Sermons

Sunday, September 3, 2017: Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Jer. 15:15-21  +  Ps. 26:1-8  +  Rom. 12:9-21  +  Matt. 16:21-28

IMG_1120We’re getting close to the end, can you feel it?

In both Paul’s letter to the Romans and Matthew’s account of Jesus’ ministry, the end is coming into view. For Paul, this takes the shape of what sound very much like parting words, “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; Love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor” (Rom. 12:9-10) and so on. In Matthew, the inevitable end is the cross but when Jesus begins to speak plainly about it, Peter demonstrates a certain level of denial about what Jesus has been doing and what it will cost him.

Gen-Net-drafts-768x768Coincidentally, perhaps, St. Luke’s is in a very similar moment. By now you’ve heard the announcements, you’ve gotten the postcard encouraging you to sign up for a pair of dinner conversations, and in just a few weeks now you’ll begin “workshopping the story” of just how it is that St. Luke’s proposes to be a powerful church that transforms lives and changes the world. The conversations you have in these small groups will shape the narrative that will become the basis for your 2018 budget — which is another way of saying, what you are doing and what it will cost you.

When Jesus gets clear about what he is doing and what it will cost him, he begins to describe the inevitable conflict that will occur in Jerusalem when he brings his life-giving, liberating message of divine love to the local seat of imperial power. He fully understands that his ministry will raise tension and unmask the ongoing violence between the empire and the colonized in such a way that the system of domination will use every tool at its disposal to end the conflict quickly. For the Roman Empire in the first century, this meant crucifixion.

It’s absolutely important to understand this because, without this understanding, Jesus’ words to his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,” sound like an encouragement to passive acceptance of pain and suffering in their lives. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard people say something along the lines of “we all have our crosses to bear” as a way of saying “life is hard and painful.” That is not what Jesus is saying. Jesus is not asking those who follow him to resign themselves to lives of chronic pain and crushing burdens.

Instead, Jesus is asking for something much harder. Jesus is asking the disciples to examine their lives and discern the ways that life under the empire has forced or enticed them into settling for something less than their full humanity. Jesus wants those who follow him to get clear about what is at stake for them in the upcoming conflict, to know their own story of oppression so that they can maintain the resolve to struggle for their own liberation. Jesus acknowledges that the empire has more than one tool at its disposal when it comes to keeping us in line. It can threaten us with the cross, or it can buy us by offering us access to the goods it unjustly extracts from others. Speaking to this dynamic, Jesus asks, “For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?” In other words, how much is your life — your integrity — worth? What’s your price?

When Jesus asks those who follow him to take up their cross, he actually means their cross. He doesn’t say, take up your neighbor’s cross and follow me. He says, “let them take up their cross and follow me.” For an example of what this can look like, we need look no further than the labor movement which brought us this 3-day weekend we’re celebrating right now.

644427_846847908334_5572230673972944578_nIf you were with us on Palm Sunday two years ago, then you’ll remember how we stood with fast food workers in the fight for a living wage, the #FightFor15. For most of us, this was not an act of taking up our cross — it was an act of solidarity with those whose livelihoods were actually on the line, those who’d taken stock of how the machine of modern day empire was getting rich off their backs, and who’d gotten organized so that they could confront the system of domination that extracted wealth from their labor without paying them enough to buy food, cover rent, and pay for their families’ healthcare and other needs. The workers whose hands we blessed, who served us holy communion and then marched with us to the McDonald’s where those same hands served fast food to nameless consumers day after day, understood that they might lose their jobs in this fight, that something was at stake for them, but they were not swayed from their goal.

Part of what it means for St. Luke’s to be a powerful church that transforms lives and changes the world is a commitment to helping each member of this community begin to see more clearly how the current arrangement of power and wealth has harmed each one of us, has diminished our fullness of life, has compromised our integrity, has purchased our complacency and our complicity. One of the ways that has happened in the last year is through the public faith trainings that Erin led, and will lead again in the fall. The outcome of community organizing done well is that we each get in touch with our own story of oppression — and, yes, I mean each of us, because there is no way of life under the system of domination, what we used to call empire but which now goes by other names, that escapes oppression.

Fundamentally, empire divides and conquerers. So capitalism not only harms workers, but the middle and owning classes as well. Racism dehumanizes not only people of color, but so-called White people as well. Sexism and gender oppression supply us all with painful, restrictive patterns for relating to our own bodies and the bodies of others. Nationalism creates false solidarity within invented borders at the expense of our neighbors, who are actually our siblings in the vast human family.

There are exciting times ahead for you, St. Luke’s. I can see it. Exciting and difficult, because you have heard Jesus’ call to take up your cross and follow and you have. You have and you will again. When it seems unclear to you just what that cross is, I encourage you to go back and read this passage from Romans again. As you listen to Paul describe what it means to live in loving harmony with one another, examine your life for the forces and influences, the stories and the histories, that make it hard for you to do so. There, in the tragic gap between God’s vision for human life and our experience of it, is the cross — your cross and our cross to bear together as we follow Jesus in a faith that demands everything and promises something even better in return: our humanity, redeemed and restored.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, January 18, 2015: Second Sunday after Epiphany

Texts: 1 Samuel 3:1-10  +  Psalm 139:1-6,13-18  +  1 Corinthians 6:12-20  +  John 1:43-51

So the apostle Paul wants to talk about prostitution?  OK, let’s at least start there, but here’s where I want to end up: with Samuel in the temple praying, “speak, for your servant is listening.”

I’ve known plenty of people who’ve been involved in prostitution. They’re more or less like the rest of us, neither better nor worse. They are neither morally degenerate, nor covert heroes. They are human beings, each distinct with her or his own story about how and why they ended up involved in prostitution, how it served them, how it trapped them, how they survived it, or didn’t.

As an example, I remember one young woman whom I’ll call Cecilia, a transgender young woman I met while working with runaway and homeless youth in Minneapolis almost twenty years ago.  Cecilia was big and loud, and sometimes awkward and shy.  She worked at a drop-in center for LGBTQ youth, sometimes checking people in at the door, sometime as a barista behind the coffee bar. She’d been kicked out of her house very early in life for coming out as a woman and, like every homeless youth I’ve ever known, had to make hard decisions about how to survive. There is a market for young people’s bodies, so she used what she had.

Once she’d left the streets Cecilia was, for the most part, able to leave prostitution behind. Then one day as she was walking home from work two police officers stopped her on the street and harassed her, making cruel comments about her gender identity and publicly humiliating her. Once they left she returned to the park where she’d often met johns and turned a quick trick, not because she needed the money but because she felt so violated and powerless that she needed to assert herself in a situation she felt she knew how to control.

I wonder how Cecilia would hear Paul’s words to the First Corinthians. “Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never!” (1 Cor. 6:15b) I imagine there’s a way to read that verse that sounds an awful lot like the way those cops spoke to her on the sidewalk. I wonder if anyone ever looked at her beautiful trans* body and said, “do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you” (1 Cor. 6:19). That’s what I wanted to tell her, that her body and the bodies of her friends whom I cherished, were sacred temples and homes to a divine presence that is democratically distributed among us all and can never be kicked out. That no matter the rejection or abuse any of us has suffered, God has chosen to make a home inside of us that is permanent.

It was stories like Cecilia’s that finally drove me to seminary, that helped me get over the idea that there was no place for me in the church and to ask if the church actually mattered if it had nothing helpful to say to Cecilia and her friends. I knew from my own experience that the church could be a site of incredible community, unconditional love, and ethical challenge — if you were well-housed, in-school, middle-class. But I wondered if the church had anything to offer to those Howard Thurman described as the “disinherited,” those living with their backs to the wall.

1303751314-logo.31184548_stdIt turns out the church has plenty to say to the disinherited, and a variety of creative and effective ways to say it. For example, down in Nashville, Tennessee the Rev. Becca Stevens, an Episcopal chaplain, started the Magdalene ministry almost twenty years ago to work with women with histories of substance abuse and prostitution. Knowing that poverty and addiction make it very difficult for many to escape prostitution, the Magdalene program combines Narcotics Anonymous and addiction counseling with residential treatment, job training and financial education. After five years of working with these women, Pastor Stevens recognized that it is difficult to find good work upon leaving residential treatment, so launched Thistle Farms, a small business that employs graduates of the Magdalene program to make personal care products sold in stores like Whole Foods and the Thistle Stop Café. For women who have experienced prostitution and have decided to leave it behind, the Magdalene program and Thistle Farms are one way the church has shown up with more than words to communicate God’s unfailing love for their precious lives.

If we read Paul’s words to the Corinthians carefully, we notice that his instruction isn’t aimed at prostitutes, but at those who pay for their services. From everything we know about the world Paul lived in, prostitution was quite common and men felt entitled to women’s bodies in ways that, sadly, hasn’t changed all that much in the intervening millennia. Paul is critiquing common practice, and challenging those who have found their identity in Christ to make a distinction between what is allowed, or lawful, and what is beneficial. It may have been commonly accepted, or permissible, to engage the services of a prostituted woman, but that didn’t make it beneficial to either party. Paul describes the exchange of bodies for money as a sin against the body, as a reduction of something holding sacred worth to something to be bought and sold in the marketplace. Some have asked how prostitution is all that different from the many other ways we buy and sell our bodies in the marketplace: our time, our skills, our labor. I think this is a wonderful line of questioning that might lead us to think more broadly about all the ways modern labor practices dehumanize real people in the production of fetishized objects. How is our treatment of the people who work in sweat shops to manufacture cheap designer clothing or underpaid migrant labor to produce cheap organic food different than our treatment of abused and neglected women and men, girls and boys, to provide cheap sexual gratification? And are any of the above really beneficial to us?

But there is another question that the set of scriptures we heard read among us this morning asks, that begs for our attention. That is, what is God calling us to do and be in and for those whom God created in love for love? The story of the boy prophet Samuel is the story of a child dedicated to God by his family and apprenticed to an older generation whom God calls to lead the people in a new direction. Three times God calls out to Samuel, and Samuel goes to the bedside of his mentor, Eli, mistaking the voice of God for the voice of the past.  Eventually Eli realizes that it is the LORD who is speaking to his young protege, and he instructs Samuel to return to his bed to wait for the voice of God and to answer, “Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.”

I wonder what it felt like for Eli, who had spent his life caring for the people and tending to the temple, to recognize that God was preparing to do a new thing with new leadership. And I wonder what it felt like for Samuel to be called by God to share a difficult and painful message with Eli, to tell him that his family’s term in the temple was coming to an end. God tells Samuel, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears it tingle.” (1 Sam. 3:11) It’s a moment of great courage by both parties when Samuel comes to Eli to share what God has revealed and the older man says to the younger, “What was it that [God] told you? Do not hide it from me.” (1 Sam. 3:17) What a deeply respectful exchange that is. And then, after Eli hears what God has in store for his family and the larger nation, he says, “It is the LORD; let [God] do what seems good to [God].” (1 Sam. 3:18)

This is how God seems to work in the world, calling unlikely people to get up and leave what they’ve known to do the unexpected, which turns out to be precisely what is needed. When Philip the disciple tells Nathanael about Jesus, he replies, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” But that was the pot calling the kettle black, because who really expected anything good to come out of a group of working class fishermen in occupied Israel? Who really expected anything good to come out of a group of women used in prostitution? Who really expected anything good to come out a group of twelve elderly Lutherans in a crumbling church? But here we are. Out of twelve people who had the courage to follow the voice that called them away from the lives they’d known, God was able to build the church. Jesus assures Nathanael, “you will see greater things than these … you will see the heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” (John 1:50-51)

In this season of Epiphany we are challenged to remember that God has a vision for the world that is larger than the domesticated dreams to which we’ve grown accustomed. God speaks through the prophet Isaiah, declaring,

“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (Isa. 49:6)

As we consider our future together, I pray we have the courage to dream on that scale, to consider that we were called together by the spirit of God, which is not content with simply restoring the survivors, but saving the nations. What radical departures is God calling us to make? What shores is God calling us to leave? Come and see. Speak, LORD, for your servants are listening.

Amen.

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