Sermon: Sunday, December 27, 2016: First Sunday after Christmas Day

Texts: 1 Samuel 2:18-20,26  +  Psalm 148  +  Colossians 3:12-17  +  Luke 2:41-52

image-full;size$500,334.ImageHandlerLet me tell you about a young man named Jesús.  Not the baby in the manger. Not the “reason for the season.” Jesús Velazquez, a high school student and youth activist here in Logan Square.

Jesús and his family came to Chicago when he was a toddler. Growing up, he struggled to stay motivated in school. As he moved into high school and the pressure to focus on the streets over his studies got more intense, he found an outlet for his frustration with Chicago’s public schools, which he describes as “under-funded and poorly resourced.” Through the citywide After School Matters program Jesús got involved with the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, where he met Liliana Díaz, a youth organizer. Finding his place in a community of young people organizing for positive change here in our neighborhood and across the city, Jesús began to flourish. Liliana describes his leadership like this, “he steps up to help make other young people see what he sees. It’s hard to talk to young people about programs that are organizing-based. He explains to them in ways that make them more relevant to our youth.”

Together with other young people, Jesús organized to reform harsh “zero-tolerance” disciplinary regulations to keep his classmates in school with restorative justice practices that prevent students from getting expelled and landing in the school-to-prison pipeline. He has worked on campaigns related to deferred action for childhood arrivals to the U.S. (known as DACA relief, a significant early step in the much-needed on-going process of immigration reform), and temporary visitors driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants.

Through this work he has discovered a sense of his own power, and subsequently a passion for organizing. Selected to represent our neighborhood as one of only four youth at the citywide “Generation All” initiative to create a plan for high quality public education in every Chicago neighborhood, Jesús has now worked with teachers’ unions, educational non-profits, the Chicago Public School district, and the Mayor’s office. He has sat on local policy panels and spoken at national conferences. Both his peers and the adults who have the privilege of working with him describe him as “brilliant,” “articulate,” and “deep.”

And, he still struggles in the classroom.

What does wisdom look like?

The gospel of Luke tells the story of another Jesús, this one did have a manger in his past, a season for which he is the reason. A Palestinian Jew living under Roman occupation, he did not have a privileged upbringing. He did not enjoy the benefits of a formal education. But his family respected tradition and took him to Jerusalem each year to celebrate the Passover with relatives and other countrymen.

It’s the only story we get of his childhood, so we try to wring meaning out of every detail. For instance, given that it’s the only glimpse into Jesus’s childhood offered in the canonical books of the bible, why tell this one at all? What was the writer of Luke trying to signal to the earliest audience?

When you think about how many of the stories about Jesus as an adult focus on his conflict with priests and scribes and authorities of every sort, it’s kind of remarkable that the picture offered of his youth paints him in a rather studious, even dutiful light. One explanation that’s been offered suggests that the community for whom the Gospel of Luke is the intended audience is in conflict with other Jewish communities over the issue of traditions. By the time this gospel was written, the Temple had been destroyed and the early Christian church was actually part of a complex set of Jewish responses to that world-shattering event. While some forms of Judaism had been obliterated by the destruction of the Temple, other forms were finding new ways to reinterpret the faith. Pharisaic Judaism, an expression of Jewish religious identity that pre-dated the destruction of the Temple, had always emphasized the moral and ethical dimensions of Jewish life over Temple worship and sacrifices. With the temple now gone, Pharisaic Jews offered a way forward by keeping faith with the past through careful observance of the law and traditions.

Christianity, on the other hand, was a kind of messianic Judaism which responded to the destruction of the temple by asserting that with the arrival of the messiah, a new epoch had begun, an era marked by the end of divisions based on gender, rank, nationality or other social statuses. A time when the old concept of “chosen people” had been broken open to include all people.

These two approaches to Jewish life after the loss of the temple each had much to commend them, and they weren’t mutually exclusive. It was not only possible, but practical, to continue keeping the law and observing tradition while allowing innovations in religious identity to continue to emerge; inviting new, previously excluded people and communities into the fellowship. But, human nature being what it is, people quickly fell into camps that became antagonistic toward one another, driving the Pharisaic Jews and the messianic Jews (which was the emerging Christian community) further and further apart.

So this story of the young Jesus becomes a little bit more interesting. Here is the young messiah, the standard bearer for one side of the growing conflict, sitting among the teachers of Israel, the epitomes of Jewish teaching and wisdom, and what is he doing? He is listening to them and asking questions!

christ-doctors-temple-art-lds-710197-wallpaperWhen I was growing up in Des Moines, the congregation I belonged to had a huge reproduction of a painting by the 19th century German artist Heinrich Hofmann of the Boy Jesus in the Temple. There in the center is a young, very white, Jesus dressed in a white robe like the one Hannah would make for the boy-prophet Samuel each year. A soft nimbus of light surrounds his head as he looks directly, but kindly, into the eyes of a seated priest. Jesus points at the scriptures that sit open in the teacher’s lap, as if explaining them to him. All around him are the old Jewish men in the Temple, gazing at the boy Jesus in wonder.

The painting was placed at the bottom of the stairs that led from the Sunday School rooms to the sanctuary. I never really thought about it, but I supposed the intended effect was to communicate to us children that we were valuable, central even, and that we had something to teach the church. Or maybe it had nothing to do with that at all. Maybe it was just the only wall on which that painting fit, and the trustees had to do something with it after it was donated. Who knows? But it’s my sermon, so I can tell the story however I want.

In any case, I think the painting gets it wrong. As kindly as the boy Jesus in Hofmann’s painting seems to be looking into that old Jewish man’s eyes, there is a kind of confrontation taking place. The young messiah is showing the old teacher up. A challenge is being presented. A changing of the guard taking place.

But look at the text again, and see what it really says:

“After three days they found Jesus in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.” (Luke 2:46)

We know that the traditional posture for teaching was seated. So, the scripture describes Jesus as having taken the posture of a teacher — but also as a teacher among other teachers. Furthermore, he isn’t described as delivering an insightful lecture, or a rousing sermon, but as “listening to them and asking them questions.” He values what they know. He is open to learning from them and being changed in the process.

Speaking from personal experience I can tell you that good attention, the ability to listen well to another person, is a resource in short supply. As someone who’s been trained to offer a listening presence to others I have found it to be the case that, more often than not, if I start listening people will grab hold of that attention and begin to share some of their most personal stories, their most deeply held convictions, their most urgent questions, almost immediately.

I myself am hungry for good attention. So, as soon as people begin to share their stories with me what almost always happens is that I hear elements of their life that remind me of elements of my own life, and I want to break in and tell my own story. It’s very natural, but it’s not good listening. The real art to listening is the ability to notice that response rising up in you, the desire to tell your own story, to honor that desire and then to set your story aside so that you can continue to offer the gift of your attention to the other person. It sounds easy. It’s not. Again, most of us are so hungry for real attention, quality listening, that we will keep trying to take it wherever we can.

The unfortunate result is that we keep talking at each other instead of listening to each other, which leads to the kinds of polarized conversations we now see taking place on the national stage as candidates compete to get as much attention as possible, with very little listening to the voices and the needs of real people taking place.

Which is why I find the story of Jesús Velazquez so exciting and inspiring. He is learning at a very young age the art of organizing, which is really the art of listening. With each conversation, with each one-on-one, he is collecting the stories of his classmates, his neighbors, his fellow citizens (and non-citizens). The more he listens, the better his questions get. The better his questions get, the more useful the stories he hears. So that even if he still struggles with math or science or whatever other subjects he find difficult, he is mastering the art of building community, which takes place one story at a time. He is acknowledged by the adults around him as wise beyond his years.

That is the kind of wisdom the world could use more of right now. The wisdom of listening. It’s the kind of wisdom we ourselves will need in the coming year, as we move further and further from the temple we have known out into our rapidly changing neighborhood. How will we balance respect for our history and traditions with the need to break open our boundaries even further, to welcome people and communities who’ve felt excluded from our fellowship? More importantly, how will we do this without creating competing camps, reinforcing old conflicts?

It will be by listening to each other. By honoring our own need to be heard, but balancing that with the decision to offer the gift of our attention to one another. If we can do that — as we practice doing that, we may discover, or remember, that all our stories have so many more points of connection that we’d imagined, and that our future will be found as we take our place in the circle of teaching and learning, opening ourselves to being changed by the process.



Sermon: Wednesday, December 25, 2013: Nativity of Our Lord III — Christmas Day

Texts: Isaiah 52:7-10  +  Psalm 98  +  Hebrews 1:1-12  +  John 1:1-14

If you’ve worshipped here at St. Luke’s on Christmas morning any time in the last few years, then you might remember that 1.) I vastly prefer Christmas Day to Christmas Eve and 2.) I have a tendency to bring poems on Christmas morning.

Death by Chocolate

Death by Chocolate

Christmas Eve is lovely, don’t get me wrong, but it’s kind of like “Death by Chocolate” cake: Christmas carols and candlelight And angel choruses AND the baby Jesus. There’s so much heaped onto that one night, and then all the memories of every Christmas Eve ever. It’s a lot to live up to.

But Christmas morning brings all the catharsis of any good morning after.  By the clear light of day we can mull over the previous night’s events, try and put them in sequence, and see if we can make any sense out of them.

As for the poems, well, firstly I just love poetry and since this is a day for giving gifts, I’m inclined to share with you the gift of a good poem.  More to the point, however, the gospel reading appointed for Christmas Day each year comes from the first chapter of John, and is a kind of poem itself — a hymn to the Word that sounds as much like a poem as it does a creed:

In the beginning was the Word / and the Word was with God / and the Word was God. / He was in the beginning with God. / All things came into being through him, / and without him not one thing came into being. / What has come into being in him was life, / and the life was the light of all people. / The light shines in the darkness, / and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:1-5)

Since we do get the same readings each Christmas morning though, it seems kind to bring you something new to reflect on each passing December.  In former years I’ve brought you Wendell Berry and John O’Donohue, two of my favorites.  This year I’ve brought you a little Billy Collins, poet laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003 and, this past summer, guest host of The Writer’s Almanac.  This poem is entitled, “Christmas Sparrow” (from his collection of poems, “Nine Horses”)

"Nine Horses: Poems" by Billy Collins (Random House, 2002)

“Nine Horses: Poems” by Billy Collins (Random House, 2002)

The first thing I heard this morning

was a rapid flapping sound, soft, insistent —

wings against glass as it turned out

downstairs when I saw the small bird

rioting in the frame of a high window,

trying to hurl itself through

the enigma of glass into the spacious light.

Then a noise in the throat of the cat

who was hunkered on the rug

told me how the bird had gotten inside,

carried in the cold night

through the flap of a basement door,

and later released from the soft grip of teeth.

On a chair, I trapped its pulsations

in a shirt and got it to the door,

so weightless it seemed

to have vanished in the nest of cloth.

But outside, when I uncapped my hands,

it burst into its element,

dipping over the dormant garden

in a spasm of wingbeats

then disappeared over a row of tall hemlocks.

For the rest of the day,

I could feel its wild thrumming

against my palms as I wondered about

the hours it must have spent

pent in the shadows of that room,

hidden in the spiky branches

of our decorated tree, breathing there

among the metallic angels, ceramic apples, stars of yarn,

its eyes open, like mine as I lie in bed tonight

picturing this rare, lucky sparrow

tucked into a holly bush now,

a light snow tumbling through the windless dark.

The poet, Billy Collins, gives us an image we all know that captures a sensation I suspect we’ve all felt — the panic of a bird, or a bat, or any wild thing trapped inside and trying to get free.

In his book, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, Parker Palmer compares the human soul to just such a creature.  He writes,

“Like a wild animal, the soul is tough, resilient, resourceful, savvy, and self-sufficient: it knows how to survive in hard places. I learned about these qualities during my bouts with depression. In that deadly darkness, the faculties I had always depended on collapsed. My intellect was useless; my emotions were dead; my will was impotent; my ego was shattered. But from time to time, deep in the thickets of my inner wilderness, I could sense the presence of something that knew how to stay alive even when the rest of me wanted to die. That something was my tough and tenacious soul.”

Perhaps you know something about the tenacity of a soul trapped, frantic, beating its wings uselessly against a glass pane, while on the other side of the window life goes by filled with free people who seem to have learned a secret you are still deciphering.

The bird senses the light and longs for it, and even more, the bird longs to be free and to soar unfettered toward the light, but instead it tosses its body against the glass time and time again, unable to comprehend all that stands between the fear of the present and the promise of the future.

The prophet Isaiah says, “how beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘your God reigns.’” And that is true even when we cannot tell it is so.  John’s gospel shows us the other side of our encounter with freedom when he writes, “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.”

For too much of our Christian history we have read those verses as a condemnation of the children of Israel, as an indictment of the Jewish people, for not accepting Christ as the messiah, as the savior, when he came into the world. How foolish of us! As if any of us really has accepted the salvation God has offered in Christ Jesus. As if any of us has stopped beating our wings, or our heads, against the glass. As if any of us truly believes that God’s salvation comes to us as evidence of God’s goodness and not our own.

When I read, “he came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him,” I understand that passage to mean that in Christ, God came to a people so terrorized by the cruelty of the world, so occupied as nation, so frantic to be free that they could not perceive their liberation in the form in which it was presented.

Collins says, “on a chair, I trapped its pulsations in a shirt and got it to the door.” How brief and benign. Maybe you’ve been tasked with catching the wild animal that’s gotten trapped in your house, and you know how fiercely it will fight, how expertly it will flee, as you work to set it free.

Aren’t we like that? So determined to break through the glass, to get to the light on the other side, that we scarcely notice when the light has broken through to us.

After the bird has been set free, the poet’s protagonist reflects on the terror it must have felt, “For the rest of the day, I could feel its wild thrumming against my palms as I wondered about the hours it must have spent pent in the shadows of that room, hidden in the spiky branches of our decorated tree, breathing there among the metallic angels, ceramic apples, stars of yarn, its eyes open, like mine as I lie in bed tonight…”

These words, in particular, sound a word of grace for any of us who awoke this Christmas morning with something other than joy in their hearts.  We too, sometimes, can feel as though the trees, and the ornaments, and the entire season of Christmas casts a shadow so deep we get lost in it. The wild bird doesn’t want to make its home in the decorated holiday tree, it wants to escape the house and make its nest in the holly bush outside.

To you who still feel trapped this cold winter morning, who still struggle against the shadows cast by such tall traditions, I urge you to hold fast to the old poem’s words:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in his was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

Break forth together into singing, you wild souls; for God has comforted God’s own people. God has set the caged bird free to burst into its element which is light, and life, and liberation.

Merry Christmas and Amen.


Sermon: Tuesday, December 24, 2013: Nativity of Our Lord I — Christmas Eve

Texts: Isaiah 9:2-7  +  Psalm 96  +  Titus 2:11-14  +  Luke 2:1-20

I love traditions, and the holidays are full of them, but they come with a down-side.  They are, by their very nature, predictable.  We love traditions because they happen in a certain way, at a certain time, lending order to a chaotic world.

"National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation," Warner Bros., 1989.

“National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” Warner Bros., 1989.

This is also why traditions become such a rich source of humor — think “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” “A Christmas Story,” or “Home for the Holidays.” We all know, on some level, that the illusory order promised by our most beloved traditions can never hold up to the chaos of the world around us.

Take, for example, one of my favorite Christmas carols, “Silent Night,” which we’ll be singing at the close of worship tonight.

Silent Night, Holy Night / All is calm, all is bright / round yon virgin mother and child, / Holy Infant, so tender and mild, / sleep in heavenly peace…

That’s lovely, but how could it possibly be true?  “Away in a Manger” perhaps gets a little closer to the truth with “the cattle are lowing, the baby awakes,” but it then goes on to imagine that “little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” In fact, the story told by scripture is filled with noise.

Finding no place in the inn, the Holy Family gives birth to their first-born child in a barn. Miles away, a group of working-class shepherds encounter an angel of the Lord accompanied by a multitude of the heavenly host who cannot contain themselves as they break into songs of praise, saying “glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace among those whom God favors!” The shepherds immediately depart for Bethlehem, where they find Jesus and his family in a stable.

Why do you suppose we insist on imagining that Jesus and his family were so different from the rest of us, especially when the story goes to such great lengths to show us that in Jesus, God enters the stories of ordinary people, just as they are, to show God’s extraordinary love.

For instance, the shepherds whom God chose to be the first to hear the good news of Jesus’ birth. Not only were they out working the third shift, keeping watch over their flocks by night; they were not welcome most anywhere else. Shepherds’ work was not highly favored, and the people who did such work were looked on with suspicion not only by the secular authorities who worried they were troublemakers, but by the religious authorities as well, since they were too busy working to come to worship and were ritually unclean, so unwelcome in the Temple. In other words, that first Christmas Night, the shepherds — unlike us — weren’t at church, and that’s who God chose to break the news.

Once they arrived at the barn in Bethlehem, I imagine they found a royal mess. Mary had just given birth in a barn. That can’t have been easy, or quiet. Joseph was a new father who hadn’t had the luxury of a waiting room, but had been Mary’s only companion (other than whatever other animals made their home in the barn) during her labor.

Tired, alone, afraid. The first guests to arrive as Jesus enters the world are a group of disreputable, untrustworthy shepherds with a story so strange it would have been unbelievable if Mary and Joseph hadn’t already had their own share of strange encounters with God’s messengers. As Mary listened to their story, committing their words to memory and treasuring them, pondering them, I wonder if she recalled her own reaction to the Lord’s angel, which had prompted her to sing, “God has lifted up the lowly, filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

No, we don’t generally sing Christmas carols like that on Christmas Eve do we? Ones that remind us how common and ordinary and poor Jesus and Mary and Joseph were. We sing songs that impose order on a messy story, that tidy up the image of those first heralds of the newborn king, turning them into kindly night watchmen instead of the unlikely, uninvited houseguests they really were.

And thank God for that, because as much as we may crave the familiar and the predictable especially during the holiday season when we gather together with friends and family, our world desperately needs something unlikely, uninvited, and unpredictable to happen. It needs to be saved.

And if the God whose praises the angels sang that first Christmas night in Bethlehem is only interested in saving the folks who manage to make it to church on Christmas Eve, then God is too small to deserve such praise.

But in Jesus “the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all” (Titus 2:11) which means even the people who weren’t looking for salvation, who weren’t welcome in church, who couldn’t make it in the front door of the hotel so had to squat in the garage. The grace of God has appeared to noisy babies and disappointed relatives and ungrateful children. The grace of God has appeared to tired parents, and third-shift workers, and messengers of every kind.

The grace of God isn’t predictable. It doesn’t impose order on our chaos or whip us into shape. It enters into lives like ours, and lives nothing at all like ours, and blesses them with the greatest gift we never imagined: new life, surprising love, and a lasting peace.

So I just don’t believe, not for a minute, that it was a silent night. I don’t think the infant Jesus was a quiet, well-behaved baby, because God knows he didn’t grow up to be a quiet, well-behaved man. I choose to believe he came into the world kicking and screaming and making some noise, just to put Bethlehem, and Israel and all of creation on notice that something totally uncomfortable and totally necessary was coming their way.

But eventually, once the shepherds had left and Joseph took his turn holding the baby, and Mary had a moment of quiet — in that moment of silence — she could look at the great treasure that had entered her life and ponder the gift of the unlikely community already coming into being around him. In that moment of silence I suspect she realized that the holiness of this baby’s birth had nothing to do with tradition, or order, or silence.

Maybe there will be a moment, if not tonight then some night soon, amidst all the noise and chaos of this season when you will find a moment of silence; and maybe you, like Mary, who are bearing God into the world, can ponder what it means for you that God comes to us just as we are, keeping watch over our respective and various flocks by night, and that each time that happens the world is saved and made new.

Merry Christmas and Amen.