Sermon: Sunday, August 3, 2014: Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts:  Genesis 32:22-31  +  Psalm 17:1-7,15  +  Romans 9:1-5  +  Matthew 14:13-21

bigstockphoto_red_name_tag_2108230-300x226“What is your name?”

“What is your name?” is the question the divine figure asks Jacob at the end of a long night of wrestling by the river.  On its own it’s not a very remarkable question. In fact aside from, perhaps, “how are you?” it’s got to be one of the most frequently asked questions and the one we’re readiest to answer. “Hi, I’m Erik, what’s your name?”

The question is odd though, since it’s being asked by a figure that Jacob later identifies with God when he says, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” (Gen. 32:30) We must assume that God knows Jacob’s name, and that God’s question is intentional. So, why is God asking Jacob for his name?

The question comes at the end of an incredible struggle, not just that night but throughout his life.  Jacob, you may remember, had a twin brother, Esau. Born together, but separated by their interests, their assets and their inheritances, Jacob and Esau had a troubled relationship as brothers. Early on, Jacob shows his envy of his brother’s birthright as the eldest son, a birthright Esau treats lightly, trading it for a bowl of lentil soup.

Later Jacob conspires with his mother, Rebekah, to trick his father into bestowing the blessing intended for Esau onto himself.  Disguising himself as his brother, Jacob approaches Father Isaac, who has become nearly blind in his old age.  “Who are you, my son?” Isaac asks.  “I am Esau, your firstborn,” Jacob replies. After a few rounds of this questioning, Isaac grants Jacob the blessing intended for Esau.

On one level we admire Jacob. He is clever, he is tenacious, he is goal-oriented and directed. He goes after what he wants and writes his own story. He is what we have been taught to be. On the other hand, what a tragic figure. He is the younger brother always living in the shadow of his older brother. He is the insecure son, wishing his father would do for him what he has promised to do for another. Furthermore, Jacob’s identity crisis creates new problems. Fleeing from his Esau’s vengeance, Jacob spends years away from his family among his uncle’s people, where he is on the receiving end of the same kind of trickery that got him into this predicament.

Finally Jacob is ready to be reconciled with his brother, to bring an end to a lifetime of struggle. So he sends word to Esau that he is coming to meet him along with all his wives and children and servants and wealth, a sign that he’s done well for himself. Word comes back that Esau is coming to meet him as well, and that he’s brought four hundred men along with him. It sounds like trouble, but who can be sure? They’ve been competing with one another their whole lives, a struggle that’s been leading to this moment. Will it be a moment of conflict, or a moment of reconciliation? No one knows.

So when Jacob encounters the divine figure in the night by the banks of the river Jabbok, he has already been wrestling for a very long time with the question of his identity. Who is he trying to be? Has he learned anything from his lifelong struggle with jealousy? Has he outgrown his habit of taking whatever he wants, regardless of the cost? Is he ready to live the life God has in store for him, to receive the blessing God wants to give to him? Has he come to grips with who he is? Does he know his own name?

God’s question to Jacob, “what is your name?” is what makes this story so powerful and so accessible to people of every time and place. Who among us doesn’t struggle with trying to understand who we are and why we do the things we do? Who hasn’t looked back over their lives and seen how the desire to be someone else, to live someone else’s life, has destroyed the happiness or the future with which God was trying to bless us? We all know what it’s like to look in the mirror, to see the image of our own face looking back at us, eyes red from crying, skin etched with the map of the years, and wonder who that is looking back at us. Or we will.

What is your name?

logan-square-s-preeminentIt’s a question we get asked not only as people, but as neighborhoods, as nations. Residents at the Milshire Hotel, organizing in the face of eviction notices; the community at Lathrop Homes, calling attention to the millions of dollars and hundreds of housing vouchers being hoarded by the CHA; the swell of working class neighbors whose affordable rental housing is quickly disappearing from Logan Square, are all asking their neighbors, “what is your name?”  Families in Gaza, fleeing the rubble of bombed out homes and hospitals are calling out to the world as it watches, “what is your name?”  Children leaving lives of danger and desperation are showing up along our southern border, climbing fences and crossing rivers and as we struggle next to those waters, God is asking us, “what is your name?”

It’s a question we have been asking ourselves as well, as a congregation, for many years.  We, who came into this world like fraternal twins during an era when congregations were being birthed at the same time all over this city, we might look around and see other congregations that are thriving in ways that make us long for easier times, that might make us wish we’d been granted a different blessing, that we had a different identity, that we were living some other congregation’s life.  I know I feel that way sometimes.  I grew up in a large Lutheran church with hundreds of members, multiple pastors, a youth program that drew children and families in from miles away, and enough money to put staff time into a wide range of ministries, local and global.  I know what it’s like to wish for someone else’s blessings, and so do you.

Some of you are of an age that you remember when the church was something your parents and other adults provided for you, when church — like school — was a program designed to mold and nurture you, to meet your needs. You may be longing for the blessings of a church that manages itself, that can get by without you, but will still be here when you drop in.

Others of you remember very different days here at St. Luke’s, when the pews were fuller and families were more settled. Times when you knew everybody’s names, and they knew yours, and you had relationships that went back decades. When everyone knew the same songs, and loved the same food, and cherished the same traditions. You may be longing for the blessings of a church that can preserve the treasures of the past in spite of all that’s changing in the present.

I spent the last two days with your Church Council and the members of the Strategic Listening Team as they read through and discussed all the feedback and stories they gleaned from each of you through the last three months of interviews about your experience of St. Luke’s. Here’s what I want you to know: you have an incredible Church Council that cares very much about you and your families, that wants to preserve this congregation’s legacy even as it shapes its future. Many of you already know this, because you have taken a turn or two on Council, and you know how hard, but also how rewarding, that work can be. They have heard your calls for improved ministry to children and families, they have heard the need for small groups and social gatherings that make it easier for newcomers to find a home in the congregation, they have heard your concerns about the state of our property and your questions about how much longer we can sustain it. They are wrestling, and wrestling, and wrestling — so much so that it feels like they’ve been wrestling all night long, holding on for a blessing. As they continue to work, as they listen to your input and invite your participation in plotting the course for our shared future, the question before them is the same question God put to Jacob:

What is your name?

Who are we?  Not “who do we wish we were?” Not even “who do we think we ought to be?”  But, “who are we?” What is our name? What is our identity? We see the blessings God has prepared for our brothers and sisters elsewhere, we may even covet them, but God has a blessing in store for us as well — a blessing that is already present among us, like loaves and fishes, a blessing that is more than enough for the future into which God is calling us.

The next day, after wrestling with God all night long, a struggle that left Jacob with a limp for the rest of his days, he went out to meet his brother and see what the future held. In the distance he could see Esau and the four hundred men advancing on him, but once they were close enough to see each other face to face, Esau ran to met Jacob and fell into his arms and together they wept for all that had passed between them. Jacob blessed Esau, saying, “please accept my blessing that is brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me, and because I have enough.” (Gen. 33:11)

Friends, that is the spirit in which we will find our blessings.  When we can look at ourselves in the mirror, accept ourselves for who we are and who God created us to be, when we can stop coveting the blessings of our brothers and sisters and can instead count the blessings God has already given each one of us; when, out of gratitude we can release all we may have been hiding or hoarding for the sake of those in need, those who are all — in the final analysis — our sisters and brothers, then there will be enough to care for the whole world and more.



Sermon: Sunday, July 27, 2014: Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Genesis 29:15-28  +  Psalm 105:1-11,45b  +  Romans 8:26-39  +  Matthew 13:31-33,44-52

51MfVDOlEkL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_There was a book that came out almost twenty years ago by an author known most commonly as don Miguel Ruiz titled “The Four Agreements.”  It was a book of practical wisdom, aimed at helping people to order their thinking and behavior in ways that lead to greater happiness, peace and love. The goal was to keep it simple. Four agreements we can each make with ourselves to reduce conflict and increase contentment in our lives. The first one was: Be impeccable with your word.

To be impeccable with your word means to be exceedingly conscious of the power of your words to shape reality, both your own and the reality of those around you. It is the decision to use your word to create and strengthen honest and loving relationships. This is the principle that lies behind such familiar proverbs as “say what you mean and mean what you say” or “let your yes be yes and your no be no” (Matt. 5:37). It is an acknowledgement that, contrary to the childhood rhyme “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me” that names, in fact, can hurt us. That words create worlds.

It seems like a simple thing at first, to be impeccable with your word, but it’s not. Once you make this agreement with yourself and begin to practice it, you quickly realize just how often you are less than impeccable with your word. How often you use words to blur the truth, to conceal your thoughts and feelings, to gain influence and favor. Once you set this limit upon yourself, you begin to see how those who do not limit themselves in such a way get ahead in this world. How a silver-tongued fast talker can seem like the one to follow, to model yourself upon.

Scripture gives us just such a character in Jacob, whose story we’ve been reading for the last few weeks as we work through the book of Genesis this summer. The first story in the cycle gave us a portrait of Jacob and his twin brother, Esau, whose birthright Jacob coveted. That jealousy grows over time so that, as their father Isaac is laying on his deathbed, Jacob and his mother Rebekah conspire to rob Esau of his birthright by tricking Isaac into giving his blessing to Jacob. They dress Jacob in furry clothes to emulate his hairy brother and cook father Isaac his favorite meal. Then Jacob brings the food in and presents himself to his father who asks, “Who are you, my son?” (Gen. 27:18). Jacob replies, “I am Esau your firstborn. I have done as you told me; now sit up and eat of my game, that your soul may bless me” (Gen. 27:19). The charade goes on for a while and each time Isaac asks a question, Jacob responds with another lie, until finally Isaac gives to Jacob the blessing intended for Esau.

René Girard, an American academic whose work has influenced the fields of literary criticism, theology, psychology and philosophy, posits that all desire is mimetic, or mimicked — meaning that all desire is learned. Beyond our basic needs for food, water and shelter, we learn what we want by observing what others want. Joseph seeks his father’s blessing because Esau values it. The fact that they are twins, but that one is valued above the other, only strengthens the rivalry. Girard suggests that all conflict originates in mimetic desire. We see it at the earliest ages when children compete over toys. Fighting-ChildrenKerry and I have watched our goddaughter Kai playing happily on her own, only to become frustrated and upset as soon as another child begins playing with a different toy. “Mine!” she says, driven not by her desire for the toy, but by her rivalry with the other child whose desire for the toy suddenly makes it precious to her as well.

But it’s not just children that engage in mimetic rivalry, and it’s not just toys that get competed for. As we grow older we struggle with our friends and classmates over who will date the most attractive or the most accomplished boy or girl. In fact, their value as a partner seems to grow in direction proportion to the number of people who vie for their attention. Throughout our lives, we learn which jobs to compete for, which neighborhoods to live in, by watching — by mimicking — the desires of other desirable people. These cycles of desire create value, so that a neighborhood like Logan Square which people once apologized for living in can become the hottest neighborhood in Chicago.

Our mimicry of one another creates not only value, but conflict, as we compete over goods, social and material, so that we can be more like someone else. Isaac asks, “who are you, my son?” and Jacob replies, “I am Esau.”

z_p18-MimeticIn his studies of mimetic rivalry, René Girard has also suggested that religion was necessary to human evolution as a way of controlling the violence that results from our covetous nature. He uses Jewish and Christian texts as examples of how our religious traditions work to disrupt the ongoing and escalating cycles of conflict, as in today’s scene from the Jacob cycle.

Having cheated his brother, who now wants to kill him, Jacob must flee from his family and make a life for himself among his distant kin. He falls in love with Rachel, the daughter of his mother’s brother, Laban, and agrees to work for his uncle for seven years in return for the right to marry her. Jacob is true to his word, but on the night of the wedding, Laban tricks him by sending Rachel’s older sister, Leah, in to him. Jacob cries foul, “why then have you deceived me?” (Gen. 29:25), but it’s hard to feel too much sympathy for him at this point. Don’t hate the player, hate the game. If words create worlds, then this is Jacob’s world, Laban’s just living in it. In fact, as if to rub it in, Laban replies, “it is not so done in our country, to give the younger before the firstborn” (Gen. 29:26). He seems to be pointing directly at Jacob’s offense, stealing the birthright and the blessing from his older brother.

Having little leverage in this situation, Jacob agrees to give Laban another seven years of his labor in exchange for Rachel, whom he is allowed to wed a week later, but the damage is done. Jacob feels coerced. Leah, the older sister, feels despised and humiliated. As time goes on, all these relationships will be strained. Leah and Rachel’s sisterhood will be infected with mimetic rivalry as each compete for pride of place in Jacob’s eyes through their children. Jacob and Laban’s suspicion and mistrust will take them to the brink of violence. The entire cycle of stories is a parable about the destructive nature of jealousy and the power of our words to abuse and manipulate one another.

It’s painfully easy to see this ancient story being played out again and again in our time, all around us, in ways both great and small.  What are national borders, if not our human attempt to build a wall around something God created in love for those God loves — all of us — and to call it ours, to hoard resources behind fences and checkpoints and then punish others for trying to stake a claim on what we have held back for ourselves. It’s happening in Israeli settlements and along our own southern border, the cycle of conflict and violence that comes from coveting and claiming for ourselves what others also want. We give our prizes mythic names that enshrine their value, “the American dream” or “the Holy Land.” Isn’t all land holy? Don’t we all have dreams?

I wonder how hard it would be to find this cycle of mimetic rivalry at work in your own conflicts. If you were to scan your memories from this past week and consider those you’ve resented, those you’ve debated in your head, those you’ve gossiped about, those you’ve torn down with your words — is there some element of rivalry there? Do they possess something you want — a job, a reputation, a degree of power and influence, a natural talent, a platform, a network, a family? Are you coveting in someone else the things that you yourself lack? Are you contributing to a cycle of conflict and violence in your workplace, in your own home, through the words that you say, or refuse to say?

I’d like to return for just a moment to the act of confession and forgiveness with which we began our our worship this morning, and I’d like to repeat it one more time for good measure. Please, turn once again to your neighbor and share these words of assurance: “In Jesus Christ, we are forgiven.”

What a small thing they are, words. The pass the gates of our lips and are carried away on the air. They leave no record of themselves that we can see, but their impact is felt in our minds, in our hearts, on our lives.

pearlsJesus shares a set of parables this morning about the power of small things to make a huge impact. A mustard seed. A bit of yeast. A hidden treasure. A single pearl. A net that snares us all together. But it is Jesus’ own life that is the greatest parable. A Word, incarnate, taking on flesh in the particularity of someone insignificant. A Jew. A Galilean. A working class boy. An immigrant and a refugee.

But this living Word lived impeccably. He did not try to be someone else. He did not base his actions or his decisions on the desires of others, he did not play their game by their rules, but instead told stories in which something small and weak and unnoticed could grow into something large enough to house the birds of the air, or leaven an entire loaf, or become more valuable then everything else we possess.

These are violent days my sisters and brothers. My heart breaks each time I read the news. The magnitude of creation’s sufferings is beyond my ability to imagine or understand, and they seem intractable, impossible to resolve. These fights are the same fights we’ve been watching for generations. What can we, who are so small, do in the face of these horrors, which are so large?

There is power in small things. Words create worlds, so be impeccable with your word. Do not use it to try and be someone else, to claim what is not yours. Instead, let your word, your own powerful word, give witness the power of God’s Word at work in the world, siding with the small, with the weak, with the despised, with the lost, with the rejected. Let your word be a part of God’s Word, which is truth and love and forgiveness, which is newness of life, and hope and a future for us all.



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.