Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, December 11, 2016: Third Sunday of Advent

Texts: Isaiah 35:1-10  +  Psalm 146:5-10  +  James 5:7-10  +  Matthew 11:2-11

I took a class in college called something like “Conceptual Physics,” but which we all called “Physics for Poets.”  It was a physics class without any math, mostly taken by English and other humanities majors in order to fulfill a distribution requirement in the sciences. We studied things like Newton’s law of universal gravitation and Einstein’s theory of special relativity using stick figures named Moe and Joe sketched out on the chalkboard by our professor, Dr. Kim.

I don’t really fancy myself a poet, though I try my hand occasionally, but the link between the science of the observable world and the theologies that connect my experience of the world to my knowledge of myself remains. Physics sometimes, unexpectedly, helps me understand religious concepts. For instance, hope.

Werner Heisenberg

Werner Heisenberg

The German physicist Werner Heisenberg, a pioneer of quantum physics, published a paper in 1927 that described the unavoidable imprecision that enters when trying to plot both the position and momentum of an object.  He was thinking of unimaginably small objects, like electrons or photons I suppose, not soccer balls.  His idea, which we now call Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, says that the more closely you try to pin down where a thing is, the less accurately you can say how quickly it is moving, and (I think) what direction it is moving in.  Conversely, the more accurately you describe the velocity of a thing, the less accurately you can describe just exactly where the thing itself is.

Now, remember, Heisenberg was writing about quantum physics, laws of nature operating at an unseen level.  Fortunately for us, for most of our waking days, we do a pretty good job of determining where, how fast, and in what direction objects around us are moving (which is why we are able to play soccer). But when we begin asking questions about the inconceivably small, invisible and practically undetectable world around us, operating at the microscopic level, different rules apply.

So, and here’s another piece of physics for us to mull over, the harder you try to observe things at this level of existence, the more likely you are to actually alter what you are looking at.  This is called the “observer effect,” and if you’ve ever used a tire gauge to check the pressure in your tires, you already know what I’m talking about.  You know how this works, you unscrew the tiny cap to the inner tube of your tire and, as you apply the gauge to the tire, you hear the hiss of air being released.  You wanted to know the pressure in your tire, but the very act of measuring the pressure has changed the pressure itself.  In quantum mechanics the same thing happens.  In order to observe objects at the sub-atomic level, like an electron, we have to direct photons at it, which actually changes the path of the thing we’re trying to observe.  There is no neutral observer at this level of science – to watch is to participate.

A long time ago I picked up a habit from a dear friend of mine who has spent most of her life practicing the art of counseling and, in particular, counseling people around issues of oppression and its impact on their lives. She very intentionally greets people by asking, “what’s new and good?” I’m sure you’ve heard me repeat the greeting plenty of times myself.

This isn’t arbitrary on my part.  It’s not just another way of saying, “what’s up?”  Although I’m interested in knowing what’s persistently old and difficult, I often choose to begin small groups by asking “what’s new and good?” because I believe that choosing to focus, training yourself to observe, what is new and good in the world is a spiritual practice. Although each of us has a multitude of stories we could choose to tell about our lives, when we practice looking for the new and the good, we are choosing to find evidence that the past doesn’t define the future – that old hurts do not cut off the possibility of future healing, and that signs of that new life are already appearing.

As with any spiritual practice, choosing to look for what is new and good in the world is not easy and does not come naturally for most of us.  Like the painful throbbing of a stubbed toe, old injuries stick with us and demand our attention.  Chronic pain, ongoing illnesses and the injustice of oppressive systems that surround us make it difficult to concentrate on what is emerging and new, what is healing and hopeful.

The season of Advent is much longer and much harder than we often care to admit.  We say that it is the four weeks before Christmas, but in another sense, it is our whole lives.  We spend our whole lives waiting for the vision of the prophet Isaiah to come true,

“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom…

the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water…

and the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing”

The wildernesses in which we wander feel so arid, and maybe especially so during this season when the desire to create the perfect Christmas for our families and children is at odds with the struggles we face at work, at home, or as a nation.  Our country feels more divided than at any moment in recent memory. Isaiah’s promises feel far off, so far off that we doubt we will ever see them in our own life.

cwyenjqwqaey7woMartin Luther King, Jr. famously said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”   Justice, these days, can feel hard to find.  It can seem tiny in the face of personal tragedies and ongoing wars, almost microscopic.  We would like to know precisely where God’s justice is, and when it will arrive.  But theological physics seems to indicate that we cannot know precisely where God’s justice is and how quickly it is moving – only that it is on the way, and that our own search for the signs of God’s justice, in fact, changes the world we are trying to observe.

So, in this moment when racist organizations we once imagined to be on the fringes of society are gaining confidence and organizing themselves into a global movement, I am choosing to celebrate the news that the Army Corps of Engineers sided with the water protectors at Standing Rock. I am finding hope in images of military veterans kneeling before elders of the Lakota Sioux tribe, offering an apology for centuries of violent oppression and exploitation of Native peoples. As we listen to newly emboldened anti-immigrant rhetoric moving from the margin to the middle of American discourse, I am encouraged by the actions of states like California and sanctuary cities like Chicago that are putting mechanisms in place to resist mass deportations should the federal government move against our neighbors under the cover of paranoid fantasies and slanderous lies.

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Photo Credit: Josh Morgan for the Huffington Post

I am looking for what is new and good in the world.  I am perfecting my perceptions.  I am practicing hope, and I am waiting with patience for the fulfillment of God’s promises – knowing that as I look for evidence of God’s work in the world, I am drawn into that very work.

What are you looking at this Advent season?  What are you looking for?  How are you training yourself to seek and to find evidence of God’s movement in the world? I know it’s hard. I know that! The temptation to constantly rehash all that is old and wrong and broken is ever-present. But I also know that there are no neutral observers. To watch is to participate. It matters which stories we tell. It matters, the conversations we have. Do you say it’s all falling apart, or do you say the moment for radical transformation is finally upon us? It matters!

Stay awake, therefore, and watch for the coming of the Lord.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, July 13, 2014: Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Genesis 25:19-34  +  Psalm 119:105-112  +  Romans 8:1-11  +  Matthew 13:1-9,18-23

As we continue to work our way through the book of Genesis this summer, this morning’s tale begins with rather ominous words. We left off last week with Abraham’s servant being sent to find a wife for his son, Isaac. This week that wife, Rebekah, is pregnant — but it’s not an easy pregnancy. Genesis says, “The children struggled together within her; and she said, ‘if it is to be this way, why do I live?’” (Gen. 25:22)

Suffering, and searching for answers, Rebekah turns to God in prayer. What she hears in response is hardly comforting however. God says,

“Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.” (Gen. 25:23)

ShowImage.ashxAfter a week like this past one, every preacherly instinct in me wants to stop right there and share with you my heartbreak over all the places in the world where two nations have been so deeply divided that lives are being lost like water being poured out over sand. In Israel and Gaza, where tensions have been rising again since the abduction and murder of three Israeli teenagers, bombs dropped by the Israeli Defense Forces over the last five days have injured over 850 Palestinians and killed at least 148, 70% of whom were civilians, many of them children.

Here in the United States we have been watching conflicts along our own southern border worsen, as children from points across Central America make their way north, fleeing poverty and gang violence that are due in no small part to U.S. drug policy both at home and abroad. With President Obama calling for billions of dollars of emergency funds to help speed up deportations of these children, and angry Americans staging protests and blockading busses filled with detained children, things will likely get worse before they get any better.

“Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided,” says God to Rebekah, reminding us that one of the functions of these stories from Genesis was to explain to the nation of Israel how it was related to neighboring peoples, and how those relationships fell apart. With people of every land and every age, we are left wondering the same thing.

The story continues with Rebekah giving birth to her twins, first to Esau, then Jacob. Jacob, the younger comes into the world grabbing at his elder brother’s heel, seeking to trip him up from the very beginning. Each boy is the favorite of one of his parents: Esau, a hunter and outdoorsman, is his father’s favorite; while Jacob, a quiet man who stayed close to home, has his mother’s favor. In a society in which power and inheritance flowed from father to son, it’s easy to see that Esau is being presented as the model of a man’s man. Furthermore, this family’s story has been dominated by the desire to establish a lineage that would fulfill God’s promise to make of them a great nation. Esau, son of Isaac, son of Abraham, seems like just the man to carry the family name forward.

But that isn’t what happens. Instead the story goes that one day, after coming in from the field, a hungry Esau asks for a bowl of the stew Jacob had been cooking. We’re told that Esau was famished, but not starving. There is no famine in the land yet (though one is coming). Esau’s life is not in danger. He’s a skilled huntsman who could have caught his own meal if things were that bad. When Jacob holds back the bowl of lentils, demanding Esau’s birthright, it’s hard to imagine that his athletic, older brother couldn’t have simply taken it from him, as older brothers are often want to do. So when Esau says, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” I think we’re intended to hear his statement as hyperbole. These are brothers playing games with one another and, like so many family games, this one reveals the dynamics just under the surface.

Jacob wants his older brother’s birthright. You can imagine his resentment at being relegated to second place, coming into the world only minutes after Esau. He knows his father’s story, his grandfather’s story, his legacy and his family’s promised future. Those things matter to him. He wants to play a great part in their saga. Esau, on the other hand, seems indifferent to his inheritance, perhaps in the way that only the entitled can feel. It is his, he assumes forever, so it treats it lightly. He makes oaths he has no intention of keeping. He lives his life in the moment, assuming that what he needs will be provided for him.

These family dynamics are all too familiar, aren’t they? I suspect that if I asked you to turn to your neighbor — which I’m not going to do, but I keep bringing it up, so I think it may just happen some day, but not today.  I’m just warning you so that you’ll be prepared — I suspect that if I asked you to turn to your neighbor and share a story from your own family about sibling rivalries, or parents who played favorites and how that turned out, many of you would have stories to tell. Stories that have shaped how you see yourself in relation to the rest of your family. Stories that have formed you into the person you are today, even when your family is not around.

This particular story from Genesis doesn’t seem to condemn Jacob or Esau, Isaac or Rebekah, it simply describes them. It foreshadows events to come, when this family dynamic will play out once again as Jacob and his mother conspire to steal Esau’s blessing from Isaac as the head of the house lays upon his deathbed. But here we are presented with a snapshot, the kind of story members of a family might tell years later when they look back, trying to understand when it all began to fall apart.

sower_lmauldindsc_0775-760x800In the gospel reading for this morning we get the story of a very different kind of outdoorsman than Esau the hunter. Here Jesus shares a parable about a sower who goes out to plant his seeds, casting them rather indiscriminately onto the path, over rocky ground, among thorn bushes, and into good soil. Predictably, not all the seeds flourish. The seeds that fell on the path got eaten up by birds. The seed that fell on rocky ground grew fast and died fast, since it had weak roots. The seed that grew among the thorns got choked out. Only the seed that fell on good soil produced a harvest — but, oh, what a harvest! Enough grain to feed a multitude.

Jesus then explains his parable to those who’ve been following him. The seed is not God’s favor, nor God’s love. God may be like a parent, but in this story God is not picking favorites. Instead, the seed is “the word of the kingdom” or “the good news of the reign of God.” When that good news is announced, but we are unable to receive it, or can’t understand it, it does not take root. I suppose this could happen for any number of reasons. It may be that we are so preconditioned to look for another kind of kingdom, another kind of reign, that we can barely acknowledge our hope that the world as it is could be anything other than how we’ve always experienced it. The very idea is incomprehensible.

Then there is the the seed that falls on rocky ground. Quickly the plant shoots up, but just as quickly it withers. Jesus compares rocky ground to the person who is overjoyed to hear the proclamation of the gospel, who always knew that God meant the world to be different than this, who has longed to see God’s reign break through into present space and present time, here and now, but lacks that depth to sustain that hope when times get rough. Perhaps they’ve been waiting for a savior who would set the world aright without any call to conversion, without any demand of discipleship, without any cost. Or maybe they were longing for their own liberation, but less interested in the plight of their neighbor. Whatever the case, they are not able to sustain the life of faith, and so it withers before it can bloom.

Jesus describes a third maladaptive environment for the seed’s growth in our lives, when it falls among thorns. This, he says, “is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing” (Matt. 13:22). Rather than greeting the news of God’s reign with joy, this person rightly understands that the kingdom of God is not the kingdom of this world, and that those who benefit from things as they are will likely lose much that they’ve grown to love before they taste the sweetness of the life God intends for us. On balance they are happier with things as they are, even as they suspect that their own wealth bears a cost that others pay.

I suspect Esau was in this third category. He was an inheritor of the promises of God, but he knew that his gain came at his brother’s loss, and that inequality grew to choke the love out of their relationship until the chasm that separated them was as high as any wall and as wide as any river. There they were, two brothers, born from the same parents, created out of the same love, yet divided like nations fighting over a blessing big enough for them both.

And where is God in all of this? Where is God when siblings battle over their parents’ love? Where is God when children leave their families behind to seek safety and a future? Where is God when children are kidnapped and killed, when bombs fall from the sky on the guilty and the innocent alike?

God is like a sower, with an infinite supply of seed, not rationing it out, not apportioning it only to those who have lived lives free from condemnation, not picking favorites, but casting it profligately, carelessly, over all kinds of ground, over all kinds of people, knowing that in the beginning these earthlings, formed from the dust of the ground, bearing the breath of God in their lungs, were gazed upon and called good. Knowing that each of us, in season, will be good soil again. And on that day, the seed will take root and grow into a harvest great enough to feed and bless all our brothers and sisters, of every land and nation, until our checkpoints and our border patrols fall and we are all sitting at the family dinner table again at last.

Praying for that day. Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, November 25, 2012: Reign of Christ Sunday

Texts:   Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14 and Psalm 93  •   Revelation 1:4b-8  •   John 18:33-37

Grace and the peace that passes all understanding be with you, my brothers and sisters, in the name of Christ our King.  Amen.

As we gather at the end of this Thanksgiving weekend — days filled, for many of us, with travel to see family and friends; tables filled with extravagant food and drink as a reminder of the abundance with which we are blessed, even in these trying financial times — I am feeling truly thankful for events taking place far from Chicago.  When we gathered a week ago for worship, we were praying for peace in Gaza.  The following day a handful of us took part in a peace rally downtown that drew thousands of people here in Chicago as similar events took place around the world.  On Wednesday, as families in the United States prepared to take stock of their lives and give thanks for their many blessings, a ceasefire was negotiated between the nation of Israel and the leaders of Hamas, the party in power in Gaza. After seven days of fighting, two hundred Israelis and Palestinians were dead and over a thousand had been wounded. While the ceasefire is holding for now, a more lasting peace is still far off on the horizon.

The conflicts in Israel and the Palestinian territories are being fought on lands that have seen the rise and fall of the most ancient of nations, the first being the Mesopotamians who inhabited what is now called Iraq.  The Mesopotamian empires gave us cuneiform, the first form of writing.  They were amazingly complex politically, religiously, socially.  Now they are gone.

The Mesopotamian empires passed officially into history when they were conquered by Alexander the Great as part of his crusade to conquer the world.  This began what historians call the Hellenistic Age, which lasted until 31 BCE when the Egyptians were defeated by the Romans at the Battle of Actium, prompting their queen, Cleopatra, to commit suicide – famously re-enacted 2000 years later by Elizabeth Taylor.

The Roman Empire should be more familiar to us, since it serves as the backdrop to the gospels and the life of the early church.  When we hear the stories of Caesar Augustus and King Herod, we are hearing tales from the Roman Empire.  It was hostile to the early church, and was the cause of many Christian martyrs… until the Emperor Constantine, who in the fourth century made Christianity the religion of the Empire.  That was reputedly good for the Christians, but didn’t do much for the Roman Empire, which fell about 100 years later to Germanic invaders.

I could go on and tell you all about the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, which held together for the most part for three hundred years of so.  Somewhere in there you’d hear the story of a scuffle in which a monk named Luther played a bit of a part, leading to a deterioration of the Empire and the formation of smaller nations: Austria, Prussia and the like.  That left room for the rise of the British Empire, which prided itself on being the most extensive empire in the history of the world, boasting that the sun never set on its lands.  By the early years of the twentieth century the British empire counted over 450 million people in its territories and holdings.

The wars of the twentieth century brought that empire to a close however, and began what TIME/LIFE publisher Henry Luce called “The American Century.”  Historians mark the American Century as beginning with the Spanish-American war and reaching its peak during the fever pitch of the Cold War during the 1980s. From 2003 until just about this time last year the United States had troops on the ground back in Mesopotamia – or Iraq.  The costs of that war, along with the one in Afghanistan, has left our country with tremendous debt and has eroded our ability to maintain and expand the social infrastructure that creates growth and prosperity – which has prompted many around the world to remark that the American Century is now over.

So many beginnings and so many endings, and each time the same story: empires built on the spoils of war, empires crushed by failure at war, empires called into being and replaced, over and over again.  Where do we suppose it will end?

When you tell the story of our human history, when you hear the bloody tale of nations and wars, it is enough to make you run for cover.  In the face of the stormclouds of war, we wonder if there are boats sturdy enough to carry us through the storm and safely to the far shore.  In a world of violence we naturally look for sanctuary.

Well friends, we need not look far.  This sanctuary in which we sit is both safe refuge and sturdy transport.  In fact, and I’m sure you know this already, but the area in which you are sitting – what we call the nave – get its name from marine terminology.  Can you hear the similarity between the words: nave, navy, naval?  The intent, when our mothers and fathers in the faith named their worship spaces, was that we would remember that God has acted to provide safe refuge from the destructions of life.  Like Noah’s ark that carried a remnant safely across “the thunders of mighty waters” [Ps. 93:4], this sanctuary is God’s gift to us as we make our way in a violent world.

Later this morning we’ll hear from Lyn Westman who works with Mercy Ships, an international Christian ministry that brings medical aid and assistance to some of the poorest people and nations in the world — a ministry that takes the shape of this sanctuary quite literally.

But it doesn’t end there, because this sanctuary is not only the boat that carries us across the waters, it is also the far shore to which we are headed.  You see, it appears that God has something far more grand in store for us than sheltering us from the wars of one world, only to drop us in the conflicts of whichever empire is coming next.  No, instead God has lifted us out of not just one nation, but every nation, and made of us an entirely new people.  You heard it in the reading from Revelation, “to [God] who loves us and freed us… and made us to be a kingdom.”

This is very difficult to imagine, that God is lifting us out of our many and varied backgrounds and creating something new, a new body, a new family, a new kingdom, a new nation.  It’s something so new, that we struggle even to find good words or symbols that can teach us the meaning of what God is doing.  But we try.

Let’s imagine then that this sanctuary in which we gather is not only a nave, not only a ship, but that it has, and does and will carry us into a new way of being in the world.  Let’s imagine together what it might be like to disembark from this ship and enter into this new land on these imagined shores.  It’s as though we’ve arrived at Ellis Island, having left the old country behind us – except the nation that we are about to step foot in is not the United States.  It is, as Jesus speaks it to Pilate in today’s gospel a kingdom “not from this world.”  Something brand new, difficult to imagine, but for which we have been given signs.

So if this were an Ellis Island experience, the first thing we would have to worry about is immigration.  Having weathered the storms of life, of war and of death, we might wonder whether or not we would even be granted access to this new and promised land.  What might we look to in the sanctuary to teach us about the immigration policy in God’s new nation?

We HAVE been given a sign and a sacrament to teach us something about who is welcome in this kingdom, and it is baptism.  These waters marked entrance into the kingdom for each of us.  These waters, the tears of God, are an open door for everyone.  We wash babies and we wash the aged and dying in these waters, and in both cases the water is a gift, not a right or an entitlement.  This is the immigration policy in God’s new nation: come one and come all, there is plenty of room.

Now that we have entered into this new land we are refugees and immigrants.  So, like all refugees and immigrants we have some very basic necessities that we must attend to: what will we eat and how will we support ourselves?  We might be concerned, seeing how immigrants in those nations we have left behind us were often made to fend for themselves, but soon we discover that there is a new kind of economic policy in the kingdom of God.  Here there is a table filled with rich foods and life-giving wine, and even better, there is room at the table for everyone.  However much we may eat at this table, there is some left over.  Even better, we are given legitimate employment right away, as we discover that our job now is to share the food and the blessings of this table with those who are still hungry for the gifts of God!

Now that is no easy task.  If fact, it is a job that could consume all our time, yet we make time in this new nation to return for basic citizenship classes.  As I understand it, when people arrive in the United States we require about 16 hours of instruction before you sit for the test that determines whether or not you get your green card or your naturalization papers.  We teach you basic history, the Constitution, the pledge of allegiance.  But what about the new nation?  Here we do NOT sit for a test.  I suppose we have a Constitution of sorts, but it is a much grander one – it is the Word of Life, read aloud among the people and then proclaimed from the pulpit.  It is not fixed in time, but instead it is a living Word that constantly rises to reveal the truth of our lives to us.  It is Scripture, surely, but more than that it is our living Lord, Jesus, who “came into the world to testify to the truth.”  We have basic history lessons that we learn, they are our creeds, they are our way of remembering the story of those who came before us in faith, who made their witness to the world about the freedom of life in the new nation.  We have our pledge of allegiance, but we call it the Lord’s Prayer, and instead of talking about ourselves and our promises, we use our prayer to recall to one another who God is: the one who creates, the one who saves us from the time of trial, the one has made us into one body, one family, one kingdom, one nation, one new thing for which we are still looking for words.

Look around the sanctuary friends, it is filled with familiar signs each of which is actually a clue to the kind of king Christ seeks to be in the world and in our lives.  We even have a flag!  Where do you suppose we place it?

Why front and center, of course.  It hangs above our altar.  Do you see our flag?  It is the cross of Christ – the evidence of God with us throughout all the wars, all the violence, all the deaths in our lives, great and small, and transformed into life by the God who does not leave us ever, and who gives us to one another, across lines of race and nationality, across lines of hatred and hostility, and says: you are now family to one another, you are my family.

Our lessons this morning describe for us an awareness of God’s kingdom that is always with us.  Daniel remembers that “all peoples, nations, and languages should serve [God].” [Dan. 7:14]  John of Patmos, speaking in that strange apocalyptic language says, “every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of earth will wail.” [Rev. 1:7]  Wail because we someday, surely, will finally come to know what has always been true: that it is God who is the Alpha and Omega [Rev. 1:8], the beginning and the end.  The nation that has always existed and will never fail.

We would like to think that we are citizens of a nation that can never fall, but that is not so.  We are not, in the end, too very different from the Mesopotamians, or the Greeks, or the Romans, or the Germans, or the English.  For that matter, we’re not that very different from the Mongols who created the largest land empire, spanning all of Asia; or the Aztecs, whose society collapsed from the inside as a result of their decadent and conspicuous consumption of the land’s resources.  We are always trying to have it both ways, dual-citizenship if you will.  “For God and Country,” or “pro deo et patria” – ironically, that is the slogan of the Army chaplains.  They who have been called to stand in the midst of war and to be a sign that God is present, even there.

Of course God is present everywhere, in every people, and always has been.  When we gather here, in this place, this sanctuary, let us remember that this is not only refuge from the storm – but also conveyance to the new country.  Let us be very intentional about the words and signs and symbols that we use in this place so that we are not simply pointing to the broken and fading realities of the present age, but instead to the in-breaking and glorious realities of the world that is to come, and that is now drawing close in Christ, our King.

Amen.

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