Sermons

Sermon: Wednesday, February 18, 2015: 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

mars_2445397bGeorge Hatcher is a man in his mid-thirties who works as a NASA engineer in Florida. He is married with a two-year old, and ever since he was a young child he has wanted to live on Mars. He may just get his wish.

Earlier this week it was announced that George was one of a hundred finalists out of an initial pool of over two hundred thousand being considered to establish a permanent human colony on Mars.  The project isn’t being sponsored by NASA, but by Mars One, a Dutch, not-for-profit foundation interested in inspiring a new generation to continue exploring the vast expanses of creation that exist beyond our atmosphere.

I became aware of George’s story because he is an alumnus of the Youth Theological Initiative (YTI), the same summer program of theological exploration to which this congregation sent Lynda Deacon about five years ago. Almost twenty years ago George was a rising high school senior, spending a month with young scholars from around the country on the campus of Emory University exploring the connection between their faith and the pressing issues of the day. Today he identifies as Baha’i, part of a global religious movement with roots in 19th century Persia that emphasizes the unity of God, religion and humanity.

In an interview for YTI’s alumni newsletter released before this week’s announcement, George spoke about his desire to travel to Mars, particularly in light of the fact that the mission is planned as a one-way trip with no return to Earth.  He said,

Regardless of whether I’m selected to go, making it to the second round of the application process has been more philosophically beneficial that I could ever have imagined. Every deep breath of free oxygen I draw in, every meal I enjoy, every step I take in Earth gravity, every sunset I witness, every moment I spend with my family and friends is more special, more profound, more real than ever before. When you live your life with the knowledge that your years on Earth might be fewer in number than you previously thought, when you know the actual date you might wave goodbye to everything you love, it’s almost like knowing the hour of your death. It fundamentally changes you. For me, it’s already for the better. I did not think it was possible to love life more than I already did.

“I did not think it was possible to love life more than I already did.”

If I could reduce the meaning of tonight’s gathering to one sentence, that would be a contender. In contrast to the almost forced gloom with which some associate Ash Wednesday, what I hear in the ancient reminder, “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” is an encouragement to live, like George, with a sense of your own mortality so that each breath, each meal, each step, each sunset, each moment might be lived to the fullest. So that we all might come to really love the lives we’ve been given to the fullest, rather than squander them in anxiety and despair.

All this talk of love may strike some as too light for an evening focused on our mortality and need for repentance. As for me, I hear Jesus instructing his followers,

And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your  Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matt. 6:16)

There is a way of marking the season of Lent that focuses on generating a mood of self-denial for self-denial’s sake, that turns the forty day fast into a kind of spiritual marathon in which one can demonstrate to one’s self (and anyone who asks) a measure of Christian fortitude through the denial of pleasure — whether that be the traditional forsworn vices of coffee, or alcohol, or chocolate; or the more modern swearing off of television or social media. Without presuming to know every reason a person might choose to give up any of those activities, I’ll just say that I worry they miss the point.

The emphases on almsgiving, prayer and fasting outlined in Matthew’s gospel are not intended to create spiritual tests for us to pass, or to generate mild forms of suffering to help us empathize with the deeper suffering of Christ on the cross. These disciplines, as I understand them, are an invitation for us to notice all that diminishes our experience of the great gift of life that comes to us as an unmerited gift by the God who is revealed in Jesus as the voice of truth unmasking the interlocking set of lies that hold us captive to a vision of life that is literally killing us all.

If I fast during the season of Lent, as Muslims do during the season of Ramadan from sunrise to sunset, it is not so that I will experience the suffering of hunger pangs, but so that I will be moved to consider the hunger that is experienced in and out of season by the world’s poor; so that I will be moved to deeper prayer; so that I will take the money I might have spent on food and reallocate it toward acts of mercy, justice and advocacy for those who are hungry every day of the year. My fasting brings me to consciousness of the painful brokenness of the world, my prayer moves me to action as my almsgiving, my offerings, create the change I long to see.

These disciplines are a form of repentance, which is not merely a manufactured emotion worn in public for all to see for forty days. It is an amended life, that turns away from the world and its death-dealing values to reclaim solidarity with all of God’s creation. It is the response to the prophet Joel’s call for us to “rend our hearts and not our clothing.” (Joel 2:13)

All of which is good practice for the life of baptism, for which the season of Lent has historically served as a time of preparation. As we move through these forty days toward the festival of the resurrection at Easter, we are moving into a deeper awareness of the call we each receive in our baptism to repent; to notice, name and turn away from all the death-dealing powers of this world, so that we can more fully embrace the gift of the life God has given to each of us, and to the whole world.

What is it that generates distress in your life?  What lie does the world whisper in your ear that keeps you up at night?  Is it that you aren’t young enough? Old enough? Is it that you are too large or too small? That you don’t have enough money, enough education, enough experience, enough friends, enough time?

Dear ones, those voices lie. You are God’s own beloved but we are living in a world drowning in lies.

God has a different flood in store for you, a different deluge in which to wash you. There are waters that unite you to the rest of life on this planet, and beyond. Consider this night what you need to confess, what you need to remove from your life, what you need to eliminate from the menu of ideas and goods and habits the world keeps trying to force feed you. Consecrate this night a holy fast, a simplification of life, so that you might come to the great feast of Easter awaiting us all and be able to affirm a love of life deeper than you’ve ever imagined before.

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, August 25, 2013: Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts:  Jeremiah 1:4-10  +  Psalm 71:1-6  +  Hebrews 12:18-29  +  Luke 13:10-17

Do you remember the last day of … whatever?  Summer camp.  High School.  A mission trip.  The last day after something intense and formative and life-changing.

For three years after seminary I worked on the staff of a summer program down in Atlanta at my alma mater, Emory University, we called YTI — the Youth Theological Initiative.  Some of you recognize the name of the program because, about four years ago, we sent Lynda Deacon down to Atlanta for a month to participate.

YTI takes young people, high school students going into their junior and senior years, and puts them in classrooms with graduate students in theology, scripture and ethics with the explicit goal of equipping these young people to become public theologians.  They take courses that study the relationship between Christian faith and non-violence, Christian faith and environmental crisis, Christian faith and religious pluralism.  YTI is not vacation bible school or the church camp in the woods with a craft cabin, like the one I grew up with in Iowa (and loved).  It is a school for prophets.  It is a place where young people get treated like the theological subjects, not objects, that they are.  Youth are expected to leave YTI as voices that will lead the church and society in confronting some of the most pressing challenges of our day.

hssp13-goodbye-01Which brings me back to the last day.  On the last day of YTI we, the staff, stand outside the dorms with our students, our summer scholars, who each arrived a little bit scared of what the coming month would bring, but now are a little bit scared of what the future may hold.  They’d come to YTI with their expectations that we would teach them something, but they were leaving with our expectations that they would do something with what they’d learned. So they waited in front of the dorms  with their suitcases packed for a parent to arrive, or a shuttle to take them to the airport, and when the last moment came they hugged each other, and they cried, and then they went back out into the world.

One of those scholars, Liz Theoharris from the summer of 1993, went on to found The Poverty Initiative a decade later, a program affiliated with Union Seminary in New York City.  Inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision of a “Freedom Church for the Poor,” the Poverty Initiative seeks to empower poor leaders and the organizations that support them.  The idea came from a gap Liz saw in her work as a Christian and an activist.  At protests and prayer vigils, religious people regularly came together for social justice, but with very little ability to speak theologically about why they were there.  “I found myself at Union Seminary,” she says, “realizing my call to do social justice was a religious one, and yet saw that most churches weren’t really equipped to do the kind of work that we were called to do as religious leaders.”

Laura McCandlish, from the summer of 1997, went on to become a journalist who covers the food justice movement from her home in Oregon.  At YTI’s recent 20th year reunion last month, Laura led a panel discussion on how communities of faith are vital contributors to the food justice movement, whether by planting community gardens or opening their kitchens for end-of-season processing, for cooking classes, or as commercial kitchens for local entrepreneurs or disenfranchised neighbors.  Her reporting has focused on the intersection of immigration, labor and food, like one recent article on an effort to help migrant workers establish their own berry farm, and an ecumenical program to turn leftover berries gleaned from the harvest into low-sugar jellies for local food pantries.

Jamaya Powell went to YTI last summer, in 2012, expecting “a boring Jesus camp.”  Instead her life was changed, as she writes in a recent issue of VOX, a publication written by and for Atlanta-area teenagers.  She spent her month at YTI in a course that explored hip-hop music and culture as theological dialogue and visited local agencies fighting poverty, homelessness and sex trafficking.  She left wondering what she as a young person and a Christian could do to help remedy the situation.

All of these young people, young adults, some of whom are even approaching middle age now, came to the school for prophets at YTI in Atlanta unsure of their place in the church and in the world, unsure of their voice.  Like the prophet Jeremiah they were ready to say, “Ah Lord God!  Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”  But God answered them just as God answered Jeremiah, and each of us,

“Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you.” (Jer. 1:7-8)

This morning I taught our children the next line of the Lord’s Prayer, “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”  We played follow the leader up and down the central aisle and all around the edges of the sanctuary.  I tried to help them understand that the only way God can lead us into, or out of, temptation is if we are already following.  The question that raises, the one that’s a bit too abstract for them but not for us, is — does God actually lead us into trouble?  In the prayer Jesus taught us we are instructed to ask God to lead us not into temptation, but to deliver us from evil.

“Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, ‘Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.’” (Jer. 1:9-10)

That is a terrifying message for anyone to deliver, much less a young person like Jeremiah.  Yet, how often young people lead the way.  From the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the Civil Right Movement to the Young Lions of South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement.  From the youth who powered the Arab Spring to the students at Kelvyn Park High School’s social justice academy here in Logan Square.  How often it has been the case that young people carry forward God’s commission to speak truth to power, following God’s call both into and out of danger.

But it is not just the young whom God calls to bear God’s fiery word.  Over and over, time and time again God uses what is small, what is weak, what is unlikely, what is overlooked to challenge what is too big to fail, to strong to fall.  God uses the young and the old, the poor and the ridiculed.

Surely God can use us.

All summer long we have been at our summer school for prophets.  Now the seasons are changing.  Children go back to school tomorrow.  Classes start up at the university, at the seminary.  Summer sports leagues are over and the new rhythms of fall are upon us.  But we have learned something this summer that will stay with us.  We have been students at the feet of the prophets, and now we are being sent out into a world in need of reformation as much as any world has ever been.

As you wait with your bags packed for the future to come and get you, as you look back on all you have seen and heard, how have you been changed?  As you think about the expectations you bring to worship each week — that you will be comforted, that you will be challenged, that you will be fed — what expectations do you sense God has for you as you leave this place?  As you stand at the threshold of a new season, of a new world, what are the words God has put into your mouth?

Do not be afraid of them.

Amen.

 

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