Sermons

Sermon: Wednesday, November 29, 2017: Reign of Christ (transferred)

Texts: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24  +  Psalm 95:1-7a  +  Ephesians 1:15-23  +  Matthew 25:31-46

“What I think, is that this is hell,” is what my sister told me.

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Me and Tara, ca. 1985. Arriving in the United States from Thailand.

By this point, I’d already gone to seminary. So it occurred to me, in the moment, that my sister was articulating a very present eschatology. By this point, she’d been living with a dual-diagnosis of persistent mental illness and mild developmental delay for a few years. She’d experienced the primal wound of being abandoned by her birth mother, raised in a foster home for the first six years of her life, and then torn from the land of her birth by loving, well-intentioned people who, nevertheless, did not look like her, or speak her language. By this point, my sister, Tara, who is Thai by birth and gifted with beautiful, lustrous brown skin, had experienced a childhood filled with racism both ignorantly casual and pointedly vicious. She had spent years running away from home, running toward danger. She’d been exposed to the violence that comes with life on the streets. She’d been beaten, she’d been exploited, and when she turned to the police in a life-or-death moment looking for help escaping the horrors of her immediate surroundings, they’d taken one look at her and saw only a disheveled, disorganized, dirty, brown-skinned girl with a funny way of talking and they told her to get lost, as if she wasn’t already.

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Tulips, breaking through topsoil.

So we were talking, she and I, about resurrection, and what hope we may have for the future, for a life better than the ones we’d known. I was talking to her about the miracle of tulips, which seem to die over and over, only to break free from the earth again and again to show their beauty in their frailty. And that’s when she told me, “what I think, is that this is hell.”

So, my reflection on this passage from Matthew has to start there, in hell, though the text itself does not use that word. This scene of final judgment, which is unique to Matthew’s gospel, is “the only scene with any details picturing the last judgment in the New Testament.”[1] Here we hear Jesus speaking in the voice of the ruler of heaven and earth seated on a cosmic throne before all the nations, rendering a judgment that addresses each person, each of us, on the basis of how we have responded to the human beings in our midst who are experiencing on a daily basis the depth of the hells this world has to offer: hunger, thirst, hostility to all that is strange or foreign or different, the bare naked exposure of poverty, the wretchedness of disease and illness, the graceless confines of our retributive justice and our merciless prison industrial complexes. In this scene of final judgement, the Lord of the universe says nothing about people’s personal sentiments, or public proclamations. The Lord gives no consideration to who you have claimed as your “personal Lord and savior.” The Lord of time focuses, like my sister, on the present and the fires to which we have consigned each other and asks what we have done for those whose daily reality is a burning hell.

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Illustration of St. Matthew the Evangelist from the Lindisfarne Gospels. Britain, 8th century.

I haven’t always known quite what to do with the festival of the Reign of Christ at the end of each liturgical year. Over time, however, I’ve come to appreciate the opportunity it provides for us to consider the distinctive voice of the synoptic gospel assigned to the year now ending. For this last year, it has been the Gospel of Matthew. So we have been hearing the good news of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ in a recognizably Matthean mode. Matthew’s theological world draws us into a recognition of the reign of God in clear opposition to the reign of Satan; it is the only gospel to speak explicitly of the “church” as a description for the community of believers, and so it invites us to give consideration to what we think the church is and who is part of it; it insists that Jesus is the fulfillment of the law, not the abolishment of it, and in doing so it ties the ethical life of those who follow Jesus to the ethical demands of the prophets of Israel. Then there is the thorny matter of Matthew’s relationship to the rest of Judaism, as this gospel preserves the memory of a religious community divided within itself over the nature of the covenant, the revelation of the messiah, and the imperative of the present moment to acknowledge and respond to what God is doing now in human history.

These themes and tensions are always with us, and I was reminded of that fact as I read and re-read the Boston Declaration, a theological statement released last Monday at the annual meetings of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature that publicly calls out American Evangelicalism for the ways that it has stoked the fires of a very real and present hell for millions of “the least of these” who suffer under the tyranny of intersecting ideologies of oppression that have interlaced racism, colonialism, and environmental degradation in ways that have created a living hell for the peoples of Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and the US territories; that have privileged and prioritized profits for gun manufacturers over the lives of human beings; that have supported the violent hetero-patriarchy evident in the daily revelations of rampant sexual misconduct and abuse by men against women and girls in workplaces and in homes; that has scapegoated Jewish people, Muslim people, Black and Brown people, and Queer people for the sins of White Christian Patriarchy; for elevating the economic appetites of nations by respecting national borders more than the lives of those who cross them as immigrants or refugees from the living hells created by those very same nations.

The stark and unapologetically divisive nature of the Boston Declaration very much reminds me of the stark and unapologetically divisive nature of this scene from Matthew of the final judgment in which all the nations are gathered before God and the people are surprised once more to hear that God takes sides. That our apathy and misconduct cannot be dismissed or justified by our claims to ethnic or national or religious exceptionalism.

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“The Last Judgment” by Fra Angelico, ca. 1395-1455

We all recoil from this scene, or should if we are in the least bit self-aware. The on-going presence of hunger and thirst, violence and poverty, malicious neglect of the ill and obscene incarceration of our neighbors who are, in fact, our siblings, indicts us all as complicit in the dominion of “the devil and his angels.” (Mt. 25:41) And it simply will not do to dismiss our discomfort with reminders of our Lutheran doctrine of justification by grace through faith; to let ourselves off the hook with reminders of God’s unceasing mercy, because it is God who addresses us here. It is God who speaks these words of judgment.

So we are left to grapple with the purpose and function of this eschatological vision and the tensions it produces. It is a tension that brings me back to my sister’s own declaration: “What I think, is that this is hell.” A very present eschatology, not unlike, I think, Jesus’s own eschatology. After all, it is in Matthew’s gospel that Jesus begins his public ministry by proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Mt. 4:17) This is Matthew’s Christology, that Jesus brings the reign of God, the fulfillment of God’s promises in the past, into the present moment with consequences for all of human life, for all of creation, here and now. Now is the moment of judgment. Now is the assurance that God does, in fact, take sides. Now is the promise that the hells in which we are burning cannot stand against the waters of the Christ into whom we are baptized. Now is the moment of our salvation. Now, not in the words we say or the identities we claim, but in the acts of lovingkindness we perform for one another, for the needless misery we relieve, for the welcome we offer, for the liberation we effect. Now. Now. Now.

Hell is not a threat of future punishment by our God. It is now. Or at least that’s what I heard when I listened to my sister, one of the least of these, and I believe her. What do you suppose might happen if you, if all of us, believed the voices of the women and girls, of the strangers and foreigners, of the masses that are incarcerated, of the legions of the sick and dying, of those who hunger and thirst?

A final word before I say goodbye to Matthew for a couple more years:

We struggle with the vitriol Matthew voices against those he calls “the Jews” because of the long history of Christian anti-Semitism, which the Boston Declaration rightly both laments and condemns. In its own context, however, what Matthew gives witness to is an intra-religious conflict among people who understood themselves as belonging to the same faith, yet who still drew very different conclusions about what God was doing in the present moment and what their faith required of them as a result. Here, again, the Boston Declaration provides a timely example. We might wonder what this present moment will look like two thousand years from now to those who have the advantage of that perspective, who will be able to look back and see what this one group called Mainline Protestants said about another group called American Evangelicals. We cannot know how these divides will deepen, or heal. Perhaps we will continue to drift away from one another to such an extent that we can no longer even recognize ourselves as belonging to the same religion.

Here Matthew shows us the righteousness of God, in that, no matter how much Matthew the evangelist might wish to claim superiority over the other sects of Judaism on the basis of his theological declarations, in the end God once again confounds our ideas of righteousness by disrupting the borders we draw around nations, tribes, religions, identities by lifting up those who do what is needed to meet the needs of the wounded neighbor, the suffering sibling.

We, too, should hear this word: that God cares less for our Boston Declarations than for our actual presence with those who suffer. God cares less about the accuracy of our theological ideas than the impact of our public witness. Just as fifty years of dialogue with the Roman Catholic church has led us to a new commitment to shared acts of proclamation and service, we might imagine and should already be looking for ways to heal the rifts that divide us from the very people we now condemn. For surely, in the moment of judgment that is always already happening, we will discover once again that we are all a part of the same family, that we all bear Christ to one another, that we are all standing before the throne of God, and that we are all in this together.

Amen.

[1] “The Gospel of Matthew: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” by M. Eugene Boring in The New Interpreter’s Bible, v.8, p.455 (1995: Abingdon Press)

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Sermons

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?

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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)

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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.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, November 30, 2014: First Sunday of Advent

Texts: Isaiah 64:1-9  +  Psalm 80:1-7,17-19  +  1 Corinthians 1:3-9  +  Mark 13:24-37

paper_machete_itunes-logo-finalYesterday afternoon Kerry and I dropped by the Green Mill in Uptown for a weekly event that happens there on Saturday afternoons called The Paper Machete, which the producer describes as a “live magazine.” It’s one part news to one part satire as writers, comedians, actors, journalists, musicians and others come together to present work reflecting on the absurdity of the past week. They had plenty to talk about yesterday given the various agonies of the last seven days.

“From Ferguson the hashtag to the actual Ferguson,” the M.C. led before running down a long list of happenings coinciding with our annual Thanksgiving celebrations that left many of us feeling something other than thankful. Head in our hands, we understand him completely when the prophet Isaiah opens this new year in the life of the church with the desperate plea, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.”

There’s a symmetry to me in the way the church year ended last week with a vision from the gospel of Matthew of cosmic judgment in which each of us is called to account for ourselves not on the basis of what nation or clan or group we belong to but on the basis of how we cared for those among us struggling most deeply, and the first words of the new year in which the prophet cries out for God to come down from heaven and redeem a corrupted world. Scenes of divine judgement make many of us feel uncomfortable, conjuring up images of a distant, angry God; but are we equally uncomfortable when it is we ourselves calling on God to traverse the tragic gap between heaven and earth and save us from our self-inflicted sufferings? What is the difference between calling out for God to intervene on behalf of the hungry, the stranger, the prisoner, the sick and being called to account for your own treatment of the same? I suppose it’s a matter of which way you point the finger.

This makes the season of Advent difficult. Throughout this season we will say that we are waiting for the arrival of our Lord, but what do we mean by that? It is the ancient proclamation of faith often recited as we prepare to receive communion at the Lord’s Supper, “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” We who live on the other side of the resurrection are not waiting for Christ to be born, we are waiting for Christ to come again. What does this mean for we who call on God to “tear open the heavens and come down?”

1958031_891036030237_54408422828328216_nAs I was scanning Facebook for pictures of family and friends enjoying their Thanksgivings and I came across pictures of Steph Berkas, one of our seminarians last year, and her husband Nate. They are in South Africa right now, celebrating the holidays together with friends made during their year of missionary service there. It struck me how improbable that would have seemed twenty-five years ago, when apartheid laws were still in place, that two White young adults from the United States would be able to travel freely and easily throughout South Africa visiting friends of every ethnic background.

Or I think about how tomorrow is the 26th annual World AIDS Day, and how far we’ve come in the last quarter century — from a president who could barely speak the word to treatments that for many people have made HIV and AIDS a manageable condition instead of the death sentence it once was. Still, all I have to do is go back and re-read Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On or watch Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart to remember the horror of those early days, when I was in college and many of you were getting phone calls from friends, brothers, uncles telling you that they were sick and needed your help. Then I remember the visceral urgency of the prophet Isaiah’s cry, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”

It’s not an either/or scenario.  It’s not either God intervenes in human history or we’re left to fend for ourselves. Listen to Archbishop Desmond Tutu talk about the struggle for liberation from apartheid and you will hear his utter conviction that God was moving in history for the freedom of the oppressor and the oppressed from a system that dehumanized them both. But that movement began with cries to heaven as well. It began with Cry, the Beloved Country and the freedom songs sung in townships from Soweto to Guguletu, songs that reminded us of our own Civil Rights Era, cries of “How long? Not long!”

ap9210110285When we join with the prophet Isaiah in crying out to God, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” we are not relinquishing our own power to make a difference in history. We are joining with the millions of families that stitched their tears into quilts in honor of the lives of loved ones lost to AIDS and sent them to be displayed on the lawn of our nation’s capital as a cry to heaven and a call to the powers of this world to do something. We are joining with the tens of thousands marching in the streets of Ferguson and Chicago and every other major city across this nation carrying signs that read, 996142_719803884735812_8807735881668704328_n“Hands Up Don’t Shoot.” We are giving voice to the pain that threatens to kill us if we remain silent about it one minute longer.

This is the starting place. This is the beginning of a new year, which comes weeks before the new year as marked by the empires of this world because God is already moving while we are still waiting. God is moving in the souls of people who know that nothing is hopeless, who cry out to heaven because they still expect God to answer, who can acknowledge their own complicity in the systems that oppress them but long to be free so that all can be free. God is moving in you.

So I will ask you this morning, right now, to be still and turn your ears inward and listen for the voice of your own soul naming all that is breaking your heart. Maybe it’s Ferguson. Maybe it’s a relationship with a family member that never seems to get better. Maybe it’s your own persistent loneliness. Maybe it’s the relentless violence in Afghanistan. Maybe it’s the ongoing conflict in Israel and Palestine. Maybe it’s your marriage. Maybe it’s the deep needs of our neighbors right here in Logan Square at the start of another cold winter. Right now, be still and listen to the voice of your own soul whispering your heartbreak …

If you’re able, write it down, your heartbreak. Or speak it aloud, quietly, to someone near to you …

Hold on to these words, the ponderings of your hearts. Pray on them. If you can, share them with a friend so that you are not alone in holding them. Find the song that gives voice to their urgency. Shout them to God, joining with the prophet Isaiah, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!

Amen.

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