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, 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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Sermons

Sermon: Wednesday, December 19, 2012: “Fear Not! Advent Worship Nearing the Longest Night”

Texts:  Isaiah 12:2-6  +  Luke 1:5-25  +  Luke 1:26-38  +  Matthew 1:18-25  +  Isaiah 43:1-7,15-21

cropped-grottocandles

What might you do if you weren’t afraid?

 

Would you quit your job?

Would you ask him out?

Would you insist, “Stop. No more!”

Would you tell the truth?

Would you finally say, “I love you.”

 

What might we do if we weren’t afraid?

 

Would we ask how she ended up on the corner begging for change?

Would we share more and keep less?

Would we interrupt the joke told at his expense?

Would we listen more than we speak?

Would we give up our guns?

 

What might happen if the nations weren’t afraid?

 

Would they distribute their resources more freely?

Would they find new exports that cannot kill?

Would they dismantle the drones and the tanks and the missiles?

Would they tear down the walls and open the roads?

Would they send their children to school instead of to war?

 

Fear is the enemy of change.  Change requires us to take a risk, to imagine a future different from our present and to act as though that future was already on the way.  Fear cannot dare to risk, and will endure a tortuous present rather than chance an even more disastrous future.

Fear is real, but it makes for a poor reality.  It is impossible to live in this world, awake, without seeing true cause for real fear.  All around us we find evidence to make the case for fearful living.  The career employee laid off just years before retirement.  The friend or relative diagnosed in the prime of life.  The marriage shattered by an inconceivable infidelity.  The son or daughter lost to war.  The empty schoolyard and the grieving nation.  The case for fear makes itself.  It needs no help from us.

The case for hope requires angels, messengers of a new reality working to be born, laboring to become real.  The angel appeared to old Zechariah as he offered his prayers in the Temple, “do not be afraid.”  The angel appeared to young Mary as she awaited the day of her marriage, “do not be afraid.”  The angel appeared to righteous Joseph as he prepared to take a wife, “do not be afraid.”  God’s message came to the nation of Israel, occupied and dispossessed, “do not fear.”

Before anything else can be said — before God can assure an old man that his dreams of parenthood are within his grasp, before God can explain the scandal taking root in the young woman’s womb, before God can convince the man to set aside conventions and laws, before God can promise the people that their children will all be called home — before anything else can be said, God’s messengers must first say, “do not be afraid.”

What might happen if fear was set aside?

The refusal to let fear rule our lives is the first step along the path that leads to a new life.  It is the decision to take a new road, to commit to a new future.  It is not easy, and it does not come without its own costs.  Of this open road, the poet Walt Whitman writes,

“Listen! I will be honest with you,

I do not offer the old smooth prizes, but offer rough new prizes,

These are the days the must happen to you:

You shall not heap up what is call’d riches,

You shall scatter with lavish hand all that you earn or achieve,

You but arrive to the city to which you were destin’d,

you hardly settle yourself to satisfaction before you

are call’d by an irresistible call to depart,

You shall be treated to the ironical smiles and

mockings of those who remain behind you,

What beckonings of love you receive you shall only answer

with passionate kisses of parting,

You shall not allow the hold of those who spread their

reach’d out hands toward you.”

Walt Whitman, “Song of the Open Road,” stanza 11

Zechariah and Elizabeth conceive, and their son is the herald of a new future.  He is executed in prison.  Mary and Joseph provide a home for God’s own Beloved child, Israel’s long awaited savior.  He dies on a cross… but not before the world is forever changed.

How might your world change if fear did not hold the last word?

Long before God’s messengers appeared to Zechariah, or Joseph, or Mary, God spoke to God’s people Israel, as they longed for a home most of them had never in their lifetimes seen.  To a people dispossessed by empire and despairing that the future could ever be different from the past, God declared,

“Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.  I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?  I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” (Isa. 43:18-19)

Into a world filled with violence, into a manger because the small business owners said there was no room, into a people occupied by a foreign empire, into a family touched by scandal, God puts on flesh and becomes vulnerable to the human condition.  To all the conditions you and I face each day.  With a fearlessness that can only be born of love, God does a new thing and the world is made new.

Tonight, as we approach the longest night, as we wait for the coming of the Lord, God’s messengers arrive under the cover of darkness to speak to us those ancient words, bearing the promise of a new future:

Do not be afraid.

 

 

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