Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, July 12, 2015: Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: 2 Samuel 6:1-5,12b-19  +  Psalm 24  +  Ephesians 1:3-14  +  Mark 6:14-29

I was having a conversation about faith this past week with someone who asked me if you have to believe all the things we’ve heard Christians believe in order to belong.  It’s a really common question, as you know, because many of you have asked me the same thing.  I gave the sort of answer I think I usually give, which is to say that I don’t think Christianity is primarily about believing the right things, but about the practice of standing up for those beliefs which will put you at odds with a world that is always trying to convince you to remember your place, but lies to you about what that place is.

My fear about the role of beliefs in the experience of Christian faith, I continued, is that we so quickly turn them into criteria for inclusion, whether that be in the church on earth or in some concept of heaven we’ve developed that exists only for those who’ve proven themselves good enough at thinking and doing the right things to get in.  We make belief the high bar you have to vault over to belong, though I am convinced that the message of grace is that there is no bar at all.  By the grace of God, who created us in and for love, you already belong.  You belong to yourself.  You belong to your family.  You belong to the land.  You belong to God.

The extent to which we already feel as though we do not belong — that our bodies are not our own, that our place in our families is conditioned on becoming and remaining the right kind of person, that our experience of life on this earth is determined by fictitious lines drawn across the face of the planet that assign freedoms and resources to some and dictate hunger and poverty for others, that we doubt we could ever be known and loved by God — is a sign of the sinful brokenness of the world around us.

The conversation stuck with me long after it ended, and I kept thinking of other ways I might have answered the question.  It occurred to me that another way of getting at the testimony I was trying to give would have been to say that for all the emphasis on what Christians say they believe, I think it’s just as important for us to name what we do not believe.

This Roman currency minted ca. 18 B.C. shows an image of Caesar with the Latin inscription "divi filius" or "Son of God."

This Roman currency minted ca. 18 B.C. shows an image of Caesar with the Latin inscription “divi filius” or “Son of God.”

For example, our creeds teach us to say, “I believe in Jesus Christ, the only Son of God.”  If we stopped right there and excavated that statement of faith from history, we would remember that in Jesus’ time the title “Son of God” was already taken by the emperor.  Naming Jesus the Son of God wasn’t radical because it claimed divinity for a human being. It was radical because it said that imperial authority and divine authority were not one and the same. It was saying, “I do not believe that the emperor is God’s agent on this earth. I do not believe that wealth and power make right.”

Jesus was not the first person to stand up to wealth and power and call them to account. In this morning’s gospel we hear the story of the death of John the Baptist, who was killed for standing before King Herod and telling him that all his power and wealth did not entitle him to take whatever he wanted.  Herod had taken his brother Philip’s wife, Herodias, a violation of the Jewish law that bound both the king and his subjects. In the great tradition of biblical prophets, John spoke truth to power and paid the price.

What I find tragic about this story, and convicting for me, is how the gospel of Mark describes Herod’s ambivalence about John the Baptist. Though he has John jailed for speaking out against him, Herod does not immediately kill him.  He recognizes that John’s accusations are true, and that he is a righteous and holy man. “When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.” (Mark 6:20) He is stuck in a conflict between his role and his soul.

In a former life, one in which I worked with teenagers for a living, we used to talk a lot about limits, and how essential they are for establishing safety.  Children are constantly testing their environments for the invisible lines that divide acceptable from unacceptable.  When adults fail to clearly establish those lines, children feel unsafe and act out in terrible ways.

Excessive power and wealth seem to make children out of grown people.  The idea that “everything has a price” creates the illusion that wealth transcends limits with destructive consequences.  The bible illustrates that principle with Herod’s desire for his brother’s wife, but we see the same dynamic playing out all around us every day.  When employers exploit the labor of their workers because no one is watching, or because the laborers are undocumented, we see the lie that power and money make right at play.  When states such as our own threaten to withhold pay from government workers and cut services to those who are poor, elderly, in recovery, or ill in order to preserve imbalanced systems of taxation that treat corporations like people and people like cogs in the machine, we see the lie that power and money make right at play. When nations use military might to keep the global balance of power tipped in favor of the relatively wealthy at the expense of the undeniably poor, we see the lie that power and money make right at play.

Like children, our employers, our states and nations, need limits in order for the world to remain safe for those who are crushed and exploited by the powerful and the wealthy.  I think Herod, on some level, knew that.  I think his attraction to John’s message exposes the fact that, beneath his title, beneath his power and wealth, he is still a human being whose conscious can be swayed. At least I think that’s the point the story is trying to make, and it’s a point worth remembering.  Behind every corporate hierarchy, inside every state bureaucracy, there are people who are trying to balance the obligations of their roles with the dictates of their souls.

We know this because we are those people.

How often have we, in our own lives, found ourselves defending the organizations we work for at the expense of those they exist to serve?  How often has the “greater good” been used as an excuse for the status quo?  Can’t we all, on some level, relate with Herod — who knows that John is right, who is drawn to his message, but who capitulates to his wife in a demonstration of power and wealth in front of his guests.  Haven’t we all, at some point, ignored the voice within us to appease the voices around us?

The reason we so often begin our worship with a confession of sin is because we know that we do. We do ignore the voice within to satisfy the voices around. We do maintain the status quo when change is needed. We do avoid the uncomfortable interaction, the difficult conversation, the formal complaint, the organized protest. We do overlook the harm we cause while still demanding justice from others, and we confess these things regularly so that we can stay alert for all the ways these patterns of complicity are daily recruiting us into a system of lies in which we do not believe.

We do not believe that our humanity is defined by our nationality.

We do not believe that justice and vengeance are the same thing.

We do not believe that food and shelter and health are commodities to be withheld.

We do not believe that violence is the precondition for safety.

We do not believe that our skin color or our native tongue determine our worth.

We do not believe that poverty is an acceptable price for progress.

We do not believe that anyone’s life is more legitimate than any other’s, but instead that we have all been adopted as children of God, heirs to the promise of grace and forgiveness, which is the assurance that the bar is not high, it is not even low. There is no bar. We all belong, to ourselves, to each other, and to God.

And we know there is such joy in this belonging that we cannot help but share it.  Like David dancing in the streets and feeding the people, we are wanton in our love for those the world calls unlovely.  Like John, we cannot help but speak truth to power.

This is why so many people have been gathering downtown on Mondays in a growing movement called “Moral Mondays Illinois” to protest the failure of our state government to take the actions necessary to protect and provide for the most vulnerable people in our communities. Last month our bishop, Wayne Miller, got arrested at one of the Moral Monday protests.  In a letter explaining his decision to take part in the protests he said,

Bishop Wayne Miller, Metropolitan Chicago Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

Bishop Wayne Miller, Metropolitan Chicago Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

“The ideal that all are created equal is betrayed by the glacial advance of a new age of racism, classism, gender bias, spatial segregation, life-annihilating violence, and general disregard for the well-being of others. The ideal that all are afforded equal access to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is betrayed by the unconstrained rise of an oligarchy of fabulously wealthy tycoons and corporations, to which the courts have granted civil rights without demanding civic responsibility in return …

It is therefore incumbent upon Christian leaders, not merely as a matter of civic responsibility, but as a matter of evangelical necessity, to speak and act in a way that places the Church clearly and unambiguously in community with the God who was betrayed by standing in solidarity with those … whose trust is being betrayed by government that has forgotten that it exists to defend the well-being of the vulnerable, the broken, and the marginalized, against the crushing force of unrestrained wealth and social privilege, even if this solidarity — this withdrawal of consent — leads to arrest and punishment.”

I will be gathering tomorrow morning at 10:30am at the James Randolph Center on LaSalle St downtown for the next Moral Monday protest, where at least 200 other people of faith are expected to be as well. My goal is not only to participate in the protest, but to listen to the voices and stories of those whose lives are placed in jeopardy by the failure of our elected leaders to govern wisely. I want to hear their stories first-hand so that I can share them with you and with others more accurately. I invite you to join me.

Paul writes to the Ephesians, “In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people…” (Eph. 1:13-14)

The word of truth is the witness of Jesus’ humanity in the face of the world’s inhumanity, the fact of his solidarity with all the poor and oppressed, the challenge of his non-violent confrontation with power, his life poured out for others, and finally the assertion that he is not dead. That power and wealth, that violence and empire, have not ended his life because it lives in us. It is our salvation. It is our inheritance. It is our song. It is our dance. It is our cry whenever we assemble to declare now the year of the Lord’s favor, the jubilee, the foretaste of God’s preferred future breaking into the present. That is what we believe.

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, February 23, 2014: Seventh Sunday after Epiphany

Texts: Leviticus 19:1-2,9-18  +  Psalm 119:33-40  +  1 Corinthians 3:10-11,16-23  +  Matthew 5:38-48

As books of the bible go, Leviticus has kind of a bad rap, mainly because of its preoccupation with rules and laws.  This is, after all, the book that gave us such gems as:

It shall be a perpetual statute throughout your generations, in all your settlements: you must not eat any fat or any blood. (Lev. 3:17)

which rules out the best steaks I’ve ever had, and

You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard. (Lev. 19:27)

which I regularly defy every time I pull out my electric razor; not to mention a range of laws defining who you may and may not lay with that has left many of us a little beaten and scarred in the great culture wars of the last fifty years. So, it’s not often that I preach on Leviticus.

The lectionary seems to have picked up on our aversion to this book of the bible, since this morning’s passage is actually the only time we’ll hear from Leviticus all year long.  That’s right. In an odd twist of liturgical fate, the book of the bible most often cited to support legislating human behavior is one of the least read books of the bible, at least in terms of the portions we read together in worship.

Lucky for us then that the passage we read this morning is a bit of a greatest hits medley from the book of Leviticus.  Today we hear verses that sound quite an awful lot like the Ten Commandments,

You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another. And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God. (Lev. 19:11-12)

And we hear words that we associate with Jesus, though he himself is quoting Leviticus,

You shall love your neighbor as yourself. (Lev. 19:18)

But the verses I want to inspect with you for just a few minutes this morning are not that familiar and, on the surface, not that applicable to our everyday lives. The passage we hear Jossy read this morning begins,

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the LORD your God. (Lev. 19:9-10)

When we study rules and laws, one generally safe assumption is that the rule exists because it has already been broken.  We don’t tend to make rules about things no one does, or ever could do.  We don’t legislate how quickly pigs are allowed to fly, or how much wood a woodchuck may chuck if, in fact, a woodchuck can chuck wood.  But Leviticus does set rules for how a landowner should go about reaping the harvest for which she or he has labored.

Apparently in ancient biblical times landowners would become so zealous to make a profit from their hard work that they would strip their vineyards bare, they would gather not only the grapes of the vine, but the ones that had fallen to the ground as well.  Whatever could be used to make the wine that sold at market and brought wealth and security to the landowner’s family.

Actually, come to think of it, this just sounds like good business.  The whole point of laboring all throughout the growing season is to bring in a harvest that will generate a profit, after all.  Landowners don’t go into business, whether in the vineyard or in real estate, to just get by.  They work, and often they work very hard, in order to turn a profit. To do well for themselves and their families.  In fact, not just land owners, but all kinds of business owners, work under a set of governing assumptions about the way the market works.  Assumptions like the idea that supply and demand are the best way of determining the value of a good. There’s nothing terribly Machiavellian about that idea, it’s just business as usual.

That’s what makes this law, buried in the book of Leviticus, so provocative to me. It seems to suggest that there’s something flawed, something wrong with some of the most basic structures that undergird our ways of interacting with one another.

Apple Orchard 2

There’s something poetic about the way this law is stated: “you shall not reap to the very edges of your field… you shall not strip your vineyard bare.”  It paints a picture.  Sometimes I go apple picking in the fall, around October, so I can bake some real homemade apple pies. If I go late in the season, I can see that the trees have already been picked over. The low hanging fruit has already been harvested, and now all that’s left are the hard-to-reach apples, or the ones that have fallen on the ground and already begun to rot just a little.

Leviticus imagines a very different kind of operation, one in which not only the easy money, but the marginal profit has been squeezed down to the very last penny.  If a good has any value at all in the free market, then it belongs to the owner who is entitled and even expected to strive to get the highest price she can; even when the good, the item being sold, is something required for life. Something like food, or housing.

If you’ve been at Community Dinners, then you’ve seen this Levitical law at work.  We serve food from the second harvest — leftover bread from Panera, vegetables from the Greater Chicago Food Depository that was sourced from larger food distributors and producers. In the summer, we send volunteers out to the Logan Square Farmers’ Market to gather the gleanings of that harvest for the poor and the alien in our land. There is a generosity of spirit and a beautiful kind of neighborly friendship that has developed between Pat and Dorothea Kuhlman and the farmers who wait for them each Sunday, knowing that the leftovers that didn’t sell will still provide for people who need what the land produces, whether they can afford it or not. There is a law at work, deeper than supply and demand, that these landowners and laborers remember: that we belong to each other, that we rise and fall side by side, that we’re all in this together.

1902752_1405070206413799_1846997853_nA few months ago I got a call from Terry, one of the guys who volunteers regularly at the Community Dinners, some of you know him pretty well.  He lives in the neighborhood, he helps source some of the food we serve and he’s handy in the kitchen.  He’s also fighting the mass evictions going on in his building and in scores of other buildings in the blocks surrounding his home.  A handful of housing developers, and one in particular, are buying up properties in Logan Square, issuing 30-day notices to residents — many of whom have lived there for decades with their families — and flipping the units.  Cosmetic upgrades: a new refrigerator and some marble counter tops, and then the rent goes up a few hundred dollars a month, or it doubles. The point being, the people, the families, our neighbors are gone. Where they go, who knows? Certainly not into the hundreds of boarded up units of public housing sitting vacant at Lathrop Homes for the last fifteen years.

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Terry wanted to know if the churches could help.  You see, there’s a story going around the neighborhood about a handful of congregations who leave their buildings each spring to occupy the public square and demand an end to business as usual in our homes, in our streets, throughout our government and all of society. They wave palms and carry signs that read “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” and “en los ohos de Dios, todos somos iguales.”  There’s a story that these churches marched through the ghost town at Lathrop Homes in the dead of winter, knocking on doors to ask if there was room for Mary and Joseph to come in from the cold.  Terry’d heard that story, and he wondered what it meant for people like him, neighbors fighting to keep their homes in the face of landowners reaping to the very margin and stripping the streets of Logan Square bare of any trace of affordable housing.

I wonder too.

Not every injustice is illegal, in fact most injustices have been made legal by laws that support a vision for our life together as human beings that privileges power over people, money over mercy.  The fact that a thing is legal, that it can be done, doesn’t mean that it should be done.  But we get confused.  Isn’t that what we were all taught to be?  Good, hard-working, law-abiding citizens.  Even when the laws seem stacked against us, when they tell us where we can live or who we can love; even when they seem to strip us of the things we need for life — food to eat, a warm home, a living wage, affordable healthcare.

When Jesus says, “You have heard it said, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’” he’s talking about the law.  The saying comes from a legal principle of the Roman empire that lives on in our legal codes today. We hear it in sayings like, “let the punishment fit the crime.” It is the kind of law that fits well in an economy of scarcity, in a worldview ruled by fear that there isn’t enough and that we must each fight our whole lives long to get what we can, and to keep it.

By contrast, Jesus says, “if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you” (Matt. 5:41-42). It is a divine logic, rooted not in compensation and proportional retaliation, but in compassion and solidarity.  Jesus, drawing on the wisdom of his Jewish heritage paraphrases the book of Leviticus, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’” Then he expands upon the law,  “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” These are the kinds of laws that fit well in an economy of grace, in a worldview ruled by the assurance that there is already always enough and that we can trust that the care we provide to others will also be provided to us.

Two very different economies — the economy of scarcity and the economy of grace.  Two different sets of laws.  Echoes of last week’s reading from Deuteronomy, “choose life, that you and your descendants may live,” (Deut. 30:19) and Jesus, who has been delivering this sermon on the mount for weeks now, “do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” (Matt. 5:17)

There is a movement building in Logan Square to protect our neighbors, to stop the mass evictions, to call upon our elected officials to support us in this cause, and to recognize that land and housing are more than just a commodity to be bought and sold in the marketplace for whatever value the law of supply and demand dictates. To recognize that every good needed for life must be treated as a right for the poor and the strangers among us. It is a movement toward an economy of grace, and we’ve been called, literally, by a neighbor who saw us marching out in the streets and wondered if we meant it.

Amen.

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