Sermon: Sunday, January 1, 2017: First Sunday after Christmas Day

Texts: Isaiah 63:7-9  +  Psalm 148  +  Hebrews 2:10-18  +  Matthew 2:13-23

I will admit that in earlier days as a preacher, I relished the opportunity to preach on this passage from Matthew, which is commonly referred to as “the slaughter of the holy innocents.” Such an unlikely candidate for preferential treatment, only arising every three years as the lectionary moves into Matthew. I think my affinity for this story was at least two-fold. First, after what seemed like a long season of Advent and an interminable commercial season of Christmas, I was eager to get back to telling the truth about the reality of the world as we know it, a place of brutal vulnerability. Second, as a former youth worker with runaway, homeless and street-dependent youth, this story opened doors for me to talk about all the children who do not experience Christmas as a season of gift-giving, whose lives are lost in a daily slaughter and whose names are forgotten in the roll call of the saints.

This year however, I notice that I approach this text with less relish than in years past. Perhaps it’s because Advent no longer seems that long to me, just a brief pause at the end of the year. Maybe it is because it’s been years since I’ve been back out on the streets, listening to the stories of the children our society has decided to forget. I suspect it’s something else though, a weariness that I’ve carried from 2016 into 2017, a sense that we’ve all lost something precious, something innocent and holy.

when-did-you-lose-your-innocenceSo this morning, as we wake to a new year, I want to ask you: when did you lose your innocence?

I understand that I’m making a couple assumptions here — that you were, at one point, innocent; and that you no longer are. Those of you who are still very young may wonder what innocence is, and how you lose it. Those of you who are older may wonder what innocence was, and whether it was worth holding on to. I guess I’m not simply talking about the process of aging, of discovering truths that were hidden from us when we were too young to understand them. I’m talking about the things that get taken from us, the moments when the inherent violence of the world asserts itself in our own lives and we understand that, standing before the apparatus of society — its schools and courts, its marketplace and political machinery — we are very small and quite expendable.

I was fourteen and a freshman in high school. A grown up took something very precious away from me and we ended up in court. I was assigned an attorney who spoke to me no more than twice before representing me in front of a judge. I wasn’t even in the room. A deal was struck, the grown up pled guilty to a lesser charge, the world moved on. But I didn’t, not for a very long time, and some part of me never did. My innocence was lost.

Kerry and I spent most of this last week in Des Moines with my family: my parents, my sister Tara, and her long-time partner, Christopher. Chris is coming up on 30 years old and, like my sister and their friends, lives with moderate developmental disability. On a late night drive earlier this week he was telling me about his love of cars, Mustangs in particular. He told me a story about a time when he was a child and the dealership where his mother worked had a rare model on the floor. He said the moment he saw it his mother told him, “don’t get any ideas.” But he couldn’t stop dreaming about what it would be like to drive that car. He said, “I bet if I’d have had that car the kids wouldn’t have been so mean to me all the time.” And then, “someday I’m gonna have a car like that.” Innocence lost.

We all have our stories of the times when the world as it is rolled right over us. When the ways we have arranged power into institutions either failed to protect us or actively harmed us. Which means that this story of King Herod slaughtering the children of Bethlehem is not extraordinary, it’s painfully familiar. It means that I don’t need to preach to you about the plight of children on the streets, though I could and will. Instead I ask you this question, as gently as I can — not wanting to scare you or send your soul into hiding — calling quietly to your memories: when did you lose your innocence?

Can you remember how old you were? Do you recall what you looked like at that age? Was your hair short or long? Did you wear it in pigtails? Did you have a cowlick? Had you yet learned to tie your shoes with a double knot? Was your backpack heavy with textbooks? Did you have a favorite movie, a favorite book, a favorite singer? (I did, it was George Michael) Did you have a best friend?

We read this story during the season of Christmas — which is not a day, but a span of twelve days, during which we continue to ponder the mystery and the meaning of the incarnation. What does it mean that God not only took on flesh, but chose to be born among us as a child? What does it mean that God chose to enter into our experience at precisely the moment when we have the least power and control over our own lives? What does it mean that God was born into a family that had to flee from their own country to escape political persecution, to become immigrants and refugees and asylum seekers before the God-child in their care, before the Word-made-flesh, could even speak?

I’ll tell you what it has meant for me. It meant that I was never alone. Even when it was just me and my diary and questions far too large for a fourteen year old boy to answer. I was never alone. Neither was Christopher, a name which literally means “Christ-bearer.” Whatever names the bullies called him, whatever injuries he endured, he was never alone. Mary and Joseph, on the run under the cover of night, God was as close to them as the child in their arms.

you-are-not-alone-450x450And you. You were never alone. Not in the bedroom, nor the classroom. Not in the courtroom, nor the prison cell. Not in your workplace, not in the market. Not crossing the border. Not walking home alone at night. You were never alone.

And if it feels as though your innocence is forever lost, then please be assured that your holiness is not and never was. You, child, are the reason God came into the world. You, child, are the reason God took on flesh. You, child, are the reason God chose what is weak to shame the powerful. Because you, child, are holy and innocent and pure and alive. Thanks be to God.


Sermon: Sunday, August 4, 2013: Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

Texts:  Hosea 11:1-11  +  Psalm 107:1-9,43  +  Colossians 3:1-11  +  Luke 12:13-21

Isn’t it a joy to see so many children back in this church?

I remember asking the call committee that interviewed me back in 2006, “Imagine that it’s the future, that we’ve been working together to rebuild the church for a few years, and that it’s been working.  As you look around the church, what is the evidence that we’ve been successful?”  And a member of the committee said, “Children.  There would be children again.”

When we began our redevelopment together back in 2006, there were two children in this congregation, James and Lynda Deacon.  They were both in high school.  Now they are both adults, but in their place there are so many more children!  The first wave of children brought to this congregation are now in elementary school. Another batch have recently been born and baptized. I have enjoyed watching over the last few years the number of children coming forward for the Children’s Sermon slowly growing.  The children are returning to St. Luke’s.

My own god-children are growing up so quickly. My youngest, Kai, was born just last year.  I was there in the hospital on the day she entered the world.  I remember how tiny and fragile she looked, minutes after she was born.  Now she fearlessly climbs stairs and chairs and orders her mothers around, insistently telling them where to sit and bringing them books to read to her.  My eldest, who hasn’t been a child in a very long time, who graduated from seminary earlier this year, has already taken her first call to serve a church just outside Washington, DC and will be officially ordained this fall.  She’s a grown woman, but in my mind I can still remember how easily she fit in my arms on the day of her baptism.

Yesterday I visited with Ryan and Gina Gray in their home as their daughter, Chiara, napped on Gina’s chest. Next Sunday we’ll baptize her. I will hold her in my arms and pour water over her head and name her as a child of God. I will walk her down the center aisle and introduce you all to your new sister in Christ. Our hopes for Chiara will never be higher, and her dependence on her parents and other loving adults will never be more obvious.

But, as she grows, as that dependence is replaced with a growing independence, we fully expect that Chiara will test the limits of her relationship to her parents and those who care for her.  We can already see that the first wave of children to arrive at St. Luke’s, now in grade school, are beginning to pull away from their parents so that they can discover more and more who they will be in the world apart from them.  We can look at the young men of Boy Scout Troop 115 who’ve joined us this morning to celebrate the achievements of their friend, Noah, and recognize that in what will seem like the blink of an eye, the infants we held in our arms have grown into young adults who are required to make a thousand decisions everyday about what kind of people they will be in this world.  Who they will model themselves after, who they will listen to, who they will trust.

In the gospel reading from Luke this morning, a person asks Jesus to get involved in a family matter, to take on the role of judge in a dispute between siblings over a family inheritance.  It’s a role that parents with more than one child, or teachers in a classroom, are familiar with.  The child comes to the adult crying, “she took it from me, it’s not fair!”  From the earliest of ages, adults begin to try and teach children to resolve their own conflicts, we encourage them to share and we watch with an ever-changing mixture of patience and frustration as they struggle to treat other children, other people, like subjects instead of objects.

Jesus, like a parent trying to help her children grow into responsible adults, doesn’t step in and resolve the petitioner’s problem.  Instead, he turns to the crowd and tells them a parable about a man so rich he has to tear down his barns and build larger ones to store all that he has accumulated.  In his wealth, the rich man imagines he will have all the best things in life, never considering that he could lose it all in a minute. That he might die, and his belongings immediately pass to another.

As always, Jesus’ parables feel like an odd way to have a conversation.  A person came to Jesus for a ruling on a family matter.  Instead of giving that person a ruling, Jesus gave that person a story and implied that the person could figure it out from there.

If I were the person who’d asked the question, the person who wanted an authority to step in and solve my problems for me, this parable might have reminded me that life is fragile and short, and that the materials goods I long for now aren’t longing for me in return.  When I die, my possessions don’t miss me.  They are simply redistributed.  They will belong to someone else, and they’ll be no more loyal to that person than they were to me.

Jesus suggests that storing up treasures for one’s self is different than living a life that is rich toward God.  Paul, in his letter to the Colossians, equates greed with idolatry and calls on those who follow Jesus to give up their lusting after wealth and other idols and to be renewed.  In language that evokes our own baptisms, Paul says,

Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all! (Col. 3:9-11)

Paul suggests that renewal and reconciliation are intimately tied up with each other.  Turning away from the idolatry of greed, we remember that we belong to Christ, in whom we have been baptized.  In that identity, all the old distinctions are obliterated, and we see that we belong to one another, like family, in spite of every line devised to divide us.

This life lesson is hardly new. In fact, this sermon is hardly new. Every day we pray, “give us this day our daily bread,” and within minutes we are day-dreaming about saving up more than what we need so that we can have more while other make do with less. Lives are wasted in accumulation and consumption. Parents miss out on the best years of their relationship to their children, putting in long hours at the office. Siblings quarrel over their inheritances, losing not only the goods they long for, but their irreplaceable relationships as well. Nations, and the corporate interests they serve, create massive global suffering as they redistribute the goods of the earth in ways that privilege a very few at the expense of the overwhelming majority.

“My people are bent on turning away from me,” God says through the prophet Hosea.  “The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols.”

calendarWhat fruitless sacrifices have you made in your lives?  What worthless investments have you committed yourselves to?  If you look at your calendar, or your checkbook, who or what would emerge as the object of your worship?  What really has your attention?

And, who else is paying the price for the sacrifices you might imagine you are making alone?  Is it your spouse, or your children?  Is it your parents or your family and friends?  Is it your neighbor?  Is it people you may never see, or have to look in the eye?  Who else pays the price for the distance you put between yourself and other people?

Finally, what is the price that you yourself pay for chasing after illusions of achievement, idols of wealth, myths of independence.  What have you lost along the way?

Economists and psychologists and students of human behavior will tell us that one of the sad features of our psyches is that we will continue to invest in a bad decision long past any hope of a good return in an effort to redeem what has already been lost.  We will continue to chase down the illusions of success, the dreams of independence, well past the point at which is becomes clear that our efforts are being wasted.  We will continue to exact the costs of our poor judgement on ourselves and those we love long after we’ve ceased to see any return in our investment in an effort to redeem ourselves.

I suppose the same could be said of God, who roars, “I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.” (Hos. 11:9)  Yet, God continues to throw good money after bad on us.  God continues to hold out hope that we will make our way back to the love that created and claimed us.

All this time, while we’ve been out chasing after idols, God has been chasing after us.  Wrapped up in our delusions of independence, invested in our self-constructions, we can no longer see what God has never forgotten: each of us, and all of us together, like infants you lift to your cheek so you can brush your lips against that newborn skin, so you can catch a whiff of that smell.  God remembers what we have forgotten, that we were all that tiny, and fragile, and dependent once.  That we still are.  That we depend on love that comes to us in the form of bottomless grace and new beginnings each day.

After all our wanderings and infidelities, after all the heartbreak we have caused God and one another, God still says, “I will return them to their homes.”  This is God’s word for us.  This is God’s word for you.