Sermon: Sunday, January 29, 2017: Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Texts: Micah 6:1-8  +  Psalm 15  +  1 Corinthians 1:18-31  +  Matthew 5:1-12

Friday was International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The date, January 27th, is tied to the date in 1945 on which the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp where 1.1 million Jews and other “undesirables” were killed was liberated by the Russians. To mark the day, I took my first trip to the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in Skokie. The museum is laid out in such a way that visitors essentially walk a timeline, viewing artifacts, reading placards and watching short movies describing how an entire nation was swept by anti-democratic forces that ultimately invested total power in a racist dictator who then presided over the largest genocide our world has ever known.


On this particular day, at this specific day in history, it was impossible not to notice the moments along that timeline when foreign nations had the power to rescue those Jews and other refugees of war fleeing for their lives, but chose not to.  img_0423The United States and other nations built “paper walls” along our borders, burying immigrants in policies and procedures that made it nearly impossible to enter the country legally.

I suspect many of you have seen the shameful bit of American history that’s resurfaced on the internet this past week: the saga of the German ocean liner named the MS St. Louis which crossed the Atlantic in 1939 carrying over 900 Jewish refugees from Germany in the hopes of resettling them in Americas. The ship was denied entry into Cuba, the United States, and Canada and was forced to return to Europe where a quarter of its passengers later died in Nazi death camps.

After the war, even after we’d learned the full extent of what had taken place, still America was reluctant to welcome the survivors of the holocaust upon our shores.

Libby A’Hearn Gilmore, a beloved former member of St. Luke’s and 8th-grade teacher who also took her students to the Holocaust museum this past week shared the following on Facebook:

Americans knew that the Nazis were persecuting the Jewish people and yet they stood idly by. We were prejudiced and so concerned with our own economic well-being that we did not want to intervene or welcome Jewish refugees. Now, decades later, most Americans look back at this inaction with shame and regret … Americans look back at the tragedy of the Holocaust and think, “I wish we would have prevented this tragedy.” How will future generations judge our response to the Syrian refugee crisis? We must continue to welcome Syrian refugees and increase our quotas.

Within days of her post, our new president signed executive orders that indefinitely bar Syrian refugees from entering the United States and effectively block entry by citizens from predominantly Muslim nations.

Racism and religion are as old and inseparable as scripture itself. Our holy book contains in both testaments accounts of God’s people purposefully self-segregating and violently resisting calls for transformation and renewal. Over and over again we choose to ignore and deny what God is dying to show us about the unity of creation and our common inheritance that defies all attempts to be confined to any particular race, class, or nation. We continually choose the lesser gods of ethnic pride, upward mobility, and nationalism.

“But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.” (1 Cor. 1:27-29)

Lest we miss the point: God chose, God chose, God chose. Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth stands as a rebuttal to marketplace spirituality, relativized religion, choose-your-own deity, “we’ll just have to agree to disagree” rhetoric. God takes sides and, depending on where we’ve chosen to place our bodies or stockpile our wealth, it may not be our side.

It is certainly not the side of complacency in the presence of suffering, or conspicuous consumption in the presence of poverty. It is not the side of passivity in the face of violence and oppression, or ambivalence in the moment of crisis. God takes the side of the poor, the mourners, the meek, those who crave righteousness, who show mercy, who model purity, who make peace, whose commitment to God’s reign leads to persecution and slander.

When Jesus pronounced God’s blessing upon the poor, the mourners, the meek and all the rest, he was not echoing the conventional wisdom of the day. He was taking sides with those the Empire called “losers.” He was casting his lot with the world’s undesirables. He was planting the seed that, once planted in the earth, would grow to become the nation of Denmark sheltering Jewish refugees and white college students on integrated buses bombed by the Klan. Power and privilege emptying itself for the sake of “what is low and despised in the world.”

So today, as we gather to receive God’s blessings at font and table, we must remember all those others whom God is blessing this day. We must hear the Beatitudes as Jesus might speak them if he were delivering the sermon at this moment in time, in this place, under this Empire:

Blessed are the migrants, for their citizenship is in heaven.

Blessed are the refugees and asylum seekers, for they shall find safety.

Blessed are those whose family members died trying to get here, for they shall be consoled.

Blessed are those who march, who make calls, who write, who organize, who never give up, for they shall be able to live with themselves.

Blessed are the Muslims. Blessed are the Syrians and the Iranians, the Iraqis and the Libyans, the Somalis and the Sudanese and the Yemenis, for they shall be called children of God.

Blessed are you when people call you dreamers or idealists, when they call you soft or stupid when they attack you in public or fall silent over dinner.

Rejoice and be glad, for you are standing in the lineage of the long line of God’s prophets who have remembered in every age that we are one, and we are God’s, so we belong to each other and are called to be a blessing upon the Earth.



Sermon: Sunday, November 6, 2016: All Saints Sunday

Texts: Daniel 7:1-3,13-18  +  Psalm 149  +  Ephesians 1:11-23  +  Luke 6:20-31

12522068044_b73c88f4e9_zI had a horrible nightmare last night. In it, two giant beasts lumbered ashore, different from one another and visible to the eye, though they appeared at a distance it would take two full days to walk. From the waters to my left arose a fearsome donkey with the head of a hawk, clothed in tailored pantsuits, red as blood, white as bone, and blue as the bruises that covered her body. From the waters to my right lumbered a trumpeting elephant with sharpened tusks and the head of an orangutan “and a mouth speaking arrogantly,” (Dan. 7:8c) its limbs like tree trunks smashing to bits everything and everyone in its path.

“As I watched, thrones were set in place, and an Ancient One took the throne whose clothing was white as snow, and whose hair was like pure wool; whose throne was fiery flames with wheels of burning fire. A stream of fire issued and flowed out of the Ancient One’s presence. A thousand thousands served this One, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending this One. The court sat in judgment, and the books were opened.” (Dan. 7:9-10)

“I watched then because of the noise of the arrogant words that the [beast] was speaking. And as I watched, the beast was put to death, and its body destroyed and given over to be burned with fire. As for the other beast, its dominion was taken away, but its life was preserved for a season and a time.” (Adapted from Dan. 7:11-12)

We don’t need Joseph, son of Jacob and Rachel, to interpret this dream, do we? Its meaning is plain to those with ears to hear. The same is true for the apocalyptic literature we find in the passage from Daniel this morning, which paints the picture of “one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven” to whom dominion and glory and kingship are given. Look closely, and you’ll see that ten verses were omitted from our reading. Those verses contain descriptions of the “four great beasts, four kings [that] shall arise out of the earth,” (Dan. 7:17) every bit as weird and shady as the beasts that rose up from the waters of my dream.

In Daniel’s case, the four beasts represented the conquering empires of Babylon, Media, Persia, and Greece which had each taken turns conquering and occupying Israel for five hundred years. Daniel’s literature is written in the kind of code speech employed by subversives speaking out against the powers that be. It’s not that he couldn’t simply call the beasts what they were — their descriptions did that as effectively as my own. It’s that in describing them as something other than nations or rulers he pointed out their cosmological, archetypical quality. It’s as if to say, these beasts are always with us. Or, in our own symbolic language, there are always elephants and donkeys charging at one another, trampling the bodies of human beings on the battlefield.

Into this zoological game of thrones another figure arrives, “one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven.” Christian ears are tuned to hear this as the arrival of Jesus into this mad story, though Daniel’s vision predates the birth of Jesus by centuries. It was the gospel of Mark that cribbed from the prophet Daniel in describing Jesus as the “Son of Man coming in clouds,” (Mark 13:26; 14:62) as a way of reading his presence back into history. I’m less concerned with the identity of the human being than its symbolic meaning. Into an arena dominated by beasts displaying the most violent and fearsome qualities comes the human being, and it is this human being who is given dominion by the one seated upon the throne, flanked by ten thousand upon ten thousand souls.

Now this is a dream. Let me ask you, dreamers, what would it look like if the lives of human beings, real human beings, all human beings, were at the center of every contest of power? What would have to change if the needs of human beings took precedence over the needs of corporations, who have been awarded human rights even though they have no bodies, no blood, no tears, no children, no dreams, other than the profit motives that extract wealth from the many and concentrate it into the hands of a few? What would you be willing to give, of your own time, of your own wealth, to make that dream reality? Who would you give it to? How would you want it to be used?

Yesterday morning fourteen of us gathered here for the second installment of the three-part series of workshops hosted by our social justice committee and presented by Center for Changing Lives, whom we are supporting with special offerings taken up each month from July through December. While the first session helped us begin to examine the values and ideals that shape our use of money, this second session introduced biblical values connected to labor, wealth, and justice. By the end of the session, we’d been asked to get together in small groups and begin to dream about what it would look like if the world was organized around the vision of humanity we hear echoed throughout scripture. Together we wrestled with how we would enthrone ideals of mercy, grace, generosity, forgiveness, inclusion, equality, and accountability while also grappling with the question of human nature. Can we be trusted to set aside self-interest to care for our neighbor? Are we willing to work hard if we suspect others are working less hard? Would we share the goods of production on the basis of need rather than desire? Are we willing to decide together how much is too much and how much is enough — or will we always allow the market to make those decisions for us?

What would it look like to put human beings, real human beings, all human beings, at the center of every decision we make about power, about wealth, about industry, about war?

This is what Jesus does when he delivers his great sermon on the plain in Luke’s gospel, in which we hear his vision for humanity at the center, now known as the Beatitudes. In the reign of God, it is the poor who are blessed, the hungry, the mourners, the hated and the reviled. It is those whose lives have not seemed to matter at all that are placed in the center. But the rich and the satiated, the self-satisfied and the self-righteous, they are to be pitied, because their woeful lack of concern for their neighbor has turned them into beasts who have lost their humanity. They cannot be in the center, in the circle of beloved community, because they have excluded themselves, loving privilege more than people. So they trumpet and bray all the more, demanding from us loyalty and allegiance that can only belong to the Ancient One, the divine unity within whom rests the souls of our ancestors, the source and end of all life, the one who took on human flesh so that we might take on divine nature. The One who cannot be named, whom we call God, which is still a name too small for the one who cast the heavens and formed the earth and breathed life into us as the first act of an unending love.

It is because we know this God as love that we “live for the praise of [God’s] glory” as Paul puts it (Eph. 1:12). Because, if it were not for love, we would despair that our lives are too short and too fragile to matter. But, because of love, we know that we will work harder than we thought possible to care for those we love. We will fight for a better future than we have ever seen for those we love. We will make sacrifices we cannot imagine for those we love. We will even gladly die and take our place among the saints of every time and place to make way for the generations we will never see, but nevertheless love, because they are the home where our hope resides, the world we have longed for and still believe in.

Therefore, we do not fear the beasts that haunt our dreams with their ceaseless conflict. Instead, we rejoice in our maker, we are joyful in our ruler, who takes pleasure in us, in our humanity, in our poverty (Ps. 149), in our hunger, in our sorrow, in our despair.

You saints of God, now is the beginning of the end. The long epoch of waiting is over. A new sovereign has arrived who does not need our vote, only our lives, only our love, only our dreams of a world with human beings at the center. Wake up, your God is already here, now — forever and ever.



Sermon: Sunday, November 2, 2014: All Saints Sunday

Texts:  Revelation 7:9-17  +  Psalm 34:1-10, 22  +  1 John 3:1-3  +  Matthew 5:1-12

I keep icons in my office of the saints that inspire me. I have one of RLHENHenri Nouwen, the Dutch priest who wrote beautifully about the connection between spirituality and social justice and who lived in community with adults with developmental delays. I have one of RLSTBSteve Biko, the South African anti-apartheid activist who said “Black is beautiful” and who reminded all of us who live with oppression on a daily basis that the first step to liberation is to “begin to look upon yourself as a human being.” I have one of RLHRMHarvey Milk, the gay activist and San Francisco politician who didn’t enter the public arena until after he’d turned forty, and who paved the way for wider social acceptance of LGBTQ people long before anything like the modern movement existed by speaking into the enforced silence of the closet and insisting that “you gotta give them hope.”

These particular icons were painted by robertRobert Lentz, a Franciscan friar who lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, a northern neighborhood in the Washington, D.C. metro area who studied traditional Byzantine iconography in a Greek Orthodox monastery, but whose own passion is depicting the ordinary and unacknowledged saints whose lives are not always recognized as holy. In his collection of saints there are images of RLCCZCesar Chavez and RLDRDDorothy Day, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Mother Jones, Albert Einstein and Mohandas Gandhi. None of these people have ever been “canonized,” or recognized RLECSRLMOJas saints, by the Roman Catholic church to which Lentz belongs, not all of them are even Christians, but taken together they help me imagine the “great multitude that no one could RLABERLMOGcount, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” described in the passage we heard read from Revelation this morning (7:9).

I also keep photographs in my office of Kerry, and my parents and sister, and close friends who have accompanied me through life. These are my personal saints on my private altar, my reminder that all life is holy and that my life is holy too. I’m sure you do the same, whether they be school photos stuck to your refrigerator with magnets, framed portraits hung on your walls, old prints organized into albums, or pictures taken with your phone and posted to Facebook. It’s almost instinctive how we surround ourselves with images of the people, past and present, who remind us of who we are and who we want to become.Christmas, 2009 014

In a world before smartphones and Polaroids, before even photography, the most accessible way to preserve an image of a person wasn’t with a camera but with words. Families passed favorite stories, paradigmatic tales, of one another down through the generations as they gathered around tables for sumptuous meals, or as they worked side by side in the fields. Just as with photographs, we could see our family resemblance to one another in the attitudes and actions taken by our ancestors in similar situations.

It’s interesting to think about the Beatitudes as photographs of a kind, word pictures crafted so succinctly that you could memorize them like a poem and carry them with you the way I used to keep senior pictures taken in high school in my wallet to keep faraway friends near to me, the way we whip out our phones to share pictures of our children, or nieces and nephews, or students.

To the crowds of people who’d followed him, hoping for a word of teaching that would put his acts of healing and liberation into a form they could carry with them wherever they went, Jesus said:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.

What pictures come to your mind when you hear the names of those Jesus calls blessed?

Is there a face from your past or present that represents “the poor in spirit”?

Who in your life is the one who mourns?

Do you have a picture in your mind of “the meek”?

Do you keep company with “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness”?

Do you have a story to tell about the person in your life who has shown mercy?

Do you know anyone who is “pure of heart”?

Is there a name or a face that defines for you what it means to be a peacemaker?

Can you identify with those who are persecuted for their attempts to live a righteous life?

Do you have a story from your own life when your commitment to a life of discipleship has evoked harsh words and condemnation?

We surround ourselves with these images from our past and our present, names and faces of people who have lived by faith in the hope of a new heaven and a new earth, of a resurrected life, where the blessings of God would be shared equitably among all people. They sit not only on our desks, but next to us in these pews, all around us in this neighborhood. We have welcomed them into our congregation at the font, as we did this past year with Deacon Adams and Isaiah Swanson. We have given thanks for the witness of their lives at the time of their death, as we have this past year with Ramon Nieves, Lila Voss, Louise Ambuel, Andy Miller, Ernesto Garcia, and now our brother ST_LUKES_PORTRAIT_Select-0144Eugene Walawski. We have shared dinner with them, family style, around tables blessed by homemade food. We have met them at the Logan Square monument to cry out for peace, to mourn the murder of a homeless man, to march for affordable housing. We have danced with them on the Boulevard under late summer skies, and we will celebrate with them once again on that final day when we all gather before the throne worshipping God and giving thanks for the blessings of this life, “singing, Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” (Rev. 7:12)

Brothers and sisters, we are all saints of God, we are all wearing the white robes of our baptism, we are all inheritors of God’s vision where the people of God are a blessing to those who are poor in body or spirit, those who are meek or who mourn; where the promises made at this font to work for justice and peace throughout the world are honored together so that the peacemakers and the activists and the persecuted and the outcasts are never alone, but always surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses of saints and martyrs of every time and place and also by us, here and now.

We, who are still in the middle of the great ordeal, have been given to each other as a blessing. Look at each other. Memorize the faces you see here. Learn to look upon the face of your neighbor as though you were seeing their image through the light of these votives, as though each person you encountered was among God’s elect. Carry these faces with you wherever you go, knowing that God’s face is revealed among us.

“Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” (1 John 3:2)