence-full leadership earlier this week, MIT teacher and researcher Otto Scharer shared three disturbing numbers that illustrate the state of division in our world today.

  • The first number is 1.5 – Scharer called this the Ecological Divide, representing our disordered relationship with God’s creation. 1.5 represents the rate at which we are consuming the planet’s natural resources relative to how quickly they are regenerated.
  • The second number is 2.5 – Scharer called this the Social Divide, representing our disordered relationship with each other. 2.5 billion is the number of people living below the poverty line worldwide, and represents a failure of values on the part of the global community.
  • The final number is 3.0 – Scharer called this the Spiritual Divide, representing our disordered relationship to ourselves. The World Health Organization says that almost three times as many people die from suicide than from war and other forms of homicide.

Otto Scharer asserts, and I’m inclined to agree, that these numbers are connected. Our fractured relationships with the planet, each other, and ourselves reflect ways of living completely detached from any sense of being made in love for love, and point to the need for us to master the passions and temptations that lead to so much of our suffering and the world’s as well.

Too often conversations about the environment treat the topic as one in which information alone is the answer. As if, all we needed was to be told that our patterns of waste disposal or our reliance on gasoline was killing the earth. I think about anti-smoking initiatives though, and suspect it will take more than information to change our behavior. Decades of warnings from the surgeon general didn’t do much to deter people from smoking. It was acknowledging that cigarettes are addictive, it was public health campaigns that introduced the idea that smoking might take you away from your loved ones, it was legislation that shifted some of the costs of smoking-related illness back to smokers in the form of cigarette taxes that began to shift the tide.

I am convinced that the same things need to happen if we are going to change the patterns of behavior that are killing the earth. Yes, we need information about the rate of environmental degradation. We need movies like An Inconvenient Truth and Food, Inc.

Beyond that though, we need to call our addictions to cheap gas, cheap manufacturing, and cheap goods what they are. Addictions. We need to tell the truth about the ways that our patterns of production and consumption are alienating us from the rest of the world, where goods are produced in conditions few to none of us have ever had to endure. And we need to fearlessly enter the wilderness of our own hearts to ask what price we ourselves are paying in order to try and sustain these planet-destroying patterns of living. We live in illness-infused environments, anxious to know if there will be anyone to care for us once we can no longer fill our roles in the cycle of over-production and over-consumption, and as the World Health Organization’s numbers show us, we are literally killing ourselves.

In the wilderness, Jesus fasts for forty days and forty nights, getting empty so that he can be filled, being hungry so that he can be fed. Then he returns to civilized areas and begins his work. We, too, are invited to take stock of what we are filling ourselves with and to begin the process of emptying ourselves to make room for what God is doing in and for the world.

People of God, in this Season of Creation the message is clear: the planet is in peril, and there is work to be done. But we do this work by faith, not from fear. The scope of the task before us is too large to take on if we don’t plan for sustainability. As Christians, we find our sustenance, our most renewable resource, in the gift of life that comes to us at the font and the table, reminders that we are God’s own beloved and that in God’s economy there is always enough for everyone.