Sermon: Sunday, August 25, 2013: Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts:  Jeremiah 1:4-10  +  Psalm 71:1-6  +  Hebrews 12:18-29  +  Luke 13:10-17

Do you remember the last day of … whatever?  Summer camp.  High School.  A mission trip.  The last day after something intense and formative and life-changing.

For three years after seminary I worked on the staff of a summer program down in Atlanta at my alma mater, Emory University, we called YTI — the Youth Theological Initiative.  Some of you recognize the name of the program because, about four years ago, we sent Lynda Deacon down to Atlanta for a month to participate.

YTI takes young people, high school students going into their junior and senior years, and puts them in classrooms with graduate students in theology, scripture and ethics with the explicit goal of equipping these young people to become public theologians.  They take courses that study the relationship between Christian faith and non-violence, Christian faith and environmental crisis, Christian faith and religious pluralism.  YTI is not vacation bible school or the church camp in the woods with a craft cabin, like the one I grew up with in Iowa (and loved).  It is a school for prophets.  It is a place where young people get treated like the theological subjects, not objects, that they are.  Youth are expected to leave YTI as voices that will lead the church and society in confronting some of the most pressing challenges of our day.

hssp13-goodbye-01Which brings me back to the last day.  On the last day of YTI we, the staff, stand outside the dorms with our students, our summer scholars, who each arrived a little bit scared of what the coming month would bring, but now are a little bit scared of what the future may hold.  They’d come to YTI with their expectations that we would teach them something, but they were leaving with our expectations that they would do something with what they’d learned. So they waited in front of the dorms  with their suitcases packed for a parent to arrive, or a shuttle to take them to the airport, and when the last moment came they hugged each other, and they cried, and then they went back out into the world.

One of those scholars, Liz Theoharris from the summer of 1993, went on to found The Poverty Initiative a decade later, a program affiliated with Union Seminary in New York City.  Inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision of a “Freedom Church for the Poor,” the Poverty Initiative seeks to empower poor leaders and the organizations that support them.  The idea came from a gap Liz saw in her work as a Christian and an activist.  At protests and prayer vigils, religious people regularly came together for social justice, but with very little ability to speak theologically about why they were there.  “I found myself at Union Seminary,” she says, “realizing my call to do social justice was a religious one, and yet saw that most churches weren’t really equipped to do the kind of work that we were called to do as religious leaders.”

Laura McCandlish, from the summer of 1997, went on to become a journalist who covers the food justice movement from her home in Oregon.  At YTI’s recent 20th year reunion last month, Laura led a panel discussion on how communities of faith are vital contributors to the food justice movement, whether by planting community gardens or opening their kitchens for end-of-season processing, for cooking classes, or as commercial kitchens for local entrepreneurs or disenfranchised neighbors.  Her reporting has focused on the intersection of immigration, labor and food, like one recent article on an effort to help migrant workers establish their own berry farm, and an ecumenical program to turn leftover berries gleaned from the harvest into low-sugar jellies for local food pantries.

Jamaya Powell went to YTI last summer, in 2012, expecting “a boring Jesus camp.”  Instead her life was changed, as she writes in a recent issue of VOX, a publication written by and for Atlanta-area teenagers.  She spent her month at YTI in a course that explored hip-hop music and culture as theological dialogue and visited local agencies fighting poverty, homelessness and sex trafficking.  She left wondering what she as a young person and a Christian could do to help remedy the situation.

All of these young people, young adults, some of whom are even approaching middle age now, came to the school for prophets at YTI in Atlanta unsure of their place in the church and in the world, unsure of their voice.  Like the prophet Jeremiah they were ready to say, “Ah Lord God!  Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”  But God answered them just as God answered Jeremiah, and each of us,

“Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you.” (Jer. 1:7-8)

This morning I taught our children the next line of the Lord’s Prayer, “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”  We played follow the leader up and down the central aisle and all around the edges of the sanctuary.  I tried to help them understand that the only way God can lead us into, or out of, temptation is if we are already following.  The question that raises, the one that’s a bit too abstract for them but not for us, is — does God actually lead us into trouble?  In the prayer Jesus taught us we are instructed to ask God to lead us not into temptation, but to deliver us from evil.

“Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, ‘Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.’” (Jer. 1:9-10)

That is a terrifying message for anyone to deliver, much less a young person like Jeremiah.  Yet, how often young people lead the way.  From the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the Civil Right Movement to the Young Lions of South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement.  From the youth who powered the Arab Spring to the students at Kelvyn Park High School’s social justice academy here in Logan Square.  How often it has been the case that young people carry forward God’s commission to speak truth to power, following God’s call both into and out of danger.

But it is not just the young whom God calls to bear God’s fiery word.  Over and over, time and time again God uses what is small, what is weak, what is unlikely, what is overlooked to challenge what is too big to fail, to strong to fall.  God uses the young and the old, the poor and the ridiculed.

Surely God can use us.

All summer long we have been at our summer school for prophets.  Now the seasons are changing.  Children go back to school tomorrow.  Classes start up at the university, at the seminary.  Summer sports leagues are over and the new rhythms of fall are upon us.  But we have learned something this summer that will stay with us.  We have been students at the feet of the prophets, and now we are being sent out into a world in need of reformation as much as any world has ever been.

As you wait with your bags packed for the future to come and get you, as you look back on all you have seen and heard, how have you been changed?  As you think about the expectations you bring to worship each week — that you will be comforted, that you will be challenged, that you will be fed — what expectations do you sense God has for you as you leave this place?  As you stand at the threshold of a new season, of a new world, what are the words God has put into your mouth?

Do not be afraid of them.




Sermon: Sunday, November 18, 2012: 25th Sunday after Pentecost

Texts:  Daniel 12:1-3 and Psalm 16  •  Hebrews 10:11-14, (15-18), 19-25  •  Mark 13:1-8

A little over two years ago, syndicated advice columnist and general provocateur Dan Savage and his husband, Terry, launched a national online media campaign to give hope to the thousands of LGBT youth who consider or attempt suicide each year.  The campaign, which you’ll remember was titled “It Gets Better,” grabbed the nation’s attention as ordinary people and celebrities, from our own ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson to President Barack Obama, created short videos of hope and encouragement that were posted online.  These video clips were like messages in a bottle, cast out on the wide sea of the internet, in the hopes that they would land on the lonely shores of those considering an end to life when bullying at school and intolerance at home had left them with nothing but despair.

The rise of the internet has revolutionized our society no less than the invention of the printing press, which — in the sixteenth century — made printed literature accessible to every household and resulted in a literacy explosion.  Here, at the front end of the digital age, it’s hard to know just how the internet is shaping and reshaping our lives.  It has certainly given us access to news, images and stories like we’d never before imagined.  No longer tied to “all the news that’s fit to print,” I can go online to read about the attacks in Gaza this past week at online versions of The New York Times, or Haaretz, or Al Jazeera.  Or, if I were better connected to the networks of American, Israeli and Palestinian activists working on the ground and throughout all levels of government, I could get my news via email, blogs, or Twitter accounts.

A generation ago this kind of talk seemed like a novelty.  We understood that global communications were changing, but it was hard to tell that the world itself was really changing as a result.  Two years ago we sat, transfixed, by images of what came to be known as the “Arab Spring,” as movements of youth and progressive activists began a transformation of their homelands powered by the revolutionary information and communications infrastructure of the internet.

We’ve come a long way from the bottle, but we still need the message.

Over two thousand years ago, before the life and ministry of Jesus, the book of Daniel served as the message in a bottle to the Jewish community suffering under the murderous tyranny of King Antiochus IV Epiphanus, ruler of the Seleucid empire.  The Seleucids were inheritors of the Greek political and cultural customs of Alexander the Great’s empire, and they ruled in Jerusalem and the surrounding lands before the Romans who ruled in Jesus’ time.  During the reign of King Antiochus IV Epiphanus, a name taken upon his rise to power which means “God Manifest,” there was a Jewish revolt — the Maccabean revolt — which is commemorated each year with the celebration of Hanukkah.  The Maccabees were revolting against the king’s action to outlaw Jewish religious rites and customs and the desecration of the temple.  The book of Second Maccabees describes the situation like this,

“The altar was covered with abominable offerings that were forbidden by the laws. People could neither keep the sabbath, nor observe the festivals of their ancestors, nor so much as confess themselves to be Jews.” (2 Macc. 6:5-6)

It was into this context of extreme political, cultural, religious and personal persecution that the book of Daniel emerged, in a form of literature every bit as politically subversive as the tweets that fueled the Arab Spring: apocalyptic.  Even Daniel’s name, which means “God is my judge,” was a challenge to the king who named himself, “God Manifest.”  Speaking to a community bullied into complete silence, the book of Daniel promised,

“At that time Michael, the great prince, the protector of your people, shall arise. There shall be a time of great anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone who is found written in the book. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.”  (Dan. 12:1-2)

We may wonder where comfort and hope are to be found in images of the dead rising from their graves, but to the Jews — those who had survived the massacre of thousands in their community — the message of hope was clear: justice is stronger than death.

Apocalyptic literature appears throughout scripture, wherever the people are facing the horrors of oppression.  The portion we hear from Mark’s gospel today is known as “the little apocalypse,” and in it we can spot the common elements of this genre: predictions of a radical upheaval of power accompanied by signs of chaos in the heavens and on earth.  Here Jesus is responding to the disciples, who are captivated by the power and majesty of the Temple, forecasting that “not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” (Mk 13:2)

Like Daniel, Jesus describes the times to come as filled with violence and war.  “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.” (Mk 13:8)  Again, sitting in the relative comfort of our modern existence, where wars take place somewhere else, where the draft has been replaced by recruiting campaigns among the poor, where death is delivered by drones, it may be hard for us to hear good news in Jesus’ dire warnings.

But to those living on the ground, in the war, among the poor, where the bombs land, there is good news here indeed; and it is to these people that God is speaking, through the book of Daniel, through Jesus.  The message, once again, is this: justice is stronger than death.  God’s justice, taking on form and flesh in the person of Jesus, the ruler who is truly “God Manifest,” will not rest until the world’s worship of violence in all its forms is deconstructed.  It will get better.

The good news in apocalyptic literature is the promise made to people who feel completely disempowered that God is on their side, that God will be who God has been, and that the powers of this world are no match for the power of God to liberate and restore what God first created.

The good news this morning is that God sees your struggle.  God feels the despair brought on by poverty.  God experiences the depression of ceaseless pain, in our bodies or in our minds.  God knows the loneliness of abandonment by family and friends. God suffers the explosions as each bomb lands on her good creation.  God is moved by creation’s groaning, and is laboring in us and through us to bring a new creation into being.  It will get better.

We hear something about that labor in this morning’s upcoming testimony about our own Elijah’s Pantry, one in a series of testimonies that are a part of the fall Stewardship Campaign.

Whenever she speaks about the work of Elijah’s Pantry, Pat Kuhlman is fond of saying that those who work in the pantry have “job security.”  It’s a funny way of naming a sad truth, that hunger and poverty are more secured in our culture than our own livelihoods.  But this, too, is the kind of institutional oppression that Jesus is naming when he promises that the temples are coming down.

If all we do is talk about it, then we are like the religious people described in the passage from Hebrews this morning, “every priest [that] stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins.” (Heb. 10:11)

Our hope each time we gather together as an assembly, each time we listen to the Word of God in scripture, in preaching, in song, in testimony is that we will live into that same letter’s invitation to the Church of that time and every time, as we wait for the new creation coming to us, and through us, and for us and the whole world:

“let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Heb. 10:24-25)

In the name of Jesus, God manifest among us.  Amen.