Sermon: Sunday, August 25, 2013: Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts:  Jeremiah 1:4-10  +  Psalm 71:1-6  +  Hebrews 12:18-29  +  Luke 13:10-17

Do you remember the last day of … whatever?  Summer camp.  High School.  A mission trip.  The last day after something intense and formative and life-changing.

For three years after seminary I worked on the staff of a summer program down in Atlanta at my alma mater, Emory University, we called YTI — the Youth Theological Initiative.  Some of you recognize the name of the program because, about four years ago, we sent Lynda Deacon down to Atlanta for a month to participate.

YTI takes young people, high school students going into their junior and senior years, and puts them in classrooms with graduate students in theology, scripture and ethics with the explicit goal of equipping these young people to become public theologians.  They take courses that study the relationship between Christian faith and non-violence, Christian faith and environmental crisis, Christian faith and religious pluralism.  YTI is not vacation bible school or the church camp in the woods with a craft cabin, like the one I grew up with in Iowa (and loved).  It is a school for prophets.  It is a place where young people get treated like the theological subjects, not objects, that they are.  Youth are expected to leave YTI as voices that will lead the church and society in confronting some of the most pressing challenges of our day.

hssp13-goodbye-01Which brings me back to the last day.  On the last day of YTI we, the staff, stand outside the dorms with our students, our summer scholars, who each arrived a little bit scared of what the coming month would bring, but now are a little bit scared of what the future may hold.  They’d come to YTI with their expectations that we would teach them something, but they were leaving with our expectations that they would do something with what they’d learned. So they waited in front of the dorms  with their suitcases packed for a parent to arrive, or a shuttle to take them to the airport, and when the last moment came they hugged each other, and they cried, and then they went back out into the world.

One of those scholars, Liz Theoharris from the summer of 1993, went on to found The Poverty Initiative a decade later, a program affiliated with Union Seminary in New York City.  Inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision of a “Freedom Church for the Poor,” the Poverty Initiative seeks to empower poor leaders and the organizations that support them.  The idea came from a gap Liz saw in her work as a Christian and an activist.  At protests and prayer vigils, religious people regularly came together for social justice, but with very little ability to speak theologically about why they were there.  “I found myself at Union Seminary,” she says, “realizing my call to do social justice was a religious one, and yet saw that most churches weren’t really equipped to do the kind of work that we were called to do as religious leaders.”

Laura McCandlish, from the summer of 1997, went on to become a journalist who covers the food justice movement from her home in Oregon.  At YTI’s recent 20th year reunion last month, Laura led a panel discussion on how communities of faith are vital contributors to the food justice movement, whether by planting community gardens or opening their kitchens for end-of-season processing, for cooking classes, or as commercial kitchens for local entrepreneurs or disenfranchised neighbors.  Her reporting has focused on the intersection of immigration, labor and food, like one recent article on an effort to help migrant workers establish their own berry farm, and an ecumenical program to turn leftover berries gleaned from the harvest into low-sugar jellies for local food pantries.

Jamaya Powell went to YTI last summer, in 2012, expecting “a boring Jesus camp.”  Instead her life was changed, as she writes in a recent issue of VOX, a publication written by and for Atlanta-area teenagers.  She spent her month at YTI in a course that explored hip-hop music and culture as theological dialogue and visited local agencies fighting poverty, homelessness and sex trafficking.  She left wondering what she as a young person and a Christian could do to help remedy the situation.

All of these young people, young adults, some of whom are even approaching middle age now, came to the school for prophets at YTI in Atlanta unsure of their place in the church and in the world, unsure of their voice.  Like the prophet Jeremiah they were ready to say, “Ah Lord God!  Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”  But God answered them just as God answered Jeremiah, and each of us,

“Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you.” (Jer. 1:7-8)

This morning I taught our children the next line of the Lord’s Prayer, “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”  We played follow the leader up and down the central aisle and all around the edges of the sanctuary.  I tried to help them understand that the only way God can lead us into, or out of, temptation is if we are already following.  The question that raises, the one that’s a bit too abstract for them but not for us, is — does God actually lead us into trouble?  In the prayer Jesus taught us we are instructed to ask God to lead us not into temptation, but to deliver us from evil.

“Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, ‘Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.’” (Jer. 1:9-10)

That is a terrifying message for anyone to deliver, much less a young person like Jeremiah.  Yet, how often young people lead the way.  From the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the Civil Right Movement to the Young Lions of South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement.  From the youth who powered the Arab Spring to the students at Kelvyn Park High School’s social justice academy here in Logan Square.  How often it has been the case that young people carry forward God’s commission to speak truth to power, following God’s call both into and out of danger.

But it is not just the young whom God calls to bear God’s fiery word.  Over and over, time and time again God uses what is small, what is weak, what is unlikely, what is overlooked to challenge what is too big to fail, to strong to fall.  God uses the young and the old, the poor and the ridiculed.

Surely God can use us.

All summer long we have been at our summer school for prophets.  Now the seasons are changing.  Children go back to school tomorrow.  Classes start up at the university, at the seminary.  Summer sports leagues are over and the new rhythms of fall are upon us.  But we have learned something this summer that will stay with us.  We have been students at the feet of the prophets, and now we are being sent out into a world in need of reformation as much as any world has ever been.

As you wait with your bags packed for the future to come and get you, as you look back on all you have seen and heard, how have you been changed?  As you think about the expectations you bring to worship each week — that you will be comforted, that you will be challenged, that you will be fed — what expectations do you sense God has for you as you leave this place?  As you stand at the threshold of a new season, of a new world, what are the words God has put into your mouth?

Do not be afraid of them.




Sermon: Sunday, May 19, 2013: Day of Pentecost

Texts: Acts 2:1-21  +  Psalm 104:24-34,35b  +  Romans 8:14-17  +  John 14:8-17,25-27

My god-daughter, Katie Russell, gives her testimony at Vanderbilt Divinity School's baccalaureate service.

My god-daughter, Katie Russell, gives her testimony at Vanderbilt Divinity School’s baccalaureate service.

A little over a week ago, Kerry and I were in Nashville, Tennessee to see my eldest god-daughter, Katie Russell, graduate from seminary at Vanderbilt Divinity School.  You can imagine that for a preacher and pastor like myself, there’s a special pride in watching your godchild graduate from seminary.

The night before the actual graduation, at the baccalaureate service, I got the added pleasure of hearing Katie give her testimony before her colleagues and her faculty.  She was one of a handful of students invited to do so at this closing worship service for a cohort of newly minted pastors who were preparing to be sent out into the world.

As she opened her remarks she used a phrase that was repeated over and over during the weekend.  Referring to her soon-to-be alma mater she said, “here at the School of the Prophets we learned…” School of the Prophets, I soon learned, wasn’t just a compliment being paid by a student to her teachers, or a preacherly turn of phrase, it is part of that school’s self-concept.  Just as so many schools have Latin mottos (the University of Chicago’s is Crescat scientia; vita excolatur or “Let knowledge grow from more to more; and so be human life enriched;”  Harvard’s is more simply veritas, or “truth”), the Divinity School of Vanderbilt University names itself in its foundational documents dating back to the 1870s a Schola Prophetarum, a school of prophets.

It’s a name the school takes seriously.  Its mission statement names as one of the school’s primary goals that they will “prepare leaders who will be agents of social justice” who will be “forceful representatives of the faith and effective agents in working for a more just and human society that will help to alleviate the ills besetting individuals and groups.”  The graduation program had a full-page description of the Divinity School’s commitments that explicitly state its opposition to racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, poverty, militarism and the destruction of the environment.

Still, there was something jarring about hearing a group of people refer to themselves so boldly as the “School of the Prophets.”  Maybe its my midwestern upbringing, but it just felt like bragging.  How could they be so bold?  Who died and named them prophets?

Well, as it turns out, Jesus did.

Growing up I thought a prophet was like a fortune-teller, a kind of biblical palm reader who could see the future.  It probably wasn’t until seminary that I myself was asked to really thoroughly read the prophetic books of the Hebrew scriptures, what we sometimes call the “Old” Testament.  The prophets of the bible sometimes spoke of future things, but just as often spoke to the present moment.  What made them prophets wasn’t that they told the future, but that they told the truth.  God’s truth.

Jesus — the one who lived, and died, and is rising in the world by the power of the Holy Spirit — says to his disciples shortly before his crucifixion,

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” (John 14:15-17,25-26)

And, indeed, Jesus is a man of his word.  Throughout these fifty days since Easter morning we have been hearing the stories of the Acts of the Apostles.  We’ve been recalling to ourselves the legacy of a church born in the moment when the Holy Spirit was poured out on those first followers of Jesus, huddled together for safety in the face of a scary world, but filled with power and purpose and sent out for the sake of restoration of God’s good creation.

God’s Holy Spirit fills the church, just as Jesus said it would, and when it does, Peter, their first preacher, remembers the words of another prophet, Joel, who said,

“In those last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy…” (Acts 2:17a-b)

In that moment of the church’s birth, Peter acts as a prophet, telling God’s truth that the last days are here.  The new heaven and the new earth are breaking into the ones we have known for too long.  Salvation is for here and now.  It has already begun, and we who are flesh, we who are sons and daughters and heirs with Christ to the fortunes of God’s love are called to act, like the apostles.

Looking back at the Vanderbilt graduation, I can see that I was mistaken.  Or, I wasn’t hearing that phrase, “school of the prophets,” correctly.  My midwestern aversion to pretense was bristling against the notion that these people were calling themselves prophets, when all they were really claiming to be was a school.  Because, you see, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we have all been made prophets.

By the power of the Holy Spirit, we are all called to speak God’s truth to a world burdened by lies.  By the power of the Holy Spirit, we are all called to dream incredible dreams and given eyes to see a vision of a future reality breaking into the present moment, a vision that makes these “the last days.”

As prophets, all of us, we need schools and churches and so many other places where we can learn about the legacy of which we are inheritors.  We need Sunday School teachers and small group leaders, seminarians and people to lead the adult education hour.  We need parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles and godparents who will teach us and shape us as we grow into our prophetic callings.  We need community organizers and event planners to call us to action and to put us to use.  We need faithful servants who fill grocery bags and glean the leftover food waiting in fields both near and far.

Icon of the prophet Amos.

Icon of the prophet Amos.

This is our school of the prophets, one of many God has built in the world, made of living stones.  We are its faculty and we are its students.  As we move out of the season of Easter and into the long summer of “ordinary time,” we’ll actually be reading the stories of the Hebrew prophetsElijah and Elisha, Amos and Hosea, Isaiah and Jeremiah.  We’ll remember how God’s people have been called to tell God’s truth to every age, as we live into our own prophetic calling to act.

This call, the call to action, is daunting to be sure, but we are kept in the promise that we will be filled with the power and the presence of the one who has made us prophets: Jesus, God’s Beloved, rising in the world by the power of the Holy Spirit.

As we commence upon this journey, some of us joining this congregation today, others saying goodbye, all of us being sent for a greater purpose, I want to offer you these words — often attributed to Oscar Romero, but believe to have been written by the Roman Catholic bishop Kenneth Untener of Detroit:

It helps now and then to step back and take a long view. The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a small fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said. No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession brings perfection. No pastoral visit brings wholeness. No program accomplishes the Church’s mission. No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about: We plant the seeds that will one day grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing  that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces effects  far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense  of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it well. It may be incomplete but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.

We are prophets of a future not our own.




Sunday, September 16, 2012: Season of Creation — Sky Sunday


Texts:  Jeremiah 4:23-28  +  Psalm 19:1-6  +  Philippians 2:14-18  +  Mark 15:33-39

When I was four years old my parents put a quarter-sized violin under my chin and started taking me to Suzuki lessons once a week.  In an instant, a star was born.  Anyone who’s taken Suzuki instrumental lessons knows that once or twice a year, no matter how little you know, you are expected to stand before your teacher and your peers and perform in a recital.  And so it was that I, not even five years old and having only recently mastered the art of holding on to a violin and a bow at the same time, performed in my first violin recital.  They had a small group of us, six or seven children, come to the front of the room and squeak out our painful rendition of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”  There just happened to be a reporter in the room that day, so the moment was immortalized in a local Trenton, NJ newspaper and subsequently pressed into a scrapbook which now rests somewhere in my parents’ home in Des Moines, IA.

Now that I’m learning to play the guitar some thirty-five years later, imagine my surprise when one of the first songs my instructor used to teach me how to pick out melodies was the ubiquitous “Twinkle, Twinkle.”  What is it that makes this song such an international reference point for music instruction?  Surely not the lyrics:

Twinkle, twinkle, little star. How I wonder what you are!

Up above the world so high, like a diamond in the sky.

Twinkle, twinkle, little star. How I wonder what you are…

Yet, it must be admitted, there is something timeless about the theme.  Across time and space, humanity has looked up at the skies and wondered what we were looking at.

As we turn our attention this week to the theme of the sky as we continue through our five week Season of Creation, we should remind ourselves that it wasn’t until the mid-1960s that humanity got its first glimpse of our planet from outer space.  We live among the first generations of humanity able to look up at the sky and to visualize what lies beyond.  For our ancestors, the simple song’s question, “how I wonder what you are” was quite sincere.

Scripture begins with an account of the creation of the sky in the first chapter of Genesis.  In fact, the first verse of the first chapter of the first book of the bible begins, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…” (Gen. 1:1).  In the creation story told in Genesis 1, God creates the skies by separating the waters above from the waters below, reflecting an ancient belief that the dome of the sky held back the waters that fall on the earth as rain.  In that account, the skies were an integral part of creation — connected to everything else God creates: land and plants and creatures and humanity.

So, when the prophet Jeremiah laments in this morning’s passage that the earth was “waste and void” and the heavens “had no light,” he is commenting not only on the state of the environment, but on the state of the relationships between elements of God’s creation.  The verses preceding the ones we heard read this morning make it even clearer.  The prophet declares,

“My anguish, my anguish! I writhe in pain! Oh, the walls of my heart! My heart is beating wildly; I cannot keep silent; for I hear the sound of the trumpet, the alarm of war. Disaster overtakes disaster, the whole land is laid waste.” (Jer. 4:19-20a)

To Jeremiah’s prophetic eye, the earth and the sky reflect the chaos brought about by humanity’s warring.

Today the damage done to the environment and, in particular, to the sky by human warfare is no less chaotic, but exponentially more destructive.  Some of the damage done is obvious, as when the United States detonated atomic bombs in Japan during the Second World War, turning the sky into a carrier of radioactive fallout that poisoned land, water and those who survived the blast.  Other damage is less immediately visible, as when U.S. and Iraqi forces tore apart the natural gravel holding the underlying Kuwaiti soil in place in the early 1990s, turning the sky into an enemy of the earth and its creatures as accelerated wind erosion destroyed vegetation and eliminated the natural habitats of numerous species.

But the damage done to the earth and its creatures by our neglect of the sky is not limited to times of war.  Beginning in the late 1970s, scientists began to observe a steady decline of about 4% per year of the earth’s total volume of ozone in the atmosphere.  Ozone is what protects the earth, and its creatures, from the harmful effects of UV radiation — which has been directly linked to cancers like melanoma, cataracts, and the destruction of oceanic life low on the food chain that serve as the foundation for larger, more complex species of fish and sea mammals.

The lessons this morning remind us of the same truths we continually struggle to accept — that we are all connected to one another, that what affects one of us affects all of us.  So often we hear this wisdom as a statement about humanity, even our biblical and theological imaginations are trained to interpret passages like “so then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another” (Eph. 4:25) and the sacrament of baptism itself as being narrowly limited to the human experience.

The writer of the gospel of Mark saw things differently.  As Jesus hangs upon the cross the skies return to darkness, the state of being before God began the work of the creation.  In Jesus, the new creation is not limited to humanity and human relationships, but extends to the whole creation and the web of relationships that sustain all of us in relationship to earth and sea and sky.

As those who have been given stewardship of the earth, not dominion over it, humanity is both uniquely able and responsible for prioritizing the care and restoration of earth and sea and sky.  Twenty five years ago the United States signed onto the Montreal Protocol, an international treaty aimed at reducing the amount of synthetic substances being released into the atmosphere that were leading to the depletion of the ozone layer.  As a result of this treaty, cited by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan as “perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date,” the ozone layer is expected to recover by the year 2050, within our children’s lifetimes.  This demonstrates our ability to make a significant impact on the health of our planet home when we find ways to work together across lines of national difference for the common good.

Unfortunately, the Montreal Protocol is only a first step.  As one set of human-made emissions was banned under this treaty, a new category of emissions known as hydroflourocarbons (HFCs), a known cause of global warming and climate change, have taken their place as a threat to the planet.

Writing to the community of Christians in Philippi from prison, the apostle Paul exhorts them to model themselves on the example of the Lord Jesus Christ, looking “to the interests of others.” (Phil. 2:4)  In a time filled with war, a time in which the toxic effects of empire and its expansion could be felt by the earth itself and those living closest to it, Paul compared those who followed in the way of Jesus “stars,” shining as a witness to the world.

As we gaze into the skies with our children and grandchildren, our nieces and nephews, hearing their wonder at the twinkling stars scattered across the dome of the heavens, let us be reminded by their wonder of the charge given to us at the creation of the world — to be good stewards of all that God has made; and when the waters of our baptism fall fresh upon us as we gather for worship, let us be reminded that these same waters fall from the skies upon the land, the sea, and all God’s creatures — making us one with each other and all creation.