Sermon: Sunday, October 4, 2015: Fourth Sunday in Creation — Mountain Sunday

Texts: Isaiah 65:17-25  +  Psalm 48:1-11  +  Romans 8:28-39  +  Mark 16:14-18

IMG_0018I turned 42 on Friday, so I posted on my Facebook page, “I am the answer to life, the universe, and everything.” I thought the reference to Douglas Adams’ seminal classic The Hitchhiker’s Guide the Galaxy was self-explanatory, though many did not. My father, trying to be accommodating and corrective at the same time opined, “what you said is probably true — if it is also true for everyone.” Our brother, Bob Goldstein, expressed his concern that I’d gone off my meds. You could hear his eyes rolling as John Carlisle weighed in, “Oh, you Gen Xers and your sci-fi”; though Sara Spoonheim attributed my nerdiness to another cause, declaring, “that’s a boy book.”

Say what you will.  Whether it’s the fact that I was born in the 70s or identify as male, I do love sci-fi and fantasy and comic books, and I never grew out of it. I think it all started with the illustrated children’s bibles I read as a very young child, or maybe the Sunday School classroom that rendered Noah’s Ark, filled with two of every kind of animal, large enough to fill an entire wall. If we’re going to read these stories to children, we can’t be surprised if they grow up to believe that anything is possible.

So we get a vision of God’s future from the prophet Isaiah in which there is a new heaven and a new earth, where the wolf and the lamb dine together, and the lions have all become vegetarians; where the city no longer remembers the sound of weeping, because all its children live long and prosperous lives and no one is gentrified out of their homes or pushed off of the land (“they shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat” Isa. 65:22). Do you still think science fiction is just for boys?


Walter Brueggemann, captured by paparazzi.

In a lecture he gave here in Chicago two weeks ago on the prophetic imagination, biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann suggested that the reason prophets speak in poetry and Jesus taught in parables is because both of these forms of speech activate the imaginations of the listener.  You can already see how that is true in my rendering of Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable reign of God. The prophet says nothing about gentrification, just that “they shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.” (65:21) I made the leap to our present situation here in the city, I filled in the blanks in Isaiah’s poetic rendering of God’s future with the facts of our present. Poetry and parables, fantasy and sci-fi, cinema and comic books. All trying to wake our sleeping minds and our numbed souls with their message of hope: the world as it is is not the world as it was meant to be. Anything might yet happen. Wake up and dream!

tumblr_nmssnazawh1rom810o4_500One of my favorite comic books of all time is Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman.”  The series centers on a character named Dream, one of the seven Endless, anthropomorphized personifications of aspects of being. Dream, also known as the Sandman or Morpheus, is usually (though not always) represented as a pale, slender man who moves in and between the dreams of all sentient beings. His siblings are Destiny, Death, Desire, Despair, Delirium (who was once Delight), and Destruction (who abdicated his duties, explaining why destruction runs rampant throughout creation).

In the most recent storyline, Dream is called to witness the end of the universe — all of creation being snuffed out of existence. Gathered with a remnant of the living things that once filled every corner of the cosmos, Dream has a conversation with a version of himself that is also a cat (it makes sense in the ways that dreams make sense). Staring at the end of everything, the cat says, “We have only the slightest chance, but that is enough … because it is the nature of Dreams, and ONLY of Dreams to define reality. Destiny is bound to existence. Death is limited by what she will or will not accept.” So, at the precipice of universal extinction, dream reaches out to the last remaining souls and appeals to them, “don’t dream this universe, sad and over too soon. Dream the real world. A place in which a star died long, long ago, so that all of us could live. Make it different.” (“The Sandman: Overture”; iss. 6, Nov. 2015)


Why am I talking about comic books and dreamscapes on the final Sunday in the Season of Creation, on Mountain Sunday, at a moment in time when mountain tops are being scraped off and blown away to mine for natural gas? Why am I allowing myself to escape into flights of fancy when all of creation is crying out in labor pains that we fear may lead to a still birth? How do the voices of prophets from thousands of years ago matter when we hear the voices of scientists telling us we have less than a decade to change course or we risk runaway climate change, changes to the Earth’s environment, melting of the planet’s polar ice caps, that will flood the shores, alter the oceans, destroy marine ecosystems, and devastate the food chain that supports life as we know it. The situation is that dire, the threat is that real.

But you don’t need me to tell you that, because you’ve already heard it. You don’t need me to recite the laundry list of environmental degradations, you’ve read all about them. You don’t need me to rail against the horror of this most recent campus massacre, you’ve seen the footage. You don’t need me to reconstruct the final moments of Kelly Gissendaner’s life before the state of Georgia executed her. You don’t need me to tell you how many lives have been lost to the interconnected matrix of racism, poverty, misogyny, and environmental collapse.

Missy, The Doctor and ClaraSo let me tell you instead about this episode of Doctor Who I saw last week. The opening scene of the season premiere begins on a battlefield. Soldiers in mid-20th century uniforms carrying bows and arrows are being chased across an open field by bi-planes firing laser beams, suggesting a timeless, unending war. Stranded in a field of land mines (hand mines, actually, but it would take too long to explain) is a young boy, a victim of the relentless conflict. He is stuck, he cannot take a step without risking death.

Standing at the brink of death he hears a voice calling to him through the mists. It is The Doctor. “Now you’ve got to make a choice … you’ve got to decide that you’re going to live. Survival is just a choice, so choose — now! You have one chance in a thousand, but one is all you ever need. What’s your name? Come on! Faith in the future! Introduce yourself, tell me the name of the boy who isn’t going to die today.”

The Gospel of Mark would make an excellent comic book. We don’t often read these final verses from the longer ending, because they’re weird. Plenty of people who know more about scripture than I ever will feel pretty sure that these verses were added later, that they’re not part of the original story. In this longer ending Jesus appears after the crucifixion and resurrection to scold the disciples for their lack of faith and their stubbornness because they would not believe the testimony of those who’d seen him after he’d risen. He says, “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned.” (Mark 16:16)

It’s the kind of verse progressives avoid because it talks about salvation, and we’re so afraid that someone will think that we think that they’re not saved, even though we’re not sure what salvation is, and heaven, and all that, and yeah, whatever.

But listen again with the ears of someone living under the heel of a violent empire, someone who’s been pushed off the land, someone longing to belong to a future with hope. Then, make just one more tiny adjustment. Change the word “believe” to “dream.”

“Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. The one who dreams and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not dream will be condemned.”

5777536803_aea18034a7_bThe season of creation ends with hope, not because it is warranted, but because it is necessary. The season of creation ends with mountains, because in the biblical imagination, the mountain is the place where earth’s immanent suffering touches God’s transcendent healing. The mountain is the new heaven reaching the new earth. The mountain is the new Jerusalem, it is Zion, the city of God. The mountain is Moses bringing the law that saves. The mountain is Jesus preaching the sermon that reverses the relations of power. The mountain is the bizarre, surreal, dreamscape of the book of Revelation in which all the people of the world are finally gathered together in peace and creation is set right.

“Because it is the nature of Dreams, and ONLY of Dreams, to define reality.”

I’ve found a new respect for the longer ending of Mark, even if it is a later addition by entirely human beings who needed to say something else about what it means to live by faith in God in the face of annihilation by the powers and principalities of this world. Whoever that later author was, she was not afraid to dream a new ending to a story that gave her hope to keep fighting for the real world, a place in which a star died long, long ago, so that all of us could live. In her dream, Jesus said:

“And these signs will accompany those who [dream]: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.” (Mark 16:17-18)

Now let your imaginations rise up in you and take these words and dream with them. What demons will be cast out of your mind, out of our neighborhood, out of this world? What snakes, what ancient enemies, what fears, will you hold gently, tenderly, lovingly in your hands? Which waters will be purified, which seas will be cleansed? What bodies of land, bodies of water, bodies of the sick and dying, will you bless with your touch in the name of Jesus, the ancient light, the star that died so that we might live?

We have one chance in a thousand, but one is all we have ever needed. What is the name? Come on, faith in the future! Tell me the name of the planet that isn’t going to die today!

Make it different.


Sermon: Sunday, October 6, 2013: Feast Day of St. Francis (transferred)

Texts: Genesis 2:18-25  +  Psalm 148  +  Revelation 5:11-14  +  Matthew 6:25-29

The life of Francesco di Bernardone, the man history remembers as St. Francis of Assisi, is a life of stories. Stories surround the memory of this man who, legends say, calmed a marauding wolf, humbled the rich, and addressed all of creation — from the sun in the sky to the earth beneath his feet — as if each was a brother and sister in his family.

Francis is remembered as a man simultaneously filled with joy and haunted by pain — the pain of the world, which took on shape in his own body as he renounced his wealth in order to rebuild the church and care for the needs of the poor around him.

One of my favorite stories from the life of Francis recounts the day he confronted his father and renounced his wealth. His father, Pietro, was a wealthy textile merchant who’d hoped Francis would follow in his footsteps and inherit the family business.  Instead, Francis used his father’s wealth to rebuild a crumbling church and to feed the poor. Filled with the Spirit of God, Francis entered the city of Assisi to preach the good news of God’s infinite love, by turns dancing and weeping as he preached. Incensed by his son’s unauthorized expenses, and embarrassed by the ridicule of his friends and neighbors, Pietro drug his son before the bishop of Assisi to demand a verdict on his behavior.

"Saint Francis," by Nikos Kazantzakis

“Saint Francis,” by Nikos Kazantzakis

In his fictionalized account of the life of Francis, Greek author Nikos Kazantzakis sets the scene like this:

“Lord Bishop,” old Bernardone answered in a hoarse, exasperated voice, “this son of mine is no longer in his right mind. He has insane dreams, hears voices in the air, takes gold from my coffers and squanders it. He’s ruining me! Until recently he spent it in having a good time, and I said to myself that he was young and would get over it. But now I’ve finally lost all hope. He goes around with ragamuffins, sleeps in caves, weeps and laughs without rhyme or reason, and lately has been seized with a mania to rebuild ruined churches. But tonight this disease simply went too far. He came to Assisi and began to sing and dance in the middle of the square while everyone laughed … He is a disgrace to my blood. I no longer want him!”

“And so…?” asked the bishop, seeing Bernadone hesitate.

“And so,” said old Bernadone, holding his arm over his son’s head, “and so, before God and man I disown him, disinherit him. He is no longer my son.”

There was muffled whispering among the notables and people, but the bishop restored silence with a wave of his hand. He turned to Francis, who had been listening with bowed head.

“What do you have to say in your defense, Francis, son of Christ?”

Francis raised his head.

“Nothing,” he answered. “Only this —”

And, before any of us could prevent him, with a sudden movement he threw off the velvet clothes he was wearing, rolled them up into a bundle, and calmly, without uttering a word, stooped and placed them at [his father’s] feet.

Then, naked as the day his mother brought him into the world, he went and stood before the bishop’s throne.

“Bishop,” he said, “even these clothes belonged to him. I am returning them. He no longer has a son; I no longer have a father. Our accounts are settled.”

We all stood with gaping mouths; many eyes had filled with tears. Bernadone bent down, seized the bundle, and placed it beneath his arm.

The bishop descended from his throne. His eyes were wet. Removing his cloak, he wrapped it around Francis, covering his nakedness.

“Why did you do it, my child?” he asked in a melancholy reproachful voice. “Weren’t you ashamed before these people?”

“No, Bishop, only before God,” Francis replied humbly. “I am only ashamed before God. Forgive me, Bishop.”

The bishop of Assisi protects Francis from his disowned father’s violent wrath, provides him with a simple gardener’s robe to cover his nakedness, and escorts him to the courtyard of the church. Kazantzakis continues,

Bending over, he said to him in a hushed voice, “Careful, Francis. You’re overdoing it.”

“That’s how one finds God, Bishop,” Francis answered.

The bishop shook his head. “Even virtue needs moderation; otherwise it can become arrogance.”

“Man stands within the bounds of moderation; God stands outside them. I am heading for God, Bishop,” said Francis, and he proceeded hastily toward the street door. He had no time to lose.

All the texts assigned for this Feast Day of St. Francis find their home somewhere in this story.  Francis enters the town of Assisi filled with the vision of the heavenly chorus in the reading from Revelation, his sermon an extension of the ecstatic praise of the angels, and elders and all God’s creatures singing “to the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever.” (Rev. 5:13)

Then, as his father disowns him and he is stripped of his family name and inheritance, Francis stands defiantly naked before church and society, refusing to be shamed for his joy in the gospel. Beneath his wealth, beneath even his family associations, Francis knew that the deepest, truest fact of his existence was that he was one of God’s own beloved creations. In his testimony we hear echoes of Genesis, “and the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.” (Gen. 2:25)

Francis was immodest in his witness, immoderate in his living.  He stood in the line of the prophets of Israel whom we studied this past summer, willing to use his own life to make dramatic sign acts that testified to an extraordinary confidence in the providence of God. Even as the bishop of Assisi, his recent protector, covers his nakedness, guides him safely to the gates, and urges caution, Francis throws caution to the wind with words that sound like Jesus’ own from Matthew’s gospel, “do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” (Matt. 6:25)

Last week I began a 12-week class with the junior high and high school youth in our congregation.  We’re meeting the hour before worship on Sunday mornings to study the bible, skimming the entire book from beginning to end by focusing on its major themes. So, last week we began with creation, noticing that when God looked at what God had created, God declared that it was good.

One of the exercises we were invited to try out over the course of this past week was to either put sticky notes on our bathroom mirror, or to write with washable markers, characteristics we believe are true about God. So, if you were doing this exercise with us, your bathroom mirror might have framed the reflection of your face with words like, “creative,” “powerful,” “forgiving,” “loving,” “steadfast” and so on.

I loved this suggestion, because — at least the way I remember those years — junior high and high school can be so tough on our self-esteem.  We are so painfully conscious of all the ways we stick out. We want nothing more than to fit in. We can barely imagine making the kind of scene St. Francis did, the equivalent of marching into the cafeteria and making a huge, embarrassing spectacle of himself that ended with him standing naked in front of everyone he knew and disowned by his family.

The cast of Glee

The cast of Glee

Then I think about the TV show Glee, and how it’s not just young people who watch that show, but so many of us, Gleeks one and all. There’s something powerful about that show, the way that it invites us all, teens and adults, to dream about a different kind of reality. A world where all life’s daily humiliations are overcome with a song and a dance and a community of friends who will not let you go. A world where a Jewish Korean girl is elected prom queen; where the head cheerleader trades in her pom poms for the love of a nerdy, wheelchair bound boy; and a combined chorus of rival schools set aside their competitions to serenade two young men as they commit to a life of marriage to one another. It is a ludicrous comedy about the way we wish the world actually worked.

I wonder if the legends that follow St. Francis aren’t a bit like that.  In a time before television and Netflix, when we still gathered around campfires and came to church, we still hungered for stories of people who’d figured out how to learn from the life of Jesus and to make his story their own.

So we get Francis, who sang and danced his way through life, surrounded by the brothers minor and the poor clares, the brothers and sisters Francis and his friend and co-worker Clare gathered around them. We get scenes and stories from their lives, like episodes of a necessary dream, that keep hope alive that there is a place on this earth for all who feel too poor, too sick, too different, too far gone to ever belong to anything real, anything important.

But best of all, we get the church. Like the walls of San Damiano, the church that St. Francis restored and where St. Clare built her community of sisters, we have a building in need of restoration, but already filled with the songs and dances and arts of a hundred saints. Saints like you, who God sees through the eyes of love and calls good every day.

You see, the world’s necessary dream is not confined to an hour-long episode once a week, and it is not confined to the stories of brothers and sisters who lived and died eight hundred years ago.  The dream this world needs, God’s dream for the world, is enacted each time we gather here. It is the songs that surround the stories we tell week after week that counter the tales of terror that drench our morning news.  It is the warm sharing of peace with our neighbors in a world marked by too much hostility and suspicion.  It is the food shared at a table where all are fed in a neighborhood where food prices keep rising.  It is the daily witness and ministry of life that each of you is carrying out in your homes, on the streets, in classrooms and boardrooms. It is the life of the baptized, God’s glee club, singing God’s song dressed in nothing but the waters that gave them new life.

Your life, the life of St. Luke’s, the life of the church, the life of Christ, is a life full of stories. Stories of a people and a creation that God looks at with love and calls good, very good. Let love make you immodest in your witness, immoderate in your enthusiasm. Come, let us sing to the Lord!