Sunday, September 3, 2017: Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Jer. 15:15-21  +  Ps. 26:1-8  +  Rom. 12:9-21  +  Matt. 16:21-28

IMG_1120We’re getting close to the end, can you feel it?

In both Paul’s letter to the Romans and Matthew’s account of Jesus’ ministry, the end is coming into view. For Paul, this takes the shape of what sound very much like parting words, “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; Love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor” (Rom. 12:9-10) and so on. In Matthew, the inevitable end is the cross but when Jesus begins to speak plainly about it, Peter demonstrates a certain level of denial about what Jesus has been doing and what it will cost him.

Gen-Net-drafts-768x768Coincidentally, perhaps, St. Luke’s is in a very similar moment. By now you’ve heard the announcements, you’ve gotten the postcard encouraging you to sign up for a pair of dinner conversations, and in just a few weeks now you’ll begin “workshopping the story” of just how it is that St. Luke’s proposes to be a powerful church that transforms lives and changes the world. The conversations you have in these small groups will shape the narrative that will become the basis for your 2018 budget — which is another way of saying, what you are doing and what it will cost you.

When Jesus gets clear about what he is doing and what it will cost him, he begins to describe the inevitable conflict that will occur in Jerusalem when he brings his life-giving, liberating message of divine love to the local seat of imperial power. He fully understands that his ministry will raise tension and unmask the ongoing violence between the empire and the colonized in such a way that the system of domination will use every tool at its disposal to end the conflict quickly. For the Roman Empire in the first century, this meant crucifixion.

It’s absolutely important to understand this because, without this understanding, Jesus’ words to his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,” sound like an encouragement to passive acceptance of pain and suffering in their lives. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard people say something along the lines of “we all have our crosses to bear” as a way of saying “life is hard and painful.” That is not what Jesus is saying. Jesus is not asking those who follow him to resign themselves to lives of chronic pain and crushing burdens.

Instead, Jesus is asking for something much harder. Jesus is asking the disciples to examine their lives and discern the ways that life under the empire has forced or enticed them into settling for something less than their full humanity. Jesus wants those who follow him to get clear about what is at stake for them in the upcoming conflict, to know their own story of oppression so that they can maintain the resolve to struggle for their own liberation. Jesus acknowledges that the empire has more than one tool at its disposal when it comes to keeping us in line. It can threaten us with the cross, or it can buy us by offering us access to the goods it unjustly extracts from others. Speaking to this dynamic, Jesus asks, “For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?” In other words, how much is your life — your integrity — worth? What’s your price?

When Jesus asks those who follow him to take up their cross, he actually means their cross. He doesn’t say, take up your neighbor’s cross and follow me. He says, “let them take up their cross and follow me.” For an example of what this can look like, we need look no further than the labor movement which brought us this 3-day weekend we’re celebrating right now.

644427_846847908334_5572230673972944578_nIf you were with us on Palm Sunday two years ago, then you’ll remember how we stood with fast food workers in the fight for a living wage, the #FightFor15. For most of us, this was not an act of taking up our cross — it was an act of solidarity with those whose livelihoods were actually on the line, those who’d taken stock of how the machine of modern day empire was getting rich off their backs, and who’d gotten organized so that they could confront the system of domination that extracted wealth from their labor without paying them enough to buy food, cover rent, and pay for their families’ healthcare and other needs. The workers whose hands we blessed, who served us holy communion and then marched with us to the McDonald’s where those same hands served fast food to nameless consumers day after day, understood that they might lose their jobs in this fight, that something was at stake for them, but they were not swayed from their goal.

Part of what it means for St. Luke’s to be a powerful church that transforms lives and changes the world is a commitment to helping each member of this community begin to see more clearly how the current arrangement of power and wealth has harmed each one of us, has diminished our fullness of life, has compromised our integrity, has purchased our complacency and our complicity. One of the ways that has happened in the last year is through the public faith trainings that Erin led, and will lead again in the fall. The outcome of community organizing done well is that we each get in touch with our own story of oppression — and, yes, I mean each of us, because there is no way of life under the system of domination, what we used to call empire but which now goes by other names, that escapes oppression.

Fundamentally, empire divides and conquerers. So capitalism not only harms workers, but the middle and owning classes as well. Racism dehumanizes not only people of color, but so-called White people as well. Sexism and gender oppression supply us all with painful, restrictive patterns for relating to our own bodies and the bodies of others. Nationalism creates false solidarity within invented borders at the expense of our neighbors, who are actually our siblings in the vast human family.

There are exciting times ahead for you, St. Luke’s. I can see it. Exciting and difficult, because you have heard Jesus’ call to take up your cross and follow and you have. You have and you will again. When it seems unclear to you just what that cross is, I encourage you to go back and read this passage from Romans again. As you listen to Paul describe what it means to live in loving harmony with one another, examine your life for the forces and influences, the stories and the histories, that make it hard for you to do so. There, in the tragic gap between God’s vision for human life and our experience of it, is the cross — your cross and our cross to bear together as we follow Jesus in a faith that demands everything and promises something even better in return: our humanity, redeemed and restored.


Sermon: Sunday, September 9, 2012: Season of Creation — Humanity Sunday

Texts:  Genesis 1:26-28; 2:7-8,15,19  +  Psalm 8  +  Philippians 2:1-8  + Mark 10:41-45

Good morning to you all.  If you worship here at St. Luke’s with us at all regularly, you’ve probably noticed that our assembly is a little larger than usual this morning.  If you haven’t noticed that, you’re probably among the group of people who are here this morning to celebrate with Justin Dluzak and his family his great achievement in earning the rank of Eagle Scout.  Welcome to you all, to Troop 115 in particular, and thank you for all of the ways you are exercising careful and faithful stewardship of our most precious natural resource — our children.

So, let’s do see a show of hands.  How many people in the room this morning are Boy Scouts?  How about Girl Scouts?  And how many of you are Eagle Scouts, or Gold Award Girl Scouts?

Alright.  Now, how many of you are Christians?  And how many of you are really good Christians?  It feels like a trick question, doesn’t it?  We’re not even sure such a category exists, but if it does, we’re fairly certain we don’t get to put ourselves in it.  There are no Christian merit badges or ranks.  There is only baptism and discipleship.  Confession and forgiveness and fellowship at the table of the Lord’s Supper.

Still, we long to know that we’re on the right track, that we’re doing the right things, that we’re getting ahead.  Each fall the students go back to school, they advance a grade, they show progress toward goals with the hope of graduation — from grade school, from high school, from college, from grad school.  Each year a new batch of people enter the workforce, get a foot in the door, get promoted, get tenure, receive a call, make partner.  We work hard to get ahead.  We judge our progress by the rate at which we advance, by the ways we set ourselves apart, above, each other.

It seems to be hardwired into us, the desire to distance and distinguish ourselves from each other.  Even the disciples struggled with a sense of competitive ambition.  The reading from the gospel of Mark this morning seems to begin mid-sentence, “When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John.” (Mk. 10:41)  Here’s what’s happened.

James and John, brothers and disciples of Jesus, have just heard Jesus teaching on the cost of discipleship. First a rich young man approaches Jesus to ask him what must be done to inherit eternal life.  The inquirer tells Jesus he has already done everything required by the law, and Jesus tells him to go beyond what is required to what is needed.  He says, “you lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (Mk. 10:21) The people are shocked by his teaching, and they begin to ask each other, “then who can be saved?” (Mk. 10:26)

But Peter, a leader among the disciples, points out to Jesus, “look, we have left everything and followed you.” (Mk. 10:28) In reply, Jesus offers the strange reassurance, “truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age — houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions — and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” (Mk. 10:29-31)

This is not a clear system of reward and promotion.  This is an HR director’s nightmare.  Jesus says that the life of discipleship reverses the expectations of hard work and advancement.  There is no Eagle Scout court of honor for those who follow the LORD.  In fact, it’s just the opposite.  As they continue along the road, Jesus pulls the twelve aside and says to them, “See, we’re going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.” (Mk. 10:33-34)

And it’s at this moment, after Jesus has taught the crowds that the cost of discipleship is absolute, after he’s shared with the disciples that he is leading them along the road that ends at the cross, it’s at that moment that James and John step forward and say, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” (Mk. 10:35)  And Jesus asks what it is that they want.  They say, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” (Mk. 10:37)

It’s such a painfully awkward moment, made all the more painful because of how recognizable it is.  James and John may seem deaf to Jesus’ teaching and oblivious to their surroundings, but no more than most of us.  We, who come to church week after week, who labor hard to live a good life, still torture ourselves and each other trying to get ahead, when Jesus is inviting us to get behind.  To get behind our children.  To get behind our co-workers.  To get behind our neighbors.  To get behind each other, and — particularly during this season of creation — to get behind the Earth.

It may seem odd that we celebrate a “Humanity Sunday” during this season of creation in which the surrounding Sundays have names like “Planet Earth Sunday,” “Sky Sunday,” “Mountain Sunday,” and “Animals Sunday.”  We are conditioned to think of ourselves, to imagine ourselves, as being set apart from the rest of creation.  How can we be like the planet?  It is a place and we are people.  How can we be like the sky or the mountains?  They are inanimate and we are alive. How can we be like the animals?  They act on instinct and we act on reason.  Aren’t we set apart from all these thing?  Don’t they exist for our benefit, not we for theirs?

That is the way many of us have been taught to understand even our own creation stories.  That God created the world as some kind of garden paradise for our own benefit, and gave us dominion over it, to do with as we pleased.  Students of the bible know that Genesis doesn’t just give us one creation story, but two, and that the stories can’t — and aren’t intended to be — synchronized into one.  You hear clips from both stories this morning.  In Genesis 1, the first story, God tells humanity to “fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion” (Gen. 1:28) over it.  In Genesis 2, the second story, God puts humanity in the garden “to till it and keep it,” (Gen. 2:15) though this is perhaps not the best translation of the Hebrew, which could also read “to serve and preserve it.”  Either way, the difference between the first story and the second is the difference between getting ahead and getting behind.  Is the Earth here to serve us, or us it?  What does it mean to be a human, created in the image and likeness of God?

It is to this point that Paul addresses himself as he writes to the church in Philippi.  For Paul, the cost of discipleship has been imprisonment, and it is from prison that Paul writes this letter to a community he cares for deeply and whose generosity is remembered not only by Paul but in the book of Acts as well.  The verses we read this morning are considered by some as the beginnings of the field of theology known as Christology, or reflection on the person of Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ.  Because Paul’s letters are, in fact, older than the gospels themselves, we believe that what we read here in Philippians is the early Church’s emerging understanding of who Jesus was in relation to God.  Paul writes,

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.” (Phil. 2:3-8)

This is what we hope it means to be a Christian, or an Eagle Scout for that matter, which is why I asked Justin to read this passage this morning.  It is our hope that in recognizing him before this congregation, his family and friends and his peers, we are not simply rewarding hard work, but also recognizing a set of values that run counter to the ones that too often prevail in the world around us.  Jesus recognizes as much when he says,

“You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve…”(Mk. 10:42-45)

We aren’t just celebrating the culmination of a series of merit badges, but affirming a childhood spent developing qualities of character — trustworthiness, loyalty, obedience, bravery, reverence and all the rest.  The badges earned along the way were markers of growth into a pattern of life capable of sustaining these traits, traits that the world needs, that the very planet needs during this time of ecological crisis.

And while we celebrate Justin’s achievements this morning, these traits are not reserved for him alone.  You are all laboring to get behind one another, in your homes and in your workplaces.  We are still small enough as a community to know each other’s stories well. We know that among us are those who have been wiping noses and changing diapers, and there are those who have been sitting at bedsides, keeping watch during dying days.  We know that there are those who been laboring to find work, and those who have been working on behalf of those who labor.  We know that there are servants scattered all among us, patiently, quietly, faithfully serving our neighbors, in hospitals, in schools, on the bread line.

Dear friends, you are good Christians, which doesn’t mean that you are perfect, or puffed up with the pride of contraband works righteousness.  It simply means, you are the baptized people of God, welcomed at this font, fed at this table, gathered and sent for the sake of God’s world.  Together, we are the ones who get ahead by getting behind, and we continue to learn how to do this together; good by the grace of God who created all things and gazed on them and called them good; taught by the one who makes us one, Jesus Christ our Lord, in whom lordship takes the form of service to all creation.

Justin, we congratulate you on your significant achievement this day and we pray that in your life you will continue to show us and to lead us into deeper service to our neighbors and the whole creation.

In the name of Jesus,