Sermons

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,

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Wednesday, February 22, 2012: Ash Wednesday

Texts: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17  +  Psalm 51:1-17  •  2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10  •  Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

IMG_0865A week ago tonight my third godchild was born. Kai Gajilan Fowler, born on Wednesday, February 15th at 6:09pm. In her short week on earth, she is already the subject of hundreds of photographs, and each one convinces me that she is the most beautiful little girl I have ever seen. I felt exactly the same last year when my godson, Gabriel Benfield, was born; and I felt the same way almost 24 years ago when my first goddaughter, Katie Russell, was born. To be honest, each time I have the privilege of baptizing a child – infant or adult – I am struck by how beautiful they are.

In the first reading appointed for Ash Wednesday, the prophet Joel describes a moment of terror in the life of Israel, a day of darkness and gloom. His response is to urge the people to call an assembly and sanctify a fast. He says, “gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast.” (Joel 2:16)

The infants show up again in Psalm 51, traditionally attributed to King David and associated with a moment of confession when he’d been caught in his wickedness. He writes, “Indeed, I was born steeped in wickedness, a sinner from my mother’s womb.” (Ps. 51:5) Though this Psalm is written from the perspective of one person, when we sing it as an assembly we put King David’s words on our own lips and we are drawn into consideration of our own sinfulness.

Were we born steeped in wickedness, sinners from our mothers’ wombs?

I recall an evening almost a decade ago, sitting around a table in a pub back in my hometown of Des Moines, Iowa with a friend from childhood who’d grown up in the church, but who was not raising her children as Christians. In particular, she objected to this idea that her children – who are every bit as beautiful as my three godchildren – were somehow born in sin. She said, “look at them! How can you ask me to believe that these beautiful children were born with any kind of taint at all?! They are pure. They are goodness and joy, and I want to keep them that way as long as I can. I want to protect them from all the negative messages they’ll one day internalize, starting with this one.”

That desire to deny the presence of sin in those we love the most – our infants, our children – is so understandable. They are the closest we may ever come to pure love or pure joy. They are the essence of purity, and any attempt to assign sin to them seems like the real blasphemy.

As I sat in the waiting room with my goddaughter’s two mothers and one of her grandmothers, I pulled out my favorite book of Irish blessings and read one to my friend as she finished her final hours of labor. The book is To Bless the Space Between Us, by the Irish poet and author John O’Donohue. It was a gift to me one Christmas from my own mother. I was able to read the blessing For a Mother-to-Be, but before I could read the blessing As a Child Enters the World, the doctors came in and the heavy labor began. If I could have read the blessing to Kai on her birthday, she would have heard these words,

If my destiny is sheltered / May the grace of this privilege / Reach and bless the other infants / Who are destined for torn places.

If my destiny is bleak, / May I find in myself / A secret stillness / And tranquility / Beneath the turmoil.

May my eyes never lose sight / Of why I have come here, / That I never be claimed / By the falsity of fear / Or eat the bread of bitterness.

In everything I do, think, / Feel, and say, / May I allow the light / Of the world I am leaving / To shine through and carry me home.

That rich Irish blessing is, perhaps, the most beautiful meditation on the sinfulness of our world that touches even the lives of our infants as they are being born. Some are born sheltered, others into bleakness. And in truth, each of us will experience shelter and bleakness in our lives, but not equally. We are born into a world of inequalities and injustices. We are born into a body of life already broken, a fabric of being already torn. None of us comes into the world whole.

I have been meeting with more visitors to St. Luke’s in the last six months than I did in the entire previous year. Many of them have children they are looking forward to having baptized. I’m looking forward to baptizing them – though not until Easter comes. These forty days that begin tonight have been used by the church over the centuries to prepare people for baptism in a process called the catechumenate. We’ll be recapturing that emphasis on baptismal preparation throughout the season of Lent on Sunday mornings as we study portions of Luther’s small catechism each week, beginning this Sunday with Luther’s teaching on the Holy Sacrament of Baptism.

As we journey these forty days to the cross, you will be encouraged to keep up the disciplines we adopt tonight – the ancient Christian traditions of fasting, prayer and almsgiving. Too often, I think, we reduce these disciplines to a kind of renewal of our New Year’s Resolutions – a commitment to a kind of self-denial as a practice in empathy for the self-denial of Christ. That is fine and good, but I think the emphasis on the self misses the essence of what these disciplines are trying to shape in us.

These three disciplines are not separate options on a menu of spiritual practices, but rather pieces of a whole. During the season of Lent we are drawn to consider how, in the poet’s words, “the grace of this privilege [may] reach and bless the other infants who are destined for torn places.” We make the idea of that privilege concrete and real by choosing something common from our routine habits and fasting from that item throughout these forty days. In my case, I might choose coffee or dessert – but not because they are bad for me – instead because they are luxuries I take for granted. Then, as the forty days progress, each time I crave the cup of coffee or the dessert, I use that desire to remind me to stop and to pray for those whose lives do not afford the luxuries I take for granted. Finally, I give alms, I make an offering, I give the equivalent of what I would have spent on coffee or dessert (you fill in the blank here) to help create relief for those who suffer.

Do you see the difference? We’re not commending fasting, prayer and almsgiving as a self-oriented exercise in willpower. We’re inviting one another into these disciplines as a tangible exercise in compassion. What if I slip up and buy a cup of coffee, or dessert after dinner with friends? There is no failure of character here, no judgment of weakness. Instead there is simply an opportunity to be reminded, even then, of the ease with which we forget the suffering of those other children – young and old – whom God loves.

That, finally, brings us to the heart of these forty days. So often we do forget the suffering of those other children whom God loves. Not so for God. In the coming weeks we will follow behind Jesus, remembering his unwavering commitment to the poor and the suffering people of this world, a commitment that took him straight to the cross. As we purge our kitchens, as we silence our sanctuaries, as we empty out our lives; we are creating the space, the silence and the stillness in which we may be able once again to hear God’s voice calling us back to ourselves.

The time is now. Enter these forty days of Lent and return to the Lord your God. Return to yourself. In the stillness of this night, remember who you are and how deeply you are loved. As you are marked with these ashes, the sign that all life is fleeting, remember what you have been called to do with the time given to you, to “allow the light of the world [you] are leaving to shine through and carry you home.”

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, January 22, 2012: Third Sunday after Epiphany

Texts: Jonah 3:1-5, 10  •   Psalm 62:5-12  •   1 Corinthians 7:29-31  •   Mark 1:14-20

A couple weeks ago I mentioned the fact that I’ve worked in a variety of group homes and other residential settings for youth and adults with cognitive, emotional or developmental difficulties. Here’s a story from one of them, where I worked during my senior year at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. I love to tell this story. It’s one of my favorite parables of grace, so you may have heard it before.

During my last year of college I spent my Saturday mornings working at a group home for boys with emotional or behavioral concerns – kids who’d been removed from home and school because of violent or disruptive behavior. There were only about eight to ten kids in the house at a time, and two staff members charged with keeping order – making meals, planning outings, and creating opportunities for the boys to talk about their lives. In reality it often felt like refereeing a high-speed soccer match as the boys tumbled around the house fighting with each other and breaking anything that wasn’t nailed down to the floor.

The toughest kid in the house was also the youngest, a Native American boy named Kyle who’d grown up on a reservation in northern Minnesota and had seen his brother shot on the front lawn of their home. He was nine, but his anger at the world was so immediately palpable that all the boys made way for him when he entered the room. He was unpredictable and aggressive, and frankly he scared people.

I remember a morning that began like most others, but ended very differently.

Kyle started the day in a bad mood. He’d gotten a phone call from his family up north and he was upset. He didn’t know what to do with his feelings. He didn’t know how to talk about them, so he began picking fights with the other boys instead.

My co-worker and I were nervous for a couple of reasons. First, the other boys were having a pretty good morning and we were hoping to get everyone out of the house for an outing to the skating rink. That would keep everyone occupied and having fun, and would make our shift go faster. If Kyle started making trouble, the chain reaction of conflicts was sure to land everyone grounded in their rooms and kill any chance for an easy morning. Second, Kyle had a storm brewing behind his eyes, and we knew from experience that he could get so angry that the only way to keep him, and others around him, safe was to physically restrain him. Kyle was a biter and a scratcher, and restraining him was never easy. Understandably, we were nervous.

It didn’t take long for our anxieties to be realized. Kyle picked one fight after another with every boy in the house, and got everyone so upset that we had to send him to his room to keep the other boys from ganging up on him. Once in his room we hoped he would find the space he needed to calm down, but instead we heard the slow wreck of bookcases being pushed over and toys being smashed. Then, the sound of glass shattering as he threw a chair into the window. My co-worker stayed with the rest of the boys while I went to investigate.

Opening the door of the bedroom I saw Kyle sitting on the floor surrounded by shards of broken glass, catching his breath and looking for something else to break. He was the definition of a wild child, but beneath the anger I could see that there was also fear and confusion and heartbreak.

“Kyle, you’ve got to get control of yourself,” I said, “or you’ll get hurt.” He looked me straight in the eye, picked up a book from the pile he’d made and threw it at my head. “Kyle,” I said, “you can’t keep destroying the house and you can’t keep attacking everyone around you.” Of course, he saw right through me and we both realized that, in fact, he could keep destroying the house and attacking everyone around him. So I pulled out the final threat. “Kyle,” I said, “we can’t let you hurt yourself or anyone else. If you keep this up we’re going to have to restrain you.”

That was it, the threat he’d been waiting for. He picked up another book, a heavy one I seem to recall, and chucked it straight at me. He called my bluff. All my training told me that once you set a limit you have to be ready to enforce it if you want to maintain discipline and rebuild a sense of structure for the kids. He was so deliberate though. He’d worked the situation so methodically, escalating to the point where someone would have to step in and take control, and it occurred to me this may have been just what he wanted. Sensing a moment full of potential in front of me, I took a risk.

“Kyle,” I said, “I know you had a bad phone call with your family this morning, and that you’re really upset. I don’t want to restrain you if all you need is a hug. Think about it for a minute and let me know. If you just need a hug, all you have to do is ask.”

It was a long minute while Kyle thought it over. I sensed it could go either way as he fell silent, considering what I’d said. Then his answer came. “Really?” And I walked across broken glass and scattered toys and sat down next to him. He folded into my arms and started to cry.

Jesus approaches those who would be his disciples and says, “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe the good news.” The apostle Paul writes, “the appointed time has grown short…for the present form of this world is passing away.” What both Jesus and Paul are telling us is that we live in a time when the good news of God is trying to break through the ordinary time of our lives, when opportunities for seeing the holy wrapped up in the ordinary, or the beloved wrapped up in the enemy, are right before our eyes.

Let’s stop here for just a minute and take this in. Today, this morning, right now, God has drawn near to us – to you – to call you away from your rage, or your fear, or your shame. Can you find that place in yourself? The place where you still feel small, still feel helpless or hopeless. Still feel alone. It may not be difficult for you to find. You may feel like that’s the place where you live, day in and day out. Or maybe you’ve locked those feelings up, hidden them away, and tried to forget they exist. The nagging worry that you have disappointed your parents, your children, your friends, your spouse. The grief of a love lost, or not yet found.

What happens when those feelings are left to fester? Pain can only be tolerated for so long before it transforms into some more tolerable sentiment. Maybe apathy. Maybe anger. Is that how we come to hold such bitter grudges towards the people we love and care for the most? Is it easier to hate, than to hold out hope that change may yet happen?

Jonah is sent to Ninevah, the home of his worst enemies, to announce their need for repentance. He expects nothing from them, worse than nothing, but miraculously they hear God’s call to repent and the entire nation, from the king to the common subject, turns from its violence and realigns itself with God’s work in the world.

Who have you given up on? Who have you written off? What would it take for you to shake off your discouragement, your disgust, and go after the very people you’ve come to regard as your enemies seeking not vengeance, but reconciliation?

Jesus calls to Peter and Andrew, James and John, and they drop everything to follow him. These ordinary people, living at the economic and social edge of Empire, treated their whole lives like “the help,” like cogs in the machine; when Jesus looks at these people and sees the whole of them, inside and out, they immediately leave the lives they’ve known behind and follow him.

Jesus sees you as well. Not just the “you” you present to the world, but the you that sits in the middle of the room surrounded by the broken pieces of your life. Jesus sees your jealousy. Jesus sees your anger. Jesus sees your shame. Jesus sees your guilt. Jesus sees all of you, and Jesus loves you completely. There is need to wait for the other shoe to drop. There is no point at which the whole truth comes out and God can no longer love you.

God sees you laboring down on the shore of your life, trying so hard to bring in a haul large enough to justify your place at the table. Rather than counting the fish in your net, or the good deeds in your day, or the dollars in your bank account, Jesus is calling you to leave the nets behind and follow him. The mess that you’re in, that we’re all in, isn’t one we can clean up by ourselves. We will need more than ourselves. We will need each other, everyone, all together. That is why Jesus calls us to go fishing for people instead.

The call to repentance is a calling from God to turn away from our sin. Modern ears, ears like ours, hate this word sin. We tend to immediately shut down, as memories or stereotypes of a religion of guilt and shame come to mind. That’s not the ancient understanding of sin though.

web in broken glass

Throughout the long history of Christianity sin has been understood less as a list of things that should not be done, more as a condition of the soul. A reality of human life. Like a doctor diagnosing you with pneumonia, it’s not something you do – it’s something you have. Sin is the reality of brokenness, like the shards of glass from the window that littered the floor, or the heart of the little boy whose family was destroyed by violence, or the children who gather in schoolhouses filled with bullet casings after the bombing ends. Sin is the web of brokenness in which we live our lives.

“Follow me and I will make you fish for people,” Jesus says. Repentance, turning from sin, takes the form of discipleship where we are knit into a human net and cast out into the chaotic waters of life where people are hurting and drowning in their pain. “I will make you fish for people,” is God’s call on our lives to watch and to listen for those moments when hostility can be converted to hospitality. “Fishing for people” is not just a catch phrase for recruiting new members to the church, it is evangelism of a different order. Good news that looks like swords being beaten into plowshares. “Fishing for people” is another way to think about our relationship to the enemy, like Ninevah, which today lies across the river from Mosul, in Iraq. A way of relating to those who are not only different from us, but who we believe are irredeemably against us.

Jesus’ call to repentance is not a divine scolding, it is a divine invitation. It is an invitation to turn away from the web of brokenness and to be caught in the net of God’s loving embrace. God wants to catch us in our freefalling lives before we hit the ground, before we hurt ourselves or someone else yet again. God wants to restrain us with the freedom to be new people. God sees our suffering, our confrontational provocations of one another as individuals and clans and nations and wonders if, perhaps, we might be willing to trade fits of violence for evidence of love. Then God sends us out to be that evidence.

The invitation to Christian discipleship may be imagined as this: the assembly that gathers here each Sunday and joins hands as we pass peace, or joins hands as we bless one another for the week ahead, is the very tool that God has at God’s disposal as God sets out to heal the world with love.

We find ways to hold fast to each other so that the mesh of our interconnectedness will be strong enough to hold fast to the world as it gets caught in our nets. Hold tight to one another, sisters and brothers, and together we will fish for people.

Amen.

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