Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, July 3, 2016: Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Isaiah 66:10-14. +. Psalm 66:1-9. +. Galatians 6:1-16. +. Luke 10:1-11,16-20

Let’s just jump right into the text for a moment, then we can back up into our lives and the life of the world around us, shall we? We’ve been slowing reading through Paul’s letter to the Galatians ever since the beginning of summer, and this morning we reach the end. Starting next week we’ll begin working our way through the letter to the Colossians and also a four-week series on the importance of acting on our faith, using stories from the gospel of Luke. But here, at the end of Galatians, Paul is once again talking about circumcision as a way of talking about all the ways we try to impose our standards of acceptability onto each other, denying the power of God’s grace that accepts each of us as we are and calls us to be more than we have ever been.

Paul writes,

“It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh that try to compel you men to be circumcised — only that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. Even the circumcised men do not themselves obey the law, but they want you men to be circumcised so that they may boast about your flesh.” (Gal. 6:12-13)

Remember here what we talked about a few weeks ago, when we began reading this letter. The conflict among the Galatians is that Paul had taught the people that, in Christ, God has broken down all the walls we build to divide ourselves one from another: our religious walls, our ethnic walls, our cultural walls, our economic walls. All those ways we have been taught to look at other human beings and feel morally superior to one another, what Paul calls “the law.” It’s not that Paul disregards the positive uses of the law, the way that the best in our traditions move and motivate us to good works. In fact, even here at the end of his argument he writes, “let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.” (vv. 9-10) But he is realistic about just how quickly human beings move from good works to works righteousness; how quickly we go from working for the good of our neighbor, to working so that others may see us working for the good of our neighbor. This is the heart of his complaint about circumcision.

After Paul left, other teachers came in and began to teach that the new converts who wanted to follow Jesus, many of whom were not even Jewish, would first need to follow the steps to become observant Jews before they could take the next step toward becoming followers of Jesus. No skipping in line. No getting ahead of themselves. No exceptions. This is what gets Paul worked up, why he says, “Even the circumcised men do not themselves obey the law, but they want you men to be circumcised so that they may boast about your flesh.” There’s more to being an observant Jew than getting circumcised, Paul is saying. There’s the whole of the law. There’s showing hospitality to strangers. There’s caring for the orphan and widow. There’s honoring your parents and your neighbors, and not enriching yourself at the expense of the poor. Most importantly, there is the command to remember to that there is only one God, and that God is the only one worthy of our worship. These are the laws that the Galatians themselves do not keep, that none of us fully keep. So, if we ourselves cannot keep the law in its essence, then why do we demand that others keep up the appearance of the law? So that we will appear righteous before others, Paul says, forgetting that it is the grace and love of God that has made all of us righteous. That we who call ourselves Christians have nothing to boast about, other than the cross of Jesus, by which God showed God’s great love for all people, breaking down all the walls we had built to divide ourselves from one another.

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The Ahmed family at the home of Jim and Peggy Karas, left, who were joined by other sponsors. Credit Damon Winter/The New York Times

It has been so easy in these last few weeks and months to focus only on those stories of our failures to love each other across the lines that divide us. There is so much in the news to feel hopeless about. But there was one story in this last week that really lifted my spirits. Maybe you read it as well. It was the story published in the New York Times on Wednesday about the extent to which Canadian citizens have come forward to welcome Syrian refugees into their homes, so much so that the Canadian government can barely keep up with the demand on the part of citizens to be part of this massive undertaking of hospitality. The story was honest in naming the ways it is complicated for Syrian families to get used to life in Canada; and about the many ways that their Canadian hosts screw up — trying to figure out when to be assertive and when to step back and let these new Canadians figure it out for themselves. How will they respond to the different cultural norms around gender roles, child-rearing, and work when they have their own deeply held convictions about each of these subjects? Despite all the difficulties and complications, it was such a hopeful story to me because it showed what is possible when we decide to step out from behind the walls of our own self-interest to imagine a world where strangers and foreigners are just friends we have yet to meet. It showed what is possible when we structure our society around tending to the needs of our neighbors instead of keeping them at arm’s length.

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Elie Wiesel, ca. 1987

Late yesterday afternoon the world learned that Elie Wiesel, the famous writer who chronicled his experience of the Holocaust as a survivor of the concentration camp at Auschwitz had died. He was a powerful voice in this world who made it his mission to speak out wherever silence threatened to hide the destruction of human life. In many ways he was a living testimony to the danger of allowing ourselves to be seduced by the politics of fear. He knew in his flesh in a way most of us will never understand the cost of allowing our shallow self-righteousness to take over our politics. He saw what happened when a nation fell prey to the racist rhetoric of a charismatic demagogue. He new what happened when good people stood by and did nothing. His words stand as a judge of all human history, “Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night…”

At the same time, he believed that the forces of evil that had touched his life and the lives of the six million Jews slaughtered could be defeated if and as we come together around the enduring truth of our human dignity. “Never shall I forget” was his call to all of us to deal with the truth of our own human failure to care for and protect one another, and also his belief that in remembering we have the power to choose a new and different future for ourselves and for humanity.

“New creation!” is how Paul puts it. “Neither circumcision not uncircumcision is anything; but new creation is everything! As for those who will follow this rule — peace be upon them and mercy, and upon the Israel of God.” (vv. 15-16) That’s what is waiting for us on the other side of nationalism, of racism, of tribalism. New Creation. A new peace beyond borders. A new world without war. It starts one conversation at a time, with each act of welcome, with every stranger welcomed into our homes.

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, July 7, 2013: Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Texts:  2 Kings 5:1-14  +  Psalm 30  +  Galatians 6:1-16  +  Luke 10:1-11,16-20

When I was in junior high, or sometime very early in high school, the guidance counselor gave us all a vocational aptitude test to get us thinking about what kinds of work each of us might be best suited for.  When the results came back, my answers indicated that I might have the right set of interests and talents to be a performer, a politician, or pastor.  I remember wondering what those three jobs had in common, then finding the answer in the lyrics of a song by the Police, “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da:”

Poets, Priests and Politicians have words to thank for their positions, words that scream for your submission.

That made sense to me.  Even at a pretty early age, I’d figured out that words were my friends.  I knew how to use them to get permission, to bring a smile, to avoid a fight, to win an argument.  I saw how they fit together to direct lines of thinking and steer conversations.  I could tell there was power in them.

In high school I joined the debate team.  I loved doing the issue research and coming up with arguments, filed away on index cards with quotes and citations that could be deployed like pieces on a chess board to defeat the opposing team.  That sense of power was irresistible to the brainy kid who did well at school, but not at sports, at an age when it seemed like real power was completely out of my hands.

We were all trying to find our power at that age.  Some of us found it in words, others in fists, or in appearances.  It’s tempting to look back and try to rank which kinds of power were more noble, more enviable.  I think the truth is that power itself, no matter the form, was value-neutral.  It was the ends towards which we used them that gave our powers their meaning and worth.  Mostly, at that age, we were using whatever powers we’d begun to master to try and protect ourselves as we maneuvered through the treacherous path from childhood to adulthood, deploying them like a shield against the dangers of our neighborhoods, our schools, even our homes.

Childhood is such a terribly vulnerable time.  Physically we are weaker than most of the people that surround us.  Emotionally we are defined by dependencies to others who may or may not have the resources to nurture us or meet our needs.  Intellectually we are always playing catch-up, learning the rules of an incredibly complicated game as we go.  It is entirely understandable that we cling to whatever powers we discover early on, and begin to identify ourselves with them.  They are our ticket out of the vulnerability of youth.  We are no longer geeks or nerds, but techies and entrepreneurs.  No longer jocks and cheerleaders, but managers and marketers, turning childhood pass-times into professions and careers.  We learn to tell stories about ourselves in which we identify our personhood with our power as professionals or parents.  What we are in charge of becomes what we are.

So I become a pastor, and you become a teacher, or a banker, or a lawyer, or a musician, or a nurse, or a manager, or a parent, or an editor, or a soldier, or a spouse and it becomes clear who you are…

… until the day you get called into the office and told that your position is being being eliminated, or your place of employment — a school, a factory — is being closed.

… until the day your doctor sits you down and gives you the diagnosis you’d spent your life dreading: the cancer your mother had, the virus that killed your friends.

… until the day your spouse dies, or your partner leaves you, and the relationship that defined you is now in your past.

Who are you then?  Where is your power?

This morning is our last with the prophets of First and Second Kings, Elijah and Elisha, whose stories have formed the first unit in our summer school for prophets.  Next week we’ll be moving on to the prophet Amos, then Hosea, Isaiah and Jeremiah.  Last week we studied the transfer of power from Elijah to Elisha as the former was taken into heaven and the latter was left with the company of prophets to continue his work.

Today we are reminded that, for all his power, Elisha was a prophet to a conquered people.  Israel may have had a king, but there were other kings in other countries with military forces far more powerful than Israel’s.  Aram was one of those countries, and the commander of its army, Naaman, kept a slave girl in his house who’d been taken from her home on one of Aram’s successful raids of Israel.

Can we even imagine how powerless that girl must have felt in her position?  Stolen from her family, taken from her land, forced to serve the very people who had invaded her home and destroyed her way of life.  Even the story conspires to disempower her, robbing her of something as basic as a name.

By contrast, Naaman, the master of the house in which she serves seems blessed in a variety of ways.  He has strength, he has wealth, he has connections to the king of a powerful nation.  His victory over Israel is described as divinely ordered, yet this man has leprosy.  His flesh is infected and he may well be contagious, which is why those with leprosy were quarantined away from the rest of the community, so that the illness would not spread.

Naaman, a man defined by his power, faces becoming a pariah.  So he, like the unnamed slave girl in his house, faces having everything he knows and loves taken from him by a disease over which he has no power.

It not difficult to imagine the enslaved servants in Naaman’s house secretly delighting in their master’s misfortune.  Perhaps they saw it as divine justice, humbling the man who had humiliated them.  Or, perhaps they were terrified as well, since their well-being now depended upon their master’s well-being, their future on his future.  However she felt about it, the young Israelite slave girl knew firsthand what it felt like to stand before your future feeling utterly powerless.

She in her slavery and Naaman in his illness had learned the same lesson: that despite all illusions our lives are not entirely in our own hands, and that we will all be forced to rely upon one another in this life.

So the slave girl uses what is, perhaps, her last remaining power — her faith — to assist the very person who has robbed her of the rest.  She gives her testimony to Naaman’s wife, her knowledge that there is a prophet in Israel through whom God had acted to heal the sick, to feed the hungry, and to raise the dead.

In this act, this nameless servant of the Lord exemplifies the counsel Paul gives in his letter to the Galatians, where he writes:

“So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith … for neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!” (Gal. 6:10,15)

Circumcision, you may remember, is the sign of the covenant between God and Abraham.  So, the point Paul is making to the Galatians is that we are called to work for the good of all our neighbors, local and global, those who share our faith and those who do not.  Like Naaman’s slave, whose own vulnerability gave her compassion for the vulnerability of even her master.

But we are not quick to give up on our power.  When Naaman hears that there is the possibility of a cure for his weakness in Israel, he gets permission from his own king to go to Israel, where he shows up with a royal letter of reference and deep coffers — ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments.  When he arrives at Elisha’s door he seems determined to hide his weakness behind his connections and his wealth, as he pulls up on his horse and chariot.

Now it is Naaman who is in a foreign land, among foreigners, even the very people who he’d previously conquered and defeated, and he has to ask one of their prophets for the cure to his illness.  Even now, at his weakest, Naaman tries to cover up his vulnerability with the things he’d come to believe made him powerful.

Friends, I’ve been playing Naaman’s game since I was a child.  The more trouble I was in, the faster I talked.  Word after word after word.  I know I’m not the only one.  I wonder what power you’ve put your trust in, what source of strength you’ve relied on, even when it was clear to you and everyone around you that it was no match for the magnitude of your circumstances.  At some point, all our strengths fail us: clever words, gruff exteriors, piles of money, beauty and charm, even hard work.

In that moment, let’s pray God sends us to someone like Elisha, who refuses to play Naaman’s game.  Knowing that the deepest form of healing will not only cure Naaman of his leprosy, but will also relieve him of his isolating self-sufficiency, Elisha offers a treatment that forces Naaman to strip himself of his illusions of power and to learn to trust in God, the source of all power.

Elisha sends a messenger to tell Naaman to go wash in the Jordan river seven times.  It sounds like a terrible bedside manner, but Elisha knows that Naaman needs to be relieved of his sense of exceptionalism.  So he gives the military commander something to do that is so simple, anyone could do it.

This is the power the church offers to people like Naaman, to people like you and me.  Washed in the same common water that bathed our parents and grandparents, our friends and neighbors, waters that have baptized enemies and allies, the elite and the unknown, we are sent with the power to relieve the world of its false distinctions and to heal the sickness caused by the false superiorities that infect us all and so quickly spread between us.

Here at St. Luke’s we are just a little more than one week away from the launch of a new project that will bring all our neighbors together, the hungry and the well-fed, for a weekly meal in Haberland Hall.  The tagline for these Community Dinners is “hospitality, not charity,” because we recognize that the deepest form of healing we can work for is more than food in the belly, it’s freedom from the bondage of slavery to our separations from one another.

As we prepare to begin this work, we are challenged to reach out to our neighbors, some of whom will enthusiastically support this work, others who may be frightened by the presence of strangers, who are really unknown neighbors, showing up on their doorsteps.  Our hope is to lay the groundwork for this project by showing up on their doorsteps first.  Sent out in twos, just like Jesus sent the seventy, the company of prophets working alongside him throughout his ministry, we hope to knock on the doors of households throughout this neighborhood to tell them about the work we are doing, and to invite them to come and see this healing taking place right next door.  We know that we will not be warmly received at every door on which we knock, but we refuse to be distracted from the work God has given us to love and serve our neighbors, all of them, hungry and well-fed.

My prayer for us in this coming week is that we will remember the lesson Naaman learned by the banks of the River Jordan, that we will take off our armor and let down our guard.  That we will ring the doorbells of our neighbors’ homes, not armed with answers and arguments, but equipped with compassionate hearts and open minds, ready to listen to the hopes and fears of the people living all around us, each with their own stories of hurt and hope, each waiting for a cure whose form they might never have expected, for a word from an unknown messenger.

Maybe it will be you.

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, June 23, 2013: Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: 1 Kings 19:1-15a  +  Psalms 42 & 43  +  Galatians 3:23-29  +  Luke 8:26-39

amos-mlkThroughout the summer we’ve been enrolled in what I’ve been calling “A School for Prophets,” following the stories from Hebrew scripture of the prophets of Israel.  Within this series, for the last few weeks, we’ve been focusing specifically on the prophet Elijah, who was called to speak out against the idolatry of Israel’s king, Ahab, and his wife, Jezebel.  We’ve remembered the story of the widow of Zarephath, who fed Elijah out of her meager pantry.  We’ve witnessed as Elijah called down fire on the prophets of Baal.  We heard with horror how Jezebel engineered a plot to steal Naboth’s birthright. Throughout, we’ve been challenged to understand that prophesy is less a form of fortune-telling, and more a vocation of truth-telling, a vocation that is not confined to the past, but is called for in every age.

If this summer School for Prophets had a textbook, something other than the bible, something more like those heavy hardbound chapter books we got back in high school and lugged around in backpacks, then today’s lesson would be laid out in a single page, followed by two case studies or examples.  The chapter would be titled something like, “The Freedom of a Prophet.”

The lesson, in its simplest form, comes not from Hebrew scripture, but from Paul’s letter to the Galatians.  He is writing to a community of people who have begun to turn away from his teaching, who have begun to impose a kind of legalism onto the faith they’d received, making their religion into an exercise in following the right rules rather than cultivating and maintaining relationships.

“Now before faith came,” he writes, “we were imprisoned and guarded under the law.”  In the narrowest sense, the law Paul is referring to is not Roman law, but Jewish law.  It seems that the people who have come around since he left Galatia have been teaching a different gospel.  Paul had taught that we are all justified, or made right with God, through faith — which is to say, through a living, loving, trusting, dynamic relationship.  Those who came after Paul were teaching that in order to be right with God, to be justified, the people needed to follow a set of rules and practices connected with Jewish faith and life.

Remember that Paul was speaking as a Jew to and among other Jews.  So, in his context, he was experiencing a reformation of religious identity.  He was talking and teaching others about what it meant to be freed from slavish religious legalism, and to experience relationship with God as a source of liberation, not regulation.  If we wanted to draw parallels to our own day and time, rather than contrasting our religious experience with people from other religions, it would be more appropriate for us to look for examples within our own tradition, or even our own lives, where we have come to experience faith in God as a living, loving, trusting, dynamic relationship.

But, just as we think we’re beginning to understand what Paul is talking about.  Just when we’re beginning to think this religious liberation sounds pretty good, Paul continues,

“for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.  As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:27-28)

You and me, we live in an age of growing comfort with and acceptance of religious pluralism and multiculturalism.  So, to us, this passage may just sound like the preamble to a song from “Free to be You and Me.”  But try to hear these words with other ears, ears tuned to the dynamics of power, violence and abuse.

Instead of “there is no longer Jew or Greek,” try on “there is no longer American or Afghan;” or “there is no longer White or Black or Latino or Native or Asian or Arab.”  Even for those of us who embrace diversity and strive for something better than mere tolerance of difference, Paul’s words feel dangerous.  We don’t want our differences to be demolished.  We aren’t looking for one identity into which we can all be dropped, erasing all that makes each of us distinct.

Instead of “there is no longer slave or free,” try on “there is no longer undocumented or born-and-bred,” or “there is no longer hungry or well-fed,” or “there is no longer rich and poor.”  Now Paul’s rhetoric sounds not only foolish, but feeble.  What can he have meant?  In his day there quite clearly were citizens and there were slaves.  In our day there are quite clearly citizens and undocumented, people with papers and people without.  People with wealth, people with food, and people without.

Finally, he says, “there is no longer male and female.”  Here the pattern has been broken.  Paul has said Jew or Greek, slave or free; but now he says male and female.  This is an echo of the language we first heard in Genesis, when God sets out to create humanity saying,

“let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness… So God created humankind in God’s image, in the image of God did God create them; male and female God created them.” (Gen. 1:26-27)

Men and women are created in the image and likeness of God, but in Paul’s day and to this day, men and women both here in the United States and around the globe are not treated equally.  Whether we look at women’s pay, women’s education, women’s access to health, or rates of violence against women, it is clear that the world has not set its societies up to affirm what our scriptures tell us is true, that both men and women are created in the image and likeness of God.

Far from being some kind of proto-hippie love anthem on how we should all just be free, and get along, and enjoy our diversity, Paul has rejected a rules-based religion in favor of a relationship-centered faith in which we are called to live and act as though all the people with whom we are in very complicated relationships of power and privilege are integral to our own life, are a part of our own body.

This kind of living is a prophetic challenge to everything we’ve been taught about what it means to be free, because it means our freedom is not from other people, it is for other people.

So now, if we were reading our “School of Prophets” textbooks, we would come to the case studies, one from the gospel of Luke, the other from First Kings.  Both of these stories are incredibly rich, and deserving of a slow reading in a solid bible study, or a full sermon of their own.  I’m not going to be able to do either, so I’ll just make a plug here for another way you can delve into these texts.

Beginning next week, and running through the rest of the summer, there’s going to be a Sunday morning adult bible study on the prophets we’re covering in worship from 9am – 10am.  These bible studies are being led by Ray Pickett, Greg Singleton and Erika Dornfeld, each of whom brings a deep understanding of scripture and a unique perspective on how the vocation of the prophets is shared by each of us who, by baptism, has “put on Christ,” who himself inherited the mantle of the prophets.  I am looking forward to learning from all three of these teachers, and I hope you’ll make an effort to join me for at least a couple of these two week units on each of the prophets.

To return to the texts, I want to draw our attention to a feature that each text has in common: their endings.

In the gospel of Luke we hear the story of the Gerasene demoniac who has been chained up in a graveyard, possessed by demons who say their name is “Legion,” whom Jesus exorcises into a herd of swine that then run off a cliff and into the sea.  As I said, this story deserves a good long bible study.

But as the story comes to its conclusion, the Gerasenes, the people who had chained this demon-possessed man up in their graveyard have asked Jesus to leave them.  Jesus, by casting out their demons, has disrupted their social order.  They’d had a system for handling their demons, namely by scapegoating a man they kept chained up like a slave.  Now that he’d been set free, they were afraid.  Jesus does what they ask, and leaves them there on the far side of the sea, and the man he has healed begs to come with him.

But Jesus sends him away, saying, “return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you. So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.” (Luke 8:38-39)

Jesus may have freed this man of his demons, but he will not liberate him from his people.  Even though he will still be an outcast among the Gerasenes, though now for a different reason, Jesus does not invite this man to leave his community and withdraw to some better place among better people somewhere else.  Instead, liberated from death, he is sent back to proclaim a new world order.  Set free for, not from.

In the story we hear from First Kings, Elijah — like the Gersasene demoniac — is enduring a kind of living death.  He’s not chained up in a graveyard, but he is hiding in a cave from Queen Jezebel who has promised to see him dead within a day.

As Elijah is hiding out, away from the people God sent him to serve and to save, the word of the Lord comes to him, saying, “what are you doing here, Elijah?”  Elijah offers his complaint, essentially saying, “this prophetic work is hard work, it has not made me any friends, and I’m worried that I will lose my life.”  God tells Elijah to go stand on the mountaintop, the place where God had traditionally met God’s people, and then we hear all the ways that God had traditionally been manifest among the people — winds, earthquakes and fires.  But God was not present to Elijah in those ways.  Instead God was present in silence.

Again, God asks what Elijah is doing hiding out in a cave; and again, Elijah complains that this work is hard, and it has not made him many friends, and he is worried that he will lose his life.  But, does God carry him away from this danger and hardship to be with better people in some better place somewhere else.  No, instead God says, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus.”

Here, in the School for Prophets, I think we learn one of a prophet’s hardest lessons.  The prophet is called to live with, to love, to lead in a world that, frankly, didn’t ask for the word the prophets have been sent to deliver.  Paul’s radical relationships sounded a lot harder than rule-based religion, and people weren’t sure they wanted to stick with it.  The Gerasenes had figured out how to manage their demon problem, and keeping one guy chained up in a graveyard seemed like an acceptable price to pay for their relative freedom.

The prophetic word wasn’t welcome in Israel under Ahab and Jezebel, and it’s not really all that welcome here, in Logan Square and Humboldt Park, in Chicago, in the United States, among the nations.  Because the prophetic word is this: there is no escaping each other.  There is no freedom from each other.  There is no neighborhood you can live in that exempts you from the violence done in other communities.  There is no wall you can build that keeps one nation separated from another.  There is no trade agreement you can sign that can differentiate the humanity of one worker from another.  There is no getting away from each other.  We are all in this together.

Even in our churches, we sometimes come, huddling, like Elijah in his cave, stinging from the hurts of so much hard work out there in the world.  Hoping God will maybe show up this Sunday to say, “well, yes, that’s enough.  You can be done now.”  But God doesn’t do that, because somewhere there is still a widow in Zarephath running out of food, and somewhere there is still a man chained up in a graveyard, longing to be free.

So, instead of giving us a way out, God gives us each other, a company of prophets.  Freed, not from the world, but for the world.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

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