Sermons

Sermon: Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Preached for chapel worship at LSTC on Wednesday, November 4, 2020 – the day after Election Day.

Texts: Revelation 7:9-17 / Ps. 34:1-10, 22 / 1 John 3:1-3 / Matthew 5:1-12

View this sermon, posted to the LSTC YouTube channel.

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It’s been almost a week since I deleted the social media apps on my phone. At some point I finally realized that my 6am doom-scrolling was not only a miserable way to begin my day, but that it was actually impacting my mental health. I was learning nothing new from the breathless barrage of think pieces about the election, but I was exhausting my overloaded nervous system with headlines and takeaways that kept my body awash in adrenaline with nowhere to flee and no one to fight. I faced a similar decision once again last night, choosing to break my quadrennial tradition of staying awake through the long hours of the night to wait for an announcement of the projected winner in the presidential election, or at least the determination that no winner could yet be declared. Instead, as it became clear that we would not know for another day or longer, I took myself to bed and prayed for the gift of sleep.

In place of all the panic inducing media, I have been attempting to meditate for a few minutes each day, to order my thoughts and to return to myself. Sitting a few days ago, listening to a guided meditation, I was invited to reflect on the divine qualities of lovingkindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity by inviting the memory of someone who has loved me unconditionally to come to mind. Then I was asked to imagine that person speaking to me, addressing me with the following:

“May you be caring towards your own body and mind.”

“May you see your own limits compassionately.”

“May joy fill and nourish you, always.”

“May you be open to the true nature of life.”

Sitting in silence, imagining my mother’s voice speaking words of blessing and hope, I could feel my body come alive, my heart expand, my mind shaking off its fears, and my soul reaching forward. Addressed by the memory of love, things seemed possible that only minutes before had seemed unlikely at best.

This is how I imagine the crowd might have received Jesus’s words of blessing, his beatitudes, as he began the sermon on the mount. For much of my life I have heard the beatitudes as a sort of index of salvation, a catalogue of the qualities I would need to develop in order to find favor with God. It didn’t matter that I was raised with and confirmed into a clear knowledge of salvation by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8-9), because I was also being formed in a parallel process by the world’s catechism of competition and consumerism, self-reliance and scarcity. I knew that God was good, and I feared that I was not good enough.

It has taken time, years really of listening to people’s stories, for me to not only understand but to really trust that I am not alone in my fears and self-doubts. The world has not hurt us all in the same way, nor to the same extent, but we have all been wounded. Some have been taught to hate themselves, and some have been taught that hate is the price of belonging. Some have been taught to expect nothing but sorrow, and others that grief is an unacceptable weakness. Some have been taught to make themselves small, and others to align themselves with greatness. Our wounds, these patterns and habits, we inherited them so early that it was easy enough to confuse them with our very selves. They function as prisons and, sometimes, we collude with them by confusing them with the deepest truth about ourselves, becoming collaborators with our own oppression.

Each of the gospels chooses its own way to present the beginning of Jesus’s ministry that says something about how it understands Jesus. Mark begins with an exorcism. Luke with a sermon before the hometown crowd. John with the miracle at Cana. In the gospel of Matthew, the sermon on the mount is presented as the summary of what Jesus has been teaching as he moved throughout Galilee. It functions as a sort of inaugural address. Matthew’s Jesus comes to us in the form of a teacher. Like Moses descending Mount Sinai with the life-giving law, Jesus calls the disciples and addresses the crowd as an instructor in righteousness. So, as any good teacher knows, you have to meet the students where they are and build on what they’ve already been taught. This means that, for Jesus, the first lesson is to address head on their miseducation on the topic of their value as human beings and where they stand in God’s economy.

When Jesus calls out the categories of blessing, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek …” he isn’t presenting the ruler by which the crowd will be measured. He is describing the people in front of him. The crowds that “followed [Jesus] from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan” (Mt. 4:25) were hungering and thirsting for righteousness. They were the poor and the persecuted, the meek and the mourners. They might have been familiar with the text of Psalm 70, and they were certainly familiar with the lament it voices,

“But I am poor and needy; hasten to me, O God!

You are my help and my deliverer; O Lord, do not delay!” (Ps. 70:5)

And so, here is where I want to pause and return to the reality of the moment we are living in as we gather for worship this morning. It is the day after the election and there is no clear outcome yet. We are waiting. But we are not just waiting for the votes to be counted. We are waiting for justice. We are waiting for an end to the hatred and division that have ripped our neighborhoods and our nation apart. We are waiting for families separated at the border to be reunited. We are waiting for an end to police brutality directed at and the mass incarceration of Black and Brown people. We are waiting for a real response to the all-encompassing crisis of climate change. We are waiting for the basic pre-conditions of an abundant life: clean water, housing, and healthcare to stop being treated as luxury commodities and to be redistributed as the birthright of all God’s children. We are waiting for the dismantling of nuclear armaments that have not gone away, even if we’ve stopped talking about them. We are waiting for homes free from domestic violence and workplaces free from harassment. We are waiting for that day when the sacred reality queer people’s relationships, and trans and non-binary people’s lives, are not up for debate in our churches or our courthouses. We are waiting for an end to the diseases and health conditions that do not impact us all equally. We are waiting for the end of COVID. We are waiting and waiting and waiting and we don’t know how much longer we can wait! 

O Lord, do not delay!

(breathe)

“May you be caring towards your own body and mind.”

“May you see your own limits compassionately.”

“May joy fill and nourish you, always.”

“May you be open to the true nature of life.”

(breathe)

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the commonwealth 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 perceive 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 commonwealth of heaven.”

“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven …”

Blessed are you.

Blessed are you.

Blessed are you.

Imagine it now. Form the picture in your mind. See the face. Hear the voice speaking to you from the heart of God’s love. Blessed are you. Feel your heart open. Let your body unclench. Shake the fears from your mind. Yearn your soul towards its future.

Jesus, the teacher, has many lessons to teach and many assignments to give. Later on he will tell them about the power of small things, seeds and yeast and mustard trees. Later on they will learn what happens when you plant this gospel in the ground. But today, while the crowds have gathered ‘round and the whole world is waiting, Jesus blesses those who would follow him with words of compassion and lovingkindness and patience and joy

Finally, a post-script on joy:

We are trying to do many things, perhaps too many things, with today’s worship service. It is not only the day after the election, but it is also the day on which we are observing All Saints Day. Very shortly we will read aloud as a part of the prayers of the people the names of those who have died in the last year. Here at LSTC we are grieving the deaths of the Rev. Dr. Cheryl Stewart Pero and the Rev. Paul Landahl, losses that evoke the memory of other saints from this community who now rest in God’s power and presence. These names represent the smallest fraction of those whose lives have now ended. Some welcomed their deaths at the end of long lives lived well. Nevertheless, they are missed. Some had their lives stolen from them by act of violence, the acute violences of murder and abuse and the chronic violences of oppression and neglect. This year we are especially mindful of all the lives that were taken by the COVID pandemic, losses which in some cases might have been preventable. We are not only mourning, but we are raging.

In the context of that grief and anger, joy may feel out of place. Take for example the hymn that will send us out at the close of worship this morning, “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Given all that we are suffering right now, how can we take part in singing a song whose joy can barely be contained by its Dixieland melody? 

Let me suggest, however, that joy is a revolutionary act, precisely at moments like this. Joy is written into the creeds that accompany the act of baptism, the declaration that though Jesus was “born under Pontius Pilate, suffered death and was buried” that “on the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God” and that we are those who “look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world yet to come.” Joy is our rebellion against every voice that would teach us to sit down and shut up. Joy is the shape of the pruning hook for which we traded our spears. Joy is the sound of shackles falling from our feet. Joy is our soul’s response to the voice of Jesus, speaking from the heart of God, calling us blessed.

Amen.

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Sermons

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.

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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.

Amen.

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Sermons

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.

Amen.

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