Sermons

Sermon: Wednesday, November 28, 2018: RCL Texts for the Wednesday following Reign of Christ

The following sermon was preached in LSTC’s Augustana Chapel on the Wednesday following the festival of the Reign of Christ. Audio of the sermon can be found here.

Texts: Ezekiel 30:20-26  +  Psalm 76  +  John 16:25-33

I love Jesus. I love Jesus, and I long for the reign of Christ.

Earlier this week, as I listened to Samantha preaching that brilliant sermon on the texts for the festival of the Reign of Christ, as I listened to Doc’s exquisite improvisation on the Canticle of the Turning, I’m not ashamed to admit that I didn’t get all the way through the hymn without crying. 

“From the halls of pow’r to the fortress tow’r, not a stone will be left on stone. Let the king beware for your justice tears ev’ry tyrant from his throne. The hungry poor shall weep no more, for the food they can never earn; there are tables spread, every mouth be fed, for the world is about to turn.” (Canticle of the Turning)

Yes! Yes, I want to live in that world!

Yes! I long for the day when the hungry poor are fed first from the table of abundance.

Yes! I can even name my family’s self-interest in seeing that world come sooner, rather than later. I know that in that world, my sister will have access to work and housing with dignity, my family will have health care without conditions, my husband will be reunited with his incarcerated brother, and I will be able to walk arm in arm with my beloved without the fear of violence hanging over our heads. Yes! I want to live in that world — Come, Lord Jesus, come!

But I don’t think I’m ready to give up my Amazon Prime account.

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Maybe you’ve heard. Despite the company’s recent move to raise the entry-level wage for its U.S. workers to $15 per hour, Amazon workers worldwide continue to protest the low wages and horrible conditions under which they are required to work. In cities across Europe last week, Amazon workers went on strike. It was barely a story here in the United States.

I’m not trying to make this sermon into an exposé on labor rights for Amazon workers, though that’s a worthy topic for further investigation, because to spend too much time here is to invite you to focus too narrowly on whether or not you can justify the Amazon Prime account that you may or may not have. The point I’m making is that I don’t think I’m ready to give the account that I most certainly do have up.

Or, to be frank, I must confess that I am often more motivated by narrow self-interest and fear of scarcity than I am by care for my neighbor and trust in God’s abundance.

In this morning’s reading from the gospel of John, Jesus nears the end of his lengthy farewell discourse with words that are unexpectedly troubling. After a ministry filled with allegories and cryptic sayings, Jesus now speaks plainly, “I came from Abba God and have come into the world; again, I am leaving the world and going to Abba God.” (John 16:28) If that’s not plain speech, I don’t know what is. The cat is out of the bag. Jesus is the messiah, the one sent by God as the ultimate sign of God’s love for all creation.

In response the disciples say, “Yes! Now you are speaking plainly, not in any figure of speech! Now we know that you know all things, and do not need to have anyone question you; by this we believe that you came from God.”

Yes, this is what we’ve been waiting for! 

Yes, we know! 

Yes, we believe!

It would seem that the whole gospel has been building toward this moment, this declaration of belief in Jesus by those who followed him. But Jesus immediately casts doubt on their belief.

“Do you now believe? The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each one to their home, and you will leave me alone.” (John 16:32)

It is more than anticlimactic. It is disturbing. The disciples’ profession of belief is not convincing to Jesus, who rightly predicts that they will not keep faith with him in the moment of his passion which has now arrived. That they will scatter when confronted with the consequences of their association with Jesus.

This is not the first time that the word “scatter” has appeared in John’s gospel. It appears one other time, back in the 10th chapter, when Jesus was still using figures of speech. There he says, 

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away — and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.” (John 10:11-12)

As Jesus approaches his eschatological hour, this previous figure of speech haunts the scene. The wolf is coming with death in its jaws, and the disciples will soon scatter, like both the hired hands and the sheep.

And, of course, the language of scattering goes even further back in Hebrew scripture. We hear it in Genesis in the famous story of the Tower of Babel. There, in a time preceding history, “the whole earth had one language and the same words.” In a bid to protect themselves from the divine imperative to be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth, humanity adopts an “us first” isolationist stance toward the future, preferring to build a tower and establish a uniformity of identity rather than participate in the unfolding diversity of human community. In response, God scatters them abroad “over the face of the whole earth.”

600px-Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_The_Tower_of_Babel_(Vienna)_-_Google_Art_ProjectWhen read in light of the Babylonian exile, the story of the Tower of Babel has been interpreted as representative of Jerusalem, scattered in captivity. This theme is especially prominent in Ezekiel, as in the passage assigned for today, where God promises to scatter the Egyptians among the nations (Ezek. 30:23,26) in language very similar to the story of Babel. A few chapters later, in the 34th chapter of Ezekiel, the language of scattering reappears in a prophesy against the shepherds of Israel that offers a stark contrast to Jesus’ image of the Good Shepherd:

“Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts … My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.” (Ezek. 34:2b-6)

This is the world as it is. The weak left to struggle, the sick left to die, the injured left to suffer, the straying and the lost left alone. This is the world I was born into, yes, and that I have had a hand in maintaining. This is the world that is required if I want to continue to enjoy cheap gas and cheap clothes and cheap airfares and cheap food and cheap labor. This is a world that cheapens life itself. It is the world that my Amazon Prime account creates and requires, and I’m still not sure I’m ready to give it up.

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Dr. Gail O’Day

In her article “Preaching as an Act of Friendship: Plain Speaking as a Sign of the Kingdom” Dr. Gail O’Day, who was my faculty advisor at Emory University and who died earlier this fall, offers a context that helps make sense of Jesus’ stinging words to the disciples following their statement of belief. She writes,

“In their quick and easy assent to his words, [Jesus] recognizes the behavior of a flatterer instead of that of a friend. Jesus’ rebuke suggests that he suspects the disciples are saying what they think Jesus wants to hear, not what they really believe. To prove they are flatterers and not friends, Jesus links their false words with what seems to be a much more serious offense, their abandonment of him at his hour.”

This is what I want to avoid. Being a flatterer. Saying one thing in my sermon and living another truth with my life. What does it mean for me to say, “Jesus is Lord!” or “Come, Jesus, come!” when my life actively demonstrates my half-hearted allegiances and my scattered loyalties? When I abandon my espoused values the moment they become inconvenient? When I denounce the political rhetoric of “America first” nationalism, but continue to pursue a “me first” consumerism?

What it means is that I am human, which is to say that I am a sinner, just like you. My best efforts are inadequate, and my worst mistakes are tragic. And ironically, while my knowledge of my failures often leaves me feeling painfully isolated, it is actually proof of my membership in the human family.

Jesus knows that his followers will abandon him, that they will scatter before the consequences of their association with him. Just as we do. Yet, even as he is abandoned, Jesus remains a part of the divine community which is the inner life of God. “I am not alone,” he says, “because Abba God is with me.” This is the same God whom Jesus assures us loves us, is accessible to us, shelters us, calls to us, forgives us, encourages us, saves us.

“I have said this to you,” Jesus explains, “so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution,” he acknowledges. “But take courage; I have conquered the world!” It’s precisely the kind of thing a good shepherd might say, or a good friend, the kind willing to lay down their lives for you, the kind who will keep loving you through all your fears and betrayals. The kind who will gather up the scattered fragments of your life and call you home to yourself. Peace, take courage, I’ve got this.

Have I told you how much I love Jesus, and long for the reign of Christ?

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, July 23, 2017: Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Text: Romans 8:12-25

Just to get our blood flowing, let’s stretch our bodies a bit by raising our hands if any of the following apply to ourselves. This isn’t going to be one of those on the spot confessions that you later are made to feel dumb for having participated in. I just want folks to get a sense for the things we have in common. The topic is debt.

Raise your hand if you carry debt on a mortgage.

Raise your hand if you carry debt on a car.

Raise your hand if you carry debt on a credit card.

Raise your hand if you carry debt on a student loan.

Raise your hand if you carry medical debt.

Raise your hand if you carry personal debt to a friend or family member.

We are very indebted people, carrying heavy debt burdens. According to one recent report, “debt is a way of life for Americans, with overall U.S. household debt increasing by 11% in the past decade. Today, the average household with credit card debt has balances totaling $16,425, and the average household with any kind of debt owes $135,924, including mortgages.” For those households where there is student debt, the average amount being carried is just over $50,000. For those households making payments on a car loan, the average balance on that debt is almost $30,000.

While there’s no one reason why each of us are carrying so much debt — we do, after all, each make our own decisions — there are some broad economic trends which affect us all. The cost of living has, on average, increased more quickly than our household income. While median income has grown by 28% over the last fifteen years, the cost of living has gone up 30%. Medical costs have increased by 57% and food and beverage prices by 36%. It is exactly as Hope has been reminding us week after week, prices are going up and up and up!

When the cost of living increases, debt increases. Despite stereotypes of careless spending on easy credit, the reality for many families is that credit is how they cover the difference between what may come in over a month and what it takes to feed, clothe, and care for themselves and their children. Minimum wage work leaves millions of people living from paycheck to paycheck, with credit as one of their only safety nets. Pursuing an education in order to get higher paying work comes with its own dangers. Student loan debt has increased by 186% in the last decade as the long recession forced people out of work and back to school.

It’s no wonder then, that we tend to think of debt as bad. We are so heavy laden with the kinds of debt that constrain our freedom and crush our spirits that it’s difficult to think of debt in positive terms. We’ve heard of “good debt” and “bad debt” in the economic realm and it has, perhaps, guided our choices. In today’s portion of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, he also talks about debt — good debt and bad debt — though we have to go back, parse his sentence, and read between the lines, to understand what he’s saying.

“So then, [siblings], we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh — for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” (Rom. 8:12-13)

The beginning of this sentence is clear: we are debtors. Then Paul sets up an opposition he never quite finishes, leaving us to infer the ending. “We are debtors, not to the flesh,” but … to something else, something being contrasted with the flesh, which turns out to be the Spirit.

However, our relationship to the Spirit is so radically different from our relationship to what Paul is calling “the flesh” that we can barely understand it in terms of debt as we know it, because it is the exact opposite of how we have experienced debt in the rest of our lives. Paul says that the Spirit of God makes us children of God. That the Spirit of God is the spirit of adoption. It is a spirit that increases our connectedness, that strengthens the bonds that tie us together. Paul contrasts this with the spirit of slavery, evoking once again the image of God’s people liberated from the bondage of Egypt through the waters of the sea.

This begins to make sense, at least to me. There are definitely forms of debt that feel infused with the spirit of slavery; debt that pushes me down and traps me in place; debt that makes me feel like an anonymous cog in a global machine that is extracting life out of me to create wealth and prosperity for a class of people I’ll never meet.

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Then I consider how my own life benefits from the condition of debt between nations that keeps the wealth flowing up from impoverished continents to supply me with cheap(er) food and oil and clothing, and I see that I am living higher up on the pyramid; that I am someone’s Pharaoh, part of a class of people they will never meet. This way of ordering life strips human flesh of the divine image and treats people like objects to be used and discarded. If we live according to the broken logic of this broken system, we will die.

There is this other kind of debt, however, that does not kill us. Instead, it’s the exact opposite, it sets us free from “bondage to decay.” It is the debt I inherited in baptism, when I crossed through the waters that led me to freedom.

Oh, to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be; / let that grace now like a fetter bind my wandering heart to thee. / Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it; prone to leave the God I love. / Here’s my heart, oh, take and seal it; seal it for thy courts above.

There is a form of debt that we take on whenever we are loved, which is a debt we can never repay — not because it weakens us or traps us in a dependent state — but because love is not for sale. Love breaks down the market forces that turn everything and everyone into a commodity. By love we adopt one another into our families, into our hearts. We invest without concern for return on investment, so that when love’s dividends are finally paid we are glad to immediately give them away, reinvesting them in one another.

Raise your hand if a parent, or a family member, or a teacher, or a friend, or a partner, or a spouse, or a child ever loved you in a way that made you more human, more free, more alive.

Then you are a debtor to grace, which is love’s currency.

I have a dream for St. Luke’s — which I guess I now have to say is my dream for the whole church — that we would continue to grow and become a powerful church that transforms lives and changes the world. By powerful I don’t mean the kind of power shaped like a pyramid, where each of us uses those below us to try and get higher up ourselves. I mean the power that comes when we look at our neighbors, every single one of them, and see children of God, joint heirs with Christ of a love that liberates us from the forces that deal death to our flesh and to our spirits. The power that comes from being members of a family more numerous than the stars in the sky, a family spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south (Gen. 28:14).

Imagine all those siblings. Hear their groaning cries. The whole creation is laboring to be transformed, to be changed, to be saved. That work, which Paul describes as “suffering with Christ so that we may also be glorified with Christ,” is love’s debt. It is the work we do not in order to be loved, but because we have already been given the first fruits of God’s love — we have been given each other. That alone is cause for hope.

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Sermons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We know this because we are those people.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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