Sermon: Sunday, June 30, 2013: Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts:  2 Kings 2:1-2,6-14  +  Psalm 77:1-2,11-20  +  Galatians 5:1,13-25  +  Luke 9:51-62


Nelson Mandela, President of South Africa 1994-1999. Freedom Fighter.

I’ve been keeping a close eye on the news, watching and waiting for any changes in the condition of the man President Obama has compared to George Washington, South Africa’s Nelson Mandela.

Mandela, as you know, became president of South Africa in 1994 after decades of struggling against the system of racial segregation known as apartheid.  In his youth, Mandela was a lawyer involved in anti-colonial politics.  He directly opposed the National Party that came into power in 1948, first non-violently, and later by leading bombing campaigns against military targets.  He was captured, convicted of sabotage, and sentenced to life imprisonment, part of which was carried out on Robben Island, a prison compound off the coast of Cape Town.

Mandela served eighteen of his twenty-seven years of imprisonment on Robben Island, and the stories from that place are a part of his living legend: how he befriended the prison guards, reaching for their humanity in an inhumane place; how he gifted his captors with plants he grew on the windowsill of his tiny prison cell.  I was in high school when the government of South Africa finally bowed to demands for his release, as he had grown to become an international symbol for the anti-apartheid movement.  That was 1990.  Four years later he’d gone from prison inmate to president of the newly reconstituted South Africa, an office he held from 1994 to 1999.

When I visited South Africa as a seminarian in the summer of 2000, Mandela’s presidency had just concluded, and the country was nervously making the transition from his leadership to that of his successor, President Thabo Mbeki.  It was difficult to move from the iconic leadership of the man who had confronted the violent powers of the institutionalized racism of the Afrikaners’ National Party, and had lived to tell the tale, to his successor.  There was a great deal of fear that the non-violent transfer of power from the National Party to the African National Congress, Mandela’s party, would finally break down and that the country would be plunged into violent conflict and civil war.

That was almost fifteen years ago, and South Africa has made the transition from one leader to the next more than once now, each time confirming Mandela’s vision for a peaceful, multicultural nation.

After leading the nation through decades of the anti-apartheid movement, then as its elected president for five years, in 1999 Nelson Mandela stepped down from public office, ready for a quiet family life.  At the age of 80 he married his third wife, Graça Machel, also a political activist, from Mozambique.  For the next few years he continued to be an active presence in South Africa’s political and cultural life.  Then, in 2004, he announced that he was “retiring from retirement,” receding more fully from the public eye, though always in the national consciousness.

Tahrir Square, April 8, 2011.

Tahrir Square, April 8, 2011.

I asked Judith Kotzé, the South African LGBTI activist who was with us at the beginning of this month to share news and build support for IAM — Inclusive and Affirming Ministries — how South Africa was faring now that Mandela and Tutu, and other leaders of the anti-apartheid movement, were growing old and struggling publicly with their health.  She said to me, “we are, of course, grateful for their leadership.  They were symbols of the anti-apartheid movement.  They brought the world’s attention to South Africa.  But that was twenty years ago.  Today we don’t need another Mandela, or another Tutu.  We need networks of activists.  We need the entire nation to push toward the vision they gave us.”

We’ve been traveling with the prophet Elijah through the book of First Kings for the last month, from his initial confrontations with King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, to his exile in the wilderness east of the River Jordan where he fed and healed the widow of Zarephath and her son.  We remember how he condemned the power of the state when Naboth’s vineyard was illegally seized, and declared a coming day of judgment when the mighty would be brought low, and Israel would return to the Lord, its God.  Last week we reflected on how lonely this work was, how silent God could be, how again and again those touched by God are sent back into the fray, when all they want is to be allowed to retreat from the struggle.

Finally, this morning we see Elijah retiring from his public ministry.  He, alone among the prophets, does not die but is lifted into heaven by God whose power manifests in the appearance of a fiery chariot.  Elijah is ready to make this journey, and even seems to prefer that he be allowed to take it alone, but his protégé and successor, Elisha, is determined to accompany him.  Along the way from Gilgal to Bethel to the Jordan, Elijah and Elisha are joined by fifty others from a group we’ve not heard of before, called “the company of prophets.”

This company of prophets is one of the first signs we see that Elijah’s ministry has been about more than a dramatic public confrontation between power and the prophet.  It has been about stirring the public’s imagination and creating a space in which people could begin to imagine themselves as members and leaders moving toward God’s vision for the world as it was meant to be.

In his book, Prophesy and Society in Ancient Israel, scholar Robert Wilson writes,

“Although there is no direct evidence on this point, members of [the company of prophets] were presumably individuals who had resisted the political and religious policies of the Ephraimite kings and who had therefore been forced out of the political and religious establishments.  After having prophetic experiences these individuals joined the group, which was under the leadership of Elisha.  In the group they found mutual support and were encouraged to use prophesy to bring about change in the social order.”

Reading between the lines of scripture the picture that emerges is that, far from his imagining, Elijah has not been alone in his struggle against empire.  Inspired, perhaps, by his public witness, a community of prophets, a society of resisters, a network of activists has emerged who are already practicing the tools of prophesy, the art of truth-telling, to make change in the world around them.

This company of prophets, led by Elisha, accompany Elijah to the place of his ascension and there Elisha makes his request.  “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.”  Throughout his ministry, Elijah has performed miracles that confirmed his message.  He created abundance where there was scarcity.  He called down fire on his enemies, and commanded the waters to part before him.  His message to the powers and principalities could not be ignored, when he was so obviously filled with power from another source.  Elisha asks for that power, the power to lead with credibility and authority.

Elijah’s response to the eager young prophet is instructive.  How often do we see leaders, whether it’s in business, or politics, or even the church, who try to select their successors.  It is tempting, when a person has invested all of themselves into a lifelong project, to want to ensure that it will live on past the leader’s departure.  How many companies, or movements, or congregations have suffered when a leader’s desire to select their successor saddles the community with the wrong person at the wrong time?

Elijah does not promise Elisha anything, because Elijah knows that his own ministry has been powered by his relationship to God.  Elijah has argued with and complained to, but ultimately been faithful to the God who gave him power to meet the demands of the ministry to which he was called.  Elijah knows that, in the end, it is God who will select his successor.

So he tells Elisha, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.”

Here’s how I hear Elijah’s reply: if you have the vision, you will have the power.  “If you see me as I am being taken from you…”  If you can see that I was always about something greater than me, then you will still see me even when I myself am not here.

Elisha and the company of prophets had seen, and did know, that Elijah’s work had always been about more than Elijah.  It had been about bringing the people of Israel back into right relationship with their God and with one another.  It was a ministry that began during a drought, a sign that the king was not caring for the window, the orphan and the stranger, but which brought the rain.  Over and against imperial power that sought its own interests at everyone else’s expense, Elijah’s ministry had been marked by costly truth-telling for the sake of the common good.  Elisha, too, was marked as one ready to lead the twelve tribes of Israel; one who shares the vision for the world as God made it to be.

Ascensions: Elijah & Jesus

Ascensions: Elijah (top) & Jesus (bottom)

The story of a wonder-working prophet ascending into heaven, and leaving behind a community of followers ready to continue his ministry should sound familiar to any of us who have been Christian long enough to celebrate the festivals of Easter and Pentecost at least once.  The gospel of Luke draws heavily on the story of Elijah in its presentation of Jesus.  The people even wonder if Jesus is, in fact, Elijah returning for them.

They can wonder this, in part, because rather than dying, Elijah is taken up into heaven to be with God.  This ending is powerful not because of the prestige it confers on Elijah, but because it defies resolution.  Elijah is not dead, but ascended, which means that he might return at any moment.  Indeed, the way Christians order the Hebrew scriptures, the last book of the Old Testament is Malachi, from which we read, “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.” (Mal. 4:5).  To this day, our Jewish brothers and sisters leave a place at the Passover table for Elijah, who may yet come knocking at the door during the festival of liberation from the slavery of Egypt.

Likewise, we who are Christian, see in the stories of Elijah and Jesus a vision for God’s work in the world that is greater than any one person, a message that is bigger than the messenger.  From Jesus’ own defiance against the slavery of the grave, we draw power and conviction that God’s work in this hurting, broken world is not done yet either.  We have ordered the books of the New Testament so that they also end with the promise that God’s visionary Word will come again, as the book of Revelation ends with these words, “‘Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22:20)

And, of course, we say these words each time with gather for a meal at this table, as we recite the mystery of faith: “Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.”  And, “Amen! Come, Lord Jesus.”

These words, spoken over and over, aren’t magic spells that turn bread into sacrament, they aren’t ingredients in a liturgical recipe.  They are pledges of allegiance to a new world order, the one we saw breaking in through Elijah, through Elisha and the company of prophets; through Jesus and the company of the apostles; through our brothers Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.  These words, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” are acts of sedition, drawing us into a struggle for the future of the world.

Nelson Mandela was not released from 27 years of imprisonment so that he could enjoy his retirement.  Nelson Mandela was set free in order to lead the people of South Africa, and the entire world, into a greater freedom.  For freedom he was set free!

And so are you.  So are you, my dear brothers and sisters, who by baptism have been initiated into the company of prophets, the community that looks at Elijah, and Jesus, and sees the message in the messenger.  Who see the vision.  Who are called prophets of the Most High.

You have not been set free from lives of bondage to racism, or classism, or sexism, or nationalism, or heterosexism, or militarism, or consumerism, or capitalism simply in order that you might enjoy a more peaceful life.  In Christ, you have been set free from all these powers, powers that try to tell you who you are, powers that try to reduce you to one aspect of your identity, in order to liberate the world from these same lying, death-dealing powers.

After years of prophetic leadership that saw an end to apartheid, Nelson Mandela stepped back so that others, many others, could continue to work of freedom, truth-telling and reconciliation in South Africa.  After a prophetic ministry that brought King Ahab and Jezebel low, that brought waters back to parched lands, Elijah withdrew so that others, a company of prophets, could lead Israel back to God.  After a public ministry so encompassing of God’s politics that it led to a cross, a tomb, and a resurrection, Jesus sent the Holy Spirit so that we, together, the church, might become God’s advocates for God’s emerging reign of peace with justice, of a world of plenty shared equitably with all, of love for everyone forever.

We are called to be prophets of this reality. Whether we are working to relieve hunger, marching for LGBTQ equality and civil rights, working for passage of common sense immigration reform, organizing to ensure all citizens continue to enjoy equal voting rights.  Whatever our vocation, whatever our cause, we are called to set our minds on freedom, this morning and every morning. Come, Lord Jesus!



Sermon: Sunday, January 27, 2013: Third Sunday after Epiphany

Texts:   Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10  •

Official photographic portrait of US President...

Official photographic portrait of US President Barack Obama (born 4 August 1961; assumed office 20 January 2009) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s been almost a week since the President’s Second Inaugural Address, and pundits are still talking about it.  Some are saying that the President is finally coming out as a liberal.  Some are saying the President’s agenda has been, and remains, staunchly centrist.  Some suspect that his words and his actions will not match up.

Whatever you think about President Obama’s Second Inaugural Address, one thing on which I think we can probably agree is that it can’t be easy, picking the words you will use to define your term as a public servant.  People watch and listen with close attention to try and gather signs about what kind of leader you intend to be, what kind of agenda you will pursue, and how it will effect them and those around them.

Leaders, standing in the gap between the world they have inherited and the world they hope to build, often turn to the past to find sources and resources to affirm and legitimize their agendas.  President Obama’s Second Inaugural Address began:

Each time we gather to inaugurate a President we bear witness to the enduring strength of our Constitution. We affirm the promise of our democracy. We recall that what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names. What makes us exceptional — what makes us American — is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

It is a carefully crafted piece of rhetoric.  He begins his remarks by invoking the Constitution, our nation’s foundational document, and by doing so the President suggests that whatever he says next should be understood in light of that document’s purposes and promises.  Then he says, “we recall” — again, placing whatever he says next in the past, as if it is already accomplished — “we recall that what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names.”  In this era of diversity-awareness and multicultural education, that may sound like just one more bit of politically correct rhetoric, but I don’t think that’s true.

Because, in fact, it has always been an open question in the United States, and it remains so, whether or not we will imagine ourselves to be a people defined by something other than race, religion, or ancestry.  Indeed, our country’s history is the story of an unfolding identity.

Built with the forced labor of enslaved people.  Fueled by the unpaid and unrecognized contributions of women.  Always receiving new immigrants from every land, but struggling to integrate them without forced assimilation.  “American exceptionalism” has always been a hotly contested term.  Are we a land full of people who consider themselves exceptional by virtue of their race, gender, and national origin; or is there some other characteristic that makes us exceptional?  In his Second Inaugural Address, the President has reached back in time to our foundational documents and sifted through history to make the claim we need to hear here and now, that we are exceptional because of our conviction — however poorly executed — that we are each equal to one another, and that we are born with undeniable rights to life, freedom and self-determination.

Consider the parallels between the public inauguration of our President, observed earlier this week, and the events recorded in Luke’s gospel that we’ve read this morning.  Jesus, having been tested in the wilderness, has returned to Galilee and has begun to preach in the synagogues where his message has been well received.  So he returns home, to the place where he grew up, Nazareth.  On the sabbath, as the congregation gathered for worship, Jesus stood up to read — assuming the role of a teacher and preacher — and he reaches back in time to one of the community’s foundational texts, the book of Isaiah.

The book of Isaiah, written to comfort a community in exile, was the perfect choice to read to the Jews during a time of Roman occupation.  It was scripture that spoke to their circumstances.  It was a document whose purposes and promises seemed crafted for people just like them, people hungry for hope and longing for freedom.  Think about the way those of us born and raised in the United States hear the words, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  It’s like a mantra.  We know these words by heart.  They are a part of our national identity.  That’s how these words might have sounded to the Jews in Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth, “good news to the poor… release to the captives… sight to the blind… the oppressed go free.”  Familiar words of comfort for people grown accustomed to the status quo.

Then Jesus does something to change the meaning of those words.  As he finishes reading from this ancient, foundational document, and the people look to him to see what will happen next, Jesus reinterprets its meaning, saying,

“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

These words, drawn from our foundational document, scripture, are not simply words of comfort.  They are not just assurances of God’s favor.  They aren’t even promises that God will someday act to free God’s people.  These words from the past mean something for the present.  Something for us, here and now.  That’s what Jesus seems to be saying to the people.

Imagine, for centuries people had been reading these words from Isaiah

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me…”

and yet they had assumed the “me” being referred to was someone else, someone yet to come, someone in the future, or maybe someone in the past.  But, definitely, someone else.  Good news, release, recovery, freedom — those were all in someone else’s hands.

But Jesus takes words drenched with time and wrings new meaning out of them for the present moment.  These goods, God’s promises, aren’t meant for other people some other time, they are meant for all people, here and now, and it starts with me.

In his book, Healing the Heart of Democracy, Parker Palmer — an author many of us here at St. Luke’s have read together in small groups — writes about the challenges facing our nation and its democracy today.  He writes,

If American democracy fails, the ultimate cause will not be a foreign invasion or the power of big money or the greed and dishonesty of some elected officials or a military coup or the internal communist/socialist/fascist takeover that keeps some Americans awake at night.  It will happen because we — you and I — became so fearful of each other, of our differences and of the future, that we unraveled the civic community on which democracy depends, losing our power to resist all that threatens it and call it back to its highest form.

I love what Parker is saying here, because it convicts me.  When I bemoan the state of American politics and public life, I have my favorite targets.  I love to complain about the power of big money and corporate lobbyists shaping the national conversation about issues from gun control to health care.  I can heap all kinds of scorn on elected officials and their failure to act to preserve the common good.  These are easy conversations, since they perpetuate the lie that all power resides with someone else.  I can be right, without having to do anything about it.

And this is where I think we too often resemble the good people of Nazareth in today’s gospel.  They came to church hoping to hear a good sermon from one of their hometown heroes made good on the preaching circuit.  They expected to hear something from Isaiah, or another of their people’s foundational prophets.  They presumed the message would be what the message had always been, that they were God’s people, that God loved them and was coming to liberate them, someday.

But Jesus said something different.  In his inaugural address to the people who knew him best, Jesus took ancient words of promise and made the bold proclamation that those promises were meant for here and now.  He issued a call to action, saying “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

As we’ll hear next week, when the scriptures pick up right where this week’s story leaves off, this doesn’t go over very well.  Already we can imagine why.  It’s one thing to accommodate yourself to the structures of injustice and comfort yourself with the hope that things will one day change.  It’s another matter altogether to be called into the struggle to bring the world into alignment with God’s vision for creation and community.

But that’s what this is.  Jesus’ inaugural address is a summons.  He has chosen his words carefully, and for effect.  He has spoken them in public and now he will act on them.  His term is just beginning, but we already know how it will end.  People will be drawn out of complacency and accommodation to be part of a movement that is changing the world, still.  It is good news for the poor.  It is release for the captives.  It is new vision for those who need a new worldview.  It is freedom for the oppressed.  It is here.  It is now.  It is happening.

Are you with us?


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.